Right now I’m teaching a workshop called No Rules, Just Write! Okay, okay. Those of you who know me can stop laughing now. Yes, we all know I am not known as someone who follows rules (although I do share my toys and play well with others ).
In this workshop we’ve spent two weeks discussing “the rules”. I’ve broken most of them˜even ones I didn’t know existed. In fact, it’s amazing to learn how many unspoken “rules” there are in this business.
For instance, several people reported their editors are eliminating all use of semi-colons because “regular readers don’t understand them”. Who started this war on a hard-working piece of punctuation? Where will it end?
It seems to me that most of these “rules” aren’t designed to increase the quality of literature. Rather, they function to further hamper us neurotic authors as we pursue a publishing career. Especially during that difficult transition from unpublished to published.
Now, this is an extreme example, but one of the “rules” that comes up repeatedly is formatting your manuscript. It seems that monthly on some loop that I’m on, there will be a spirited and prolonged discussion of font and formatting.
There are pages and pages on websites and discussion groups devoted to this. Calculations for using Times New Roman and ones for Courier. Margin and header formatting instructions for every word processing program so you can “get it right”.
Did anyone ever sell a book based on their choice of font?
Has anyone ever lost a sale because of font? Well, maybe if you use something so illegible that an editor couldn’t actually read your work.
Fess up now, how many of you have agonized over font and word count? What other rules do you obsess about?
My question: why aren’t you people writing?
After all, if there were a prescribed set of rules guaranteed to sell your book, we would all be following them, right? So don’t look to the rules to get you published, look to your work.
In my mind, there are only two things we can control in this business: our writing and our attitude.
Of course, publishing professionals are going to want to work with someone who demonstrates a professional attitude. Someone who shows they’ve done their homework, who treats writing as a career rather than a hobby, whose style and presence is polished, making them stand out from the rest.
Is your attitude alone going to guarantee you success? Not unless you are submitting the absolute best quality of work possible. Constantly growing as a writer, looking to ways to improve, listening to editors and others for insights, reading the “great” ones˜authors who resonate with you, who transport you˜and learning from them.
In other words, you need to be writing. It’s not easy, it’s damned hard work. And being willing to look at your work with a critical eye, to sacrifice your “purple prose puppies”, to edit and re-edit and sometimes even start all over again from scratch˜that takes a helluva lot of intestinal fortitude.
So go forth, forget about the “rules” and write!
Disclaimer: no semi-colons were harmed during the production of this blog.
Thanks for reading,
No one is immune to danger…
BLINK OF AN EYE “is a perfect blend of romance and suspense.” –Sandra Brown
I wonder if I should label this RW for Rant Warning?
It might be considered a very human need to put everything in compartments, groupings, stick it with an appropriate label and feel better for having categorized it. What kind of writer are you? Oh, a genre writer. Oh, the mystery genre.
Like now our relative merits can be established. Oh, you write that? How quaint.
Recently, writer Bill Blume commented about The Quill Awards, I’m not without a certain passionate gripe. The Quill Awards offer some specific categories such as Children’s Illustrated Book, Poetry and Romance… but then we’re given ridiculously broad categories such as Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror and Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. For those of us who love genre fiction, we once again feel like we’re getting the shaft. (If you visit Bill’s post, he has the link to go vote for the books nominated in each category, narrowly defined, or so generic and broad as to be meaningless, as they are.)
It was Bill’s post that really got me thinking about something. I’d mentioned to him that I had a hard time placing The Butcher initially, because it was borderline horror (written in the vein of What Every Guy Wants) and publishers kept telling me it needed a sci fi angle to it. A WTF? I just didn’t get that. Why couldn’t my nice little mindfuck stand on its own? Ultimately it did, in the July/August issue of Crimespree Magazine.
This is why I’m happy we’d decided to make Spinetingler non genre. Okay, we make it clear we don’t like mushy gushy romance or erotica. We don’t publish poetry, typically. But beyond that, we’ve published a wide range of stories. Some we call chillers, some thrillers, some sci fi, some fantasy, some stuff of life.
To be honest, I’m proud to be counted amongst crime writers. I think crime is the current social commentary that’s lacking from most so-called literature. There are books I read – Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal springs to mind – that are more about the effect of crime, guilt, fear, suspicion on the living, than the actual crime itself. That book has a wonderful blend of suspense, tension, drama, woven into a tapestry that touches on issues like abandonment, abuse and manipulation. It’s a book that I know I will read again.
About a year ago, I told someone I would aspire to write a book like Laura Lippman’s To The Power of Three, another book that I still think about, months after reading it.
How can a genre that produces works that linger with me long after the final page has been read, that make me empathize with the victims of crime, with those who must delve into the darkest parts of the human heart and mind to solve the most depraved crimes, be second-class?
The truth of the matter is, it isn’t a second-class genre. It’s first rate. I had to smile the other day, when Brett Battles said that Cornelia Read’s debut novel was a literary novel disguised as a mystery. The truth is, there are lot of books that might be considered ‘literature’ if they didn’t have such a strong plot.
I’ve thought about this a lot lately, in part because the panel I’m on at Bouchercon (The New Wave) will be looking at whether or not there really is anything new under the banner of crime fiction, or if we’re just producing more of the same old, same old.
I’ve also thought about this because of the tendency to further reduce books within crime fiction into subgenre categories. I looked at the list a long time ago and got a headache just thinking about it. I’ve explained here before why Suspicious Circumstances isn’t a procedural. Oh, it’s been called a procedural. And suspense. When it long listed in the Opening Pages competition last year, they called it a thriller. I don’t blame people for using those terms and have actually been quite curious to see what label sticks, though there is a part of me that finds the practice unfortunate.
While I can appreciate that some people like a very specific type of novel, I can’t help feeling that by paring everything down and putting it in very narrowly defined compartments, we may be limiting what the genre can produce, and even keeping ourselves from finding new work that we might really love. As Bill said to me, he was glad for Spinetingler, because the story he’d submitted to us months ago (which will run in the next issue in a few weeks) was very hard to define.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where the only labels that mattered were ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Where a story could be appreciated for its own merits, or criticized for its own shortcomings, not compared and rendered with or without value for what it was like or for what it was not?
All I really want to do is write a damn good story. And I’ll tell you something else. When my second book comes out, I want people to say it’s different from the first book. I never want to be one that relies on a formula or a pattern and keeps producing more of the same. I just want to write whatever is in my heart to write, the story that’s gnawing at me to be told, and do the best damn job I can, regardless of which subgenre that fits into.
If I had only looked at the labeling of Pale Immortal as paranormal mystery, I might not have been motivated to read the book. It isn’t my usual thing. And I would have missed out on Anne Frasier’s keen insights about isolation, prejudice, judgment, appearances and how we treat those we don’t understand. The underlying root of fear…
A perfect example that the only limits to your work might be the labels other people put on it. And, possibly, the prejudices people have that are based on nothing more than presumption.
There is an issue that has come up a number of places – discussion groups, convention panels, blogs, and it’s one that’s been really bugging me lately, and it’s about a very specific label.
The gay label.
One of the things that enrages me about that label is the inference that sex must be pivotal to the story. I mean, if there are ‘gay’ mysteries, shouldn’t it stand to reason that there are ‘hetero’ mysteries and ‘bi’ mysteries as well, and maybe even a whole ‘celibate’ series out there? I wonder if I should come out and admit to being straight? Does it really matter?
Look, I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to decide they don’t want to read certain sex scenes. I don’t even like reading heterosexual sex scenes.
But I am saying that this is a label that is abused to, in my opinion, reduce authors to being lumped into a category where they are evaluated on the sexual orientation of the characters before the quality of the writing or the strength of the story.
I’m a huge fan of Val McDermid’s work. You give me anything by her and I don’t care – I know I’m in for a good book. Sure, her Lindsay Gordon series has a different feel to it than that Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series, but not because of Lindsay’s orientation. Because one is amateur sleuth, one is gritty thrillers. The sexual orientation of the characters doesn’t impinge on great storytelling, which is as it should be.
I mean, would we really think someone was any less of a doctor or a teacher or a reporter or cop if they were a virgin? So why does the sexual orientation matter so much?
For some reason, this seems to be one of the prejudices it’s still okay for people to harbor. And the point of saying all this isn’t to say that people who don’t want to read ‘gay’ mysteries should be forced to read them, any more than people who love psychological thrillers should be forced to read cozies if they don’t want to.
But I can’t help wondering if, by accepting the use of this particular label, we’re fueling a prejudice that might otherwise die sooner. I worry about the potential push to rate books based on sexual content, graphic violence, disturbing themes. I wonder if tolerating this label will lead to other labels, allowing books to be more narrowly constrained by the limits people put on them in their minds, when the only difference between one book and another may be whether or not the main character is attracted to men or to women, and it has no further bearing on the story, than perhaps that the seductress can’t work her charms on the gay cop, for example.
When this was being discussed on DorothyL a few months ago, someone raised the labeling question then. They asked what you’d call a book written by a straight author who just happened to have some gay characters in their book, even if they weren’t the protagonists. And that’s the problem. By allowing books to be narrowly defined and, in this case, categorized by sexual orientation, we are potentially limited the scope of the stories we can tell.
I’ve got to be honest here. Two years ago, I couldn’t name three mystery subgenres to save my life. When I wrote Suspicious Circumstances and my second book I only thought about one thing: whether or not the story should center exclusively on cops.
The writer side of me says that’s as it should be. I wrote the stories the way they were meant to be told, not with the fear that they might be lumped into a controversial subgenre and relegated to obscurity as a result.
In saying all this, I might be coming off as a hopeless hypocrite. In the main bookstores here authors like MJ Rose, PJ Parrish, Tess Gerritsen, John Rickards – you’ll find them all in ‘fiction and literature’. Not the mystery section. And it baffles me to no end, because if you’re going to group books according to genre, I would think their books should be over with all the other mysteries and thrillers. People like me seldom leave that section – why would we? I don’t have much time for pleasure reading and I tend to use the time I have to catch up on backlists of authors I’ve somehow missed over the years, to know the work of my peers and to discover more about the genre.
But I think the more narrowly constrained labels can possibly be stifling, can make it potentially difficult for fresh new work to emerge.
Perhaps it’s a sad truth that it might be easier to sell your work if you know exactly how to brand it. Or perhaps I’m just sensitive on the topic, because I never could figure out where Suspicious Circumstances belonged.
* And since this does tie in to my panel topic at Bouchercon, thoughts are most welcome.
* PS: I’ve got a labeling joke up on my own blog, On Life and Other Inconveniences, today. It’s a naughty joke, so if you like those, you might want to read it. But I wouldn’t want to offend anyone…
Author of Suspicious Circumstances which for today, we’ll call a suspense novel
A year ago, August 28th, when I started blogging about the hurricane, I thought we’d get a little wind and rain, maybe a few downed trees, maybe some local flooding. I wanted to blog because I’d gone through Hurricane Andrew and many of the details had faded with time, I thought “live blogging” would help me remember. I had no idea that the morning of the 29th would be so devastating, I would one day pray that I could forget, that a year later, just seeing the images breaks my heart all over again, especially knowing not much has improved. That I would still grieve, daily, for what happened, for what should have happened, for how horribly things went wrong.
I was asked (just a couple of weeks past the hurricane’s landfall) to contribute a couple of the blog pieces as a single essay for an anthology New Orleans native David Rutledge and his brother, publisher Bruce Rutledge, were putting together. This essay is the result of that request. I’m extremely proud of that little book: Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? There are some really fine essays in there from writers I’m tremendously proud to know.
This is my essay:
WHERE GRACE LIVES
I passed a man at a shelter the other day. He was tall and lanky and sunburned, dressed in cut-offs and a soaked blue t-shirt with a grubby baseball cap shoved on top of muddy curls. There was something about his lean, sinewy body that made me think of the shrimpers I’ve seen down in Cocodrie southwest of New Orleans — it’s a hard life and it makes for no-nonsense, self-sufficient men.
He was sitting in a metal folding chair, slumped forward, his elbows on his knees. The exhaustion in his shoulders made me ache. Between his feet was a medium sized box and he was staring down into it. The box held some basic necessities: toiletries, canned goods, a pair of socks, and a pair of underwear. I realized, then, that he was barefoot — the grime around his ankles marked him as having abandoned his shoes somewhere along the way. His large feet were probably too big for any of the donated shoes stacked up at a one of the nearby tables.
When I looked back at that box, I wondered what he must be thinking. My first guess, without seeing his face, was that these few items weren’t much to give a man after he’d lost everything. This box wasn’t much to hold onto for a man like that, a man who’d clearly worked hard for a living. Maybe he was angry at having lost his home, or frustrated that this was what he’d been reduced to. I had no words that would be of use, no words which could do any good, and I began to turn away when he suddenly looked up and caught my eye.
He had tears on his cheeks.
When I stood there, not sure what to say, he shrugged and said, “I can’t believe how generous people are. I can’t believe total strangers would go out of their way to help so much.”
I mumbled something about it being the least we could do, as neighbors, and I moved off into the crowd, feeling wholly inadequate and humbled in the face of such grace.
It would be one among many things I could not wrap my mind around.
On Tuesday morning, just a few days earlier, we’d been without electricity since Hurricane Katrina had blown through in the early hours of Monday. While there were many trees down in Baton Rouge, the damage wasn’t as horrific as it had been during Hurricane Andrew, and we thought the worst was over.
It was only the beginning.
We managed to get our TV hooked to the generator and found one local station airing news and video from New Orleans. There was no way to know what images the national media were getting, but on Tuesday morning, I saw some of the first footage of one of the breaks in the levee system. Water was pouring into the Ninth Ward, and I felt all my senses hit hyper alert, felt my fingers tingle from the adrenaline, felt my lungs constrict.
New Orleans was filling up.
At first, it appeared that no one nationally realized what was happening. After plugging the computer into the generator as well and discovering I still had DSL, I caught bits and pieces on national websites saying things like “New Orleans dodged the bullet.” There was a steady thrum of “no no no no no” in my head, an awful, gut-kick ache, a sense of the world gone topsy. With the water pouring in, the levees were going to keep deteriorating. The pressure from the flow of water was simply going to be too great. The pumps were already down in areas, and more were failing. Saying “New Orleans had dodged a bullet” was the clearest sign that the outside media didn’t grasp what was happening. It was a bit like telling a terminal cancer patient that they “only” had a broken arm (i.e., wind damage, some minor flooding); it doesn’t matter, the cancer’s going to kill them anyway before the arm can heal. New Orleans was already suffering from the worst kind of cancer – years of inadequate repairs to the levees (or no repairs at all), years of talking about a plan to evacuate, years of warnings that a plan was going to be needed, years of awareness that New Orleans was a bowl and if it filled up, it could be devastating. I remember being on the phone with a friend in L.A. as fresh images of the ever increasing deluge from the levees hit the local news. The chill I felt, I cannot explain. I remember saying, “Ohmygod, we’re going to lose New Orleans.”
And we did.
There are images which will crush me and haunt me forever. Moments seared into my heart. Entire neighborhoods underwater, many with just the topmost part of the roofs visible. People clinging to the peak of what had been their homes in desperation, some for days on end, with no water, no food, no help, and little hope. An elderly woman trying to talk her mentally handicapped son into climbing on board the basket being lowered by the Coast Guard Rescue Team, and him refusing unless she came, too. Only, there was no room but for one. He wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t leave him behind. There was the image of a mother trapped on a rooftop, handing over her small toddler to the Coast Guard, and the news helicopter showing her breaking down as the Coast Guard helicopter flew away; they’d only had room for one more, and she wanted her child saved. People stood on their roofs, waving to the helicopters, desperate to be rescued, only to see the helicopters leave since they were full. I remember the image of two men standing in shock on their own roof, watching a home near them burn, knowing the fire department could do nothing to stop it from spreading.
There are images and moments which scarred us all, embedded deep somewhere in our souls, a slash that will not heal. The sights and sounds of people abandoned, dying, here on our soil. There’s the crystal image for me of the late night DJ for a New Orleans radio station breaking down as he reported on air on a Baton Rouge TV station how he’d been up all night, broadcasting in New Orleans. He told of how his station still had a signal locally, though no one could explain it when so many others had been knocked off the air, and how he realized that the police didn’t have any communication system at all. People were calling in to him, a few cell phones still working. They were begging for help because they were trapped in their homes, trapped in their attics. When he realized neither they nor he had a way to call the police, he’d broadcast the addresses and hope the police heard him so the trapped people would get help.
The DJ told of one call: a young woman, who was holding her infant. She had a two-year-old with her, and her elderly grandmother. They had not evacuated because they had no car to enable them to leave and no place to stay. They were standing chest deep in water, in her attic, and no way to break through the roof, no way to alert police where they were. Her cell phone died before the DJ could get her address to broadcast her location. He never knew if they were rescued.
There were the talk-radio stories from the frustrated and grief-stricken men who’d responded to the call for boats, any boats, and they’d gone to the designated areas, fully prepared to take on the responsibility for any damage they received – they didn’t care, they just wanted to save lives. They weren’t allowed into the water for a full day due to a series of miscommunications between various government agencies. There were the harrowing stories of having to pass people up because their boats were already full, of the boat operators promising to go back, and then doing so, only for the person to have died or vanished. There were the voices in the dark, a night so deep where no light penetrated, where streetlights and businesses and every imaginable source was out and the voices cried from the rooftops, pleading for help.
There are the now-infamous images of the way people were abandoned at the Superdome and the Convention Center; people forced to go days without food, water, basic human needs. People sick and dying. No help in sight. No organization, no FEMA, no Red Cross in many places. There were the images of the looting and the crime. People reduced to the base animal instincts, some for survival, some to prey on others.
Nothing but dying and suffering in the Big Easy.
The world changed, then. Shelters went up in every available space around here: churches, synagogues, and in the River Center, an entertainment complex in downtown Baton Rouge. Other states took in many thousands, and yet, thousands more were here. Everything was different. Even places as old and forever as LSU.
When you drive up Nicholson onto the southern end of the LSU campus, rising to your right is the enormous stadium (under even more expansion), with its parking lot a construction lay-down yard. To the left, Alex Box Stadium, with all of the national championships proclaimed proudly on the exterior walls.
If you looked a little past the stadium on the right, you’d see the Pete Maravich Center or P-MAC for short. (It’s what many of us old LSU grads still refer to simply as the “Assembly” Center.) Its white dome and curved concrete ramps will always hold a special place in my heart — it’s where I officially became an LSU student, years ago. It was exciting to be a part of that crowd. It was fresh, it was hope, it was a beginning into all potential. It was a promise of something bigger to come.
After the hurricane, we drove onto campus and parked in the Alex Box parking lot, took the crosswalk and headed back toward the P-Mac. There was the white dome gleaming in spite of being overshadowed by the behemoth stadium. There was the newly renovated Mike-the-Tiger cage. Next came the concrete ramps which had long ago made me feel like I had been racing up up up toward a future.
Then there was the fence.
There had never been a hurricane fence preventing access to the ramps. Or military standing outside said fence. So around the P-MAC we went, getting to the LSU campus side, making a sharp left turn to walk up the street. There was a large white poster-board sign on the guard’s gate in hastily written print which said, “Ambulances” and had an arrow.
The P-MAC was still on our left, and as I looked across the fence and beneath the mezzanine, there were tables set up. This time, though, it was not like before, when I registered there, when the tables were about hope and future and innocent dreams. These tables were about loss and devastation and pain. There were volunteers behind the tables and many evacuees in front, having just gotten in from New Orleans. There was a table set up with laptops so the people could send a message. There were tables of clothes and shoes (which ran out just as soon as the volunteers could get some in), tables of water and food to eat right then, as well as canned goods and other supplies for the evacuees to take with them… for many of them hoped to bunk with family for the night, and that family probably didn’t even know they were coming.
As we continued around the P-MAC, I could tell we were reaching the serious part of this operation, where there were nurses and techs taking medical information, where higher priority (read: in grave danger) patients were taken in immediately to the triage center and where those in dire need but less life-threatening were interviewed by nurses and their stats recorded on brand new files. Nurses and doctors and all sorts of techs ebbed and flowed through this space. There were Guards with guns (wholly over-kill, but they were there). There were volunteers of all shape and sizes — from LSU and Southern students to firemen to police to little grey-haired church ladies.
We signed in at the non-medical volunteer station and went in to see what their needs were. We were there to volunteer our home to medical staff. We’d heard the staff were working twenty-hour shifts and some of them had no place nearby to just crash and relax.
When we walked inside the entrance, we moved down a slight slope until we reached the wide, round base of the P-MAC. Purple seating had been pushed up against the walls. The last time I stood at floor level like that, I was seventeen, and I remember I stood for a moment in awe of the swarm of people, the organized chaos, the feeling of a small city set to work on one task. It was, in many ways, the same. But this time, that small city was made of dozens of white temporary screens to give the patients some privacy, and many rows of I.V. bags.
There was a M*A*S*H unit in my campus. A field unit triage on the floor of our basketball arena. There were helicopters beating overhead bringing in evacuees from New Orleans, and a row of ambulances, sirens blaring, on their way to the P-MAC.
There was a M*A*S*H unit. In Louisiana. In my university.
In the USA.
It simply didn’t seem possible, that there would be this necessity. That we had so many people wounded in a major catastrophe, that we lost an entire city, that we were still finding and rescuing people, six days later – so many people that our hospitals and clinics were swamped, and a major triage unit was not only critical, but it barely handled the vast quantity of people flowing in.
So many unbelievable things were suddenly true. Families couldn’t find loved ones. People without their medicines, without any identification, tried to remember what they needed so the nurses could help them. A mom cried with gratitude because she found someone’s cast-off clothes to fit her children. Others, tears streaming, were just grateful to have their own bar of soap, or a bottle of water.
In the USA.
It was at the LSU Triage where I met the man without the shoes, the shrimper who was grateful for a small box of goods. He was sitting beneath the mezzanine, just next to the ramps where I’d walked, up up up into the hope of a better future all those years ago. I turned away, knowing his future was going to be difficult and painful, and maybe so much worse.
Everything had changed.
We lost New Orleans, and many many homes surrounding it. How can we understand that?
The business of surviving, or more accurately, of trying to help a huge number of other people survive, took over for many of us who live here. We exchanged information about where there were needs, we gathered what we could, we brought it wherever we could. We met families all staying in one home, forty-five people in a thousand square foot house, sleeping in borrowed tents in the yard, wearing nothing but the clothes they’d escaped with. We heard so many stories of people who lost everything, who had no clue if there was going to be a New Orleans to go back to, if their job would still exist, if there would be a school for their children. In the midst of the pain, they would often get a faraway expression in their gaze, like they were looking off to some memory of New Orleans, and then they’d look at one another and say, “But we got out. We’re all okay. At least we’re alive.”
We lost New Orleans.
My family and I walked into places where there were so many trees and utilities down on the ground, you couldn’t tell a street from a yard. Sign posts were missing, homes were destroyed, one after another. We stepped over power-lines, and visited homes of friends’ families, looking for survivors.
We lost New Orleans.
The heartbreak kept me from sleeping, and I’m not entirely sure I ate anything remotely resembling a proper meal for days. It was grief, I know, so I did the only real thing I knew how to do: I wrote. I poured it into a blog, and many people would post notes about missing loved ones, and others were begging for any information at all about their neighborhoods. These notes chased me in my dreams, always just below the surface. The helplessness etched into every waking moment, acid into the pores, and rendered the grief unbelievably deep.
We lost New Orleans.
A few days into the disaster, boxes started showing up here with supplies. More and more people wrote to ask what we needed. More and more people were as outraged and frustrated as we were here that there just simply weren’t any supplies here, and they wanted to help. I know many donated to charities, but these boxes — they kept showing up, filled to the brim with things people needed, with supplies damned near impossible to find in some of these areas. When I walked into the LSU triage center where three-hundred patients were on the way in, and I asked them what they needed, they immediately said thermometers (digital). They had none. Not just that they had one and had to share. They had none. When I tell you that things were dire, I truly mean dire, beyond description.
And you sent what we needed.
Sure, my family got to bring them to the shelters and to the people who needed them, and the recipients treated me like a hero, but it was not me. It was you. It was every single one of you who sent a box or a prayer or letters of support.
I don’t know how to explain the affect these supplies had. There was the immediate help, of course. So many things were needed by so many people. Baton Rouge doubled in size from evacuees, and for those who could get to the stores, they were crowded and often stripped of goods. I saw clerks stocking shelves only to have items plucked out of their hands before they could even set them down. I had to go to four or five stores sometimes to find things that were needed. And while it was helpful and useful and much required, all of these supplies you sent… it was more than that.
It was the message that we were not alone.
The rage I felt watching New Orleans drown is still palpable. I cannot understand the fact that we live in a country which can put men on the moon, which can help build an international space station, which can create phenomenal structures or explore the deepest oceans, but we could not get water to people trapped on an overpass for days. I cannot wrap my mind around why they were trapped in the first place, since there were trucks passing them by. FEMA trucks, which wouldn’t stop. I don’t understand that. And I can’t believe I live in a country which could show this on TV, for days in a row, and no one in our government did anything about it.
New Orleans was dying. People were dying. It was just one scene of so many, and it made no sense. People died on that overpass, when help just drove right by them.
I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our Federal Government not “know” the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there? How can we handle going into war-torn areas and get aid to people there, but a few thugs prevented us from helping Americans? How?
How is it that more than two weeks later when we were still going to shelters bringing in supplies, I received reports from the outlying areas that FEMA still hadn’t shown up?
Still. Hadn’t. Shown. Up.
I don’t understand these things. I know I live in America. Well, last time I checked, Louisiana was still in America. New Orleans was still a major American city. Maybe something happened somewhere that someone forgot to mention to us, but yeah, pretty sure we’re still in America. And the magnitude of the inept response (including local government) was staggering.
It was like watching someone I love get gutted and lie there bleeding and knowing that help was standing a few feet away, talking about golf scores.
So when I say to you that you’ve made a difference, I don’t mean it lightly or in any sort of frivolous way. When it suddenly became clear that we were the ugly, unwanted step-child of the government, or worse, the beaten, neglected child of the local officials who were hastily trying to cover up their long-term abuse with loud excuses, you made us feel human again. So many of you — giving, calling, writing, trying. Feeling the outrage on our behalf. Knowing it belonged to you, because you were us, we were a part of this country, and you cared.
We lost New Orleans. We needed you, and you were there, and the outpouring of that grace and hope helped to get us through the worst of the days when we were watching in horror as our own people died, as our friends and family were left, as people were treated worse than we’d ever ever treat an animal.
You made a difference. A big difference. And we thank you.
If you want to read the Katrina entries in order (with photos), it’s on my old blog, and you can start here and click the convenient titles at the top of each page which will take you to the next entry.
I have no life.
Seriously. I like to pretend I do, but in reality, I’m working a 24/7 job. I can’t turn my mind off.
Last night. Hubby came downstairs, laughing his head off. It was nearly midnight and I was bustling through a few last minute chores before I went to bed. I was thinking about the book, about the blogs I needed this week, about trying to get everything done before we go on vacation. I turned in five book reviews, made a couple of major strides on some marketing stuff, and I guess I was in a pretty happy little mood, because when Hubby stopped me, he noted I’d been whistling.
“Whistling what?” I asked. I do that, I wander around whistling and don’t realize it. I’ve been asked by people in line in the grocery store, “What’s that tune?”
And I’m like, “No clue. Can you repeat it back to me?”
Usually in the store, I’m doing some version of Strangers in the Night.
But last night, industrious little thing that I am, I was whistling the tune to this cheery little song.
The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah
The ants go marching two by two, hurrah, hurrah
The ants go marching two by two,
The little one stops to tie his shoe
And they all go marching down to the ground
To get out of the rain, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
I wouldn’t dare put all the lyrics here, but if this ear worm gets ya, here’s the link to the words.
Dear God, someone get me a shovel so I can smash the tune out of my head.
Ever since he brought my attention to it, I’ve been singing it. All the verses.
So, back to the 24/7 thing. I can’t seem to turn my mind off. There’s so much to do, so many things to write, deadlines to meet. When I’m sitting in the chair watching television, I’m really thinking about that greasy spot of egg left on the reporter’s lip at breakfast that morning. When I’m cleaning, or working out, I’m thinking about the ways I can kill different characters who need killing. It just never stops.
Now I’ve come up with the idea for book 3, so there’s a few extra brain cells devoted to that as well.
I wonder if I outlined, if this would be better? I tend to shy away from that, tend to “see” the scenes in my head, then sit down to write them. And I go pretty much in order, rather than writing scenes from the end at the beginning, and vice versa.
So tell me, how do you turn off the job?
ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS
Mira, November 2007
PS. Clarity of Night is sponsoring a new short fiction contest. Stop by and meet their special guest, and enter your best 250 word or less short!
There’s more than one kind of crime fiction reader, and I’m the right kind.
Not just because I actually buy books, although that’s good news for the authors I read. What I mean by ‘the right kind’ of reader is that one of the critical elements in crime fiction, for me, is that I’m invested in justice. I want to see the guilty pay.
Sometimes, I think we can dance all around a topic, a philosophy, but then in one simple moment we put our finger on exactly what it is we think and we have clarity. We understand.
I’ve stated on numerous occasions that I’m a bit of a police procedural junkie. And curiously, British police procedurals have dominated my bookshelves. I never understood those who griped about the dominance of police procedurals in the UK market. To me, this just meant more great books to love. Whenever people groaned about another British police procedural, I’d feel my spine stiffen. I felt threatened, like they wanted to put an end to the books I loved. I took the griping personally.
But I never really processed why I loved police procedurals, until last week. I was reading views on a topic on The Billingham Talk Zone and it was only as I read through the various opinions that it finally clicked for me.
I want to know there’s someone else out there, somebody who sees the evils of the world and wants to stop the bad guys. That doesn’t mean I need to see every fictional criminal locked up in every book I read – it isn’t necessarily about succeeding. It’s about connecting, to a character who believes in justice, goes after it, tries to right wrongs.
Now, that doesn’t even mean the book has to be about cops. It’s just that you tend to find that aspect of the story in police procedurals. There are amateur sleuth/PI books that do the same: Cornelia Read’s debut, A Field of Darkness. Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books. John Rickards, in both Winter’s End and The Touch of Ghosts. And I’m curiously invested in Simon Kernick’s character, Dennis Milne. Flawed, yes, but not without redemption. And in some ways, a man more able to deliver justice than the average cop.
Now, you might be surprised at me, saying I’ve only realized this recently. Sandra, you’re writing police procedurals, aren’t you?
Pairing a cop and a reporter as the two protagonists wasn’t something any author I was reading was doing when I started Suspicious Circumstances. Oh, I’m sure other authors were, but it certainly wasn’t about copying or being influenced by someone’s example.
What it was about was going into territory I felt confident with. I could step into the reporter’s shoes. Dealing with police procedure, for me, would be trickier.
But it didn’t really matter for this story, because corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. Hell, a cop and a reporter, forced to work together after she’s attacked and they discover a body… Rewind and stop at the cop and reporter working together – this isn’t anything remotely like standard procedure.
Which brings me to another characteristic of the common popular cop. One who ignores their superiors and puts justice and truth ahead of politics and protocol. Why are these characters – Rebus, Thorne, McRae –so popular with readers? Precisely because they’re invested in justice. They say to hell with the politics and do what needs to be done, despite the risks to their career.
I know on the surface, people can look at those behaviours and say they’re reckless and self-destructive, but I think one of the reasons these fictional cops have such a wide appeal is because they put truth above a promotion. Not some ass-kissing political schmoozer who will change position in the blink of an eye. Someone with integrity, even if it’s just to their own moral code.
To me, this is why the police procedural will never die. There are a lot of readers out there who, like me, want to believe that when we’re the victims of a crime, some cop is going to put justice for us ahead of everything else, a cop we can trust, who won’t just go through the motions. We want to believe they’ll actually care.
For me, this is the appeal of reading about cops and writing about cops. Oh, obviously I don’t believe all cops are perfect. Rewind back to what I said about Suspicious Circumstances – corruption within the police department is such a key element that most of the time, Lara and Farraday are working well outside of standard procedure. The underlying themes of justice and trust are the critical elements to the story. As Julia Buckley said after reading it, Everyone in the book suspects somebody of something, not just the cops and reporters, but family members, kids, adults, townspeople. It creates a lot of tension.
Which was the whole idea. ☺ And, I hope, makes the reader that much more invested in seeing the bad guys brought down.
Because when you can’t trust your partner on the police force, standing up for the truth could cost you your life.
Welcome to Farraday’s world.
Are you the ‘right’ kind of reader? Or writer? What is it about crime fiction that appeals to you?
Author of Suspicious Circumstances
On Life and Other Inconveniences
PS: If it’s an average day, I’ll cross the 23,000 visitor mark on my blog today. Thanks to all who read my ramblings. I promise a rant tomorrow like you haven’t seen from me in at least five days…
Ok, this is a short story I wrote a few years ago for Papotage magazine, one of the few short stories I’ve ever written. Please forgive any spelling, grammer, or sucking errors, I can’t really say I knew what I was doing as a writer back then. But hope you enjoy nonetheless.
The morning I picked my first pocket I had to run a lap around the reservoir just to cool my jets. When I finished running, my breathing slow and laborious, I fished the wallet out of my jeans and looked at its contents. I wasn’t expecting much—pinching off a sleeping commuter at two-thirty on the six train didn’t seem to hold much promise—but when I opened the billfold and pulled out a crinkled fifty and a pair of tickets to an 8:30 movie I was overjoyed. I immediately called up Linda and told her we’d be going on a date that night and I’d be paying for everything. She didn’t believe me and said she’d bring her purse anyway. I’d never even heard of the film on the tickets but the purchaser looked reasonably hip so I figured I’d trust his judgment. Besides, I could always return them at the box office if I needed to.
The second was nearly as exhilarating as the first, mainly because of the danger of being caught. It was outside of a hot dog joint on eighty Sixth Street, a place I could case easily because there was always a line and the street was so crowded that nobody would notice me. I put my Yankee hat on to blend in.
My stomach lurched as I waited. There’s a big difference between taking money from a guy snoring through his headphones and someone waiting in line, fully awake and aware. I waited for the perfect moment to strike. I went to the corner and bought a Post, pretending to read the movie times while peeking out the corner of my eye as customers placed their orders. Then I saw her.
Older woman, late forties or early fifties, her handbag carelessly unzipped. I could even see the black trim of her wallet and the shiny metallic imprint of the designer on the side. God must have been smiling on me because just then her cell phone rang. When I heard the first ‘hello’ I moved behind her and dropped my newspaper. When I bent down to pick it up I swiped the wallet from her bag as my head came into contact with her backside.
“Excuse me,” she said, pulling the phone away from her ear.
“Sorry,” I replied, dropping Kate Spade into my pocket and holding the paper up. My alibi. As I walked away I overheard her telling the caller about some rude boy with the manners of a zoo animal.
At that point I was flying high as a kite. I went to a nearby McDonalds and ordered some fries. I paid for them with my own money, and when I was finished I asked the manager for the key to the men’s room. He obliged after being convinced that I was an actual customer and handed me a key attached to a six-inch plastic French fry.
In the bathroom I took out both wallets and emptied their contents out. The Kate Spade was a goldmine. I tossed the credit cards in the trash and was left with a hundred eight-nine dollars in cash, a card to a local sandwich store where one more purchase would earn a free meal, a hundred dollar gift certificate to a women’s clothing store and four peppermint candies. I tossed both wallets in the trash after carefully wiping off my fingerprints and buried them under a mountain of paper towels.
The third one was anticlimactic, a bunch of grade school kids in a clump when one of them happened to drop a bright orange wallet. I was about twenty feet away when I saw it drop. I picked it up and looked around, as if wondering who lost their money so that I might thoughtfully return it. Needless to say when I couldn’t find anyone I put it in my pocket and went off. I only got three bucks from that one but did happen upon a laminated autograph from one of the Yankees that I thought could fetch a decent price on eBay. I put it the cash and the tickets into my wallet and put it inside my coat for safekeeping.
I took the bus downtown to meet Linda, hoping I’d have enough time to check out what movie we were seeing so I could exchange the tickets if it looked bad. She was already waiting for me when I got there, arms crossed with an annoyed look on her face. I asked her what her problem was.
“You’re twenty minutes late,” she said. I hadn’t even noticed. I looked at my watch. The movie started five minutes ago.
“We’ll only miss the commercials, and I hate those anyway.” She squinted her eyes and finally went inside. She was acting pissed at me but I could tell she’d done her hair up and if I played my cards right we’d end up back at her place later.
“Tickets,” an acne-ravaged teen said, palm outstretched. I smiled at him and slipped my hand inside my jacket. Nothing.
I tried the other pocket, and both of the ones on the outside. Still nothing. I felt the lining up and down, hoping it might have fallen through a hole. Nada. I could feel Linda’s eyes burning through me.
“I…I…I think I was pick pocketed,” I said to neither Linda nor the kid. Linda snorted and went to the counter. The kid gave me a sympathetic smile. She came back with two tickets.
“You could have at least told me before you got here that I should buy the tickets,” she said as we walked to the theater.
We crawled over outstretched legs and took our seats in the dark. “You want some popcorn?” I asked her.
“How are you gonna pay for it? My money?”
“No…well yeah. I’ll pay you back later, don’t worry.”
For some reason I don’t think she believed me.
author of THE MARK
coming July 2007 from MIRA books
Finally, someone has asked me the right question. Instead of the perennial, where do you get your ideas? (and, by the way, the store in Toledo is having a half-off sale ) I was recently asked, how do you turn an idea into a story?
Ahhh, very good question.
I’m a seats of the pants writer˜although I prefer to call myself an ABC writer: Apply Butt to Chair and get the job done. What works for me may not work for everyone. But, here’s how I do it.
The original idea can be anything. A news story, a snippet of conversation overheard, a character who gets into my head and won’t leave, clamoring to have their story told.
Sometimes it’s a broad theme that I want to explore. For instance, the standalone I just finished, BLIND FAITH (a woman searches for the graves of her murdered husband and son only to discover they’re still alive) revolves around the theme of betrayal. Check out my last post (Sparks and Synchronicity) for more details on how this story evolved and where the idea came from.
My current wip, the third in the Hart and Drake series, is all about obsession. Almost every scene has a character so overwhelmed by an idea or desire that he/she is blinded to what’s really important. Working with the series is a little different, because I already know these characters so well˜just give me that inciting idea and I’ll have them off and running in no time flat.
Working with a standalone where I have no idea who the characters are or what’s going to happen next is a bit more of a challenge. Usually, the initial idea comes with a scene attached˜all the sudden I wake up with this vivid image of someone doing something and I can’t let it go until I write it down. Often this is the opening scene or a major turning point in the book.
So now I have both an idea and a character to go with it. This is all I need to start writing and quickly I will discover the theme of the book˜that missing link that drives the story. For me, those three ingredients: idea, character, theme, are more important than plot. The plot IS the collision of character with theme, it evolves from knowing my character and idea.
Let’s say my initial idea is about a cop who trusts no one except her partner. The scene that has grabbed me has this cop and her partner arriving at an armed robbery not realizing that it’s a set up. The badguy isn’t there to rob the store, he’s there to kill some cops. Her partner is blown away in front of her and she’s shot and left for dead.
Just with this one scene, I know a lot about my main character. Her default action in any situation will be first, to take action (she won’t be a passive observer), and second to protect (just like she tried to do for her partner). She won’t trust anyone to do this as well as she can and, now that her partner is dead, she won’t trust anyone to protect her except herself.
Now, I get down right mean. Once I know where my character’s comfort zone is (for the cop it’s trust no one and take action) then I start pushing them out of it, forcing them into conflict and eventually to change. From this opening scene, I already know the theme, trust, and the major conflict of the story˜she’s going to have to learn to trust others. And I know the major turning points will involve her using her old default actions: not trusting, trying to protect others herself AND failing. AND failing some more. And then, when everything she cares about and everyone she loves is at stake, I’ll have her˜you got it˜fail again.
Hmmm∑.this is starting to sound like fun. I foresee a high body count in this novel.
So, how do I torture this particular character to set up these conflicts? Well, in my initial idea I had her left for dead, why not actually kill her? She’s not the kind of person who would believe in anything other than what she can see, feel, hear, touch, so why not bring her back from the dead with psychic visions? Of course, she won’t trust these visions˜but since they’re in her own head, does that mean she’s crazy, can’t trust herself?
Now I have a character whose default action is to take action but she can’t because she’s critically wounded, she can’t trust her body. I have a character who trusts no one else but who now can’t trust her own mind. What else can I do to increase the stakes?
What if the badguy starts targeting her cop friends˜he’s fixated on her because she escaped the death he had orchestrated so carefully, so he’s not only going to take revenge, he’s going to taunt her with the fact that she’ll be responsible for everyone he kills from now on. And what if her new psychic visions allow her to predict those deaths˜but no one trusts her or will listen to her?
Oh, and what if, after she tries to warn the police about the next targets, they start to think she’s actually working with the badguy and go after her as a suspect?
Now she’s lost everything she held dear: her partner, her job (can’t be a cop if you’re having black outs like she has with her visions), her physical strength, her sense of self (is she crazy, who is she now that she’s not a cop?), her allies have turned against her and she can’t protect the people around her from a madman.
That’s how my idea of a cop who trusts no one evolved into my story, BORROWED TIME.
No, sorry, you can’t go out and buy it˜at least not yet, fingers crossed it might sell soon.
Anyone else want to share their methods?
Thanks for reading!
No one is immune to danger…
BLINK OF AN EYE “is a perfect blend of romance and suspense.” –Sandra Brown