Michael Haskins

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Question: what is writing. Answer:

I was asked by a friend how I write when I write and for how long. A lot easier asked than answered. I have read of writers who work eight-to-10-hours a day, sometimes six-days a week, in front of the computer. Wow! If I did that, I could get a book done in three months. I am not sure how good it would be, not with my shortsighted thought process.

Like many writers, I have a job that pays the bills and then my real job, writing. So, at the end of the day I can be all juiced up and write for a few hours, or I can be exhausted and maybe read what I’ve written earlier and do a little editing.

I thought about this recently, like Memorial Day Weekend when I thought I really had a productivity rush. I wrote about 3,000 words between Saturday and Monday. And, that’s after editing it down the next day, before continuing.

First, you need to understand that writing is not sitting in front of computer and typing words onto the screen. There has to be some organization, planning, thought. Without those items all I’d get on the screen would be a mishmash of meaningless words, or maybe a few useless sentences.

So, I tried to explain to my friend that when I am sitting at the Hog’s Breath smoking a cigar and sipping a drink, I am writing in my head – sometimes. I maybe working on a solution to a problem I'm having moving a chapter forward.

Here’s an example from the book I am working on now, a sequel to “Chasin’ the Wind,” called “Free Range Institution.” I am near the end of the story and wanted to put a little action into the few chapters preceding the water chase, seaplane landing, and shootout.

It is early a.m. and most of the protagonist’s friends involved in solving the murder and keeping themselves from being victims are hiding out at a bread-and-breakfast inn in Key West. Three of them just shot up “Doctor-feel-good vitamins,” yeah amphetamines mixed with B12. They’ve been up all night and still have a long day ahead.

But, that’s another blog.

I want to take them to Harpoon Harry’s for an early breakfast, it just feels like what they should do, but the Colombians and local bad guys are looking for them. So I am thinking about it, smoking a cigar, and walking around. I think about dumping the chapter for something better. But what?

Harpoon Harry’s is on Caroline Street in Key West. It’s a small breakfast-lunch diner and the walls are glass doors that open onto the street. Service begins at 5:30 a.m. and it’s still an early dusky morning in the story, so I put them there. Something has to happen. You have to trust me on this, but because of who two of the people in the group are (one a friend of protagonist Mad Mick Murphy) there is one guy parked across the street for security.

By the time I am sipping my Jameson’s at the Hog I can almost see the action. I take out my little notebook and make notes to myself – I don’t trust my memory and keep it handy, along with a small tape recorder in the Jeep for when I am driving and can’t write things down. So what do I come up with?

If you like this let me know. The Colombians drive by, notice Murphy and just start shooting up like they’d do back home; Cocaine Cowboys, riddling Harpoon Harry’s with automatic gunfire! (I can see it happening) By the time they’ve made the turn onto Caroline Street the security guy has jumped into action, and shot up the car, causing it to crash. Now we’ve got Harpoon’s torn up, a car with some (maybe) dead Colombians and, for sure, someone’s gonna call the cops.

Hey, maybe one or two Colombians climb out of the car and there’s an additional shootout! Getting more action than I counted on.Not what the good guys wanted or what I planned on.

I hadn’t thought of that, but, the story takes on a life of its own and as a writer I have to move forward with it. Just because it’s been outlined or noted in my little blocked-out points I scribble on pads of yellow lined paper with ideas that go from common sense to way wild, doesn’t mean it’s gonna be that way. Kind of like life.

Writing is about killing and betrayal and it ain’t easy to do all that while sitting down at home in front of a blank screen – not for me anyway.When I drive around, sometimes as far as Florida City (three hours north), I often solve a problem I’ve had difficulty with in the novel or come up with some wild idea that helps improve my story. I have had these great solutions while driving and often long after a chapter has been written, so I have to go back to rewrite it. It always seems to work better.

So, to me, writing has a lot to do with thinking things through, discovering new twists and turns to what I thought I’d worked out and sometimes having to make a good guy bad or a bad guy good. It doesn't hurt to have a good cigar while doing this.

There are times I wonder who is writing the novel, me or the damn characters I’ve created.

Friday, May 11, 2007

SleuthFest - Saturday

Rain was predicted and the clouds promised it, but I was able to walk to the hotel before it came. In Key West, this type of sky often moved northeast and dumped its cargo in that direction, Marathon and points north. Hurricanes do that too. They head toward Key West, but something, the Gulf Stream or the wind shear pushes them away – usually, not always, as Wilma showed us what dangers were held in Cat 2 flooding.

9 a.m. and I have to make a choice. I enjoy Don Bruns books about music writer/critic Gideon Pike and his panel – Music in Mysteries – was scheduled at the same time as the Agent’s Panel. Since I don’t have an agent, I thought I might pick up some tips, so I took the agent panel.

What did I learn? Getting an agent took a lot of luck, some ingenuity and a little talent. The panel reinforced what I had learned on my own, with years of sending out queries and sample chapters. These days the replies are more personal than form letters, but they are still rejections. I have been told my writing is well done, but the agent didn’t feel he/she was right for the project. Then I send out more queries.

One interesting idea I did pick up was about exclusive rights agents ask writers for while deciding if they want to represent you, are often given under false pretenses by the writer. The agent wants months to get back, one said; while another said he asked for it, but didn’t really expect an anxious writer to sit and do nothing while he/she waited. Translation, send it out to as many agents as possible, promise them anything until you get the desired reply.

Another good point they made was that the first agent to accept you might not be the right agent for you. They talked a lot about what an agent does and what an agent doesn’t do. Some good points, too. Agents don’t get paid by the writer up front. They all agreed that writers should go to the web page of the Association of Author Representatives, read its guidelines for its members and use its membership list for contacting agents. It’s what I have done.

At 10 a.m., it was Violence in the Mystery, with J.A. Konrath, the self-promo guru whose Thursday program I attended and author of the Jack Daniels mystery series; J.M. Taylor, a military writer, and Linda Fairstein, the guest of honor for our luncheon and a former prosecutor in NY. She had to know about violence. She is also a bestselling author, with eight books in print. Violence is a setting in my novel; solving the violent crime is the impetus that moves the characters.

The 11 a.m. panel of my choice was The Mystery in Mysteries: Clues, Misdirection and Satisfying Endings. Panelists, Glynn Marsh Alam, author of the Luanne Fogarty mysteries; Twist Phelan (yes, that’s her real name), retired trial lawyer and author of the Pinnacle Peak mystery series, and Kate White, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and NY Times bestselling author of Bailey Weggins mystery series. The panelists added support to what I have been doing in my writing, so I walked away smiling.

Lunch with guest speaker, Linda Fairstein, and the always fun ‘author auction’ went from noon to 2 p.m. I sat with John Helfers and we talked shop, briefly, and watched from the top floor of the hotel as rain poured down on Miami Beach. I enjoyed Linda’s talk on her career as chief of the sex crimes prosecution unit in NYC. How she came up within the ranks of the NY County District Attorney’s Office at a time women were rarely allowed in court, was an eye opener. She still consults for the district attorney’s office.

The auction is always fun, as guest bid for numerous things, including a tour of the set of yesterday’s guest speaker René Balcer’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent set in NYC. That went for big bucks. Other guest bid for the rights to name a character in an author’s current work, or to be a character in a writer’s book.

It was 2:15 p.m. and I was in the Keeping Them Hooked: Pacing Your Novel, with Martha Powers, who is published by Oceanview Publishing and her book, Forget Me Not, will be out in 2008, and my old friend, military writer J.M. Taylor, who, I should mention, wrote Flash of Emerald and the thriller, Behind the Green Water. Nancy Cohen was the moderator.

The nice thing about this panel was it reinforced what I have done in my writing. That is, by the way, always a great feeling!

Getting It Done: Rewriters & Revisions, began at 3:15 p.m. Panelists were Randy Rawls, author of the ACE Dallas PI series; journalist and mystery writer Susan Sussman; Shawn Reilly, editor in chief of Hillard & Harris Publishers, and Kathryn Lilley, whose first novel, Dying to be Thin, is due out this year. Well, if you write and are abnormal like most writers, rewriting and revision is hell! We all agreed on that, but it is necessary, so live with it, make it enjoyable (somehow) because you gotta do it.

The afternoon session ended with Crime Fiction Sampler, with Twist Phelan (yeah, it's still her real name), Nancy Cohen and John Bond, who writes with Roy Cooke, has six books out, including his ’07, Home Poker Handbook. There are all kinds of mysteries out there.

Obviously, with four panels offered per hour, I missed some great discussions but heard people talking about them in the hallway. How could MWA Florida offer one panel per hour, so we could take them all in? It would have to be a week-long event and I doubt any of us could afford that. I was able to attend the panels I thought would benefit me and they did, even if all they did was reinforce what I have been doing. I think I walked away with a little more knowledge than when I arrived, so it was a good event.

The agent and editors cocktail party and raffle drawing was scheduled for 6 p.m.

Monday, May 7, 2007

SleuthFest: Poolside Friday evening

By 6 p.m. some SleuthFest participants were headed to South Beach for an evening of expensive drinks and food. Others, like me, stuck around the hotel pool bar and enjoyed the company of new and old friends. Drinks at the pool bar were expesive enough.

John Helfers, from Five Star/Tekno Books, joined me. He drank something with rum in it and I had a Guinness. Not exactly tropical, but it's my preferred beer.

I asked John some questions I had, after hearing the three publishers talk. Sadly, he agreed with what they had to say, especially when it came to the sale of books. Yes, he assured me, small publishers depend heavily on writers to sell their books. He listed what Five Star does, including where the book is sent for interviews. It was an impress list. However, (ain’t there always an however?) it is up to the author to get the word out to the bookstores. Some stores may stock the book because of a good review, but don’t count on it, he said.

Five Star does send out its brochure to bookstores, but new authors can be overlooked, he said.

John also writes SiFi mysteries and is working on deadline for his book. So, he had an understanding of my concerns, sort of.

Five Star would look at the sales of “Chasin’ the Wind” before deciding on my next book. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but at least it was an honest answer to my question.

John asked me if I had a marketing plan. I said, kinda. I hope to sell the book at a couple of bars in Key West. When you read "Chasin' the Win," you will see I tried to be faithful to the businesses in town, especially those along Duval Street. I did this because many of you are visitors to the island and I wanted it obvious that I was including the island as a character in the novel. I am also working on a booksigning tour of Florida and Southern California. I hope it works out. I expect the book will be sold at the Hog's Breath Saloon and, hopefully, on its website:www.hogsbreath.com.

John also said he was pretty sure my book would be out in early February '08. I guess that puts me out touring in March. I will remind you later about calling your local bookstore to ask them to carry the book and to invite the author in to sign it. Waiting is hell, but I am half through with the second Mad Mick Murphy Mystery in the series.

Christine Kling, whose current book, "Wreckers' Key," takes place in the Florida Keys, joined us at our table, as did Nancy Cohen, John M. Taylor, "Flash of Emerald," and a couple of other writers and fans. Please Google these writers and discover some very different authors.

John Helfers excused himself after one drink. He was on deadline, he reminded me. I stuck around for another Guinness and some shop talk.

What I had come away with, so far, is that writing "Chasin' the Wind" was the easy part, getting it published was difficult, getting copies into bookstores a lot more difficult and selling copies a real challenge.

I had more to learn on Saturday.

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