Today is my birthday, and if you’ve been following this intermittent, rarely-updated blog of mine, then you know that I like to use my birthday as a day of reflection. I look at the year behind me and the years I have left ahead of me and I adjust how I spend my time. It helps that my birthday is so close to New Year’s Eve. It allows me to make New Year’s Eve resolutions without actually admitting to doing so.
This year was a year of reckoning for me in many ways. I had a serious Come to Jesus meeting with myself and I gave myself a good talking to about priorities when all was said and done. You see, in my other life, my job revolves around politics. And, as you can imagine, this was a big year for politics. To put it simply — politics ate my life in 2012. Days, nights, weekends, holidays… politics ate them all. After finishing my latest book in February, just in time for the primaries, there was precious little time left for writing, friends or exercise. Life pretty much consisted of work, more work and, happily, my amazing teenage daughter. It was fine while it was happening, it was just my life, but now that it is all over I find myself out of balance, out of energy and in need of some serious reallocation of how I spend my time and energy. The truth is: I miss my writing. It keeps me sane.
I’m not built for doing one thing and one thing only with my life. I get bored and distracted and, yes, I admit it — there may be more than a touch of ADHD going on. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I want to be at the party. I want to be alone. I want Rocket Man to move over and let me drive. My Yin and my Yang have always battled over which will control my life. They probably always will. People, can’t we all just get along?
A case in point: I have a ferocious ability to concentrate on the task at hand. And I do mean ferocious. Just ask my (still wonderful) ex-husband, Andy, who used to play cow punk rock with his musician friends in our one-room New York City apartment while I wrote my books less than 10 feet away. If you don’t think this is impressive, then clearly you have never heard Warner Hodges of Jason and the Scorchers play guitar.
I think all authors go through what I typically go through when I am 90% done with a book: I have a draft, maybe even one that’s been revised a few times, but there is still plenty of layering to do. The characters must be made real and the plot a little more compelling, with my readers made to care about both. With my detailed outline in hand and a list of my characters and their individual traits nearby, I pore over what I have written and determine where I am missing depth in my manuscript.
It is always at this point, right before I begin the final draft process, but I begin to fear my characters are nothing but cartoons, that they have lost the struggle between word count, the need to move the plot forward and what’s left over to make my characters real. On top of that, when you’re writing a series as I am, you feel the need to move your recurring characters forward at least a little, too, so loyal readers, who love them as much as you do, can be rewarded. That’s all a lot of nuance to work into a plot that has to keep barreling forward at top speed.
This challenge was even more acute for me this time around as I worked on my new book, “Angel Along Us” because some of the characters, on the surface, definitely had the potential to slide into stereotype. This is often the case when you are working with characters that bring a lot of social baggage with them. In my case, I had a Catholic priest and a young female movie star, neither of which I wanted to end up being cardboard, and a handful of Hispanic characters who needed to be real without being caricatures. On top of it all, I had a recurring character who, in every book in which he has appeared, has bucked my plans for him and pretty much chosen his own path, often leading me to scratch my head about who exactly Adrian Calvano is and what he wants from me, his creator. Adrian was in fine form in this book, refusing to go along with my plot and choosing to act in unexpected ways. Clearly, he wanted something from me and I needed to figure out what.
It’s no wonder that my car felt crowded as I drove to the beach to begin my final push to complete this manuscript. Yes, I was the only one in the car, but I had all those characters riding in there with me and every one of them seemed to me to be in a most uncertain mood. I feared they might turn against me or, worse, give me the silent treatment, leaving me with nowhere to go. [Read More...]
I have entered the Twilight Zone — that stage in a book where an entire fictional world has coalesced inside my head, populated with characters that I am convinced lead their lives without me when I am not paying attention to them. I imagine them fighting among themselves, jockeying for a bigger role in the book, conspiring to waylay my outline and generally taking on lives of their own.
It’s a good sign when this happens in some ways. It tells me that I have successfully created a world with enough layers to sustain a reader’s attention. But it’s not such a good sign when it comes to my real life, which suffers during this period from what some people have charitably called my “absent-minded professor syndrome” and others have called just plain old half-assedness. I plead guilty to both. But it is a condition impossible to fight. Whenever I am not concentrating on another task, it seems as if the characters I have created clamor for my attention and send me off on mini-daydreams in which I contemplate whether I have given their characters enough shading in the present draft or whether I am taking them in the right direction in the pages to come.
They can be quite insistent at times, which pulls my brain away from daily matters, and so I have found myself doing all of the following during this period of time:
Is there any obsession greater than death? No matter how hard we try to hide it, isn’t the popularity of crime fiction an indication that we humans remain, as we have for thousands of years, obsessed with the idea of no longer being here? We are driven to wonder…. Where do we go? Where do our loved ones go? Do we linger, somehow, in this world? And if it is true that readers of crime fiction are, perhaps, more obsessed with death than most people — what does that say about the writers of crime fiction? Surely, we are the most fascinated by death of all? We spend our days thinking and writing about nothing else.
But the truth is that death is benign when you are writing about it. All those words, the plot, the puzzles, the mysteries surrounding it are artificial buffers that protect both the writer and the reader from truly experiencing the ultimate power of death. These buffers allow us to dance around it, poke at it and flirt with its finality without actually feeling the incredible pain it can bring into our hearts. Reading and writing crime fiction is a talisman of sorts — maybe if we steep in it enough as entertainment, it will pass by our door in real life? This is impossible, of course, and when you feel an all-too-real threat of death that hits close to home, it looks and feels very different.
I have been lucky in my life. Even at my age, I have experienced relatively few losses. Yes, I have lost a friend who died far too young. I have even lost a sister, which was like losing a part of myself. She had always been there in my life and then she was gone forever. But her conduct in the face of impending death was one of such bravery and fierceness that her death was less a passing and more of a battle that left me filled with awe at her spirit. I have lost a parent as well, when my mother passed away almost five years ago. But she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade and when her body finally gave up its burden, we had long since come to terms with having lost her.
Now, though, death has become so much more than an abstract. My father, frail in health at age 86, survived a night two years ago that no one, most especially the doctors, thought he would make it through. Four times that night the doctors came to us to confirm that we had a “Do Not Resuscitate Order” on him and four times we confirmed it. He did survive that night, though, fueling my belief that, somehow, my family had cut a deal with death to pass us by. Since then, my father has been living with his heart working at 25% capacity, no small feat for a man who towers at over six feet tall. As it turns out, as we had always suspected, he really does have the heart of a lion. It has been steadily beating over the past two years and this tenderhearted, uncharacteristically sweet man has been with us for far longer than we expected. His life has become more limited, of course. He is confined largely to his bed at his nursing home. But in that time, it is as if his essential nature has distilled and burned even brighter, endearing him to staff even as it has made it more inconceivable to his children that we might lose him one day. This is no ordinary father, mind you. He did the heavy lifting when we were children, taking care of us in addition to working full time. When you have six children, this is an accomplishment that borders on the heroic. [Read More...]
I am pleased to announce that the newest book in my Dead Detective series will be published in the United Kingdom in December of 2011 and in the United States in April of 2012. Angel of Darkness will be issued in hardback under my real name and it will be available in both print and e-book formats. It features Kevin Fahey, the dead detective who is doomed to wander a lonely afterworld between the living and the dead after squandering his life being an alcoholic, a lousy father and an even worse detective. In Angel of Darkness, he finds that the peace he feels wandering the local mental hospital is shattered when two events shake his world: he spots his son on the juvenile ward of the hospital and also becomes embroiled in a murder investigation that leads to the hospital’s wing for the criminally insane. He soon finds himself face-to-face with a more powerful evil than he has ever confronted before. Unable to stop it alone, he must turn to the patients as allies to fight for the lives of those he loves.
If you enjoy short stories centered around crime, check out Dead of Winter, an anthology of mystery and crime short stories by established authors belonging to the Thalia Press Authors Co-Op (TPAC). My writing partner, Lisa McClendon, and I edited this collection of stories by such talented writers as Taffy Cannon, Kate Flora, Gary Phillips, J.D. Rhoades, Sarah Shaber, Bren Witchger and, of course, Lise and myself. You get 8 great stories in e-book format for $4.99. Buy Dead of Winter in Kindle format here, purchased it in Nook format here or visit smashwords for other e-book formats. For more on this anthology and other TPAC authors, visit our blog.