Left Coast Crime, or How I Survived Donner Pass

This year, Left Coast Crime conference for mystery readers and writers is being held in Reno. Reno’s close, I thought. I can drive there. Easy peasy, I thought.

I sort of forgot about the enormous mountain range between Oakland and Reno. Forgot about it, that is, until yesterday morning when I had to cross said mountain range in a raging blizzard (okay, it was snow-raining, but still). Not only that, I had to cross the mountain range at a point called Donner Pass (YES, THAT DONNER, AND IT WAS SNOWING).

On the one hand, I had chains in my trunk in case I needed them. On the other hand, I had no clue how to attach them to my tires. I could only hope some kind-hearted gentleman (or lady, but probably a dude) would be willing to take money from me to stand out in the snow-rain and put them on.

I drove higher. The going got more treacherous. A sign alerted me that chains were required ahead. Then Google Maps swooped in for the rescue.

Faster route, popped up on the screen. Take next exit for Rainbow Road. My remaining drive time dropped by about twelve minutes. Well, hello there. Leave this treacherous freeway for the glorious Rainbow Road and shave twelve minutes off this torture? Yes, please. Rainbow Road, here I come.

I took the exit as directed. The phone next told me to turn left onto…DONNER PASS ROAD. WHAT. IS. HAPPENING. I don’t watch horror movies but I’m guessing the technology gone rogue has already been done? Having committed to this course of action, I went ahead and turned onto DONNER PASS ROAD.

This ill-fated road was, in fact, less traveled than I-80. Also, no one was stopped putting on chains. Possibly because no else was on the road. The thought occurred to me that perhaps Google Maps doesn’t take weather into account when deciding on a route. I may actually have been better off on the slow freeway. Finally, I’ve found something the little elves inside the phone aren’t good at.

At any rate, the road had been plowed, so that was a plus. There were no half-eaten corpses or knocked over covered wagons, so another plus. The lakes of melting snow that puddled on one side of the road (my side) were not pleasant. Fortunately, there was no one coming in the other direction, so I took advantage of the higher side of the road. Unfortunately, there was no one coming in the other direction, so if I got stuck I might have been on my own.

Google directed me back to the I-80 eventually, and I did make it to Reno. No chains. No accidents. No death and destruction. Thank goodness, because now I have a murder mystery conference to attend where I’ll get plenty of that, thank you very much.

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What’s for Dinner?

Yes, this post is about food, and no, this blog is not about food. How many parents out there have things they want to do besides churning out three meals every day for the foreseeable future? No? It’s just me?

I’m not that picky. I want a healthy, delicious dinner on the table every night at a reasonable hour, it can’t take forever to prepare, and oh yeah, the kids have to actually want to eat it.

Here’s a sample schedule of dinner at my house.

  • Sunday: Eat dinner at Grandma’s if possible, otherwise, pasta.
  • Monday: Burritos
  • Tuesday: Chicken, rice, vegetables from the freezer
  • Wednesday: Mac N’ Cheese
  • Thursday: Something in the slow-cooker
  • Friday: Tuna Melts and roasted garbanzo beans
  • Saturday: Left-overs

Is it boring? Yes. But these meals are inexpensive, quick to prepare, and generally healthy.

Not spending hours producing dinner means I might be able to squeeze in another 500 words that day. (See how I brought this back around to writing?)

What are some go-to meals I’m missing? Share, please!

Berry Bombs of Wisdom from Mysti Berry

Recently, I was fortunate enough to have a coffee date with Mysti Berry. Mysti is a screenwriter–novelist–short story writer and all around awesome human being. We talked writing for an hour and she gave me permission to share some details of our conversation.

I told Mysti about my quest to be Jessica Fletcher, ie, a successful mystery writer who also does other things (such as work, raise three small children, etc, etc). I know that Mysti has a full-time job that is not writing fiction, so I asked her about her personal writing routine and her writing goals.

Mysti’s routine includes early morning writing and writing with friends which she says helps her stick with the program. She also takes writing retreats where she disappears into a dark lair (or just a hotel room) for a weekend to power through some writing or editing goals. The idea of writing for a weekend kid-free sounds like heaven to me. I hope my husband is reading this post.

I asked Mysti what she does when she gets stuck. She said she first yells at herself, which she does not recommend as a strategy. Some strategies she does recommend are:

  • Look for where the plot went wrong earlier in the story. Sometimes you can eliminate a later problem that way.
  • Ask certain questions about the problem: Is it structural? Is it character? Am I taking the story in the wrong direction?
  • Talk about the problem with others
  • Make a list of ten things to try to fix the problem

I then asked Mysti about her writing goals. She has both aspirational goals, like getting her novel published, and more concrete goals, such as:

  • Finish dialogue edits by x date
  • Send to agent by x date
  • Word count goals (if working on a first draft)
  • Hourly goals (spend x amount of time writing)

She also has a writing strategy. Mysti has had her short stories published, so she intends to keep writing and submitting those. She is working on an anthology of short stories as a way to dip her toes into the self-publishing world. And she continues to work on her novel and submit it to agents.

My talk with Mysti inspired me to come up with my own list of strategies to try when I feel stuck in my writing and to work on a long-term strategic plan for my writing goals. In the meantime, I hope I get to drink more coffee with Mysti soon.

Types of Writing Goals: Output Versus Outcome

If you’re wondering how last week’s goals went: very well! I wrote a 5500 word short story, some book reviews, and worked on this blog. I exceeded my goal of fifteen minutes per day, some days writing up to an hour.

It got me thinking about types of goals. The goals I set for myself last week were output goals. In other words, I just promised myself I would produce words, not that they would be any good.

Goals around output can be short-term, measurable, and quantifiable. Examples of Output Goals:

  • Write 1,000 words per day for a week/month
  • Write one short story/article/blog post/chapter per week
  • Write every day for fifteen minutes
  • Enter one writing contest each month
  • Query one agent per month

Output goals are within your control and you can easily tell whether you’ve met them or not. But the ones listed above don’t measure quality. I actually do want my work to be measurably good. I can judge my own work, to an extent, but having outside validation feels important too. So I also made some outcome goals.

Goals around outcome are not necessarily measurable in the short-term and depend on outside factors coming together as well as your own hard work. Examples of Outcome Goals:

  • Win a writing contest
  • Sign with an agent
  • Get a book deal
  • Sell x number of books by the end of the year

My output goals are to submit to four anthologies/writing contests between now and May 31. My outcome goals are to have at least half my submissions accepted/win something. Spoiler alert: I’ve already submitted one story to an anthology and had it accepted! More details to come.

 

Multi-Tasking is Not Always Evil

I am a multi-tasker. Since I work from home, you’re likely to find me working on the computer while a load of laundry spins in the machine and dinner simmers away on the stove. I admit to writing emails while participating in Skype meetings (the non-video ones). I draw the line at texting and driving.

My quest to be Jessica Fletcher demands multi-tasking. I’m not a full-time writer. So I have to seize my moments to be creative, even if I’m technically involved in something else. If National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has taught me anything (it’s taught me a lot: see here and here), it’s that it doesn’t take a whole lot of time to make and meet a writing goal. As long as it’s a reasonable goal.

Here’s an example: Recently, I decided to enter a writing contest. I needed to produce a short story of 2000-3000 words. I calculated if I took a week to write the story, I’d have to write 480 words a day. That felt doable. (For reference, this post is 272 words.) I took my lunch break and started writing. I ended up with 2400 words, a complete story. It took about an hour and was during the time I was technically at work and/or eating lunch. (Shh, this is secret, remember?)

The lessons here?

  1. Set a low, achievable bar.
  2. Grab writing moments when you can.
  3. It’s better to write something than nothing.

For the next week, my goal is to write fifteen minutes per weekday on either a novel or short story in progress, or a blog post. Tune in next week to find out how I did!

What is this blog about?

Blog reboot alert! This blog is now called Secretly Aspiring to be Jessica Fletcher.

Jessica Fletcher is a fictional mystery author who solves mysteries in between writing them. She was played by Angela Lansbury on the classic eighties TV show, Murder She Wrote.

Why am I aspiring (not so secretly) to be Jessica Fletcher?

Like Jessica Fletcher, I’m a mystery writer and I also do other things. Unlike Jessica, I’m a mom of three, wife of one, and hold a full-time non-mystery-writing job. And there’s the dilemma. I love to write, but taking care of my family, earning a steady paycheck, and sleeping are priorities too. My question is: how do you fit writing into your life when you’re doing other things?

 

Bringing the monsters to life

I don’t normally think of myself as Dr. Frankenstein. Occasionally when my kids are running around the house buck-naked and screaming about poop, I do wonder what sort of monsters I’ve given life to. But usually I can blame my husband for those kinds of behaviors.

Being an author, you don’t always create monsters (depends on the genre) but you do create characters. And characters have to come to life on the page as clearly as the characters who live in your everyday life. They have to have quirks, likes, dislikes, and histories. They have to be fully realized in your mind or they won’t be fully realized on the page and in the reader’s mind.

So how do you do this?

One way is to plan. Create a chart, color-coded spreadsheet, list, rambling page of thoughts, or intricate and detailed mind map, whatever suits your style. Start brainstorming who your character is and what makes them unique. Interview your characters, and try to respond in their voice. Beth Barany at Writers Fun Zone has a useful list of essential elements to think about when creating characters.

If you’re not into planning, try imagining a character, then start writing. Put the character in a situation and go for it. Don’t over think, but let the character reveal themselves through your writing. You might end up with a hot mess, or you might discover a gem of a character you never knew was hiding inside your mind. Letting the story come through naturally can be a good alternative to overplanning, especially if you’re feeling stuck. And of course, you’ll always need to go back and revise once your characters have revealed themselves to make sure the story hangs together.

Whichever way you develop characters, make sure to give them a dark side. An Achille’s heel. What are they terrible at? What are their deepest, most intense fears? Then make your characters confront them. I know, it sounds so cruel. But a character without flaws is a Mary Sue–an idealized version of humanity, AKA uninteresting. Unless your readers are under the age of 5, they don’t want to read about Jane Doe’s fabulous, predictable life where everything always happens as it should. Great for her. Boring for us. There’s no story there.

Characters need to be tested by facing up to the bad/scary/hard things that happen to them. Readers need the excitement of living vicariously through someone else’s disaster while reclining comfortably on their couch eating chocolate bon bons. Unfair, but that’s how it goes.

Do you have any tips for developing character? Please share!