Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Resting and Revising

For the last three months I've been working on a novel built around a new series character. I followed my usual practice of scratching out on paper a few ideas about the story and making a list of scenes or clues I wanted to include. Then I began writing. Some days I produced only a thousand words, but other days I produced up to five thousand words or more, with my fingers chasing the story across the keyboard. Now, at the end of April, I have 80,000+ words. And it's time to rest.

Using the word resting can be misleading, as other writers know. This is really a period of pausing and stepping back, of forgetting enough of the feel of the story to be able to come to it fresh in three weeks or so. During the first writing period, I might begin a scene and realize that the protagonist is going to interpret a clue in a particular way and I have to prepare the reader for that. This means I have to go back a few scenes or even chapters and set things up. I may want to introduce another character much earlier in the story, and that too may mean returning to an earlier section and dropping in his or her name, or a casual sighting of the person in a cafe or on a sidewalk. Only as I write do I know what I need, and then I can go back and make sure I've supplied it.

During the writing of this draft I rewrote the first forty pages several times. I decided to remove a specific feature of the protagonist's life, and that meant rewriting several earlier scenes. The story is stronger for it, but it means that I've redone the first few chapters several times. On some days I felt like I was never going to get any forward motion, and I might as well have been writing with a quill pen for the time it was taking me to get through the beginning. But the beginning must make sense, so I kept reworking it.

What I regard as the completed first draft is really only the first one I'm willing to print out. I've revised pages and scenes and entire chapters throughout the last three months, but I haven't printed out anything yet. Now I'm ready to print.

The draft I print now will again be revised and rewritten. I may add another character to strengthen a subplot or complicate the villain's plan. I will certainly rewrite some of the critical moments, building suspense or deepening the protagonist's feelings.

Overall I may do as many as thirty drafts. This doesn't mean the entire book has been rewritten thirty times. It means that my perspective on some aspect of the story changed and that change had to be made and carried through the entire manuscript.

In three weeks or so I'll return to the printed manuscript and read it with fresh eyes. The purpose of this reading is to find anything that is jarring or off-putting for the reader, scenes that don't make sense, missing clues or faltering suspense, anything that doesn't work. I may do three or more pass-throughs after this, but I'll know I'm coming to the end of the revision process when I read a new printout and find only a few things here and there to tinker with.

By late June I hope to have a finished novel. I'll let you know if things go as smoothly as I hope.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Two Hundred Pages or Less

A week ago I walked through the new books section in my local library and pulled out a few titles that interested me. Before I moved on to the check-out desk it occurred to me that the two books I held in my hand and the last two I’d borrowed all had one thing in common—they were approximately 200 pages or less.

It’s not uncommon for mystery readers to finish a book and think it should be at least a hundred pages shorter, perhaps two hundred. This comment shows up in reviews official and unofficial, and in general conversation. The same comment less often but predictably shows up in reviews of other forms of fiction and nonfiction. But apparently no one is listening. Editors and publishers have embraced the idea that readers buy their books by the pound, and therefore, the more pages, the better. I disagree. Length has nothing to do with a good story. My reading choices at the moment are an eclectic mix that underscores how much quality can be packed into two hundred pages.

I spent an enjoyable evening with The Cellar by Minette Walters. I haven’t read anything by her in a while, and was glad to find she hasn’t lost her touch. A well-to-do African family immigrates to England, bringing with them an orphan girl as their daughter. Only she’s not their daughter, and she lives the life of a slave—until the younger son in the family goes missing.

Next up I learned I could change my life (in two hundred and six pages), according to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I believe in taking good advice when I encounter it, so I went to my closet and kept only those things that truly sparked joy. I now have three pairs of khakis, four pairs of black pants and two black skirts and numerous blue tops and black turtlenecks. I have one black-and-white jacket and three blue jackets/sweaters. Fortunately, I have six months to make it through the entire process, by which time I will be wearing nothing but khakis and turtlenecks.

Less of a contrast than you might think because of the personal tone is my current read, Essays after Eighty by Donald Hall. To my great delight, the author offers writing and editing advice that is as pure and as succinct as any I have ever come across. The essays are leisurely, thoughtful, and captivating.

Next is Hemingway in Love: His Own Story, A Memoir by A.E. Hotchner. I haven’t begun this yet, but I’ve read the blurbs and cover copy a number of times and I suspect I’ll enjoy this book immensely.

Four books. Each two hundred pages.

I could add to this list, but it’s not necessary. Anyone who reads widely can name any number of books that come in at two hundred pages or less. My point is only that sometimes, and oftentimes, less is more.

Monday, March 21, 2016

How Times Have Changed, or Something Like That

A while back I was visiting a fellow writer, much more talented and successful than I am, who is bedridden. When I was holding something I was about to put down, he commented that I could put it on the bed, near his leg. He wasn't in any pain, so I shouldn't worry. His particular illness is especially onerous, and I was touched by his kindness in making sure I wasn't uncomfortable. At least that's how I interpreted his comment. He could also have been opening the door to my curiosity, telling me my questions wouldn't be offensive. But I'm a New Englander, and if anything, we are private and reserved. We don't pry, even when invited to do so. As I thought about this recently, I began to free associate, a la Auguste Dupin, and a story about my mother came to mind.

Back in the dark ages when I was a child, my mother occasionally hired a cook to provide lunch for her lady friends. The mother of a childhood friend of mine attended one such lunch and told me this story years later.  The ladies were arrayed around the mahogany dining table. The cook entered carrying a soufflé. She carried it like a crown on a pillow, I'm told. And then she tripped on the new rug. And the soufflé went flying. According to my friend's mother, my mother carried on the conversation as though nothing had happened. The cook picked herself up, and her soufflé, and escaped to the kitchen. Being a far-sighted woman familiar with the peculiarities of soufflés, she had made three--one that wouldn't rise, one that would fall, and one that would be perfect. But being a professional cook, all three had turned out perfectly. She re-entered a minute later with another soufflé.

Aside from my mother's very proper Yankee behavior in ignoring the behavior of The Help, this story has no humor. I don't laugh at other people in pain or embarrassment. But it occurred to me that the story would be very different if it happened today.

If I were to hold a dinner party (luncheons are out for me) and the cook came in with a soufflé and tripped and fell, every single woman at that table would be up and on her feet and across the room in a nanosecond to make sure the cook was all right. In record time we would have gathered up the broken soufflé dish, swept up the food, and removed ourselves to the kitchen, to sit around the kitchen table and tell the cook how glad we are that she's all right, especially since she's probably a friend of ours trying to get her new catering business up and running. And, of course, we want to do all we can help. We would praise the food, open up another two bottles of wine (at least), and fall into our usual conversation about our lives. Anyone who hadn't participated wholeheartedly in this change of venue would have been looked upon as odd, not to say cold and unfeeling.

My, how times have changed.

I could turn this into a blog about where story ideas come from, or how I learned as a New Englander to unbend and find fame and fortune, or why I never learned to make a soufflé. But I won't. It's just a story from my life. Make of it what you will.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Statistics and . . . numbers

This is the time of year when those who are so inclined start posting their reports of income for writers during the previous year. The news is never good. Writers are used to that, and most of us don't expect a report that tells us something at odds with our own experience. Some of us read the bad news for comfort. "Aha! I'm not the only one barely breaking even on this venture." Or we read for signs of hope. "Oh, look! Four people out of 790,299 made money last year in this obscure category I've never heard of before. Maybe I should try that." Or we're depressed and misery loves company. "I knew it! We're all going down the tubes." But his month came a report that knocked me off my usual tolerant perch.

According to Amazon, as reported in Claude Forthomme-Nougat's blog, only 40 self-published authors can be considered a success. Only 40? Yup. Because only forty writers have made money. Really? Yup. Only forty writers have sold more than one million e-books in the last five years. Are you hyperventilating yet?

My usual reaction to this kind of statement is, Are you nuts? But what I really want to say is, Amazon has lost all perspective and so has anyone else who believes this statistic is worth anything. That measure for success is meaningless. It's the same as saying the best selling book in the world is the Bible (which is actually correct), so all the rest of you guys with a computer or typewriter or pen and paper might as well quit and find something else to do.

Claude goes on to point out that most writers make enough to live below the poverty level, which most of us already know. He also discusses what this means for legacy publishers--they're losing market share. We know that too, and so do they.

The problem with these kinds of reports is that they tap into the competitive streak in most human beings, and that emotion blinds us to what we would be taking away from such reports--nothing. Such reports lack enough depth to be useful or informative. They are designed to get a little quick attention, stir things up, and point out how important Amazon is. Okay. We got that.

But for working writers, those striving to improve their work and reach an audience, such reports are at best confusing and distracting and at worst debilitating. They capture the ambitious new writer who wants to know how to do the same, and can lead him or her down the proverbial rabbit hole. This is a huge waste of time.

In my view such statistics are simply not worth taking seriously. They have more to do with Amazon's business strategy and might be better reserved for a private staff meeting. For new writers and established writers trying to find a path through the changing world of publishing, I think it is better to focus on what has always been the key to success--write a good story or a good book. When it's done, take on the task of selling it, which can be as arduous as writing it. And then keep writing. There are no shortcuts for most of us, and good fortune or luck taps the shoulder of those who are ready.

To read the article, go to

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I have been using the month of January to catch up on various half-finished projects. So far I’ve polished and sent off to the final beta reader the seventh Mellingam/Joe Silva book (which I had expected to send to Five Star/Gale, Cengage before they ended their mystery line). I’ve prepared the third Anita Ray mystery for a trade paperback edition, and I’ve begun the final work on a collection of mostly previously published Anita Ray short stories, which included writing three additional stories to balance the collection. All of this feels important but it’s mostly scut work for the real task at hand.

Well over a year ago I started a novel that I hope will be the beginning of a new series. The protagonist and setting sort of arrived, and I followed them into the story. Now I’m thinking about the second book, but not very hard. I have an idea and I’ve been letting it grow, like an onion, a layer now and then. When an idea pops into my head (Oh, she could do this!) I make a note and forget it. I’ve been pushing away the story because I’m not ready to write it, but I know it’s there.

An article in The New Yorker covers the importance of daydreaming in solving problems, and every writer I know accepts the virtues of letting the mind wander. To distract myself from diving into a story too soon, when it will feel constructed and lifeless, I’ve been sorting through books for my local library’s annual book sale. My mass of photographs, which isn’t well organized enough to be called a collection, is an equally good distraction, and so far I haven’t been able to get rid of any of them. But I will.

When I arrive at an appointment early and have to wait, I engage in one of my favorite practices, mallalorking. I love that word. The Urban Dictionary offers this definition: “Acting out restlessness before a journey. It’s a Newfoundland term so most of the people you hear saying it live in the really cold parts of the US.” I never thought the term required a cold setting; it works equally well in July.

Mallalorking is that physical restlessness while the body has nothing to concentrate on except the lack of a focus. There is no train to get on, to landscape to watch through the window, no passengers to study. It is an imposed physical boredom that we know is finite. Mallalorking is also the recess between books, the time before a long period of concentration and tight focus when my unconscious has been solving a problem and gathering the many details of the solution.

Despite my productivity in January, I have really been mallalorking. During this period I’ve recalled a few incidents from the 1970s that stay in my mind and call for further research. I can feel the story growing, the characters taking shape and the surprises that are awaiting. I believe that each novel is a journey that the writer undertakes, a process of discovery and learning. The impetus is almost physical, to get out the door and onto the road, and cannot be denied. I’m delaying the point of departure to make sure I have all the materials at the ready, because once I start, there is no stopping. There will be no more mallalorking.

For the article on daydreaming, go to

For the definition of “mallalorking,” go to

Thursday, January 28, 2016

From Editor to Designer

The process of writing and publishing a novel has a lot of highs and lows on the highway to launch day. But one of the most exciting, the one that makes the whole thing seem real, is the writer's first look at the new cover. Good or bad, the cover is a jolt of excitement. We may mutter about the colors or praise the choice of images, or wonder if the title is too large or our name too small. But none of this matters, because it is always thrilling to see our book with a real cover.

I have been very fortunate in the covers designed for the Anita Ray series. Five Star not only chose beautiful designs but also allowed me to make comments on the first one, Under the Eye of Kali. The cover was a perfect fit for the story. The same was true for the mass market paperback edition from Harlequin Worldwide.

This raised the stakes when I decided to publish a trade paperback through Create Space. All of a sudden I was lost. Fortunately, I found an excellent graphic designer, Kathleen Valentine, who solved my problems.

Kathleen came up with a template that I can use for the entire series, making changes only in the main photographic image, color scheme, and titles. I've used this template for the first two Anita Ray novels, Under the Eye of Kali and The Wrath of Shiva, and liked the results for both. I'm now working on the third book in the series, For the Love of Parvati.

I found two photographs that worked perfectly for the first two books, so I've been scanning my photographs from my last several visits to India.

The challenge becomes choosing the best image to indicate the story or setting. In the third Anita Ray, For the Love of Parvati, the story takes place in the foothills of Kerala, in an old mansion, during the monsoon, and involves a new maidservant, the family scion, who is in trouble with his employers, and a daughter visiting her mother. Someone seems to be stalking the household, and the police have been searching the area for a presumed terrorist. Secrets abound, of course. A family servant has gone missing, and Anita finds the body of a man washed up by the flooding river.

I don't have any photographs of the monsoon in the hills, but I have a few images of old mansions. I've narrowed the choice down to three. My final choice will depend in part on how well the image accommodates the title and author name.  

I never thought about book covers when I was taking photographs in Kerala, but I've since found myself reframing an image that might serve later. I'll make a final choice in the next week or so, and then I can move on to uploading text and cover for ebooks and paperbacks.

If the choice were up to you, which one would you pick?

To purchase one of the Anita Ray novels, click on the links below.