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:

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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.

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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

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

Welcome to my world!

Featured

Welcome to my official website, dedicated primarily to my career as a writer of crime fiction. Here you will find descriptions of my series and books plus links to where you can buy them. Because I write part-time and  juggle so many other different roles in my life (including being a mom and political activist), it is very difficult for me to answer e-mails and stay in touch with readers one-on-one. I hope you will use this blog  as a vehicle for contacting me, sending me comments and asking questions about my books. I very much appreciate  reader feedback and take all of your comments and support to heart. I would also love to use some of your questions as the basis for posts here, so feel free to ask away. You can subscribe to this blog via e-mail at right, bookmark it or sign up for RSS feeds.  Thanks and enjoy!

For Short Story Lovers:

If you enjoy short stories centered around crime, check out Dead of Winter, an anthology of mystery and crime short stories by established authors belonging to the Thalia Press Authors Co-Op (TPAC). My writing partner, Lisa McClendon, and I edited this collection of stories by such talented writers as Taffy Cannon, Kate Flora, Gary Phillips, J.D. Rhoades, Sarah Shaber, Bren Witchger and, of course, Lise and myself.

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You get 8 great stories in e-book format for $4.99. Buy Dead of Winter in Kindle format here, purchased it in Nook format here or visit smashwords for other e-book formats. For more on this anthology and other TPAC authors, visit our blog.