Saturday, March 30, 2013

Forensic Labs and Reality

by Lisa Black
Author of Blunt Impact
From TV you get the impression that forensic labs are vast, gleaming expanses of glass walls and expensive equipment, with mood lighting and every possible resource. I have worked in forensic labs for 17 years and the truth is not quite that glamorous. 

Forensic labs have come a long way and they’re improving constantly, yes. I’ve had two jobs in this field so far and at both places we moved to a new facility, got lots of new equipment and added personnel…but we still don’t resemble anything on CSI.

Sometimes aspects of that extremely high-tech TV lab aren’t real. In no department or agency anywhere in the United States can your average tech take a fingerprint and search it against every single person who has ever been fingerprinted in the world, including job applicants and military. Despite the fact that you’ve seen it on TV every day for the past 50 years, it isn’t true. It may be true sooner than I think, but it is not true now. 

Most databases are local. My database consists of people arrested in the city of Cape Coral, Florida, and recent arrestees in the surrounding county. I can search the databases of selected other cities (about 10) by going through some extra steps. I am embarking on a procedure to search the FBI database (insert sound of angels singing here) but I have no idea yet exactly how that will work. I have no access to job applicants or current personnel, even our own, and certainly not military. This is not backward. The technology has made amazing leaps in just the past decade or two, but it’s still not TV.

We also do not have databases with the chemical formula of every material known to man, such as perfume, wall paint or toothpaste. Companies make their living producing these items, so they’re not going to publish their formulas to any Tom, Dick or Harry who happens to ask. We do have mass spectrometers or FTIRs to analyze the chemistry of such items, but even the most underutilized lab tech is not going to have the time or resources to gather a sample of every kind of paint used in the world, and even if she did, as soon as she finished it would be time for next season’s colors to hit the market. 

Sometimes labs may not have a function or two (handwriting analysis, ballistics) because they’re not reasonable. How often do we really need to analyze wall paint? Most labs grew out of a local or state police department, and began with fingerprint and drug analyses (theft/burglary and drug offenses being the most common crimes committed). Other capabilities are added on from there. But if your town doesn’t get a lot of shootings, it doesn’t need a whole ballistics department when it can send any casings off to the state lab and get the analysis done for free. Perhaps not promptly, but the arrest will likely be made on witness testimony so the analysis can be done at leisure while the suspect cools his jets in a jail cell. 

How often would we really analyze the molecules of perfume in the atmosphere (as if they’d still be there five hours after the crime was committed)? Seriously, it might make a great ‘aha’ moment on a TV show, but try introducing that into a court of law. Me: “There was a hint of Chanel No. 5 in the air! The same perfume as the defendant is wearing right now!” Defense attorney: “So? They sell a bottle of that every thirty seconds.” Me: “Um, nothing. I just thought it was interesting.”

As for ‘hacking into’ the company’s database to find how many bottles they sold and then the store’s database to find out who they sold them to…well, I’m not a lawyer but I think Sears, for example, would be terrifically ticked off about that. Not to mention the ACLU. 

The capabilities of any lab will be a function of space, money and interest.

Space, for obvious reasons.

Money, for equally obvious reasons since new technology requires an investment for equipment, personnel and training. Sometimes this works out better than other times. It’s not always easy to estimate how much use you’ll get out of something when you’ve never had one before. We have a fancy ‘crimescope’ that can supposedly see undeveloped latent prints…I’ve never had much luck with it. But we also get daily use out of the large superglue fuming chamber. 

We purchased a very expensive photography setup with a great camera, filters and alternate light source for photographing fingerprints on a variety of backgrounds (shiny, printed, rounded, plastic) and developed with various methods (superglue, powder, fluorescent dyes), and even though my knowledge of working with filters and lights is more a process of trial and error than anything else, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it to obtain prints I wouldn’t have otherwise.

And when I say ‘expensive’, I am not exaggerating. The FTIR I mentioned earlier cost $35,000, as I recall, and that was 15 years ago. I loved to analyze paint, synthetic fibers and adhesives on it, but, almost always, those items are still circumstantial evidence. I can prove the killer used the same brand of duct tape as was found in the suspect’s garage. But unless I can make a jigsaw match to that roll, the defense will just point out that the manufacturer made a lot of duct tape. I can say the fiber on the victim’s shirt is the same as the fibers in the suspect’s sweater, but how many of those sweaters did Timberland distribute?  In my current city where we do not have a lot of violent crime, I couldn’t reasonably ask the city for funds to buy one. Car paint can be much more definite, provided you’re lucky enough to have some chip off during the hit and run.

As the hair and fiber expert, a fading and almost completely lost field, I recently got a comparison microscope. (My boss had the idea of farming me out to other agencies since no one in the state does hair and fiber comparisons anymore…hasn’t really worked out but if you need a fiber compared, give me a call!) The problem was, there was only $12,000 in the budget and a decent comparison microscope starts at 40 grand. So, I’ve got a not-so-decent one.

DNA analysis is expensive, but we can get our samples tested for free by the state lab. However, the state lab limits us to five samples at a time, and those will probably take from one to three months, if not longer. We can get the city to pony up for a private lab which will get the results back to us much quicker but will charge from $600 to $1,000 per sample, depending on how fast you want it. And each case will have a minimum of three samples—victim, suspect and evidence. There’s no cheap way to get fast DNA.

Interest also comes into play. We continued doing gunshot residue tests after many agencies had dropped them, simply because our chief at the time believed in them. We have a fancy system capable of copying a computer (meant to be used for child pornography or white collar cases); however learning to use it requires a few long, pricey classes in other states, and after the guy trained on this quit to open a bar (long story), the powers that be are reluctant, understandably, to invest in anyone else. I do not argue with this, I just keep my head well down when the topic arises—you say ‘binary code,’ and my eyes glaze over.

In conclusion, you can’t assume what capabilities your local crime lab may possess or not possess until you ask them. And, though they certainly could be in play, you can’t assume that a lack in any area is the result of disregard, cronyism, backward thinking or bad money management. Most crime labs, like every other facility, try to do the best they can with what they’ve got. 
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages. Evidence of Murder reached the NYT mass market bestsellers list. Visit her website at:

Blunt Impact, available April 1, features forensic scientist Theresa MacLean and a series of murders surrounding a skyscraper under construction in downtown Cleveland. The first to die is young, sexy concrete worker Samantha, thrown from the 23rd floor. The only witness is her 11-year-old daughter Anna, nicknamed Ghost. Ghost will stop at nothing to find her mother’s killer, and Theresa will stop at nothing to keep Ghost safe. Kindle owners can find a bargain in Lisa's new book The Prague Project, written under the name Beth Cheylan. A death in West Virginia sends FBI agent Ellie Gardner and NYPD Counterterrorism lieutenant Michael Stewart on a chase across Europe as they track stolen nukes and lost Nazi gold, hoping to avert the deaths of millions of people.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Writers' Moments

by Sheila Connolly

People who don't write won't understand why sometimes their writer friends go still, with a distant look in their eyes.  No, it's not a form of seizure:  we're just paying attention in a different way.

It often happens unexpectedly. Every now and then, we'll be going about our normal business, and a little bell goes off in our head:  this would be great for a story.  It's like a switch is thrown, and  suddenly all your senses are on high alert.  You're paying attention to details—sights, colors, the space around you, facial features, voices, and just about anything else.  Or maybe it's like when your cat suddenly sits up and pricks its ears, watching or sensing something you haven't even noticed yet (my cats once spotted a mouse coming down the stairs on the other side of the house in the dark).

It can happen anytime, anywhere.  For example:  this past weekend I attended a (non-writer) conference, and stayed in a slightly shabby midrange hotel in the Boston suburbs.  I was headed downstairs for the cocktail hour, and when the elevator arrived on my floor, there were already two people on it, clearly a couple.  And that alarm went off in my writer head, and I started making mental notes (all the while trying to look like I wasn't looking at them, of course, and obviously I don't have pictures).

The details:  both thirty-something, tall, attractive, fit, well groomed and (for lack of a better word) interesting-looking.  He was wearing beige dress pants and a sage-green fine-waled corduroy jacket that looked like suede, so smooth that I wanted to touch it.  She looked a little more "artsy," with slim jeans, layered shirts and a scarf.  They were a well-matched pair.  They never said a word during our three-story ride down to the lobby.  Neither looked like they were trying to impress anyone, but they definitely didn't look like they belonged at that hotel—I would have put them in Cambridge or Boston. I really would like to have known who they were and what they were doing there.  But I didn't ask.  That would spoil the spell.

All this in less than a minute.  I will file them away and use them somewhere, like when one of my protagonists gets on an elevator, and the people already in it make her feel like she should turn around and change clothes, get a haircut and find a new job.

Something similar happened when I was in Ireland last fall, on a much bigger scale.  I had the chance to visit the pub that is the model for Sullivan's Pub in the County Cork series. When I first saw it, it was called Connolly's. In its heyday it was a widely-known music venue in Ireland (far beyond the regional level—musicians whose names you'd recognized have played there, even though it can hold no more than maybe a hundred people, at least legally).  I hadn't been inside in over ten years, and it's no longer open, except for special events. But I wanted to see how accurate my memories were, so I knocked on the door because the woman in the cafĂ© down the street had told me that the last Connolly owner still lived above the pub, and she was there, and I ended up spending a couple of hours in her parlor with her cat on my lap talking about the old days. Of course I was delighted to be there, and of course I was taking pictures of the place like crazy.

There went that bell in my head again. I realized that the whole plot of the third book in the series had just fallen into my lap. Not just bits and pieces, but the whole story. Suddenly I was looking at details in a new way, and figuring how I could use them to give the story color and substance.

And that's one of the joys of being a writer—the gift or the craft of seeing in a different, more intense way, and then sharing that vision with other people.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Poetry As Flash Fiction; A Midrash for Passover

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was amazed when I first heard of flash fiction: super-short stories that do the job in 1000 or even 500 words. When I began to read some flash mysteries, I was impressed at how some writers manage to condense a story arc, breathe life into their characters, even surprise us with an unexpected twist within that very short framework. Since then, I’ve learned that an even shorter form is the drabble, a story of exactly 100 words. My favorite author, character-driven science fiction genre bender Lois McMaster Bujold, ended a recent book with five drabbles from five different points of view, brilliantly capturing the distinctive perspective of characters the reader knows well from earlier books in the series. Finally, I myself contributed a story to an anthology of 25-word mysteries.

But why am I surprised? Before becoming a mystery author, I was a poet for thirty years. Poets routinely tell stories in far less than 500 words. One of my poems, which was read at our family Seder early this week, is both a flash story of 167 words and a midrash.

A midrash is an interpretation or exegesis of a Bible verse or, by extension, any myth or archetype. Not being a Biblical scholar, I first heard the word in connection with feminist retellings of traditional stories. For a while there, among Jewish women poets, everybody had an Eve poem, a Sarah poem, a Lilith poem. Feminist poets reimagined Persephone, Mary Magdalene, Grendel’s mother. James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (1994) applied the concept to fairy tales, albeit with tongue in cheek. It could be argued that movies from Enchanted to The Huntsman and TV series like Grimm and Once Upon A Time do the same.

The Jewish Seder is a feast that celebrates the Exodus, the great story of how the Jews escaped from slavery in Egypt. Moses pointed his staff at the Red Sea, the waters parted so the Jews could cross and then came together again so that Pharaoh and his troops, pursuing, drowned. The heroine of the occasion was Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. According to the Old Testament, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.” (Exodus 15:20) We know that Miriam led the women in singing and dancing, but we don’t know any of the details.

At this time of year, Jews all over the world celebrate Passover. At the Seder, we read the Haggadah, which is not exactly a telling of the story, more like bits of the story and the notes of a lot of rabbis arguing over the exact interpretation of every word and phrase. In my family, the children used to be bored to death before we got to eat. Nowadays, many less traditional families create their own Seder rituals, their own versions of the Haggadah. It’s a lot shorter than the Seders I remember from childhood, and it focuses less on the interpretations and more on the actual story. The year my older granddaughter was four, with the attention span of a flea, I got it down to under 500 words.

One feature of the traditional Seder is Elijah’s Cup. We fill a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah and open the door to our home, not only so that Elijah can come in and bless those gathered to feast but as a sign that we welcome the stranger in our midst. Many feminist households have added Miriam’s Cup, which we fill with water. There’s a tradition that Miriam was a water diviner who was always able to tap the earth and find a spring—an invaluable skill during the Jews’ forty years of wandering in the desert.

Because I’m a storyteller, I wondered about Miriam’s story. Here they are, at the edge of the desert. After four hundred years of slavery, they’ve just fled their homes in such a hurry they didn’t even have time to bake bread that needed time to rise (hence matzoh). They’ve miraculously crossed a great sea without getting their feet wet. They’ve had an army pursuing them. Now their enemies are dead. That’s great news. But dancing? Singing and dancing? Under what circumstances could that possibly have happened?

Here’s the way I imagine it:


the men sit perched on rocks
their faces grimed
furrowed with runnels of sweat
their sandals crusted in Red Sea salt
stunned by their change of fortune
the power in Moses’ staff
the thunder of the sea overrunning Pharoah
the scream of terrified horses
the crack of chariots breaking up
the wall of water at their heels
they stare outward into the desert
will not meet one another’s eyes

Miriam moves among the women
offering one the water skin
another a cloth to wipe her dusty feet
a quiet word here
there a hand pressed gently on a shoulder
crouched where they dropped when Moses called a halt
they have instinctively formed a circle

Miriam completes her round
pours the last few drops of water
on a corner of her shawl
passes it across her face
shaking off weariness like a scratchy cloak
she gathers them with her eyes
her slow smile blossoms
“Ladies,” she says, “we’re free!”
“Who wants to dance?”

Note: A version of this post appeared in 2008. The poem first appeared in the journal Poetica.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

2012 Bestsellers: E-Books Explode

by Sandra Parshall 
Last year was truly the year of the e-book explosion. Sales may be leveling off a bit lately, but 2012 still produced what Publishers Weekly calls “jaw-dropping numbers in digital sales.”

In the magazine’s roundup of last year’s fiction and nonfiction bestsellers, they list more than 1,000 digital titles with sales of 25,000-plus units – and those are only the sales reported to PW by publishers. They’re mostly e-book versions of current print bestsellers, or reissues of backlist books.
A few are titles – like the Fifty Shades novels by E.L. James – that began as self-published hits, were bought for print, and were re-issued in e-book form. At the top of the digital bestseller list are Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed, racking up a total of more than 15 million sales. No other title came close to that number. The bundled trilogy sold more than 850,000 units. In the middle is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with one million-plus e-book sales, the only title to sell more units in digital form than in print.

Erotic romance author Sylvia Day, current president of Romance Writers of America, had two books in the upper tier of e-book bestsellers. Bared to You was neck-and-neck with the bundled Fifty Shades trilogy in the 850,000-plus sales bracket, and Reflected in You was up there with John Grisham’s The Racketeer and The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks at the 500,000-plus level.

The list of e-books that sold over 50,000 copies each is five and a half pages long, in small type, in the print edition of PW. Many older books such as Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, are still selling in phenomenal numbers in e-book form. Backlist titles from established writers dominate the e-book bestseller list: 40 novels by Nora Roberts, 29 by James Patterson, 19 by Janet Evanovich, all of Michael Connelly’s novels, all of Lee Child’s, all of Diana Gabaldon’s, 10 by Jodi Picoult, 12 by Charlaine Harris, and multiple books by numerous other well-knowns. Gillian Flynn's first two novels, boosted by the success of Gone Girl, are enjoying hefty sales as e-books. Only two debut novels made it into the top 1,000: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. The complete list of e-book titles that sold more than 25,000 units is available here on the PW website.

As noted, these are e-books from traditional publishers that report their sales to PW. Self-published hits are out there, but firm numbers on sales are hard to find. Right now Wait for You by J. Lynn (pseudonym of traditionally published author Jennifer Armentrout) is number one on the Digital Book World bestseller list and number two on the New York Times combined print and e-book list. Several self-published books have appeared on bestseller lists in the past year. Usually the most successful authors receive contract offers from traditional publishers, and Armentrout has just sold Wait for You to HarperCollins in a “high six figures” deal

Have e-book versions surpassed print versions in sales? In most cases, no. But as PW notes, the market pressure is intense and the gap is rapidly narrowing. Last year only 91 hardcover fiction titles and 74 hardcover nonfiction titles sold more than 100,000 copies – a record low. The top hardcover novels, with more than 900,000 sales each, were The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, The Racketeer by John Grisham, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

If hardcover sales are suffering from competition with e-books, mass market paperbacks are being slaughtered. PW calls 2012's “huge drop” in the number of mass market titles with sales above 500,000 “alarming” – only 26 sold that well, compared to 116 in 2006 and 48 in 2011. In 2005, 40 paperback titles sold over one million copies. In 2012, three did: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks, and Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts. A record low of 196 mass market titles made the PW bestseller list in 2012.

The decline in mass market paperback sales directly parallels the rise of e-book sales. However, that hasn’t translated into e-book success for all paperback original authors. Some that made the New York Times paperback bestseller list didn’t reach 25,000 in e-book sales. (Could this be due to publishers shooting themselves – and their authors – in the foot by pricing e-books the same as print?)

Trade paperbacks fared better last year, perhaps because they appeal to readers who want a “real book” but don’t like small paperbacks and balk at the inflated cost of hardcovers. PW reports that a record 121 trade paperbacks made their 2012 bestseller list, up from 84 in 2011, and 156 books sold more than 100,000 units, up from 119 the year before. E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy dominated that list, with 29 million-plus sales. Again, no other titles even came close to the Grey juggernaut.

Readers who prefer print are becoming scarcer
While print book sales are in decline all over the world – except in India, for some reason – and e-book sales are slowing compared to previous years, electronic sales are still growing at a double-digit rate. Most industry leaders say they expect e-books to surpass print in market share sometime in the near future. But that doesn’t mean fewer people are reading. Surveys such as this one indicate that Americans who own e-book readers are buying more books and reading more than in the past – perhaps as much as 40% more.

The convenience of having dozens, hundreds, even thousands of full-length books contained in a small portable device is often cited as the reason. If you take your e-reader with you everywhere, you will never be without a book.

Few people believe print books will disappear, but it’s clear that e-books are not a fad. They have a firm foothold in the market, and before long they’ll be outselling every print format. When readers have bought up the backlists of all the famous writers, maybe we’ll start to see more new and lesser-known authors on the e-book bestseller lists.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Been sick lately?

Sharon Wildwind

I have.

It was one of those self-absorbing, self-limiting illnesses. I could joke about dying because there was every likelihood I would survive, but for a little over a week life ground to a halt.

I drank gallons of tea. No-cook meals like cottage cheese and fruit took on the appearance of gourmet extravaganzas. Days when I didn’t have enough energy to check e-mail degenerated into not having enough energy to turn on the computer into Computer? What computer? Do I have a computer? That’s nice. My hair hurt. In fact, the list of what didn’t hurt was considerably shorter than the list of what did.

When I recovered enough to do anything, I read. That was a mistake.

Both books were by established authors whose work I love. They were well-written, and had complicated plots that built to exciting endings. They made me miserable. How was I going to get that good as a writer if I took time off just because I was sick?

As writers we have impossible standards for ourselves. This is day 84 of 2013 and I’ve done something writing-related 73 of those days. Of the 11 completely writing-free days, 6 of them were when I was sick. The other 5 I frittered away spending time with a friend from out of town, attending non-writing-related workshops, and I think I had the audacity to take January 19th off to go to a party.

By necessity writers live close to the margins. It’s not that we’re procrastinators (though most of us are at one time or another), it’s that there’s too much out there to cram into 24-hour days. We develop a fine sense of what we must push through today and what we can let slide until tomorrow or next week.

Illness derails that carefully constructed timetable. We’re vulnerable. We’re tired. Our perceptions and priorities get muddled. It’s like pushing a car’s brake pedal and accelerator at the same time. We desperately want to move forward, but we simply don’t have the energy. We’re stuck in neutral. We know that one day the energy will return, and when it does, we are going to be soooooooooooo far behind. Maybe far enough behind that we simply won’t start again. It will all be too much. At some point, even that idea is comforting. I’m going to walk away from this. I’ll never have to worry about it any more and won’t that be a relief?

Except we know that we aren’t going to walk away. Some day soon is going to be soooooooooooo horrendous. We’ll be working ever so slowly and feel ever so miserable. We’ll fight with our significant other, frustrated because demands exceed our resources, and it’s all their fault. Life’s gyroscope will right itself. We’ll make-up. We’ll find the energy. We’ll get through this. An unexpected good thing will happen. A better thing will happen. We might even notice how nice the weather has gotten. Eventually we’ll be back to full speed.

Next time I’m sick I’m not going to read. I’ll save that for when I can really enjoy it, and when I’m less likely to think my life is a disaster because I haven’t achieved what other writers have. Hopefully, next time I’ll also be a little kinder to myself. I’ll allow myself six days off without guilt. I can’t help but feel that would be a good idea.

Quote for the week
An illness is like a journey into a far country; it sifts all one’s experience and removes it to a point so remote that it appears like a vision.
~Sholem Asch, (1880 – 1957), novelist, dramatist, and essayist

Monday, March 25, 2013

Variety on My Bookshelf

  by Julia Buckley

Recently I've read a variety of books for different reasons; but as a mystery lover, I always seem to find an element of mystery in a book, whether it's shelved in the mystery section or not.

Remote Control  is a Japanese suspense novel by Kotaro Isaka.  I enjoyed this novel and will be using it in my world literature class next year. Not only does it have a suspenseful plot (a young man is framed for the murder of the prime minister in a slightly futuristic, vaguely sinister Japan), but it offers much detail about Japanese culture, as well as a glimpse of how American culture has influenced young Japanese people, in both positive and negative ways. The main character, Masaharu Aoyagi, is a former delivery truck driver who is currently unemployed. Though he is used as a patsy by forces unknown, he has a determined and quietly heroic spirit which will work to his advantage--as will his small arsenal of true friends.

While He Was Away, by Karen Schreck, is a novel much more serious than its teen-light cover might suggest.  It's a beautifully written tale about young lovers separated by the Iraq conflict, and the reality, not only of a fifteen-month separation, but of the inevitable changes that happen to people under stress.

Schreck has created two memorable characters in Penna and David, both artists who tend to express themselves through their drawings and paintings.  This fact creates some memorable and heart-breaking scenes in the story, but Schreck is careful never to give in to sentimentality.  A Puschcart Prize-winning writer, she uses delicate prose to weave a story which never seems to stray from the real.  I enjoyed this novel very much, and I recommend it not just to those who have loved ones in the military, but to anyone who might wish to read a beautiful love story (actually two loves stories, since Penna learns that her grandmother was separated from her first love by WWII).

My current read is the gripping The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak.  This is a fictional but well-researched account of the rise of Russia's Catherine the Great, who came to the palace as a shy German girl but eventually became--well--Catherine the Great.  The book is narrated not by Catherine, but by Varvara, an orphan who learns herself about power in the palace when she becomes a "tongue"--or spy--for the Empress, who needs someone relatively invisible to tell her what is going on in her own castle.

Varvara learns about power and betrayal, and when the young Sophie (later Catherine) comes to the castle, Varvara befriends her and becomes her fierce protector.  The fascinating premise is that the friendship of two girls can outlast any palace intrigue or changing allegiances.

Normally I don't have time to read this many books, but these were all required reading, and I found each one to be a most satisfying read.  I highly recommend them!

What's on your bookshelf now?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Jeri's Ten Tips to Better Writing

By Jeri Westerson

At some point, most writers are asked to give writing advice. I’m asked about my writing all the time; what’s my process and how long does it take to write a novel. Those who are interested in writing their own books look to published authors to get the skinny, maybe that magic bullet. Well, I don’t have a magic bullet. It's mostly just hard work, but there are tips that are tried and true that might make your life easier, and most authors adhere to them whether they realize it or not. So here’s my tips that I hope will help you along the bumpy road of literature. 

1. Vary the length of your sentences and the type of sentences.  
Take this challenge. Grab a book from a favorite author and just look at the page, not the words themselves, but just the black and white look of the page. What do you see? Chances are you’ll see a lot of variety in the sentence length, not dense pages full of ink. Your brain wants variety, not just in the word choices but in the paragraphs coming up. You might use short sentences to emphasize ideas. But for defining and illustrating descriptions you might use longer sentences. Where fragments would get you bad marks in an essay, it’s okay to use them in novels. Moves the narrative along.

2. Use active verbs.
I know you’ve heard this one before. Try to avoid the passive voice as much as possible, as well as forms of the verb "to be." Verbs which act upon their subject are said to be in the passive voice. Instead, use dynamic verbs in the active voice. In the sentence, All the bells were rung at the same time is more active if you revised it by saying, All the bells rang at the same time. Here’s another passive voice sentence: George was very appreciative of the dollar he found. Active: George appreciated the dollar he found. Another: This violin was made by my father. (from A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language) Active: My father made this violin. Another: The young gentleman was later seen by me in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. (Raymond Queneau, "Passive.") With apologies to Mr. Queneau, how about instead: I saw the young gentleman in front of the gare Saint-Lazare. See how more direct the active sentence is?

3. Proofread, edit, and revise.
Don’t wait until your manuscript is complete before you start working on revising and editing. If you wait till the end, you might miss important information you forgot to include or worse, find that your clue isn’t possible/ historically correct / too clichĂ© to use, and now there’s a lot more work for you to revise. These days I find editing and rewriting to be almost more fun than the creation itself. Once I get the words down it’s easier to do the fine tuning and trimming. Which leads us to the next point.

4. Slash the clutter.
When revising your work, eliminate unnecessary words. She said to him. It’s enough that “she said.” We don’t need the words “to him.” It’s obvious. Trim the fat and keep your sentences to the point. As William Faulkner (or any number of other authors) said, “You must kill your darlings.” Kill off or delete those beautiful bits of prose that really don’t help your book. You might love those darned words, but save them for something else. Maybe a Christmas card?

5. Write crappy first drafts.
I write a minimum of ten pages a day. Theoretically, after a month, I should have a first draft. It doesn’t ever turn out that way (life intervenes) but at least I’ve set a goal. And that means I give myself permission to write ten crappy pages if need be. I know it can be fixed in the revise. After all, I always read over what I wrote the day before to get myself started, and that means revising or completely deleting the writing that came before.   

6. Use a Thesaurus.
Please don’t rely on the computer’s thesaurus. Get yourself an honest-to-goodness hardbound Roget’s. There is no substitute (even the online versions pale). Why? Because looking up a synonym the old-fashioned way causes you to cruise lots of words you ordinarily wouldn’t run across, giving your old brain more fodder to chew on. A thesaurus is set up in families of words, with different nuances of meaning. You learn as you skim, you acquire. It’s your job, after all, to collect words. Not necessarily high-falutin’ words—because those can be a distraction—but words with precision and shades of gradation.   

7. Read.
It always surprises the hell out of me when I hear about would-be authors who don’t read. Hello? This is your profession! You need to read as well as write. Read not just in the genre you write but everything! Novels, biographies, histories, comics, blogs. Everything you read goes into the cache of your mind and can be plucked out later for use in your own creations. Reading builds your vocabulary, defines your own “voice” and sentence structure. Why do you want to write for other people if you don’t read? Believe me, it will show in your writing.  

8. Write everyday.
Seriously. Even weekends and holidays. Writing is not like other professions. You have a physical need to write all the time. Then see number 5.

9. Develop a process.
Find a writing process that works for you. So maybe it isn’t ten pages a day. Maybe it’s five minutes, or 500 words. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe you do have to write the whole manuscript before you revise. It’s your process. Whatever works for you is the right one. Do you like to write by the seat of your pants with no idea where you are headed? Great! Do you need a detailed outline? Go for it! Or perhaps something in between? I write a chapter by chapter outline before I begin. I have three books to finish in a year, so I don’t have time for writer’s block. An outline gives me goals to shoot for. However, my outline is also not etched in stone. I know that I can veer from it and often do. But as long as I have a goal in mind, I’m happy. What’s your process? A combination of both?

10. Jot down your ideas.
You never know when inspiration will strike. Make it a habit to keep a pen and note book with you at all times; beside your bed, in your car, in your purse, wherever. Or, I suppose, if you aren’t as technically challenged as I am, there are probably ways to do that on your smart phone. Bits of dialogue always come to me at the most inconvenient of times. I know I’ll forget them if I don’t write them down right away. I’ve rushed more than once soaking wet out of the shower to pen them on a notepad. I keep a spiral notebook for each of my novels. It serves as a reservoir for my research, for notes on scenes, dialogue, vocabulary, and a diary in which I can argue with myself and brainstorm on particularly tough spots in my manuscript. I am free to express my thoughts and fears in that notebook instead of wasting time on it in my manuscript. It’s a good outlet if nothing else.

Got your own tips? Feel free to share them in the comments. Looking for more? Here's a bit of advice you'll need for marketing.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The James Library

by Sheila Connolly

Last week I wrote about Carnegie libraries, which started me thinking about the libraries in my life.

I was an early reader.  In fact, I can't remember not being able to read.  My mother claims I read street signs to her when she drove me places, not that I remember that.  She too was a reader, so there was always reading material around the house, including the large-format glossy magazines of the day—Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post.  I still miss those.

My first library experience did not end well.  As I've said here before, when we moved to a new town, the year I was five, my mother took me to get a library card, and I took good care of it.  However, somewhere along the way there was some miscommunication:  I thought that once you took the books out of the library, they were yours to keep.  Which does not explain why I hid them under my bed. My mother confiscated my library card, and I still rankle at the memory.

Later she relented, and I usually had a library card for whatever town we lived in (we moved around a lot).  Of course, my mother had to do the driving then. At least she supported my reading addiction (and probably hers as well). And there were always school libraries, although as I recall they limited the number of books you could take out at one time, which was never enough for me. It wasn't until I was in my teens that I lived close enough to the local library to walk there.

When we moved to Madison, New Jersey, in the 1960s, there was a delightful old library in town, which I used regularly (remember when you had to do real live research for school papers?). However, apart from admiring the architecture now and then (and marveling at the opaque glass floors in the stacks, which I found unsettling), I didn't think much about it.  On a whim I looked it up when I was checking out Andrew Carnegie, and I found something that surprised me.

The James Library opened in 1900, the gift of D. Willis James, who in addition to funding the granite and limestone structure also stocked the library with 5,000 books.  I never even knew the library had a name—it was the The Library.  And I certainly had no idea who D. Willis James was.  What kid or teenager thinks about the history of his or her town? (Well, I did know that Madison was once known as Bottle Hill because of the tavern located there in the 18th century.)

So I looked up Mr. James, who turns out to have been Daniel Willis James, age 68, iron merchant, living on Madison Avenue (as I did, but not exactly in the same neighborhood) in 1900. He was a corporate mogul with a variety of mining and railroad interests.  When he died in 1907, he was one of the hundred wealthiest men in America.  Maps show that he and his wife owned a nice chunk of land on the north side of town, the site of his summer home, built in 1885.  Anyway, this civic-minded gentleman gave the town a library.

But that's not the whole story.  Mr. James also built a commercial building across the street (called the James Building, no surprise) whose purpose was "to provide income for the Library's maintenance and operation." Funny—I remember the James Building almost as well as I remember the library.  It had a ballroom upstairs, where I attended a couple of meetings; a music store, where I had one of my first jobs, bartering for guitar lessons; and downstairs, a hair salon where I had my hair done for the junior prom. There was a drugstore with a soda fountain on the corner. In short, it was an important part of the town.

What is so lovely is that Mr. James did not just hand a gift to the town and walk away.  He was a smart businessman and made sure that the library's expenses would be covered in the future. Both buildings are still standing, although the library building now houses a small museum; the town built a new library on the other side of town shortly after I left for college.

Like Carnegie, James (who attended school in Scotland) believed in contributing to his community, which he did in many ways.  We were and are lucky that they both thought libraries were important. And what's more, they both created memorable settings for learning and reading.