Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Man of Many Books

If you could choose a dead author to mentor you today, who would you choose and why?

Hemingway? Too gruff.

Edgar Allan Poe? Too creepy.

Faulkner? Too wordy.

Norman Mailer? Too drunk.

Tom Wolfe? Too alive.

I think I’d choose Robert B. Parker. He’s one of the authors that inspired me to become a writer myself, and I’ve read every one of his (many) books, some multiple times. RobertBParker

He’s written four series, in two different genres (mystery and western). He’s written standalones. He was prolific; it seemed like he wrote at least a book a year for fifty years. I love his characters. I love his dialogue. I love the moral dilemmas he created for his characters. (His plots were, uh, utilitarian, for the most part, simply canvasses to paint on. But nobody’s perfect.)

Bob and I would have some fun…

We’d talk shop, down on the banks of the Charles in springtime, watching the college crew teams practice on the river. We’d stroll through Back Bay, discussing characterization and the role of the macho sidekick. We would enjoy a meal at the Chart House as we watched the planes descend toward Logan, deep in conversation about multiple book story arcs.

And he’d impress upon me the importance of researching the setting where a story takes place, insisting on hands-on experiential learning. We’d work out together at the local gym. Take in a new exhibit at the Museum of Science.

Catch a game or three at Fenway.

Yeah, I definitely could get into this whole being mentored thing.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Can I Still Do Arithmetic?

If you lost the ability to write or read for a day,
what would you do?

Confession #1 – I’m not one of those writers who needs to write every day.

Confession #2 – I’m not one of those readers who needs to read every day. (Does the morning paper count?)

In other words, having to refrain from both activities for a day would be no big hardship for me!
If the weather was nice, I’d get some exercise, for sure. Go for a walk or run. Work on my swing or maybe squeeze in eighteen thirty-six holes. School my son in a game (or three) of H-O-R-S-E.

If the weather wasn’t so nice, I would curl up with a good book I might go to a museum. Watch a movie. Binge watch some Netflix series (Do NOT tell me how Breaking Bad ends! Ditto for what’s going on with House of Cards. Double ditto for Orange is the New Black). Organize my record collection (yes, vinyl!). Round up a few potential victims and coerce them into playing a marathon game of Monopoly.

Or I could do something more productive. Like clean the kitchen, laundry room, garage, office, basement, den, living room, dining room, and/or storage area. Or do some house maintenance. I’m sure there’s something around here that needs touching-up, landscaping, fixing, arranging, rearranging, or demolishing.

In other words, I think I could keep busy if I couldn’t read or write for an entire year!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Alan Come Lately

When was the first moment you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Ever since I was able to hold a pencil, I’ve been writing stories. Short ones, long ones, ones about sea serpents and space travelers and swashbucklers. As a child, I’d spend every spare moment spinning tales. I’d fill notebook after notebook with my scribblings, lost on adventures with my imaginary friends. In fact, I become known around town as that “little writing machine.” It got to be---

Wait! Hold on! Stop the presses! Not a word of that is true.

Let me try again, this time with the truth.

When I was in high school, I hated English and I hated writing reports. (Actually, one afternoon when I was about ten, I sat down with my best friend to write the sequel to War of the Worlds. We wrote about a page and a half, then went out to play basketball, never to finish the job.) In college, I didn’t take a single creative writing course (I was required to take a single English class, and Technical Writing qualified). I never wrote anything longer than a grocery list, and even then, I’d use abbreviations. In grad school (business), I couldn’t escape writing altogether, but I made sure that whatever I wrote was as dry as dust and chock-full of clich├ęs, buzzwords, and nonsensical jargon (I fit right in with the future Captains of Industry!).point a to point b

But fiction writer? Never. No way. No how!

And then, about ten years ago, things changed. Now, I spend a lot of time writing fiction.

What caused this reversal?

Beats me!

It sounds like my transformation would make a heck of a story! If only I could find someone to write it…

(This entry “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, March 6, 2014

I Know I Shouldn’t, But I Do.

Do you read reviews? Reply to them? Review the works of other writers?

All reviews are not created equally, so for the purposes of this post, I’m going to divide them into three types, based on who’s doing the reviewing.

1) Professional, high-profile reviews (The four services: Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist; and major general and trade publications):

Reviews from these sources can matter, in several ways. First, getting a good review (starred or otherwise) can have a definite effect on books sold. People read those publications for a reason, and if your book gets good notice, they’ll be more likely to order and recommend your book. Also, these reviews can provide marketing material (blurbs!) for book covers and other promotional efforts. A complimentary pull-quote about your book from Kirkus (“The best book about talking walruses on the shelves today!!”) can give a boost to your marketing campaign.

Read them? I ALWAYS read reviews from these sources (even if an author wouldn’t want to, their publicist would bombard them with emails about the reviews).

Reply to them? Never.


2) Less well-known publications, bloggers: These types of reviews can also be helpful, both in terms of generating positive word-of-mouth (influencing sales) and for use in marketing, but a lot depends on the individual source/reviewer. The vast majority of these reviewers are very professional, but once in a while you might run across one with a particular agenda. Or a grudge. Or a bizarre way of looking at the world (and your book!).

Read them? Yep, I usually read these (if I know about them, of course), but I’m always watchful for those reviewers who seem to have an axe to grind or who are just out to impress their own blog readers with their super-snarky musings.

Reply to them? I’ll sometimes thank the reviewer (if I know their name) for taking the time to read my book and offer a thoughtful review, but I NEVER make specific comments about the review itself. People are entitled to their opinions, and that’s one of the things that makes this country great (along with 24-hour donut shops).


3) Random Internet people (on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.): If you’ve ever surfed these sights (and really, who hasn’t?), you’ll know how, um, uneven reviews can be here. Most are reasonably fair and honest reactions to the books they’ve read. But there are some reviewers (a not insignificant number), who use these reviews to vent or try to show their superiority or to exhibit their wit or to demonstrate their need for stronger medication. Actually, these reviews can be quite entertaining (as long as it’s not your book they’re reviewing—then it’s slightly less entertaining).

Read them? I admit that I usually read them, but I don’t give them much weight. When it comes to reviews from the masses, I look for general trends. A hundred mostly-positive reviews outweigh that one-star, “my dead great aunt could write a better book” outlier.

Reply to them? Although sorely tempted at times, I NEVER respond to an Amazon review. Never. Only bad things can come from that. Really bad things. I’m not kidding. Just say no. (I’m talking to you, writers!). Move along, move along, nothing to comment on here.


Do I review other writers’ work? Not anymore. I stopped leaving reviews a few years ago, mostly because of guilt. I’d feel guilty that I couldn’t read all my friends’ books, and then I’d feel guilty if I wanted to leave a 4-star review (instead of 5 stars), and then I’d feel guilty about feeling guilty. And really, who cares what I think about a book anyway? So, no more reviews.

What say you? How much stock do you put in reviews, especially the “non-professional” ones?

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dream Team

If you could choose different aspects of famous writers, who would you use to construct your ideal writer (ie, plotting from James Patterson, characters from Carl Hiaasen, setting from Charles Dickens, etc)?

Here’s my dream team:

Plot – Michael Connelly
Characters – Tom Wolfe
Setting – J.K. Rowling
Pacing – John Gilstrap
Prose – Dennis Lehane
Hook/Premise – Michael Crichton
Plot twists – Jeffery Deaver
Humor – John R. Powers (go look him up!)
Emotional heft – Reed Farrel Coleman
Storytelling – Stephen King
Ka-Chingability – James Patterson

Feel free to agree/disagree/add your own choices in the comments!

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Just Call Me Cliff Cliffhanger

How do you know where one chapter ends and another begins? What *is* a chapter?

When I first started writing novels, I wrote them as if I were watching a movie. I’d start at the beginning of a scene, write until that scene ended, then begin another chapter. Each scene/chapter was its own distinct unit. In fact, when I wrote my very first “novel,” I saved each chapter in a separate Word document. (Talk about your logistical nightmares! Writers: DO NOT DO THIS!).

What did I know? I was as green as a guy who’d just downed a bucket of bad oysters while on a rollicking sea cruise (and that was the kind of simile I used in my very first “novel”).

My writing process has evolved over the years (thank goodness!). Now, I sit down and write a novel as one continuous story. One scene flows into the next, rinse and repeat. Start on Page One. Continue until I type “THE END.” I don’t even think about splitting my masterpiece up into chapters until I’m ready to finish the first draft.

Then I go back and figure out where to break it up to maximize the suspense.

Most of my chapters end up being approximately the same length, give or take. I’m not a fan of long chapters—I’d say most of my chapters run between 6 and 12 pages, depending on the genre. Short chapters usually translate to faster pacing, which is what I’m going for.

I try not to start chapters with characters waking up (although, I must admit, sleep happens!). I try not to end chapters with my characters rolling over and turning off the light as they end their days. I try to use a fair number of cliffhangers (but not TOO many). Sometimes I end my chapter at the end of a scene, but often I’ll end the chapter in the middle of a scene.

Basically, I try to leave my readers in a spot where they feel compelled to move on to the next chapter and keep reading.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)


Thursday, January 23, 2014

No Stupid Questions, Only Stupid Answers

What’s wrong with asking, “Where do you get your ideas?”

First, a little explanation about the question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

If you’ve never been to a writing conference or convention, or a book festival, you’re missing out. They’re great places for meeting other writers, meeting readers, learning about books, learning about writing, and learning about the hotel bar. One of the staples at a book event is the “authors panel,” which brings together four or five writers to talk (ostensibly) about a certain topic.Malice panel from Sasscer

When I’m on a panel, my goal is to be entertaining (read: funny). I don’t always succeed, but I do try (that’s me in the photo, as panel referee, er moderator, at Malice Domestic, calling some sort of penalty on Sasscer Hill). After the panel discussion is finished, the audience generally gets a chance to ask some questions of the writers, and invariably someone will ask where we (writers) get our ideas.

It happens so frequently that it’s become an “inside joke” among the writers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the question—in fact, I think it’s a pretty good question. I just wish I had a better answer.

Because I DON’T KNOW WHERE I GET MY IDEAS. They just pop into my head, when I’m sitting in my car, taking a shower, reading the newspaper, daydreaming, watching TV, eating, cooking, shopping, sleeping (yes, I once woke up with an awesome idea). My problem is not a dearth of ideas; it’s a lack of time to write about them all.

Remember, as my grade school teachers used to say: there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

Just my stupid answer.

(This entry is “simul-posted” on Criminal Minds.)