The Miss Demeanors have previously blogged about whether or not each of us listens to music or other sounds while writing. I’m on the put-your-records-on side. Why? Because it helps me combat distraction. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? For most of my life, I’ve made my living by dividing my attention. I started out as a paralegal working on 150-200 cases at any given time. Once I mastered that balancing act, I got bored. I gravitated to a career where the landscape shifts constantly, where I’m challenged to keep learning. As a cyber crime investigator I’m required to pay attention to subtle nuances to identify anomalous dew drops in firehoses of information. It’s held my interest for nearly 20 years, a good chunk of which I’ve spent bombarded by distractions. That’s where music comes in. When I’m overwhelmed, frustrated, or having trouble focusing, I put on headphones and fire up my iTunes. At first I thought music helped because it relaxed me. Then someone asked me about my playlists. A lot of the songs are filled with driving beats and heavy guitars. I’ve been known to dance while I work. Fun but definitely not relaxing. So then I thought, aha, it must be a rhythm thing. Makes sense, right? But that seemed wrong, too. I usually shuffle songs. While I’ve noticed algorithmic patterns based on title and genre in iTunes’ shuffling, the beats tend to change from song to song. Because I’m the curious sort (i.e., easily distracted), I recently set out to understand why listening to music helps me focus. That’s when I learned about spatial intelligence. It’s how our brains transform and relate observations that are superficially or overtly unrelated. A growing body of research has found listening to music stimulates the creative parts of our spacial intelligence that help us solve complex problems and heighten situational awareness. Handy skills for my day job. Equally useful when working in reverse, like, say, crafting a mystery. If you’ll excuse, I have a first draft to finish. Now, where did I put my headphones?Read more
We’ve all heard this tidbit of advice from Peter De Vries. It’s often misattributed to Hemingway. If you want to read about that, here’s a good explanation: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2016/09/21/write-drunk/ This post isn’t about who said it first. It’s about the spirit of the quote, no pun intended. The advice is meaningful to me right now as I’m writing a first draft of a new novel. That quote says to me to release the shackles of inhibition. Just write. No one is going to see the first draft but me. So do whatever it takes to write with reckless abandon. Don’t worry about tropes, cliches, the amount of profanity, the number of times I use the word “was.” None of that matters in this round. What matters is the second version. And the third. And every revision after that. It’s impossible to edit a manuscript that doesn’t exist. So, while I’m not exactly writing drunk, what I am doing is constantly reminding myself to muzzle the doubts and ignore my internal critic. Instead, I’m writing like no one is reading. I’m reveling in the first-draftness of just getting the story out. Because I love revising. That’s where the magic happens. And I can’t wait to get started. What about you? When you’ve read/heard “write drunk, edit sober,” what does it mean to you?Read more
Black Hat and DEF CON, the annual back-to-back information security conferences, happened a few weeks ago in Las Vegas. The week is also known as Hacker Summer Camp. I skipped it this year. About a month earlier I’d been craving a change of scenery by way of a writing retreat. Formal, organized retreats weren’t working with my schedule so I decided to create my own. Big kudos go to my partner who found the perfect spot, a little out-of-the-way boutique hotel on Vancouver Island’s west coast. I think each of the Miss Demeanors have mentioned the valuable correlation between playing outside and creativity. My getaway was perfect in this regard. Days started with biking, hiking, kayaking, and even a couple of hours of zip-lining followed by hours of reading and writing with spectacular views of the ocean. An added bonus I didn’t count on was terrible Internet connectivity. For the first time in months I couldn’t get sidetracked by Twitter and email. The hotel had wifi but it was slower than what I’m used to and failed completely unless I was in one particular spot. It was in that spot I communicated with my lovely and fabulous agent (Paula) about current subs and new ideas. Maybe it was the view, the peace of a quiet so profound I could hear the fwap-fwap of a seagull’s footfall as it walked along the rocky shoreline, the lack of hyperdistraction, or, most likely, a combination of all the above. All I know is my imagination went into overdrive. At the end of the week I had an outline and 2 chapters of a new novel. The experience was such a success that I’ve already booked the same spot for next year. I can’t wait to go back to summer camp.Read more
A major life event occurred last week, one that I can’t ignore. My mother passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s. My mom wasn’t the bake-cookies-for-PTA-meetings type of person. She was a journalist and performer, in some form or fashion, for her entire life. She was also my biggest cheerleader who taught me to follow my passions. When I was 8 years old, I discovered the power of storytelling. I wrote stories for class assignments that I later learned were circulated around the teachers’ lounge. Thinking about those stories today, I see nothing special until I recalled what my peers wrote for those same assignments. My classmates wrote about horses and what they wanted to be when they grew up. I wrote ghost stories and melodramatic mysteriesamong groups of friends (third-grade style). I credit my mother with that. She encouraged me to read well above my grade level, took me to get my first library card, and never said no when I wanted more books. That summer she thought it was a great idea when I asked to use her typewriter to start a weekly neighborhood newspaper. In addition to reporting on who got a new dog or how the Oakland A’s were doing, I included (at my mom’s suggestion) a “fiction corner” where I wrote short stories. My mom helped me sell subscriptions and took me on my Saturday morning delivery rounds. Sometimes those rounds concluded with a stop at the local stationery store to buy fresh spools of typewriting ribbon when I wore the old ones out. I kept that paper going until midway through the 4th grade. As childhood attention spans go, that’s probably some kind of record. One of the greatest gifts my mom gave me was teaching me, through her actions and advice, to live fearlessly and with no regrets. As I continue my journey as an author – and a human being – that’s the best way I know how to honor her. Thank you, Mom. I miss you.
I’ll read anywhere, though I particularly enjoyed reading during my last vacation. I went to St. Lucia and finished Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which I truly enjoyed. The hype is worth it. So is the hype about St. Lucia. Here I am reading my own book in this picture because The Widower’s Wife is coming out in paperback and, you know, marketing.Most of the time, I was actually reading Big Little Lies, though. Inspired by my vacation reading, my challenge for The MissDemeanors this week was to show themselves reading in a favorite place. See their photos below! Tracee de Hahn: I love to read in cafes and particularly in cafes in cities, and even better in a cafe in Paris near a bookstore where I have bought a new book. I’ve spent many many hours and days reading at one of the cafes at St Michel, just across from this Gilbert Jeune bookstore. As a testament to this, I have many many books in French which I apparently couldn’t live without. Most histories. Surely one day I will read them all! (Cate: Tracee, C’est magnifique! J’espere qu’un jour je pourrai aller visiter les librairies Francaises.) C. Michele Dorsey: I have loved reading at the beach since I was old enough to read, although I will read anywhere. Here I am at Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts enraptured by Brian Thiem’s first book, “Red Line” using a No Virgin Island bookmark. (Cate: Red Line is such a great read, as is Michele’s acclaimed, Publishers Weekly STARRED reviewed, Sabrina Salter mystery series.) Susan Breen loves reading in the woods. (Cate: Who wouldn’t love reading in these woods? Is one of those trees where Maggie Dove found Marcus Bender? ;-)) D.A. Bartley: Reading Ruth Rendell’s Dark Corners in front of Blue Polyvitro Crystals by Dale Chihuly at the New York Botanical Garden. (Cate: Great SETTING!) Gardens are favorite places of the MissDemeanors. The picture below is of our lovely agent and acclaimed author Paula Munier reading in Cherasco Italy. (Che Bello!) Robin Stuart was recently reading in Sooke, British Columbia (the importance of will be revealed in an upcoming blog post). When traveling, she reads outside–cafes, poolside or, as in this case, beachside. When she’d home, she most often reads in bed where the yard work can’t distract her. (CATE: I want to know what was happening in that intriguing setting) And below is a favorite reading nook of Lefty Award winning author Alexia Gordon. All you need to know is that it has good food and beverages. What else does a writer need?Tell us, where do you read?Read more
The theme of my posts this week seems to be the things I am most thankful for as a writer. Perhaps that’s because I have a book coming out soon and am feeling that familiar mix of terror and relief that makes you want to hold all the things you love dear. So, here are the top five–a few of which have gotten their own posts this week. #1. My familyI could not be a writer if it weren’t for the support and love of my family. When I submitted my first fiction short story at age seven to scholastic, and was rejected, my mom told me to keep going. She’d encouraged me to submit it in the first place, saying that she believed I had a special talent. When what you make is for mass consumption, it helps to have someone who tells you that your work is worth it. My husband is the person who most often emotionally supports me now. He assures me that my books deserve to be read and will prove all the work that I put into them, even when I am frustrated about a rewrite, furious with myself for not knowing what to do next, or bummed about a rejection. My spouse has also provided the steady paycheck that enabled me to leave journalism and my salaried job to concentrate on writing (and motherhood) full time. He swears that I’ll enable him to retire early as a result, someday. #2. EditorsI need them. I don’t always love their suggestions, but there is nothing more important than the input of a critical, knowledgeable, honest, and frank person. My editors make me better and they make my books better. #3. The Thriller/ Mystery Writer Community Talking to other fiction writers makes me feel normal, and that’s important. They understand what it is like to live in a fictional headspace for hours, if not days, and then try to make normal conversation. They get how difficult it is to pull yourself away from your writing when you’re in the middle of a good chapter or have a great flow going. They understand the difficulty juggling the real with the imaginary. I feel like I’ve found my tribe. #4. LibrariesPlease see my prior post, included in the related links section, on all the reasons that public libraries are wonderful and necessary. They are VITAL! #5. The InternetI penned a love letter to Google Maps, one of my favorite tools, in an earlier post this week. But I could also write sonnets for dictionary.com, discussion boards, true crime web sites, online psychology studies, writer blogs, etc. I LOVE THE WORLD WIDE WEB! #6. READERS!!!!In a world where information is doled out in 140 characters or with un-contextualized images, readers are becoming rarer and more important than ever before. Not only do I love readers because they allow me to do what I am passionate about, I love them because they care enough to know more, to imagine for themselves, to empathize with strange characters, and to want to delve into others’ thought processes. Readers are intellectually curious and empathetic, and I truly believe that those two attributes will be the most important to the survival of the human race.
What are you most thankful for in your writing life?
I recently wrote a short story for an upcoming anthology inspired by the music of Lou Reed. My story, Pale Blue Eyes, based on his song, could not take place in New Jersey or New York, the states with which I am most familiar, having lived in both for years. Something about the rumble of Lou Reed’s gravelly tenor refused to let me throw the characters inspired by his songs in the fast-talking, faster moving Manhattan area and its environs. So, I set it in Las Vegas. Part of it takes place on the infamous strip, which I’ve been to. But the far more significant part of the story takes place at Las Vegas’ Red Rock Canyon State Park, which I have never visited. Thanks to Google, though, I could virtually visit. The Internet Giant’s map site let me walk through the Calico Tanks trail, showing me all the scenery I might see on a given day, every step of the way. I could see the dusty trail, the striated red rock formations and the prickly scrub brush lining the narrow foot path. I could view user uploaded images at different points in the day of the giant red rocks. Thanks to associated links, I could even visit pages where visitors discussed everything about the park from the smell of the air, to the weather in the month that I had set my story, to the way the sun sets. I think the site really changes the game for writers, most of whom can’t afford to travel solely to inform a new book or short story. Have you ever written a story in a place that you have never been? What tools did you use to research it?Read more
Today, at 7p.m., I am speaking at THE RAMSEY PUBLIC LIBRARY in Bergen County, NJ, where I grew up and now live. I am so thankful that they invited me and that I live in a place with wonderful local libraries. Librarians rock. By and large, they are amazing sources of information. Most read constantly and pride themselves on acquiring good books and then recommending them to their visitors. As a result, a strong library system can be the difference between a wonderful work of fiction getting discovered by the masses. One of the most well read people in the mystery, thriller community is librarian and author Jeff Ayers. Track him down at the next mystery conference and ask about a book that you enjoyed which no one has been able to talk to you about. Chances are, Jeff will know it. Chances are, he’ll even personally know the author. The library was where I discovered my own love of reading. My mom would take me several times a month to the TEANECK PUBLIC LIBRARY to stack up on new books. I loved holing away in a corner of the building, surrounded by the sweet, faintly earthy smell of paper and ink, and getting lost in a fictional universe for hours. When I had my first interview for BusinessWeek, a magazine where I would later work for several years, it was in the Teaneck Public Library. I applied right out of college, before I had enough experience to warrant the job. The editor decided that I deserved some encouragement and met with me at the library to talk writing, journalism, and books. Now a mom, I take my kids to the TENAFLY PUBLIC LIBRARY every month. They love picking out new books, though they have a bad habit of pretending they own them and integrating them into their own bookcases. The children’s librarian there has turned my kids on to some wonderful series that I would not have otherwise known about. Do you visit your local library? What is your favorite library memory?Read more
“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl I find myself repeating such sage advice lately as I am in the midst of rewriting my fourth book. Some authors swear that they write just one draft. I wish I knew their secret. My process, despite extensive plotting, seems to demand that I write a draft (which I believe will be my final at the time) and then nearly destroy all of it. Then, having a better sense of my characters due to writing through my story, I re-plot my tale and rewrite my story. Afterward, I work with my publisher and rewrite some more. Every book, by the time it is published, is three or more books. For me, this writing and rewriting is necessary to tell my story in a way that grows organically from the characters while still exploring the themes that drew me to the story in the first place. Though, when in the midst of it, I wish my process was a bit more streamlined. What’s your writing process? Are you one draft and done, save for copy edits? Or does it take multiple drafts?Read more
Some years ago, my fabulous Gotham boss, Kelly Caldwell, wrote an article about writers’ taboos. Were there any topics you just would not write about? I was thinking about that article the other day when I was at my daughter’s bridal shower. I adore my daughter, I loved everyone there, and yet the mystery writer in me could not help but think that it would be a perfect set-up for a murder. I began to plot, but then pushed the idea away. It was my daughter’s day and I didn’t want to appropriate it. (Not now, anyway.) That led me to wonder, however, what topics my fellow Miss Demeanors find taboo. This is what they said: Cate: I don’t consider any topics taboo in a suspense or thriller. Maybe that’s because I started sneaking my mom’s V.C. Andrews books right after I finished reading The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. Alexia: I can’t think of any subject I consider taboo–off limits, would never, ever go there. (Never say never.) However, I don’t care to write about subjects that I wouldn’t read about. Not because they’re verboten, just because I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m okay with not spending my limited time on things that hold no interest for me. Stories about not-too-bright submissive women involved with wealthy, sexually sadistic psychopaths come to mind. Also stories where sex and violence are gratuitous, just there for the shock value, not to serve a plot purpose.I would love to read a murder mystery centered around a bridal shower, unromantic cynic that I am. “Bridezilla Gets Her Due.” How’s that for a title? The caterer did it. D.A.: I absolutely write about the taboo … in the textbook definition of a social or religious custom forbidding discussion of a particular practice. My books are about what many Latter-day Saints consider sacred. There are particular challenges to writing about what you’re not supposed to write. It’s easy to understate, exaggerate or avoid. I think readers sense when a writer’s not being honest or fair, and the story suffers. When I’m dealing with a taboo subject, I’ve found the best way to ensure accurate and respectful treatment is to let my characters be themselves. My detective has left the church and her father is a devout and active member. I defer to the characters’ intelligence and let them wrestle with the taboo topics. They do a much better job than I could. The reader then is left to sort things out on his or her own, which really is what you want to happen when you read suspense anyway. As a nod to the taboo, I’ve attached an image of the Salt Lake temple, a structure where sacred covenants no one is supposed to discuss take place. Michele: My answer to the question of the week is that I could never write about explicit violence to children. I can allude to it, but I can’t even bear to read details about children being hurt, let alone consider writing them. As much as I love Elizabeth George and have read just about every word the woman has ever written, I had skip sections of In the Presence of the Enemy. I didn’t want to experience what Lottie had to endure. But I also believe writing about the abuse and harm to children can raise awareness and help to prevent it. There’s a delicate balance between letting readers know about the cruelty children suffer from and including such graphic details that they recoil from them and stop reading as I do. Tracee: Children and animals are two hurdles I treat carefully. I agree with Michele that awareness can be raised if done correctly but I can’t write about them explicitly. I have a part in a current manuscript where the heroine tries to abandon her dog to a good home and some Beta readers balked – even though she and the dog are re-united a half page later and bond permanently soon after!I’m a big fan of Martha Grimes and she’s raised awareness of cruelty to animals with plot lines involving testing, I thought she handled it well. Revealing enough for awareness without making the reader want to flip though the chapter without reading. Of course I also don’t write about serial killers or other situations which require descriptions of torture or other physical horrors. Robin: I embrace taboo topics a little too readily (ask Paula about that :)). There is one thing I will likely never write, though, and that’s anything involving harm to an animal. Maybe I got scarred by reading Old Yeller in grade school. There are books I love that handle such things artfully without feeling contrived or manipulative, like James Herriot’s books and Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing In The Rain, but I sometimes have to take breaks after scenes I write involving humans; jeopardizing an animal would bring me to a full stop. I’m too much of a sucker for fur babies. Paula: I won’t write about anything I won’t read about. Which means sadism or torture or harm to kids or animals. There are dog heroes in my books, and I worry about the challenges they face just as much as I worry about those my human heroes face–from flying bullets to n’oreasters. As an agent, I know that selling stories where a child or an animal is killed is very difficult, if not impossible, especially for debut authors. To pull it off requires great craft and greater luck. So if you’re looking to get published for the first time, you might want to avoid these kind of storylines. Then a further thought from Alexia, to our agent: As a tip for aspiring authors who read our blog, does that include child murders that occur “off-screen” (say as part of a character’s backstory or something that happened before the action began)? Or only child murders that occur on the page?Any other topics aspiring authors should think twice about including in their debut effort? And Paula’s reply: Probably best to avoid altogether. Those are the biggest issues. But many editors shy away from graphic violence, rape, incest, and the like. It’s also true that some are avoiding sex trafficking, drug trafficking, serial killers, and terrorism, as they’ve been overdone lately. So if you’re including any of this plot elements you need to find a fresh take…. And here’s the link to Kelly’s article: https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/articles/the-care-and-treatment-of-sacred-things-part-iRead more