Saturday, March 31, 2007


I don’t go to see many films these days. I get bored so easily that I’d rather watch them at home on DVD so that I can read a book when they start to drag. But my agent recommended SHOOTER, so we all went to see it this weekend.

A political-action flick, it’s the story of an ex-Marine sniper who is tricked into playing the role of the fall guy in an assassination. In a set up that echoes the Kennedy assassination, our hero is supposed to die. When he manages to get away, the race is on as he first tries to escape, then turn the tables on the people who set him up.

Yes, it’s bloody and violent and at times a bit improbable, but it never goes over the top. The action and suspense are nonstop, the dialogue has some great moment, and a powerful ending. I don't much care for the Rambo/Die Hard type movies, but this one delivered the action and suspense while also satisfying my need for a story with depth.

I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD so I can see it again, it was that good.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Revision Letters

Finally, two months after finishing THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, I have received the edited manuscript and revision letter (that’s what I get for turning it in a month early). The first thing I always do when receiving a revision letter is look at its length. This one was seven pages. Ouch.

A closer inspection showed that the first page was all praise (editors can be so diplomatic) while the last page was final manuscript delivery instructions. So really five pages. I sucked in a deep breath and started reading.

This is the first time I’ve worked with this particular editor, so it was all unknown territory. I like her style. Her comments are insightful and well explained, hence the five pages. All were suggestions rather than dictates, and I only found one I disagreed with. Interestingly, several of her points had already been made by a reader at one of the production houses considering the project (a reader who had liked the book enough to send it up to her producer—we’re still waiting), so I know the comments are spot on. I’m not saying the revisions are going to be easy, but it will be a matter of adding stuff rather than reworking or reorganizing or—most painful of all—cutting. Even when I agree with an editor’s suggestions (which I usually do), my first reaction is always, Oh my god. How can I do THIS? But the solution has always come to me in the past, so I’ve learned to try to be calm and let my subconscious work on it. Although there’s always that niggling little fear that maybe this time I won’t be able to find a way to make the changes, that the mojo is broken and I’m doomed…

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Cleaning of the Ponds

After Katrina, people who had swimming pools and fishponds in their yards often came home to some nasty surprises. One acquaintance found a dead man floating in her swimming pool. Others found cats and dogs. Another friend found a large, live reptile with lots of sharp teeth in his bathtub. He knew the teeth were sharp because it bit him.

We have two fishponds. Our first pond, located in the side courtyard, is a small square sunk in the ground and rimmed with bricks. The other, in the backyard, is a big old 19thc copper bathtub (that’s another story…). Normally the Cleaning of the Ponds is an annual event. But our fishponds were last cleaned in the spring of 2005. That’s right: they haven’t been cleaned out since Katrina. Eeewe.

Whenever one of my chicks leaves my nest, I go outside and work in my garden. Yesterday after Sam left, I suggested Steve and Danielle join me and clean out the fishponds. The pond along the courtyard went under the floodwaters, with the result that the goldfish that once lived there all swam away. (I like to think they somehow drained back out into the lake, but I know the truth is they probably ended up fertilizing someone’s garden.) There were a few nasties floating in that pond when we got home, but nothing bigger than a dead rat. We raked out the dead rats and assorted other debris, plugged in the fountain to keep away the mosquitoes, and put a more extensive cleanout on the list of “things to do later.” The copper tub in the backyard sits above ground and therefore made it through the storm in pretty good shape. Again, it got a quick cleanup, but apart from occasionally throwing some food to the surviving fish, it has also been patiently awaiting its turn.

I must confess, Steve and Danielle did most of the actual work in cleaning the ponds. I spent the day deadheading roses, repotting some plants that have somehow survived in broken pots since Katrina, and directing where in my garden all that nice, nutrient-rich water goes. My poor garden still hasn’t recovered from the storm. I lost a lot of plants and I simply haven’t had the time or energy to replace them yet. But it still amazes me how many plants actually made it through the deluge. In fact, those that survived their dousing with lake water have flourished. So I’m hoping they’ll like revisiting that experience with a little dose of pond water.

We all ended the day exhausted but very pleased with our work. The backyard goldfish are happy, since they can now see where they’re going, and the courtyard pond has been restocked with a new supply of fish happy not to be bought by someone intending to feed them to a larger creature. And our worst fears were not realized; all we found at the bottom of the ponds were a few stray shingles, a piece of wood, and lots and lots of muck.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Ties That Bind

Saying goodbye can be so hard. Sam left for New Haven again this morning, after a week’s Spring Break. She could have spent the week partying with friends who have houses everywhere from Majorca to Paris, but decided to come home and rest instead. We didn’t do much—the time always seems to just slide past and then it’s time for her to leave again. And every time she goes, it hurts. I expected it to get easier as the years passed. If anything, it seems to be getting harder.

Every time she leaves, I find myself thinking of the mothers of all the hundreds of thousands who immigrated to America or Australia from Ireland and Britain, and then from Germany, Poland and Italy. What an unimaginable agony, to say goodbye to a child you know you’ll never see again—a child venturing off to a strange, violent land, risking shipwreck and disease and death. How could a parent ever recover from that?

And then I find myself thinking of my own parents and what they must of gone through every time they saw me off to France or Greece, or Jordan or Australia. I remember missing them. Funny, I don’t remember giving much thought to the fact that they were missing me.

I suppose that’s nature’s way. It’s the way it must be.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Dreaded Synopsis

I’m in the process of finalizing the proposal for Steven Graham’s second thriller, currently entitled THE BERMUDA EFFECT. A proposal usually consists of the first 35-50 pages of a book and a synopsis. Most writers start hyperventilating at the suggestion they reduce their 400-page book to a titillating 5 or 10 or 20 page summary that will both excite an editor and accurately convey the contents of the manuscript. Hence, the Dreaded Synopsis.

At least I know I have an editor who likes my books and is eagerly awaiting this proposal. Even more nerve-wracking is the process of writing a synopsis for a book that is already written—or half written—but still in search of an editor. When I sent out my first historical mystery, WHAT ANGELS FEAR, I really sweated the synopsis. I was trying to sell on a “partial”—200 pages plus a synopsis. And while I had an established track record as a novelist, ANGELS was my first straight mystery and I wanted the synopsis to reassure the editors that I had the twists and turns and denouement of the mystery all figured out.

I wrote a twenty page, detailed synopsis for ANGELS, and as a result almost killed the book. Editors said it sounded confusing. Of course it did—twists and turns that make sense when revealed and explained over the course of 400 pages can make your head spin when reduced to just 20 pages. They said the book sounded long. Of course it did: the synopsis was long. I learned a valuable lesson about synopses: Keep them short, and don’t go into too much detail because too much detail only confuses editors.

I have a friend who’s on her thirteenth historical mystery and still turns in twenty page synopses. Not me. I now write four or five pages. The first paragraph is intended to be a grabber—like the blurb at the back of the book. I sketch in my characters with a few quick sentences, then tell the story in broad strokes, with the emphasis on emotion, motivation, and action. I wrote the synopsis for my second mystery, WHEN GODS DIE, while I was at a state swimming championship, the air around me heavy with the smell of chlorine and the echoes of cheering kids bouncing off the tiled walls around me. Needless to say, I didn’t have the manuscript outline with me and so was composing from memory. It worked so well that I now take the same approach to all my synopses. It keeps those strokes broad and forces me to focus on exciting my editor rather than accurately conveying the details of the story. And that is important, because a synopsis is not an outline of a book; it’s a selling tool.

I still sweat when I sit down to write a synopsis. So much rests on getting it right. After all, I’ve spent the last six weeks outlining THE BERMUDA EFFECT, doing the research, writing those first chapters. I will be terribly disappointed if my editor comes back and says she doesn’t like the idea. (I’ll also be screwed—I need to get back to work on my fourth Regency mystery!) There’s a reason we dread the synopses. So much rides on them, and they’re so easy to get wrong. Oh, for the power to simply say, “I want to write a book about this plane that was reported lost in the Bermuda Triangle…” and have my editor go, “Yes, yes; whatever you want.”

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cheap books

Buying used books: A sin? Acceptable? Well, that depends…

This is a question that has more than one angle. Consider the comments a published author often hears: “I loved your book! I lent it to my mother and my sisters and they all loved it, too.” or, “Your book sounds so interesting. I’ve reserved it at the library.”

For the fan who lends my book to everyone in the family or at the office, my reaction is always something along the lines of, “That’s great.” Sure I’d be happier if she’d given mom and company their own copies for Christmas. But there’s always the hope that mom and company will like that borrowed book so much they’ll go out and buy my next book, or maybe even my entire backlist. It does happen.

The library-reserver gets the same, “That’s great,” although it’s less sincere. This is supposed to be flattering? Well, in a way it is. I’m flattered she wants to spend her time reading my story, and I realize most people don’t stop and think that an author depends on sales to be able to continue writing those stories. But sales to libraries are sales, and haven’t we all checked books out of the library? As a child, I never gave a thought to the borrowing vs. buying aspect. For one thing, many of the books I was reading were written by people like Twain, Kipling, and Dumas, who were long dead.

For most people, money is tight. I understand that very well. And it isn’t as if I never patronized a used bookstore. When I was living in Australia, I’d come to visit my mother every year and a half. During the interval, I’d accumulate a list of books people recommended, then visit the local used bookstore and buy enough books to send back to Australia book rate (they’d arrive in big canvas U.S. Mail bags). Most of those books were simply no longer available in bricks and mortar stores, and wasn’t an option. Through used bookstores, I found new authors I never would have tried if I’d had to plunk down the full price of their books. I also read dozens and dozens of losers who’d have enraged me if I’d paid full price for their turkeys.

But the situation has become dire with the arrival of online used bookstores. It is now as easy to order a used book as a new one. It isn’t exactly cheap—one still pays for postage and handling, which is where the online bookstores make their money. The person who doesn’t make any money is the author. And that’s why on-line bookstores make me red in the face.

What can be done about it? Well, one could theoretically make used booksellers collect a royalty payment for authors of books written within, say, the last twenty years. With the new scanning technology that is possible. But it would be expensive and cumbersome, and the legislation will never be passed. Which means that online used bookstores are a fact of life.

The repercussions, however, are ugly, and they’re daily making themselves felt: falling sales, falling printruns, falling advances, the continuing disappearance of the midlist author, the growing dominance of the “blockbuster” author. If the bestselling authors were also the “best” authors, I wouldn’t mind so much. But the sad truth is that “bestselling” usually means “fast-paced and shallow with pedestrian, assembly-line prose.” The only reason I read bestsellers is to study them in an effort to analyze WHY they’re bestsellers. I don’t read them for pleasure. In fact, I’ve read so many lately that I’m reaching the point I don’t enjoy fiction anymore. My friend Laura Joh Rowland said to me the other day, “I think you need to stop reading bestsellers for market research and go back to reading books for fun.” Reading for fun? What a concept!

I have developed a loose rule: If I want a book by an author I admire, or by a recommended up-and-coming writer, I’ll BUY the book. If it’s a book by a bestselling author I’m analyzing for research purposes, then I don’t care where it comes from—the remainder table at Barnes and Noble, the Friends of the Library sale, whatever. This isn't something I want to own, and I'm not reading for pleasure. If I were better organized and had more time, I'd get these books from the library.

I also shop sales to accumulate research books for my personal library that I simply couldn’t afford otherwise. But most of those are out of print anyway, and I buy so many research books at full price that I can do it without guilt. Plus, now that libraries have instituted that “use it or lose it rule” (any book not checked out in two years is thrown out), I find I need to keep a larger personal research library. In fact, since my local library started weeding out its collection, I find I rarely go there anymore. It’s just a waste of my time. Ah, for access to a university library.

One last motive for haunting library sales is my quest to find hardcovers of books I own and have enjoyed in paperback. This started one Christmas, when Steve tracked down first US edition hardcover copies of Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND series for me. Now I’ve decided to start replacing other paperbacks I know I’ll always want to keep. Thus, I’m accumulating a collection of hardcover Brother Cadfael mysteries. Would I buy them if I had to pay more than $2 for them? No.

I suppose we all come up with our own moral guidelines, and everyone draws the line someplace else. Where’s your line?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Are you a procrastinator? I am. I’ll put off things because I know they’ll take too much time (painting the upstairs hall), because I don’t like doing them (I have a weird aversion to making phone calls), or even if they’re only vaguely unpleasant (filing papers). I’ll put things off if they involve making a decision I might make wrong (picking a web designer for Steven Graham’s new web page), or committing to something I really don’t want to do (making flight reservations to take my daughter to visit a college in Florida).

Some things I avoid because they’re both painful and time consuming (going to the dentist). Other things I avoid because I’m basically lazy (getting up to go clean the latest cat vomit). In fact, I avoid so many things it would be harder to come up with a list of things I DON’T avoid doing. (hmmm…Walking up the stairs to steal a chocolate out of the stash I bought for Dani’s Easter basket?)

Not everyone procrastinates. I have a friend who awes me. If you’re walking from her house to her car and she says, “Oh, the lawn needs to be watered,” she’ll then say, “excuse me,” and go put on the sprinkler. I never water my lawn (water it and you need to mow it).

One of my New Years Resolutions was to try to stop procrastinating. I am trying, so I guess you could say I’ve kept my resolution. I couldn’t say that if my resolution had been worded differently, i.e., Stop procrastinating.

But I’ve discovered there’s a reason I put off doing all that stuff: it ALL takes time, and time is one thing a writer doesn’t have enough of (especially when someone who used to sweat to write one book a year suddenly finds herself committed to writing TWO books a year). Unfortunately, I’m not one of those guiltless procrastinators. If I have something I should be doing, it niggles at me, it oppresses me, it keeps me awake at night. So I really do need to get a handle on this.

I wonder if hypnosis would help? Acupuncture? But that would take time, and be painful, and I’d have to use the phone to make the appointment…

Monday, March 19, 2007

Books, Books, and More Books

This past weekend was the Friends of the Jefferson Parish Library’s book sale. Steve, Dani, and I have been looking forward to this event the way some people look forward to Saks’s after Christmas sale. Fortunately, the sale started on Thursday morning, right before my mal a l’estomac. Steve and I were there when the doors opened at 10:00 and Dani came as soon as she finished her midterms (nice, how the book sale always seems to fall in her exam week).

Steve and I buy books all year ’round, but this event gives us the opportunity to buy books we wouldn’t normally buy, books that are out of print, discarded library books that would be nice to have as references, the hardcovers of books we’ve bought and loved in paperback, books we’ve never heard of, etc. Amongst my treasures this year: A Cultural Atlas of India (I have this book idea…), English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century (that’s a no brainer), Mouthful of Rocks (modern adventures in the French Foreign Legion), The Second Oldest Profession (about spies), a 1949 copy of Let’s Go to Colombia (I have this book idea…), Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (I was a Classics major, remember), Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings (I’ve always loved the Middle Ages). In all, we brought home four boxes of books. Danielle leans to nice hardcover editions of the classics (Dickens, Twain, Austin, Erasmus). Steve buys stuff like the Army Survival Manual, and “Dulles”, and hardcovers of authors he’s decided to collect.

The problem with buying all these books, of course, is finding a place to put them. In preparation for the sale, I combed through my shelves and managed to cull three Whole Foods bags full of books that I hauled over to the Friends of the Library collection point, and another two bags that I took up to the lake house (we need to put more bookcases up there). My fellow bookaholics, however, did not do this. Thus, my two boxes of books are all neatly put away (yes, I admit it: I was the most unrestrained), while their boxes of books are still sitting in the entry. See my halo?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Uncivilized Beasts

Last fall at the Louisiana Book Festival, I had the opportunity to listen to John Burnett speak about his new book, UNCIVILIZED BEASTS AND SHAMELESS HELLIONS. I found him so fascinating that I walked straight out of the auditorium to the book tent and bought his book. One of the advantages of being too sick to write is that one is rarely too sick to read, and so in the last several days I have read three books (a silver lining). By far the best was Burnett’s UNCIVILIZED BEASTS.

As some of you may know, John Burnett has been an NPR reporter for more than twenty years. His book is about what he calls the “sixth W,” the “whoa—bizarre encounters, miserable journeys, horrible hotels, great fixers, dangerous highways, gruesome dead people, gruesome live people, and unsung heroes.” It is insightful, beautifully written, and—like the man himself—marvelously entertaining.

Burnett takes his readers along as he is embedded with the Marines on their push to Baghdad (and when, not embedded, he investigates an obliterated village the U.S. officially did not bomb). We trek with him through the mountains of Pakistan, dodge right-wing death squads in Guatemala, sail the flooded streets of post-Katrina New Orleans (yes, it is weird to find your own city in the same league as Kabul, Baghdad, et al).

One passage that will stay with me always is the section in “Afghanistan: Men with Guns,” where Burnett talks about a translator named Zalmai. During the Nineties when the warlords were fighting for control of Kabul (a period of anarchy from which the Taliban “saved” Afghanistan), Zalmai was left alone at the age of twelve to guard the house from looters after his family fled. Spending much of his time inside (to keep from being killed), he began to collect books. It seems at the time you could buy burlap sacks full of books that had been looted from the Kabul University library. In that war-ravaged land, books were just another raw material, the bindings cut up to make shoe soles, the pages torn out for the paper. Rescuing the books for about a penny a pound, Zalmai hauled them back to his house. There, by the light of a kerosene lamp, he read everything from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to 1984 and The Quiet American.

UNCIVILIZED BEASTS AND SHAMELESS HELLIONS is full of such powerful stories. A wonderful, wonderful book I heartily recommend

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Month of Oz

Last week, an old Aussie friend of mine contacted me out of the blue. Now, this week, I find out that Allen and Unwin have bought the Australian rights to WHAT ANGELS FEAR and WHEN GODS DIE. What a strange coincidence!

I can't tell you about how excited I am by this sale. I've had many overseas sales, but never to Australia. I lived in Australia for eleven years and I would have given anything to see my books in the stores there. Now it's going to happen (even if I'm no longer there to see it).

In my experience, things like this always come in threes. So now I'm thinking, What's the third Aussie link going to be?

On Agents, Part Two

I have been with my agent, Helen, for over ten years now. Helen is an incredibly smart, savvy, nervy, calculating, ballsy woman (she’s also tall, thin, and pretty; sigh). I like to think I’m smart, but I know I’m not any of those other things. This is why I need Helen. Yet even if I were all those things, I’d still need her. It’s the old ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. I get to be all sunshine and roses with my editor and publishing house, while Helen—if necessary—smilingly goes for their jugular.

My view of the publishing world is narrow and myopic. Helen sees the broad picture, what is selling, what isn’t. And while I am not one to chase the latest flavor of the month (otherwise I’d be writing paraporn), having her perspective available when it comes time to make decisions is invaluable. I trust her instincts, and as I said, she’s one smart cookie. I also happen to LIKE Helen, and I think that’s important. I enjoy talking to her on the phone, and going out to dinner with her at conferences is a joy (did I mention she’s also a very funny person?). Some people might not think that’s important, but I do. Who wants to work with someone you don’t like? Besides, I’m not sure you can ever really trust someone you instinctively don’t like.

I will admit there was a point when I worried that Helen might drop me. It wasn’t anything she said or did that made me worry, it was the reality of my publishing career. When I decided to switch from historical romances and wrote Secrets of a Dead Trophy Wife, she supported my decision. But I went from a six-figure contract to almost nothing (except for a handful of small foreign sales of my old romances that still continue to trickle in). Something like a dozen editors rejected the Trophy Wife book (many said they loved it, but their marketing departments couldn’t figure out how to sell it; it still hasn’t sold). Then we started sending out WHAT ANGELS FEAR. Once again, the rejections came fast and furious. “Like the story, hate the characters.” “Like the characters, hate the story.” “Historical mysteries aren’t selling well at the moment.” In the end, we did have two editors interested, and I am now slowly rebuilding my career. But through it all, Helen never lost her faith in me. And after Katrina hit, her support was incredible. Whenever I would say, “I don’t know if I can finish this book,” her cheerful voice on the other end of the phone would say bracingly, “You can do it!”

I know I’m lucky. I have writer friends who have run through three, four agents in the course of their career. I’ve seen friends dropped by their agent when they hit a dry spell or their sales dipped. I’ve known writers whose agents went south with their advances. There are a lot of toads out there. But a serious writer needs a good agent. It’s worth continuing the search until you find one.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Agents, Part One

Agents are one of those Catch-22s of writing. You need an agent before a lot of publishing houses will even look at your manuscript. Yet it is really, really hard to get an agent to represent your material if you aren’t published. After all, they’re in business, and smart business people lower their risks.

I’ve heard writers say, “I don’t need an agent.” Maybe they don’t. But I know I do. When I first started writing, I had the usual trouble finding an agent, although that might have been partially due to the fact that I was living overseas. Sending a manuscript from the Middle East or Australia is an expensive proposition. One agent looked at three of my manuscripts, one after the other. She kept saying, “I like your writing but I have problems with this book.” I finally gave up on her because I decided she liked the way I string words together but didn’t like my stories. In retrospect, however, I realize she was right. All three of those manuscripts had serious problems. One I subsequently revised and published as The Bequest; the other two will never see the light of day (who would have believed the time would come when I would TURN DOWN offers to publish them? They simply aren’t worth the months it would require to turn them into something I’d now be willing to put my name to).

I had an agent tell me she’d read my manuscript, and than lose it (not something you want to hear when you’ve just spent $50 mailing it to her). I had an agent say she’d represent my manuscript, then fall ill and never send it out (without telling me). And then I found Helen. She was the first agent who saw NIGHT IN EDEN, and she jumped on it.

I love Helen. When I first met her, she was an agent at William Morris. They’re a huge, prestigious agency (although Helen herself was young and fairly low on the totem pole), so it was quite a coup for me to sign with them (although that’s not strictly true; I have never actually signed a contract with Helen. Many agents are still “old school” and think it’s an insult to operate under anything but a handshake agreement). Then Helen fell in love with a Hollywood producer and rather than transferring her to their Hollywood office, William Morris let her go. Helen decided to form her own literary agency in Hollywood and I left William Morris to go with her as one of her first clients. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

This is getting way too long; tomorrow I’ll talk about why.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Needle Therapy

I made my first visit to an acupuncturist today. All the hours I spend at the computer don’t combine well with an old shoulder injury. So I finally sucked it up and decided to try to do something about it. If you’re not interested you can stop reading right here, because I have no other point to make or great philosophical insight to pass on. However, I am mightily impressed with how much just one session helped. I wouldn’t say it was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had, but it didn’t really hurt, either (oddly, I didn’t feel any pricks, just a sense of pressure). I’m going back.

What I’m reading…

I’ve been slogging through a string of “bestselling” thrillers, but decided to take a break and read Gore Vidal’s IMPERIAL AMERICA: REFLECTIONS ON THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA. I’m one of Vidal’s fans. It’s unusually to find someone with a great memory for facts AND a suburb analytical ability. Add to that a nasty, cutting wit, and the result is an entertaining—albeit disturbing—read.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


We’ve heard back from one of the production companies considering THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT (sent out under the pseudonym Steven Graham), and it’s a bzzzzzz:

“While I think Steven's manuscript is filled with tension, it's also a bit more focused on conspiracy theories than on character development, which is a concern for us in terms of the type of material we're looking to develop.”

They’re right, of course; the story is definitely focused more on action than on character development. I don’t know if I’d have said it’s “focused on conspiracy theories,” but it certainly has a conspiracy in it. Hey, that’s what intelligence communities do; they conspire.

Rejections are always a bummer, and the rejections naturally come in first since it’s much quicker to reject something than to get a zillion people to agree to buy it. I’m still hopeful one of the other production companies will buy it, and my two favorites are still considering it. But I’ve also seen rejections come in fast and furious, so I know all may yet come to naught.

Crossing fingers here…

Friday, March 09, 2007

Sharing the Joy

A friend of mine just had her first book published. Farrah’s book is called DELIVER ME, and if you want to smile, visit her website here. Farrah is over the moon, tickled pink, walking on clouds—you name it, that’s Farrah. In my experience, nothing quite compares with getting your first book published. My girls still laugh at how excited I was when I sold my first book. (“I didn’t know you could jump that high!”) I walked around with a shiteating grin on my face for at least three weeks, nonstop. Since I was living in Adelaide at the time and NIGHT IN EDEN wasn’t released in Australia, I didn’t actually get to see it in a store for another year, but the magic of holding that first book in my hands will be with me always. So go visit Farrah’s site, and share her joy.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Writers Block

I’m not sure if I’ve ever had writers’ block or not. Does that sound silly to you? Bear with me.

I’ve always thought of writers’ block as some monumental, mysterious, perhaps angst driven emotional or psychological boulder that stops a writer from effectively stringing one word behind the other to make a coherent and effective story. Now, there have certainly been times when I have found it impossible to string one word behind the other, when the angrily crumpled pages have piled up around the wastebasket. But these moments have never been mysterious. I’ve always been able to find their cause, and therefore deal with it.

Sometimes I find it difficult to write because the personal events of my life are taking over a huge chunk of my mind. I still don’t know how I wrote WHISPERS OF HEAVEN in Australia during the nine months I was packing to leave that beautiful country (and my former husband). I bought my airplane ticket for the fourth of September; the book was due September first. I made the deadline. I was convinced the book was unadulterated sh*t and reassured my editor I’d completely rewrite it when I got to the States. She didn’t want me to change one word. Somehow, the emotional turmoil I was going through translated into a very powerful book. Two other houses tried to buy me away from my publisher, and to keep me my publisher promised to bring WHISPERS out in hardcover (they didn’t, of course) and more than doubled my advances for my next books. Since I was then a single mother with two school age daughters and no child support, it was gift from the gods.

Then again, with the exception of somehow doing the revisions for WHEN GODS DIE, I did not write for seven months after Katrina. True, I was putting in twelve hour days, seven days a week, restoring my house and its furniture, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to concentrate enough to produce anything even if I hadn’t been personally involved in the reconstruction. In fact, I seem to recall saying I might as well do it because given my mental state I wasn’t in any shape to do anything else. Some people might say, You had Writers’ Block. I don’t think I did. When the house reached a point I could ease up on it, and when the calendar reached a point it was telling me that if I didn’t sit down and write like crazy then I was going to miss my deadline, I set up my computer table on the concrete floor of my half-renovated office and started typing WHY MERMAIDS SING.

There are always days, even weeks, when I find it impossible to concentrate. Worry about a child’s health or about her happiness, anxiety about the negotiations for a new book contract, even new-found love—it all gets in the way of the subconscious flow needed to write. I’ve found I need to give myself time to focus on those emotional issues before I can put them aside long enough to write.

But there are other times when I can’t seem to write and I know there’s nothing going on in my private life that’s getting in my way. That’s when I recognize those crumpled pages (or that blank screen) as a warning sign that something is going wrong in my book. I’ve either gone astray somehow in what I’ve already written, or I don’t know something I need to go forward. Perhaps I don’t know enough about a given character or setting to really make a scene come alive, or I don’t understand the conflict, or a given character is wrong. Or maybe I don’t have any conflict in a scene, or a character’s motivation is shaky, or—you get the idea. My subconscious seems to recognize that SOMETHING is wrong and until I figure out what that something is and fix it, I can’t go forward. In the past I’ve pushed forward anyway, then had to go back and change it all. So I’ve learned to listen and recognize that “I can’t write” is actually “You don’t WANT to write until you figure out what’s wrong.”

I admit there are also other times when I find it hard to write, when the doubts crowd in and I think that everything I write is awful, when I realize that I’m never going to be the writer I’d like to be. I will always be a pale, polyester version of the likes of Dorothy Dunnett and Pat Conroy and James Lee Burke. When I realize that’s what’s going on in my head, I just tell myself that nine out of ten writers on the New York Times are godawful polyester hacks, and if they can do it, so can I. I mean, really! Look at some of the tripe that makes the Times these days. I wouldn’t read those writers’ blogs, let alone their books! So when my self-confidence ebbs, I tell myself I don’t need to be great. I just need to be good enough.

A hyper-prolific, very financially successful writer is often quoted as saying she never lets herself not write; “I can fix a bad page," she says, "but I can’t fix a blank page.” Well, I disagree. I’ve found that writers often don’t fix their “bad” pages—and if this particular writer is anything to go by, the more financially successful they get, the less likely certain writers are even to look at a page again once they’ve written it. I don’t read those writers.

Sometimes, not writing is the right thing to do. Sometimes, giving myself the hours or days needed to deal with personal problems, or going for a walk to figure out what’s wrong with a book, is the right thing to do. Reworking something done badly is often more difficult than starting afresh. Personally, I know I can always “fix a blank page.” All I need to do is sit down and start writing. I don’t know about you, but I find it easier to start with a fresh, clean white sheet.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Story Idea Rushes

Don’t you love that rush of a great story idea that comes out of virtually nowhere to seize your imagination and capture your excitement?

That happened to me yesterday. I spent most of the day trying to find information about a part of Colombia that lies along the border with Venezuela. I had ordered a Lonely Planet guidebook to Colombia (One wonders how many of those things they sell a year?). Except that when I sat down to read it yesterday I discovered it really should have been entitled “Lonely Planet’s Guide to the Parts of Colombia That Are Safe to Visit (Which is Not Much).” So I was knocking around the Internet, and what I was reading was both disturbing and very emotional. I was getting some great stuff that I madly scribbled down even though it had little or nothing to do with what I was supposed to be researching. (Most of THE BERMUDA EFFECT is set in Cuba and Honduras and Bermuda, with only a tiny part in Colombia.) I kept thinking, maybe I could use this and this and this. And then I thought, No I can’t. This is way beyond the scope of our current book. I was disappointed for a moment, and then it hit me, POW. I could take part of the idea we had for the third book in the series (which will be set in the Middle East) and join it to this wonderful material. Cue orchestra as a Very Exciting Book Idea coalesced out of the mists.

When Steve came home last night, I met him at the door with, “I’ve got this great idea for a new thriller!” He listened, and he liked it, except, as he pointed out, “We can’t set another book in Latin America right after this book.” I said, “No, no. The third book will still be set in the Middle East and the fourth book in Europe, like we’d planned. This is the fifth book.” He said, “Oh, okay.” (He’s not only a wonderful writing partner, but also a smart husband). Then he pointed out the downside to my Very Exciting Book Idea: I’d stolen the main component of what was supposed to be our third book. I said, “I know, but it works better with this idea. We’ll have to come up with something else for the third book.”

The problem is, story ideas don’t always come in a rush. Sometimes they need to be built up slowly and painfully, by accretion. I have a feeling our third thriller will be like that. The funny thing is, I don’t think the resultant book is necessarily weaker. WHEN GODS DIE, the Sebastian St. Cyr mystery that received starred reviews from Kirkus, PW, and the Library Journal, was an accretion book. WHY MERMAIDS SING, the next St. Cyr mystery, came to me in an exciting rush. Yet I suspect there are some subtle differences between Rush Books and Accretion Books. What do you think?

Monday, March 05, 2007


This is going to be a scattered blog because my mind is scattered, although maybe it’d be more accurate to say my mind is distracted. I’m waiting for too many things. I’m waiting to hear my editor’s reaction to THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT (yes, I finished it a month ago, but it was actually due March 1 and she’s only now getting around to reading it). I’m waiting to hear something from Hollywood, although that will be a longer wait. And I'm waiting for the post-Katrina reconstruction of my house to be finished. That will be the longest wait of all.

Did you know there’s a protocol to submissions in Hollywood? Most production companies are associated with a studio, and one is supposed to submit a property to only one production company per studio. There’s also a pecking order among production companies at a given studio, which typically depends on how well—or how badly—a company’s last film performed. So if several production companies affiliated with the same studio are interested in a book, a smart agent sounds out which company is highest on the food chain and sends it there. My agent has assembled what she calls "anyone's dream list" of production companies that are interested. It certainly looks like a dream list to me. But it all moves so slowly.

This past weekend, everyone in the family pitched in to wage war on our house and cleaned madly from top to bottom. Just because we have no windowsills and there are holes in the floor is no reason to live like we're camping in a construction site. I decided I was fed up with not having a coat closet and that the time had come to clear out all the paint, drywall compound, and other assorted building materials that have been hiding in the entry closet since we moved back into the house post Katrina (I was waiting for the garage to get cleaned out, but I'm beginning to think that will never happen). As I pulled out rolls of painters' paper and boxes of wiping rags and stacks of caulk, the tile floor gradually began to emerge...and no baseboards. It turns out the closet has been stuffed with so much cr*p for so long that we totally forgot we'd never put the baseboards down in there. I know that's somehow symbolic of my life, but my mind's too scattered at the moment to pin it down.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Blast from the Past


I got a call today from an old friend of mine from my Adelaide days. Sue and I lost contact when I left Australia, but she’s in LA now and with a bit of detective work managed to track me down.

My first thought when I heard her voice was, Oh my God, Sue; when did you develop such a strong Australian accent! Then I realized Sue hadn’t changed; I was the one whose ear had lost its familiarity with that Adelaide lilt. Whatever inflections I myself had acquired after eleven years of living in Australia are now gone, leaving my own voice sounding flat in comparison.

The last time I saw Sue, she was excited because her then fifteen-year-old daughter, Orianthi, was about to tour with Carlos Santana. Even as a small child, Orianthi could make a guitar sing. Orianthi had high ambitions, and Sue was hopeful they might actually be on the verge of coming true. It’s been a long, hard road, but Orianthi has now signed a recording contract. She has a wonderful sound—a deep, melodic contralto blended with guitar riffs that can bring tears to your eyes. If you want a sneak preview, listen to her at

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Magic Carpet Rides

You know what it’s like to lose yourself in a book, to read so fast and furious, with so little awareness of the passage of time that you don’t want to stop to eat or go to the bathroom, let alone to go to sleep. Finally reaching the end of the book, you turn out your bedside lamp only to discover your bedroom filled with the soft light of dawn. You’ve read through the night.

It’s the kind of experience we all long for when we read. Yet I find that kind of joy less and less these days. Why?

Part of it may be my own fault. I seem to have so few free hours, and I suspect it requires dedicating blocks of time to a book to achieve that near hypnotic, “sucked in” state. Then again, I can reach for one of the favorite books on my shelves, open it at random, and soon find myself whirled away into another world.

So perhaps it isn’t a matter of dedicating time. Perhaps it’s something about ME. Perhaps it becomes harder and harder to enter that fiction fantasyland as we grow older, especially if we grow older deconstructing novels and analyzing prose and story arcs and all the rest of fiction’s constituent parts. Except, the fact that I spent years studying martial arts doesn’t mean I no longer enjoy watching something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On the contrary, it enhances my appreciation of a master’s technique.

We all have a tendency to assume other people experience life in pretty much the same way we do, but of course that isn’t always true. I don’t think we can assume that all readers lose themselves in books. Many people skim a book, reading for plot and dialogue, skipping over descriptions, internal monologues, etc. They experience a book the way my daughter experiences a movie while she’s checking her email, talking on the phone, and applying fingernail polish, all at the same time. If a book engaged me in such a limited way, I’d put it down.

Another fascinating aspect of the can’t-put-it-down syndrome is that not all people have the same reaction to the same books. I could never make it past the first few chapters of Dune. And Lord of the Rings? Forget it. I don’t even have the same reaction to all of certain authors’ books. I was whirled away by The Secret Life of Bees, but never finished The Mermaid Chair. One of my favorite romance writers, Laura Kinsale, would hold me enthralled for the first half of her books, then lose me entirely. But those first halves were so wonderful, I kept buying her books anyway.

We talked about the source of this “sucked in” phenomenon in my Monday night writers group, and Charles blogged about it over on Razored Zen. We talked about fascinating characters, about pacing, about intriguing situations that pull us into a story world, about graceful, thought-provoking prose that is such a pleasure to read little else matters. Yet I never felt as if we truly grasped the essence of the experience or its causes.

I am now in the process of crafting the proposal for my next thriller, THE BERMUDA EFFECT. I find myself looking at my first chapters with an increasingly anxious, critical eye and thinking, Will this suck my readers in? Will this give them that can’t-put-it-down experience? Because “I couldn’t put it down” is surely what every writer wants to hear. I want to craft someone’s magic carpet ride.