Death: Getting it Right

The guy in the black clothing sneaks up behind his victim, slips his large hands around her throat and squeezes.
She desperately reaches for her throat, weakens and drops dead.
The teenager is dead on the pavement, blood gushing from the hole in his chest.
A masked man walks into a convenience store, whips our a nine-millimeter handgun and shoots the woman who tries to stop him, blowing her head off.
I cringe.
I don’t want to read these novels anymore.
I don’t stop because the scenes are frightening, shocking or gross.
I can handle that.
I stop because I have lost my suspension of disbelief.
The death scenes are impossible.
Inaccurate.
Unreal.
It takes about five minutes to die from asphyxiation and it’s a messy death, with the victim in panic mode, fighting with huge doses of previously unknown adrenaline for his or her life.
Hearts stop beating when people die, so blood stops flowing.
Nine-millimeter bullets might make small messes inside their targets, but not outside.
They certainly don’t blow heads off.
I don’t want to be that writer — the writer who loses readers who are familiar with guns, medicine or death.
And it’s amazing how many people know that stuff.
That’s why I appreciate people like D.P Lyle.
I met D.P. Lyle in August at Killer Nashville, a conference for mystery writers in Nashville, Tennessee.
I listened to him speak, chatted with him, bought two of his books and became a fan of his blog and podcast, Crime & Science Radio.
Dr. Lyle is a cardiologist, a novelist, a writer of nonfiction and a medical consultant for authors. He has worked as a consultant for such television shows as Law & Order, CSI: Miami, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, Judging Amy, Peacemakers, Cold Case, House, Medium, Women’s Murder Club, 1-800-Missing, The Glades, and Pretty Little Liars.
His expertise is a big part of the reason I attended Killer Nashville, to improve my knowledge of forensics.
To get it right for my own peace of mind and for readers.
Every mystery writer needs a D.P. Lyle.
Who is yours?

Too scared to write, like spooked-scared

I scare myself.
There are certain scenes I just can’t write when my husband is out of town.
I can’t edit or re-read them either.
My husband finds it ironic that I can talk about such a morbid side of human nature — about bodies and decomposition, about methods of murder and causes of death — without flinching, with fascination even when he is home.
I can recount details of lifeless bodies I’ve seen — what they looked like, what they smelled like — with a certain scientific detachment. It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, my husband says, I even sound a little obsessed.
But that changes when he is not home.
On those nights, I rarely write.
I prefer to play Angry Birds.
I can’t be the only one.

Hunting, hunting, hunting for my ticket to artistic freedom

I was so excited to sit down at my computer when all four kids started school this fall and write.
Just write.
It’s been six months since I’ve had regularly scheduled work hours and I had all kind of visions in my head of fully immersing myself in novel number three, taking running breaks whenever I suffered a bout of writer’s block, and maybe having a clean kitchen now and then.
Almost two weeks into the school year and I have yet to write more than a blog post.
I’ve gone running twice.
Dishes fill the sink.
It’s my own doing.
A few months ago, after the completion of my second novel, I amicably parted ways with my agent.
So now I am on my own again.
With my agent went the luxury of writing without a care.
I once again have to worry about the business of writing.
And I’m not happy about it.
The innocence that inspired me in the agent hunt the first time around is gone.
I no longer get giddy when I find an agent I want to query. I am well aware that the agent is receiving about 50 other queries on that same day and that my query might not get more than a glance, regardless of how hard I try to get that agent’s attention.
I no longer get my hopes up when I get a request for a full manuscript.
It’s affirming, but it’s just another step in the process.
A rejection is still more likely than a contract offer.
I no longer query any old agent with a web page.
I am pickier now, seeking only agents with proven sales records in my genre and carefully researching their reputations as human beings (No refection on my previous agent. He is a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor.). I want this agent to be my last agent.
I don’t ever want to go through this process again.
But I know I have to grin and bear this.
A good agent, in my opinion, is a godsend.
My fingers are itching to write, my mind is racing with plots and characters, but they will have to wait just a little bit longer.
The right agent will set me free.
Free to write.
And that freedom, I know, will be well worth it.

The long summer

It’s been a long summer.
A very long summer.
With early sunrises and late sunsets, no one sleeps in our household.
And no one wants to stay home.
That means no writing at night or early in the morning, and no sneaking in a few words here and there during the day.
I can’t even jot down notes at the pool or the lake because our youngest two are still swimmers-on-the-verge. Both have taken their first independent strokes. One even started swimming a little distance the other day. But at 4 years old, they still have no judgment and they certainly don’t have enough endurance.
My eyes must remain focused on them even when lifeguards are present.
I know.
I could make it a priority.
I could squeeze a few words in here and there.
But we have four kids and they tire me out.
What I really want at the end of the day is a glass of wine.
What I really want in the morning is a cup of coffee.
But my mind won’t rest.
Even without a laptop or a pencil and paper, I find that I am writing. I am writing in my head constantly, focusing on my characters when I should be focusing on the road, blurting out plot dilemmas during conversations about minnows and tadpoles, revising while I’m loading the dishwasher and scrubbing pots and pans.
When September comes around and the kids return to school, I know that I will have trouble doing anything but writing. I will obsess. I will forget my vow to exercise more. I will procrastinate on those home remodeling projects. I will be surprised to realize that it’s time to get the twins from preschool and nearly time for my husband to bring the older kids home.
I will have my hands on the keyboard, banging out those words — those characters, plots and settings — that are fighting for space in my head. The experience will be freeing just like it was last fall. I will be productive. Very productive.
I am excited.
But …
why then do I still dread the fall?
Why do I find that I am reluctant to send the kids off to their classrooms, where they will be challenged daily, where they socialize with their friends, where someone else will feed them lunch?  Maybe even saddened? Maybe even a wee bit depressed?
I love to write, but the reality is that I love my kids more.
And it’s healthy to be pulled away from my keyboard, to get a little color on my arms, legs and face, to have lunch on a picnic table that is situated between the beach and the playground.
It’s good for me to converse with other moms while the kids swing or climb on the monkey bars. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to sit into a chair at night with stars bright above me and fire crackling in front of me and my husband beside me, watching the older kids instruct the younger ones on the qualities of a perfect s’more.
The things is that every September brings us closer to ages when the kids won’t be interested in hanging out with mom in the summer anymore. Every September, I realize that they’ve grown just a little bit more. Grown a little more independent of me.
That makes me proud, but it also makes me appreciate the time I have with them.
I will always be able to write provided my mind remains sharp and my hands can still navigate a keyboard, but I will not always be able to a push swing or coming running to see a captured crayfish in a net or catch a child jumping off the edge of a pool.
Because the kids won’t need me that way.
So for now, the words in my head will just have to move over, cram closer together and make room for more.
They are not going anywhere.
But I am.
The pool, the deli, Darien Lake, the library, the playground, the beach, up and down the street in front of our house, grandma’s, Aunt Karen’s, cousin Amy’s, maybe Aunt Angie’s one more time, the mall, Market Street, a hike, and who knows where else.
Who knows.

Time to smoulder

So close.
I am so close to finishing my second novel.
The first draft is complete.
The second is underway.
But writing will have to wait.
A line has formed in recent months that includes painting the newly re-walled living room, painting our oldest son’s room, baking a tent-shaped cake for the Cub Scouts cake auction and tilling a garden plot. All things that have to be worked around kids, kids and kids.
Something is always waiting.
But, when it comes to writing, waiting can be a good thing.
The longer writing waits, the more it smoulders.
As it smoulders, it builds strength.
Plot inconsistencies become clearer with each stroke of the paint brush. Characterization problems are resolved with a few dozen turns of the soil. Novels restructure themselves in a bowl full of cocoa powder, sugar, flour, eggs and vanilla.
When I return to the keyboard, I will have plenty of creative energy to burn.
And the novel won’t have to wait long.
I’ve decided to take a break for a few months from freelance work with the exception of one book editing job that I am excited to tackle. That will give me a few extra hours a week to devote to the novel. I should also be able to sneak some time in at night when all the kids are asleep after the painting is done.
I’m still hoping to be finished, really finished by summer,and the time spent thinking without the distraction of writing might just enable that.
Fewer wasted keystrokes.
Fewer wasted words.
More intense focus.
It’s so hard to be patient.
But it’s so important to wait.

NaNoWriMo mom-style

November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: start with a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper and write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The effort has its own website with forums and everything. It doesn’t matter whether the words are coherent; Everyone who reaches 50,000 words wins.
I can’t do that.
There’s no way, not with four young kids, a freelance article due in early December, Christmas shopping, a century-old house that needs lots of TLC and–oh, yeah–not without further neglecting my own physical health.
But something happened today that got me thinking.
I was talking with my agent about the progress of my next novel. When I got off the phone, I felt a rush of creative adrenaline. In less than 45 minutes, I wrote another 1,000 words–solid, strong, plot-moving words. It was the thrill of deadline pressure that had motivated me, even though it wasn’t real.
My agent made it clear that he didn’t want to rush me, but I can’t resist a challenge, even an imagined one. In my 11 years as a full-time newspaper reporter, I never missed a deadline (though I’ve made some editors sweat). I thrived on the breaking news, the kind of stuff where targeted reporting, fast writing and just the write amount of clarity and creativity could land my story on the front page.
So why not put that to use.
I can’t write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can write 25,000 words. That’s less than 1,000 words a day, 834 words to be more precise. I don’t want to start fresh, not when I’m already one-third of the way through my next novel, so I can add to that instead.
I won’t officially join the NaNoWriMo effort either. The forums and emails are too distracting. I have trouble enough with Facebook, other writing forums and the twin parenting forums I frequent. I’ll be a loner unless some other busy writer out there wants to join me in some parallel word play.
Instead of answering to NaNoWriMo officials, I will answer here on my blog. I will provide updates in the middle of the month and at the end. And I will remain choosy about my words. No junk pages. No ramblings. Nothing expendable.
Though the stream-of-consciousness writing can be helpful for newer writers who are intimidated by the length of novels, I find it’s too much work to sort through the yucky stuff. It’s easier just to write well to begin with.
One last thing.
I won’t wait until November 1.
I’ll start right now.

The fourth anniversary of that moment in the Starbucks bathroom

Four years ago today, I woke up feeling pregnant.
I tried to shake it.
It was silly, I thought.
I assumed it was my cynical nature kicking in: I was finally freelancing regularly for a magazine; I had started querying agents for my novel; I was editing a book for a well-respected graduate school; and, in a few months, our youngest would start kindergarten.
Something had to go awry.
But that pregnant feeling only grew stronger by the hour.
By mid-afternoon, I broke down and took a test.
And as I stood there in that Starbucks bathroom, watching that second line grow stronger, I also watched my writing career fade. I was 40 years old and about to have my third child (and my fourth, as it turned out!). I would never get this freelance/novel-writing thing going full force, I thought.
I was ready to surrender.
But my husband, a former journalist/author turned techie, wouldn’t let me. He pushed me right back into the writing battle even though he just as shocked, bewildered, scared as I was. He made sure I was armed with a well-charged laptop. He made me face that Starbucks bathroom, the scene of my perceived defeat, once again.
But not right away.
Tom did allow me a sabbatical of sorts.
He had to.
I was horribly sick and tired that first trimester and beyond. I found out why during my 20-week ultrasound; I was carrying two little guys in there. Two beautiful, perfect and healthy baby boys.
By the time my stomach had improved, my belly was so big, I couldn’t reach the keyboard. My fingers were too swollen to type anyway and I was on partial bed rest with two older kids to care for.
My husband didn’t mention my writing much and neither did it.
The first few months after the twins were born were a sleepless fog of nursing, diaper changing and shuttling the older kids back and forth to half-day and full-day school and their activities. Tom was still traveling frequently then and we had no family here to help us.
It was all we could do to stay awake for another day.
But by that fall, things had started to settle a bit. The twins were sleeping better, my husband’s travel schedule was less hectic, the older kids were both in school for full days. I was getting antsy and, I admit, somewhat depressed. And my husband knew it.
One night in November of 2007, he pulled out my laptop after all the kids had gone to sleep and showed me this site called Blogger. Just start a blog to keep your writing fresh, he said. No big deal, he pushed. Just do it for fun.
And I did.
My first blog, The Boys: Raising Identical Twins, stirred something in me again. That stirring inspired me to pick up the novel and give it a good overhaul. I was surprised by the insight I had gained by being removed from my manuscript for so long. I eliminated major characters, wrote new chapters and deleted others.
I started querying again and one, day, when the twins were two and a half years old, I got the email that led to the happy dance.
I signed with Roger Williams of The Publish or Perish Agency.
Now, four years after that second line appeared in the Starbuck’s bathroom, my novel, Spring Melt, is under submission with major publishing houses; my first short story is due for publication in the fall issue of Aethlon, a journal of sport literature centered at the East Tennessee State University; and my second novel is well underway.
Yes, the twins did affect my writing career, but in a good way. Our entire family dynamic has changed since their birth. The older kids have become more independent and have shown a capacity for love and responsibility that blows my mind. The twins have taught us both to both prioritize and relax. Enjoy life more. (Right now, they are squirting hand soap all over the bathroom. So what? Half an hour of fun for $1.99.)
I have learned to write more efficiently and to concentrate on the projects that are most important to me: no more book editing. I have done all this and they are not even in preschool yet. I am 44 years old, I have three-year-old twins, a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, yet I am still writing, and I believe I am writing on a more mature level than I was before The Day of the Stick.
My creativity did not whither the day the twins were born, in part, because my husband encouraged me to nourish it.
So, on this day, on the fourth anniversary of the appearance of those double lines, I thank him.
I thank him for loving me, pushing me and believing in me.
(And I would greatly appreciate it if he would pick up some more hand soap on the way home.)