Family Life, Writing Advice

Lessons on Writing from the Piano Man

Friday night, we took our nine-year-old daughter to see Billy Joel perform at Fenway Park. He’s her favorite, you see, because she was born in the wrong decade. The concert shook the baseball stadium as hard as any Red Sox playoff game, and The Piano Man can still tickle those ivories at age sixty-nine. Joel was in a reflective mood as he took us through the songs that made up his career, and I came away feeling inspired as an artist. Here are some of my takeaways from Joel’s wisdom:

Billy Joel performs on stage at Fenway Park.

 

  1. Not every piece you produce will be a hit, and that’s okay. After opening with a couple of chart-toppers, Joel down shifted into several of his lesser-known songs. At the third one in a row that he introduced by saying, “This one…was also not a hit,” the audience chuckled. Joel protested. “Hey, I spent just as much time writing the non-hits as I did the hits!” It’s hard to know when you produce a story or a movie or a song whether it will resonate with your audience. The best you can do is keep on creating.
  2. How you feel about your work right now may not predict how you feel about it later. Joel performed “The Entertainer,” which he says he wrote during his “cynical period.” The song details all the downsides of being a hit singer—the constant travel, the pressure to conform to a certain popular aesthetic, the sense that you’ve lost control of your art. Decades later, Joel is amazed and grateful that he can still pack a stadium with thousands of fans. “Thanks,” he said sincerely, “for showing up.”
  3. The best way to have a great idea is to generate lots of ideas in the first place. As Joel noted, he’s had more non-hits than hits. But he didn’t give up or go away angry at the first song that failed to make the charts. He kept writing and eventually he created more hits that are still in the rotation on pop stations today. This is a hoary chestnut from the writing world but it remains true: you are only a failed writer if you stop writing.
  4. You never know where you may find your biggest fans. Most of the people at the concert were solidly in Joel’s demo—my age and older. We’re the people who grew up with his music. But we were there because my nine-year-old loves his songs, these pieces written decades before she was born. Once you put your art out there, it can go places you’d never expect, and touch people you’ve never met.

    My daughter, rapt, watches Bill Joel perform her favorite songs.
  5. Once you put your art out there, it’s not quite yours anymore. It belongs to the people. “The Entertainer” deals with the frustrating aspects of this truism, but Joel is now in his closing act and he is thinking more of his legacy. The songs aren’t his to keep forever. They are inherited by the fans who will carry them forward.

 

“Piano Man” is beloved almost to the point of cliché among those of us at a certain age, but one of the reasons it persists is that there are so many places in the song to see yourself. Are you the waitress just trying to do your job while getting hit on by the guys? Maybe you’re the real estate agent who prized career over family, potentially to your regret. Or maybe you’re the bartender, someone could really make a mark if you “could just get out of this place.”

 

We’re sharing a drink we call loneliness because we’re all lonely at one time or another. No one was lonely at Fenway on Friday, though, when the band cut out and the crowd sang the “Piano Man” chorus in a thundering, unified roar. Joel sat on the stage and took it in, the emotion pouring out at him from these masses who had adopted his song and made a home for it in their hearts.

Writing, Writing Advice

The Monster at the End of This Book

One of my favorite childhood reads was “Grover and the Monster at the End of This Book.” In the story, Grover the Muppet begs the reader not to turn the pages because he’s heard there is a monster at the end and he’s afraid. The shocking twist is that lovable old Grover is himself the monster at the end! I was thinking of this kids’ classic the other day while reading advice on how to craft a memorable villain. Your book’s monster, according to this advice, should be a reflection of the hero. But what does this mean?

Grover despairs that there is a frightening monster at the end of the book he is in.

 

Sometimes, it means that your protagonist and your antagonist share the same flaw, especially at the beginning of the story. Maybe they are both stubbornly independent and believe themselves to be uniquely gifted. The villain, however, ends up using his or her powers for evil, whereas the hero overcomes this flaw to band together with others to defeat the villain.

 

It also means that your villain should have roughly the same power as your hero. There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes goes up against Moriarty, a cunning antagonist who is a worthy foe for someone as brilliant as our iconic detective. It’s also the reason you so often see superheroes fighting some ‘bad’ version of themselves in comic action movies. If you’re a Hulk, then it’s not interesting to see you fight a bunch of little guys. Instead, you get to tango with a tricked-out, mean-tempered version of yourself.

 

This doesn’t mean that every protagonist/antagonist needs to have literal super-human powers. It just means their skillsets should be evenly matched, whether that’s an actual army or the ability to spread gossip through a small town.

 

A memorable antagonist should also bring out a unique side of the hero. In the Hulk example, the Hulk is both a villain-fighting hero and a kind of antagonist for Bruce Banner. He forces Banner to wrestle with relatable human problems like controlling one’s temper but also keeps Banner from living the normal existence he often craves.

 

Another strategy is to give your villain and your hero the same goal or dream, which puts them in natural competition. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert has two primary antagonists—Quilty, who also wants Lolita, and Lolita herself, who wants to get away from Humbert. Giving your hero and villain a shared goal can be a way to flesh out your story as the reader may be forced to question whether the villain or hero’s strategy is the best one. For example, you could argue that Danny Kaffee and Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men have a shared goal of protecting U.S. troops, but they have very different ideas about what that protection looks like.

 

All of this is to say that, unlike Grover, your hero won’t find himself literally at the end of the book. But he or she should find a part of themselves, a new understanding that the villain is uniquely designed to precipitate.

Perfectly Dead

If you, like me, spend any amount of time watching true crime shows, then you will notice a pattern among the victims. They are all perfect. They lit up every room they entered. They had the winning-est smiles but no shirts on their backs because they’d already given them to the nearest person in need. Even if, as the story progresses, we find out that the deceased experienced some trouble in their lives (an affair, a drug or alcohol addiction, a termination from work), we are told that they were just in the process of getting their life back on track when they were cruelly cut down by murder. Cynical viewers comment that the producers must think we won’t care about justice for a flawed dead person.

 

Having been a TV producer for a time, I know why we get these glowing testimonials from the victim’s loved ones: they are to humanize the deceased, to try to bring them to life and give them a voice in a program that is otherwise focused on their role as a dead body. I get it. I do. There’s a sameness to the reports, though, that serves to undermine their purpose. The victim loved life. Loved her family. No one would ever want to hurt him.

 

 

Except, of course, someone did.

 

An ad for See No Evil shows a murder victim being followed in a department store shortly before her abduction.
An ad for See No Evil shows a murder victim being followed in a department store shortly before her abduction.

 

One of my current favorite programs is See No Evil, which uses CC footage to piece together events after a murder or other heinous crime. There is minimal lionizing of the victim, perhaps because we get to see them for ourselves on the grainy footage. They visit ATMs, feed the parking meter, pay for gas.

 

 

 

A recent episode featured Edward Lowry, a man found savagely beaten and stabbed to death on a street in South Dakota. Ed’s friends and family offered up the usual backstory of what an amazing guy he was—how helpful, friendly and outgoing. Then the cameras traced Ed’s actions leading up to his death. He’d received a promotion at work, we’re told, and he went out to celebrate. He visits a couple of bars, drinks a beer or two. In between, we follow his distinctive, robot-like walk through town as he’s caught on security footage from banks, pawn shops and the like. By the end, you feel like you would know his figure anywhere.

 

The cops talk to the bartender at one of the places Ed may have visited. She says he wasn’t in. The cameras show he was there, bellied right up to her bar for a good long time. She served him but didn’t remember him. At the time she’d talked to Ed, he was no one special.

 

Ed sets out again past midnight, loping toward home. We know he doesn’t get there. A group of young men happen across Ed and decide to jump him and rob him. We see them fall in behind him, stalking him, and we want to yell out for Ed to run. Change course before it’s too late.

 

The three thugs took Ed’s life for just $200. Afterward, they’re shown celebrating with treats at a gas station convenience store. The cops close in for their own kind of score.

 

I’m left with other questions at the end. Why, if Ed was so surrounded by loved ones, was he out celebrating alone? Maybe they were all just busy that night. After all, they couldn’t know. They didn’t know it was the last time Ed Lowry would stride through town with his leather jacket and bandana and unusual walk.

 

All of us are walking that same path that Ed Lowry did. Something is out there, waiting to jump us, we know not when or where. See No Evil shows us a glimpse of those last minutes, lets us see the person going about their mundane lives at the Kwik-Mart and the bank, and that’s when we know the truth: murder victims aren’t perfect. They’re just regular.

 

We just happen to be watching when they walk off camera one last time.

book recs, The Vanishing Season

Must-Have Debut Mysteries of 2017

This week, The Vanishing Season launched into the wide world, and I am profoundly grateful for all of the support I’ve had along the way. I am especially grateful this morning for readers who are willing to take a chance on a new author. There are so many books to choose from, and time is precious, so we newbies are unspeakably delighted whenever someone gives us a read. In that spirit, here are three 2017 crime novel debuts that are a treat for your eyeballs:

The Dry, Jane Harper

If you haven’t yet picked up this winning debut by Australian author Jane Harper, then run right out to do so. It’s the story of Federal Agent Aaron Falk who returns to his hometown after a long absence to attend the funeral of his once-close friend, Luke. Amid the worst drought in a century, Falk investigates Luke’s death and reluctantly addresses the buried secrets that bound him to his friend. Atmospheric and compelling.

 

 

 

 

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a reimagining of the Borden murders of 1892, which captured public imagination when their daughter Lizzie was accused of the crime. The book is told by four people: Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and an inscrutable stranger named Benjamin. Lizzie’s guilt or innocence continues to be a source of debate years on, and Schmidt uses that uncertainty to clever advantage in bringing to life one of history’s most famous unreliable narrators.

 

 

 

My Sister’s Bones, by Nuala Ellwood

Kate is an investigative journalist working in war-torn areas like Iraq and Syria. She returns home for her mother’s funeral and must deal with her sister Sally, who has developed a problem with alcohol. The first night home, Kate is awakened by a terrible scream… This book packs a wallop as it explores multiple kinds of trauma, from the kind born of a rough childhood to the PTSD that results from covering wartime atrocities. The survivors here are doing the best they can to make it through the day, even as several of them harbor dark secrets. 

The Vanishing Season

Launch Day!

He was almost too cute to eat!

Whew! Last week I enjoyed an amazing whirlwind of activities surrounding the launch of The Vanishing Season. I have to stop myself from screeching in joy whenever I see the book on the shelves now. The Brookline Booksmith was kind enough to host opening night, where a good crowd showed up to see if I would make a fool of myself babbling in front of an audience. I managed not to say anything too embarrassing and we all got to enjoy cupcakes in Speed Bump’s honor. All credit to Dessert Works in Norwood, MA for these beauties, which tasted as good as they looked!

 

The whole week was just a blur of excitement and I wanted to share some highlights with you before I lose the details in a Christmas haze.

 

 

As much as I enjoyed Bump’s cupcake cameo, I was even more thrilled that Shannon Kirk, Elisabeth Elo, and Hank Phillippi Ryan took time from their busy schedules to come to the launch. These three talented writers are some of the loveliest people to know. They have been amazingly generous to me with their time and wisdom. Not only do I get to enjoy their terrific books, I now get to call them friends as well. How lucky am I?

From left to right: Shannon, Elisabeth, and Hank, with me in the front. They are all talented and wonderful people!

 

 

 

 

 

Jill and Robbie came a long way to be at my launch, for which I am incredibly grateful. Yay, friends!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My favorite part of launch week was all the friends who came to visit! My longtime friend and editor Amanda Wilde zipped down from Toronto to hang out for the full week. We don’t see each other in person very often so this was a rare treat indeed. My other friend Jill came all the way from Minnesota, and it was so great to see her, too. I talk online to these ladies all the time but it’s not the same as seeing them in the flesh. Michelle Kiefer drove up from Connecticut to hang out with us, and it was like an old-fashioned slumber party, only you talk about books instead of boys. But the biggest surprise was my friend Robbie McGraw who came all the way from Los Angeles and didn’t tell me she was coming. Everyone else knew but me! It was the greatest surprise!

Night two saw us at the Canton Library, where I talked about some of the research into serial killers that I had read about for my book. Criminologists, psychologists, and neuroscientists have studied serial murderers for decades. Unfortunately, much of what they have learned has not translated into better ways to catch these guys. It’s great to know that serial killers are more likely to have wet the bed as a kid, but when you suspect you have a serial murderer loose in your community, you can’t exactly round up all the childhood bed wetters. It’s a definite conundrum!

On night three, I went to New England Mobile Book Fair to attend the 6th Annual Mystery Gala night along with about 40 other writers. The inimitable Tess Gerritsen received the Robert B. Parker Award for her astounding ability to craft wonderful characters and intricate plots. She also played the violin for us because she is just that talented. I got to catch up with some

Me with the lovely and talented Lisa Gardner at New England Mobile Book Fair.

mystery writer friends and to make some new ones. Somewhere in there I managed to convince the lovely and talented Lisa Gardner to buy my book! She is funny and wise and I enjoyed talking with her more than I can say. Many thanks to New England Mobile Book Fair owner Tom Lyon for hosting this terrific event!

Now I am recovering from all these terrific events and working away on book two. And shopping. Must get to that Christmas shopping…

Writing

How to Support Your Writer Friend

One question I get asked a lot by my super supportive friends and family is how best they can help me in this new mystery-writing endeavor I’ve got going on. Maybe you, too, have an author in your life whom you would like to support! If so, please read on for these top tips.

  1. Buy the book. Purchasing a copy of the book is always the best way to help out because sales are what publishers consider when weighing whether to give the author another chance to publish. If you don’t happen to like the topic or concept of the book, perhaps buy it for a friend or relative who would enjoy it.
  2. Where should you buy it? Does it matter? You should buy the book wherever it is easiest for you to do so. If you have lots of options, consider buying from your nearest indie store. Indie booksellers do a lot to support local authors, and we like to give back any way we can. If you’re buying online, Amazon is the best way to go because they are a giant in the bookselling industry, and higher sales mean greater visibility on the Amazon platform. This means other readers are more likely to discover your author friend’s book!

    This is how I feel sometimes, like the book is enormous and I am tiny in comparison.
  3. What if I can’t buy the book right now? That’s perfectly okay! There are still many ways you can support your author friend. You can ask about their book at your local library. Librarians take note when customers inquire about titles. You could also recommend the book to your book club or post about it on your social media, if you feel so inclined. Most people find their next reads through recommendations from friends, so anything you can do to “pass it on” would be much appreciated by your friendly author.
  4. Attend a local book signing with your friend. The most common number of attendees at book signing events is around four. Your author would love it if you showed up to a signing because they will be desperate for a friendly face!
  5. Wait, should I leave a review? Where should I leave it? Asking for reviews from friends and family can be tricky. If you honestly really enjoyed the book, then yes, it would be lovely for you to leave a review. The most helpful place to review is probably Goodreads because it maximizes the chances your comments will be seen by other readers. Amazon reviews are helpful too, but Amazon frowns on friends-and-family reviews and will sometimes strip reviews from a book if they detect a relationship between the author and the reviewer.
  6. Finally, please humor us as we prattle on about our books and how excited we are. We sometimes get carried away like parents of a newborn. Smile and nod, mentally update your grocery list as we fret over galleys and covers and deadlines. We promise we’ll shut up eventually…at least until the next book comes out.

Learning to Love Your Haters

No artist enjoys negative reviews, but they are an inevitable part of putting your art out into the world. In the immortal words of author Chuck Wendig, someone is going to hate your book so much that they would film themselves feeding it to a weeping zoo animal. (“I hate hippos and I hate this book! Eat the book, Mr. Tub-Tub! EAT IT!) There’s no question that the negative reviews can sting, but did you also know they are incredibly helpful to you, the author? No, I’m not high, and I’m not kidding. Here are three proven benefits to those one-star reviews:

  1. They legitimize your positive reviews. If you have a book that has 25+ reviews on it and they are all glowing, readers will assume you are gaming the system. Maybe you aren’t! Maybe every one of those reviews is genuine, but readers are suspicious when they see only praise for a book. They presume the author’s friends and family rallied in support. But if you have a few negative reviews in the mix, then readers know your book is “out there in the world” and they are more inclined to trust the good reviews.
  2. It means your book has reach. Not every story is meant for every reader, and this is actually a good thing. It means that the people who love aliens but hate sci-fi can find books to suit them, and those who crave a mushy romance can find those stories without stumbling over a bunch of dead bodies. But if you are going to reach the maximum size of your desired audience, it means your book will sometimes bump up against the borders of that readership—that is, it will fall into the hands of a reader for whom it is not intended. “I hate ghosts and this book was full of them!” If you aren’t seeing at least a few of these reviews, it probably means your book hasn’t expanded far enough within its target audience.
  3. It helps your target readers and your book find each other. People read one-star reviews to find out what might turn them off about the book, and one person’s squick is another person’s kink. “This book has vampires in it? BRING IT ON!” or “People complained about the sex and violence in this story, but I totally dig both of those, sometimes both together! I am buying this book right now!” Similarly, it helps keep your book out of the hands of too many readers who wouldn’t like it. They know to avoid your book and buy something else, thus saving you even more one-star reviews down the line.

So there you have it. One-star reviews are actually helpful when it comes to marketing your book. What they are NOT helpful for is aiding in your growth as a writer. Unless you have a lot of negative reviews complaining about the same thing (rotten grammar, weak endings, etc.), then reader advice is not likely to help much. Reader reviews are meant for other readers, not you, the author. If you skim negative reviews for any published work, you will usually see that the reader complaints are all over the map, often contradictory, and thus it would not be possible for the author to address them all. So take them with a grain of salt and maybe a large glass of wine (because they still sting, after all!), and be grateful that your book attracts reader passion.

Whose Mystery Is It Anyway?

I write mystery novels, but when it comes to figuring out who your readers are, “mystery novel” alone won’t cut it as a designation. Is it a classic mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or a suspense tale ala Mary Higgins Clark? Or maybe it’s more of a noir? It might surprise you to learn that there are more than a dozen subgenres within the broader category of “mystery,” and they each have their own conventions and diehard fans.

One of the conversations I had with my editor about The Vanishing Season concerned the level of gore in the story. It involves a serial killer who likes to cut off people’s hands, so there are some definite icky moments. However, most of the violence occurs “off screen” and there’s no detailed discussion of bloodshed or viscera. The question facing me and my editor was whether to leave in references to the killer’s dastardly deeds or remove them in case they turned readers’ stomachs. The decision would slant my book in one direction or the other: keep the serial killer creepy stuff, and the book sits with dark stories, leaning toward thrillers; or remove any references to a hacksaw and plant the book closer to a traditional mystery. Hmmm…what to do?

If you are aiming for the largest audience, make your book a cozy or a traditional mystery. These are both classic types of mystery that can feature official investigators (ala Columbo) or amateur detectives (ala Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote). The fun of these books is in their characters, their settings, and the puzzle at hand. There is often a murder but it won’t feel too dark because the victim often deserved what was coming to him and the crime itself is not detailed. There are no long passages lamenting man’s inhumanity to man or musing on the darkness of the human heart. Rather, there is more often humor and enjoyment in watching a likable sleuth figure out the twisty solution.

Suspense and thriller books tend to be darker in tone, with an omnipresent sense of foreboding. The main character is in danger from a known or unknown threat. These books often have elements of mystery to them, but in some ways, suspense is the opposite of mystery. Tension in mysteries relies on the reader not knowing the identity of the perpetrator. By contrast, suspense books may even reveal who the Big Baddie is fairly early on, and the tension comes from what next horrible thing will happen to the hero and how he/she will defeat the villain, e.g. Behind Closed Doors. Descriptions of agonizing deaths or other macabre developments are not unusual in suspense/thriller stories.

A lonely house sits in the dark woods
If you have a creepy house in the woods (and I do!), your book may be a suspense/thriller, but it depends on what kind of events happen there!

As you can see, the reader experience varies dramatically between these categories of “mystery,” and if you want one kind and get the other, you may be disappointed. Books have to delivery on reader expectations. Thus, the question for me and my editor boiled down to: what kind of book are readers expecting from The Vanishing Season? Given that the central premise involves serial murder—a killer who hunts for sport—it did not seem like the story would ever fit neatly into the cozy or traditional mystery bin. On the other hand, readers who are drawn to tales of serial killers actually want to hear some of the gruesome details. Watering down the creepy factor too much risks alienating this group.

So…in the end, the minor descriptions of severed body parts stayed in the book. It’s a mystery/thriller at heart, and I hope it delivers as such!

Back to School

Ah, fall, when the air is redolent with the scent of woodsmoke and new pencil erasers. The kids are back to school today, and we somehow have a third grader. I swear she just started kindergarten yesterday. But no, amazingly she is eight and I can hardly believe it because eight is a significant year in my memory. It’s when I decided I wanted to be a writer. (Spoiler alert: it’s going to take more than three decades to accomplish this goal.) More than that, though, age eight feels contiguous with who I am now. That eight-year-old and me, man, we’re the same. I look at my daughter now and wonder if she will experience eight the same way.

How the heck do we have a third grader already?

She sometimes wants to be a writer. Sometimes a chef. Also sometimes a rock star. These days she spends a lot of time making up plays for the neighborhood. The latest one is called “Me and My American Ninja Warrior.” (It is hilariously misspelled “My American Ninja Worrier” on some of the fliers.) The story involves a girl named Amelia who leaves her country home to become the first female to fight in the army in a great war for truth, justice and freedom (the opponent here is somewhat murky, but it’s men who are telling her no and she is standing up to them). When Amelia’s mother begs her not to go, Amelia demurs, saying, “My home is the battlefield now.”

What is most interesting about this play is that she and her friend next door have conceived a second role that shadows Amelia and plays her inner self. Eleanor performs Amelia’s outer actions, while the friend gives her inner thoughts. There is a prescient tune (yes, it’s a musical…) in the first act where Amelia is musing on how society asks her to behave one way but what she really wants is to be valiant in battle. It includes a line about how “my insides sing a different song.”

I find it amazing and inspiring that these eight-year-olds are already wise enough to listen to their inner voices. I hope they sing loudly and proudly, this year and every year.

An Author Brand That Burns

I’ve spent a lot of time this year learning about how authors connect themselves to their work. You are supposed to figure out the parts of your personal story that intersects with your fiction and this overlap becomes part and parcel of your “brand.” So if you are a late-in-life divorcée and so is your heroine, you would emphasize this relationship to underscore your authenticity. To prove that the story is rightfully yours.

In mysteries, authors often draw on personal experience as some form of investigator. Archer Mayor, who writes the popular Joe Gunther series, has worked as a death investigator for the Vermont State Medical Examiner’s office. Lisa Scottoline, who’s penned many award-winning legal thrillers, spent years working as a lawyer before turning her talents to fiction. Hank Phillippi Ryan, who writes terrific page-turners about female investigative reporters, is an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter herself. These writers clearly know their stuff!

So when the publishing director asked me in a hopeful voice about my background in criminal law, I had to admit the truth: I’ve watched a lot of Law & Order. Oh, I’ve also done a lot of other homework and research, but I’ve never worked as a cop or lawyer. My experience at police stations is purely recreational.

Old fashioned cattle branding irons.
My brand is seared deep, always a part of me.

No, the part of The Vanishing Season that belongs to me is the ugly side. Like Ellery in the story, I was sexually assaulted at a young age (in my case five years old) by an adult neighbor who said he would kill my family if I ever told. So I said nothing for a long time. Eventually, I turned to books to help me process what had happened to me. I started checking out books on rape from the library at age eight, both fiction and non, looking for a roadmap forward from those who had been through it before me. These stories were tremendously helpful, a real lifeline. You’re not alone, they told me. It will be okay.

It is okay and I have a lovely life, with a husband and daughter who is now eight years old herself. She knows only vaguely the kind of predators that lurk in the world, and I hope she can retain that innocence as long as possible. I’ve learned from experience, however, that there are many others out there who have lived through the same kind of agony I endured. I know because they’ve written to tell me so. For years now I’ve told fictional stories that touch on sexual assault in one way or another, and in return, I’ve received real, heart-rending tales from women who say yes, me too. One woman was awoken one night by a man who climbed through her bedroom window with a knife. Another had an uncle protected by her extended family even as he spirited her away into the basement for regular “private time.”

Like me, these women are relieved to find stories that verify their own experiences. We’re not crazy. We’re not broken. It wasn’t our fault. But this brand is just that—burning and permanent, a mark put there by someone else that fades with time but never quite goes away.