Relationships with…inanimate objects?

Okay, bear with me.

I was in a bit of a fuzz this morning. All day I pondered what to blog about, considering the other Mysteristas have had such wonderful things to say on the topic of relationships.

People? Check. Books? Check. Characters? Check. We’d covered it all. Or so I thought.

Two things have been my nemesis today: my day-job computer and my chair. Yes, my chair.

It started early, as soon as I plugged in the day-job laptop. No WiFi? What? (pause to search for switch, maybe it got bumped to the off position). No switch. Why no WiFi? (checks phone – no, that’s connected just fine) I read for the ethernet cable. Kind of defeats the purpose, no? One has a laptop for portability. Hard to be portable when you’re tethered to a cable. The WiFi is working now, but it’s gone on and off all day.

Grr.

Next up: how do I get rid of that horrible tightness in my back? I tried standing. Three days of on an off standing. And while I have a friend who swears by it…nuh-uh. Sure, the standing alleviates the pain in my hips. Torture on my feet. And my knee. And my back, probably because I’m standing in a weird posture in an attempt to take pressure off my knee.

Sitting isn’t helping. One, it makes my hips hurt more (I have what is called cam and pincer impingement in my right hip – go Google it if you’re interested in the gory details, I’ll wait). And my lower back – OMG.

So I started playing with the various knobs and levers on my chair. Futzed with what I think is the lumbar support (I yanked it off accidentally – pretty sure that won’t help). I’ve come to the conclusion that I have the world’s most un-ergonomic chair. How much does a good chair cost? Yikes. Better figure out how to work with what I’ve got.

And at the end of it all, I realized something. We all, especially writers, have funny, intimate relationships with the inanimate objects in our lives and we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Think of computers. What writer do you know who writes long-hand or by manual typewriter? Okay, they probably exist, but I don’t know any. Maybe for when they are stuck or for a change of pace, but I don’t know anyone who writes a 90,000-word novel longhand. And besides, even if they do, they just need to type it up for submission to an editor, or an agent, or CreateSpace.

That’s beside all the research. No one can go visit China in the 1800s, or check out the streets of Paris at the drop of a hat – especially if you have a day-job or kids (with all their assorted activities). Internet to the rescue. You know, as long as the WiFi works – unless you’re still working on a desktop (and I know almost as many writers who use one of those as who write that 90,000-word novel longhand).

Then there’s where you write. I’ve heard stories of past writers who sat in the bathtub (talk about hell on the back) or stood. Recliners, sofas, lying on the floor – it had better be comfortable or else writing those 90,000 words is going to feel like walking over hot coals. Or thumbtacks. Or…something.

The point is, our success is kinda-sorta dependent on our physical, inanimate space. Our chairs, our pillows, our shoes, our technology. And we don’t tend to think about it…until the headache, or the back pain set in.

So I will continue to search for the perfect chair and desk position. I’m fond of my recliner at home, but kinda hard to transport that to work.

In the meantime, pass the Advil…and maybe the phone number of a good chiropractor.

Relationships – a meditation

As I rolled this month’s theme around in my head, I found myself growing thoughtful. It’s cold, dreary, and rainy here in the ‘Burgh. As I pondered, these lines from John Donne came to mind:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

(Factoid: Although I learned this as a poem, it is not, in fact, a poem. It is a meditation Donne dedicated to Prince Charles, son of King James I. But I digress.)

The entire text emphasizes how we are all connected. That one is not really separate from the other. That we are defined by our relationships. Very true personally and professionally.

The publishing world is full of relationships. A few:

  • The relationships between fellow writers. These may be friends, they may be critique partners, or blog sisters. They are the people who prop us up when our spirits are flagging; help us tease out the solution to that problematic manuscript; give us wine, chocolate, and a shoulder to cry on when things aren’t going our way; and give us wine, chocolate, and dance a celebratory jig when they do.
  • If we are traditionally published (or pursuing traditional publication), the relationship between writer and agent. The agent is the person who is going to represent the writer to the industry. Who will help her shine up that manuscript before sending it out into the world. Brainstorm new ideas. And, of course, provide wine and chocolate and sympathy/celebration at the appropriate times.
  • Writers and editors. Again, if you are traditionally published, this might be an agent ad your house. If you are indie published, this is the person you work with to give that manuscript a good scrub. Again, they are sounding boards. They provide feedback. They may help brainstorm ideas. Ideally, they work with you to make your book the best it can be. They may or may not provide wine and chocolate, depending on the closeness of the relationship (are you sensing a theme around wine and chocolate?).
  • Between author and cover designer (if you are indie published or you are lucky enough to get input on your covers). This person is going to represent your book in art. That image will be the first a potential reader sees before clicking “buy” or heading to the checkout.
  • Between author and publicist (if you either work with one through your publisher or you hire one). The two of you will spread the word of your masterpiece far and wide.
  • Between author and reader. The mother lode. There are authors I’ve met who I count as dear friends. They graciously share their creations and invite me to lose a few hours inside their worlds. There are other authors I’ve never met – but each time a new book comes out, it’s an open invitation. Come visit – we’re happy to have you.

The trope is of the solitary writer, banging away on the keyboard or scribbling in a notebook, fueled by coffee, wine, chocolate, and dreams. But nothing is further from the truth. Publishing is a world that abounds with relationships and we are all better for it.

Every once in a while, we get together at a conference like Bouchercon or Malice Domestic. The ultimate celebration where old friendships are renewed, new ones are made, and laughter flows like wine and chocolate (there it is AGAIN).

And they say writing is a solitary endeavor. Shows how little they know.

Readers and writers, what’s your favorite relationship in your bookish life?

Relationships old and new

Posting for Becky Clark, who is healing up. Get well soon, Becky!

I recently had a tumor removed from my spinal column. Totally benign, expect total recovery, I was in total denial. Not denial that it was a thing, but the aftermath.
Totes not prepared. But maybe you can’t be.

But in keeping with the theme this month, I have found some new relationships and strengthened some old ones.

First, with my husband. We’ve never really been tested before, but partial paralysis – especially when you’re both a bit delusional and in the dark about it all – well, that’s a test of a relationship. He’s definitely risen to the occasion.

Second, with my neurosurgeon. I heart him.

Third, with all the nurses, hospital staff, and pharmacists who’ve shown up in our orbit. All excellent, as desperate as we are that I can control my pain and relearn how to walk and bathe and poop again.

And fourth, all my friends, most of whom are in my writing community. Every single note or text or comment wishing me good luck, giving me encouragement, making me laugh has made all the difference between wallowing in the dark or remembering the light.

These are the relationships I’m so thankful for right now, as I continue my battle to get stronger.

Oh, and two more … iPhone and Facebook. Where would I be without my relationship with you?? It takes a digital village, right?

Plus, they make it possible for me to show you my stitches! Just say the word ….

In the beginning

Ah, January. Depending on where you are, it might be snowy and clear, it might be rainy and gray, it might be warm and sunny. (It’s rainy and gray in Pittsburgh and I wish it would be snowy and clear – and I can’t believe I’m saying that). In Western culture, it’s the beginning of a new year – with all the resulting angst, promise, excitement, and dread. Aside from September (the start of the school year), there is no other time to rival it for resolutions, goals, and general “need to change and do better” thoughts.

We often talk about “the” beginning. As if there is only one. Except…there’s more than one, right? Think about it. You have:

  • the beginning of a new year
  • the beginning of a new month
  • the beginning of a new week
  • the beginning of a new day
  • the beginning of a new writing project
  • the beginning of a new work session
  • the beginning of a new scene
  • the beginning of a new chapter
  • the beginning of a new reading project (aka, a new book)

That, my friend, is a LOT of beginnings.

All of them have a few things in common.

An ounce of trepidation. Will this book in the series be as good as the last? This one applies to readers and writers. Writers worry that the characters may become stale and boring. Readers wonder if the author can top the last book. (This is especially true if the “last” book received an award nomination or stellar review.) Maybe the magic is gone. Maybe during your last writing session, you killed it on the word count or things were really rocking. Will it happen again? If you had a particularly good/bad day/week/month/year (hello, 2016 for celeb deaths anyone?), will the new one be better or worse — or the same?

A half-pound of anticipation. What’s coming next? What’s around the corner? The story always has the possibility of surprise. That’s what brings the butterflies in your stomach and the tingle in your nerves. Of course, depending on how you feel about surprise, this may increase the amount of trepidation.

A handful of possibility. There’s a meme that has made the rounds of the internet for the last couple of years right around January 1: Today is the first page of a new 365-page book. Make it a good one. But that’s not just true of the first day of the year. That’s true of every day. Every project. Every book. Before you begin, the possibility is shiny and tempting. Because this just might be the best <fill in the blank> ever.

A teaspoon of hope. I really do believe we all WANT better. Better writing, better books, better society, better attitudes – to be better people. And (most of us) start every beginning believing that this time is going to be better – we’ll do better, be better, act better.

With all of that in mind, here’s my wish for the Mysteristas community: That we go forth and enjoy all the beginnings – and make everything we begin the best <fill in the blank> yet.

Kissing 2016 Goodbye

Otherwise known as “just what did I do this year?”

I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’m usually far better organized when it comes to writing goals. A couple years ago, I adopted James Scott Bell’s approach of setting goals for my writing career, redefining how I measured them. For example, setting a “goal” of getting published is maybe not the best because there are so many variables I can’t control with that. But I can control how many queries I send, so the goal might be “send fifty queries in 2016.” Or submit to a certain number of short story outlets.

You get the idea.

Except last January, when it came time for goal setting, I…didin’t. What was the point? I asked. Nobody pays attention but me, I said.

Oh silly, silly me.

Now at the end of 2016, I’m left a little discombobulated, wondering what the heck I did over the last 12 months. So here it is, reverse goal setting.

Submit short stories to the major anthologies

It was Bouchercon Raleigh in 2015 that two of my Sisters in Crime friends noticed that a lot of award nominees came out of these anthologies. So they issued a short-story challenge: to submit to the major anthologies for 2016. I was not sure I would do this. My short story success rate was…spotty. But hey, I’m always up for a challenge. So I submitted – Bouchercon (Blood on the Bayou), the Guppy anthology (Fish Out of Water), and Malice Domestic (Mystery Most Historical). I figured if I got one of the three, I’d be doing good. After all, isn’t that a good average in baseball (.333)?

Color me gobsmacked when I placed stories with not one, not two but all three anthologies. I really do not know what happened – except that I put myself out there. The Hubby treated me to a trip to New Orleans in September for Bouchercon. I’ll get to go to Malice Domestic in April.

I’ve already got a story prepped for Bouchercon 2017.

Then I placed a story with Mysterical-e. A story I thought was long dead. The only rejection I got all year? A local contest for Halloween flash fiction. What’s that saying about a prophet in her own town?

Query, query, query

According to Query Tracker, I’ve sent out about 80 queries this year, most for my first Laurel Highlands Mystey, And Corruption for All. I’ve tallied 80 rejections, too. You know, lest that short story success go to my head.

I’ve got one full manuscript for the second book in the series, Identity Unknown, out with an agent. And based on some feedback I received recently, I have a plan for the series in 2017. No, I can’t tell you the plan. I need to vet it with my critique group. If they say it’s a good plan, it’ll become a goal for 2017.

In some respects, 2016 was a rough year. So many celebrity deaths (Bowie! Rickman! Prince!). Yet it turns out I did okay when I look at my major accomplishments, things I’ve done. They’re kinda big things. I’m rather proud of myself.

But next year? I’m setting some goals, baby.

Readers, what about you? Do you set yearly goals or not?

The atmosphere of writing

When we have interviews here on Mysteristas–or when I talk to other writers–I am always amazed at how many of them say they need absolute quiet to write. No music, no TV, no coffee shops.

My first thought is “Absolute quiet, what is that?”

On Tuesday, Kate Lansing talked about ideal writing atmosphere and how words written under less-than-perfect circumstances were often just as good as those written in the perfect environment.

I can relate.

See, my “perfect” writing spot would be a semi-quiet space. Comfortable chair or cushion in front of a crackling wood fire. I’d have a nice beverage at hand – tea or wine. Maybe a little soft jazz or classical in the background.

My usual writing spot is at a table in the cafe space at my day job, or a corner of my desk. There’s a lot of chatter. Phones. Computer keyboard clacking. Conversations about server requirements, or customer needs, or project deadline problems. It is anything but quiet.

I grew up in a family with four kids. I had to learn to study with three siblings (way younger, 4-8 years younger) running around. I practiced piano and violin in that environment. I learned to do anything in a noisy space.

So when I started writing, silence was not a requirement. I figured if I could learn Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in chaos, I could write. And so it is: I can write anywhere. Starbucks, Panera, my day-job, an airplane, and yes sometimes I get that idyllic quiet space.

In thinking why that is, I realized it’s atmosphere. Not the atmosphere around me as much as the one I sink into as I write.

As I get into it, the story wraps around me. I am no longer in whatever space I’m physically located. I’m in the Laurel Highlands–in nature, or in one of my characters’ houses, or a courthouse. I am in Pittsburgh’s Strip District in another story or Squirrel Hill. I’m transported to a downtown financial firm (in “Three Rivers Voodoo”), rural West Virginia (“The Far End of Nowhere”) or a 1942 airplane assembly factory (“Home Front Homicide”).

In fact, the noise around me tends to fade away. People talk to me, but I don’t hear them.

At that moment, I’ve created my own atmosphere. And it’s always exactly where I need to be.

Mysteristas, what about you? Can you write anywhere? Readers, what books or activities create an atmosphere around you that wipes out your physical location?

Liz Milliron | @mary_sutton73

Atmosphere is greater than setting

On Monday, Pamela Oberg started off a new month’s theme here–atmosphere–with a great post. And in the comments, loyal commenter 3 no 7 (aka Barb) said this: “…atmosphere is the umbrella of the elements that make up the story.”

Yes.

As writers, we have to focus on a lot of things: setting (where does your story take place), character (who is there), dialog (what do they say and how), action (what happens), plot (how it happens), and tone or “voice” (that magic thing that no one can really define but we all know it when we hear it).

All of those things together make up atmosphere. But I want to focus specifically on setting vs. atmosphere. Because both are sensory things that make you feel the story. The best way I can illustrate the difference is to look at two books. Or rather two authors: Hank Phillipi Ryan and Dennis Lehane.

Both Hank and Lehane write books set in and around Boston. Same setting, right? Oh, they may have different parts of Boston in their stories. After all, Boston is a fairly big place and certainly not homogeneous. But I’m sure if I did a scene-by-scene analysis, there’d be some overlap in places.

Hank’s Boston (to me) is dangerous, but not ominous. Lehane’s city, on the other hand, bleeds danger and dirt. What’s the difference?

For Hank, Boston is a busy place. Lots of things going on, people everywhere. It’s businesslike. You’ve got Jake, doing his police thing. Jane, running around trying to get the scoop on her latest story. The settings are bright, professional. Crisp. The characters, in the main, are professionals who talk like professionals. I feel danger, but danger is not necessary darkness.

Lehane, on the other hand, has down and dirty characters. He spends a lot of time in the alleys. A lot of time at night. In bars. The characters aren’t professionals–except maybe professional criminals. They are of a lower economic and educational class and they talk like it. I once read that you could cut yourself on Lehane’s dialog, it’s that sharp. And it’s not merely a crisp sharpness. It’s a dangerous sharpness. At any moment, on any page, of a Lehane book, someone could get hurt, and it’s not going to be pretty.

This, to me, is atmosphere. It’s not just the setting, Boston. It’s the way the writer describes the setting, the characters and how they react to the setting. Are they scared? Nervous? Business-like? Bored?

It’s the words and sentences the author writes – short, powerful, long, a little wordier, the use of slang (or not). And it’s the way the action is related. Lehane’s violence is almost matter-of-fact, no matter what happens. Hank’s is awful, to be sure, but the characters are repelled by it, which leads the reader to be repelled.

That’s atmosphere. Lehane takes you to the gritty underbelly of the city. Hank skates along the upper crust (yes, peeling it back in places, but never to the point of repulsion). Only the most obtuse reader wouldn’t sense the difference, even if they can’t describe it.

And while I love both writers, I know whose Boston I’d rather visit.

And now a moment of self-promotion: Want to hear from me on a more personal level? Sign up for my newsletter; the form is right on the homepage of my website. You’ll hear about any publishing news I have, plus information on what I’m writing and what’s going on with me. I won’t spam you. Promise!

Readers: What have you read lately that really takes you under that “umbrella” and what really made you feel the atmosphere of the story?

Liz Milliron | @mary_sutton73