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.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

True lies

Time to come clean on the Tag Game. Here is the truth...

1. When I was 47, I was in the Miami City Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" directed by the acclaimed Edward Villella.
True. This was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I was only in Act I but when it was over, I wanted to do it all over again. The experience gave me a taste of the narcotic all performers feel.

2. I once stood on my head at Les Invalides, the place in Paris where Napoleon is entombed.
C'est vrai. I have no shame. Here's the picture to prove it.

3. I interviewed Michael Jordan in the Bulls lockerroom for a story about "hang time."
Also true. This was on the occasion of Jordan's comeback (first or second one, I can't recall). Most the Bulls were nekkid or almost so. Mike was resplendent in a white suit. He was holding court surrounded by sycophantic sportswriters who all tried to elbow me aside. Jordan could not have been sweeter to me but maybe he was just tired of talking to jock-sniffers.

4. I was invited to a party on the royal yacht Britannia where Queen Elizabeth asked me what I did for a living.

True. I was sent by my newspaper to cover the opening of the Bahamian parliament in 1977 and got to meet Her Majesty on the yacht. (Here's the official invite). Liz did, indeed, ask me what I did for a living. I don't remember what I said because I was absolutely impaled by her icy blue eyes. For the record, Queen Liz is even shorter than I am. But her husband Phil was very tall, very gregarious and had a little too much to drink.

5. Telly Savalas let me lick his lollipop.
Well, I did get to interview him once and he was a sweetie. Gave me a big hug but did not let me lick his lolly.

So, Jude Hardin, you're our winner. Next summer, I will send you one of the first copies of our new book A THOUSAND BONES.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tag...I'm it

Don't know what rock I've been under, but there's a game afoot in the blog world called Tagging. I have been tagged by Jude Hardin to come up with five interesting or unique things about myself. One of them is not true.

Whoever is the first to guess which one is the lie gets a free autographed book.

1. When I was 47, I was in the Miami City Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" directed by the acclaimed Edward Villella.

2. I once stood on my head at Les Invalides, the place in Paris where Napoleon is entombed.

3. Telly Savalas let me lick his lollipop.

4. I interviewed Michael Jordan in the Bulls lockerroom for a story about "hang time."

5. I was invited to a party on the royal yacht Britannia where Queen Elizabeth asked me what I did for a living.

And now, I am tagging Bob Morris, J. Carson Black, and the girls over at Lipstick Chronicles.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why we need editors

Editors have been weighing heavily on my brain of late. Mostly because Kelly and I recently turned in the rewrites on our new book and our new editor had requested more changes than we have been used to making over our eight-book career.

But other bits of brain lint have balled together in my lobes to have me thinking about this special species of human being:

1. I read an entry over on Lee Goldberg's blog from a self-published author who wrote: "When I finished the novel, I put it into the hands of a few big-time publishing houses. They all told me the same thing. 'We like the writing, but in order for us to sell it, you have to rewrite this and rewrite that, then send it back to us.' I wasn't about to start rewriting my book so that maybe some traditional publisher would take it."

2. I just got an email from an unpublished writer whose manuscript Kelly and I critiqued for charity a while back. This writer had a good idea, an engaging character, even a nice voice. But all that was obscured by the usual problems (wavering POV, throat-clearing opening, unclear physical action, too many characters introduced too quickly, adverbitis...) But this writer stuck to it, rewrote and rewrote, got an agent who made her rewrite some more. She just sold that mystery as part of a three-book deal to NAL. She's on her way and emailed me: "So right now I'm waiting for the revision letter from my editor for the first book, and meanwhile, I'm writing the second one."

Which of these two has the right attitude? This is not a trick question. It if were, why don't more writers get it?

You need an editor.

I need an editor.

Every writer needs an editor.

This goes straight to the heart of why I am so down on self-publishing. There is no real editing in the self-publishing process. Yet it is precisely the ONE THING every beginning writer needs most desperately. This is the reason why almost every self-published book out there today is so bad: there is no one in the process to put on the brake, no one to tell the poor writer where the wheels came off.

Now before I go any further, let's get our terms straight. I don't mean a copy editor (the comma and lay/lie arbiter). I am talking about the first reader of your book after you turn it in, the person who can tell you if you've tangled your plot in digressions, misunderstood your hero's motivation, or picked the wrong bad guy. The Big Picture Guy or Girl who understands what you are going for in your book and helps you get there.

Let me get back to my own experience for a moment. Because we collaborate, Kelly and I edit each other's writing. But we know that isn't enough. We know we need the entity we have come to call The Cold Third Eye.

Why? For the same reason any writer does. Because we, like all writers, live our story with every breath we take, intimately for months on end. Every day, it is playing on those screens in our heads, and we can see everything so clearly. But as with any writer, there is often a disconnect between that screen and our fingers as they hit the computer keys. Something misfires, something is lost in translation.

That is where the Cold Eye comes in. This is the person who tells you where you have gone astray. The Cold Eye (aka the editor) usually communicates in the form of the dreaded Revisions Letter, a document that can run as long as a legal brief and be just as scary. Now, getting this feedback is tough and sometimes writers get a tad defensive about it. Here are the kind of comments you might see in a revisions letter -- and how some writers might react:

Editor: Think about making this a Prologue.
Author: What? Prologues are strictly bush-league! It's the crutch of every bad writer! I won't do it! You can't make me!

Editor: I think X is a wonderful complex character but her relationship with Y is underwritten.
Author: But X doesn't really LOVE Y, so it's supposed to be without passion! We aren't writing romance suspense here!"

Editor: Is all this stuff between Y and Z necessary? Cut as much as possible.
Author: But we need this scene because it illuminates Y's motivation while introducing two quirky secondary characters who help convey the small-town setting!

Editor: Unclear whether X or Y is asking this. And they just don't seem to be as concerned about the evidence tampering as the reader will be. This whole plot element doesn't land properly.
Author: Doesn't this guy watch Cops? Police do this kind of shit all the time!It's completely believable!

Editor: Timeline problem: Is this the same day or a week later?"
Author: This is a simple linear plot! A ten-year-old could follow this, for god's sake.

Editor: "X pursed her lips." You use pursed lips too many times.
Writer: (sigh...)

Editor: Think about making this an epilogue
Writer (Gigantic sigh...)

Okay, for the record, these are actual comments from our editor's recent revision letter to us. His seven-page revision letter. And you know what? Once we got over ourselves and went back into the manuscript to see what he was talking about, we realized he was spot-on about every thing he said:

Chapter 1 works better as a prologue, making us rethink the advice we have given to other writers over the years that prologues don't work. Sometimes they do. In other words, there are no fast rules.

The romantic relationship we had set up in our book WAS underwritten. Our experience writing hardboiled stuff had made us squeamish about mucking about in such emotions, so we had tried to ingore it. Result? Anemic character development that didn't set up the impact we were going for at book's end.

The scene he asked us to cut with our beloved quirky secondary characters was nicely written but useless. We had fallen in love with the sound of our own words and disobeyed one of our own prime tenets of crime writing: If it does not advance the story in some way, take it out.

The part about the evidence tampering? Technically, we were right in that the scene we had written WAS true to life. We knew this; we had done our homework. But sometimes the truth isn't true in fiction. If your reader can't buy into the reality you are creating on the page, you have to bend reality enough to make it feel right and help your plot. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said: “It may be realistic, but it's not interesting.”

The timeline problem our editor noted? Here is the perfect example of author blindness. Kelly and I saw our story perfectly in our heads. We had even storyboarded it and charted the timeline on a graph. But the way we had written it was confusing, and we couldn't see it. You have to slow down and stick in enough time and place signposts so your reader doesn't get lost. Lost equals confused. Confused equals angry. Angry equals book thrown across the room.

Pursing lips? Well, that's our Author Tic. Every writer has one or two. You just don't see 'em. The Cold Eye does.

And yes, we changed the last chapter to an Epilogue.

So, what's the lesson here? Find your Cold Eye. Unfortunately, it may not be easy. Many editors are mediocre or indifferent. Some are truly bad and meddling. Raymond Chandler once wrote to his publisher: "Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive."

But that rare good editor? That person won't kill your style. But neither will he tell you you're brilliant (that's mom's job) or that your stuff is a million times better than James Patterson's (that's your hopeful spouse). A good editor -- your Cold Eye -- will tell you how to be better than you already are.

I leave you with one more quote, this one from James Thurber:

"Editing should be a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The [editor] should say to himself, 'How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?' and avoid 'How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?'"

p.s. I have no editor for this blog. It is self-published. Any mistakes are mine alone, God help me...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Sniffing butts part II

I thought I had the last word on strange mating rituals until I saw this today over on Miss Snark's blog. I think I saw these two in the elevator at Bouchercon...

Sniffing Butts.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Sniffing butts at Bouchercon

So I'm on the plane coming home from Bouchercon, drinking my little bottle of five-dollar wine and digging into John D. MacDonald's "Nightmare In Pink." I'm chilling out, enjoying Travis McGee's trip to Manhattan when I come across this in Chapter 4:

I whisked the soot off the wall by the entrance steps and sat and waited for her, and watched the office people bring their anxious dogs out. You could almost hear the dogs sigh as they reached the handiest pole. There was a preponderance of poodles.

This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little more excrutiating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think if they could just do everything right, they wouldn't have to be locked up in silence -- pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder. That's what they try to talk about. One day there will appear a super-poodle, one almost as bright as the most stupid alley cat, and he will figure it out. He will suddenly realize his loneliness is merely a by-product of his being used to ease the loneliness of his Owner. He'll tell the others. He'll leave messages. And some dark night they'll all start chewing throats.

God, I love that passage. I am relatively new to the MacDonald books, so I am still discovering his delicious little digressions. This one made me howl in laughter. Not because it's so spot-on about poodles but because it made me think of the poodles I had met in Madison.

Now, I'm new to the dog world. I've had cats all my life and just a couple years ago got my first dog, so I am still deciphering the odd psychology of the canine brain. And maybe it was the cheap wine or post-conference fatigue, but I found myself thinking of all the dogs I had met over the weekend. Poodles, pugs, pekes, great danes. We were all there at Bouchercon, lapping drinks at the Concourse bar, nipping at each other's flanks on panels, sniffing butts in the hospitality suites. We're not cats. Cats will band together if they have to, but they don't really enjoy it. But dogs? They revel in other dogs and their dogness.

Lots of dogs at Bouchercon...

I saw big roving packs of golden retrievers, romping indiscriminately with all breeds. They were slopperly happy to just be at the dog park, man.

I saw regal afghans, confident in their beauty and talent, but who never looked down their snouts at anyone. They picked up the tab for everyone at the pub.

I saw hyperactive jack russells, jumping from table to table, eager to please on a panel or at a party. They charmed with their freshness and vitality, making you wish them a long life.

I saw plenty of pugs, the great and gregarious fans, sweet and smart, ready to give their love for a signature in their treasured first edition. God, you want to take them all home with you.

But then there were those poodles. Edgy, brilliant writers who, like MacDonald's Manhattan poodles, believe that if they could just do everything right, if they just keep trying to transcend the pack, they would get the commercial success that's their due.

And one night, I saw a clique of chihuahuas, trembling together in their self-congratulatory pack, waiting to nip at the ankles of those who pass by because they felt tiny and overlooked.

But the poodles and chihuahuas were the misfits. The rest of us? Wizened award-winning sharpeis dispensing advice, German shepherds on patrol for new agents, curly-earred cockers seducing with their big brown eyes over the rim of their Cosmos. Old dogs, young pups, and all the rest of us mutts, we were just trying to connect in that great, primal, canine way. I don't know about you, but I had a doggone good time.