Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Running Out of Writing

Some years ago when I worked on the Love is Murder Mystery Readers/Writers Conference, I was lucky enough to meet Lee Child and hear him speak. And while he was charming, funny, and generous with his time, the one thing he said that stuck with me the most was when he mentioned running out of writing.

Lee Child, if you don't know him, writes the best-selling Jack Reacher series (although I hear he is stepping down after the most recently released Reacher book. So sad, but that's another conversation!) 

Now, I have been reading his work since book one and was thrilled to hear him speak about his work and his process. It was fascinating to hear him address his worry that he might not be able to keep going within a book. He stated that with every novel he wrote, he was worried about not having any more story after about page forty. He worried that he would be able to tell his whole tale within those forty pages and that would be the end of the novel. And then what on earth would he hand over to his publisher?

I was struck by that observation on more than one level. First of all, the idea that someone like Lee Child could struggle with writing a novel was surprising. I realize academically that ALL writers struggle. Of course we do; it's part of the job. But to hear this consistent best-selling author come out and his personal fears was just mind-boggling to me. 

Secondly, his statements switched on a light bulb over my head. I had never put the entire concept into words before, but he did it for me. At the back of my head, every time I work on my own books, I worry that I am going to run out of story before I reach the word count required for a full-length novel. It's a legitimate worry, believe me, when one is trying to create a series of incidents and events for characters and wondering if what is winding up on paper, as well as what is still being carried around mentally, will provide not only a coherent story, but a book-length one. Even as I write this, my thoughts are drifting toward my current work in progress, book seven in my series, and I keep thinking, yes, I know how the story ends but do I have enough content before I reach that ending? Do I need more? Am I missing a  scene or two? Am I possibly even missing a character? It can get crazy in here!

Listening to Mr. Child speak about this particular fear was reassuring in its own way. Heck, if he can have worries like that, then maybe I'm not so far off the right path. (On the other hand, the demon in me whispers, if he has worries like that, what makes me think that someone like me could even hope to face down that very same situation? Again, a topic for another piece.)

In the end, Mr. Child said that the only thing to do is to write whatever is in your head, in your heart, and trust in both yourself and the process that there will be more story coming, certainly enough to round out the book.

I have to admit I've been hedging a bit with my newest story. Getting used to my new work hours, learning the job, dealing with a couple of health concerns, all of this has thrown various obstacles into the middle of my path. But I figure, Lee Child tossed me kind of a lifeline when he spoke so frankly about the writing life. The least I can do is hang onto that and keep going,  right?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Scary List

One of the things I have to do during the course of writing one of my Bridgeton Park Cemetery Books is figure out a bunch of scary things to include in each story. So I run down my running list of things that scare me:

A face behind me in the mirror.

Someone in my house looking out at me while I'm in the yard, even though I know the house is empty.

Any appliance or electrical gadget turning itself on, or off, without assistance. (Speaking of which, my washing machine turned itself on four times in a row the other morning. What's up with that???)

Disembodied voices.

Something moving that shouldn't be moving, while I watch it.

Or coming home and finding things in places they shouldn't be, and knowing no one was around to have moved them.

When I had a dog, having it bark at or react to something I couldn't see. Ditto for the cats.

The more subtle thing of feeling like someone is watching me, or that I'm not alone even though I know that physically I am.

And of course, the real corker: seeing an apparition.

Anyone who reads my books knows that Michael sees apparitions, and Cassie sometimes sees them. However, she is a sensitive and knows when someone dead is around, providing that dead person wants to make contact with her. The fact that both of these characters are psychic can make it tougher for me to write something scary, although at the moment, neither of them is entirely comfortable with what they can do, and that's fine. Actually, if I had any of their abilities, I don't know that I'd ever be entirely comfortable with it, either! 

Thus, I watch all the paranormal reality shows that I do, looking for inspiration and ideas. And even if I don't find either, I usually enjoy myself while I'm doing the research. But I do get ideas and I do learn a lot of things, watching those shows. The abilities some people have are mind-boggling. (I'm looking at you, Amy Allen.) And the things that have happened to some people are nearly unbelievable, except that I believe them, when those people tell their stories.

I hope that with all the research, all the shows, all the information I pick up here and there, that most of what I write is also believable, at least on some level. I know that what I write will be scoffed at and met with disbelief by many, so I am so grateful for those who read my work and buy into the premise, even if it's just for the duration of the story. Because that means that 1) I picked good items from my running list and 2), as a writer, I did my job.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Graceful Endings

I write a series. In fact, I write a serial series, since reading the Bridgeton Park Cemetery books in order is a good idea in order to make sense of everything. And since I write a series/serial, I pay a great deal of attention to 1) how long other authors keep their own series going and 2) how they end it, if they choose to end it.

Everyone who knows me knows that there are particular series I read. There are the Davenport and Virgil Flowers series by John Sandford, there is the Sigma series by James Rollins, and then there is the Reacher series by Lee Child. There are a few others, too, like the Cotton Malone books from Steve Berry, and the Pendergast novels from Douglas Preston and Lee Child. I once saw John Sandford speak at an author signing, and he said he would never kill off his Davenport character, which I was greatly happy to hear. I never feel the same about a series if I know it ends with a character’s death. (Ask me if I ever read Curtain, Agatha Christie’s finale for Hercule Poirot. Uh, that would be “no.”)

But I have read series that have come to decent conclusions. Harry Potter comes to mind. So do the Sookie Stackhouse books. I like the Stackhouse books so much that I couldn’t watch the show True Blood. That aside, both JK Rowling and Charlaine Harris did an amazing job in bringing their stories to completion. And as far as Harry P goes, well, his universe has sprouted legs and is continuing on with different characters anyway.  

There are also series that have continued despite the original author stepping away. James Bond is a great example of that. I know Raymond Benson, the first writer approved by the Fleming estate to continue with 007’s adventures. He’s a terrific writer and I’m not surprised that he got the nod to do it. I think Sherlock Holmes has continued in various incarnations. And I know Tony Hillerman’s legacy is being continued by his daughter. But here’s my personal heartbreaker: I read recently that Lee Child is stepping away from Jack Reacher and turning the entire enterprise over to his brother, who is also a writer. That means that the last Jack Reacher book I read –just finished, actually- is the last genuine Reacher book as written by his creator. I will give Mr. Child’s brother a chance and see what he does. Who knows? I hope the new books are wonderful. But boy, he’s got big shoes to fill.

Keeping a series going, or ending it, is a pretty dicey enterprise. I know there have been screen and TV adaptations that fans were not thrilled with. Mention the last show of Game of Thrones to most of its fans and then stand back so you don’t get splashed with the vitriol that will spout forth. Ask a random Star Wars fan about The Rise of Skywalker. And then there’s The Terminator series…

I am not writing this because I am contemplating ending Bridgeton Park. But I do keep an eye on how the writers I admire ply their talents to bring their characters where they want them to go, whether that means continuing on, or ringing the final bell at the end of numerous accounts and adventures. And like most fans, I feel sad when a series I love comes to an end. As a writer, I understand why this would happen and why a writer might feel the need to finish. As Willy Wonka said, “I can’t go on forever. And I really don’t want to.” Or something to that effect. So I totally understand the need to draw something to a close. At least, I do as a writer. But as a reader and a fan? No matter how gracefully the end comes, I am totally saddened when it does.

PS - Not to cause any confusion: This was the working title/cover for book three, the one that eventually became Drawing Vengeance. Thought I'd share it!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Some Thoughts on Music, Ghosts, and Writing

I like ghost stories. DUH. I like to read them. I also write them. But the interesting thing about writing, at least for me, is that the ghosts are not actually the vehicles for my story. According to my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the second definition of “vehicle” is how “…something, as thought, power, or information, or the like, is conveyed, transmitted, expressed, or achieved.” And while I dress up my stories with ghosts, the real story, in the end, is about the characters and how they react with each other as well as the supernatural.

When I wrote my first version of Haunted, my editor rejected it because she said that I was missing from the story. I knew what she meant. I had written a technically workable tale, but it didn’t have a heart. Mostly because I was trying to shield myself from being truly involved with my characters, which, if you’re writing fiction, is ridiculous. But many times, if you’re writing fiction, being involved with your characters fricking hurts. I was ducking the pain of that. (Coward.) And she called me on it.

So I rewrote the book, put my heart back into it, and she approved the final version. Then she told me to submit it to the New York houses. But that’s a different story.

The point is, I have no story if I don’t have the essential feelings of my characters fueling the entire book, and my shortcut for getting those essential feelings is music. I think I’ve mentioned before that everything I write has a soundtrack. It may be just one song. It may be an entire playlist. But my characters, the plot, certain scenes, entire stories, are anchored in music, because when I hear that particular song or theme, it takes me right into the universe of the book. It’s actually kind of a magical thing, but then I think music is a high form of magic.

I have also discovered that I can time-travel with music. Some songs can bring back particular people, conversations, settings, and experiences like nothing else. Mentally, I can usually remember things from my past fairly well. But if you play certain songs for me, then whoa. I’m gone. And I mean gone. There are times I can remember an instance when I was listening to that song, and I can tell you who I was with, what I was wearing, where we were, how old I was—any number of details. Some of the things that come back to me are so vivid, so strong, that I can’t help feeling that if I tried hard enough, I could step back twenty or more years.

But back to writing…

Michael Penfield has a theme song. Cassie and Michael have a theme song. Jake Holdridge and Philip Corts have a whole slew of them and sometimes when one of those songs comes on the radio, I think that I really owe them at least one more story. My editor told me that and I think she’s probably right. Just waiting for right adventure for them.

As for Cassie and Michael, well, I’m still working on book seven! I’ve been listening to music and playing with scenarios, and I hope that when this one comes out, it will break everyone’s heart just a little, the way it’s currently breaking mine. Because if I can do that, then I have properly used my story’s vehicle to convey exactly what essential feelings the music was conveying to me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Can You Tell It's Haunted?

A few weeks ago, my good friend and fellow writer (who am I kidding? My good friend, fellow writer, and fairy godmother) posted a blog piece asking “how do you know when a place is haunted?” or an inquiry along that line. It’s a good question, especially if you’re the type who can walk into a new place and get that particular feeling. And so I think I have the same question she probably did (Terri, I’m totally stealing your blog topic idea!): What does it feel like to YOU when you walk into a place that’s somehow not quite, well, at peace? Somewhat disturbed? Or flat-out haunted?

Barring actually seeing an apparition, this is how it feels to me. It starts with a visceral reaction that immediately puts the sentence “I don’t want to be here” into my mind. Of course, rational thought takes over and the usual placating statements begin filtering through. “It’s fine. It’s a public place. There are tons of people here. It’s broad daylight. (Or if it’s night) There’s plenty of light here. Everyone seems to be okay. What have I got to be worried about?

Depending on the location, various things can be worrisome. The worst of it is that uneasy sensation in my gut that tells me that there’s something else around. Something probably not alive. Something that I may not be able to see, but that I can most definitely feel. I then start to worry that I might see something I don’t want to see. Or experience something that I really don’t want to experience.

I’ve had that sensation in a college dormitory room. I went on a writer’s retreat held at a local university and the dormitory was very uneasy. I admit I didn’t sleep a lot over those two nights. It didn’t help that my work in progress at the time was Haunted. But even earlier than that, I had a similar experience in a dormitory while attending a camp for high school yearbook staff. I had a really nasty nightmare every single night I was there.

Jim and I both had the sensation in a hotel in Dublin. The place was a reconverted office building and its halls were like a rabbit warren. I think our room was the farthest away from the elevator, at the end of a very long hall that included steps down and then up again, plus a double door held open by doorstops. Of course there were lights everywhere, but brother, was it ever dark.

We also had that sensation at a restaurant that has since closed. That particular location had been a property of Al Capone’s and had been a speakeasy as well as a place where he received and distributed illegal liquor. I’m not sure what went on there, but I don’t imagine it was all sweetness and light. The third floor, where the rooms for private parties were, and the first floor that housed the main restaurant and the bar, definitely had issues. The place was even written up in a book of local haunted venues.

Interestingly enough, though, I have never had that feeling in a hospital, even though I know hospitals rank as some of the most haunted places possible, even those that are still open for business. I have a friend who has seen dead people in the parking lot outside a hospital close to his house. I had a friend who was an ER nurse who spoke about changes in the ward when someone passed away during her shift. But despite the fact that I’ve been in all kinds of hospitals for a variety of reasons, I’ve never sensed the paranormal at any of them and I have no idea why. Now that I’ve written this, though, I bet I’ll run into it big-time next time I have to go to a hospital for whatever reason.

Sometimes I don’t mind feeling the sensations that go along with running into something not quite of this world: that prickly sensation along the spine and neck, the sudden chill, the uneasiness and the certainty that something is watching me. It’s good research for me, right??? But I’d love to know how others experience it. And if we tend to all feel it the same way, I also love to know why that is.