This week’s post will be brief because I woke up this morning with flu-like symptoms that have been making me feel achy-breaky most of the day. Authorities tell us that any flu this season can be assumed to be H1N1, formerly known as swine. The good news is that most cases are going to be relatively mild. But don’t take that for granted–the husband of a close friend of mine (who suffers from asthma), spent three weeks in St. James Hospital here, and it was touch and go for a while after it it settled into his lungs as pneumonia. If you have any type of lung or pulmonary issues, and you come down with flu, don’t wait before getting treatment. Do it right away.

The flu has fallen out of the media spotlight, but it has spread to just about everywhere by now. Here’s the CDC flu map, in case you haven’t been following the story lately.

Muscle aches aside, I do want to pull the topic back to writing, so I’ll list some of my favorite stories involving viruses: The Andromeda Strain, The Hot Zone (nonfiction and not well written, but it did scare the hell out of me). And now I’m putting Robin Cook’s Contagion on my TBR list. I saw Mr. Cook speak at Thrillerfest, and it’s amazing how brilliant and prolific as an author he is.

What are your favorite medical thrillers? Did any scare the bejeezus out of you?

My summer vacation: Dodging bullets in Chicago

Okay, I didn’t literally dodge any bullets. But it felt like that last week when I was in Chicago, getting my daughter settled into art school.

It was my first-ever visit to the City of Big Shoulders, about which Saul Bellow famously said, “No realistic, sane person goes around Chicago without protection.”

Day One: My husband and I are eating in our hotel’s cafe when we hear a symphony of sirens filling the air. Outside the window, police cars are jamming into the street. We quickly discover that an aggressive panhandlers has gone ballistic; when the police try to pepper-spray him, he grabs an elderly man and holds a knife to his throat. The police surround him and shoot him at point-blank range. The panhandler is dead, the elderly man is okay; a police officer is also hit, but saved by his bullet-proof vest.

Day Two: Sometime during the move-in of my daughter into her new dorm, my wallet gets lifted by a pickpocket. Within two hours of the time I lost my wallet, the pickpocket buys a bunch of stuff at Bed, Bath and Beyond and launches a shopping blitzkrieg into Best Buy.

Day Three: During the parent orientation at my daughter’s new school, an administrator tries to reassure us about safety. They say that the kids can be escorted from building to building. Somehow I am not comforted by this announcement.

Day Four: I try to cash a check at our Marriott hotel (where we’re staying), and am told that I need my license to do that. I spend copious amounts of time discussing with a stone-faced clerk the reasons why this isn’t possible, since my wallet has been stolen. I even produce a copy of the police report. Stone Face is not impressed.

Day Five: I discover that it’s easier to get on an airplane without ID than it is to cash a check at the Marriott. Overall, boarding a plane sans license is a very instructive experience. The TSA grills me about the streets outside my home, where I was born, what states I’ve lived in, specific addresses where I’ve lived, the names of current and former employers, where I went to school, etc. I find it a bit alarming that the government has so much personal information in a file that they can access instantly. Then I start to worry that I’m flunking the test, because the TSA and I disagree about which states I’ve lived in. However, they let me board the plane.

Day Six through Now: In addition to suffering from empty-nest syndrome, I worry that I’ve released my chick into a flock of knife-wielding, pickpocket seagulls.

Of course, it’s all great material for a writer. But I seriously would have preferred to come up with a pickpocket story without the “research.”

How about you? Have you had any summer adventures you can share?

A book is born!

Hooray! Today is the official release date of my new book, MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. I think Kate (my protag) looks kinda cute on the cover, don’t you? But don’t be fooled–she packs a mean stun gun.

To kick off the book promotion, I had a fun interview today with Cheryl Nason, aka Dallas Book Diva. Tomorrow morning I’ll be chatting with Baron Ron Herron at KZSB Radio. Then more stops later this month.

In a few days (it always takes a few days for bookstores to unpack the books from the boxes and put them on the shelves), I’ll start surreptitiously casing out local bookstores. I’ll eye the book’s placement, and probably try to get away with turning the books cover-out. I have friends who do the same thing–a friend of mine in Wellesley, Mass. haunts her local library. She keeps putting my books on the front table so that they have prime real estate. She thinks the librarian is wise to her, but hasn’t caught her in the act yet.

Am I the only person who does this when a new book comes out? How do you all interact with your local bookstores around release-date time?

Crazy-writer deadline syndrome

By Kathryn Lilley

I recently sent a note of apology to someone who had requested information from me. I had been extremely remiss with this person–not sending her info on a timely basis, and forgetting to respond to emails. In my apology note, I lamely mentioned that I’d just emerged from a writing deadline, which to me is the equivalent of a free-diver trying to surface from deep water without blacking out.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you were on a deadline, no problem,” she replied in her gracious response, as if the deadline totally excused my flakiness.

This poor woman has to deal with writers all the time, I realized then. She’s used to us.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It’s not that I deliberately don’t listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I’m on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It’s kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I’m out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter–I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire

It’s predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I’m a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it’s not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I’m not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Take the crazy-writer quiz

Just found a fun quiz that tells you what kind of writer you are. (You have to be logged into Twitter) I’m Tom Wolfe, per the quiz.

Does your story have a “wobble”?

Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that’s gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you’re doing any of the following in your writing, it’s likely that your story is getting off kilter:

  • Over describing the actions of the main character.
  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.
  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.
  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It’s easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:

  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.
  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.
  • If it’s been a while since you’ve mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to “establish” the character in the reader’s mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won’t know who the re-introduced character is.
  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It’s easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you’re rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?

Why did the writer miss her deadline? It was an icestorm. No, a sandstorm!

This morning I pressed SEND on my first draft for MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. The manuscript should now be safely in the hands of my editor in NY. Ahh…sweet sigh of relief.

I was especially relieved to send this draft off. Because let’s just say that it was a bit…overdue.

Which brings me to today’s blog topic: the many rich, varied, and creative procrastination rituals that are employed by writers.

Yes, we writers have some amazing ways to delay the inevitable pasting of butt-on-chair-and-typing that is required to complete an actual finished work.

For example: I have a sitcom-writer friend who cleans every drawer, organizes every closet, and sharpens every pencil in her house before she starts working on her scripts for the Zack and Cody Show. And she doesn’t even use pencils.

Internet surfing has become a big-time Writer’s Time Sink. In fact the Internet is learning how to surf us. For example, even if you try to ignore those omnipresent pop-up ads, they know how to leap off their launchpads and grab hold of your cursor. It always takes me a half minute of muttering and banging around with the mouse to drive those damned Wells Fargo horses back to their window. I wonder if there’s some way I could customize my cursor into a whip?

Excessive procrastination sometimes causes writers to fall seriously behind on our overall writing output. We have even…gasp! been known to miss our deadlines.

When that happens, there’s a temptation to come up with complex and creative excuses for why one’s manuscript isn’t being turned in to the editor on time. But fair warning: Editors, or at least the editors in New York, have heard every excuse known to creative mankind for not meeting a deadline. These include:

* I was on the wrong side of the International Dateline (thank you Gary Busey)

* The lack of reliable mail distribution in your neck of the woods (not a workable excuse in a major metropolitan area)

* The impending demise of a close relative (but don’t make it too close lest it prompt the sending of an embarrassing bouquet of sympathy flowers)

* The onset of a persistent-but-vague immune-deficiency ailment that saps the energy required for sustained bouts of writing (but not for attending conferences where one is observed singing and pounding the bar with fists at wee hours of the morning).

So do you have any excuses you can add to the list? Any good procrastination stories you’ve heard?

Click here if you feel like procrastinating some more with the Marx Brothers.

Take Two: Ghost brides, aka “The Bride Wore Bones”

Note: I’m inspired by Clare’s post on the paranormal yesterday (that, plus the fact that I’m way behind on a deadline) to repost my thoughts about the strange things that people do with dead bodies. Including, it turns out, the ancient art of marrying corpses.

The original post appeared over at our sister mystery blog, Killer Hobbies.

Call me morbid (which you kinda have to be when you’re a mystery writer), but I was fascinated to read an article put out by CNN, which describes all the strange things people do with dead bodies.

Corpse brides and ghost marriages

In China, there is an old practice of providing “ghost marriages” between women and deceased bachelors. I gather the practice got started so that no woman would have to die as a spinster (no way to verify the rumor that some women preferred to marry dead guys so that they’d escape a fate of faked headaches and arguments over the dinner table with breathing spouses.).

After nearly dying out during the cultural revolution, “ghost marriages” have recently come back into vogue–but evidently with a new, more prurient purpose. In a country that’s chronically short of women in a patriarchal society (Thank you, one-family, one-child policy), the ghost-marriage practice is now aimed at making sure that dead bachelors are…ahem…satisfied in the afterlife.

Tales have been told of people killing prostitutes and other unfortunate women so that these men will get some nooky in the netherworld.

Got some cold cream for that freezer burn?

The much-ballyhooed experiments into cryogenics have evidently run into a snag—frozen bodies are developing wicked cases of freezer burn. I mean, seriously–who wants to be revived in 200 years if you’re doomed to walk around looking like Night of the Shriveled-green Dead?

Here’s a link to the article on CNN, for further reading on the strange things that people do with dead bodies:

I’ve worked one of these macabre practices into my third book, MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER. (Won’t reveal which one, though—stay tuned for the book in ’09).

Now I’m getting obsessed with the subject of ghost marriages and corpse brides. The practice sounds so macabre. But it makes for a killer subplot, doesn’t it?