Thursday, September 26, 2013

Ava, Frank, O.J., and me

For me, inspiration is the juice that you get from an experience that leads you from where you were a minute ago to someplace bigger, deeper, more intense. It doesn't necessarily have to be a good or positive experience.

Inspiration, for sure, can be a cliché: the beach at sunset, reading a poem about roses, listening to 'Light My Fire' on your headphones.

I find tremendous inspiration in the city of Los Angeles, and that's why I set one of my mystery series there, starting with THE ACTRESS. Oh, God, the pace, the energy, the history of it all---glamour, crime, innovation, disaster, sex, rags to riches to rags.

I lived on the West Coast for 17 years, and have spent lots of time in L.A. It's an infuriating place---all those people trying to drive on the same road you are, the asbestos-like smog, the on-the-makeness, the crime (which is just a particularly lousy way to be on the make), the poison oak in Griffith Park.

But! How sublime is the epicenter of American culture! Arguable? I simply say: the movies, custom cars, surfing, Watts Towers, and the weather.

[I took the above photo at the Griffith Observatory. Love that Greek key detailing.]

When I was in university, I got into reading Joan Didion, whose writing about L.A. I admired so much: so incisive, so caustic, so elegiac. Yes, somehow L.A. died for Joan, and she moved to New York, the next best thing.

Well, L.A. sure isn't dead for everybody.

One of the most intense experiences I've had in Los Angeles was in the summer of 1995, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial was saturating the city like creosote on a wharf piling. I flew into LAX and boarded the rental car shuttle bus, en route to a business meeting. The driver, a broad-shouldered black guy, greeted each of us with a cold stare. Once seated, I realized that the bus radio was tuned to the live broadcast of the Simpson trial. Every single passenger on that bus was white. We were all these little white businesspeople with our briefcases, and he was this stone-silent black guy with his hands gripping the wheel, and we all listened to the trial together, without anyone uttering a word, for the ten-minute ride to the car lot.

More recently, I was invited to dinner to a house in the Hollywood hills. My friend, an actor, and his wife were house- and dog-sitting for a director they knew, and they wanted some company, and I was in town. So my companion and I drove up those narrow twisting streets, and found our friends in an aerie above the city with purple evening coming on. The house had this tremendous aura of swank, with warm maple wood floors and ten-foot-high chiffon drapes screening the narrow deck. I remarked on a framed photograph of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra on a wall.

"Oh, yeah, Ava used to own this place," I was told. "The current owners keep that picture."

Immediately my glamour glands started to pump, and I smelled the lipstick and the spilled Scotch and the cigarette smoke, and the split-level house came almost alive. We drank wine in the billowing sensuous privacy of the deck. The wind picked up and night came down, and we talked and laughed about a thousand things.

I'm looking forward to being in Los Angeles this weekend (Writer's Digest conference) and the next (workshops sponsored by Kleis TV). Details at my web site. It would be great if you could join me.

Is there a particular place that gets your creative juices going?

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Tapping Your Inner Villain

I find that writers are usually nice people. Nice people have a hard time understanding nasty people, let alone liking them. Let alone loving them!

You must overcome this.

Because even though you deplore evil in real life, you must be able to embrace the evil mindset to write a good novel, especially a mystery or thriller.

Not to get all English-majory on you, but I remember a pertinent lesson from studying the early novel Gargantua and Pantagruel (Francois Rabelais) in university. To hyper-simplify what Rabelais tried to convey in that vast satire: to be a man is to be a dog (with a dog's disgusting habits and appetites), and the only way to fully be a man is to enjoy being a dog.

There is our lesson for writing villains successfully: to be an author is to be a villain, and the only way to fully be an author is to relish being a villain.

Thus we must learn to enjoy playing in the dirt, oui?

Even if your story will not tell anything from their viewpoint, you really need to get to know your villains so 
they will act realistically and consistently. Brainstorming on your bad guys will definitely help your plot as well as your characters.

Reach into your own dark side for this one.

1) Spend some time remembering something awful you did that you were sorry for. The specifics are unimportant: remember how you felt when you were doing it. Jot a note or two.

2) Now remember something awful you did that you're not a bit sorry for. Feel that feeling! Jot a note or two.

Those two simple practices will instantly improve your empathy for your villains.

Now, must your villains be bent on destruction and murder 24/7? Well, no.

Real villains in the real world often act like the nicest people ever. Ted Bundy worked a suicide prevention line while he was killing women who looked like the girlfriend who threw him over. Jack the Ripper probably had friends. That BTK guy—remember him?—had a whole family, friends, a church…

Your villains are merely people acting in their own self-interest, feeding their own needs—only with total disregard for the rest of us. That is where they differ from normal people. The truly horrifying thing is, they don't have to differ all that much, to be effectively evil.

I might add that believable characters are always a mix of good and bad; it's really just a matter of degree, and of course, perspective. The axe-murderer's mother will believe to her grave that he acted in self-defense. He will believe he acted in self-defense.

Which leads us to more depth: Think about your characters, and love them, in light of human failings like self-delusion, unrealistic expectations, secret yearnings—yearnings that can't possibly come true.

Enjoy the dirt, and reap the rewards!

p.s. If you're an Angeleno, consider coming to my workshop next month, Writing is Easy and Fun:

[image note: I took this photo somewhere near downtown Tampa. It just has an ulterior feel to it, doesn't it? I used another from the same shoot for the cover of the Kindle ed. of Holy Hell: A Lillian Byrd Crime Novel.]

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Unleash Your Inner Superpowers

This is the relevant stuff from the Autumn Newschat that just went out. (I send 2 or 3 per year, and your info is never shared, given, sold, or auctioned. To enlist: )

I was reading recently about Columbus and the egg. Sir Christopher, post-voyage, was hanging out with the Spanish nobles when one of them dissed him really bad. This dude goes, "That voyage? Discovering the Americas? Not such a big deal, man. If you hadn't done it, somebody else around here would have."


Columbus asks for an egg to be brought in. He challenges anyone to stand the egg on end. No one can. Dude, you'd need a wizard for that!

Sir Chris taps it on the table, denting the shell so it stands on end.

"What the hey?" go the nobles. "That is so baby."

"It's easy once you've seen it done," remarks Sir Christopher.

How do we know about this? Somebody wrote it down. I believe it was the servant boy who brought the egg.

Which brings us to writing! Storytelling!

Lots of people think, like the nobles gaping at the wobbly egg, that writing a book is hard, nay, impossible unless you've got superpowers.

Wrong! Join me at any of these upcoming live events and learn how to cut through the BS and write with zest, confidence, and quality. Which really means, unleash your own latent superpowers. Invest now.

Writer's Digest West, Los Angeles, September 27-29, 2013
This is a terrific conference for writers. In addition to getting to pitch your work to lots of agents, you can learn from wonderful authors and writing coaches. I'll be doing two presentations:
"How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells" (Saturday p.m.)
"Quit Your Day Job—Seriously!" (Sunday a.m.)
They gave speakers a special discount code for their friends (I believe it's 50 bucks off) (and you are my friend): WDCWSPKR

Writing is Easy and Fun, Los Angeles, October 5 and 6, 2013
Workshop in two Los Angeles locations, October 5 (West Hollywood) and October 6 (Santa Monica). Sponsored by my wonderful friends at Kleis TV. Brisk, fun, and enlightening—at a bargain price. I guarantee it.

Florida Writer's Association Conference, Lake Mary (Orlando), Fla., October 18-20, 2013
In addition to meeting wonderful writers, you'll have better access to faculty here than at mob-scene conferences. I'll be on hand for:
"How to Write a Dynamite Mystery or Thriller that Sells" as well as individual mentoring.

Also, hey, at last! On Location: Rita Farmer Mystery #3 is available in a clean, readable version on Amazon Kindle. Grab a sweater and get cozy while Rita, George, Daniel, and Petey plunge into the rain-lashed forests of Washington's Olympic Peninsula in search of missing loved ones, truth, and a sharp chainsaw.

And yes, thanks to you (!), You've Got a Book in You is doing well.

According to the staff at Writer's Digest Books, sales have been "very impressive". (Thank you again.) More important, I keep hearing from readers who are using the book as one uses a jackhammer to destroy hard, unwanted concrete, revealing the quality, fertile soil beneath. Joyful growth awaits you!

Writer's Digest magazine will be featuring these upcoming articles from me:
"Transform You Novel into a Symphony" (November / December 2013)
"Seven First-Novel Gaffes to Avoid" (January 2014)
Subscribe now:

Zestful Writing: The Blog, is gaining traction, exploring such questions as:
What does a relaxed jaw have to do with great writing?
Accomplishment or contribution? Who cares?
How can an accordion revive the human spirit? and more.

Also, did a guest blog gig for WD: "Tapping Your Inner Villain":

Keep your eggs dry and that autumn wind at your back.

Tell me what you think! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

At Least We Can Polka

This random encounter happened a few years ago, and has been quietly magical for me ever since.

I was chatting with the cashier at the grocery store. It was one of those congenial moments, and I lingered, putting away my change. The next customer was setting her stuff on the counter, and she got right into the friendly vibe.

"Oh, gotta get some extra chocolate," she said, piling on candy bars from the rack.

"Hey, I'm a woman," said the clerk, "you don't have to explain chocolate to me."

The customer put a large bag of oranges next to the chocolate.

"My house burned to the ground two nights ago," she said calmly.

The clerk and I turned to really look at her.

"Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that," I said, feeling that extra intensity that comes over you.

"Yeah," said the clerk.

The woman looked at us and smoothed her red coat.

"Well, I got out with my family---

and my accordion. We're in a motel, but at least we can polka!"

"That's a good thing," I said. "Will you all be OK, then?"

"Oh, yes. In a way, it was a blessing in disguise."

I thought for a moment, then said, "You'll never have to clean out that attic."

She looked at me with something close to delight dawning in her eyes. The attic hadn't occurred to her yet. "Yeah!" she said. "Yeah!"

Random intersections with strangers give extra depth to life. Right now, I can still see the woman in her red coat, and I can see her family in the motel, with their oranges and chocolate and their polka music. I'll probably never bump into that woman again, but I'll remember that conversation for a long time.

Readers often ask me where my inspiration comes from. Well, sometimes it comes from moments like this.

What inspires you?

Tell me! To post your ideas / comments, all of which I read and try to respond to, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.
[photo of accordion courtesy of ArentInfrogmation via Wikimedia Commons]