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Sunday, June 16, 2013

On Father's Day

My father, Jim Burton, was not a reader. In truth, neither of my parents were bibliophiles. The bookshelves in our family room contained a complete set of Collier's Encyclopedias, a huge unabridged dictionary (both handy when we asked a question so my mother could point and say, "Look it up!"), a medical dictionary left over from Mom' s nursing days, and a literal handful of novels. After my siblings and I moved beyond the collection of Dr. Seuss, A Child's Book of Verses, and the complete Junior Classics, the only ever-expanding library in the house was mine.

Dad was an aeronautical engineer, and while reading and engineering aren't mutually exclusive, in our household the only reading material other than the newspaper Dad perused (in the bathroom, where the magazine rack was installed) was IEEE (an industry pub) and Popular Science. Therefore, when I began to write seriously, the process wasn't something we could discuss. Oh, he'd listen, with a smile and lots of vague encouragement, but the concepts like point of view, character development, and story arc were as Greek to his ears as propulsion, structural and control systems, aerodynamics, and avionics were to mine.

Equally foreign -- perhaps even more so -- to my dad's experience was what Chris did for a living. A butler? Without even the knowledge gained by reading, say, PD Wodehouse's "Jeeves" novels, my dad couldn't fathom Chris's chosen profession. As much as he liked my future husband, on our wedding day, my dad's parting shot to Chris was a half-joking "Now get a real job."

Fast forward nine years. Chris and I are now living in New York (because Chris accepted an estate manager job here). My first book, A Butler's Life: Scenes from the Other Side of the Silver Salver has just been published by Frederic C Beil. Dad, at my request, had done the drawings for two of the sidebars contained in the book, and he happens to be visiting from California when we have a book event scheduled at BookHampton. In the four or five days since his arrival, he's admired the look of the book but to my dismay, has made no attempt to do much more than glance through it. He can't know how badly this hurts me, because this book is my first born, and he is my only living parent.

Chris and I are both reading at the book signing: I'm reading the preface (which is the only part of the book in my voice), and Chris is reading an except from his time in Monaco. I'm watching the crowd as Chris reads, and I'm especially gratified to see my father laughing and enjoying the section. It's a very successful book signing; they sell out of all the copies they'd ordered (but after all, this is our home town).

Dad says on the way home, "You have more books at home, right? I'd like to buy some copies to take home. One for me, and others for gifts." I am almost teary as I sign him a copy. And shortly after we get home, to my complete astonishment, he takes his signed copy off to a comfy chair and starts to read. And he excuses himself after meals to go back to reading it. When he surfaces after finishing it the next day, there is a new appreciation in his eyes for what Chris does...and what I do.

Our inscripions on the flyleaf of Dad's copy were full of love and appreciation for the role model he was (and still is) in both of our lives. But Chris's inscription finished, "PS -- This IS a real job." :)

In the thirty months...only thirty months!...that followed before we lost him unexpectedly in the Spring of 1999, he and I still couldn't discuss story arc or conflict or plotting. But I knew from the day of that book event that he now had an idea of what went into writing and publishing a book, and that he was proud of me.

Dad has been gone fourteen years now, and both Chris and I miss him enormously. His copy of my book, of course, came back to me when we sold my childhood home.I'm sorry he didn't live to see any of my novels in print, though I'm sure they would have been a harder read for him; a memoir like A Butler's Life was a better fit for the immensely pragmatic engineer than novels of psychological suspense.

Happy Father's Day, Dad. I'll love and miss you forever.

Monday, April 29, 2013

A writer writes....when?

"A writer writes."

Except when she's doing her day job.

Thus begins the time of year when I struggle with feelings of inadequacy (a writer writes! Why aren't I writing?) as days pass and all I've accomplished is a few notes jotted regarding a scene I am thinking of revising in my next book, CHOICE.*

To be sure, it's not like I'm a stranger to the keyboard. I've spent the past month or so working on copy for our website -- we just launched a new and improved version, and we're very proud of it. It's marketing copy, the flow and purpose of which comes back to me from my previous life pre-A Butler's Manor. It's still crafting words, finding the feel. But it's not "writing." Or is it?

The issue is, as usual, me. The perfectionist in me that somehow thinks that I can accomplish two things at the same time, both at 100% of my energy. And of course I can't.

But the "shoulds" still hover in the back of my mind...and continue into my dreams, where characters visit and yet refuse to talk about anything except the present.

"Tell me where you've been," I beg.

They just smile complacently."Follow me, and you'll know."

When can I follow them? And being able to do little more than jot those notes, will I  lose the story they know I can tell?

A few years ago I told myself I would put aside my dreams of writing novels until I again had the regular time to devote to it. So for a couple of years, I didn't write, other than in my journal. But then the stories started coming back. In snatches. In dreams. In the odd quiet moment. Maybe I had time to draft a quick scene, or fill in details of an outline of a story line. But that's all, until the winter, when we take a hiatus from the bed and breakfast.

But...a writer writes, right? No excuses? How many stories have we all read about people who managed to eke out an extra hour in their day in order to get their story on paper? I recently read how Stephenie Meyers wrote the first of the Twilight series in three months when her children were small. If a young mother can write a book in between potty training and swim lessons, and do so in that short a period, why can't I summon the energy to carve out my own writing time?

I know, it isn't about comparisons; for every story like that of Stephenie Meyers, there is another about an author who took years to finish a novel. It took Jeffrey Eugenides nine years to complete Middlesex, a book I found phenomenal. And truthfully, it took me about three years to write, rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite) Blood Exposure until I had a draft polished enough to query agents with (and another year-plus to interest one). And that's pre-B&B, when in theory I had all the time in the world to write.

I need to stop comparing myself to others; stop allowing the "shoulds" to invade my psyche. I went searching for wisdom online today and this is what I found:

"A novel will take as long as it needs. Give it room and keep writing."

Whenever I can. I can only trust that the story will wait until I can tell it.

* CHOICE is the story of a woman who struggles with whether or not to fulfill a promise she made to reveal to her daughter her true parentage after her birth father dies unexpectedly. Staying silent allows her to keep her comfortable status quo, she thinks...until that status quo is turned on its end.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Discovery through writing, part 1

When I first began writing seriously (meaning, I took myself seriously and took writing courses and joined writing groups and forums in order to improve my craft), one of the things I learned was that much of the discovery of what your book was about -- the theme-- was rarely apparent in the first draft. Or even in the second. It wasn't until you'd been through a few extensive rewrites that you began to see the theme.

I noticed this when I wrote "A BUTLER'S LIFE," about Chris's experiences as a formally-trained English butler. (Oh boy, don't get him started on the reality of domestic service vs. Downton Abbey!) A Butler's Life is a memoir, not fiction, so I wasn't consciously seeking a theme.  But an unexpected epiphany occurred as we read through the drafts I was editing. A pattern emerged. While Chris had never consciously realized it as it was never a caregiver situation, every one of his major career choices was made in response to his relationship with, or responsibility towards his father...right up to and including his father's death. (And later, outside of the timeframe of the book, the impact of my father's death on him precipitated another major life change, which eventually led to our buying a bed and breakfast inn.) The pattern, an unexpected revelation of motivation, unintentionally shaped the story told in A BUTLER'S LIFE.

It made me think about how rarely we stop to consider the timeline of our lives...usually not until we face a terminal illness or old age do we take the time to look back and try to find the patterns in and meaning of our lives. Journal work is good for this, but how often do we actually read back through our journals and do the work?

Do you re-read your journals, to look for consistencies in thoughts and behaviors, or patterns over time?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Writing the graphic scenes

"I'd never guessed that little girl-next-door you could write such a book! Did that really happen to you?" 

Maybe it's because my background doesn't include law enforcement or medicine, two fields that tend to see too many variations of how pain, suffering and death can be inflicted on other human beings. Maybe even authors like Tess Gerritsen (a retired physician) or Linda Fairstein (a former prosecutor) get asked how sweet little women like them come up with some of their  more graphic scenes. (I'm positive that male authors never get asked this kind of question.) But probably it's because some of the first buyers of NET STALKER are, bless them, friends and family...who wonder what secret corner of depravity I conceal in order to write a story about a serial snuff killer.

Truthfully, even my husband Chris gave me the wide-eyed stare when he read BLOOD EXPOSURE, my first novel. Actually, he got his first inkling of where imagination can take me when he came home from work one evening to find me on the porch with a book in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, and a Cheshire Cat smile (or so he said) on my face.

"Good day?" he asked.

"The best. I just killed someone off."

"Is that right?" His eyebrows went up, and he veered a little farther than necessary to pass me. "What's that you're reading?"

I held up the paperback: DEADLY DOSES: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO POISONS, part of the Howdunit series published by Writer's Digest. (What a great book.)

"Hmmm...we'll just go out to dinner tonight, shall we?"

Where do you get your ideas? is the most common question asked of writers doing public events like book signings or author panels. There is no one answer. Not even within one book. In the case of NET STALKER, several factors that had touched my life over the years were amplified into much bigger "what if" scenarios to become plot lines in the book: self defense, date rape, a old boyfriend who wouldn't take "leave me alone" seriously, and the rise of Internet relationships into which too many people pour their hearts out to faceless individuals who may or may not be who they seem. Writers take stuff like this and think, What if it got really bad...? And then the story catches fire in your mind and it DOES get really bad.

Interestingly, I was very aware of the timeframe when the story caught fire for me. I was writing the first draft of NET STALKER, and I knew roughly where I was going with the book and what crimes would be committed. I had written one or two of the more graphic scenes found in the first part of the book, but I was unhappy with them.

Then my beloved father had a stroke and a heart attack. Chris and I caught the first plane back to Orange County to be with him in his final hours to say goodbye. I was executor of his estate, which as anyone who has ever done it knows is a tedious, frustrating, soul-draining experience fraught with far too many emotions. So grief and anger were uppermost in my psyche when, as an antidote, I went back to work on NET STALKER.

And suddenly, the hard scenes were there -- all of them. I pumped every shred of anger, pain, and passion into a horror totally unrelated to my own personal pain, but one that unstoppered my "nice girl" upbringing and allowed me to feel the hate necessary to portray the violence. Those scenes are graphic. Gory. Uncomfortable to read. But they are, somehow, true. Not in my personal life, thank God. But to the victims of these very real crimes out in the real world.

And as everyone who loves a good mystery or suspense novel knows, the most satisfying thing of all is getting to right a wrong, destroy that bad guy, give him or her what s/he deserves. Its doesn't happen often enough in real life. In fiction, writers can make the good guy win, no plea bargain or technicality involved. It's one of the biggest reasons we write in this genre. (This is why, though I tend to cringe at most gratuitous violence, I am Lee Child's protagonist Jack Reacher's biggest fan. You know none of those bad guys are going to survive Reacher's justice.)

Channelling strong emotion to write difficult scenes...just another lesson learned in the scheme of writing life.

It is the deepest desire of every writer, the one we never admit or even dare speak of: to write a book we can leave as a legacy. And although it is sometimes easy to forget, wanting to be a writer is not about reviews or advances or how many copies are printed or sold. It is much simpler than that, and much more passionate. If you do it right, and if they publish it, you may actually leave something behind that can last forever. -- Alice Hoffman

Thursday, January 24, 2013

NET STALKER is now published!

The goal this winter has been to bring my second suspense novel NET STALKER to publication, which involves not only final editing, but details such as securing permission for the lyrics I've used in the book and acknowledging them correctly. This necessary administrative "stuff" has been balanced by the creative endeavor of working with a graphic designer to get the cover just right. I'm really pleased with it.

As I write, Chris is stretched out on the couch in our vacation rental in Laguna Beach, CA. Always my first reader, he is on the final chapters of the final draft of NET STALKER, which will go live on Kindle very shortly. Chris hasn't read the book since my first draft was finished lo, these many years (!!) ago, so I am on pins and needles to hear his response.

As I've said before, I live sort of a split life: Nine months of the year all my attention and creativity is focused on A Butler's Manor, our bed and breakfast, on welcoming and enjoying our guests and ensuring that their visit to the Hamptons is superlative. When we close for the season and I get my head back in the game, I can work on my writing. I beg my Muse to stay patient with me, as this is my reality and is likely to be so for some time going forward. Lately it's been easy to engage the Muse since NET STALKER takes place here in Southern California, and I can physically visit some of the actual locales where I've set scenes. This can be a luxury and a curse, because in the creation of a book your settings take on a life of their own in your imagination, and sometimes revisiting the spot that served as setting or inspiration gives you a curious sense of letdown.

I've written about setting before in ruminating about BLOOD EXPOSURE, where it was so key to the story. In NET STALKER, the greater challenge was to stay grounded in time, as it takes place just before the millenium, and the field of information technology has grown almost exponentially each year. Still, I feel fortunate to be inspired to write in (roughly) current time, as contrasted for example by one of my favorite authors, Sue Grafton, who set her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet series in the mid 1980's and must have to double check constantly to make sure that technology tools we've learned to take for granted--such as cell phones, which weren't in existence then--don't inadvertently creep into the narrative.

Ah, there is movement from the couch! A comment that the difficulty of an e-book is that when you're finished, you can't close them with a satisfying snap. Chris's response? For those of us of a certain age, I quote the old Life cereal commercial, "He likes it! Hey Mikey!"

--And Kindle just informed me that the book is live!!!  Check it out here: NET STALKER.

Off to pop a bottle of champers!! Yeah!