Writing Wednesday – The Power of Community

Leslie’s desk

I’m just back from Albuquerque and Left Coast Crime, one of the three main fan conventions in mystery and crime fiction. And next week, I’m headed to Bethesda, MD, for Malice Domestic. My first conventions in three years! I found myself both unsure and excited. Unsure what to pack. How many bookmarks do I need? How many pairs of shoes? What am I forgetting, besides my mind?

And excited to see my community. Readers, writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, people in the publishing business. People who love curling up with a good book—and who love getting together with others to talk about the experience.

One of my writing communities has long been Sisters in Crime and the Guppies chapter, which I helped start. In 2014, SinC published a book called Writes of Passage: Adventures on the Writer’s Journey, ed. by Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Writes of Passage

My essay is titled “Group Power, For the Writer Alone in Her Room.” I was reminded of it recently when a member of an online writers’ group I’m in said of the cons, “I’m not sure I could do that. I’m an introvert.” Let me share this passage:

“I’ve been reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Crown Books, 2012). Like most writers, I’m an introvert, albeit a noisy one, or maybe an ambivert. Cain contends that most institutions in our culture—schools, corporations, even churches—push extroversion and emphasize group activities and teamwork. That emphasis often results in forming a group to tackle a problem, whether that’s really the best solution or not, and discounts key natural strengths of introverts. But while introverts need quiet time—alone in our rooms, with the voices and stories in our heads—we also like to cooperate. We value each group member’s voice, and we encourage innovation.

“That’s what makes the writers’ group so powerful. A group can help us learn new information or sift through it. SinC’s Guppies chapter thrives on that principle, with subgroups for those seeking an agent, learning Scrivener, and setting goals. A dozen writers in my neck of the woods recently formed a business and marketing group. The writer experienced with Mail Chimp presented a tutorial for would-be newsletter authors terrified by the specter of yet more technology. Those without Facebook or Twitter accounts met at a café with wifi and walked through the setup together. I helped the group learn to use our Word Press blog and conduct a blog tour. We teach, puzzle, brainstorm—and toast sales with champagne.

What groups do best, in my ambiverted opinion, is encourage its members and leverage information. Every opportunity and accomplishment I’ve had as a writer started with something I learned from a group. And with SinC and the Guppies, I didn’t even have to put on shoes.”

I do hope you’ll put on shoes and go find your community—on line or when the time is right for you, in person. And if you’re at Malice, please introduce yourself. Just don’t say anything about my shoes.

The Saturday Writing Quote — Pat Conroy

Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.

“Art is one of the few places where talent and madness can go to squirrel away inside each other.”
– Pat Conroy, The Writer, June 2012, excerpted from My Reading Life (2010)

Painting: The Barn, by Leslie Budewitz (pastel on sandpaper)

Left Coast Crime

Mr. Right to patient: Leslie’s away at a mystery convention.

Patient, looking puzzled: You mean, she doesn’t know what kind of a convention it is?

But you read or write mysteries, maybe both, so you know that a mystery fan convention, or con, is a weekend filled with readers, writers at all stages from just beginning to multi-published, editors, agents, librarians, booksellers — anyone who considers themselves a fan of mystery and crime fiction. There are panel discussions, interviews, movie screenings, games, signings, speed-dating events, book rooms, and so much more.

Left Coast Crime is one of the three major mystery fan cons, along with Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. LCC is held somewhere in the western part of the country in late winter or early spring. This year, it’s in Albuquerque on April 7-10, and I’ll be there, on two panels and hosting a banquet table with my friend Kelly Garrett aka Emmeline Duncan.

My panels:

Small Town Crime love this topic and love that we write in a variety of subgenres (Fri 4:00-4:45)
Pam Clark (M)
Leslie Budewitz/Alicia Beckman
John McMahon
Terry Shames
Heather Young

Legal Themes: Does Fiction Get it Right?another timeless topic! (Sat 4:00-4:45)
L.F. Robertson (M)
Leslie Budewitz/Alicia Beckman
Margaret Callison Morse
Jay Shepherd

Here’s the full panel schedule. If you’re going, let’s connect! (If you’re in the area, note that day passes are available.)

And if not this year, maybe we can catch up at Left Coast Crime in Tucson in 2023!

The Saturday Creativity Quote

“We are naturally creative beings, invested in our existence to live, grow, express, and expand. The challenge is not to be creative—it’s to eliminate the barriers to the natural flow of our creative energies. Practically speaking, it’s about getting your act together, letting spontaneous ideas emerge, capturing them, and utilizing their value.”

– David Allen, Getting Things Done (rev ed 2015)

Writing Wednesday – The Gratitude Email

Leslie’s desk

I’m a big fan of marketing coach and teacher Dan Blank of We Grow Media, who advocates what he calls a human-centered approach to marketing. Yesterday, in a Zoom session, he talked about putting joy in our marketing and promotion, and suggested making a regular practice of sending “gratitude emails,” short thank you notes to someone who has inspired us, encouraged us, or otherwise influenced us, particularly in our creative work.

My first was an actual snail-mail letter, to a 90+ y.o. Jesuit who taught music when I was a college student at Seattle University more than forty years ago. In search of a break from academics, I signed up for classical guitar lessons, even though my guitar playing was limited to folk songs and singing and playing with a group at Mass. My teacher recruited me to join a trio formed by a music major named Karen. I was definitely the weak link. One evening the three of us gathered in my dorm room to practice for Karen’s upcoming senior recital. She had the brilliant idea to ask Father Waters, the dorm rector, to join us. As we played a modern atonal piece that had me stumbling, he stopped us and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. “They’ll only know you made a mistake,” he said, speaking of the audience, “if you tell them.” Meaning, of course, through my reaction. It’s a lesson that goes far beyond music performance, and one I’ve never forgotten.

I’m not expecting a reply. I simply wanted to say thanks, and I hope, put a smile on an elderly priest’s face, as the memory and writing the letter have put one on mine.

What do you think? Might a week—or more—of gratitude emails help you find more joy in marketing your books? Reconnect with an old friend? Reassure someone who’s struggling? Add a smile where it might be needed?

(And no, this is not an invitation to thank me, though of course, I always like hearing from you!)

The Saturday Creativity Quote — on the process

Writers — all artists, I suppose — love to talk about process. Sometimes, though, trying to articulate our process or hearing others’ descriptions only makes us feel like a mess. Novelist Heather Webb captured that in a blog post on Writer Unboxed titled “Your Writing Process Says You’re a Failure.” It’s worth a read. Here’s an excerpt I found particularly striking:

“The writing process is an amorphous, wiggly, glob with a million arms and as soon as I feel like I’ve caught hold of one, it slips out of my hands. … What we need to learn is one of the most important aspects of both being a creative person and also surviving a very difficult business: we must learn to be flexible about our vision. We must also learn to be flexible about the process of how we get from Point A to Point Be.”

Or, as the old bumper sticker says, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”

Cover Reveal — BLIND FAITH

This cover is too gorgeous to make you wait for it any longer! (And of course, you know Alicia Beckman is my suspense name.)

Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks.

A photograph. A memory. A murdered priest. 

A passion for justice. 

A vow never to return. 

Two women whose paths crossed in Montana years ago discover they share keys to a deadly secret that exposes a killer—and changes everything they thought they knew about themselves.  

I’ll confess, when I’m waiting for a book cover, I’m on pins and needles. Will it be anything like I imagined? Will it suit the book? Will you love it?

The last two, of course, are what count. 

The cover process is truly fascinating. These days, it’s done primarily with stock photos and computer graphics, layered upon each other. The covers of my cozies contain literally dozens of images, from plates of cookies to salt and pepper shakers, antique cash registers, armoires, cats and dogs and ducks—all designed to create a sense of place that draws you in. That makes you want to shop there, eat that food, pet those critters, meet the people who live and visit there, and find out what happens between the covers. 

The suspense covers are designed to draw you in as well, by creating a mood, conveying a place, and hinting at danger.

Typically, the editor asks the author to provide ideas for the cover—images from the book itself and pictures of any real places that inspired the story. For the first in a cozy series, they want a description of the shop or bakery or library—the central location. I often create a private Pinterest board of images collected while I wrote, and I share that with the designer. (Later, closer to publication, I create a new public board of images connected to the book to share with readers.) 

For Bitterroot Lake, the questions came while I was still writing the book. I knew the cover needed to focus on the lodge and the lake, though I’m not sure I’d settled on the title then and wasn’t yet sure how central the lake would turn out to be. (Hard to imagine that now, isn’t it, knowing the whole story?) I sent images of historic Montana lodges, a mix of private, public, and lodges in Glacier National Park. I envisioned Anja, the Swedish servant, running down the lawn to the lake, much like she does in Sarah’s mother’s painting. I had a color palette in mind, drawn from a painting I’d seen in a local show—of a bird, if I remember right. Nothing like what you saw on the cover of the book! The process of answering the publisher’s questions about the key imagery, the mood, the lodge and the surrounding landscape, all helped me tremendously to hone my own vision of the place and strengthened the writing.

Of course, what the cover artist created is much better than what I suggested! It’s moody, both inviting and a little bit frightening. And that canoe? Well, of course there should be a canoe on the shore of a mountain lake! But there wasn’t one in the story. I added a canoe to the century of stuff Sarah and Holly find in the carriage house, put Holly and Michael in it in the day of the accident twenty-five years ago, and sent Sarah and her daughter out on the lake in the final chapter. I love that the artist could see what I hadn’t seen—but that absolutely needed to be there.

Blind Faith, on the other hand, was already written before the cover process began. I knew we needed a sense of the land, and we needed that central image of the intersection. A bit like a cross, isn’t it? I can’t say much more without spoilers, but I can tell you this cover is absolutely nothing like I’d envisioned and absolutely perfect. When I saw the draft, it took my breath away. 

I hope you love it, and Lindsay and Carrie and Father Leary and Detective Brian Donovan, as much as I do. I hope this book takes you deep into the forest of possibility and asks you to make a decision, just as it asks them to do. 

And don’t worry – if you’re a fan of my cozies, you haven’t missed the cover reveal for Peppermint Barked. Coming soon, I promise!

Remember, both books are available for pre-order anywhere you buy books. Indies and other bricks-and-mortar booksellers will be THRILLED to pre-order a title for you.

A fun bit of news to share: Some of you have read my Stagecoach Mary Fields short stories, all published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The third, “Coming Clean” (AHMM Jan-Feb 2021), has just been named a finalist in short fiction for the Spur Awards, given by the Western Writers of America. Here’s a list of all the finalists and winners.

The first Mary story, “All God’s Sparrows,” won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Short Story; you can listen to me read it here, on the AHMM podcast. And the second, “Miss Starr’s Goodbye,” was nominated for a Derringer award, given by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. 

Maybe this will “spur” me to tell more Mary stories!

Thank you, my friends, for keeping me company on this journey. 

Leslie 

The Saturday Creativity Quote — on failure

No one likes to fail. And yet, we do it all the time. It’s a critical part of the creative process, and doesn’t deserve all the fear and anxiety we load on to it.

“[F]ailure is a stepping stone to clarity. I will forget this more often than I wish to admit, and panic a bit (is it possible to panic only a bit…) only to remember [that] caring, placing your focus upon something, is a form of love. And these messy imperfect moments that sometimes look like one thing can, from another angle, look like something else. Beautiful opportunities to see something in a new light. To not miss the many ways love can look…

—artist and writer Fia Skye, in the Flying Edna newsletter, 10/14/21

Here’s to the ability to find clarity from failure and see opportunity in obstacles.

Writing Wednesday — voting rights and felony convictions (an update)

Books, Crooks, and Councelors

In my guide for writers, Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure (Linden/Quill Driver, 2011), I gave a quick overview of the issues related to voting by those with a felony conviction, noting that this was a rapidly changing area.

Last month, I attended a Washington State Bar continuing legal education seminar on voting rights and voter suppression, and one resource cited was this report from the Sentencing Project, the national organization promoting sentencing reform that I cited in Books, Crooks, titled Locked Out 2020: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights Due to a Felony Conviction. If your story involves any issues related to voting, racial justice, or post-prison life, or you’re simply interested in these issues, you’ll find it a valuable resource.

A few findings, to give you a taste:

  • “As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15 percent since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice. There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, 5.85 million in 2010, and 6.11 million in 2016.
  • One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population–is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.
  • One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.
  • Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.”

Remember that the law varies from state to state and is always changing. Do what you can to get the facts about the law right.