Editing, Olympics, Family Reunion

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This week I’m editing my new novel. As I work, this is my view. It is. Really. It’s my office window. I’m looking at it, not at the TV in the living room. Where OLYMPICS OLYMPICS OLYMPICS are on. And please don’t remind me that I can live stream the Rio games straight from my computer or phone. I am editing.

Hang on while I check the men’s beach volleyball score.

Okay, back.

I’m also prepping for my family reunion in Austin this weekend. Dinner’s at six. If you want to see the bats, they take off at sunset from the Congress Street Bridge. Did anybody pick up Uncle Charlie from the airport? I warned you all: If you argue politics, I’m climbing to the roof of the hotel and ripping down the satellite dish so you can’t watch cable news anymore.

But mostly I’m editing. For those who wonder what kind of editorial notes I get on the early drafts of a novel, here’s a taste:

“This chapter needs a better out. There’s no escalation, complication, decision, cliffhanger or revelation but there ought to be.”

I fixed it.

And I’m going to print out that comment and nail it to the wall, to remind myself how every chapter in a novel needs to end.

Back later.

The Bouchercon 2016 playlist

All the panels at this year’s Bouchercon are named after songs. The convention’s in New Orleans, after all. Here are panel posters, designed by the con’s programming chair, Jon Jordan of Crimespree magazine.

It’s going to be fun.

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The entire panel song list is here.

Coming up: Bouchercon New Orleans

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Heads up: In September I’m attending Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention. This year it’s in New Orleans, and you can bet that it’s going to be fun. Here are some details and my preliminary schedule.

Bouchercon 2016
September 15-18, 2016
New Orleans Marriott
555 Canal Street
New Orleans, Louisiana

Panels:

WALK A MILE IN MY SHOES – Diversity, Disorder and Detection
THURSDAY, 9:00AM-9:50AM LaGalleries 6

DOIN’ WHAT COMES NATUR’LLY – Writing believable characters
SATURDAY, 1:30PM-2:20PM LaGalleries 1

I’ll also be one of the authors reading at Noir at the Bar New Orleans on Wednesday, September 14. More details on that soon.

I hope to see some of y’all in NOLA.

Blast from the Past: Writers’ Groups

Recently I was asked about how to put together a writers’ group. How often should it meet? How many members are ideal? Who should you include… or be wary of?

I recommended that a group meet every couple of weeks. And that every member should be required to bring new material to every meeting. And that a good size for a group is 5-8 people.

As for who to include, or not… here’s some advice I offered a few years ago. It still holds.

Writers’ Groups

I’ve mentioned my writers’ group before. It’s helpful, stimulating, forces me to set frequent deadlines, and provides camaraderie and inspiration. It works because we’ve learned how to give and receive constructive critiques, and because we’re all writers who are passionate about seeing our work published. We don’t dink around at our meetings. If we want to do that, there’s always Friday night, and the pub. Instead we print copies of the piece we’re sharing, read it aloud, get immediate feedback, and then either wallow in the warm glow of praise or attack each other with fingernails and pointy pens. No, not really. We wouldn’t damage pens – what kind of writers do you take us for?

There’s a lot to be said for writers’ groups, and plenty of places online where you can get good advice about how to run them successfully. For example, check out the 6′ Ferret Writers’ Group. So I’m not going to write a How To. But I do want to offer a few thoughts on How Not To. Specifically, I want to pass along some warning signs. These are people you want to be careful about working with in a writers’ group. If they sound like members of your group, you might want to gently urge them to move on to another activity. If any of them sound like you, then it might be why your last group suggested that you switch to scrapbooking.

And no, none of these archetypes are members of my own writers’ group. These are composites of people I’ve heard about over the years, drawn from the Live and Learn Files.

The not-such-a-wannabe. “No, I didn’t write anything for this meeting. I’ve been too busy. But I’m thinking of writing about camels. Or maybe space flight. Or my warts. What do you think I should write about? I mean, after I organize my closet. I won’t have time until then.” Members need to write, every time, or they need to leave.

The Egotist. This person comes in two forms: the diva, who monopolizes the group and draws their fawning attention, until it all becomes heroine worship; and the sneakier version, the earnest questioner, who absorbs lots and lots and lots of comments on his work, and then when it’s another writer’s turn, always brings the topic back around to his own piece again. “You’re so good at dialogue. How could I do something like that in my piece? How does dialogue work, anyway? I was thinking of doing…” And on and on.

The artiste. Her work has to be perfect. She frets over every single word. She frets so hard that she’s only written one page in the last year. Which she brings to every single meeting, and reads each time, so the group can help her decide whether anybody sounds more poetic than anyone in the opening paragraph.

The jealous artiste. She did a degree in Creative Writing. She’s going to suffer for her art. And so are you, because you don’t have a BA in Creative Writing and yet have the nerve to write fiction. Or as one such person said to me, “I hate your stories. But I suppose the world needs a lawyer with a sense of humor.” (Okay, so this particular person wasn’t a composite.)

The Black Hole of Need. “My third grade teacher told me I couldn’t write. He destroyed my self esteem.” That must have hurt. But honey, you’re 45 years old now. “I just can’t feel that anything I write is any good, because my teacher told me…” Agh. It’s good. It has nouns and verbs. It’s fine. But next time, please type it on a piece of paper and print copies for us, instead of reading a Haiku from a crumpled cocktail napkin. “Why? You don’t like it, do you? You don’t think it’s any good – you think I’m worthless, don’t you? Just like my teacher!” At this point, switching to Finnish, or declaring that from now on the group will only be speaking in tongues, might be the only thing that stops this person.

The paranoid. Sits gripping that single copy of the piece she’s brought to the first meeting, lips pursed, glaring suspiciously at everyone else. “Before I read, I need to make sure you have a confidentiality policy, and that it’s in writing. This is copyrighted material, and it’s so explosive that I can’t risk anybody stealing my idea.” Get rid of this person. Now. Before you get sued.

Some Thrillerfest highlights

Thrillerfest 2016 was exhausting in the best way. I taught a master class to a small group of newer fiction writers. I talked about how to make stories suspenseful. I managed not to cringe and hide under the table during the “Sex in Thrillers” panel. I heard David Morrell interview Walter Mosley. I visited Brooklyn, where the locals tried to make me feel at home by taking me to an Austin-themed bar (see above: Velvet Willie Nelson). I got in an argument with a New York City cabbie. In French. And I got to dress up and spend the evening at the Thrillerfest banquet with my son Mark.

What a life. I’m lucky to live it.

Hello from Thrillerfest

New York City

I’m in New York City for Thrillerfest. It’s the week when we authors descend on the city to practice the dark arts of suspense. And eat Reuben sandwiches.

Yesterday I taught an all-day workshop on writing, and this morning I taught a session on creating suspense on the page. My voice is already gone. So if you’re at the conference and strike up a conversation, I’m not giving you the silent treatment. I just can’t talk too much.

Or maybe I was struck speechless when I saw that Walter Mosley was also giving a talk to the conference: Plotting the Unconscious. WALTER MOSLEY. I sat in the front row, gasping in fangirl awe. I would have screamed like a teenager at a Beatles concert but, fortunately: my voice was already gone.

More reports to follow.

(Obligatory view from my hotel window: looking south across 42nd Street.)

Q & A: How can lawyers become novelists?

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I used to practice law. Now I write thrillers. Because of this, other lawyers write to ask me how to switch careers. And I recently taught a seminar on this topic at an American Bar Association conference. So I thought I’d share some of the most common questions I’m asked, and the answers I’ve given.

“How do you get published?”

Write the best book you can.

This is first, last, everything. Honest to God. Before you do anything else, write the book. Rewrite it. Edit it. Get feedback. Set it aside for a few weeks. Reread it. Polish it. And while you’re doing this, read, read, read. Read every novel in the genre you’re writing, to learn as much as possible about how great books are put together.

“What was going through your mind when you sensed you the need to switch careers? Did doubts arise? When did you write (time of the day)? At what point did you know it was time to jettison the law job for good?”

I always loved writing, and when I was practicing law, I found ways to write… short stories, freelance essays for small magazines, and of course a journal. After a few years as a commercial litigator I knew I was ready for a switch. I segued into teaching, and eventually wrote a publishable novel. This was after years of false starts and half-baked attempts that ended up in the filing cabinet.

I never doubted that I wanted to write fiction. I frequently doubted that I would get anything on the bookshelves. I had to be willing to carve out the time—in the evening, on weekends, after office hours—to write. I never gave up a job to write full time. I only got the opportunity to do that once my first book was bought by a publisher.

Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance!

I know many lawyers are / become writers, but it appears that you have done it successfully. At this point, since my books are ideas, notes, and outlines, and my law practice is very busy and profitable, it is hard to know what to do. Should I look for an agent or go the self-publishing route? What did you do and what would you recommend?

Going from practicing law to writing for a living was a long transition. Basically, I went from practicing commercial litigation to having three kids to teaching Legal Writing in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara, where I concurrently wrote short stories and magazine pieces, to making my first attempts at a novel. It was when all my kids were finally in school that I found the time to finish that first attempt at a novel… which wasn’t very good. And then to start again from scratch with something new, to finish that and finally, several years after I first dreamed of writing a book, to get that novel published. And then to write a sequel, and turn it into a series, and write a second series, and several stand alone novels—it’s a long road!

If you’re interested in writing, my only advice is to WRITE. If you want to write fiction, you’ll need to have a completed, polished manuscript before you start querying agents or consider self publishing. If you’re writing non fiction, and you want to go with a commercial publisher, you’ll need to work up a book proposal outlining the story, your qualifications to write it, and what kind of readership it would find.

My novels are published by Penguin Random House, and I’m happy about that. If you want to self publish, you need to be prepared to become a publisher and to do everything that goes with it: editing, cover design, marketing, publicity, and distribution. It should be a well-considered decision. And of course, once you become a writer, you’re self-employed, running your own business in an industry that’s in the throes of change. It can be a wild and bumpy ride. It’s a ride I’m glad I took—if you have a passion to write, work on getting the manuscript or proposal ready to go, then take it from there.

I hope this helps. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it—only passion and hard work.