Category Archives: Writing

WPA #2: Lights & Sirens & a Glock

WPA bag logoHopping onto the bus to the PTSC by 7:30 Friday morning felt like a relatively easy start to the day after so many years of getting to fencing tournament venues by 6:30 or 7:00. After the short drive, our four buses disgorged their nearly 300 passengers in front of the Fire Apparatus Bays, which we walked through, past multiple fire trucks and engines, out to get our first view of River City, the collection of streets, buildings, and other interesting sites that FVTC uses for practical training.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC Public Safety Training Center: Rob&Spill station, Boeing 727, derailed train.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City on campus.

FVTC students practicing traffic stops in River City scenario village on campus.

Many of the WPA sessions (crime scene photography, building searches, etc.) were held in various village buildings, frequently put to multiple use—one writer discovered that the smoke-filled room she crept through during a burning building search & rescue session was a perfectly normal looking hotel lobby for her crime scene photography session the next day.

It was back to the fire apparatus bays for my first session, though (I’m considering a building fire for a future book), where Chris Fischer, chair of the fire protection department, showed off both individual firefighter gear and some of his big vehicles, all while answering our endless questions. We learned about Stokes baskets for aerial rescues, why it’s not a good idea to jump off a building with just a rope tied around your waist (married to a physicist, I already knew that), and why firefighters aren’t allowed beards (interferes with good seal of breathing apparatus).

gearing up

Chris Fischer ready to gear up.

full fire gear

Chris in full gear, complete with SCBA unit (just like SCUBA, only without the Underwater part) to make him nearly incomprehensible, which is why firefighters have a whole vocabulary of hand signals. (Also, fire is noisy.)

My clean and shiny ride.

My clean and shiny (and big) ride.

Eventually, someone warned Chris to stop answering our endless questions, and we climbed up into the fire truck (with ladder) or fire engine (no ladder) for our rides through River City with lights and sirens. As I expected, the ride seemed slower from the inside—lights & sirens drives are rarely as much as 10-15 mph over the speed limit, and often slower through heavy traffic. Comfort, of course, is not a priority, though the seats accommodate firefighters in full gear, including their SCBA tanks.

Our session, of course, ran slightly long, so by the time I got there, both the  crime scene to autopsy and the fingerprinting sessions were full, so I ended up in a session on patrol work, where we heard about the “use of force continuum” and the dangers of the “sympathetic grasp reflex” (which essentially translates into “KEEP YOUR FINGER OFF THE TRIGGER UNLESS YOU INTEND TO SHOOT THIS INSTANT”).

After a quick lunch, I went to a session on interview and interrogation, which did more to confirm what I already knew than to provide new information.

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

Me and my perp. (Not bad for my first shooting experience, until you consider this was from 3 yards.)

My second Friday afternoon session was at the firing range, where I’d learn at least a bit about shooting a pistol. We started out in the classroom, where we learned the rules (at least the most important ones, anyway—the instructors told us that regular students put in 8 hours of class work before they are allowed to shoot the way we would). We were fitted with vests and belts, including bright orange plastic fake Glocks, and proceeded into the range, where we learned the basic stance, and how to load and fire our weapons. Then, after collecting ear protection and extra magazines, we traded in our fakes for real Glocks. I was better at it than I’d expected, though by the time we loaded our 2nd magazine, I was trying to pay more attention to my grip and form and my accuracy suffered. But with the distance we shot from, we were practically guaranteed a decent experience—after all, how badly can you miss from three yards under tightly controlled shooting conditions?

Next year, though, I’ll definitely enter the lottery for Milo, the shoot/don’t shoot simulation.

After the shooting experience, Katherine Ramsland‘s session on kids who kill was not exactly soothing, but fascinating in all its creepiness.

Then it was back on the buses, for dinner on our own (which is to say, with any other WPA attendees who happened to be around when we were ready to eat—there were lots of us and we had as much to talk about with each other as questions to ask instructors during the formal sessions. Then after the Sisters in Crime reception, most of us traipsed around the corner and across the street to the police station, where we got to watch Jaco, a lovely German shepherd, demonstrate how much faster he can run than the demo perp in the bite suit. Then, eventually, someone decided the next question had to be the last, only a half hour or so later than planned.

Next: Mind games & Franz

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Tool Time

The good thing about neglecting a manuscript for a couple of years is that when you get back to work on it, it’s really easy to see all the problems that need fixing. The bad thing about neglecting a manuscript for a couple of years is that when you get back to work on it, it’s really easy to see all the problems that need fixing.

I posted that early this month on Facebook, and have been working on those problems ever since.

nano_09_winner_120x240nano_09_winner_120x240Of course, it hadn’t been only a couple of years that I’d neglected this manuscript. I wrote the original draft for NaNoWriMo in November 2009, the year before I became TC Chair. After letting it sit through the holidays that year, I’d open the file every few months, read it through, clean up a few sentences and tweak words here and there, but never really dug into it deeply enough to even recognize  character or structure problems that needed fixing.

After this year’s Summer Nationals in Columbus, though, I finally got down to serious work. The first problem to be fixed was voice. I’d written the original draft in close third-person. I’d intended a first-person voice when I started the story but it sounded alternately stilted and silly to me, so I switched to a more remote third-person. Reading it over in August, I realized that my voice problem had been that I hadn’t known my protagonist well enough to be able to speak in her voice. The less personal third-person narrator, though, was boring. But one of the advantages of having let the story sit for long is that I’ve have five years’ more experience watching and listening to the fencing community, to high-level athletes like my protagonist, to officials and staff and parents. Even though I hadn’t been writing during those years, I’d been thinking about my characters and their story all along, so when I finally sat down this month to write a first-person version, I found the voice I hadn’t been able to find for that first draft.

screens2I am, of course, a Scrivener fanatic for my writing, which made the conversion easy. Since the book is set at a Summer Nationals (setup day plus 10 competition days), I’d made each day a chapter containing separate scenes within each. Chapter by chapter, I went through the manuscript with my writing window split vertically, old third-person version on the left and new improved first-person on the right. As I finished the scenes for each chapter, I moved the old versions into a separate folder (First Rule of Fiction Writing: NEVER throw away anything you write.), so that by the time I reached the end, I had a nice clean manuscript folder full of my new current version.

Then I began playing with some of Scrivener’s fancier bells & whistles. I know many writers don’t use it at all, but I love the name generator. I detest coming up with character names and when I’m banging out a first draft will often use placeholder names or acronyms (“BC IT Guy” or “Crabby Vet-70 ME Fencer” or “OOP – Obnoxious Outraged Parent”). In the Scrivener website forums, I found links to one (generous) writer’s collection of name lists based on US Census data, sorted by decade, which I downloaded. So if I want to name a 70-year-old referee assigner or a 15-year-old cadet fencer, I choose the appropriate decade for the first name, designate an ethnicity if I want, and it generates a whole list of names for me to scroll through until I find one that fits. (Weirdly, I hardly ever use the exact combination of names it provides—I usually end up picking first and last names separately, but so far I’ve always found usable names far more quickly than the baby name guides and phone books I used to use.)

Then I started with the structure tools. For each scene, Scrivener has an “index card” view which contains, by default, the first words of the scene. But you can write a synopsis of the action or any other information useful to you. I created a synopsis for each scene, and then switched into Scrivener’s outline view. I’ve set this view to show columns containing my scene synopses, the status (done, needs tweaking, needs major work), the scene setting, the scene’s characters, and the scene type  (action, dialogue, thought, etc.)

Just creating the synopses unearthed a few new problems. If I couldn’t describe what happens in a scene, the scene probably didn’t do anything for the story. So off it went to a “discarded scenes” folder. (Remember, even if the scene is dumb, First Rule of Fiction Writing: NEVER throw away anything you write.) Sometimes I wrote a synopsis for a new yet-to-be-written scene; for other scenes, I decided no replacement was necessary.

iconOnce I had my outline view in good shape, I used it for playing with a software tool new to me, Aeon Timeline. With this, I’m mapping out the events of my story in a visual timeline that I can scroll in and out of at different levels of detail. What’s really helping me is setting up separate timeline “arcs”—so far, one for my protagonist’s point-of-view, one for the the events going on in the venue on any given day, and one for events happening offstage. The venue arc is great for keeping track of which specific competitions happen when, so that I don’t inadvertently change events halfway through a chapter and can keep track of when they start and turn and end. The others will help keep my plot timing straight—it’ll never do to have my protagonist discover clues before they’ve been left. It’ll probably take me most of the next week to finish mapping out the other two arcs, but I’ve already discovered that Chapter 8 should really be Chapter 7 (Yay, Scrivener! All I had to do was move it up to the right place in the sidebar.)

Already I can tell that my story suffers from a problem endemic to early drafts—it drags in the middle—and I’ve got a few ideas for expanding some characters. Once I’ve got everything mapped out, I’ll start changing the timing of some events to fill in plot holes and ramp up the suspense to where it ought to be, making notes of what needs to be done on each scene’s card. Then it’ll be back to work on the actual writing.

The good part is that I’ve got myself into an “I get to work on my manuscript!” mindset, instead of “Oh, I should work on my manuscript.” The biggest secret I learned from that 2009 NaNoWriMo was that—and remember I’ve been a compulsive, voracious reader almost my whole life—writing a book is even more fun than reading one.

The bad part—inevitably—is that it’s going to take longer than I’d projected to finish it. Being realistic (and allowing for the holidays and the January NAC), my beta readers (yes, Angie, this means you, too) probably won’t get a readable draft before February. On the other hand, I may just take the time after the October NAC to work on plot development for the next book and get that first draft done during this year’s NaNoWriMo. Then I can let it simmer while I finish this one, and be ready to get to serious work on the second one again later in the spring.

But right now it’s time for the last Giants’ game of the regular season.

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Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

August 31. Technically not yet the end of summer, but as of today I’ve already been to two local tournaments in the 2014-2015 season, so it definitely feels like fall has begun.

This fall feels different.

This fall is different.

After four years and at least three consecutive Summer Nationals each of which I declared would be my last, I actually followed through. I’ve not yet decided definitely about the 2015 Summer Nationals (except that if I work it at all, it won’t be for the whole 10 days), but a couple of weeks after this year’s SN, I resigned as Tournament Committee Chair. Since then, I’ve finally begun writing seriously again, and am currently about 20,000 words (20-25% of the way through) into the current version of the murder mystery I began the first draft of in late 2009. One unfortunate fact I discovered as TC Chair is that TC/BC work apparently uses the same parts of my brain as my writing, so no matter how often I started out my days working on the manuscript, I always ended up distracted by the then-current fencing problems. This fall, there are still similar problems to deal with—they’re just not my problems to deal with any longer.

This fall—or more accurately—this past August, my replacement as TC Chair, the estimable Brandon Rochelle, got to do the BC hiring for the season, requesting availability and solving the Tetris/jigsaw puzzle of staffing national tournaments. My first 10,000 words and I happily avoided that chore.

This fall I will once again head out to work BC at the October NAC (thank you, Brandon), but only as a Mere Minion. Mere Minions get to show up at the venue, having reviewed the applicable rules and policies, work our assigned events and then leave. No busy weeks ahead of time consulting on the competition times and venue layout, figuring out the BC staff schedule, and making sure that all the BC staff booked their travel and have the rooms and roommates they requested. No lying awake the night before the first competition rehearsing solutions to all the potential problems.

And then I’m not—by choice—working another national tournament until January.

With a TC/BC-free brain, I expect to complete the current draft of my manuscript by mid-October, send it out to my select group of beta readers, and start the first draft of the next book in November. Then I’ll let that new one sit a bit while I work on revisions to the first one (there are always revisions). With enough hard work and enough luck, I should be able to publish the first one sometime this spring, and send out the second to beta readers (assuming the first one doesn’t scare them off) by summer, and start the third in the series in late summer or fall.

Beyond that, I may try a new series or a stand-alone, something different from crime fiction set in the fencing world. (One of the problems that bedevils writers of mystery series is deciding how—or even whether—to deal with their protagonist’s implausible propensity for running into corpses and meddling with the ensuing murder investigations. I’m already pushing it planning three murders in fencing venues.)

On the other hand. I’m still on USA Fencing’s Board of Directors until next fall. I’ll still be involved enough in the sport to collect yet more material from which to extrapolate murder plots. I may not make it through the whole alphabet (Sue Grafton is oh-so-close), and I wouldn’t think of tackling the integers the way Janet Evanovich has, but I could maybe see my way clear to half a dozen or so.

You never know.

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On Exceeding Expectations

calamari crime

 

(Just to warn all you fencers, this is a bit different from my usual national tournament notes.)

 

Last weekend was one I’d been looking forward to for a long time—about a year and a half, actually, since I took advantage of the super-early registration for this year’s Left Coast Crime convention. I took one look at the list of headliners, at the discounted registration fee, and the location, and decided that there was no doubt whatsoever that I’d be heading off to LCC in Monterey this month. (It was fortunate there were enough bout committee volunteers for Memphis the weekend before, too, so I didn’t even have to feel guilty for skipping the March NAC.)

The anticipation could have been a problem, though. All those months thinking about where I’d be and who I’d see—I was in serious danger of disappointment due to too-high expectations.

I shouldn’t have worried. The weather, while not spectacular, was well within the pleasant range, particularly for the central coast this time of year:

The view from my room wasn't bad at all.

The view from my room wasn’t bad at all.

 

Crime fiction conventions are somewhat peculiar gatherings. You’ve got a bunch of murder mystery readers,  a significant chunk of whom also write murder mysteries—in this case, at least 250 of the 800+ attendees were published authors, not to mention the many like me who are what Sisters in Crime refers to as “pre-published.” Unlike some conventions, LCC makes no distinction on their badges among readers or authors or agents or publishers, so as you wander around—unless you’re already familiar with the faces of authors or other supposed VIPs—the comfortably plump elderly hippie with the purple-tipped spiky hair might be an avid reader or might just as easily be a multiple-Edgar winner or an editor at an independent mystery publisher or a librarian. I was entertained by the contrast between our crowd and that attending the National Council for Public History conference, with which we shared the conference center. We were considerably older and more colorful and—judging by the reaction of one academic who interrupted a chat about means of death or hiding corpses or some such in the hotel lobby with a startled “Who are you people?”—more eccentric. (On the other hand, I suspect that the crime fiction crowd would get along very well indeed with fencing officials, if volume and density in hotel bars are valid indicators.)

I wasn’t consistent at all with my picture-taking, nor did I take many notes at panel sessions, but here are a few highlights:

"G Is for Guest": Sue Grafton interviewed by Toastmaster Brad Parks

“G Is for Guest”: Sue Grafton interviewed by Toastmaster Brad Parks

• Sue Grafton’s interview Thursday afternoon was great. (Leslie Karst has a good summary on her blog, including Sue’s discussion of freeing your “Shadow.”) I was tickled to hear, in response to a question from the audience about how she came up with the alphabetical titles for her Kinsey Milhone books, that at the time she was trying to think of good titles, she happened to be reading one of my own kids’ favorite alphabet books, Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies (“M is for Maud who was swept out to sea/N is for Neville who died of ennui”).

• Those of us who didn’t get enough of Sue Grafton Thursday afternoon got a second helping Friday morning, along with Marcia Muller and Jan Burke:

"In the Beginning: Reminiscing" - Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, with moderator Jan Burke

“In the Beginning: Reminiscing” – Sue Grafton and Marcia Muller, with moderator Jan Burke

Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone (1977) and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone (1982)—along with Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski (also 1982)—are now such popular established series characters that it’s hard to recall the scorn with which their debuts were greeted, as in “Nobody wants to read about girl detectives.”

• There were several panels intended to be funny and were (“Murder Lite: Why Authors Write Humor into Mysteries,” with Harley Jane Kozak, Donna Andrews, Mary Jane Maffini, and Helen Smith; “Been There, Wrote That: A Game Show,” with Gar Anthony Heywood, Donna Andrews, Rhys Bowen, Lee Goldberg, and Parnell Hall), but for my money, the most hilarious session in Monterey had to be “Where Rubber Meets the Road,” with Deborah Coonts, Linda Joffe Hull, Catriona McPherson, Johnny Shaw, and Jess Lourey moderating. At least one gentleman attended expecting a discussion of car-related mysteries, but he stayed anyway when Jess explained that the panel would focus on sex in crime fiction. The panelists were nearly united in their dislike of writing sex scenes, though Deborah Coonts admitted to enjoying occasionally writing them if and only if they furthered her narrative. Catriona McPherson stated emphatically that she does not write explicit sex scenes in her Dandy Gilver books. In an inspired move, though, Jess Lourey had brought short excerpts of past nominees for the annual Bad Sex Award presented by the UK’s Literary Review, giving each panelist one to read aloud. Johnny Shaw bravely took the first (and longest), which was not only supremely silly out loud, but turned out to be written by Lee Child. I’ve still not decided whether I preferred Johnny’s performance or Catriona’s (you haven’t heard bad sex read until you’ve heard it in her Scots accent), but every one of the panelists had us laughing to the point of tears.

• A few of the more serious panels were outstanding as well:

"Crime Fiction: The Bigger Picture" - Aaron Elkins, Laurie R. King, Craig Johnson, Cara Black, Janet Dawson (moderator)

“Crime Fiction: The Bigger Picture” – Aaron Elkins, Laurie R. King, Craig Johnson, Cara Black, Janet Dawson (moderator)

“The Bigger Picture” panel show above was excellent, as was “Murder in Another Era: Historical Mysteries,” with Annamaria Alfieri, Laurie R. King, David Morrell, Caroline Todd (who writes with her son as Charles Todd), and Patti Ruocco moderating, but my favorite was “The Heart & Soul of Murder: Mysteries with a Meaning,” with Jacqueline Winspear moderating Ann Cleeves, Deborah Crombie, Michael Sears, and Louise Penny.  These were almost a continuing discussion of the crime fiction genre, the difficulties in tackling serious issues without getting preachy, and the research and creativity required to create believable characters and the worlds they inhabit in great crime fiction.

• All of the Guest of Honor interviews were good. In addition to Sue Grafton’s, there were Louise Penny, interviewed by Andrew Martin, her American publisher; Cara Black, interviewed by Louise Penny, who filled in at the last minute when Deborah Crombie was unwell; Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini, interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb and J.J. Lamb. For some reason, the Muller/Pronzini interview is the only one I took a photo of:

Lifetime Achievement Honorees Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb & J.J. Lamb

Lifetime Achievement Honorees Marcia Muller & Bill Pronzini interviewed by Bette Golden Lamb & J.J. Lamb

And of course, there was the Saturday evening awards banquet. One of the perks of very early registration, which I’d entirely forgotten about, was getting to choose my preferred banquet table host ahead of time, and I was happy to get my first choice, my current favorite but daunting geez-I’ll-never-write-as-well-as-she-does author. As you can see from the photos, being seated at the table of an author who is an expected-to-win nominee for an award provides an excellent view of the proceedings:

The banquet ran too long, naturally. Those of us at the Penny table didn’t mind too much, because we were enjoying ourselves, not least because it’s such a joy when a writer of books that give great pleasure lives up to the expectations she creates with those books. I couldn’t have asked for a better LCC—or a better crime fiction con at all.

Now I just have to make sure I finish my own book in time for next year in Portland.

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