Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Monday, September 22, 2014
By Holly West
As a guest to this blog, Susan Shea assured me that I wasn’t required to answer the Question of the Week. But when she told me the topic—“Is there a novel that you’re afraid to write?”—I decided it was something I wanted to address since my current work-in-progress is just this type of book.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Meredith Cole tagged me earlier this week for the September Sisters in Crime SinC-Up, a blog hop that I'm happy to be a part of! (And Paul D. Marks, I'm tagging you next, buddy.)
All the potential questions for the challenge are terrific, but I'm gonna zero in on this one: "Do you listen to music while writing? What's on your playlist?"—especially because of an article I saw trending on Facebook recently about how moderate noise (coffee shop chatter particularly) enhances creativity; this may not be the exact article, but it's similar subject matter.
I can't write in silence, and more than that, even without the study to back me up, I've always believed that a little bit of music helps to unlock something in my head and get both the imagination working and the keyboard click-clacking away. I usually listen to jazz, because anything with words to it messes up my own words (I'm highly susceptible to earworms, sadly), and most times I just put on Pandora and pull up my John Coltrane station and take whatever comes up. Right now, for example, I'm listening to Carmell Jones' "What Is This Thing Called Love?"—and no complaints there!
The Writer's Center, Ann Hagedorn, author of Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919, talked about her own writing process and mentioned that she listened to the same piece of music when she was writing a book—a different piece for each of her books as I recall, but in any case, the point was that whenever the music came on, it was a trigger of sorts that eased her into the project and into the writing day. I'm paraphrasing and perhaps not representing exactly what she said, but the idea did stick with me, and since then, whenever I'm working on longer projects (those failed novels or longer short stories), I've picked a single piece of music that I hoped matched the mood of that specific piece. For example, in the midst of working on a grittier darker piece, I spent several months listening each morning to Bob Belden's Black Dahlia—and that jolt that starts it up sure calls you to attention! For another piece, one set further in the past and drawing on some of my own childhood memories, I ended up playing Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth over and over and over again (and it holds up to repeated plays, that's for sure). It was a fascinating idea to have that same trigger music—and then to write for the length of the CD to make sure I did my daily dose—and while I haven't continued it faithfully, I'm sure it's a trend I'll come back to.
As for this week's Criminal Minds question—"What's your best research story?"—I can't let it pass without responding, because I've got a good one (though do need to mention a little bit of a spoiler alert ahead).
Back in 2007 (a key part of this story) when I was writing the first draft of "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," I needed a little background on making ricin. Since I work at George Mason University, I naturally reached out via email to one of the faculty members here, a botanist, for some advice—and was very quickly told, "We should talk by phone about this."
After we did—and she offered some great help—she revealed that she had done some work for the government in chemical and biological weapons and felt that we'd be better not to email about it, since our correspondence had likely already been flagged and monitored.
Right, I thought. Like the government is paying any attention to random emails. Ha ha!
Little did I know....
Thursday, September 18, 2014
What’s your best research story?
Here’s my best (scariest) research story:
Many local law enforcement jurisdictions hold their own Citizen Academies (or some version of one—make a few calls, you’ll be surprised). I attended one put on by the Herndon (VA) Police Department, where everyone involved was absolutely great—friendly, informative, generous. We met every Wednesday night for 12 weeks, and the sessions encompassed a wide range of police activities.
Undercover narc cops spoke to us about the seamy underbelly of the drug world, regaling us with some amazing stories and showing us what different drugs looked like, up close and personal. Gang specialists told us about dealing with different gangs and how to spot gang activity. We watched a K9 unit demonstrate “take-down” techniques, and we hit the streets to work the LIDAR gun (sorry Mrs. Peterson, but I clocked you going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone).
We went to the evidence lab and learned how to expose fingerprints with superglue fumes, we observed the lie detector in use (excuse me, the polygraph), and we got to fire live weapons on the firing range. A word of warning: Don’t mess with me—I put all five rounds in the inner circle, and it was the first time I’d ever even touched a real gun. Okay, I think it was from five yards away, but still...
Another highlight was our visit to the County Detention Center (aka, the jail). Talk about an eye-popping experience! We toured the whole thing—intake, processing, fingerprinting, breathalyzers, the holding cells, regular cells (pods, I think they were called), as well as the “special” cells. Fascinating, and mighty depressing. Talk about getting scared straight!
While all those experiences were terrific, the topper was my ride-along with a police officer.
I’ll take you back to that Saturday night on the mean streets of Herndon...
We’d been cruising for about two hours or so, checking out the normal trouble spots, and we’d gotten the usual calls. Excessive noise at a sketchy apartment complex, some possible gang activity near the 7-Eleven, a D-and-D (that’s drunk and disorderly, for all you, uh, rookies) at a local bar. Just your typical shift. Then the radio crackled to life again (police radios always “crackle to life”).
There was a report of several people running through the Community Center’s parking lot with rifles. “Hold on,” the officer beside me said. “This could get hairy.” She flipped on the siren and we went roaring through town, cars parting to let us through. Screeching into the Community Center parking lot, we pulled up alongside a couple other cruisers, both empty, one with a door still flung open. Someone had left in a hurry.
The officer barked at me, “Stay here. Don’t get out of the car.”
I forced a nod, mouth too dry to talk. Of course, she didn't have to worry. I had no intention of following her into the night with a bunch of armed goons on the loose. I slid down in my seat, until I could barely see over the dashboard.
She grabbed her shotgun out of the lockdown and raced off, leaving me all alone.
My heart raced. What if the guys with guns doubled back and found me, by myself, a sitting duck in a patrol car? Would I become the unfortunate reason future ride-alongs had to be eliminated? I glanced around, hoping for reinforcements. Nope, just me and the empty police cars. I’d realized it before, but it hit home a lot harder in that moment. We don’t pay law enforcement personnel nearly enough.
Luckily, the situation had a non-violent resolution. It turned out that the people running through the parking lot were teenagers wielding air rifles. No one got hurt. But, man, how easily could something have gone terribly, irrevocably wrong? In the dark, those air rifles were indistinguishable from real rifles. Some poor teenager’s head easily could have been blown off.
I heartily recommend going on a ride-along. Just make sure to wear two pairs of underwear on ride-along night.
That experience made its way into one of my books, a suspense novel appropriately titled RIDE-ALONG. (If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy, I’m giving one away at Goodreads. But hurry, today is the last day!)
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Monday, September 15, 2014
What's the best part of the writing process for you? What's the most challenging?
If you were to ask anyone who is not a writer what they think is our favorite part of the writing process they would probably say "getting published." Although getting published is nice, if is definitely not my favorite part. In fact, if that was my favorite part I would probably have given up a long time ago (like at age 15). Getting published usually happens when I have already shifted my attention to my next book, and so my book in published form seems a little unfamiliar--like something I've read before but don't really feel very close to anymore.
The best part of the writing process is usually the one that I am not doing at this very moment. When I'm in first draft mode, I think, "I can't wait to edit this book! That will be so much easier." When I'm in editing mode, I think, "if only I were in first draft mode! I could write whatever I wanted instead of dealing with this huge first draft mess..."
Really the best part of writing is the times when I'm in "the zone." I have a million ideas for how to make my book better or I know exactly what is going to happen next and I can't type it fast enough. At those moments, I feel talented, creative and productive. I know that being a writer is what I was meant to do.
If you're looking for inspiration for the writing journey, look no further than the new Sisters in Crime anthology WRITES OF PASSAGE! Edited by Hank Phillipi Ryan, contributors include Laurie King, Margaret Maron, Nancy Martin--and from our very own Criminal Minds Catriona McPherson, Clare O'Donohue and me!
Art Taylor to continue the SinC Blog hop!
Friday, September 12, 2014
By Paul D. Marks
I still think of giving up, but I don’t do it.
Part of the reason we’re writers is ‘cause we’re persistent. Lots of people want to be writers, give up to easily or just don’t’ find time to do it. It’s a passion – it’s not like a hobby that you give up when you don’t have the time. And it’s a passion that you have to do every day like eating.
You write because you have to. Yes, it’s nice to get published. And even paid. But if that’s why one writes you’re in the wrong biz.
It’s kind of like “Ol’ Man River,” tired of livin’, but scared of dyin’. But the river keeps rolling along. As do we. Because there’s nothing else we can possibly do. Sure we might have families, other jobs, other obligations, but we find the time to write because it’s in our blood and in our bones.
We write because we have something to say, some interpretation of life that we want to share. Or maybe we just want to entertain. In “Sullivan’s Travels,” the classic Preston Sturges film, Joel McCrea plays a movie director who makes silly trifles like “Ants in Your Plants of 1939”. But he wants to make a serious film about people struggling, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”. Not knowing anything about the downtrodden he has the studio
costume department outfit him like a hobo and he takes off, entourage not far behind. To cut to the chase, so to speak, and through a series of misadventures he finds himself on a real chain gang. And there, watching the prisoners laugh at a Mickey Mouse cartoon he realizes that people just want to laugh and be entertained. And I think that’s what we want to do, entertain. It can be serious entertainment or light entertainment. But ultimately that is the bottom line – we are entertainers.
And how do I get over those doubts about continuing, I wake up the next day, sit at the typewriter (in the “early” days) and type. And if it really is in your blood you just get over it. Just like you do after you break up with the “love of your life.” Sure, h/she’s the one that got away. And you still think about her on occasion. But it’s yesterday. Today is working on that new chapter or character or funny bit or whatever. You just do it.
All of this because ultimately, as Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Thursday, September 11, 2014
"Was there ever a time before you were published when you thought of calling it quits?"
Clare's answer yesterday was spot-on. Writing the first book, pre-agent, pre-deal, pre-anyone actually believing you've got a prayer isn't quitting time. It's the good old days. No deadline, no publicity, no helpful frenemies forwarding bad reviews. Before a writer is published everything in bathed in a golden glow.
Is it pessimistic to think of The Future as the end of hope and every achievement as another door slammed shut? Possibly. Accurate, though. On a yearly scale, each book is perfect before you write it and then you make it worse and worse until it's finished and the only reason you carry on is to be done with it and get to the next perfect book-to-be. On a career-sized scale, each milestone takes you further away from the fork where you might have chosen the path that swerved the headache du jour.
How I wish I was completely kidding. (How I hope that at least one person reading this is going to know what I mean. (How I fear that some friends might stage an intervention.))
But I sort of mean it. Not for nothing is my favourite bit from Radio Days that bit when Julie Kavner says to little Seth Green: "Our lives are ruined already. You have a chance to grow up and be someone."
By the way, if anyone wants to start an argument about whether the argument about whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is a better ocean is a better bit, go for it.
Anyway, if it's so terrible to combine writing book X with dodging reviews of book Y, promoting book Z, and not counting how little time there is left in the year to write book What Comes After Z, perhaps the question should be: "Was there ever a time after you were published that you thought of calling it quits?"
And in this case the answer is . . . still no. It took me such a long time to work out that writing was for me and the other jobs I did were so unspeakable (except the one where I worked in a local history library, which was really just research for writing) I've never doubted for a minute that I'm doing the work I was meant to do.
Do I wish I'd worked it out a bit quicker? Nah. I think the only way to get to wherever you are is the way you came, on this wrong path, starting at the fork of regret. That's a sort of sunny side, right?
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
I QUIT.... or maybe not
by Clare O'Donohue
Q: Was there a point before you were published when you thought of giving up? If so, how did you get over it and keep going?
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Friday, September 5, 2014
Choice? Calling? This week's question has given me lots to reflect on in terms of my own writing life—taking me initially back to those elementary school writing contests and how excited I felt about them at the time, staying up late with one of my dad's yellow legal pads to write what I thought of as an epic poem. "If I Were an Ace" jumped through several imaginative adventures, each stanza more daring and dangerous than the last, and the whole thing pumped me up so much that I could barely write it fast enough: scribbling furiously, marking out words and replacing them with others in the margin, finally going to bed satisfied with what I'd written only to find my mind racing and retracing, and then there I was jumping back up with a new phrase or two and an extra twist and—
I promise to hold up on the BSPs for a while as well, but did want to take the news here as an opportunity to reflect back on the question at hand—especially with a deadline now to to finish the last of the stories for Del and Louise. On its best days, writing seems a calling: The imagination conjures up stories, images, characters, situations, details, words, phrases, and it's a rush twice over—first to catch up with all of whatever's spinning out in your head and second to write it down on the page before it gets away. That's the way I felt as a kid, writing just because it felt good and fun. But some days, obviously, stuff doesn't go like that—and it's those days, when the page is blank and the imagination seems to be running dry, when writing becomes a choice: the choice to sit down and push ahead despite everything seemingly working in just the opposite direction against you.
I may have shared this anecdote before, but it's a good one. At a writing conference down in NC many years ago, a woman in the audience stood up and asked Angela Davis-Gardner something along the lines of "What do you do when the muse just doesn't strike?" I was certain that Angela was going to smack her down somehow—writing is hard! it's not about the muse! etc. etc.—but she didn't, and the answer she gave has always stuck with me.
"Sometimes the muse just doesn't come," she said, shrugging. "We all have days like that. But every day I sit down at my desk to work, so the muse will know just where to find me."
And with that in mind, I'm logging out here, and getting back to work. :-)
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Do you feel like being a writer is a career choice or a calling?
I’ve been and done many things before becoming a writer. Engineer, product planner, marketing manager, entrepreneur. In fact, writing fiction never even crossed my mind until relatively recently (ten years ago).
I disliked writing in high school (Although I loved to read, I didn’t love reading all those boring, assigned books written by dead guys for class. I stuck to my science fiction, much to the consternation of my father, the former English teacher.)
I disliked writing in college. I studied engineering, so I didn’t really have to write much. And certainly nothing creative, unless you consider the analysis of a system’s vibration profile creative (truth: writing a grocery list is more creative).
I disliked writing in grad school. Although I more writing was required there, I managed to fill my papers with technical jargon and buzzwords. We even had a roommate competition where we came up with a list of buzzwords we had to use in each assignment. Which kept us amused, if not the professors.
So if being a writer is a calling for me, the phone rang pretty late.
Actually, in my case, writing was an absolute choice. More evidence: Some writers say they HAVE to write. That if they miss a day of writing, they feel bad. Not me. I can go whole weeks, nay months, without writing, and I wouldn’t feel any different. (Now, if I were to go a whole week without eating, then I would feel bad. Maybe my true calling is eating.)
This question brings up something I struggle with from time to time: my identity. When people ask me what I “do,” I (still) have a hard time saying writer. Yes, I’ve published six books (three traditionally, three self-pubbed. Note the library “shelfie” with fellow Criminal Mind Clare’s books). Yes, I’m involved with writing organizations and attend writing conferences. Yes, I teach writing workshops (some start this month, sign up HERE). But I still hesitate before I claim to be a writer.
Maybe I’ll just tell people I’m an eater and ask for directions to the nearest buffet.