Workshops & Seminars Coming in 2017

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Happy January, all. I hope you’re ready for the new year. In 2017 I’m going to be writing, and writing, and writing. My new novel, UNSUB, will be published in June, and I’m already digging in, writing the sequel.

I’m also going to be teaching some seminars and workshops — in both the real and virtual worlds. Here’s what I have coming up the first half of the year:

Granbury, Texas Writes
Texas Writes at the Hood County Library
Saturday, February 25, 2017 1 PM — 4 PM
222 N. Travis Street
Granbury, Texas 76048
Join us for an afternoon of writing instruction and discussion
Meg Gardiner | Suspense: Keep Characters in Peril and Readers Turning Pages
Susan Wittig Albert | Hook, line, and Sinker: Strategies to Keep Readers Reading
Free and open to the public. Pre-registration suggested (817) 573-3569

International Thriller Writers Online Thriller School
March 13 — April 28, 2017

ThrillerFest XII
July 11-15, 2017
Grand Hyatt New York City
Master CraftFest: Tuesday July 11, 2017. A hands-on workshop for writers of all levels. It’s an intense but extremely helpful day. Each class, which is limited to 10 students, will allow you to work with a best-selling author on your manuscript in progress.
CraftFest: Wednesday July 12, 2017. I’ll be teaching a 1-hour course on Suspense.
ThrillerFest: Friday-Saturday July 14-15, 2017.

If you’re interested in any of these events, check out the links.

Die Hard for the holidays

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During this festive season, whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, the Summer Solstice, Boxing Day, Hogmanay, Saturnalia, all of the above, or merely waking up in the morning, please be sure to enjoy that great holiday tradition: Die Hard. 

Yes, it’s the best action movie ever made. Yes, it’s a Christmas movie. Yes, because of this movie, my son once went to an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party wearing a gray sweatshirt on which he’d scrawled, “NOW I HAVE A MACHINE GUN HO-HO-HO,” which prompted someone to tell me I was a disgusting mother.

If you’re a thriller writer, watch Die Hard to see how it’s done. If you’re not, watch it to enjoy the story, the dialogue, the gutsy snark of Bruce Willis, and the gleaming, urbane menace of Alan Rickman.

Yippee-kai-yay!

Blast from the past: Knowledge can’t kill the Muse

I heard it again today: “Outlining is bad. It kills creativity.”

This drives me crazy. The thought that outlining a novel — that planning, thinking ahead, understanding your characters, figuring out the stakes in the story and what’s at risk… that having a working knowledge of dramatic structure — is inherently bad, makes me grind my teeth. What saddens me most is that I generally hear this from aspiring writers. That is, from writers who want to publish but haven’t yet finished a novel, or who abandon their work halfway through because the story is simply wallowing, or who’ve stuck five nascent novels in a drawer because the plot goes nowhere, and they can’t figure out why it isn’t working.

Not every novel must be outlined. But outlining can be a fantastic tool to unlock a work’s creative potential.

Repeat after me. Knowledge won’t kill your story.

Here’s a post from a few years ago. It bears repeating: Knowledge can’t kill the Muse.

The muse – the artist’s mysterious source of creative inspiration – can be killed. Drug abuse, self-indulgent hedonism, or decades spent in a stultifying job can fatally injure a person’s creativity. What cannot kill the muse is knowledge.

This might seem obvious, but I’ve heard writers and musicians say they would never study writing, or music, because discipline ruins creativity. Imagination must run free, they insist. Moreover, talent is innate, and must stay pure and unadulterated. (I once heard a pop star “confess” on a talk show that she had taken singing lessons. The host tried to salve the girl’s embarrassment, saying “That’s okay, even some opera singers have to take lessons.”) Creativity is intuitive, they think – and learning dramatic structure, or music theory, will strip the mystery from the creative process, destroying it. This boils down to fear. They think if you know what you’re doing, you’ll suck.

I disagree. Yes, knowledge can kill a mystery – when you’re talking about the Tooth Fairy. When you’re talking about writing, dancing, singing or painting, then gaining a deeper understanding of craft will enhance both your abilities and your joy – because you’ll create something good.

Okay, done with the ponderous ramblings. Here’s my point. Want to improve your writing? Read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

Scenes: Keep looking, and new things appear

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When I write, I generally start by sketching the outlines of a scene. What’s happening? What are the goals of the characters? What goes wrong, or erupts, or turns the scene on its head? When I rewrite, I try to go deeper: to ramp up conflict, explore the characters’ emotions, heighten the tension, add surprises and twists.

Then I take a step back to see what I’ve got. Often, I need to let somebody else read my work to find out what I’ve missed, and what depths are hidden in the story.

That’s how I felt when I saw this painting.

I was walking down a city sidewalk when I passed an art gallery with this work in the window. I was struck by the painting — it captured the southwest I remember from childhood summer road trips. Route 66 gets me every time.

I wondered who the artist was. Then I looked beyond the frame of the painting, at the artist’s photo on the wall of the gallery to the right. And at his name on the back wall, partially visible behind the painting. And I re-calibrated everything I’d been seeing, and thinking, about the exhibit, and the painting, and the artist.

Bob Dylan.

The guy is busy. No wonder he had to skip the Nobel Prize ceremony.

My point? Whether walking down the street, or listening to your kids, or doing research, or writing fiction… or songs…

You’ve got to take a second look, and a third. Reevaluate. Look deeper. Pay attention. See the whole scene, and look at it with fresh eyes. Because you never know the true scope of what’s there until you step back and really see.

In the photo, my image is faintly visible in the glass. Every creative work reflects the artist.

My life: texting with writers

What happens when a thriller writer texts with a close friend about exercise and home repairs? If the thriller writer is me, and the friend is another writer whose home has a concrete basement with a drain in the center of the floor, this.

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Always.

I love having buddies who speak my language.

And I presume that the relevant national security and law enforcement agencies are crawling through my friend’s neighborhood, searching for a basement window where Heisenberg is bouncing in and out of sight.

Murder & Mayhem in Milwaukee

I had a wonderful time committing Murder and Mayhem along the sunny banks of Lake Michigan. Milwaukee was welcoming and full of cheese. The conference was a blast. Mostly because I had the privilege of interviewing the incomparable Sara Paretsky. Enjoy these photos.

Today in my life: the robocall

(Phone rings)

ME: Hello?

CHIRPY VOICE: Hi! This is Ashley with consumer promotions!

ME: (Thinking… Ashley sounds suspiciously like a recording.)

ASHLEY: How are you today?

ME: I’m hanging upside down on a hook in a meat packing plant.

ASHLEY: Great! You’re eligible to win a Caribbean vacation!

ME: They’re coming for you next, Ashley.

ASHLEY: It’s exciting! Let’s get started!

And I went back to my coffee. Now people in Starbucks are giving me the side eye.