Tuesday, October 22, 2013

10 Thoughts of the Day for Writers

1.   If you want a writer to visit the Department of Motor Vehicles, give him a 
2.   An outline is a thrilling map of all the places your story will never go.
3.   If you want your friends to stop confiding in you, tell them you’re working on a 
4.   Never tell someone at a party that you’re a novelist. Chances are, they won’t
      know who you are or what you’ve written but they’ll have an opinion anyway.
5.   Selling books these days is like selling bottled water next to a water fountain. No
      one needs to buy what they can get for free.
6.   How come no one wants to tell you what’s wrong with your manuscript but 
      everyone wants to tell you what’s wrong with your published book?
7.   Treat your fictional characters as charitably as you would your significant other.
      You can dump your significant other but those characters will sit around in print 
      for a long, long time.
8.   When you start, you live to write. When you get successful, you write to live. 
      Never forget the first phase.
9.   A story is like a car. A writer works the gas and brakes. An editor helps him
      steer. But it’s readers who make the road.
10. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do an awful first draft on today.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Off to Bouchercon!

    I'm off to Bouchercon tomorrow for four days. For most people, this sounds like some sort of convention of French butchers. Actually, it's the annual conference for mystery and thriller writers. I should have gone years ago and never did. Well, finally I'm going.

    Confession time: I've never been to a convention. As a journalist, I always traveled to do a story. I dressed the way my subjects dressed, went where they went, ate what they ate. Since my subjects tended, for the most part, not to be movie stars or Supreme Court judges, this usually meant "dress casual." Sometimes, it meant jeans and a T-shirt. I was there to blend in, gain my subject's trust and get their story. I wasn't there to press a business card in their hand and sell them something.

    But a convention, I assume, is sort of a see-and-be-seen event. In other words, I have to schmooze. I've never learned the art of schmoozing. I don't even have a schmoozing wardrobe!

     What do you wear to a convention? I know what my husband wears when he goes to firefighters' conventions--a navy blue polo shirt and khakis (it's almost a uniform with these guys). I don't think I'm the navy-blue-polo-shirt-and-khakis-type.

     The conventions my husband goes to have great giveaways. This year, they gave everyone a squeezy stress-relief doll shaped like a fat fireman. Do you think Bouchercon will have stress relief dolls shaped like publishers? I'd love to give a few of them a squeeze at the moment...

     Wish me luck--I think I need it.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Embrace the Chicken

    So…I’m trying to get back into my work routine but unfortunately, I’m having the exterior of my house repainted at the moment. The good news: I have a very conscientious painter who is sanding everything—and I do mean everything. Our shrubbery is coated in an inch of sawdust. We look like the before pictures in a termite commercial.
     The bad news: I feel like I’m living inside a dentist’s drill. I can’t get any work done. Nada. I can barely sit on my office chair without the vibrations knocking me off. I don’t have a laptop (gotta sell that book before I can afford one). So today I decided to be a good daughter and spend most of the day helping my 94-year-old father do his chores.
     Don’t let my dad’s advanced age fool you; he’s a Russian. And just like vodka, he is no less potent with age. He reads dozens of books a year, still has a full head of hair and knows to the penny what he has in his bank account. 
     But that said, spending the day with a very elderly person (which I try to do once a week) can often be an exercise in extreme patience. This morning, I found myself inside the A&P supermarket for an hour (longer than I would ever be there myself) while my dad debated the merits of various cheeses.
     I wouldn’t have minded so much but the market was freezing. Outside, it was 85 degrees. Inside, we were hovering at Siberian winter. Of course my sturdy Russian-stock father didn’t notice the cold at all. He just kept debating the merits of Swiss cheese at $7.99 a pound versus Cheddar at $5.99 while I slowly turned the color of the Roquefort. Have patience, I tried to tell myself.
     I wanted to feel compassionate.
     I wanted to feel my toes.
     In desperation for warmth, I grabbed a pre-cooked oven roasted chicken from the warming counter and clutched it in my arms like a baby.
     This is not exactly how I want to picture myself at this juncture in life, standing in the middle of an A&P, embracing a Perdue oven roaster while my dad decides whether he’d prefer the spreadable brie or the pre-diced pepperjack and my painter slowly reduces my house to a toothpick. But hey, sometimes in life, you just have to go where circumstances lead you.
     Sometimes, you have to embrace the chicken.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thank you, Diana Nyad!

     I really needed to hear about Diana Nyad's record-breaking 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida yesterday. Most of all, I really needed to hear the 64-year-old's words after she reached shore:

   "I have three messages," she said. "One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team."

   Think about it: Olympic athletes are often washed up at 30 and most football players are out by 40. By 60, most surgeons, pilots, firefighters and cops call it quits. And yet this 64-year-old woman, after numerous failed attempts over the past 35 years, reached an athletic milestone! So much for the Beatles concept of growing old. (She's not going to be knitting any sweaters by the fireside.)

     Consider the odds she was up against:

    1. She made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida almost 36 years ago at age 28 and failed.
    2. She braved the waters again on a numerous occasions but suffered such painful jellyfish stings that she was forced to stop.
   3. Her last attempt before this was two years ago. She was forced out of the water after she suffered a prolonged asthma attack--her first ever.
   4. She had to suffer the doubts of those around her. "I thought it wasn't humanly possible or she would have done it," said her good friend and handler Bonnie Stoll as quoted in The New York Times.

    Each failed attempt initially left her so heartbroken and exhausted, she vowed to quit. But with rest, she always came back--better and smarter. She consulted new experts. She made changes to her regimen. She learned through trial-and-error what worked and what didn't.

     Thank you, Diana, for giving all of us swimming through our own dark waters a bit of courage to keep paddling--through failures, through our own doubts and those of the people around us. Sometimes it's hard to believe you will ever reach that home port. You've added a little glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Why 4 inches is better than 6 inches

      Okay…get your minds out of the gutter. I’m talking protractors. For those of you who are lucky enough not to have a fifth grade back-to-school supply list, protractors are those half-moon shaped thingys that kids use in math and come back to you at the end of the year snapped in half and covered in glue stick crud. My husband thought I was referring to the thing that looks like a nutcracker with a sharp point at one end and a place for a pencil at the other.
     “That’s a compass,” I told him.
     “Compasses are for navigation,” he replied.
     “Then you can navigate the back-to-school list.”
     Oh how I love those back-to-school lists! Every year, they are more and more like treasures hunts. This year, our list includes things like: green two pocket folders and marble notebook, must be 8 ½ inch size.
     And of course, the wonderful 4-inch protractor.
     I ran around Staples, Rite-Aid, Target and CVS like a nut trying to get a four inch protractor. Every place carries only the 6-inch kind. But the list said: must be four inches. I started imagining the terrible moment when my daughter’s teacher asks all the kids in the room to whip out their 4 inches and my daughter pulls out her six. What kind of mother am I? What next? Am I going to forget to cut the crusts off my daughter’s bread?
     Well, at least I didn’t fail the green two-pocket folder test. I almost couldn’t find a folder in Kelly green. I was about to settle for a teal-colored one (sort of green-ish?) when I found one in grass green. Social services would certainly have been after me then…

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Something to think about...

     The other day, I wrote down all the things that make me frightened, worried or depressed. Here they are:

--Being Scared
--Feeling Pain
--Speaking When I Shouldn’t
--Losing Someone I Love

     Then I wrote down everything that made me happy and comforted. Here they are:

--Feeling fulfilled
--Sharing my fears
--Being touched
--Being heard
--Remembering Someone I Love
--Overcoming a Hurdle

     And guess what I realized? There can be no second category without the first.

Without…                                There can be no…
           Hunger                                   Feeling fulfilled
           Falling                                    Rising
           Being Scared                           Sharing my Fears
           Darkness                                 Dawn
           Feeling Pain                            Being Touched
           Speaking When I Shouldn’t    Being Heard
           Winter                                     Spring
           Losing Someone                     Remembering Someone
           Tears                                       Laughter
           Rejection                                Achievement
           Roadblocks                             Overcoming a Hurdle
           Nightmare                               Dreams

      Something to think about…

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dog Days of Summer

     We are currently coming off a heat wave here in New York. “Wave” is just not the right word when you talk about heat. Wave makes me think of tropical beaches and breezes and this summer blast was so hot and stagnant, it felt like I was wearing Eli Manning’s New York Giants jersey after Manning had spent a game in it.

     Perhaps we should find a new term for a heat wave. I’d like to call it an “oven roaster” but that makes me think about chicken and I’ve sworn off all meat and wheat since January so that doesn’t cut it either. Any suggestions?

     I am digressing. That’s what the heat will do to you. I know I should have an air conditioner in my home office but I hate the way window units make you feel—all clammy and chilled, like a piece of lettuce that has spent too long in the refrigerator. Window units never cool evenly. I didn’t want to end up with one of those little old-lady sweaters slung over my shoulders while still having my bare thighs in shorts sticking to my chair. My chair, incidentally, is made of something called "leatherette," which bears as much resemblance to leather as Velveeta bears to cheese. The heat melted the back of my thighs to the seat with the result that every time I got up, I felt like Steve Carell getting a wax job in The Forty Year Old Virgin.

     The problem, I decided, was that I wasn’t drinking enough water. So I forced a liter down me with the result that when I moved, I felt like I had my own undertow. Not to mention that I couldn’t venture farther than my front lawn without needing a bathroom.

     My office quickly went from Hemingway-with-a-ceiling-fan-in-Key-West to Dante’s First Circle of Hell. My productivity went the same way. But this allowed me to perfect my theory of displaced creativity. It goes like this:

     The more time you have to create something, the less creating you will do and the more creative you will become in all your other endeavors. With heat levels rising, my work came to a standstill. But I found new ways to be creative without putting a single word to paper. I made a birthday card for my son that involved an entire evening of trying to format pictures of him to fit the scale of President Obama, the oval office couch, a flat screen TV and a leftover box of pepperoni pizza (the beginning to a bad joke, I fear). I delighted my daughter by turning cutup bananas smeared in peanut butter and dotted with blueberries into an impromptu game of Battleship. I turned baking powder, party balloons and yarn into lumpy-faced stress relievers (amazing what you can do with the crap lying around in your house). I watched the movie Adaptation about real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman wrestling with his neurosis and writer’s block while still managing to actually turn out a movie. (How come my neurosis isn’t as profitable as his?)

     At least I haven’t completely lost my mind, not like some of the people who call up my husband’s firehouse in the city. Recently, the firefighters there received a 911call from a gentleman who believed he was experiencing a heart attack and needed an FDNY ambulance to take him to the hospital.

     “Why do you think you are having a heart attack, Sir?” the fire department dispatcher asked him.

     “Because my chest hurts after running.”

     “So you were jogging?”

     “No. I was running from the police.”

     Maybe he decided that jail would be cooler than his apartment after all.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Fast Isn't Always Better

     I'm coming up on 30 days with no word from any publishers on whether or not they want to take on my book. I'm trying to look on the bright side. Nobody has rejected me yet. The Fourth of July is coming up. People won't even be in the office the rest of the week. A lot of them will probably be out in the Hamptons or up in the Berkshires.  Do I really want an editor giving serious thought to my work with a Mai Tai in his or her hand? The kind with those little paper parasols?

     Damn right, I do!

     Scratch that. It isn't going to happen. So I will content myself with the realization that fast isn't always better. I'm reminded of last fall during Hurricane Sandy when my son was in Cambodia. Our phones and internet were out. We had no heat or hot water for two weeks. In the midst of the crisis, my husband received an email from our son at work. Here is the entire (and I do mean ENTIRE) message:

     In Cambodia   Ill   Call Later

     Our son? Half way around the world and so ill he can barely type out a message? We didn't even have a working phone to reach him on. There were gas lines everywhere. I wasn't sure I had enough fuel in my car to drive to JFK airport, let alone figure out how to get a flight to Phnom Penh (and yes, I had to look up the spelling. And no, I didn't have internet access to do it).

     We finally managed to get through to his college in California. I was sure he was already being evacuated to an ICU at the best hospital in Honolulu. But when I spoke to the director stateside, he told me none of the students had reported being ill. I insisted they try their direct contacts in Cambodia. A day later, word came back that our son was fine.

     When we had phone service again, I chewed my son out royally for worrying us like that.
     "I never said I was ill," he insisted.

     I reread him his text message.

     "Sorry. I dashed it off quickly. Forgot the punctuation."

     The message should have read:  In Cambodia. I'll call later.

     (Thank God he's not planning on becoming a copy editor when he graduates!)

     So--I will be patient--sort of. Failing that, make my Mai Tai a double and stick in two parasols...


Friday, June 28, 2013

If you don't have anything nice to say...say something anyway!

    Okay...so...I've been writing this blog off and on for two months now and I THINK, given my complete inability to work so much as a microwave (I don't own one) that I never activated the place on my blog to post comments. I think I have now so...

    ...please post a comment.

    I've had a tough week and really, anything would cheer me up. First, I left my wallet in a restaurant (very honest staff at Maggie McFly's in Southbury, Ct. had it waiting for me when I made the 2-hour round trip drive to retrieve it). This was the good part of the week. You know it was a bad week when this was the good part.

     Then my daughter came down with a virus and spent the next 48 hours glued to the television watching reruns of Victorious and Zoe 101. (Even I can recite the episodes at this point).

     Then somebody hacked one of my credit cards and charged $4,000 worth of stuff. The worst part of it was, they didn't even charge anything worthwhile. I mean, if you're going to take a chance on an extended stay at a bed-and-barbed-wire, couldn't it be for something a little more imaginative than a bunch of visits to Wendy's and a couple of shopping sprees at Target?

     Honestly, thieves have no creativity! If I had carte blanche with someone's credit card, I'd take myself to Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands, host a dinner for ten at the 21 Club in New York City, go to a ridiculously overpriced day spa and buy all the creams to take home.

      Then again, with the cost of my kid's dental checkups, maybe I'd just get a good tooth cleaning.



Friday, June 21, 2013

Encouraging Words

     So...my manuscript is circulating. Seventeen days and no word. I know in my head that this process will take AT LEAST a month and could take A YEAR (yikes!). But in my heart, I'm dealing with it like I have a plastic bag over my head with minutes of oxygen left.

     In my efforts to distract myself (aside from writing, which is never quite the distraction I hope it will be) I'm scouring the internet for inspiration. But I'm finding things like...



     So much for inspiration.

     I found an article on one of my favorite websites: Cracked.com about famous authors whose books took a long time to sell. Figured that would cheer me up.

     Not so fast...

     I read about John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and was published in 1980...

     ....ELEVEN YEARS after the author committed suicide after a five-year battle to get his book into print.

     On this cheery note, I emailed my forever supportive son about Toole.

     His reply:

     "Don't worry, Mom. That won't happen to you."

     I hope he's referring to the suicide part. Then again, it's more likely he's referring to my chances of ever winning a Pulitzer....


Monday, June 17, 2013

The People Behind the Stories

I posted this piece today on:


It's a fascinating blog penned by a lot of terrific mystery writers. Check it out. Here's my post:

   I’m reading a really great mystery novel by Paul Levine at the moment called Illegal.  But what first struck me about the book, before I ever got to the story, was the dedication:
    To the woman carrying a rucksack, clutching her child’s hand and kicking up dust as she scrambled along a desert trail near Calexico, California.
     I love that dedication because it reminds me that sometimes an inspiration for a story is nothing more than an image you can’t shake. The only way to make sense of it is to write about it.
     My first three mysteries were set in the FDNY where my husband is a chief. Yet ironically, the image I couldn’t shake didn’t come from him, perhaps because I was too close to the story to see it. It was the late 1990s. I was working as a writer for Reader’s Digest and my editor asked me to spend three or four shifts (called “tours”) riding with the FDNY for a day-in-the-life story for the magazine.
     I got clearance to ride with a rescue company—an elite unit that handles large fires and rescue operations throughout the five boroughs of New York City. As the only woman in an all-male firehouse, I got a quick education in how to “blend in:” get in and out of the bathroom quickly (and don’t put too much faith in the latch on the door). Get comfortable with being dirty and tired. And make sure you’re not the last one on the rig when a run comes in.
     I did four night tours—6 p.m. to 9 a.m.—over the course of two weeks and developed a reputation for being “a white cloud.” That’s what they call a firefighter who never seems to catch a job. All the major fires and emergencies kept happening when I wasn’t there. But this gave me a chance to get to know the men and hear their stories.
      I soon learned that one of the officers in the company had lost his firefighter brother, a father of three, in a deadly blaze in Queens two years earlier. On one of those long, sleepless “white cloud” tours, the officer opened up to me about the night he was yanked from duty, informed of his brother’s death and then asked to break the news to his brother’s wife. He showed up at their house in the middle of the night and found the whole place lit up like a Christmas tree.
     She already knows, he thought. Why else would all the lights be on at 2 a.m.? And then he realized something worse: his sister-in-law kept all the lights on every night his brother wasn’t there.  She couldn’t bear the darkness when he was gone. And here he was, standing on her doorstep, bringing her a lifetime of darkness.
     Even though I was married to a firefighter, I had never allowed myself to picture such a moment. But that image of the house lit up like a Christmas tree spoke to me deeply, both as a writer and the wife of a firefighter. I knew I had to tell that story—not directly perhaps, but in a way that would capture the uncertainty firefighters and their families face consciously or (in my case) unconsciously every day.
     I ended up writing three mystery novels about life and death in the FDNY. Now I’m working on a mystery series that concerns undocumented immigrants in suburban New York. This series also began with a moment. For several years, I had been working with immigrant outreach organizations near my home, helping to write the real-life stories of undocumented Latinos. During this time, I was introduced to a Guatemalan man in his late 20s who had nearly died of dehydration on two separate border crossings. I found myself riveted by his description of those harrowing journeys. Machetes held to his throat. Pistols pointed at his head. Desperate moments in the desert when he was reduced to drinking his own urine to survive.
     But what really struck me were the circumstances that led to his second border crossing. He and his kid brother were living in suburban New York at the time. It was winter. Jobs were scarce. A garment wholesaler offered them temporary work in New England sewing clothes. After two weeks, with their wages in their pockets, they were ready for the trip back to New York. To celebrate, the kid brother ordered Chinese takeout—chicken and broccoli—to be delivered to the motel where they were staying. By the time the food came, the brother had fallen asleep so the man went downstairs to pay for the food. Instead of a Chinese delivery clerk, he was met by immigration agents who arrested him, shipped him off to a detention center and eventually deported him back to Guatemala. (His brother, by the way, slept blissfully through the whole ordeal and never got arrested or deported).
     Imagine your whole life being upended over an order of Chinese takeout! Imagine having the courage and determination to undertake that dangerous, brutal, near-death journey all over again. (Not to mention still being on speaking terms with your brother afterwards.)
     There are writers who could think up these situations out of thin air. Maybe it’s because I started out as a journalist, but my inspiration almost always comes from real people. Their stories keep me honest. And forever indebted.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Why I Love Yoda

     I was never a big fan of the Star Wars movies, but there was a wonderful scene I loved in The Empire Strikes Back. It's when the Jedi master, Yoda, a tiny Gremlin-like character, is training his whiny pupil, Luke Skywalker.
     Luke's spaceship has been lodged in the swamp and Luke must summon his Jedi powers to get it out. Luke has never moved anything larger than a few stones this way. He complains that moving a whole spaceship is impossible. Yoda tells him the only difference is in his mind.
     "I'll give it a try," Luke offers.
     "No," says Yoda emphatically. "Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try."
     I love these words, even if they did come from a syntax-challenged gnome pushing 900 years of age. "Try" is such a non-comittal word. It implies effort while divesting itself of results. Would we remember the names of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Alexander Fleming and Jonas Salk if they merely tried to accomplish their achievements?
     Try is good. Every great achievement has many tries behind it. But try has no currency in itself. Try is the warm up to "do." I tell my kids this all the time. I tell myself this, too.
     Then again, Yoda had more than eight centuries to perfect his wisdom. Now, if he could just work on his grammar.
     I will not "try" to write today. I will just do it!

Friday, May 31, 2013

First-draft Terror

  I’m about to start the first draft of a new novel. This instills in me all the self-confidence of two virgins in a MINI Cooper. I’m sweaty and awkward. I don’t have a clue where anything goes. And I’m already questioning whether this was the right vehicle for attempting this in the first place.
      I don’t know why first drafts scare me so much. It’s not as if I don’t know by now that I’ll be rewriting it all in a few months anyway. You’d think, with three published novels and a finished fourth manuscript behind me, I’d be like Larry King at the altar: ring in one pocket, attorney on speed dial in the other. I know what’s coming—the revisions, the tossed scenes, the killed characters, the discoveries I won’t make until I’m practically finished with the draft. And yet I will do almost anything to delay the process. This past week alone, I have:
1.     transferred all of my children’s baby pictures to DVD
2.     volunteered to be on the interview committee for the new principal of my daughter’s middle school
3.     Filled out my bank’s customer satisfaction survey (probably a first in the history of my bank)
4.     Actually listened to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door.
     I’m so desperate I called up GEICO to see if I could save money on my car insurance. (Don’t let the Cockney accent fool you; the lizard is a liar).
     I’m really starting to panic.
     I’m stalling by researching stuff I will never, ever need to know. The Internet is great for this. I can start off with a simple question about common Honduran surnames for my new mystery series about a Latino detective in suburban New York and end up two hours later reading the history of the Indian ruler Lempira who fought the Spanish and now has the Honduran currency named after him. (Pause to reflect: would the U.S. be in any better shape if our bills were called “Geronimos”?)
     My first mystery series, set in the New York City Fire Department, provided loads of fun researching how to start fires and blow up things. There is nothing like watching a video of a room turning into a solid wall of flame in under three minutes to give one an Old Testament appreciation for how fast things can get jacked up. Makes that unexplained clunk in my car and the untraceable leak beneath my kitchen sink feel like good Karma by comparison.
     Here’s where a well-conceived outline would come in handy. I love outlines. I really do. Wish I could write one. Typically I start out with three pages of notes for the first chapter and by chapter five, I’m down to descriptions like, “someone dies here” and “they have good sex.” (Is there any other kind in fiction?) The truth is, I just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does. I write great outlines for my second drafts. But that’s like waiting for the medical examiner when what you really needed was the doctor. It’s so much more convenient to catch the problem before the patient stops having a pulse.
     I know what I have to do. I have to write something awful—something I would only show to my mother when she was alive, and only then, after she’d had a couple of glasses of good red wine. And then I have to believe that it will get much, much better as I lay down more of the story. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.
     Chinese Fortune-cookie stuff, I know. But it also happens to be true. I had an art teacher at Northwestern University named George Cohen who once instructed every student to paint the “best” painting he or she could create. In the second class, Cohen asked every student to paint the “worst” painting. Then Cohen papered the room with all of our artwork and asked students to vote on the best pieces. About 75 percent of the pieces voted as “best” were the ones we had painted as our “worsts.” (Makes me wonder about my other decisions in life.)
     So I will try to be fearless and not worry about what’s “best” and what’s “worst.” I will try to have faith that over time, there will be a road through the wilderness.
     Then again, I could always start another entry in my blog…

Monday, May 20, 2013

Break the Mirror

     Everybody tells a writer to “write what you know.” I’ve given that advice myself to students. The thinking goes that only by experiencing something personally can you portray it authentically.
     In other words, the only world we’re “allowed” to write about is the one we see in the mirror.
     Really? Since when did J.K. Rowling wave a wand and have anything other than a pile of money magically appear? How about Lewis Carroll? Granted, he smoked opium, but I doubt it conjured up much more than a wicked hangover.  I once congratulated a New York Times bestselling author on his excellent depiction of the Arizona desert for one of his novels. “I’ve never been to Arizona,” he informed me. “I just watched a lot of Wild West movies as a boy.”
     Don’t get me wrong—writing from experience makes a book feel richer, more nuanced and more self-assured. Ernest Hemingway was a big believer in writers writing what they know. (Then again, he ran with the bulls and I hike with the girl scouts). I have never navigated through a hurricane unless you count the floor of my son’s bedroom.
     Here’s the extent of my personal knowledge:

1.     A child’s need to go to the bathroom is inversely proportional to the distance from one
2.     A contractor is only helpful and reachable before you sign the contract
3.     If you want to discuss something really important with your husband, hide the remote
4.     Your first attempt at anything will suck. That’s what second attempts are for. And graduate school.
5.     Never enter a swimming pool after a bunch of preschoolers have used it. The same goes for teenagers and your car.

      If I tried writing solely from my own experience, I’d put readers to sleep faster than C-span during a budget discussion.    
     My first three novels were set in the New York City Fire Department and yes, my husband is a chief there. But it’s also true that my stories were about a woman fire investigator and my husband had never been an investigator (or a woman, for that matter). My new novel switches between three points of view, all of them Latino, two of them men. I have even less that would qualify as “experience” here—except a passion for my characters and an abiding interest in the issues that affect them. In all my books, my characters have parts of me, but they are not me. They have not lived my life and I have not lived theirs. And that’s what makes it exciting and makes me want to keep writing about them. It’s like falling in love. You can’t wait to find out more about the other person.
     “I write because I want to have more than one life,” novelist Anne Tyler was once quoted as saying. I agree. When I sit down to write, I don’t want to look into a mirror, I want to peek through someone else’s window. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Killed Liza Canaan

     I’m beginning my first official blog post with a confession: I killed Liza Canaan. Not that anyone knew her except for a writer I much admire, my agent, my family and a few close friends. Her life was very short. She lived just long enough to obtain a website, a gmail address, a professional Facebook page, a twitter account and a flickr account. And then I killed her.

     Well, first I disliked her on Facebook. Then I tried to block her from getting access to my personal account. And THEN, I killed her.

     I hadn’t intended to kill her. You see, about ten years ago, I published three pretty successful mystery novels about the New York City Fire Department under my real name (the name you see above. Yes, my passport and driver’s license are in that name and when people deliver pizzas to me, that name generally gets the pie to my door).

     After a 10-year hiatus raising kids, coaching soccer and leading a girl scout troop, I began a brand-new mystery series which my agent is shopping now. But it has nothing to do with the FDNY. It’s about a Puerto Rican homicide detective navigating the world of undocumented immigrants in suburban New York. I felt conflicted about going out for the first time on social media under my real name. So SJ Rozan, a wonderful and successful novelist friend, came up with a great suggestion: why not use a pseudonym?

     I loved the idea. Who doesn’t want to reinvent themselves? I got to pick my name: Liza Canaan (the “Liza” from my middle name: Elizabeth, the “Canaan,” a last name people wouldn’t mispronounce.) My real last name rhymes with “raisin” but is usually mangled into something approximating a sneeze. I missed accepting a high school writing award once because the principal called “Susan Shazam,” from the stage and I figured that couldn’t possibly be me. More like Gomer Pyle’s sister.

     Best of all, Liza could pick any birth date she wanted on social media and voila!—I was ten years younger. I went around a for two days pretending there were whole decades I had only read about in history books.

      Then I made the fatal mistake of “liking” myself on Facebook and suddenly, friends were asking why my picture (you’d think I’d have changed the picture) was appearing under two different names. Had I gone insane?

     So I unliked myself. That didn’t work so I blocked my professional Facebook page from talking to my personal one. We had spent two days together and we already hated each other. And then I decided to tell my agent about my brilliant idea.

     “It will kill your backstory,” she said.

     Until that moment, I wasn’t sure what a “backstory” was. It’s not like I have a rap sheet or anything.

     “People won’t know it’s you,” she said patiently. I need patience in anything dealing with social media. “You can’t talk about your work with real immigrants. Or your previous books. You’ll lose access to your story.”

     And I guess that’s the lesson here: we all have a story. Mine is going to have to be a part of me after all, like that uncle at your wedding who tells long stories but who remembers what you looked like at six. So Liza Canaan is dead—all except for her flickr account. I sort of wanted to keep some little part of her, you know?