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.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Hugging the porcelain

My friend Reed Farrel Coleman is flying high today. He just got nominated for an Edgar. He got the news on the same day he was also elected executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. Which is kind of like hitting a home run and running the bases with a bad case of jock itch. Do you laugh or cry?

Just kidding. But barely. See, I am just finished with my tour of duty serving on the MWA national board and it is hard work for no pay, very little glory and a lot of grief. I can tell you, though, that I got more out of the experience that I can ever say. I can tell you, too, that Reed is going to be a helluva a EVP. So I was thrilled to see him get an Edgar nod for his splendid book, The James Deans -- because an Edgar nomination can change a writer forever.

You're scoffing. But hear me out.

My sister Kelly and I got an Edgar nomination for our second book,Dead of Winter. We were pretty naive -- hell, stupid -- about the book biz in those days but we DID know enough to get our book entered. (our debut was never submitted; many publishers neglect to enter their authors' books which is why you don't see some good titles on the lists that should be there.)

I remember exactly what I was doing when I got the news. The Bucs were beating up on the Raiders so everyone at our Super Bowl party was three sheets to the wind, including me. The phone rang and I took it outside so I could hear. When the person delivered the news, I screamed. My husband came running outside.

"What the hell is wrong?" he yelled.
"We're an Edgar nominee!" I yelled back.
"Thank God," he said, "I thought the cat drowned in the pool."

Things got better fast.

First, the book jumped a couple notches on Amazon. It was probably from 1,4456,957 to 56,789, but hey, you take what you can get. It started to get some late reviews from folks who had ignored it the first time. (Paperback originals don't register on most reviewer radar screens). And there was our name -- on a list with such folks as Jeffrey Deaver, S.J. Rozan, Jan Burke, Margaret Maron, Harlan Coben, and Ed friggin' McBain, for god's sake. It was heady stuff for two newbies.

Then came the Edgar banquet. We bought new dresses and went to New York. We even had our hair done that day. At the hotel bar, we sat in a quiet circle: Kelly, her son Robert, my husband Daniel and our agent Maria. We allowed ourselves one drink because if we did win, we didn't want to make asses of ourselves up there.

Inside the cavernous dining room, we sat at our publisher's table. We ogled and pointed. There goes Harlan. Was that T. Jefferson Parker? Geez, Laura Lippman is taller than she looks in her pictures. Look at the red dress Mary Higgins Clark is wearing. Omigod, that's Edie Falco over there!

Everything was a blur. Then they started announcing the winners. It is excruciating to sit through all the categories knowing your moment is coming. The sound starts rushing in your ears and your vision grows dim. You're stone cold sober but you feel like you're going to pass out.

I felt my husband grab my hand.


We lost.

I applauded the winner then grabbed the wine bottle and poured myself a tall one. The next day, we went home and I went back to chapter 12 of what was to become our fourth book, Thicker Than Water.

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you the truth: Losing bites. And I would bet you that for all the grousing, bitching, complaining and second-guessing that surrounds the Edgars, there isn't an author out there who wouldn't kill to have one of those ugly little statues.

So many good books. (There were over 500 books entered in Best Novel alone this year and an astonding 1701 total Edgar submissions.) But there are only five nominee slots. And only one winner. So to Reed and all the other nominees, all I can say is that even if you don't win, just remember:

...that the Edgar, unique among the mystery community's awards, is judged by other writers and that your peers thought enough of your work to single it out.

...that you are part of a 60-year tradition of honoring what is good about our genre.

...that you will never forget the high.

...and that it will sustain you through all those dark nights when you can't put two decent sentences together, your numbers are shit, and you are sure the world is finally going to discover you have no talent and are a complete fraud.

Writing is a lonely affair. It's a cliche but a true cliche. And the egos of most writers I know are swiss-cheesed with doubt. I think that is how the Edgar can most change a writer's life. It's not the outer confirmation that the award represents -- things like a bump in sales, or a translation into a better contract or a bigger publisher. It is the inner validation -- that something you did, something you created out of the ether of your imagination and the sweat of your faith -- is real.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

The kid stays in the book

Tell me if this ever happens to you:

You're typing along, and you start hearing voices in your head. It's a couple of your characters, chatting away. And you find your fingers flying just trying to keep up so you can record it all.

That's how I get my dialogue. I swear sometimes I am channeling, that is how clear it comes in on my receiver. The hard part is sometimes the voices come when I'm NOT at the computer -- like when I'm jogging or looking at towels at Target -- and I can't get it down on paper. Pffttt! Gone like the last seconds of a dream.

And then -- and this doesn't happen very often -- I am typing away and I see people come onto the screen in my head. These are people I have not summoned, characters I have not accounted for, and it's like, wtf, who are you? You don't belong in this story. Get outta here, can't you see we're working here? Somebody throw this bum off my set!

But they don't leave. They hang around. And they start whispering, "forget them, tell my story."

The first time I got visited by one of them was during the writing of our third book, "Thicker Than Water." This is a story about a dirtbag con who raped and murdered a girl and twenty years later gets out of prison and proceeds to kill his defense attorney. Or so the cops say. His son Ronnie hires our hero Louis to help clear his father's name. I was writing a scene in which Ronnie and Louis were in Ronnie's tool shed talking about how Ronnie had no money to pay Louis and suddenly, in my head I heard the screech of air brakes. My fingers froze over the keyboard, but I said, I wrote in that Louis heard the braking screech of a school bus outside. A second later, a boy was in my head, whispering to me. But he was so sullen and closed, I couldn't hear what he was saying. I didn't like him. I almost ignored him. But then I gave in and wrote him into the scene -- suddenly, Ronnie had a son named Eric.

The kid hung around for 300 pages, moving in and out of the plot like a small ghost. I didn't have a friggin' clue why he was there except to make the dirtbag con, his grandfather, look even meaner. I kept wondering if Eric was just what I call a clutter-character, and that I needed to heed Elmore Leonard's famous advice to "cut out the stuff readers skip over." But I let Eric stay. Then, on page 363, Eric said something to me that changed the whole book. He said:

"Can a kid get in trouble for something he knows?"

Damn. It came together in a blinding flash, the whole key to the book. This kid was it. We had to go back and rewrite and set up the bread-crumb trail of clues better to make it work. But this ghostly kid held the final great twist of the plot in his hands. And without realizing it, for hundreds of pages, I had been giving Eric motivation and layers that set up everything for the ending. Or maybe Eric had been giving them to me.

I now call this serendipity. I have learned to welcome these intruding wraiths. I have learned to trust them. Because they are the ones you didn't build. They are the ones who came on their own. They are the ones that bring life and serenpidity to your story.

I just have to learn to listen more carefully when they come a callin'.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hey Sweetheart, get me rewrite!

Boxers or briefs?
Coke or Pepsi?
Rewrite or...not?
I rewrite. In fact, I believe in its virtues so strongly I can't see there is any other sane way to produce a book. Still, I know there are those who don't, won't or can't. I hear them in bars and on panels, saying they just begin at the beginning and end at the end and never rewrite a word. But I can't see it. Rewriting is like religion to me: I hold so firmly to my belief that I can only shake my head at those pagans who claim they can produce the perfect page on the first try and never look back.

Maybe I can be convinced. But it won't be by a beginning writer. If you are just starting out, I am here to say the road to righteousness lies in the power of the delete key and multi-drafts. Here is how I came to see the light:

Our first book was a mess. (Kirkus said it still was, post-publication, but that's another story. See previous post: Liver Pecking). Our agent, She Who Knows All, made us rewrite it 10 times. Truth be, Kelly and I were rather indignant. I mean, we knew the story and dare some outsider imply it didn't work! How dare someone say they couldn't follow the plot? How dare someone say the characters' motivations weren't clear? I mean, we were the authors and the story was so alive in our heads and hearts! How could someone not SEE THAT?

Well, She Who Knows All was right, of course. She was our first cold reader. And she was just telling us what our next readers would have -- the critics and the buying public -- that we didn't have it down. So we rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. And "Dark of the Moon" was less of a mess, got sold and started our career.

Here's the second thing that makes me a believer:

Kelly and I now do a lot of manuscript critiques. We do them for charity auctions, as do many authors, and the winners submit their 50 pages and we give them honest feedback. Most the folks we never hear from again. I suspect the reading public doesn't either, probably because those writers did not want to face the gawd awful hard task of rewriting. One guy sent me a copy of his book. I read it. He hadn't changed a thing. It had been self-published.


Case No. 1: Two years ago, we did a critique for a woman named Leona. Her first attempt had many of the usual mistakes. But Leona didn't give up. She toiled on her story, rewrote, reshaped, started over. She stays in touch, telling us she's gotten some nibbles but no bites yet. "I know my time will come, but in the meantime, I'm still learning," she says. I don't know if she'll get published, but man, I admire her tenacity.

Case No. 2: Last year, the person who bidded for our critique sent us her story and it, too, had problems that we knew she had to fix before an editor or agent would consider it. We did the critique, sent it back and offered a followup. Nothing. Didn't hear a word back. I figured she, like so many others, just decided to ignore what we suggested. But a couple days ago, I got a sample in my Sleuthfest workshop batch. The name didn't register, but as I started reading, the story did. It was the same woman and she had done major surgery on her story -- and it was better, much much better. She isn't giving up. She isn't giving in (to POD temptation). She is learning the craft.

Here is my tao:
1. Find your one true cold reader. Every writer needs someone they can trust to tell them the truth. I am lucky; I have my co-author sister Kelly. Your One True Cold Eye is usually not your spouse, friend, mother. These people love you and can hurt you in two ways: by telling you everything you write is great or by telling you that you will never make it.
2. Don't aim for perfection. If you insist on making every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter gold, you will destroy the initial passion and momentum of discovery. Give yourself permission to write badly as you find your narrative legs and get to know your characters.
3. Finish the manuscript. Sounds like stupid advice. But too many folks never finish because they can't get chapter 12 perfect. Finish the damn thing first and then go back and polish it.
4. Lose this idea that rewriting destroys spontaneity and creativity. I often tell beginners that the first draft is written with the heart but the second, third, fifth or tenth -- those are written with the head.

And lastly,

5. Embrace the process. You are not a writer. You are constantly becoming a writer. No matter how many books you have under your belt.

You got that, sweetheart?