Thursday, December 19, 2013

Here comes my favourite time of the year!

And this is my favourite way to lead into it.  I'm about 5,000 words off finishing a first draft and tomorrow, Friday, I'll be writing THE END, spell-checking it, search-and-destroying my old friends "oft he" 'is aid" and "butt he" then printing it out and dancing around the room.

Then it's Christmas.

We'll go and cut down a Christmas tree - in a place where they let you do that - decorate it, fill the house with food and drink and then comes one of my most beloved Christmas traditions.  Shopping!  But with a twist.

When Neil and I were penniless students - back in the early Mesolithic age - we had jobs on the Christmas post.  We got paid on Christmas Eve (it was eighty pounds each one year) and then went to buy presents, paper and ribbon for our parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and one or two little nephews and nieces. 

Then we counted up what was left, split it and went to buy a present for each other.

These days we have no grandparents anymore but we've got sixteen nephews and nieces, some quite big, and a great-nephew and -niece too.  Yikes.  Great-aunt Catriona. 

And because life has been kind we don't need to count the remaining change before we buy a present for each other.  We don't need to but we carry on anyway.  Sentimental tradition or Scottish stinginess?  Who can say.

We save change in a pot all year, count it on the 23rd of December, exchange it for notes, split them and hit the streets.  The rules are that you can't overspend by a penny and you've got get something from an ironmongers (hardware store), something from a charity shop (Thrift Store) something useful and at least one complete surprise. 

I might buy a CA Megamillions lottery ticket tonight.  The rollover is up to 400M and think of the good you could do with all that.  But even if I'm a billionaire on the 23rd of December this year, I'll be skulking around the hardware store in Davis, looking for bargains, not wafting about Tiffany's in San Francisco commissioning cufflinks.  And I'll still spray my Thanksgiving pumpkins gold and make them work through another holiday too. 

Merry Christmas, everyone, and a Happy  New Year when it comes. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lists and lists

This is the free-for-all month at Criminal Minds, in which we are all invited to go over the edge and expose our innermost thoughts, intellectual liabilities, and sentimental behaviors. This is not hard for me to do. I enter into it lightly and without the hesitations a more sensible person might have. You are about to get my five least favorite and five fav “things” as of today. Feel free to chime in with your own. Or, skip my blabbing and use your time to wrap presents and drink eggnog.

Susan’s LEAST favorites

#5 Coffee drinks that try to mix mint, pumpkin or other totally unsuited tastes with coffee flavor. Admittedly, I have never tried one, but really…

#4 Large cocktail parties. When I was oh so young and living in New York, I thought they were heaven and aspired to be invited to them every weekend. Now, I invent dying aunts and deadlines to avoid them.

#3 Cheesy Christmas displays in stores, you know the kind: plastic ball ornaments with “Bud Light” written in snowflake script circling the spheres, or tinselly garlands that spell out “Frank’s Auto Supply”?

#2 The fact that we are destroying the precious, almost miraculous climate balance that makes Earth not just habitable, but stunningly wondrous, and all so each of us (me included) can drive to around by ourselves in our own cars and eat grapes in January.

#1 Politicians who gets elected to anything at all and then are totally beholden to those who got them elected and those who may help get them re-elected so they can begin raising money the next day to get re-elected yet again. What a system.

Susan's MOST favorite (and so much nicer to think about)

#5 The writing community, my agent, my friends in Criminal Minds, LadyKillers, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. My peeps, I love you all.

#4 Nelson Mandela, a giant who walked among us. So funny to read criticism of him this week for not ridding the new South Africa of crony corruption and not bringing it to first world economic status in his four years as president. Hello? He walked the walk of reconciliation and negotiated the very existence of the new South Africa, where there is room for everyone to live free. It’s up to the other 47 million South Africans to pull the load now.

#3 Chocolate. Seriously, how could there be a list of favorites that didn’t include chocolate? I liked elegant French chocolates that look like tiny tiles best until I tasted the elegant Berkeley chocolates Terry brought to my last launch party. Bettina swears her native Switzerland makes the best, and Frank gives chocolate tasting parties where we get to sample African and South American varieties. For me, the darker the better, the smoother the better, and the most available the best!

#2 The women in my life who have shown me how to be a better person in their own quite different ways. Some are with us, some are no longer present. You are my guides, you live in my heart, and I love you dearly: Candida, Sister Samuel, Helen, Doris, Ethel, Alice.

#1 My family. Honestly, that’s not a politically correct nod, it’s the truth. Love my sons, my like-a-son, and their talented wives and fiancĂ©es, and the four grandkids who light up my life with smiles, hugs, and invitations to squeeze under the bunk bed to play pirates.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Bug of Revelation!

The last couple of days, I've been what we Scots call awfy no weel.  Felt a bit plain on Monday and then woke up on Tuesday morning thinking: what's that noise?  It sounded like a portion of over-thick, under-blended soup boiling hard in the bottom of a high-sided pot.  Turned out it was me, breathing.   When I sat up, I started coughing; when I stood up, I started shivering; when I moved , my eyes went all FX - making lines that streamed out behind things that don't usually have lines streaming out behind them.

So I took a day off work.  Actually two.  And taking two days off work when you're a self-employed writer is not like taking a day off from an office, shop, factory or farm.

On the upside, you don't have to ask anyone or fill in any forms.  On the downside, nobody does your work for you while you're ill; it's all still there when you're better.  (But what a great idea - substitute writers!)

On the unexpected side was how quickly I came to believe I'd found my new calling.  The undergardener brought me story discs (Stephen King, Alexander McCall Smith, Kate Atkinson and Patricia Cornwell), DVDs (Midsomer Murders), a bunch of flowers and a box of lotion-soft hankies.


There was coffee, soup, ice-cream, ibuprofen and pillows and by lunchtime yesterday I had decided I was never getting up, getting dressed or going outside ever again. Bed is bliss - soft, warm, comforting; there are fifteen seasons of Midsomer Murders - soft, warm, comforting -  available to download or stream (and since I fell asleep for big chunks of every episode anyway, I would literally never run out of new bits to watch); jammies are better than all other clothes in every way - soft, warm, comforting - no waistbands or buttons, no need for earrings.

This was my new life.  Probably the undergardener would take some persuading, but even if he refused to keep bringing me supplies of ice-cream and story discs, I could order everything online.   I had plenty of time to cancel Left Coast Crime, Malice and Bouchercon.  I wouldn't even suffer financially for a while - my next two books are written and it'd be a year before anyone even noticed I'd become a recluse.

Okay, I'd probably end up as one of those people who, when they die, contractors come and remove one of the walls of their house and winch them out with a crane, but it was so soft and warm and comforting. 

And I had all the zeal of the convert.  I laughed at my former self - cycling, walking up and down hills for no reason at all, gardening instead of just keeping the curtains closed, cooking things when there's perfectly good food already made for you in the supermarkets, turning pages and swiveling my eyes when there are stories on CDs and DVDs that let you just slump.  Yep, this was it.  This was the future.

Then about five o'clock today the rot set in.  I was asleep when the phone binged to say I had a text.  It was the undergardener and he was bringing home a Chinese carry-out.  I put the phone down, paused Midsomer Murders and, before I knew what had happened, I was in the kitchen, putting plates in the oven to warm, setting out napkins and chopsticks, filling the dishwasher, sorting out the junk mail for recycling.

So my new life as a happy slob looks to be over, only two days after it began.   I'm better.  It wasn't even proper flu.  Tomorrow - waistband, buttons, earrings and swiveling eyes.  But it was fun while it lasted and I've still got the cough to remember it by. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

Writing, reading, murder, and mayhem

“Criminal minds – writing, reading, murder, and mayhem.” Great holiday subjects, yes?

We’ve been given free rein this month, which means a totally blank canvas and, for me, a totally empty brain. I thought I’d look at our happy blog catch phrase for inspiration.

“Writing” – I’m struggling with revisions for my third Dani O’Rourke, in part because my delightful publishers informed me cutting the brakes in a car is so clichĂ©. I’ve now asked four guys what they’d do if they had to disable a car they didn’t know well, a modern car with electronics and disc brakes and power locks. “Cut the brakes” was the answer times four, even though with independent braking systems, not all braking power would be cut. It would still be an accident waiting to happen on a hill. This is the kind of not-fun work that writers do, the situations that make us run screaming from the computer. It means pushing back with the editors or reimagining an entire plot in the story. Is it too early in the day for spiked eggnog?

“Reading” – I made the mistake of starting the Illiad (Fagles’ translation) and The Judgment of Paris (Ross King on the birth of Impressionism) in late October, thinking such a steady diet of crime fiction needed to be broken up. Now, my pride won’t let me quit either of those, but Sara Paretsky’s personally signed latest V.I. story, Critical Mass, demands my attention, as do the latest by Dennis Lehane, Michael Stanley, Hallie Ephron, and Sara Henry (among way too many others). But until I get said revisions off my desk, reading from my TBR pile is out of the question. Is it too early in the day for more spiked eggnog?

“Murder” – I would never, never think about murdering anyone except in my books, but I’ll bet I’m not the first writer who has wondered just a teensy bit about the way recalcitrant editors might suffer and perish. (Just kidding, editors…) I live in the San Francisco area and our local paper leads with local murders, of which there are far too many. Real ones, where families suffer and the police flounder, and witnesses are silent, and it’s all far too dreary and tragic to read about every day. It definitely isn’t too early for bourbon laced with a little eggnog.

“Mayhem” – “actions that hurt people and destroy things : a scene or situation that involves a lot of violence” (Merriam-Webster) . Creating mayhem in a story is surprisingly enjoyable, and I wonder why that is? Maybe because I would never allow myself to throw china, deliberately hit the car in front of me, smash down a door. Imagining it concretely enough to write a believable scene is both a challenge and a release, and I was deeply gratified when the violent climax of my first book for a thumbs up from the editors and readers. That’s something for me to remember as I go back to my current problem and try to figure out what mayhem I can create that will satisfy me, and my editors, today. No more eggnog until I’m done.

 - Susan

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Worst. Advice. Ever.

That's easy.

I had written two books, using the Benny Hill Method (brakes off at the top and wheeeee . . . (bathtub optional)) aka the Wayne's World Method (First draft! First draft! Party time! Excellent!) and then I went to a Society of Authors workshop where a proper writer told me I should have a synopsis, outline, chapter plan and character sketches in place before I wrote a word of the story itself.

So I got different coloured sheets of paper and did myself a chapter plan, a calendar (including phases of the moon) and five character biographies.  I didn't do a synopsis or outline because I didn't know what they were or how they were different from each other.

Finally I started writing.  Plodding along, bored and grumpy, feeling like someone who'd been told to write up the minutes after a meeting.  About a third of the way in, I couldn't stand it anymore and ripped up the coloured paper.  It was pretty.  Like confetti. 

After that, writing was interesting again and the story grew legs and ran, then grew wings and flew.  As usual it didn't land where I had expected it to.  But here's the thing - the first third, the bit that I had done "properly", contained no clues about the unexpected twist.  I had to go back and put them in by hand.  The two thirds I'd written after the day of the confetti was already stuffed with clues to the twist I hadn't seen coming.

Since then I've learned that there are just as many chaotic, weeping, white-knuckle writers are there are meticulous, orderly, seed-sowing writers.  Both kinds produce books I love, both kinds are great fun at parties, and both kinds share one talent: they can ignore each other's advice like pros.  Vive la difference!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Body On Page One

 This week's question: What was the most useless, destructive thing you ever learned in writing class or in a writing craft book?

I’m struggling with this week’s question because the classes I’ve taken have been mostly in the form of conference sessions or short seminars, where I tend to internalize one important idea. My own filtering process eliminates some that don’t work in my writing.  The only multi-week course I took was from the witty, smart Judy Greber, a.k.a. Gillian Roberts, who has made it a point to never give bad advice.

The most useless idea I ever picked up can’t be blamed on a speaker, but on my simplistic interpretation of more seasoned advice. Mystery writers everywhere have heard this one: You need a body on page one. So untrue, and not something any of the successful authors whose words I lapped up would say. I tried it a few times, got pretty close to page one, but making it a hard and fast rule is artificial to my style of storytelling.

What teachers do say is that in the crime fiction genre you need a conflict on page one. Your job is to signal that the world the reader has entered is not quite as it should be. Preferably, the friction will be related to the protagonist’s coming crisis. However, I’ve read the work of some good storytellers whose first conflict has to do with putting the kids to bed, or having the correct bus fare, or falling on the ice. These writers use that conflict, however seemingly distant from the primary plotline, to show me something about the protagonist or her world, the world that will be disturbed by what happens on the main stage.

That’s not to say some authors don’t start with a body on page one, and do it brilliantly. Police procedurals frequently start there, since that’s the moment the cops begin their detecting narrative. Serial killer novels may start with the villain disposing of his latest victim in some cruel fashion, so that we get an idea of the heinous character of the criminal. But if every piece of crime fiction had to start there, think how bored readers would be, how predictable and formulaic the genre would become.

 - Susan

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Aristotally 100% sure.

I prefer to think of them as "perfectly acceptable character traits" - those bad habits I and Dandy Gilver share.

They make her a great detective and me a . . . writer who at least types more than she deletes.

The same perfectly acceptable character traits would make us atrocious critique-group-members, useless - possibly dangerous - therapists, and calamitous diplomats.

Can you guess where I'm going yet?

We both believe, Dandy Gilver and I, that old Aristotle had it just about right.  All three of us believe  in absolute facts, infallible logic and supreme reason, and that the exercise of reason is the highest virtue.  It helps a lot when you're solving a case (I imagine) and it certainly helps when you're putting a plot together.  But boy-oh-boy we'd make lousy hippies.

I truly believe there's one side to everything (the truth) and it never depends which way you look at it.  Drives my husband nuts* when we disagree.  I'll grant that there's a danger of tenacity if you only argue because you think you're right and you think the thing you're right about matters.  The good side is that I stop arguing if someone shows me I'm wrong.   Not everyone does that.  A lot of them are in Congress.

(*It would drive Dandy Gilver's husband nuts too if they went in for conversations.  But, while he'd probably fetch a bucket of water if Dandy was on fire, her personal philosophy is her business.)

And it's not as bad as it sounds because the one place Dandy and I don't dance in step with Aristotle is that he saves his biggest lifestyle drumroll for what he calls The Golden Mean - moderation in all things.  I reckon even if you did the necessary edit -  "Moderation in all things except pies and Dalmations" - you're still better off with the Golden Rule. You know the one.  I like it in its Bill and Ted incarnation: Be Excellent To Each Other. 

That's the best habit of all.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Who, Me?

This week’s question: What bad habits does your protagonist have, and do you share them?

[Cue up sound of raucous laughter.]

It’s a funny thing. Dani O’Rourke is younger, snappier, more social, and much braver than I am. She can stay up past midnight without becoming a zombie. I do not share her good traits. The bad ones, however, seem familiar. Dani doesn’t listen when her best friend suggests caution. She never eats just one cookie. She goes through bouts of working 24/7. She is suspicious. She is not the most attentive driver. She buys clothes optimistically, that is, with the belief that she will fit into them better one day soon, when she stops eating cookies.

If it sounds weird, it isn’t. Most of us are susceptible to the idea that we’d be happier if…you fill in the blank. So, given the opportunity to create a fictional avatar of sorts, we start playing around, based on our fantasies. This is not a gender thing. Think about the guys who write he-man protagonists who get the sexy women by merely twitching an eyebrow.  Writers say they have to inhabit their characters, so we get to play dress up, or Superman, or the popular cheerleader, or whatever we can pull off in fiction.

When we go into our mental grab bags for bad habits and vulnerabilities, we are – almost all of us – so relentlessly self-critical that listing them for use in the story is easy. Can’t get a date on Saturday night. Can’t think straight when confronted by someone who’s just a teensy bit upset. Can’t cook. Can’t give up chocolate. Can’t keep our mouths shut when diplomacy might be the best course of action. Can’t say no when people lean on us for favors. (“My roommate died and I was wondering if you could please check out the guy who was stalking her? Pretty please?”)

I try not to fall deeply into that trap.  Because I already use a bit of my professional background for Dani’s life, I need to maintain distance elsewhere. It feels strange to have someone ask me if I, like my protagonist, was once married to a multimillionaire. Our histories, I assure them, are different. But I have to admit I bought a sleek designer dress with a long skirt. It will be perfect when I lose 5 pounds and 20 years.

 - Susan

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Do my stories ever come true?

Oh my God, no!  And I'm so glad about that.  The body count  - even at my end of the cupcake/chainsaw continuum - is a lot higher than I would want in reality.

In fact, the first time I can ever remember being frightened by a book - properly frightened; with sweaty palms and a cold lump in the pit of my stomach - was when I read a children's story about a little girl, ill in bed, who amused herself making a book that came true in her dreams. Gaaaah!  She drew a stick-figure child in a house and then, in her dreams, the stick-figure child was trapped in there because the door she'd drawn didn't have a handle.  Gaaaaah!  At one point, the little girl woke up and, trying to stop the horror, scribbled over the illustration, then fell asleep again and saw that the house was bound in thick black cords and the stick-figure child couldn't see out anymore.  Gaaaaaah!

It was second only to the famous Singing Ringing Tree on telly for childhood trauma.

The Singing Ringing Tree - and I apologise to any forty-something Brits who're now headed back to therapy because I've reminded them - was a 1950s east-German fairytale, bought by the BBC and broadcast on children's television without any executive actually ever watching it.  Of this I am quite sure.  I imagine a scheduler looking the bright colours and reading the synopsis (a princess, a prince and an evil dwarf) and thinking airily "Oh, it's just Rumpelstiltskin, basically."

Well.  They put it out in black and white, with a hypnotic English voice-over and the unnerving original German sync-sound fading in and out in the background.  David Lynch would have been proud. 

It was shown over and over again between the mid-sixties and 1980 and none of us will ever recover.  Such was the mark it made that when, well into the new millennium, a national poll of scary telly was taken, The Singing Ringing Tree made it into the top twenty.

If I thought it could come true, even in my dreams, I'd be laying in a lot of dried protein and heading for the hills.

So, in conclusion, my answer is no.