Whatcha reading?

Whatcha reading?

It’s almost the weekend… and while we’ll be jamming to our favorite Prince tunes, hoisting an ale for the death 400 years gone of the Bard, and thinking the Queen is looking pretty damn good for 90, reading time will come. Reading is comforting, entertaining, mesmerizing. A great novel is a friend and a lifeline.

She who readsThe thing about writing a novel is that many of us have little time, or mental space, to read for fun. This really kicks it because the reason most of us started writing is that we love fiction, love novels, love to read everything from the back of the cereal box to the latest graphic novel. When I first started writing I was warned to not read fiction while writing, as it would affect my “voice.” And yes, this isn’t terrible advice for the beginning writer. Stick to your plan, dive deep into your story and your characters, and don’t let some other author’s style get in your head.

At this point in my career, and my life, I can’t do that. I MUST READ. That doesn’t mean I don’t have must-see television of course… Game of Thrones is coming! Who will die?!

ka-boomA few weeks ago I mentioned my interrupted writing schedule and being behind on my next Bennett Sisters novel. Well, I can tell you that I finished the first draft this week. It is far from done but I am letting it percolate awhile to get some gardening, and other writing, done.

But I couldn’t resist having a wee moment of squee. The life of a writer allows few moments of celebration as grand as when you sell a book, or your very own creation arrives on your doorstep. Finishing a first draft isn’t that big a deal, but it’s something. So I squee.

• • •

Congrats as well to Aaron and Diana who were winners in the Amazon giveaway of The Girl in the Empty Dress. I want everyone to be up to date on the Sisters!  I still have one more e-book to give away, so stay tuned for that. Please sign up for the newsletter to keep up to date on all the giveaways. CLICK HERE

So… whatcha reading? I love to hear about good books. Here are a few I recently read:

The Paris Winter51cz88ehlfl-_sx328_bo1204203200_

It checks all the boxes: France, historical, art, intrigue. Well-done debut by British author Imogen Robertson, The Paris Winter is about a penniless art student in 1910 Paris who gets in with some nasty folks in an attempt to stave off cold and starvation while painting madly.

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The Black Count 

This one also ticks the France and history boxes, but it’s non-fiction, about the story behind the writer, Alexandre Dumas. The author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was the grandson of a French nobleman and his black Caribbean wife. Their son was brought back to France and raised as a Frenchman. The Count’s swashbuckling life was the stuff of fiction, and there is no doubt Dumas learned these stories at his father’s knee.  Pulitzer winner for Biography. Fascinating.

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Mist of Midnight

For the new book I’m writing I wanted to rediscover a love of gothic novels. I read, and re-read a few gothics, those semi-scary romantic thrillers usually set in a creepy old house and featuring an orphan on her own in the world. (I believe the orphan trope is wish-fulfillment for readers who both crave and fear independence/dislocation from their parents. Probably why gothics appeal to certain age groups of young female readers.) I picked something newish and read Mist of Midnight by Sandra Byrd. Set in Victorian England (as good gothics usually are) a young woman returns from India to reclaim her inheritance only to find she has been declared dead and a distant relative has taken over the country house. Well done, not terribly scary at all, faithful to the genre. I enjoyed it very much.

Yes, there is a creepy old house in the new book…. 😱

Stay tuned for a cover reveal, coming soon!

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No Excuses April

cd4a521d18eadf8ed5796cba0b1f601eI’m happy to report my Writus Interruptus has dissipated with the spring rains and I am back in the saddle, writing-wise. The saddle in this case is every chair in the house. Unfortunately I have my feet up these days as I tweaked my knee last week. As my pal Sherri asks, “Did you trip or fall in a hole?” Not this time! (I am a well-known klutz.) I was just walking along the trail by the canal and my knee started hurting.

My knee is a well-known irritant to pleasure. This same knee has had a meniscus tear, a lateral ligament release, and in the infamous ski accident — Park City 2005 — lost cartilage in the tibial plateau fracture. Yes, my bad leg. My bad knee. So no big surprise that something new would pop up. But very annoying.

The good news for writing is — always look on the bright side 🙂 –that I have no excuses for not getting some major writing done this week while I rest my knee. I am currently at 53,000 words when I should be done, so still about 20,000 words behind. This week though — it’s onward into the breach.

Keeping your enthusiasm for your project going is one of the main issues for the pro writer. Even if you’re so enamored with your story and in the full flush of story-telling that you’re getting up at 4 a.m. before you go to work to write, keeping your head in the game can be a struggle. I used a weekend a couple weeks back to simply re-read my entire novel. I wanted to make sure I remembered all the aspects of it, little hints of things to come I put in consciously or subconsciously, characters I wanted to flesh out a bit, stuff that might not make the final cut but still had some juice. By Monday I felt excited about getting back to the story.

a0037ce6e4fb9a96f4ec0fad970c3255This Bennett Sisters novel has only a splash of French sunshine in it– and is drenched in Scottish rain. It is mostly set in the Highlands of Scotland at Annie’s wedding. (I hope readers who love the French setting aren’t too disappointed.) It feels like more an ensemble piece than the other books in the series, although Merle, middle sister and tentpole, is still the core. I love getting into these characters more with each book, it makes writing about the sisters very satisfying. All five sisters are staying in a Highland hunting lodge that belongs to Annie’s fiancé’s family. But this is no simple romance about a wedding. There’s an upstairs/downstairs aspect as the staff gets involved as well. Lots of plates in the air here. But at least no one but the cat cares if I get up off the sofa. (Oh, occasionally my husband does like a hot meal.)

I’m working with a new cover designer, Connie Dillon, who is doing an original painting. I love Connie’s work and hope you will too. Check out her website. Connie lives in Billings, Montana, one of my “hometowns.” Stay tuned for a cover reveal!

The title of the new one? It’s another Beatles song title, like ‘Blackbird Fly.’ See if you know it from these lyrics. Give it a guess in the comments!

follow_me_on_pinterest_v01“Me, I’m just the lucky kind
Love to hear you say that love is love
And though we may be blind
Love is here to stay and that’s enough”

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Follow my Pinterest pages to see images like this one that have inspired me as I write this new novel. (Who can resist a man in a kilt?!)

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There’s still a copy of The Girl in the Empty Dress up for grabs over at Amazon! Try your luck!

Off to France

I Resolve: Failure & Success

I Resolve: Failure & Success

Oh, those pesky resolutions. new-year-resolutions

Does anyone even care what a person resolves to do in the new year, or how they are (or likely not) accomplished? I doubt it. If you want to lose ten pounds or run a marathon or write a novel go forth and do it. Like so much in the world no one cares about your ambitions like you do. And that’s the way it should be.

When I first started writing, sending off work and getting back rejections, I learned to toughen myself to inevitable failure. Being a writer is failing, generally. The novel is never as good as it seemed in your head. The reviews are never quite as glowing as you’d like, and often a lot less glowing. The money is never what you dreamed. The loneliness is crushing at times. And these are just side issues.

The work itself is harder, less satisfying, and relentless in a way that you are never actually done. Writing, editing, rewriting, publishing: that’s the beginning. Now, in the indie publishing world especially, the blogging, the marketing, the tweeting, the schmoozing goes on indefinitely. There’s some good to that, with the “long tail” — your books can be discovered by new readers forever — but there’s also the onus of endless salesmanship.

idea-success-failureSo what is failure then? Because, for an artist, the only measure of success is inside of you. That’s probably the hardest thing to accept. When you choose a creative career your output, the quality of it, the quantity of it, the starting, the quitting, the starting over, is all up to you. The world may beat you down or praise you to the heights you don’t feel you deserve. Your head may explode with ego; your heart may shrivel with rejection. But the bottom line is, if you feel you have succeeded, there you are: you have succeeded. Not by the world’s measure perhaps, not by your mother’s measure, or your teacher’s, or your friend’s. But those measures are false. Your only measure of success is in your own heart and head. 

Getting to this point can be an emotional roller coaster. But hey, that’s life: ups, downs, highs, lows, and if you’re lucky, a measure of self-acceptance.  A small measure? Perhaps, but knowing you are not a failure, knowing it deep down in your gut, knowing you have given it everything you had, is worth the struggle. That small knowing is golden.

My resolution was simple last year: review every book I read, online somewhere. I fell behind in the summer so yesterday I reviewed six books. I didn’t review every book — if I didn’t finish it I don’t consider it “read.” I left a few books unreviewed anyway so I guess I failed. I’m getting good at this. 🙂

LaughterThis year I resolve something different. Small goals, hopefully doable.

  • Write every day.
  • Eat yogurt every day.
  • Walk every day.
  • Laugh every day.

I foresee the last one being the hardest. So I will check in here once in awhile with a laugh video and let you know how it’s going.

Ha-ha-happy new year! 😄

Fiction as a Mirror

As crime writers we often get our ideas from the news. Remember newspapers? You still read them, I hope. Where else can you find in-depth stories about the world, where you live locally or the wide world beyond your circle? Sometimes as a writer you don’t know where your ideas come from exactly, they just pop out of the ether or the news cycle, and percolate in your mind.

new-jump-cut-8-14That was the way it worked for me when I wrote a book about heroin, sex trafficking, and TV news. I majored in broadcast news in college and although I didn’t work in the field I am an avid observer — not that difficult in this day of 24-hour news. Although sex workers and drugs may seem like dark subjects, and they are, I made the center of my story a funny, struggling young woman, very much a career girl of today.  I wanted to write about an ethical but hapless television reporter whose ambition to get away from her ex-husband, now her boss, leads her into trouble. That novel, Jump Cut, reference to a ‘jumpy’ editing transition, was published in 2011.

As writers we often are immersed in our subject but then we write the book and go on our merry way, writing on some other topic. So when this story about the new heroin problem in the US popped up on the New York Times I stopped. And read it. All the way to the end.

“So we are at a strange new place. We enjoy blissfully low crime rates, yet every year the drug-overdose toll grows. People from the most privileged groups in one of the wealthiest countries in the world have been getting hooked and dying in almost epidemic numbers from substances meant to numb pain. Street crime is no longer the clearest barometer of our drug problem; corpses are.”

Read the NY Times piece here.

The article is about the dramatic increase in suburban heroin addiction in the least likely places, and the new distribution strategies Mexican growers are using, without the big cartels. In Jump Cut three prostitutes overdose on tainted Mexican heroin in Seattle. They are Russian-speaking women (how they arrived in the U.S. is part of the story.) Unlike the Times story they aren’t suburban teenagers who are replacing their Oxy addiction with cheaper heroin, but they are addicts. Their story is the catalyst for Jump Cut. Reporter Mimi Raynard has her own journey first, bungling their news story, looking for a new job, ultimately on her own except for the help of narcotics detective Shad Mulgrew. They both have to redeem themselves and solve this triple homicide.

The events in this Seattle story are fictional. But heroin addiction and human trafficking are still problems in this country and around the world. For research I didn’t, as one fellow writer suggested, try heroin. I did a ride-along with the Seattle narcotics detectives — great guys in a brutal business. I interviewed them and watched them do a take-down of a drug buy at a suburban shopping mall parking lot. By the time I wrote this novel heroin had ceased to be a huge epidemic in Seattle. But it didn’t just stop being a problem. It moved somewhere else, with new victims, new dealers, new addicts.

But there is hope. We could learn a lot from Portsmouth, Ohio.

Some places have gained ground on the epidemic. Portsmouth, Ohio, was among the first to see a generation addicted, and pill mills — pain clinics where doctors prescribed pills for cash and without a proper diagnosis — were virtually invented there. Portsmouth, like a junkie who has hit rock bottom, has found within it a spirit of self-reliance that has helped kindle a culture of recovery. The town shuttered the pill mills. Narcotics Anonymous meetings are now everywhere; recovering addicts are studying to be counselors. And after years of watching jobs go abroad, in 2009 townspeople stepped in to save one of Portsmouth’s last factories — a shoelace manufacturer, which now exports shoelaces to China, Mexico and Taiwan.

Like Portsmouth, we need to take accountability for our own wellness. There is a time and a place for pain pills, of course. But we need to question the drugs marketed to us, depend less on pills as solutions and stop demanding that doctors magically fix us.

It will then matter less what new product a drug company — or the drug underworld — devises.

Read more about Jump Cut here. Download a free sample on Amazon.

Writer as Sparrow

Truman Capote writing

How is your writing going? I ask because I’ve been struggling with finding enough time and focus recently. I have no excuses. My life isn’t any busier than yours, I’m sure. I have no children at home, no soccer games to attend. It’s winter and the weather is frightful. I’m stuck inside with my laptop.  My brand new laptop! Look at the new widgets! Ooh, look at that…!

Where were we? Ah, my lack of focus. It’s tax season, that’s a distraction. And it’s true that I’m remodeling a bathroom, but not personally. I have to deal with a parade of carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, and yes, there’s always some new wrinkle like after the water got turned back on every faucet on the lower level seized up and will have to be replaced.

But that’s no excuse. I have hours on my own that I could be using to concentrate on a new novel. Instead I’m dithering around the internet, looking at photos of my new granddaughter who’s too far away, drafting silly tweets, and yelling at my email newsletter provider (who couldn’t care less.)

I have started something new. It’s one of those ideas that come to me out of the blue — that should scare me off. But somehow it just makes sense. It’s not a mystery or thriller. It’s not in one of my series. It’s nuts really and I’m not working on it all that much. But here’s the thing. About two weeks ago I woke up from a vivid dream one morning. The whole plot was there, in my head. I got up and wrote down everything I could remember. It didn’t look as exciting on the computer screen as it did as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling the surge of my subconscious. But I loved it and I never turn my back on my subconscious.

Now I don’t believe you can just dream up your novel and dictate it to yourself. Like this:

the story - regard

That’s just crazy talk. Writing a long story, a novel, despite having an initial idea that drops out of the sky into your dreams, is work. It will take months just to figure out what the story is about, how to deal with those themes, how to narrate it and illustrate it with words. That’s the fun though, once you reach a sweet spot where things come alive — I’m just not there yet. And my mind is unfocused, a flighty thing, a sparrow looking for seeds, here, there, in the story and up in the tree tops.

This is why we write. To get away from the mundane, the plumbers, the weather, the tax prep, the laundry. To enter that altered state where lives make sense, where the dull stuff is edited out and all is sparkling and witty and exciting, where there is a purpose and a goal and and a satisfying end-game. To merge into the world of the story and wear it like a furry coat that saves you from freezing, insulates you from harm, and keeps you cozy and focused and in just the right place until your work is done.

I’ll be there soon. I hope.

Writing Togetherness

My guests today are married writers who work on books separately and together. Have you ever tried to collaborate with another writer on a long story or novel? It sounds appealing, sort of, that is the part about not doing as much work yourself. 🙂 But what about working side by side with your own spouse?

Win and Meredith Blevins are old friends of mine from Wyoming. I met Win at one of my first writing conferences, a Western Writers of America confab in Jackson Hole. This year Win (finally!) won the Owen Wister lifetime achievement award by WWA. He has won many awards and was on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma writing program. Meredith is a mystery novelist, travel writer, writing coach, and more. Together they’ve written over thirty books. They continue to write their individual projects but have found a way to collaborate in their new series. ‘Moonlight Water’ is their new novel.

“The ghosts of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac haunt ‘Moonlight Water’ in the honorable tradition of road stories. To this, the Blevins’s have introduced the themes of spiritual awakening, personal redemption, love renewed – in a thumping good detective story in Navajoland.” – Loren D. Estleman

How exactly do you collaborate with another writer? Here’s the Blevins Way.

• • •

Can you Write Together? Should you?

By Meredith and Win Blevins

 

Every moment of collaboration is not sublime, but is the entire experience amazing? Yes.

moonlight water cover picSo far we’ve done three books together, MOONLIGHT WATER just out, THE DARKNESS ROLLING coming in June, and GOING HOME, just gone to our editor. The fourth book is half-finished.

How does it work? Leave your ego at the door, and don’t write in the same room.

WIN: There’s no back and forth. We tried that once, and it was a disaster. I killed a character in an early chapter—

MEREDITH: And I was planning to use that character as the murderer. We got really aggravated with each other and didn’t give it another shot for years. Now we’ve got it down.

S0 far, Win does the first draft, I do the second, and he reads it a final time looking for little stuff, like commas, to set right. Then off it goes.

WIN: We know each other’s strengths and go with that. First, we come up with an idea together, brainstorming. Then I write the draft. I may ask her for inspiration at moments along the way, but I do the actual writing.

MEREDITH: And we talk about the characters.

WIN: I’m good at the structure of a story, the overall architecture. What’s the basic conflict? How can it be heightened? What surprising events can get in the way? How can the ending be the necessary one, yet somehow be surprising?

MEREDITH: Then I do the second draft. We don’t talk about it at all.

WIN: She’s the best dialogue writer in the business, also great with setting—

MEREDITH: and I try to make the language sing.

WIN: I could not have written the first couple of pages of MOONLIGHT WATER with half as much juice.

MEREDITH: And I try to deepen the relationship between the characters.

WIN: Without her, I would do a second draft trying what she does, but it wouldn’t work as well. And most of the time, we really can’t tell who has done what. I don’t remember which nifty sentences are mine and which are hers. We’re in sync, and we respect each other.

MEREDITH: THE ROLLING DARKNESS started a series of thrillers. On the second one, we’re reversing roles—I’m doing the first draft.

WIN: And I’m writing a different book before doing the second draft on hers. We’ll see how this role reversal works. We make each other better writers. The reviews for our first book together, MOONLIGHT WATER, are over the moon and so are we!

 Learn more about their writing and editing services at www.meredithandwinblevins.com

The So-Called Self

After twenty-some years of making up imaginary people I’ve noticed a trend in my work. That I am partial to secrets is perhaps a given in a mystery writer. Secrets, hidden facts, and unknowns from the past make up the plots of most mysteries. But I’ve also noticed that I like a good secret identity. A secret self.

The Self: what is it exactly? Part nature, part nurture, a combination of the the blending of genetic material and the loving (or not) people who care for you as you grow. Before a person has children they often think whimsically about how they will bring up their children *just so,* avoiding all the perceived mistakes of their own childhoods. After their baby is born a new thought pops vividly into play: “This child has his own ideas!”

So it is with characters. Bringing a fictional person to life on the page takes a strong will, persistence, and luck, combined with the raw talent with words and feelings that make a writer tick. Yes, feelings. A writer must have a well of emotion that isn’t far from the surface. The so-called Self of fiction is both the person the character presents to the other characters and the emotional life she often hides from them. That this hidden Self holds secrets about her identity that she doesn’t want anyone to know is just human nature. There are parts of each of us, our innermost Self, that we guard with every fiber of our being. Things that make us ashamed, emotions we aren’t proud of, our jealousies, our envies, our weaknesses we hope desperately nobody has noticed. Just like real people characters hide the real core of themselves. But as writers we have to know that core, to understand the way people trick themselves and manipulate others, to just plain “get” human nature in all its sometime weirdness.

Girl in the empty dressIn my latest novel, Gillian Sargent has hidden her past quite well, and with good reason. But when she disappears the Bennett Sisters, lawyers and sleuths, must dig deep to find her before something bad happens to her. This involves outing her real identity, whether she likes it or not. For much of the book she is a cypher: The Girl in the Empty Dress, all external perception but nothing inside. This is the way we perceive most people we don’t know well — which is of course most people. Most people wouldn’t try so hard to hide their past though, unless there was something really juicy to hide. Does that apply to Gillian Sargent? But of course.

PLAN-X-ebook-finalThe theme of the secret identity is also a big part of PLAN X, my Rory Tate thriller from 2013. A professor of Shakespeare is badly burned in a bomb blast in a college lab. The heroine, Cody Byrne, a policewoman, is tasked with finding his next of kin who appear to be nonexistent. Unwilling to let go of the case that may help her get past her PTSD from an Iraq tour, Cody embarks on an unauthorized journey to find out his real identity. Along the way she finds out more about her own self. This is something that fiction does better than real life: make connections and parallels that make the world make sense, if only for a moment. Real life is much more random. It’s cruel and its timing sucks.

Writing fiction is about writing characters. Yes, you have to know how to plot but it’s your characters and their secret selves that carry your story. It’s the difference between the outer story (the events that happen to and by characters) and the inner story (the emotional journey your main character is on). The inner story resonates much deeper with readers even as they hang on the suspenseful events of the plot.

Ying and yang. Plot and characters. The outer shell and the real Self: you can’t have one without the other.