Empaths and voyeurs and parrots… oh, my!

wizard-of-oz-scaredOne clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That’s why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots.  Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader.
Let’s start with empaths. Being an empathy can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people’s emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer’s characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book from a bad one. When you are reading a book by an empath, the author’s understanding of how others act and feel can be both humbling and moving. Every character comes to life. Every moment counts.


Voyeurs, on the other hand, can be both wickedly entertaining and devastatingly cruel. Their ability to see every move you make and then use it to their own story’s advantage is opportunism at its finest. We all know people who specialize in sitting in the corner at parties, watching everyone else, having a grand old time keeping karmic score. They don’t miss a beat and they have the memories of elephants. They can be a real pain in the ass because it’s so hard to hide anything from them and even harder to illicit a genuinely personal reaction from them. They risk nothing but see everything. I can only imagine what life with a writer voyeur would be like. No privacy. Nothing sacred. No real emotional involvement by the writer, just a constant watchfulness – and a willingness to turn your life into words on their page.


To me, though, the very best writers are a combination of both empath and voyeur. To feel for others alone is to lack perspective. To observe without feeling is to lack warmth. But give me a writer who can not only convey what it is like to be someone else, but also fill in the details and put that life in perspective — and you can sometimes achieve greatness. I will give you two wildly different examples of books that fit this bill:  A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin and Floaters by the inimitable Joseph Wambaugh. Their characters breathe with life and, as authors, they respect the worth of even the most minor of their characters. Yet they also offer observations about what it is to be human that ring with a wisdom transcending a single lifetime. They are a joy to read.


Then, of course, we have the parrots — and that’s the best word I can think of for writers who emulate other writers or follow a formula they think will bring them success. It is not enough to describe what is happening in your story, as if you were providing people with a television show on paper. It is not enough to pile plot twist upon plot twist unless there is some meaning behind all those machinations. But still people do it, book after book, and many succeed, through luck and a willingness on the part of publishers to clone bestsellers. That doesn’t make them good writers. It makes them lucky writers who wind up in the hands of readers (readers who, upon hearing that a book is on a bestseller list, make the mistake of thinking it must be better than all the others). But reading a book written by a parrot is like eating Lean Cuisine for dinner. The satisfaction is short-lived and you are soon left hungry and wondering, “You mean that’s all there is to it?”


All of which leads me to an irrefutable fact that most writers would like to avoid: to be a good writer, you must first know yourself and you must be willing to dive deeper than simply putting words on paper. You have to be willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of others. You have to be willing to pay attention to the lives of others. And you have to be driven to put it all together in a story that offers readers a glimpse into life as you — and only you — both see and feel it.


Cross posted to Thalia Press Author’s Co-op Blog

P.S…. I’m still here.

It seems impossible that it has been a year since I actually updated this blog. I’d be ashamed if I had time for it. But ain’t nobody got time for that.


It is once again my birthday, and I have once again used the occasion to examine how I spent the days in the year just past and how it would like to spend my life in the years ahead. Like every year that passes, this one came and went faster than the one before. I suppose it is an inevitable irony of getting older that time speeds up just as you begin to appreciate every minute you have.


I accomplished many things this year in an arena that means a lot to me (state level politics) and I had a blast otherwise. I made many new friends, tried to keep in touch with old ones and, most of all, truly treasure the time I had with my daughter (who grows more adult every day). F did very little writing over this past year, perhaps the least of my adult life. But the writing I did was good and it kept me in the game. My friends in my writing group, the Weymouth 7, also kept me close to the writing world as well and I was grateful to them for it. When November rolled around, I was even able to get away from the rest of my life and join them for a writing retreat at the beach for a glorious six days of wallowing in nothing but plot lines and characters. During that time, I was able to make friends with my work in progress again and to make great headway in turning it into a book. It is a new Casey Jones and I was happy to find that I had missed her and that I both wanted to and could bring her to life again. Casey is and will always be a part of me and it was good to be reunited with her again.


Casey Jones - Face OnlyAs if to reward me for not giving up the ghost, I had an unexpected request this month from a publisher who wanted to look at my Casey in progress. It is quite rare, rare enough to be deemed unheard of, in fact, for a publisher to show interest in an older series that has not broken out onto the bestseller lists. I am grateful that this publisher believes in me, and you better believe I am taking them up on their offer and sending them my Casey in-the-making. They may or may not publish it, only time will tell. But, regardless, it is good to know that I am not the only one out there who enjoys Casey and who appreciates the world I have built around her. I know that many of you who read my books also appreciate her, and I want to take the time right now to say “thank you” to you all.


I am not one to walk away from anything unfinished. I’m not sure I could if I tried. Finishing things is my obsession. So this post is my pledge to you that I will indeed finish Casey #7 this coming year. Who knows? I may even find time to post more than annually on this blog as well. So thanks for sticking with me as I live my life. I’m still writing and I’m still here. Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, One & All — Including Moi

new year birthdayToday is my birthday, and if you’ve been following this intermittent, rarely-updated blog of mine, then you know that I like to use my birthday as a day of reflection. I look at the year behind me and the years I have left ahead of me and I adjust how I spend my time. It helps that my birthday is so close to New Year’s Eve. It allows me to make New Year’s Eve resolutions without actually admitting to doing so.

This year was a year of reckoning for me in many ways. I had a serious Come to Jesus meeting with myself and I gave myself a good talking to about priorities when all was said and done.  You see, in my other life, my job revolves around politics. And, as you can imagine, this was a big year for politics. To put it simply — politics ate my life in 2012. Days, nights, weekends, holidays… politics ate them all. After finishing my latest book in February, just in time for the primaries, there was precious little time left for writing, friends or exercise. Life pretty much consisted of work, more work and, happily, my amazing teenage daughter. It was fine while it was happening, it was just my life, but now that it is all over I find myself out of balance, out of energy and in need of some serious reallocation of how I spend my time and energy. The truth is: I miss my writing. It keeps me sane.

I’m not built for doing one thing and one thing only with my life. I get bored and distracted and, yes, I admit it — there may be more than a touch of ADHD going on. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I want to be at the party. I want to be alone. I want Rocket Man to move over and let me drive. My Yin and my Yang have always battled over which will control my life. They probably always will. People, can’t we all just get along?

A case in point: I have a ferocious ability to concentrate on the task at hand. And I do mean ferocious. Just ask my (still wonderful) ex-husband, Andy, who used to play cow punk rock with his musician friends in our one-room New York City apartment while I wrote my books less than 10 feet away. If you don’t think this is impressive, then clearly you have never heard Warner Hodges of Jason and the Scorchers play guitar.

Continue reading “Happy New Year, One & All — Including Moi”

You’re Invited…

Katy Munger Reading 

Thursday, June 21, 2012
7:00 PM to  8:30 PM
Durham County Library: 1st Floor Auditorium
300 North Roxboro Street, Durham, NC 27701

Meet mystery author Katy Munger for a talk about her three mystery series. Her first series, written as Gallagher Gray, featured Hubbert & Lil, a NYC duo of a certain age. The second, written under her own name, features unlicensed PI Casey Jones, who works in Raleigh and Durham. Her newest series, set in Delaware, features Kevin Fahey, a dead detective who must find redemption before he moves on.  A book signing will follow the reading.

Copies of her Casey Jones series as well as her latest Dead Detective book will be available for sale following the reading. 

A matter of faith

I think all authors go through what I typically go through when I am 90% done with a book: I have a draft, maybe even one that’s been revised a few times, but there is still plenty of layering to do. The characters must be made real and the plot a little more compelling, with my readers made to care about both. With my detailed outline in hand and a list of my characters and their individual traits nearby, I pore over what I have written and determine where I am missing depth in my manuscript.

It is always at this point, right before I begin the final draft process, but I begin to fear my characters are nothing but cartoons, that they have lost the struggle between word count, the need to move the plot forward and what’s left over to make my characters real. On top of that, when you’re writing a series as I am, you feel the need to move your recurring characters forward at least a little, too, so loyal readers, who love them as much as you do, can be rewarded. That’s all a lot of nuance to work into a plot that has to keep barreling forward at top speed.

This challenge was even more acute for me this time around as I worked on my new book, “Angel Along Us” because some of the characters, on the surface, definitely had the potential to slide into stereotype. This is often the case when you are working with characters that bring a lot of social baggage with them. In my case, I had a Catholic priest and a young female movie star, neither of which I wanted to end up being cardboard, and a handful of Hispanic characters who needed to be real without being caricatures. On top of it all, I had a recurring character who, in every book in which he has appeared, has bucked my plans for him and pretty much chosen his own path, often leading me to scratch my head about who exactly Adrian Calvano is and what he wants from me, his creator. Adrian was in fine form in this book, refusing to go along with my plot and choosing to act in unexpected ways. Clearly, he wanted something from me and I needed to figure out what.

It’s no wonder that my car felt crowded as I drove to the beach to begin my final push to complete this manuscript. Yes, I was the only one in the car, but I had all those characters riding in there with me and every one of them seemed to me to be in a most uncertain mood. I feared they might turn against me or, worse, give me the silent treatment, leaving me with nowhere to go. Continue reading “A matter of faith”

Living In The Twilight Zone

I have entered the Twilight Zone — that stage in a book where an entire fictional world has coalesced inside my head, populated with characters that I am convinced lead their lives without me when I am not paying attention to them. I imagine them fighting among themselves, jockeying for a bigger role in the book, conspiring to waylay my outline and generally taking on lives of their own.

It’s a good sign when this happens in some ways. It tells me that I have successfully created a world with enough layers to sustain a reader’s attention. But it’s not such a good sign when it comes to my real life, which suffers during this period from what some people have charitably called my “absent-minded professor syndrome” and others have called just plain old half-assedness. I plead guilty to both. But it is a condition impossible to fight. Whenever I am not concentrating on another task, it seems as if the characters I have created clamor for my attention and send me off on mini-daydreams in which I contemplate whether I have given their characters enough shading in the present draft or whether I am taking them in the right direction in the pages to come.

They can be quite insistent at times, which pulls my brain away from daily matters, and so I have found myself doing all of the following during this period of time:

Continue reading “Living In The Twilight Zone”

Mazel tov to us all!

Birthday journal

Today is my birthday. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am officially older than dirt. But I am also undeniably happy to be here and feel extremely lucky at the year behind me, a year which unfolded in unexpected ways and ended on a far happier note then it began. I woke up today feeling lucky and grateful for what I have.

I also woke up thinking of my friend Rick. I think of him on my birthday every year because of the great gift he gave to me, without even realizing it. Here’s how: Rick’s birthday is soon after my own. Conscious of what it is like to have a birthday near the holidays, I always tried to reach out to him and press him to celebrate in some way. But a few years ago, he explained to me that he liked to spend his birthday quietly and use it as a day of contemplation, as a time to look at his life and make conscious choices to do things differently if it was not as he hoped.

Continue reading “Mazel tov to us all!”

When death is no longer an abstract

My Dad, top row at right, at Harvard on a Neiman Fellowship in 1955, before the responsibility of caring for six children derailed his exceptionally promising journalism career. Rather than working late at the office and climbing the career ladder, he would come home to cook dinner for us.

Is there any obsession greater than death? No matter how hard we try to hide it, isn’t the popularity of crime fiction an indication that we humans remain, as we have for thousands of years, obsessed with the idea of no longer being here?  We are driven to wonder…. Where do we go? Where do our loved ones go? Do we linger, somehow, in this world? And if it is true that readers of crime fiction are, perhaps, more obsessed with death than most people — what does that say about the writers of crime fiction? Surely, we are the most fascinated by death of all? We spend our days thinking and writing about nothing else.

But the truth is that death is benign when you are writing about it. All those words, the plot, the puzzles, the mysteries surrounding it are artificial buffers that protect both the writer and the reader from truly experiencing the ultimate power of death. These buffers allow us to dance around it, poke at it and flirt with its finality without actually feeling the incredible pain it can bring into our hearts. Reading and writing crime fiction is a talisman of sorts — maybe if we steep in it enough as entertainment, it will pass by our door in real life?   This is impossible, of course, and when you feel an all-too-real threat of death that hits close to home, it looks and feels very different.

I have been lucky in my life. Even at my age, I have experienced relatively few losses. Yes, I have lost a friend who died far too young. I have even lost a sister, which was like losing a part of myself. She had always been there in my life and then she was gone forever. But her conduct in the face of impending death was one of such bravery and fierceness that her death was less a passing and more of a battle that left me filled with awe at her spirit. I have lost a parent as well, when my mother passed away almost five years ago. But she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade and when her body finally gave up its burden, we had long since come to terms with having lost her.

Now, though, death has become so much more than an abstract. My father, frail in health at age 86, survived a night two years ago that no one, most especially the doctors, thought he would make it through. Four times that night the doctors came to us to confirm that we had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order” on him and four times we confirmed it. He did survive that night, though, fueling my belief that, somehow, my family had cut a deal with death to pass us by. Since then, my father has been living with his heart working at 25% capacity, no small feat for a man who towers at over six feet tall. As it turns out, as we had always suspected, he really does have the heart of a lion. It has been steadily beating over the past two years and this tenderhearted, uncharacteristically sweet man has been with us for far longer than we expected. His life has become more limited, of course. He is confined largely to his bed at his nursing home. But in that time, it is as if his essential nature has distilled and burned even brighter, endearing him to staff even as it has made it more inconceivable to his children that we might lose him one day. This is no ordinary father, mind you. He did the heavy lifting when we were children, taking care of us in addition to working full time. When you have six children, this is an accomplishment that borders on the heroic. Continue reading “When death is no longer an abstract”

Hand Me the Knife

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”

I came across this quote from Mark Twain this week and loved it. Being a writer has one big advantage  over other occupations: it is one of the few jobs where your age is largely immaterial. But even better than that, as the books pass by, you start to acquire an awesomely-tuned ability to cut the hell out of your prose. The way I write has changed so much since my first book. I have now developed a system where I have a detailed outline to guide me, but then I cut loose and write fast and furiously in wherever direction it takes me, knowing that I will be waiting with my editing knife in hand at the other end.

God bless computers and word processing. You can turn the messiest, most meandering manuscripts into a fast-paced, tight story by the time you’re done and no one will ever know your book once looked like something you dredged off the ocean bottom and pulled, dripping and covered with seaweed and slime, to the surface.  The best part of this approach? It’s fun. You get to go off on side adventures with your characters and wander through their world without worry, knowing that, in the end, your travels will lead you to those essential passages that need to stay in.

My system is pretty straightforward. I write when and where I can, given my schedule, but I always aim to have a complete draft ready at least a month before my manuscript is due and, preferably, two months before. I then scrub all prior knowledge of the book from my head and start at the beginning, reading it with draconian standards of pacing and slashing out whole gobs of words at a time. My word count feature helps a lot in that regard. I become the Queen of Hearts, shouting, “Off with its head!” on every page. At first, I was sure this approach would create holes in my narrative or cause sections to stick out like amputated stubs. But I quickly learned, thanks to  second, third and even fourth read-throughs, that this is not the case. It is possible to polish a manuscript with the same loving care you would bring to polishing a rock and, hopefully, in the end, come up with a finished product that is distilled, vibrant and full of color.

When a Take-Over is Emminent

I am in the midst of writing my fourth Dead Detective book and, while I don’t have a title I like enough yet to offer publicly, I am well into the book. As often happens, given all the characters I typically jam into a single book, there is a minor character who has grown in importance with each page I write and who seems determined to take over. I used to say that when this situation occurred, and the author found themselves not in full control of their character, it was subconscious creativity speaking and that a wise author let it happen.

Now, I am not so sure. Continue reading “When a Take-Over is Emminent”