Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where Have the Birds Gone?

October is a decision month for me. This is when I decide, quietly, whether or not I'm going to feed the birds this winter. When I was growing up, we fed the birds throughout the worst winter months but never in the summer, since we felt they had plenty of food in the natural world. So, October and November were a time of getting the bird feeders ready and choosing the appropriate bird seed. But with the change in the species frequenting our backyard, I no longer feel the same way about feeding the winter birds.

I don't know if this is part of global warming, but the species we now see around our house have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. We've had an influx of flocks and flocks of sparrows. They're everywhere. When I walk in the early morning, they flutter up from the ground and hide in hedges until I pass, chirping in annoyance until I'm well beyond their feeding ground. Unlike most other birds in this area, they don't quiet down when humans approach; instead, they get louder and louder, as though warning us off.

When I look out the window in the late afternoon I no longer see the pairs of cardinals that have lived on this stretch of our street for years, nor the occasional junco or chickadee or gold finch. I haven't even heard the mocking bird recently, and I haven't seen a cowbird in years (I don't actually miss that one, considering its behavior). I don't look for barn swallows, since there aren't any real barns around here anymore either, and I miss their distinctive flight pattern and forked tails.

My backyard now consists of hundreds of sparrows swooping and diving, forking and rejoining, rising as a single mass, scattering and reforming; a blue jay that insists on pecking at the door frame on the back porch; and a lot of crows that make as much noise as they want, thank you very much. Last weekend a flock of turkeys wandered down a nearby side street, and have since crossed several streets and found their way to the front yard of an old estate on the water, where a small dog chases them.

Last winter we had a flock of mallards march stately across the frozen snow to our back terrace to eat all the seed we had put out for the regular winter visitors. They drove off all the other birds and filled the terrace. Even when I went out to drive them off, they didn't go far. Watching them approach inexorably, over snow drifts and snow piles, slow step by slow step, in a straggling line, was the most disappointing part of the winter. I don't want them back again this year.

I miss the birds of color and, I think, independence and grace and variety. The cardinals were a bit skittish of people and hid among the bushes, but their color and thoughtful movements were a delight. The chickadees, juncos, and others came and went and all shared their space on the terrace. With the influx of mallards and sparrows, the quieter, more colorful pairs are gone, driven away by both other species and climate.

With the onset of winter I am becoming reconciled to the permanent loss of the more colorful birds and the new residency of the sparrows. I probably won't feed them, since that will only encourage them to stay, and will certainly attract the ducks. But I am thinking of planting a garden next summer just to attract the kinds of birds I have come to miss. I have all winter to plan.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Little Nostalgia (Very Little)

I'm feeling nostalgic today. Perhaps it was the rain yesterday and today, which kept me inside staring at my computer and feeling morose, or perhaps it's because I just finished the first draft of another novel and now I have time to let my mind wander in a different way.

My nostalgia around writing takes one of two forms--thinking about my earlier work and recalling those who helped me along the way, beginning with teachers from way back when. Today I'm thinking mostly about the stories from years ago that were never published.

I have dozens of stories and articles locked in limbo on floppy disks. A couple of years ago I got a disk reader for my iBook, but it would only read disks of a certain color (black was in, everything else was out). Granted, these disks are old and the work stored on them older still but I was curious to find what was there. The titles on the labels didn't ring any bells, and the one or two articles I really wanted to find weren't listed on the labels. I had recently had a request for an article I'd written and discussed on a panel, so I set about finding it. I couldn't find a paper copy, but I knew I had a backup. After all this looking, all I can say is, I believe I did at one time have a backup.

My confidence in digital records was never very great, and it diminishes with each passing year. I have stacks of floppies with once treasured work that I will probably never see again in any form, having thrown away paper copies for the blissful delusion of preserving rare storage space by relying on disks. I have two old backup systems that I never use now--and I would need a different attachment to read them. My MacBook Air needs an attachment for just about everything.

Work composed before I got a computer is still accessible because the paper hasn't yet turned to dust, so I occasionally come across something I wrote in my teens and twenties and even into my thirties. Two things catch my eye. First, there's an occasional phrase or insight that feels new to me and I ponder this and think about reusing it. Second, the earlier nonfiction pieces have an underlying confidence that amuses me--this is youth at its most obvious and annoying.

I once decided to rework an earlier (much, much earlier) story and began by ruthlessly cutting out everything that was mediocre, unimaginative, a cliche, etc. After a few hours of this--rereading, cutting, rethinking--I was left with two paragraphs I considered acceptable. I still don't know what to do with them, but the experience taught me how much my writing has changed over the years.

Except for the days when I have a little extra time on my hands, or it's raining like a monsoon, I rarely think about my old work. It's done, published or put away, and no longer relevant to what I'm doing now. I'm one who believes that life is a series of rooms that we should inhabit fully as we pass through, then turn off the light as we leave and move on. I may never find out what's on those old floppies, but I know I'll never care beyond a mild curiosity, and if they're stacked on the desk when I have a wastebasket in my hand, they may disappear and I will never think about them again.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Writing in the Moment

I've been working on a new series with a plot that seems to grow more complicated every time I start typing. At first I thought I had the basic idea worked out--who the murderer was, the motive, the mode of investigation, and the back story that would fill out the novel. I worry every few days over whether or not the story will be long enough, or complicated enough, to satisfy the discerning mystery reader. I worry I'll be left with a ho-hum novella. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's not working out that way.

I am not someone who can outline a plot and write from the outline. I've read plenty of how-to books that recommend this, especially for a first novel, and for several years I even felt like I'd never get anywhere if I didn't learn to outline. Of course, I was writing and publishing the entire time I was lamenting my inability to outline. But still, this seemed like such a good idea--so practical and goal-oriented, and recommended by very successful writers that I really felt I should master this skill. Writers who work from outlines can use one to produce a summary or a synopsis on demand, find exactly the right place to add a clue or complication, and can always tell the editor waiting for the final draft where they are in the story and what to expect as the writer moves forward. In the end, however, I gave up trying to learn this technique, and I remain in awe of those writers who have mastered it. But I'd rather have a root canal than compose an outline and follow it.

For me, writing a novel or short story is a process of discovery. I have to be in the story, living each scene and discovering connections between characters and events from their past as I go along. By the time I reach the end of the first draft, the identify of the murderer has changed three or four times--it's amazing to me the number of characters I create in any one book who are capable of murder and make quite reasonable villains. The victim doesn't change, but his or her character deepens, and I learn more about who he or she is and how this person could do something that would inspire murder.

By the time I'm two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I have so many clues and loose ends to tie up that I worry I have made the story too complicated, perhaps needlessly so, and won't be able to finish it. This is when I start thinking about whittling down the number of characters, perhaps combining two minor characters into one and making this composite more interesting or effective. If the novel feels it has gotten away from me, that's all right. I'm willing to let the book have a life of its own--as long as I can steer it to a satisfying conclusion. And of course, I have to have faith that I can steer it anywhere.

I liken my technique to the experience of a vacation. I don't expect the same experience twice even if I visit the same place twice. Life doesn't work that way. Each day is new, with its own set of challenges and discoveries, no matter how much sameness we think we are encountering.

Whenever I try to explain my approach to writing--one of the more popular questions at writers' panels--I think of John Updike and his contrast between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. Writing nonfiction, Updike said, is like hugging the shore, the term for sailing always in sight of land. Writing fiction is sailing away from the shore, away from the safe markers of the world, to discover what is out there. It's risky and it can be scary, because the waves are higher and the wind stronger, but the chance is much greater that you'll find a new land.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Discovering Francetta

Recently I finished a manuscript about Anita Ray, the Indian American woman photographer who lives in India at her aunt's hotel, but through the last few days of working on the manuscript I kept hearing the voice of another character. This is the kind of thing that often happens to me when I'm finishing a book--I hear the voice for a character in the next book, see the story idea starting to cohere in my imagination, see scenes that will show up in the story. The problem is, the character's voice is entirely different from everything else I've written. Her name is Francetta and she is totally unlike any of my other protagonists in many ways. Nevertheless, I kept listening.

I finished the Anita Ray and sent it off, and then sat down to hear what Francetta had to say to me--who was she and what was her story? In the first few pages, she was mostly a very hard-nosed woman pretty angry about life. She had lots to say and her language wasn't always pretty. But she had a wry sense of humor, a laser sharp eye for the phony, and a fearlessness in facing life that I admired. I listened.

Francetta has quite a story--about her murdered husband, her months in prison, and her friends who aren't really friends. She looks on her past as a foster child with acceptance, and stays focused on the present--her friendship with her mother-in-law, her growing son, and her husband's memory.

Francetta tells her story with verve and a sly sense of humor. I don't know the whole story yet, but she's letting me in on it in bits and pieces.

I usually write as a process of discovery, uncovering the plot and clues, getting to know the other characters and their lives, but usually I know the protagonist pretty well. But this time I'm discovering just about everything--a new character, a new setting, a new kind of crime, a new language. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, April 11, 2011

eBooks and the Slush Pile

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across lots of discussion about eBooks, the future of publishing, and how the career of a writer is changing. Most of the time I come away from these discussions confused at the amount of information that is out there and needs to be absorbed just to begin to understand the problem. But then it dawned on me:

Ebooks are the new slush pile.

Now, this may not mean anything to most writers today because over the last thirty or forty years most publishers have given up the slush pile. The slush pile was a long and honored tradition of publishing houses accepting for review manuscripts that arrived unsolicited. No agent had sent them and no editor had requested them. They arrived because the writers had enough confidence (or demented ego) to believe that a stranger would buy their work if just given a chance to read it. And sometimes they were right. Thousands if not millions of mss went through the slush pile, but rarely did any one stand out enough to be read from beginning to end, and then to capture the reader’s attention so thoroughly that he or she decided to pass it up the line. If you know how the slush pile works, you know why surviving it is a rarity.

An editor assigned to manage the slush pile was usually new to the business and had many other duties. Her job (and it usually was a she) was to glance quickly through the mss (read page one, check page 200 to see if the author is still on the same topic and can still write, and read the last paragraph to see if the writer is still sane) and select an appropriate rejection letter. The editor signed this, usually with a pseudonym. (Unless you’ve actually worked in a publishing house, you have no idea how many people will show up uninvited and unexpected, insisting on seeing “their” editor.)

If the editor happened to come across something that seemed truly remarkable, she might read more, and if she read the entire mss and liked it, she then had to persuade a number of other editors, all senior to her, that here was something worth looking at. Considering the known writers the other editors were working with, the slush editor had her work cut out for her. And this is where eBooks come in.

There is no longer a need for a slush pile. Any book published in eBook format is in essence sent out into the world’s largest slush pile. Many of these books will die or disappear after selling half a dozen downloads to the author’s friends and relatives. These results are in essence kind rejection letters (“Thank you for letting us review your mss; I’m sorry to report that this isn’t for us”).

Few novice writers will reach the heights of Amanda Hocking, who sold upwards of a million ecopies through her own efforts. But she is proof that there still is a slush pile and that it still works—by word of mouth, she sold her books one reader at a time, working her way up the scale of readership, until she had an audience that would return again and again.

Tags: editing, slush pile, writing, Amanda Hocking

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Six Rules for Success

Mystery writing conferences are a great opportunity for those of use who work at our craft in isolation most of the time to get together and renew our enthusiasm. This year’s Crime Bake was one of the best, and I came away with lots of things to think about and new books to read. The panels brought a lot of new names and topics, but through it all, writers came back to a few main points about writing and the life of a writer. These are worth keeping in mind no matter who the writer is—the author of a bestseller, of a first book, or of half a dozen mysteries that sell modestly. So here they are, the qualities of a successful writer as reiterated by a number of writers who have achieved a range of success.

First, be persistent. Writing the novel takes time, selling it to a publisher takes time, producing it takes time, and selling it to the book-buying public takes time. It can take twenty years to become an overnight sensation, so keep working year after year after year, and you will continue to learn and grow and eventually get there.

Second, continue to study your craft no matter how many stories or books you have published. There is always more to learn, always something you can do better. Do you struggle with dialogue? Listen to how people talk, transcribe conversations, practice set pieces with two people encountering each other in a cafĂ© or on the street. Write things outside your comfort zone—write a thriller short story if you’re used to writing traditional stories, practice a fight scene, describe a place you don’t expect to use in a story and how your character moves through it. Read, write, learn.

Third, write with your whole self. This usually comes out as write from the heart, or write what you love to read, or write what you want to read. But however you phrase it, you as the writer must be fully involved in the task of writing the story; if you’re not involved, your reader won’t be either. This also means, write without thinking about who will publish it. Forget what happens when you’re finished—just write the story.

Fourth, forget about following trends. By the time you finish your book, the trend will be petering out and the editors will have moved on to something else. Even worse, if you’re writing to a trend you’re liable to be writing poorly, writing something that you don’t truly care about, and it will show.

Fifth, don’t complain about how hard this business is. If it were easy, every single person you know would be a writer and everyone would be successful (how that would work out mathematically for book sales I don’t really know). Don’t complain about the agents or editors or reviewers; they’re not going to change for you or anyone else, and they are, for the most part, doing a great job in a difficult business. Their life isn’t any easier than yours. Your job is to write, and leave the rest of it to others.

Sixth, accept the fact that luck will play a role somewhere along the line, so be ready. Write that book, send it out, and show up at events and conferences. You want to be ready when Lady Luck decides to smile on you.

There may be more core rules than these six, but I think these are pretty sound. As I listened to the other writers talk and share stories, I could hear these rules underlying their commitment to their writing.

Friday, November 5, 2010

End-of-Book Rituals

I would be the first to admit that I have a few quirks, but I like to think that most of them are harmless. One that I have learned to live with is my end-of-book ritual simply because this is a compulsion I can’t control.

Whenever I finish a book, as I just have, I know that it is really done because I throw myself into this ritual. I no longer want to read the manuscript over again and again, find something to fix, improve, change for the sake of changing. Instead, I have an uncontrollable need to clean up my office, and this means going through drawers, files, shelves in the closet, to pull out old notes and articles and whatever other paper I can find to recycle. I’m not happy until I have at least one paper bag stuffed full of paper, and I usually need at least two bags to feel I’ve done my duty and satisfied this demonic drive.

If you were to ask me (and please don’t), I’d have to say that I have no idea where all this paper comes from. (And we’re going to be a paperless society? But that’s another topic.) But I sure have a lot of it, and some of it is years old. How did I miss it the last time I did this? I finish a book at least every two years, but the paper keeps piling up—reviews of books I mean to read, recipes I want to try, articles I’m sure I can’t live without or promised to send to a friend, old research notes and cryptic notes to myself.

I wish I could say I was at least methodical about this, but I’m not. I just start rifling through the first pile of paper I come to, perhaps the one crushing the basket where I keep the mail (yes, that’s another story), or the one underneath my notebook on the current mystery novel, or the one on the windowsill that’s been great insulation against the drafty sash during the winter months. Sometimes I start going through my desk drawers, and that of course leads to old manuscripts I set aside when I became convinced the story wasn’t working (and then that leads to . . . and that’s yet another story).

My ritual is harmless, good for the environment, and probably good for my soul. Other writers have other rituals—going out for a celebratory drink that might last for days, emerging from the writing room to meet children who have grown six inches, eating that rotten apple hidden in the desk drawer. I have a friend who didn’t pay bills for three months, and whose desk was such a mess that she had to take bills and checkbook to a restaurant to find a table to work on in order to pay everything.

My writing rituals are as important to me as any of those created to mark the major turning points in a person’s life—birth, marriage, death, and all the other significant steps along the way. The rituals of beginning, stages of the work, and the ending tell me that I’m moving along, and sometimes are expressed in an instinctive way before I realize consciously, fully, where I am, or that I’ve reached the next stage. At the halfway point in a book I suddenly feel like I’m leaning over a precipice and go through an automatic review of where my characters are, as though they too are hanging off a precipice (as indeed some of them are).

I know these moments are coming, wait for them, expect them, and move through them because they tell me that the book is moving along as it should—they are the current of the ocean I sail on. And because such stages can’t be forced, nor can my feelings about them be concealed or denied, I know the book is progressing the way it should. The ritual is the manifestation of my deeper feeling of the life of the story.

Right now, a large paper bag stuffed with all sorts of paper is sitting out on the sidewalk waiting for the recycling pickup, and I am free to contemplate my next writing project, knowing that the initiating ritual will overtake me before I have made a conscious decision to begin. But that’s another story.

Final Payment, the next book in the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, is now sitting on an editor’s desk, waiting for a yea or nay.