The Minotaur and Me

Did you ever get a telephone call so surprising that your mind went blank? I mean really blank; so shocked that you’re not even sure the person who called you is speaking English?

Before I come back to that, it’s worth a reminder that writers face a labyrinth trying to get published. Writing is difficult, but it pales when compared to the the dead ends, the wrong turns, the retracing of steps taken earlier, the lost sense of direction and general feelings of discouragement that follow. It’s a long journey; you must first write the book, then find an agent who believes in your work, which if you are lucky will result in a sale to the right publisher, followed by the terrifying and possibly mortifying editing process.

But there are occasional shortcuts, springboards which help you leap to the center of the labyrinth (or the Exit sign–depends which way you want to go). Probably the best for those of us in the mystery field is the annual First Crime Novel contest co-sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books (the mystery imprint of St. Martin’s Press). Several hundred crime novels of every sub-genre are submitted. MWA  judges read, evaluate and choose the finalists, which are sent on to the editorial staff at Minotaur Books for the final decision.

And yes, I won it.

And no, I didn’t have even the slightest expectation that I would–hence the blankness and the Lithuanian dialect that seemed to come from my ‘phone on the day I received the call from Minotaur’s Editorial Director, Kelley Ragland. Honestly I entered the contest last fall as a way of keeping my spirits up and giving me something author-ish to do. No novel was chosen in 2013, but in a more typical year the winner is contacted in March. When March 31st arrived, I shrugged and thought better luck next year, which was just about the time my phone rang.

The win comes with a St. Martin’s Minotaur publishing contract and a trip to New York to attend the MWA Edgar Awards Dinner, which happened a week ago.  I was asked to keep the secret for nearly a month, until the announcement could be made at the Edgars Dinner.  I tried. I really did.  But within hours I had sworn all my family and friends to secrecy and before long I was blurting it out to waiters and people who telephoned to sell me vinyl siding. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. The announcement was made by Minotaur publisher Andrew Martin. I stepped on the stage to good-hearted applause from the hundreds of mystery writers, publishers, agents, editors and other guests present, and took possession of the most attractive chunk of acrylic I have ever seen.

So doors have been opened. I’m speaking to agents. I’m anticipating receiving editorial notes from my editor. And in a little more than a year, I will be able to hold my published book in my hand.

The moral of the tale?                                             

Enter the contest.

You might win.

 

 

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Original Sin

It’s difficult  to come up with a completely original idea. I have some faint recollection of Aristotle and Jasper Fforde saying much the same thing, in their different ways and in different millennia, which may prove the point.

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of reading and, time and again, I’ll be reading some other writer’s book and come across a twist or bit of business that I’ve recently put into one of my stories. It’s been happening so often that I’m starting to worry about mind melds and ESP.

Sometimes it’s something small, like someone crying by a fountain when I’ve written my heroine crying by a fountain.  No big deal; I can just move her, although I’ve done some nice work describing the way her dress was getting wet which I’ll have to cut if I move her across the street. Oh, the heck with it, there are a lot of fountains in the world, I’ll just assume my girl is standing next to a different fountain and leave it at that. After all, she has to be standing next to something, and it might as well be a fountain as not. And in any case I need the sound of the water to cover the sound of her sobs and I like the metaphor of the falling water as her tears. Okay, the fountain stays.

At other times it’s a more significant duplication, like a book’s heroine who does the same work as my girl at the same kind of work place when I was hoping to give my reader an unusual experience.  Once it was a character who is not only similar in appearance to one of mine but shares the idiosyncrasies of his speech patterns, too.

Do I have to give serious thought to changing these things or will a reader forgive the occasional commonplace if  the rest of my story, its characters and the action is engaging?

The truth is, whether I change them or not, some of my pleasure in being their creator has dimmed because someone else thought of them first.

In a way it’s akin to wearing hand-me-down clothes or buying a chair at Goodwill. Shopping at Goodwill because I can’t afford Macy’s is different than shopping at Goodwill (and wearing hand-me-down clothes) because I love vintage things.

There are two ways to go here: I can think of the parallels as commonplace ideas that a reader will find boring because they have come across them before. Or I can choose to think of these serendipitous parallels as ideas so good they bear repeating.

Case by case?

Works for me.

“About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgement.” — Josh Billings

 

Luddite Rant

I TRY NOT TO BE a Luddite, I really do.  I have a laptop and use it daily to write my mystery novels. I have a cell phone and even take occasional photos with it, although that still seems wrong somehow. I communicate with friends via Face Book.  I own a Kindle and download books. I use Wikipedia. And hey, look—I write a blog.

And yet, all of my electronic marvels are like the bastard child of Marvin and Arthur Dent in the Hitchiker’s Guide–they only use about 5% of their brain capacity because I’d really rather be making a cup of tea.

It’s not that I despise or fear technology (although, truly, SkyNet and the Clone Wars seem only moments away most days) I’m just frustrated by the necessity of learning about all this crap, then re-learning it when the newest iteration is “released,” and then listening to people talk about it constantly. Seriously–when did “app” become a word? Worse–when did we all learn what it meant? Even worse–when did we start hearing people talk about the latest ones? Did you know you can “download” an app that allows you to pretend to pop the bubbles on bubble wrap?  I kid you not.

If the internet is the 21st century equivalent of the telephone—meaning that it changed the way we wish each other Merry Christmas, learn about revolutions and the latest fashions, research our term papers and contact each other from vacations in Australia and Bora Bora—then why is so dam’ difficult to use?  Every new tool to access it seems to require a skill set tantamount to running a nuclear power plant (and don’t get me started on actual nuclear power plants).  If telephones had been this complicated in the beginning, we’d still be using semaphore flags. Or maybe telegraphs—which was another simple-to-use technology that changed the world.  Tap a button, send a message. What could be easier?

You know what I miss?

I miss picking my photos up from the drug store and then sticking them in actual albums. And then turning the pages of the albums and enjoying the photos.

I miss people dropping in.  Remember that?  Until about ten years ago (not that long ago really) people used to visit their friends because they hadn’t been in touch for a while.

I miss calling people on the ‘phone and actually reaching them and talking to them. And then picturing them in their living room or bedroom or kitchen and not interrupt them hanging from the side of a cliff somewhere or worse. When did “How are you?” get replaced with “Where are you?”

I miss handwriting.  It’s been a long time since I received any kind of hand written note or letter or card. Hell, it’s been a long time since I sent any.

I miss feeling smart because I know the difference between pica and elite.

Yeah, yeah, it’s all great.  GNP is up; information has largely replaced extractive and industrial production; standards of living have risen all over the place; no parent ever needs to lose a kid because they can “track” them with their iPhones; lovers can break-up without having to meet face-to-face (ye gods); plagiarists have an easier time of it (ye gods again).

We’re all in touch constantly and seem more detached from each other than ever, mostly because we’re so busy trying to figure out the latest version of whatever amazing thingy we’re using to keep us in touch.

I’m never out of touch, and yet sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I was. Maybe I’d feel more connected.

Alternate Realities and MapQuest

I had an epiphany this week as I was struggling with one of my novels.

I often stop writing for a while—for an hour, a day, anything up to a week or more—when I’ve reached some sort of impasse. In the past I’ve told myself it’s because I don’t know what to write next, that I don’t have a clear idea of the plot, so I don’t know what should happen. But now I think it’s something different: I stop because I don’t know how to move my characters away from the scene they currently inhabit, even when it’s clearly necessary.

I’ve already admitted that I polish my prose too much in the early stages of the game. It can feel productive, when I don’t have anything original to write, to smooth over the rough spots in the bits I’ve already written. This has another downside in addition to postponing the moment when I get on with the new writing: By the time I’ve read and re-read, and polished and refined a scene it becomes more and more imbedded in the “reality” of the novel and thus much harder to change.

If, until the 20th reading, Miss So-and-So and Mr. Whatzit have arrived at the baker’s, chatted with the baker and picked out some pink-topped cupcakes, it is really, really hard to have them by-pass the baker and walk into the hardware store instead. For one thing, all the conversation they had with the baker about sprinkles and chocolate ganache doesn’t translate well to the hardware store clerk, and instead of cupcakes they would need to buy wrenches or something instead. And that feels “wrong,” because I’m so emotionally invested in them having that conversation with the baker and buying those dam’ cupcakes.

In a way, by trying to change the scene I’m changing a reality that’s become as real to me as the real world. (Do I get points added or taken away for using change, changing, real and reality so often in the same sentence?) I’ve come to believe in the world the characters inhabit just a little too much.

All right, that’s one manifestation of the problem, and I should be able to take it in hand by not re-reading and revising my early drafts so much. I’m working on that although, truth to tell, I’m not getting very far. Sometimes my re-reading is almost a compulsion. It starts as a way to remind myself of what led me to where I’m about to pick up the story, but then it becomes an end in itself (Hey, this is pretty good; I’m liking what I did there, what if I change the order of these two sentences . . .) and a substitute for writing, and that can’t be good.

Note to self: Don’t begin your writing day by reading.

The other manifestation is a tradecraft issue: the inability to envision how the characters get from here—the corner of Ninth and Main, to there—a penthouse apartment on Parkside. Do they walk? Take a cab? Fly through the air on gossamer wings? And whichever way they travel, does the reader need to take the trip with them or can the next scene open with them sitting comfortably on a sofa in the penthouse, sipping martinis?

Experienced novelists solve this problem all the time and for us readers, its seamless. But the ragged seams showed plenty while it was being written, believe me.

Most often I manage to open the next scene with my characters already relaxing in the penthouse. But every now and again I get tangled up in what I call the MapQuest version: They strolled down Ninth Avenue, turned right and crossed the street at Pelican, stopping for the light at Parkside before . . . etc.

Note to self: Forget MapQuest; go straight for the martinis.

Paying Attention. It Builds Character

I SPENT A DAY recently hiking with a friend. We were taking it slow and enjoying the day when a Park Service truck pulled up next to us and the guy inside stopped to chat.

He had what is sometimes described as “a shock” of white hair and a white beard.  He’d have no trouble playing Santa Claus is all I’m saying. He was wearing a Park Service Smokey Bear hat and one of those bright orange safety vests and the passenger seat of his pick-up was filled with loose rolls of toilet paper. A lot of them. Maybe two dozen.

My first thought was: what kind of person buys loose rolls of toilet paper by the dozen? And then I realized he was probably making the rounds of the park’s outhouses to re-stock them, which was just as interesting in its way. I’m not sure I’ve ever given a thought to that particular job, or that it would be Santa Claus in a pick-up truck who did it.

Our conversation, which started with a discussion of my red hair and his formerly red beard, quickly moved to the Vikings (who had red hair) the design of the keel on Viking ships and the contributions to sailing technology by the ancient Phoenicians.  In short, our conversation was a tribute to the efficacy of the History Channel.

Our hike that day was within easy reach of the city, but it occurred to me that in a different kind of park, perhaps more like the national park where my heroine finds herself, he would probably not only pick up his toilet paper in bulk, but his evenings would be long and dark and tv would be a welcome diversion.

I happen to be building a new character into my novel.  I want him to be a bit of a mountain man, but not uncouth or strange enough to cause anxiety, and I want him to have an unexpected hobby or interest to give him some depth.

My Park Service friend had quite a number of interesting quirks I could borrow for my mountain man. For one thing, those rolls of toilet paper are hard for me to relinquish. Or maybe my new character has made a study of Viking and Phoenician ship building. Or maybe he just watches a lot of the History Channel during the long dark evenings. Or maybe all I’m taking away from the encounter is that my mountain man has a white beard.

This is what fiction writers mean when we say our characters are not real people.  We pay attention and we use bits and pieces of real people. A white beard. An interest in ancient history. Buying toilet paper in bulk.

These are real things to build a fictional character on.

Do You Like It? I Made it Myself.

THE UNEXPECTED is one of the joys of writing fiction and one of the most mysterious.  Where the heck does all that stuff come from, anyway?

I’m a voracious reader, so I guess some of it comes from the minds of other writers. It floats around in my unconscious mind like a little life raft, unneeded and unheeded until one day I’m in desperate need of a new simile or a phrase to describe someone or something and it pops up, bright and yellow in the murk, ready for me to leap aboard.

But other stuff really does seem to come out of the ether: surprising, delightful, mysterious.

For example: I was a nail biter for years and then, with no small amount of concentrated effort, I stopped. So I coddle my nails with clear nail polish twice a week to help them stay strong and long.

I file them into gentle ovals (stick with me here) because the shape takes advantage of every micro-millimeter of length, and I do this even though it’s more fashionable to file them straight across, leaving the nails squared off and blunt.

So there you have it. Twice a week I pay particular attention to my fingernails for five minutes, shaping them and polishing them.  For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was having a bit of trouble getting the oval shape just right and I thought: The heck with it; I’ll just file them straight across.

And in my head I suddenly saw a woman getting her nails done in a new salon.  She normally has them filed into ovals followed up by a discreet French manicure. But her new manicurist files them straight across, and paints them iridescent green with purple daisies. My heroine hates them. (As who wouldn’t?)

Now why would she hate them and yet make no objection to the manicurist’s flight of fancy? Because, of course, she is in a witness protection program. She’s been moved far from home, told to dye her hair, quit her job and dress differently, and because she’s a thorough sort of girl, she’s decided her camouflage must extend to her manicures.

The manicurist, for no explainable reason, is a Native American. Aha! She’s Shoshone or Arapaho from the Wind River Reservation near a  small town in Wyoming. I’ve vacationed there in a river-side log cabin belonging to friends. So suddenly I have two characters, a home for my heroine (she’ll live in the log cabin), a small-town setting and the beginning of a plot.

These details, including the colors of her nail polish, all came to me as I was writing, with no forethought at all. I was describing the manicure, then I was explaining why she hated it, then she was talking to the manicurist about life on the reservation, then I showed her reaction to the small town, and finally went along on her difficult drive to the log cabin as she revealed the bare bones of her troubles with evil men who want her dead.

Before I knew it I had 3,000 words and I swear to God it all began with me sitting in my study, thinking of nothing except brushing clear polish on my fingernails.

I’m not saying all of these things individually were conjured out of thin air. I’ve seen manicures like that; I don’t hate them, but I’m not a particular fan. I’ve visited the Wind River Reservation, I’ve vacationed in that small town, and–this is the capper–I know the town has a branch office of the FBI.

So these things were floating around in my unconscious when I sat down to write about a manicure, but the way I put them together was new and wholly my own. I wrote an outline for the novel starting with that scene which led to where I am now, at 15,000 words.

But here’s the punchline, which will come as no surprise if you’ve read Outline or Mishigas:

The scene isn’t in the book.  I decided that the manicure was a bridge too far, even for someone in the witness protection program. My heroine is smart and she’s scared and she’s careful, but she’s not an obsessive nut. If I wanted her to be an obsessive nut I might have left the manicure in place as written.

The manicure in any case had served its purpose–I’d climbed aboard a life raft from my own unconscious and paddled like hell for shore.