Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Amazing Race

by Kathleen Ernst

I recently turned in the manuscript for the fourth Chloe Ellefson mystery, Heritage of Darkness.  There’s still work to do—final corrections, proofing, writing acknowledgments—but the book is basically done.

Phew.  Reaching this stage always makes me feel as if I’ve just completed the last sprint of a long and challenging race.

Which reminds me of the one reality TV show I watch faithfully—The Amazing Race.  Eleven teams race around the world, performing tasks and trying to avoid elimination.  The jubilation the winning team displays upon crossing the final line and meeting Phil, the host, reflects my feelings when I zipped that manuscript off to Terri, Midnight Ink’s host…er, acquiring editor.

Last fall was crazy-busy, so I needed a little extra time to finish Heritage of Darkness.  That means that I’m already behind schedule for Chloe #5.  As I write this,  I’m digging into the new book.  This morning I began assigning names to the new characters hovering patiently at the edge of my brain.

The process reminds me of the first episode of each installment of the Amazing Race.  A new season started recently, and all of the participants are strangers to me.  I don’t know who the nice people are and who are jerks.  I don’t know why, or even if, I should care about any of them.

After completing Heritage of Darkness, I’d finished the stories of characters I’d come to know intimately.  Now, my new secondary characters for Chloe #5 feel flat.

Fortunately, the writing process will reveal all.  I’ll discover which characters are unnecessary to the story (“I’m sorry to tell you that you have been eliminated from the novel.”)  I’ll come to know the rest in all their juicy complexity, each with a role to play.

That’s one of the pleasures of delving into each new installment of the Chloe Ellefson series.  I love watching the two main characters—who I know very well--grow and change and learn to work together.  I love getting to know the new cast.

I love traveling to new places, seeing the sights, discovering what I can about local history and culture.  I love poking around, sometimes backtracking down blind alleys, striving to meet unexpected challenges, occasionally stumbling over the unexpected but perfect souvenir.

If that all sounds like a leisurely way to approach a novel…well, I guess it is.  I don’t outline.  The journey itself reveals what I need to know.  The pace will pick up as I travel deeper into the story.

Until I reach the final leg, with not a million dollars (uproarious laughter) but instead a deadline looming on the horizon, and a frantic sprint needed to get there.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Secret Garden of Words

By Deborah Sharp

It took me a long time to get used to questions about technique, so common at book-signings and conferences. Someone always raises a hand. In an earnest voice, they ask about one or more of these things: 
Where do you write? 
How many hours a day do you write?
How, physically, do you write?
I don't mind answering the questions, to the best of my ability. But it still strikes me as strange, this fascination with something I consider so mundane. How is that different, I wonder, from admiring a piece of furniture made by a woodworker, and then asking him or her to break down the steps taken to cobble it together?
"Well, first I buy the wood. Then I assemble my tools. I always use this saw, and nails just like these . . . "
At this point in my example, my imaginary woodworker holds up his saw and nails for my inspection, and my head drops to the table and I begin to snore.
I'm grateful when I take my car into the shop and the mechanic manages to diagnose the problem, and then fix it. But never once have I asked him how, physically, he does that.
"First I lift it up onto the rack, then I get on that little slid-ey thing, face-up, so I can see under the vehicle ...."
Same with the plumber, the  accountant, and even my doctor. Just get it unstopped, figured out, or cured, and spare me the details.
Not so with writers, though. People must think we enter some kind of secret garden through a magical gate to come up with the words we end up stringing together.
Note to fellow authors: Have y'all been holding out on me? Is there a Secret Garden of Words? If so, please give me the key.
The picture included here is the entrance to a beautiful garden in Palm Beach, Fla., secret in the sense it's tucked away on a side street, far from better known locales such as posh Worth Avenue or the church the vacationing Kennedy family attended. 
But though I found a few mosquitoes, and koi in a fish pond  . . .
I did not find in the garden the secret answer to why my work in progress is such a weed-strewn field of wrong.
So, if you're curious, the answers to the above questions are:
1. I write just about anywhere but at my desk. Right now, for example I'm at the library. This week, I've also written in the front seat of my parked car, sipping a senior coffee at McDonald's, and sitting at the bar at a pub in Naples, Fla. (Come to think of it, the pub may have something to do with those nasty weeds marring the garden that is my work in progress.)
2. How many hours a day? Way too few.
3. Specifically, how? With an often-aching back and cramps in my hand from an apparently un-ergonomic way of hitting the Enter bar. (Fewer paragraphs, maybe?)
How about you? Why do you think some readers  seem as interested in the process as the finished product? Do  you have any weird mechanics quirks (or know writers who do?)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Will You Play Casting Director with Me?

   Keith Raffel here doing a guest post.

   In her review Lynn Farris predicted my latest thriller, A Fine and Dangerous Season, is “destined to become a movie.”
   Well, it’s not hard to get us writers spinning off into the realm of unreality – spending time in Cloud Cuckoo Land is what we do for a living. Reading Lynn’s review sent me there in a trice. Upon arrival, I started casting the movie that Lynn promised to “be first in line to see.”
   So what’s Fine and Dangerous about? It turns out that John F. Kennedy spent the fall quarter of 1940 at Stanford as a special student. (That’s true in the real world, too.) While there he meets law student Nate Michaels. In some respects Nate is JFK’s mirror image: secular Jew rather than observant Catholic; San Franciscan rather than Bostonian; son of a crusading left-wing union official rather than of a buccaneering capitalist. Opposites attract and the two become best friends until an irrevocable falling out. Twenty-two years later, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, now-President Kennedy needs Michaels’ help to avert nuclear war.
   So (drumroll)…. Here’s what I came up with in my reverie.
   Casting JFK is the key to the movie. My wife was watching TV the other night and I saw Dr. McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy. Patrick Dempsey is charismatic, outgoing, attractive to women, and even within a year of the right age.

   So now who is going to be Nate Michaels? Intense. Introverted. Intellectual. How about Robert Downey, Jr.? Right age, too.

   Back in 1962, Jackie Kennedy was 30 years old. So we need someone dark and glamorous.  How about Anne Hathaway (in middle below)? Fine with me. But she might be a little pricey. Let’s go with someone a little more off the beaten path.  How about Olivia Wilde (third down)?

   At Stanford in 1940, Nate has a girlfriend he has no right to have. She’s Miriam Coblentz, 19 years old and blonde. Dianna Agron plays someone around that age on Glee even though she’s 26. She's Jewish and from the Bay Area, just like Miriam. Let’s go with her.

   What about JFK’s right hand man, brother Bobby? He’s 37, shorter than JFK and toothier too. I haven’t seen Tobey Maguire around lately. Do you think he’s available?

   Whoever plays the cigar-chomping General Curtis LeMay, head of the air force, should have the inside track for a supporting actor Oscar. It’s a plum of a part. He’s done with 30 Rock, so let’s give it to Alec Baldwin. (Do you think he's willing to color his hair?)

   Nate’s back channel to Moscow runs through Maxim Volkov, head of the KGB in Washington. There’s no dancing, but I’d still like to make an offer to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

   At the end of the book, Nate finds himself leaping across the roofs of Washington with Russian femme fatale Natalya Leontieva while two agents of Soviet military intelligence give chase. I’ve heard her Russian accent on Castle. Sounded good to me. Come on down, Stana Katic.

   Don’t like any of my choices? Fine. Am open to any bankable actors you might suggest.
   And if there are any producers out there with a few tens of millions to spend? Just leave your name and contact in the comment space below. My agent will reach out to you.

(Note #1: You can download A Fine and Dangerous Season for free today and tomorrow here at

(Note #2: Thanks to InkSpot crew for inviting me to blog today. It was fun!)

(Note #3: All photos of people above used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Brave New World

By: Maegan Beaumont

Two years ago this summer, I finished the first
 draft of my manuscript. I remember walking 
around in a light-headed daze, a stupid smile 
on my face--I'd just written an entire novel. Surely 
that made me the smartest person alive. Or at least
 the most talented, right? After a a day or so, reality 
seeped back in. Yes, I was a genius.Yes, I was talented,
 but... what was I going to do with it? Set it on fire?
 Run it through the shredder and make confetti?
 Wait... I know! I'll have it published!

I was so dumb back then.

When I think of this journey I'm on, I can't help 
but remember the time I was 6 or 7 and I was 
spending the weekend at my dad's house, which was
 in the South Mountain foot hills. My step-brothers 
and I got this crazy idea we were going to walk to the
 base of the big mountain behind our house. Don't ask
 me why, but it was something we all wanted to do.
It looked close, no more than a mile or two--we'd be 
there and back by lunch time.
 We started walking. And walking. And then we walked
 some more. The sun, behind us in the beginning, crept
 slowly overhead until it was in our faces--staring us 
down, as if daring us to take another step.

We just kept walking.

Eventually the sun began to dip behind the mountain
 we were walking toward and that's when I realized 
we were never going to get there. The mountain looked 
close because that's how we wanted to see it.  We'd wanted 
it so badly that we'd fooled ourselves into believing that it'd
 be an easy thing to do.  We turned around and headed home,
 making it back just before dinner... and we never tried to 
walk to that mountain again.

I feel like I've been walking forever... I know that two years
 is nothing compared to the time and talent that so many
 other people have spent on this crazy quest so many of us 
have decided to undertake:

The Quest for Publication.

But I'm not on their journey--I'm on mine--and I can tell
 you that these last two years have both flown and dragged. 
Have been some of the best and worst in my life. Some of the 
happiest and saddest. I've met and made so many wonderful 
friends--fellow writers and people who may not write, but 
believe in my work. And I've lost a few of those who didn't 
want to follow me to the places I was going. I learned so
 much about the person that I am and have finally started 
to realize the person I want to be. I want to be fearless. 
Truly fearless... to do that, I have to face my biggest fear.

I'm afraid to fail. And being afraid to fail means being
 afraid to try...

Two years ago, I made the decision that I was going to make
 publication my goal. That meant that I'd have to try and in
 doing so, risk failing at something I loved. I waffled. Setting
 it on fire started looking like a viable option. Then this little 
voice in the back of my mind said, "but then you'll never know..." 
and it was right. If I didn't try, I'd never know if I was good
 enough. Suddenly, the fear of not knowing seemed bigger 
than any other. Failure still terrifies me, but in my writing, 
I've finally found something that's worth the risk.

I started walking. I'm still walking... and this time, I'm not turning back.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Even keel? What's one of them, then?

Someone asked me recently what the best bit of being a writer was and here’s what went through my head:  “When Joe comes!  Or is that the worst?  No, wait – the actual writing!  Except that’s the worst too.  The jacket!  Wait, though, that sometimes makes you feel physically sick.   Oh, silly me – it’s people reading my stories.  Am I insane? That’s worse than Joe, the jackets, the actual writing and a poke in the eye all put together.”

Let me explain.
Any day when I get a box of books from Joe the UPS guy is a great day.  Both because of the books and because of Joe, who is lovely.  He's of a certain age and boxes of books are heavy, so it was a testament to his work ethic that it took him a long time finally to say to me: “What is it that you do?”  (I translated it for myself: “ What the frilly hat is in all of these boxes?”)

But sometimes Joe comes with a packet of page proofs instead.  300 pages of too-late-to-change carved-in-stoneness.  Highlights from the most recent set of page proofs I’ve waded through were: changing a character’s name (only from Dorothy to Dorothea but still); having nine characters staying in a house and a scene about where all eight of them are sleeping (cue hasty invention of sleeping quarters above the old stable yard for the chauffeur) and; the magical unlocking of a door whose key I had just said was in a Staffordshire bon-bon dish on a mantelpiece in a totally nother wing of the house. 
I do see that’s not Joe’s fault really. If I didn’t live in the middle of nowhere, with a mailbox a mile from my house, it would be Dan the mailman’s doing instead

There are wonderful moments in the writing process itself.  Typing “The End” would be pretty great, for instance.  Of course, I never actually type “The End”; I hit save, save as (click click click) external storage device, save both & rename, open Gmail, attach file, send to self, new message, send to someone else too.  Paranoid?  Moi?  Doesn’t everyone have a flash drive in their wallet?  (save)
Something I do type which is quite good is “Chapter 1”.  Ahhhhhh.  That moment when there’s a nest of folders on my computer desktop: work>newbook>drafts>draft 1 and there’s a blank page on the screen and this book is wonderful.  It’s genius.  It’s funny and heart-rending and revealing and true.  It’s I Capture the Castle with Corpses.  It’s Catch 22 by Agatha Christie.   It’s Gone With The Wind To Scotland And Somebody Died.

But there are the other moments, too, and plenty of them.  Like typing “Chapter 11”, which is where I am now.  It’s the slough of despond.  The dead hour when most people commit suicide if they're going to.  The bit you call “somehow “ when the idea for a story first arrives.  “So . . . there’s this guy," you think "and at the beginning he seems to be . . . but in the end it  turns out that in fact . . .” and connecting these two islands of clarity is a sea of “somehow”.  I’m deep in huge lake of stinking steaming somehow today.
It always gets better, but you’re so traumatised that you try to stay scared.  That way the gods of gotcha are appeased.  Kelli Stanley put it beautifully on Facebook the other day: “I can see light at the end of the tunnel,” she wrote.  “I hope it’s not a train.”

Once the moments of genius and the slough are over, though, you get another good bit when you see the cover.  This is when I can officially forget the name of the book forever.  So Dandy Gilver and The Proper Or Was It Best Way to Treatment Ah Must Have been Proper Treatment For Of? For Blood Or Maybe Bloodstains became The Red One. 

And Dandy Gilver And An Unsuitable Or Unseemly Or Bothersome Day I'm Sure Of for a Murder, Corpse or Killing became The Purple One.  
Next Up is The Blue One: aka Dandy Gilver and A Goodly No Deadly No Goodly Measure Or Was it Dose Measure I Think of Brimstone.
On the other hand, there’s the moment when you hit the “open attachment” button to see the cover for the first time.  Because what if you hate it?  What if it’s beige with brown writing?  What if it looks dumber than a bag of soup?  You’re going to have hold this thing up and smile for photos for a solid year, you know.  Maybe even two if the US jacket is the same as the UK one.  You might even have to answer the question “Did you design the cover?” and try to say “No, I’m not an artist, unfortunately.  Isn’t it lovely?” instead of “God, no!  Is that what you think of me?”
But a few months ago I half-shut my eyes and hit the open attachment button to see the cover from a brand-new publisher for a brand-new strand of writing.  Anything at all could have happened. Shoes and loopy writing!  Flowers dotting the “i”s!  Beige on brown in a bag of soup!  But look what I saw instead:

It’s beautiful.  And it reminded my that I wasn’t writing a draft, or a set of proofs or a title to have to remember.  I was writing a book.  And people were going to read it too.

And that’s the best bit of all: when someone emails, or sends you a Facebook message or a tweet, or – get this – puts pen to paper and licks a stamp and tells you that they enjoyed your story. It’s amazing how often these letters get lobbed into the slough of despond too; right splash into the middle of the sea of somehow.  It’s probably because a new book comes out in paperback just as I hit chapter 11 on the next one, but it feels like gods of pity have let a crumb fall from their table to sustain me. 

Except I’m not there yet.  Where I am, right now, is the considerably worse bit when the ARCS go out and all those people you hope might give you a kind quote to put on the jacket are laughing scornfully and reading bits out to their loved ones as examples of bad writing.  And these are people you’re going to have to face at Left Coast Crime and Malice and Bouchercon!   (Only then they’ll say they loved it, because they’re setting you up for a big fall.)
This why when writers read their friends’ ARCs they email fifteen times a day:
  • “I’m on the second page.  The first page was wonderful!”
  • “I’m on Chapter 3.  It gets better and better.”
  • “I was up to Chapter 15 (still great!) but my house burned down.  Can you send me another one?  I can’t think of anything except your book because it’s so amazing.”
And there you have it.  That’s the five shilling tour of the inside of a writer’s head – no wonder we make up stories to visit instead of staying there, eh?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

INKSPOT NEWS - February 16, 2013

Next weekend, from February 22 - 24, Beth Groundwater will be a presenter at the Puerto Vallarta Writers Conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She hopes to meet many aspiring authors at the conference while enjoying the sand, surf and sun!

Today, Saturday, February 16th, at 1:00 PM, Alice Loweecey is signing copies of Veiled Threat at the Amherst Barnes and Noble, 1565 Niagara Falls Blvd. Suite 300, Amherst, New York 14228.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Company You Keep

What a great week to be a Midnight Ink writer. Actually, it’s way more than just a week but there has been an avalanche of good news crashing down recently.
Left Coast Crime conference, a gathering to celebrate mysteries that takes place in a different western city each year, announced finalists in their contest. What fun to see Midnight Ink writers on that illustrious list. Darrell James and Beth Groundwater are nominees in The Rocky category, which is a book set in the geographic area covered by Left Coast Crime. Jess Lourey is nominated for an award in the humorous category, The Lefty. And Catriona McPherson has a book in the Bruce Alexander Memorial Mystery, for historical novels.

Can you say, “Wow!”
And then it gets better.
Kathleen Earnst recently won the LOVEY in the historical category at Love Is Murder in Chicago.
And drum roll, please…
G.M. Malliet (three times now) and Catriona McPherson are up for Agatha Awards given by Malice Domestic.
Alan Orloff had an Agatha nomination in 2010. last year, Darrell James won a Left Coast Crime award, The Eureka, for a first novel.
Now it’s going to get dicey because I’m going to forget a whole ton of other good news. But let me mention that Vicki Doudera got a great review from the world’s snarkiest review site. I know Alice Loweecey and Lois Winston have posted some terrific reviews, as well.
I’m tickled for all the recipients. I imagine their glow and it makes me plum happy for them. I’ve met most of the writers I just mentioned and to a person, they are warm, funny, smart, generous and all around amazing specimens. I can only imagine the others are equally superior humans.
But, as Ayn Rand was ever-so-fond of saying, “There is no altruism.”
While I’m truly happy for these M’Inkers, I’m downright giddy for me.
My father always told me, “You’re known by the company you keep.” Yes, he was a wise man, but I don’t think he made that up.
I would be surprised if I ever win a prestigious award and Kirkus may always hate me. But someone, somewhere, at one time,(Terri) thought I wrote a book good enough to be included on the roster with these stellar writers.
That thought swells my chest more than the Miraculous Uplift bra I got from Victoria’s Secret.
By the time of my next Ink Spot post, my first book in the Nora Abbott Mystery series will have launched. Readers may love it or hate it. But for right now, for this brief moment, I get to revel in the success of my publisher and the fine writers they’ve accumulated and believe I am one of them.  

I am just so darned proud of Midnight Ink and all these folks. (And sorta proud of me, too.)