While my friends Dana and Mike have been galavanting around Egypt for the last month or so, I’ve been suffering through the unforgiving, unrelenting, un-anything good Northeast winter. But I’m not bitter.
It’s been a blast — mainly because Dana and Mike left their dog Torres with me. Like her namesake, Olympic champion Dara Torres, she’s a world-class swimmer, which served her well growing up wild on a remote Costa Rican beach. She’s a good pup, with just enough of a lingering wild streak to keep you on your toes, and she’s been a good playmate for my own pup. She’s going back home today and we’ll miss her.
Meanwhile, I’ve been living vicariously through the photos and videos that Dana and Mike have been sending back, and I thought all the Dixie Hemingway fans might enjoy this one. It’s a neighborhood deli in Dahab, a small town on the Gulf of Aqaba. I could put it on a loop and watch it all day long.
I’ve been thinking a lot about tabbies lately. In the Dixie Hemingway mystery I’m working on now, the star cat is a Tabby. His name is Moses Cosmo Thornwall — I’ll write more later how he got his name — but for now, I stumbled upon Orange Peel.
Orange Peel! I mean, come on! She’s a rescue at the terrific Animal Friends Rescue Project in Pacific Grove, California. They have a tireless staff and more than 300 volunteers. If I wasn’t 30 hours away, I’d drive there right now. Instead I’ll throw a couple of bucks her way to help a little. Daily feel good deed – CHECK.
You can read more about Orange Peel here.
Some wise words from a March, 2008 interview with Blaize on Novel Rocket. Oh, how I miss her!
What is your current project? Tell us about it.
I just finished the fourth book in my Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, and will soon be starting the fifth. But before I do that, I’m polishing up some essays and short stories and working on a thriller that’s about two-thirds finished. I find that I need to “cleanse my palate” between Dixie Hemingway stories by writing entirely different kinds of works.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?
Oh my, this will be a long answer! I began as a ghost-writer while I was a single mom in graduate school (psychology). Later, under my own name I wrote a couple of parenting books, a gazillion essays and some short fiction, but I didn’t begin to write book-length fiction until I closed my 20-year practice. You’d think all that previous writing would have been a help, but it took a few years of almost non-stop writing and lots of rejections to get into the rhythm of fiction.
I wrote a mystery based on the goofy idea of a man drowning in a cat’s water bowl, and had more fun writing it than anything I’d ever done. I finished it just as the Florida MWA Sleuthfest conference was coming up, so I sent the first ten pages of the manuscript for an editor’s evaluation. The editor was Marcia Markland, senior editor of Thomas Dunne, a division of St. Martin’s Press. At the conference, she asked to see the rest of the manuscript. I came home from Sleuthfest on Sunday and was at the post office early Monday morning with the manuscript in hand. Marcia called on Wednesday and offered me a three-book contract.
My reaction? To tell you the truth, even though I was thrilled, I also had a sense of it being inevitable. I had paid my dues, put in my internship, and learned my craft. Anybody who does that will eventually be published.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
If I compare my work with the very best, I conclude all kinds of useless and unproductive crap — how I’ll never measure up and who do I think I am to even try, etc, etc. But if I keep my comparisons to my own work, and only judge it by whether I’m growing and improving, I’m happy.
As for writer’s block, if I hit a blank wall in a story, I know I’ve taken a wrong turn and that my “inner writer” is refusing to go any farther. So I go back to whatever I most recently wrote and find the place where a character did something that I imposed rather than something that grew organically from the story. I can always recognize the spots because they make me feel vaguely uncomfortable and dishonest, so I take them out. Once they’ve been cut, something better always presents itself, and then I can move on.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
This will sound hopelessly impractical and noodle-headed, but I don’t have any regrets about my writing career, and I’m glad I was a psychologist first. In spite of the fact that publishing is a hard-nosed business, I still see writing as an author’s way of making personal contact with other people. I never think of sales when I’m writing, I think of directing energy from my heart to a reader’s heart. Every time I sit down to write, I breathe a silent prayer that every word I write will bring pleasure to my readers as well as heal old hurts. The responses I’ve had tell me that’s happening. I leave the marketing stuff to my publishers.
What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?
I think the worst advice being given to beginning writers is to go the POD route or to self-publish novels that have been rejected by agents or editors. That instant gratification is almost guaranteed to keep a writer from growing.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Story ideas are all over the place, but an idea isn’t as important as what we do with it. In the weekly writing workshops I hold around my dining table, I throw out an opening word or phrase and everybody writes like crazy for five or ten minutes. Then we read aloud, and we’re always blown away by the fact that no two people ever come up with stories even remotely similar.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I live in Florida, land of the weird, so asking questions like that wouldn’t seem unusual.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?
The most painful experience was when I foolishly entered into a verbal agreement with one of the people for whom I had ghost-written other books. Our agreement was that my name would also be on the next book and that I would share in the royalties. It wasn’t and I didn’t. The book turned out to be a best seller with numerous reprints, and the author was a guest on several national TV shows. I don’t think he’d ever actually read the book, and watching him take credit for my work was devastating.
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)
Like most avid readers, I like anything well written, no matter what the genre, and my favorite is often the one I’m reading at the moment. I love all the Greek and Hindu classics, and reread them whenever I’m working on a manuscript — I don’t want to read contemporary fiction then because I fear I’ll absorb it and reflect it in my own work. Of current writers, I love anything by Margaret Atwood or Barbara Kingsolver. Loved Alex Berenson’s “The Faithful Spy,” Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” and “The Time-Traveler’s Wife” by Niffenegger. I could make a list a mile long.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
Two inspirational essays about my own non-traditional healing experiences had significant and positive impact on many readers. That kind of writing is like tossing pebbles into a pond and causing harmonious ripples to spread. I can’t think of anything more rewarding.
Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”
To me, the idea of “the writer’s sacred duty” means always writing from one’s personal truth. I don’t mean confessional writing, but paying such close attention to each word that the writing is right and true for that particular story. Whether it’s a heavy literary tome or the lightest chick lit, the more a writer connects with his or her own unique self and expresses it, the more universally will the work connect with readers. I can’t see any other reason to write.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Unless it’s a house of prostitution, there’s no other business in the world that has so little regard for the people putting out the product. Publishing is a highly profitable business, but except for a handful of arbitrarily chosen stars, those who create the profit don’t share in it.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
Well, sure. If you don’t have dreams, you’ll be static. I don’t tell my dreams though, because I don’t want to jinx them.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
They’re the same. Writing at home is a lot more fun than going off to a job every day. On the other hand, writing at home is a solitary business just one step removed from being a hermit.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Structuring a novel was the most difficult thing I had to learn, and from what I’ve seen in evaluating other people’s manuscripts, I think it’s a common problem. We writers love words so much that we tend to depend on them to take us through a story. But words are like bricks laid on a pathway; they’re not the path itself.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I usually begin with an opening line that has dropped into my mind. The third Dixie Hemingway mystery, for example, spun off from a sentence that came from nowhere: “Christmas was coming, and I had killed a man.” I play around with the opening, thinking about what kind of scenes might be in a book about whatever the opening suggests, and I write the scenes that occur to me. Not with the idea that I’ll absolutely use them, just with the idea that I might. As I do that, characters pop up, and I wallow in name possibilities for a while. I don’t begin serious writing until I have a sizable collection of possible scenes and the right names for characters.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I don’t impose any rules on myself, but I need absolute silence when I write. I can’t even have music playing.
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Building a novel is like building a house; you have to have a framework to hold them up. Action scenes are the framework of a novel. Once you have action scenes that tell the story, you have something to work with. If you don’t get those key scenes, it doesn’t matter how much plaster or paint you slap on it, the thing won’t stand up.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.
This probably seems weird, but I’m so steeped in a psychologist’s taboo against breaking confidences that I hold those special reader responses as almost sacred. Sharing them would seem like a violation of a reader’s trust.
How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?
A truly effective PR campaign costs more than my annual income, so I haven’t done one. Also, while I realize some promotion absolutely has to happen, it seems to me that a lot of time and energy expended in self-promotion would better be spent in writing. If the day ever comes when I’m the hottest writer on the market, I’d prefer it be because of word-of-mouth advertising. On the other hand, if Oprah calls, I sure won’t turn her down.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
I think you’ve covered every topic, and it’s given me food for thought. Thanks for interviewing me!
Came man — Lance Armstrong. Strong man. Ran, ran long. Strange? No. Clean, clear man. Strong man. Mentor. Ran, ran, re-ran. Garner star. Earns ascent…
Smelt rat. Clean or not? Strong man reacts. Anger! Smear scam! Long rants, gnarl, snarl, scream… Glances… re-arms. Snort grams, tar traces, smog, strange nectars. Lots. Smart rascal…
Slam! Came scanner logs. Rates, traces, remnants, agents. Alarm rang. Came storm, clamor, stern scorn.
So strong man craters…recants, laments… solemn song, torn sermon, tears… lost no more. Smarter man… strong man… clean… normal…
Rest, con man, rest.
(This short piece by Blaize first appeared on Fresh Fiction in January of 2008)
The first time somebody asked why my Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series includes pets, I was a little taken aback. I mean, Dixie Hemingway is a pet sitter, for gosh sake, so there had to be pets. But when I thought about it, I realized it had been my choice to make the pets equal in importance to the human characters. Not with human characteristics or psychic abilities or super strength, but just regular pets like regular people have. So I gave it some thought, and finally came up with an answer.
Every culture has mythic tales of a golden age when humans and animals lived as friends. In The Illiad, when a warrior was killed, his horse hung his head and wept. In The Ramayana, an army of brave monkeys rescued Princess Sita from an evil kidnapper. When the Buddha left his father’s palace to seek enlightenment, his horse wept too, when he had to return to the palace alone. And then there’s that serpent in the Garden of Eden who told Eve the truth about eating of the tree of knowledge.
In all those old stories, animals represented wisdom and courage and loyalty, and the friendship between humans and animals was one of unconditional love and sacrifice. As humans distanced from that connection with animals, I think we lost a connection to the best part of ourselves. So that’s the real reason for putting pets in my stories. It’s my way of trying to reconnect with the best part of humanity’s story.
I just read a letter that made me pause and think about my mom for a bit. The letter was from a reader and fan of my mom’s books who was writing to say that it was the 14th anniversary of her own mother’s death — always a sad day for her.
Last July 20th, on the one-year anniversary of my mom’s death, I did my best to have a happy day. I watched “Defending Your Life” (one of her favorite movies — I can’t believe I’d forgotten this! — we watched it in hospice). For the rest of the day, I tried to remember all the funny and/or dumb things she did that made us laugh. (She had a bad case of malapropism her whole life. One time we were driving through the hills of Arkansas and the Good Year Blimp appeared over the treetops. She looked up and said, “Oh look! The Giblet!”)
I have to think that on the day of my mom’s death, the last thing she would ever want is for me or my brother to spend a single moment being sad. She wants us to be happy. She wants us to have a good day. What mother doesn’t?
I’m going to try to do that every July 20th from now on. Easier said than done, I know, but it seems like the best way to honor the loved ones we’ve lost is to temper our sadness with as much joy as we can muster.