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.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

Today’s my birthday, so as a gift to you, I’m sharing a few quotes from my collection, quotes that remind me what creative work is at its essence, and why it matters.

– “Writing is more than a vehicle for communicating ideas. It’s a tool for crystallizing ideas. Writing exposes gaps in your knowledge and logic. It pushes you to articulate assumptions and consider counterarguments. One of the best paths to sharper thinking is frequent writing.”
– Adam Grant

“If you’re feeling like things aren’t going anywhere, hang out with people from different disciplines.”
– Questlove

“But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels for me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel that way for you?”
~ Kazuo Ishiguro

You owe it to all of us all get on with what you’re good at.
– W. H. Auden

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”
—John Steinbeck

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
– Mary Oliver, American poet (1935-2019), “Sometimes,” from Red Bird (2008)

Go forth and do the work!

The Saturday Creativity Quote — play

In Wired to Create (2015), authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire speak often of imaginative play, the kind young children engage in, and trace its role in creativity. “A sense of play, even in the face of fear, is an important asset when generating new and different ideas. Thinking differently doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming; just making the conscious effort to see things in a new light can yield results. … making an effort to think unconventionally can help us connect the dots in new and innovative ways by increasing associational thinking.”

Associational thinking, is of course, critical to writers, as we pair unconnected images or character traits to create a new place or person who still, somehow, is recognizable as true.

Writing Wednesday — Staying Creative and “The Rules”

Recently, a list has been circulating on Facebook titled “33 Ways to Stay Creative.” (I wasn’t able to trace its origins; when the “My Modern Met” blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shared it in 2011, they couldn’t find the author, either.)

I love this because it’s concrete and specific — these are things we can actually do, and too often don’t. It reminds us that creativity doesn’t just happen by accident; we can feed and nurture it, to better feed and nurture ourselves.

My friend Elaine Snyder, an amazingly creative buckskin clothier, commented that she’d add to #24 “test the rules,” because they can provide insight. And that got me thinking about writers, often beginners, who complain about “the rules” without actually digging for that insight Elaine mentioned. Take, for example, the complaint about “the rule” against adverbs. “Adverbs are perfectly fine,” they say. “X uses them and everyone praises X’s writing.”

This “rule,” and almost every other rule about writing, is really a guideline, a good practice grown from experience. At its core, it’s a reminder to choose every word with care and intention. When you’re tempted to use an adverb, for example, ask yourself first if you’ve used the right verb. Truly think about the action you’re describing, the person taking the action, what they’re feeling at that moment, their motives and inner conflicts, their physical capabilities, the setting—the entire situation. When you find the right verb, you might not need an adverb. If you decide you do need one, like the much-acclaimed X, then it will have been a deliberate choice, not a lazy fallback. You may write an entire story without a single adverb—or you may let them fall drippingly, deliciously, bountifully off every character’s tongue.

So the next time you find yourself griping about “the rules,” test them. Follow, flaunt, fall somewhere in between. See what happens.

And revel in the creativity of it all.

The Saturday Creativity Quote

“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self–expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and opens ways for better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it and shows there are still more pages possible.”
– Robert Henri, American painter (1865-1929)

Writing Wednesday — Getting Started in the Mystery Community

Leslie’s desk

Earlier this year, a blog subscriber sent me this email:
I am working on a novel that falls into the mystery genre and it’s time I got involved with the mystery community. I have been to many writing conferences but never focused on any genre before. I see that you are/have been involved with Sisters In Crime and Mystery Writers of America. I’d like your take on what an as-yet-unpublished writer in the genre can expect from their involvement with these (and I know there are others) organizations. I can usually attend one writing conference per year, am comfortable with zoom meetings, and as mentioned I particularly like being connected to writers in the west.

I thought it might be useful to share my reply, edited a bit, since I think my advice applies broadly. I left in the regional references; with more than 60 Sisters in Crime chapters and eleven regional MWA chapters, many with meetings throughout their geographic spread, it’s not hard to find a mystery-focused writing community. And the benefits are top-notch, no matter where you are.

Hi, Lynn –

[Lovely comments about my latest book omitted.]

So where should an aspiring mystery writer start? With reading, of course, but you’ve nailed that. Either SinC or MWA would be a great starting point; MWA is geared toward the professional writer, while SinC’s mission is a little broader. Check out the SinC Guppies chapter; it’s online, a boon for those of us in the boonies, and aimed at the new and unpublished. The Guppies offers a regular slate of classes led by some excellent instructors – I’m sure this year’s schedule is on the website. The Guppies online discussion list is a great resource, although it could be a bit daunting for a newbie. SinC National – you have to be a member to join a chapter – also offers webinars at least once a month on a wide range of craft, promotion, and business topics; members have access to the archives. And both have truly excellent newsletters – the Guppies’ First Draft is bi-monthly and InSinC is quarterly.

You might also check into the Denver SinC chapter, especially if you get there with any regularity – under normal circumstances. I know several of the leaders but I don’t know how they’ve handled programming in the last two years; I imagine that most of it is now online, but that they will begin moving to a hybrid model with in-person events and an online option as soon as it’s reasonable to do so. In-person connections are invaluable.

MWA’s Rocky Mountain chapter meets in Denver, with terrific monthly programming. (I say modestly, having spoken there a few years ago, on common mistakes writers make about the law.) The meetings are in-person and broadcast, with replays of the programs available online and summarized in the monthly newsletter.

I’m also a big believer in self-education, and a great resource is the new MWA book, How to Write a Mystery: A Handbook from the Mystery Writers of America, ed by Lee Child and Laurie R. King. (I do have a small piece in it.) The hardcover came out last April; I think the paperback will be out this spring.

You asked about conferences focused on mystery. Since you’ve attended writing conferences, you probably know the difference between writers conferences, aimed at the craft and business of writing, and fan conventions like Malice, Left Coast Crime, and Bouchercon, where the goal is to create opportunities for fans to interact with authors, although other industry pros also attend. The main conferences focused on mystery writing have changed a bit but I think they are the biennial California Crime Writers conference (a joint event between the MWA SoCal chapter and the CA Writers Club, IIRC), the New England Crime Bake (a joint MWA-SinC event), Killer Nashville, and Book Passage Mystery Conference, sponsored by the Book Passage bookstore just north of San Francisco. I attended the Crime Bake when I was SinC president and it is fabulous. I also attended the BP conference and loved it, but that was 20 years ago and I don’t know much about it now. Several SinC and MWA chapters hold one-day events, too – Desert Sleuths in Phoenix comes to mind; membership is not typically required. I know the Crime Bake and Desert Sleuths offered some sort of Zoom version in the last couple of years. See if you can find a calendar of events on the SinC website – that will provide a lot more info than I can. I did find the conventions helpful when I was starting out, but they are a vastly different type of event, and I hate to see writers attend with the wrong expectations.

So that’s what I can suggest. If you have more questions, do feel free to ask. And my thanks again for your kind words about the More Than Malice panel and Bitterroot Lake. They mean a lot.

All the best to you and your mother in this new year,

Leslie