Coffee Shop Novelist II

Apparently, Harlan Coben isn’t the only one who uses a coffee shop as his office. Novelist William Kent Krueger calls the St. Clair Boiler his office and wrote a loving tribute to it in the Washington Examiner (which I discovered on David J. Montgomery’s blog).

It’s 6:30 in the morning. I’m sitting in my car, eyeing the dark
windows of the St. Clair Broiler across the street. There’s almost no
traffic. The sidewalks are empty. A peach glow in the east suggests
that the sun will rise within the hour.

Deep in the Broiler, a
light comes on. It’s located in the kitchen where Juan is firing up the
griddle. A minute later, the red neon flame over the front door
flickers to life. Inside the cafe, there’s movement. Karen – or Lis,
or Sydney, or Carol, depending on the day – flips the main light switch
and unlocks the door. I grab my notebook and pen and head to my office
– booth No. 4.

It’s been this way for twenty years. I write
mysteries for a living, and I write them at the St. Clair Broiler in
St. Paul, Minn.

If he’s on the road, he still finds a coffee shop booth to write in.

I don’t make it to booth No. 4 every day anymore. I’m frequently on
tour or attending conferences. But I don’t desert the process. Wherever
I am – Los Angeles, New York City or Omaha – every morning, I find
myself a little coffee shop, take out my wire-bound notebook and pen,
and bend to the magic.

What he doesn’t say is what kind of deal he’s worked out with the coffee shop owner (or, I should say, what kind of deal he worked out before he was a published novelist). Don’t these coffee shop owners ever get ticked off that authors are occupying a booth all day… a booth that could be turned over perhaps a dozen times for pay customers?

One of these days, I’ll have to share the story of what happened when I was brought in by a movie studio to adapt his terrific novel IRON LAKE as M.O.W/back-door pilot. It’s a true Hollywood story…or, I guess he might consider it more of a Hollywood nightmare. At least this was one nightmare that, so far anyway, hasn’t come true.


The Suspense was Killing Otto Penzler

The winners of this year’s Agatha Awards were announced today:

Best Novel – Jacqueline Winspear, BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Best First Novel – 
Harley Jane Kozak, DATING DEAD MEN
Best Short Story – Elaine Viets, "The
Wedding Knife" (from CHESAPEAKE  CRIMES)
Best Nonfiction – Jack French,
Best  Children’s/Young Adult – Blue Balliette, CHASING

Congratulations to all the winners, but most of all my friends Harley, Elaine and Jacqueline!

Coffee Shop Novelist

CBS has posted an interesting interview with my friend Harlan Coben, culled from his appearance on The Early Show. Here’s an excerpt on how he writes:

"I usually go to, like, a local coffee shop or the library. I like a
little white noise when I write, but not as much white noise as my
kids. So I usually go someplace. It makes me concentrate harder. You
look like you’re being a jerk writing in a coffee shop, but that’s
where I work best."

Coben candidly admits he’s not as big on research as many other
fiction writers. "I’m more from the, ‘Hum a few bars and fake it’
genre," he says to Smith. "Tell you the truth, I do research, but I’m
really more concerned with making sure that I am holding you hostage
and gripping you. The research has to come secondary. Sometimes a
writer uses research as an excuse not to write, not to grip, to tell
you cute factoids. I don’t want to do that. I want it do it with the

I have no problem making things up — it’s ficton, after all, so I agree with Harlan on that score. But I couldn’t write in a coffee shop or a Starbucks, I’d feel horribly self-conscious (especially in L.A.).  You walk into any Starbucks in L.A., and people are sitting there writing scripts, almost as if they are striking a pose: "Hey, look at me, I’m a screenwriter. Are you impressed? Would you like to fuck me? Or, better yet, hire me?" It feel so fake to me.  I’m sure some of them really are screenwriters, and they just like a good cup of coffee while they write, but I still hate it.  So I try to avoid doing any writing at all in restaurants or hotel lobbies,  especially in L.A., Vancouver or Toronto.

That said,  I write a lot on airplanes, usually because I am on some kind of pressing deadline and can’t afford not to use the five or six hours. Writing on a plane isn’t so bad if I’m with my family or traveling Bill Rabkin, my TV writing/producing partner. But when i’m traveling alone, with a stranger sitting beside me, it’s extremely awkward. It’s not easy writing when my wife is looking over my shoulder, much less a complete stranger…especially if you’re describing a homicide or somebody having sex.  I don’t blame the stranger for intruding on my privacy– we’re crammed so close together it would be damn hard not to look at the screen.   So what I do is put on a pair of headphones, crank up the music, and pretend I am all alone.  In a sense, I have to forget I am on an airplane at all — I have to lose myself completely in my fictional world.  It usually works.

How do you feel about writing in public?


Otto is At It Again

Otto Penzler trashes writers of so-called "cozies" in an interview with Book Standard.  This time, he says cozies aren’t worthy of Edgar consideration.

Are female mystery-writers—most often the authors of
the more non-threatening, proper cozies—even worthy of the award? Otto
Penzler, dean of mystery-writing in America, says no.


“The women who write [cozies] stop the action to go shopping, create a
recipe, or take care of cats,” he says. “Cozies are not serious
literature. They don’t deserve to win. Men take [writing] more
seriously as art. Men labor over a book to make it literature. There
are wonderful exceptions, of course—P.D. James, Ruth Rendell.”


Margaret Maron, president of Mystery Writers of America, which doles out the Edgars, and winner of one herself (for Bootlegger’s Daughter
in 1993), sniffs at this bias, as she considers it, saying that good
writers have been overlooked by the MWA as a result of unfair favoring
of male authors and their bloodier plots. “Wit, humor, and domesticity
haven’t been considered as significant as blood and violence.

He says this stuff, casually dismissing some of the genre’s best-loved writers and their books,  and yet whenever he shows up at mystery conventions, people bow at his feet like he’s some kind of royalty.  I don’t get it. 

Congrats to the Edgar Winners!

Best Novel: California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker (William Morrow)

Best First Novel: Country of Origin by Don Lee (W.W. Norton & Co)

Best Paperback Original: The Confession by Domenic Stansberry (Hard Case Crime)

Best Short Story:  "Something About a Scar" – Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You by Laurie Lynn Drummond (HarperCollins)

Best Fact Crime: Conviction:  Solving the Moxley Murder: A Reporter and a Detective’s Twenty-Year Search for Justice by Leonard Levitt (Regan Books)

Best Critical/Biographical: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories edited by Leslie S. Klinger (W.W. Norton)

Best Young Adult: In Darkness, Death by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler (Philomel Books)

Best Juvenile: Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press)

Best Play: Spatter Pattern (Or, How I Got Away With It) by Neal Bell (Playwrights Horizons)

Best Television Episode Teleplay: Law & Order:  Criminal Intent – "Want", Teleplay by Elizabeth Benjamin.
Story by René Balcer & Elizabeth Benjamin

Best Television Feature or Miniseries Teleplay: State of Play by Paul Abbott (BBC America)

Best Motion Picture Screenplay: A Very Long Engagement – Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, based on the Novel by Sébastien Japrisot (2003 Productions)

(Thanks to Sarah Weinman, from whom I stole this post)

What Should the MWA Be?

There’s been some talk here, specifically in the comments to my "Hot Button Comments" post a few days ago, about what the MWA should be.  It’s a discussion that’s certainly on the minds of many mystery writers I know…and seems timely, given that the Edgar Awards are occuring tonight.

Here are some excerpts from several of Michael Bracken’s comments:

My concern throughout the discussion is to ensure that work that
doesn’t clearly fit either end of the spectrum (bestselling novel
published by major NY house at one end, perhaps, and never-appeared in
print in any form at the other end) is given fair and appropriate
consideration and that the line between "professional" and
"unprofessional" isn’t drawn arbitrarily because someone or some group
is unwilling to carefully examine that gray area between the extremes.

More importantly though, why does one need to have a book published to
be a mystery writer? Why is it that mystery novelists (and I’m
generalizing here, not picking on David specificially) who want to
reform the MWA seem to constantly ignore those writers who write short
mystery fiction?

What we can hope to happen, David, is a reasonably level playing field
where short fiction writers are treated in a manner similar to
novelists and that they have an equal voice in any organization of
professional writers.

One of David Montgomery’s replies was:

Letting everyone in makes about as much sense as the WGA
opening up their rolls to people who like to watch movies. It’s a
professional writers group, and should remain such.

With all due respect to Michael, I agree with David.  The MWA began as an organization for professional
mystery writers and should remain so. I remember how I felt when I got
my WGA card… I knew then that I’d become a professional TV writer and
I was thrilled. I felt the same way when I qualified to join the MWA. I
think the more flexible MWA becomes in their admission requirements the
less meaning membership will actually have. Is that elitist? Yes, it
is…and it should be. What is the point of having a professional
organization if you let in anybody who can pay the dues?

Read more

Marcia Muller

Today’s Los Angeles Times pays tribute, in a lengthy profile, to MWA Grandmaster Marcia Muller, who created the first female private eye, Sharon McCone, blazing a trail that Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others have followed with great success.

"McCone’s development is kind of the history of where women were from the ’70s
to the ’80s, where we were still fumbling our ways into some of these roles,"
says Paretsky, whose Chicago private detective V.I. Warshawski debuted in 1982.
"The year I published my first book was the first year the Chicago police force
let women be part of the regular force, as opposed to matrons. It’s kind of hard
to believe it’s only been 20 years and everybody takes [female police] so much
for granted."

It’s likely, critics say, that modern female hard-boiled
detectives would have entered fiction without Muller, though probably a few
years later. "What we were looking for in our culture were models for how women
could best be not only strong emotionally, but more independent and alone — like
Raymond Chandler’s concept of man defining himself," said Jerrilyn Farmer, who
teaches mystery writing through the UCLA Extension and is the author of seven
Los Angeles-based mysteries featuring caterer Madeline Bean.

Muller got
there first, an arrival she ascribes to luck: She found a willing publisher,
though it took her four more years to sell her second book. And while Muller has
been successful, with about 3.5 million books in print, her readership pales
next to that of Grafton, author of 17 Millhone novels, the last four of which
have nearly matched Muller’s career sales, according to estimates by Publishers

Grafton, though, credits Muller with helping make her own success

"She paved the way for the rest of us," Grafton says. "She was
doing what had not been done. I know there are antecedents in terms of other
women doing mystery fiction years before, but Sharon McCone recast the part. She
sort of brought us into the 20th century."

A Writer’s Process

Prolific author Lynn Viehl talks, in a series of interesting entries on her blog, about her novel writing process.

While I’m writing the book I do not back-track to read and mess
with what I’ve written, edit or rewrite the new material as it lands on
the page, change my mind about the story, hate myself, hate the work,
avoid the work, wait for the planets to align correctly before I write,
let my inner rabid bitch off her leash, wonder how what I write will
affect the reader, worry about the state of my soul, chakrahs or ego,
or otherwise railroad myself.

My apologies in advance to the
writers who do any/all of the above. My methods are a professional
necessity, because honestly I could not handle what you do in order to
write a novel.

She also mentions that she gets an advance of about $21,000 a book which, because she mentions it so often on her blog, comes across more like boasting than informative candor.

In  another post, she discusses how she pitches her book projects to editors. Once she has a deal, it’s time to…

… move into the construction phase of the novel
process. I’ve already done the imagining, researching, and outlining for the novel, and I probably have at least a hundred pages of it written as part of the pitch, so everything is ready to go.

A hundred pages? No wonder she can just write without angst… she’s already gone through all her angst, and made all the tough decisions, in her massive (way too massive, in my opinion) sales and outlining process.

I "sell" my DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels (and now my MONK books) on the basis of a punchy page that reads more like book-jacket copy… and then I write a beat sheet for myself that oulines the rest of the plot. By beat sheet, I mean a crude version of the outlines we write in the episodic television business (you can see samples on my website or in my book SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION WRITING).  All together, it might amount to ten pages, mostly in bullet-point form. A hundred pages? Good God.

Unlike Lynn, I also rewrite my books as I go, usually starting my work each day by editing whatever I’ve written the night before. Then again, I also go through almost all of the whining and self-doubt that Lynn manages to avoid…but in the end, I think it helps my work. It forces me to concentrate on plot and character… and to go back and rewrite/refine/hone my writing.

But everyone has their own method. Mystery novelist  Sandra Scoppettone, for instance, doesn’t outline at all, discovering her plot,  her characters, and her murderer, as she goes. Now that is unimagineable to me…

California Girl

There’s been a lot of hoopla surrounding T. Jefferson Parker’s CALIFORNIA GIRL, including an Edgar nomination, but  (you can probably see where this is going) I was underwhelmed. T.J. Parker  is one of my favorite writers and I look forward to each of his books. While I liked CALIFORNIA GIRL, I didn’t think it was his best work or the crowning achievement of his career, as some of my friends have said. To me, that honor has to go to SILENT JOE, which is still my favorite of his books.  I also liked LAGUNA HEAT, BLUE HOUR and RED LIGHT a lot… and more than CALIFORNIA GIRL (then again, you can’t go wrong with any of his books).

That’s not to say CALIFORNIA GIRL isn’t a fine book with lots going for it… but after all the hoopla, and the terrific books of his that preceded it, I was expecting more. Perhaps that was the problem…the reviews and the acclaim amped my expectations way too high.