Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Digging a hole for myself... by Cathy Ace

What did you do this summer? Did you take a break from writing? Continue to write while you were on vacation? Change your writing habits at all?

 This is a clue!
What did I do this summer? No writing at all. Plotting, yes. Outlining, yes. Writing, no. (Other than blogs, articles, interviews etc., that is.)

What did I do instead? I planted.
Well, Husband and I planted.
Well, OK then, Husband dug big holes in the spots I picked out, and I sort of whined and criticized as he placed plants into said holes.

In my defence I also brought trailers of soil, plus all the associated bone meal/feeds, mulch and water to the planting every good “helper” does. It doesn’t sound like much, but we have poor, clay-based soil in many parts of our property, so each hole can become a nightmare to dig, has to be two or three times the size of the pot from which the plant is being taken (some holes have been a few feet deep and wide), and we’ve repeated this process with more than a hundred plants.

These were all good-sized maples, ornamental evergreen trees, rhododendrons already over thirty years old, hydrangeas we've grown from cuttings, forsythia from cuttings, hostas, hibiscus, pots of canna lilies and tender hibiscus, and planting out our perennial seedlings of rudbekia, lavatera and the annual petunias, nasturtium and marigolds…for the gardeners amongst you.

Poppy - Assistant to the assistant!
It’s been a LOT of work. Then there’s the watering, of course…and our well ran dry at the beginning of July. So…lots of water trucks delivering water. And lots of hosepipes.

It’s been a BIG planting year, and next year will be too.

Why all this activity? Well, we’re pretty serious gardeners (OK, I admit it, like all gardeners, we’re addicted – and we have five acres with which to indulge our addiction) and a good friend of ours died last year; he’d begged us to save the plants from his commercial-sized greenhouses, which we did. We over-wintered them in pots in a safe spot, and are now doing our best to get what we can into the ground, where it will be happiest. It’s a mammoth undertaking. In April this year I counted around 350 pots. We’re down to something over 200 left. Still a long way to go.

Pots, pots and more pots

The task continues – and we will look forward to next year to see the blooms on the forsythia and rhodos...though many of the hydrangeas have put on a bit of a show for us this year. It will take many years for the maples to create the sort of canopy we’re aiming for, however, so we'll have to be patient (not that it’s easy!). Sorry the photos aren’t full of dazzling blooms or spectacular foliage – you’ll have to use your imagination, as we are!

One of the woodland areas we're planting
The promise...

Hopefully my next novel will bloom into something you’ll enjoy reading next year, too! If you'd like to read something I've already written, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Summer Break? Well....

What did you do this summer? Did you take a break from writing? Continue to write while you were on vacation? Change your writing habits at all?

- Frank

I don't take summers off but I do scale back slightly. My wife is a teacher, and so I like to free up more time during the summer to spend it with her. I accomplish this by putting my podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime on hiatus/season break from mid-June to mid-September, and by trying to commit to fewer projects during this time frame.

It doesn't always happen quite as planned. For instance, I've been working on the second season of A Grifter's Song this summer. As the editor for the series, that means coordinating and then editing five related novellas. The writers were great to work with, but it did take some time. After those five were done, I had to get busy writing number six and six-point-five (the bonus, subscriber only episode). Season two doesn't begin until January 2020, but these things have a lead time, as you know.

I also geared up for a dark comedy/mystery with one of my co-authors, though competing projects and summertime mode has resulted in this moving in fits and starts.

Luckily, another project (the third book in the Charlie-316 series with Colin Conway) reached finished first draft stage in May and has been sitting in the digital drawer and getting beta-read over the summer. 
Colin and I preparing to read
at Noir at the Bar Seattle

This has been the summer that I really looked at and modified my approach to marketing and connecting with readers. As any author (or business person) knows, this often requires a great deal of time and concentration. I've really focused on making that one-to-one connection via my newsletter, and it's been satisfying.

I made it to the Seattle Noir at the Bar event in July, along with my co-author Colin. 

I signed a contract with an illustrator and we got started on the pre-school age books in my Sam the Hockey Player series (written under Frank Scalise). Pretty excited to see this project rolling.

All the while, my next River City novel, Place of Wrath and Tears, has waited patiently, not completely finished, despite a 2019 release date. 

Believe it or not, this still represents easing off the throttle for me these days, in terms of writing and writing-related activity. Not bragging - I'm a full time writer now, so there's more time available to dedicate to the work.

But the question was about summer. And on the personal front, we did some fun things. I played co-ed softball for the first time in more than fifteen years. I found out how rusty I was, and got an education on the state of these aging knees, but it was fun.

Kristi with her cider and I
with a Guiness...
Kristi and I went to Ireland for almost two weeks. It was grand. Beautiful countryside, wonderful people, delicious Guiness.

Oh, and we got back into the gym after a long hiatus. Talk about initially painful! But it's been fun to work out together and to slowly see some results. 
Linus (l) and Malcom (r)

I spent some time with children and grand-children, the latter of which are empirically proven to be the cutest human beings on this planet.

Oh, and we took the dogs to the ocean for the first time.  They dug it. 

Wiley (black) and Richie (red)
Discovering the Pacific at age ten.

We didn't get in the kind of kayaking we would have liked (I could post a pic of the kayaks on the rack, untouched) but we did bicycle a fair amount. Kristi's bike has an old school bell on it that makes me smile every time she dings it.

Speaking of Kristi, she knocked out the home improvement project she was striving for (kitchen remodel), and I got to enjoy the finished product (one guess at who the handy one is in this marriage).

All in all, it was a good summer. I made progress on the writing-related front but still took the opportunity to hang out with Kristi during her time off.

With school back in session, I'll bring the podcast back online, and focus even more on my writerly to-do list. As fun as it can be to ease off the gas a little, it is just as gratifying to get things done and enjoy the accomplishment of finishing them.


Blatant Self-Promotion, brought to you by me.

I mentioned my newsletter earlier. Sign up and get a free book (Under a Raging Moon, River City #1) and novella (The Bastard Mummy) immediately. In addition to news and updates, the newsletter includes more free books, stories, previews, and bargains.

Monday, September 16, 2019

How Not to Spend your Summer (If You're a Writer)

Q: What did you do this summer? Did you take a break from writing? Continue to write while you were on vacation? Change your writing habits at all?

- from Susan

This question embarrasses me. I didn’t write as much as I promised myself I would. So many excuses but I think there are two that might be relevant to serious writers. First, I have no contract, so no externally imposed deadlines, the first time since I got an agent in 2008 that someone isn’t waiting for my manuscript. Doom, doom….

Second, I have two books in progress. I’m not handling switching from one to the other, but I’m not sure which to concentrate on. Dither, dither….

What I do have is a garden that is in constant need of attention, an overabundance of tomatoes (and figs and apples) that need to be frozen or canned, a darling foster cat who has upset my two resident cats so that I’m playing feline psychologist and hissing contest referee every day, volunteer board work (including the national Sisters in Crime board that I’ve been privileged to be part of for the past five years), friends and family to share life with, a few heat waves that tire me beyond telling, etc. And the etcetera is a lot. 

When I was writing to a deadline that included getting advances from my publishers, I could ignore most of that – well, except for the cats. Takeaway: I need to finish something so my agent can sell it!

The only positive accomplishment I can claim this summer in regard to writing is being on the faculty of the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference for the second consecutive year. It’s a heady experience, especially for a former student of the conference, a chance to pay it forward to writers who are where I was 12 years ago, to share panel discussions and seminars with major authors I admire, and to remind myself that the craft can always be improved and that we all deal with uncertainty, setbacks, multiple revisions, and occasional triumphs. 

So, that’s my summer, and while it isn't a model to recommend to an aspiring writer, it was a lot of fun.

Friday, September 13, 2019

First, tell no one.

When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

by Abir

Like Dietrich, I like to keep my plot ideas to myself. I think a story is better when it is burning inside you, and that telling people about it before it’s finished can dissipate some of the story’s urgency and my eagerness to get it all down on the page.

I’ve not always done this though. When I first started writing, I didn’t have much confidence in what I was doing, so I’d run my ideas past my agent, and my editor, and my wife, and my neighbour, and their cat. As you can imagine, this was often a laborious process, so now I just wing it, though I still tell the cat.

Generally, my writing starts with the theme or the message that I want to get across. My books are set in colonial India in the 1920s and they all either draw attention to a piece of history that’s been whitewashed or forgotten, or are allegories for things happening today. For example, my second novel, A Necessary Evil, highlighted the forgotten role of women in the courts of the maharajas, and my fourth, Death in the East, out later this year, discusses the themes of tolerance, immigration and integration.

Once I’ve settled on a theme, I then get into plotting. This starts with long walks, cycling in the gym, and a lot of sitting in the sauna…okay…more of the sauna and less of the first two, but the important thing is, I need peace and quiet to think and dream up a story, and I tend to do that best in a sauna. My wife doesn't believe me but it's true!

Seriously - this is the place to do your plotting

Once I have the beginnings of a plot, I buy myself a large A4 pad – always one like this, with thick, creamy paper, and begin to fill it with notes – often the same bits over and over again  - revising the skeleton, adding chapter headings, writing out the draft passages in longhand, just to give me some confidence that I can turn my little idea into a hundred thousand word novel. At the same time I’ll read up on the history of the period and place I’m looking to tackle, adding more notes in my pad.

My scribble pad is an accurate reflection of the inside of my brain.

I’m the sort of writer who needs to have an idea of where the story is going. I’m always in awe of authors who can write by the seat of their pants. I’ve tried pantsing it in the past, but it just doesn’t work for me. Once I know roughly where my plot is going to take me, then, and only then, do I attack my keyboard.

My novels tend to begin in fits and starts. I’ll often have two or three attempts at writing the first few chapters, with different first steps, to see which I like best. The route I choose then, tends to set the direction for the entire novel. I think this is another sign of my lack of confidence. I need to try a few different openings, just so that I feel I know what I’m doing.

Maybe one day I’ll be a bit less neurotic about my writing, and then, I won’t even have to discuss the thing with next door’s cat.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

From Jim

I get ideas for books in different ways. Sometimes it’s a character that comes to me first, other times it’s a setting, or a plot idea. But all of these elements have to bend to fit the overarching theme I have in mind for the book or story. And, in the case of my Ellie Stone books, the theme is ideally tied up in the meaning of the title.

As I’ve discussed here before, the titles of my Ellie Stone books are all common expressions—or parts of expressions–using the word “stone.” 

The title of my first book, STYX & STONE, is obviously a play on the old “Sticks and stones will break my bones...” But its thematic relevance is the infernal reference to the River Styx. Dante and the Divine Comedy are central to the plot. In Western tradition, the Styx is probably the most well-known waterway in the underworld, even if in Dante’s Inferno the Acheron features more prominently. This pun of a title serves to set the dark mood for the book and Ellie.

Some of my titles are more versatile than others, meaning they convey more than the obvious meaning. NO STONE UNTURNED, however, is hardly the most compelling. It connotes thoroughness and persistence, but little more. And STONE COLD DEAD is pretty straightforward. There’s a brutal cold snap that frames the story of a missing schoolgirl. But HEART OF STONE, CAST THE FIRST STONE, and A STONE’S THROW all  at multiple themes within the plots within those books. HEART OF STONE certainly applies to the whirlwind summer romance Ellie embarks upon. But the expression typically means a cruel, or stern nature. CAST THE FIRST STONE, set in 1962 Los Angeles, calls to mind Biblical judgment and the Hollywood film industry at the same time. Finally, A STONE’S THROW does double duty as well, conjuring thrown horse races and the idea of proximity. In this case, the distance between the excitement and glamour of Saratoga Springs during racing season and the mill town in decline where Ellie lives and works. 

I won’t comment on TURN TO STONE, which comes out January 21, 2020, other than to say it’s without a doubt my riskiest title in terms of giving a clue to the denouement. You’re just going to have to read it to figure it out. 

But none of this really tells you how I start writing a book. In the best of all scenarios, I begin with the solution, that clever aha! moment where Ellie figures things out. If I’m lucky, it’s unassailable in its logic and the reader is left satisfied. Then I work backward from there, outlining the plot and fine-tuning the characters along the way. Unfortunately I can’t really give any examples of those “brilliant” solutions here as they would be spoilers. The one time I didn’t outline in advance was for TURN TO STONE, and it proved to be a challenging book to write. I think the biggest problem I encountered was the secondary characters. Some of them were not clearly formed in my mind when I began, so there was a lot of reworking, rewriting, and hand-wringing. I vowed never to neglect to outline again. Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m satisfied with the result. It was simply a different path to the finish line. 

Besides starting with the solution, I spend lots of time thinking about the story and the the setting. Usually a couple of months of staring into space. Then I write down the general plot and start the four-to-six months of writing the the first draft. I work every day, aiming to hit a word count. The average is typically about 800-1,000 words per day. And at the end of a hundred or so days, I have a first draft ready to be revised and revised and revised before it’s finally ready for others to see.

And that’s how I do it. Your results may vary. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Keeping it close to the vest

When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

by Dietrich

I keep a story to myself while it’s taking shape. It’s not so much that it’s a secret, but it’s a work in progress. Everything’s still building at this point, and there’s not much to tell. So, I don’t look for a lot of outside input; I just want the story and characters to evolve, and I want see where it all leads.

My stories usually start with an idea for a single scene, and I just start writing and let one scene take me to the next, and I let that first draft roll out from there. By the time I’ve got the second draft finished, I might ask those closest to me what they think about a particular scene or get their input on some titles ideas. But, for me, writing is basically a solo effort, and once I feel I’ve polished a final draft and done my best, then I submit it to my publisher and leave the rest in their more than capable hands.

I often have ideas for the next story while I’m working on the last one. I’ve even tried writing two stories simultaneously, alternating between drafts. There are some advantages, like setting one story aside for a while and looking at it with fresh eyes when I come back to it. But, working like this did make me feel like a machine, so I’ve gone back to just writing one at a time.

I usually have notes all over the place. When I think of something I want to include but can’t use it immediately I scribble notes and let these bits of paper stack on my desk, using them when I find the right spot. Sometimes the notes just end up in the bin, and sometimes I tuck them in a file and save them for another story.

The scene comes first, then I come up with the character(s) I’d like to see in that particular situation, and everything just takes shape through the first draft.

I don’t plot the story out ahead of time. I usually don’t see more than a scene or two ahead during that first draft. I like to think working like this gives me something better than if I sat down and plotted the whole thing out ahead of time. It gives me a chance to build the story and get to know the characters early on. And it allows for those surprises that come along through the writing. Maybe if I wrote a very complex story, I might map it out beforehand.

As it is, once I’ve got that initial draft, I put together a timeline of events and character sheets before I go on to a second pass. It’s not the only way to do it; it’s just what works for me.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Starting your Book

Terry here:

When you have an idea for a book or story, how do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Do you outline?

There is another choice—just start writing and see where the story takes you. I did that far too long before I realized that being a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants)  doesn’t mean just opening your computer and hitting the keys. That’s a little like starting to cook a meal and taking everything out of the refrigerator and throwing it in pots, setting the pots on the stove, lighting the stove and hoping for the best.

I have a few complete manuscripts that I did that with, and each of them came out a hot mess. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a story. Yes, each has a story line, characters, and settings. But not ones that are readable.

The second mystery I wrote (the first one was a sci-fi story) was a nightmare. When I got to the end I realized that  I had never given the slightest thought to “who dunnit.” Nor had I thought about how the protagonist would solve it. Which means my clues were all over the place, my characters the same. At least the setting was nice. I rewrote that book many times. The only thing that stayed the same was the setting and some of the minor characters.

When I finally landed on a good protagonist, I wrote a second book with the same guy, same setting. This time I had a bit more of an idea of what happened, and it was a smoother ride.
 Another one I wrote, I continue to pick at occasionally like a tasty carcass, revising, messing with it. It may be a good book by now, but I haven’t looked at it in a while.

Others I wrote and just moved on. These manuscripts may have served me better had I sat down and thought about them first. I could have saved myself a lot of time if I had asked myself the following:

1)What kind of book is it? If it’s crime fiction, what corner of the crime fiction world will it inhabit? Is it a romantic mystery? A police procedural? A thriller?  

2)Who is my reader? What do I want them to get from the book? Do I want to include social issues? Do I want the reader to be entertained? Enlightened? Scared? Do I want them to sit down in front of a cozy fire and feel like all’s right with the world when they finish it? Do I want a puzzle for people to solve? Do I want adventure?

3) Who are the main characters? The protagonist and the antagonist. What do they each want? What do they need? How do they usually attain what they want? Are they used to getting it?

4) The situation: How did they get in the situation they are in now? Where do they want to be by the end? Do they know, or is it part of their journey to find out?

5) Who are the important minor characters? The protagonist’s helper? His secret friend? Her staunch ally? Which of them will be betrayers?

6) Where will the book be set? Do you know the place well, or will it require some research (Oh, please, no, don’t make me go to Florence!)

7) Are you the right person to write this book? This isn’t a question that gets asked often. I don’t mean is it an appropriation of someone else’s culture. I mean, is it a situation, a setting, and characters that you either know well or that you are willing to put in the hours of hard work to find out what you need to know. In other words, how passionate are you about the idea? I have an idea for a book based on a real story, set in the 30’s and 40’s—in Mexico City. I’ve never been to Mexico City. It involves the KGB and madness. I know only what I’ve learned superficially over the years about the KGB. And I only know madness through tearing my hair out when I’m writing. The only thing I know is that I keep thinking about, mulling it over. Maybe I am the right person.

You don’t have to know the complete answer to all these questions before you begin, but it helps to at least give it some thought before you start flinging words around.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Getting The Ball Rolling

Question: When you have an idea for a book or story, do you tell people about it? How do you start writing? Do you think about it for a while? Write notes immediately? Think about the character first? Or plot first? Outline?

The start of a project can come about in a few different ways, but usually I've put a lot of thought into the characters and the crime. A few times, I've sat at the computer with a vague idea in my head and just started typing. The opening scene to 5,000 word scene in Cold Mourning was really a writing exercise that I expanded into a book and then a series. 

I've found that making chapter notes (after written) and a running list of characters is immensely helpful, particularly as a way of keeping track of days of the week and weather (very easy to lose track of from one chapter to the next), physical descriptions and all the minutia. I confess that my memory for names is a weakness, both real and fictional, so keeping a page of characters' names with their details is a godsend. A running chapter summary also comes in handy for when my publisher asks for a detailed synopsis. I'm lucky that they are willing to wait for this until after I've written the book.

I do not reveal anything about my manuscript in progress until it's completed, and even then, I don't say a great deal. I'm one of those people who like to be surprised and don't like to reveal too much. Some of the book blurbs on the back cover of books by other authors (and occasionally my own) have bothered me because of how much they reveal about the crime(s). I often don't read an entire blurb by a book I'm buying or about to read because I don't want to know what's coming. Even the previews to a show or movie have me closing my eyes or leaving the room. Otherwise, I'm waiting for the preview scenes that I watched to happen in the episode, and my enjoyment lessens. I'm not the typical marketing target, perhaps, but in my mind, what is suspense if not full of surprise and the unexpected? Knowing less beforehand makes the experience more. 

To end my post, I'd like to share two new releases this week for my Anna Sweet mystery novella series that I've been writing for adult literacy - Grass Roots Press is a strictly adult literacy publisher in Edmonton, Alberta, and they contracted me to write this series. The parameters were: strong female protagonist, set in Canada, a good puzzle, humour, conflict between characters, and, oh yes, adult comprehension but at a grade 3/4 level. Having once been a special education teacher, this challenge was most appealing. Killer Heat and Too Close to Home are the last in the series which has previously been nominated for four awards. So bittersweet for sure, but good to think the books are a fun read for anybody as well as an educational resource for those working on their reading skills. You can find out more about the series on the publisher site where you'll also find chapter questions for each book to assist teachers and tutors.

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