Friday, October 21, 2016

Stress Takes Its Toll

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"How does moderate stress affect your desire/ability to write? Not minor stress like burnt toast, or major stress like your house just fell down a sinkhole, but a fight with a loved one, a fender-bender at the mall, financial woes?"—arrives on my desktop right at the center of the semester, so I'd add a few other examples of "moderate stress," including grading essays and mid-term exams (20 a day til they're done!), calculating and posting mid-term grades, trying to figure out the reading lists for next semester's classes (book orders due soon!), and then a small horde of other academic responsibilities nagging at me from various directions. Even fun opportunities like the talk on short stories I'm delivering this weekend for the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime and the North Carolina Writers' Network Fall Conference session on a similar topic require advance preparation to be figured into an often busy schedule—prep work resulting in its own stress, even with the knowledge that the end result will be tremendous fun. 

So where does one find the time and energy and peace of mind (I started to type "piece" of mind, which might be true too!) to write in the midst of all that? 

Well, in many cases, I don't. 

Despite the "Write First!!!" reminder on my to-do list, during the academic year best intentions don't regularly (or maybe it's more accurate to say "best intentions rarely") get carried through into action. Writing is catch-as-catch-can some weeks and frequently rough sketches or even just notes instead of finely honed prose—with the promise to myself that it will get finely honed after I've finished grading this stack of exams and that group of papers and reading the next book for the next class and finishing the blog post here and.....

Tomorrow, right? And tomorrow and tomorrow and....

I finished the list in that last big paragraph with "blog post" for a specific reason. I've been contributing to Criminal Minds every other Friday for nearly three years now (my first post was January 24, 2014), and for just over a year now, I've also been contributing on the other Friday to the blog SleuthSayers (my first post there, a guest post, was September 5, 2015), and while both these communities have been wonderful and these blogs have been nearly unmatched as opportunities for connecting with fellow writers and readers, I also know that every Thursday lately, I've been finding myself struggling to fit in time to write my post—and writing the post (the deadline looms!) has seemed to join the list of things regularly supplanting writing my own fiction. 

When an opportunity begins to look like just another item on the to-do list... well maybe it's time to pass along that opportunity to someone else. 

Danny Gardner
On that note, I'm pleased to introduce Danny Gardner, a fine writer and fine friend who's going to be stepping into my Friday slot here at Criminal Minds beginning November 4. 

Danny is the author of A Negro and an Ofay, a debut novel coming out next May from Down and Out Books, and his work has also appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, and Literary Orphans Journal, with another story forthcoming in Just to Watch Him Die, a Johnny Cash-inspired anthology to be published this winter by Gutter Books.

In addition to writing fiction and nonfiction, Danny has also had success as an actor and comedian, and as a director and screenwriter—which makes a good fit for the first question he'll be tackling here at Criminal Minds a couple of weeks from today: "If you got to write, direct, cast your own film, what would be the style/mood/atmosphere of your finished product?" I'll personally be interested to hear his answer to this, both in the context of the work he's already done in film and television and with an eye toward the fiction he's producing now. 

Needless to say, I'd suggest you check out his response too.

In the meantime, as I'm thanking Danny for taking over my half of the Friday posts here, I also want to give tremendous thanks to my blogmates here, who've always offered—both on the blog and off— thoughtful conversation and new perspectives, support and enthusiasm, and most importantly of all friendship. Meredith, Susan, R.J., Rae, Tracy, Cathy, Catriona, Alan and Paul—and further back, Clare and Robin—it's been a pleasure to spend time in your company... and I'll be coming back regularly to add to the conversation in the comments section, so you're not done with me yet! 

And of course greatest thanks to everyone who's followed me here and read and commented themselves. Thank you for spending time with me, and with all of us, each week. :-) 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Usual Answer: BICFOK!

by Alan

How does moderate stress affect your desire/ability to write? Not minor stress like burnt toast, or major stress like your house just fell down a sinkhole, but a fight with a loved one, a fender-bender at the mall, financial woes?

me with ax 1I like to think I’m a pretty chill guy. (Not sure that’s always the case, but I like to think that. Remember, writers are delusional.) I try not to let stress, or any other distractions for that matter, get in the way of my writing.

I think my “daily quota” writing strategy helps in that regard because I know that once I hit my word count, I’m then free to attend to any pressing needs (like shopping or vacuuming or mowing the lawn or playing golf or writing blog posts).

I try to practice what I tell my workshop students: BICFOK!

Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard.

If I can BICFOK for as long as it takes to hit my quota, then I’m good.

(And exercise helps with the stress, too.)

(Just ignore the man with the ax.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What, Me Worry?

By Tracy Kiely

I am a procrastinator. I would say that I’ve always been one, but it was a trait that was slow in the making. (Give yourself ten points if you got that.)  I’ve always attempted to kid myself that this trait doesn’t adversely affect my work. I will calm myself with pithy platitudes such as, “I work best under pressure,” and “People don’t really care if there are spelling errors,” and “Nobody will care if it’s a little late."
None of these, of course, are true.
Once in a blue moon, I will manage to produce something quite good in a short amount of time. More often than not, however, I produce something that one could reasonably assume was pounded out on an old typewriter by a semi-literate monkey. This is when stress hits. (Well, to be fair, I have several trigger points for stress, such as the holidays, speaking in public, shopping for bathing suits, and having the sex talk with my kids.)
When I am stressed, any “humor” I might normally weave into my work evaporates with a small puff of smoke. I go into frantic “INEEDTOHITMYDEADLINE” mode, and the results are never pretty. Crying is usually involved, as well as desperate bartering with any and all higher powers that if they get help me out of this jam, I will never let deadlines slide again. Now, of course, those higher powers have heard all this before so they now merely roll their eyes and go back to doing whatever higher power entities do (which I like to imagine involves shuffle board).
This process can be best summed up with the following chart:
This pretty much sums up my process
I’m not sure why I put myself through this torture. I could have two weeks to do write a blog, essay, make a stinking phone call, and I will wait until the very last minute. I have no justification for this. Once my task is complete, I can almost feel my “humor” quietly and shyly return, like a skittish puppy that was frightened off by a loud noise. It is only then that I can take another look at whatever I’ve written and make it better. (Case in point, I will most likely post this blog and then “edit” it three or four times during day.)

So, for me anyway, while stress gets the blood flowing and the mind racing, the results are not always creative or even coherent. But, I’ve decided to be better about this. In fact, it’s my number one New Year’s Resolution. For the year 2020.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


By R.J. Harlick

How does moderate stress affect your desire/ability to write?

Stress can be a lubricant for writers. Some thrive on it. They believe that when the walls are closing in, the kids clamoring for attention, the boss demanding the report, they produce their best material in the few hours they squeeze in for their writing.  I greatly admire those writers that can juggle family and work, while producing bestselling novels on the side.

When I was gainfully employed in the high tech industry, stress was the norm. I thrived on it. There was nothing like a looming deadline and the fear of losing business to kick me into high gear to get the job done and produce a winner. It helped me avoid distractions and focus on the job at hand.  It sharpened my mind.

So too at university. I usually waited until a few days before to study for the exam or write the essay. I was rather good at making my essays appear as if I knew more about the topic than I actually did. Perhaps this is where my penchant for creative writing sprang from.

But now that I am writing fiction my need for stress is gone. I like my world to be calm and orderly with few distractions. It opens my mind, giving me a tremendous sense of creative freedom. The words flow, the ideas flow.  But the minute stress enters, be it a looming deadline or nagging commitment, my mind clamps shut and I can only squeak out the words.  

It is likely the reason I am more productive at my log cabin surrounded by the serenity of an endless forest, where the only distractions are birds flitting in and out of the feeders, the occasional deer wandering past and my dogs bugging me for their walks.

The one time I did face major stress, when my husband was in the hospital with a serious illness, the creative juices shut down completely. My mind was solely focused on him. I didn’t go near my writing for three months, not until I knew with certainty that he would fully recover.

Mind you, at the moment I am facing a looming deadline. I have to send my manuscript for Purple Palette for Murder, the next Meg Harris mystery, into my publisher by the end of November.  It’s going to be close. But I’m in the revision stage when the creative juices don’t need to work so hard. So I can handle a moderate amount of stress. But I do use a little help.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Stressed out but still writing

"How does moderate stress affect your desire/ability to write? Not minor stress like burnt toast, or major stress like your house just fell down a sinkhole, but a fight with a loved one, a fender-bender at the mall, financial woes?"

Ever had one of those days? You can't pass by a counter or coffee table without hurting yourself on it. Glasses slip from your hands and break. You nearly have an accident. You have a huge project due at work. You can't stop watching politicians go up on flames on TV. And you can't sit down long enough to concentrate on what your work in progress. Yeah, I know. We all have.

Stress is part of life. Stress is inevitable. Stress is distracting. So how do you combat it when you're trying to get writing done?

My first strategy is to try to decompress and work through it. Meditation. Yoga. A walk. Exercise. The usual stuff. Being stressed out is no fun and it doesn't feel good. I want to get past it as quickly as I can.

The second strategy is to deal with the cause if I can. Tripped over a paint can left in the hall because I haven't finished my project painting the stairs? Finish the project and put everything away. Clean up all the piles that have collected on every surface and I always feel a lot better. And it never takes as long as you fear it will.

I read some great advice once about tackling big jobs that totally applies to writing. If you've got something big and looming on your to do list -- "Finish writing your book!" -- don't just put that down on your list. Break it into small steps so you can start and finish small tasks that get you closer to "the end." Write down tasks like "Change character's name throughout the book," or "revise first chapter in first person point of view to reflect the style in the rest of the book." Those tasks can be more quickly accomplished and you'll be deep in rewrites before you know it, instead of trying to avoid your WIP altogether. When the writing feels satisfying rather than another source of stress, I'm always much quicker to return to it and to finish my projects.

Recently I realized that I should actually embrace the stress since it can occasionally be helpful to my writing. Not the panic attack itself or the moment when you're hyper ventilating, but the reflection afterwards. Use that car accident in a story, but make it more tragic or more humourous. Up the stress level and you can get closer to understanding what PTSD might just feel like and more realistically write about it with one of your characters. And then forgive the stress for temporarily derailing your writing and let it help you take your writing to the next level.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Of Course, It’s Funny; It’s Always About Us.

Can you name a writer or a work that made you Laugh Out Loud? (no inner chuckles)

Paul here, I’m out washing my hair, out of town, on the lam, in hiding, so D.J. Adamson is filling in for me this week. D.J. has a terrific blog and newsletter and a new mystery, Suppose, the second in her Lillian Dove Mystery series. She’s also the author of the Deviation science fiction-suspense trilogy. She also teaches writing and literature at Los Angeles colleges. And to keep busy when she is not writing or teaching, she is the Membership Director of the Los Angeles Sisters in Crime, Vice President of Central Coast Sisters in Crime and an active member of the Southern California Mystery Writers. Her books can be found and purchased in bookstores and on Amazon. To find her, her blog L’Artiste, or her newsletter that interviews and reviews authors go to Make friends with her on Facebook or Goodreads.

So take it away D.J.!

Of Course, It’s Funny; It’s Always About Us.

by D.J. Adamson

“It’s the best book ever,” I told the conductor when, traveling on the train to Santa Barbara for a business appointment, he stopped at my seat and asked quietly, “Are you all right?”

I was blubbering like a baby.

Two weeks later, he stopped again. “Best book?”  This time, I was laughing and hooting.

It’s what truly makes a book memorable, isn’t it? The ability of the author to hook into human emotions and not let go. I remember which novel that made me literally sob for its last 150 pages: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina. The novel that embarrassingly caused other passengers to think I’d lost my mind: Heller’s Catch-22.

"They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
"And what difference does that make?"

Heller’s use of satire and black comedy to create a statement on the war was hilariously memorable and poignant.

Authors like Stephen King use humor to ease suspense and tension. Some of King’s comedy is horrifically funny…”Here’s Johnny.”  Others use black comedy to take a tragic situation and make a comment about the human response to it:  Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse-Five; Adam’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

In my own work, I use sarcasm as a humorous means to get my character’s point across, (also to amplify her pent up resentments). I use comedic behavior as a method to demonstrate our continual attempt to “get it.”

I am thinking of my latest Lillian Dove novel Suppose.  Lillian returns to Davenport, Iowa, a city from her dark past, and she spots a dumpster diver she remembers. Now after her sobriety and creating a new reality for herself, she sees herself as having a higher, unique awareness.

My first thought was that it was crazy Ben or a man I’d named Crazy Ben. He was walking the same route with his shopping cart full of ripped, black trash bags and dirty, smaller white grocery bags, holding found treasures. You’d think I’d feel sorry for him. Especially since my life had changed so vastly. I was sober. Getting ahead in life. 

I’d once admired how he always seemed to know where he was going. Sure footed, he’d walked the same route day after day, safe in his routine. Sure of his path. But since my path had taken me elsewhere, I could now understand how a person can get on the gerbil wheel of going nowhere fast. Running to beat hell, around and around and around, only to end up in the same place.

I slowed. Hold it. Where was his cart? The rusty-wired cart with the squeaky wheels? It was never more than ten feet away in case someone came by, saw the value of his valuables, and decided to make them his own. Had he been robbed? The thought melted away my arrogance. It’s hard to come up with an answer, why me and not him? A toss of life’s dice? If I wouldn’t have quit drinking, it could easily be me pushing around the cart, hoping for enough recycle to buy a drink to warm my blood, or finding leftover food so I wouldn’t have to spend any money on nutritional sustenance. 

I pulled over. I should give him a little money. 

When I parked, I checked to see where Ben was and found him straightening up from the trash, his hands full of empty cans. He turned toward me as if he could sense he was being spied upon.

 I was wrong. It wasn’t Ben. What happened to Ben?

Did that make a difference? It wasn’t my Crazy Ben, but it was a Ben nevertheless.  I pulled a twenty out of my billfold and walked over.

As I came closer, he hurried and dumped his cans into a black, trash sack I now saw setting on the other side of the trash can. 

“Here.” I held out the bill.
“Go away,” he yelled.
“No, you don’t understand. This is a gift.”
“Get away from me. I’m not doing no harm.”
“Of course you aren’t.” Poor soul. “Take this. Get a warm meal.”
“I don’t need your money. Get away from me.” 

He snorted a lungful of air through his nose, leaned back, and aimed at huge, blob of spit. If I wouldn’t have moved faster, I’d have been wearing it.

He inhaled another mouthful. 
I raced back to the car. 
What was I doing back here? Why had I come? People don’t change.

She realizes by coming back, she, too, is running in that gerbil wheel. Around, around, around, still trying to “get it” even after five years sober.

Okay, so I am not a Heller, King, or Vonnegut. But I am working to use comedy as a tool for offering a comedic response to the perceptions we make. Especially when we think that somehow we have risen “above” the masses who just haven’t “got it.”

"Catch-22...says you've always got to do what your commanding officer tells you to."
"But Twenty-seventh Air Force says I can go home with forty missions."
"But they don't say you have to go home. And regulations do say you have to obey every order. That's the catch. Even if the colonel were disobeying a Twenty-seventh Air Force order by making you fly more missions, you'd still have to fly them, or you'd be guilty of disobeying an order of his. And then the Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters would really jump on you."


Thanks, Diann!


Paul here again. If you’re in L.A. I hope you can come to SoCal MWA’s event: Demystifying Writing Software: James Scott Bell, Sharon Goldstein and Tom Sawyer discuss Scrivener, Storybase, Final Draft and Word Tips and Tricks, Saturday October 22, 2016. 2pm. Studio City Library, 12511 Moorpark Street, Studio City, CA  91604. I'll be introducing, so if you have any questions, drop me a line.

Check out Akashic's St. Louis Noir anthology with my short story Deserted Cities of the Heart.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Speed learning - Gordon Brown guest blogs.

Instead of answering the question about what books make me laugh (P.G.Wodehouse, though) I'm stepping aside for a guest at Criminal Minds today. Gordon Brown, fellow Scot, makes me laugh in real life but his books make me wince, shudder and occasionally shout "Nooooo!" But all in the good way.

Please welcome, Gordon Brown.

I’m currently on tour with three other fellow authors (Mark Leggatt, Douglas Skelton and Neil Broadfoot) around the towns and cities of Scotland. The tour is called Crime Factor and our format is simple – from the outset we ask the audience for questions – and then take it from there.
A few nights ago, one of the audience asked a deceptively simple question – ‘Do you map out your characters before you start a new book or do they develop over time?’
I’ll put my hand up to say that I’m not a planner. I start all of my books with a line that I like and 80,000 words or so later I stop. Then I go back and fix it.

Over time my characters develop. Take Falling, released by Down & Out Books in the U.S. this year. The central character is Charlie Wiggs, a middle aged accountant. He wasn’t meant to be the main protagonist. He just appeared on page 1 and grew more interesting, and central to the plot, as I wrote. For the launch of Falling I wrote a short story about Charlie. It’s a prequel and gave me a chance to learn a little more about him and his personality.

Not long ago I submitted a short story to Bouchercon for their 2016 anthology. The story had to be inspired by the theme ‘Blood on the Bayou’. I constructed a narrative around a serial killer who uses the first six chords of ‘Duelling Banjos’, made famous by the film Deliverance, to target his victims -  each victim’s name starts with the initial from one of the chords. The plot required a police officer to track the killer down. And so was born Detective Sarah Tracy of the LAPD (only for her first story she was flown into New Orleans).

Roll forward a few weeks and I promised a new short story for a UK crime blog. I liked writing about Sarah. So when I hit the keyboard, I brought her back in a new story called ‘The Why’.
I enjoyed writing about Sarah so much that I decided to write more about her. At around four thousand words per story I’ve now written nine Sarah Tracy short stories in only a few weeks. I’m thinking of bundling them into a collection. To do this Sarah needed a partner - Detective Tim Clark, a backstory about her family, details on where she comes from, what she believes in – the whole shebang. Or to put it another way I’ve been learning about Sarah at speed.

‘Speed learning’ is akin to meeting someone on vacation, someone you then spend the next few weeks with. Day by day you discover the person. You don’t have a plan. You don’t wake up each morning and think ‘Now what will I ask my new friend today?’. You take it as it comes. You may not like everything you find out. You may discover some amazing things. You might find a friend for life or someone you’ll never talk to again. And you do all of this in quite an intensive period of time.

This is ‘speed learning’ and it’s how it’s worked for me with Sarah. In ‘egbdea’ (the first short story) I felt I had just met her. By story nine I’m on the way to being a good friend of hers. And maybe, who knows, the relationship will get a little deeper. A novel? A series? I’m not sure. What I do know is that creating a character in this manner is fresh and exciting because I have little or no idea what Sarah will do when confronted with something new. I’ll just learn a little bit more about her when it happens and so will you.

Gordon Brown lives in Scotland but splits his time between the UK, the U.S.A. and Spain. He’s married with two children. Gordon once quit his job in London to fly across the Atlantic to be with his future wife. He has also delivered pizzas in Toronto, sold non alcoholic beer in the Middle East, launched a creativity training business called Brain Juice and floated a high tech company on the London Stock Exchange.
He almost had a toy launched by a major toy company, has an MBA, loves music, is a DJ on local radio, compered the main stage at a two-day music festival and was once booed by 49,000 people while on the pitch at a major football Cup Final.
Gordon also helped found Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Snorting and Cathy Ace

“Can you name a writer or a work that made you Laugh Out Loud? (No inner chuckles)”

Before I answer this question I should stipulate one thing: I’m much more of an “inner chuckler” than a “laugh out loud-er”, so I’m going to allow snorts to count as laughs for this discussion. I hope that's okay with everyone :-)

I’m delighted to be able to tell you that one of my co-bloggers here writes books that make me grin, chuckle silently and snort aloud a good deal: Catriona MacPherson’s Dandy Gilver books are beautifully written in a style that’s so easy to read it belies the skill she employs on every page. She delivers the preposterous with a side-helping of the mind-boggling, and all the time keeps me – the reader – smiling contentedly as I wait for the next barbed comment or wry observation. All her Dandy Gilver books are a joy to read, and I suggest you try them, if you haven’t already done so. (There’s a new one due soon!)

If you’re not familiar with Catriona MacPherson’s Dandy, maybe you’ve heard of Douglas Adams’ Slartibartfast or Marvin (the paranoid android)? Just two of the bizarre characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they wriggled their way into my life back in 1978 when they first appeared in the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, then became manifest on the page. I’ll admit I enjoyed the BBC TV series of the first two of the Hitchhiker books, and even the movie they made (where Slartibartfast’s workshop was finally realized in much the way I’d imagined it). Pretty much anything Douglas Adams wrote makes me snort a lot – including Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. 

I hope my picks give you as much to smile about as they do me. 

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in trade paperback on August 31st in the UK, and will be available in November in the US/Canada), and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #8 THE CORPSE WITH THE RUBY LIPS will be published in paperback in October in Canada, November in the USA). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at