Saturday, February 28, 2009

Procrastination: A Writer's Nightmare

(Award-winning author, Charlotte Hughes, began her writing career publishing newspaper and magazine articles before becoming a New York Times best-selling author. Charlotte makes her home in Beaufort, S.C. Best known for her Full series with Janet Evanovich, she has written over 40 books, ranging from the 3 mysteries she wrote for Avon to Mira's Hot Shot. Her newest release, Nutcase, centers on Atlanta psychologist, Kate Holly, and the humourous antics of her friends, family and patients. In the process she's learned that the life of a psychologist is enough to drive anyone nuts. Readers are invited to visit Charlotte online at where she also blogs regularly. To celebrate the publication of Nutcase, Charlotte is doing a blog tour, Virtually Nuts, and we're happy to welcome her today.)

Someone recently asked me, “What is the thing you most hate about writing a book?”
My answer was, “Um, writing the book.”
That gave me pause. Gee, what a thing to say!
I thought of my friend, a successful author, who once said she loved being a writer but hated writing. I remembered another writer friend who seldom found time to go to her computer because she was forever volunteering, holding dinner parties, creating new gourmet recipes which she hoped to put in a book one day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the book she had been commissioned to write. She never got around to writing the book and had to pay back her advance.
Pretty scary.
So I got to thinking. . . I knew I loved writing – it’s what I’ve done for more than twenty years – so why was it still so difficult to write the damn book? Even more disconcerting is my present unfinished manuscript that was due two weeks ago. Another missed deadline!
It sort of feels like I missed my mortgage payment, only worse. I wouldn’t miss a mortgage payment so why would I not make a book deadline?
It’s a clear case of procrastination, and it has been a part of my life since forever. I remember putting off book reports in grade school, cramming for exams in college. I even procrastinated when it came to bearing my two sons. On both occasions, my contractions stopped the minute I reached the hospital, and my labor had to be induced.
One problem, I think, is how I look at my deadlines. They feel kind of vague and so far off in the future that I don’t actually see them until their staring me in the face. Like Christmas. You know it’s coming – I mean they put up the decorations right after Halloween – but somehow it always slips up on you, and you almost kill yourself trying to buy and wrap the gifts in time.
I think for me I lack focus and direction. I am so easily distracted that I found it tortuous to sit through the movies “Australia” and “Benjamin Button.” Give me a ninety minute movie, and I’m good to go, but I don’t want to sit through some two and a half hour epic. I don’t like having to go to the concession stand twice for popcorn.
I always tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block because if I believe in it I’ll get it. But I’ve been blocked, and it is sheer misery. It’s like the creative well has run dry, and you are using a divining rod to find water in the middle of a desert. My head feels like it is stuffed with cotton, and there’s not an idea to be found. Only a sense of dread and despair. (This might be the reason so many writers drink!) I’ve had two husbands – at different times, of course – tell me I always go through an agonizing process before the story takes root or clicks in my brain. Even then, I have to force myself to go to the computer and face that blank page. Wouldn’t it be easier to face a firing squad?
Why do I/we have to go through this torture? Finally, we start the book and fill up that first page, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy going from that point on. There are dry spells, stops and starts, days when you want to toss your computer out the window and get a job flipping burgers. When the words won’t come, the most difficult thing is slogging to that computer day in and day out. I find as many reasons as I can to avoid it. Sometimes I pretend I’m attending to something more important than my writing, but I know I’m just putting it off.
It’s also during this time that I find myself caught up in little dramas. I don’t know if these situations come about as a result of the stress I’m under or if I’m subconsciously seeking out distractions or both. During this time I find I absolutely must have something repaired in my house, usually to the tune of a lot of money, and suddenly I’ve got contractors coming in and out. One of my sons will do something dumb, and I’ll go off the deep end, or my mom will have a health issue, and I’ll spend sleepless nights pacing the floor because I just know it’s up to me to solve all these problems.
By this time my life is in chaos, I’m a total wreck, as are most of the people close to me. Only my case is worse because I’ve got a book to write. I have to earn a living. But how can I possibly write my book in the midst of all of these problems, I cry to the heavens. And, OMG, what if I never write again!
Panic sets in. I start ordering all these books that promise to cure procrastination. I listen to my paraliminal tape, “Get Around to It,” from Learning Strategies. I tell myself I’m going to GET CONTROL of the situation. I get out my egg timer, set it on sixty minutes, during which time I WILL NOT leave my desk no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. But not even ten minutes passes before I have to pee so I decide while I’m up I can grab a cup of coffee, and I run like hell because I know I’m sort of cheating. And as long as I’m at it I’ll go ahead and let my dogs out. I arrive back at my computer, out of breath and find more time has passed than I thought.
Before I can gather my thoughts, the dogs are barking to get back in, big eye roll, I jump up and run to the door to let them in, only to have one of them hurl something green at my foot.
Well, hell, now I’ll have to bring out the mop, and that reminds me I haven’t mopped, MUCH LESS vacuumed my floors IN DAYS, so with a huge sigh I clean up the hurl with a paper towel and run for the laundry room and my vacuum cleaner. If I’m fast, I can get back to my desk and still beat the egg timer. But hellfire and damnation, I can barely get to the vacuum cleaner for the pile of laundry so I pause to put on a load of clothes.
Back at my computer I see a large chunk of time has passed, and I decide I’m going to make up for the lost time by not answering the phone or checking my e-mail, but, I have to check it because I’m expecting to hear back from my agent on a particular question I asked so I’d better check before I get back to work. Nope, nothing from the agent, but OMG, Pottery Barn is having their 75% clearance, and that is my favorite store in the entire world!
The egg timer goes off. Crap! I decide not to restart it until AFTER I’ve looked at the online sale at PB. My shopping trip steals more time than I’d planned, and I’m so tired because I got up at an ungodly hour so I could get started on my book early, which explains why I’m still in my pajamas. My mother would find that appalling because she believes in having her face and hair done by 6 AM. She’s also the only woman I know who starches and creases her jeans.
Okay, I’ve got a plan now. I’ll grab lunch, lie down for thirty minutes and devote the rest of the day to writing. But back at my computer, I need to see if my agent has responded to my e-mail.
The best and the worst thing that happened to writers is the Internet. It’s too easy to touch base with friends and other writers. (Of course before that we stayed on the phone with each other!) It is too easy to lose yourself on the Internet. It’s like trying to eat ‘just a little bit’ of butter pecan ice cream out of a half gallon carton. It can’t be done. Before you know it, half the ice cream is gone. You can blow half a day online. Then you have to feel guilty and even more stressed about not getting much done on the book.
It would be so much easier if I just wrote the damn book.
In “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” (yes, I bought the book), author Rita Emmett writes: “Because much of procrastination is a game—a mind game—you can use your mind to change the game. Instead of focusing on how you’ll feel doing the work, focus on how you’ll feel when it’s finished. Think about the payoff. Visualize the relief and sense of accomplishment you will feel once it is done.” In the very next paragraph she advises us to, “Harness your mind and imagination to change the procrastination game.”
Well, okay, I tell myself, but harnessing my mind sounds pretty hard because it’s traveling in a million different directions.
Something Rita Emmett said in her book, about making excuses, really bothered me. “Every time you voice excuses, you are trying to convince someone (most often yourself) that it’s OK that you did or didn’t do something. You may have noticed that excuses undermine other people’s confidence in you, but are you aware that excuses harm your self-esteem.”
Reading that was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I don’t know about other writers, but I have days when my self-esteem is lower than a gopher hole. I don’t want or need a another reason to feel bad about myself.
Then there’s the part about others losing their confidence in me. I am, for the most part, a good person who obeys the laws and tries to follow the Golden Rule. I send money to several charities. If somebody needs me, I try to be there for them. I check my FICO scores once a month. I would simply die if I did not have a high FICO score or wasn’t a good friend to someone who needed me! That would make me feel as though I couldn’t be counted on.
So how is it that I’m able to change the rules where my book is concerned? The very sobering answer to that is I have no right.
All the little rituals and negative self-talk and the drama that I put myself through have no place in the professional world. We’ve all heard stories about the famous authors who came before us and lived hellish lives in the name of creative genius – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cheever, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath – the list is far too long and their stories way too sad. Suffice it to say that many authors have fought demons; as a result, drank and drugged their way through life.
I’m not so sure all that drama works in today’s publishing world. My editor might feel like my best friend, but I don’t think she’s going to be around for long if I drag her through every minor tragedy that befalls me because, let’s face it, writers seem to have a lot of tragedies that just might be called “life.”
So here I am with an unfinished manuscript that’s late, and a book tour that starts in one week, and I don’t even know if I can fit into half the clothes in my closet. And here’s the really bad part: I knew this was going to happen. For weeks I’ve been dreading it, DREADING IT! Why? Because, as much as I hate to admit it, this has happened before.
I’ve spent so much time dreading it that it’s all I could think about. I read somewhere recently that the more we think about something the bigger it gets. That makes perfect sense, and when something gets really big it just sucks the life right out of you. It OWNS you. Think of all the time and creative energy it takes to give life to all those fears and insecurities and God only knows what else we put ourselves through!
And then there are all the interruptions.
My smoke detectors have been beeping for a week, and I am JUST ABOUT TO LOSE MY MIND because it sounds like I’m surrounded by newborn chicks, cheep, cheep, cheep! Holy hell, of all times for this to happen! Now I have to go find the damn ladder. But first I have to find the new key to my outside storage room because I lost the old key and had to get someone to replace the entire doorknob, and Lord only knows how long that is going to take.
When I get back I’m going to set that egg timer, and I am NOT getting up, NOT ONCE, not even to pee, until I get some work done on my book.
Oh, hell, my dog just hurled again. I’ll have to call the vet. This has been the worst day! Maybe I’ll have time to work on my book tomorrow.
(So what's your favorite excuse--I mean valid and important reason--for putting things off?)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Sigh, I feel like Typhoid Mary . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Shingles on a roof can be a problem when high winds hit, ripping them off and dropping them on your lawn, several feet below where they really belong. IF you're lucky, your insurance will replace them. If not, likely you will soon be up on the roof all by yourself, hammer in hand, precariously balanced and praying not to slide off and join the rest of the shingles, far below.

Shingles on the human body, the viral kind, can be a far worse disaster. IF you are a senior citizen, you really need to research this problem, on the Internet and among your friends. Here's what I found out. An elderly relative of my hubby suffered from a bout of shingles all the way down one leg and had severe pain for over a year. Wearing street clothes was extremely difficult for her, so she spent a lot of time in a loose robe. Another relative was on a trip with friends, several hundred miles from home. On reaching their destination, he had to be taken to the nearest ER, with severe pain on his upper back. His annual golf trip, long anticipated, wasn't much fun. The diagnoses, shingles. That was a year ago this February. When I asked him last week how long the problem lasted, he said he still had it, a year later! Not the rash/blisters, mind you, they faded in about thirty days or so, but the area is still tender and painful to the touch.

A search of the Internet will most likely scare you like it did me. Along with the severe pain (shingles attacks your nerve endings) sufferers can be blinded if the facial area is afflicted, and if pneumonia results, the sufferer can die. Not something I wanted to have happen, particularly since I had a huge case of chicken pox when I was five, and those of us who had chicken pox are more at risk for shingles than those who didn't. Urrrrr.

On my first visit to my new family doctor, I noticed several signs spread around the office urging patients to consider the shingles vaccine. I asked for more info, and here's what I learned. The vaccine is expensive, usually around $200 per dose. And it's a bit delicate to store. It MUST be kept frozen until just minutes before the injection. Most, if not all, doctors are reluctant to order and/or store the vaccine. Instead, they fax the order to local pharmacies who then order it. It takes two to three months for the orders to be filled because there are so very many of us seniors learning about it and rushing to sign up.

Many of the pharmacies will also give patients the shot right there in the store because transporting it to the doctor's office can be tricky as well. Let the vaccine thaw for more than thirty minutes and you've just blown two hundred samolians. And by the way, this $200 buys you about a half inch worth of vaccine when it's placed in the syringe. Whew. Is it worth it? You be the judge. I'm not a fan of severe pain, and seeing/hearing how shingles affected others was enough to convince me.

So where does Thypoid Mary come in? In case you're too young to know who Typhoid Mary was, (or don't remember all the details, as I didn't until I did an Internet search) she was the first person in the United States to be identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid fever. In the early 1900's Mary, (I'm not using her last name) a young cook, immigrated to America and came into contact with dozens of unsuspecting people as she took jobs in various homes. In EVERY place she worked nearly everyone in the family became seriously ill and some died. Typhoid fever is contracted after the victim consumes food or liquid handled/prepared by a carrier of the disease.

Since Mary was certain she'd never had typhoid fever, she continued to deny she was the cause, even though the disease spread throughout every single family she worked for. Researchers believe her mother had it during her pregnancy and that caused Mary to become a carrier. Thus the term Typhoid Mary came to mean anyone who infects others without suffering the results themselves. Mary's complete refusal to admit she might be the problem, and her continuing to work as a cook and causing severe suffering (and in some cases death) in those around her resulted in her being forcibly quarantined twice in her life. She eventually died in quarantine at the age of sixty-nine. (After her release the FIRST time, she continued to work as a cook, even though she promised not to as a condition of her release. And, yes, those people got sick as well.) At least two men have also been identified during that era as carriers who had not knowingly had the disease.

When I first researched the shingles vaccine, I learned that the vaccine is "live" and therefore I would need to avoid contact with infants and young children who had not yet had chicken pox or been vaccinated for same. Okay, I could do that. We didn't have any small children in our family, and I could easily avoid the infants I routinely come into contact with at church or in public. Couldn't I? Hmmm.

My family doctor ordered the vaccine to be shipped to our local pharmacy in Metropolis, and to my relief, there was someone on hand to give me the vaccine when I arrived to pick it up. No dashing across the Ohio River to Paducah (and risk getting stuck on the bridge IF there was a problem) in order for the doctor's office to administer it. All was well. That shot was probably the LEAST painful I've ever been given, since the giver uses the fatty section of the arm between shoulder and elbow (sigh, she had no difficulty locating MINE.) Yeah, I'm talking about the chicken wing that swings under the arm, below where my muscles used to live. Sigh. But I digress. And I've had no reaction to speak of from the shot. Not even a rash. Back to Typhoid Mary.

After the shot, Hubby and I went to have breakfast and while waiting for my pecan waffle to arrive, I read the mile long warning/instruction paper included with the vaccine. Along with infants and small children, I'm to avoid "close contact" with pregnant women. Okay, I can do that, even though the young woman who sits beside me at church every Sunday and Wednesday night is newly pregnant. I'll simply move to another pew. But for how long? After all, we have at least three pregnant ladies in our congregation, and three or four little ones who are at risk from me, and it's not a large building. The mile long warning paper doesn't specify. I search online, beginning with the company who made my vaccine. Nothing, except the same warnings. I call their 800 number. The person on the other end of the line says: "It depends on the individual." Okay, I pride myself on being an individual, so give me a ball park figure. How long to I avoid close contact? He can't say. Or won't. Urrr.

I call my doctor. Bless her heart, she takes time out of a very busy day and researches my question. But she can't get me an answer either. I call the pharmacy. They also have no clue. I look at the drug company's website again. (You'll notice I'm not mentioning names. I don't need grief from them. I've already shelled out $199 for the vaccine, and I don't have insurance to cover it. But it was worth it, more on that later.) Where was I?

I call a different number at the drug company. This person has no clue either. Sooo, how long do I sit in a different pew? (If you attend church regularly you likely know how very territorial we church goers are, and how we hate having to sit out of pocket.) And since I routinely hug and chit chat with the expectant moms in the bathroom between Bible study and worship, I now have to use the RARELY used potty waaaaay in the back of the building, by the class rooms. Urrr. I have given everyone I might be a danger to a head's up, that they should turn and run in the opposite direction, IF I happen to wander into their space accidentally. They agree (were they a wee bit too eager, or was that just my imagination?) I begin to feel like Typhoid Mary.

After further research, reading/wading through information on the Internet designed for doctors and other care givers about the vaccine, and actually understanding it, I decide thirty days should be long enough for me to be "safe," live vaccine or no. I might wait longer than that to return to "my pew" because I do NOT want to cause problems for the newly pregnant mom. I'm thanking my lucky stars that the vaccine arrived when it did, because she and her family lived with us for nigh onto two weeks after the ice storm that took out their power, so for all of that time we were indeed "in close contact" as the pamphlet-as-long-as-a-roll-of-toilet-paper cautioned against. Luckily they were able to move home just a couple of days before I received the vaccine and learned about the cautions. Did I mention I felt like Typhoid Mary?

I've been surprised to learn how many other seniors are not yet aware of the vaccine. Shingles is a serious threat to all of us over sixty, and sometimes to those who are younger. The side affects of the vaccine are generally mild, bit of a sore arm, etc, but well worth the protection. According to my research, the vaccine doesn't guarantee that everyone receiving it won't get shingles. But while those who do get shingles will have the rash and blisters, the pain will not be as severe. The vaccine helps protect against that. For me, it's well worth the cost, both in money and time. And I can survive a month or so of avoiding those at risk from me. What about you?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Against the Grain Part II: Building A Better Relationship

Elizabeth Zelvin

Note: This is the second half of my Valentine's Day post on relationships.

Two psychologists called Prochaska and DiClemente invented a model of the stages of change that they originally meant for describing addictions and recovery. It works equally well when applied to other processes involving change, including relationships.
The six stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, determination, action, maintenance and relapse. In plain English:
1. you’re not even thinking about changing, even if the way things are is causing trouble
2. you’re thinking about it, but you feel ambivalent
3. you’ve decided you want to change
4. you do something about it, like changing your behavior or your attitude
5. you keep practicing new behavior and attitudes
6. you slip back into your old ways

I’ve counseled many couples in my career as a therapist, and the stages of change model explains why so often it doesn’t work. Typically, one partner drags the other into treatment. What’s the problem? “I’m willing to change, but he’s not.” (With straight couples, it’s usually the woman who’s more motivated to get help—or thinks she is.) What’s really happening here? What stage are they in? She claims he’s in precontemplation—doesn’t think he needs to change. She thinks he needs to change, all right. But does she realize she needs to change as well? Nope. She too is in precontemplation.

What do they expect from therapy or counseling? Well, he expects torture. And she expects a fix. She wants the therapist to recommend a book (like those by Hendrix, Gray, and Gottman that I mentioned in Part I) and make him read it and do the exercises with her. Yep, she wants to jump right to action. And because neither of them has gone through contemplation and determination, all the exercises in the world won’t heal their marriage or relationship.

So what’s the first requirement for building a better relationship? Two willing partners. If you’re dissatisfied with your relationship, start by throwing away that list you’ve been compiling of all the things your partner does wrong. Ask yourself a few questions.
1. Do you love your partner?
2. Are you prepared to make some changes yourself? Not be right all the time? Let your partner win?
3. Are you prepared to give up “should” and “not fair”?
4. Would you rather be angry or have the relationship? Not a rhetorical question. Ask yourself, and be honest about the answer.
5. How much trust and safety do you have with your partner? If there’s a problem of drinking, violence, depression, jealousy, or lack of support, you may have a genuinely unwilling partner, and you and your helping professional need to know that.
6. Are you willing to get help for yourself if your reactions to your partner come partly from your own history? In the vernacular, are buttons getting pushed? You need to know.

Next on the agenda: giving up blame, criticism, and control. This is very hard to do, but it’s essential to a good relationship. Here are some actions you can take, from sources as different as the three psychologists I’ve mentioned, family systems theory, the twelve-step programs, and a variety of approaches to mental health.

1. Accept your differences. Agree to disagree on “perpetual conflicts.” Accept the difference in gender styles, between “Mars and Venus,”or in individual personal styles, in how you process conflict. Remember you can change yourself, but not your partner or anyone else.

2. Respect your partner’s boundaries. I love the way the Mars and Venus guy talks about it. When men “go into the cave” to work things out, women had better not “sit outside the door of the cave,” waiting to hear all about it. Conversely, men need to try not to shut down emotionally when a conflict needs to be resolved.

3. Stop blaming. One good way is to watch what you say and how you say it, no matter how angry you are. Some communication styles escalate things, others defuse them. You won’t make things better by accusing, critiquing, or even justifiable anger. Tell your partner about your sadness, fear, and anger without saying your feelings are his or her fault.

When you’re moving from determination into action, there are plenty of tools you can use to resolve conflict without the kind of fight that tears relationships apart. Don’t throw the kitchen sink into the argument. Stick with the “solvable conflict” that’s on the table. Let repair attempts succeed: accept laughter or a natural closure to the discussion. Don’t do a Columbo—“And one more thing”—that starts the fight all over again.

Be aware of how the past can escalate the present. Counseling can help with this. Sometimes an intense reaction to what your partner does or says has as much to do with the past as with the present situation. Learn to recognize when your buttons get pushed, and separate that out from what’s going on now with your partner. If your partner identifies a button-pusher, respect it; don’t go ahead and push it. Acknowledge your partner’s vulnerability; admit your own.

There are appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing feelings. “I feel sad,” “I feel scared,” “I feel angry,” and “I feel lonely” are appropriate. “You always,” “You never,” “You should” and “Why can’t you” are inappropriate. Appropriate expressions of feeling get through. Inappropriate expressions arouse defensiveness and escalate the conflict. By the way, “I feel you always,” “I feel you never,” and “I feel you should” are not “I” statements about your feelings. They are merely ways to accuse or blame, and they will make things worse.

One of my favorite ways to put it in a nutshell is the Serenity Prayer, used in twelve-step programs and other spiritual paths. Whether you connect with spirituality, religion, or neither, and whether or not you use the “G” word, I suggest you keep an open mind about the value of “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It will help you have a better relationship.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

How does that feel?

Sandra Parshall

One second I was upright, walking across a patch of ice on the patio. The next, I was face-down on the bricks with blood gushing from my nose.

I’m sure I felt some pain in the moments after my recent fall, but that wasn’t my primary concern. My first thought: Omigod, are my glasses broken? (No, but they were so badly scratched that I had to buy new lenses at an exorbitant price.) My second thought: Omigod, what a mess, I’m bleeding all over everything. (I was.) I didn’t pay much attention to the pain until later, when I was resting with my head back and a handful of paper towels clamped over my nose. That was when I finally had the leisure to notice that the middle of my face felt as if I had, well, landed nose-down with great force on brick paving.

If I were describing this event in a novel, the pain would get the character’s attention a lot faster. And I’d have to come up with a more evocative description than the one in the last line of the previous paragraph. I would have to make the reader feel the pain along with the character. What kind of pain is it? Sharp? Dull? Shooting? Throbbing? Blinding? I could spend an extraordinary length of time putting together the right handful of words to make the suffering real to the reader.

Allowing the reader to experience physical sensations vicariously through a character’s body is part of the reader-character bonding that produces devoted fans. We may think it’s unimportant compared to letting the reader into the character’s heart and soul, but if you leave out sensory details a story seems flat and incomplete. Often the physical and emotional can’t be separated, because emotions cause physical reactions – the pounding heart of anger, the cold sweat of fear may be cliches, but they are familiar to almost every human being. It may be enough if we leave a reader with the thought, Yes, I know that feeling, I know exactly what it’s like. But a gifted writer can make us believe that what we’re experiencing through his or her character is unique, something never felt in quite this way before.

This is Anne Tyler’s description, in the non-mystery Celestial Navigation, of an agoraphobic character’s terror during his first outing in many years: “Dread rose in him like a flood in a basement, starting in his feet and rapidly filling his legs, his stomach, his chest, seeping out to his fingertips. Its cold flat surface lay level across the top of his throat. He swallowed and felt it tip and right itself. Nausea came swooping over him, and he buckled at the knees and slid downward until he was seated flat on the sidewalk with his feet sticking out in front of him.”

In cozy mysteries, pain and bloodshed are usually kept offstage, but in the darker forms of crime fiction, characters stagger from one
emotional and physical extreme to the next. When they aren’t terrified, they’re reeling from gunshots, stab wounds, blows to the head. If a character is rendered unconscious, the reader wants something a little more detailed than the old standby, “And then the world went black.” Yeah, but in the seconds before that descent into blessed oblivion, how did it feel?

Is it possible to accurately describe something we’ve never experienced? I’ve never been shot, stabbed, thrown off a building, or clobbered with a blunt object, so what do I know? Granted, many readers haven’t had those experiences either, but that won’t stop them from passing judgment on the authenticity of my descriptions. How do I get them right?

I can extrapolate. I know how a deep cut on the hand or foot feels, and I might be able to use that sensation if I amplify it several thousand times. I’ve banged my head on enough cabinet doors and other unforgiving objects to imagine how a blow from a pipe or baseball bat would feel. I’ve fallen from a height and will never forget the feeling. A gunshot? Nothing comparable in my bag of life events, so I have to ask someone who’s been through it. When I questioned both a combat veteran and a former policeman about being wounded in the line of duty, their answers were surprising – and surprisingly similar. Both said that so much adrenaline was pouring through them that they felt no pain at first and didn’t realize they’d been hit. I’ve seen a similar reaction described in some crime novels, but more often the character collapses in agony. Whether a particular scenario works or not depends on the skill of the writer, but as a reader I find the delayed reaction more intriguing and realistic in an intense action scene.

Sex scenes are the bane of crime novelists, and some writers shun them, either because they don’t want to stop the story long enough to throw in a sexual encounter or they dread writing about such intimate contact. Only the writers who started in the romance genre seem to feel comfortable detailing every touch and thrill of their characters’ sex lives. Do readers appreciate the effort? Many don’t. Sexual pleasure somehow seems out of place in most mysteries and thrillers, and I suspect that a lot of readers skim those scenes or skip them entirely, preferring to move ahead to the next round of pulse-pounding terror and excruciating pain.

Some writers are so good at making the agony feel real that I have to wonder whether they have a touch of the sadist in them. When I need inspiration, I can turn to Val McDermid’s thrillers, Lisa Gardner’s Gone (a lead character is imprisoned in a wet, cold basement for much of the book), a terrifying chapter in Elizabeth Becka’s Trace Evidence that’s written from a victim’s viewpoint. For depictions of characters teetering on the psychological and emotional edge, no one matches Ruth Rendell and Thomas H. Cook.

When I was young, long before I published a novel, my chief failing as a writer was that I didn’t let readers get close enough to my characters. Too many times, critique partners complained that they couldn’t feel what the characters were experiencing. I’m learning and, I hope, improving. Maybe I still have time before I check out of this life to produce a passage that will make a reader exclaim, “I’ll never forget that scene – I felt like I was living it through your character.”

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Digital Fallacies

Sharon Wildwind

February has been a good month for the digital debate, generated by the February 9th Amazon announced of its new Kindle 2, and by the fact that the realities of last October’s Google lawsuit settlement are filtering down to individual authors.

True or False:
1. Electronic books cost less to manufacture than paper books.
2. Electronic formats should be released months after the paper format.
3. Electronic books should be sold for less than paper books.
4. Electronic books are greener (more ecologically friendly) than paper books.
5. Electronic books a passing fad.

1. Production Costs

Production costs for electronic books are, to a large extent, dependent on how much the publisher wants to spend up front. In a traditional publishing house, there are costs for author advances, editing, cover design, typesetting, the printing and distribution of Advanced Reading Copies, and for marketing and promotion. Some companies spend a lot on these services, some spend almost nothing, passing those costs on to the author. So the cost to manufacture is variable and may equal the cost of producing a paper book.

Second step costs are for raw materials: paper, ink, covers, printing itself, boxes in which to pack and ship the books, and the salaries of all the people who do these tasks.

Third step costs are for shipping and handling, storage space, returns from book stores and, ultimately, the cost of discarding remainders and destroying the physical books.

Second and third step costs for electronic books are different than for paper books, but they still exist. Someone has to format them into electronic readable documents, and there has to be a staff available to fix the electronic copies if something goes wrong. Electronic books are, after all, only computer files and when was the last time you had to call IT to fix a computer file problem.

Bottom line: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Paper books cost; electronic books cost but the money is spent in different places.

2. Release Dates

Some of the most heated debate this month has been from people who say that, in all fairness to bookstore owners, an electronic title MUST be held back—some say six months, some say a year—after the date of the paper book’s release. This is the old paradigm of releasing a hard cover first, then waiting a year before releasing the paperback. That paradigm is dead.

Fairness is not the motivating factor in sales. Suppose you were a clothing manufacturer. If you had produced a new version of a coat that was selling like crazy, would you withhold your product from the market for six months in order to give clothing stores a fair chance to sell the coats they already had in stock? Heck no. As soon as enough stock had come off the production lines to fill a truck, that truck would be rolling out of the garment district.

If that’s true, some people say, then let’s set up electronic kiosks in bookstores where people can come to download electronic books. That way the book seller can still make a small commission on each copy of an electronic book.

So, I’ve got two options. I can go out this morning in -9 weather (and it’s snowing) to my favorite local bookstore, where I will pay the cost of the book + a $2.50 kiosk fee to download a book, or I can sit at my computer, pay only the cost of the book, and have it downloaded in under 1 minute. Which option am I more likely to choose?

Bottom line: Electronic releases are more likely to be made BEFORE or at the same time as paper releases, but never afterwards.

3. Price Point

Full disclosure being a big thing these days, I have to admit that there are relationships here to question #1 that, as an author, affects me directly. Will the price point for my book cover ensure me a fair and reasonable author’s advance? Will it cover good editing? Will I be likely to see royalties?

One thing we do know already is that some vendors are already using low book price points as an add on. It’s akin to “Do you want fries with that?” The primary products for electronic readers are newspapers, magazines, and electronic material, such as blogs. There are already advertisements that tout the values of getting your daily newspaper on an electric reader, including cell phones, and as an afterthought say, “You can get books for this reader, too, you know.”

In the current paper market, I have no say-so in the price point unless I’m self-publishing or I’m selling one of those copies I’ve paid for (author’s discount applies) and have in my storage locker. Otherwise, I’m dependent on what my publisher says the book will sell for. Electronic book price points won’t be any different.

Bottom line: what price point will sustain both authors and readers? Will a terribly low price point on electronic versions be offset by a huge increase sales volume? I don’t know. Stay tuned for further developments.

4. The Green Machine
Here’s how paper books affect the environment: cut down trees; replant trees and grow them for 20 years; mill paper; use recycled paper; manufacture and use ink, colored ink for the covers, bindings, and glue; use fuel to ship all the raw materials and ship the finished books, and store books, and return the books, and destroy books; toss books in landfills; recycle some books, keep bookstores open; keep second-hand bookstores open; produce, ship, sell, and recycle book shelves to both businesses and individuals; produce and recycle promotional materials; and use fuel to move books from place to place whenever book owners move.

Here’s how electronic books affect the environment: ship raw materials; produce, market and sell electronic machines; feed the desire for the latest gadgets; deal with obsolescence; deal with the disposal of electronic machines and with components that contain chemicals such as PVCs and mercury; manufacture and use electricity; and manufacture, use, and recycle batteries.

List 2 looks shorter than list 1, but each activity probably has a greater impact on the environment. A paper book in a landfill will eventually degrade; an electronic reader in the same landfill degrades over a longer time—possibly not at all—and releases more toxic chemicals as it does degrade.

Bottom line: we’re back to that no free lunch thing. Paper books cost the environment; electronic books cost the environment.

5. Faddishness in the age of electronics

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already part of my tribe. There are six bookshelves in my office alone, another two in the bedroom, a stack of books beside the bedroom door, and we won’t even discuss my husband’s office. Now go for a ride on your local public transit, or attend the major sporting event of your choice (Hey, the Briar is coming to Calgary next month and I can’t wait. If you don’t know what the Briar is, that won’t matter to you. Oh, okay, it’s a championship curling event.)

How many of those people on the bus or in the sports arena have a houseful of books? Not many.

The cut line is about at age 40. More people over 40 love and want to always have in their lives paper books. They love the look, the feel, the smell, the tangible reality of a book. More people under 40 consider paper books an unnecessary physical encumbrance. Read it and toss it.

The other thing that people under 40 want is for the book reading experience to be a public, tribal event. A rainy afternoon, a cup of tea, and a good book is so 20th century. Read the book, visit the web site, discuss the book on a social web site, produce and post a multi-media collage that encapsulates your reaction to the book, add a soundtrack, and maybe do a little fan writing because you didn't exactly like the way the book ended. It's not about the book anymore; it's about the book brought to a public stage.

In line with that idea, the used book business has reversed in the past five years. Before about 2004, the majority of books being brought to used book stores were discards, multiple copies, and clean-outs of Great-Aunt Violet’s house after she passed on. Today, a large part of used bookstores’ inventories is first run books, which hit the shelves as little as 3 days ago. Read it and take it to the used bookstore for some ready cash.

The edge of the wedge is textbooks. University publishing companies and university bookstores saw a revolution of very angry students and parents last fall. Why put up with huge textbook cost increases? Why buy this honking fat book, which I won’t need next semester, when I should be able to download relevant chapters, as I need them. Read it, take the test, and delete it from my hard drive.

Bottom line: According to the Association of American Publishers, in 2008,
E-book sales increased 68.4%
Adult hardcover book sales decreased 13%
Adult paperback sales decreased 3.6%
University press book sales decreased 7.9% for hardbacks and 8.2% for paperbacks.

So to go back to our original quiz:

1. Electronic books cost less to manufacture than paper books. (False, they cost differently.)
2. Electronic formats should be released months after the paper format. (False, electronic books are likely going to be released on the same day as paper formats.)
3. Electronic books should be sold for less than paper books. (Don’t know if they should be, but they certainly will be.)
4. Electronic books are greener (more ecologically friendly) than paper books. (False, they both cost the environment.)
5. Electronic books a passing fad. (False, they are here to stay, particularly for the people under 40.)
Quote for the week:

In the fall of 2008, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor allowed professors to list their texts online. The university’s bookstore's textbook sales fell $510,000 over the next 5 months. Students went to the Internet to buy their books.
~Karl Pohrt, bookstore owner, February 2009

Monday, February 23, 2009

Spring and The Yearning for Other Places

by Julia Buckley
Spring is almost here. I have never been much of a traveler, and yet I always find myself dreaming of the perfect spring break. Last year we went to a little lake resort in Michigan, where I took these idyllic photos. It was a healing retreat during which we sat around, ate good food, acted goofy, and enjoyed each other's company.

I don't know if we'll even get away this spring--time and resources are limited--but I'd really like to squeeze in another getaway.

Aside from the practical and close escape (the kind we usually take), there are those imaginary escapes we say we would choose if we suddenly became wealthy. (And if I, let's say, suddenly stopped being deathly afraid of airplanes).

So here are some of those places that I go in my mind when the air smells of fresh earth and the first crocus starts to peek through the snow:

1) England. I'd head to the Yorkshire Dales that James Herriott made me fall in love with when I read his books, and then I'd go to Cornwall, whose wild beauty I came to appreciate through Poldark and the books of Rosamund Pilcher.

2) Hungary. This is the land where my father's parents were born, and which they missed all of their lives. My brother went to Budapest last year and said that it has much of the charm and beauty of Prague and other old, stately cities. He also hiked in the mountains and even, with the aid of relatives, checked out the nightlife (and the amazing food) of this country.

3) Germany. This is the homeland of my mother, and I know from all of the beautiful German traditions she shared with our family that I would feel very much at home in this beautiful place--a land of castles and scenic vistas; a land of bierhauses and friendly people. Here's my favorite German castle: Neuschwanstein, the home of "Mad" Ludwig.

4) Somewhere Caribbean--or is it Mediterranean? Somewhere like that place the people are sitting in the Corona commercial, where all they can hear is the roar of the surf as they sit in lounge chairs and contemplate the sunset. Ahhh.

5) An island between Italy and Africa where I can find the place of Prospero, the magician in The Tempest, who lived on this magical island for twelve years until he summoned a storm to wreak his revenge on his would-be murderers . . .

Okay, enough daydreaming for now. But I have a question: What's your favorite destination, real or imaginary?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Canada Calling: The Birth of a Legend

Sharon Wildwind

When the U.S. President came calling Thursday, the Canadian government trotted out the red carpet and an honor guard of Royal Canadian Mounted Police/Gendarmerie royale du Canada decked out in scarlet tunics and stetson hats. Ever wonder where the tunics, the stetsons, and the legend of “they always get their man” comes from? Here’s a short quiz.

Which of these led to the RCMP/GRE becoming THE symbol of policing in Canada?
A. The Royal Irish Constabulary
B. The Newfoundland Constabulary
C. The Klondike gold rush
D. Albert Johnson
E. George W. Trendle and Dewey Cole

The answer—all of them.

In 1871, Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, had a new problem. In July of that year, British Columbia joined the five eastern provinces to become part of Canada. At the time, Canada was four years old. Macdonald’s problem was that there was a heck of a lot of geography between the Manitoba and British Columbia borders; so much geography that no one really knew how much.

The Northwest Territories was sparsely inhabited by First Nations people, Metis, a few European settlers, some American settlers, and an unknown number of courier du bois, essentially seasonal trappers and traders who kept Europe supplied with fur for coats and hats.

Macdonald’s problem was not only whether Canada or the United States would win the race to settle the Territories, but how to keep law and order over such a large land. He realized that a paramilitary force was essential and he modeled that force—The North-West Mounted Police—on the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Here’s what the RIC contributed to the legend: constables were expected to establish roots in their local communities. Most of the constables were drawn from the same backgrounds—social class, religion, and general background as their neighbors—but were not permitted to serve in their home county or the home county where their wife came from. The RIC followed a military model, with constables living in barracks, and with an emphasis on carrying military carbines and being proficient in military drill and regulations.

Plus which, another paramilitary organization—the Newfoundland Constabulary—modeled after the RIC, had been operating in North America since 1729. Newfoundland and Labrador would not join Canada until the twentieth century, but the NC had already demonstrated that the kind of police force Macdonald envisioned did worked in the north.

So, in the late spring of 1874, the North-West Mounted Police (approximately 300 men) left Fort Dufferin, Manitoba for unknown lands. Like British soldiers, their uniform jacket was a red serge coat. They also wore a yellow stripe down the sides of their black trousers to mark them as cavalry, and to complete the ensemble a round black-and-gold pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy might have envied. It was not a good hat for conquering the prairies.

Like all military supplies, the hats and the red coats were made on contract by the lowest bidder. When it rained, the coats leaked dye, and the hats, which were mostly made of cardboard, came apart. By the time the NWMP reached Edmonton and Calgary, most of the men were wearing light pink coats or had traded their uniforms for more appropriate cowboy clothes. After all, who was out there to tell them they were out of uniform?

Their orders were essentially we don’t know what’s out there; we’re not even sure how much of out there is out there. Go find out for us. Keep the peace. Keep the Americans from taking over. Write back if you get a chance.

And that’s exactly what they did. Men dropped off the trek west, in ones and twos, to establish the original NWMP Detachments. Not only did the constables establish roots in their communities, in many places the communities formed around the detachments. There is a wonderful panorama photograph of an early detachment in Alberta, a small stone cabin located at the bottom of a valley, with a stream running beside it, and nothing else—absolutely nothing—man-made visible in the entire photograph.

By the time of the Klondike gold rush, those detachments were sprinkled across the west, and up into the far north. Sam Steele and his Mounties saved an unknown number of lives during the Klondike gold rush by mounting a machine gun at the top of the Chilkoot Pass and issuing an order that every single person coming up the pass had to show proof that they had a ton—literally, 2000 pounds—of supplies with them. Anyone who tried to pass through the Mountie checkpoint without those supplies would be shot. The machine gun was never fired.

The NWMP sent a contingent to the Boer War and, as a result of that service, they received two honors, one probably a lot more practical than the other. Edward VII gave them permission to use Royal in their name and the now Royal North-West Mounted Police got to wear stetsons. Finally, they could ditch those tiny pillbox hats.

In January and February 1931, people throughout North America followed, on their radios, a manhunt happening in the far north. Albert Johnson, a trapper, had tangled several times with a posse formed by the RCMP. He had already wounded one constable and killed a second one. For almost a month the Mounties, and a bush pilot named Wop May, pursued Johnson across a frozen landscape. On February 17, near the Eagle River, after seriously wounding a third Mountie, Johnson was shot to death. It had everything high drama needed: men against the wilderness, danger, suspense, the romance of bush flying, and a mysterious villain. To this day, details of Johnson’s life before he went to the Artic remain open to speculation.

Radio listeners lapped it up, and a few years later, George W. Trendle gave North America Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his faithful sidekick, the dog Yukon King. Those wonderful sound effects of blizzards and wind, and King barking as he led Preston’s team were done by the pre-eminent soundman, Dewey King. The legend of the Mounties had come to North America.

As a final bit of trivia, the Mountie motto is not “We always get our man.” The motto is actually “Maintiens le droit.” The English translation is “Uphold the law.”

Friday, February 20, 2009

CareTrak . . . it's worth repeating . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Little Adji Dessir went missing on January 10, 2009 and no one seems to know what happened to the mentally disabled six year old since then. Authorities have have been forced to discontinue the massive ground search but are still working on the case. I follow the case on Nancy Grace when she gives updates, and I pray for him every day.

Adji has the mentality of a two year old and can not communicate. However, he lives on a large migrant worker farm where at least the close neighbors are familiar with his situation. Yet no one saw him disappear from his yard in broad daylight. My personal fear is that he was somehow kidnapped since if he'd wandered off, you'd think someone would have found him within a few hours. How I wish Adji had been wearing a CareTrak bracelet.

The CareTrak company is located in Murphysboro, Illinois, a small town you've likely never heard of. But I believe everyone in this country, maybe even the world needs to be aware of CareTrak. And I'd like to see every care giver and/or law enforcement agency throughout our country using this equipment.

I learned about this wonderful technology a few years back through the Metropolis Planet newspaper when a local group made a donation to the Massac County Sheriff's department for more CareTrak equipment. After researching the technology I used it in my third Metropolis Mystery book, MARRIED IN METROPOLIS, to try to get the word out, and I've donated proceeds from the book to the local sheriff's department to help them in acquiring more equipment.

CareTrak is a small transmitter worn as an extremely durable bracelet on the arm or ankle of anyone who is mentally challenged and likely to wander away. A tracking perimiter is set anywhere from fifty feet to four hundred feet. During the day the perimiter can be expanded to allow a child or adult to enjoy the outdoors, and at night it can be shortened, in case the wearer tries to leave the house. If the wearer wanders beyond the perimiter, an alarm sounds to warn the caregiver. Either the caregiver or local law enforcement officials can keep the tracking mechanism to quickly locate the wanderer. To date the CareTrak technology has been responsible for over TWO THOUSAND rescues.

I doubt Adji's family could afford the cost of the unit, but law enforcement agencies can donate the wearer's unit IF they have enough donations to help.

Back to Adji. Had he worn a bracelet and simply wandered off, likely he'd have been found within thirty minutes, which is about the average find time. And IF he was indeed kidnapped and the kidnapper somehow figured out how to remove the bracelet and toss it, that would have at least given authorities two important facts, (a) that he WAS taken and (b) where he last had the bracelet on him. Time spent searching for a wandering child could have been spent on locating a suspicious vehicle.

How often do we hear of a mentally challenged adult or child wandering off, with tragic results? Far too often. With CareTrak, the find and rescue statistics are nothing short of magnificent. If you know someone who needs CareTrak, please check the link below for more information. And if there is anything you can do to help connect those who need it with this technology, please do it. Let's try to prevent any more stories like Adji's.

(Well, fooey, for some reason, I can't get this link to go "live" so you can just click on it. Please copy and paste into your browser. Or do a search. Sigh.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Mayor of Central Park’s Birthday Party

Elizabeth Zelvin

On February 15, the Mayor of Central Park turned 93. Alberto Arroyo is a beloved and legendary gentleman who is credited with being the first person to use the path around the Central Park reservoir as a running track and could be found there daily, rain or shine, from 1935 until a year or two ago, when age and ill health started to slow him down. I’ve blogged before about how I met him and fell for his charm and simple goodness before I realized that he was a famous New York character.

A few months ago, Alberto stopped appearing at the South Gate House where he usually held court. Runners who counted on his encouraging wave and smile and looked forward to hearing his stories were dismayed, fearing the worst until we learned that he had had a stroke. He was living in a nursing home and residence near Riverside Park and could no longer make his way across the Upper West Side to Central Park, even with a walker as he had most recently. His friends, some of whom had known him for decades, mobilized to visit him and push his wheelchair to the reservoir as often as possible.

New York Times reporter Charles Wilson (left) picked up the story and wrote a feature that appeared in the Sunday Times, on the back page of the sports section, on Alberto’s birthday. His friends gathered at the reservoir—on a day that was blessedly sunny and mild for February—to rejoice in his pleasure at being out in the fresh air among his many friends and watch him charming the socks off the tourists from all over the world whose guide books direct them to the reservoir and the track that Jackie Kennedy Onassis—one of Alberto’s friends—used to run.

The reservoir was beautiful as always, playing winter ice against early signs of spring. In mid-afternoon, we all adjourned to the residence for birthday cake and more partying. I brought my guitar and played the song I wrote about Alberto several years ago. Another friend played and sang his song about Alberto. A gorgeous lady who also lives at the residence, 102-year-old Amelia, played the piano. And everybody agreed that Alberto’s right when he says, as he once did to me, “In my simple way, I make a lot of people happy.” Here's the article from the Times, with more pictures of Alberto.
Friends Help Alberto Arroyo, Jogging Pioneer at Central Park, Keep Going

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A New Voice: Meredith Cole

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

Meredith Cole directed feature films and wrote screenplays before writing mysteries. She won the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery competition in 2007, and her debut novel, Posed for Murder, was published yesterday, February 17, by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She blogs at

Q. Tell us about Posed for Murder.

A. Posed for Murder is about a photographer named Lydia McKenzie who has a fascination with murder scenes. She recreates historic cases for the camera, using her friends as models, and shoots in a film noir style. But when she finally interests a gallery in her work, a killer starts murdering her models and posing them just like her pictures.

Q. Your education prepared you for a career in film. Why did you decide to write books? What can you do in a book that you can't do on film, and vice versa? Do you plan to continue doing both?

A. I wanted to be a writer since before I could even read. I would dictate stories to my mother. In high school I became fascinated by film, and pursued a film career through graduate school. I directed two feature films, "Floating" and "Achilles' Love." I wrote a lot of screenplays, but I got tired of putting them in a drawer. Film is an expensive medium, and it’s difficult to get films made (even if you win Academy Awards) without big names attached and lots of cash. I realized that I'd always read more books than watched films, and storytelling was storytelling. So I set out to write a book.

Q. Why did you choose to write in the mystery genre?

A. I've always loved mysteries. When I first tried to write novels, I attempted what I thought of as serious fiction. But I ended up stuck in someone's head for pages and pages, and the plot went nowhere. I found the mystery genre very freeing, because I had somewhere to go and something to do there. I let the plot pull me through my first draft, and really enjoyed the ride.

Q. What was the inspiration for Posed for Murder?

A. I love photography, and I've always been interested in the "artist's eye." As a writer, I walk down the street and notice all sorts of weird details that I store away. And then someone will mention some shop moving away or some building going up, and I'll realize that I was so enthralled by something else that I never even saw it. I wanted to see a story though the eye of a photographer, and use her special skills to solve it.

Q. Why did you choose Brooklyn as a setting rather than other places you lived, such as the Charlottesville, VA, area where you grew up?

Williamsburg, Brooklyn is both a fascinating and frustrating place. It's a hip artsy neighborhood filled with young people, art galleries and boutiques. People come here from all over the world to try to make it as artists. I've lived here for almost 10 years, but didn't grow up here--so it's both familiar and fascinating to me. It's also a place in flux, unlike Charlottesville, so I think I found that appealing. But I don't rule out writing something set in Charlottesville, Northern Virginia or Washington, DC--all places that I've lived.

Q. Was this the first novel you'd written, or do you have others stuck in a drawer somewhere?

A. This was my second Lydia McKenzie book. The first was mostly backstory, but has a plot I might try to recycle someday!

Q. What made you decide to enter the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic contest? Had you tried to sell the book before entering the contest?

A. I tried to get an agent for awhile, and was told by a couple of agents that there wasn't a market for my book. This probably means they didn't know where they could sell it, or thought it would be too hard to do so. So I took a chance after learning about the contest from Robin Hathaway, a winner from years ago, and entered the contest.

Q. What was it like to get the call from St. Martin’s telling you that you'd won? How long did you have to keep it a secret before you could tell people about it?

A. I knew I was a finalist, but I had pretty much convinced myself there was no way I'd win. I saw I had a voice mail on my phone, and I was quite shocked to hear Ruth Cavin asking me to call her. Instead of calling her right back, I went over to the sink and started washing dishes. I think I was in shock. Then I told myself to snap out of it--she wouldn't be calling with bad news--and called her back.
I kept winning a secret from almost everyone for awhile (except from family). But then I started letting it leak to friends. I had to spill it to the Guppies (an online SinC chapter of unpublished writers) because it would have been like keeping something amazing from your biggest support group. The Guppies all knew I was a finalist, and they were good about keeping it quiet. I think I was supposed to keep it quiet up until Malice Domestic, but Sarah Weinman got to blow my cover on her blog after we met at the Edgars right before Malice.

Q. You've had to wait quite a while between winning the contest and seeing the book published. Have you filled that time with writing the second book? Has it been difficult to concentrate on writing while you've been in the limbo between selling and publishing?

A. Looking back, having almost two years between winning and getting published has turned out to be really great. I've had a chance to network and meet so many people in the mystery community. I've also been able to learn from the experiences of friends, and get lots of advice on touring and marketing. I've also written another Lydia McKenzie book which is almost done. But it is challenging to switch between marketing and writing all the time, and it's sometimes hard to figure out what the priority should be.

Q. Have you learned anything about the publishing business that has surprised you, or has it all been just as you expected?

A. I didn't know what to expect, so it's all been very eye-opening. I've been most surprised by how long everything seems to take. There's a procedure for proofreading, putting out catalogs, etc., that the companies have been following for years, and every step seemed to take months and months.

Q. Do you work with a critique group or individual friends who give you feedback on your manuscripts, or do you go it alone?

A. I have a wonderful critique group I meet with every two weeks (when we can manage it), and who both reads my book as I write it and reads the final draft. I also have a few readers that help me out by reading the final draft cold and telling me if I've made any glaring errors.

Q. What is your writing routine? How do you fit it in when you’re also working at a job outside the home?

A. I freelance, so every day is different. It also depends on where I am in the writing process. I write best in the morning, and I've been experimenting with getting up very early (before my husband and son) and writing. All the marketing has sort of taken over the rest of the day.

Q. Do you outline before you write? If so, do you follow the outline faithfully, or do your characters do things you didn't expect and change the direction of the story?

A. I start with notes on the computer that morph into a rough outline. I divide the outline into chapters, still keeping it rough, and try to get most of the way through the book. Then I use that document to begin writing the book. I find it very helpful to have some place to go because I pick up and put down the book a lot on my way to finishing a draft. Within that structure, my characters end up going different directions, new ideas occur to me and I jot them down, and the plot takes new twists and turns. I have even tossed out two thirds of a book after a rough draft and rewritten it, so the outline is never set in stone. But I don't consider any of the steps wasted--they're just necessary to the finished book.

Q. What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a writer? What aspects of craft are you still trying to master?

A. I think I'm pretty good at character, plot and dialogue--probably from my screenwriting background. But I often forget to describe everything. It's in my head, but screenwriting teaches you to write very sparsely, so I try not to waste any words. Often a few things get left out until the final draft, or when one of my readers comments that they'd like "more".

Q. Do you ever have writer’s block? How do you get through it?

A. There's usually a specific problem that's keeping me from writing (whether it's a plot, work or family issue). But occasionally I just get burned out and need to sit around reading something that someone else has written for a few days. I used to panic when this happened, but then I realized that everyone needs to take a break every once in awhile. I'm also a big believer in deadlines. If someone else doesn't give me one, I make one up for myself.

Q. What writers have inspired you and taught you by example? Whose
books are must-reads for you?

A. I really like Ruth Rendell's complex character portraits, and I think Agatha Christie is a terrific plotter. But I think I've been most inspired by the hard working mystery writers I've met personally who have been so generous with their time and advice --like Julia Spencer- Fleming, Donna Andrews, Elizabeth Zelvin, Rosemary Harris, Jane Cleland, Cynthia Baxter and Chris Grabenstein, to name just a few. Reading their work and seeing how they manage their careers has been very inspiring.

Q. Have you found writers' groups such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America helpful? In what ways?

A. I can't praise SinC and MWA enough. I found my writer's group, the Guppies, and got information about the Malice Domestic contest through SinC. MWA put me on three author panels last spring before my book even came out, and I'm now planning to do joint events with authors I met at the meetings. I have really met wonderful people through both organizations. They're terrific for networking, but also for finding out about opportunities. They've both been invaluable.

Q. What’s in the future for you? Will you continue writing this series indefinitely, or would you like to try different things?

A. I have a second Lydia McKenzie book written, and at least one idea for a third. But I also have a great idea for a thriller. I would like to continue the series and do other books. Hopefully I'll learn to write faster!

Q. In parting, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A. If you enjoy writing, then keep doing it. Don't let anyone tell you that it's impossible, but do realize it's hard work. And you have to be realistic about the business. Very few writers become rich, and not too many more can make a living at it.

For more information, visit

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dial M for Motivation

Sharon Wildwind

How’s it going with those New Year’s resolutions?

Mine are going just fine, thanks for asking. They’re going fine because I didn’t make any. My husband and I decided a long time ago that instead of pegging resolutions to one day a year, we’d let them come along naturally. If I suddenly realized, in the middle of a bath on the evening of June 12th that my life needed to go in a different direction, well, why not?

If I did have a resolution right now, it would be to end daylight savings time. Of course, that would be a rant, not a resolution. So, here goes the rant:

The original purpose of DST (during both World Wars) was to save electricity. Here are some characteristics of the U.S. society that existed at those times, (more during World War I, than World War II), and made the savings from daylight savings time feasible.

~ society was primarily rural. It was the setting and rising of the sun that determined when a work day began or ended.

~ there were very few uses for electricity other than to provide lighting, telephone service, radio, limited electric trolley service, and run industrial machines.

~Telephone service was self-limiting. No one would even think of making a call between the hours of nine PM and nine AM, except in emergencies.

~Ditto, radio. Other than the clear channel stations with a huge output, radio signed off the air immediately after the ten o’clock news.

~Except when they were on a war footing, factories did not run three shifts a day. The majority of workers went to work between the hours of five and eight AM (Monday to Saturday) and they came home between three and six PM (Monday to Friday) and usually around noon on Saturday. Businesses were closed on Sunday. Really closed. All of them, except for farmers, fire fighters, police, and hospital workers, who were considered a little odd.

Times have changed. It’s six-thirty on a Monday evening. In my office alone I have a potential to be using six desk lamps and an overhead light; a computer, printer, and assorted peripherals; a telephone and answering machine; an iron and sewing machine; and a CD-player. I can hear the dishwasher running in the apartment below us, and since the temperature is hovering at minus twenty, our electric baseboard heating is going full throttle. Consuming electricity to run these things won’t matter one whit if it is 6:30 God’s Time or 6:30 Mountain DST, other than maybe I’ll use fewer of the lights if it’s still daylight outside. However, since my office tends to be darkish, and always in need of additional illumination, maybe not.

We are a 24/7 world and we are paying huge penalties for springing forward and falling back.

This time last year a University of California-Santa Barbara economics professor did a study that showed the switch to and from daylight savings time cost residential electricity users in Indiana $8.6 million dollars extra each year. One survey, one state, and focused only on costs to residential users.

Here are a few other stats that have shown up in recent studies:
~the rate of heart attacks soars in the two weeks after we go to DST and decreases in the two weeks after we come off of it.
~the switch may be making significant contributions to our chronic sleep deprivation epidemic.
~the rate for traffic accidents goes up 8.6% on the Monday after going to DST.
~the rate for pedestrian deaths in the few days after the switch goes up 186%.

Which brings me to what motivates people to change. I read a nursing article last week that I still haven’t resolved itself in my head. The topic was what motivates people to change their health behaviors.

In health care, we have been conditioned to emphasize positive, non-judgmental messages: You can do this. You are a strong person. You have the ability to work through this. You’re a good problem-solver. You are doing something good for yourself. And so on.

As writers, we follow the same idea. It makes sense that we will keep more friends by saying, “You’re on the right track here, it just needs work,” than by saying, “This is the worst chapter I’ve ever read, and you don’t have a hope in heck of making it as a writer.”

Except, maybe we have been wrong all along.

The article I read said was that it is negative messages that—at least in the short run—motivate people more strongly. The test group, all of whom needed to change a health habit, was divided into three sub-groups. All groups received their usual care from their primary health provider. Group One (the control group) received only that. Group Two was given a pamphlet written in very positive language: You can do this, you’re a strong person, etc. Group Three was given the same information, but written in negative language: You’re failing to make this change; if you don’t change you are likely to become very ill and maybe even die.

Guess what? Four months later, more people in Group Three had moved toward change than had the people in Groups One and Two.

But I think just in case this was a fluke, I’m going to go on giving positive messages. Except, perhaps about daylight savings time.

Writing quote for the week:

Priorities are not written in granite. They need to be flexible and change as we do. I find it helpful to think of priorities as the wooden frame upon which we stretch the canvas of our days so that we may apply color and form to the work of art we are creating without the entire painting collapsing in the middle.
~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mystery of Extinction

by Julia Buckley

According to this link, there are many things about to become extinct in our country; on the list are (in reverse order from the original post):
1. Pit toilets
2. Yellow Pages
3. Classified Ads
4. Movie Rental Stores
5. Dial-Up Internet
6. Phone Landlines
7. Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs
8. VCRs
9. Ash Trees
10. Ham Rado
11. The Swimming Hole
12. Answering Machines
13. Film Cameras
14. Incandescent Bulbs
15. Stand-alone bowling alleys
16. The Milkman
17. Hand-written letters
18. Wild Horses
19. Personal Checks
20. Drive-in Theatres
21. Mumps and Measles
22. Honey Bees
23. News Magazines and TV News
24. Analog TV
25. The Family Farm

I understand the logic that suggests why all of these are fading, some of them rapidly (where art thou, honey bees?), but I am troubled by the notion of extinction itself.

The thought of extinction makes us sad (at least it makes me sad), and yet extinction is a fact of life. According to this website, "Since the year 1600, a total of 83 mammals species (2.1%) and 113 birds (1.3%) are known to have become extinct. This number is expected to rise . . . " In the case of animals, I always feel badly to think that something--let's say the polar bear--will become extinct, but I feel entirely helpless about preventing it. Perhaps too many of us feel that something's extinction is a foregone conclusion, that it is a part of the ebb and flow of existence.

In the case of technological extinction, I also feel sad to think of something's loss--hand-written letters, oh my!! But ask me if I write hand-written letters and I will blush with shame. I am dependent upon my keyboard and the speed with which I can write upon it. When I occasionally jot notes to my mom and dad I am appalled by the slowness of the process--the seemingly endless motions of making characters by hand. I should be reveling in the nostalgia of it, since it is suggested that by the time my children are adults no one will be writing this way at all . . . and oh, how sad to think of all that beautiful stationary that I once bought . . .

The picture above is a small selection of letters I saved over the years, ever since I was a child. Although I love e-mail and suffer from a slight addiction to it, I find nothing special about saving e-mails. I don't have a bag of neat e-mails that I'll look at in 20 years, but these letters--what a lovely physical memory of things people wrote to me once, of a certain moment in time when they felt a certain way and made certain plans that are now long-lost to their memories.

But were they meant to be saved? Is it natural to look at things on the verge of extinction and wish them a fond farewell, or is it incumbent upon us to try to preserve what we feel to be good and worthwhile?

This is my philosophical question to you today.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Naming "Baby Book Harris"

by Rosemary Harris, guest blogger

When Pushing Up Daisies was released last year I found myself fielding lots of questions and comments about a certain television show with a similarly catchy title. Frighteningly enough, an early version of my book cover even looked a bit like the show’s ads which haunted me at every bus stop in New York City.

I think I was gracious about it. My favorite “no, that’s not me” experience was with a gentleman at a library talk in Connecticut who refused to believe I was not connected with the program. After five full minutes of denying that I
had a Hollywood deal, I simply thanked him and agreed that, yes, my mother was very proud of me.

There’s also a story behind the title of my second book, The Big Dirt Nap, which hits stores this week. (I love saying and writing that – hits stores – as if they’re being flung out of moving vehicles and miraculously land on bookshelves in stores.) There was some drama concerning the title. The working title was Corpse Flower, which everyone agreed didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I hadn’t said it out loud much (just typed it) and when I did, for some reason, I was reminded of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond saying “Ethel Thayer” over and over again. It had to go.

Much to the dismay of my editor, I rejected most other botanical titles as either too cutesy, too obvious or too excruciatingly nonsensical, e.g. Stalking the Corpse Flower – but it was getting late in the day. I remembered working with a man who told me that the name on his birth certificate was Baby Boy Johnson, because his mother couldn’t decide what to name him. (It’s still his nickname and far more colorful than the name she eventually gave him.) I started to think of my book as Baby Book Harris.

Weeks passed. The natives were getting restless. I finally came up with Dirt Nap. Some people loved it; others went “hunh?” Some thought it was too angry, too edgy, too obscure. (I’m eternally grateful to Julia Spencer-Fleming for being one of those who got the joke.) Still, people in-house were not 100% convinced.

Enter Hec
tor DeJean, publicist extraordinaire, film buff, and quite coincidentally having the same name as the ambitious hotel bouncer/security guard in my book, who saved the day by saying five words. (Hector’s a man of few words.) “How about adding The Big?”

Eureka! The Big Dirt Nap. It knocked off some of the hard edges without making it totally wussy, and quietly paid homage to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep -- always nice to acknowledge the masters. I liked it. Sales and marketing liked it. For all I know, people in the mailroom were polled too. And on February 17, I hope that you like it.

Rosemary Harris is the author of the Dirty Business Mystery series. The first title, Pushing Up Daisies, was a Mystery Guild Selection and was named to Library Journal's Best First Fiction List for 2008. Please visit for more information.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Interview with author Sylvia Dickey Smith

By Lonnie Cruse

Today I'm interviewing author Sylvia Dickey Smith. I met Sylvia through my critique group (where it's gals against the guys and the gals generally win.) Thanks for joining us, Sylvia!

PDD: Tell us about Sylvia Dickey Smith. Where is she from, where is she headed, and what is she doing in between?

SDS: I was born and reared in Orange, Texas, a small town on the Texas/Louisiana border. As G. Howard, says, Orange has its own gravity. You get out early or you don’t get out at all. I was one of those who left early—right after high school. At times I’ve been glad I left, and at other times, wished I could move back. Where am I headed? New York Best seller list I hope! In between, I work at improving my writing, my marketing and my book promotion.

PDD: Tell us a bit about your Sidra Smart series.

SDS: Ah, Sidra. Sidra is one of those post menopausal women ready to take on the world. She’s left a world where she felt caught in a vise and has ventured out into a world so foreign to her some days her head reels. Her new world couldn’t be more different than the one she left. Her ex-husband is a preacher who controlled who she was, what she said and did, and what she thought. Soon after her divorce, her brother dies and leaves her his detective agency in small town Texas. Now she’s on a roll trying to figure out who she is, what she stands for, what she doesn’t stand for, and what she absolutely won’t stand for.

PDD: What prompted you to write this series?

SDS: Life—my own, and that of other women caught in similar circumstances. I write to entertain, but my writing also gives voice to important social issues. These issues may be subtly woven in the stories, but they are there. I encourage readers to look for them. DANCE ON HIS GRAVE, book one, was inspired by a true story. DEADLY SINS DEADLY SECRETS deals with people’s prejudices and the blind eye we can turn on injustice and abuse. The newest book, DEAD WRECKONING, is due out April 1, 2008. I’ll let you figure out the social issues in that one.

PDD: You are also working on a contemporary romance. How difficult or easy is it for you to switch from one genre to the other? What draws you to each?

SDS: I shelved the romance for now. I realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun writing it as I was the mysteries. But I must take opportunity and tell you about the historical mystery I’m working on that’s lots of fun. The book takes place during WWII, and again is set in my hometown. The title is A WAR OF HER OWN.

Before December 1941, the sawmill and farming town of Orange, Texas was full of grand homes, its streets lined with virgin pine, ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss, and bayous full of cypress and water tupelo trees. If someone even said damn, folks fell out in horror. Codes of conduct were exacting, at least in public.

Then, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, propelling the whole country into what became the Second World War. Along with it, Orange shipbuilders gained contracts with the Secretary of War to build Dreadnaughts, destroyers, and destroyer escorts. All hell broke loose. By 1944, the population of Orange had exploded to well over 70,000 people, and with this explosion, a war effort to end all war efforts. Yet one woman fought another war, and the unnamed enemy resided within her.

This work is such fun for me, and as you might expect, is loosely based on family members who lived there during that time period. I hope to have it finished and be ready to query within the next few months.

PDD: Among the topics you present to groups is Mystery Writing and Self Discovery. What did you discover about yourself when writing your mysteries?

SDS: Oh boy. Well, I think the most important thing I learned was that I had a voice. All my life, I forced that voice to lie dormant, fearful to use it, to speak out, to take a risk. Writing helped me tap into it and let the written word embrace it. I learned of my keen insight into people, and a strong intuition available to me. To put it simply, I learned to be authentically me.

PDD: What is a typical writing day like for Sylvia Dickey Smith?

SDS: (Laughter) There’s nothing typical about my day. There was at the beginning, but you know how life happens in the midst of our writing. Previously I spent almost all day at my computer, in my private office, starting early and ending at dinner time. Then, my mom grew ill and came to live with us, needing my time and attention. She passed last year. But did things settle back into the old routine? No way. We decided to downsize, which stole much of my writing time. We packed, we sold, we gave away, we trashed. Then the move happened and along with it the sense of having lost my writing space. Next, an 18-year-old grandson moved in with us. I had forgotten how much a teenager eats! Add to that, a further lack of writing space. But I’ve recently carved out a cubbyhole behind the laundry room and steal a few minutes there several times a day.

PDD: You belong to a monthly book club. Besides the fellowship and the food, what does the club do for you? And what can you do for the club?

SDS: It helps educate me on what people like to read and why. What they like about a book and what turns them off. I see the delight in their faces when they discuss one they love, and it inspires me to keep at it. What I do for them, I think, is to remove the halo many people like to put on an author. (Maybe some authors enjoy the halo. I am not one of them.) I share with them my struggles to make a work happen, the pitfalls inherent in the process, etc. What I love the most is when they review my books and want to talk about my characters!

PDD: Any tips for new writers to help them stay focused?

SDS: Dig in your heels and keep at it. When those voices in your head tell you that your writing stinks, stuff a rag in their mouth and keep going. Force yourself to sit in that chair and put words on the page. Find a way to get inside the scene, inside the character’s head. Feel what they feel and allow the dialogue to evolve from deep inside that character.

PDD: What is your best marketing tool? What sells books?

SDS: I love starting conversations with strangers. I enjoy that one-on-one contact, of being real with people, the kind of contact that binds us at a spiritual level. Perhaps that is what makes people interested in me and my characters. I hope so.

PDD: You work with a critique group. How does the group help your writing? How do you help theirs?

SDS: Wow. I couldn’t do it without them. For one thing, when you write, you know what you mean to say, so when you read it back, your brain reads what you meant to write—not what you wrote. They find where I’ve used the wrong word, made a grammatical error, ‘head-hopped,’ where I may step outside my point of view—all those things that an author can miss when we read our own work. Members are also good at pointing out a ‘darling’ that we need to kill--that beautiful prose that we fall in love with, but has nothing to do with the plot.
My desire is to offer the same back to them. I hope I do.

PDD: Anything else you'd like our readers to know about you or your writing?

SDS: I am in the process of creating a whole new website and hope folks will stop by to visit when it is up and running, probably around April 1st, when my third book, DEAD WRECKONING launches. The address is There is a link on the site to my blog at
Just recently, my protagonist, Sidra Smart, got her own website where folks can ask her questions, make comments, read short stories about her and her brother Warren who left her the Third Eye Detective Agency. They will also soon learn about her new venture making Alligator Pickles! These pickles feature, of all things, a dancing alligator on the label and are pickles with a byte! She will offer these pickles for sale at some of her book launch parties and will give away her secret recipe in book four, due out next year. Oh yes, her blog address is She told me to tell folks she hopes they’ll stop by and chat!

PDD: Alligator Pickles? Facinating. I'll have to look into that. Thank you for sharing with us today and best of good luck with the new book!