Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Signs of a Professional Writer

One of the topics I come across often on various websites is a discussion of what makes a professional writer. I read and ponder and wonder if the writer is correct. Most of the definitions seem too grand for me. In my world, which I admit is limited, the signs of a professional writer are simple and obvious. Here they are.

1. You write even when you don’t feel like it.

2. You maintain a writing schedule, knowing that over time you will get better. It may take years, but you won’t get where you want to go without effort over time.

3. You take reviews for what they are, good or bad—just the opinion of one other person.

4. You learn from everything—good and bad reviews, story rejections, questions that seem to come out of left field.

5. If you have a day job or other responsibilities, you still find time to think about your next scene or any other writing issue. You’re not dreaming about being famous or rich.

6. You help other writers coming along and listen with interest to those who have gone before.

7. You carry out the various parts of being a professional writer, even those you may dislike or feel unprepared for—arranging talks, writing reviews and marketing materials, and the like.

8. You accept the limitations of those who work with you—Beta readers, agents, editors.

9. You’re patient with the process of publishing, choosing the path that is right for you and no one else.

10. You make mistakes, correct them, and move on. You’re human, after all.

And one that shouldn’t have to be included but here it is.

11. You read as much as you can because this is one of the best ways of learning how to improve as a writer and thinker.

I included this image because he looks so content and absorbed, and I think that's the way we want our readers to look regardless of what we write. For my books, check out the links below.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Writers in the Time of Trump

A few years ago another writer and I discussed some of the differences between fiction written in the US by American writers and fiction coming out of Europe, especially Eastern Europe. My view was that most of us (certainly most whites) live very different and protected lives in the US, and have never faced the kind of threat to our existence as was common during the period of the Soviet Union (and is still common in some countries). I cited the movie The Lives of Others, which is set in 1984 East Berlin. An agent of the Stasi asserts to a colleague that everyone has something to hide, and to prove it he offers to spy on a popular writer, Georg Drayman, who has long been considered loyal to the government. So begins the gradual change in the agent as he becomes involved in the target’s life.

There are plenty of novels about a future dystopian America, and most of them establish extremes of government and life. The Giver by Lois Lowry, a 1993 YA novel, presents a society equally destructive of humanity as that found in In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (1987). But the movie made me wonder what writers in this country would do if pushed into the same circumstances as the playwright, Georg Drayman. I didn’t expect the next president of the United States to offer an opportunity to examine the question at length.

The first response was the ongoing arguments over the election and Trump’s policies and personal conduct. Stalin has his supporters even now, and many well-intentioned voters defended their choice of the GOP winner, disregarding his most egregious behavior. Sometimes they were smug and rude, but lately they’ve grown quieter. Perhaps reality is sinking in, along with the economy (unless you’re very rich and have money in the stock market).

But the challenges to the new guy have been many and swift. First was the Women’s March on Washington (and on almost every other city around the world) the day after the inauguration. With our pink hats and signs and goodwill, we marched (or stood patiently in place, moving perhaps a foot an hour) for many things but mostly for unity and mutual support.

We offered safety to strangers, and marked that with safety pins on our jackets and FB logos for our profile pictures.

When Kellyanne Conway provided us with one more of her fabulous gaffes, we made that into a logo to commemorate the Bowling Green Massacre.

And then there was the Tinfoil Hat Brigade, for those loyal folks who need to be grounded in reality but seem to lose their grip on it regularly. The hat has a sparkling style, you have to admit.

These moments are fun, and the use of humor is not to be discounted.

Equally important, however, are the protests with links that writers have posted on FB and elsewhere stating facts (real ones, the kind that can be verified and stand the light of a thousand days), discussing positions, and keeping track of government activity. is a progressive news site. investigates news stories and determines how accurate they are. is a page on Congressman Capuano’s website. There he lists actions taken by Congress that may not make the news but are still changing people’s lives, and usually not for the better. While newspapers foam at the mouth over every little tidbit about Russia, the Republicans in Congress are removing protections for clean drinking water, whistleblowers in nuclear power plants, and more.

One of the signs of a healthy personality is the variety of ways such a person copes with adversity. For some of us, we are living in a state of deepening adversity but we appear to be coping well. We are standing up for our views and values, reaching out to help others, using humor to underscore the absurdity or cruelty of a situation or position, and staying abreast of truth, facts, and information.

I’ve always believed that anything that can happen in another country could happen here, but I never expected it to happen so fast or in quite this way. Now I’m waiting to see how this new reality plays out in crime fiction.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Managing the Subplot

My current work-in-progress is really a recovery project. I decided to take a break from a new series I’ve been working on and rework an Anita Ray manuscript I set aside after Five Star/Gale, Cengage decided to drop its mystery line. The ms was ninety percent finished, and I’ve felt reluctant to abandon it completely. As I read through the story, which I hadn’t looked at for well over a year, I recalled the question I’d struggled with earlier. The problem was a subplot that introduced a character who wanted more—more space, more dialogue, more control. defines subplot as “a secondary or subordinate plot, as in a play, novel, or other literary work; underplot.” The site also notes that the term is only about one hundred years old. As part of a general understanding, the subplot should also throw into relief, illuminate in some way, the main plot of the story or novel. This took me to the heart of my problem.

In this story, In Sita’s Shadow, a middle-aged widow is about to make a decision that is momentous for an Indian woman in her circumstances, edging into the middle class, with her daughter married and well launched on her own career and in married life. I don’t want it to be an easy decision, but I don’t want it to take over the main plot either, which is the identification of the murderer and the motive.

The theme of this Anita Ray mystery is the choices we make when life closes in on us. If the subplot for each aspect of the story is too well developed, it may eclipse the main plot, and take the novel in a new direction. That’s not necessarily bad, but it means I’m writing a different story. If the subplot takes over the story, as characters sometimes do, the book will feel unbalanced. The structure may seem like its collapsing under the weight of the subplot.

I liked the subplot I came up with for Deepa Nayar, the character in question, but the minute I began to rework it, I knew this could be trouble. The characters that came onto the page pushed themselves into the action, flashed across scenes that had been intended to do something very different. It didn’t take me long to acknowledge that this wasn’t a subplot. This thread was bigger than a subplot; it was the theme of a novel and deserved its own book.
Any story requires many threads, different characters and their perspectives, motives, behaviors. But not every thread belongs in every story, and that was my conclusion. Deepa Nayar’s subplot will get its own novel. She’ll finish out her life story in this book, but the question that her decision raises will be explored in the next one. My vision for In Sita’s Shadow is a single story whose subplots in the lives of the suspects contribute to a single fabric.

There’s nothing wrong with letting a subplot take over a story, knowing that it will become the main story line. But that’s not what I wanted in this book. But it is a discovery that will help me shape the next one.

To find the Anita Ray stories, go to these sites.