Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I need a memory jogger

By R.J. Harlick

Do you use a story “bible” to keep track of your characters, locations, etc.? If so, how do you do it, in Word, Scrivener, spreadsheet, scribbles on scraps of paper, etc? What “sections” do you have in your bible? 

Heavens, a “bible” sounds far too organized for me, a committed pantser. In fact, this is the first time I’ve heard the term. But I will admit after eight books in the Meg Harris mystery series and a memory that can barely remember what I had for breakfast, I realized I needed to keep track of nitty gritty details in something other than my mind. But I’m afraid I am far too unsophisticated to use a fancy software package. Instead I make notes as I go along in Word, the same word processor I use for writing.

Having learned my lesson with the first several books, when I found myself having to go back and create lists half way through the writing, because I was forgetting characteristics like eye and hair colour, ages and sometimes even names, I now start building a character list at the outset. But since I don’t know how many and who they are when I begin writing, the list gets populated as the characters pop up in the story. In addition to descriptive characteristics, I also like to include the part of their backstory that matters, their role in the story and their motivations. I even do this for Meg and Eric. But these aspects are fluid and can change as the story unfolds, so I find myself continuously updating this character list.

I also have a problem with names for secondary characters. I am forever changing them, either I forget the name I gave the character six chapters earlier or I decide it doesn’t fit.  I use the list to help me keep track of the names.  But it doesn’t prevent me from having to do global replaces to ensure the old name doesn’t crop up in the final version, which has been known to happen. I was going over the final proofs for the first book, Death’s Golden Whisper, when I realized a name hadn’t been changed. And this after rereading the text I don’t know how many times. Even my editor hadn’t caught it.

I will also generate other types of lists depending on their importance to the story.  In my latest book, Purple Palette for Murder, members of several generations of an extended family play key roles in the story. I was having difficulties keeping track of them, so I created a family tree, complete with birth years, in order to keep their ages and names straight and their relationship to each other. I also highlighted those bits of their backstory that were pertinent to the story.

Timing also became important for Purple Palette for Murder, so I generated a time chart complete with actual dates, even though these dates never appear in the story. I did it in a table format and highlighted the pertinent activities that take place on that date. By doing this I could assure myself that when the story indicated that something happened a couple of days or a week ago, it really did take place in that time frame and didn’t conflict with other events.  

For most of my books I have created another sort of list, the chapter outline summarizing the main events for each chapter.  Because I don’t outline at the outset I create this chapter outline as I go along, usually after ten or more chapters have been written. During the writing of the first draft, I rarely go back and read what has been written. Instead I use this outline to help me keep track of what has happened in the various chapters. It has proven its worth many times over. I also use it to note where I will need to make changes in the second draft.

I also maintain one other “bible” and that is the one for the series. At about book 3, The River Runs Orange, I realized I needed to start keeping track of common items, such as the setting, so I wouldn’t end up having a town in the first book being a thirty minute drive from Meg’s Three Deer Point home and a forty-five minute drive in a later book. Though I never reference the actual time period between books, I like to have a rough idea myself of the span of months or years so that references to earlier events are consistent in their timing, such as the number of years Meg has been divorced, on the wagon, etc. These I maintain in the series profile along with a variety of other aspects, including characters that span more than one book. I also have a floor plan for Meg’s Victorian cottage to ensure that the various rooms are always in the same place and a rough map of her property and the Migiskan Reserve.

Wow. Now that I've written all this, I realize I am more organized than I thought. I do maintain a "bible". And I tell you, I need it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

This week on criminal minds we are answering the question: Do you use a story “bible” to keep track of characters, location, etc.

My answer in a nutshell? If only!

Every time I start a new book, I remind myself that while I was writing the last book I promised myself that when I was done I would go back through all my books and gather all my character and place names into one file along with short descriptions and what book they appeared in. Doesn’t that sound clever? Of course it does. So organized. So reasonable. But no, as soon as a book is finished, I forget my vow and go on about my business.

Instead, when I try to remember who, what, or when something happened, I have to open up a .pdf of the book I think the reference comes from and search with keywords until I find what I’m looking for. It’s not such a big problem with recurring characters. I remember who they are and what they did. The problem comes when I try to remember if I’ve a used a name before. Have I called someone Buddy, or Carl? Have I used the Busy Bee Beauty Salon in another book?

When I wrote my first two books, I diligently kept a list of names of people and places…or did I? Did I forget to add someone? Did I forget to write down the name of the local beauty shop, or cafe? I’ve never gone back to check.

I think of myself as organized, but in this instance I’m anything but organized. And there’s a reason for that. I have always relied on my memory. I do have a good memory, but with books, relying on my memory for one name in six books just doesn’t work.

I bought Scrivener somewhere along the line. But I forgot to use it. It seemed too structured for me. And now I wish I had taken the time to learn it. I have writer friends who swear by it, gushing that it’s so easy to find a scene or a name or an occurrence.

So why can’t I seem to convince myself that I’d be better off if I took the time and effort to put together a bible? Or paid someone else to do it? Or buckled down and learn Scrivener? I am afraid that at this point, I have let it go so long that I’ve given it up as a lost cause. (The same answer that keeps me from organizing my emails into proper folders.)

Sometimes I feel like the only way I’ll ever get a book “bible” is to start a new series. Will I do that? Stay tuned.

And if anyone has an idea of how to force myself to get it done, please let me know!

Friday, January 27, 2017

My Fabulous Writing Life – Or the Wonder of Me, Part Deux

Now that we’ve told you all about our writing journey, here are some insights into our writing life, and how we live it.

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to the question, I want to congratulate Catriona and Art (Criminal Minds Emeritus) on their Agatha noms. Good luck! And now to the question at hand:

Ah, the glamorous life of a writer. TV interviews. Being invited to speak on cruises going around the Greek islands and getting the royal suite. Being invited to be Jennifer Lawrence’s boy-toy and accompany her to the Academy Awards (look for me on Feb 26th). And, of course, you’re immune to every disease under the sun. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Ok, time to change the channel. I think the most basic insight is just do it. Put yourself in a chair, face the blank screen and start typing. Even if it’s just stream-of-consciousness and most of it won’t be used. I look at that like the finger warming exercises a pianist does. Playing scales. And, of course, don’t give up. A writer writes – how’s that for original?

Some of this may be repetetive of earlier posts, but since we’re re-introing ourselves, I figure why not and I’m lazy. So here’s a little refresher from a couple of previous posts on my fabulous writing life or the Wonder of Me, Part Deux:

Do you do anything to get in the mood to write? Do you need anything special beside you?

Well, if I was Hemingway, I’d drink heavily.

If I was William S. Burroughs, I’d shoot up.

If I was J.K. Rowling, I’d run to the nearest café for a caffeine fix and a dose of writing.

But since I’m me, I don’t do any of those things.

I don’t have any set routines that I go through before writing each day, but I do tend to goof off, uh, procrastinate, on the internet or Facebook. No, make that I do research on the internet.

And research is always fun.  It helps get me in the mood and I can pretend I’m working.

Sometimes I’ll walk the dog. Or weed, not do weed, but weed the yard. Don’t ask me how that helps get me in the mood.  But it has to be done. Besides, killing weeds gets me in the mood to kill the badguys in my stories.

In the good old days, I might skydive or SCUBA dive.  Anything with ‘dive’ in its name, including the Maldives – though I know it’s pronounced Maldeevz. Or take a trip to Paris, Perris, California, or Parris Island, but not that one with the Eiffel Tower. I just can’t swim that far. (Insert SCUBA photo here. Amy wanted me to put a diving pic here.  Unfortunately, those are buried away in one of many boxes somewhere – unlabeled, of course.  And shoved in corners everywhere.  But someday they’ll be gotten out and scanned.  Unless Amy wants to spend four months going through them right now 😏.  And if you saw our garage and closets you’d know that four months is underestimating.)  So, this is as close as I could come for now:

And depending on what I’m working on, I might listen to music.  That’s probably the most serious answer here and what I really do more than anything. The music often has the same tone and mood as the story. So if I’m working on a dark story I might listen to the Doors or Leonard Cohen. If I’m working on something set around the time of World War II, in the 30s and 40s, I’ll listen to swing music. Sometimes I just listen to baroque, my sort of all-purpose go-to music—which seems to fit any mood, at least for me.  So here’s something to get you in the mood.  I could have gone with the Andrews Sisters, but couldn’t find a live version:

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

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 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.

Now that I think about it though, who is Hopper flipping the bird to?—I’m the only one here.

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

Plus I have my assistants to help out:

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.

Well, that’s about it for now and I’ve got to start getting ready for my date with Jennifer. The tailors are waiting and the valet is….well, he’s drunk, but don’t tell anyone.


Releasing Monday January 30th, 2017: Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, that I co-edited with Andrew McAleer. Here’s what people are already saying:

“High fives all around!” —MWA Grand Master Bill Pronzini. 

“Tough, taut and terrific!” —Hank Phillippi Ryan. 

“A bang-up read of PI fiction from a gallery of impressive authors. Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is compelling, fun, and full of surprises. A treat.” —Shamus Award-winning author John Shepphird

Available at Amazon.com and Down & Books


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ganging Agley

"Now we've told you about our writing journeys, here are some insights into our writing lives."

by Catriona

Here is my official writing life:

I write three books a year. For thirty weeks a year, I write 2K words a day (Mon-Fri) until the 100K first draft is done. Then for nine weeks a year (3 x 3) I research the book I've just written. For nine weeks a year (3 x 3) I edit the researched book. I take two weeks off on holiday in the summer and two weeks off at Christmas.

I check email, deal with social media and cross-post blogs before 7 am. Then I go off-line and write/research/edit till lunch. Healthy lunch, quick email check and a brisk walk, then I write/research/edit/re-edit/proof-read/write cover copy till five. I make dinner. Neil comes home. We eat at six. We do the dishes. We work till nine. I write blogs and blurbs, answer emails, read books to moderate, interview and review. All screens go off at nine.

Here is my real writing life:

If I take today to do all the page proofs it'll be off my desk and off my mind and I can get back to the work in progress tomorrow. Then if I write 3K words a day (including on the plane and at Left Coast), I'll only be two weeks late. So if I keep writing that while I research the one before it, I can catch up by cancelling weekends. NO MORE BLURBS! (Oh wait, except that one sounds like fun. I want to read that book. If I'm blurbing it I can call it working). And I need to edit thirty pages a day of the UK version of that one to get it done, so I don't need to take it to Malice. NO MODERATING THIS YEAR! (Oh wait, I forgot to say that in time. Never mind, this panel looks like fun. I'll read all their books in the evening, using the time I've freed up because I dropped everything to proofread in a oney.) Aw man, I'm reading a Guardian article about Trump. How did that happen? Better go to the coffeeshop and say no to the Wi-Fi code. Ooooh, Twentieth Century Women is on at the Varsity. That's what I need: to look at Annette Bening's beautiful face and clear my mind. And a burrito. Email Neil and float the idea of a pictures and Dos Coyotes night. (Oh wait. Neil's in Florida. I knew that. (But that means I can sit up in bed and write without disturbing him.)) Aw man, it's after midnight and my laptop battery has five minutes left. How many words have I written? Five thousand? Is there any chance they're worth the keystrokes they took? I'll fix it in the edit. When am I editing this? Which book is this?? When did he go to Florida???

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"My Way" (someone had to use that, right?) by Cathy Ace

Now we’ve told you all about our writing journey, here are some insights into our writing life, and how we live it.

Fresh & happy, my first book 2012
I truly believe that, when it comes to “living the writing life” we’re all like Ol’ Blue Eyes, doing it our way. And that’s as it should be. There’s no right or wrong way, just my own way - the way that works for me, now. And what I’ve learned is that the way it works for me changes over time – it has to, because I hate and fight against routine of any sort. Always have. Always will. I seek out new challenges, adore the battle to comprehend them, do my best to master them, then…I find uncharted territory more appealing.

First novel? I danced around the living room when a publisher asked me to submit a manuscript. They invited me to do so in June. They wanted it by the end of the year. I phoned them in October to check if “by the end of the year” might, in fact, mean before Christmas. They said yes. I started to write the book. I emailed it to them on December 21st (I checked my email records). I finally received news that they were going to publish it on May 11th (that I remember, it would have been my late-father’s birthday). For that book I wrote for about an hour and a half every day, printed out, edited, made amendments, then wrote for another hour and a half – repeat. Eventually a book came out at the end. 

Then the “hard work” set in. When I realized I was about to become a writer – a published author – I read about writers who produced a daily word count, and were writing every day. I panicked. I felt utterly inadequate. I can’t write every day of the year, I’d just write nonsense. I can’t write to a word count, same reason. Me? I write when I have a deadline. And it seems my psyche needs that deadline to be galloping toward me at an alarming pace for it to spur me to action. 

Currently I’m working on what will be my twelfth traditionally published novel (I’ve self-published two other books) as well as two short stories which seem to flit in and out of my “got to do it” mentality; because I have two series of books each with a different publisher – one in Canada, one in the UK – I have to show them I am supporting my work in the marketplace but, for one series, I have different launch dates for the UK vs the USA/Canada so promotional effort is staggered for different series/markets; I’m Chair of Crime Writers of Canada; I write for two different blogs, and run three/four blog tours per year.
Luckily, I have always thought a seventeen-hour work-day is normal. I’m also fortunate that I married a fellow workaholic. We each understand the other. I’m blessed with high energy levels (and drink a fair amount of coffee) and am stubborn/determined (delete according to specific situation). 

The amount of coffee I drink each day
So – for me, when it comes to “the writing life” this is how it goes: I’m always thinking of future tales to tell; usually I am plotting at least one book; research at the keyboard/on location is ongoing for one book; I’m plotting and outlining one book; I am writing a book; I am editing a book; I am re-editing a book; I am promoting at least one book – all these things are now happening simultaneously, for the three books per year I tend to have published, so they, inevitably, overlap. The toughest thing is that I am usually facing a deadline JUST when a book is coming out. It sucks!

 The “sitting at the keyboard writing the first draft of a book” is the part that – for me at least – means “writing”, and is the most fun; it comes after the thinking, plotting, planning and research for that book. That part of “writing” is something I get to do and enjoy for about four weeks at a stretch, three times a year, when I am writing in full flow, and loving it. (The process, not necessarily the output.) I do this sort of writing for three, four or five hours at a time, forcing myself to leave my seat to stretch, usually when everyone has gone to bed and there’s no reasonable expectation for me to be replying to emails, or responding to Facebook posts, or Tweeting like a madwoman.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s 11.24pm and I have a deadline for a manuscript in 11 days. Needless to say, it’s nowhere near finished. It’s going to be a WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery (title to be decided in conjunction with my publisher, though I know what I’d like it to be) wherein, for their fourth outing, the WISE women are juggling various “cases” including malevolent moles, an unsuitable suitor, disappearing domestics, a vengeful vandal, purloined potcheen and…oh no, that’s enough for you to be going on with. I’m sure it will all come together at the end – it does in my outline. Speaking of which, back to it…

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries (#8 The Corpse with the Ruby Lips was released on November 1st) and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (#3, The Case of the Curious Cook, was released in hardcover in the UK on November 30th and will be released in the USA & Canada on March 1st).  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers: http://cathyace.com/ 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The writing curve

Some scattered insights into the writing life ...

Disclaimer:  Today my take on the writing life will be different from yesterday's and from tomorrow's. Transitioning into being published is a shaky learning curve, I've found. I glean what I can from others' experiences, but it's a curve for the most part we seem to have to figure out for ourselves: up, down, slithering about, occasionally knocked sideways.    

First words: I love to write around a rough idea, and let the idea hammer itself into a rough story. Then I love to edit - mending the plot-holes of that rough story, and finding complications which need resolution, and finding the resolutions often more interesting than the original idea, as they turn unexpected corners.

Example:  In my last story a culprit wants to pluck the battery from an iPhone so the phone can't be traced (he is about as savvy about triangulation and tracking as I am). In draft one he sits in his vehicle and pops open the phone to access the battery -- easy. Then I investigated a bit and learned that hell, it's not. In fact opening an iPhone is hardly something a man-of-little-brains can do sitting in his car at the side of the road without his mini screwdriver set handy. So I had him get out of the car in a panic and start smashing the phone with a tire iron instead. This turned out to be illogical and created only more difficulties for the guy, as well as for myself. But illogical and difficult is much more lifelike, isn't it? Sometimes life runs smoothly, for sure, but often it just @#*'g does not.

Process: Like my moods, my process is all over the map, if it can even be called "process". My favourite time to write is in the mornings, but too often something more important crops up, usually around 8 a.m. Then by nighttime I can't think straight and sort of disintegrate in front of the TV. My New Year's resolution to "just make more time to write" turns out to be not scientifically viable. Still, with all that, the books do get written -- how, I'm not sure. It must be a kind of sleep-walking, binge-writing phenomenon.

Stay healthy, and never give up: Like Susan, who wrote about this in yesterday's post, I find getting together with other writers is necessary to my well-being. Sharing didn't seem to matter in the beginning. For years I wrote in my own private world of trial and error (and didn't give up -- there's that message again: don't give up) -- but now that my series is out there, and vulnerable, the company and comfort of a similarly engaged writing friend who gets it is vital to me. Does a non-writing buddy or husband etc. really get the highs and lows of this pursuit? Nope! Can they laugh at writing as hard as we do, or cry about it like babies, as we do? Nope!

So get yourself out there, make friends, and don't give up!
Take me, for example, once simply a mouse, this year I'm a mouse with a Launch of UNDERTOW, a Noir at the Bar reading (thanks for the invite, Dieter!) and Bouchercon to look forward to. 

Hope to see you all here or there...!


Monday, January 23, 2017

My Writing Life, or La Dolce Vita

“Now we’ve told you all about our writing journey, here are some insights into our writing life, and how we live it.”

- from Susan

Reading last week’s Minds authors makes it clear(er) to me that I’m not going to be anyone’s role model on how to construct a writing life. I have no brilliant insights, only a few basic tools I use to hack my way through the underbrush that tangles my writing life. 

Motivation is important. For me, there’s nothing quite as motivating as a contract for a book. I wrote the first Dani O’Rourke mystery on spec, no agent, no publisher. It took awhile and more rewriting, polishing, and playing around with the manuscript than a good writer wants to do. The next two in the series were under contract, moved along smartly, and only went off the rails a few times.

Another motivation for me is love – love of the idea, the characters, the vision I have. The first book in the new series was inspired by the realties a couple I know well faced when they transplanted themselves from northern California to a rural town in Burgundy to live out a romantic dream. I visited them a few times and the stories they told, the frustrations, the discoveries, and the quirkiness of their neighbors demanded storytelling. I didn’t think at first it would be a mystery, but my agent persuaded me to steer it that way. No contract, but she was confident it would sell. I just finished the draft of the second, spurred on by the two-book contract I got and my pleasure at diving again into the fictional community I created for the first book.

After motivation come work habits. Here’s where I’m sketchy. For months, I will write every day, sometimes with Annie Lamott’s “butt in chair” as my only discipline. On the luckiest days I’m in that zone of writing excitement where I can’t peel myself away to eat. Unfortunately, I can’t predict or create that spirit arbitrarily. Things happen that break the daily habit and the more days that go by without writing, the more days are likely to go by. This is bad. If you treat going to the gym the same way, you know that it begins to feel like the activity is a mountain too high. All I can do is go back to square one, to Lamott’s stern command, and peck away until the mental muscles get back in shape.

One of the two orange reasons I am easily distracted:

The third important part of my writing life after motivation and work habits is my writing community. I get so much from my work with Sisters in Crime, with my participation at the big conventions and the smaller writers’ conferences. I am revved up going to someone’s launch party, sharing coffee with an author friend, or a panel with two others. I listen to their successes, their struggles, their frequently funny descriptions of interactions with agents, editors, bookstores, and their fans. I am comforted to know they face hurdles in their writing lives, maybe not the same ones I do but equally significant ones. It makes me feel there’s hope for me yet.

If you’re newly on the path to publication, there’s hope for you too – never give up! Truthfully, for all the setbacks, it is la dolce vita.

So, this is book one in the Dani series, newly re-released along with the other two:

And, this is book one of the new series, officially out May 2: