What’s Worth Writing About



Followers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted to it in some weeks. I wasn’t sick, particularly, although I had one of those colds where you have to cough all the time in order to keep breathing. I wasn’t depressed, although my beloved mother-in-law just died and I heard from a respected agent that she thought my latest offering had no discernible plot. I wasn’t too busy to write, although it seemed as if I were doing things all the time, I forget what. I had people over for Thanksgiving. That was fun, but nothing to write about.

I just didn’t feel like putting finger to keyboard.

I still don’t. I know, these are the times that try men’s souls, I should write a protest column. But I wouldn’t know what to say. Others have said it better than I can. The enormity of these outrages has passed beyond my powers of expression, even counting the bad words. I’m going to Washington next month with the other enraged women and I don’t even know what slogan to put on my button. I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit. (Maybe that’s my slogan.)

Personally, our lives are good. We’re having house guests for Christmas. That will be fun, but not something I particularly want to write about. The neighbors seem happy. Nothing to complain about there. If there were, I wouldn’t write about it anyway, because I won’t violate people’s privacy and I detest drama.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with my book, lack of drama. I have put it aside for awhile to be looked at later. Meanwhile I found another one on an old thumb drive, something, I think, that failed to interest my last agent. Called Broken Sister, it’s all about a mysterious adoptee returning to the town of her birth. The first few chapters struck me as being really good, right up to the part where I revealed the murder. Maybe it doesn’t need a murder. Not every story is a murder mystery. Maybe I’ll cut it down to the place where I still liked it and take it in a completely different direction. After Christmas, when I get time.

What I Do All Day

I had a nice visit last month with my hundred-year-old mother-in-law, a marvelous woman, still sharp as a tack. In the course of our conversation she asked me, as a matter of curiosity, what I did all day when I was at home.

I didn’t know.

I know what I’m supposed to be doing all day. Pursuing my writing career, keeping the house tidy, having a good time with Harold. Maybe cooking. Not sewing, anymore. I seem to have quit sewing. Maybe practicing jigs and reels on my English concertina, the one I haven’t seriously done anything with since I was pregnant with John, who will be, I think, thirty-three next month. But, actually, what—?

So I started thinking about it and keeping track.

About the writing career. As you must surely know by now, I’ve finished a 7,600-word World War I spy thriller called FIREBOMB, about a ring of German saboteurs working out of New York City and the young movie stunt girl who breaks up their operation. To get anywhere with this I’m going to need an agent. So far I have approached a number of agents, and those who admit to having read the manuscript have urged me to keep shopping it around, as they sort of liked it but were unable to fall madly in love.

As a result my plan is to keep shopping it around. I must confess a certain feeling of discomfort about the whole process, given that what I conceived of as a search for a business relationship might better be pursued on E-Harmony or Match.com. The latest Authors Guild Bulletin features a round-table discussion among a few famous and successful agents. What do they want in a query letter? They want you to explain how your book fits into the current publishing scene, how it compares to everything else out there so they’ll know who to submit it to and what sort of sales figures to expect.

Well, that seems as strange to me as expecting to fall in love. Isn’t that the agent’s business, to know the market? It’s almost like the way your publisher, should you find one, wants you to tell them how to publicize and sell your book.

So anyway. What I do all day. The three hours after breakfast are dedicated to furthering my writing career. I spend it collecting the names, addresses, and submission guidelines of agents. Then I think about writing some queries. Then I go on Facebook and page through the interesting political rants, occasionally putting up a dance video or a picture of some really interesting shoes.

Then I make myself some lunch, if I’m home alone, or if Harold is here we go out to Snedden’s for hot dogs or soup or whatever, where we see friends and acquaintances from town.

Sometimes I shop for food. Sometimes I balance the bank account and pay the bills. Tidying up the house is much less of a chore now that our beloved cat, Shadow, has crossed the rainbow bridge, may she rest in peace. Half the time Harold cooks dinner, because he likes to, and I don’t like to mess with shrimp. Occasionally I’ll make notes for some future literary project. Occasionally I’ll binge-watch something like Grand Hotel on Netflix. Now and then I’ll read a book. Right now I’m reading Henry Kisor’s Tracking the Beast, available on Kindle. It’s good.

And that’s how I spend my day. Once a week I write a post for my WordPress blog. The WordPress people want me to subtly urge you all to register and vote, so consider yourself subtly urged.


New Seasons

autumnpearsThis morning I came downstairs to rooms that were cooler than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, with the air of the town blowing through, for the second day in a row.

Glorious! It feels like new beginnings, the start of another year. For almost the whole summer the air has been so thick and hot that we had almost to push our way through it, laboring to get it in and out of our lungs. A person could drown just standing on the street. Today is a taste of what fall might be like if we all live to see it.

I’ve had a look at the fashion magazines, and the ladies are going to be wearing the same things I wore last year, except for the silly stuff that nobody wears anyway. My wooly sweaters will do fine. If I can fasten my winter pants I should be all set. I’ll have all the time in the world to devote to Art, Literature, and improving my mind. (And extensive dental work. But I’m not going to think about that right now.) I’ll probably sign up for the gym again. Fitness! Within my grasp! And maybe a series of little dinner parties.

Isn’t it great, the charge of energy you get at the end of a long, oppressive summer? A feeling of going back to school without actually going back to school. I’m ready for a power nap.

The Joy of CreateSpace

girl2A few of you (hardly any, really, which is partly the point of my story) will remember a book I self-published a few years ago called Monkeystorm. It sold fewer copies than anything I ever wrote, with the possible exception of Master Mechanic, a sci-fi novella that Deb Snyder and I composed in a brown school notebook when we were seven years old. I couldn’t even write cursive yet. After I moved to Illinois the only copy got lost. But I digress.

Monkeystorm was quite a nice book, but the title was stupid, and the cover, let’s face it, was monstrously unattractive. “Is it a horror novel?” somebody asked me. It was then I knew that the packaging I had devised for this charming piece was all wrong.

So I’m bringing it out again, calling it Girl on the Run, and putting a lovely young woman on the cover instead of an enraged monkey. Don’t give me a hard time about using “Girl” in the title. I could do a lot worse. I could call it Monkeystorm again. If you’re one of the five people who read Monkeystorm you don’t want Girl on the Run, although it would be swell if you stopped in on Amazon and gave it a review, since you’ve already read it. Otherwise, keep an eye out for it at Bouchercon, where it will be among the available freebies. Or get the Kindle. I like this book a lot. Somebody besides me should read it.

I can’t say enough about the ease and cheapness of Amazon’s CreateSpace. As long as you’re willing to do all the work yourself—and they make it really easy, with templates—the only cost involved is the cost of producing the physical paperback, which varies with the size of the book and the kind of paper. I figure that supplying fifty books to Bouchercon will cost me less than the ice cream I bought for everybody in 2010, the time that they all ate my ice cream and forgot my name.

If you want to self-publish a book on CreateSpace you will need patience, a sharp eye, a copy of Word, and a good program for manipulating images, such as Photoshop. I use Gimp. You should probably have a friend look your work over for typos. I’m not sure what CreateSpace books are good for except hand-selling at festivals and such. Bookstores won’t take them because they can’t return them. But they make sweet little books, items you can be proud of, and if you know how to market them you know more than I do.

Stalking Your Quarry

11spyingA couple of times this week I got attacked on Facebook, once by a stranger who accused me of being a coward for not getting up in people’s faces with my political opinions and the other time by a woman on my friends list whom I’ve never met.  The “friend” misunderstood something I posted, and jumped down my throat under the mistaken impression that I was attacking her for some reason.

It’s true that I don’t like drama in my life. It’s also true that my attempts at humor are not always easily understood. I brooded over that a little bit while I went through the list and unfollowed every Facebook friend I had with whom I had never personally interacted, figuring better safe than sorry in these volatile times, with everyone on a short fuse. Farewell ladies, gents, I’ll see you all after the election.

For the record, as those of you who actually know me know, I am a cradle Democrat, thought the Party disappoints me from time to time. Before I would vote for a Republican, I would stick my head in a fiery furnace, even if their candidate were someone other than a tiny-fingered, Cheeto-faced proto-Nazi in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Yes, Hillary is something of a bitch, but that only makes us sisters under the skin, all the more reason for me to vote for her.

I trust that my position is now clear.

Still I was asking myself today, was I not a coward for declining to re-post the most amusing of the Trump memes I came across? They’re all good for a laugh. And then I was thinking about what to take with me to New Brunswick to wear to the Deadly Ink mystery conference, which is this weekend. The baggy green linen dress, so appropriate for the bohemian atmosphere of Lambertville? The pin-striped suit that makes me look like a trial lawyer? No. Something clean, attractive, and unobtrusive. But why unobtrusive? Can it be that I really am guilty of cowardice?

No. I’m a writer.

The first rule of being a writer is to keep your eyes and ears open, not to get up in people’s faces. I think that means we must seek not to obtrude. We are here to observe and analyze the human condition. Dorothea Brande said in Becoming a Writer, “keep still about your intentions, or you will startle your quarry.” So that’s what I’m doing. I’m keeping still about my intentions.

And I’m watching you.

Thrilled in Manhattan

mosleyLast week was Thrillerfest, a conference for thriller writers and fans that featured Craftfest, a series of talks on the craft of writing thrillers, and Pitchfest, a speed-dating event for writers in search of an agent, as well as a number of thrilling panels. I did Craftfest and Pitchfest. Craftfest was instructive, and Pitchfest hooked me up with three or four prospective agents. I came home and polished up the manuscript of FIREBOMB, plugging what I hope were the last few plot holes, writing a Hollywood ending as requested by the most enthusiastic of the agents. Why not, after all? Does true love always have to end in despair? Surely lovers can be happy, even in wartime, if only for a little while.

Now to wait and see what these agents think of the work. In the meantime I thought you might like to hear about Thrillerfest.

A number of the craft talks dealt with structuring your novel to keep the reader worried about the protagonist until the very end. (Sounds simple, right?)  Walter Mosley, wearing his trademark hat, gave a bracing talk on how to tap the interesting things in your unconscious. He had us all write a sentence. Then he had us write a paragraph.  “Now go home,” he said, “and write on this every day for two or three hours. Never miss a day.” While we slept we would think of new things about it, and be farther along with the project than when we left it the day before. But we must never skip a day. That’s how he works.

Lawrence Block gave a talk, too, looking back over his long and distinguished career,  and harking back to the Mid-Atlantic conference in Philadelphia that I attended when I was first starting out. Walter Mosley was at that very conference when he was just beginning to be published. It was a project of Deen Kogan and her husband, and a bang-up event it was. I still have a souvenir coffee mug somewhere.

Thursday afternoon was the Pitchfest. Before that, a number of Careerfest sessions. One was a discussion of self-publishing, the fall-back position if we didn’t get an agent. Then we were lined up and marched downstairs to several rooms full of agents sitting at tables, there to stand in line for a three-minute opportunity to sit down and pitch our thrillers. It was not an unpleasant experience. The agents were cordial, and the other writers were not anywhere near as cut-throat competitive as what I was expecting.

Then I came home, exhausted, spiffed up the FIREBOMB manuscript, wrote a synopsis and three queries, and sent the interested agents the things they had requested. Tuesday I had a tooth pulled. This week I am forced to subsist on room-temperature gruel. A fairly tasty room-temperature gruel can be made by throwing a can of black beans into the blender with the juice of one lime and blending it silly. With a dab of sour cream on the top it’s quite good. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Naked Writers

titiaan_zondeval_grtWriters of fiction, and even of non-fiction, reveal who they secretly are in everything they write. Their feelings about themselves, their feelings about other people, their politics, their level of education, their attitude toward organized religion and the Lord God Himself—it’s all there, in the way the writer’s characters behave, in the way fate, society, and the other characters treat them, sometimes even in the occasional page or two of philosophizing.

Philosophizing is frequently a feature of  grim-jawed right-wing men’s thrillers. There are a lot of those around, great big fat volumes with the name of the author and title of the book in a huge font size that takes up the whole cover. People like them. I like them.You don’t have to be on board with a writer’s politics to enjoy the writer’s work. Many are written by grim-jawed right-wing men, no doubt, but the thriller writers I’ve met are soft-spoken, friendly people who don’t even carry guns.

Bernard Cornwell is a nice guy and a good public speaker. I love his work, all full of violence, battle, and severed limbs. After reading one of his Saxon novels, where the churchmen are stupid, tyrannical, hate-filled villains who get hacked to pieces in front of their deluded Christian followers by the heroic Viking protagonist, I feel as though I should go to confession. And I’m not even Roman Catholic. I sense a certain hostility to organized religion in those books.

Writers (and fans) of so-called cozy mysteries appear from their writings to have a low tolerance for chaos. Theirs is a world where the cats and dogs never die. The body falls, always the body of a human being, and the rest of the book is devoted to the restoration of order. These writers are my friends and Facebook friends, and their lives are as frightening and disorderly as anybody else’s, with horrible things happening to their neighborhoods, their families, and yes, their cats and dogs, because that’s real life. Who needs it? The cozy writers perform a valuable public service by giving us a place to hide out with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and escape for a little while.

The most naked sort of naked writing has to be the semi-autobiography. Women don’t do those so much. It’s a man thing, an entitled man thing. I am Man. Behold my words. Famous literary lions have been writing them forever, so that the Great Man Writer has become a dramatic convention.  You don’t see women in the movies writing their thinly disguised life stories to great respect and public acclaim. But if you do write a semi-autobiography, trust me, you are standing there starkers.

The idea of the great manly semi-autobiography as a worthwhile endeavor tends to lead young men astray, I think. Everyone says, write what you know, but before you start you should make sure you know something. Years ago I ran a workshop at a conference where among the other offerings I was supposed to critique was a chapter and an outline for a young fellow’s great manly semi-autobiography. When I read this opus I instantly hated the kid.

It was a story of how he took a job in a profession that I knew a little something about, and worked for a woman very like friends of mine. He proceeded to sneer at his job as worthless and sneer at his boss for being old, ugly, and lonely. Then his character went out to a bar and picked up a needy girlfriend, who moved in with him. I think he hung out with her because they did the same drugs. When his cold, rejecting, self-centered behavior drove her to try to kill herself he regarded it as a personal annoyance.

Luckily two women in the workshop were able to help him with his manuscript, which they wanted to do because he was very good-looking.  Maybe I would have cut him a break, too, if I had seen his face first. But probably not. Did you know that Steinbeck kicked his dog? I read that somewhere. At least it isn’t apparent in his work.

Who to Spend Time With

romancecoverThere are 7.349 billion people in the world about now, give or take a few million. Each is as unique as a snowflake. The most prolific fiction writer in the world can’t write about all of them. Which of them do you want to be with for the six months to a year that it takes to write a novel? Or for the two or three days that it takes to read one?

I found myself pondering this question yesterday in the auto dealership while I waited for the service guys to install my new airbag, one that wouldn’t spray shrapnel all over whoever was in the passenger seat when the airbag deployed. They took a couple of hours. It was an old fem-jep spy thriller from the seventies, full of creaky romance novel conventions.

The heroine was kind of aimless about her life and in my opinion too stupid to live. The villainous spy was a sociopath who lived for the thrill of killing people, to hear him talk, which we did for four or five pages as he and the gormless heroine teetered on the edge of a cliff. When she finally got the upper hand, did she kick him over the cliff? Never occurred to her to do so. She ran away and stole his car. Of course it would have been the end of the book if she killed him, and that would have turned it into a novella. But, still.

Do such people exist in nature? Probably. Do I want to read about them? Actually, no, although some thrilling chase scenes followed.

What sort of people do readers want to read about, out of an almost infinite selection of beings? People similar to themselves, I guess, and then antagonists who complement those people in a balanced way, strength for strength. People who are not stupider than the readers are. Witty people, maybe. Courageous people. People like the readers’  friends, but whose sufferings and struggles are greater.

It seems to me sometimes that the whole point of reading is to encounter other souls. Not the appalling souls we see on reality TV, but creatures with actual feelings. This is a glorious and terrifying goal to shoot for in your writing.

Making an Accurate Sketch

A Study of an Oak Tree, c. 1638, by Claude Lorrain. Black chalk, pen and brown ink with gray-brown wash on white paper, 13 by 8 7/8 inches. The British Museum, London

In the old days, when cameras were awkward and film development was expensive, young people wanted to learn to draw. Now they have their smartphone cameras, so that they don’t need to observe their surroundings and friends very closely, or remember what they just looked at that was so fascinating. It’s all safely put away, stored in bits and bytes. But we who had no cameras ready to hand tried to learn to draw.

The first thing a serious grown-up draughtsman has to learn to do is to distinguish between the object he is looking at and the stereotypical object in his mind. Children draw stick figures. These are understood to represent people, but visually they bear no relation to the play of light and shadow on a human form. You can get books that tell you how to draw horses, how to draw hands. If you study them carefully you will be able to draw a horse or a hand the way the person who wrote the book saw it.

In grade school I had an art teacher who taught us how to paint trees. first you make a dark-brown trunk and branches, then you stipple leaves all over the branches in three colors of green. Voila, your tree. But the fact is that trees are really hard. There are no short cuts to drawing a tree. You have to study the thing, its habit of growth, the time of year, the time of day, how the light hits it.

So it is with fiction. You write a scene. Are these actual people as you have observed them, or stick figures? Are they drawn from life, or are they borrowed from somebody else’s work, however successful? Are they interacting in a way that you recognize as human, or did you read a book on how to write that told you you have to have conflict all the time?

This is something to think about, if you are a young writer just starting out. I’ve been around the block a couple of times and I’m still working on it.