Something new is always a good idea

I’ve been enjoying learning the ropes from a cool bunch of writers on Facebook who are dedicated to writing LOTS of books. They say the more books you have out, the easier it is for readers to find you and thus, the better your revenue stream will be. That means money, to the writer. Crass and commercial as that may seem to some writers and readers, it’s impossible to not think about money. It gives the writer space to be creative, time to dream, and a reason to write another book.

Frenchman announcementAs my fifth book in my Bennett Sisters Mysteries launches I feel this effect. When I run some cheap ads on Facebook for the new book, people discover the whole series. Now at five, there is some heft, some reason for people to think about connecting long-term to these characters.

I’ve also been doing a blog tour for The Frenchman, the new one, and wrote this guest post about how the characters have changed, and I’ve changed in my understanding of them over the years. (See Beth’s post on Shelf Rider.)

As I launch the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series it occurs to me that one of the joys of writing a long series is the chance to really dig deep into the personalities of the characters. Although I originally conceived of the series as linked stand-alones about each of the five sisters, the first book, Blackbird Fly, centered on the middle sister, Merle. When I eventually continued the series, I continued Merle’s journey of self-discovery after the sudden death of her husband. It just made sense that one summer sojourn in France wouldn’t cure all her problems, lovely as France might be.

discoverFranceagainSo Merle has a Frenchman. Initially, like Merle, I didn’t see how a long-distance relationship with a man who lived across an ocean would work. How could she work in New York City and Pascal work all over France’s wine country and they continue a romance? Because, although I didn’t write the series as a romance, women have love affairs— have you noticed? And they like to read about them. Merle’s affair with Pascal might have just been a fling, a curative, that first summer. But as the series goes along it’s obvious that Pascal thinks of it as something more. Although Merle isn’t sure what he thinks— he’s a Frenchman and you know how they are— her feelings mature, especially in this fifth book.

Their relationship is an underpinning in the novels to intrigue, sisterhood, and the joys and trials of mid-life. The sisters range in age from 40 to 55, or so, and I try to find aspects of women’s lives that are interesting and challenging. Life can be hard but reading about how other women make choices and navigate the pitfalls is helpful and revealing to me, and I hope to readers.

As a writer you never know how readers will react to your characters. Will they think them weak and stupid for their choices? (Yes, I’ve had that review.) Or will they identify with them, cheer for them, hope for them? That’s what I live for, that identification from the reader. I am not an Everywoman myself. I am opinionated and cranky and sometimes not that nice. Also, funny, a good friend, a loving parent— I hope. We all have so many aspects. I see some of myself in each of the five Bennett Sisters. I am a middle sister myself though, that’s why Merle appeals to me.

I recently had a review of Blackbird Fly that made all the writing worthwhile. (I love that readers are still discovering the series.) A reader said “The main character, Merle Bennett, could have been me, though I’m not a lawyer, have never inherited a house in France, and never had her problems. The writing puts you in the book.”

Right there, that’s why I write.

Then, if you love France like I do, the reviewer says that for her, at least, I got something right: “I’ve spent enough time in France to know that Albert, Mme Suchet, and the others in the village who snubbed, helped, or sabotaged Merle are just so … French. The story unfolds just as it should along with Merle’s self-discovery and personal regrets.”

And so Merle’s journey continues in The Frenchman. Who is the Frenchman, you ask? There is of course Pascal, Merle’s Frenchman. But there are many more in this book, policemen and old villagers, young punks and charming neighbors. And in Merle’s novel, chapters of which are included in the novel, there are Frenchmen from the Revolutionary period: farmers and rebels, nobles and royals, villagers and strangers. I had such fun writing Merle’s novel— which will be fleshed out and published separately as well— about a goat-herder who flees the terror in Paris for a farm in the Dordogne. Merle calls it ‘Odette and the Great Fear,’ and it will be available soon as an e-book.

I hope your writing and reading goes well as we ease into chilly weather– the best time to read and write! Happy autumn.


Are You Writing a Novel in November? Really?!

There are so many ways to write a novel, or jump-start yourself from a state of inertia on your novel. The one of choice this month is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, where some 300,000 writers have signed up to keep their word count honest, to keep their butts in the chair, to get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I have signed up before. I have tried NaNoWriMo. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really make me write a first draft. For one thing, I’m not compulsive enough to report my word count each day. (I am too busy actually writing for that!) Also, 50k words isn’t really a novel in my book, so a whole lot of editing, adding, subtracting, plumping, and excising would be required down the line. At the end of a frenzied flurry of work (if you wrote every single day of 30 (including Thanksgiving and Black Friday and the day you get that dreaded cold) you “only” need to get down 1667 words each day, about six or seven pages double-spaced, you are left with what? Months of organization. And frustration.

FullSizeRender-3Of course if you planned your November Attack ahead of time it wouldn’t end up such a pile of dreck. Maybe that’s how you’re doing it; if so, kudos to you for forethought. I confess to being a former pantser, that is, someone who writes from the seat of their pants, who doesn’t know where their novel’s plot is going, someone who wrote her first mystery not knowing who the killer was. [Note: this didn’t go well. Cue another 12 months of rewriting the book from scratch.]

I wonder how many of the NaNoWriMo crowd have outlined their novel ahead of time. This would make sense, if they did. Then you could actually write 50,000 words (if not a novel) in four weeks, by following your step by step breakdown.
Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 10.13.53 AMI have written out elaborate outlines, pages and pages of where I thought the story might go, sort of a short story or what they call in film, a treatment. “Might go” being the operative term, as these outlines rarely held up past the midpoint. Back in those days I knew where the novel started, the inciting incident, and how it would end, more or less. Definitely who the villain was after that first mess of a first draft. I almost always had to knock off a character at midpoint to get past that dreaded quagmire.

Now I use Scrivener, an outlining program with visual bulletin boards with note cards (you can do it yourself with real objects) and a template overlay that tells me basically where my plot points should be, where the midpoint is, keeps all my setting and character info and research in one place, and keeps me looking at the big picture of where my story is going. (I blogged about Scrivener and my love for it here.)

It’s easy, especially as a beginning writer, to get tunnel vision about your story. You fall in love with a character, with a scene, even though you have no idea what it means in the grand scheme of your story. Outlining really helps with this. You may think it takes the magic out of writing, and you may be right. It is less right-brained than the whole “the story came to me in a dream” thing (which does sometimes happen but usually goes nowhere.) But here’s the thing. You need both sides of your brain to write a good novel, the magicky-woo-woo side where deep emotional drama lives and breathes, and the cool, organized side that evaluates what level of crap you’re throwing down.

You can write a novel with only one side of your brain. But don’t expect fireworks. Just a whole bunch of rewriting.

I’m including these words of wisdom from Michael Crichton because I just read his last, posthumously published book, Pirate Latitudes. I’ve been on a pirate kick lately for some reason, and in general I find Crichton’s books fun, inventive, and well-written. But this book was found in his files after his death. It reads well, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it. But, as Entertainment Weekly said back in 2009, “If nothing else,  Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer.”

It reads like a young adult adventure novel, which isn’t a bad thing. I’m sure many 14-year-old adventurers-to-be will enjoy and have loved it. Crichton fans were thrilled when a last novel was found, no doubt, despite a sea of pirate sailing jingo like ”Mizzen top blown!”

But there is a reason Crichton never released it. And it probably starts with “re” and ends with “write.”

What I Read On My Summer Vacation

So I’m back from my  long-awaited and sorely needed vacation, in which  the missus and I spent a week on lovely Oak Island, NC. There’s just something about the ocean that makes it impossible to hold onto stress for long. A few days next to that immensity and that steady, eternal rhythm constantly in your ears is better than a truckload of Valium, IMHO.

I confess, I’m pretty boring at the beach. Some people seem to regard the beach as a place for vigorous physical activity. They bring volleyball nets, footballs, Frisbees, etc. Me, I tend to sit by the water and read, pausing only to take a dip when it gets too hot or a walk (and by “a walk” I usually mean a trip back up to the beach house for more beer). It’s great to have that leisure time to really be able to focus. It also helps that I’m usually away from the Internet. This time, my only connection was a weak (and let’s be honest, not totally legal) connection to the unsecured Wi-fi next door. So my web surfing, Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. was nearly non-existent, which gave me more time to read and fewer available distractions from it. And when I have that kind of time, I really plow through them.

So, this is what I read while at the beach:

 HOSTILE WITNESS, William Lashner: Dave White was raving about this underappreciated author a while back,  and Dave’s a damn fine writer himself. So I downloaded this one, and let me tell you, it’s great.

Victor Carl is the perfect noir protagonist: grasping, resentful, bitter that his legal career never put him amongst the elite of Philadelphia society. When he’s offered a chance to take over as counsel for what seems to be a minor player in a Federal racketeering and extortion trial, he jumps at the chance to play in the big leagues. Victor initially balks at the fact that the trial is in two weeks, but the blue-blood society lawyer defending the main player, a flamboyant city councilman, assures him that all he has to do is follow the lead of the big boys, show a united front, and keep his mouth shut. Pretty much everyone but Victor can see he and his client are being set up to take the fall. Fall he does, in spectacular fashion, including falling for the councilman’s mistress, a classic femme fatale if ever there was one. But he keeps getting back up….

This is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t wait to read the next ones in the series.

 NEVER GO BACK, Lee Child: Jack Reacher finally makes it to Virginia to meet the woman who he’s been trying to get to for the last two books, an Army Major (and commander of his old unit) who he only knows as an interesting voice on the phone. When he gets there, she’s in jail, Jack’s charged with the murder of someone he barely remembers, AND he gets hit with a paternity claim from a woman he doesn’t remember at all. Clearly somebody’s trying to make Reacher run away and abandon the damsel in distress, and we all know that’s not going to happen. Asses are kicked, names are taken, Jack does what Jack does. It’s the same old thing, but it’s the same old great thing. Recommended.

CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, Don Winslow:  Disgraced former cop Jack Wade, currently an arson investigator for the titular insurance company, is convinced that the fire that  destroyed the house of real estate mogul Nicky Vale and incinerated Vale’s beautiful estranged wife Pamela was not, as his former colleagues in the Sheriff’s Department ruled, an accident. No, he thinks it was arson and very possibly murder. As he digs into the evidence, both literally and figuratively, he discovers a web of deceit, betrayal, and counter-betrayal that may just lead to his own immolation.

All I can say about this book is: Wow. Only a writer as skilled as Don Winslow could make a plaintiff’s lawyer like me love a book with a claims adjuster as its protagonist. A surfing claims adjuster, of course, because this is, after all, Don Winslow. But he keeps you guessing, twist upon twist, until the final surprise and an absolutely perfect twist at the end. Highly recommended.

THREE GRAVES FULL, Jamie Mason: “There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard,” this book begins, and there’s even less for hapless nebbish Jason Getty when the landscaping crew he’s hired turns up two other bodies, neither of which are the man he killed a year ago and buried to cover up the crime. When a pair of engaging small town detectives (and a dog who always follows her nose) pursue the investigation into the two bodies in the front yard, they turn up evidence of another crime they can’t identify…and then things get a little crazy.

One of the cover blurbs compared this to a Coen brothers movie, and there are definite similarities, particularly in the Fargo-esque setup of good hearted small town cops vs. a Casper Milquetoast scrambling to cover up the crime he committed when pushed too far. But Jamie Mason’s worldview isn’t quite as bleak as the Coen’s. The book’s a lot of fun, and I have to admire the skill of a writer who can use a dog as a viewpoint character and not make me roll my eyes. Recommended.

THE SECRET SOLDIER, Alex Berenson: Pretty standard stuff for an international thriller. Troubled ex-CIA agent John Wells is your usual two-fisted thriller hero in the Bolt Studly mold, who gets called in to set things right in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by no less than King Abdullah himself. There’s some interesting stuff about the House of Saud and how they came to power, and the villain is suitably scary and believable. There’s a long stretch in the beginning where Wells and his sidekick are chasing a renegade CIA agent turned drug dealer which I kept waiting to connect with the rest of the book, but which never really does.  Still, it was entertaining, and good for a beach read.

 THE LIVES OF TAO, Wesley Chu: Human history has been influenced since the dawn of mankind by a group of non-corporeal aliens who crashed here millennia ago and have been possessing human hosts ever since, using them to try and nudge human progress to the point where humanity has the ability to get the aliens home. A while back, they split into two factions, one more ruthless and violent than the other. When one of the more peaceful aliens suffers the unexpected and violent loss of his host, he winds up in the body of overweight and aimless computer geek Roen Tan and is forced to make the best use of his raw material. The “Zero to Hero, with hot ass-kicking chicks in leather along the way” trope is pretty obviously aimed at what the publishers assume is SF’s core demographic. The book takes a while to get going, but eventually ends up being a fun action romp. Still, I don’t think I’ll be getting the sequel.

FIDDLEHEAD, Cherie Priest: The final chapter in Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series (or so she says) ends up being the best one I’ve read so far. It’s got all the wild inventiveness of BONESHAKER (how can you resist an alternate Civil War history steampunk zombie story, with airships?) and the breakneck action of DREADNOUGHT (same thing with steam powered mecha and armored trains), without the clumsy characterization and stilted dialogue of those two. I liked it a lot.

So, what are you folks reading?



Series, Stand-alone, Genre: pick your poison

book genres/ tumblr

Categories: there are tons of them in fiction. In the crime genre there is hard-boiled, soft-boiled, amateur sleuth, noir, cozy, police procedural, serial killer, private eye, and on. Same with romance novels: historical, regency, steamy, cowboy, time travel. More genres: sci fi, fantasy, horror. We all like to read different things, and write them, so categories help us find something in our favored niche. Categories serve their purpose.

But for writers like me, the category, the slot, the genre feels like vise grips sometimes, constricting and inflexible. Is it necessary? Is it a marketing gimmick? Can’t I just write the damn book and let the readers decide? Well, no, actually. You have to put a label on most everything. It’s called marketing — even though we may call it @#!@#$.

The same goes with writing a mystery series v. the stand-alone novel. The mystery series has been popular since Sherlock Holmes started his serial adventures, and will probably never die. Readers love following a sleuth from book to book. I know I do.  Sue Grafton is almost finished with the alphabet after publishing ‘A is for Alibi’ over 30 years ago. (I had to look that up — 1982! Now that’s a run.) How difficult would it be for me to write 20+ books in the same world, with the same character!? Answer: really hard. Her heroine Kinsey Millhone is stuck in the ’80s too, making her cell phone and internet use nonexistent. Great books by a great writer, in my opinion. Lovely person, Sue Grafton. But I couldn’t do it. All my hair would be gone. Sue’s looks gorgeous.

So after two mystery series I started writing stand-alones. They are harder to sell ( and #*@&! market) without those built-in audiences clamoring for the next installment in a series. And somewhat harder to write because you have to build the world — and the characters — all over again each time. Author Laurie R. King says this about the standalone:

While a series permits a writer to develop a set of characters over a period of time, a standalone novel represents the only opportunity these people have to live and breathe and tell their stories. Even if some of them reappear (and my standalones do have the occasional link and overlap), their book must have a sense of completeness, must contain an entire universe within its pages.

 Other writers consider the “standalone” term more loosely. Here’s Tamera Alexander’s take on it:
Tamera’s series books are considered “stand-alone” novels, meaning they can be read out of order. However, if you’re planning to read all of the books in a series, you should read them in order for the most fulfilling story experience.
So you can have a series of standalones? Hmm. I once pitched a series of linked standalones to my editor, the first ofDSCN1459 which became ‘Blackbird Fly.’ The series was to be linked by five sisters, each to have separate adventures. That idea didn’t really fly (although ‘Blackbird’ did. 🙂 )
Now I find myself in the position of starting a new book about the same characters in ‘Blackbird.’ I’m back to the series idea, with my protagonist Merle Bennett once again in hot water in France. I love writing about France, almost as much as going there. This time I’m going to use some of the experiences I had last year doing a walking tour through the vineyards.
Despite my dislike of being put in a box, pegged a certain way, I am back to writing a series. (And I am loving it! Go figure.) My last novel, written as Rory Tate, was a thriller with lots of action and cops and spies. You would think that’s a pretty tight box to fit into, wouldn’t you? Espionage thriller. Police Procedural. Maybe not.  Michael on Amazon said:
Cross genre writing can be a slog, yet Rory Tate succeeds at crossing multiple genre boundaries. Plan X accomplishes all its goals: From boy meets girl to girl comes into her own and unravels both police-work and personal dilemmas inside a complex and satisfying plot structure.

No matter how hard it is to write the book inside your heart and head and still hit the marketing categories, sometimes readers just see through all that and are glad for the ride. There is little more gratifying to a writer than a reader who ‘gets it.’
Are you more comfortable inside or outside the box? Series, standalones, genre, cross-genre? Love story or category romance? Deep characterization or pacy thriller? What’s your poison?
I leave you with a (classic?) mystery cover. Have a fabulous reading and writing week — and don’t eat all the pizza rolls!

The Power of Friends

Do you have friends? Of course you do. Friendships make everyday life, which often ranges from routine to downright dull, more fun, manageable, and understandable. Even more than family, friends are there for you, to laugh and cry and buy you cake.

You know how some friends teach you to be a better friend? They somehow know that being a friend is a skill and they want you to be happy and friend-full. These people, extroverts probably, are experts in friend-making from preschool on. Others, the introverts, the socially awkward, and, yes, many writers, must learn how to give, how to listen, how to share, how to celebrate the successes of others, and all the things that make a person a good friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a natural or you have to work at it. Just fulfilling that need for friends is where it’s at. One of the joys of my life is figuring this friend thing out, and the incredible friends I’ve made over the years.

No sidekick = heroic but lonely

Characters in novels need friends too. They may not think they do because they are Shane-like, the solitary hero who wanders into town and makes everything right. But scratch the surface of any good protagonist and you’ll find deep relationships. Maybe they aren’t strictly in the friend category; maybe they’re co-workers, husbands or ex-wives, dead brothers or high school teammates. But no one is truly alone. And when building a character and her past it’s important to remember that while she may go on her quest alone, she brings with her all her friends, at least in her head. Because a person, and a character, is the sum of all their experiences, and their relationships, good and bad, are a key element in that. Along the way she may make new friends, mentors and guides in Quest-speak, and even enemies can become helpers and friends.

The ultimate friend in fiction is the sidekick. The second man, the understudy. Their number is legendary, from Sherlock’s Dr. Watson and Crusoe’s Friday, to Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza and Tom Sawyer’s Huck Finn. Where would Harry Potter be without Ron and Hermione, or Spenser without Hawk? How could Dorothy have gotten home from Oz without her three sidekicks?

The sidekick is a powerful figure in stories because he has so many vital roles. He contrasts with the protagonist, playing up the good qualities of the hero. The two of them can banter, discuss, and give information to the reader. The sidekick can be wilder, more carefree, rule-breaking or even criminal, moving the plot in ways that the hero in his goodness and single-mindedness can’t. But most importantly the sidekick makes the hero or heroine seem more human. The protagonist can appear bigger than life, a person without flaws, possessing superhuman strength or intelligence or both. The friend is the person who calls them on their shit, who brings them back to Earth, who reminds the reader that if the hero can have one loyal friend they are maybe, just a little, like you and me.

Even if you don’t give your hero a true sidekick try to interject a friend somewhere. It makes your character more alive, more human, more connected to their world. In PLAN X, my new thriller (written as Rory Tate) my heroine, Cody Byrne, is a cop with a little PLAN-X-ebook-finalPTSD problem she’s hiding from everyone. Everyone, that is, except her best friend. Her friend makes one small appearance in the novel but Cody thinks about her often. It was important that somebody would know her so well that she can’t keep secrets from them. Cody’s family is spread around the globe, her brother was killed in Afghanistan, and she’s both attracted to and afraid of relationships with men. So her friend’s loyalty and insight is one bright spot in her psyche. Cody ends up in London, tracking down the identity of the Shakespeare professor who’s blown up in Chapter One. There she meets her real sidekick, friend, and helper, the legal attaché at the US Embassy. But that’s halfway through the novel. Back home she needs a connection with somebody: a friend. Because we all need friends.

Friends keep it real, both in life and in fiction. Let’s be friends! Follow our blog to find out what goes on in the cryptic brains of fiction writers. The button is up on the top.

This piece first appeared on the blog Auntie M Writes.

The Importance of Boots on the Ground

First let it be said that I love research. Maybe too much. When I was writing my historical mysteries I had to finally set aside all the fascinating books and just *write.* Because you don’t want your research to be show-y and all “this is what I know.” It should flow naturally from the story. But a couple weeks ago I found out — in the nick of time — that sometimes all that book and internet research, even your memories of a place you’ve been, aren’t enough. You need boots on the ground.

My new thriller, Jump Cut, comes out next week — officially. I spent a couple days in Seattle shooting video and stills for a book trailer that I cobbled together last week. (Also just in the nick of time! Wouldn’t want to be planning ahead.) While my son (a great photographer, thanks, Nick!) and I drove around the city, getting shots of Seattle iconic sights like the monorail, the Space Needle, the ferries, etc., I noticed something. I had a couple details wrong. And they were, like, really important! In the big climactic scene. Continue reading “The Importance of Boots on the Ground”