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In March we’ll be publishing Connie Dial’s sixth thriller, Set the Night on Fire, all of them taking place in Los Angeles, where Connie, until retiring in 1999 (“on July fourth, my Independence Day!” she laughed), was the first female captain and later the first commanding officer in the Hollywood Division of the LAPD. Four of her thrillers featured the ongoing story of Captain Josie Corsino...with Fallen Angels (2012), Dead Wrong (2013), and Unnatural Murder (2014) preceding Set the Night on Fire.
It’s been our pleasure and privilege to meet her at mystery conferences, know her, publish her, and find so many readers have shared our pleasure when reading her mysteries. With that, I turn this blog over to Connie.
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“I never thought of myself as a cop who became an author, but rather a writer who, until her adventure bug had been thoroughly satisfied, couldn’t sit still long enough to do the thing she loved. A lifetime of notebooks full of short stories, poems, plays and even a few book manuscripts tucked away in my file cabinet was a constant reminder of a habit I never could or really wanted to kick. My writing obsession always made me think of an alcoholic who stashes bottles around the house to sneak a sip now and then.
“Journalism was supposed to be the perfect answer to my dilemma, but after several years I found investigative reporting wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the characters and stories I could create in my imagination, and the excitement level never met my expectations. Police work on the other hand turned out to be an adrenaline junkie’s dream—going to work every day looking for trouble, driving fast with lights and sirens, shooting guns, and chasing bad guys. No need to make it up. I was living the dream.
“After nearly thirty years in law enforcement, the desire to write finally grew stronger than my fascination with adventure, and I discovered that all those hours spent scraping parasites off society’s underbelly wasn’t wasted. It exposed me to some of humanity’s finest and nastiest moments and best of all provided a cornucopia of ideas for plot and character.
“Usually cops interact with people who have had something out of the ordinary happen in their lives, sending them to the police for help, empathy or in too many cases plain old vengeance. I’ve seen more than my share of dead bodies and gore, gone to too many funerals, but there were those amazing acts of courage rarely observed outside life and death situations. My stress level bounced up and down at least a hundred times each day, but within every interaction, every bit of fear, excitement, and aggravation was a potential story.
“I was lucky. As one of the first women patrol officers in LA, I was exposed to a lot before the nature of police work changed. In the early seventies, Los Angeles was a little reminiscent of the Old West. My first night out of the police academy involved a foot chase, a pursuit, a shooting, and our cruiser was involved in a traffic accident. And it only got better. I worked undercover intelligence and participated in a group that wanted to overthrow the US government. We went to jail together after a particularly violent demonstration and I was one of the few cops who knew what it felt like to get hit with a police baton, gassed, handcuffed and thrown in the back of a paddy wagon.
“My time as a detective in narcotic enforcement supplied a feast of characters. I had an informant who suggested my partner and I take out a life insurance policy on him. He expected to be killed
but couldn’t resist the urge to snitch. I worked undercover and bought heroin from Jimmy Lee Smith the police killer in Joseph Wambaugh’s non-fiction book The Onion Field. Just before we arrested him, he told me he’d never go back to prison because he could always spot a cop and would never get caught again.
“Almost every cop will tell you he or she has a great idea for a book. They probably do. Real life is stranger and sometimes a lot funnier than fiction. However, most of them quickly discover that the idea is the easy part; writing is much harder. My first manuscript was over four hundred pages. Practically everything I knew about police work got into those pages. It was a good story but also a wordy primer on how to do a murder investigation. Paul Bishop, a very fine writer who also happened to be an LAPD detective, agreed to read it and gave me some great advice. He told me to find the story buried under all that procedural stuff and he was right.
“One of the questions I’m always asked is, “What bothers you most about the way writers portray the police?” The answer is easy—just about everything. I’m certain doctors and lawyers feel the same way about their professions. It’s difficult to reproduce the true nature of what it’s like to be a cop even if you’ve experienced it. I try to give readers a peek into that world and they tell me there’s authenticity. That’s gratifying because most civilians and a lot of authors have formed their impression of detectives and the work they do from books or movies. Those characters usually display a litany of psychological defects and seriously need an AA sponsor. They’d survive about a day in any legitimate police department.
“Granted, there must be something different about a person who would want to do police work. Trust me, I speak from hours of soul searching and self-analysis, but limiting a detective’s personality to a few external characteristics does that investigator a great disservice.
“The best cops I know do their jobs knowing that in today’s world they are walking targets. They love police work, and their gallows humor is recognition of how tenuous life on the streets can be. They have an urgency to live fully at an accelerated pace and do most things such as loving, playing, drinking, as if they might not have another opportunity. They might not. Camaraderie comes from a dependence on each other to stay alive, not a code of silence, and fear is unacceptable. They are warriors who feel the need to help others as much as the desire to battle criminals. They’re complicated and need to be written that way.”
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I HOPE YOU WILL POST YOUR COMMENTS HERE. If you wish to reach Connie directly, you can email her at email@example.com
We’ll be taking a two-week break from posting these weekly blogs and resume them again on January 13.
If any of you, dear readers, want to contribute to these blogs, contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and send me your suggestions during the interim, since none of us working here are taking two-week vacations. Anyone who has blogged before and has something new to add is also welcomed back.
Wishing you all a good holiday season and a rewarding 2016.
Anthony Schneider’s first novel, Repercussions, starts off our 2016 list in late January and was greeted with a sterling pre-publication review in Kirkus. It’s interesting to me that another South African novel, Love in the Time of Apartheid, closes off our list. So all the other 14 novels this year have these fascinating bookends that enclose them.
Anthony, born in South Africa, spends much of his time between London, England, and New York City, and maintains citizenship in both countries. He is currently at work on his second novel, Lowdown.
This is the fourth and last posting from this first novelist series and I hope you like reading his blog as much as I did.
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“Just write, I told myself. If it interested me, I kept going. I filled a lot of pages, and new characters popped up (and sometimes vanished as quickly as they’d appeared). The individual pieces didn’t cohere, nor were they all related to the same places, events or ideas. But I kept going. I wondered whose story it was, and what it was all about, and then I stopped worrying and wrote a bit more. And that’s the funny thing about writing. You delve, you scratch, you explore. You have an idea where you are going but you are also a passenger. You rush to find meaning, discover what it is you’re writing about, or what it is that’s stopping you from writing, but you also have to be patient. You have to play, and be comfortable in the half-light of your nascent creation. And maybe it goes somewhere and maybe it doesn’t. Rinse, lather, repeat. It’s half fun and half frustration, half search and half serendipity.
“The first big step I took toward a cohesive novel, a single book knitted together from all of those fictional shreds and patches, was a cast of characters. The book would be about him and her and her and the younger version of him… and that’s it. After that it got easier. If it wasn’t one of their stories, it wasn’t something I was going to write, not today anyway.
“The main character in Repercussions, Henry, was there all along somehow, and writing the book was about uncovering and discovering. A very long game of hide and seek, and sometimes I was looking for Henry and I suppose sometimes I was looking for things about myself.
“The second big step was about committing myself to writing—and to writing that novel. I don’t have much more to say about this because it starts to sound a bit like a self-help book or your vaguely spiritual friend’s Facebook post: be committed, be authentic, hashtag grateful. Don’t get me wrong: they’re important ideals. I just don’t have much light to shed.
“The third big step was probably peculiar to my novel, one that spans eighty years and three continents and features a relatively high number of characters for a relatively short novel. This is undoubtedly of no use to any writer, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.
“Here’s what happened. I was on holiday on a beautiful Mexican island with a woman. Romantic? Not really. We’d just broken up and while I’d offered to buy her out, pay for her part of the trip and get a week by myself to write and walk and swim, she said no, and I was stubborn and she was stubborn, and so there we were: two stubborn unhappy people side by side in bed, with matching Netflix envelopes, watching different movies. Actually we had an okay time. But she didn’t want to go to the little town for breakfast, and because she could order room service and breakfast was one more meal to get through without bickering, I did walk to town each morning. And there I ate excellent granola and yogurt or scrambled eggs and drank strong coffee and went through the book and played with structure. I ripped it apart and put it back together, moved sections and figured out a structure that could hold my jigsaw puzzle of a novel together. It was the closest I came to a eureka moment with this book. Thank you Sahila (not her real name). Thank you Isla Mujeres.
“I’m often asked about rules for writers. I don’t know many rules. I know about five, maybe five and a half. If you hate lists, or rules, or detest pens and pencils, stop reading now.
“Don’t show your work to people at every step. Be mercenary, be secretive. Hoard, write, wrap your head around it.
“Carry a notebook and pen or pencil.
“Don’t give up when you think it’s shit. Don’t believe it when you think it’s going great.
“Don’t write something because you think it will sell, or because it will help heal some psychic wound.
“When you think you are finished but not yet at the point of fine-tuning the commas (yes, it’s a very fine line), do show it to people, people you trust, more than one person. And listen.”
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I invite you to comment on Anthony’s blog here, and if you want to contact Anthony personally try him at Anthony.email@example.com
Anyone else in the business of books who might wish to post a blog, should email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
COMING NEXT WEEK, December 23, there will be a blog posting from Connie Dial, former head of the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department who has written six enthralling mysteries that we’ve published, unless Santa Claus sends us something we can’t resist...though, given all the gifts he carries about for children, that is not likely to happen.
Alex Austin’s first novel, Nakamura Reality will be published by us in late February, 2016. Thus far it’s had a starred review in Publishers Weekly (read here) and two film companies (Legendary Pictures and Captiva) have requested reading copies. Alex’s is the third blog in a series written by first novelists, all being published next year:
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“Getting a novel published is a fine thing, but it’s no walk in the park.
“My desire and determination to write a novel surfaced in the late seventies working for the Automobile Club of Southern California’s magazine Westways. I was hired as a staff writer by editor Frances Kroll Ring, who I soon learned had been the personal secretary of F. Scott Fitzgerald during his time in Hollywood: typing his manuscripts, suggesting editorial changes and throwing out his gin bottles. Frances was reticent about Fitzgerald, but there were enough anecdotes floating about to inspire a young writer, not to mention the editorial atmosphere. Frances knew everyone on the West Coast arts scene, and the magazine’s contributors included M.F.K. Fisher, Anais Nin, Lawrence Clark Powell, William Saroyan, Jack Smith, Ray Bradbury, Carolyn See, Susan Straight and Norman Corwin. They wrote about history, culture and literature, and their stories were illustrated by graphic artists of equal stature.
"How could I not write a novel?
“My problem was Kurt Vonnegut. His novels were funny, ironic, and wise, filled with insight into people and their foibles. His throw away phrases, like “So it goes,” dazzled. So when I first tried to write, I aspired to be Vonnegut. Outside working hours (and sometimes during working hours--Frances was quite liberal about such things) I wrote satires (and parodies). I could get away with it in with short pieces that would find a home in the local left-leaning weeklies, but I didn’t have the chops to write the long form. I had no grasp of character and I hadn’t read enough. (Read everything. Then you'll realize that you've been beaten to your story by decades if not centuries). And as they say, satire closes on Saturday night.
“When a corporate coup pushed Frances from the editorship (she was too progressive for AAA), I found work at another magazine, an inflight for the California airline PSA. I was in perks heaven: free airline tickets and endless vacations at luxury resorts. When not in Cancun or Snow Valley, I kept working on my novels. But then Mr. Toad’s eyes lit up. A friend sold his first screenplay for $100,000 with another $100,000 for a rewrite (a rewrite!). Why the hell was I trying to write a novel? Movies, that’s where the glory and money was. For fifteen years I put my heart and soul into screenwriting. Studying the hot scripts. Writing screenplays that were obviously just as good as those of Joe Ezsterhas and the Cohen Brothers. Screenwriting classes, screenplay competitions, taking meetings, pitching, collaborating, getting an agent, one dollar options, rewriting a screenplay set in Bakersfield to South Africa. And in the end getting nowhere. But then Mr. Toad attended a premier of a play and bathed in a new glorious light.
"Screenplays didn’t get made, but plays did. I rewrote my latest sure Oscar winner into a play, and to my great happiness an independent producer got interested in it. He hired actors, a director, rented a small theater. On opening night, the audience (friends and relatives) went wild. I entered the play in competitions: second in the Carmel Festival of Firsts, First in the Fullerton College playwriting festival of seconds. Another production. A Backstage West Critic’s Pick! A Maddy Award for playwriting. An agent, another production in Portland, Oregon. Hard cash.
“I was a playwright. The next play was produced by The Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and on the heels of that published by a legitimate play publishing outfit, with a nice layout in their catalog. The play sold six or seven copies and was never produced again.
“I wrote another. Off-Broadway development and staged readings that I never got to see. More development. What? Your theater company has been disbanded? Financial problems? But my play?
“What I realized were that plays were ephemeral. They’re staged and then they’re gone. Like a tree falling in the woods, if you’re not there to witness it, it didn’t happen.
“In the meantime, a writer who worked with me on the staff of Westways had published a half dozen critically acclaimed novels. I attended his book signings, read his reviews, caught my breath at his grants and awards. Why had I not stuck with novels? Why had I squandered my talents?
“I was going to write and sell a novel if it killed me, and it almost did. While employed as a middle school teacher, I worked six years on Nakamura Reality, revising it perhaps a hundred times. Nakamura Reality 1, Nakamura Reality 16, Nakamura Reality 67. Bloody queries and sample pages. But eventually, I roped an agent, and then with her input spent another year rewriting the novel until she felt comfortable submitting it. A bidding war ensued—no, it found a home at The Permanent Press for which I will be eternally grateful.
“Frances Kroll Ring passed away recently at the age of ninety-nine. Her humor, intelligence and humanity stick with me. She once said that I reminded her of Fitzgerald, well, his sense of humor. I don’t drink gin.
“Wine is a different matter.”
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You can reach Alex Austin by email at email@example.com or me firstname.lastname@example.org, and, as said before, most importantly by commenting on this blog posting.
COMING NEXT WEEK the last in this series of posts by first novelists. Anthony Schneider will talk about his South African novel, Repercussions.
Kathleen Novak’s first novel, Do Not Find Me, will be published in February and it has drawn accolades. It's already been sold to Blackstone Audiobooks.The storyline concerns a mother with two young sons living in a loveless marriage who heads to Lost Lake Minnesota to tend to her dying dad and then settle his estate, where she discovers a document that unnerves her. It's a scrap of paper with the words, "Do not find me," handwritten and unsigned. Who sent it? What did it signify, and why did he keep it, hidden in the back of a dresser drawer? The mystery unfolds in five chapters, two telling the father' story, then three telling her own. Now, in the throes of grief, she's questioning her choices, thinking about options, and asking questions. Kirkus Reviews had this to say: "The result is a taut and beguiling meditation on love, loss, secrets, and silences. Tender and intricately written, this well-crafted novel is poetic, evocative, and beautiful." With that, I turn you over to Kathleen's blog
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“I just love to write. It’s possibly an addiction, picking up the number two pencil and going like crazy until I hit the end of the page, then on to the next. When I don’t have a pencil, I write in my head, narrating my observations, sketching with words, scribbling out anything – plans, people, even lists. I just discovered that Fitzgerald too wrote list upon list. The random chatter of the mind, I suppose.
“I was delighted and relieved to have Do Not Find Me accepted by The Permanent Press. It’s my first and only published novel. A debut in midlife. Truly, I have been around awhile, at one desk or another writing poetry, letters, business documents, books, notebooks, essays, sometimes oddball tidbits that win prizes. A friend of mine asked me once if I set aside time each day to write, and recently reminded me that I answered, I am always writing. It’s true. I have never really experienced the thing called writer’s block, though I get stuck often and come back at it, as most writers do. But I have not stared wonderingly at the blank page. I don’t mind tossing bad drafts away. I lose poems all the time. And maybe this sense of the ephemeral allows me to plunge in.
“When I was in my 20s and sending out poems to small presses, I got a rejection letter from the then editor of the California Quarterly. I don’t remember her name, and I did not save her letter. She said, kindly I think, that I should take the intensity of my poetry into narrative fiction. Then you’d really have something, she concluded. But I heard only that she didn’t think I should be writing poetry.
“I didn’t write another poem for thirteen years.
“I did write everything else under the sun though, except narrative fiction. Just to prove her wrong. I wrote an ardent piece of what is now called creative nonfiction about a murder in my family history. I wrote a true short story, which might also be called creative nonfiction, about my parents’ obsession with perfect Christmas trees every year. But I didn’t write poems and I didn’t write books.
“Eventually, in a brief phase of intense sadness, I returned to poetry. And a decade later, in 2004, I chose to write fiction. More accurately, the book chose me; a story settled into me and wouldn’t let go. The narrative tumbled around me and trailed behind me and drove me nuts until I sat down to give it play. I was having the time of my life, lost in the story and excited to return to it whenever I could. It didn’t turn out to be that good. It wasn’t published and I set it aside. Last winter I went back to read it again and decided that I needed to write it all over again (which is what I am re-working now).
“Subsequently I’ve written other fiction trying to figure out the process, playing with characters and chronology, voices and plot. These are also unpublished. But these efforts paved the way for Do Not Find Me. I now believe the erstwhile editor of the California Quarterly (which years later actually did accept one of my poems) gave me a bit of truth back when.
“I am old enough to see the progressions and patterns of my life. I had three separate careers – as an English teacher, a corporate manager and a marketing consultant. In all of them I used my writing skills. But being a writer is not my career. It is what I am and what I most love to do.
“Decades ago I had a hairdresser who cut to precision, though the salon owner continually pushed her to hurry, hurry, hurry. I can’t do a haircut in a half hour, she told me. But I’m the one who is going to die an artist.
“So be it. Here’s to all of us who feel the same.”
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COMING NEXT WEDNESDAY(December 9) Alex Austin continues this first novelist series.