Monday, November 19, 2012

Author Mark Pryor on serial mystery: the choice and the craft

Mark Pryor, author
When I first spoke with Mark Pryor, I was impressed.
In one phone call, I could tell he knew his stuff -- the law, the streets, human nature. He even had a sense of humor. Throw in the fact that he is an English guy living in Texas, and he had all the ingredients for a great mystery writer ... if he could write.
No doubt, he proved that with his debut mystery, The Bookseller: the First Hugo Martson Novel, already climbing the best-seller lists and recommended by Oprah
Hugo is an intriguing character, an ex-FBI profiler working as head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. He's bored, debating what to do with his vacation time, when his friend Max, an elderly bookseller is abducted. Hugo watches, forced to stand helplessly by.
The Bookseller on Amazon
With no help from the Paris police, Hugo enlists his semiretired CIA buddy, Tom, to help him find Max as  bookseller bodies begin surfacing in the Seine. Soon, Hugo becomes the target of unknown assassins himself, unsure whether former Nazis, who were hunted by Max, or drug lords fighting  violently for control of Paris' streets are behind the guns.
The novel is fast-paced and suspenseful with rich characters and the perfect setting.
I even learned something of Parisian history.
But Mark didn't even pause to take a breath after its October release. 
The second book in the Hugo Martson series, titled The Crypt Thief, will be released in May of 2013, and the third in October.  Mark's first non-fiction book, As She Lay Sleeping, will be published this coming January and is the true story of a 'cold' murder case he prosecuted last year.
With his freshness to the publishing scene, his early success and the experience he already is building in writing serial mystery, Mark seemed like the right guy to ask about the genre of serial mystery, the craft it demands and the choice to pursue it.
Thankfully, he agreed to answered a few questions.
First, just a little more about the author: 
Mark is a former newspaper reporter from England, and now an assistant district attorney with the Travis County District Attorney's Office, in Austin, Texas. He is the creator of the nationally recognized, true-crime blog D.A. Confidential. He has appeared on CBS News' 48 Hours and Discovery Channel's Discovery ID: Cold Blood.

Now, here we go!

You write book-length fiction and nonfiction. Which was your first passion?

Mark: Fiction.  My imagination has always pushed me to take a real life situation and say, "Yeah, but what if this happened next?  And then this…?"  I remember once in primary school in England, when I was six or seven.  We had two notebooks to write in, one was for  actual stuff we did  and one for made up stories.  My teacher once asked us to write in the "news" notebook about what we did over the weekend.  So I wrote about the haystack I'd played on with my best friend, and how it had suddenly floated out to sea as we were being attacked by crocodiles.  Now, I'm pretty sure that didn't actually happen but what stuck with me the most was the fact that my teacher never said a word about it that I recall--perhaps she liked the story?!

Did you set out to write serial fiction?

Mark: Yes, I think I did.  Or at least, create an enduring set of major characters.

If yes, why?

Mark: I've always wanted to have a character I could run with.  Someone interesting who I could develop and plonk into different situations among different good guys and bad guys.  I think back to my favorite books they were always the ones I could get to know and appreciate over time, starting with the Hardy Boys and moving on to Sherlock Holmes, to my modern-day favorites like Harry Bosch and Harry Hole.  When you pick up a book with a familiar character it's like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, and so that's something I'd really like to be able to create.

When you sat down to write the second Hugo novel, which has yet to be released, how did that differ from writing the first one? Did any particular issues surprise you?

Mark: It differed in that I tried to plan it more carefully, to outline it.  I created a notebook with ideas and characters, sketching out scenes and events.  I did a lot before I sat down to write and guess what?  I think it's fair to say that zero percent of those people or events made it into the book!  Turns out that as long as I know who does what to whom, and why, I can pretty much push the start button and get writing.  Now, I did think more consciously about pacing, about making sure the reader bites and then (hopefully!) keeps enjoying.  I suppose it might be fair to say it's closer to a thriller than a mystery, although those distinctions have always eluded me to a large degree.  Anyway, one thing I'm sure of, I won't be outlining again!

In serial mystery, authors must consider the main character’s potential for growth and development. What kind of future do you see for Hugo? Which type of reader would be most intrigued by Hugo’s development?

Mark: I agree, that's important.  I always thought of Hugo as a little detached from those around him.  He's led an interesting life but a fairly testing one.  He has built walls to protect himself and his own personality make him, as I say in The Bookseller, a watcher not a player. But like in a real friendship, I hope that over time these walls come down, that the reader gets glimpses into what makes him tick.  I never wanted to create someone you felt you knew after the first few chapters, or even the first book.  After all, if you want someone like that you can enjoy Tom Green who isn't shy about laying it all out there from the get-go.
As for who will enjoy him?  I think there's a little something for everyone.  He's a man's man to some degree, in the sense that he's very practical and pragmatic about solving problems.  He's not particularly emotional or sentimental. . .  and yet he has that softer side.  He's playful with Claudia, and has an old-fashioned charm that is sincere and makes him appealing to women.  At least, I hope so!

How well do you know Hugo and the other characters who will likely return (I hope!), such as Tom? How well do you feel writers should know their characters in serial mystery before they get started? Should they map it all out, or discover as they go?

Mark: I think for the writer as well as the reader it's a journey of discovery.  Some things happen in the second book that I didn't plan out but that developed because they seemed consistent with the actions and personalities of the characters.  Sorry to be so vague, but I can't very well spoil my own novel, can I?! 
The bottom line is that all people grow and change over time, all relationships and friendships do.  I can't pretend to know what Hugo will be like two or three books from now because I don't know what wonders and evils he will encounter.  I like it that way, because if it's a little unpredictable, if it's a fun journey of discovery for me, then hopefully it is for the reader, too.

Hugo has quite an interesting resume – former FBI agent turned head of security for the U.S. Embassy in Paris. What inspired you to choose this career path for Hugo and what are its benefits for you as a writer?

Mark: I actually went to law school with the idea of becoming an FBI agent myself! True story.  And I have known a couple of FBI agents and even profilers, through my personal life and my job as a prosecutor.  And those guys have stories to tell, I can assure you, fascinating people.  In some ways it's a fairly obvious choice for a main character but on the other hand there aren't really many repeat novel characters who have that job, are there?  And yet it's something, behavioral analysis, that just about everyone on the planet has some interest in.  It also fits Hugo's character as a 'watcher,' as I talked about before -- it just wouldn't be right to have him as a former Navy SEAL or retired ninja!
As for the US Embassy job, well, I needed him to be in an English-speaking environment, where he gets to carry a gun (I checked on that point), and can move around the city, the country, even Europe pretty easily.  His job fills those criteria very nicely, and lets me put him in contact with visiting Americans (see book two) and dignitaries (see book three!) alike.

Why Paris? How important is setting in serial mystery?

Mark: Great question, in fact I just wrote a guest post on this topic for my local indie bookstore's blog.  And I hope it's obvious from reading The Bookseller that setting is very important to me.  Paris has so much to offer, as a writer, a reader, and even an imaginary character.  It's such a walkable city that Hugo (or I) can stroll around and find adventure anywhere.  It's a beautiful city, no one would argue with that, and it is subject to the whim of the four seasons, which are always helpful in creating mood.   (Maybe I'm not good enough to write a book set in Texas, where nine months of the year it's nothing but hot!) 
I also see history as a part of 'setting,' and that's going to be a huge part of the Hugo Marston series.  Obviously, the unique bouquinistes and France's World War Two history feature in The Bookseller, but history and place continue in the next two books: the cemeteries in the next, and Napoleon and the Revolution in the third. 
As much as I love Paris, and always will, I must confess to looking forward to having Hugo explore other places, though.  Because, as mentioned, that means I get to as well!

Early in the novel, we learn of Hugo’s traumatic romantic history. He eventually begins a relationship in through which a more personal side of him is revealed. How important is the romantic plot to serial mystery? Should all serial mystery contain some element of romance or lust?

Mark: I wouldn't dare to pronounce a rule for all mysteries!  But it's an interesting question because if one is to have a successful series there's no question that the main characters must be fully rounded, or at least must be working towards being fully realized people.  And if that's true, then it seems to follow that the parts of their lives that matter will reflect the parts of our lives that matter.  Romance, health, work, money, spiritual fulfillment, I suppose all these have to play a role in some way in a series.
Now, how those appear must be left to the author, of course.  Some will focus on health as an area of conflict (drug and drink-addled detectives) and some may focus on work or money.  But romance is an intriguing area because it lets a writer play with his hero's softer side.  Hugo's a red-blooded Texan in that he's not afraid of an adventure and he willingly chases bad guys down blind alleys, but he's also a big softie in some ways.  He's old-fashioned and a little out of his depth with the savvy, confident modern woman.  I don't intend (I don't think!) to linger on his romantic adventures or to make his pursuit of love any kind of significant sub plot.  But as an attractive, single man with needs and desires, it does let me find conflict for him, and it allows me to show the reader another side of him, which is important to make him a fuller character.  Plus, when they make it into a move and let me play Hugo, I might get to kiss Angelina Jolie. . .

What do you suppose has made your debut novel such a big success so soon? What elements does it offer readers that some of the less success serial mystery does not? Any sage advice for budding writers bade on your experience?

Mark: Now you're being too sweet -- I don't know whether it counts as a success, though one can hope.  But I'm always happy to give advice.  I think the first thing is to make sure you know the nuts and bolts of writing, to make sure you learn the craft of it.  Things like showing v. telling, using strong verbs instead of adverbs, going easy on the dialog tags.  Learn those, and practice them until they are second nature.
The second piece of advice is to remember what you're doing.  I've been asked my opinion on sample chapters, or entire novels, and it seems to me that the writer is too aware they are writing a novel, they are trying very hard to be a writer.  Sometimes it helps to step back and remember you're not writing a novel, you're telling a story.  That may seem like a strange distinction but it does exist, I've seen it with my own eyes.
The final piece of advice kicks in when you have the craft of writing under your belt (as much as anyone can) and you have a story down on paper.  Don't give up!  Sadly, writing the book is sometimes the easy part.  Finding an agent, and then a publisher, can be frustrating, dispiriting, exhausting.  You'll get more rejections that a spotty teenager who smells like Gruyere, but that's the nature of the business.  I'd tell you how many I received, from agents and publishers, but I lost count long ago.  Be patient, persevere, because if you have a good story and it's well told I really believe it will find a home.

Who is your favorite serial mystery author if you have one? Why?

Mark: Conan Doyle.  Sherlock Holmes is such an icon, such a brilliant character, and the stories are so intricate and fun, that I doubt they will ever be replaced for me as the greatest series. I love the interplay between Holmes and Watson, too, and I'm sure that had a strong influence on my creation of Tom as Hugo's friend.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

In memory of Carmen Basilio

I am not a big fan of boxing, but I am a huge fan of Carmen Basilio.
The former world welterweight and middleweight champion died Wednesday at age 85 in a Rochester, N.Y., hospital near his home, a home he welcomed me into 20 years ago to share stories of his life.
Together with photographer and friend Frank OrdoƱez, I experienced his kindness, his humor and his frighteningly close fake jabs. At the time, a film production company had planned to make a movie of his life story. It never happened and that's a shame.
I am sadden by his death and my heart goes out to his wife, Josie, and the rest of their family. But I am honored that I had chance to know him.
Rest in peace, Carmen Basilio.

Here is the article, which appeared in the (Syracuse, N.Y.) Herald Journal on May 18, 1992:


 Promoter Herb Stark sat at a picnic table in his client's family room, rifling through papers strewn before him. Which actor should portray his client in a television movie? 
"Tony Danza or Robert De Niro," Stark said.
This provoked a nod from his 65-year-old client, Carmen Basilio. Out came a recent photograph of Danza with his arm around Basilio's shoulders. Danza, an ex-fighter, sought out Basilio when word spread that he was eating in the same Las Vegas diner.
It's that kind of reaction that makes the former world welterweight and middleweight champion movie material nearly 31 years after his last fight.
"People haven't forgotten me so I guess I'm one of the lucky ones," Basilio said, squinting through his swollen eyes. "There's so many things that happened in my life. We didn't have much money. Times were tough. It'd make a good movie, exciting."
Basilio and Stark, an agent for former athletic champions, have talked for years about making a film or documentary on the retired boxer's life. Lou Buttino who, like Basilio, grew up in the Madison County village of Canastota, is working with them.
"I think it would break new ground, to show how Carmen Basilio has been able to adjust after the glory days are over," said Buttino, a journalism professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester. "He has a real appreciation for life."
Their chance came last summer when Michael Derrick, president of Film Producers International at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., attended a charity banquet in Rochester. Derrick was impressed.
He sees Basilio's rise from the mucklands to world welterweight and middleweight champion as a made-for-television movie or film for the international video market.
"Enough with the naked women and the drugs and blood and that stuff," Derrick said during a telephone interview from his Orlando home. "He's the kind of guy that can give us the ... story people want."
No contracts have been signed, the film has no title and no actors have been cast, but production should begin this summer, he said.
"It's very conceptual now," Derrick said. But "it'll happen one way or another. These things just take time."
They haven't talked money yet either, but Basilio said he isn't concerned.
"Ah, I got what I need," he said.
Parts of the $7 million to $8 million movie probably will be filmed in Canastota, Derrick said. Buttino hopes Derrick will let him write the screenplay. He will be contributing editor and creative consultant for the movie.
"There aren't many people who have the opportunity to write about their heroes," Buttino said. "Usually when boys meet their heroes they become disappointed. I was never disappointed with Carmen Basilio."
Buttino already has started piecing the film together in his mind. He imagines a black and white opening, set in the 1930s and staged in the onion fields, where Basilio worked with his eight brothers and sisters.
Ordered to bed each night by 8:30, Basilio remembers Fridays when his father would wake him up at 10 p.m. to listen to the fights on the radio. He remembers his first pair of boxing gloves, ones his father bought for the family.
Because Basilio fell between his two brothers in age and weight, he boxed one after the other. But the brothers were featherweights compared to the sisters.
"If you want to be a fighter, all you have to do is have five sisters older than you. I learned how to defend myself,” he said, exhaling a gruff chuckle. "We didn't box. We fought."
The film is Basilio's chance to boast of his determination. Ask him who deserves credit for his boxing success. The pessimists, he'll say. Many doubted the power of his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. Each punch he packed was fueled by stubbornness.
"Just tell me I can't do something," he said.
Everybody told him he was too small to box. At 13, he had his first and only high school bout when another school finally dug up another 80-pound boxer to fight him. He won.
"I used to dream about these things, being a world champion," he said. "The teacher, she'd ask a question. I wouldn't hear a thing. I was busy dreaming."
After his high school match, World War II forced Canastota to cut the sport from its budget. Soon after, Basilio dropped out of high school. He boxed for fun around the neighborhood.
His next refereed bout was in the Marine Corps in 1947, where he was paid $10 a fight. Basilio turned pro in 1948 after he left the military and won the Golden Gloves amateur tournament sponsored by the Herald-Journal. He supported himself, his then-wife, Kay, and two adopted children by assembling generators at a Syracuse Autolite plant.
"I worked my way up to $150 a fight," he said.
The dream was threatened in 1950 when Basilio was stricken with mononucleosis. He told no one but his doctor and his wife. During the six months he spent recovering, the pessimists returned. They told Basilio his glory days were over.
Enter trainer and friend John DeJohn, the man whose coaching landed Basilio in the ring with reigning welterweight champion Tony DeMarco at the Onondaga County War Memorial on June 10, 1955. The two fighters gave the audience its money's worth. Basilio was badly hurt, but he pounded on, knocking DeMarco out in the 12th round.
Here the picture fades to Canastota, where Buttino, his two brothers and his father gathered around the radio in the family's living room. The fight was over. The announcer's words triggered the village fire alarm.
"From Canastota, New York. The welterweight champion of the world, Carmen Basilio."
The high school band began its march down Peterboro Street. Tavern owners gave out free beer and soda in honor of the Italian onion farmer's son. Proud villagers shouted, "We did it! We're the champion of the world."
"People were coming out of their houses," Buttino said. "Everybody was really celebrating. That night had a tremendous impact on my life."
Flash through two years of matches and rematches - victories and defeats - most of them against DeMarco and Johnny Saxton. Basilio was gaining weight. Though he tried to sweat it off, he was finding it more and more difficult to remain a welterweight.
Weak from dehydration, Basilio left the ring and headed for Alexandria Bay. There he trained for the most important fight of his career - a match against reigning middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
Fade to Sept. 23, 1957. Basilio stands in the center of a packed Yankee Stadium. The match between Basilio and Robinson would be the first non-heavyweight match to gross more than $1 million.
Robinson danced and Basilio stalked. Every chance he got, Basilio took an inside jab. Basilio won.
Flash to 1958. The onion farmer's son takes the $10,000 Hickock belt, the Pulitzer prize of athletics. The Boxing Writers Association names him "fighter of the year." His picture appears regularly on the cover of "Ring" magazine.
His second wife, Josephine, keeps the covers with the photographs, the plaques and the gold ring Basilio received in 1989 when he was inducted in the International Hall of Fame, located in his hometown.
"She likes all that stuff," he said.
Basilio ended his boxing career in 1961 after tendinitis set in, preventing him from fully extending his right arm. He was 34 years old and Le Moyne College was building a new field house. The administrators would be honored to have the former world champion on their staff, they said.
At Le Moyne, Basilio quickly earned a new title, "the toughest physical education teacher on campus." The boxer was as hard on his students as he was on his opponents in the ring, said Athletic Director Richard Rockwell, who was hired as the college's physical education director in 1967.
"It became almost a status symbol if he slapped you around," Rockwell said. "If you tried things like that now you wouldn't have any kids here. The 60s and 70s were different times. The things we did then, we'd get fired for now."
Rockwell wasn't surprised to hear about Basilio's fondness for his Le Moyne days. The students respected him, he said. Basilio frequented their dorms with reels of his championship fights tucked beneath his arm. The films drew standing-room only crowds, he said.
“The best times of my life were when I was teaching phys. ed.,” Basilio said. His elbows rested on the picnic table. “Yeah, those were the days.”
Basilio retired from the school in 1981 to become a district sales representative for the Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester, where he has worked part-time promoting the company’s products since 1981. He moved to Rochester in the mid-1980s when he divorced and remarried. That’s when Buttino ran into the boxer for the first time since Buttino was a teen.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stiffer laws and fingerpointing: how strategies that helped people of color can help working women

When I  first starting working as a journalist, we had few, if any, minority reporters at the newspaper. We had none whatsoever in our rural Central New York bureaus, where our readers were mostly white.
Yet, here we were condemning others for not having people of color on their payrolls.
Newspapers across the country praised new government incentives. We reported on the lawsuits. We exposed the inequities. We wrote editorials about unfair and racist policies. We pointed fingers and demanded fair pay and equitable hiring practices.
Then the world woke up and started pointing fingers at us.
Who were we, with our lily white newsrooms to condemn them?
Things changed.
Our bureaus suddenly became more colorful.
At the time, I was routinely working 14-hour days with little or no overtime pay. I sometimes worked six- or seven-day weeks. I thought nothing of it. The culture was encouraged by the newspaper as a whole -- by everyone from the publisher to my editor to fellow reporters.
That was how we got ahead.
We did the work of two people for the pay of one. We made ourselves invaluable and if we did that well enough, we might just get moved to the city desk. When women decided to have kids, they either quit, took copy editing jobs or resigned themselves to rarely seeing their children.
Those who tried to reign in their hours were written off by the rest of us.
They were no longer "real" journalists.
Men who wanted more time with their families got the same treatment.
So imagine my surprise when one day, a young, black woman -- a recent college grad -- who worked in my bureau, refused to work overtime. I heard her on the phone taking a stern tone with an editor. She told him she had a life and she had plans.
She wasn't about to work for anyone free of charge.
I was sure she wouldn't last.
But she did.
When she left, it was on her own terms.
I was a journalist.
I couldn't resist.
I asked her how she got away with it.
It was simple, she said. Newspapers needed journalists of color. They were desperate, but people of color had never before been encouraged to study journalism. It was a matter of supply verses demand. Newspapers were low on supply, so she could demand.
Some called her treatment unfair, preferential because of her minority status.
But I saw what was unfolding and I watched with amazement.
Newspapers didn't want to be accused of giving people of color unfair advantages any more than they wanted to be accused of denying them. And this wasn't really even an advantage. What newspapers had been doing was illegal and these new employees of color had the power to expose those practices and, more important, to take better jobs elsewhere.
So when this reporter and others like her starting refusing to work unpaid hours, our bosses had to comply with the law on behalf of all employees. The newsroom culture started changing. I was no longer afraid to request overtime and I often (not always) got what I asked for.
I never again worked an extra day without pay or other compensation.
So when I heard our President talk about creating equity in the workplace for women Tuesday night by making it easier for them to juggle family and work with child care incentives and better health care, I shook my head. Those are good things, but they are not enough.
They still give employers no reason to offer equal pay and equal opportunities.
What helps is empowerment and empowerment comes in the form of enforceable laws, constant monitoring and public pressure. Someone has to point the finger. Someone has to threaten exposure and lawsuits when that finger is pointed. The lawsuits and the exposure must hurt.
That works.
There is no need to devalue of women (like me) who choose to stay home with their families, but women who make the opposite choice must be valued as highly as their male colleagues. It's only logical. It's only fair. It shouldn't be an issue.
But we are battling fierce cultural norms.
And, sadly, just as we needed government quotas, incentives and more enforceable laws to initiate equity for people of color, we need that same kind of pressure for working women. Women will not be the only benefactors.
Laws that helped people of color helped me, a white woman  from the Adirondacks.
Laws that help women will help men. They will help families. They will help single people. They will help stay-at-home moms and dads. They will help employers, who will have more loyal and stable workforces. They will make the United States a better, more stable, more desirable place to live.
Laws -- not binders, not tax breaks -- will inspire change.


Friday, September 28, 2012

Too scared to write, like spooked-scared

I scare myself.
There are certain scenes I just can't write when my husband is out of town.
I can't edit or re-read them either.
My husband finds it ironic that I can talk about such a morbid side of human nature -- about bodies and decomposition, about methods of murder and causes of death -- without flinching, with fascination even when he is home.
I can recount details of lifeless bodies I've seen -- what they looked like, what they smelled like -- with a certain scientific detachment. It doesn't bother me. Sometimes, my husband says, I even sound a little obsessed.
But that changes when he is not home.
On those nights, I rarely write.
I prefer to play Angry Birds.
I can't be the only one.

Monday, September 3, 2012

New agent, new energy

I was excited last year when I dropped the kids off for the first day of school.
I had recently terminated my contract with my agent and couldn't wait to find out what the future would hold. It was a scary thing -- going agent-free after two years, especially since my former agent is such a good guy -- but I knew instantly I'd made the right decision.
We were not a good match.
Sometimes, that happens.
I was careful when I started firing off queries to new agents.
I didn't want to go through that again.
Some rejected me instantly.
Others asked for full manuscripts and have yet to respond.
Others read partials or fulls and decided against representation, or were interested in only one of my two completed novels. The latter were the agents I chose not to pursue. I want an agent who will stick with me throughout my career, regardless of what genre I write. I'd hate to shelve a novel simply because it's not a particular agent's "thing."
Then came the response from Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary.
She'd found flaws in my mystery/suspense novel that no other reader had, and offered to reconsider after revisions. She opened my eyes to those logical errors and immediately inspired confidence. In her emails and on the phone, she struck me as sharp, honest, and experienced.
But it was that confidence that impressed me most.
She knew what both novels needed and she knew how to express that.
She had plans.
She offered strategies, visions and direction.
She knows the industry and knows it well.
She is the kind of agent who can sell my novels and steer my career in the right direction.
I like her but, more important, I trust her.
So here we go.
It's that time of the year again.
All four kids will be in school full-time for the first time ever.
I will have time to write and, as much as I will miss them, I am excited.
But this is a fresh kind of excitement.
This year, I get to write -- just write -- without worrying about the business side of things. 
I feel focused.
I feel encouraged.
I feel, once again, like I made a wise decision.
Two more days and I'm off.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Lazy River incident

Her eyes.
That’s about all I can remember.
They latched onto mine through a thick layer of clear, chlorinated water, silencing the squeals, the laughter, the shouts, the splashing. Silencing all sounds completely.
They pleaded, but at the same time, they seemed so full of resignation.
So sad.
So apologetic.
I hesitated.
In the end, it made no difference.
But I hesitated.
I stood there beside her in the water, holding my boy’s tubular raft steady with one hand, and for just a moment – a split second – I simply took in those eyes. Completely. I was captivated. I was frozen. I did nothing.
Then, without thinking, I reached.
I grabbed her thin arm and I pulled, still locked on her eyes as they broke the surface and blinked.
I held her like that, dangling her frail, young body just inches over the surface while I scanned the crowd for a lifeguard. Once again, it was the eyes. His caught mine, which must have relayed her plea. He said nothing -- just plowed through the water and wrapped his arms around her small waist, holding her tight.
“Where’s the mother? Do you know?” he asked, finally.
I pointed to a woman standing in the open center in one section of a double raft, her back to the emptiness, laughing with an older child, who was stretched comfortably across a single raft. They were near the exit of the Lazy River.
At the time, I wasn't sure how I knew.
It came back to me hours later. I had seen the girl fall. It just hadn’t registered. The danger. The threat. I was too busy. Too involved with own kids to understand what I had seen until the current brought me to those eyes.
I watched as the lifeguard brought the toddler to the mother, tapped her on the shoulder and gave the child over. He had disrupted her laughter, her moment with her older child. She was clearly annoyed.
She demanded to know why he had her.
“Because she was drowning,” the lifeguard answered.
His voice was flat.
Immediately, the mother turned, searching for flaws in the section of tube behind her, certain she would find a hole in the sealed bottom of the safety seat. She was haughty, anxious to blame Legoland, unwilling to accept that her failure to put a life jacket on a child less than two years old had nearly resulted in her death.
Unwilling to admit that she hadn't even noticed her daughter was gone.
The lifeguard shook his head in disgust.
He turned and waded away.
I thought it didn’t bother me.
It was over that fast.
So fast, I almost didn’t think to mention it.
But the eyes came back to me over dinner and then again when I was brushing my teeth and then again in the morning. They do not come in my dreams. They appear in the most mundane moments. In the most excited moments.
They come and they go.
The eyes and the mother’s laughter.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Preparing for the inevitable: negative reviews

I've yet to publish a book, so I can't say what a negative book review feels like.
I've had only one review on my published short stories and that got five stars, so I'm in la-la land over that.
But my journalism days ... oh, my journalism days!
You'd think those experiences would have hardened me, but newspaper articles don't really get reviewed.
They get reactions.
In the best cases, I received loads of phone calls, interest from the national media, thank-you notes and teary-eyed visitors offering hugs, cookies and flowers. Those reactions made me feel good about my career choice, like my stories made peoples lives just a little bit better even for only a day.
In the worst cases, I was lunged at by prisoners; yanked into a mob angry relatives (It wasn't even my story! I was just returning the photo.); stalked by a man who was grateful  I had made public his illegal incarceration, but who was also mentally ill and untreated (He later proposed to the female deputy who told him to leave me alone!); stolen from; cursed at; and wished an early death for myself and my future children.
But even such negative reactions to news stories can be, in a sense, a good thing.
Bad people don't like it when their wrongs or their weaknesses are revealed, especially to the general public.
They get mad.
That's okay by me.
So even 11 years of journalism has not prepared me for the inevitable -- for my first negative novel review, the day when someone takes my heart right out of my chest and stomps on it, ripping my work to shreds.
That must be what it feels like, right?
I think about this whenever I read a novel that, for whatever reason, rubs me wrong.
How would I react if my work were publicly bashed?
Could I stand it?
I found comfort recently in a post by author/blogger Beth Revis.
She has a good point.
I don't like beef.
I just don't like it, so I'll never give a steak or a burger or a pot roast a good review.
That poor chef will just never win over a non-beef lover like me.
That's what I need to remember.
I have to think beef.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Rejection Generator Project: if only I had known

I remember too well the sting of those first rejection letters.
I thought I was prepared.
Fellow writers had told me I'd be swimming in them before I got my first contract offer from an agent.
So I cleared a wall for their display, a means of confronting rejection head-on and with pride.
Still, it hurt.
But it hurt only the first few times.
After a while, I became numb to automatic rejections and I learned the value of the personal notes, which sometimes came with feedback. I even came to miss them when I finally signed with an agent nearly three years ago, eagerly searching my inbox for strays.
I have since parted ways with my agent and returned to the hunt.
I knew I would have to endure those early stings again, so I steeled myself and fired away the first few query letters. I waited weeks, sometimes months, never knowing when I would open my inbox and read those words that pierced my heart and soul.
Too late, I learned it didn't have to be that way.
I could have been rejected on my own terms with the negativity self-inflicted, expected, hard-hitting from the start. I could have beaten myself up five times in one day and gotten the whole thing over with, numbed myself immediately instead of waiting, waiting and waiting..
I could have -- no, I should have -- used The Rejection Generator Project.  
I will tell you no more.
Check it out.
Spare yourself.
Be warned though, it can be addicting even for those who already have agents or publishers. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

The panini generation

I'd like to modify the analogy of our age group as the "sandwich" generation.
It just doesn't work.
Too many good sandwiches come on soft, tasty bread.
The bread is actually quite delicious and satisfying.
The way I've been feeling lately is more like panini -- my precious bread crushed by two thick slabs of hot metal that are squeezing the melted cheese out of me, searing us all and permanently charring our skin.
I'm not even there.
My parents are a good 1,000 miles away and our youngest brother is taking the full brunt of it.
But the past couple of weeks, I've been on the phone or on email dealing with doctors, social workers, case managers, directors, our parents and other family members all while trying to keep the household going and lamely pacifying my kids when they come home and I'm too busy to hear about their days.
And writing?
Forget it.
This is the first chance I've had to write anything.
I miss it.
It is getting better.
My mother is improving and my father has been stable for a long time.
But that grill is still there, threatening.
And it can be cruel and deceptive.
There was, for instance, a moment when the pressure eased and I rolled over to survey the damage to the other slice of bread.
Just then the grill gave me one more hard, heated squeeze, nearly suffocating me with the pressure to make up for all I've neglected, especially the kids.
Book reports were due. Easter was looming. The twins wanted to roller skate in the house.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this sandwich.
Two other strong hands reached out and pushed back the grill, helping me fluff the bread, tending to it in magical ways, making it soft once again.
I found that the bread is tougher than it had seemed. The heat had not broken it down and the char marks could be scraped away.
My kids still love me.
They didn't starve.
They made their school deadlines.
The Easter bunny will make an appearance on time.
And the twins have not convinced me to let them roller skate in the house.
Thank goodness for those two other hands.
Here's the thing though.
Despite it all, I still love panini.
Especially the bread.    

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Voice: an interview with its youngest fans

My husband and I have never been big fans of reality TV shows.
No Bachelor or Biggest Loser or American Idol for us.
We're sit-com people.
We strive to escape reality at the end of the day, not live someone else's.
But, for some reason, we got hooked on The Voice.
It was our own little secret last year, our private indulgence.
We'd record it when it aired and wait until the kids were all in bed.
Then we'd pull out a bottle of wine and enjoy.
It was a wonderful season.
So we were thrilled to return to our routine when the second season began after the Super Bowl. I even saved a good Merlot for the occasion and bought my husband his favorite hefeweizen, anxious to become immersed in the world of Adam, Cee Lo, Christina and Blake.
Then, about halfway through the second night of auditions, the inevitable happened.
One of our 5-year-old identical twins, Jonathan, sneaked down the stairs, unable to sleep and slipped into the recliner with his father.
Minutes later, he was in love with The Voice.
The Voice has since become a family affair with the twins and their older siblings all eager to watch.
Jonathan and his twin, Matthew, are so enamored, they sing the theme song constantly. After listening to it over and over again on the way to preschool and back today, I decided to interview them about their latest passion.
Here it is:

Monday, February 13, 2012

The learning curve

Way back in the old days when I was I was still a querying virgin, I stumbled upon an online discussion about the number of novels writers completed before they were published.
A talented few were published immediately.
Most had written two or three books before their writings went public.
But a surprising number kept writing even after half a dozen novels were rejected.
I scoffed.
That will never be me, I thought.
If the first novel wasn't published before the second one was finished, I was sure I would have deemed myself a failure. All the stamina would be gone, all the excitement, the fervor, the self-confidence. There was no way I could go on.
Yet here I am working on my third novel while the other two have yet to see a bookshelf.
And what shocks me is that I am more confident, more excited, than ever before.
This is why.
The first published novel sets the tone for a writer's career. It also starts the timer for the completion of another work and then another and then another. The pressure is on and learning curves can be incredibly dangerous if they are taken too fast.
Those who want to make careers of writing cannot afford to make mistakes early on.
At least not publicly.
I made mistakes and, thankfully, they were neither permanent nor public.
Better yet, I learned from them.
Like so many before me, I was too excited by my first novel to sit on it for a while. I rushed into queries before all my beta readers had finished. When the verdict came in, the errors were glaringly obvious to me. I couldn't believe I had queried it.
I cut characters, revised the first half and tried again.
It worked.
But then came more mistakes.
I signed with an agent who was not a good fit for me. I wrote my second novel too fast. I approached my third novel with sales figures in mind instead of focusing on the story I wanted to tell. I was letting ego overrule passion.
Again, I stepped back and re-evaluated.
I needed to slow down.
I terminated my contract with my agent and started the hunt again, taking a more cautious approach this time around. I revised my second novel and entered the first novel into a contest that targets the appropriate agent/publisher audience for its genre.
I ditched several chapters of my third novel and started over again, being true this time to my desire to write a mystery that is both suspenseful and worthy of the term "literary."  I am so much happier and my passion has recovered its strength.
With two completed novels and a third underway, I have more choices and more experience.
I learned a great deal about the business in my two years with my first agent, who is wonderful person and was always willing to talk with me about such things. I am not sure precisely where I want to take my career, but I know where I don't want to be.
And, in this business, that knowledge is equally important.
I look back at that woman who scoffed at the thought of banking completed novels and try to see her with a sense of humor. At the time, I also thought I had a pretty good handle on parenting with two young kids close in age.
Then came a surprise set of twins.
The twins have taught me that I have a lot to learn and that the learning never ends.
Writing multiple novels has provided the same kind of lesson. Balance is key in this business just as it is in every other aspect of life. With each mistake, I have gained confidence -- confidence that has led to positive change. That confidence comes not with perfection, but with the ability to see and correct those mistakes and to learn from them.
The twins opened my eyes as a parent.
The novels opened my eyes as a writer.