Sunday, 31 July 2011

Seat of Pants to Chair for Long Periods of Time

The question circulated amongst us here of how we keep ourselves motivated to write during the summer. As a Canadian, now living in the mountains in Central California, the end of winter lifts the heart. It's cold and it snows here. That surprises people.

When summer comes, doors and windows fly open. We move laptops out to the deck and shed clothes until we're down to only one layer.

Much of the last few months as summer settled in with one nice day after another, I've been working with Jodie Renner, an editor specializing in mystery and thriller fiction, whom I met at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Santa Fe this March.

We engaged to work with one another over my second murder mystery, Rip-Off, featuring Detective Dave Mason of the Santa Monica Police Department.

I've worked as a free lance editor over my years of wordsmithing. When anyone hands you their precious manuscript, there is the hope that you will hand it back, gushing, "Oh, it's perfect. I've alerted the awards committee. I wouldn't change a single word. You genius, you."

I admit it. Me too. And, of course, it wasn't perfect, and she suggested many changes. I bristled at some, sulked for half a day, and then did what she suggested.

I've kept at it while my friends went swimming, picked cherries, had picnics and parties, organized expeditions driving into Los Angeles to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and the Santa Monica Pier.

I kept at it even when it felt like picking over the bones of road kill because, first of all, I was paying her. She asked questions that made me think. She was encouraging just enough to drive me through a second and third revision of a chapter. Occasional compliments made me preen with self-satisfaction, until the next page when she wanted to delete a section. I thought of offering her a knife to chisel the words from my breast instead.

It became a collaboration. So much time is spent alone, seat of pants pressed to chair for long periods of time. I've had a partner, someone who knew my story as well as I did.

Now our partnership has come to an end, and my manuscript is immeasurably improved. As you all know, it's only the beginning of the next phase.

And it's still August.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The difficulty of creation/ease of destruction and grants

Today on National Public Radio's Morning Edition
there was a story about the cliff-high Buddha statues in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban. A group funded by the UN is trying to piece them back together. Destroying them took moments, rebuilding them will take years (and skill, and patience, and hard work). Destruction is cheap. I thank God for people who stand against it by creating (and re-creating...)

Creating is expensive, especially in terms of time and hard work! In response to Janet's challenge I went web-searching for financial support to sustain writers as they work at creation. I have never applied for these grants, so I can't say much about the process.

For the search I simply went to Google and searched "grants writing .gov". I found that the primary support from the Federal Government for writing is through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts: So I looked for "regrants" on a more local level via Google: "grants writing California" (since I'm in California). There were a few interesting items in the results. One was "Women Arts"

I ran a new search, replacing "writers" with "literary" to get away from the many grant writing sites, Google: ".gov california grants literary" led me to the California Arts Council Site:

So, there are grants out there. Go forth and create!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Mystery Grants

This year, I’ve become aware of some of the writing grants available for mystery writers.

Grants do not have to be repaid. They may come from the government, schools or non-profit agencies. They may provide money for publishing, courses, retreats, attending conferences, research, and to support minorities.

As I’m in Canada, I’ll use two Canadian examples.

The Canada Council for the Arts is probably the most visible supporter. Many mysteries I’ve seen in the last year have included thanks to this institution. They provide support for the creation, translation, publication and promotion of Canadian literature, the Writing and Publishing Section funds author residencies, literary readings and festivals. They have provided funding regularly to Bloody Words, and on the BW 2010 site, it is shown that they invested over $20 million dollars in writing and publishing in Canada.

The Toronto Arts Council, is very regionally specific funding. They have Writers grants for individual artists, and Project Grants. They will not invest in publishing, but they do support many aspects of the writing life.

The paperwork can be a little intimidating, but if this helps you to pursue your dream, I think you can work your way through it quite adeptly.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it: post on the blog a brief description, of any writing funding for which mystery writers could be eligible.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Norway and the Truest Sentence You Can Write

This was supposed to be a lighthearted blog on things that can kick-start our brains for writing: running, movies, crosswords…

But the world has intruded. The Norway shootings, the Somalia famine, grip us, inspire pity and fear. What if it was my kid at summer camp when the maniac opened up? Or what if I was that hungry mother or father in Somalia dragging myself and my starving little ones hundreds of miles in search of food and a dirty bit of tent to sleep under?

Fleeing war and famine or right-wing lunatics -- who would have time to daydream characters and situations, plot and setting? Is it even right to be so involved in our little fictional worlds when the real one needs help?

Let’s look at Prableen Kaur: As a deputy leader of Norway’s Labour party’s youth wing she was trying in her own way to make the world a better place before Friday’s massacre. Instead she ran for her life along with hundreds of other youth persecuted by a madman. But in the middle of the most terrible event that had ever happened to her she prayed, and then, updated her face book and Twitter accounts and after her rescue blogged her first person story. She was reaching out, making contact and telling the truth she saw. That blog will probably form part of the case against the attacker, Anders Breivik when it comes to court. Apart from surviving, it was the most important thing she could do.

So my question is, is it enough to witness to what’s going on and write the truest sentence that we know as Anne Lamott says in her tough and funny memoir, Bird by Bird? Or should we be actively engaged in making the world a better place? Or both? And if we can only do one of then which should it be?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

The Game's Afoot

Summertime - a great time to catch up on reading. Or writing. Not a great time for watching television.

Not that I watch a lot of that, of course. Who does? (wink wink) Still, there are new episodes of Murdoch Mystery to see and the new series of Sherlock on DVD to watch again. This week both have reminded me of the joy and challenge of a constructing a really good puzzle.

Unlike reality, a good mystery has to have all the pieces laid out for the reader - the true detective. While real cops have to muddle along with messy real crimes, a whodunit needs to present the clues - not in plain sight but not too obscured with extraneous information. Also unlike reality, not only does it have to make sense, it has to be engaging too. Not easy.

It wasn’t until I had to plot out the action plan for a climactic battle that I got a handle on how I could pull off a decent murder... mystery. In order to keep everyone straight, I had to make maps of the battle field, diagrams of the actions with “with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one” to quote Arlo Guthry’s Alice’s Restaurant.

The most useful part of the process, from a writing point of view, was the timeline. This told me who was fighting who, when, and why. I slotted the motivations and outcomes into a table, but the timeline kept everything straight.

It was the same principle as a detective’s evidence board. When I finally had a crime to commit (to paper), it was like a murder investigation in reverse. I started with all the facts, worked out some of the critical misdirections, then decided how the information would be revealed in the course of the story.

I was on the third draft of Under A Texas Star when I started using this method of organization. Though the murder investigation is the B plot of the story, I wanted it to stand up in court (the one where my readers are the jurors). I created a timeline, a table of suspects and list of clues that would lead to the murderer plus a few red herrings that would point to the other suspects. Marly and Jase’s detective work - separately and together - further the investigation, their character development and their relationship. I kept it all straight with my timeline...“with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.”

It becomes a kind of game. The puzzle has to be challenging enough to be interesting, but not so complicated that you annoy your reader. Above all, the puzzle must further the story, not replace it.

When I plot out a mystery, the game’s afoot.

Of your favourite authors, who creates the best puzzle for you to solve?

Thursday, 21 July 2011


Where I live in Canada we are in the dog days of summer. This week the weather is hotter here than in Florida. We all like to relax in the summer, sit on the patio and drink a cool one, but as writer's we still have to produce our pages.

I have several methods to stay motivated. I write every day.  Yes, every day. My friend, Cindy Carroll, started a group where we have to write 100 words every day for 100 days. Sounds easy, does't it but in reality it's the hardest thing I've ever done. If you miss writing your 100 words for a day, then you have to start at day one all over again. It took me the better part of a year to get my 100 words for 100 days. I'm now trained to write every day.

The local chapter of Romance Writers of America have Word Count Wednesday. We post our word count for the week and our other accomplishements. Have we submitted to an agent or editor, have we gotten a rejection or a contract? I find it invirgorating to see what other writer's have accomplished in a week.

These groups have inspired me and keep me writing.
So tell me, what motivates you to write?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Re Heather's post and Rosemary's contract

Heather thanks for the pick-me-up. Finding our rhythm, finding the time to find our rhythm...if the only way forward is scribbling on napkins -- I've done that too! The only thing that really works as our friend and fellow Sisters in Crime member Rosemary McCracken used to say when I whined at her about when and how I would get my police mystery completed is, are you ready? : "bum in chair" so that and an assured talent is the answer because guess what!!. She's just got a book contract! I'm so excited and happy for her. I know you'll all join me in saying congratulations to Rosemary as the first Pat Tierney mystery comes soon to an E and print world bookstore near us soon.
20 July 2011 08:09

Rosemary's book contract

Oh yes, PS you can learn more from Rosemary at her blog - or on her facebook page

Monday, 18 July 2011

Ramifications of a dream

The dream isn’t always that easy. Turning the desire to write into reality can be a harsh and unforgiving process, i.e. there will always be laundry and, sadly, dinner does not cook itself. Life in general is a time-devouring machine that does not, nor will it ever, provide great swaths of time, peace or tranquility for you to simply sit down and write that book you’ve dreamed of writing since childhood; because life happens one way or the other, and time, dictated by our endless obligations (even if done out of love), means our days are far too short.

Carpe diem, the popular aphorism goes, but carpe minutum might be a better adage: If that’s all you have, then scuttle off to that computer and put down the few words or ideas that rattle about your brain. Because it may be a few more days before those minutes present themselves again.

It’s hard to seize the dream; doubly hard if like many of us, you are attempting it for the first time. We don’t have that rhythm yet; we stumble, unsure of our methodology and research. We write, only to rewrite and start again.

When transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, a philosopher of nature, wanted to improve and work on his craft, and to try and live simply, he vanished to a small hut for two years where he reveled in the state of solitude. “Walden” is the product of that episode. “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams,” he stated. All fine and well for him. He was ALONE in that hut.

So we hang on and we write when we can, our notes to the ready, resorting to long hand when the computer is not available, scribbling ideas on napkins, plunking key ideas or plot developments into emails or messages that we send to ourselves from our cell phones. We’ll all get there some day. If you’re devoted, you’ll spend every spare second making it happen.

As George Bernard Shaw said, the “people who get on in this world ... get up and look for the circumstances ... And if they can’t, make them.”

So just do it, for heaven’s sake. It’s how dreams come true.

Re: Confessions of a Literary Slut

Just finished Rowena Through the Wall and still day dreaming about all those gorgeous, dangerous, sword-fighting men. Think 'A Knight's Tale from a female point of view with a dash of Narnia and plenty of sizzle. Rowena is a captivating heroine and I can't wait for her next adventure.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The end of an era

Well, it's not exactly the end yet, but I think that this:

is the first glimpse of the end. In it Charlaine Harris mentions that she is two books from the end of her Sookie Stackhouse series.

Vampire stories have been around for centuries, if not millennia. There were legends before Stoker wrote Dracula. In the beginning they all seemed to include variations on the theme that young women were perfect victims, they could be lured into danger because passion, compassion and even curiosity could be used to entrap them.

I'm not sure why it is that this form is the one in which many authors repudiated the "female as victim" theme, but they have done so with a vengeance. One of my favorites is _Those Who Hunt the Night_ by Hambly. The main female character shares the stage with her husband, but she is no shrinking violet. She has brains and backbone. (Wonderful book.)

Then we had the entire Buffy universe. When I first heard about the series I rolled my eyes and refused to watch it. A friend talked me into watching the hyena episode and I was hooked. This was at a point in my life when I was profoundly disappointed in the way young women had turned their backs on feminism. I heard college students say that they could not be feminists because they liked men. I like men, what does that have to do with wanting to be treated with respect, to be allowed to follow my dreams, to receive a living wage for my work? I was around in the 1970s, I knew that feminism was not a repudiation of being feminine; but somehow popular culture seemed to have adopted that viewpoint. Then there was Buffy. She wanted to be popular, she was shy around handsome guys, she lusted after the pretty prom dress... and she could kick a^#. She was a fresh archtype, a girl who was strong and who wanted friends and family, a woman who was competent and who wanted to be loved. I don't actually think that this was a new archtype. I think that this is exactly what we were fighting for when we wanted mothers who stayed home with their children to get Social Security AND wanted women who wanted to be firefighters to be allowed to get an interview and take the physical test. We never wanted to deny half of ourselves, but Buffy gave young women of this generation a model, so that they could see that those attributes could exist in one person.

Then there was Sookie Stackhouse. I'm looking forward to the next two books, but I'll be sorry that they are the last. Sookie is a telepath coping with a strange world. She has grown so much during the series. What I've loved most about her is that she cares for others, but also stands up for herself. She can be hurt; but she does not cave, she stands back up and refuses to be a victim. I love her strength.

Much has been made of the Stephen King quote:
"Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend."
— Stephen King

I haven't read Twilight, so I can't comment on that. I hope that the vampire novel narrative is not going to cast women as victims of love once more... we've come a long way and I hope that we can stay far away from having to choose between our passion and our strength. I do like this quote by Reba MaEntire:
"To succeed in life you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone, and a funnybone>"

I hope that we'll see a generation of female protagonists who have all three.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why I don't write a memoir

Why I don't write a memoir

I don't have the courage. There are periods of my life I don't want to remember, much less linger over. But I admire so much the people who do.

A few years ago I offered a workshop in Memoir Writing, here in the village where I live in the mountains in central California.

I titled it "Everyone has a story to tell ..." and more people signed up for the two six-week sessions than I could accommodate. We held the classes that winter at the yarn store, a cozy and intimate setting.

The class attracted people who wanted to get started, keep going, or to finish a memoir. I defined memoir as a legacy for those you leave behind, a reflection on that once-in-a-lifetime experience---a golden summer, a place, a turning point, a triumph, or a tragedy overcome.

My students, who became friends, were full of stories and life experience and I wanted to help them set these stories down on paper. Most of the people in the classes didn't think of themselves as writers, yet they all were story tellers. The teaching part of the each class focused on some of the elements of story telling: plot, pacing, action, dialogue.

We can learn techniques but we all teach ourselves to write by doing it, don't we? By doing it, and revising it, and revising it yet again, and again, until it's pleasing.

I came to admire these people so much. Their stories were so different, and interesting. They took the class because writing a memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be the way you are.

Some class members had big jobs and big lives they want to document for those family members who follow them. Some wanted to explain themselves by leaving their recollections as a family legacy. Some wanted to memorialize a moment in time, “their” war, a family vacation, an award, their remembrance of being part of a historical event.

Most common was the wish to reminisce over the good and the bad memories and find meaning in the events and people in our lives who have shaped us. One woman said bluntly: “Cheaper than therapy.”

Writing your life story takes emotional honesty and bravery. The candor of the shared writing creates and intimate bond. There were tears and a lot of laughter as well.

I'm not that brave. I hide my life story and how I got from there to here in fiction.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Do I dare to read CROSSFIRE?

My Dick Francis collection, 48 titles, has only three novels that I have not yet read. Bolt published in 1986, Under Order, a Sid Halley novel published after a six year writing hiatus and Crossfire, co-written by Felix Francis. It was going to be years, before I cracked the spine of one of these precious titles. Because after these, I will no longer have the pleasure of enjoying one of his fine adventures, for the first time.

Dick Francis is the author I’ve re-read more than any other. His upbeat tales feature honest, upstanding heroes, and there’s always a new occupation featured in each one. Proof featured the liquor industry. Shattered featured glass-blowing. Longshot featured wildnerness survival tips. Each is a cherished friend, worthy of repeat visits.

So it was with delight and relief this past week, that I discovered the books of Lyndon Stacey. She writes non-series mysteries, set in the horse world. The narrative is light, gently funny, with likeable characters. Even the villains are given some dimension. All her titles are in print, and I can hope a new one to be released within the year.

So perhaps next weekend, I’ll read one of those Dick Francis books. Just one, mind you!

Sunday, 10 July 2011

History Spices up Mystery in Inspector Rebus' Pub

The cold, dark world of Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, fog, misted windows, bodies in fireplaces or government offices: How unlike the pretty city built on a hill that we tourists see.

Yet Rankin’s detective, Inspector John Rebus, compels us to follow him down the labyrinthine ways of evil doers. He is so popular that visitors can now take ‘Rebus Tours’, the “history and mystery” of the real locations of Rebus cases as well as the more typical Holy Rood Palace and Edinburgh Castle. The tours start from The Royal Oak, one of Rebus’ pubs, on Saturdays.

The night we were in Edinburgh, a cool Monday in June, the minuscule Royal Oak – tiny bar plus a half dozen battered tables, hosted a traditional jam session with musicians wandering in and out as the mood or the tip jar took them. Some of the onlookers were European tourists looking for Rebus. Doesn’t Rebus mostly drink at the Oxford Bar in the city’s New Town? Yes. But he also had a confrontation with his nemesis Big Ger Cafferty at the Oak. One evening Rebus stops there for a nightcap, and is shocked to find Cafferty has been released from prison and is celebrating with a song.

The story of the pub and the singing thug illustrates the marriage of sentiment and hard-nosed thuggery in Rankin’s novels where Edinburgh’s dark and historic Castle broods over the city and the city feels like a character itself. The Scots have fought each other, the Vikings and the English from this place for centuries and the Castle with its prisons, working garrison, tales of siege, poison and death figures hugely in the Scottish narrative. Since they abolished their own Parliament over three hundred years ago to live under Westminster, only regaining it in 1999, the Scots have felt a sense of wrong. That abiding uneasiness, the sense of wrongs unrighted, pervades Rebus’ adventures in the city of the new Scottish parliament.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Confessions from a Literary Slut

I didn’t coin that phrase, nor does it necessarily point to smutty writing in my novels (although, as they say, some like it hot, and Rowena Through the Wall would probably score a humidex rating.)

No, an early mentor, a guy, once called me a Literary Slut, when referring to my tendency to write in several genres – and sometimes several genres at once.  Which brings me once more to novel classification, and those naughty books that don't fit a specific genre.

Rowena Through the Wall is such a novel.  I call it comic alternate world fantasy.  The romance market calls it paranormal romance.  Under fantasy, it would be sword and sorcery.  The mainstream market considers it time-travel.   In our mystery world, we would label it romantic suspense (of the original definition – think Daphne DuMaurier and Mary Stewart.)  Midwest Book Review called it “a hot, hilarious romantic fantasy.”  Hard to argue with that!

Why the difficulty in finding classification?  Well, like many authors, I didn’t write for a specific ready-made audience.  Instead, I set out to write a rollicking adventure, sexy, dangerous and full of humour.  I wrote it for me, and other readers like me, who want adventure novels.  Like many females, I find big ‘R’ romance not my thing; that is, I don’t want predictable endings.

I do, however, want my pleasure-reading spiced up with the guy-gal thing.  The trick is, to work in some passion while writing a plot-heavy story.  The romance isn’t the plot (as it must be in a big R romance novel) but it may well be an essential ingredient to motivate the players to action.

The gratifying thing is that Rowena has garnered a male audience as well.  One male former editor of a fantasy magazine said the following in a review: “Rowena is a wild ride of fantasy, and male readers will wish she had walked through the wall to them.”  When questioned further, he said:  “It’s fantasy and it’s hot.  It’s got brutal sword fighting.  Guys die.  What’s not to like?”

So it could be that men and women read the same novels for different things.  Or maybe – as I claim – we just all need escape.  And frankly, ‘reality TV’ doesn’t do it for many of us.  Who the heck needs more reality?

So regardless of what you want to call it, bring on the fantasy, I say!  Make my suspense sizzle.

Words not unexpected from a Literary Slut.

Melodie Campbell’s comic novel Rowena Through the Wall (Imajin Books) is available at and Smashwords.
Follow Melodie at
View trailer and read opening scene at

Favourite book and first line

Karen, this is s double comment: Favourite first line from Pride and Prejudice: Don't know how often I've quoted it and read it and its also one of my favourite books for re-reading. Also Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility. I find as I read them at different times in my life I get different appreciations from them. A second fave, actually two that influenced me greatly as a kid: Gone With The Wind for its tale of a woman's adventurous life and Officer Factory by H. H. Kirst.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

I'm an entrepreneur?

I'm an entrepreneur. I've always been one, so you'd think that self-promotion would be easy for me but it isn't. Being an introvert, I don't like the spotlight. Writing about myself and my work is next to impossible for me so when Janet gave us the challenge of creating a Widipedia page my first thought was 'I'm not that interesting a person'.

I decided to try and figure out why anyone would be interested in looking me up and this is what I discovered.

I write Romantic Suspense stories. I'm a member of Romance Writers of America, Toronto Romance Writers, Sisters in Crime, Toronto Sisters in Crime. I'm a member of the Bloody Words executive or as we call ourselves, the Bloody Gang.

I've started several writing groups so authors can help other authors improve their craft. I've written reviews for authors because I loved their stores. I started this blog so authors can promote themselves and their friends.

All in all I'm just a writer who loves great stories. So what is the one book you've read that you read over and over  again?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The tricky first line....

Between Heather's post on first chapters and Janet's challenge regarding gripping first lines, I've been noticing first lines recently.

I was surprised to see that many of my favorite books begin with a first line that focuses on character, relationships, or theme, rather than on action.

Many start by setting up the voice of the narrator. Most of the Nero Wolfe books do this, beginning with Archie's voice, often relating something about the dynamics of the household or about his relationship with Wolfe. (For instance in Fer-de-lance Archie gripes about how is is often the one being sent on errands, in Prisoner's Base he relates his latest ploy to aggravate Wolfe into action, in The Rubber Band we see him hassling Wolfe...) One of the most enjoyable elements in Stout's books is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie, and in one way or another many of the books start with a focus on that relationship.

Another example of starting with the narrator's voice: Amelia Peabody in The Mummy Case:
"I never meant to marry. In my opinion, a woman born in the last half of the nineteenth century of the Christian era suffered from enough disadvantages without willfully embracing another."

Can't you just hear her?

Monday, 4 July 2011

That tricky first chapter

It’s like getting the lede right on a news story: It has to be succinct, draw in the reader, compel us to read the rest of the piece, give us a taste of what is to come without giving it all away. It’s the point from which all else unfolds. It holds the glimmer of intrigue that gets us thinking, keeps our eyes moving over the copy.

It can be the trickiest part of the story; it used to be that reporters were dunned by a pesky copy desk to ‘make it sing,’ ‘make it tighter,’ ‘make it shorter,’ and so on. It could drive a reporter/copy editor nuts.

Writing that first chapter – the one you might be sending to an agent – is just as bad. There’s a proliferation of writing/publishing courses out there and the few I’ve sampled hammer it home: The first chapter has to sell your story; it has to have a punch; it has to be well-written. One instructor mimed an agent shuffling through manuscripts, reading the first sentence or two and throwing the first chapter on the slush pile. Frightening. Is that how they do it? Five seconds with a first chapter and it’s decided?

Then you’d better get it right. And therein lies the problem. What’s right if your work has never been accepted? What will make that five seconds a winner? How can you possibly know? You can’t. You can only hope that the writing – and rewriting – gets your first chapter to a tight, manageable, alluring and exciting read. You have to hope that the point of the story is so tightly wound from the starting point that the rest of the tale unwinds quickly and beautifully – like a fast ball hit by Jays’ slugger Jose Bautista.

There is no magic solution to the first chapter: It’s a shot in the dark. I suppose ‘believe in yourself’ is as good a mantra as any. Show it to friends you trust. Take lots of advice. Don’t be wounded by criticism. Try to be subjective. Stand back and look at your work. And rewrite. Then rewrite it again.