Category Archives: Writing

And so a journey ends…

In some ways death is marked with the same fits and starts as life; hours of urgency interrupted by long stretches of soul numbing same.  At the end of one such hour his heart just…gave out, and he escaped into sleep.  Soon after so did we.  Exhausted.  Bereft.  Relieved.

Life goes on exactly as you know it will though now you have to remind yourself to mind the hole—another huge one that won’t ever fill.  Is that what growing old is, navigating the minefield where love and friendships used to live?  Avoiding the cracks and cavities?  It’s getting harder and harder to walk in the dark.  Too many gaps.


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ABCs and MRIs

I spend my days caroming between my spanking-new nephew and my desperately ill friend.  One I’m teaching that books are meant to be read, not eaten.  The other?  That life, even so prematurely near the end, is worth fighting for.  Worth eating and breathing for.  Both make me cry. Both rip my heart out, one with unspeakable joy, the other with unbearable grief.  When I can’t go on I clutch the baby and draw in his scent, trying to erase the tang of antiseptic and the odor of sick.  I just got one and soon I will lose the other.  Even in balance there is pain.


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I would be a songwriter if…

…songs were ninety-thousand words long.

I love music, I always have.  One of my chief sorrows is that I am incapable of writing a single word with music playing in the background.  Since writing is what I do most days, the part of me that loves music passionately often feels glum and out of sorts, so I’ve taken to fiddling with my music library every time I take a break—which I believe is making me a better writer.

I’ve found that, unless I’m thoroughly caught up with a character or a scene, I trend towards the wordy.  I don’t know if that’s true for other writers, but it’s as if my conscious mind takes over whenever my subconscious mind loses its train of thought, and all of a sudden precision grammar and linguistics start dripping from my fingers.  Not inherently bad, of course, but when I’m writing dialog, it can come across as pedantic and stilted.  My remedy: force myself to think–and write–like a songwriter.  If my words are coming across as plodding, how would a songwriter do it?  How would they achieve the mood I’m striving for?

I know that most writers use soundtracks as writing tools, but I’ve taken to digging for songs that match the mood of a particular scene—be it plaintive, exuberant, tender, or whatever.  When I start getting too wordy, or casting around for something to say, I look for a song that captures either the pace or sentiment of what I’m trying to convey.  Is this a scene where I need to be sparse?  Should the words be coming staccato, like gunfire, or slow and evocative, like a dream?  I’ve found that trying to match the mood of a song is a great way to force myself out of my own head and into my character’s.  I get very tired of hearing my own words coming out of my characters’s mouths.  Better I allow them to speak for themselves.

Another trick I’ve started using is envisioning my characters singing karaoke: while alone, while gazing into a lover’s eyes, or even atop a teetering table at a toga party.  It makes no difference how much musical talent they have (or how much I’ve given them!), all that matters is the song they choose to sing, and the words they choose to say.  That tells me how they’re feeling right that moment.   Once I give them a chance to “speak” for themselves, I have a much better grasp of where I need to go, and an easier time writing the scene—not to mention I’ve gotten to listen to a bunch of great songs while searching for the perfect one.  My idea of a win-win.

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Who are you??

Like millions of other people I subscribe to any number of blogs via RSS feed. Because it works for me I have the new installments come in via email rather than newsreader; there’s no way I have time to visit the actual sites.  Perhaps I’m the only one who’s noticed, but when these posts come in, all I get is the overall title of the blog and the title of the new entry.  If you haven’t included your name in either place I have no idea who you are.

I know we all think we’ve come up with interesting, whimsical names for our blogs, but when you’re following ten or twenty or thirty a day, they tend to run together.  Confessions of a Mystery Novelist?  Magical Words?  All good blogs, all ones I follow, but I lose track quickly of who’s who.  If you want me to imprint on YOU, on how clever or informed or wise you are, you need to prod me.  Remind me. Slip your name in somewhere.  Because, honestly?  I’m too lazy and too time compromised to read the post and then follow the link just to satisfy my curiosity.  Odds are I’m going to move on, which is a shame.  I would prefer to fix you in my memory.  But you must make it easy.

I now have three blogs which come into my weblog feed all distinctively entitled “Blog.”  Helpful, right?  Unfortunately I like all three or I’d delete the lot and make my life easier.  Authors, please–sing your praises.  Squeeze in a name.   Toot your horn, for isn’t that the point?  Because next time one of you teases me with “Want more craft? Please consider my book…” and you don’t tell me who you are, I will ignore your link.  I will.  I swear it.



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Have you ever felt so numb…

That your eyeballs feel cold?

Of course you have.  Everyone has.  Shock and pain and grief have fairly standard physical manifestations, numbness chief among them.  I should know, I’ve experienced it enough.  But every time is new.  And right now I’m numb enough to amputate my own arm without feeling it.

Today was supposed to be a routine doctor’s appointment, to discuss what comes next on this cancer merry-go-round.  You can read details below, but basically my forty-seven-year-old partner—my cop partner—is battling lung cancer.  It sprang up out of the blue.  Non-smoker, healthy.  No real risk factors, unless you count the fact that we worked unsuspectingly in a radon-saturated bunker for years.  But that’s a story for another day.


He finished the two-month, daily treatment, pre-surgery round of chemo and radiation a few weeks ago, so a new testing round commenced.  Blood work, CT scan, PET scan, the usual.  After the initial blood work and CT scan, a hiccup: the doctor called for an early appointment.  This morning.  Good news: the lung tumor has shrunk away from the pulmonary artery, and is now operable.  The bad news: the cancer has spread.  To spine, hips; potentially to the liver.  Surgery is off the table.  He (oncologist) does not know more at this point, still needs the rest of the test results, has no answers to give, and believes that this is the time to regroup.  Questions?  Good.  We’ll start another round of chemo.  Soon.

Wow.  So few words in so little time, yet he said so much.

I am aware, intensely, viscerally, that this is not about me.  It is not happening to me.  And I am so stinking grateful for that that I’m embarrassed to even think it.  Still, it is happening to someone that is deeply enmeshed in my life, someone I care about.  Someone I never expected to lose.  You learn early when dealing with cancer patients that it’s all about them, because it has to be—but I’ve momentarily lost my equilibrium.  It will return because it just…does, but before then I need to come up with some new things to say.  New ways to be encouraging, without being patronizing.  New ways to cheer him up, without pissing him off.   New ways to listen to all the things he will not say, but will expect me to hear.  Because I’ve been his translator for nearly half our lives.  This sucks.  So bad.


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Rants and Pet Peeves…

As I’ve been in a bad mood lately (see last post), this seemed as good a time as any to vent a few of my more mundane frustrations.

Lazy writers.  Don’t charge money if you aren’t going to do the work.  Edit your shit.  Get your character’s names straight, for God’s sake.  How can she be Brenda and Brenna in the same paragraph?  Stuff like that is crap.  Fool me once…

Grammar.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, I’ll take ballpark.  Seriously.   If it’s in the neighborhood, my brain will get me there.  But try to observe the basics.  If you don’t know the basics, learn them.  There are books.  Lots and lots of books.  Kids start to learn these things in elementary school; they aren’t that hard to master.  Don’t make excuses, do the work.  You don’t have to be Strunk (or White), but you don’t have to come across like an illiterate moron, either.  You’re passing yourself off as a writer, remember?

Punctuation.  Where in the hell did it go?  Who took the contract out on commas?  Why are they suddenly public enemy number one?  They’re supposed to be there for a reason, people: they tell your brain when it’s safe to rest.  Run-ons are freaking exhausting.  If the only way to create tension in your story is to make your reader so breathless they won’t notice the weak writing and thin plot, it’s time to find other work.  Good writing is meant to be savored.

Punctuation Part Two—the reverse.  Why do editors hate semi-colons?  Why, when a nice pause is what’s called for, are we yanked full-stop?  Why are periods sprouting up everywhere?  Two words, period.  Three words, period.  Every sentence is staccato, declarative.  Where’s the nuance, the subtly?  The rhythm?

Editing.  If you swear undying gratitude to an editor in your acknowledgements, then pepper your work with broken, choppy, nonsensical sentences (or paragraphs!), you should both be shot.  Or boycotted.  I’m tired of being asked to make allowances for poor editing just because I read genre fiction.

Value for money happens to be a personal mantra of mine.  I’m already paying an immoderate amount of money for lesfic books, because it’s a specialized market, and expensive happens to be the going rate.  Fine.  No one’s twisting my arm.  I buy the books because I crave the stories.  But in exchange, I expect quality work.  If the last great justification for signing with a traditional publishing house is that your work will receive superior editing, then publishers had better get their acts together if they expect to continue signing new authors.  Some of the things I’ve read lately wouldn’t make it past a middle school teacher.  Of math.

For now, I suppose, that’s enough.  I don’t want to come across as a jerk.  (Be a jerk?  Too late for that.)  It just so happens that reading fulfills a very important role in my life at the moment (escape!!), and I’m tired of being disappointed.  Consider this a pep talk.  Writers, to your ink wells–and reference books!!


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Screw Cancer

My partner—my work partner, my cop partner—has cancer.

Big cancer.  In-your-face cancer.  “You’re a young guy, we’re gonna give this our best shot” cancer.  Fucked with a capital “F” cancer.

He’s forty-seven with a wife and two young kids.  Up until a year ago, when I retired, we did everything together—worked cases, executed warrants, processed evidence.  Sat surveillance, interviewed witnesses.  Chased after the bad guys. Drove together, went to meetings together, ate lunch together—almost every weekday for twenty years.

After I retired he took to calling me every day, mostly yelling—his standard form of communication.  How cute, I thought, he misses me. But after I was away for a while it started to wear me down, so I told him to knock it off.  The yelling, not the calling.  It’s weird how quickly a tolerance level can drop.  I worked with men my entire career, but once I retired I rarely saw one.  My post-work life was so different.  True to form, though, he didn’t take offense.  He just switched to texting.  That way, I couldn’t get annoyed with his tone.  Better.

“Where’d you put the memo on the Smith case?” he texted.  His case, not mine.  He had to ask because I did the paperwork for both of us; I was the writer in our dysfunctional little family.  Once I was gone he had no clue where to find anything.  I jerked his chain, then told him where to look.  Poof! Gone into the ether.  Business as usual, exactly as we communicated face-to-face.  Efficient, practical.  Few niceties, no preamble, no epilogue.  There were days we’d work side-by-side and not say twenty words to each other.  For us it was normal.

When I was around him, I was my boy-self.

Piss me off? Get the hell away, I’d tell him.  Annoy me? Get out of my face. Act like a child?  Grow up; I’m not here to listen to you whine. And he reciprocated in kind.  We were not gentle with each other.  Fifteen minutes later whatever it was was over and done.  No grudge, no apology.  Straightforward.  Things I had a hard time with, he handled.  His pathological fear of paper?  I picked up the slack.  It was a symbiotic relationship.  For twenty years it worked.

His wife asked once how I did it—when they got mad at each other they stayed mad.  I said, perspective.  She cared how he acted; to her it made a difference.  Hers were a wife’s expectations.  To me?  His antics didn’t ping my radar.  When he acted out I closed my door.  It was just him being an ass.  Tomorrow it would be my turn.  It wasn’t personal.  Wasn’t emotional.  I was just our way.

But now, he’s sick.  Very sick.  Yesterday we went and had his port-a-cath placed, this morning we went for his last PET scan before he starts chemo on Monday.  I take him, I think, because he trusts me to keep things on the surface.  I think, but I don’t know.  I don’t ask.  He calls, I pick him up.  That’s how it is with us.

The long drive back, we talk about girls.  And sports.  His two favorite topics.  He’s more relaxed than he’s been for weeks, acting more like his old self.  All the preparations are finally in place, he’s ready to kick some ass.  We drive through Sonic.  It’s comfortable.  Almost normal.  Fun.

An illusion.

As I write this, he and his wife are sitting down to explain things to their children.  And when I dropped him off, he snuck around the back of my truck to give me a fast hug, definitely not our thing.  Cracks are beginning to show, and the part of me that isn’t one of the guys is terrified.  My inner girl is shaking like a leaf.  I wish things could be as superficial as I make them out to be, but somewhere along the line I’ve lost my ticket to the tough-guy club.  Next to my real partner, my wife, I’ve discovered that he’s my oldest and dearest friend.  Who knew?  Fuck cancer.  Just fuck it!

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The Writing Merry-Go-Round

This writing business is hard work.

All those years punching a clock, it was never this hard.  Even with the hellacious commute.  At the end of the day, my brain used to shut off.  Not anymore.  Now, it’s nothing but a plot-playground; there are characters I don’t recognize running around.  Spitting dialog so perfect I’m compelled to snap on the light and scribble it down.  My partner begs me to shut them up and go back to sleep.  Even she’s tired of their noise.

During the day I do my best to focus, but I’m consumed with getting it right.  It is a business after all, and in the water there are sharks.  I understand it’s not enough to write: you must edit and publish and market and blog–some of it before there is a book.  Cart before the horse, nothing sells in a vacuum.  So I’m trying to do it all, learn it all.  Write, research, network, observe.  Read.  Every profession has a learning curve.  Right now this is mine.  It’s fascinating, and I’m taking it seriously; why would I not?  Whining is for losers.  I want to succeed, so I will figure this out.  I will do the work.

As I fight with my manuscript I wonder if other writers have the same problems I do.  Like focus.  Being able to see the characters in their world at that one moment in time.  I’m beginning to think it’s a bad thing that I know them so well.  I know what comes after, and what came before.  I confuse it all in my head–how do you separate what you know from what you’ve written?  Distill it down to a cohesive whole?  I’m afraid I’ve over-thought everything, as per usual.  I have a thousand scenes in my head, how will I ever choose?  Sometimes I see the characters perfectly.  Sometimes they wander off.  I assume it’s because they’ve grown bored.  With me.  How do I maintain focus?  Especially when I’m trying so hard to churn out the words.  Butt in chair…butt in chair…type, type, type.  But damn–my brain is so tired!

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Levenger (and note-taking, in general)

I have experimented with dozens of organizers and note-taking systems over the years, abandoning most before I use up the refills.  I’m fickle when it comes to stationery supplies, I admit.  They’re more than a mechanism to record my thoughts: they’re an antidote for boredom, a shot in the arm when a project needs energy.  When my brain begins to sag, one technique to reverse the process is to go shopping, find exactly the new setup I need–and then spend the next however long whining about how it doesn’t work.  I’m a paper snob, an office supply cry-baby, a notebook wienie.  It’s the truth.  I won’t deny it.

And as if my constant craving for something newer and more efficient isn’t enough, there’s another complication–the way I think.  I’m sure methodical thinkers have their own troubles, but coming up with a way to track thoughts isn’t one of them.  All they have to do is buy a nice, blank, bound book, and start writing.  No messy reordering necessary.  No sorting through piles of books or reams of tablets to find that one critical idea they know they wrote down, but can’t find.  All they have to do is find the proper topic notebook, leaf through a few pages, and voila!  They have what they were looking for.  Jerks.  I hate them.  I envy them.  And this post has nothing to do with them.  They can leave now, take out their calligraphy pens, and start scribing.  There’s nothing here for people like that.

No, I’m not a methodical thinker–I’m a chaotic thinker, from way back.  From the womb.  Thoughts fly in from every direction, and are often lost before I can catch them.  If I want to hold onto something, I must write it down–I’ve always been this way.  But then, even written, what good are they?  How do I find what I need?  How do I create order from the chaos?

As much as I’m drawn to bound books and spiral notebooks, they don’t work for me.  They’re efficient, and compact, and I like the way they feel, but they aren’t useful–I can’t retrieve things from them.  I need a system where the pages can be sorted and moved around, shifted into a meaningful order.  Which generally means three-ring binders.  They’re universally available, cheap, and versatile.  They come in lots of colors, lots of widths, and can be customized.  Perfect.  Well, sort of.

I don’t like writing on 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper.  Personal quirk.  I like smaller pages.  I like a notebook that can fit into a smaller space, that doesn’t require a full-on backpack to carry.  I like it to sit on the small table next to my chair, and on the rim of the bathtub, and the armrest of my car.  Big doesn’t work for me.  Enter half-page binders; right size, still versatile–but too fat.  They’re mostly available in one-inch width or wider, which I don’t like.  I know, whiny, right?  And picky?  But I want what I want…

Enter the Levenger Circa system, junior size.  It’s a little strange, since it uses disks rather than rings to hold the pages in place, and is a little clunky to get used to, but so far it’s doing the trick–and I’ve had to order refills!

In my writing room I keep a wider-sized book (the size of the disks dictates the width of the book), which I use as an archive.  This book is divided by tabs, one for each active story, with a catch-all Miscellaneous tab at the back for itinerant ideas.  I keep smaller books around the house, and one in the car.  In these I record whatever thoughts or plot points my brain comes up with, then transfer the pages into the archive, where they’ll stay until it’s time to transcribe them–generally when I switch full-focus to that story.  The only rule for the small books is that I must record thoughts or ideas for a specific story on a page designated for that story–otherwise, I’d still have a disorganized mishmash.

There’s even a small pocket notebook, 3 x 5, which allows me to jot down quick notes if I don’t have a bigger book with me–and because it has matching perforations, I can transfer those sheets to the bigger book as well.  No more writing on envelopes or receipts; I’m losing very little material these days to poor record-keeping.

If you like bigger pages, you can stick with the standard 8 1/2 by 11, or even make hybrid notebooks–the  junior pages will fit into the bigger book the same way the pocket pages fit into the junior–so you can infinitely combine whatever size you’re working with at the time.  And if you buy a hole punch, necessary to create the proprietary perforations, you can add your own content–maps, photos, receipts.  Anything you feel like including in your system.  I’ve been using it for months now, and haven’t tired of it yet.

One caveat–it isn’t cheap.  But once you buy the disks and covers, and a hole punch, you can forever use whatever paper you want, so you aren’t tethered to the more expensive stuff.  I like it because it’s flexible, and it works, but would of course be interested in hearing about other systems.  Who knows when boredom will strike?






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HEA-us Interruptus

Have you ever gotten to that stage in a romance novel where you know–because you can literally feel–that there are too few pages left to finish things off satisfactorily?  Where you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the writer is going to leave you hanging–and you’re going to be pissed?  Well, it happened again last night, and I wanted to throw the book across the room, I was that tired of it.  HEA-us Interruptus.  Much a-damn-do about nothing.

Can you imagine a mystery where a writer asks a reader to invest hours and hours in the suspense, then tosses the solution in at the end as an afterthought, as a summary?  Of course not–the ending of a mystery must satisfy.  It must make the journey worthwhile.  It must resonate.  I believe a romance should do the same, but I must be in the minority–because lately, all I’m reading are books with plenty of setup, but no payoff.  Is that bad writing, or is it me?

And before you lop my head off, I am NOT talking about sex–just the opposite, in fact.  It seems to me too many writers have convinced themselves that romance is sex–that if they throw their hero/heroines in bed, they’ve resolved the story arc.  Maybe that’s true for some people, but not for me.  I expect authors to do the work.  All the way to the end.

Just to be clear, here’s what I expect–in a romance.

I want interesting characters who, for whatever reason, are lacking in love.  I want them to find each other, and awaken to the possibility that love might be lurking after all–if it weren’t for all those pesky conflicts.  I want them to explore a relationship, at least in the abstract, and then I want them to solve whatever problems are keeping them apart–together!  That’s right, I want them together.  And not just when they hop into bed at the end, headed for the HEA super-highway.  I want the two to become one.  It’s a romance!  Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

I’m tired of reading romance novels with a tired mantra thrumming in the back of my head–“Please don’t stop! Please, don’t stop!”  It’s stupid.  I feel like I’m stuck in a bad sex scene.  Enough, already.  I’m going back to mysteries, where I belong.  Some of them might not be great, but at least I know the author will get their ass kicked if they leave their readers hanging–and reviewers won’t equivocate about that.






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