A Love Letter to St. John While Waiting for Irma

   Everyone knows the Caribbean and then Florida are bracing for the beast now known as Irma to hit. This Category five hurricane is arriving on the heels of Harvey demolishing Houston. Even acknowledging how the media hypes storms, no one is denying Irma is one of the largest storms ever with 185 mph winds. You don’t need to be a meteorologist when looking at the eye of the storm to predict massive destruction to property and to fear the toll on human lives.            Long before I began writing the Sabrina Salter series, I fell in love with an island. Lush with tree-covered hills, abundant with endless beaches, I happened onto St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands when I was on a cruise more than thirty years ago. Riding under a shady tree canopy over roads with perpendicular hills and switchbacks more terrifying than a rollercoaster, I arrived at Trunk Bay where the beach with warm silky turquoise water and talcum powder sand enchanted me. My husband and I vowed to return. Within six months, we did. Again and again, as often as three times a year over the next three decades. Now we spend half of the year on island.              My love affair with St. John began with the rush of a crush. My senses were overloaded. I was sure my eyes were deceiving me. There could be no shade of green or blue as vibrant the sea. The sensation of a soft tickle on my skin was a gift from the local Tradewinds. My ears were treated to the songs of birds and the whispers of wind through palm trees.            But like with any love affair, the sizzle was bound to fizzle. When I was no longer gushing at the dramatic beauty I’d found in St. John, although I still appreciated it, I became aware of more subtle treasures. The people of St. John are remarkable in spirit and generosity. Often considered a curious crew, St. John draws people who are strong individuals, many opinionated, most creative and many artistic. They are rugged, yet sensitive, and ferociously loyal. In St. John, if you’ve got a problem, you’ve got a friend.            I learned as much about myself as I did about my beloved island, two thirds of which is part of the National Park Service.  As I hiked the trails of Reef Bay and Ram Head in silence, I discovered a Michele I had yet to meet. One who appreciated words were not always necessary and the power of the Universe not always found in churches. That you don’t need “stuff” to live well and that the one commodity needed by all human beings is kindness.               This morning, I’m perched safely on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, far away from St. John as Irma skulks toward its shores. Poised to hear news, praying that everyone is safe, and that damage is minimal, I am reminded of another lesson learned on an island where Mother Nature reigns as queen. All of this is beyond my control and I am at peace with that. I have faith in the people on St. John. They have rebuilt before and will again. Resilience is something no hurricane can destroy on St. John.            I’ve been working on my third Sabrina Salter novel, which coincidentally is set during a hurricane on St. John where the courage and humanity of my characters is challenged by the forces of nature. I know where to find the inspiration to finish my story.

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This Is How It Begins: The Budding Writer

  We were walking in the woods one morning, having inspected the pond for insects and the river for currents. The air was cool for August, but the sun shone through the trees splashing patterns on the path. There was magic in the air.            “Grandma, I looked you up on my mom’s phone,” said Wyatt, my beautiful and brilliant seven-year-old grandson.            “You mean, you Googled me?” I asked.            “Yeah, I found a picture of you and a picture of your book,” Wyatt said, grinning at me with pride, which I think was directed more at his research skills than that his grandmother had written a book. Still, I was honored and touched.            He climbed up on a huge rock, posing for a photo with me his grandfather took, and ran ahead into the forest. The sight of his blonde head, lean tall young body, jumping over limbs made my heart sing.            “I have a story, too,” he said, called back as he forged ahead.            “Tell us about it,” I said.            And he did. The tale began with three children in the middle of one night when they awoke to join in an adventure that began with them entering a portal on an urgent rescue mission.            “Wow, that’s a great hook,” I said, explaining to him what a hook was and how important it is to excite your reader right from the start.            He nodded and went on to tell a tale with twists and turns, spirals and arcs, characters that included Dr. Seuss and his dog, as we listened, spellbound by a seven-year-old whose imagination was unfolding before us in the forest. I asked an occasional question, but I hesitated to interrupt the miracle we were witnessing. Wyatt answered patiently, moving on to the next scene in his story, clearly pleased by my interest.            There was a finale, which Wyatt revealed just as we returned to the same pond where we had begun our walk. The climax was both happy and satisfying. Pleased with himself and our admiration for his talent, Wyatt told us he had lots of stories to tell.            Is this how it begins? The budding of a writer. A child born to be a storyteller. We encouraged Wyatt to try to put his stories on paper or to dictate it into one of the many devices children his age consider to be natural appendages. We explained, stories are gifts to be shared.            I wondered. Do all children have stories inside of them or are some just born to tell tales, while others to make music or paint or sculpt?  Where do these talents go, if not nurtured? Do we suffocate our children with busyness and activities we think they should be doing and ignore what they naturally and instinctively hold within themselves?            A seed sits in every child, waiting to be planted, watered, and grown.  If ignored, the plant wilts and goes to seed. Decades later, the adult wonders what is lying dormant in the empty cave within him. With a little luck and a lot of tenacity, the adult may rediscover the gift that was his to give from the beginning.            Let’s honor the artists in our children. Let there be writers, sculptors, painters, singers, musicians, and artists of all kinds, nurtured from seed. For this to happen, all we have to do is listen and love.

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Finding Story: Embracing the Laundromat

 I know. Who wants to read a blog about laundromats?  Not me. I hate laundromats. They are boring beyond boring. Depressing beyond depressing. I hated them in my twenties and now in my sixties, I still despise them. So why I am I writing a blog about a laundromat?            Because yesterday, on a rainy Sunday morning in the middle of Labor Day weekend, I spent three hours in one with my husband doing six weeks worth of laundry. Now wait, you do the math. That’s not so bad. Three divided by six is fifty minutes a week, probably a lot shorter than most people spend doing their laundry. There’s some advantage to being able to use multiple machines at the same time. In and out, as long as you don’t have to wait for a washer or dryer, which we didn’t. I still hate the laundromat.             I hate the noise. Beyond the whirring and spinning and clamping when a cycle ends, there is the television. Don’t get me started on that topic, but why do we need to have a television screen staring at us everywhere we go these days? The checkout aisle at the grocery story, the doctor’s waiting room, the bank. Isn’t it bad enough that the toxicity of television enters the privacy of our homes? Do I really need the company of Kathie Lee and Hoda sipping wine while I wash my underwear in public? And the volume. Kathie Lee should work as a carnival barker and put that mouth to good use.            I’ve tried to embrace the laundromat. My husband, who tolerates it only a tad better than I, has tried to put a spin on the experience, forgive the pun please, but it’s that bad. When we first downsized dramatically and drastically sacrificing a laundry room for our freedom to have a large life instead of a big house, he suggested we combine date night with laundry day. There is a great little restaurant next door to our laundromat with terrific burgers. My favorite is a Marsala burger with Swiss cheese, bacon, mushroom and Marsala demi glace. Of course, there are television screens everywhere, but the real problem was timing the wash and dry cycles of half a dozen machines with the service of our food and drink.            Yesterday, we headed out at the crack of dawn, trying a new strategy intended to get us to the laundromat before the crowds joined the party. We had the best breakfast I’ve had on Cape Cod at a darling restaurant in the hangar at a tiny airport. Fortified with fresh orange juice, cold brew coffee, and a savory Gruyere bread pudding topped with a couple eggs, we arrived to open the laundromat with half a dozen people with the same idea. We dug in, loading machines, whisking metal baskets on wheels from washer to dryer. We filled the coin-sucking machines with enough change to ensure a huge win if only we had been playing slot machines.            I could feel my shoulders rising to my ears as the stress mounted. I sat between cycles trying to read my book but distracted by the people around me. I remembered how when I would go to court as a lawyer, my colleagues hated waiting in the courtroom for their turn to be heard. They huffed and puffed, sighed, wiggling on the hard chairs with palpable resistance, while I silently chortled, and took notes about the unfolding human drama I was witnessing as fodder for my writing.            I opened my eyes and ears and felt the laundromat turn into a classroom and a laboratory all at once. I watched a couple synchronize grabbing the corners of sheets, then walk in toward the other, one handing the corners to the other, smiling at each other as if dancing a minuet.             Several solitary males of various ages caught my attention. The older man who folded with such skill, I was tempted to ask if he had learned on You-tube. I wondered how long he had been alone to have become so adept at folding fitted sheets. The middle-aged man who folded with a little less skill but did it with one hand while he chatted on the phone fascinated me. It was a flirtatious conversation, but his shorts and tee shirts never suffered as he flung them into a cardboard box that doubled as his laundry basket. An elderly man stumbled around, clearly a laundromat virgin. My husband took him under his wing and gently showed him around. I imagined he was a new widower and practically wept when he admitted he “was new at this.”  He didn’t even pretend to fold as he flung his clothes into a basket, thanking us for our help as he left.            When a young man clutching his dirty clothes in a hug without a basket or bag entered, not sure which were the washers and which were the dryers at first, I was fascinated. I pointed him in the direction of the washers and then detergent dispensers and coin machines. “Clearly, I’m a rookie,” he said, winking at me.            Then I realized each of my fellow companions was a story and that I had brought the wrong book to the laundromat. Next time, I’ll leave the novel at home and bring a notebook. And I’ll embrace another opportunity to gather the stories that live in each of us and quit my bitching.            How about you? Where do you find stories?                           

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Listen Up

Spoken word audio entertainment has surged in popularity. Podcasts such as “Serial” and “S-Town” rack up millions of listens. The audiobook versions of bestsellers are available for download almost as soon as hardcopies hit bookstores and celebrities such as Claire Danes, Gillian Andersen, David Duchovny, and Trevor Noah perform the narration. I asked my fellow MissDemeanors what their favorite podcasts were and who would be their dream narrator for the audio version of their books. Here’s what they had to say. Cate Holahan:Podcast: Roben Farzad, “Full Disclosure”Narrators: Charlize Theron, Amy Adams, or Halle Berry. Paula Munier:This is an interesting question. When I think of my red-haired heroine in A Borrowing of Bones, I think of someone like Jessica Chastain, beautiful and tough and vulnerable at the same time. She also has a great voice. Susan Breen:There’s an Australian true crime podcast that I really like called, “Casefile.” It’s frustrating because I can’t understand what they’re saying half the time and they don’t generally have a resolution, and yet the stories haunt me. For an audio narrator, I’d love to borrow someone from Midsomer Murders. Maybe Cully [Laura Howard]?(Me: I love “Casefile”. It’s on my Stitcher favorites list.) Tracee deHahn:I love TED Talks because they introduce me to things I hadn’t even thought of, or expand on ideas I’m interested in. I’ll stay silent on audio reader… but am open to suggestions. Someone whose voice we love AND who can give the foreign flair? Now that I think about it, Jodie Foster speaks fluent French! Alison von Rosenvinge (D.A. Bartley):Podcasts: “On Being”, “Freakonomics” and “Hidden Brain”. In no particular order and depending on mood.Narrators: I love Patrick Stewart’s voice, but it’s wrong for a Mormon murder in Utah. So, I think I’ll go with Emma Stone because I like the hint of raspiness in her voice.(Me: Patrick Stewart’s voice isn’t wrong for anything.) Michele Dorsey:Podcasts:  I rarely listen to podcasts because if I’m going to listen to something, it’s a book. I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and have favorite narrators. The late Frank Muller was amazing (Listen to him read Prince of Tides and you will hear his voice forever.) and I like Stephen Hoye. I do love TED Talks.Narrators:  Caroline Shaffer did a great job reading No Virgin Island (other than pronouncing Cop-ley Cope-ly which was like hearing fingernails on a blackboard for this Bostonian). Robin Stuart:The podcast I listen to most often has nothing to do with writing but it makes me laugh, “Sarah & Vinnie’s Secret Show”. They’re the morning team on one of my local radio stations. They do The “Secret Show” to be able to talk about all the raunchy stuff they’re not allowed to say on commercial radio.I second Charlize Theron. Viola Davis has a great voice for a thriller. Either of them could make the most innocuous sentence sound sinister and chilling. Alexia Gordon:My favorite podcasts are: “Casefile:True Crime”, “The Trail Went Cold”, and “Disaster Area”– a cheerful little playlist.And I want Thandie Newton and David Suchet to narrate all my books.  

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Bookseller from Hell Sells Up

I read a June 2017 article in The Guardian about a bookstore owner in York, England, selling his bookstore. Sad, at first, to think an independent bookstore had been forced to close due to competition from a chain or the internet, a closer reading changed both the story and my mood. Turns out, the man, dubbed “the bookseller from hell,” had gained notoriety for rudeness to customers and for charging a fifty pence entrance fee (allegedly refundable if you bought a book) to browse his shop. The village was happy to see the back of him because he was driving away tourists. (The article didn’t mention what drew tourists to the village in the first place but did mention it was the “home of Wensleydale cheese” so come to your own conclusion.) The bookstore had been bought by a “very welcoming couple” and would continue operating as a bookstore. I would have filed this under “interesting stories about English villages” if I hadn’t noticed a link to an op-ed piece written in January 2017, commenting on The Guardian’s initial article about the notorious bookstore owner. The author of the opinion declared himself a fan of the unpleasant shopkeeper. He described him as “one of the last, honourable remnants of this dying breed”. What breed? Rude, misanthropic, miserable secondhand booksellers. He stated, “Secondhand booksellers don’t like people, they like books.” He also claimed, “People who come into secondhand bookshops are…bloody irritating” and that rudeness “goes with the territory”. You couldn’t hope for better from a secondhand bookseller because you were “wasting their time” if you didn’t buy a book and were “stealing one of their friends” if you did. (He failed to explain how buying a book counted as stealing it.) “Enjoy the miserable experience,” he wrote one sentence before declaring, “book lovers are life haters.” Wow. Think this guy’s ever read a book? I’ve spent inordinate amounts of time and large chunks of my paycheck in bookstores peddling both new and used books. I’ve never met any bookstore owners or employees who hated people. Certainly, they loved books—that’s why they worked in bookstores—but they didn’t resent customers for buying them. They appreciated it. Better sales equaled a better chance of keeping the lights on and the doors open. I even met one used bookseller who gave away books when he needed to cull his inventory. Stamped them “free” and put them on a rack right out on the sidewalk corner. Hardly the actions of someone who hated people for “stealing” his “friends”. Maybe the author of the opinion piece mistakes not asking customers if they need help every thirty seconds as rudeness instead of what it is—leaving customers to browse in peace. Browsing is an integral part of book buying, as necessary as having books to buy. Browsing gives customers a chance to discover titles they didn’t even know existed, therefore, didn’t know they wanted. When’s the last time one of you life-hating bibliophiles walked into a bookstore and walked out with only the book you’d intended to buy? As for that, “life hater” comment, stuff and nonsense. Book lovers do not hate life. Book lovers love life and use books to enhance their experience of living. They use books to travel to places they might never reach in real life or to find inspiration for their next trip. They use books to travel back and forth in time and to meet an infinite variety of people—including curmudgeonly shopkeepers. Doesn’t the unpleasant, now former, bookseller sound like a character straight from one of the books he discouraged customers from buying?The opinion writer makes some bizarre predictions: that people would “mob” the bookstore to meet the “idiosyncratic” owner and “experience his unusual approach to retailing,” journalists would be “desperate” for interviews, and he’d be sought after for appearances on reality TV shows. Wrong. Only six months elapsed between the initial article and opinion piece and the news the man who “didn’t butter his parsnips” when dealing with customers had “sold up”. No tears shed for his departure from the business, no report of throngs of masochists lining up for one last shot at experiencing his “idiosyncratic” customer service, no mention of the TV show offers rolling in. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be, “goodbye and good riddance”. So much for the opinion piece’s prediction of a rosy future for the “bookseller from hell”. Here’s my opinion: the writer should avoid games of chance, go out and meet some booksellers and booklovers—I doubt he knows either—and read a book or two while he’s at it. 

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Left of Center

We recently completed mini-“personality type” assessments at work, sort of Myers Briggs Light. The assessment grouped us into four broad categories that corresponded to the Meyers Briggs acronyms. One group consisted of innovative rule breakers, another of detail-oriented rule followers, another of analytical loners, and a final group of gregarious harmonizers. (I fell nowhere near that last group, by the way.) While the survey painted a surprisingly accurate picture of our work and interpersonal styles, it didn’t delve into the descriptions we think of in our day-to-day, away from the workplace, sense of the term “personality;” descriptions like cheerful, moody, somber, and—my favorite—quirky. While writing about dysfunctional protagonists for yesterday’s post, I thought about my favorite characters, the ones I love, who jump out at me from the page or screen, who stick with me long after I leave the theater, turn off the TV (or exit the streaming app), or close the book covers. I realized they’re all quirky. Some are more unusual than others but they all peg out somewhere on the positive end of the quirk scale. Bobby Goren, Mike Shepherd, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe—they all exhibit unusual traits, odd characteristics, or strange habits that endear them to me. The quirks themselves are part of the appeal. They serve as mnemonics. He’s the one with the clockwork schedule, he’s the one with the outrageous mustache, he’s the one with the knack for ferreting out obscure patterns, he’s the one who talks to corpses. But, mostly, I’m drawn to unusual people, real and fictional. Remarkable people. People rooted left of center with peculiarities born of riveting backstories.
 I have noticed that, unlike in life, my favorite fictional quirky characters are all male. No quirky female characters come to mind as I write this. This is not a good thing. Female characters are allowed to be kind, supportive, devious, competent, or manic pixies but not quirky. Or are they? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe quirky women hide in the pages of books I haven’t read yet or in scenes of movies not yet seen. I hope so. How would you describe the personalities of your favorite characters? 

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Next Stop: Dysfunction Junction

  One of my favorite TV series is “Midsomer Murders,” the British cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town England, now in its twentieth season. Other, newer favorites include “The Brokenwood Mysteries,” a darker cozy-cum-police procedural set in small town New Zealand, and “Hinterlands,” so dark it’s actually Scandi-noir masquerading as village fare, set in small town Wales. All three shows share commonalities. They focus on police investigation of crimes in rural areas with adjusted per capita murder rates that rival Chicago’s. The biggest difference between the three is the degree of dysfunction in the main characters. Midsomer’s DCI Barnaby is an ordinary guy, a well-adjusted everyman with a well-adjusted wife and daughter. His home life is ordinary, if not outright idyllic. The drama and trauma occur on the job. Brokenwood’s DSS Shepherd, on the other hand, is a man with a complicated past that includes several ex-wives and at least one dead one. You get the sense he’s experienced a lot of unhappiness in a life accented by the show’s country/alt rock soundtrack. Hinterland’s (the darkest of the shows) DCI Mathias makes Kurt Wallander look like the president of the pep club in comparison. Devastated by the death of one of his children, he’s lost his wife and home and spends as much time battling inner demons as he spends tracking murderers.

Dysfunctional protagonists seem to be the “thing” in modern books, TV, and movies. The damaged hero is often as “messed up” as the villain. It’s gotten to the point where you wonder if there’s an unofficial competition to create the world’s most broken protagonist. I’ve heard authors admit to “piling on” the trauma, going out of their way to load down their character’s pasts with as much tragedy and affliction as possible. I’ve read some books where the author went so far with the dysfunction device, the protagonist (and most of the supporting characters) ended up being a walking collection of problems that bogged the story down more than advanced it. The dysfunctional hero trope is so common it’s now used to comic effect. Wreck-It Ralph, a hilarious movie about the secret lives of arcade game characters, explicitly describes one as “being programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”. The Ref, a hilarious movie about a home invasion, plays on the idea that the victims are so screwed up, the “bad guy” ends up becoming their counselor.

I’m not opposed to dysfunction in film and literature on general principle, as long as the dysfunction is an integral part of the story and not just something glommed onto a character in an effort to be trendy. Some of my favorite characters have issues. I’ll add Det. Bobby Goren to the ones mentioned above. A schizophrenic mother, a uninvolved stepfather, and a serial killer biological father certainly put the quirky star of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” high on the screwed-up life list. But I do think dysfunction has been overdone. It’s so prevalent, it’s become humdrum. Take a pill, already, see a therapist. Some authors (including authors of screenplays) don’t even try anymore. They grab a psychopathology textbook and saddle their protagonists with a laundry list of complexes and personal problems, occasionally throwing in a physical issue or two for variety, and call it a day. They assume that’s all that’s required to create a character worth sticking with for a couple hundred pages or a couple of hours in a theater or past the first commercial break. But “effed up” is not a synonym for interesting. I admit syrupy-sweet, “perfect” characters with charmed lives are annoyingly Pollyanna-ish. Average characters, however, are not. At least they don’t have to be. Don’t we all know at least one “basically normal” person who interests us? A dysfunctional background is not a prerequisite for drama and conflict. And well-adjusted doesn’t mean nothing bad ever happens. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Look at the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. James Stewart and Doris Day epitomize middle-class normality on vacation. Then they witness a murder. Then their daughter is kidnapped. Bad things. Not boring. In Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an average, well-adjusted girl must confront the fact that seemingly normal, well-adjusted Uncle Charlie may not be. The ordinariness, bordering on banality, of the people and the town heighten the suspense and terror in the film. The devil comes to visit Norman Rockwell. In Suddenly, Frank Sinatra’s hitman holds an average family hostage in their ordinary home as part of his plot to assassinate the President. Nothing dull about that. The Slender Thread offers “regular-guy,” college student Sidney Poitier as a crisis hotline volunteer who must locate the suicidal woman who calls him before the pills she swallowed have their intended effect. Plenty of drama. Normal is not a synonym for snooze-fest.

Unbroken heroes can carry a story as well as broken ones. They can confront the same danger, conflict, and obstacles. What differs is how they handle those things. A protagonist from a happy, or at least functional, background is already out of her comfort zone when she’s unexpectedly faced with a crisis or put into dangerous circumstances. Instant drama. A character from a dysfunctional background is used to trauma, expects conflict, approaches the world from the assumption that rotten things are more likely to happen as not and life kind of sucks. They’ve developed survival skills to get them this far, survival skills they can call on to help them through the next trauma, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise in their hyper-vigilant existence. But a character who’s never experienced adversity, never had to learn to cope? Someone who, like the subject of the Mighty, Might Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get,” has “never been tested”? They have no survival skill set to fall back on, no ingrained coping mechanisms. The “untested” hero faces a steep learning curve in the “deal with it or die” game. How would someone who led a charmed life cope when that charm wears off? What does someone do when their basic assumptions–that life works out the way you want it to, that the world and people in it are basically good, that terrible things only happen to nonspecific “others”–prove wrong? When life which seemed so pleasant and harmless rears up without warning and smacks them upside the head? Then kicks them in the teeth? Do they crumple, unable to dip into their reserves and find a way to fight back? Do they rail against the injustice about to crush them, angry that they did all the right things and got sucker punched anyway? Lose faith because they didn’t get what they thought they deserved? Or do they rise to the challenge? Show their resilience? Draw on strengths they didn’t know they possessed–or borrow strength from others–and overcome the obstacles? How do they change, knowing the world isn’t really the warm, safe place they once believed it to be?

Which side of the dysfunction junction do you fall on? The more problems the better? Enough with the traumatic backstory already? Somewhere in the middle? No preference as long as it’s a well-drawn character involved in a gripping plot?

 

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Don't Mess with Mother Nature

 I spent the weekend the way I imagine most of the rest of the country spent it—watching or reading about the horror unfolding in Houston and other parts of Texas hit by Hurricane Harvey. Unprecedented flooding, hundreds of highways closed, cutting off escape, untold numbers of people trapped or displaced, billions of dollars in damage. Images and stories of destruction reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Nature kicking humankind in the ass, reminding us it’s more powerful than our built environment, telling us our high-tech gizmos can’t save us. Forcing us to rely on human ingenuity and grit. Nature as antagonist is a common theme in stories. Movies like Volcano and Twister tell viewers upfront who—or what—the hero will have to overcome to save herself, her friends, the neighborhood, the planet. Every good story gives the hero a worthy antagonist is the mantra you learn in writing workshops and guidebooks. But an antagonist—the force that opposes the protagonist, the obstacle between the hero and her goal—doesn’t have to be human. Wo/man can face opposition from technology, society, animals, surroundings, weather. The force of weather can turn an otherwise mundane, familiar, bucolic setting into a strange, terrifying, menacing hell. Greater Los Angeles becomes a volcanic fit. The Great Plains become a tornado factory. New York City becomes a frozen wasteland. California becomes an earthquake-ravaged pile of rubble. Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city, becomes a swamp. On one level, the hero’s struggle against nature may serve as a metaphor for struggles against the self or as a cautionary tale against human arrogance, greed, and carelessness. On another, they serve as thrilling tales of the fight for survival against an opponent that acts without fear or mercy or discrimination or human limitation. Several human vs. nature stories, fiction and non-fiction, come to mind as I write this: The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, San Andreas, Dante’s Peak, To Build a Fire… What are some of your favorite stories that feature nature as the “bad guy”? Donate to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts: https://www.redcross.org/donate/donation 

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The final edit. Why stress?

 TRACEE: This is KillerNashville weekend and I’m thrilled to be here! I was looking through the schedule and thinking about the different panels (and doing a bit of prep for the ones I’m on) and it occurred to me that getting a book ready to submit will be a big theme for many people here. Some are planning to submit to an agent, others are submitting final manuscripts to their editor. I wanted to turn this question over to you all. What is your tidbit of advice for the final edit? Some authors have a list of words they check for overuse (often highly personal as we are all idiosyncratic in our word usage). Others do an ‘ly’ check, or read the verbs (are they the strongest possible). What is your advice to writers for a final check beyond looking for typos; one meant to raise the bar overall? PAULA: I do what my editor tells me to do: Make sure that I’m breaking all the chapters at a compelling point, and if not, fix it. This often means adding chapters.  As Hallie Ephron would advise: Make every chapter end with a hook, and the succeeding chapter grab that hook and run with it.  MICHELE: The check for too many overused or unnecessary words for me comes way before the final edit. So does the read-it-aloud to myself and anyone else who can bear hearing my story one time. (Bless you, beta readers!) My last edit is with a printed version in a binder (to mimic a real book), sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade, reading it as if I were reading it for the first time. I do this without a pen because what I am doing is hoping is that it reads like the book I wanted to write and that I can now finally let it go off to the readers I hope will enjoy it. In a way, I am saying goodbye to my book, but it’s a happy farewell. Almost like sending your child off to college. TRACEE: Michele, I agree with you…. when I hear people say they are checking for specific worlds at the last minute I think…. and then you’ll replace it with another overused one? On the other hand, many successful authors do this, so it must work for them!  I recently changed a minor name very last minute for reasons related to the actual name, and substituted a name too close to it (and used often in the same scene.) Fixed one problem and created another. My editor caught it and we changed it again in copy edits, which I just received. I hope the fix worked! ALEXIA The final edit before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor when you’re trying to sell it? Don’t overthink it. Yes, do the check for overused words (I was surprised by the number of times I used the word “smiled” (or some variant of). Double, triple, quadruple check for typos and grammatical errors that will make your manuscript seem unprofessional. (Hint: get someone to do this for you. You never spot all your own mistakes.) Then tell yourself it’s done and hit send or drop it in the mail or whatever. If you keep fussing over it, you’ll never get it “out there” where someone can discover your literary genius. For me, personally, my final edits before publication: I send it to my mother. Seriously. Proofreading is her hobby. She’s eagle-eyed and ruthless. She even spots those stupid apostrophes next to quotation marks the word processing program insists on turning the wrong way. She’s so into it, she asks me when I’m going to send her the manuscript to proof. (Not yet, Mom, I’ve still got three rounds of edits to go.) She may be willing to freelance. Let me know, I may be able to get you a rate. ROBIN: Alexia, Your mom sounds great. I may need her services…. There are a few checks I make. First, I check for tension and pacing. Does the first page compel the reader to turn to the second page? And the page after that? And the page after that? I’m on the lookout for anything that stops the action, passive sentences and unrealistic or unbelievable contrivances. In the final edit, because I include heavy doses of technology, I do a “plain English” test – have I simplified the language enough to get the idea across without sounding like a textbook? And does the reader really have to know *how* something works for my fictional hackers to be imperiled and sympathetic? Spoiler alert: the answer is usually “no.” 🙂 MICHELE: Alexia,  Your mom and my oldest daughter, Julie, ought to start Eagle Eye Editors. “Brutal editing for those we love.” TRACEE: My husband’s former administrative assistant has an eagle eye for so many problems that I have her read for me. Let me add another “Bless the Beta readers”. Especially those with eagle eyes. CATE: I’m pretty good about not using too many adverbs–thank you Stephen King for that lesson–but I do a check for “just” and “But” and “shook” or “shaking” and “grimaced.” I need to force myself not to use head shakes and twisted mouths as easy shorthands for displeasure.  SUSAN: I like to make up a chart of each chapter’s opening lines, final lines, and number of pages. It gives me a sense of the flow. Of course, by the final edit I would hope I’d have a reasonably good idea of the flow, but this is my final sign-off.  Sometimes I’ll break a chapter in half. But mainly I just like to try and get a sense of the whole thing. Have fun in Killer Nashville, and belated happy birthday, Tracee! TRACEE: Thanks and it was such an amazing eclipse / birthday experience! ALISON:  I just received my first notes from my editor for Blood Atonement (my first book). No wisdom here, but thank you all for the great advice! TRACEE: Thanks everyone for these hints and words of wisdom. I’d love to hear what others do to get their final manuscript in shape. 

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Murder and Mayhem. What’s your pleasure?

If you write mysteries then you’ve killed a few people (on the page). When I plan a book I know before I begin writing who died and how, and who did it. I can picture the scene of the death – where it happened, the time of day, really all of the details. Then I think of how. Was it a knife, a gun, poison? Is there a convenient cliff nearby? Did the victim die before they fell off?  On the surface it sounds gruesome, but ‘the death’ is the inciting event in a book and sets the tone for everything that comes after. Would a sweet grandmother strangle a man with her hands to protect her grandchildren? Unless she had a career as a professional wrestler and had kept up her weightlifting routine, probably not. Same with suffocation. So bring out the kitchen knife! On the other hand, she probably knows how to wield the sharp-tipped vacuum cleaner attachment she’s had for 40 years and could quickly slip it in the dishwasher to eliminate trace evidence. Or perhaps she hauls her grandfather’s commemorative Army sword off the wall above the mantle? On the other hand, wouldn’t the sword point directly to her? On the other other hand, she could explain away her fingerprints since she’s legitimately handled it before.  The method has to fit the crime and the criminal (read Roger Johns’ debut novel, Dark River Rising. He has a great murder with a twist, one that sums up the mind-set of the killer. Not a person you’d want to get on the wrong side of! But more about that tomorrow when Roger joins us to talk about his book.) For now, does anyone have a method for murder that they found particularly inventive or interesting? 

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