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.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Downward facing writer

I really hate starting a new book. It is really really hard for me. So much so that I go into a funk every time Kelly and I gear up for the next one.

Part of this comes from the postpartem blues of finishing the previous book. When we are gliding toward the finish line, I am giddy with energy and good vibes. And oh, that moment when we get to type THE END! Rapture.

But as soon as that manuscript flies away on its FedEx wings, I crash. I sit around in a stew of depression, doubt and despair. Is this going to be book where they discover we are frauds? Will I ever come up with another decent idea?

My funk goes on until Kelly finally kicks me in the ass and we start rolling the boulder back up the hill again. But this week, I realized I had to do something drastic, something preferably not involving pharmaceudicals. So I went back to my yoga class.

I used to be a very attentive yogi. It seems to sooth my demons, make me braver at facing the computer. Maybe this has something to do with endorphins? All I know is I always seem to write better after an hour of saluting the sun and standing on my noggin.

The thing I like about yoga is that it is very good for A-type personalities. In a yoga class, there is no way to compete, no way to measure your worth by outside standards. If you get hung up on the fact that the woman next to you can do a better lotus than you? Well, you've missed one of the points of yoga. Which is:

You. Only you. And your own progress. At your own pace.

Which, when you think about it, is great advice for any writer. See, we tend to get all bent out of shape by worrying about things outside our control. Like, how come Author X got a huge advance when he writes crap? Like, why did Author Y get a starred review in PW and I can't get any notice? Like, why does Author Z get a a 10-city tour and I can't get my local Barnes & Noble to let me sit at a cardtable and try to hawk a few books?

God, we all worry so much now about promotion and marketing. We're all afraid we aren't doing enough to push our books. Aren't talking up enough librarians, doing enough drive-by signings, attending enough conventions. We fret about pod-casting, viral marketing, networking, blogging, slogging and dogging. We spend so much creative energy trying to think of ways to separate ourselves from the pack, it's a wonder we have any juice left for writing.

When I was just starting out, I found myself at an MWA luncheon sitting next to Jan Burke. This was not long after she won the Edgar for "Bones." I was an awed newbie, and I said something stupid about how the bad writers seemed to get all the attention. She was kind and said all writers get jealous. And she added something I will never forget:

"You have to keep your head down and just write your books."

Five books later, Jan Burke is still there, making the New York Times list with her newest "Kidnapped." And me? I am trying to live by her words and the lesson of my yoga class -- that the only person I am in competition with is me.

So, if you -- like me -- need an attitude adjustment, I highly recommend some yoga. I'll even give you a few basic exercises to get you started:


The King Dancer position. This is very good at helping you build balance. To do this pose, fix your gaze on something that doesn’t move so that you don’t lose your balance. Like maybe writing the best book you can?

The Fish Pose: It is good for developing flexibility. Because sometimes, you have to go in directions you didn't consider. Like abandoning a moribund story or trying a new POV. Or maybe adapting a pen name. If you need help with this pose, put a blanket under your head. Or read a book by an author you admire.

The Goddess: This pose helps you open yourself up. If this feels uncomfortable, you can use some folded blankets to prop up the spine. Or, find a good critique group to lend you some support.

The Crow: This is a hard one, but worth learning. Do not let your head drop! This will cause you to tip forward and fall. But don't worry; everyone falls when learning this pose. Just like every writer fears falling flat on their face, even the great ones.

The Headstand: Very good for getting the blood to your head and increasing overall circulation. Practice the pose at the wall. Try to move further from the wall each time, or remove one foot and then the other from the wall to practice balancing. You can't master this one in one try. And you can't become a successful writer overnight. It takes years of hard work and practice.

The Tree: Another good balance pose. If you cannot bring your foot high inside the high, bring it lower. In other words, lowering your expectations isn't always a bad thing. If you don't make the New York Times bestseller list on your first three books -- What? You're gonna quit? No, you keep trying and eventually your leg (or book) will go higher than you ever thought it could.

The Wheel: This is an advanced pose, mastered only after you've achieved strength and balance. Same goes for a writing career. You hang around long enough, you might become a big wheel. Need help with this pose? Have someone stand behind you and hold their ankles instead of putting the hands on the floor. Likewise, if you've got a spouse or family behind you, you can conquer the world.

And lastly...
The Pose of the Child: Rest in Child’s Pose at any time if you get tired or out of breath. Rejoin the class when you are ready. In other words, don't forget to take some time off, kiss your wife or husband, and play with your kids. Writers often forget the value of recharging the old batteries. You can't write about roses if you never take time to smell them.

Namaste, my friends...

Monday, February 12, 2007

On copy editors, jockstraps and other cosmic questions

Copy editors, bless ‘em. Good ones are hard to find and hard ones are even better to find.

It’s even more of a thrill to find out they’re not pucker lipped crones with flaming red pencils, but a fellow Michigander with a sharp and knowledgeable eye. Such is our latest one, Wendy.

But let's back up a moment. When you write a book, you have only five chances to not end up looking like the world's biggest fool:

  1. Write the best book you can.
  2. Rewrite that book how ever many times it takes to cleanse it of all the cretinous prose, dumb mistakes and smelly cheese.
  3. Have a great line editor who makes you go back and de-cheese it some more.
  4. Luck into getting a great copy editor, who has your back.
  5. And finally, read your galleys carefully

For all practical purposes, your only real last best chance is No. 4. The copy editor. She is the last gas station on Highway 95 between Las Vegas and Searchlight. He is the last butt in the car ashtray after you've just gotten off a four-hour flight. She is the one who tells you your skirt is caught in your pantyhose when you walk out of the bathroom. He is the one who tells you when to zip your fly or button your mouth.

When you get to the galleys, it is too late. The copy editor is all that stands between you and the abyss of hackdom, my friends.

So, we are here today (Kelly is writing this one, too), to praise Wendy the Copy Editor and her unheralded ilk (I think that's the right word...where's Wendy when I need her?)

For our upcoming book A THOUSAND BONES, Wendy corrected our lays and lies without being smug. She knew the difference between Mackinaw and Mackinac. She respected our idiomatic dialogue. She double-checked our French without being snide. (When I was writing romance, I had a British editor who scribbled in the margin of my manuscript: "Considering this author's lack of command in English, I don't think we should trust her French.")

Not only did Wendy help us keep our dates, ages and eye colors straight, she raised a couple plot questions we hadn't thought much about. Once we did think about her polite but pointed questions, we went back in for a final critical rewrite that made the plot stronger.

But copy editors being the eccentric souls they are, Wendy did bring up some questions that we -- or any other writers in their wildest dreams -- would never expect to encounter. Like...

Is underwear plural or singular?

Here is the paragraph as we wrote it:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put them on the heating unit to dry, but they had fallen off during the night and were still wet.

This was her suggested version:

Last night, she had washed out her underwear in her room and put it on the heating unit to dry, but it had fallen off during the night and was still wet.

This set us thinking...

In almost every Thesaurus reference to underwear, there is an ‘S’ added to the word -- shorts, long johns, panties, drawers, bikinis, undies, woolies, bloomers, flannels, thermals, skivvies, boxers. Despite the fact the clothing in question is, indeed, a single piece of fabric.

Is it because panties have two holes for two extremities that we perceive it to be plural?

"She picked up her panties and put them on."
"He took off his boxers and tossed them to the bed."

This sounds right to us because this is how people think. But that leads us to an even more perplexing question: How come a bra, another single-piece item, which also holds two separate body parts, becomes an IT when we think of it in every day usage? Or what about a jock strap, which is similar but, technically speaking, holds three body parts?

"She took her bra off and laid them on the bed."
"He took off his jockstrap and flung them into the corner."

Whoa, what kind of image does that put in a reader’s head?

Now our particular problem maybe have come from Wendy’s perception that our character had washed both pieces of her underwear, not just her panties. And referring to a set as IT may have been more appropriate, even though we still prefer THEM.

In the end, that’s what we opted for and we’ll see if we won this strange battle when we get our galleys. But here at Cabbages and Kings, (where we do tend to talk about many things) we are here to serve your writing needs. And we writers do love our rules. So we leave you with this:

The Crime Writer's Rules About Underwear

  • Clothing with two sleeves or arm holes are an It.
  • Clothing meant to hold two pieces of the anatomy are an It.
  • Clothing designed for three (or more appendages) are an It.
  • Clothing with two legs or leg holes are a Them.

Except, of course, for a girdle, which is an It. We think.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Do you have the title gene?

Let me run something by you, just for your opinion. Which of these titles grabs you for a thriller/mystery?

Somebody's Daughter
Hunger Moon
A Thousand Bones

We'll get back to those in a second. But now, let's talk about one of the most important things you need to succeed in this business. Forget talent, forget perseverence, forget craftsmanship. Even forget luck. I'm thinking today that what you really need is The Title Gene.

Okay, I am being a smartass here. Of course you need all those other things. But I am beginning to think that you just can't discount having the knack for great titles. It can make or break your career. It's a different talent than book writing. It's akin to headline writing in journalism. You have to sum up in one to five words the heart and soul of your story. And make it sound sexy, exciting and oh-so different from every other book screaming for attention on the shelves.

I think we give good title. Randy Wayne White once told me he really liked our titles and considering he's no slouch, I'll take the compliment. Our titles may not be super original, but they do convey the moods of our books. But I tell you, it is getting harder and harder to come up with something fresh in the crime writing business. How many variations are there on all the usual buzzwords -- death, black, darkness, grave, murder, cold, midnight, evil? You get the point.

Titles are a little bit like bras. Finding the right one is a deeply frustrating, uncomfortable exercise and you have to try on a bunch of them to find one that really fits. (Men, you're on your own here -- jockstraps?)

Our first book "Dark of of the Moon" went nameless almost to press time. It began life as "The Last Rose of Summer" and mutated into "Circle of Evil" before I found the Langston Hughes poem "Silhouette" that inspired it.

"Paint It Black"? Well, just listen to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones' song and you get the shivers.

Then came our dud, "Thicker Than Water." It's a terrific book but man, what a crappy title. And guess what? It was our worst-seller. Its original title was "Flesh and Blood" but Jonathon Kellerman had a book coming out the same time with the same title. Our editor told us, "Your book will suffer." Last year, Lisa Gardner had a book called "Gone," same title as Kellerman. I wonder if she suffered?

We followed up with "Island of Bones." Can't go wrong with "bones" on a title and frankly, we hit on the title before we had a plot for this one. It sold really well.

Then came "A Killing Rain." We didn't have a title until we were almost done. Then while writing a synopsis for the marketing people, I wrote: "The story takes place during a Florida cold snap, what the farmers here call a killing rain." Well, duh. But here's a postscript. When my sister Kelly was on a panel at Left Coast Crime, things were going nuts (Well, Joe Konrath was the moderator). At one point, David Morrell said something about Barry Eisler's latest, "A Killing Rain." Panelist Lee Goldberg kidded to Kelly, "you should sue his ass." Everyone howled. But it's really not funny when your book has the same title has someone else's. I mean, Jonathon King's "A Killing Night" came out the same time! And the same time my first short story "One Shot" came out, guess what Lee Child book was on the shelf? Lee, ever the gentleman, joked to me recently that I stole his title.

And that brings us to "An Unquiet Grave." Another of our books that didn't have a title until the end. But I was surfing thru Bartlett's online quotations (the writer's friend!) It was luck -- or karma? -- that the old poem was not only an evocative title but dovetailed with our theme. The gods protect fools, travelers and occasionally even writers.

Years ago, I read a book by John Katzenbach called "In the Heat of the Summer." Terrific book with a flaccid title. When they made a movie of it, it was retitled " The Mean Season." Much better, no?

Sometimes titles can turn on you.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's called "The Great Gatsby" "Under the Red White and Blue" (the American Dream, get it?) Then he considered "Trimalchio's Banquet" and "The High Bouncing Lover." His editor Max Perkins changed it.

Margaret Mitchell originally named the heroine Pansy rather than Scarlett and wanted to call the book after her. She argued with her publisher and they suggested the alternative title using the novel's immortal last line, "Tomorrow Is Another Day." She finally offered up a line from her favorite poem by Ernest Dowson, "Gone with the Wind."

The apocryphal story about Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is that it was originally called Catch-18. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it? And then there's J. K. Rowling, who was talked into changing the name of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Changing one word can make or break you.

It gets worse:

"All the President's Men" working title: "At This Point in Time."
"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" working title: "The Birds and the Bees"
"Valley of the Dolls" working title: "They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen" (huh?)
"Pride and Prejudice" working title: "First Impressions"
"Roots" working title: "Before This Anger"

Titles are so important, there is even a website now where you can test the "bestseller" quality of yours. And there are some guys who rent out as book titlers. Right...

I think I would rather just ask my friends who have the title gene. Like our buddy Rick Mofina. A couple years back, Rick would not tell us the title of his WIP no matter how many times we promised not to steal it. It would have been worth stealing -- "The Dying Hour."

Here's the thing: If you make it big -- I mean really big -- titles seem to cease to be important. Hell, you could slap "Evil Refried Beans of Midnight" on a Mike Connelly book and it would sell.

But the rest of us? We are stuck in title hell, still looking for that one great phrase that will separate us from the ever-growing pack.

I like Dave Barry's philosophy. His latest is called "Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down." He jokes that he wanted to call it "Tuesdays with Harry Potter" but that "the Legal Department had some problems with that."

P.S. Those three titles at the beginning? The first two were the working titles of our upcoming book until our editor Mitch said, try again. We were on chapter forty-something before "A Thousand Bones" surfaced. Kismet...