Category Archives: writing

It’s…*ALIVE*!!!

*POKE* *POKE*

Yes… it IS breathing! For real!

Okay. All kidding aside. Some of you may have noticed a slight lack of activity on this blog for more than a slight amount of time. I could fill pages explaining my hiatus — but I won’t. It suffices to say that life has thrown me a few curve balls over that period, and while they’ve been, oh, let’s just call them challenging, I can say with confidence that I’ve learned a whole lot of new ways to swing a bat and hit a few out of the field. And I suppose, that’s much of what life’s all about. So, let’s take a look at the score.

I’m still here. And what’s the saying? Any day above the ground is a good day.

The boat is still NOT afloat. Which, at this time of year is fairly normal, though it would have been nice to actually seen her underway at any point last summer. And work (more on that some other time) is progressing at a slow but definite pace. ALL the decks, short of the cockpit, have been COMPLETELY re-cored. Again, this is the subject of far more than these few sentences, and it suffices to say that is a task I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s like banging your head against a wall, as it feels much better when you’re done. Someday I’d like to look back and say it was worth it…but that’s down the road, and these days I’ve found time passing far too fast as it is, so for now I’ll just enjoy the thought that my still not floating boat has some of the strongest, most solid decks around.

And my writing? Yes. I am writing. Not as consistently as I have in the past, but as I said, there were all those pesky curve balls. It’s ironic that my third book, set to take place during a fictional hurricane that decimates the NY/NJ coast, was derailed by that very fiction turning to reality. Such is life, but in the end it’s given my madness and mayhem far more material than I could ever imagine. And that’s what I’m writing.

What I’m not writing is anything remotely socially networky. As in, I’m not doing all that stuff writers are encouraged to do beyond actually living life and writing books. All that ‘connect with your audience’ stuff. If you’re my audience, if you’ve read my books, you should understand. I don’t just write about anti-social, snarky characters with questionable people skills — I play one in real life. And trying to pretend otherwise, trying to do that whole Facebook and Twitter and networking thing, for me has been like trying to force an isosceles triangle into a round hole.

The last two weeks have been the longest downtime I’ve had in years, and it’s been a good break. It’s let me regroup and focus on priorities. And it’s made me realize that half the reason I haven’t been blogging in all this time was because I was still trying to figure out how to digitally force that triangle peg into the round hole.

So here’s the score. I’m a crazy writer. Anti-social, highly introverted, and perfectly happy that way. My people skills suck. I know I’ve said that here before, but perhaps that message got lost in my attempts to be social, network, and connect.

This is the web. I can sit in my private little corner, comfy-cozy in my isolation, and write to my heart’s content. Some of you out there may enjoy my somewhat skewed characters, others of you may not. Some kind souls, out of concern for my moral well-being, may send me suggestions to read the Bible, and thank you very much. Some of you can, and have, written me directly, or commented on my posts, and I welcome that. I’ll even reply, though occasionally it may take a day or three.

Perhaps if I could focus on that whole social network thing I might ultimately sell more books. But let’s face the facts: me and social just don’t go together. That’s me. That’s the way I am, and that’s the way I like it. While it might not do much to advance my career, it’s a balance that works for me.  It’s wonderful that my books have an audience and a following, and while perhaps that following might be larger if this particular writer were wired a bit different, I’m not, and that’s what makes me who I am, and my books what they are, for better or worse.

Random Observation of the Day:  Food heats faster when you write. But that accelerated process also applies to food’s ability to burn if not watched. And on that note, I’m going to shut the stove and have some pre-blizzard dinner.

Sorting boats…

December has arrived, and once again the docks are all but empty on my little corner of the Hudson River. Activity at the yard, which had been buzzing along in high gear for the last two months, starts to scale back. For a few weeks there were people and cars and sounds of all sorts around us on the hard, but now the silence is returning. In another week or two, the only signs of life we’ll see around the yard are a few marina employees and the hardy little feral ‘yard cats’, occasionally soaking up a bit of low winter sun on a warm car hood. The season has ended and rows of boats have been sorted.

In most cases, when yards block up boats for winter storage, there’s a very specific order to where each one winds up, and why. Size plays a role, as does the all-important ‘When do you want to go back in’ factor. Last out is usually first in. Some owners wrap things up after Labor Day and don’t pull the cover until the end of May while others are geared up for fishing at the first signs of spring – don’t block them in! But there’s more to it. It’s no accident that the shiniest and newest of boats with custom covers or shrink wrap are closer to the main entrance and offices. For one, it just looks better and reflects well on the yard. It also keeps these boats where they’re less inclined to be visited by someone other than their owner. Further back goes to the boats with flapping plastic tarps or no covers at all. And finally, tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth, are the boats that have been on the hard for many seasons – the hopeless and the forgotten. They sit as testaments to abandoned dreams. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of day-to-day life.

Yet, glimmers of hope spring up in these forgotten corners, like a rose blooming among the oil drums and weeds. Every so often someone with the right mix of skill, perseverance, delusional optimism and determination sets their eyes on one of those forgotten boats, and you’ll see it re-emerge from death-row to float and sail once more. I recall one boat where the cabin and bridge had been partially destroyed by fire, though the hull and engine remained intact. It was placed in the corner to languish for years. But then one day someone new arrived. The fellow who repaired her did so the only way he knew how — with sheet-metal. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but year after year he’s out on the water happily fishing away. On the other end of the spectrum a friend of mine acquired an old ketch that had been caught in the wrong end of a shed collapse, and he restored that boat to exceptional magnificence. In both cases, these boats were brought back from the dead and each is a victory. It’s that ability to see beyond the work to the potential, to press on in the face of all adversity, hoping someday it will be beautiful — or at least float. I sometimes wonder how many of those resurrected boats belong to writers.

Thanks for the inspiration, but…

I’ve been described as a lot of things. Dark, twisted, warped, skewed…and I’d suspect there are plenty of other terms not said directly to my face. I’ve been told there is something inherently distorted in my outlook on life. And while many might not see these attributes in a positive way, I take them as compliments, which I do realize says something in itself about my personality. I’ll be the first to admit it: behind the curls and cheerful smile lurks an evil mind. Happily, these days my writing lets me embrace these particular qualities – more than that – to focus them productively onto the pages of my stories. And as readers discover the unusual ways my characters meet with harm, there’s one question I hear more and more often.

“How do you come up with this stuff?”

(I also get a surprising number of inquiries about my husband’s well-being, which always gives me a laugh. Yes, he’s alive and well. But back to the first question.)

I suppose, if you boil it down, I’d have to say I’ve spent too much time around boats. You see, I have a knack for visualizing worst-case scenarios. I can look at a situation and envision endless variations of possible catastrophe. And boats, by their nature, are the ideal setting for Murphy’s law to prevail. Even with the best preparation, things can and do go wrong. And once you let diligence slide, Murphy is there, just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate how very, very wrong things can and will go.

I see a carelessly placed shore power cord running from a non-GFI outlet and chafing raw at the dock’s edge, and my writer’s brain contemplates how I could conveniently bump off a character in an effectively electrifying way. That whiff of propane drifting down the dock…hmmm. Are fumes settling in that boat’s bilge? On the fictional front it could be useful, and I’d already filed that one for a future book, even as I try to locate the owner of the prospective mushroom cloud docked upwind of mine. The fellow down the dock who simply climbs aboard and fires up the engine, never even pausing to run the blower or glance into the engine room to sniff around or inspect fluids. The oil pressure alarm clamors away and he casually informs me, “Oh, that always stays on. I can’t figure out how to disable it,” while the bilge pump spews out a soup of water and oil that puts the Exxon Valdez to shame. Or the runabout up on a trailer, hull plug out and the bilge steadily draining a glistening puddle with a stench of raw gasoline from what is likely a leaking fuel tank or line. It doesn’t take much to imagine how that boat, and anyone aboard, could end up consumed in an inferno of melting fiberglass and barbequed crew. Yet, most horrifying of all is how the boat’s owner appears completely oblivious to the situation, and equally unconcerned when I bring it to his attention.

As the author of novels filled with nautical mayhem, these potentially disastrous recipes for electrocutions, fires and explosions provide a multitude of wonderfully creative and entirely plausible options for disposing of characters in gruesome yet proven ways. But the same elements that make for wonderful fiction, are in reality the stuff of nightmares. And while, from a writer’s perspective, I do appreciate the never-ending abundance of ideas these owners and their poorly maintained and operated boats provide, as a boat owner, I’d really prefer they be docked somewhere else.

One Flew Over The Keyboard…

With each passing year that I’ve spent writing, the more I’ve come to conclude that this pursuit is something that suits those a bit –uhm—shall we say, off-kilter from main-stream humanity. I’m not saying all writers are crazy, or even most of ‘em. That’s not for me to say. And perhaps it’s a chicken/egg conundrum…does insanity lead to writing, or writing to insanity. That’s something we could debate at great length. But certain element s of writing fiction are un-debatable, and seem to go hand in hand with a certain degree of questionable mental reasoning. Let’s look at the facts.

We (okay, let me rephrase that. I. Me. I’ll speak for myself.  If any of you see certain similar behaviors, or others I don’t touch upon, feel free to chime in) spend much of our time alone, in a semi-distracted state, mumbling to ourselves about imaginary people. Imaginary people that we create in our heads. But it’s not enough simply to create these characters. We create entire worlds for them. Lives, back-stories, likes, dislikes, quirks. We can even hear their voices in our heads, and the more real they become, the more they won’t shut up. We try to make them likeable, or at least relatable.  Then we proceed to wreck their tidy little lives. They start off happy, but our goal is to make them suffer. It doesn’t matter whether they are the hero or villain – the worse off they are, the happier we are. We build worlds just to crush them.  And furthermore, we destroy/kill them in the most creative ways possible. Spray-foam, anyone? Every time I hear something unspeakably awful, I get a gleam in my eyes that makes others uneasy, and a corner of my brain starts dancing with perverse delight – ‘Hmmm? Could I kill X that way?’ What does that say about me?

People wonder where we get our ideas. But as writers, it’s more a case of where DON’T we? Ideas are everywhere, bombarding our brains at every waking hour, and creeping through our dreams even as we try to sleep. Then we take those ideas, and build a world of lies around them. In most areas of polite society, lying is frowned upon. But as a fiction writer, it’s a vital talent. It’s critical to our survival. Truthfully, the truth doesn’t make for compelling stories, at least in my book. But fiction…what is fiction, really? It’s a writer telling a story completely made up of made-up stuff. And  what is made-up stuff? It’s lies. Nothing but lies. And the better we tell them, the better our stories are for it.

We do things most sane people might question. For example, consider our dietary habits. I once went three weeks on mostly Cheez-Its. It wasn’t pretty. And don’t get me started with caffeine. Our work areas can be somewhat telling as well, and I’m not just talking the empty snack-food wrappers, half-drained coffee cups, and dog-eared copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook. Look around your computer. Worse yet, ON your computer. What sort of disturbing things – things that at minimum might bring you under the scrutiny of some government watch lists – have you bookmarked, and consider what people might conclude if you couldn’t qualify it with that happy explanation: “But I’m a writer.” See what I mean? Perhaps we’re drawn to writing because others accept, and even expect, that as writers, we’re not *quite* right, in that intriguing, somewhat eccentric way. “It’s okay… she’s a writer.”

Finally, consider WHY we write. Is it for the money? Seriously? We might be crazy, somewhat out of touch or even delusional, but we’re not *that* crazy. The hit and miss, feast or famine nature of royalties isn’t enough to justify what we put ourselves through.  There are plenty of easier, far more lucrative ways to fill a bank account.  No, those of us who truly love writing write because we’re compelled. Our imaginations don’t have an off switch, and the only way to purge that backlog of ideas, lies and mayhem building in our brains – the only way to truly shut those voices up, at least for a little while – is to put it down in words. We weather the erratic income, the insomnia, the idiosyncrasies of the publishing world, scathing reviews from readers with a poor grasp on punctuation and grammar, all because it’s what we love to do. And I won’t even touch upon the other facet of my other insanity, the still-not-floating one, or I might start digging out cab-fare for a one-way ride to nice, restful Bergen Pines.

Writing. It’s madness, I tell you. Pure madness.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What Would Hemingway Do? (WWHD?)

Working alone in a shed at the far corner of a boatyard provides me plenty of time to think, and curling up in the forward cabin with my laptop, well beyond any internet signals, leaves me hours of distraction-free time to write. But it doesn’t sell books. These days, if you want to sell books, social networking is the way to go. And while I spend my days working on the boat, in every sense of the word, my fellow authors are actively working online, posting to Facebook, Tweeting, and commenting, as well as utilizing numerous other social network platforms I’ve yet to explore.

True, I’ve blogged for years, though originally my blog wasn’t even a blog, but simply a web page documenting a previous boat restoration. When I began, it gave me a way to easily share pictures and stories with a small circle of friends. The content has since branched into other areas and attracted more readers, and I’ve  linked it (sort of — there’s still some kinks) to Facebook, yet this blog remains my main online presence. But these days, new platforms are emerging at an accelerating rate, and I realize as an author, it would serve me well to learn and use these latest ways of reaching out to a wider audience.

Instead, I continue to split my time between my family, an old boat, and writing. And the other day, while I cut my way through yards of fiberglass, I found myself wondering: is this what I should be doing if I ever hope to achieve greatness. Okay. Just kidding. I’ll settle for reasonable mid-list-ish-ness. But seriously, if some of the ‘great’ authors of days gone by were alive today, how would they spend their time? Would they be out, living life and writing about it, or would they be hunkered down in the glow of their computer monitors, chained to their WiFi signals like dogs by an invisible fence as they delved into the many layers of social media and networked with their fellow authors and readers?

Would John Steinbeck be sharing on Tumblr?
Would Mark Twain ask readers to ‘like’ him on Facebook?
Would Edgar Allen Poe attend Thrillerfest?
Would Emily Dickinson post her Pintrests?
Would Jane Austen frequent Reddit?
 Would Jules Verne be updating his Author Page?
Would Agatha Christie be Linkedin?
Would Ernest Hemingway Tweet?

I know this social networking thing works, and I’ve seen how the authors most adept at it have a distinct advantage when it comes to reaching and connecting with readers. Don’t construe that I’m knocking social networking – if anything, I wish it came more naturally to me. I’m simply wondering how authors of the past, the ones who rose to iconic status, would deal with social networking. If they ignored it, would they still have risen to the heights that they did? And if they embraced it, would they still have had time to write on a level that made them the authors we know today?

And on that note, I’m posting this and unplugging my computer. I have much work to do.

Steering the muses clear of trouble…

Carry-on, or should I check this with the rest of my baggage?

For years I’ve been told how I really should read the Millenium Series, not only because they’re considered exceptional books, but also because the character, Lisbeth Salander, shares a number of traits with my protagonist, Hazel Moran. Apparently, Lisbeth is a highly introverted loner as well, seemingly tough yet surprisingly vulnerable, with few friends and a strong wariness when it comes to strangers. I’ve yet to read those books, and the more I hear the comparisons, the more determined I become not to start.

I have my reasons. Am I curious as hell about Stieg Larsson’s books? Hell yeah. As a writer, I’d love to know what it is about them that created the world-wide buzz. And if they’re as great as everyone says, as a reader, I’m always on the lookout for the next good book. Is it likely I’d enjoy them? Absolutely. But now that I’m in the business of writing, there’s another side to that equation. I really need to watch where my inspiration comes from.

Muses thrive on words and concepts. Every waking moment, and even those dreams that invade our sleep, becomes food for our muses. A passing conversation, a headline in a newspaper, even the lyrics from a song, can get the brain fired up and fingers blurring across the keyboard. Muses are much like small children, sponging up and spilling back all their naïve little heads can absorb. We can’t shelter them from everything, but we should take caution with what we expose them to, lest we catch them singing ‘Like a Virgin’ as they skip into kindergarten.

So long as I’ve never read Larsson’s works, or watched the movies, for that matter, I know for certain there is no way they could influence my writing. In fact, that’s likely the same reason that the more I write, the less I read within my own genre. These days I’ve been sticking more to fantasy and memoirs. That way, I can read simply for the sake of enjoyment, without the concern that I might unintentionally internalize some plot point or phrasing. And I can let my muses onto the playground without worrying that I’ll be called in for a parent-teacher conference.

(Bonus points for anyone who recognizes the specific muse pictured above.)

Going places I haven’t been… at least not yet

A kind reader (who I’ve never met firsthand but have corresponded with from the time they read Last Exit in New Jersey) brightened my email this morning with these lovely photos, taken in Palm Island, in the Grenadines, and looking at them, I can almost feel the warm sand between my toes and imagine that mine is one of the boats moored close by, in a secluded cove. Sigh. All in good time.

As an author, there’s something very cool about realizing that among the luggage one person chose to pack for this trip to paradise, they made space to include my book, and it makes me even happier to know they took the time to snap these photos and send them my way.  The path of a writer is a bumpy one, but it’s unexpected moments like these that make me smile and keep me going. (And these pictures give me even more of a push to get the boat back together and underway!)

Newton’s Law and New Habits…

Comfort is nice. It’s something we all strive for. Things are going well; life is relaxed, easy, with minimal stress. What more could anyone ask for?

Challenge.

The danger in getting too comfortable is, if we’re not careful, it allows us to settle into lazy patterns. And while there’s nothing wrong with some occasional laziness, all things are wonderful in moderation. Comfort is a goal, and once you’ve attained a goal, it’s time to either set another goal or accept that you’ll be perfectly content to look back in a year, and five, and ten, satisfied that nothing has changed. Or, as Newton put it: “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion.”

Anyone who has followed this blog for a reasonable length of time should know I don’t do “at rest.” I’m perpetually on the go and involved in various undertakings. My tag-line, “Eternally chasing the ever elusive leaks,” referred to the original slant of this blog, boat restoration, though it has gradually gone out of context as each leak is banished and my posts have branched out into aspects of my life as a writer. And looking through it, looking back, I recently concluded that while I’m always involved several simultaneous and possibly insane undertakings, it’s all become almost routine to me. This level of “in motion” is my norm. It’s what I do, and I’m comfortable with that. Perhaps a bit too comfortable.

The time has come to take things up a notch, to accelerate that motion. I’ve set myself some new goals. I’ve been putting more time than ever into Annabel Lee, making great progress towards the goal of a complete and operational boat. And I’m writing more, setting higher goals for output, starting with posting here more often, making it part of my daily routine. The key to reaching a goal is by simply adding a new routine until it becomes habit, then building on that, one small step at a time. Each step forward becomes another accomplishment. Each accomplishment is another victory, and that momentum is a powerful force for change. Momentum is good.

When is rape ‘OK’?

Well, that’s a bit of a shocking heading to show up here in my blog. Bobbing corpses and squished skulls, yeah. Fiberglass, leaky decks, engine work, mice under the hood, sure. But rape? OK, no less? On what planet? Planet fiction. Come, let’s visit.

I once read that in order to create a sympathetic character that readers will embrace, you need to ensure that they first suffer undeserved misfortune. Readers who are shocked by what a character has suffered empathize more, and this is especially true for female characters. During the time I was searching for an agent I was told this on more than one occasion. I was breaking a critical rule by not having my protagonist first suffer some type of devastating harm. I was informed that you can’t have a tough, capable female character simply because she is tough. No matter how epic she may be, we must first see her broken, humiliated. Simply put, in order to make Hazel a more sympathetic character, I should adhere to a time tested formula: I should have her raped and/or brutalized early in the story. Let readers see her suffer, and she’d win more hearts in the end.

While I see the logic in this approach, there’s something I find particularly troubling about the underlying concept. It makes rape ‘acceptable’ within the guidelines of the plot, because we know the poor victim is going to get her vengeance by the end. I’ve been told The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander (in both the book and movie, neither of which I’ve read/seen,) is FAR more violent and vengeful than Hazel, though each time, the standard “it’s because she was brutally raped,” disclaimer applies. Translation: her violence is acceptable and understandable, as is the, so I’m told, extremely graphic sexual violence she first suffers. Don’t let it upset you, it’s just a plot device, and our fair maiden will be stronger for having endured it. So long as she’s first been force-fed a large helping of brutal but plot driving violence, our delicate little hero can now fight back – though I was also advised that she should be very troubled and remorseful by her actions, no matter how justified.

Perhaps I might have won over more fans if I’d gone that route. Maybe it was advice I should have followed. I didn’t. But it does raise the question: is sexual brutality acceptable when it’s not necessary to the plot but used simply as a device to gain a character sympathy?

Genre Stereotypes and Gender Double-Standards

I’ll preface this post by stating that I’m well aware, as with everything else in life, there are exceptions to what I’m about to discuss, and those exceptions are a good thing. But a stereotype, by definition, is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified concept of a particular type of person or thing. And when that thing is a book, when it comes to reading, a majority of readers will make choices based upon some basic, commonly accepted conventions of plot and formula for a specific genre. For example, whether tame or steamy, romances revolve primarily around two people who initially can’t see eye-to-eye but ultimately discover their romantic love for one another, and the story will end on a happy, optimistic note. Fantasy novels usually occur somewhere imaginary, and while they often include subplots ranging from mysterious to romantic, magic of some sort or another is a key element. Readers turn to erotica primarily to be turned on. They pick up cozies, expecting a light, even humorous mystery with bloodless, off-screen murders, minimal sex and violence, featuring an amateur, often female sleuth in a small-town setting where she can turn to family, friends and authorities, though often she’s dismissed as being ‘nosy and meddlesome.’ Hobbies such as knitting, baking, and scrapbooking are popular themes. Thrillers, memoirs, science fiction – the list goes on and each of these genres carries with it certain accepted guidelines.

And then there’s hard-boiled. Lean, unsentimental, gritty. A genre where the protagonist goes head-to-head with the ugly realities of a dangerous world, and they frequently go it alone. Faced with a darker side of life and forced to survive, they fight violence with violence, often far from the assistance or the eyes of the authorities. It’s a bloody, vicious world of “be tough or be killed.” And for decades, this world has been the domain of the American tough guy. Donald Westlake’s Parker and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee are superb characters and perfect examples: physically and emotionally scarred, square-jawed, hard-hitting, hard-drinking and hard-loving men of action, cynical, calculating, and capable. The “shoot first, ask later” types who operate outside the law and follow their own moral compasses. And in these tales, the majority of the female characters fall into certain specific roles. They’re either a love interest, a victim in need of rescue and/or avenging, a femme fatale, or all of the above.  And often, they have a low survival rate.

Again, I know exceptions exist, but what I’m discussing here is the stereotype of the traditional hard-boiled mystery. The stereotype that leads some readers to see the word ‘Hardboiled’ in a description and go into a book with certain gender-specific expectations. And conversely, for readers who see the protagonist’s age and gender, then expect a cozier story.  The first lines of the description should make it clear that isn’t the case. Nice young ladies really shouldn’t be dumping bodies at sea. Then again, that isn’t stopping Hazel Moran, and she can’t figure where anyone got the idea she was nice to begin with.

Despite the fact that she’s faced with a threat, even as she has been left no choice and it’s a case of kill or be killed, even as Hazel does whatever it takes to survive, protect herself and her family, refusing to be a victim, some readers have stated both in reviews and letters to me that they were shocked by the violence from this “young girl.” It seems ironic that within the setting of a more traditional hard-boiled with a more traditional (male) protagonist, these same actions wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. In fact, they’d be expected and approved. Apparently, stepping outside the traditional, more accepted genre and gender formulas established generations earlier makes some readers uncomfortable, and double standards continue, even to this day.

MFA? WTF?

A big part of life, of existence, is trying to figure out answers, often when we don’t even know the questions. But lately I do have one answer: “Author.” That’s what I’ve finally learned to reply when asked the ever-popular, “What do you do?” It’s taken years to reach this point. But the part that makes me laugh is another question that usually follows. “Where did you study?”

Uhm? Study? Seriously? Hell, I pretty much stopped paying attention half-way through high school. Not to knock the public education system, but 1.) I planned to sail to far ends of the earth, and I saw little value in much of what they were teaching, and 2.) anything of interest that they were teaching I more or less already knew. I’d been reading ahead in textbooks for years, and within the first week of class I’d usually read the year’s lessons from cover to cover. By time the teacher got around to each chapter, I’d already been there, done that, moved on to some detective novel and could care less about the class discussions. In the end I could ace most of my tests, but was labeled a problem student who rarely paid attention or contributed. Looking back, I suppose perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention in English; I’ve been told I have issues with my Oxford Commas… but that’s why editors exist.

Fast forward to a few years back, when I’d first completed Last Exit in New Jersey, (and I say first, because that story has gone through numerous reworkings before becoming the book it is today,) I optimistically set out in search of my ideal agent, certain my debut work was a blockbuster in the making. Hey, when you’re dreaming, you might as well shoot high. And the first step involved composing a killer query letter, so I dug in and did my research. I read books, blogs, and online articles, versing myself in what I’d need to do to make my query enticing and intriguing. The blurb was easy, but regularly I’d read that I should include the writer’s organizations to which I was a member, as well as where I earned my MFA.

MFA? WTF is an MFA? A bit more research yielded an answer: a Master of Fine Arts degree, something that would have required years of study beyond the Bachelor’s degree I never obtained. I needed an MFA to write a book? I guess I missed that memo. No, I’d been out there, living life. I hadn’t spent the requisite time between university walls; I was out in the world, paying my tuition in a different way and learning my lessons by living them firsthand. Losing my first car to a flood. Losing my first apartment to a fire. Driving around in a $100 Buick held together with pop-rivets. Discovering at twenty-one, as my peers were partying, I was going to be a mother. Buying fixer-uppers – cars, trucks, boats, homes – and then fixing them because that was the only way to afford these things. I’ve worked as everything from a commercial driver to a lobby ornament/receptionist in a high end corporation, a commercial illustrator, a boatyard manager, along with various other unusual jobs in between. I learned to learn from everything, both at the time and looking back. That talent from high school carried over, I’d learned if you give me a manual and a day or two, I can teach myself nearly anything from VI Editing and UNIX to rebuilding an outboard and keeping a diesel engine running.

As I’ve come to notice how many of my fellow writers hold MFAs, I began to wonder if yet again I’d zigged in life when I should have zagged. My education has come from years of triumphs, failures, gains and setbacks – and often I’ve learned more from a single failure than from multiple wins. I’ve learned to learn from others around me, to pay attention to those who are ‘doing it right’ and pause to consider how and why. And while I don’t have a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks, for better or worse, the degree I’ve earned comes through in who I am and how I write.

To my amusement, even as I was composing this post, Vincent Zandri offered his writing advice on education and it certainly gave me a smile. And here’s some grammar rules from Vampire Weekend.

 

 

Priorities and persistence…

A sad reality, (and no, this is not my boat,) but with some skill, persistence, time and work, she could be beautiful.
Photo: http://www.boneyardboats.com

It’s Friday, and I’m back down to the boat, getting a head start on the weekend’s projects. Today: some tedious prep work, but it’s one of those chores that I can really immerse myself into, and it won’t matter if my notebook is smudged up with epoxy – in fact, the scribbling I put down on days like this often outshines hours spent parked at my desk.

I’ve been making some changes lately, shifting my work routines, both in my writing and aboard the boat, into high gear. It’s a matter of priorities, of focusing on what matters. I see boats tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations and testaments to abandoned dreams. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of life.

To keep a dream going strong, to make it a reality that endures, be it a boat, or a book, or eventually a shelf full of books, requires persistence. Believing, and never giving up on what you believe. It’s been a long road, but the boat is coming together nicely at last. And along that road, I managed to write two novels. Now it’s time to really dig in and complete the third book, and the fourth, and the fifth, and to keep going. There were other ways to fix this boat. They might have been easier, faster, cheaper. But I’m in this for the long run. I plan to keep this boat around for a long time to come, and to travel far beyond where I am now. I’ve got plenty of work ahead, but I’m already well on my way. One plank, one layer of cloth, one word at a time…it’s just a matter of sticking with what you truly believe, and never quitting.

The Old Dude and the Dinghy…

Hemingway’s Pilar – fishing, done right.

I’ll admit it right here: aside from his choice in boats, I’d never been much of a Hemingway fan. I know, as a writer, Hemingway is considered legendary, and I suppose it might be in my best interests to understand why – or at least make an attempt. But the truth of the matter is the trauma of high school assigned reading still haunts me, and the mere whisper of such things as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea still conjure up unpleasant memories of incomplete book reports and the stern glares of frustrated teachers who tried to instill in me a love of all things literary. It wasn’t that I didn’t love reading – it was a rare day when I didn’t have some dog-eared old hard-boiled detective novel nestled between the pages of my textbooks – but why did it seem that class assignments always centered around the most painfully tedious tomes wrought with hidden symbolism and utterly miserable characters.  Ethan Frome? Seriously?  Too much angst. And The Old Man and the Sea…well, I went into that one with higher expectations, after all there was one thing I did know about Hemingway. He had a boat. Not just any boat, but Pilar, a graceful 38’ Wheeler Playmate, one of the most beautiful sportfishing boats ever created, and he was an avid fisherman.  I spent some of the best years of my childhood aboard a 38’ Wheeler, and I loved to fish. This book was inspired by his time fishing aboard that boat. Boats, fishing.  That sounded promising. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. But there wasn’t any Wheeler to be found motoring along within those pages, or any real plot that I could recall. It was a beaten down old guy in a rowboat, and he never truly lands the fish, at least not in one piece. A dude in a dinghy, along with some deep and profound hidden message that held little significance to me at that point in life. Epic battle?  Epic yawn. All that kept running through my head was, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”  The sharks chowed down on his prize, my eyes glazed over and my interest switched back to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, sipping gin and calling the shots as he righted wrongs, cruised aboard his houseboat, the Busted Flush, and rumbled along in Miss Agnes, his electric blue Rolls Royce pickup. No matter that my teachers declared those paperbacks worthless trash; Travis was way more interesting than Santiago. If there was something moving about Hemingway’s story, I just wasn’t getting it, and I’ve never had the desire to revisit that tale to figure out what, if anything I missed in the first place. But recently I read something that surprised me about Hemingway, and that got me to thinking about the legend that surrounds him. Apparently, Hemingway was actually rather introverted. It stands to reason: he was reportedly intensely private, intuitive and introspective, and I suppose as writers go, those are useful qualities. Introverts by nature are more content to listen and observe than to talk about themselves, which serves us well for building characters and plots. We’re not shy, we’re just reserved, and we’d much rather hear what others have to say. We’re listening and we’re thinking. True, Hemingway was known for his bravery and adventurous personality, but he also valued his solitary time, as evidenced by his prolific body of work. Looking through black and white photos of Hemingway, I notice he’s most often alone or with one or two others, and he seems to carry an expression of intense thoughtfulness. So what is it behind the legend? Was he actually the most interesting man in the world…or the most interested one?

How did I get here?

Last night I found myself tucked into the corner of a table at 44 and X, a very stylish little restaurant over in Hell’s Kitchen, surrounded by some big name authors and editorial people from Thomas & Mercer and Amazon Publishing.  The night before, it was a cocktail party at Ink48 Press Lounge. And I asked myself… how did I get here?

Yes, it is me, dressed up. It happens once in a while.

I received an invitation from my publisher to both events, and though I wasn’t attending Book Expo America, both the cocktail party and the dinner were a short train ride from my side of the Hudson, and this would be my chance to finally put faces to the people I’d been dealing with since last summer. Oh, and to network, I suppose, though anyone who knows me knows I’m not really a ‘network’ type person. I’m a solitude type, and the moment I stepped out into that loud, crowded lounge, filled to bursting with wall-to-wall laughter and unfamiliar faces, my first instinct was to U-turn it right back into the elevator. It’s amusing how pressing through Penn Station at rush hour doesn’t faze me, and I’m perfectly comfortable wandering the streets of Queens, but set me in the middle of a social event like this and I start backing towards the exit. But I was there for a reason, and armed with a glass of Glenfiddich, I braced myself and headed in. From the looks of it, everyone there seemed to know most everyone else…everyone except me.  No name tags, no means to tell who was who, no idea where to start. This was my first foray into the world of publishing, and I was completely out of my element. Ultimately I retreated to a quiet corner and stared longingly out at boats making their way up and down the Hudson.

I realize these events, from the writer’s groups and conventions to the cocktail parties, are part of the landscape many authors navigate along their way to publication.  It goes with the territory, this process of making connections, networking, and I began to wonder if I might have overlooked something I should have been doing from the beginning. I eavesdropped on the animated conversations swirling around me and wondered if I’d missed some critical step in the process. I wrote a book simply because I enjoyed writing. I never really though much beyond that, and the last year had been a whirlwind of amazing and unexpected changes. But now I was on the outside, looking in.

Throughout the room, books from Amazon’s various imprints lay scattered across the low tables, including, ironically enough, a copy of Last Exit in New Jersey on the table beside me. As I sipped my drink a tall fellow wandered over and picked it up, flipping through it. I warned him that it was an awful book, and it was receiving some terrible reviews. Great icebreaker, huh? We started talking, and I caught that his name was Johnny and he was also an Amazon author, though through the noise I didn’t clearly hear his last name. But I was able to learn he was quite at home in this setting and he knew a good deal of the people there, including my editors and various marketing team members. I was delighted to finally meet Jacque, Eleni and Leslie face to face – they’re a wonderful group to work with, and even more fun to hang out around. And before long I found not only was I surviving my first night, but I was actually having fun!

Compared to the cocktail party, I figured the second night would be a breeze.  Only a dozen people at dinner together, strictly the Thomas & Mercer crowd, including a few familiar faces from the first night.  But I quickly discovered myself surrounded by some of the biggest names in the T&M stable, all heavy hitters with years of publishing behind them and reputations to match.  And me. The noob. The lone self-published author that somehow caught Amazon’s eye. The more I looked around, the more I listened to the other conversations, the more I felt like I was way out of my league. I did my best, I joined in when I could, but I began to wonder if I had any business being there.  And that’s Vincent Zandri, the author of numerous international bestsellers, made it clear to me that indeed I did. He told me to look around at the  other authors with whom I was dining, all well-regarded in the publishing world. Amazon signed each and every one of them for a reason, and they signed me for a reason as well. “These are very smart people at Amazon,” he told me, “They know what they’re doing, and they wouldn’t have picked you if they didn’t believe in your work.”

Writing can be a lonely business, but as we spoke I realized it didn’t have to be. And thanks to a great author offering me precisely the encouragement I needed, I began to see that I’m right where I should be, and I’m just getting started. He made me understand I shouldn’t sweat the little things. I should focus on what really matters and what I truly enjoy: my writing. Reputations like Vincent Zandri’s are built step by step, book by book, reader by reader.  And for an author at the beginning of this amazing, often intimidating journey, connecting with someone like Vincent Zandri helped me to put things into proper perspective, and for that I am grateful.

For more of Vincent Zandri’s wonderful wisdom and insights, check out his blog: The Vincent Zandri Vox

Watching the thermometer…

One of the oddest but most vital tools we keep aboard Annabel Lee is a cheap little thermometer masking-taped up to the salon window. It’s nothing fancy, but presently, that little device and the readings it provides determine all else that occurs on and around the boat. And while we’ve had some unusually warm weather over the last few weeks, it hasn’t been consistent enough to risk mixing epoxy just yet, so we’re waiting a bit longer before launching into the next phase of boat work. However, from past experience I’ve come to be wary of the weather when it comes to any project that involves epoxy — in fact that was the subject of my  3/29/12 post at Write On The Water: Murphy was a Meteorologist

Meanwhile, Evacuation Route is taking shape quite nicely, and I’ve located some excellent contacts to guide me along with some fascinating and twisted research that plays into the plot, and brings me back to my 3/22/12 W.o.t.W. post regarding the inspirational mayhem the marine environment offers:  Thanks for the inspiration, but…

Customer Service at its finest…

In case anyone missed it, yesterday at Write On The Water I blogged about the outstanding if somewhat unusual customer service I’ve received from my long-time boat insurance company, BoatUS. And apparently they have a good sense of humor as well — they actually posted my post on their Facebook page!

So, if you haven’t already read it:  Hello, BoatUS?

Research…

These days, my life cycles between various modes: plotting, research, writing, and editing. And oh, the plotting I’ve been doing! Evacuation Route is looking to be a lot of fun, still dark and twisted, but in a more upbeat, caper-style way. Last Exit set the strange tone, and No Wake Zone, which picks up only weeks later in the time-line, is somewhat more introspective. The humor and violence are still present, (would you expect anything less?) but this is a point where my key characters regroup as they sort out recent events and they find themselves faced with new (old?) threats, and readers will see more of what makes Hazel, Hammon, Annabel and even Stevenson tick – and just how screwed up they might truly be.

Jump forward to the following summer. Things have been almost quiet, at least for a little while — but then the shit hits the fan fun begins. Murder charges, police investigations, a con, and a heist the likes of which I’ve never seen done before… a heist, Jersey-style. Yep. I’ve been plotting and scheming, and I’m quite pleased with the results. In fact, the last few days I’ve been walking around grinning and giggling manically. Which brings me to my current position: knee-deep in the research on a grocery list of top-secret topics (I could tell you, but then… well, they could be spoilers,) that will involve a truck-load of books and many upcoming road and water trips. Research is fun. Lots of fun. Especially with the things I’m researching – which is why I’ll stick to my variety of madness and mayhem over other genres.

Getting closer…

I’d been looking forward to February, knowing that things would start to kick into high gear. And sure enough, just as I’m plotting and scheming my way into the start of book three, Evacuation Route, advance read copies, cover designs and release dates are coming in for the last two books. So here they are.

The very polished and re-edited edition of Last Exit in New Jersey will officially re-launch on March 6, 2012, and No Wake Zone is set for release on May 8, 2012.

Thomas & Mercer wanted to give Last Exit a new, grittier, more hard-boiled cover that hinted to the nautical angle of the story, and to keep a consistent look with both books. And while I was fond of my cover, with the actual Parkway sign for the title and hood of my old Dodge on the Parkway at 3 a.m., I think their design is a better match for the story.

Yesterday I received four concepts for No Wake Zone’s cover, and one really jumped out at me. I suggested a minor change that they are currently addressing, and I should have a finalized cover in the coming days, and we’ve finalized the promo text as well. So for all of you wondering just what happens after the conclusion of Last Exit, here’s a hint:

Hazel Moran, the tough truck-driving amateur sleuth introduced in C.E. Grundler’s debut novel, Last Exit in New Jersey, returns in this dark and twisting sequel.

Seven years ago, someone destroyed Jake Stevenson’s dreams when they murdered his fiancée, Helen Matthews and her family. Since then, tracking down the one responsible – finding them and making them pay — has consumed his life. Stevenson thinks the truth behind the killer’s identity and motive might still lie in the most elusive place – buried within the mind of a semi-mad man. But Stevenson may have found the means to access Hammon’s suppressed memories, and cleverly he draws Hazel into his hunt. Can she trust Stevenson, or does he have a hidden agenda? Hazel has her suspicions — but she has her own reasons for playing along.

Hammon and Annabel also question Stevenson’s motives. To protect Hazel from becoming the next casualty of a forgotten history now repeating itself, they must retrace a treacherous path of deceit and murder. But Annabel thinks Hammon is going about everything entirely wrong, and she’s decided it’s her turn to start calling the shots, whether Hammon likes it or not. And when, again, someone very close to Hazel dies, she’s pushed to the edge. The facts all point to suicide, but Hazel isn’t buying that. She’s determined to prove it was murder, and she’s closing in on answers, only to find someone is changing the questions. No one she trusts will hear her out; they’re all certain she’s in denial and becoming potentially unstable. But when has presenting a serious threat to herself and others ever stopped Hazel?

As her hunt travels from New Jersey to a Manhattan rave and a vacant construction site outside LaGuardia Airport, it’ll take all of her tough, fearless, no-nonsense smarts to navigate a complex and dangerous trail of clues. How far will some people go to hide the truth? And how far will she go for vengeance?

Are we there yet?

It’s official. As of today, the edited draft of No Wake Zone heads off to the nice people over at Thomas & Mercer. I still have more tasks ahead, finalizing the promotional text and looking over cover designs. The wheels are already turning at T&M for a spring release, and as soon as I have more official info I’ll be posting it here. But as for writing No Wake Zone, I’m done.

Done. Time to kick back, catch my breath, and catch up on life outside the madness of my fictional world. Yep. Done. No more dealing with my admittedly insane characters, who really need some lessons in communication skills and still refuse to play nice. I’m done.  Finished.

I can relax.

Or not. Already my muses are whining like a bunch of bored, restless children on a long road-trip. They won’t shut up. No. They want mayhem! They want chaos! They’re plotting away; they want my crazy characters to pull off a heist, and not get themselves killed or kill anyone else (unless absolutely necessary, and we all know how that goes,) in the process. And the forecast doesn’t look good.

So yes, the gang will return. We’re out of the No Wake Zone, and now it’s time to make some waves. Lots of waves, in fact, because there’s a hurricane headed this way, and as of this morning, I’ve already started work on book three:
Evacuation Route.

And here’s my last two posts at Write on the Water:

But how did you get here??

Prepping for launch day…

So here’s my schedule…

Monday: I write.

Tuesday: I write.

Wednesday: I still write.

Thursday: I post at Write on the Water, then spend the rest of the day writing.

Friday: I write even more.

Saturday: I attack the boat with power tools.

Sunday: I continue to attack the boat with power tools.

Rinse and repeat.