Write First, Clean Later

Staying Sane While Working at Home

My commute was up the stairs. My workday was self-directed, flexible, and light on responsibility. Most people would call it the ideal job. For me, working at home for a magazine was a long slow descent into depression, anxiety, and claustrophobia. The rest of the magazine staff was in New York, and a week at a time would pass without a call from my co-workers. E-mails simply served to exchange files. I was alone for eight or nine hours a day for more than a year and it drove me insane. I am a social creature. I generate energy from being around people. But that period in my life was years ago, before CrimeSpace, Facebook, Twitter, and list servs.

Now I’m working at home again as a novelist and freelance editor. So far, I’m loving it. But it is different this time. I’m connected to people through the Internet, and I’m able to set my own hours and take breaks when I want. But I worry about what it will be like for me six months or a year from now. I want this career phase to work out long term. So here’s my strategy for staying sane while working at home:

  1. Make time to reach out to people on the Internet periodically throughout the day.
  2. Have lunch with real-live person once a week.
  3. Conduct interviews in person even if they can be done by phone.
  4. Schedule regular social activities (such as weekly bowling with my brothers).
  5. Join a writers group and meet periodically (I haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my list).
  6. Open Pandora, click my funk station and dance for five minutes at least twice a day. Dancing is so joyful, it wards off depression.

I assume that most of the people I interact with throughout the day also work at home. So tell me, how do you keep from getting cabin fever?

Blogs: Opinion Versus Promotional

I started to blog this morning about McCain’s VP pick, then realized it was not a good idea. This is not that kind of blog. If you had to break down blogs into only two categories, they would fall into either opinion blogs or promotional blogs. As opinionated as I am, this blog falls in the promotional category—it’s about reaching out to readers and writers and letting them get to know me (with the idea that eventually they’ll buy my products).

And so, there are many subjects that are off limits to my blog, and many things about me that I can never share. There are many books that I will never review on this site. It is too easy to alienate people (readers) just by mentioning, hypothetically for example, that I don’t read books that have cats on the cover or in title. I would never say that here. There are too many cat-loving readers and writers out there who would be offended. (As info: PS Your Cat Is Dead by James Kirkwood is one of my favorite books.) So my goal is to be a gracious host and blogger and keep politics (and many personal opinions) out of the conversation.

Other bloggers blur this line, vacillating between opinion and promotion with occasional side trips into the too-personal. For them, anything is fair game and every opinion is worth stating. Some, I believe, would call me a hypocrite or a chicken for limiting my subjects. What do you think? Do blog categories exist? Do you have expectations that some blogs should stay nonpolitical?

Easy Effective Edits

I’ve been editing the first draft of my new novel, and I became aware of some changes I consistently make—for the better. I’ll share them here, in case you find them useful.

1. I get rid of the word “it” and replace it with the specific thing that I’m referring to, even if I just named that thing in the previous sentence. “Jackson reached for his Glock. The weapon felt heavy in his hand” is better than “Jackson reached for his Glock. It felt heavy in his hand.” In verbal communication, repetitive use of “it” may be acceptable, but in narrative writing such lack of clarity is ineffective and often confusing.

2. The same is true of overuse of pronouns. So I’ve also consistently replaced “she,” “he,” and “they” with the specific name of the character(s). Sometimes it feels too formal to use the character’s name three times in a paragraph, but if the character, say, a guy named Jack, is talking about the suspect, a guy named Vinnie, then referring to either of these guys as “he” can be confusing to the reader. This is a point that Stephen King makes in his great book On Writing.

3. The third most consistent edit I make is to tweak individual scenes so that they read like mini-stories, with mounting tension, a climax, and a conclusion. The exception to that structure are scenes at the end of chapters, which I often leave with a revelation, a hint of a revelation, or a great deal of uncertainty (aka, cliffhangers).

My Greatest Fan


I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Isaac Hutchison, my greatest fan. He’s a military police officer stationed in El Paso, Texas. He just found out he’s going back to Iraq in January. He already spent a year and half of his young life there, but he serves his country willingly and proudly. And I am proud—beyond words—of him.

My proudest moment as an author came many years ago after a midnight phone call. I stumbled to the phone, half asleep and half panicked, thinking, “What’s wrong?” Isaac’s voice came on the phone and said, “Oh my God. You blew me away.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I just finished your novel, and I had to call you and tell you how much I loved it. I loved your characters. I want to be Eric.” He recently told me he read that particular novel four times. And it’s possible my story character shaped who he turned out to be—a thoughtful, passionate man who cares about so much of the world beyond himself.

Isaac was also my first fan. He started reading my novels almost 20 years ago when they were still in manuscript form. Anytime I printed a copy of a novel or first three chapters that wasn’t good enough to send out, the stack of paper would go into a recycling box for the kids to use as math scratch paper or for drawings. Isaac would grab a stack of paper from the box, take it to his room, and read chunks of my stories. They were often just bits and pieces, 10 pages of this section and 40 pages of something else. He would often ask me to tell him how it all turned out.

Years later, he was as excited as I was to finally see my novels in print. Today, he brags about me and my writing to anyone who will listen. Now he’s waiting anxiously for the next installment. Whenever I’m having anxiety about not being good enough, I can count on him for moral support. I’m lucky to have such a fan. And such a fine son.

2 Hours/12 Minutes Without a Computer

When my miniMac produced the message “Restart Your Computer” in about five languages, I called Rent a Nerd. Doug said the problem was serious and that he needed to take my computer to his house for a few hours to reinstall my operating system using his computer.

7:07 p.m.: He unplugged my lifeline and walked out the door.

My heart pounded as I watched him drive away. For five minutes, I couldn’t focus. I paced the house, trying to reassure myself that it would all turn okay. I had used my flash drive earlier to back up everything I ever wrote—seven novels, five scripts, hundreds of magazine articles, hundreds of query letters, dozens of essays, a handful of blogs, and a zillion other little things. It took 23 minutes to preserve a lifetime of work.

I couldn’t stay still. So I started to clean. I swept and mopped the floors, then looked at the clock: 7:36: What now? It was way too early to sit down and relax with a book. That doesn’t happen until 10 p.m. and not always then.

I started writing this blog in my head as I dusted the living room. My fingers itched to get the words down as they came to me. But I had no computer. I went back to my husband’s office to see if he wanted to take a walk. He wasn’t around. But there sat his computer, monitor on and keyboard still warm. It’s a PC! I thought. But I needed to write. I needed to be productive. I can do this, I thought. I wrote my first novel on a Commodore 64, my second novel on a Brother word processor, and my third novel on a primitive PC. I looked around his menu for some kind of Word software and couldn’t find any! His Gmail was open, so I clicked “Compose” and started to write. It was awkward using a standard keyboard and Big Bear chair, but I had a story to tell. So I wrote most of this blog in an e-mail and sent it to myself.

8:15 and no call. I found my husband and we went for a walk, cell phone clutched tightly in hand.

9:02 and the phone finally rings. Doug did not have good news. I needed a new machine. But he brought my wounded Mac back to me and fired it up.

9:19 and I’m back in Word, online, and in my familiar world.

Yes, I am addict. And there is no cure.

Trikes, Tattoos, and Turning 40


This morning I’m posting an essay I wrote a few years ago. It’s an opportunity to get to know me (and my writing). If I were to write a similar essay today, it would be called “Pain, Pools, and Turing 50.” (Sounds like a another blog.)

Last Friday my husband turned 40. This weekend he’s putting the finishing touches on a three-wheeled motorcycle he built from scratch during the last few months. Are these things related? I think so.

First, the man is no mechanic. A fine cabinetmaker and all-around handyman, yes. But typically, I can’t even get him to change the oil in my car without nagging. So last fall when he announced he was going to build a vehicle, I was stunned. And skeptical. I kept it to myself of course, after gently asking, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do, honey? You know how much you hate to work on cars.”

But the “trike” was different—a funky blend of Volkswagen bug and Goldwing motorcycle that resembles a mutant dune buggy with fat tires and cool handle bars. The trike became an obsession. First he brought home the decrepit orange “bug” that would become a fixture in our yard for months. Then he spent hours searching the Internet for information, downloading hundreds of trike pictures in the process. Entire weekends were consumed with trips to Harrisburg and Springfield, tracking down obscure parts and make-shift pieces. Then the long haul began, night after night spent in the garage, step by painful step, putting the thing together.

My husband is not an electrician either, but he mastered the wiring system of a VW and recreated it to make the trike street legal. He also taught himself to weld steel, do extensive bodywork, apply fiberglass, and paint metal. It’s been a tremendous amount of work. I’ve never seen him so happy. Or so obsessed.

Turning 40 isn’t easy. You hear about men buying spendy red sports cars or running off with their secretaries. I’m proud of him for turning his mid-life anxiety into a creative endeavor that the whole family can enjoy. But I’m glad it’s over. The weekly trips to Furrow’s and Knecht’s began to drain our checking account. And I started to think he’d conceived the project just as an excuse to accumulate every tool he ever wanted. (Who really needs a compression gage?)

But I’m mostly anxious to get out on the road. I grew up with motorcycles and have missed the rush of adrenaline that kicks in as you swing your leg over the seat and fire up the motor. I’ll be forty soon enough myself, so I know what he’s been feeling. In fact, I found myself in a tattoo parlor yesterday afternoon having a blue butterfly etched into my calf. How did this happen? my mother and husband both wanted to know.

It was easier than you might think.

The night before, a youngster where I work announced her intention of getting a tattoo, and I was hit with a pang of jealously. I’d wanted one since I was a teenager. But I’d always worried that someday I’d be 40 and cringe at the sight, hearing that nag in my head say, “What in the hell were you thinking?”

But that day was almost here, and so still was the desire. Even the design and color I wanted remained unchanged after 20 some years. When another co-worker, also approaching the big 4-0 said, “Let’s do it,” I thought, why not?

It was a great adventure, a day filled with the same nervous excitement I experience before boarding an airplane—that tumultuous feeling of knowing that when I walked out of there, I would never be exactly the same again. And liking the thought.

Yes, I know, someday I’ll be 60, and possibly I’ll look at my tattoo and shake my head. But I’ll know what I was thinking when I got it. I was thinking that life is short and the thrills are few and far between once mid-life (parentally inspired) maturity sets in. So to hell with convention. Next weekend I’ll throw my tattooed leg over the seat of a trike and ride with the wind.

10 Ways to Keep Your Writing Organized

I’m currently working through the second draft of Secrets to Die For, and I’m continuously reminded of, and grateful for, all the things I do during the first draft that help me create a story without any major glitches: In case it might help you, here’s my process:

1. Once I have a basic story idea, I create an outline. Some people (Stephen King) will tell you not to. (But he’s Stephen King). I fill in as much detail as I can, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments (As info: I use Word, that’s it. No fancy creative writing software.)

2. Next I create a list of POV characters and generate a brief personality sketch and physical description for all. (My rule is never more than 5 or 6 POV characters telling the story, and some of those only have small speaking roles.) Eventually, for POV characters that reoccur in other stories, I add all this information to my long-term character database.

3. Begin writing. I don’t worry about perfect opening lines at this point. It’s important to get the story moving.

4. Fill in the rest of outline as I write first 50 pages or so. Once I’m writing, ideas for the second half keep coming to me, so I add to the outline.

5. Keep an idea journal. As I write, I constantly get ideas (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?), so I enter them immediately into a Word file. Some of these never get used, but some prove to be crucial.

6. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about a week or 10 days, and some events happen around the same. I keep the timeline filled in as I write each scene. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when the interrogation took place (Monday, 8 a.m: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster and easier than scrolling through a 350-page word document. And the timeline keeps one POV character from referring to events that haven’t happened yet to another character.

7. Create comprehensive name/detail list. As I write, I keep a list for every named person in the story and include any details they have (physical description, phone number, address, etc.) That way, if I’m trying to remember what I named the morgue assistant, it’s right there in my Word file (morgue assistant: Zeke Plamers).

8. Stop after 50 pages. Then I go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case anyone wants to see the first 50 pages or 3 chapters.

9. Use the highlight feature to tag things I want to come back to, such as a street names for a scene in a particular neighborhood. I don’t let these details interfere with the flow of writing.

10. Keep a list of things to fix. As problems or questions come up (How does Jackson know about Conner’s vehicle?), I enter them into my Fix file, which I keep open at all times when writing. I also glance through it before I begin writing each day.

My first draft is usually lean, mostly dialog and action, but of course it includes some character development and all physical descriptions. In the second draft I fill details for scenery, add some scenes, and slow the story down in places. Never too much description, of course. I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard, who says he leaves out all the stuff that people skip over and don’t read.

My process is in no way perfect, so feel free to share your writing process tips.

Packing for Bouchercon

I’m getting excited about Bouchercon, coming up in October—my first mystery reader/writer conference. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll be picked for a panel. It’s not likely, but I’m always optimistic. When I booked my flight, I had planned on traveling to Bouchercon with my good friend and fellow mystery novelist, Elaine Flinn. But her back condition will keep her home (boo!), so now I’m on my own. But I want to get this right so I’ve already made a list of promotional things to bring and giveaway:

50 books (The Sex Club, paperback, easy to travel with)
250 business cards
250 bookmarks
100 promotional flyers for my novel
50 promotional flyers for my editing services

I’m also considering making up bookmarks and flyers for my next novel, but is this appropriate? Especially since I don’t have a publisher or date yet? In promotion, repetition is key so the more times people see the name of this novel, the more likely they are to buy it once it comes out. What do you think?

And what am I forgetting? Those of you who have been to this conference, I am open to any advice you’d like to give: what to bring, what to expect, how to best spend my time, etc.

New Promotional Goals (daily, weekly, monthly)

I made a list of promotional efforts that I want to be more consistent about and decided to share my new goals.

Give out more bookmarks! I read about people who say they do this everywhere and with everyone, and I must get into the habit. Goal: Give out 3 bookmarks a day. And I intend to start ordering them in large quantities from online printers. (Nothing like having 2000 bookmarks sitting around to motivate you to give them away.)

Send out one e-mail a day to writer/mystery/review blogs offering to guest blog or participate in a Q&A.

Send out two e-mails a week to writers I know online offering a free copy of my novel. If they like it, they’ll probably say so. Free promotion from other writers is as good as it gets.

Spend 10 minutes a day on Goodreads in discussion forums and adding books to my list. This is a direct connection to readers.

Spend 10 minutes a day on CrimeSpace. I used to do this everyday, then got out of the habit when I started spending more time on Facebook and Twitter (and blogging everyday). As a result, I’ve noticed a drop off in the number of books I sell on Amazon.

Comment on two other blogs everyday. This one is easy, and I’d like to do more of it, but I have to leave some time for writing novels.

Write one article a month and offer it online magazines—even for no pay—just for exposure. (This will be the hardest one to keep up. I hate writing for free…except for blogging!)

Get all of this into an Excel spreadsheet so I can track it and not get sloppy.

Get up earlier to get it all done!

The Pros and Cons of Finding an Agent

Agents are still on my mind, and the world of publishing is changing fast. There are new questions and new answers every day. The question of whether to get an agent used to be a no brainer. Everyone agreed that having an agent was essential to publishing success. That may no longer be true. There are dozens of approachable small publishers. And my own personal experience with agents has not led to success. So now I’m faced with that decision again, and I’m getting conflicting advice. Here’s the pros and cons as I see them:

PROS
• An agent has access to editors at major publishing houses and can get your work read and accepted by people with the power to print a large quantity of your novel.
• A good agent can help you develop your story into a marketable manuscript.
• An agent can negotiate a better contract and maybe a better advance.

CONS
• Finding an agent can take months or years. (See Wednesday’s post.) And there’s no guarantee you ever will.
• An agent will take 15% of any earnings she or he contracts for you (and mystery writers are notoriously underpaid). Some agents steal from their clients. See Tess Gerritsen’s post on Murderati.
• Most agents will want to help shape your story. This can be good or bad. It’s all subjective. An editor may like your story better the way it is. You never know. Either way, it takes time.
• An agent may only submit your novel to five or six major publishing houses, then give up (leaving you to submit to small publishers anyway).
• An agent may quit or move to another another agency after you’ve signed a contract. (Yes, this happened to me too.)

The disadvantages seem to outnumber the advantages. But the first benefit is so huge, that if it happens, its tips the scale. But that’s still a big IF. And I keep reading stories about people who say they didn’t get published until they gave up on finding an agent.

Tell me what you think. Do you really need an agent?

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