The Words No Writer Wants to Hear

Not for us. Good luck elsewhere.

Okay, that’s one we’ve all heard, or at least seen, in rejection slips. I no longer take this personally, because I understand that every publisher buys only a certain number of books per year; some slots are taken by their established authors; and my timing is off. (I recognize there’s also a slight possibility that they just don’t like my story or my style.) No problem, I’ll just publish it myself.

“I don’t really read.”

What? I’m never quite sure how to react to that statement. Does it mean that the person I’m talking to has no imagination, or that s/he is just so happy with the status quo of her/his own life that s/he needs nothing more? Sometimes I attempt to sleuth out whether that person at least adores movies so I can be assured that s/he does appreciate stories. But mostly, I just take my glass of wine over to talk to the next person who might know how to read. Personally, real life is just not enough for me.

“How much money do you make from your books?”

Really? Do I ask you how much money you make at your job? When this is followed by questions about lavish book tours or sumptuous dinners with my editor, I know this person has fallen for the movie stereotype of the bestselling-author. A very rare species indeed.

And then, in recent years, here’s one that I’ve heard too often, from the voracious readers that we might expect to be our best friends:

“I couldn’t put that book down! I read it in only two days, so I returned it and didn’t even have to pay for it!”

If you write fast-paced stories (like I always try to), you too may be aware that Amazon allows buyers to return ebooks within seven days of buying them. This is happening to me more and more, and has me wanting to belt out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T! You know what that means to me?” (Okay, I changed that line “just a little bit.”) I typically price my ebooks at $4.99, and these smart shoppers want to keep me from my massive $3.49 royalty? That hurts, readers! How am I supposed to pay my cat food bill? I’ve never even returned ebooks that I detested.

In general, Amazon has been nicer to me than my traditional publishers and certainly nicer than most bookstores, who think nothing of “returning” (or in reality, destroying) print books (that the publishers and authors have to pay for), but allowing returns on ebooks for seven days after purchase? That’s a punishment authors don’t deserve, Amazon. Show us a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T and shorten that up to 24 hours! (I realize anyone can make a mistake and purchase a book twice; God knows I’ve borrowed the same book more than once from my local library.)

Readers, if you really must plow through my ebooks and then return them to Amazon, at least do me the favor of writing me a nice review, okay?

Writers deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Explaining Why

Sometimes we get questions about why we are the way we are, and as writers, we often need to think long and hard about the answer.

I recently told my sister that after several weeks of attending conferences and having relatives visit, I was feeling desperate to get out in nature. She asked, “What do you like so much about nature?”

Frankly, at first the question confounded me. How could it not be obvious that the natural world is absolutely fascinating and rewarding? There’s a reason I write mysteries with wilderness settings. But after thinking about it, I decided that the question really deserved an answer from me. So here are my personal thoughts on the subject.

For me, nature has always been magical. The world is so much bigger and grander than human civilization, and we know so little about the plants and other creatures we share our planet with. Even plants have superpowers; they can absorb sunshine and water and soil to create their own food before they become food for us. Mosses and lichen and fungi inhabit mysterious and extensive ecosystems. Scallops and snails use their bodies to synthesize shells from the elements in which they live. Birds and many insects can leap into the air and fly. Bats can not only wing their way through the sky but find food through echolocation.

As a scuba diver, I’ve watched an octopus hunt along a reef at night, squeezing its boneless body through tiny holes and narrow crevices, changing its colors and skin patterns as it explores. I’ve hung motionless in seawater among a school of big-eyed squid for long moments before they jetted away at warp speed. I’ve peered through the bodies of jellyfish—how can a creature that we can see through be alive? And like so many of my diving compatriots, I’ve spent hours searching through books and websites trying to identify some otherworldly organism that I observed on the ocean floor.

Many creatures are shape-shifters. They spend their lives in several different forms. How amazing it is that a caterpillar and a butterfly are the same animal! Some fish appear completely different as juveniles than they do as adults. Larval forms of most sea creatures look nothing like their final shapes.

Some creatures can change genders. Others have no gender but simply clone themselves to perpetuate their species. Wouldn’t that ability change our lives if humans possessed it?

Watching an elephant pick up a small nut with its trunk makes me wonder if dinosaurs had the same dexterity. Observing porpoises and whales always causes me to contemplate whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be an air-breathing creature that lives in water.

Even meteorological forces are captivating. How can anyone not be impressed by the crystalline formations of snowflakes and frost? By the ferocious forces of lightning and tornados? I’ve enjoyed meteor showers so dense and bright and seemingly close that I expected to hear the impacts of the streaking objects as they hit the earth. My brief and limited experience seeing the aurora borealis nearly brought me to tears; visiting a place where I can witness its full majesty is definitely on my bucket list.

Perhaps, as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, familiarity breeds contempt, but it has always seemed to me that, when compared to the natural world, humankind is limited and repetitious and self-centered. After all, humans are only one species. We are forced to invent supernatural beings and imaginary powers, when they abound in nature all around us. The natural world promises an infinite variety of species and experiences. How can anyone not be awed by that?

Be There – Using ALL the Senses in Writing

Writers often hear “write what you know.” I have found that to be bad advice for many experts, as you’d be amazed how many knowledgeable people simply cannot explain their expertise to us common folk, so they need a translator, in the form of a ghost writer or a developmental editor. I’ve worked as both. But I digress.

Most of us fiction authors cannot experience everything that we write about. God forbid that we actually embezzle funds, dump toxic waste, set fires, or kidnap, torture, or murder people. We must rely on our imaginations or on accounts documented by others for all those crimes. But I do think it’s important to include sensory details from real experiences whenever possible.

So, when I’m out hiking, I’m always trying to truly experience everything as much as possible so I’ll remember the details when I write my Sam Westin mysteries. I would never wear earphones because I want to plug into my memory bank a wide variety of natural sounds: the low whoop-whoop-whoop mating call of a blue grouse, the groan of tree branches rubbing against each other, the roar of a waterfall, the crunching of my snowshoes on icy snow, the rumble of a distant rockfall. Scents are important, too: I inhale into my memory the grape-juice odor of blooming lupines in hot sun, the tang of broken pine needles, the whiff of smoke from a forest fire on the other side of a mountain range.

Touch is usually the most noticeable sense for me when I’m on a trail: I notice the razor-sharp edge of broken granite as I slice my leg on a rock, the stickiness of tree sap or the dampness of moss on my pants from the last place I sat down, the feel of a breeze drying the sweat on my back in summer, the sting of wind-driven sleet against my bare face in winter, the annoying bite of a blackfly in spring. In the Pacific Northwest, we often even have tastes along the trails: the tartness of salmonberries, the sweetness of huckleberries, the numbing taste of licorice ferns, the crunch of fiddlehead ferns.

And of course, sights are absolutely crucial: the myriad greens of a dense forest, the contrast of gray granite against snow, the awesome grandeur of a volcano, the terrifying crevasses in a glacier, the miracle of simply viewing the ocean or the sea of mountains that is the North Cascades. I try to be equally present, a sort of sensory sponge, when I’m kayaking or scuba diving, soaking up all the sensations the experience has to offer, because details can help readers experience the world a writer creates with words.

I’ve attended the Writers Police Academy twice. It’s an incredible experience, where mystery writers undergo some of the same training that police officers or forensics specialists or firefighters receive. I’ve learned about the difficulties of getting and matching fingerprints (fascinating), studied cases to distinguish suicides and accidental deaths from homicides (often harder than you might think), studied blood spatter (gruesome), learned how to clear a building in which an armed suspect was hiding (incredibly stressful), and shot an assault rifle (absolutely terrifying), just to name a few memorable sessions.

Seeing the wall on the US-Mexican border was an experience I’ll never forget, either, and learning from all sides about its impact on the environment and cultures was invaluable. I’ve been there twice. I absorbed so much that I got a whole book, Borderland, from the brief time I was there.

When I sit down to write a new book, I try to incorporate as many sensory details from my experiences as possible.

My next Sam Westin mystery, Cascade, includes a wolverine, an avalanche, and a collapsed building. I’ve never seen a wolverine except in a zoo, so I had to collect that information from books and articles. The book will be out in late August or early September. I’d still like to think a wolverine will appear somewhere in my future, in real life.

I’ve never been in an avalanche (thank heavens), but I’ve seen a few, and I’ve been through avalanche training. I do know what it feels like to fall through a snow bridge (only a couple of feet in my case, again thank heavens) and I’ve been caught in a whiteout in the mountains when the snow is so thick that you can’t distinguish up from down until you fall. And at the Writers Police Academy, I crawled through a simulated collapsed building in the dark. It’s more difficult and more painful than I imagined, but (yes, I’m still thankful) I didn’t have the danger of tons of debris looming above me, as many victims or first responders might in real-life situations.

I encourage everyone to do as much of what interests them as is possible. Even a frightening experience is enriching. I’m grateful that I’ve had a wide variety of memorable experiences to help with my writing, and I hope to have many more.

Thank God for Beta Readers

I am closing in on finishing my 14th novel. By which, I really mean that I just finished my rough draft. So, as most authors know, the real work begins: soliciting feedback, rewriting, planning for launch. And I absolutely, positively, could never finish without beta readers.

I do have a few critique partners who read chapters along the way as I write, but for the most part, I wait until I have a complete rough draft before sharing it. That’s because I am a pantser who changes a lot along the way, so it can be frustrating and sometimes a waste of time to share rewritten material over and over again.

My favorite description of how the novel writing process typically goes was written by bestseller Lisa Gardner in Plotting the Novel: Otherwise Known as The Real Reason Writers are Neurotic, which you can get from her website. Her description is hilarious, and oh, so true! And it’s how the process works for me every time, except that I rarely create an outline, so my process is even more chaotic. But it’s true that, like Lisa, I always start off thinking I have a brilliant idea, and then, as I work on the dang manuscript over and over, I inevitably end up thinking I have a worthless book that nobody will ever want to read. (We writers tend to be an insecure lot.)

For Cascade, my sixth Sam Westin novel, I wanted to use the experience I gained years ago at the Writers Police Academy of crawling through a collapsed building. My novels mostly take place in outdoorsy settings, so I had an avalanche destroy a ski lodge. And my Sam Westin books include wildlife, so I threw wolverines into the mix (not in the ski lodge!). But did I really have a story? As I wrote and rewrote the scenes, I began to wonder if I’d totally forgotten how to write at all.

This probably happens to every novelist who does not suffer delusions of grandeur. By the time I reach the rough draft stage, I’m so bored with my characters and plot that I want to throw the manuscript in the trash. Every scene, every conversation seems repetitious. But I know this largely comes from thinking, rereading, and rewriting the same material over and over again. At least I hope it does.

So, I really rely on a handful of beta readers to tell me whether or not I’ve created a novel or I should just stick to weeding my garden from now on. Some authors have a whole team of alpha readers to read the first draft, and then a different team of beta readers to read the rewritten version. I like to think that now I’m a little more efficient than that (probably a delusion of grandeur), so I generally skip the alpha step and go straight to beta readers.

These brave souls are willing to read a rough draft and tell me what they like, what they hate, and where I went totally off the rails. (This does not replace a thorough copyedit, by the way; I always hire a real pro for that as a last step.)

I am now in the “Help Me with my Rough Draft” phase, and I can only hope that my beta readers save me again. Meanwhile, I’ll be weeding my garden.

Help a Writer Save a Wolverine

The Pull and the Pain of Creative Passion

A few days ago, I went to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, which is an amazing traveling exposition of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and life history that brings the artist’s paintings to life with sound and video. I watched crabs crawl out of picture frames and across walls, rivers splash off the canvasses, and spirals of stars roll across the night sky, just to name a few special effects. The show is a testament to technological wizardry as well as to art, and I am still awed by the creativity involved to put it together.

Appreciating the beauty and creativity of the show as well as reading about Van Gogh’s short life and his obsession for making art has me thinking about creative passions and how they affect those of us who have them—writers, artists, and musicians, for the most part. Van Gogh made more than 2000 sketches and paintings before he shot himself at age 37, but he was only able to sell only one painting in his lifetime and lived in poverty, supported by his brother. Van Gogh felt compelled to paint, but his work was unappreciated by those around him.

I won’t pretend that I am capable of that level of passion for writing, but I do understand both the pull and the pain of possessing a creative mind. Like so many writers, I’ve often been asked how much money my books earn or how many copies have sold, and like the majority of authors, I don’t make a living solely from my books. When I am not with writers, I’ve learned not to complain about the difficulty of marketing books or the frustration of smoothly knitting together a complex plot. Some of my family members have compared writing to banging one’s head against a brick wall, and some have suggested that my life would be easier if I would just quit writing.

But just like Vincent van Gogh couldn’t stop painting, I don’t think I can stop writing. I don’t know who I am if not a writer. To pay the bills, I’ve had a lot of jobs, but being a former technical writer or a private investigator doesn’t feel like enough of an identity for me. When I hear an especially clever comment from a friend, watch a hummingbird pluck fluff from a cattail for its nest, or feel the icy surprise of sleet on my face while hiking in the mountains, I want to capture that moment in writing. I occasionally make art, too—watercolors and acrylics—and I’m forever trying to capture a prism of sunlight on water or the texture of peeling tree bark in brush strokes, if not in words. My brain is often away on a solitary adventure instead of inventorying the groceries in my refrigerator.

The problem with being a creative person is that our passions are often dismissed as unimportant hobbies. Too many people are willing to pay more for a cup of Starbuck’s coffee than for a book.

So, Vincent, I get you. I’m sorry you didn’t live to see the appreciation that the world has today for your passion. Millions of us understand that a creative mind is both a blessing and a curse. Rest in peace, and thank you for being you.