Cabbages and Kings

A diary by the authors of the Louis Kincaid series

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Location: Fort Lauderdale/Elk Rapids, Florida and Michigan, United States

We are the New York Times bestselling authors of the Louis Kincaid series and other stand alone thrillers. We have taught writing at major conferences for ten years.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Who moved my cheese?

The copy-edited manuscript for the new book arrived yesterday. This is my one last chance to fix things like spelling, errors and crappy writing. The next time I see my book it will be in galley form and you can only change the little stuff without incurring the wrath of your publisher.

I don't know why I always dread this part of the process so much. Actually, I DO know. I dread opening that big fat FedEx package because I am always afraid that when I pull out those 400 pages, this giant reeking smell will waft out. The odor of rotting wordage, decomposing exposition, dead dialogue. It's the smell of failure, the failure that comes of making what was so alive in your head emerge stillborn on the page.

Sometimes, when I find myself teaching writing or sitting on a convention panel, a beginning writer will ask how to tell when something you write is good or not. I tell them to give their work the cheese test. Finish your chapter then put it away, let it bake in the C drive for a week or as long as you can stand it. Then go back and read it. If it smells like cheese -- and you will know when it smell it -- well, it IS cheese and should be thrown away as mercilessly as moldy brie. If you're lucky, you throw out a paragraph or a chapter. But sometimes you gotta throw it all out and start fresh.

So yesterday, as fearful of cheese as ever, I did my usual ritual. I stuffed the FedEx package in my big tote and trucked over to my favorite watering hole, The Downtowner Saloon. I sat at the end of the bar alone, ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio and a dozen fresh oysters. I opened the package, took out the manuscript and started to read it.

And you know what? It didn't stink. Sure, there were things I changed and corrected. But overall, it was pretty good stuff, if I do say so myself. A tight plot, good characters, even a few passages that made me remember why I got into this racket in the first place.

Damn, I can write. I am a writer. Life is good.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Funny writing

Okay, I give up. I can't do it. Even after two glasses of wine. I can't write funny. Those of you who can do it, I can hear you out there going: BWAAAAA-HAAAAAH! Because you know how hard it is. Sometimes you don't get as much respect because you write humor or light. Critics have a pie-chart they use to decide what to pay attention to and it divides up roughly like this:

Hardboiled depressing stuff 25%
Over-easy ethnically diverse PIs 20%
Cute guy writers from UK 15%
Cozies 15%
Small press neo-noir with cleavage on cover 10%
Chick lit crime 10%
Humorous crime 5%

Now consider that Carl Hiaason alone takes up about 8% of humor and you can see that those who write funny stuff get the crumbs. That's cause any idiot can tell a joke. But very few can tell one for 250 pages.

I have this idea for a mystery. It doesn't fit my hardboiled series. The woman who is talking to me in my head is so friggin funny! Why can't I get it down on paper? I am not an unfunny person. I can even tell a joke (well, only one and it's so filthy few have heard it). So why can't I write funny?! You funny types out there....tell me the secret. No joke.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Big hairy men

Men crime writers. Can't live with em, can't kill em. I'm sorry. Bad joke. But we women authors who walk on the dark side tend to have mixed feelings about our hardboiled male counterparts. We complain they get all the attention and big advances. We bitch that they hog the Edgars every year. But we also love them. We love their bleakitude, their angst, their existential adjectives. We love their Gregory Corso dissipated sexuality. You doubt me? If you go to Bouchercon, the big crime writers group grope each fall, the talk in the bar among the women inevitably deteriorates into which of the attending male authors we would "do." The winner is crowned the Bcon Babe. What does it take to be a Babe? Let's just say previous winners have included Gabriel Cohen, Robert Crais and Lee Child. So youth, good hair or an English accent don't hurt.

Still, I gotta wonder what it takes to distinquish yourself from the crowd if you are a male crime writer these days. How do you resist the urge to unleash upon the reading world yet one more ex-alchie divorced depressed shlub in wrinkled Dockers running from his past? Women crime writers don't seem to be bound by stale traditions and sexual stereotypes. But think about how hard it must be walk in Hammett's footprints. How tough it must be follow in the Busted Flush's wake. How damn difficult it must be leave a lasting scent where so many have lifted their legs before.

I'm thinking about this lately because I have read a couple guy books that have gone against the grain. I've really enjoyed these books, and not just because their authors' knuckles didn't drag on the ground when they wrote. No, it was more because they were willing to lay open a vein and deal with -- the horror! -- relationships. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of testosterone pumping through these tomes, but it's detoxed with a dose of sensitivity.

A while back I finished "The James Deans" by Reed Farrel Coleman. I hadn't met Coleman's Moe Prager before, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover this mensch of a man. Moe isn't afraid to talk about things like love, family and loyalty. Plus the guy owns a wine shop. What's not to love? Give me a nice Jewish boy who will babysit, make me laugh and bring home a wholesale Meursault any day. Next up was author Jim Fusilli, whose novel "Closing Time" I had picked up at a mystery conference. I had heard Fusilli was a "wordsmith, a writer's writer," which is why the book sat gathering dust on my bedstand for so long. Hearing someone called a wordsmith is kind of like hearing that he's great in the sack. Yeah right. Plus I had witnessed Fusilli in action on panels. Let's just say if he isn't a Scorpio, he should be. So as I got sucked deeper into "Closing Time" (seduced by the wordsmithing) I found myself really liking his protag Terry Orr. More to the point, liking the interplay between Terry and his daughter Bella. Good stuff, folks. Check these guys out. And join me in raising a glass to the menfolk. There's hope.
Moe Prager
Terry Orr

Friday, July 15, 2005


The manuscript for our latest An Unquiet Grave was accepted today. No big deal, you say? Don't you expect your editor to accept your stuff? Well...

Writers do their thing in a vacuum. We pound away on faith, hoping that when we get to the end, our editor will love it, the marketing people will support it and -- most important -- someone will buy it. Most of us are like turtles with no shells, easily crushed. We print out those 400 pages, box em up and ship em off to New York. Then we sit and wait. We sit and wait for the email that says, "Are you NUTS? This sucks! I don't know why we ever signed you. This this is the LAST BOOK you will ever write." Can you spell paranoia?

So when our editor John emailed today effusive about the new book, Kelly and I exhaled the breath we had been holding for two months. I mean, we think An Unquiet Grave is a good story, but we were afraid it was a little over the top, a tad gothic, a bit stranger than our usual stuff. Did I mention that it takes place in a crumbling Victorian insane asylum. And that it's a love story?

Well, An Unquiet Grave will be out in February 2006. When we get the new cover, you'll be the first to see it. In the meantime, you can check out the place that inspired this story -- Eloise mental hospital in Michigan:
Tales of Eloise Some childhood demons never completely go away.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

More on titles

A comment comes in from fellow Florida writer Bob Morris: "I can't write the first word of the first chapter until I have the title. Then it falls in place from there. That's how it worked with BAHAMARAMA and JAMAICA ME DEAD. I've got the title for the third one -- BERMUDA SCHWARTZ. Now all I have to do is come up with the 80,000 words that go with it."

I don't know about you guys, but I think Bob has the title gene. And he was too shy to mention it so I will. Bahamarama was an Edgar nominee for best first last year so it must have something going for it besides a good title. Check out MWA Edgar Awards

I know a couple writers who work like Bob -- everything flows from the title -- but I would be more paralyzed than usual if I waited. That said, nothing seems to fall into place under the title comes. And if that isn't a good excuse to be stuck on chapter 2 I don't know what is.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Good Title Is Hard to Find

Titles are tricky things. I'm thinking about titles constantly lately because we are starting the next Louis book this week and we don't have a title. I think it was Laura Lippman who said some authors have "the title gene" and some don't. Authors fret about titles alot, because they know a bad one can doom a book. Well, unless you are in the rarified air of Patterson, Nora Roberts et al, where you could slap "RECYCLED PAPER" on the cover and it would still go directly to the bestseller list.

My sister Kelly and I work hard at finding evocative titles. We feel we get the key to unlock the book once that title is fixed. We start out with a really lame "working title" and as we get into the book, the title somehow emerges. Here's some history:

1. Dark of the Moon. Our first book was first called The Last Rose of Summer. Too romancy. I stumbled on a poem called "Silhouette" in a Langston Hughes anthology I had leftover from college. There it was in one line: "They just hung a black man in the dark of the moon."

2. Dead of Winter. This title came about halfway through the book. The book takes place in winter. People are dying. No brainer...

3. Paint It Black. There is no direct reference to the Stones song in the book. But the title emerged easily as the story unfolded. Although the lyrics to that great Stones's song really do echo the unlit corners of a serial killer's mind.

4. Thicker Than Water. This was our one misstep, in my opinion. The story is about what a family member will do for another, but the title stinks. Should have called it "The Cruelest Month" after the T.S. Eliot line.

5. Island of Bones. This story was inspired by my favorite J. Geils song, "Monkey Island." Great creepy lyrics about this abandoned house on a weird island from which they were "rowing the bodies back to shore." I called up Kelly and played her the song and said, "okay, what the hell happened on that island." 400 pages later, we had a book. The title came when we were sitting at a book signing in Fort Myers and the hordes were not exactly storming our card table. So we started tossing out words to go with island. Bones was perfect.

6. A Killing Rain. This book was untitled for a loooong time. We called it The Boar Book. Then I remembered hearing a newscaster interview a Florida farmer who talked about "killing frost." I fudged it and changed it to a killing rain. So we didn't steal it from Barry Eisler!

7. An Unquiet Grave. Whew. This one was a killer. We didn't have a title until we were almost done. We tossed out every permeation of "dark" and "stairs" and "madness" but nothing clicked. We were this close to calling it "A Cold Dark Place." Finally, I went to The Author's Friend, where you can type in keywords and reams of quotes and poems come up. Sure enough, up popped an Arthur Quiller-Couch poem with these great lines:

The wind both blow today, my love,
And a few small drop of rain;
I never had but one true-love;
In cold grave she was lain.

I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.

The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
Oh who sits weeping on my grave,
and will not let me sleep?

The poem is called An Unquiet Grave. I hope Arthur doesn't mind.

That brings us to the new project, Louis Kincaid No. 8, as it is known right now. Actually we are calling it The Panther Book. No title yet, but I promise it will not have "cat" in it. And if you have any good titles hanging around that you're not using, send them along.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

And so it begins

It's that time again. Time to put aside laundry folding, litter cleaning, and computer solitaire. It's time to start a new book.

Break out the pinot and the Xanax, keep the TV tuned to Nick at Night, kiss the husband and dog goodbye. It's time to start a new book.

Call the friends and bid them adieu, write the relatives to say you're gone, tell the girls at yoga you'll see them next spring. It's time to start a new book.

Close the lid on the piano, stash all the books on the bedside table, cancel the Sunday New York Times. It's time to start a new book.

Vacuum the popcorn kennels from the keyboard, turn the office chair toward the wall, take a good long look at your face in the blank gray screen and switch on the computer. It's time to start a new book.

Take a deep breath and then one more, listen hard to the whispers in your head, close your eyes and bring the faces into focus. It's time to start a new book.

Leave behind your own warm world. It's time to enter someone else's now. It's time to start a new book.