Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Experiment | No. 2

by Brett

Before returning to the experiment, a quick note of BSP. My latest adult thriller, NO RETURN, hits bookstores today! Yep, today. Here's a quick description:
An F-18 Navy fighter careens out of the blue sky above the Mojave desert. A TV cameraman who grew up in a small town just miles away can see what is going to happen next. Frantically, Wes Stewart races to the downed jet and tries to save the pilot’s life. When the plane explodes, Wes escapes without harm—and plunges into a murderous conspiracy.

It’s been fifteen years since Wes has been back to the desolate land of his childhood. Now he finds himself up against the U.S. military, the local police, and someone who is tracking his every move. In the moments he spent with the dying pilot, Wes discovered something that could get him killed. But while he tries to untangle a web of lies and secrets surrounding the crash, another danger is stalking him. And this one he will never see coming.

You can read the first chapter here. Thanks!

I now return you to my regularly scheduled post:

Okay, a quick refresher...I've decided to use my posts here at ADR3NALIN3 to develop and write a YA novel using your input. (Read more here: An Experiment | No. 1.)

Last time we discussed genre, and I asked for your input as to which you'd like to see me work in. Now, as I hinted at before, this isn't going to be a complete democracy. I'll be taking in your thoughts, but will make the final decision (for the most part) myself. The majority of people who responded seemed to be leaning toward Thriller. There were several votes for detective, some for real world sci-fi, and a few for real world fantasy. The rest were scattered around.

So, after considering everything, here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to blend a few of these together. No, this isn't me taking the easy way out. I just think it would be more fun. So here's where I'm at.
• Thriller, check.
• Detective, semi-check (leaving this one open until the story develops some.)
• Real World Sci-fi, probable check.
• Real World Fantasy, probably not, but leaving the door open also.

A thriller with a mystery to it, that's first and foremost. Over this will be a real world sci-fi architecture, or, potentially, a real world fantasy architecture. (And, yes, there's always the possibility of those two combining.) Cool with everyone?

All right. So I'm not quite ready to start working out plot yet. What I need first is some characters to build around, specifically a lead character(s). While a book might have a good story, without good characters, it's going to suck, plain and simple. Character is everything, so that's where we're going to start.

To do that, I need to make some choices...rather, I need your help in making those choices. I have a few different questions that need your responses to. Unlike with genre, I'm going to go with the majority rule on these and see where that takes me. So, here we go. First:

1. What kind of lead is this story going to have?
a. Female
b. Male
c. Female and Male duo
d. Female and Female duo
e. Male and Male duo

Just so you know, I enjoy writing both female and male characters, so don't let that worry you. Plus I think there are some great stories out there that have dual leads—working as a team, or even coming at a problem from different directions.

Let's keep going...

2. Age? (can have two different answers if you went the duo route)
a. 16
b. 17
c. 18
d. 19
e. older (specify)
f. younger (specify)

3. Life growing up?
a. Single parent home
b. Dual parent home
c. Raised by relatives
d. Foster child
e. other (specify)

Let's give our lead (or one of our leads) something they're really into.

4. Obsession?
a. Music (specify type)
b. Movies (specify type: sci fi, comedies, james bond, etc.)
c. Manga
d.TV shows (specify type: obscure, cop drama, 70s sitcoms, etc.)
f. Other (specify)

I could keep going with these, but I think that's enough to get us started. Looking forward to what you have to say. And never be afraid to add any additional comments, too!

Monday, January 30, 2012

We Creatures of Habit

Otto Dix once said, "All art is exorcism." In his case, he was grappling with the demons that took up residence in his brain after World War I

but he could have been talking about any struggle to make meaning, and let me tell you why.

Right now, I'm on this major mission after meaning. I know because I've been having a TON of examination dreams. You know the kind: where you wander into an exam and realize you haven't studied all semester? Where that calculus might as well be Swahili? I've had a couple of house dreams, too, and just last night/early this morning, I jerked awake from a real doozy about a patient--no one I recognized--for whom I apparently kept no record, no notes, did no exams, etc. It was, when you get right down to it, the perfect nightmare: me as a study in--and the very picture of--incompetence. To my credit, just before I woke, I was rearranging my office, moving things into the light, giving my animals--ANIMALS?!--space, digging through old records and beginning to right some of what I'd been doing wrong.

Now, being a shrink and having done some training in psychoanalysis--all those years of staring at acoustical tile, financing my analyst's vacations and free-associating about, well, things better be good for something--I tend to pay attention to my dreams and more so than, say, a deck of tarot cards or a horoscope because dreams are internally generated and chockful of symbols both peculiar to me and somewhat universal. (For example, house dreams are, by and large, commentaries on the dreamer herself. All those messy rooms, dilapidated furnishings...) I know myself well enough to understand that my dreams reflect what I'm worried about. In this case, I'm in the throes of beginning a new novel which is . . . well, let's just say it's kind of different and my self-doubt's a little high. Okay, okay, you win: it's off the charts. Yet I sense some daylight here. In the dream, I did at least understand my mistakes and was working to correct them. In fact, I woke thinking that I really had to declutter my desk, move the printer, take a bunch of books back to the library . . . And these are all signs I recognize. I breathe a little easier when I've cleared the decks, tidied things up, given myself some space. My dream's telling me that, too: although the jury's still out on what those animals mean, my brain's saying, among other things, that I need to give myself both a new space (the book) and SOME space (to cut myself a bit of a break; the sun's gonna come up tomorrow, betcha bottom dollar, there's tomorrow, yada, yada, yada).

Which brings me to writers and their quirks, habits, rituals and superstitions--and, no, they're not all the same beast, IMHO, although they may come to be loaded with the same emotional valence. For example, my paying attention to a dream is not, I think, the same thing as the ritual I follow pretty much every morning: up by first light (and frequently before), brew that pot of coffee, answer some email and read a bit of news (all standing up, by the way, and in the kitchen where I can look out and see the sun rise and which birds are coming to the feeder). But by 7:30 a.m.--8, at the latest--I better be writing-writing, or I start to get this crawl-out-of-my-skin feeling. I become very uneasy. Not starting work by a certain time feels like . . . bad luck.

I'm not alone here. Nearly all writers have habits, rituals, etc. There are famous examples. Ernest Hemingway had a lucky rabbit's foot he used so long it was nothing but sinew and bone by the end. (But contrary to the mythology, Hemingway didn't ALWAYS write while standing:

although he supposedly claimed that "Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up."

This is something that Philip Roth seems to have taken to heart (walking a half mile for every page he finishes while standing). On the other hand, Mark Twain liked his bed

and, if you can believe him,Truman Capote wrote lying down (so the movies--while fabulous--have that wrong):

What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don't use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

The Paris Review, Issue 16, 1957

On the other hand, Capote enjoyed being a celeb and, for his time, was a master of the outrageous.

Dickens arranged the items on his writing desk just so--dueling bronze toads, a bronze dog thief with pups stuffed in his pockets, and a green porcelain tea cup filled with fresh flowers, among other things. (Dickens seems to have had a touch of OCD, too, needing to touch things a certain number of times, but that's another story.) Legend has it that Carson McCullers always wore a lucky sweater when she wrote, which one can only hope she washed.

I could go on, but you get my point and these are only the tip of the iceberg. Do a search and you'll find stories--some of which are probably true--about the habits, superstitions and rituals of writers as various as Stephen King, Anthony Trollope, Franz Kafka, Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Freud . . . the list goes on and on.

Now, is it so amazing that writers have rituals or habits or superstitions? No, and like I said, I don't think they're all the same beast. I believe that a habit can BECOME a ritual and that ritual can become loaded with all sorts of (largely personal) significance, like that coffee mug you just have to use every day or your special pen, or--my personal favorite--a piece of jewelry that symbolizes your current project. (I've had the devil of a time finding one for my current WIP. I sense what I'm looking for/groping toward. Just haven't found the piece that speaks to me quite yet...)

But people are pattern-machines. Our brains are wired to make associations and find meaning in randomness; to generate order out of chaos; to take an ill-defined stimulus and attempt to give or fit it into a story. The behavior's got a fancy name--pareidolia--but it's the basis of dream analysis, you get right down to it. After all, your brain only has a certain set number of images and memories culled from everyday experience. Depending on what's going on, your dreaming mind, that enormously complex, meaning-generating machine, will cycle through and cobble together images it knows will get your attention. Or, to take all the woo-woo out of it, a dream is nothing more than your brain's attempt to associate what you've gone through that particular day with prior experience. Think of a dream as analogous to a computer trying to find the right--or similar--folder in which to insert a specific file, and you catch my drift.

If you think about it a second, this kind of pattern-seeking is to our evolutionary advantage. Nice to predict when that saber-toothed tiger might be on the prowl, for example, and it helps if you understand that the thing with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth contained within something vaguely circular is the face of a person, not a coconut. It is why people inevitably see faces in random dots or, as here, in the rocks and hollows of a crater on Mars

which "really" looks like this under different light at a different angle and with different resolution:

It's why our brain sees a woman's body clinging to this tree,

searches for faces in clouds:

or, depending on your point of view and circumstance, the Devil:

And, by extension, this explains why people structure highly-evolved, codified rituals and rules into things called mythologies and religions--because we are all, each and every one of us, seeking to establish meaning out of chaos. People are hard-wired to seek patterns in randomness. We even know where, in the brain, it happens (the ventral fusiform gyrus, to be precise). So we can't help ourselves. We are the creatures who develop habits in order to survive. It's just the way we are.

By extension, if you think about this for a second, you can readily understand why people like artists and writers develop rituals and habits, need to have things just so, or attach meanings to what are at first random acts later strung together to become an indispensable part of their routine: because we are trying, mightily, to give shape to the jumble of images and emotions that are stories and put them down in recognizable form.

Or put it this way: when I was in practice, I thought of my job as one of helping patients find the words to tell their stories. Well, we writers are no different. Our job is to fish all those words out of our minds and string them together on a page, in a certain order. We struggle with this all the time, and it's exactly why young writers are always looking to more established writers for those magical tricks: lucky charms, quirky habits. Writers create order out of the chaos of their minds, not an easy task by any stretch.

So is it weird or odd or crazy for writers to be superstitious beasts, or adhere to certain habits and patterns, or have their lucky talismans? Not at all. This kind of neuroplasticity leads us to develop associations: ah-ha, I was playing Van Halen when I had that great idea; or I used this typewriter to write my first successful novel and now I'm going to write every novel on this same typewriter(Cormac McCarthy); or hey, I was eating an apple under L'Arc de Triomphe when I figured out how to get my character from A to B (Alexandre Dumas). Or--in my case--I must start writing by a certain time every day or I get very, very uneasy. I must write a certain number of pages (and do, unless there's an earthquake), or I get uneasy. (Worse, the writing loses its vitality and the characters start to die in my head . . . but that's another post for another day.) In the end, I am uneasy because I am breaking with habit, and I have developed a habit because what I'm trying to do is make sense of disorder and chaos.

In the end, there is no right answer about which ritual to follow, what habit will lead to success. If you think that doing a three card reading from a tarot deck is an important way to start your day, have at it. If you want to write in the buff, that's fine, too (Cheever wrote in his boxers), but do pull the blinds and make sure the heat's on. Whatever you choose, remember this: if you expect to be a writer, you must write. How you get into that groove--how you pull together the chaos in your mind--is entirely up to you.

No magic involved.


On a completely different note, my new YA novel, DROWNING INSTINCT, has its book birthday on Feb. 1. YAY!

To celebrate, I'll be giving away a signed hardcover. The giveaway is open to residents of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland and Australia, and will start at midnight (EST) 2/01/12 and end Wednesday night, 2/08/12, at 11:59 p.m. (EST). Be sure to stop by my blog beginning at midnight (EST) 2/01/12, and check out the Rafflecopter entry form for your chance to win.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Surviving the Zombiepocalypse, ADR3NALIN3 style...

by Hans (translated by Franz)


Franz: Whilst looking online for brain recipes, Hans stumbled upon a very helpful "How To" video made by the talented fellows at Bad Idea Films. He'd like to share these useful tips for those of our readers who wish to keep their brains intact should a zombie infestation occur within their neighborhood. View at your leisure (but please don't wait until you hear the clawing upon your windows and doors ... that's a bit too late).

Hans: UUG rooorrr raaaaarr RAAAAAAR AHHHH roooorr braaiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnss roooorr ahh uuug AAHHHHH UURRRG ROOOOORRR!!!

Franz: And because Hans is feeling generous this weekend, he'll share one last tip with you. It is a well known fact that zombies like fat, pink brains. But, it is less common knowledge that feeding the brain with books and cheetos makes it healthy, lean, and orange. So by being well-read and cheeto-fed, you're already one step ahead of your neighbors.


Franz: You say you're short on books and orange cheesey snacks? You're in luck, for our authors here at ADR3NALIN3 have asembled this marvelous gift bundle chock full of everything you need for a healthy, orange brain:

 Franz: As Hans is now busy gnawing on a stale toe he fished from the cookie jar, perhaps I should be the one to tell you about the prize package. Or better yet, I'll keep you guessing. Watch our blog posts ... details on how to win it will be forthcoming very soon. Have a grand weekend, and don't forget -- a book a day, keeps the zombies at bay. Farewell, happy readers!


For more information on the creative geniuses behind the featured video, or to see more of their work, please visit Bad Idea Films at their YouTube channel.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Social Network Faceoff

by Michelle Gagnon

I've gotta admit, every time I get a message from MySpace now (and they're gracing my inbox more and more rarely), I feel a twinge of pity for them. Remember when MySpace was the hot new thing that revolutionized social networking? When everyone you knew was hanging out there? Now it seems like all that remains are a few bands and companies that post ads, spamming my comment page.

I can't stop picturing Tom, the MySpace creator and everyone's first fr
iend on there, curled up in a room alone, wondering what went wrong.

Now I split my time fairly evenly between Facebook and Twitter, posting everything from music videos, links to things I stumbled across and found interesting, and general complaints/observations about my day and life in general. But occasionally I get shout outs from Gather and Google +, which make me feel pretty much the same way MySpace does; vaguely guilty for no longer participating. Seriously, though, who has the time? For awhile there I joined everything that came along, from Linked in to Friendster (remember that one?) But just keeping up with the two that I do use consumes a pretty serious chunk of my day.

A lot of my time on the social networks is for just that- socializing. I work from home, so aside from the occasional UPS delivery, I don't always get a lot of human contact. Facebook and Twitter have become good stand-ins for that. Scrolling through my home page I always come across at least one thing a day that gets me laughing out loud, or makes me think, or gives me a heads up that a friend is having a rough day. I love that aspect of it, that it enables me to stay in touch with people who I would probably lose contact with otherwise, since they live across the country or because we're all just so busy these days.

But to be honest, I'm also on there for the same reason as a lot of other writers- befriending strangers in the hopes that they'll consider buying my books.

Several years in and thousands of friends later, I've really got no idea whether or not the SNs work for that. I've personally bought a few books, thanks to reminders sent by writers whose work I'd already read and enjoyed; but I have to confess I haven't discovered a lot of new authors that way.

So today I have two questions: First, which social networks do you use, and why do you prefer it/them?

And second: have you ever bought a book just because you saw it recommended by a virtual friend?

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I’m not a gambler.

I’ve bought lottery tickets a few times in my life and never remember to check the winning numbers. For all I know, I could be living in a Powerball mansion right now. Bummer.

Whenever someone holds a 50-50 raffle during halftime or intermission, I might buy a chance, but I consider it a charitable contribution because chances are I’ll be on the long line for the ladies’ room when they call the winner.

I’ve been to Vegas twice, once to celebrate my fortieth birthday, and once the following year on a book tour after I wrote a novel set in Vegas just so that I'd have an excuse to go back. It was pretty cool to see my name on the marquee along the Strip...

And of course, I’m passionate for hotel pools, buffets, and shows. Who isn't?

But the casinos aren’t very appealing to me. On my first visit, after playing the slots for ten minutes, I walked away several hundred dollars richer with no temptation whatsoever to continue playing, perhaps losing it all on the slim chance that I could win more.

No, I’m not a gambler.

Or am I?

I sold my first book because I took a risk, betting I would somehow win against tremendous odds.

See, I didn’t just intend, when I set out to become an author, to publish a book. I wanted to publish a novel. Not just one. Many novels. I planned to make a living as a novelist. Not just any novelist. I had my sights set on the New York Times bestseller list from the time I was a teenager working part-time in The Book Nook, our local indy bookstore.

It was my job, every weekend, to pluck the fortunate few titles that had made the venerable list for the upcoming week and arrange them according to rank in a special display. I vowed, back then, that one day my own titles would be among them.

There are roughly 200,000 books published every year in the US. Many are self-published, or nonfiction, or from small presses. Fewer than 1% of those will achieve bestseller status.

Generally speaking, the five major US publishers are responsible for the vast majority of bestsellers. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but those publishers receive thousands of submissions each year and publish perhaps a few hundred. Of that percentage, how many are first-time novelists? It’s hard to say, but having been an editor (back in the ‘80s at a publishing house that’s still around and falls into the top 10, though not top 5, US Publishers), I would guess that number is in the double digits at most.

I was blessed to have a mother who wholeheartedly believed in me from the moment I was born. When I decided, in third grade, that I wanted to become an author, she supported my dream in every way. When I later amended my goal to "New York Times Bestselling Novelist,"well aware that the odds of achieving that status were staggeringly slim, she shrugged and said, “So? Someone has to be in that tiny percentage. It might as well be you.”

My mom said the same thing years later, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer on the very day she turned 56. At that point, her odds of survival were pretty good—nowhere near as slim as the publishing odds--and for awhile, she appeared to have beat them. Even when the cancer spread to her bones a few years later, the odds were…well, not good. But not devastating. Not yet. "So? Someone has to be in that tiny percentage," she said. "It might as well be me."

I’ll never forget the day—again, ironically, on my mom’s birthday, her 63rd —that her oncologist informed us that she was going to lose. The chances that she could survive were almost nonexistent.


By that time, I’d been an author for fifteen years, with multiple New York Times bestsellers under my belt. I believed in beating tremendous odds, and so did my mother. We agreed, again, that someone had to be in that tiny fraction of a percent. Why not her?

Tragically, that story does not have a happy ending. Losing my mother just a few weeks later, the day after Mother’s Day, derailed me in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. I was strong. I had always been strong. I was the oldest child of two oldest children; my parents had taught me that I could call upon inner strength that would allow me to do whatever needed to be done under any circumstances.

I was holding my mother's hand when she passed, and though it had been inevitable for days, somehow, it caught me off-guard.

Did I fall apart? Not right away. Not visibly.

Stay strong, I thought, and so I filled out the paperwork when the funeral directors came to the door in the wee hours in their somber suits, and watched them carry her away. I comforted my father, broke the news to my young children, picking up my seven-year-old when he collapsed on the floor in grief; I got through the wake and funeral, served food and cleaned up after the hordes of grieving friends and family members who filled my childhood home for a week.

Then I returned to my own home, to my life as wife and mother. To my writing career that had been on hold for weeks, when I couldn’t technically spare the time away. I have released anywhere from 3-8 novels per year, simultaneously under contract with several different publishers, since my career began. That particular year, the deadlines were stacked up, as usual, like circling planes preparing to land with precision timing at JFK. I couldn’t afford to miss any—doing so would mean they’d all go down, one after another.

But I missed the first deadline. Thus, I missed the second. And third. And so on.

Fortunately, my career didn’t crash and burn. Given my track record, my publishers were able to bear with me. Eventually I got the books in. I got my career back on track. I was able to believe in myself again—and even believe again in beating the odds, career-wise. How I did that is another story, and one I’ll share with you sometime.

Meanwhile, two years after my mom died, I was the featured speaker at a writer’s conference. I had been told that my mission should be to inspire the audience to take a chance on getting a first novel published. I told them the story of how I had beaten the odds, with my mother’s support—and how she hadn’t. I was so choked up by the time I finished the speech that I was wiping my eyes with a napkin, and so were many people in the room. Had I inspired them, or just made them cry?

Afterward, a woman, a total stranger, came up to me and told me she had just been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. The doctors said there was a possible treatment that would be incredibly grueling, and that her odds, even with the treatment, of surviving more than a few months were in the 1-2% range. She had been getting her affairs in order, not willing to put herself through that.

My speech had her rethinking that plan. We tearfully hugged and went our separate ways. She was never far from my thoughts, but I sadly gave up expecting to hear from her.

Two Christmases ago, out of the blue, I got an email with the subject line THANK YOU. Guess who it was from?

That’s right. The woman had gone ahead with the treatment—and she had survived. It had been a fierce battle, but she’d won.

The following summer, I was signing books at the jam-packed national RWA conference when she walked up to my table.

“I wanted to say thank you in person,” she said. “If it weren’t for your speech that day, I wouldn’t be here.”

We hugged and cried—yes, I know, I do seem to cry a lot, don't I?--and caused a big commotion. If you were in the vicinity of the “S” author row that day at RWA National, you probably witnessed it or heard about it.

In any case, that woman beat tremendous odds. I beat tremendous odds, though I would trade my dream career in a heartbeat if my mom could have beaten the odds instead.

The point is, someone is always going to be in that tiny percentage. There are no guarantees, but if you take a chance, it might be you.

Well, there is one guarantee: if you don’t take a chance, I guarantee, with 100% certainty, that it won’t be you.

So if you’re sitting out there thinking that you’d love to become a writer—or an astronaut, or an Oscar-winning actress, or a New York Yankee: you can safely bet that a few years from now, someone is going to be doing those things. Why not you?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Houdini, suburban vampires, and ghostly guests...

By A.G. Howard

One of my favorite things about being a writer is meeting other writers. I love to see the way their minds work: what gives them the idea for a story, how they go about researching and plotting, what their writing process is. I always come away feeling like I've learned something about myself and my process just by sharing theirs.

It's also true that I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, romance, and ghost stories which is why I wrote a gothic/literary YA set in Victorian England with a unique love triangle between a deaf heroine, a gypsy viscount, and a ghost ... sort of Jane Eyre meets A Certain Slant of Light. I'm hoping to pique my editor's interest in this story, tenatively titled GhostFlowerwhen I pitch second book ideas to her this week.

All that to say, when I met the lovely and talented Cat Winters (the brilliant mind behind The Suburban Vampire blog), whose historical ghost YA will be published through Amulet in Spring 2013, I knew I couldn't wait to pick her brain for details.  She graciously accepted my invitation to drop by today and give us the inside scoop. 

Please welcome Cat, and her debut novel In the Shadow of Blackbirds to the ADR3NALIN3 stage.

Cat Winters was born and raised just a short drive down the freeway from Disneyland, which probably explains her obsession with haunted mansions, bygone eras, and fantasylands. Her debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, a YA historical ghost tale illustrated with early-twentieth-century photographs, is coming Spring 2013 from Amulet Books. She lives outside of Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids.

I suppose I've been preparing to write my upcoming novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, since I first fell in love with ghost stories. My fascination with spirits started way back in elementary school, when a book about haunted locales called to me from a shelf in my school's library. Up until that point, I had only thought of ghosts as fictional creatures that showed up in spooky stories and movies, and because I was growing up in Orange County, California, not far from Disneyland, I thought they looked something like this: 

Yet here was a book telling me that real people believed in real ghosts.

After I read that library text, I found myself continually drawn to spine-chilling tales. One of my favorite movies growing up was The Watcher in the Woods—another one of Disney's contributions to my obsession with all things eerie. The movie is packed with menacing music and so many psychological thrills that both my sister and my daughter refuse to even talk about the film.

Here's the trailer so you can see what appealed to little horror-loving me:

I spent my teen years gobbling up classic Gothic literature (Shelley, Poe, the Brontës, etc.) and watching The Twilight Zone reruns and old Alfred Hitchcock films. Then, in my adulthood, I stumbled upon the history of séances in a Smithsonian Magazine article and started playing around with a historical novel involving séances. That particular book didn't go far, but several years later I landed an agent and chatted with her about an entirely new take on my basic plot ideas. I proposed showing a teen's perspective of the Spiritualism craze that resulted from the horrors of WWI.

One year later, I turned in the first draft of In the Shadow of Blackbirds. A year after that, I received an offer from Amulet Books.

In the Shadow of Blackbirds explores the nightmare world of 1918, when both WWI and the Spanish Influenza killed millions of people around the globe, and desperate Americans turned to séances, spirit photographers, and folk remedies for comfort.

To research the ghostly side of the story, I pored over spirit photographs from the era and read books that tackled the dark and dangerous aspects of spirit communication, like Harry Houdini's A Magician among the Spirits and Mary Roach's Spook.

Click the picture to find on Amazon

I've always felt some of the most moving tales about war and other atrocities are the ones told from the point of view of young people, so I picked a brutally honest sixteen-year-old girl to be my protagonist. She's forced to deal with death, spiritual tricksters, national paranoia, some highly creepy birds … and a ghost (of course).

Would the kid in me who loved to be scared out of her wits enjoy this novel? Definitely.

What about you? Are you typically drawn to ghostly tales? And do you believe in ghosts?

Want to keep tabs on Cat and her upcoming novel? Check out her online haunts:


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why Write?

Carol Tanzman checking in!

There’s a section in my new thriller dancergirl where the main character tries to figure out why she dances. In a way, that came out of both Alicia’s story ––and my own life. Sometimes, in the dead of night, or the bright light of a sunny Saturday afternoon, when I could be napping or hiking or doing any number of fun things, I might just ask myself: Why write? Why do I drive myself crazy trying to get it all just right? Why not chuck this manuscript into the ever-present trash can on the bottom of my screen—which is always there, taunting me with its siren call: I will take this draft you are struggling with and dispose of it so you never have to look at it again. I can make your plot problems go away with a satisfying crunch….

Of course, I never actually do that. The most I’ve ever done is move the manuscript into a folder and put that folder somewhere in my documents file where I don’t have to see it whenever I open the laptop lid.

A few days, maybe a week, or, as is the case with dancergirl (when I lost faith in my ability to make it work), several months go by. I work on something else, or I put a little extra effort into my rewarding day job as a drama teacher. But the day comes when there’s been enough space or distance or the brain freeze inside my head thaws…and the manuscript calls to me. I’ll start reading--and that’s when I realize, hey, it’s not so bad. Or…there! That’s where the problem is. If I change this…and then that…suddenly, I’ve gotten myself off the wrong path onto the right one. It’s going back with a fresh outlook, an open mind that lets me to find the place where the energy in the book seeped out—and allows me to close that gap.

I’ve been thinking about this because something happened a few weeks ago that truly makes all the hard work worthwhile. dancergirl published in December. I went to NYC for both the holidays and to do some book events: signing at some bookstores, a couple of school visits, and the Teen Author Read at the castle-like Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village.

I used to live around the corner. That library was “my” library when I was directing Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theatre. Before I ever considered writing books. Before I decided to try writing books. And way before I began those six steps Ilse wrote about on January 2nd. Last week, I walked back into that library with a published book in hand and sat onstage alongside other writers. It was fun. But it did not truly answer the question, Why write?

I’ve heard others answer. Many say: “I have no choice. I must write.” “I have stories to tell and things to say.” “The challenge is what drives me”.” “I want to make a ton of money” (Good luck with that!) or…or… There are as many answers as there are writers.

My answer walked in with a white cap worn over dark curly hair––and a smile that lit up the room. Kristin is her name. She writes a book blog and she reviewed dancergirl. When she saw a tweet about the event, she immediately sent one back: You are in town? I am so there! Kristin came down from the Bronx in the bitter cold of a winter night. After the reading and the Q&A was over, she introduced herself. I took a picture of her with the book I’d just signed and we talked.

She told how much dancergirl meant to her—and why. I told her how much that meant to me­­–-and the answer to why I write became crystal clear. Despite being an author, I’m still the theatre director I once was—I write for an audience. To make the invisible connection that goes from fingers typing on a page to reader reading.

And so, on those frustrating days that all writers have, I will remember Kristin—and all the possible Kristins in the world. I’ll go back to my manuscripts with the knowledge that by dint of hard work, perseverance and butt in chair, I will figure it out. (In a future post, I’ll write about a method I’ve discovered that can help.)

I’d also like to ask the same question of you: Why do you write? What drives you? The answer may be simple, it may be profound, it may be funny. It does, however, have to be your answer. Ultimately you are the one who has to put butt in chair!