Friday, April 25, 2014

A Clean Well Lighted Place

Where does the writing muse strike you? Anywhere or do you have a favorite place to write?

by Paul D. Marks

The muse can strike anywhere. Anything and everything can spark ideas, either ideas for new stories or ideas for scenes or bits for something I'm already working on. I can be walking the dogs or driving or at the beach. Watching a movie, having a conversation with someone. The muses are everywhere, you just have to be tuned into them.

One of the places that they strike often is in the shower. For some reason that frees up my mind. To that end, I keep a diver's slate in the shower to write down notes so I don't forget things by the time I get out.

But muses or not, what you really have to do is just sit down at your keyboard, start typing, stream of consciousness if nothing else, and let it bleed. Even if it's not initially useable it will help get the juices flowing and free up the mind. As Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
But getting ideas and thinking about new works or works in progress come anywhere and everywhere. There's a FB meme attributed to Eugene Ionesco that says "A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing," and it's very true.

My favorite place to write these days is in my home office. Not very romantic, but it's got everything I need close at hand. Probably more than I need. I know some people say you shouldn't have a TV or phone in your office, but I do. But I can turn them off. And I have a nice view. Pictures on the wall that inspire me. Mostly album covers and movie lobby cards, some other things. And, of course, my picture of Dennis Hopper flipping the bird from Easy Rider. When I was younger I had a full-sized poster of that shot, now it's just a little 8x10. Oh how we change as we get older. 

I also have access to diet Cherry Pepsi and Waiwera water. And I used to like to scarf down Red Vines while I wrote, but that is, unfortunately, a thing of the past.

One of my assistants, in his usual place, where he can do his
best job editing my work.
When I was younger, I had dreams of sitting on the Left Bank, sipping Absinthe and writing. But, as I may have mentioned before, when I did try drinking and writing all I wanted to do was play. So no writing got done. And when I was a student I would wonder about people who could study or work in libraries. I always wanted to flirt and goof off. And every movement around me distracted me. Same for writing in parks and other such places. So none of that for me. No, the best place and, therefore, my favorite place to write is definitely my home office. Plus I have my assistants to help out.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I was told there'd be a muse.

Yeah, I've heard of this "Muse". I've heard that she comes along like the sandman or the blue fairy and brings something with her that makes writing happen.

So I'm returning my writer's pack to the manufacturer because I've checked everywhere, turned it upside down and shaken it hard.  No Muse.

What I've got is a bum to put in the chair and ten fingers to put on the keyboard.  Okay, eight fingers - who types on a QWERTY keyboard with their thumbs? Actually, now I'm watching myself type - it's four.

Put it another way: The Muse strikes me in my office at 9am Monday to Friday for ten weeks until the first draft is done. Or if she doesn't - if houseguests or holidays turn up in her place, or some crummy bit of life gets badly in the way - then she strikes me seven days a week, morning, noon and night, in my office, kitchen, sitting up in bed, in coffeeshops, on planes, in convention hotels while my friends are down in the bar laughing and enjoying life . . . you get the picture.

Sometimes, though, just sometimes, I know what people are talking about. Sometimes, bum in chair and four fingers flying, I can feel the story unfurling in front of me like a bolt of silk. I see all the connections, all the strands to be woven together, all the little hooks and twists to be caught on. Characters tell me their secrets, settings reveal all their hidden corners and writing is a joy.

When that happens I write my guts out, making the most of it, and walk away - crawl away more like - thinking that I've cracked this book lark at last. The next day, I bounce back to my desk and . . . it's a day like today was. Who are these people? What's happening? Why are they in a florist's shop? How can this be my life?

So I wrote my 2000 words and it'll be better tomorrow. Because, even if it's like shovelling concrete while it sets, I'm nearer the end. Museless as ever.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Where Are You, Sharon Stone?

Where does the writing muse strike you?

Where, indeed. In fact, some days the questions really are “Where the hell is the muse? What does she look like? Have I done something to offend her?”

In my former professional life, I was used to writing because I had to, because someone was waiting for the result, that someone most frequently being the president of whatever university I was working for or with. No muse required, just my experience, ideas, and a degree of persuasive language. I was paid for this. Before those days, I was a reporter and that was easier still without a muse. The paper went to press on a certain day or hour. No fooling around.

My first book was written with no contract, no editor, no agent, only my excitement and the self-issued challenge: Write the damn book or stop talking about it. I was the muse. It worked. The second was under contract and I was thrilled to be looking at a series. The story’s genesis was close to my interests and passions, and the muse stayed with me even if some days were hard, when the words didn’t come smoothly. I finished the third in the series a while ago, also under contract, but after some disheartening glitches in distribution for the second, my internal cheerleader seemed to throw up her hands, and start taking too many vacation days. It was a slog to get through revisions. Is it something about the third book in general that’s harder? I’d love to know what my Criminal Minds colleagues think.

So where does the muse strike? When she deigns to drop in these days (I always picture her as Sharon Stone, Albert Brooks’ goddess, the charming one who liked little blue Tiffany’s boxes and take out food), it’s completely unpredictable. I might already be at the keyboard writing a scene, or I might be driving to San Francisco, or vacuum cleaning or gardening…she keeps me on my toes and I make sure I always have a way to jot down the idea she slips me before it drifts off. I’m trying out a new series idea, working on a stand-alone, and preparing the third Dani O’Rourke for publication later this year. It’s good, but there’s a lot less magic and calling forth mythic helpers these days.

I am looking forward to being inspired by other Criminal Minds authors who are still experiencing the excitement, the sprinkling of magic dust from their muses. Maybe I can wangle an introduction to their Sharon Stone for a few weeks!


Friday, April 11, 2014

The Best of Times – The Worst of Times – The Same Time

What is your best experience at a mystery convention? Your worst?

By Paul D. Marks

Coming on as the cleanup hitter on Fridays has its challenges in that sometimes people who come before and answer the questions earlier in the week beat you to the punch.  As happened this week with the title of my blog and Clare's, which I'd already written before seeing hers.  All I can say is great minds think alike...

Hope this isn't too egotistical, but since you asked:

It was the best of times...

Well, I have to say my best experience at a mystery convention was at Bouchercon last September (2013) in Albany, New York. Every year the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Awards banquet is held in the same location as Bouchercon. And since I was nominated for a Shamus, my wife, Amy, and I decided to go to the convention.

Now Albany is about the last place I ever thought I would want to go. But being troopers, we made reservations for the convention, hotel and plane and were soon on our way.

Albany stoop
Albany architecture
We were in Albany about 2-3 days before the Shamus banquet, and besides attending Bouchercon and being on a panel (which was fun), meeting new people and hooking up with old friends, we took some time to explore Albany. And even before I knew if I'd won or lost the award, I told Amy how much I liked Albany. It was a typical, quaint-ish New England town, despite the fact that it's the state capital of New York.

We had dinner at Jack’s Oyster House, where the likes of both presidents Roosevelt ate, along with Hillary Clinton, JFK, jr. many governors of NY and gangster Legs Diamond, though not all at the same time, of course. Also William Kennedy, the renowned novelist from Albany.

And, Albany is always the place the folks on Law & Order dread going when they have to appear before the state supreme court.

Paul D. Marks , New York State Capitol, Albany
New York State Capital

The people of Albany were friendly and since the convention was in September the weather was very pleasant. Not sure I'd want to be there during the humidity of summer or the snows of hardcore winter.

The fact that I did win the award was the icing on the cake and made me like Albany even more. So it was the best of times.

It was the worst of times....

My worst convention experience: The Shamus Banquet in Albany, NY.

Why? In the weeks leading up to the trip, on the plane, in the hotel, in the couple days before the banquet, I was as cool as cool can be. Not nervous, not uptight. Didn't know if I'd win or lose the award. But either way, I was fine.

So we go to the Shamus banquet on Friday night, and we're sitting at our table, talking with Alison Gaylin, another nominee (and winner) in a different category, her husband and the other people at the table. And everything is ducky. I'm still cool as the proverbial cucumber.

The awards begin. My category comes name is announced. I get up from our table, in the back of the room, and walk to the front and up onto the stage. By the time it comes for me to give my little acceptance speech I'm a wreck – in just that short walk, the nerves finally kicked in. I had a little speech all worked out, even written, and I blew everything, mumbling and stumbling over my words.

Felt like a fool. I'm pretty good at speaking, don't get nervous, have things to say, but this was so out of the ordinary, I just wiped out.

Afterwards I was talking to Hank Phillippi Ryan, though I'm not sure she would remember. I said I felt like a fool and she said the best thing anyone could say: "All they'll remember is that you won."

Sounds good to me. The worst of times...but still the best.

Paul D Marks w/ Shamus Award
With my Shamus Award ( and the old White Heat cover)


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Best and Worst

I've been lucky. Four Bouchercons, three Left Coast Crimes and two Malices and I've escaped fire, flood and food poisoning so far.

In fact, it's much easier to think of potential best times than worst ones. San Francisco Bouchercon, where I checked in so late that the standard rooms were full and I got kicked upstairs to a suite with a balcony and a view of the bay?  Taking a trolleybus back to the hotel from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at Cleveland Bouchercon? The room party, post-Agatha banquet at Malice - thinking the last time I laughed this helplessly I got sent out of the classroom to consider my options . . .

But one memory has bubbled up from where it lives deep inside me, causing me to shiver sometimes still.

Only the thing is that this bad time was also a pretty great one. (He knew what he was talking about, that Dickens.)

The scene is Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, October 2012. DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS got nominated for a Macavity award by Mystery Readers Journal. Yay! But I glanced at the shortlist and decided I didn't need to worry about an acceptance speech. Boo! But then I won. Yay/Boo!

On the one hand, I was chuffed to bits. I'd never won an award before and up on the stage, there were John Connelly and Janet Rudolph, and all my friends were cheering and I was in the same building as Jimi Hendrix's guitars, for crying out loud.

On the other hand, I took the mic, looked out across a sea of faces and swiftly rethought my "don't need to prepare a speech" thing. I froze like a surprise ice-age. I didn't thank anyone. Not my editor, agent, kind reviewers, friends who were still cheering. Wait - I did thank Janet Rudolph. But I thanked her for having such pretty hair.

I slunk off-stage to be greeted with supportive denials all-round. "You were fine; it was sweet; the acoustics are terrible anyway - no one could hear you." I swallowed it and got on with the party.

Only, the next morning, there was another best and worst moment. I met Mary Higgins Clark at breakfast time. And she said congratulations! Then she lowered her voice and went on "Boy, you *were* surprised, weren't you?" and twinkled in a very kindly, but still telling me straight that I'd made a chump of myself, sort of way.

So, in conclusion: here is my most serious piece of writing advice to anyone who hasn't been nominated for an award yet. When you are - even if the other people on the shortlist are Jane Austen, Albert Einstein and God - write some names on your hand.

You'll feel silly if people see you scrubbing them off in the toilets after you don't win, but it could be worse (and better) too.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Happy Times

Best and worst experiences at conventions? That’s easy, too easy, really. For this assignment, I’ve chosen two “conventions” (authors + fans + others in the publishing industry).

The bad news first: Last year, I had a new book out with a new publisher. I splurged for Malice Domestic in Washington, D.C. for the first time, thinking it was a perfect launching event. Oh, was I wrong. In spite of registering early and getting my photo and bio in early, I was left out of the printed program. And the booksellers couldn’t get my book even though it was the very week THE KING’S JAR launched. I was on a couple of panels, but otherwise had no obvious connection to the convention. I had depressing fantasies of people at the bar whispering, “Who is that woman and how did she get in?” So there I was, feeling like a total fraud, invisible in the large crowd of authors, apologizing, explaining, trying to be a good sport and not to whine…Disaster all around! Should I have brought books? Maybe, but my publisher had promised to make them available. Carting books across country isn’t easy. I had thought I was blessedly free of that.

Having gotten that bad memory out of the way, the best was this year’s Left Coast Crime. The committee that worked for two years on it made it a sparkling success; the attendees were happy and engaged; the bookseller had both of my books. Best of all, I couldn’t go 10 feet without bumping into someone I knew, someone who wanted to say hello, or suggest we share a coffee break, or inquire about my book while telling me their latest success. I heard this from scores of friends: It felt like the best reunion of pals you could wish for. My agent was there with plans for my next book, and the Amazon team (my first book is now with them because the initial publisher sold its entire back list to Amazon) took their authors out for a wonderful, laugh-filled dinner. The perfect weather in Monterey just underscored the positive mood.  If that wasn’t enough, a Criminal Minds pal, Catriona McPherson, won an award for her latest Dandy Gilver book and a half dozen of the other finalists in different categories were Sisters in Crime and/or Mystery Writers of America chapter members and friends.

Good memories trump bad ones, and this convention set me up for a spring and summer of refreshed writing.