On Retreat: Running Away to Write

 

Last week I started organizing end-of-fiscal year tax receipts. Having just returned from Bouchercon, it was a good time to make sure I had my business trip records all in order (read: receipts stuffed into individual envelopes). At first, it was the only trip I recalled, but then I remembered a couple readings in St. Louis I could claim hotel and mileage expenses for. It seemed slim pickings, but I will be touring this month and some of next, so there will be many more envelopes. Then I remembered my writing retreats.

Way back in early January, I needed to get some serious, concentrated words on my WIP, which was due on Valentine’s Day. ( I wrote a bit about it a few Wednesdays ago on my 10K-A-Day post.) I love my family, but if there are other people in the house, my concentration flees. Sometimes I’m able to shut my office door, but I’m always wondering what’s going on on the other side of it. So I often find myself doing things that are not writing during the daylight hours, and only writing after ten p.m. when everyone has gone to bed. I love the quiet. No voices. No music. Not much happening on FaceBook. Snoring animals. Owls outside my window. Those are perfect writing conditions for my ADD brain. Sadly, the not-perfect part is that I routinely go to bed at 1:30 and get up at 7:30. It wears on a body.

So, last January I got myself an AirBnB apartment in St. Louis for several days. It was on a cul-de-sac, and very quiet. Blissfully quiet. Lonesome, even. The chair was uncomfortable and kept me upright. I was paying lots of money to be there, so I was mindful. I only had to cook for myself. (That was weird.) I didn’t stay up all that late, and I wrote in 2-3 long sessions each day. It was my second-favorite writing retreat I’d ever taken, after a solo week at an inn on Ocracoke Island in 2002. (In fact I think it was only my 2nd writing retreat, period.)

But I did get in another writing retreat this year. Over Labor Day Weekend, I went to the Nashville home of another writer—along with four other women. That was something I’d never done before. (Though I did go to a scrapbooking lake retreat around 2004. I didn’t and don’t scrapbook, but I journalled and did needlepoint. On reflection, it was probably a little odd that I went. Still, there was wine and the women were friendly.)

Writing in a crowd felt awkward at first. There was plenty of room to spread out, so we didn’t actually even have to see one another if we didn’t want to. But eventually I adjusted. Everyone was serious about getting words done. Then we gathered for meals, taking turns cooking. In the evening, there was wine and much discussion and much laughter. We talked about our careers and the industry and craft, and told stories that were harrowing or hysterically funny. It was a completely different kind of retreat.

I didn’t get more than five thousand words on that retreat. Hardly comparable to my January trip. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I returned energized and ready to work harder. Writing can be such a lonely job. As here at TKZ, it’s good to be with like-minded people. To share stories and advice and good news and bad. And there’s nothing like face-to-face communication with nary a computer screen in sight.

Have you ever gone on a writing retreat—alone or with other writers?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart, coming October 11th. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Is It Time to Quit the Day Job?

By John Gilstrap

Well, well. It’s been awhile since I wandered into the Killzone. I love what you’ve done with the place. I figure it’s been about six years since I took my hiatus from these halls. I see lots of familiar faces, and a happy number of new ones as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a second, let me go to the fireplace and turn my coffee cup around so it’s facing front again.

When I departed the Killzone after its first three years, I did it in part because the pressures of my day job—which required an insane amount of overnight travel—combined with my annual book contracts left me with too little time to do justice to everything. Something had to go, so the voluntary commitment bit the dust.

Effective January of last year, I departed that day job after 10½ years, and while I’m still busy as hell, there’s room again in the schedule for blogging. When I reached out to my buddy Jim Bell to see if there might be room for a returning emeritus, I learned that Joe Moore was planning his departure, and here we are.

I thought it appropriate for my first foray back into blogdom to talk about making the decision to quit the day job. Most artists have dreamed of turning their back on the workaday world and throwing their entire being into writing or singing or painting or . . . well, you get it. How do you know when it’s time (or if it’s okay) to pull the trigger on a job—or, in my case, on a 35-year career? (I am/was a safety engineer by training and degree, with a special emphasis on explosives, hazardous materials, firefighting and various metals processing operations.)

As a rule, I discourage people from making the jump to full-time writing unless they have a financial backstop—a working spouse, perhaps, with a dependable income stream and employer-paid insurance. I for sure discourage people who have never published a book, or who perhaps have published only one or two okay-performers from making the leap.

Full disclosure: I’m a planner and a risk avoider. I don’t roll the dice on important stuff.

In my world view, you always take care of family first. The baby’s got to have food and diapers, the teenagers have to have as good a shot at a great launch as you can give them. My own experience shows that writing success can be achieved just as well as a part-time endeavor as it can be from a full-time commitment. For me, it played out like this:

Books 1 & 2: Written part time, while working 60 to 80 hours a week.
Books 3, 4 & 5: Written full-time, but supplemented by income from screenplays and insurance paid for by the Writers Guild of America.
Books 6 thru 14: Written part time while working a day job that required nearly 200 nights of travel per year.
Books 15 & 16: Written full-time.

If you’ve got a passion for writing, you’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another. In the vast pantheon of people who tell stories on the page, relatively few of them do so full time. And of those who do, my experience shows that they have a working spouse, or have retired and have an additional source of income. In my own case, I spent 20 years investing and saving for this moment, to the point that if the book market crashes, we’ll still make ends meet.

So, how do you know if you’re ready for the switch to full-time writing? Well, obviously mileage will vary, but here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Can you afford it?

Only you know what your lifestyle needs are, and how much cash flow you require to support it. Only you know how much risk you’re willing to take, and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Still, here are some realities to consider (We’ll assume that you’re married without dependent children, you’re a 50-year-old sole bread-winner making $100,000 per year from writing alone, and that you live in Fairfax, Virginia):

1. 15% comes off the top for agent commission, leaving you with $85K in taxable income.
2. The $85K puts you in the 25% tax bracket, so $21,250 goes to Uncle Sam.
3. Of the remaining $63,750, you’ll owe another $4,400 to Virginia.
4. That brings us to $59,350.
5. Now remember that since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA, so that’s another 15% of taxable income, or $12,750, leaving you with $46,600 to pay bills.
6. Don’t forget health insurance, which is far too moving a target to guess at a number, but plan on about $1,000 per month, provided you stay healthy.
7. Of your $100,000, then, you’ve only got about $34,600 left in truly discretionary income.

The killers here are the 7.5% employer’s share of FICA and the health insurance. For my wife and I, who are both healthy yet take some medications, our insured healthcare costs will approach $30,000 per year until we reach the age of 65.

If you’re on the edge of making the move to full-time artist, invest in both a good lawyer and a good accountant to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation, and on the structure of the corporation you form.

Can you handle the loneliness?

The first time I left a day job to write full-time, loneliness proved to be my Achilles heel. It’s not that I’m not content keeping my own company, but rather that as a Type A extrovert, I missed the water cooler action. Spending the day playing with your imaginary friends can get to be pretty isolating if you let it.

Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?

It’s a big deal to entrust your financial future to an industry as capricious as the entertainment business, where your reputation and paycheck are literally tied to your latest effort. Readers’ tastes change, publishers go out of business, editors and agents retire. Any one of those events—or any one of a bajillion others, for that matter—can turn current success on its ear. And you’ll have to adapt. It’s no different than any other business, but in my experience, creative people start a writing business with far less preparation and due diligence than the average entrepreneur. Don’t make that mistake.

Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route, this job is as much about marketing and business management as it is about creativity. While your expenses are tax deductible, they are not free. Those expense reports you used to turn in to the accounting office for reimbursement are now paid out of your own funds. That short story that you used to squeeze out free of charge for a charity anthology now represents real opportunity costs that are measured in real dollars.

Will you be happy with your decision five years from now?

Back when Joy and I were first married, my mother counseled that if we waited to have children or buy a house until we thought we could afford them, we’d never have children and we’d be renting forever. Sometimes, making the decision casts the future. Failure is not an option.

There’s no such thing as security in any job market these days. We all know people who have been laid off without ceremony after having dedicated decades of their lives to the company they loved. Business is business, after all, and there’s rarely room for mercy from the corner offices.

It could be argued that shifting from what I used to call a Big Boy Job to a creative job is no more or less risky than leaving Google to go to work for Apple. They’re all big steps.

They’re all big decisions.

 

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Eat, Drink, Read

The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is don’t do it unless you’re willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps. — Jim Harrison

By PJ Parrish

Yesterday was perfect. I am visiting my sister Kelly up in northern Michigan for three months, in a land of cherry orchards, turquoise bays, rolling vineyards, and prehistoric sand dunes that rise out of Lake Michigan like giant tawny bears.

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My day started at the Breakaway Café, with strong coffee, a cherry scone, and the Times crossword. It ended on the patio with a glass of Cabernet Franc from the local Black Star winery and a copy of Jim Harrison’s novel The Beast God Forgot to Invent.

When in Rome, eat the local food, drink the local wine. When in Rome, read about where you are.

I love to travel. I love to read. And it has been my habit to try to read a novel set in whatever place I am visiting. My very first venture from home was to San Francisco way back in 1969, and along the way I read Frank Norris’s 1899 novel about the murderous dentist McTeague. On subsequent trips, I’ve gone through nearly every great San Francisco novel, including Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which contains this passage:

It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time.

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My first trip to Paris in 1985 was with Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast as my guidebook. It was a cold spring and I was renting a fifth-floor apartment behind the Pantheon, and I think Hemingway and I frequented the same café:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness.

On another trip to Paris, I slogged through The DaVinci Code, but that was fun only because of all the mistakes Dan Brown made. I mean, dude, you head south from Sacre Coeur to cross the Seine, not north.

Nantes

On a three-week road trip through the French countryside,  I was able to visit Nantes by reading Madame Bovary. And when I went to India for my nephew’s wedding, I probably should have taken Forster’s Passage to India,  but I punked out and opted for The Life of Pi and, for some strange reason lost to me, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Oddly, McCarthy’s book ended up feeling more attuned to Chennai, where gaunt cows played chicken with cars in the dusty roads, the air felt too thick to take into my lungs, and humans pressed so close it felt as if we were all at the edge of the tired world with no where left to go but down.

VancouverWhen I took a trip to Vancouver, I couldn’t find a good local novel. But in the Paper Hound bookstore on Pender Street, a clerk sold me a copy of Vancouver, by David Cruise and Allison Griffiths. These interconnected short stories had a Michener-esque sweep that captured the city and its history so well I left it in our rental for the next tenant with a note “better than that guidebook you brought.”

Then there was Italy. Again, I should have gone with Forster (A Room With a View is one of my favorite movies.) But I was writing mysteries by then, so it was Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a great book, but Ripley is so indelible, Italy can never really compete. But because I got food poisoning in Lucca, I did go look up this one passage for you:

Tom had dinner that evening at a restaurant down on the water called Zi’ Teresa. He had a difficult time ordering, and he found himself with a first course of miniature octopuses, as virulently purple as if they had been cooked in the ink in which the menu had been written.

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If you are going to Italy, especially the Cinque Terre, I recommend you take Jess Walter’s wonderful novel The Beautiful Ruins. It’s a social satire about ’60s Hollywood but oh, those descriptions of the “rumor of a town” clinging to the cliffs above the Ligurian Sea.

A tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.

But then here is this: I was born and raised in Michigan. So how it is then that I have missed Michigan’s own Jim Harrison?

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Harrison in photo from his New York Times obit

My friend Phillip, of Tupelo Mississippi, had to be the one to introduce us. Maybe it takes one good ol’ boy to know another.

Phillip gave me The Beast God Forgot to Invent just after Harrison died last March. In his 78 years, Harrison produced 21 novels, 14 books of poetry, a children’s book and a memoir. He was best known for his novella “Legends of the Fall,” which was turned into a not-awful Brad Pitt movie.

Harrison is not famous in the usual sense, though for some odd reason he’s a cult figure in France, maybe because he wrote well about food, including his account of flying to France for the sole purpose of having a lunch that lasted 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 wines. He was a man of huge appetite. His work -– what little I have read so far — is vivid, lusty, darkly comic, oft-lyric and unrepentantly violent. He writes about hunting, fishing, eating, drinking, smoking, screwing, mainly set in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He writes with a sort of hyper-masculine sensibility that might come off as corny if it weren’t so poignant, self-effacing, and even tender. Think Hemingway without pretentions.

I’m told he’s considered misogynistic. But Beast is one of his later books, so maybe he learned some lessons along the way. And in it he gives us some really strong women, who often get the best lines, including one from a woman complaining about life in Manhattan:

“There’s no nature in New York, and the closest you can get is an orgasm.”

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We took a drive up into the Leelaunau Peninsula the other day. We stopped for tastings at vineyards, had lunch by a raging waterfall, and visited a rare book store, tucked around back of white clapboard house in the tiny village of Leland. The owner, an old guy who bore a passing resemblance to Jim Harrison, proudly showed me his shelf of Harrison first editions. I was sorely tempted, but $595 for “Legends of the Fall” was too rich for my blood. I’ll be seeking out a good trade paperback of that and the rest of those 20 other novels.

Maybe it’s best that I come to Harrison so late in my reading life. I have not lived here in Michigan since I left for Florida in 1973. Yet now, I am feeling a pull to this place that is very powerful. I think there is a part of me that needs to be reminded how beautiful this place is. How the birds, the sky, the smells, the food, even the variety in the color of the squirrels — it’s all unique here. Harrison’s book feels very real to me, like he is writing it only for me, explaining my soul-place to me, taking me deep into the dark woods and showing me things I have forgotten and, at this moment in my life, need to remember.

You can go home again. Sometimes, you have to. And it’s always best to go with a good guide.

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Real vs. Fictional Justice

By Elaine Viets

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Mysteries give us more than a cracking good story. They give us the justice we can’t get in real life. Consider what happened to me:
VIETS-BRAINSTORM-smallBrain Storm is my new Angela Richman death investigator mystery. Like me, Angela went to the ER after four days of blinding migraines. Angela and I didn’t go to any hick hospital. Oh, no. Our temple of healing proclaimed itself one of the “50 best hospitals” in America. The neurologist on call was a respected and honored physician. He told Angela – and me – that we were “too young and fit to have a stroke,” then ordered us to come back four days later for a PET scan.

Never happened. Angela and I had six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, and were hauled back to the hospital. The ER doc told my husband I’d be dead by morning. The paramedics said, “Sorry about your wife, man.” But a brash brain surgeon said he could save us, and he did. Angela and I were in a coma for a week, and spent three months in the hospital. It took me nearly four years to fully recover.

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During that recovery, Angela and I were buried under an avalanche of bills. We discovered that top-ranked hospital excelled at billing scams. The billing office charged Angela and me $3,000 for a hysterectomy we didn’t have. I can’t tell you how many blood tests or X-rays I had in the hospital, but a womb is a body part a woman keeps track of.
And that’s where our stories diverge. The truth, I’m sorry to say, is far less satisfying than fiction. If you want to write accurate mysteries, you need to know what happens in real life. Then you can decide how realistic you want to make your fictional world.

hospital

The hospital was indicted for scamming me, right?
Nope, they’re still ripping off patients. When I saw the insurance company’s Explanation of Benefits (EOB), I called the hospital billing office, figuring they’d made an honest mistake. I told the BO woman,”You’ve billed me $3,000 for a hysterectomy. I was in for brain surgery. Wrong end.”
Ms. BO said, “Oh, honey, we didn’t bill you. We billed your insurance company.”
Wrong answer, sweetheart. I wrote a letter to every member of the hospital board and then filed a complaint with the insurance company. The insurance company requested a copy of every paper, record, and file with my name on it. The paperwork filled a double-wide copy-paper box. The hospital removed the names of their board members from their Website. If you call and ask for the board’s names, they won’t tell you.
In Brain Storm, the feds come down on that hospital like a ton of bedpans, and lawsuits popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

doctor-medical-medicine-health-42273-mediumThe brain surgeon who saved my life was commended by the hospital and the neurologist who misdiagnosed me was suspended and lost his privileges to treat patients.
Nope. In real life, the doctor who misdiagnosed me is still a respected physician at that same hospital. In his spare time, he happily testifies on behalf of insurance companies. His colleagues refused to testify against him. I hope he’s on call if they show up at the ER with stroke symptoms.
The brain surgeon who saved my life was banished from the hospital. Granted, Dr. Tritt, as I call the brain surgeon in Brain Storm, didn’t have the best bedside manner: He confessed that when I was in a coma he’d come into my room at night and say, “Elaine! Wake up! This is God!” The nurses made him quit. But hey, the man saws open skulls for a living and he did an incredible job when he opened mine.
In Brain Storm, Dr. Tritt is rewarded and I kill the doctor who misdiagnosed me. I wish his death wasn’t so quick. He should have suffered more.

lawyerSo why didn’t I sue the bastard who misdiagnosed me?
It’s not that easy. Remember this when you write your novels: It’s hard to sue doctors and win. I went to every malpractice lawyer in South Florida, from Palm Beach to Miami, and then consulted out-of-state attorneys.
The main problem? I’d made too good a recovery. I didn’t look or sound damaged. I could walk, talk, and write again. “Now if you’d died,” one lawyer told me, “we would have had one hell of a case.”
Excuse me for living.
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VIETS-BRAINSTORM-small“Haunting and creepy, with a fast-paced twisty plot, and a protagonist you will not soon forget – this is Elaine Viets at her most deliciously dark.” – David Ellis, Edgar Award winner and author of Breach of Trust.
Brain Storm is on sale for $9.99. Buy it now: amzn.to/2awPsIe

 

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Writing Success is Yours for the Thinking

 

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Retro-Golf-Man-2-Clip-Art-GraphicsFairyFor some strange reason I decided to take up golf at the age of forty-one.

I informed my old college roommate, who was a superb high school golfer. The first words out of his mouth were, “Do you have a good psychiatrist?”

He knew whereof he spoke. My initial attempts at the game left many a chunky divot on the fine grasses of local courses. Scores of balls were lost in both natural and unnatural waters. So frustrated was I that one day, after yet another shank, I hurled my five-iron like a German hammer thrower. It whirligigged through the air before settling into the leafy arms of a eucalyptus tree. It is there to this day.

I took lessons, but it seemed like every time I tried to put something into practice my playing partners would run for cover.

I was about to give up the game when I came across an intriguing sounding book. It was called The Inner Game of Golf by a fellow named W. Timothy Gallwey. The book made an astonishing claim. You could actually lower your golf score simply by mastering what goes on inside your noggin. You could learn to relax, perform under pressure, and make a repeatable swing. You could learn to get out of your own way, so you were not overthinking everything. The game would even become fun.

I was ready for anything! So I spent several months working on my mental approach to golf. And you know what? I qualified for the U.S. Open and finished second!

Oops. Sorry. That was a dream I had one night.

What actually happened was that I got better. I really did. I reached a point where I knew I could go onto any course in the world and not embarrass myself (except in the way I normally do at large social gatherings).

I bring this up because, like brother Brooks, I find a lot of analogies between sports (especially golf) and writing. And I believe the mental game of writing is every bit as important as typing and a good cup of java.

There are so many ways a writer can feel beaten down. Rejection, envy, discouragement over sales, self-doubt. These mental land mines threaten your productivity and growth, which are the engines of your writing career.

As someone who pursued the writing dream after being told you have to be “born” a writer; and as someone who has been making a living at it for twenty years; and as someone who has been through all of the slings and arrows of outrageous writing fortune — I finally decided to write a book about the mental game of writing. That’s why the title is, amazingly: The Mental Game of Writing: How to Overcome Obstacles, Stay Creative and Productive, and Free Your Mind for Success.

How Make Living Writer-printed version

The book covers everything from decisions, goals, courage, creativity, and growth to dealing with envy, stress, comparison, and burnout. It has chapters on increasing your joy, discipline, and production. There’s even a chapter filled with my favorite inspirational quotes from other writers. These can be a tremendous boost to you in time of need.

For example, before I was published, upon hearing again the “you can’t learn it” mantra, I came across this quote from Brenda Ueland:

“Work with all your intelligence and love. Work freely and rollickingly as though you were talking to a friend who loves you. Mentally (at least three or four times a day) thumb your nose at all know-it-alls, jeerers, critics, doubters.”

That was enough to keep me going. I never looked back at those doubters again.

The legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, defined success as “peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

That’s what I want you to have. Peace of mind because you took the steps you could to be the best writer you can be.

It starts by going mental.

The book is available here:

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NOOK

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PRINT

So what are the major mental obstacles you’ve faced in your writing life? How did you overcome them?

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New Kid In The Zone

by Laura Benedict
@laurabenedict

A few weeks ago, the incredibly generous Joe Moore invited me to blog here at TKZ on alternating Wednesdays. It was an easy “yes” for me because I’ve visited before, and I admire both TKZ’s reputation for excellence and its smart and talented contributors. I toyed with the idea of jumping right in with a specific writing topic, but then I decided it might be better to introduce myself first. So I’ve asked and answered a few questions that will help you get to know me. (Forgive the slightly snarky tone of the questions. Sometimes I’m a grouchy interviewer.)

Let’s start with an easy question. Where are you from?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from college and worked in St. Louis, then moved to rural West Virginia where my husband’s family had a dairy farm. After a chilly two-year excursion to Holland, Michigan, we went back east to Roanoke, Virginia, for eight years. Now we live in Southern Illinois, which is an hour closer to Tupelo, Mississippi than it is to Chicago. Setting plays a big role in my fiction, and up to this point I’ve stuck pretty closely to those locations.

When did you start writing fiction?

As a child and young adult, I was always a reader, but I didn’t have the confidence to imagine I could be a writer—amateur or professional. It wasn’t until I was working for A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis, and found myself tinkering with the professional copy I was buying for sales promotion projects, that I even considered writing fiction. (You’ll note the connection in my mind between ad copy and fiction.) By then I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my forties.

What kind of books do you write?

I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, and perhaps that’s why I can never find happiness writing about those quotidian epiphanies that are so popular in academic/literary circles. It wasn’t until I wrote my third novel that I really found my voice—and it was a supernatural story called Isabella Moon, about a woman who tries to solve the murder of a little girl while on the run from her psychotic husband. That novel was the first one I sold, as part of a two-book deal with Ballantine. My latest novels are a gothic trilogy set in a haunted house in a fictional Virginia town: Bliss House, Charlotte’s Story, and The Abandoned Heart (Pegasus Crime, October 2016). Despite their pretty covers, they are not quiet books for the faint of heart. As I mentioned, I write short stories as well. They show up in various places and run the gamut from straight mysteries to the horrific and surreal. In fact, my absurdly talented writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and I edited an anthology series of southern surreal stories called Surreal South. You can take a peek at my website or author page to read more about all of my work.

You look like such a nice lady. Why do you write creepy stories?

I look forward to talking about how I—and other writers—choose stories to write. But as to the why? Sorry. That’s between my therapist and me. As you get to know me better, you might hazard a guess or two—and I just may tell you if you’re right!

Why are the most ragged, dog-eared books on your bookshelf Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca? Talk about a peculiar pair.

I’ve never been one for chasing down celebrities, but I confess I’d love to have had dinner with Daphne and Cormac just to see what they’d make of each other. But—with apologies to every writer here—I’ve found that most writers aren’t so great at talking about or even understanding their own stories. It’s the books that are important. Besides being darned good reads, Blood Meridian and Rebecca both contain elements that appeal to me as both writer and reader: complex, disturbing crimes, unforgettable characters, and settings that are, themselves, active characters.

Pantser or Plotter?

I suspected this question was coming. To borrow a description from my friend, Jordan Dane, I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.” What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

Do you have an MFA? Have you been educated by highly trained writing professionals?

No, and let me think about that for a moment.

Approximately a hundred and fifty years ago, I got a B.S. in Business Administration with a major in finance. I didn’t take a single writing class until I was well into a promotions career with the subsidiary of A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis. After I took a couple undergrad creative writing classes, I talked my way into a grad fiction workshop and was promptly and roundly mocked for my plot-heavy stories. The professor said they were too old-fashioned to be published. Ouch. But being a contrary sort, I decided to forge ahead. I understood that I wasn’t trained to write literary fiction (which I consider a genre, not an end-game—more on that later, too), and after the workshop experience, I wasn’t much interested to learn. So I read more than ever (classics, literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction) and wrote even more. I wrote short stories and entered many, many contests. In 2000, I discovered a Joyce Carol Oates story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and told myself that if she—one of my literary idols—wrote for EQMM, then I should give it a shot. They published my story, The Hollow Woman, in their Department of First Stories in 2001. (My third EQMM story, The Peter Rabbit Killers, is in the recent July issue. And you can listen to me read The Erstwhile Groom on their Podomatic website.)

When I decided to write novels, I swallowed my pride and took a couple of independent studies and workshops to give myself some deadlines. I know I learned at least as much from the other participants as I did from the teachers. Of course, the best teachers are always books themselves.

Do you know anything about independent publishing, or are you strictly about traditional publishing?

When the great publishing purge of 2009/2010 occurred (does anyone else remember that, or was it just my personal cataclysm?), I was dropped by my publisher. I panicked and pouted for two years, but I also kept writing and, after my next novel didn’t find a traditional home, I delved into the brave new world of independent publishing. My husband and I started our own small press and put out my third novel in ebook and paper. Since then I’ve published my backlist, a Bliss House short story, and a couple of anthologies. There’s more on the way.

I’m a big believer in using the right delivery system for the right story. And never giving up. I’m happy to share what I know, and am always anxious to learn from others in the business.

Do you have a day job, or do you just sit in your house and write all day?

For the past twenty-four years, parenting and writing have been my competing jobs. I homeschooled my daughter at various points up until high school, and am now partially homeschooling my sixteen year-old son. My mornings are for writing business, promotion, research, and/or social media. Homeschool is in the afternoon, then I write before dinner and into the wee hours. I have raging ADHD but can’t write on medication, so staying at my desk to write is a major act of will for me.

If you follow astrology profiles, you already know that my early July birthday makes me a Cancer, and Cancers are often introverted homebodies. Though I do like to get out and meet readers and socialize at conferences and book festivals. If you’re wondering what I’m currently up to, let’s get together on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at my website.

Do you teach writing, or do you just write?

I’ve taught at many writing workshops over the years, including the residential Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University, and the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. I’ve also done many smaller writing workshops for both children and adults.

What do you bring to The Kill Zone party?

I bring my love for the written word along with me, and my enthusiasm for sharing what I’ve learned with emerging writers. I bring my curiosity and hunger to learn and adapt. Also, I always have chocolate to share, and occasionally even a salad in my purse.

I’m thrilled and delighted to be here, but that’s enough about me. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brings you here.

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What Happens After The First Draft

Sometimes I come across posts on writing blogs that I feel compelled to share with everyone at TKZ. One such informative post deals with what happens once you finish your first draft. With permission from its author, the great writer and teacher, Joanna Penn, here is a repost of her advice on the subject. Enjoy. – Joe Moore

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Many new writers are confused about what happens after you have managed to get the first draft out of your head and onto the page.

manuscriptI joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year and ended up with 27,774 words on a crime novel, the first in a new series. It’s not an entire first draft but it’s a step in the right direction and the plotting time was sorely needed.

Maybe you ‘won’ NaNo or maybe you have the first draft of another book in your drawer, but we all need to take the next step in the process in order to end up with a finished product.

Here’s my process, and I believe it’s relevant whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

(1) Rewriting and redrafting. Repeat until satisfied.

For many writers, the first draft is just the bare bones of the finished work and often no one will ever see that version of the manuscript. Remember the wise words of Anne Lamott in ‘Bird by Bird‘ “Write shitty first drafts.” You can’t edit a blank page but once those words are down, you can improve on them. [More books for writers here.]

editing arkane

I love the rewriting and redrafting process. Once I have a first draft I print the whole thing out and do the first pass with handwritten notes. I write all kinds of notes in the margins and scribble and cross things out. I note down new scenes that need writing, continuity issues, problems with characters and much more. That first pass usually takes a while. Then I go back and start a major rewrite based on those notes.

After that’s done, I will print again and repeat the process, but that usually results in fewer changes. Then I edit on the Kindle for word choice. I add all the changes back into Scrivener which is my #1 writing and publishing tool.

(2) Structural edit/ Editorial review

I absolutely recommend a structural edit if this is your first book, or the first book in a series. A structural edit is usually given to you as a separate document, broken down into sections based on what is being evaluated. You can find a list of editors here.

I had a structural edit for Stone of Fire (previously Pentecost) in 2010 and reported back on that experience here. As the other ARKANE novels follow a similar formula, I didn’t get structural edits for Crypt of Bone and Ark of Blood. However, I will be getting one for the new crime novel when it is ready because it is a different type of book for me.

Here’s how to vet an independent editor if you are considering one.

(3) Revisions

When you get a structural edit back, there are usually lots of revisions to do, possibly even a complete rewrite. This may take a while …

(4) Beta readers

Beta readers are a trusted group of people who evaluate your book from a reader’s perspective. You should only give them the book if you are happy with it yourself because otherwise it is disrespectful of their time.

This could be a critique group, although I prefer a hand-picked group of 5 or 6 who bring different perspectives. I definitely have a couple of people who love the genre I am writing in as they will spot issues within the boundaries of what is expected, and then some people who consider other things.

My main rule with beta readers is to make changes if more than one person says the same thing. Click here for more on beta readers.

(5) Line edits

Editors Notes ExodusLine editor’s notes for Exodus

The result of line editing is the classic manuscript covered in red ink as an editor slashes your work to pieces!

You can get one of these edits before or after the beta readers, or even at the same time. I prefer afterwards as I make broader changes of the book based on their opinions so I want the line editor to get the almost final version.

Line edits are more about word choice, grammar and sentence structure. There may also be comments about the narrative itself but this is a more a comment on the reading experience by someone who is skilled at being critical around words.

The first time you get such a line edit, it hurts. You think you’re a writer and then someone changes practically every sentence. Ouch.

But editing makes your book stronger, and the reader will thank you for it. [You can find a list of editors here.]

(6) Revisions
You’ll need to make more changes based on the feedback of the beta readers and line editor. This can sometimes feel like a complete rewrite and takes a lot of detailed time as you have to check every sentence.

I usually make around 75% of the changes suggested by the line editor, as they are usually sensible, even though I am resistant at first. It is important to remember that you don’t have to change what they ask for though, so evaluate each suggestion but with a critical eye.

(7) Proof-reading

By this point, you cannot even see any mistakes you might have made. Inevitably, your corrections for line editing have exposed more issues, albeit minor ones.

So before I publish now, I get a final read-through from a proof-reader. (Thanks Liz atLibroEditing!) After Crypt of Bone was published, I even got an email from a reader saying congratulations because they had failed to find a single typo. Some readers really do care, for which I am grateful and that extra investment at the end can definitely pay off in terms of polishing the final product.

(8) Publication

Once I have corrected anything minor the proof-reading has brought to light, I will Compile the various file formats on Scrivener for the ebook publishing platforms. I will then back the files up a number of times, as I have done throughout the whole process.

(9) Post-publication

This may be anathema to some, but the beauty of ebook publishing is that you can update your files later. If someone finds a typo, no problem. If you want to update the back matter with your author website and mailing list details, no worries. If you want to rewrite the whole book, you can do that too (although some sites have stricter rules than Amazon around what is considered a new version.)

time and moneyBudget: Time and money

Every writer is different, and there are no rules.

But in terms of time, your revision process will likely take at least as long as the first draft and probably longer (unless you’re Lee Child who just writes one draft!). For my latest book, Exodus, the first draft took about 3 months and the rewriting process took about 6 months.

In terms of money, I would budget between $500 – $2000 depending on what level of editing you’re looking for, and how many rounds. You can find some editors I have interviewed as well as their prices here.

I believe editing at all these different stages is important, because it is our responsibility to make sure our books are the best they can be. But if you can’t afford professional editing, then consider using a critique group locally or online. The more eyes on the book before it goes out into the world, the better.

What’s your editing process? Do you have a similar approach or something completely different?

photo

Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers (as J.F.Penn) and non-fiction, a professional speaker and award-winning entrepreneur. Her site, TheCreativePenn is regularly voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers. Connect with Joanna on Twitter @thecreativepenn

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Inspiratus Interruptus

I have a home office. I love it. There’s no commute. I can get a couple of hours of work in while most people are still asleep. I have a secretary named “Joe,” a gofer named “Joe,” and a personal manservant named “Joe” who makes me coffee and breakfast and lunch. What a team we are. We all get along just fine. I don’t have anyone hassling me about “Rrrrr, rrrr, rrrr, your billable hours are down, rrrr rrrr rrr, what about rrrr, rrrr, and why are you on the internet again, rrrr?” Yep, it’s a sweet deal. I can do my big boy job, write a bit, do my big boy job, lather, rinse, repeat.

The only problem I have (for purposes of this discussion) is having to deal with non-work, non-personal interruptions. I have my office line and my home line in the same room. I have been getting a lot of calls on my home line because I will be turning 65 in a few short months. Yes, I know, I know, you wouldn’t expect someone of my countenance, libido, and good cheer to be that old but it is so. Here is a warning: when you are about to turn 65, everyone starts calling you to 1) tell you what’s what about Medicare and 2) sell you the exact policy that you need. I began acquiring all sorts of new imaginary friends, such as “Medigo,” “WhatsMedicare,” “Medsuppins,” “Marketplace,” and the alluring, mysterious “Name Not Found.” Ignoring them didn’t help because the phone would ring four times before sending the call to voicemail. That’s a distraction, even when you are screening your calls. And we haven’t even talked about the fine folks from the help desk at Windows Security who have detected a ‘wiwus” on my computer, or the guy who is willing to give me a free vacation if I’ll just watch a short demonstration video, or the woman who keeps calling me to ask if I’m interested in my cable company’s latest product. Uh huh. The “do not call” list?” It’s pretty much a joke. Muting the ring isn’t an option for me, either, as I have a daughter in college and a granddaughter in grade school, both of whom need me at unexpected times.

My life was changed for the better, however, when I came across an article in a newsletter from the Community Senior Center which my wife belongs to (and, no, I’m not a member. That stuff is for old people). The article touted a gentleman by the name of Aaron Foss, the designer of a called “NoMoRoBo.” Foss is GIVING this thing away. No strings, no deposits, no nothing. It’s a true public service. What it does is block robo calls — those things that dial five thousand numbers at a time — and telemarketers. You go to the “nomorobo” website, watch the very short video, click on “get started now” button, fill in the blanks, and within a day or so you’ll see results. Your phone rings once, gives a little purr, and “pfttt”…the annoying caller doesn’t even have a chance to leave a voicemail. They are gone. “Nomorobo” doesn’t work with every landline phone service, or every cell phone service provider, but it works with mine, and they’re adding more and more constantly. Oh. Oh. And. It supposedly will not block or divert political fundraisers or surveys, but I’ve had several blocked already (“Poll_Quest,” to name but one). “Nomorobo” constantly learns new numbers to block and you don’t have to do a thing, other than write your next bestseller without interruption (other than for that initial ring). And every time the phone rings once and disconnects during dinner, my wife and I look at each other, and smile.

Authors, readers, doctors (Hi Steve!) and all who fight the good fight on all fronts each day: try this out. I have absolutely no interest in this, financial or otherwise. It is free and it does work and no one puts your name or number on a mailing list, either. And Aaron Foss? I’d stand in front of a tank for him.

Having shared this marvelous invention with you, I want something in return (Aaron Foss, I am not). Please tell us: what devices do you use to give yourself privacy, and to keep yourself from being interrupted? And what is your favorite personal story that concerns dealing with telemarketers, solicitors, and the like?

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Writing Lessons From The Masters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Okay, the headline is sneaky wordplay, as I am not referring to writing experts, but The Masters golf tournament recently concluded. Something shocking happened there and I think we can all learn from it, as writers and as normal folk making our way through a life that tosses out plenty of lemons.

jordan-spieth

Jordan Spieth

There is a young golfer named Jordan Spieth. He is twenty-two years old and a huge talent. He’s already won two majors (the hardest thing to do for a pro golfer), and one of those was last year’s Masters. He’s also a classy, well-spoken gentleman. And boy, do we need more of those these days.

Which is why what happened is so sad.

Jordan Spieth was set to go absolute legend. Only three players have ever won back-to-back Masters. You may have heard of these guys–Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.

Spieth was playing lights out, leading the tournament all the way into the final round. He was up by five strokes with only seven holes left to play. All he had to do was avoid a major mistake and a second green jacket (the Masters’ cloak of honor) would be his. And then they’d begin measuring the space for Jordan Spieth on golf’s Mount Rushmore.

So as Spieth stepped up to the notorious par-3 12th, he could feel it, the victory. The crowd was with him. As were the millions watching at home.

But then the unthinkable, the shocking, the disastrous happened. Spieth hit two consecutive balls into the water. The first from 150 yards, the second from just 80. These were shots Jordan Spieth can make in his sleep, left handed. Not this time. The infamous Masters pressure caught up with him and … plop, plop.

His next shot went over the green and into a bunker. When it was all over, Jordan Spieth, one of the best players of his generation, carded a quadruple bogey.

And lost the tournament.

That, my friends, will mess with your head. To his credit, Jordan took it like a man, stood up to reporters’ questions, and made his obligatory appearance in Butler Cabin to slip the green jacket on the surprise winner, Danny Willet. Poor Jordan went through the motions, but he was clearly not there. He looked like an actor auditioning for a part in The Walking Dead.

This loss will be with Jordan forever. The only question now is, how will he handle it?

I know for sure he will hurt for a long time. But I suspect Jordan Spieth will muster his competitive spirit and play great golf again. I believe he will add several more majors to his resume before he’s done.

Which leads me to three lessons for writers:

  1. When you get knocked down, let it hurt for an hour. Then write something

Rejection. Rotten reviews. Dismal sales. They hurt. Don’t deny it. You can’t.

But after an hour (set a timer!) get yourself back to your keyboard.

If you’re on a project, write a new scene. If you’re not, write a journal entry.

Or use a writing prompt to get your creative juices flowing. (There’s a wonderful “writer igniter” over at the DIYMFA site. Check it out).

When you write, the pain of the setback begins to fade a little. It will try to reassert itself, but then you write some more. Eventually, the pain ceases to hold any power over you.

  1. Be the kind of writer that readers pull for

People like Jordan Spieth. He’s humble and positive and polite. Golf fans want to see him do well, especially now.

So show in your craft and your social media presence that you are a positive writer, someone who seeks to add value to other people’s lives. Readers who know you that way are much more likely to give you another chance should something you write fail to catch on.

  1. Don’t expect the easy road

Let me engage in a golf analogy for writers who are contemplating self-publishing. Imagine that suddenly anyone could play in The Masters. Just show up and tee off. Would being able to play mean you’d finish in the money? Of course not. The best golfers in the world would still win the prizes, with a few exceptions. Some really good amateurs would get in and maybe a handful of these would play out of their minds and make some tournament dough.

But the vast majority wouldn’t. Why not? Not because there’s a “tsunami of golfers,” but because their game is not good enough yet.

What they would need to do is go practice, get some coaching, and expect that it will take years to develop a great game. Even then, there are going to always be better golfers than you.

But if you grind and drive your beat-up Saturn from tournament to tournament, maybe you can earn enough to make it worth your while. Plus, you are playing a game you love.

Well, publishing is like that now. You don’t have to wait for an invitation from the Forbidden City. You can publish anytime you like.

But please don’t think that “getting to play” is an automatic win. You need to work on your craft, every day, just the way a pro golfer does. Think in terms of many years and many books, not just next month and your one completed novel.

Jordan Spieth will be back. And so will you, writer, because the only way to stop you is if you quit.

And you’re not going to.

So what about you? What major setback did you have to overcome, as a writer or in any other arena of life? How did you handle it?

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25

aa 25 year chip

A little over a year ago — March 28, 2015, to be exactamundo about it — I posted a blog here entitled Through the Glass, Darkly, about attaining my twenty-fourth year of sobriety. April 1, 2016 marked twenty-five years, and as I write this I’m eight days in what I hope will be the twenty-sixth year. I don’t want to repeat everything I said last year — not when you can get it from the handy-dandy menu on the right side of this page — but I’ll mention again a couple of things that are important to us as writers and primarily as people.

The big one is that an addiction problem — substance, gambling, sex, or pick your poison — is insidious. It is the vampire that is tapping on the window of that wonderful domicile you call “me”. It can only get in if you let it in. Once you do so, it takes over your life without your even knowing it. If you think you have an addiction which has taken up residence in you there is a test developed by a brain trust at John Hopkins Hospital that will give you an idea. Go ahead and take it. The first time I took it I answered fifteen out of the twenty questions affirmatively (that’s not good). I laughed, put the test aside and kept drinking. I neglected getting a physical for years because I was afraid that my drinking would show up in some blood results. I didn’t have a problem, however. Nope, not me. I was ultimately fortunate enough to have a road-to-Damascus moment that knocked me off of my high horse and onto my brains. I was fortunate. But I should have paid attention to that test, a few days before. Take a look at it, and believe what you see.

The big problem leads to a large one. Writers like everyone else have deadlines and responsibilities. I assure you that the punch list you make for your day/week/month becomes a lot less important after that first beer or joint or trip past the casino of the day. There is a reason why there are no clocks in casinos or windows in taverns. We lose our concepts of time and of what needs to be done and yes, of what has to be done. Writing does not lend itself to multitasking. It is a harsh mistress, demanding full attention. You can’t do it while you’re feeding the vampire.

If you decide that you have a drinking problem, try an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. You would not believe how many meetings are going on around you every day; take a look at the AA website. There may be one within walking distance of you. Try it out, keeping in mind that each meeting tends to develop its own personality. Disclaimer: I never used AA. Why? It’s not important for purposes of our discussion here. I recommend AA, however, because of all of the people I know who have stayed sober using The Program. Go for it. As far as AA is concerned, look at it as calling AAA, but for you, and not your car. If your problems lay elsewhere, from gambling to drugs, there is a program for you modelled after AA, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. If you think that you might need something a bit stronger than a meeting —and those meetings can get pretty strong — go to your physician for a referral to a rehabilitation program. So, regardless of whether you choose a sober living program like the one by Ascension House – Structured Sober Living, or you regularly attend AA, you need to get help to support you in your transition from alcoholism.

The families of alcoholics and addicts in general are often forgotten. While those suffering from alcoholism are always urged to go to places such as Pacific Ridge for their recovery, many people forget just how traumatic it can be to be the loved one of an alcoholic. If you’re living with someone with an addiction, then run, don’t walk, to Al-Anon. Al-Anon is for families and friends of alcoholics. Meetings are easy to find. You will be amazed at all of the people you will meet who are going through the same things that you are. A practicing alcoholic is the prince of lies. I have seen an alcoholic go into a loving, happy family and have everyone at each other’s throats within a week. If that is happening to you, it is not something that you have to deal with alone.

I am not trying to bring your weekend down. I want to elevate it. If you think you have a problem, you probably do. This can be fixed. I did it. I do it. So can you. You will still hear that vampire tapping on the window every night, but you’ll know not to let it in.

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