Weekend Update: January 31-February 1, 2015

fallsbooks1Next week at Maine Crime Writers there will be posts by John Clark (Monday), Sarah Graves (Tuesday), Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett (Wednesday), Vicki Doudera (Thursday), and Lea Wait (Friday).

It’s a slow weekend in the news department, possibly because there’s so much snow on the ground here in Maine. Kathy Lynn Emerson will have something to report soon, but she can’t talk about it quite yet. Possibly there will be an addition to this post later in the weekend. Stay tuned.

NEWS FLASH, NOONISH ON SATURDAY, WITH EVEN MORE GOOD NEWS THAN KATHY/KAITLYN EXPECTED:

The Agatha Award nominations are out and three (count ‘em) three of our little band of Maine Crime Writers are up for awards when Malice Domestic takes place in May.

Kate Flora‘s Death Dealer: How Cops and Cadaver Dogs Brought a Killer to Justice is nominated for Best Nonfiction

Kathy Lynn Emerson‘s “The Blessing Witch” (from Best New England Crime Stories 2015: Rogue Wave, co-edited by Barb Ross) is nominated for Best Short Story

Lea Wait‘s Uncertain Glory is nominated for Best Children’s/Young Adult

We promise to share smiles and pictures, including photos of our teapots, if we win them, with you the first week in May.

Yay, us!

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share. Don’t forget that comments are entered for a chance to win our wonderful basket of books and the very special moose and lobster cookie cutters.

 

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora: mailto: kateflora@gmail.com

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Patience and Hard Work Beat a Punch to the Head

By Al Lamanda

Before I became old and wise, I was an impatient and brash young man. (Yes, it’s true, I was once young, and no, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t in The White House at the time.) I was fresh out of the service and I wanted to make up for lost time, so I was in one big hurry. I had done some boxing in the service and was pretty good in the amateur ranks. Back home in New York, I thought about turning pro. I sought the services of a professional trainer. I met with a young man at the gym who I thought was the trainer. It turned out that he was the assistant to the trainer, a man named Robert, who was sixty-seven-years-old at the time. I told Robert I had done a fair amount of boxing in the service and was thinking of making it a career. Robert told me that if I had the tools to turn pro, he demanded a two-year commitment to training before I could step into the ring. Two years? That was an eternity and I didn’t have the time or the patience to waste on two whole years. Robert showed me otherwise. He invited me into the ring to spar with him to see, as he put it, what I didn’t know. Besides being forty-four-years younger than Robert, I had about seventy pounds on him. None of that mattered as Robert had decades of experience at perfecting his craft and in the end, I had lumps. From that experience with Robert, I learned the art of patience and self-discipline. We remained friends and student and teacher for many years.

Flash-forward some forty years and it seems that every young writer I talk to these days is in one big hurry. I spoke with a group recently at an event and they wanted to know the secret to being a successful author. I told them that there are no secrets and that most successful authors have these things in common: Hard Work. Dedication. Patience. A thick skin. A great imagination. The ability to take rejection and criticism without it resulting in an apoplectic meltdown. The intelligence to understand that constructive criticism and an editor can actually make your work better. The ability to not over-write your story. (Some stories want to end at 65,000 words, so don’t try to make them 80,000. Ever watch a movie that seems about twenty minutes too long, same thing.) The knowledge that you don’t know it all (and in fact, like most of us you know hardly anything at all.) Skill at telling a story. Skill at polishing your story. Did I mention patience? And, of course, a great deal of luck.

My audience looked at me as if I had just recited the formula for nuclear fusion and said there was a pop quiz. You see, the average age of the audience I was speaking to was younger than the belt I was wearing (I tend to hang onto things that work for me) and they are the product of what I call the instant gratification generation, or IGG for short. They have been weaned on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Cell Phones, Skype (I have no idea what that is) Text Messages, High-Speed Internet, Movies and Music Streaming, Whosay, LinkedIn, Pinterest (Good luck with that one) IPads that do everything except make coffee, and all work in the blink of an eye. If something takes more than thirty seconds to work, panic and anger set in, and God forbid you’re away from your phone for more than a minute or two. This past Christmas dinner, there were two groups in attendance. Us old people who actually held conversations, laughed and told stories, and the IGG’s who sat sullenly in a corner and didn’t say a word as they stared at their phones as if hypnotized by Dracula.

So it came as no surprise that my audience was expecting some kind of magic formula to instant success. One young woman asked me if I knew any shortcuts to writing a great story and getting it published.

I told her if she wanted shortcuts to buy instant rice and one-minute oatmeal instead of regular, because when it comes to being a writer, there are no shortcuts. There is, however, luck, and maybe you might be the lucky one that lightning strikes when you are twenty-four, but the odds are about the same as six winning numbers. So replace luck with hard work and the odds will be in your favor.

Another IGG, a male, asked why it was so difficult to land an agent. He said that he sent out hundreds of query letters to agents and didn’t get a single reply. I asked him what the genre of his book was. He said, and I’m not making this up folks, that he actually hadn’t written a book yet, but wanted an agent for when he does. He said, and I could barely keep a straight face, that he sent a selfie along with his query. (Wouldn’t you just love to be the agent that received his email?)

An IGG male in the back stood up and asked me the following question: Why is it so hard to write? I told him it isn’t hard at all, it’s just hard to write really well. Which brought me back to what successful authors have in common. At which point, most of the group were staring at their phones and tap-tap-tapping away.

I’d lost my audience because I was telling them things they did not want to hear–that even in this age of instant everything, when it comes to writing and telling a great story there just are no shortcuts and substitutes for hard work and dedication. You have to love the art of writing and you have to write often to perfect your craft. You have to be willing to take your lumps and ride the roller coaster of rejection and rewrites until, one day, it’s your turn.

And when your turn comes, you still need the patience and discipline to work with agents, editors and publishers, because you will be put to the test. So learn those qualities now and they will not fail you now and later on down the road.

And hopefully, along the way, no one will have to punch you in the head for you to learn these lessons.

 

Al Lamanda is the author of the Edgar Award nominated mystery novel Sunset. He latest mystery, This Side of Midnight, will be released in June 2015.

 

 

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WHO SAYS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS CAN’T WRITE?

Vaughn Hardacker here: I wanted to start 2015 off on an uplifting note. I came across this list on Snopes.com (http://www.snopes.com/humor/lists/metaphor.asp#AyEYz5KbVLWUmvGI.99) and felt it was my God-appointed duty to pass it on to the world.

Actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays:

PB_Copy_Jobs1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E.coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.

9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth.

16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.

18. Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

23. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

26. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.

27. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

28. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

Here is our challenge. During the coming year we all have to come up with an analogy more hilarious and innovative than #14.

Here’s my first entry: Her blind date looked like something she found on the bottom of her shoe after walking across the cow pasture.

Well, it is a first draft! I’ll do better with the rewrite.

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Toward Unconscious Competence?

Hi. Barb here, still in sunny Key West. (Don’t hate me.)

I’m in the muddle in the middle of the first draft of my next Maine Clambake Mystery, Fogged Inn. And my general muddle at this point has me pondering the notion of Unconscious Competence.

We’ve all seen this model for mastering a skill, right?

consciouscompetence

The theory was developed at the Gordon Training International in the 1970s, but it’s become pretty much a part of everyday culture since.

Unconscious Incompetence: The idea is before you begin to acquire a skill, you don’t know anything about it, including what you don’t know. All of us have met fiction “writers” at this stage of development. Usually they are armchair authors who do not actually write, but whose reaction to most things they read is, “I could do way better than this.”

Conscious Incompetence: But once you start writing fiction, you realize, “Man, this is hard.” I mean really hard, because fiction-writing includes so many layers and the use of many, many skills. There are story-telling skills: structure, timelines, logic (repeat for plot and every subplot). There are character development skills: background, personality, emotion, motivation, arc (repeat for just about every named character). There are the the narrative skills: developing theme, pacing, symbolism. And there are the prose skills, choosing the words needed to convey all of the above, (repeat for every chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence and word). It’s a lot to keep track of.

Conscious Competence: So, the hapless writer decides to acquire some skills. Whether he takes classes, or reads how-to books, or analyzes the books of his betters, or seeks out good critiquers and editors, or most likely all of the above, becoming a conscious competent certainly involves writing, writing, writing. And writing a lot of crap that eventually gets better.

Unconscious Competence: Unconscious competence comes when you’ve so internalized a skill, you can do it without thinking. Like riding a bike or driving or, well, fill in your own blank. Everyone has skills like this.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder, “Do writers ever reach the level of Unconscious Competence?” Most writers I know, even the best ones, are piles of quivering self-doubt. And that’s on a good day. They all wonder when they start a new book, Will this be the time it doesn’t work? When they are in the muddle in the middle, they wonder, Is this the time it will be unfixable? And sometimes, even for really experienced writers, it is that time, and they have to throw it all out and start over.

I myself have been hanging out at the junction of Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence for years. I’m a little weary of it, to tell the truth.

I have hope. There are a few little aspects of the job I have knocked and feel confident about. But the bulk of it…oy.

Sometimes I think Unconscious Competence shouldn’t be a goal in the arts–because there lies formula, repetition, the worst kind of hackery. But then I watch fine artists and musicians and others whose confidence in their baseline skills gives them the ability to soar.

And I return to wanting, hoping, practicing and honing..

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Want a Scary Day Job?

Vicki Doudera here.  I’m traveling this week and so am recycling a column from three years ago about my double life.  Enjoy!

Last week I was telling a woman about my murder mystery series, and she shivered and asked me how I slept at night after imagining such spooky scenarios. The truth of it is, penning fiction at my comfy desk with the wood stove crackling away isn’t frightening – not like my “day” job, the profession I entered nine years ago as a way to counter the isolation imposed by writing.

I’m an agent. Not a secret agent, special agent, double agent, or FBI agent… I’m a real estate agent.  Not creepy enough for you?  Just read on.

Take the obvious first: safety. There don’t appear to be any real solid statistics on the number of agents who fall victim to murder, rape, assault, or robbery, but practicing real estate almost by definition puts us in potentially hazardous situations. Agents often meet customers for the first time in front of a vacant house, or drive or ride with them to an appointment. It is not uncommon for an agent to be alone in the office late at night, finalizing an offer or catching up on paperwork, and some agents still go door to door “prospecting,” or looking for listings.

My second Darby mystery, KILLER LISTING, begins with the murder of a real estate agent at her own open house. Sadly, this scenario isn’t wholly fictitious. The real-life murder in 2006 of Sarah Ann Walker in McKinney, Texas, was definitely in my mind while I was writing. Ms. Walker was presiding over an open house at a new housing development when she was stabbed 27 times. More recently, real estate agent Ashley Okland was shot to death last April while holding an open house in West Des Moines, Iowa. No arrests have been made in the case.

I try to take precautions when I meet a stranger at a property, either bringing along another agent or my big and bearded husband. (I used to take my chocolate lab, but now that my canine companion is a toy spaniel, that option’s out.) I lock the office door if I’m alone at night and try not to share too much personal information on-line. My series protagonist, Darby Farr, is even better. She carries pepper spray and knows Aikido. Like me, she’s had some frightening experiences while on the job.

I once worked with a white-haired, elderly man who turned out to be a very capable con artist with a rap sheet as long as your arm; I spent months emailing back and forth with an eager Japanese doctor later revealed as a total fake; and showed the listing of a man further up the coast who subsequently threw his wife in a dumpster. (She survived. Let’s hope they divorced.) I’ve encountered sellers who hoard garbage and others who hoard cats. I’ve been asked to give a value for a customer’s dazzling waterfront estate and then seen his photo in the paper a month later as he’s led off to prison for scamming millions of dollars from investors in his phony insurance company.

I’ve known desperate sellers, greedy buyers, and agents who are both.

Houses themselves can be creepy. Some are soul-less shells; others so scarily organized they scream Stepford. One of my listings contained a hidden “Armageddon Room” stocked with provisions for the end of the world; another, a basement brimming with porn.  Some places are stigmatized properties, where murders, suicides, or other tragedies have occurred. A few contain strange odors, dead vermin, or unidentifiable suspicious stains. I once kicked something in a garage drain that looked like a miniature “Creature from the Black Lagoon” yet managed to continue flawlessly with my spiel describing the house.

There are frightening house-eating fungi that lurk out of sight, such as poria incrassata, a mold that lives in dank cavities and makes mummified skin out of studs. There are blatant examples of greed unearthed in old deeds, a scenario I wrote about in A HOUSE TO DIE FOR. There are so-called “spite” wells that are placed near property lines to prevent someone else from building. The list goes on and on.

One of the oddest things to cross my path happened only a few months ago at a new listing our office viewed. The owner, a kindly man in his 70’s, showed us the snapping turtle he’s tended for 37 years in a plastic kiddie pool in his basement. He’s periodically provided his “pet” with other turtle playmates, but, he told us with a wink, they always end up eaten.

Despite the inherent dangers, stress, and the ever-shifting housing market, I enjoy real estate. The money I earn allows me to splurge on writing conferences; the hours give me flexibility to write; and the camaraderie keeps me sane and connected. I’ve found that I use my time more efficiently when I’m busy, and I enjoy transitioning from my public persona as Realtor to private role as author, and vice versa. Even with the oddballs, I have many, many delightful clients.

Real estate is my current profession, while writing is my career. I feel very fortunate that the two overlap in the Darby Farr Mystery Series, and that I’m able to put the wackiest of situations (watch for that turtle…) to good use.

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