via A New Interview
One question people often ask me when looking at my books’ subject matter is, “Were you a spy?”
Sometimes, I joke and reply, “If I were, I couldn’t tell you.” Most of the time I tell the truth. No, I’m not nor ever have been a spy. I merely write about them.
The reaction to that is usually, “Well, then, how do you know what to write about?” or “How do you know you’ve gotten it right?”
I don’t know that one hundred percent. What I do know is with a background as an historian, I’m a great researcher, and I work as hard as I possibly can to “get it right.”
What if I Don’t Get it Right?
That plagues me. I’ve written a novel about two spies who struggle to balance their personal lives with their work. That part is real. The mechanics of espionage is what I don’t have personal experience with beyond cheesy novels and B-movies. For myself, I like real world espionage, as found in John Le Carre or Alan Furst’s novels, over James Bond and Jason Bourne.
I’ve read nonfiction works on the history of espionage and tradecraft, the memoirs of Soviet defectors, and declassified reports of actual operations. I borrow from that for my fiction, but I keep it as authentic as I can. What helps is having acquaintances from a certain counterintelligence agency who’ll take a look at what I’ve written and tell me honestly what’s authentic and what’s not. Even then, I take some dramatic license.
Was I ready for a real spy to read A War of Deception?
Nope. Never. No way.
Almost Like a Covert Op
A couple of weeks ago, I was at an outdoor book festival in central Virginia, hawking books and making a couple of sales. At a break in the activity I look up and who should be standing there but one of those acquaintances mentioned above.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m buying one of your books,” was the reply.
I had to bite my lips to keep myself from talking the buyer out of it. Money was exchanged–man, I wish it could have been a dead drop.
“Would you like for me to sign it and make it out to you?” I asked.
“Make it out to [opposite gender name],” was the reply.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“A retired spy I think will like this.”
Once again, I reminded myself a sale is a sale and what said acquaintance does with a purchased book is no concern of mine. I wrote the transcription.
And said acquaintance’s departure was as quiet and unobtrusive as the arrival. I rather felt as if this had all been some version of a covert op, but, then, I do have an overactive imagination. Help, I’m a writer.
Then, it hit me.
Oh, s**t, a real spy was going to read my book about spies. Here comes a bad review, or at the least a list of what I got wrong. Because I’m me, I braced myself for the worst.
I’d put the incident completely out of mind, though yesterday when I noticed A War of Deception had a new review on Amazon, I had a momentary hesitation before I looked at it. Whew, it was posted by my niece.
Then, I got a message on my Facebook Author Page from said acquaintance who’d bought a copy. Here it is, I thought, the list of what I got wrong.
Instead, I read:
“This weekend I brought A War of Deception to my friend who retired from the Intelligence Community (where she actually DID espionage-related activities for many years). She just wrote to me saying that she couldn’t put the book down. High praise, indeed, for a thrilling tale.”
After about the fifth time I read it, I believed it. A real spy liked my book.
At first, I couldn’t describe what that meant to me. One, it meant my research skills are undiminished. Two, I’d done a good job of making the characters, whom I’ve worked on for decades, believable. Three, I got it right.
And not only was this a real (retired) spy, but it was a woman–just like one of my protagonists.
I got it right. And. That. Feels. Good.
Like many people, I made relationships in college that have endured, even nearly fifty years later. There were three of us who were roommates for the 1971-1972 college year, and that one year has led to a lifetime of events where we three supported each other like sisters: marriages, divorces, childbirth, miscarriages, children with special needs, illnesses, the deaths of parents, siblings, and a spouse, and a child coming out as gay. We’ve always been there for each other with absolute, unconditional love.
When my first novel came out, my two friends were some of the first to get a copy of A War of Deception. I appreciated that, of course, but I never expected either to read it. One is a mystery fan, the other more for historical romance.
I spent a few days last week with those friends, and the first thing one said when I arrived was, “I loved your book. I didn’t think I would because I don’t read the spy genre, but once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. Why, I was going to bed at 6 p.m. so I could read it!”
She went on to explain that though she’d proofread my college term papers, she didn’t know I was such a storyteller.
My other friend echoed her comments and told me she was “hooked from the beginning and can’t put it down.”
Now, you say, they’re your friends; of course, they’d say that. Nope, these are the kind of friends who have told and will tell me when I’ve effed up and will mince no words. If they’d hated A War of Deception, they would have told me in no uncertain terms. And I would have accepted it because it would have originated in love.
I can’t describe what it means that friends of long-standing appreciate my literary efforts. That means more to me than any five-star review. It almost makes up for my father and brother not being here to celebrate this accomplishment.
I love all my friends made over the years, but old friends are the best.
Which of your lifelong friends can be brutally honest with you about your writing? Let me know in the comments.
When I was a kid and got a toy I’d wanted with the desperation of a child, I’d play with that toy exclusively for days. Okay, weeks. None of my other toys mattered. Of course, when the newness wore off, it got relegated to the toy bin with all the others.
I’m the same way with books in a series. If I like a series, I’ll read every book in the series and wait, impatiently for the next. It wasn’t until I wrote a series that I stopped being angry at authors for not writing fast enough.
This past week, my online author group, The Author Transformation Alliance, posted a challenge on doing a book trailer using a free program called Lumen5. I won’t go into all the specifics of how it works here; you can go look for yourself. It has a paid version and a free version, and the major difference between them is in the paid version, you don’t get an “ad” for Lumen5 in the closing credits and your video will be HD. And–big plus for me–it’s far less complicated than other video-making programs.
Before my novel came out, I’d purchased a couple of inexpensive book trailers from a vendor. They were great, but the ability to customize them was limited. Not so with Lumen5.
Bottom line. I not only did a book trailer for my debut novel, A War of Deception, I also made ones for each of my collections of short stories, my novella, and my novelette–six book trailers total. In two and a half days. (And, there’s one or two more, I think, to do.)
Yes, obsessive much.
But it’s another tool for an indie author. The money saved purchasing book trailers can now go toward buying a professional cover or paying my editor, etc.
Anyway, here’s one of my projects, the new book trailer for A War of Deception. I’d love to know what you think of it. Comment below. (And, yes, I caught the typo; it’ll get fixed.)
To view the trailers I made for my other books go to my Facebook Author Page.
“Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”
—The Mourning Bride, Act 1, Scene 1
For the past five weeks, as I’ve recovered from surgery and a nasty case of bronchitis (which hasn’t entirely faded), I’ve been the oft-misquoted being of the above quote–a savage beast. I’ve engaged in numerous online arguments, something I normally don’t do. I’ve snapped at baristas, strangers, family, and friends. I hate being sick, and I hate what being sick does to my mood. I’ve hated every word I’ve managed to write during this time. I’ve decided I’m a hack author who’ll never get more than three reviews.
Yeah, good thing I live alone, because living with me the past month would be a ginormous self-pity party.
My social engagements have been limited in the past month as well. As an extrovert I do better when surrounded by people, but one of my early excursions after feeling halfway human again to a Starbucks for some #coffeeshopwriting resulted in people leaving the tables near me to sit somewhere else because of the coughing.
(No need to suggest home remedies or a visit to the doctor. The former don’t work, and I did the latter. This is a result of my usually well-controlled asthma, and there’s not much to be done but endure until it runs its course in five or six weeks.)
So, I hibernated. I didn’t even join my regular Google Hangout sessions because coughing. But one series of events I’ve always looked forward to since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley is the annual Heifetz Institute Summer Concert Series. (For more information on this incredible series, click here. If you ever needed a reason to visit the Valley, this should be at the top of your list.) How could I go, knowing the urge to cough comes on suddenly and lasts until I’ve coughed a lung up? (That’s called hyperbole used for dramatic effect.)
Music has always been important to me. I sing. I listen to many genres of music, depending on my mood: classical to soft rock to acid rock to opera to rap to… You get it. Music inspires me, calms me, excites me, thrills me, heals me. Music is always at my fingertips when I want it.
I skipped the opening Heifetz events but bought a ticket for “Stars of Tomorrow: PianoPalooza!” Piano performances are one of my favorite concerts. I looked forward to this, but my trepidation was there. Heifetz records all the performances. What if a coughing jag came on in the middle of the performance?
I picked a seat on the aisle so if it did, I could make a conspicuous escape.
The first performance was a contemporary piece by Petr Wajsar for harpsichord, Harpsycho. The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument which produces amazing sounds, but this piece consisted of a lot of slamming of the keyboard, beating on the sides and bottom of the instrument.
I’m not a fan of contemporary classical aka “experimental” music. Sorry.
Next was a Brahms piece, Romance in F major, Opus 118 No. 5, a piano solo played with technical precision but with little passion.
“Musick” wasn’t soothing anything in me it seemed, and I kept expecting the tickle in my throat to manifest.
And then there was Stravinsky. Three movements from Petrushka: Danse russe (Russian Dance), Chez Petrouchka (Petrushka’s Room), and La semaine grasse (The Shrovetide Fair). Played by a Russian without the sheet music. When he closed his eyes and played with the controlled passion that’s very Russian, my spirit and my mood lifted with every chord.
As if that weren’t enough, next came Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor by Liszt, played by four hands and with some wonderfully timed and performed comic mugging by the pianists.
I felt better than I had in weeks.
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, M. 60 followed by his La Valse, M. 72 had me floating on air.
I had to clear my throat a couple of times, but no coughing.
To Soothe A Savage Breast
I was so uplifted after this concert, I had trouble getting to sleep, the chords still running through my head. I slept through the night. No coughing, and I’ve yet to cough today.
As I said to a friend at the end of the concert, “I so needed this.”
This morning, my writing looks and feels better to me. I’m not a hack. I’m an author. I’m a novelist working on the next novel. I’m writing, and it’s good because “musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast” of its coughing.
Must be endorphins or something. 🎼😎
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/Gang aft angly*.” –Robert Burns, from “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
As you know, I look forward every year to Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The week-long workshop is the highlight of my writing year. This year, however, was special; the faculty asked if I’d be an alumnae reader. I was thrilled and honored, and because my first novel, A War of Deception, had just come out, it was also serendipitous.
On Sunday evening after everyone’s arrival, we go to dinner, meet with our workshop instructor, meet our fellow work-shoppers, and go over the plan for the week. Because this was my sixth year at Tinker, this has become like a yearly class reunion. A lot of attendees are repeat “offenders.”
I was excited about my workshop, “A Writer’s Retreat,” led by Dan Mueller from the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Mueller called this a “generative” workshop, meaning we’d read a short story the night before, receive a prompt, and come back the next with something we’d just written to share. It’s certainly a break from the typical workshop where you submit 20-40 pages ahead of time and come prepared to comment in depth on the work of every other person in the workshop.
I left the after-dinner faculty readings with anticipation.
Monday turned out to be a typical Monday. Nothing went right. I’d discovered the night before that I’d neglected to bring enough of a post-operation medication. Annoying and totally my fault for not double-checking or bringing the whole bottle with me instead of filling a pillbox for each day of the week.
A quick call to the doctor’s office, and he called in a prescription to a nearby CVS. After the afternoon craft lecture by Fred Leebron (on using and creating writing prompts; fascinating and erudite as usual), I walked back to the dorm parking lot to get my car and go pick up the medication.
On the drive there, I felt extreme fatigue, in that I wanted to take a serious nap. I attributed it to the fact I’d walked three and a quarter miles that day and I was 10 days post-op for heart surgery.
I got the meds and headed back to Hollins.
Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop used to be the only June event at Hollins. Then, they added a similar workshop for potters. In subsequent years they added a youth music camp and a youth dance camp. The quiet cafeteria became full and boisterous. The parking lots for the main dormitory became overflowing.
As I discovered when I returned from CVS. There was no place to park near the dorm, and by now my fatigue had become acute. After driving around a bit and waiting to see if someone freed up a space, I flagged down a campus security guard, explained my fatigue and its likely cause, and asked for some suggestions. The best he could offer was to park in the fitness center parking lot, close to the dorm but an extra distance to walk. It was all I had.
I took a nap but felt no better. I was still so fatigued, I asked someone to drive me to dinner. Again, I figured I’d pushed myself too hard, post-op. I decided a good night’s rest and driving myself to breakfast the next morning would mean less walking and less of a chance of repeating the fatigue.
A good night’s sleep, and I was ready to go. As the day went on my energy level stayed steady. The workshop was great. I read a piece of flash fiction I’d written the afternoon before and got good feedback. Pinckney Benedict’s craft lecture on “Logos vs Pathos” was intriguing and thought-provoking, again as usual.
I spent the afternoon doing homework in the cafeteria, rather than doing too much walking, had my one-on-one with Dan, and was looking forward to dinner.
As I ate dinner, I felt the fatigue come on again, not as intense as before, but I decided to forego the student readings that evening to make sure I got plenty of sleep.
This time when I got back to the dorm parking lot, there was a parking spot, but by the time I reached the front door of the dorm, I felt as if I’d run a marathon.
In my room, I drank plenty of water and felt better, and I sat down to do a little novel revising. Around eight-thirty, a tickle began at the back of my throat. More water. The tickle became a runny nose, followed by constant coughing, followed by a sore throat and an earache, and sinus pain.
I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinus infections in my life, and I knew what this was. Despite that knowledge, I was awake every couple of hours throughout the night coughing.
By morning I knew it was time for Urgent Care, but I also knew I couldn’t drive. One of my writer friends offered to take me. A couple hours later, I was back in my dorm room with new meds and orders to rest.
Rest I was going to do because nothing was going to stop me from that Alumnae Reading on Thursday or so I thought.
And I rested, barely stirring from bed, and thank goodness for Hulu because it’s a dorm room. No television. Friends brought me lunch and dinner, but I only grew worse throughout the day and evening.
Tomorrow I’d be better. I had to be.
I wasn’t better. If anything I was worse, and I should have expected that. I know how my sinus infections go. By now my asthma had become aggravated, and I made the decision to come home.
No Alumnae Reading, and I was pissed. At myself for getting sick; at my body for letting me down.
I’ve several, well, many decades of life under my belt, but in the last several years my usually reliable body has sabotaged me: a foot injury that took months to heal; episodic irregular heart rhythms that left me weak and frightened; a bout with shingles.
This past April in the midst of prepping for A War of Deception‘s release, I had a serious episode of irregular heart rhythm, so much so I had to go to hospital and get shocked back into sinus rhythm, followed a month later by the surgery designed to eliminate the problem.
Then, as I was beginning to feel like the old me again, a sinus infection and bronchitis took from me something I stood to gain validation from.
Now, don’t say I should have prayed harder or been a better person or that it’s God’s plan, because I’m a rationalist. Believe me, if prayer worked, I’d have been healed in a day. And I’m not a bad person; that threat of punishment over trivial matters is what pushed me away from religion.
No, I can’t and won’t accept my age, but I understand my anxiety about the surgery, which kept me from sleeping well for a month, depressed my immune system and helped bring this.
And, no, 20/20 hindsight is not useful nor appreciated.
I’m four and a half days into recovering from bronchitis, but since I have asthma, it takes me weeks rather than days to fully recover. Then, I expect the old me to make a command performance.
Oh, and they asked me to read again at next year’s Alumnae Reading. I’ll be there–one way or another.
If it’s June it must be time for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop.
I got a memory on Facebook the other day about my first time here in 2012 and how I was terrified of what was going to happen during the critique. I had plotted how I could pack up and move out in the middle of the night.
Turns out it was the best writing experience I had in my life. And the best critique experience. That’s good and bad. Good because I’ve grown so much as a writer because of it; bad because I now expect them all to be that way.
I’ve been every year since 2012, and each time I’ve been validated as a writer, I’ve established a wonderful circle of writer friends, and, frankly, my novel wouldn’t have been published without TMWW.
Trying Something New
This year isn’t the typical submit 40 pages for review and critique. I’m with Dan Mueller, who last year taught a flash fiction workshop in the traditional manner. This year, he’s going to make this a true writing workshop. We’ll get prompts and other inspiration, and we’ll write on the spot.
A daunting task to be sure, but I’m looking forward to it.
They Really Like Me
For the past two years a group of TMWW alumna and I have contributed money for an Alumni Scholarship. This experience has been so meaningful to me, I can’t help but provide part of the means for someone else to be able to get the benefits.
That, along with the publication of my first novel, inspired the faculty to invite me to do an Alumni Reading this Thursday. I was surprised and shocked then honored and humbled. It’s my Sally Field second Oscar moment: “You like me! You really like me!”
I’ve settled into my 1950’s style dorm room and am greeting friends as they check in, listening to Leonard Cohen, and writing this.
It’s going to be a great week.
If you’re a writer you know we deal with a lot of angst, much of it self-imposed. Am I good enough? What if they hate my book? What if no one buys my books? Etc. Many the day I’ve questioned why I started down my unexpected path of writing fiction, but every now and then something so wonderful happens you stop questioning, for a while, why you ever became a writer.
It Started Last Summer
I met a good old southern boy in my Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop last June, and I was pretty critical of a scene in his MS we critiqued, as in, dude, if you’re going to write a rape scene make it horrific instead of bordering on hearts and flowers.
He was pretty critical of a scene in my MS as well, as in, if I took this book off the shelf at the store and opened to this scene, I’d put it right back. Hard to hear, but his point was valid (as was mine). The scene was thick and stodgy and heavy, but I came away with a solid idea of how to fix it–the point of a good critique.
We friended on Facebook, I participated in a poll to pick the cover of his debut novel, he gave me an idea for a poem, and I let him know when that poem placed second in a contest. A fairly typical social media friendship for a couple of writers who write very different stuff.
But, lo and behold, without prompting, he bought a copy of my novella, The Yellow Scarf. Unknown to me, he was intending to write a blog post on the place of the novella in literature today and sought examples to use in his post. To my surprise and delight, he used The Yellow Scarf as an example of a good novella. (To read his blog post, “Is the Novella the New Netflix?” click HERE.)
He Liked It!
I love every good review a reader of my work has posted. Some of them have made me proud, and some of them have made me shed a happy tear. But this review of The Yellow Scarf within the blog post was the most uplifting thing my writing career has experienced, even more uplifting than holding my first book in my hands.
The reviewer has an MFA and knows literature, and he said some amazing things about my novella. More than that sheepskin, he got what I was trying to say with that story. It resonated, and, frankly, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do: Write a good story and have it stick with the reader.
And it’s all about the validation. Someone whose opinion I respect thought I did a good job, that I’m a good writer. That made my day. Hell, it made my year. My gratitude is undying–to my good ole boy and the author of the blog post and review, Kelsey Asher.
If you’re interested in how well you agree with this review, you can get your own copy of The Yellow Scarf: http://bit.ly/TheYellowScarf (Kindle Edition, but there’s a link to the paperback version)
Let me start off by saying our first annual SWAG Writers Book Fair was fabulous! Great fun talking to local authors, and of course I blew any “profit” I made on book sales in buying their books. We’ll be doing it again next year, and I’ll post info in time for everyone to make vacation plans to attend. Just kidding. Not really. 😉
One of the great things about the Internet and social media is finding writers from around the world or writing-inspiration web sites. One recent find is Writers Write of South Africa and New Zealand. They offer online courses, but it’s their WordPress blog and Facebook page which provide amusing or downright hilarious sayings and cartoons about the writing life. I saw one such offering over the weekend: “Top 10 Tips: How to Survive a Relationship with a Writer.”
I was very lucky that my most recent ex was not only an advocate for my writing, but he absolutely understood the need for me to have a notebook and plenty of pens or a laptop on vacations. He accepted the fact I needed writing time and never begrudged me that time. He’d even tell relatives not to bother me while I wrote. Of course, his eyes glazed over as I talked about whatever I worked on, but he never asked me to choose between him and writing. That was one of the things I loved about him and miss.
But we all have a significant other, a friend, a relative who just doesn’t get what we do or, in an attempt to look as if they’re being supportive, who do all the wrong things. Here, courtesy of Writers Write is a little primer (with some commentary from me) for those non-writers with whom we share our lives.
How to Survive a Relationship with a Writer
TOP TEN TIPS
1. Never ask when the book will be published.
Ah, yes, this is always a vexing query from someone who doesn’t understand traditional publishing. I think our best response could be, “It’s so good, it’s worth waiting for.”
2. Do not ask a writer if he/she wished he/she had written the latest best-seller.
This happens to me when a new Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum comes out. Yes, I write thrillers, but I’d probably be less cranky if you’d compare me to John le Carre or Alan Furst.
3. Never say to a writer that you’re thinking of writing a book. Never say you’d also write a book if only you had the time.
The reason we don’t like the first statement is there’s usually a follow-on question: “Wouldn’t you like to have a look at it?” or the equally painful, “Why don’t you give it to your agent?” The second part of number three is vexing because the speaker implies that whatever it is they’re doing, it’s far more important than your writing–or that writing is so easy anyone could do it.
4. Don’t call the police if you happen to see a writer’s browsing history. The average writer is not planning to poison you, hire a hit-man, or move to Afghanistan. It’s simply research.
One day, several years ago, I happened to forget to put away multiple issues of “Soldier of Fortune” and gun magazines, which I’d used for research. That caused quite a stir with some church ladies who came over for tea. In a post-9/11 world, I’m concerned that researching bomb-making instructions and/or “how to weaponize” anthrax will get me a visit from DHS. Oh, wait, is that someone at the door?
5. Leave a writer alone when the writer is actually writing. You have no idea how difficult it is to enter the zone.
Sometimes when you vacation with family, you don’t always get a lot of privacy, but you do always get Uncle Bob or Cousin Shelly hovering in the doorway of whichever room you thought you could hide in. He or she observes you hunched over the laptop, your fingers flying, and they’ll inevitably ask, “Are you writing?”
6. Don’t pick unfair fights with a writer. Writers do get their revenge in print.
A couple of former colleagues and bosses will find themselves casualties in my stories and novels, as will a couple of neighbors who are being pretty obnoxious. What catharsis!
7. If you do want to fight, make it memorable. The writer is always looking for material.
A couple of former colleagues and bosses will find the stupid things they said/did/proposed in my stories and novels, as will a couple of neighbors who are being pretty obnoxious. What payback!
8. If your writer wanders off at a party, don’t panic. Writers love to inspect the host’s bookshelves and medicine cabinets.
Let’s face it, we piece our characters and settings together from people and places we know, and what better places to discover whom a person really is but his or her bookshelves and medicine cabinets? At least, that’s the excuse I’ll use if I’m caught.
9. Buy your writer notebooks and cute pens as gifts. Do not buy flowers. Chocolate is also acceptable.
Some of my favorite gifts from friends and family have been blank journals, especially the ones that fit in my purse. Oh, and the chocolate? I wholeheartedly agree, though for me, I’d never turn down Irish whiskey.
10. Leave your writer alone when a rejection letter arrives. After the deadly silence, screaming, crying, moaning, and muttering have subsided, offer your writer a cup of coffee or tea. And a cupcake. And a hug.
Best advice of all. Don’t get angry along with me. It’s my rejection; let me vent. Then, talk me down off the bridge. And the cupcake needs to be chocolate. The hug is mandatory.
If anything, sharing this with the non-writer in your life will result in either a tender moment of mutual laughter or one of those epic disagreements which will form the basis of your next novel. It’s a win-win!