My timeline is collapsing.

Yesterday’s New York Times headline read, nay, screamed:

Cyberattacks Put Russian Fingers on the Switch at Power Plants, U.S. Says  (NYT, 3/15/18)

… And blew my fictional timeline to bits.

The first Joe Mayfield/Louise Napolitani novel, Fatal Score, turned on the idea that a good technological development (gene sequencing and analysis) is borrowed to shore up a socio-political problem (rising health care cost).  And, of course, in a thriller, the good idea is twisted to evil purpose.  It also seemed to me, back when I started writing in 2012, that the next front in international confrontation was going to be cyberwar.

It looks like I was right about the cyberwar part … but terribly wrong in timing.  I set the first draft of Fatal Score in 2050.  I have since pulled the date back to 2026, though the date is only mentioned once in passing.  I figured trimming 24 years off the calendar would be adequate.  To cut further, would put the first novel right in our laps.  Well, here it sits, uncomfortably.

The third novel, tentatively titled Fail Deadly, needs to be set in about 2030 … except it’s about Russian oligarchs hacking into the power grid.

The NYT article notes,

“The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.”


So much for 2050… maybe so much for … yikes! … tomorrow.


I’ve changed the site around a bit. I am approaching completion on novel number three (Fail Deadly) and am sketching out number four.  There’s a new page on this site (Novels) with the blurbs for the first three stories.  Those of you who have had to go through the difficult process of creating a blurbs, please don’t hesitate to tear them apart.

Evolution of Agency?

I just had an interesting and hopeful experience.  At least one literary agency is wrestling with the issue all have been struggling with:  the tsunami of queries made possible by the Internet. And this one, Bookends, seems to have cracked the code of how to deal with the flood in what people from other industries would consider professional.

The Old Way … The New Way’s Worse

I’m readying myself to take my first novel to market and have thus been looking at agents’websites.  A pretty standard note encourages submissions, then says something like:  “Unfortunately, due to the large number of queries and submissions we receive, we cannot acknowledge receipt, we cannot enter into correspondence about our decisions, and we cannot return material.”

In the world I come from, that would be an admission of failure to manage one’s business. Nerve-wracking to be sending one’s work into a black hole.

Bookends uses an online submission form, then gives an address where one can track the progress of one’s submission.  Fight technology with technology.  Good for Bookends. For me, the change is hugely positive, because it cuts off the loose ends that are endemic with the send-it-off, wait, wait, wait cadence of most query activity.  It also made me realize that small, ongoing pain of not knowing is worse than the pain of rejection.

Anyway, kudos to Bookends.

… AND Spencerhill Associates, using same form

… AND the great online resource, query … which has apparently bridged the gap between keeping track of a writer’s queries and managing the submissions literary agents receive.  BIG kudos on helping the industry put at least a toe in the waters of twenty-first century electronic media!

Technique, again

I am taking a look yet again at my first novel, Fatal Score (initially called Hack the Yak), which I am preparing to query. I asked an editor to look at the first three chapters.  The results were eye-opening.

When I began writing, I used interior monolog (protagonist’s thoughts), which I laid down in italics.  The editor would have none of that.

I’ve mentioned before that the Big Duh I’ve learned by writing, now, three novels:  there is this thing called technique.  The writer needs that ineffable quality known as Voice, to be sure.  And Mechanics (grammar, lexical sophistication, punctuation) must be spot-on or
any self-respecting agent will trash the ms without reading it.  The Big Duh was this thing I call Technique.  Frustrating, is technique (in Yoda’s words).  Some parts are common sense (when they become obvious), like letting a reader know where she is, who is speaking and what time it is at the beginning of a scene.  Some parts seem like a random variable extending over time.  Nineteenth-century technique (never mind punctuation) is different than twenty-first century for no apparent reason.  Eighteenth century writing embraced long, Latinate words; Hemingway didn’t.

So, I live and continue to learn.

And, yes, I dumped most of the italics.

Smile, and the whole world wonders what you’re up to

It is said (apparently inaccurately) that the Inuit have many words for ‘snow.’  Why would that be?  Why, because they see a lot of snow, of course.

English has very few words for ‘smile,’ even though we see a lot of them (I hope).  Grin.  Grimace. Beam. Smirk. Maybe even Simper. And you can drag in fellow travelers Squint and certainly Leer. But really, not a very large collection of descriptives for something a writer needs often.

Smile, look, walk, and similar words  indicate classes of action but do not show specifics. Use them, and you leave the reader knowing what happened but not having a picture in mind.  They’re placeholders for better description. Boring, as well.

All of this was grating on my mind yesterday.  I was writing a three-person sequence in which a lot of smiling was going on, not all of it happy.  Sure, I could tell the reader that Weezy’s smile masked anger, but how does that look?

I decided to take a break and walk around Lake of the Isles, my favorite in-city lake in Minneapolis.  Usually, I use my walking time to work out plot and character issues, and that was the way I started my walk. A couple of blocks along the way, a late middle-aged man approached.  He took me in, then gave the very briefest horizontal stretching of the lips in a straight line.  Hard to tell whether it was a smile or gastronomic distress. That got me watching the people I encountered.  A young woman gave me the “I am smiling because I’m cool but don’t get your hopes up” rictus (ahh, rictus … I missed that as a near-synonym).  A young father gave me a possessive, prideful smile as his two, young bike-mounted sons ran me off the walking path. A mother’s joy-to-the-world smile as she glanced up from her baby. A hajib-wearing woman smiled with her eyes.  A young packed-with-energy guy gave me a nod of recognition as he ran by, served up with a smirk.  (I race walk. To him, I was surely old, hefty, and weird.) A woman gifted me a happy smile that took in her whole face – mouth, eyes, and forehead. It was the kind of smile that makes you want to know the person just to understand how she has successfully figured out the puzzle of life.

I was reminded there is no such thing as a generic smile.  The smile is a creature of the structure of a face, as well as the inner beauty or turmoil of the person smiling.  Guess I have to work harder on my smiles.  No one said writing would be easy.

No Genres!

Louise Penny, quoted in the New York Times book review, August 24th:  “I don’t buy into the notion of genres, perhaps for obvious reasons. I think that’s an effective marketing tool, but nothing more. Good storytelling is good storytelling. There are no borders or boundaries in literature and to try to define is to limit. Finis.”

Oh, Joy! Wonderful! Even ends in fine, archaic Latin.

… But, oh, yes.  She’s published.

Listening to One’s Characters

I am a product of my age and education. As a result, I read instruction manuals rather than pounding buttons on gizmos to see what happens. When I open the box, I look for the manual (or, these days, for the web address of the manual).  So quite naturally, I looked for instruction manuals on writing when I decided to write my first novel.  Stephen King, John Gardner, Anne Lamott, William Zinsser.  All fine books on writing. Manuals.

When I read how a character comes alive,  how the author follows along behind, discovering the character his own words create, I was, shall I say, skeptical.

Damn, they were right.

I discovered this through my critique group’s discussion of my elderly female hacker whose internet handle is Jake. In my novel Open Circuit, she has been called on by a fellow hacker, HoHumJr, for help.  He is being pursued by bad people and needs a place to hide while he decrypts dangerous messages and alters software.  My first draft pass has Jake quickly advising him to get on a bus and travel from Miami to her remote Wisconsin home, where he can hide out.  Critique group says, “Nope.  Not plausible. Jake would find some way to help him, but not bring danger on herself by having him come to her.  Doesn’t make sense.”

Hmmmpf, I thought.  They just don’t understand the reality that others in the hacker group wouldn’t help HoHumJr.  Wait a minute … the first aha … I know the reasoning, but I haven’t told the reader.  I often make that mistake.  No problem. I added a couple of paragraphs to hammer home why the trip made sense.

Next meeting … Nope, the group said.  Still not justified.  Yet, I had this strong feeling that HoHumJr had to travel to Wisconsin.  I agreed with my friends.  It didn’t make sense.  Was I just wanting it to happen because the plot required it?  No, that wasn’t it.  I could leave him in Miami, and the plot would work.

I finally realized that my character Jake had a life and feelings.  It wasn’t that she couldn’t help HoHumJr from afar, it was that she wanted to be part of the solution he was going to bring to the plot. That was what I had to tell the reader.  I had been going with plot logic, which my helpful friends in the critique group quite correctly shot down.  I should have been going with motivation.  I should have listened to Jake.


Google and Real Places

Google is wonderful.  For a person writing thrillers, it’s a critical resource.  Need a Russian phrase?  No problem. An overhead view of a village like Hainburg an der Donau in Austria (my second novel)?  Google Maps has you covered. The uniform of a Florida state trooper?  Google images. But … there is no substitute to actually having been there, having heard, having felt, having smelled.

I’m reading the end of a draft by a marvelous writer, Tim Mahoney.  (Extended sidebar:  If you’ve been feeling inundated by screaming headlines about today’s madness … an entirely new chapter beyond yesterday’s … take a look at  Mahoney is a newspaperman, and he aggregates the news that matters.  No Kardashians, no triple repeats of the latest presidential silliness.  Stuff that one might look back on a few years from now and say that was important.)

And now, back to the story at hand: Tim’s story takes place in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.  He was there.  Of course, I know that, and therefore am more inclined to believe the picture his protagonist paints.  But I can’t help thinking that an author can’t know when to mention the heat and humidity, when to comment on the exhaust from the motor bikes, without having been there.  Or maybe it’s writing with the confidence of deep knowledge.  In any case, his good writing plus having been there has taken me out of myself and into the story.

Hainburg panorama

In my second novel, I needed a place for an important event to happen (no spoiler … the book may yet get published), and the speed of the Danube current (google search) and the rate of progress  of a lovely riverboat  (ditto) called for the place to be Hainburg an der Donau.  I needed to have action in the hospital (google maps) and the police station (ditto).  I wrote Hainburg into the story and was quite pleased (well, after Tim and a cadre of other writers tore the draft apart).  Then I had a chance to go to the town itself.

I’m not sure why I changed the few words I did.  I left the hospital inaccurate but changed the police station to be just as it is.  An my constable benefitted from a friendly discussion with the constable on duty.

Maybe it’s just that I now believe what I wrote is real.

Critique Groups and the Mirror

As I pass through the stations of writing skill improvement, I am realizing that I have a custom set of writing weaknesses.  I got a notion of it from critique groups … the same issues kept coming up again and again.  It was cemented by the editor who raked over my second novel with a fine-toothed linguistic comb.  The same problems kept recurring.  For me, it was leading a sentence with description, following with action.  (“Hearing a knock, John went to the door.”) Or having a character say something, then having me as narrator come along behind and tell the poor benighted reader what the character meant (rather that writing the character’s statement well enough to convey the feeling in the words). And so on. There were … ahem … many others.

Conclusory Bludgeon

Any Google search will provide a list of tens or even hundreds of these writing mistakes.  It’s a little less daunting that one’s own style features a few … not all … of them.

There is an advantage of critique groups that has only recently become clear to me:  It’s easier to see one’s own weaknesses in other people’s writing.  As in: “The scene is engaging, but in the second paragraph, Jason’s facial expression and sigh says it all.  You don’t need the sentence that tells us that Jason’s exasperated.”  Oops … wait a minute … I do that too.  But I don’t see it as easily (ego, perhaps?) in my own writing.

Critique of others’ work teaches me to look in the mirror, and … oops again.  You already knew that without the conclusory bludgeon, didn’t you?

A Birthday Present from Grammar

I got a great birthday card, the front of which said:

Dear people of the World,

I don’t mean to sound slutty,

But please use me whenever you want.



A great card on several levels.  The “use me” is so much more economical than most of the explicit things one could think of, and therefore allows for (salacious) imagination, reminding me to be careful in writing to give the reader license to create her own vision of what I describe.

Which leads to the f-word (really?).  I’m just thinking of the so-called dysphemism treadmill, in which a vulgar word becomes more and more acceptable.  Pamela Hobbs, quoted in Wikipedia, notes that usage of the f-word falls into two categories:  non-users and users.  Non-users define the word in its proud Anglo-Saxon context and therefore consider it obscene and rarely use it.  Users, on the other hand, have dissociated the word from sex and make frequent use as an intensifier, noun, adjective, adverb or verb. For them, as Hobbs says, fuck “no more evokes images of sexual intercourse than a ten-year-old’s ‘My mom’ll kill me if she finds out’ evokes images of murder.”

As a writer hoping to interest both users and non-users, my take is very, very abstemious use of the f-word (see, at my core, I’m a non-user, except when irritated).  My rationale is that users usually employ fuck in ways that add no value to the sentence (although sometimes to the meter).  None of that is useful in storytelling unless establishing a character’s unique voice.

So most of the time, I’ll go fuck-less.  Grammar, on the other hand, I shall use and use and gratefully use.