Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More writing advice: Elizabeth Sims and tips on getting away with coincidence

Continuing with our look at the just published second edition of “The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing,” more writing advice as we welcome mystery author Elizabeth Sims, the author of three Rita Farmer mysteries, including just published “On Location.”

HALLIE: Elizabeth, in your essay “Write This Not That” you compare good writing to healthy eating, and advise authors to make smart choices. Your advice about coincidences was so interesting. What kind of coincidences are OK and what aren’t?

ELIZABETH: When my agent (Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Agency) and I started working together, we had the first of many conversations about fiction. At one point she said, "Readers love coincidences," and I sort of bookmarked that in my brain, because I'd tried to avoid using coincidence in my earlier series, the Lillian Byrd mysteries. That's because I considered coincidence a cheap way out for lazy authors.

But I thought about Cameron's comment, and I started to pay attention more to coincidence in fiction. I realized that some of my favorite books contained coincidences, like OLIVER TWIST. I mean my gosh, Oliver just happens to pick the pocket of a guy who turns out to be an old friend of his father's? But you read it and you love it. Then I looked at other books (which will remain nameless) whose authors used coincidences as easy escape routes, and I analyzed why they were so unsatisfying.

I saw that what separates good coincidence from bad can be summarized in one word: groundwork. When an author presents a dreadful, complex situation, and you the reader are licking your chops and going, wow, how's this gonna come out? and then the author just uses some sudden act of God, or an out-of-left-field thing like a cop happens to be walking by, you feel let down. Because the author hasn't laid any groundwork for that coincidence, or they've laid very weak groundwork.

By contrast, when an author spends some time and plot capital laying good bedrock before unleashing that coincidence, you feel like it couldn't have happened any other way.

And what do you mean when you talk about “action-packed” dialogue?

ELIZABETH: This is a two-pronged thing: The best dialogue springs from action, and it represents much more than characters sharing words. Many aspiring authors find themselves writing along, then they realize they need to tell the reader something, and they stick in some dialogue out of the blue. The reader's like, 'Where did this come from?'

The problem can be solved by two techniques. One, resist the temptation to write dialogue when you need explication, and instead write some action.

HALLIE: Ha ha! In my writing group, we talk about dialogue that explicates as "Did you know Bob dialogue." It's awful.

ELIZABETH: Right. Instead, think about what are your characters doing- if they're doing something that moves the story along, any dialogue you add will feel spicy. And two, realize that when people talk to each other, they are usually motivated by something more than wanting to say stuff. They want to manipulate, or gain something, even if it's just a feeling of importance. A sentence as simple as 'Where were you last night?' is freighted with meaning.

HALLIE: I'm writing all this down. By the way, congratulations on your new Rita Farmer mystery, “On Location.” Opening line: “A hairy forearm mashed my face.” Was that the first line you wrote, or did you come up with it later?

ELIZABETH: I have great fun with my opening lines, and in the Rita Farmer series I start every book with a situation that seems dire. The opening line of THE ACTRESS, for example, is simply, "I screamed." Eventually I enlarge the frame, so to speak, and you see that Rita is literally playing a role. In ON LOCATION, I wanted to portray Rita getting attacked, and the line, "A hairy forearm mashed my face," popped into my mind before I'd worked out much else. The sentence seemed appropriately alarming, so it made it from first draft to last. Actually I think it started as "THE hairy forearm mashed my face," and I changed it to "A".

HALLIE: And what about that character description: “He was built like a tomato stake, great vertical presence without much visible flesh on him, very different from his stockier brother. He looked as if he existed on vegetable broth and high-fiber crackers. You certainly follow your own advice, to base descriptions on unconventional comparisons. How do you reach past cliché?

ELIZABETH: Sometimes I think I was put on this earth to fight cliché, I'm so offended by sloppy metaphors and first-to-mind slogans. The first thing to do is stop and loosen your brain. You can use just about anything as a launchpad from the commonplace.

I remember while writing one of my earlier novels, DAMN STRAIGHT, being tempted to describe a golfer as being unable to hit the broad side of a barn. How boring. But I thought about other things that are large, and the word 'brewery' popped into my mind. "Couldn't hit the broad side of a brewery" sounds unusual and kind of peppy.

Right now, I'm looking at a glass of water and thinking I could describe a character as "shapeless as a water tumbler," or "she had all the personality of tap water." Or you can take that further and think of other beverages. "She had all the personality of warm tomato juice." "She had all the personality of chamomile tea," which gives information about the narrator as well as the character being described. "She was like a champagne fountain, all bubbles and sass." And so on.

Experimenting with context helps as well. If you're talking about a house, for example, you can liken it to a ship at sea: "The prow of the house pointed east, as if it wanted to plunge into the combers rolling in from the Atlantic just beyond the hedge." Or you can liken a house to an animal: "The house sprawled in the mist like a sleeping hound." It's so much fun!

HALLIE: Great examples. In another essay, “Rough Up Your First Draft,” you advise authors to give up control and let ‘er rip when writing first draft. We have so many authors who are taking our “Write First” Jungle Red Writers Challenge and so this advice seems so apt. Tell us more!

ELIZABETH: Writing fiction is very Zen: The more control you give up, the freer your creative core becomes, and the more truly original stuff comes out.

And I just had an insight, right this minute: While many writers get bogged down in their first draft because they're afraid of making mistakes, I think some new writers get bogged down in their first draft because they don't feel comfortable with the revision process itself; they fear it, and therefore they try to get everything right the first time, which of course leads to stilted writing.

Sometimes we get stuck because we're not listening clearly enough to our inner voice. Therefore, you've just got to give yourself permission to let out whatever wants to come out.

HALLIE: Thanks! Elizabeth will be checking in today to respond to questions and comments, so please
, if you have any comments or questions, join the discussion! And tune in tomorrow to join the conversation with James Scott Bell, author of the classic “Plot & Structure.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

On writing... collecting ideas

HALLIE: "The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing" (2nd Edition) comes out this month from Writers Digest Books, and I'd consider it a good addition to my library even if my piece on "Clues, Red Herrings, & Misdirection" were not in it. I can't believe the company I'm in. Here are just a few of the nuggets I found trawling through the essays.

On plot: "All good plots come from well-orchestrated characters pitted against one another in a conflict of wills." -- James N. Frey

On the three-act structure: "The three-act form is there because it works." -- Ridley Pearson

On setting: "In the end, the only compelling reason to pay more attention to place, to exterior setting, is the belief, the faith that place and its people are intertwined, that place is character, and that to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of the place is to know more deeply and truly its people." -- Richard Russo

On character: "My method of character building is from the inside out--not necessarily the color of eyes and hair, the height and weight but rather how does a person sleep at night? What does he fear? Does he run from lightning of rush toward it?" -- Alice Hoffman

On writing commercial fiction: "Frankly, I don't care what genre a reader thinks my book is, as long as it gets him to pick it up." -- Jodi Picoult

This week we'll hear from some of the contributors to the anthology, including Elizabeth Sims (Tuesday on writing suspense), James Scott Bell (Wednesday on dialogue), Jane Friedman (Thursday on the changing role of literary agents), and me (Friday on clues and red herrings). Bob Daniher, who is celebrating having his very first short story published in the October issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, will be our Saturday guest!

Today we'll tell you what we think. What writing advice do you have for aspiring novelists?

ROBERTA: Boy, those are terrific quotes Hallie--you are right, great company! To go along with what Alice Hoffman and James Frey said, spend time understanding your character's stake in the story (the mystery, in my case.) And how does your protagonist change over the course of the book?

More practically, treat your writing time with discipline--believe me, the book won't write itself. And get tons of help--if you didn't study writing, why expect you could just pick it up on your own?

HANK: Ask yourself: In this situation, what would *really* happen? What would people *really* do, or say or think? Why? And what would happen as a result of that? "It's all about 'because,'" Sue Grafton says.

RHYS: My primary piece of advice to aspiring novelists is WRITE. Don't say "I plan to write a novel some day." Writing is a craft. You only get better at it by putting words on paper, just as a potter improves by throwing pots. My second piece of advice is READ. We learn so much by observing the craft of the masters.

And on a more practical scale--draw a character arc for your protagonist and one for your villain. Where they intersect is your story.

JAN: If you want to find out who your characters really are, don't waste time with the pre-novel bio. Instead put them in really tough situations and see what they do. Then you'll get at deep character instead of hair color and college degree.

And I'll echo Roberta. If writing is important to you, do it before any other obligations can get in the way.

ROSEMARY: As the newest kid on this particular block I'm tempted to just say "What they said." If I have anything to add it would be this - you weren't great the first time you picked up a tennis racket or paint brush, don't expect your early efforts at writing to be fabulous. If you're paying attention and you really want to get better, you will. Even Federer practices his serve. (And takes advice.)

HALLIE: So Jungle Red readers and writers... what's the best (or worst!) advice you've ever given or gotten?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Writer's Challenge IV

An embarrassment of riches

JAN: If you're my friend on Facebook, you probably got a little bored with my updates about the solid rain and wind gusts of the first three days of my vacation. But the upshot of the deal was this: I wrote like crazy.

Not only did I finish the first draft of my novel, I rewrote and edited as much as I possibly can before I go to step two in my process, which is a system of evaluation that requires manilla file folders and more importantly a print out. Since I didn't bring my printer, there's nothing else I can do on the novel until my husband, who is going off island tomorrow, returns with one Thursday.

So I shifted to my non-fiction project and finally solved a structural problem that has been thwarting me for the last six months. I came up with book proposal synopsis I loved and even finished the first chapter of the book. Or should I say my FOURTH attempt at a first chapter.

I attribute this productivity partly to the bad weather and partly to the inspirational working conditions -- all four of us, my husband, daughter, son and me, have been sitting around the dining room table with laptops so close, I had access to my son's music files. When other people are working near you, it's just a lot easier to work. But most of all, I attribute it to the challenge. The daily writing that keeps my "head in the game" all the time.


By today, Saturday, I had nothing left to do but revise the first chapter based on my son's edits, which meant I had to download it from my email. So I broke the rule of the challenge. I checked email first. The only other choice I had was to start a short story or an essay or something, which I considered. But it seemed a little crazy, seeing as I'm already writing two books at once and I am on vacation.

So this is a longwinded way of saying mea culpa. mea culpa. And of course, a not-so-subtle way of offering yet another backhanded compliment to the challenge itself.

If anyone else has broken the rules, please tell me.And everyone else feel free to yell at me and tell me you disapprove. I'm highly susceptible to disapproval. That'll launch me right back onto the wagon and help me stay there!!

In the meantime, sun is out and I'm off to the beach!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

What's on your bulletin board?

ROSEMARY: The bulletin board in my office is barnacled with pictures, clippings, post-its with passwords,Greek worry beads, a Bettie Page air freshener, pins..including an ancient one that reads I Believe Anita Hill, a picture of Marlon Brando from The Godfather, a french postcard for On the Waterfront, advice from Horace on how to be happy, advice from Voltaire on how to live, the Gettysburg Address, and any number of quotes I have printed out for inspiration.

Here are two of my favorites -

"You must do the thing you think you cannot do" Eleanor Roosevelt

"All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on." Havelock Ellis

I can't claim to agree with some of the speakers' other statements and philosophies, but these two quotes strike a chord with me. There's a matter-of-fact fearlessness in them which appeals to me.

So first off...what's on your bulletin board, and are there any quotes that give you a little extra inspiration when you need it? (Two pix are my bulletin boards, I actually have four. And the third pic is Roberta's but blogger keeps jumbling them up. You should be able to guess!)

ROBERTA: Those quotes are terrific Ro! I have tons of pictures over my desk, along with some postcards, and a few quotes. One from a former student is so faded I can't read it anymore. I believe it's in Hebrew and it means "May you go from strength to strength." Another is from Kinky Friedman: "They say when you die and go to heaven that all the cats and dogs you've ever had in your life will come running to meet you." Boy, I sure hope that one's true!

HALLIE: I agree, great quotes, Ro. I keep a ladder of fortunes from Chinese fortune cookies. My favorite: "You will succeed in a far out profession." I got that right before my first book sold. Prophetic.

As far as quotes, my husband once did a caligraphy of one of my favorite quote from a children's book, Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg:
"An ambition is a little creeper that creeps and creeps in your heart night and day, singing a little song, 'Come and find me, come and find me.'"

HANK: Hallie, that sounds like a great title...hmmm. Oh, yes, on my bulletin board are several quotes. My favorite right now: "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?"
I also have the whole poem "Ithaca," by CV Cavafy. Here's how it starts:

When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.

The rest is just as great. I almost cry every time I read it.

JAN: Hank, that's a terrific poem. I have a poem on my bulletin board, too. My son Spike wrote it after a friend in high school died tragically. It's sad, but really, its a poignant insight of a kid trying to deal with the incomprehensible that's neither hokey nor in denial. It's a mother thing, but I read it every morning before I write. !!

Also just last week, Pat Marinelli, one of the participants in the Writers Challenge wrote a post:
I am in control of the Internet. It does not control me.
I copied it in red on a sticky note and posted it on the bulletin board behind my computer.

RHYS: I love the poem too, in fact I carry a pocket sized Walt Whitman around with me for that same reason. Oh, and I don't have a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on my desk--I have the person. I was once given an Eleanor Roosevelt doll--the ugliest thing you've ever seen but I've grown very fond of her and she sits on my computer--constantly imparting wisdom to me.
I only have one quote on my bulletin board. It's No Pressure, no diamonds by Mary Case. Apart from that it's mainly photos: a huge glossy of Robert Redford when young with his shirt open (I've had it for a long time!), my parents, sadly no longer with us, me with Lyn Hamilton, also sadly no longer here, me with Parnell Hall--he dressed as the Puzzle Lady and me as Lady Georgie,and me holding the Agatha teapot. At the moment only one piece of paper as I've moved all the to do stuff to the white board below. The piece of paper is the IMBA bestseller list that shows me at number 1, ahead of James Lee Burke, Daniel Silva, Ridley Pearson, Janet Evanovich, Thomas Perry etc.

As you can see it's a board designed to remind me that all things are possible.

ROSEMARY: So What's in your office that gives you inspiration?...Oh, there's one other quote I love and have on the board. No idea who said it -
Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars.
Try to do all those things.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

WHAT PUBLISHERS DO TO MARKET YOUR BOOK (..and how you can help them)

If you weren't lucky enough to attend the New England Crimebake in person last year, here's a taste of the Bruce Harris marketing seminar that you missed. Bruce will be available to answer questions on Jungle Red for the rest of the week so come back and pick his brain.

While traveling with Rosemary, I’ve heard many writers wonder aloud “What do publishing companies really do to help market books? What happens at all those meetings they’re always attending? Why isn’t my book getting more attention?”
I’ve had a 40 year career in publishing and maybe I can answer some of these questions.
Most publishing professionals are smart, dedicated people who work long hours without huge salaries or expense accounts.
Traditional ways of marketing and selling a book are giving way to new digital paradigms but at the same time print on paper books are by far the biggest revenue producers for almost every publishing house so everyone is concerned with increasing market visibility for each and every title.
What happens after your agent finds an editor who loves your book? It’s a lot like learning you’re about to have a baby.
FIRST TRIMESTER (9-7 months before pub. date)
The editor and publisher structure a deal to put your book on an upcoming list. Most publishers now have 3 lists: Spring : generally May-August; Fall: September-January and Winter: Feb-April . (There are many variables - Random House may do it differently from Macmillan or Little Brown and, just to complicate things, other publishers have only two seasons.) Find out what your publisher does.
Once a book is on the list, the marketing process begins. Most publishers have a launch meeting where the editor presents your book to people from publicity, sales and marketing. The editor is your voice. It really helps if you have provided some ammunition he/she can use to make this book stand apart from the other 30 or 100 books being presented at the same meeting.
It can be a great quote or tagline, the fact that you know Oprah, or that you have 100,000 friends on Facebook - anything that will make them remember you and want to read your manuscript.
Many publishers send out author questionnaires. Take this seriously. They’re are asking these questions to elicit who and what you know and how to pitch you to buyers.
Some houses (like Penguin..) have created digital marketing guides helpful to both new and established authors just getting their feet wet with blogs and websites. Ask if they have one.
If you haven’t already, at this time the author or publisher should register the domain name for the title.
SECOND TRIMESTER (6-4 months before pub. date)
The art director is creating the perfect jacket for your book – give them ideas. They probably won’t have had the time to read your book so anything you can offer will likely be appreciated.
A preliminary budget and first print quantity have probably been set. By now, there may be a galley or advance reading copy (ARC) of your book. Now is a good time to have a frank and productive talk with your editor about realistic but optimistic expectations. Your cheerful enthusiasm and energy is a plus that can make a huge difference in-house.
Sales people will be selling your book to bookstores three to six months before publication date. Find out who your local sales rep is and try to meet them.
At this time, you should be working with your publicist on your book tour (or blog tour.) Most publishers don’t compensate for tours but bookstores and libraries still want authors and these are worth doing even if you only travel within a 50 mile radius of your house. It’s likely there won’t be any advertising for your book so publicity will be the main marketing engine to generate sales.
THIRD TRIMESTER (3 months-pub. date)
Get media coaching and do some role playing before you speak in public about your book. It will help you refine your pitch. Try it out on your editor and publicist (and friends) to get feedback.
Your book will usually ship 4-6 weeks before the publication date to allow for reviews and get books into stores across the country.
Now, your book is ready to be born and make its way into a difficult world. You and your publisher have a common interest; you both want your book to succeed and thrive. Keep your editor and marketing team up to date with all the things you’re doing. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice and help but realize the pressure your publishing friends are under and try to be considerate of their time too.
I’ve had some wonderful adventures in the world of books and publishing and I hope that you’ll all keep writing and reading books in the years to come.

Bruce Harris

(Bruce Harris has worked at Random House, Crown Publishers and Workman Publishing and has been involved in the marketing of dozens of bestsellers from Martha Stewart to Maya Angelou and from Ram Dass to Ruth Rendell. He is currently retired but, consulting for small presses and individual authors.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On true Crime...

ROSEMARY: Bears are not the only dangerous creatures out there. Just before we left for Montana, it was reported that one of the escaped convicts from Arizona (recently captured thank goodness) was seen in St. Mary, Montana. I was headed to St. Mary and would stay there Friday and Saturday night.

It takes about ten minutes to go from one end of St. Mary to the next. If you go real slow and don't stop at the Park Cafe whose motto is "Pie is Strength!" (They make really good huckleberry pie.)

Had I gone from the frying pan into the fire? Having escaped the grizzlies would I wind up bunking next to a serial killer at the Red Eagle Motel (above), one of only three places to stay in town? Would the pepper spray work on him if we bumped into each other at the ice machine?

I'm still noodling around with ideas for book five - perhaps Paula should have an accidental encounter with a killer. Would readers buy that?

Have you had any accidental encounters with criminals? Have you ever used a scary or dangerous situation that you've really been in, in one of your books?

HALLIE: I've had a black bear (not grizzly) bear romp into our camp site while our 4 month old was sleeping in the tent. Heroes that we are, Jerry and I jumped into the car and watched it sniff around the tent (I was ready to jump out and drive it off, really I was) then double back, grab our bag of marshmallows off the table and tear off into the bushes.

ROSEMARY: I'm assuming you grabbed the 4 month old before the marshmallows...

JAN: Yes, I once was a pedestrian at an intersection where the driver gestured for me to "go ahead." Once I started walking, the driver gunned it and my brother actually had to lift me by the collar to get me out of the way. The car missed me by half an inch. It was frightening but I immediately thought: What a novel and effective way to intimidate and/or murder someone. I used it in A Confidential Source.

HANK: Yes. How do people really come in contact with killers, anyweay? Sometimes, the killer is looking for them. Sometimes they get in the way. And sure, I use real reporter situations all the time. Even being alone in a room with someone iffy - that's scary. And potentially dangerous. And certainly suspenseful.

ROSEMARY: Well...I can't say any of my jobs...bookstore manager, direct marketing exec., public television drone or video producer has had me rubbing shoulders with any serious criminals - not that I know of anyway! But being in the same small town with the object of a nationwide manhunt gave me the willies and it will definitely wind up in a future book.

Come back tomorrow for a visit with longtime publishing exec. Bruce Harris (I'd call him legendary, but he's my husband and he'd kill me.) He'll reprise his well-received New England Crimebake talk Countdown to Publication. What you should do and what your publisher should be doing in your run up to publication. And he'll be here Wed-Fri to answer questions.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Take a Walk on the Wild Side

ROSEMARY: I spent last week hiking in Glacier National Park in Montana - one of my Top Seven Wonders of the World. Originally my husband and I were supposed to camp for three days.

There's a lovely campsite on Lake MacDonald which no one else seems to know about and I spent hours checking our gear and setting up our tent on the roof (it's flat) to make sure we still knew how and the mice hadn't created any new air vents. We tested backpacks, bladder bags, sleeping bags and inflatable pads.

And then three people were mauled by a grizzly in Montana. One of them fatally. I Googled bear attacks in the US in this century. A shockingly high number of them occurred in Montana. More than a few in Glacier.

I don't consider myself a chicken but listening to one of the survivors desribe how she woke up to find a bear munching on her arm gave me pause. (Paws?)

I hemmed and hawed.
I checked weather reports hoping for an unlikely monsoon which would allow me to legitimately cancel the camping segment of the trip in favor of ma nice warm bed in one of the lodges. At the 11th hour, I pulled the plug and found a cabin to rent. We would not have to hang our food, soap and toothpaste in the trees. I could stop extracting promises from my husband that he would remove all traces of cookie crumbs and airplane peanuts from his backpack. (The man never leaves home without snacks.) If he turned to embrace me or spoon in the middle of the night, he would not get a faceful of pepper spray. I hated to admit it, but i was relieved. We did see half a dozen bears, but not froma vulnerable, horizontal position.

Yet we put our protagonists in all sorts of danger - over and over again in the same book or series. Whenever I'm asked how much of myself is in Paula, I generally mumble something like "she's the younger, thinner, more adventurous me..) but would I really do anything remotely Paula-like?

So how realistic do you feel you have to be regarding the danger to your protagonists? Especially those who are amateurs? Does the reader even expect realism or do they like their heroines to have a touch of the superhero about them?

JAN: Wow. I'm impressed that you still consider camping, even without the bears.

Of course our readers don't want realism. They don't want us. They want superheroes. They have their own fears to deal with, they don't need ours. Think of Lisbeth Salander the most popular sleuth in the country right now (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and series.) People love her because she has enough rage to annihilate the bad guys - not to mention the abusive background that makes her both a superhero and an underdog.

So back out of your tent with an easy conscience, Ro. Me, I'm worried about shark sightings off South Beach.

HALLIE: I confess, it's not the bears that keep me from camping - it's the dishes, cold showers, and inevitable tent leaks. I'm on VACATION!

We do make our characters much braver than we are, and less princess-y, too. Ro, Glacier is on my list of must-sees, too.

HANK: Glacier is fantastic. Fantasatic. There's no - color. It's all black, white and gray. When we were there at least.

Bravery. Well, huh. In my reporter life I've been around many burning buildings, near shootouts, gone undercover, ridden with cops on assignment, been in tear gas, yeah, I've been in scary places. ButI'm not afraid, because it's for a story. Does that make ANY sense? SO the more dangerous the better.

In my other real life? Show me a spider and I run. I won't ride a bicycle in traffic - too dangerous. When Jonathan leaves, I say: be careful! And he says: of what? So it all depends.

And people don't want their characters to do stupid things. Spunky, yes. Tough, yes. Ridiculously fearless? Maybe not so.

ROSEMARY: Spunky!! Wasn't there a funny bit on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show when Mr. Grant syas "You've got spunk. I hate spunk."

ROBERTA: I am definitely not a physical risk-taker. We were talking about this the other day when a couple of friends expressed an interest in sky-diving. WHY? I don't want to climb Mount Everest or fight off bears or drive race cars. It's a missing gene in my DNA. I used to love to camp. Hmmm, maybe we should set up a Jungle Red camping weekend? Ther's a real cute campground in Provincetown and September's just the time to go. Anyone?

ROSEMARY: I'm up for it..I'll be in Wellfleet anyway, and we know my gear is in good shape. BTW...I will be missing Bouchercon this year because I'll be in Nepal hiking to Everest Base Camp. Not to the top, mind you. That would be ridiculously fearless and I am not that. I do have spunk, though.

Check back tomorrow for my realclosse encounter with danger in Glacier. Not a joke, this one concerns an escaped convict.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Writer's Challenge Update III

JAN: Pat Marinelli left a comment that I copied, posted to the bulletin board, and adopted as a Mantra.

I control the Internet. It does not control me. I control the Internet. It does not control me. I control the Internet. It does not control me.

Yes, I have been way more productive. As of today, I only have two to three pages left to finish the first draft of my novel. But the productivity goes beyond page count. I find myself in the world of my novel all the time, even when I'm shopping at Costco. I've also had more success researching my non-fiction book, and although there are still hurdles to climb, I find everything falling just a little neater into place.

I'm winning the battle with my internet addiction. Admitting I'm powerless once I just "check my mailbox." And turning it all over to a higher power: In this particular instance, the Writer's Challenge.

My proudest moment? On Friday, I had an early physical therapy appointment and pre-vacation errands in the morning. I didn't get a chance to write until 1:30 in the afternoon. I didn't check my email or go on the Internet until after 3 p.m.

And you know what? It was even a waste of time even then.

I'll be en route to Martha's Vineyard today, and by the time I unpack and write my page, I likely won't be able to check the blog until late in the day, but I'll be reading and responding to comments and looking for inspiration. Or is it fortitude? Maybe just a common bond.

Please tell all. What was your proudest moment? Or your weakest one?? And remember page count is only part of the story.

Write First!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

cockeyed Optimist

Are you an optimist or a pesimist?
I've never really thought of myself as an optimist, in fact I remember my youth as dark and brooding. But the other day I realized I had turned into a full blown cockeyed optimist. I realized this when I landed at London Heathrow, coming in from France and as we emerged from customs I looked around for someone waiting to meet me. I should point out that nobody in the world knew we were arriving at Heathrow, nor did we have any family and friends within reach of the airport. But I studied that line of expectant faces as I passed, waiting for the one that would break into a smile as it recognized me.
There's an optimist for you!
I also realized that I count the money I get from cash machines in the hope that they'll have given me one bill too many. (Okay I have to confess that I'm also honest in a Girl Scout sickening sort of way, so I'd probably return it) but I count and hope all the same.

You may think the above are absurd, but I know that such miracles have happened and can happen. Once we arrived at San Francisco after a long flight (from Australia, i believe) and I said to John, wouldn't it be lovely if we didn't have to take a shuttle bus and then a taxi to get home. Wouldn't it be lovely if Jane lived a little closer and her car was big enough for us and our luggage as well as two car seats for the little girls. We came out of customs and two excited voices screamed, "Nana!" and there were Meghan and Lizzie rushing toward me, arms open and faces alight with joy. It's still one of the highlights of my life. Jane had taken time off and borrowed a friend's car to meet us.

They have proved in experiments with pigeons that they will keep pecking at an empty feed dish for years if that dish has once dispensed grain to them, in the hope that what happened once will be repeated. If it never dispenses the grain, they will soon give up. So I've had my one feed of grain and I keep pecking.

This optimism, however, is not good for a mystery writer. I realize that noir books are perceived as more meaningful than light stories. The Edgar always goes to such a book. I've tried to write darker, believe me. I've tried to be tormented and literary, but I guess my optimism creeps in. I once complained to my editor that all my reviews called my work "charming and delightful." I told her my next book was going to contain satanism, canibalism and strewn body parts." She laughed and said, "And I bet they'll be delightful body parts too."

Now I've admitted defeat and started on a series that's been described as "a smashing romp." So I can be unashamedly optimistic. I can chuckle and grin to my heart's content as Lady Georgie stumbles her madcap way through life, breaking all the rules as she goes.The next one comes out on Septmember 7th. I once thought about writing a scary vampire plot--after all they do sell rather well, don't they? But my scary plot turned into Royal Blood, which is a vampire story with chuckles. Charming and delightful vampires, actually!

HANK: I hope I'm an optimist. I have a quotation on my bulletin board: "What would you attmept to do if you knew you could not fail?" And I try to live that way. Sometimes, it even works.
And one MUST to be an optimist, because you have no idea what's good or what's bad. Things change so quickly, and evolve, something that seems terrible at the outset will turn out to be wonderful. Right? You know it happens that way.
So to be a pessimist is a waste of time.
Just my thought.

(And complaining about good reviews is just silly, Rhys. Puh-leeze! :-) )

JAN: I'm going to be completely non-committal and say I'm neither. Or both. And advance the theory that its not as simple as all that. I think we're all a bit of both. I have been accused of being Pollyanna from time to time, but I've also regretted being too negative from time to time

But in defense of pessimists -- I have too high a regard for the perfect, sharp, edgy remark to not appreciate an honest, well spoken pessimist.

ROSEMARY: I wake up every morning thinking "Yippee!! Another day!" Sometimes I get shot down by 10am, but then I tell myself "hey, it isn't even 11:00, you have the whole day!" My husband says I bounce back faster than anyone he's ever met, so I would call myself an optimist. Doesn't mean I don't mind if something doesn't work out or someone pisses me off. I just always think there's a Plan B. Like Jan, I love coming up with the perfect, cutting remark. But I rarely deliver it.

Okay, do we have more optimists than pessimists out there?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Chat with Margaret Coel

RHYS: I have always been fascinated by Native American culture and enjoyed the books of Margaret Coel long before I met her. It's always a thrill for me to meet a writer whose work I have enjoyed and next month I get to share two events in Scottsdale, AZ with Margaret when our books are released on the same day by the same publisher.

So welcome Margaret. What first drew you to the Arapaho and native American culture?
Was it your area of expertise? Something you've been interested in for a long time?

MARGARET:I get that question a lot, usually prefaced by: Are you Arapaho? I am not, but writers write about what interests us, and I became very interested in the Arapahos. Probably because I am a 4th generation Coloradan who grew up on stories of the past. Before my people (and everybody else) decamped to the Great Plains, they were home to numerous Native American tribes. The Arapahos and Cheyennes were the people of Colorado. I just wanted to know more about them. Where did they live? How did they live? What happened to them? That led me to write what I thought was a magazine article and what turned into a non-fiction book on the Arapahos and one of their great leaders: Chief Left Hand, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. And that led me--after three more books on the history of the American West—to writing mystery novels set among the Arapahos on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where the government in its infinite wisdom
placed them in 1878.

RHYS:Tell us about your main characters--are they based on real people?

MARGARETl Arapaho attorney, Vicky Holden, and Jesuit priest, Father
John Aloysius O'Malley, hold center stage in my reservation
novels. I don't know if any characters are born screaming and
kicking. I know mine were not. They arrived in a process. I
didn't start out to write about a priest--in fact, the eventual
birth of Father John rather surprised me. My intention was to
create a character who would be an outsider to the culture and
history of the Arapahos--as I was, when I first started writing
about them. Naturally, I assumed this outsider would be a woman
like me. But here came this tall, red headed, good looking guy
walking around in my dreams. He seemed to be trying to tell me he
was the perfect outsider. In my rational waking moments, I thought
about the fact that a Jesuit mission has existed on the reservation
for more than a hundred years and that my outsider--the guy in my
dreams--was a priest assigned to the mission. He's from Boston, he
told me at some point, so he's an outsider not only to the Arapaho
culture but to the Western culture. He had a lot to learn all
around. And he's also fighting his own demons. Not a perfect man,
Father John, but I find him interesting because he has failed in the
past, and yet he keeps trying.

So I had my outsider, a man and a priest, but I really wanted to
write from the point of view of a woman. Plus, I wanted a strong
Arapaho point of view in the stories. And sure enough, a beautiful,
smart, black-haired and dark-eyed woman started appearing in my
dreams. She is Vicky Holden, a name that came to me because she is
trying to "hold on" to what is important in her culture and her life,
despite some pretty rough patches. She started out as a traditional
Arapaho woman, marrying young, raising children, participating in the
ceremonies and looking after the elders. But because of those rough
patches--personified in her ex-husband, Ben Holden--she took herself
off to Denver and college and law school. In the novels she is back
on the rez with all of her fiery determination turned on helping her

The Arapahos call Father John and Vicky "edge people," because they
live at the edge of two different worlds.

As for all that dreaming part, I thought this was a little strange
until I read that Henry James, one of my favorite authors, also
dreamed his characters. In fact he called them his "dream people."
So I copied that from him and that's what I call Vicky and Father John.

RHYS: Do you visit the reservation frequently to get inspiration for
your stories?

MARGARET: I visit the Wind River Reservation every year, usually in the
summer or early fall--before the snow starts. I enjoy catching up
with old friends and meeting new people. This summer I was blessed
to attend part of the Sun Dance, the tribe's most sacred ceremony
where men pledge themselves to dance off and on for three days with
no food and nothing to drink. It is a prayer sacrifice on behalf of
the tribe, very solemn and beautiful. A dear Arapaho friend assured
me that my life would be blessed just by attending, and I believe
it. And it happens that the Sun Dance is an important part of my
new book, The Spider's Web.

RHYS; So tell us a little about this new book.
MARGARET; The novel is set in the summer with the reservation planning the sacred Sun Dance, the ancient ceremony of peace and reconciliation.
But when a blond, beautiful outsider arrives on the rez, murder,
suspicion and recrimination follow in her path. Marcy Morrison claims
to be engaged to Arapaho Ned Windsong, even though Ned had never
mentioned a fiance--before he is found shot to death. Marcy, brutally
attacked at the scene, identifies two Arapaho troublemakers as the men
who burst into Ned's house and shot him. Nothing ties her to the
murder, yet all eyes on the rez are trained on her, the outsider.
When Vicky Holden agrees to represent her,Vicky finds herself at odds
with her own people and, for the first time, with Father John
O'Malley who has glimpsed something in the beautiful outsider that
shakes him to his core.

RHYS; How many books are there in the series now? Do you see the series
going on indefinitely or do you have other ideas and areas you'd
like to write about?

MARGARET; The Spider's Web is the fifteenth book in the series. Three years ago I took a break from the series and wrote a stand- alone suspense novel, Blood Memory. But that novel, set in Denver with Catherine McLeod, a journalist, is also about the Arapahos and their history.
So I can't seem to break myself entirely from the subject. And
Vicky even made a cameo appearance in the story. I've already
outlined another novel with Vicky and Father John, but at the
moment, I'm finishing up a second suspense novel with Catherine, and
I am enjoying going back and forth between the two sets of
characters and the different locales.
As for the series continuing indefinitely, nothing does that. The
day will no doubt come when Father John and Vicky no longer have any
surprises in their bag of tricks, and that will be the day that I'll
bid them farewell. But not for awhile, I hope.

One of the most gratifying parts of writing a long series is the way
in which readers have come to think of Vicky and Father John as old
friends. They seem like old friends to me, but it's wonderful to
have other people regard my "dream people" in the same way. I get a
lot of emails with advice for them. Such as one woman who suggested
that Father John could become an Episcopal priest, then he could
marry Vicky. She said that she was an Episcopalian, and she would
be glad to recommend him to her bishop! Emails like that just add
to the writing fun.

RHYS: Thank you, Margaret. Margaret and I will be speaking and signing at Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale on September 9th, also speaking at a luncheon arranged by Poisoned Pen. We hope to see some of you there!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Seven Wonders of the World

RHYS: A few years ago I blogged on my ten most beautiful places on Earth. That particular blog has been my most revisited and requoted post ever.But now I'm afraid I have to revise it. You see, I've just returned from Nice, France and the scenery took my breath away. The low road from Nice to Monte Carlo skirts the sparkling blue water with its little harbors and outrageously large yachts. The high road hugs the cliff tops with scary drops at every bend and old villas clinging to sheer faces and always the blue water far below. So it has to join my list.So this time I'm going to do the Seven Wonders of the World according to Rhys. Of course this list is limited by the fact that I haven't been everywhere. I've never been to Africa, only briefly to South America and never to China.It's also subjective in that I am drawn to mountains and water--dramatic scenery of my Welsh heritage And I also apologize because I do seem to show preference to the states in America where I now live: California and Arizona.

1.Lake: Dal Lake, Kashmir. This is probably the most beautiful place I've ever seen and I'm so sorry it's no longer available for travelers. To sit in a little boat being paddled across a lake covered in pink lotus blossoms, surrounded by sparkling snowy peaks was a once in a lifetime experience.Runners up: Lake Tahoe, CA, Lake Louise, Canada, and Lake Como, Italy

2. Natural Feature: Sedona--the red rocks, Arizona.I spend my winters just over an hour's drive from Sedona and I visit it often, but those rock formations, with the sun making them glow, never fail to take my breath away.Runners up: Great Barrier Reef, Australia; Grand Canyon. Yosemite Valley, especially from Glacier Point

3.Island: Morea, Cooks Bay: The true Bali HiRunner up: Greek Islands, can't decide which, Whitsunday Islands, Australia.

4.City: VeniceRunners up: Paris at night; Salzburg : two of my home towns: San Francisco and Sydney

5.Man Made Beauty:Taj Mahal, India. Until you see it you can't appreciate the size or the perfection.Runners up: Rice Terraces on Bali; Golden Gate Bridge--(confession...I haven't yet seen the Great Wall of China or I'm sure it would be on the list. And I know that half the buildings in Europe would qualify)

6: Village or Rural area: the hill towns of TuscanyAnd it's really a tie with St Ives, Cornwall, or really so many unspoiled English villages in the Cotswolds or Somerset and Swiss Villages like Grindelwald, Brunnen, and Austrian villages around Salzburg,

7: Coastline: From Nice to Monte CarloRunner ups: Seventeen Mile Drive, Carmel, CA, and the Cinque Terre path.So you see how sneakily I got in many more than seven. Even as I read this through I can think of so many places I have left out. But I'm going to limit everyone else:What are your seven wonders?

HALLIE: This is SO HARD, and I'm afraid I'm going to repeat quite a few of your favorites, Rhys. 1. Zabriskie Point in Death Valley - go at daybreak, go at sunset, and again at midday. It changes minute to minute. 2. The Three Gorges as seen from the Yangtze River at dawn. Like being in a Chinese painting.3. Bryce Canyon - Sinewy red rock formations, the scale of them is astoundingly perfect for humans to appreciate.4. New York City emerging from the subway to view the tip of the Flatiron Building (a special place for me because I felt like Mary Tyler Moore, wanted to spin and toss my hat in the air when I went to meet the editor of my first book, Kelley Ragland at St. Martin's).5. Luquillo Beach about 45 KM from San Juan; for me, the world's most perfect beach...and I grew up swimming at Malibu.6. The Twelve Apostles by Great Ocean Road in Australia; the stone formations in the surf and the weather, what a combination.7. The Parthenon, lit up at night as viewed from the roof of an Athens restaurant, the table loaded with mezze platters and surrounded by friends.

JAN: This is hard because I don't have a great visual memory, so I have to have visited it fairly recently or more than once, usually, to remember details But I did travel that same road between Nice, where I spent a lot of time during my semester abroad, and Monte Carlo, but mostly remember the really expensive yachts. I loved Nice but Monte Carlo was too rich for my college hippy tastes, so I think I turned off my visual memory.1. I will, as a good Vineyarder, argue with Hallie on the world's most beautiful beaches. There are two: one is at Long Point In West Tisbury, on Marth's Vineyard, where you can swim in a breathtaking South Beach and then walk thirty feet and rinse off in the most gorgeous fresh water pond, that has view both of the marshland and the ocean. The second is at Chappaquiddick at the break, where you are looking off towards Long Island Sound, as you jump in to "ride" the current, across from Norton's Point.2. Manhattan at night, glimmering with lights, as viewed from an eight seater plane, ready to land across the river in Teeterboro. With lots of champagne so you don't feel the bumps.3. The French Alps, in Vars, snow capped, of course, and viewed after skiing when sipping the local liqueur made from juniper berries that tasted delicious there, but like soap when we brought a bottle home.4. Matala, Greece on Crete, where we got beach tar on our feet and had to stop the van for goat crossings.5. Sedona. I'm with you on that one Rhys. The red colors and landscape are incredibly unique and beautiful.6. Mt. St. Victoire in Aix-en-Provence. Hey, it inspired both Cezanne and Picasso. Need I say more?

ROBERTA: This is way too hard, and besides that, you are causing my list of must-see places to grow and grow!
1. Yes, Manhattan, including the Chrysler Building at night, and Rockefeller center at night with all the Christmas lights up!2. Driving from north to south along the Oregon coast to Bandon Dunes. Oh my gosh, that scenery is spectacular! and if you walk out onto the beach and get close to the rock formations, you will see that the orange splotches are really enormous starfish.3. Stonehenge, not far outside of England. If you aren't a mystical, spiritual person, you will feel the mystery of these enormous stones.4. I agree with Hallie--the Parthenon is absolutely stunning. And more amazing, you can see it from every vantage point in Athens because it sits on a steep rock outcropping (the Acropolis.) Picture New York City with an enormous, ancient ruin towering over everything else...5. The Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine mosque in Istanbul. And to get the view of the entire city, go to the rooftop of the Four Seasons Hotel. Staying there was way out of our budget, but anyone can afford a glass of iced tea on the roof and enjoy the astonishing views.6. Best beach, where I grew up sunning and cleaning motel rooms and waitressing--Hatteras, North Carolina.7.Things I couldn't fit in: the grand canyon, Yellowstone Park, Notre Dame de Paris, Santorini (from a distance, not up close and personal to all those crabby donkeys), Monserrat a tiny settlement and church in the mountains 45 minutes from Barcelona, the Florida Keys for a gorgeous drive, San Francisco Bay, and now I'm going to stop!

So have we left out your favorites? Any more suggestions?


JAN: I have a confession to make. I'm also doing another challenge. It's called the three week Sugar Smackdown and I'm into the third week of no sugar (even the one gram in English muffins) no sugar substitutes, no alcohol, no white flour (that means no Baguettes or Italian bread) or processed grains of any kind (white rice.) Even white potatoes are frowned upon.

On the positive side, this challenge is doing as promised, and I've lost my four o'clock craving for chocolate and can look at desserts with sincere disinterest. But I still miss my morning cran-raspberry juice, I miss a glass of Pino Grigio with dinner when I'm at a restaurant, and I am beyond sick of no-sugar iced tea, water, and flax-oat-pita bread with hummus.

In contrast, I'm not suffering from any deprivation in the Writer's Challenge; there is nothing I miss. I surely don't miss checking my email first thing in the morning. I don't miss looking at the clock and realizing its 10:30 and I still haven't written a word because I've been caught up in blogs or responding to Facebook messages. And I'm not sick of producing a minimum of one to two pages of new writing a day!

As others have written in to say: I feel better about myself when I'm not sucked into the Internet. When I accomplish my own goal before I indulge in what Hank calls "passing notes in class" (email) or what I think of as chit-chat at the water cooler. So far, there is no down side.

A technical point. One day I wrote a full page of a scene, but the next day I decided I didn't need that scene at all and jumped to a different scene. Does that one page count, even though I scrapped it? I think so -- because sometimes you have to write a bad page to see that its exactly what you don' t need. The bad move offers clarity on a better move. What do you think?

In other news :Julie Hennrikus at the SISTERS IN CRIME National Blog heard about our challenge and the incredible response to it (almost a hundred participants) and will be writing about it later this week at http://sisters-in-crime-sinc.blogspot.com/ Check it out. One of the things she wanted to know if there were any surprises.

Outside of how many people shared my Internet procrastinations, I've been surprised at how I've started to feel a connection to all of you sharing this six week journey, and how people have been willing to share some of their personal struggles and frustrations both in blog comments and on Twitter #JRWRITEFIRST.

So please, keeping sharing.. Writing is an emotional game, and our productivity often suffers from setbacks like bad writing days and rejections.

The good news is that we've all had those bad days and cried about those rejections. We all can really understand.

So keep it going: WRITEFIRST!!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Melody is Familiar

ROBERTA: I doubt that today's guest needs much of an introduction other than: We're thrilled to have her here! Laura Lippman is about to publish her 18th novel, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. Her books and stories have won Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, Shamus, Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Barry awards. Wow!
Thanks for visiting Jungle Red Writers--take it away Laura!

LAURA: Even before the iPod era began, several novelists started creating playlists for their books, even offering them in CD format. I've not been one of them. It feels almost like sacrilege to say this, but -- music is not really that important to what I write. Don't get me wrong, I like music, although I also rather enjoy being free, at middle age, from the tyranny of keeping up. (That said, I had to explain to my oh-so-hip husband just who this Lady Gaga was.) On the rare occasions that I have music playing while I write, I end up blocking it out. Sometimes, I make a private playlist for the work-in-progress and use those songs in workout sessions to keep the characters with me. For Every Secret Thing, for example, that song was “Cherish,” because it's a song that a young girl in 1975 would have considered romantic. (Yes, it's an oldie by '75, but did you know it was re-recorded by David Cassidy in 1971?) For The Power of Three, I listened a lot to a Barenaked Ladies song “Call and Answer.” Again, I could imagine a character being enamored of that song, finding many layers of meaning. Ditto, Jason Mraz's “You and Me Both.” These aren't songs I necessarily adore, although “Call and Answer” is pretty haunting. But they are the songs of my characters' lives.

In my own life, I have noticed that certain songs are virtual time machines. All I have to do is hear them and I am transported back to a certain time and place. Again, they don't tend to be songs I love, quite the opposite. I've been listening to Elvis Costello for - damn - thirty-some years now, so his songs run through my life. No, I am thrust back into the past by songs that were on the radio back in the day when you listened to what the radio played and liked it. I was in the middle of a break-up when Stevie Wonder released “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and, to this day, I can see myself lying beneath my Laura Ashley bedspread and yearning to shoot the clock radio that had just awakened me with this chirpy ballad, when my on love life was on the rocks. “Don't You Want Me, Baby,” by contrast, is a wonderful memory: It was always on the radio the summer I began a long-distance romance. I would hear it on Interstate 35 as I drove south toward San Antonio. Heading home, I always seemed to hear the cover of “So In Love” and I can almost pinpoint the spot on the highway - outside Temple, Texas, near that barbecue restaurant with a giant cow on top - where I first heard it and thought, “Oh, this is so how I feel!”

But I lived a relatively mundane life, with ordinary highs and lows. While I was writing
I'd Know You Anywhere, I began to think about what would happen if popular songs catapulted a person back to much more difficult memories. In this novel, the main character was kidnapped at the age of 15 and held hostage for six weeks. The bulk of the time was spent in her captor's pick-up truck and although he insisted on listening to country music, she was allowed to pick the radio station at fifteen-minute intervals. What would she have had heard? I went to MTV.com and began watching videos from the era. I researched the Billboard charts. I was often surprised by the lyrics, the messages I had missed when I first heard those songs back in 1985. I used them as headings in the book, providing their chart history, but no other information. I'm not even sure I should be giving this explanation now, but so it goes.

Careless Whisper

In My House

Who's Zoomin' Who?


Crazy For You

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Voices Carry


Of those songs, every one but the last one, James Taylor's cover of the Buddy Holly ditty, made the Billboard Hot 100. A couple are simplistic dance tunes - Who's Zoomin' Who? Holiday - but the others strike me as creepy on different levels. “In My House” is a teasing, taunting song, or perhaps it seems that way to me because I still remember the Mary Jane Girls video that accompanied it. “Crazy for You” could be the name of a thousand pop songs, some of which are sweet, but some of which are downright stalker-ish. And, finally, “Voices Carry,” which is clearly about an abusive relationship. It has always seemed implicit to me that people do hear what's going on in that downtown apartment, but have chosen not to interfere. And then there's the end: “He said shut up” - well, there's another essay entirely in how I react when anyone tells me to be quiet.

As noted, the final song didn't track, but it was a hit in the so-called “Adult Contemporary” category. It might have been on the radio stations that my character chose, but it would have seemed mocking, even cruel, given her circumstances. Yet hearing it thirty years later - well, that's the journey of the book in some ways. As much as anything, this novel celebrates the quotidian, the most ordinary moments in a family's life, including what I call the “scarlet promise” of the neon sign at Rita's custard stands: ICE*CUSTARD*HAPPINESS. Is happiness ever that simple? I'd like to think that it can be.

Meanwhile, I'm now spending a lot of time back in the late 70s and early 80s, looking for a new soundtrack.

ROBERTA: Thanks Laura, can't wait to get my hands on that book! And just think, when the movie is made, you have the soundtrack all worked out... Now, questions? Comments? Playlists that bring back memories?

Friday, August 13, 2010


ROBERTA: Today JRW is delighted to introduce SJ Rozan. She's an amazing writer who's earned a pile of awards for both her long-running Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series and her thoughtful and well-acclaimed stand-alone novels. Besides all that, she's highly opinionated and just the slightest bit crazy. What other five-foot tall fifty-something female would think she belonged playing basketball with the guys? Anyway, we're so glad she's here to talk about traveling, writing, positive procrastination, and more.

SJ: You really can't get away from it all, can you? Not if you're a writer. It chases you around, it's everywhere you look. It's one of those conundrums of the writing life, that you can be simultaneously stuck in a book, immobile, no place to go and without a fresh idea in your head; and at the same time everywhere you turn -- the grocery store, the gym, the museum, the concert hall, or the backyard -- there the book is, up in your face, saying, "What are you going to do about me, huh, huh? What?"

Does it offer to help? No, it does not, anymore than a toddler with a dirty diaper offers to change himself. (This is not an analogy chosen lightly, by the way.) It's right there demanding work, and demanding that you do it.

Sometimes, though, you do have to get away, even if it means taking the toddler with you. In July, at exactly the half-way point in my new book, I went to Mongolia for nearly a month.

I wasn't stuck in the book at the time, more like wrung dry. A roadblock implies a road on the other side. In my case it was as though the road had turned into a footpath and the footpath had just petered out. (Road analogies are not chosen lightly when you're talking about Mongolia, either, by the way.)

I didn't fly off to the opposite side of the globe, about as far from home as I could get without starting to come back the other way, because I was out of things to write, or looking for ideas. This trip had been planned for a year and a half. I'd hoped, in fact, to have the book done, or nearly done, by the time I left. From a year and a half away, that seemed feasible. From a year and a half away, any number of ridiculous things seem feasible.

So I spent three and a half weeks in Mongolia (photos and trip reports on my blog, and more still being posted) with two guides, three drivers, and eight friends, all of whom I knew and liked, none of whom are writers. We bounced over the rockiest excuses for roads I've ever had the pleasure to know. We rode camels, slept in gers (a wood-framed, felt-covered round tent; think yurt), hiked around the rim of an extinct volcano. We saw sheep being sheared in a country where sheep outnumber people ten to one and they're only one of the "five snouts of Mongolia" (sheep, goats, yaks, horses, and camels) all of which graze on the steppes, watched over by adolescent herdsmen on horseback. We saw the monastery built on the ruins of Kubilai Khan's palace, the Flaming Cliffs where dinosaur fossils were first identified, and the world's only truly wild, as opposed to feral, horses. (Didn't know there was a difference? Neither did I until this trip, but there is and the Mongolians are very proud of it.)

What we didn't do was talk about writing. My book was there with me the whole time, in my head, stuck in the same place and not moving, but I couldn't tell anyone my problem. Not that they wouldn't have listened. They would have, and they'd have even been sympathetic. But if one of them had been a mathematician stuck in a proof and telling me about it, my reaction would have been pretty much what I'd have gotten from them if I'd started up. Gee, that sounds awful. But you'll figure it out. Let's go look at the stars. So we looked at the stars and I kept my mouth shut.

And then this astounding thing happened when I got back. After I got over the most amazing case of sleep-deprived, culture-shock jetlag I've ever had, I sat down to work on the book. As though I knew what I was doing. And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles: I did. While I was rattling over stony so-called roads in an old Soviet van, my well got refilled. This stuff bubbles up from below, and you can't push it. You can scoop it off as fast as it comes, and you can't scoop it at all unless you're at the well (translation: rear in chair, fingers on keyboard). But if the well's empty you just have to wait until it refills. And sometimes, leaving it alone works much better than trying to scrape the mud from the bottom.

So I recommend getting away from it all. Even when you're taking it all with you, which, as a writer, is what you'll always be doing.

ROBERTA: Thanks SJ for coming to visit us here at Jungle Red! SJ's teaching in Italy as we speak, but promises to stop in when she can manage to get online. And meanwhile, don't forget to be on the lookout for On the Line, which will be in bookstores next month. I for one cannot wait. (And that camel picture may be the best photo ever!)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Asking yourself the right questions

ROBERTA: Continuing our theme of procrastination (who knew we'd end up with a theme for the week?), we are lucky and delighted to have life and business coach Jill Crossland back to visit. She's been watching us this week and has some ideas and suggestions for more productive writing. Thanks for coming Jill!

JILL: Nice to be back ladies. I do pop in every now and then to see what you are all up to but if I read you every day well then I would just be procrastinating.

We all do it and there is no doubt that the internet has made it even more tempting. As noted in your August 9th post, some procrastination can be positive. This stems from the fact that the tasks are productive--and for some of you--on two levels. You walked, gardened (or pickled!) while ideas for your books where taking shape in your head.

As one writer put it ‘other things just slow me down’ and are therefore counter productive. These are usually the routine tasks; such as email and social media. They do have a place in your day but so that they don’t creep into your writing time they need to be scheduled. Most of you want to write first thing in the morning so the first email check could be 10 or 11ish with your coffee, then mid afternoon and just before you end your work day should be sufficient. If you are tempted to break the schedule ask yourself why or what are you expecting. While reading this you probably have your email browser open ‘just in case’. This is the another habit to break; keep the browser closed and get rid of that little sound or pop up that alerts you to new email. When you work and write from a home office blogs, Facebook and Twitter are all part of today’s connectedness with other writers, fans and friends. How frequently you post or respond to others posts should also be planned. It is in the randomness that you lose time.

If you are on the road promoting a book then yes keep the excitement up as you go from city to city. When you are in the process of writing you need to decide how crucial each of these media truly are. What results do you want from you internet presence and which one is getting you those results are two more questions. You may like your blog/website but reach a wider audience from say FaceBook so schedule accordingly. Make sure that your posts are interconnected or feeding into each other as this also saves time. You web person should be able to help you with that. While the ‘hold all my calls’ secretary isn’t feasible hiring a virtual assistant can make a difference in one’s time management. They can take care of administrative tasks for a few hours on a weekly or monthly basis and are well trained in the areas of newsletters, databases, email announcements and correspondence.

The Writers Challenge got a big response. What you offered was a goal and accountability; both of which are strong tools in combating procrastination. Every now and then we will always have one of those days when you cannot seem to settle down to do anything, those are often reminders that we need to spend some time with family, friends or just be by yourself without thinking about work.

ROBERTA: Thanks again Jill for your thoughts and tips! Jill is the editor of Timefinders Online Magazine and a women's business coach. You can find her at her website. Now the floor is open for your questions about organization, or procrastination, or setting goals????

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

ROBERTA: Today's guest, Alexandra Sokoloff is a woman of many talents.
Coming from a background in theater, she's acted, directed, sung, danced,
written screenplays, and written four well-acclaimed horror and thriller
novels, most recently BOOK OF SHADOWS. We welcome her to JRW today to talk about her expertise in screenwriting tips for novelists. (She has published a
workbook on this subject, published as an ebook on Kindle.) Take it away Alex!

ALEX: Always great to be here on Jungle Red.

These lovely vixens, I mean ladies, have invited me today to talk about screenwriting, a very unladylike subject. And Roberta says I only have 800 words, so this is going to be all about the discussion, people! Jump in and ask those questions.

So I worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for twelve years. For a while it was great. My screenwriting partner and I wrote original scripts, thrillers, which mostly sold, and we got hired to do assignments, sometimes off original pitches, some novel adaptations. I was getting paid well to do what I love, working with wildly talented people-and some assholes-but mostly, truly, incredibly talented and passionate and fascinating people. I was having too good a time to realize I was miserable.

And then, in the middle of what seemed like a run of the best luck possible, I crashed. We had gotten our dream director on an original script, a ghost story set on a college campus, and were also working on an adaptation of a novel based on a famous parapsychology experiment that had always compelled us. Two dream projects. I was on top of the world.

But then we lost our director to another movie that got its financing together first. And the production companies attached to the book we were adapting reversed power roles and suddenly we were faced with starting over, a page one rewrite, with no extra money offered for the extra work (an increasingly dire reality for screenwriters, the "one-step deal" that becomes a never-ending nightmare).

Now, this kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time-- it's turned into the norm, actually. But this time, I snapped.

And so while we pounded out that adaptation that wouldn't die, I took my original script, and started writing it as the novel that became THE HARROWING. Even if I could only write a paragraph at the end of the day, I would force myself to do it. People always ask me if it was hard to make the transition from screenwriting to novel writing, but it was no harder than any writing ever is. We screenwriters know all that internal stuff about our characters anyway--now I didn't have to hold back.

I gave the book to my film agents, they hooked me up with my fabulous literary agent within a week, and he sold the book to St. Martin's Press in a two-book deal two weeks later.

While every book sale and subsequent career has a lot to do with luck and timing, I also know that my quick representation and sale had a lot to do with my screenwriting background - because my agent and editor said so.

The truth is, book agents and editors and the whole publishing business in general has been corrupted--I mean, influenced--by Hollywood. The blockbuster mentality is rampant. Even though the bottom line is always a great book, publishing houses increasingly want big ideas; fast, visceral, visual plots; and a big, high concept hook for marketing.

So that means authors can give themselves an edge by using film techniques to make their stories more immediately appealing and easily marketable--and by the way, to create better, more engaging books. I believe any novelist, from aspiring to multiply-published, can benefit from these screenwriting tricks of the trade.

But when I started teaching writing workshops (a happy and unexpected perk of being an author), I realized very quickly that the storytelling techniques that we Hollywood types take for granted (such as the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure) are a huge revelation to people outside the glass dome of the film business.

The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it's like seeing an X ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It's a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we've usually seen more of these movies than we've read specific books, so they're a more universal form of reference for discussion.

It's often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.

So the workshops I teach, now all over the country, my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors blog: and the workbook http://www.amazon.com/Screenwriting-Tricks-Authors-Screenwriters-ebook/dp/B0032JSJ9U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=digital-text&qid=1262864197&sr=1-1 , are my way of making these screenwriting techniques and tricks available to novelists and aspiring novelists who may not live anywhere near Hollywood, but who could get the same benefit I and other author friends have reaped from applying screenwriting techniques to our novel writing.

My word count is up (already!!!!) but here are some links to get you started on the basics of screen story structure.

What Is The Three-Act Structure And Why Should You Care

The Three Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Master List

The Index Card Method

And I'll be in and out all day and very glad to answer any questions people have on the business or craft of screenwriting.

ROBERTA: Thanks so much for stopping by Alex. Now let's have all your questions--Alex is full of great information!