How come you’ve never heard of me before?

If I’m not writing, my next favorite thing to do: read a book while sitting at a cafe on a Mexican beach and sipping cold beer from a bottle….

If you are a reader who has discovered me only recently, you may be wondering why the hell you have never heard of me before. The answer is pretty simple: there are many of us mid-list writers out there who do not get the kind of large-scale, national marketing campaigns that are needed to help an author and their books break out from all the many books in the marketplace today. We get buried in a mountain of new print releases, not to mention the avalanche of ebooks that come out virtually every single day. Many of us, like me, have been writing book since well before the advent of electronic platforms and we write as well, if not better, than the authors you see on the bestseller lists. In fact, our books can often be more original and surprising than those on the bestseller lists.

How can that be true? Continue reading

Ignoring the Truth

True DetectiveThis past week, socked under by a killer virus that would not abate, I sought refuge in reading true crime in front of the fire. I do not read just any true crime book that hits the racks, mind you, and you should not either. A large percentage of them consist of breathless prose highlighting the more lurid aspects of a crime, much like the detective magazines of (not-so-) old. But I do read good true crime because of the amazing psychological insights into human behavior that thoughtful reporting on a case can provide. This means I primarily read (or re-read) Ann Rule, who, until her death last year, stood head and shoulders above all other true crime writers. I know of no one else who has even come close to Rule’s ability to illuminate the cause and effects of aberrant behavior, in part because times have changed. The need to rush a manuscript to market—and be the first to offer a book on a major crime already well-publicized by other media outlets—means that few publishers are willing to wait until the case has wound its way through the courts. Tracking a non-fiction story over years is also exhausting and life-consuming, which may have been why Rule switched to short-form crime reporting toward the end of her life. But at her best, Ann Rule had an amazing capacity to let the psychological themes of a case emerge as she examined a real life tragedy, traced its inception by backtracking to motive, then detailed what happened during the trial. She always made sure to report what happened to the victim’s families, gave investigators and prosecutors their due, and followed up in the years after the verdict to see whether the punishment imposed had changed the perpetrator (answer: rarely, if ever). Each of her in-depth books on a case represented a microcosm of human behavior, invariably showcasing the best and the worst in people.

Continue reading

The Great Debate

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table….

TS_EliotThese opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, have sparked many a debate among literary fans: is it a beautiful metaphor for twilight’s stupor… or could it be a metaphor for life itself?

As it turns out, it could very well be a metaphor for how T.S. Eliot felt when presented with a literary novel over one from his beloved detective genre. Yes, the undisputed arbitrator of literary genius was a huge detective fiction fan, a fact that the bastion of high brow writing, the New Yorker,revealed in this recent illuminating article. And not only was T.S. Eliot a devoted reader of the genre, he also wrote a number of anonymous reviews of detective novels and stories, defending the conventions of the genre with passion and advocating for some of its most notable authors in the time between the two great world wars.

Where was T.S. Eliot when I needed him? I have spent much of my career defending my decision to go into crime fiction as an author and remain as surprised as anyone that I have chosen to dwell there for decades and counting. But now that I know a man of unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment shares my passion, I have decided to stop mincing words when it comes to why I choose to write crime fiction over what some in the world might describe as more worthy novels. If J. Alfred Prufock can dare to eat a peach, then I can surely dare to point out the obvious in this endless debate: Continue reading

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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

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

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

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