When I was little my parents packed my brothers and sisters and me into the back of a huge station wagon and headed to Palm Springs – in August! We’re talking 110 degrees in the shade. We didn’t have air conditioning in our car and the big six motels we stayed at had window air conditioners, but there was always a pool to cool us off. It was during one of these trips that I had my first taste of what would become an obsession with suspense and thriller fiction. It was the first time I surrendered to the suspension of disbelief.
In those days there were no freeways from Long Beach to Palms Springs, so it was a long drive. On that particular trip, there was a radio-play about a man who was eaten by army ants in a jungle. It was terrifying. Even worse, my parents never flinched. They looked like zombies staring at the endless ribbon of road. My brother turned his head to look at me just as the man on the radio screamed, but it was so dark all I saw were his glittering eyes. I was literally mute with terror. I had bad dreams for a month. I LOVED IT!
This week my brother sent me a link to that radio-play. Listening to it again not only made me feel like a little girl, it made me realize there were reasons I was caught up in the story. The characters were well drawn, the place was perfectly described, the suspense built incrementally and climaxed in a scene so terrifying I felt I was there. Bravo, to the writers and actors.
When it’s dark tonight, click the link and listen. I bet you’ll get a shiver up your spine too.
P.S. This radio-play was produced in 1957. I was 5 years old. Yike!
to move to action : stir up : spur on : urge on.
When I first saw this image, I paused. It almost looks as if the words are at war with one another. Just typing incite these days might result in an emotional response: dismay, frustration, and even fury. My author response was quite different. As with all words, the definition of this one depends on your point of view. From where I sit to incite is not political, it defines the core of my craft.
As an avid reader, I instinctively knew what made a story great: breathless action, sympathetic characters, and a plot that could intellectually engage me for hundreds of pages. What I learned as a fledgling writer was that I couldn’t have any of these things without a well-grounded inciting incident. This is the thing, the act, that sparks a literary fire.
Today, we seem to wake up to inciting incidents every morning. They are big, bold, and world changing. For an author, an inciting incident is a means to and end. My job is to see through the chaos and write about the individuals caught up in it. I must craft and communicate insights (noun; the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing) into the human condition that has been super-charged by the inciting incident.
I just published a novella entitled The Death of Me that illustrates this part of an author’s job. In The Death of Me, the inciting incident is the brutal murder of a gentle mountain grocer. The crime inflames the hero as a lawman, hurts his heart as the dead man’s friend, and illuminates his prejudices regarding his own community. Given this foundation, I was presented with choices. I could write about the sheriff’s emotional struggle, his procedural training, or his spiritual journey. Each choice would lead me in the direction of a different genre. I chose to address all three, but with an emphasis on the procedural aspects of the sheriff’s story because I am a thriller writer.
Still, the incident of the grocery’s murder would not be as interesting without the insights into those who survived him, loved him, hated him, and those who committed the crime. As the story unfolded, I was responsible for giving the cast of characters individual points of view about death, desire, love, and most of all justice. In other words, insights into the hearts and minds of each character informed the heart and mind of the hero and the reader.
I chose the image above precisely because it is meant to explain one thing but instead led me to quite another thought. This image is about spelling and yet in the context of our world today, in the hands of author’s and artists, there is no war between these two words. One word is not pitted against the other, one word should not be mistaken for the other. Rather the the meaning of the first word should make the second meaningful.
Last night all I could think about was the deadline for this blog post. I had put it off all month. At the last minute I was hoping to write something inspirational for both readers and writers. While hope springs eternal, I found myself pondering – and pondering – what that perfect message should be.
If I’m going to be honest, I knew I wouldn’t come up with anything substantial because I have been distracted. When I’m distracted I usually sit down with a friend at a coffee shop and hash out whatever is on my mind until I’m back on track. Since I can’t do that you’re ‘it’, my friends in a virtual coffee shop. I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing while I’ve been locked down and pondering this post. We’ll start with the garden and move on from there.
Tomato plants. I haven’t actually thought about the tomatoes as much as I have been checking on them. Going outside every fifteen minutes is a nice break from staring at my blank computer screen or at my husband napping on the couch. No matter how often I check, though, the tomatoes still have not turned red and my husband still has not gone back to work.
My fabric stash. Over the last eight weeks I have knocked it down some. Here’s the count: five blouses, a quilt top, a fully-lined summer suit (1 dress that would have fit 15 years ago when I was 25 pounds lighter), and ten face masks. Here’s my question: is sewing my stash like a tree falling in the forest or is it like ‘build it and they will come’? I think it’s the latter. When the day comes to have dinner in a restaurant I will have lots to wear.
Work. Honestly, my brain has been mush when it comes to writing a new book. I have an idea but I couldn’t get it to gel, so I looked through my files and reread some of my early work. I had so much fun that I edited and published five novels from the 90s. I also published The Death of Me, a novella I wrote that morphed into a novel (Before Her Eyes). These two works are as different as they are similar. Some times pondering one thing will lead to another. The trick is not to ignore the ‘other’. Productivity: mission accomplished.
Finally, I’ve been pondering important things: the individual versus the greater good, the constitution and ‘guidelines’ as our lockdown stretches into yet another week, another month, another century. My heart is sad for those who are sick and who have died; my heart is breaking for my relatives and friends who are losing their livelihood, home and, well, everything they have worked hard for. I won’t tell you which side I’m on when it comes to hunkering down or opening up. I will only say that I realize that what I have been pondering all along is something readers and writers have always been inspired by: story. No matter what road we choose there will be stories at the end of it. We are writing them now.
These will be tales of tragedy and triumph; there will be something to laugh at and something to cry over. We will all see these events – and each other – differently. Eventually there will come a time when we put pondering aside so that we can sit with friends at a coffee shop, tell our stories, and hug each other when all is said and done.
Diagnosing What Ails Your Career
As a writer, working from home during the Coronavirus outbreak is nothing new. What is unusual is that I have not been successful in starting a new novel. Not wanting to waste time stewing about my lack of inspiration, I decided clean house. At stake is my 35 year, 39 book , traditional and indie published career. This includes:
Having retained my rights over the course of my career, I republished all my books when Kindle hit the market. I did not reread those books, I have not re-formatted them since the original uploads, and I have not sold more than a handful. The category romances are so far removed from my thrillers that they don’t seem to be written by the same person. That led me to ask myself this: Is my early work hurting my brand? The answer was yes. Readers made that clear with every review. Now the question became, what should I do about it? The answer to that was a bitter pill.
I have an attachment to these category romances. They are proof that I paid my professional dues, that I worked hard, and that I grew into the author I am now. I thought readers would embrace this journey, but I was wrong. I also thought I loved these books, but I do not. That was hard to admit because these early books represent years of my life, the agony and triumph of traditional publishing, and my point of view not only as an author but as a woman moving through the decades. Admitting these books are amateurish was difficult. Once I did though, it was time for professional triage. This is what I have done.
1. Immediately removed all category romances from every platform.
2. All stand-alone thrillers and series work remain viable and were not touched.
3. Analyzed all 100,000 word Women’s Fiction novels, and determined these books informed by current brand as a thriller writer. They share the elements of intricate the plots, rich characterization, and suspense.
4. I am rebranding the Women’s Fiction into The 90s Collection complete with new covers and a collection banner. I am also editing to create smoother dialogue and expository while removing politically incorrect elements. I have left the flare, fun, and romantic inclinations that were hallmarks of that decade.
I will release these novels as second editions with letters to the reader regarding what they represent in my career arc. I will include my thrillers in the ‘also by’ section of these books, and publish them in Kindle Unlimited since I do not plan to put a lot of advertising money behind them.
It was difficult to admit that I was not ready for primetime all those years ago. A sharp professional scalpel will not leave a lasting creative scar; a prescription for moving forward will make my brand healthier. Bottom line? I know that this triage has been good for my soul, and I have faith that it will be good for my career.
LOOK FOR THE 90S COLLECTION COMING SOON!
By the time you read this it will be the day after Valentine’s Day, and I spent yesterday agonizing about what to write.
This angst over Valentine’s Day and romance is not unfounded. My first book was a romance. In Passion’s Defense was about a defense lawyer falling in love with a prosecutor during a gruesome trial. That should have been my first clue that perhaps mayhem rather than meet ups was my cup of tea. But I was slow on the uptake, and I wrote eight category romances. I think they are pretty darn good and they got better with each one. I wrote my heart out for Harlequin but I couldn’t seem to color in the lines, so I started writing women’s fiction. The editorial freedom, the more intricate plot lines, and the emphasis on plot rather than relationship helped me thrive. Dreams, Seasons, Vanities were just some of my titles. I wrote a lot of women’s fiction, but still I hadn’t hit my comfort zone as a writer. Then two things happened that sealed my fate.
First, the incredible RWA bookseller—Michelle Thorne—delicately informed me that my idea of romance was the hero chucking the heroine on the arm and giving her a smile. She was right. I was not a sexy writer in the years when other authors were pushing the envelope. My editor at Kensington was more direct. He said ‘You have to stop killing people before they get in bed!’. In essence he fired me from romance. I was devastated. Later I realized this was the silver lining in my very dark cloud.
When I started writing thrillers I found my passion and isn’t passion what love is all about? Still, without the learning curve of the romance genre, without the editors and readers, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to break up with women’s fiction as it was defined all those years ago and move on to my literary partner for life.
That doesn’t mean I left romance behind completely. Every book I write is based on relationships, but the emphasis of stories is little different from the classic romance novel. And then there’s my mom. One day she asked if I could write a book-without-bodies. I wrote three. On my mother’s ninetieth birthday, I presented her with a trilogy of sweet, romantic comedies: The Day Bailey Devlin’s Horoscope Came True, The Day Bailey Devlin Picked Up a Penny and the Day Bailey Devlin’s Ship Came in. These books encompassed every thing I love about romance: humor, honesty, confusion, honor, and affection for not just one man but all the men in Bailey’s life. Young or old, they be a lover or father or friend, it was all about love. I will always be most proud of, be in love with, the Bailey Devlin Trilogy because it reflects my definition of romance.
Today I put those three books in a boxed set and I hope when a reader finishes the stories, her (his) heart will be fuller, there might be a tear in her eye, she will have laughed out loud and then will turn around and pass all that feeling on to someone she loves.
Happy Belated Valentine’s Day.
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