Saturday, May 30, 2009

Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo*

I’m taking a page from the Keith Raffel playbook of photo selection: Let the masses decide!

Here are some headshots. Which do you think is the best?**


Pose-7 P282-LTPP0282104171JCP-18

P282-LTPP0282104171JCP-8 KR


After the pose is selected, then I’ll get busy on Photoshop!

(In case you missed it, I don’t like saying cheese.)


*No, these are not the Four Stooges

**Okay, I’ll settle for “least frightening.”


Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Last Superpower

I have an unsightly (and quite itchy) rash on one arm and both legs. Red, scaly blotches, little bumps, altogether angry skin. As I undressed in my dermatologist's office (coincidentally, I was there for my annual check-up*), I noticed a wall chart explaining poison oak, poison sumac, and poison ivy.

Couldn't be. I've always been impervious to poison ivy. It was my last remaining superpower.** I could roll around in a bed of poison ivy and come away unscathed. Because of my special ability, I was always the one to chase the ball into the woods. I never had to wear gloves or long sleeves or long pants when I did yardwork. I could stroll through the woods (barefoot, if I so desired!) with impunity. I was immune.

I finished disrobing and waited for the doctor.

When she entered the exam room, she glanced at my splotchy arm. "Have you been in the woods or working in the yard lately?" she asked.

"As a matter of fact, I have. A couple days ago, I spent about an hour pulling vines off my azaleas," I responded. No, no, please, no.

"Uh, huh. Well, you have poison ivy." poison ivy

My worst fear realized. I had poison ivy. Common poison ivy.

Sure, it looks nasty and itches like crazy.

But that's not what bugs me.

My last superpower is gone.

And now, I must face my mortality.***

*I go to the dermatologist every year. As a child, I had many severe sunburns. One was so bad I passed out on the Autotrain coming back from Florida. I missed two days of school with sun poisoning and had to sit in a bathtub full of oatmeal. Lesson learned: Always use sunscreen!

**I lost my ability to eat just one potato chip last year at the Fourth of July picnic.

***Did I mention it itches like crazy?


Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I’ve been tagged!

Jess Lourey blog-tagged me over on InkSpot, so I guess I’m “it.”

(And she’s right, there’s nothing like getting blog-tagged to foster a little procrastination.)

4 movies you would watch over and over:

  • The Godfather200px-Godfather15_flip
  • Animal House
  • The Ten Commandments (I love a good comedy!)
  • Rio Bravo (actually, I did watch this one over and over, in a span of five weeks, back in a film appreciation course in college. It was good the first time, okay the second time, and pretty tiresome the third time)

4 places you have lived:

  • Syracuse, NY
  • Boston, MA
  • Louisville, KY
  • Richmond, VA

4 TV shows you love to watch:

  • Star Trek (original)
  • The White Shadow (I even bought the first season DVD!)
  • The Simpsons
  • The Office

4 places you have been on vacation

  • Europe (backpacking for two months)
  • Jamaica
  • Hawaii
  • Cross-country driving trip (for seven weeks)

4 of your favorite foods

  • Raspberries
  • Arugula
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Hot peppers
    (all homegrown by moi)

4 websites you visit daily:

  • None, on a daily basis (now blogs are another story—and I couldn’t even begin to start naming those).

4 places you would rather be right now:

  • On a golf course. Any golf course.
  • Hawaii. Any island in Hawaii.
  • Disney World
  • At the movies, watching the new Star Trek, which I haven’t seen yet.

Tag 4 people you think will respond

  • I would, but I don’t think four people even read my blog!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fresh Beginning

A sheaf of clean notebook paper, all squared up.

A loose-leaf notebook, divided into sections, one for each subject.

A dozen sharpened yellow #2 pencils, all pointing in the same direction.* stack-of-sharpened-pencils

A few Bic pens, with clear plastic barrels, so you can watch the ink slowly disappear over the weeks.**

A pink eraser, a steel single-hole holepunch, a wood ruler with a metal straightedge.

A box of crayons, a box of colored pencils.

Spiral notebooks, in a variety of colors.

Composition notebooks with black-marbled covers.


Who doesn't like brand-spanking-new school supplies? The sight, the smell, the feel.

They signal a fresh beginning--to the school year, to the creative process, to possibilities as yet unimagined.

I don't recall looking forward to the actual classes beginning, but I sure liked having an assortment of pristine school supplies.

I still do.

On the shelves of my office sit unopened reams of paper, boxes of pencils and pens, unused spiral notebooks. File folders and envelopes and binder clips. All just waiting for my creative juices to start running.

Of course, I don't have much use anymore for filler paper and loose-leaf notebooks. Now, the only notebook I open up is my Toshiba.

But I still get the same surge of excitement when I call up a blank Word document to begin a new project.

And that's what I'm doing this week--starting a new project.

Oh, the possibilities!


*Few smells are as distinctive as fresh pencil shavings.

**If you remove the tube of ink from the pen, the plastic barrels make great spitball launchers. I did plenty of research as a lad. Sorry, Mrs. Hubbs!


Image by


Friday, May 22, 2009

Great Powers

Today I am guest blogging at Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Click on over and see what "forgotten" book I love.

Hint: It's got "sinner" and "ice cream" in the title.

Thanks, Patti, for giving me the chance to talk up one of my favorite books!


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plodding Along

Some famous wag/wit/writer once quipped, "I don't like writing. I like having written."

That's how I feel about jogging. I don't like jogging, I like having jogged.* 

While out on recent jog, I was struck by how similar writing and jogging are. sports_clipart_running_athlete

Both are solitary pursuits. When I write, I stick my butt in my chair and keep my fingers on the keyboard. With jogging, it's all about feet pounding pavement. Left, right. Left right. Nobody trails along or peers over my shoulder telling me how to jog (faster!) or how to write (faster!).

When I run**, I follow a pre-determined course. If I didn't, I'd get lost or lose track of how far I'd gone. When writing, I follow a pre-determined outline. Without one, I'd get lost, too. (Of course, I'm allowed to detour whenever I feel the urge, as long as I leave a trail of breadcrumbs or some detailed notes.)

Each is done for a finite "distance." When I run, I go 5K (5 kilometers), then stop. When I write, I go 2K (2000 words), then stop. After I've reached my daily quota, I'm free to do something else without guilt.

For me, both writing and running are marathons, not sprints. When you look up and you're at page 45 of a 300-page novel, you know you've still got some work to do. You've got to put your head down and keep on chugging. Ditto after hitting the one-mile mark. Just Do It.

Jogging and writing both build muscles and endurance. More importantly, they both build confidence. After you've run a few miles one day, you know you can run a few miles another day. Same for writing. Once you write ten pages, you know you can crank out twenty. Or fifty. Or a complete manuscript. Or a series...

Whether jogging or writing, I watch for hazards. On the road, potholes, traffic, rabid squirrels, and other obstacles appear in your path. If you let them, they can derail your progress. At the desk, you have to contend with the Internet, a stack of books to be read, the telephone, the Xbox, and a host of other diversions calling out to you, "Hey buddy, time to take another break. Come play with us. You know you want to." You have to learn to say, "Shut up, diversions!"

Jogging or writing, I break a sweat.

Jogging or writing, I'm always alert for roadkill--and it can be pretty ugly. (Sometimes in my first draft, when I've written something especially putrid, I'll change the color of the text to "white" so I don't have to keep seeing that particular roadkill until I'm ready to clean it up.)

Both can lead to aches and pains. Often when I run, my knees hurt. Often when I write, my head hurts.

Of course, there are some differences between jogging and writing. When I run, I listen to music on my MP3 player. When I write, I can't listen to anything, lest I won't be able to hear the voices in my head. (You know, the VOICES. The ones TELLING ME WHAT TO WRITE.***)

Frequently, when I'm running, I get great ideas about my writing--devilish plot twists, snippets of witty dialogue, the perfect way to describe the mole on a character's face. Sometimes I get so many ideas, I'm afraid I'll forget some of them before I get back. When I'm writing, I never get great ideas about my running. Not once have I thought, "Hey, maybe today I should try left, left, right, right."

After jogging for a while (years), I expect to be rewarded with low blood pressure. After writing for a while, and after turning in a complete manuscript to my agent or editor, I know I'll be rewarded with high blood pressure.

The bottom line is this: I feel good after I've jogged, and I feel good after I've written. So I guess I'll just keep right on plodding--and plotting--along.


*To be clear, when I say "jog," I mean plod. And by plod, I mean going at a pace somewhere between a slog and a saunter.

**Another euphemism for plodding.

***Yes, sometimes the voices SHOUT.


Today’s entry is “simul-posted” at InkSpot.


Friday, May 15, 2009


The answer to yesterday's "title search challenge" was 24. Congrats to Jeff Cohen for being the best title detective.*

For those of you who didn't read yesterday's post, you can scroll back and read it.

But you almost couldn't have. Because I almost removed the post.

Here's why:

My goals for this blog are simple: to amuse, entertain, and educate. Not to cause even the teeniest, tiniest bit of controversy (or even a hint of a whiff of a bit of controversy).

Yesterday's blog post was an homage (pronounced "o-mazh." I love saying that word, but I hate saying fromage) to one of my favorite authors (let's just call him "FAMOUS AUTHOR"). It was a (very) gentle parody, featuring a few of FAMOUS AUTHOR'S characters. I meant no harm or disrespect. In fact, I thought it was a nice little tribute, in its own nice little way.

However, in a comment, an anonymous blog reader suggested that I was infringing on FAMOUS AUTHOR's intellectual property. And that got me thinking.

Infringing on someone else's intellectual property is just about the last thing I ever want to do. Being a writer myself, I am sensitive to those issues (and becoming more sensitive every day!). I'm no lawyer, so I did what anyone else would do. Hit Google for some legal research. After an exhaustive five minutes, I concluded that my post certainly qualified as a parody, and, as such, would be considered fair use (and not infringement).

When I wrote it, I thought my parody was similar to wearing my favorite football player's jersey in a show of support, respect, and admiration. You see, FAMOUS AUTHOR was a big reason why I became a writer myself, and I respect him--and his work--immensely. I'm a tremendous fan.

I reread the post several times. Would most people see the love? Or would some people misconstrue my intent. Not sure. Would people think I was dissing FAMOUS AUTHOR?

So, although I didn't think I was infringing on FAMOUS AUTHOR's intellectual property, I almost removed the post.

I would never want to offend anyone, let alone FAMOUS AUTHOR. Not that I think my post would have torqued him--from reading just about every single one of his more than fifty books (and his own blog, and interviews, etc., etc.), he seems like he would actually have liked my heart-felt words. But you never know.

In the end, I left the post up. If FAMOUS AUTHOR would like me to take it down, I'll take it down in a flash. Otherwise, I'll leave it up for others to enjoy in the spirit it was intended. (And go buy FAMOUS AUTHOR’s books—they’re great!)

There was one other reason I almost removed the post. I wouldn't want my writing idol to have any negative perception of me whatsoever.

Not when I'd love for FAMOUS AUTHOR** to blurb my book.


*No actual prize--just the intrinsic joy associated with a task well done!

**2002 MWA Grandmaster, Robert B. Parker


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Spenser, Like the Poet

A small tribute to one of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker, and one of my favorite literary PIs, Spenser. parker200

Susan sat on stool at the counter while I made dinner. She scratched behind Pearl's ears.

I butterflied a boneless chicken breast and dredged it in seasoned flour. I shook off the excess and place it into a pan of hot olive oil. Stardust played on the stereo in the background.

"Suze, how was your day?" I said.

"Typical school days. Now and then I dislike my guest teaching spot, but early autumn often leads to sudden mischief. God save the child," she said. She nibbled a microscopic bit of a Ritz cracker, no larger than a crumb. "How is your case going?"

I turned the chicken breast over in the pan and added a pat of butter. I watched as it melted. "Someone took a potshot at me. It was rough weather there for a few moments, real mortal stakes, but then the walking shadow I'd been tailing disappeared into thin air. Sometimes I feel like I'm taming a seahorse," I said.

I dropped some chopped shallots and some minced garlic into the pan and swirled them around with a wooden spoon.

Susan nipped off another infinitesimal morsel of cracker and chewed it. "The streets are a real savage place, aren't they? Everyone's got a back story, and the people you deal with are often engaged in bad business. Just searching in vain for the promised land," she said. "What are you going to do now?"

"I'll just poke around until something happens due to my poking around. See what I find out. My usual plan," I said. "Better to know than not to know."

Across the room, the front door opened and Hawk entered. Pearl barked once.

Susan's eyes went wide. She was a Harvard-trained psychologist. "Hawk? What are you doing here?" she said.

"I done working with your man's honky playmates," he said.

"Quirk?" I said.

"Yeah. And Belson, too. We all be tired of looking for Rachel Wallace and the hush money. She just another hundred-dollar baby. No chance she go straight," he said.

"Where is my state cop pal, Healy?" I said.

"The professional? He went after Joe Broz, the man say," Hawk said.

"Who said?" Susan said.

"He said," Hawk said.

"Who said?" Susan said again.

Hawk stared at her.

"Broz said? Or Healy said?" I said.

Hawk didn't say anything. He stared at me. I removed the chicken breast from the pan, placed it on a plate and spooned out some mashed sweet potatoes from a casserole dish I'd had in the oven reheating at 375 degrees. "Suze, you sure you don't want any?" I said.

She smiled her dazzling smile and I felt my heart in my mouth, like I always did when she smiled her dazzling smile. "No, I'm full," she said. Half her Ritz cracker was still on her plate. Small vices.

"Hawk?" I said.

"No thanks. I be going now," Hawk said. He left.

Pearl jumped down from Susan's lap and waddled over. I cut off a slice of chicken breast and forked it and some sweet potatoes into her bowl. Pearl barked once and sniffed her food. She dug in.

I didn't stand on ceremony. I dug in, too. Delicious.

For fun: How many Spenser titles can you find woven (seamlessly!) into the scene? (Hint: more than two, fewer than fifty.)


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

We’ll Always Have Nantucket

In celebration of Limerick Day (today!):

There once was a scribe named O’Leary,
Wrote ’til his hands were bone-weary,
All day and all night,
For six months he did write,
And that was simply his query!


Monday, May 11, 2009

Cut to the Chase

sunThe bright yellow-gold orb rose in the eastern cerulean sky, bathing the vast emerald valley in brilliant, dazzling light. Tall, majestic, ancient oaks and gnarled, weather-beaten baobab trees drank it in  under the watchful eyes of a lone tar-black starling circling high in the thermals. The steamy heat, already approaching triple digits, would become unfathomingly oppressive in just a few short hours. Sinewy Dirk Sampson, prone on the redolent earth behind a fallen, termite-decimated log, focused his laser attention on the Herculean task at hand. He mentally calculated how many hard, lethal, lead bullets it would take to completely annihilate the tribe of head-shrinking pygmies gathering along the dark, muddy riverbanks below. He hefted his heavy, precision-made, semi-automatic machine gun, but before he aimed it at the largest group of malevolent antagonists, he noticed a sprawling anthill to his left. Thousands of tiny, industrious insects scurried along, their brittle exoskeletons glistening...


Recently, a question regarding description popped up on one of Absolute Write's writing forums. How much physical description is too much?

I'm more of a minimalist when I write. Here's how I'd be tempted to revise the above paragraph:

Dirk Sampson picked up his AK-47 and started blasting those bloodthirsty pygmies.

I strive to use the bare minimum I can get away with, while still giving the reader a clear picture of the characters' physical surroundings. I like the challenge of trying to sum up the setting in a sentence or two (or just a few words, if possible). I guess I do this because I find reading large chunks of description to be tedious and boring. I'd rather read about something actually happening! (I prefer just about anything over in-depth descriptions of sunrises/sunsets, foliage, clothing, food, or submarines.**) Submarine Clipart

I had a writing instructor*** who always reminded us to include "conflict on every page." (I'm pretty sure she never said, "Put purple prose on every page.")

Another great writer--Elmore Leonard, I believe--says he "leaves out the parts people skip over." For me, that usually means cutting down on the physical description. And I must say, I don't miss it.

Writers, what are the "boring parts" you leave out?


*Note to critique group members: If I ever submit something like this, please hit me upside the head with a large, heavy, majestic, precision-made, fire-engine-red pen (figuratively).

**I think Clancy's The Hunt for Red October would have been better without all the description of the nuts and bolts (literally).

***Thanks, Noreen Wald!


Friday, May 8, 2009

Don’t Make Me Say Cheese

I don't like being photographed. camera

I don't like having to smile on command, I don't like looking plastic, and I don't like it when photographers contort you into some kind of preposterous pose.

Okay, now put three fingers of your left hand an inch to the right of the centerline of your jaw and shift your weight onto your right side and throw your head back just a tad while turning your shoulders and flexing your knees. And smile!

Hey, if I wanted to play Twister, I would have worn more comfortable clothing.

My distaste for being in pictures is nothing new; I've always been camera-shy. As a child, I remember running from the room when one of my parents brought out the camera. They have plenty of pictures of my back, the top of my head, and the splayed palms of both hands in front of my face.

I often referred to my dad, not as "Poppa," but as "Poppa-razzi."

On those occasions when I consented to be photographed, I usually refused to smile, letting a scowl reflect my resentment. I'll show you, you no-goodnik picture-takers. Oh, what a fun teenager I was!*

I'm not sure why I feel this way. I guess I don't like being the center of attention, even for the millisecond it takes for the shutter to open and close. I don't think I'm terribly photogenic, and I'm uncomfortable leaving permanent, visual traces of myself. Who wants to be evaluated by loved ones looking at pictures thirty years from now? "Well, I don't know what happened. He used to be presentable. Now...pffft."

Looking at myself creeps me out. (Insert your own joke here.)

It's not just photos. I don't like looking at myself in the mirror either. Sure, I use the mirror when I shave (personal safety issue), and when I blow dry my hair (public courtesy issue), but that's about it. I even close my eyes when I brush my teeth. Once, I walked around with a huge smudge on my face for hours. (I did wonder why my family members chuckled every time they saw me.)

What brought on all this talk about pictures? Well, I took my author headshot yesterday.

And let's just say it wasn't pretty.**


*Sorry, Mom.

**But that's a topic for another post.


Here’s a rare candid photo of me in a cabin in the wilds of Wyoming with two new-found friends who were kind enough to listen to one of my stories. (I’m the one in the middle.)


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Enough Already

Signs that you should stop fussing with the manuscript you're working on (and move on to the next project):

  • Your critique partners no longer answer your emails or return your calls.

  • stopYou've memorized the first twenty pages, word for word. 

  • Your spouse has memorized the first twenty pages word for word, from hearing you recite them in your sleep.

  • You've changed the main character's name from Ryan to Bryan to Brian to Brianna to Elvis to Zzvt#%gr to King Machinar III to Fluffy and back to Ryan. Twice.

  • You've thought about pitching the whole thing into the trash and starting anew.*

  • You're debating whether the Chevy Camaro on page 245 should be white or "eggshell." 

  • You had a prologue, then incorporated it into the story, then took it out, then put it in as an epilogue, then removed it and now plan to offer it on your website as "bonus" material.
  • You've translated the manuscript into Hebrew to see if it works any better going right-to-left. (Strangely, it does.)

  • You've thought about pitching the whole thing into the trash and starting anew.**

  • You've read the entire manuscript aloud, both frontward and backward, in front of a mirror and then in front of your dog (and the fourth time through, the dog left the room). 


Finally, the most telling sign that you should stop revising your manuscript:

  • You're holding the published book in your hands.*** 

Have any to add?


*Of course, this happens at every stage of writing a manuscript.

**Of course, this happens at every stage of writing a manuscript. Multiple times.

***Of course, there's always the second printing!


Monday, May 4, 2009

Full of Malice (in a good way)

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending Malice Domestic. For those of you who don't know, "Malice" is the biggest, baddest convention for fans of the traditional mystery (defined loosely as one having no excessive violence or sex on page, an amateur sleuth, and a confined setting where most of the characters know each other).

It was a lot of fun. malicebanner

I had a chance to make some new friends and connect with some old ones, and I walked away with more books to add to my TBR pile (ahhhh! See Timber!!!!!! ).

Some highlights (and a few personal observations):

The New Authors Breakfast, where newbie authors each "took" a different table and ate breakfast with fans. (Rosemary Harris likes fruit.)

A panel for the Best Novel Nominees (Donna Andrews, Rhys Bowen, Louise Penny, and Anne Perry (Julia Spencer-Fleming, the other nominee, couldn't make it), moderated by Marcia Talley. (A British accent makes everything seem more sophisticated.)

A panel, moderated by Shawn Reilly, featuring the nominees for Best First Novel (Sarah Atwell (writing as Sheila Connolly), Krista Davis, Rosemary Harris, and two Midnight Ink authors G.M. Malliet and Joanna Campbell Slan (CONGRATS!)).

An interview with Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Anne Perry by her uber-agent Donald Maass.

A panel, moderated by funny-man author Chris Grabenstein, where Judy Clemens, Jeffrey Cohen, Vincent O'Neil, and Hank Phillippi Ryan impersonated famous sleuths in a March-Madness-type elimination cage-match. Sherlock Holmes emerged victorious. (I think I agree with Don Bruns's observation from the audience, "This might be the strangest panel I've ever been to.")

An interview with the 2009 Guest of Honor Nancy Pickard, conducted by Carolyn Hart. Nancy's sage final words of wisdom: "Don't pee in your boots." (Sounds about right to me.)

A panel about the "Dark Side" of mysteries, with Carl Brookins, Don Bruns, Robin Burcell, John L. French, and Stefanie Pintoff. The panelists all decided (well, mostly all decided) that, as writers, it was unwise to kill or maim or torture pets in books. On the other hand, killing humans was not only fine, but encouraged.

The Agatha Awards Banquet capped off the night. Congrats to all the winners (and a special Double-CONGRATS to G.M. Malliet, winner of Best First Novel for Death of a Cozy Writer!).

A complete list of winners can be found at The Rap Sheet or at Mystery Fanfare.

See you next year at Malice. And remember, don’t pee in your boots!