Monthly Archives: June 2010

April & May 2010 Recommended Reading List

Most of the reading I did in these two months was in preparation for Kris Rusch’s Mystery Writing workshop.  As a result, most of these recommendations come from that genre. 

Bruen, KenThe Guards, St. Martins Minotaur, 2003. Not only had I never read Bruen before, I’d never even heard of him.  This book, however, was part of the assigned reading for the workshop and I’m glad it was.  It’s the first in Bruen’s Jack Taylor series and one of the darkest novels I’ve read in a long time. 

If you like your heroes squeaky clean, you’ll have problems with Taylor, a former member of Ireland’s police force (aka “the Guards”).  He’s an alcoholic who may be witty as hell but sometimes behaves abominably.

Which works.  You feel his need to drink, his self-destructive compulsion. 

I loved this book and will be reading all of the Jack Taylor series, if not all of Bruen. 

Carter, Scott WilliamThe Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys, Simon and Schuster, 2010. This is the lone entry from this list that isn’t a mystery.  It’s a Young Adult adventure novel, one that begins:

If I’m going to tell you how I killed this kid, I can’t start on the day it happened.

Carter catches you with that opening line and holds you throughout the book.  You might wonder if a novel with that opening is appropriate for young adults.  It is.  You might also wonder if it works only for young adults.  It doesn’t.  I enjoyed it a great deal.

This is Carter’s first novel, but it won’t be his last.  I’ve been reading and admiring his short fiction for the last two years.  This won’t be the last you hear of him.

Crais, RobertL.A. Requiem, Ballantine, 1999.  I’d seen Crais novels in the bookstores for years but never bought one.  God knows why.  I’d just always grabbed other ones.  (I buy them faster than I can read them.)

What a mistake. 

This novel of Elvis Cole and Joe Pike blew me away.  When I finished it, I said to myself, “Oh God, I wish I could have written this.”  And promptly began analyzing it chapter by chapter.

I’m looking forward to reading a lot more Crais.  A lot more.

Franklin, Tom, “Poachers,” The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler.  I read this anthology a couple years ago, but since it was assigned reading for the workshop I went back and re-read this favorite. 

It’s my kind of mystery story.  I read for character, so mysteries that are merely puzzles bore me.  This story takes you into the swamps and brings alive three scary brothers in convincing fashion.

Lehane, Dennis, “Animal Rescue,” Boston Noir, edited by Dennis Lehane, Akashic Books, 2009.  I loved Mystic River. I’ve read the book and watched the movie twice each.  So when I saw Lehane had edited this anthology, it became a must-buy.  I only feared that he’d place his own contribution near the end and I’d be tempted to read the stories out of order.

It turned out there was no need to worry.  “Animal Rescue” comes second in the book and doesn’t disappoint.

Smith, Alexander McCallThe No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Knopf, 2003.  Here’s another winner that I’d missed when it first came out, an error rectified by its inclusion in the workshop’s list of required reading.  I loved this charming and delightful series of connected stories that chronicle the exploits of Mma Ramotswe, the only female detective in Botswana.  I look forward to continuing my way through the rest of the series.

The Death of Dreams by Half-inches

The latest installment in Kris Rusch’s Freelancer’s Survival Guide hit me like a roundhouse left hook out of nowhere.  The next thing I knew, I was staring up from the canvas, seeing stars. 

Kris was writing about giving up on your dreams.  Among the many great insights, one in particular delivered the most powerful blow.

“…sometimes (often!) the act of giving up on yourself is by degrees.  It’s subtle.  It’s settling for a little less than you want. It’s slowly moving off the path until one day you wake up and realize that not only have you left the path you wanted to walk, but you’re not even going in the right direction any more.  And you got there by varying your course by half-inches instead of making hard right turns.  Sometimes you didn’t even notice as you went off course.” 

Those profound words sent chills of self-realization up and down my spine.  The sad truth is that over the last few months I’ve suffered the self-inflicted death of dreams by half-inches.  I haven’t taken sharp right turns into the ditch; I’ve slowly drifted off track.

Today I get  back on track.  From here on out, I’m going to perform Kris’s daily gut check.  Am I making the right choices to reach my dreams?  If not, why not?

You may want to do the same.

Strange New World

Like many other writers, I’m trying to make some sense of what the future holds for the publishing world as e-books become more and more important.

If you haven’t sampled some of the thinking, check out these three sources for starters:

  • Jon Konrath feeling a lot less concerned about piracy than I am
  • Mike Stackpole, whose blog is must reading for his insights 
  • Tom Dupree, commenting from a publisher’s perspective

Even if you’d rather be reading about the craft of writing over the business of writing, things will potentially be changing far too fast and far too radically to think you can bury your head in the sand and pretend it’s still 1995.

It’s learn or get left behind.

John Wooden and Writing

This is about writing, not sports.  Trust me.

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden died last Friday at the age of 99.  He left behind a number of quotes that transcend sports and I’d like to apply to writing.

Let’s have a look.

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.

Many writers get frozen at the keyboard trying to write the perfect sentence and the perfect story.  They rewrite a manuscript over and over because they’re afraid of making the fatal mistake that will result in a rejection. 

Even worse, they might shove the manuscript in a drawer.  Note to writers: drawers don’t buy stories; drawers don’t buy novels.

Take a chance.  Write the story as best you can, then mail it.  Then write another and mail it.  If it comes back, mail it again.

No editor is going to come after you with a SIG Sauer just because your story sucks.

 Never mistake activity for achievement.

 This was my worst and most absurd failing when I first began writing.  I would go down to the basement for three hours of writing, but what did I accomplish in that time?  It’s only modest hyperbole to say that I’d spend an hour rewriting the same two or three paragraphs over and over, another hour bemoaning that I didn’t start writing as a teenager, and then the final hour writing my eventual Hugo Award acceptance speech.

Activity?  I was allegedly writing for three hours. 

Achievement?  Almost nothing.

Sit down and write new words of fiction.  Stay off the Internet.  Email, Facebook, and Twitter can wait.  So can research.

Achieve new words, then send them out.

Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.

Don’t make the same mistakes over and over.  Your weaknesses won’t go away by pretending they don’t exist.  Take a weakness and work on it.  Do focused practice, in the words of Dean Wesley Smith, a mentor of mine.

I’m working on setting right now.  I’m reviewing Jack Bickham’s book on the topic and as I write, that’s my one point of focus.

Consider yourself to be like a shark, always moving, always learning.

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.

Ditto what I just said after the previous quote.

Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.

Once you’ve mailed a story or a novel, there’s nothing more you can do.  Don’t obsess over its fate or query the editor after three months.  You can’t force an editor to buy it.

Write a new story or novel and mail it.

Then write another, each time working on your craft.

That’s what you can do.

Do it.

You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.

Don’t let praise make you think there’s nothing left to learn.  There is.

Don’t let criticism make you feel you can’t learn anything.  You can. 

Keep working.  Keep learning.

It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.

This can apply to description.  An accumulation of relevant and specific details brings a setting or a person alive.

This quote can also apply to making small incremental improvements in area after area.  Characterization one month, dialogue another, and setting after that.  Little improvements add up to big improvements.

Success is never final, failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.

As another mentor of mine, Kris Rusch, says, it isn’t how many times you get knocked down that counts.  It’s how many times you get back up.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

In the sports world, preparation involves practice.  Hours and hours of it.  And it if all other things are equal, the team or individual that works harder and smarter during that practice will win out.

Your work on improving your craft with new words is your preparation.

Success is not a destination, it’s a journey.

And you want to enjoy the journey.  You enjoy writing; don’t lose the joy.

I’ve used the word “work” a number of times in this post and for some that’s a turnoff.  A writer once said that she didn’t think of the word “discipline” in relation to her writing; she thought of “devotion.”

For some, the emotional reaction to “devotion” is far more positive than to “discipline.”

So be devoted to your writing.  Be devoted to your dream.

A writer friend has the following posted next to his computer: Go Play.

Writing is fun.  Enjoy the journey.  Go play.

Don’t Be a Knucklehead

If you’re a writer (or want to be one) and you’re not always trying to learn, then you’re a knucklehead.

If you’re a writer who’s trying to learn and you aren’t reading two key websites, then you either haven’t found them yet (I’m taking care of that for you now, thank you) or… you’re a knucklehead.

There are other places to learn that I’ll point you to in the future, but the two single best ones are the websites for Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Dean’s series Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing amounts to a Master’s Degree in the industry.  Sample his post on Talent and I suspect you’ll be hooked.

Kris has been posting installments of her Freelancer’s Survival Guide for over a year now.  I have learned so much from it.  I suspect the guide has helped launch and save many careers.  Sample her latest post on Giving Up.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, I also attend as many Kris and Dean workshops as I can because there are some topics that demand intense, in-person coverage.  But you don’t have to travel to the Oregon coast to learn from these two astounding teachers.  All it takes is your Internet browser.

Don’t be a knucklehead.

A WORKshop

Some writers’ workshops are thinly disguised vacations.  (I’ve avoided them.)

Then there are the Workshops run by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.  They’re held out on the beautiful Oregon coast, but in most cases you don’t get much, if any, time to enjoy the pounding surf and other enticements.  You’re there to work on the craft you love.

A case in point is the Mystery Writing workshop I recently attended.  In seven and a half days, each participant wrote six novel proposals and two short stories while learning a ton about the genre itself and all the sub-genres.   Kris wrote the Smokey Dalton series under the pen name Kris Nelscott so she knows her stuff.  (You haven’t read any Smokey Dalton?   Go out and get yourself a copy of A Dangerous Road right now.) 

This year I’m making three trips to Oregon workshops because I learn so much from them.  If you’re serious about your writing, check them out.

Finally Connected

Now that I finallyhave this blog integrated into this website (as opposed to providing a link to a WordPress site) I expect to be posting a lot more regularly.  Sorry for the delays.  I’m sure many of you turned blue while holding your breath waiting for me, but I ran into a lot more technical difficulties than I expected.  In retrospect, some of them were easily avoidable, but isn’t that how twenty-twenty hindsight always works?

Onward, then…