Friday, January 20, 2017

Respect The Fourth Wall

Process has never been my favorite subject. Since my beginnings as a comedian and actor, I've treated The Fourth Wall, that invisible and yet impenetrable barrier between performance and audience, as sacred.

"See, you sit over there. I stay up here. That's how the magic happens."

I remember late nights, at coffee shops, with a bunch of comedians all dissecting and rearranging each other's material after an open-mic at whatever workout rooms we'd crawl through. We'd openly lament the bits that went wrong. We'd accept praise for the bits that went right, with faux humility. Someone just got a television spot. Everyone pats them on the back. The one guy with the preternatural sense to go to the bathroom just before the check arrives does it again. Then it's on to the next room. The next stage.

A young comedian had to sit in on those sessions. In many respects, these gatherings were more important than stage time. It was the chief networking medium. It's how folks got to know you. If you were funny yet unknown, you had less of a shot at precious stage time than if you were a hack who picked up the check more often than not. It wasn't enough to be funny. You had to be trusted. You had to sit there. So I sat there. 

Damn, I hated to sit there.

Milton Berle would rather shoot you in the face than sit at your Comedic Actors' Roundtable.
Richard Pryor would set it on fire.

I think of acting. Years of study, training, and experience marbles my work. Chicago is a theater town. I trained there. Los Angeles is a film and television town. I train here. I'm a regular supporter of Rogue Machine Theatre here in L.A., where my dear friend and master teacher Joshua Bitton is a principal. A few playwrights I admire and with whom I'm on good terms have mounted their works with the company. I may be a fringe member of the tribe, but I'd never go backstage. I don't even like to be in the lobby when the cast comes out after a performance. I stand there long enough to wink and blow kisses and then I disappear into the night.

I love The Fourth Wall so much, I even don't want other comedians and actors to break it for me.

I enjoy a close friendship with Joe Clifford, author of the most excellent Jay Porter Novels. Joe and I share a love of golf. We'll play in any weather, any course, anytime. Now, that's five hours together, just us. Joe is doin' it, doin' it well, and doin' it the way I'd like to do it, so you'd think, since we tight homies, I'd be picking his brain and sounding out my ideas and harvesting whatever insights he'd be willing to share. Here's the extent of the writing and publishing conversation from Tuesday's round.

"Goddamn, it's cold, dawg."
"Two degrees warmer than our last round together."
"Thank Bejeezus."
"You go first, Danny. I hit the ball better when I follow you."
"Yeah. Put that shit on me."

Woosh. Ding.

"Tee it up again."
"That's alright. I'll play it. It ain't gonna get any better until I warm up. I'm so stiff this cold and early."
"You have a shot from there."
"My thing, Joe Clifford? I just got too much muscle."
"That's my problem, too."

Woosh. Ding.

"Nice shot, Joe!"
"Thank you. Thank you. So, how's your book coming?"
"Fair to middlin'. What's with that new thing you have out for query."
"Don't know. Don't wanna know."

Done. Joe and I can walk and ride and sip and eat together for six frickin' hours. That's all we're going to say about the craft. We sound like a couple of guys from the Electrician's Local on their day off.

In my mind and heart, there is always a proscenium arch. Everything I do creatively is mise-en-scΓ¨ne. If I'm preparing anything—the next book in The Tales of Elliot Caprice, my feature set at a comedy club, my piece from Fences for scene study class, what I'm making for dinner—it all happens backstage. The audience is not allowed backstage. I have a curtain over my kitchen doorway.

I have an usher, too.

We're all friends here, and you've all shared with such willingness. I'll honor that with some tidbits.

  • I plot until I pants. When it get tired of the pants, I plot. My plotting is actually lounge pants.
  • I write to music until it gets in the way.
  • I hold utter disregard for daily word count. I don't write for the what. I write for the why.
  • I write constantly. My mind is my literary oven. Nothing comes out until it's done. The page is my serving plate.
  • I leave the work feeling strong, rather than cease working once I'm spent. That way, I have a deep jones to get back to it. It's that jones that gets me done by my deadline.
  • I don't make stuff up just to keep going. I hate placeholders. If I cut corners, I lose interest. I can hold my inspiration long enough to get my research just right. Accurate facts keep me inspired.

Now, please, I must get back into makeup.

- dg

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hello, I’m Alan (Part II)

by Alan

I’ve always been a numbers guy. As a kid, I hated English class. All that grammar and junk. I didn’t like reading so-called classic novels (I did a lot of skimming). I certainly didn’t share my father’s love for literature (he was a former English teacher). Me and O

I went to college and studied Mechanical Engineering. I didn’t much like engineering, so I went back to business school and got an MBA (at MIT, not exactly a fertile breeding ground for creative writers!).

I didn’t much like business, so <fast forward some years> I thought I’d give writing fiction a shot. My father would tell me that’s called IRONY!

To start off (as proof of concept, in engineering terms), I wrote a few short stories. They didn’t stink.

Then I took a Fairfax County Adult Ed writing class (taught by Elaine Raco Chase) and wrote more stories. They still didn’t stink. (They weren’t very good, but they didn’t stink.)

I took some workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda (including some from Noreen Wald). My writing still didn’t stink. In fact, it was getting better!

So I did the only thing that made sense to me. I wrote. And wrote and wrote. Got plugged into a great critique group. Kept writing.

I finished a couple manuscripts, but realized they weren’t very good. Wrote another one and thought I’d nailed it. Crafted a killer query letter and sent it out to agents. In all, I must have sent out 100 queries. I got 100 rejections.

Back to the drawing board!

I kept writing, revising, writing, revising. Eventually, I completed another manuscript and signed with an agent, but he failed to sell my manuscript. I had a feeling he wanted to concentrate on non-fiction (the clue? He said, “I want to concentrate on non-fiction.”).

I wrote another manuscript and queried that. Found an agent who loved it and sold it (DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD).

What do you call a writer who doesn’t give up? PUBLISHED!

Since publication of that first novel, I’ve gone on to publish a handful of other books. And a handful (or two) of my short stories have also been published.

I still write novels and stories. I still submit them places. Some are accepted; some are rejected.

Writing is fun.

It’s the business of publishing that’s kooky.


Speaking of publishing stories, my latest, “Father’s Favorite,” came out in this month’s issue of Mystery Weekly magazine.

Mystery Weekly Jan Cover

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Write on

by Dietrich Kalteis

Early every morning I switch on my computer, and fueled by coffee, I get into whatever story I’m working on, and I go until noon. Mornings are best for me, that’s when I’ve got more energy and focus. Working on my seventh novel now, I’ve got it down to a routine that works for me, and I’m even getting a little better at staying off social media while I’m supposed to be writing. Outside of my morning routine, I carry a notepad with me and jot down ideas that come to me during the rest of the day, and I save these bits until the next morning. 

Aside from coffee, I need music when I write. After trying to find a quiet space to write in my house, I realized how intrusive white noise can be: kids, TV, phones, doorbells, traffic going by, cats and dogs. So, I put on my earbuds and tried music to cut out the distractions. My first guess was it would fill my head with more distraction, but somehow it worked. So now every morning, I line up some tunes that more or less go with what I’m writing, and I start typing away, getting into the rhythm of it. Weird maybe, but I know I’m not alone. I’ve had chats on the subject on another blog with writing friends who do the same thing. Some like jazz or classical music, Sam Wiebe favors jazz without lyrics. Danny Gardner finds one tune that puts him in the groove, then he puts it on repeat while he writes. Hey, whatever works. I set my sixth novel Zero Avenue amid the early punk scene here in Vancouver, and to set the mood that’s what I listened to pretty much right through to the final draft. D.O.A, Subhumans and Modernettes. Author Les Edgerton agreed on the music part, but felt if he listened to punk for nine months straight he’d start hearing the voices. Luckily for me, there were no side effects – so far. Right now, I’m working on a story that’s set during the dustbowl of the late thirties, so the music’s lighter and kind of folky.

When I write I don’t have a word count that I try to hit everyday. Sometimes I only get a few pages done, but if they’re good pages, then I’m happy with that. I like to pen the first draft in longhand before typing it into the computer. And I’ve never used a story outline; I start with a single idea for a scene, and I develop it along with the characters and build subsequent scenes from there and see where it takes me. I tighten it up as I work through to the next draft. When I’m done, I write a kind of timetable and check the sequence to make sure it all makes sense, so it’s a little like working backwards, writing a kind of outline after the story’s done.

Anything relating to my writing, like blogs, marketing and planning events, gets relegated to afternoons or evenings. And I do enjoy getting together with my writer friends at events, writing festivals and conferences. I’ve organized some local events, and this is the fourth year I’ve put together Vancouver’s Noir at the Bar. Writing fiction is a solo effort (with imaginary friends), so I rarely pass up a chance to come out of the cave and get together with other writers who have their own imaginary friends. 

One thing about the whole writing experience, I can’t believe it’s been over eight years since I started writing full time. And time sure seems to have flown since I got that first short story accepted, but here I am, feeling lucky to be writing every day.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Window onto my Writing Life

By R.J. Harlick

In the previous blog, I gave you some insight into how I became a writer, this week I’ll open a window onto my writing life.

From the moment, I penned the first words for Death’s Golden Whisper, I knew I would have to set aside a time for writing and follow it, otherwise given my penchant for putting off today’s tasks until tomorrow, I would end up never finishing anything. I established mornings as my writing time and amazingly, to me at least, I followed it. Eight books later, I still adhere to a set writing time, though the ‘when’ has changed.

Now when I'm in creation mode, i.e. writing the first draft, I devote the first three days of the week to writing, leaving the rest of the week for other activities. I have found I need long stretches of time to allow me to fully immerse myself into the story and the characters. When in revision mode, I can easily handle the editing interspersed amongst other activities.  

The same goes for vacations. I never do any first draft writing when away. But that doesn’t mean that I am not thinking about the story. In fact, I like the break, because it gives me an opportunity to step back and see the story for the words, something I have difficulty doing when totally immersed in the writing. I can handle revisions anywhere. When I spent a few weeks in France last fall with my husband, I devoted an hour or two a day to the revisions for my upcoming book, Purple Palette for Murder.

It used to be I would jump into my writing first thing in the morning.  Now I ease into it. I like to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, followed by a walk with my two dogs. Only then do I pull up my latest book in progress onto my computer screen and begin writing. I will admit that when the words are painfully slow in coming, usually in that nefarious middle when I have no idea what Meg should be doing next, I find myself too easily distracted by email, online news and Facebook. At times, I’ve been forced to turn-off the WIFI in order to stop myself. Heaven forbid.

I’ve also found, that where I write is important in the creation phase. The words seem to flow much easier in a comfy chair at my cabin in the woods than at my city townhouse. Likely because there are fewer distractions and the view from my writing chair is pretty much the wilderness setting Meg is exploring, apart that is from those occasions when she leaves her Three Deer Point home for other Canadian wildernesses. You noticed I mentioned chair. I gave up writing at a desk four books ago.

In every other book I send Meg on an adventure to a different part of Canada. She has flown to Baffin Island in Canada’s Far North, to Haida Gwaii on Canada’s west coast. And in the latest book, Purple Palette for Murder, she travels to the Northwest Territories.  I did it in part to add variety to the series and also to satisfy my love of travel, because I’m a great believer that one can’t write about a place unless you’ve been there. Travelling to these far-flung places has become an integral part of my writing life. Before I sit down to do the actual writing, I usually spend about a week at the new location, talking with as many people as I can about the area and the people living there and exploring the areas Meg will explore.  Sure, I could do this via the Internet, but I have found I learn things I never would’ve picked up online and the trip usually provides all sorts of ideas for the story.

My writing life also includes the many events I participate in to promote my books, such as library readings, literary festivals, store signings, mystery conferences and, of course, writing blogs.  But I’ll save their discussion for another time.

I will however bring up one further thing that has become integral to my writing life and that is exercise. Writing is all about sitting, sometimes for many hours at a time. As we are told by those in the know, sitting for a long period of time isn’t good for one’s body or one’s soul.

I try to practice as much yoga as I can with one formal class a week and shorter home practices on other days. When the weather is warm enough, I like to do a weekly 1.5 to 2 hour bike trip on one of Ottawa’s fabulous bike paths. When it’s too snowy and cold, I use a stationary bike. It used to be for a couple of times of week, but lately I’ve upped it to daily sessions. I mustn’t forget the dog walking, twice a day for a good thirty minutes. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But I am basically a sedentary type and easily slide into inaction, as I did this past summer, when I was so caught up in finishing my latest book, that I forgot to exercise. I am paying for it now, so I’m back into the exercise regime and feeling considerably better for it.

When I finish a book and send it into my publisher, I rarely dive into the next book. I like to take a break and enjoy my freedom for a month or two or three. But that doesn’t mean I’m not in writing mode. I am invariably tossing around ideas for the next book and beginning the research. 

And that is the stage I am at right now while I wait for the edits to come back from my publisher.  Just hanging feels so good. But I am beginning to get the teensy weensiest bored, so I think I'll be starting the next Meg Harris mystery soon.

I'd also like to offer super congratulations to my fellow Criminal Minds, Catriona McPherson and Terry Shames for their Lefty nominations. Way to go, ladies!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Living the Writing Life

My writing life and how I live it.

People sometimes ask me how I manage to be so productive. Here are a few things that matter to me:

1)   Motivation. I am highly motivated. About ten years ago I realized that if I was really, really serious about wanting to be a published writer, I had to up my game. I was on the “write when I’m inspired” track, and that changed. Now I try to write every day. I don’t always succeed, but most of the time I do. On a 5-week trip to Africa, I took a mini Ipad and a keyboard and when everyone else in our 15-member group was napping or relaxing, I wrote 500 words—much fewer than my usual 2,000, but still, writing. Once the 500 was done, I could do as I pleased, but that was my way of keeping in the game.

2)   High energy level. Part of it is luck. I’m like my dad. He was always busy with something. In order to feed that energy, I have a good health program—I work out every day and try to maintain a diet that I know helps my energy level. (notice I said “try” I don’t always succeed)

3)   I’m focused. When I turn my attention to something, I’m all in. If I take a phone call while I’m in production-mode, I’d better write down what the conversation was about, because I may not remember it if I’m focused on what I’m working on.

4)   Limited social media. People think I spend a lot of time on social media because I’m highly visible. But I watch few videos and I skim the content for things I’m interested in. Once I’ve been on for twenty minutes or so, I start to feel antsy to move to something productive.

5)   Attitude. I’m an upbeat person in general. I love writing and feel incredibly lucky to be able to do it. But like anyone, I get upset or annoyed. I feed those things into my writing. Sometimes being a happy person doesn’t work so well for my writing. A couple of times I’ve been well into a book when I realized it didn’t feel lively. Every single time it meant I was making all the characters too “nice.” When I went back and added annoying characters or one with shady secret or who engendered conflict, the story picked up right away.

6)   Here’s a time management tip that has served me well: Don’t do things twice. I took a time management course, and my takeaway was, when you pick up something that needs to be done, if at all possible, don’t put it aside for later--do it now. Otherwise, you’ll have to go back and reread it a second before you take action. Of course it can’t always be avoided, but most of the time it can. I often have people say, “Thanks for getting back to me so fast.” It’s because I find it saves time to get back to someone right now rather than waiting so that I have to remember what the communication was about.

7)   Here are a few things I wish I would do:

     --be more organized with my email correspondence. I keep promising to use folders, but then I forget.
     --use my calendar more wisely
     --get an assistant, which I keep promising myself to do
     --get a bigger desk!

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Wonder of Me ; )

It’s a New Year – and we Criminal Minds are taking the chance to (re)introduce ourselves. First up – how we’ve arrived where we are in our writing career.

by Paul D. Marks

My name is Paul and I’m a wordaholic. I write ’em. I read ’em. I horde ’em. I find secret hiding places for them. How the hell did I get in this fix?

I started young. At first I didn’t mainline. I just read a few words here and there, cat, dog, see Spot run. Then I began to string more and more words together, until I could read a whole book. Sure, it might have been a little Golden Book, but a book. These were my ‘gateway’ books to other, longer and harder books.

As Bob Dylan said, “I started out on burgundy, But soon hit the harder stuff.”

And since I already did my Adventures in La La Land post both here and at SleuthSayers ( ), which introduced a lot of my influences this will focus more on my writing history. So here’s the wonder of me (not totally in chronological order):

I’m a multi-generation L.A. native. Being from L.A. definitely influenced my writing and probably my career choices as well. It was a good city to grow up in........the city of Raymond Chandler’s “mean streets,” Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer and Cain’s Double Indemnity. In fact, I grew up in a Spanish-style house very much like the one that Barbara Stanwyck lives in in the movie version of Double Indemnity. A film noir town for a film noir kid.

I was born in the heart of Hollywood, literally. And, even though no one in my family was in the film biz, it must have been destiny, providence, fate, kismet that I ended up a script doctor (Hey, mom, I’m a doctor…), even though my initial “goal” was to be a rock star. But as someone who did make it as a rock star said, ““Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

As a kid I loved reading and watching movies. My first venture into “writing” was when I would pretend my army men were on a film set instead of a battlefield and use TinkerToys as Klieg Lights. So I was creating scenarios, making my little men talk, move and go through plots of one sort or another. Eventually I lost the men and started doing pretty much the same thing on a typewriter and now a computer, making characters talk, move and go through the paces of plots of one sort or another.

My long and winding road to becoming a professional writer started with writing songs for that rock superstardom that was sure to come. Yeah, they were classics. (Well, some weren’t so bad.)

My first paid writing gig was for a piece on John Lennon for one of the L.A. papers. What a thrill to see my name in lights, or at least on newsprint and, of course, to get a check. Wow!

While still doing that, I was also trying to break into Hollywood, so I could see just how far Sammy really could run. I would try almost anything to get noticed and have people read my scripts. I’d send letters to everyone. The bigger they were, generally speaking, the nicer they were. Gene Kelly invited me to his house to drop off a script. And when I got there he invited me in for a chat. Cary Grant called me—twice. (And you ought to hear where I was the second time he called, that story can be found on my website.) Burt Reynolds asked to take a look at a script. I got invited to pitch to the biggest producers of the day. And more. And eventually I started getting work as a script doctor, no credit, no glory, but fun, at least for a time. So a fun time was had by all, except for the screaming matches or the producer threatening to send his friends in the Mossad after me after an argument. Y’know, fun, like Day of the Locusts. Fun.

At one point, I shot a film on the last surviving MGM backlot, giving me the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have shot a film on any of the fabled MGM backlots before they bit the dust to make way for condos. According to Steven Bingen, one of the authors of the well-received book MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot: “That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his [Paul D. Marks’] name on it.”

And after several years, I went back to grad school at USC, where, even though I was a cinema major I took an advanced short story class from T. Coraghessan Boyle. Today, after donations from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and others, the cinema department at SC just about rivals any major studio with top of the line equipment and modern buildings. When I went there the soundstage was an old army cavalry barn and the editing rooms were the former horse stalls. I think we could still hear the ghosts of the horses. Things being what they were, I never did finish my degree. Sometimes I actually think about going back and doing that.

So after years of optioning scripts that paid well but didn’t get produced, doing rewrites, with my dad never being able to figure out what I did for a living, I guess I became one of the disenchanted, plus I wanted more autonomy. Didn’t want everyone and their chef and gardener sticking their two cents in, saying how something should be done, so I started writing short stories and novels (ah, those glorious rejection slips, but they did make nice targets).

The transition from screenwriting to prose was a difficult one. Screenplays are great for structure, not so hot for description. And people said my first stories and novels read like screenplays. It took a while for me to be able to do description and interior character thoughts. (See the piece I did for Ellery Queen Magazine’s Something is Going to Happen site for more on the differences between novels, stories and screenplays: )
So I honed my craft and one of those early novels, maybe my first, hard to remember now, was even accepted for publication at a major publisher. Of all things, it was about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood and as absurd as much of it was, little of it was made up. But then the sky fell in. The whole editorial department at that publisher was swept out and new brooms sweeping clean and all of that, the new editors dumped me and my novel. So the experience was like something out of a Hollywood movie…minus the happy ending. And by the time all this happened the humor in the novel was dated as it had a lot of topical satire, so it couldn’t go to another publisher right away and, in fact, went on my shelf. But you know what they say about satire anyway, it closes Saturday night. Still, some day I’ll resurrect this tale.

Eventually, I started placing short stories here and there and slowly started reaching some of my prose writing goals and winning writing awards along the way, which is a great honor and thrill.
One of my goals was finally reached when my story Howling at the Moon was published in Ellery Queen and it was short-listed for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards, as well as coming in # 7 in the Ellery Queen Reader’s Award Poll, I also reached another writing milestone when my story Deserted Cities of the Heart was published in Akashic’s St. Louis Noir last year.

And sappy as it sounds, I hope this is just the beginning of the journey. So there you have it, the wonder of me.


And now for the usual BSP:

Coming on January 30th from Down & Out Books:
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea 
A collection of 15 Private Eye stories from some of the best mystery and noir writers from across the country. Available for pre-order now on Amazon:

And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703


Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Dozy Daisy Dreamboat" grows up

The garret I starved in.
Miss Shaughnessy - my primary one teacher (and how's that for a name five-year-olds have to learn to spell?) - dubbed me "Dozy Daisy Dreamboat" because I spent more time looking out the window and making up stories than I did trying to . . . do whatever the rest of them were doing. I wouldn't know.

And she was right. My Godmother, Aunty Doreen, lived opposite the school and said she used to see me, chin in hands, leaning on the windowsill, totally oblivious  to everything in the classroom behind me.

On parents' night, my report was "over-imaginative and too full of nonsense".

Again, fair comment. I made up many stories when I was a wee girl. Some I wrote down, but most I just doled out to my family: I've gone blind! There's a snake in my bed! And the worst: A strange man followed me home! (Sorry, Mum. Sorry, Dad.)

I remember the day it stopped. I was fourteen and a careers adviser visited the school. She asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a writer. She said: "Don't be daft. You're a clever girl. You could stay on and go to university, get a good job."

So I stayed on at school, did an MA and a PhD and got a good job, as a university lecturer. My degrees weren't even in English literature. I did one year and reckoned I'd never enjoy reading another novel as long as I lived unless I switched courses. That year of literature even made me hate Jane Austen (for a while).

Twenty years in all I spent not writing, unless you count essays, a thesis and lectures. The last five of them were utterly miserable. I worked in a School of English with an atmosphere like dementors' breath, teaching linguistics, watching more students fail to find any joy in studying literature.

Then one night, in a cinema carpark, moaning to my pal about how much I hated my job, it all came back. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to leave school. I didn't care if it was daft. I wanted to rip off my grey cardigan and reveal the spangly costume of Dozy Daisy Dreamboat.

So I resigned, we sold our house and moved to a dilapidated farmhouse with a peppercorn rent (see above) and I got stuck in.

Book one went in a drawer after forty rejections. Book 2 was the first in a series about a 1920s detective, channelling the golden-age authors I've always loved. Skipping ahead a bit, I'm expecting the page proofs any day now for the twelfth in the series. It's in development for television and there's a radio adaptation in the works.

As well as those twelve novels in the series, I've written five contemporary standalones in the psychological thriller/suspense sub-genre. I'm currently working on number seven and emailing back and forth about jacket copy for number six.

All my books are set in Scotland (except one foray a hundred miles over the border, to Yorkshire) but I've just finished the first in a trilogy that take place in the US. We're currently discussing titles, taglines and jackets. It's probably going to be SCOT FREE: a Last Ditch Mystery "the lighter side of the dark underbelly of the American dream". But it's probably not going to have an image of a woman floating in a pool dreaming of a Highland Cow standing in a loch.

My sharpie sketch of a possible jacket

That was the other big swerve in my life so far. In 2010 at the age of forty four, I left Scotland and moved to Davis, CA. It was always the plan, when I gave up academia, that I'd chum along if my husband got a job somewhere. Could have been Aberystwyth, or Wagenigen. Turned out it was California. Heigh-ho.

I have no regrets about the twenty years, nor even about the five years of crying in my office in between lectures, because nothing makes you surer you're finally in a round hole than the memory of spending decades in a square hole, picking out splinters and dabbing yourself with rubbing alcohol.

Besides, I think the only way to get where I am is the way I came. And there's nowhere else I'd rather be. Dozy forever!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Confessions of a mystery Cathy Ace

“How we’ve arrived where we are in our writing career.”

It’s good to start the year with a bit of contemplation about where one is in life, and this blog’s going to give me a chance to do that in terms of my “writing career”. In fact, I’ve found it a useful thing to do, as I’m at something of a turning point in said “career”. 

I’ve always written – as many people have. I just didn’t write fiction. Not for a living in any case. I wrote for my clients. Yes, I’m one of those people who made their living in marketing, advertising and public relations, turning out articles about cable ladders and stationery, electrophoresis equipment and software programs. I wrote copy for ads about jewelry and oil rig builders, bus advertising systems and real estate developers. I was extremely fortunate that I had the chance to write for a living for twenty years. Always to deadlines, always on behalf of clients. My career was in the broadest range of marketing communications, and I even had nine post-graduate and management textbooks published on various topics in the field while I was running my own marketing and marketing communications management training company.

As for writing fiction…well, it's what I've always read. I’d entered a short story competition entitled “Murder and be published” for a British women’s magazine called “Company” back in 1988 and was fortunate to be one of the winners whose work was, indeed, published. That short story, “Dear George”, was then picked up to appear in another anthology entitled “Thrillers” edited by John Foster and containing other tales by well-known authors like Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham and Peter Lovesey (I was the only writer in there I hadn’t heard of!). The book was put on the syllabus for all 16 year-old English Language students in the UK – I was gobsmacked and delighted. I had also just set up my own business (this was in 1989) so I’m afraid that was it for me as far as fiction was concerned – I had to be content to be a “one shot wonder”.

In 2007 I received an email out of the blue from the wonderful British actor, Martin Jarvis. I was delighted that he and his equally talented wife, Rosalind Ayres, had discovered said short story and wanted to produce it for a BBC Radio 4 series entitled “Murder She Thought”, featuring short stories by “new” female mystery authors. By this time I had migrated from the UK to Canada, had sold my business, and was “giving back” as a marketing lecturer at Simon Fraser University, having been imported to Canada by the University of British Columbia to teach marketing on their MBA course. One of the proudest moments of my life was listening to Alex Kingston (yes – Dr. Corday from ER or, as I prefer to think of her, River Song from Doctor Who) perform my short story on the radio; I sat in Canada listening, while my mum and my sister listened in Wales. It was epic. Tears were involved. 

My father’s death, and the realization we aren’t immortal, allowed the idea of writing fiction to worm its way into my bereaved brain. I already had one short story which began (in the form of a diary) on January 1st, why not take that and run with it? So I wrote eleven more tales of murder to build a book entitled “Murder: Month by Month” with each of the twelve stories pivoting on one month of the year. I self-published it. Mum was beyond proud. Then I stretched myself and produced a collection of four novella entitled (you guessed it) “Murder: Season by Season”. 

With two self-published volumes to my name, and some encouraging sales figures, I approached a Vancouver Island publisher with my two books and a ransom note, begging them to “release my characters”. They asked for a novel manuscript featuring Cait Morgan (one of the recurring characters in my two self-published volumes), and that was published (after a tortuous period of time when I learned how long things take in the world of publishing) in March 2012 as the first Cait Morgan Mystery, “The Corpse with the Silver Tongue”. 

Since then I’ve had seven more Cait books published, have found myself an agent, and now have had three books published in a second series – the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries feature four soft-boiled female private investigators who run their business out of a Welsh stately home. Book four in this series is what I’m working on right now, and it’s due to my publisher by the end of February 2017.

After that? Well, you’ll have to wait and see…this blog post is supposed to be about how we got to where we are today, not to take the chance to gaze into a crystal ball…stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In a nutshell...

This is the second reintroduction week: I've been reading with interest so far. Who are you? and Why the heck do you write? and How's it going?

It's like that first day of class, when the teacher asks everyone to say a little about themselves. I used to freeze up on even this minor challenge, but I've gotten better. Nowadays I say:  "Hi, I'm Rachel".... And then, depending on context, "I'm a writer" or "I need to learn how to format columns in Excel," or whatever. Not very colourful, but I don't mind. I actually don't like adventure much—except when it comes to fiction.

About myself:  I am basically Canadian, and grew up in a relatively bohemian home, honey and granola and not too many rules. I logged a lot of miles on foot around Vancouver in the early days. Then bumped into a guy on a beach, got married, had a kid, moved to the northern interior and secured my first respectable job, as a court reporter.

My writing career: As a tot I discovered my dad's typewriter, and realized that my amazing life could be documented. The teen me moved onto fiction. The young adult me was forced to ditch the make-believe and become employed. I continued to write, but in the abstract sense of angst-riddled poetry. Then found true love, lost the angst, and moved forward into the realization that I am but a cog and writing is time-wasting nonsense. Until...

I was working up north, as mentioned, in my first respectable job. Having the north to myself as a court reporter was great, because I got to take down entire trials:  fraud, sexual assaults, custody battles, MVAs, murder... Of course it made me want to write. Except I had no time, until....

One week I had to attend an out-of-town assignment, way up in Prince Rupert. Winter, horrible roads, so I took the Greyhound, giving me hours to mull. I've always liked to read crime fiction, but had quickly run out of my-kind-of-books from our small-town library, and so there on that bus I thought I would write my own.

I did, and the years went by. Some years I wrote a lot, some not much at all, but I wound up with ten or so decent drafts of full-length novels.

A bit about the books:  My main protagonist is an RCMP constable with a disastrous past. Dion's not-so-virtuous but easy glide through life has hit the pavement, literally. The car crash has become a blood-spattered milestone in his career, where all that came before is a mess of secrets he desperately needs to keep buried, and all that comes after is a mess of trying to get back to what he sees as his perfect, pre-crash self: brave, dashing, funny, sociable... coincidentally things I've always wanted to be myself!

Dion is not enjoying his journey of learning what matters, but I am, and I think that's also why I write, to put him through the paces, him, me, all the people I love, the things I can't say, the things I want to say, the tears and absolute hilarity that catches my attention and has nowhere to go but into my fiction.

After a long, rocky road, in 2016 this happened:

And soon, this...coming in March:


My third is now with the publisher, and I'm working on the fourth.

However lucky I feel that I hit the right buttons or chose the right door, I am much the same as before publication; I still write with great doubt alternating with great pleasure. I fear reading what I've run out of time to edit—including this blog once it's out there, and when I receive my ARC copies in the mail, I'd rather stick them in the compost than have to look back at all the bad choices I know I've made. But these are just stock-in-trade writer demons, and I'll get used to them...someday.

The really fabulous change is that I have met so many people in the course of this adventure, and a whole gang of writer friends, including the six other (or nine, actually) 7 Criminal Minds who so faithfully keep this blog going—so read onward....!

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.” Frodo Baggins about Bilbo, The Fellowship of the Ring, Three is Company

Monday, January 9, 2017

The backstory

How did I go from being a bossy brat in the 3rd grade to being a not-quite-famous author today?

-from Susan

I have a brother three years younger and a sister six years younger. I remember arranging them under a mulberry tree and writing spelling words on a leaf with my fingernail for them to learn in my writing class. Seriously.

By fifth grade, I was publishing the Wolff Weekly, fortunately only within the family – editions of three papers (two carbons) complete with heds, deks and ledes, a masthead and ‘photos’ drawn by me. I kid you not. In the tenth grade, I was not only an editor on the school newspaper but had a regular single-panel cartoon in the Rochester something-or-other – can’t recall but it was the morning daily. In my senior year I was co-art director and an editor of the yearbook. You’re getting the pattern here?

With two parents in journalism and a stepfather who was a filmmaker, there was no way I was going to be a writer or reporter, of course, so I became a Practice of Art major. But the resolve to find a different path from my writerly family faded and I graduated from college with a double major (actually I had three but that’s another story and the university told me I had to choose only two for the record): English Lit and Comparative Lit. I used to enter New York Magazine “write this in the style of…” contests all the time and actually won a few – heady stuff.

But what do you do with those shiny degrees when you have two young children? When we moved to California, I became a freelance newspaper and magazine writer. In my best year, I was published in almost a dozen local and national publications, some almost weekly, and was loving it until I looked at my income and realized I was the hamster on the wheel.

Somewhere along the way, I won a newspaper contest to finish a serial novella by the great John D MacDonald (he was the judge). The prize was a year’s membership in Mystery Writers of America. I met so many cool people and they seemed to be having an awful lot of fun. Softly, quietly, an idea began to form…

For income, however, I pivoted to public relations, worked for several wonderful college and universities, did reams of writing, a lot of it at the senior exec level because the presidents of those schools trusted me with access and the power to put words in their mouths and on paper, lots of the work being sensitive. Along the way I picked up fundraising skills and special event assignments and wrote a lot of wonderfully persuasive pitches and encomiums. I ran a consulting practice for almost 11 years, and had the thrill of working with a handful of the most important human origins scientists on the planet. When a university came calling and offered me the kind of salary and position I couldn’t refuse, I settled in for what I thought would be the duration of my career. But that little voice…

My sweetie finally nudged me off the end of the diving board, pointing out that we only go around once, at least in this form. I wanted so much to write one mystery and so I quit my day job (gulp), wrote the book, and found an agent, who – wonder of wonders – sold it. Today, that series is three books and the first in a brand new series comes out from St. Martin’s Minotaur in May. If you strip away all the fluff, it’s a pretty straight line. Start writing at eight, get a book contract five decades later. Easy peasy.