Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Most Frightening Thing in the World and How to Conquer It

by Janis Patterson

Everyone is afraid of something. Some people are terrified of everything, some just a few, but there is something - whatever it is - that scares everyone. I have a friend who starts shaking when someone just mentions cockroaches - I mean, I’m not fond of them and will go a fair distance to avoid them, but that’s not the same as shivering, squealing, bone-chilling fear. Another one almost passes out when you mention the word ‘snake.’ She has been known to faint when she actually sees one. I don’t understand it - after all, when I was a child my cousin and I made spending money by milking rattlesnakes and selling the venom to a lab. Made pretty good money for those days, too - at least we did until our mothers found out! 

Yet another friend feels that way about dogs - even the picture of a dog makes her go pale. My own mother was terrified of heights. Everyone has something that makes their mouth go dry and their hands and knees tremble. 

So what frightens me? I’m really not too overtly frightened of anything unless there is immediate and physical danger but there is one thing that never fails to send shivers down my spine.

The blank page. (You know I mean computer screen, but you also know that I’m a dinosaur who started out on a manual typewriter and paper, so you’ll just have to deal with my anachronistic language...)

It doesn’t matter if I’m starting a new book, or in the middle of one, or writing a letter/email I don’t really want to, or trying to come up with an even semi-original idea for a blog. It is always the same. I sit down at the computer. I stare at that vast white emptiness and that white blank emptiness stares back at me. Sometimes it is a challenge, sometimes it is frightening. 

I am a professional writer. I have deadlines. I try to write every day. Usually I have several projects queued up. Sometimes life interferes, sometimes I’m just tired, sometimes it just seems the old brain has taken a vacation without me. Of course, there are more times that the ideas and words flow faster than my fingers can record them and the ideas swirl around my brain with semi-tornadic force... but if that were true all the time there would be no use for this blog.

So what does one do? Switch from project to project? Sometimes that works. Give up for the rest of the day, have some coffee and perhaps a good lounge in the hot tub followed by some mindless tv? Sometimes that works too. Go grimly on, putting down word after painful word even as you realize this is all pretty much garbage and will have to be rewritten? We’ve all done that, and it doesn’t get any more pleasant.

The only bad thing is, all the above ‘solutions’ depend on the fact of your having time to implement them. What if, like today, you realize at the last moment that you have a blog due tomorrow and because of some very good reasons (wedding anniversary, eclipse, book deadline, etc.) you not only have not written a word, you have no idea of what to write.

And the big white blank emptiness stares at you.

Well, I am fortunate. I grew up in an advertising agency, where deadlines are not only continual but sacrosanct. My father, the president and guiding genius of the agency, taught me that there is only ONE acceptable excuse for missing a deadline, and that is death. Yours.

So you sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard and (here is where I usually say a small but desperate prayer) start typing. Sometimes you end up with something that’s pretty good. Sometimes you end up with the most appalling piffle. Most of the time it’s somewhere between. 

But you’ve made your deadline.

And that is good.

Most of the time.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The Continuing Evolution of Genre

by Janis Patterson

If you talk to the oldtimers, life used to be simpler, and in publishing I guess it was. Publishers published books. Some non-fiction, of course, but fiction… ah, to hear some people talk it was a halcyon time. There were the standards, of course – romance (which was waaaay different from what we call romance today), mysteries and westerns, horror and science fiction, even tales that were unclassifiable – but the publishers were open to different kinds of fiction. They even took chances on the kind of things they’d never published before.

Then came the feeding frenzy of publishers acquiring publishers. The small, family owned publishing house almost vanished from the earth and though we have all kinds of imprint names they are all controlled by the Big Five publishing houses. Or maybe the Big Four. Or whatever it is this week. And suddenly publishing was being run not by people who loved books but by bean counters who viewed books with the same attitude as widgets. They said, “If number 36 is selling well, let’s do it in pink and purple and green…” That is, offering exactly the same thing with only slightly different variances. And so hardcase genre publishing was born and the requirements of publishers narrowed down to tight, pure little pigeonholes. 

To tighten the noose even more, publishers began to send out ‘Tip Sheets’ – little roadmaps telling exactly what a particular line wanted, especially in romance. And they continued to tighten. Some even gave what should have happened by what page. While it didn’t quite die, creativity was most definitely stifled. What was worse, readers had to choose from what the publishers offered. Choices – other than the basics – dried up.

Then the upheaval of self-publishing happened and real choice became available again. Want a western with a female heroine instead of a taciturn drifter? You got it. Want a squeaky clean – or definitely erotic – romance? You have choices. Mystery fan? There’s hard boiled, cozy, cats-and-shoe-fetish cutesy, female sleuth, male sleuth… whatever you want.

And more. As the respectability of e-publishing expands, it is becoming more complex as readers and writers conspire to push the envelopes. Genre-bending has become a fine art, some as intricate as any Cordon Bleu recipe. There are mysteries with long-dead sleuths solving current crimes, romances between Earthers and alien species, talking animal sleuths, just about any permutation you can think of – including nymphomaniac vampire nuns from the planet Zeon.

All of which is great for the reader and the writer. Genre shouldn’t be a pigeonhole – it should be a doorway… or maybe a hall with lots of doorways leading off it. The only thing that should control what content is available is what the reader wants to read and the writer wants to write. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Time, Fate and Choices

by Janis Patterson

How did it get to be the end of February already? 2024 is almost 1/6th over, and I haven’t even started some of the things I hoped to have finished already. The Husband says I set my goals to high, that I believe I can accomplish much more than I reasonably can. He’s probably a little bit right. I’m getting older, and though I am not a morbid person it’s quite obvious that there is less time in front of me than behind. Sigh. 

So I am determined to make that time count. The problem is, if I lived another fifty years and never had a single idea from this very minute, I would not be able to write all the books that are currently living in my brain.

But with such a short (relatively - I’m not THAT old yet!) time left, how do I decide which project deserves my attention? There are 2-3 books lined up about my rich older lady sleuth Flora Melkiot, who would doubtless harm me if I called her elderly. There are another 2-3 books already pretty much plotted (as much as I ever plot) about Contract Archaeologist Rachel Petrie. Lurking deep in the shadows is a tentative idea for another story about researcher Mindy McMann. And those are just ideas about my various (some of them embryonic) series. There is the epic family saga loosely based on my own family which has teased me for years, beginning with my great-grandmother who came from Scotland back in the 1850s. There is a decidedly controversial alternative-history murder mystery. There is a non-fiction history I am burning to write. And there are more, many more...

The d*mnable thing is that they are all important! At least, important to me.

There are other things, too. Time with my husband, doing whatever appeals to us at the moment. There are trips we want to take, long, leisurely trips that we have dreamed of for years. Time with extended family, some of whom are older than we and the time we have with them is to be cherished. Obligations to beloved organizations. My political activism. Time to spend with friends. New adventures, too, some we probably haven’t even thought of yet.

My father was a consummate wordsmith who played with the classic Latin phrase “Tempus Fugit” (Time Passes), making it into “Tempus is a fugitin’” Well, tempus is indeed a fugitin’ and I’m not sure I like it.

When I was a child I couldn’t wait to grow up - childhood was so stultifying! The years seemed to drag as slowly as an arthritic snail until the time I could be regarded as a human being with wants and desires and opinions instead of as a mere child to be directed and taught and kept from participating because I was young. The only good thing was that the future, shining and endless, stretched before me in a tantalizing road. 

Now, though, time is on fast-forward, speeding past at a rate that seems to surpass the speed of light. That is not heartening.

I have read of several authors who are officially retiring, a choice I really cannot understand. The thought of a life without writing is beyond my comprehension. I must admit I would like a respite from a continuing onslaught of deadlines, and a softer schedule, but to retire? To quit writing completely? That would be like cutting off a piece of myself. Writing has been a part of my life for an astonishing number of years. I wrote my first ‘novel’ at four; the complete total now hangs somewhere in the region of a hundred. In the intervening years I have written films, advertising, articles, edited a couple of multi-magazine publishing groups... just about anything that uses words. I cannot picture a life without words any more than I can picture a life without breathing.

So why am I sitting here musing instead of creating? Dunno. Guess I gotta get busy. I have a deadline. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Back to the Grindstone

by Janis Patterson 

For those of you who don’t know, my mammoth 22 novel republishing blitz ended on October 25. Thank Goodness! Re-releasing a book every other Wednesday for most of a year was exhausting. I managed to keep going through about half of November, but was so wrung out that with the holiday season coming up my wonderful husband put his foot down and told me I was taking the rest of the year off. 

His dictum was a blessing - and a curse. I did sneak in some writing, something which I had neglected shamefully during the constant work of the blitz, but also managed a strange and rare pleasure - rest. After far too many frozen dinners, take-out and restaurant meals I rediscovered the joys of the kitchen. And the first part of December we went to Germany for a tour of Bavarian Christmas markets, one of our favorite trips.

Until Lufthansa got involved. I am still at war with that *^$#@^ airline. Our luggage had been checked through to Stuttgart, but along the way we were informed that the last leg of our trip had been cancelled, meaning we stopped in Frankfurt Airport (itself one of the Seven Circles of Hell) but our bags went on to Stuttgart - except they didn’t. I got my bag back - I snatched it from the hands of a thief, no less - but The Husband’s never appeared, meaning we had to spend the first day of the tour buying him new clothes and other essentials - an expense we had not anticipated.

Over a week after we got home Lufthansa called, saying his bag had been found, but we couldn’t have it because we hadn’t filled out a certain lost-bag form that none of the half-dozen Lufthansa employees we talked to ever told us we should fill out. When we found this out, we of course tried to fill out the form only to find that it would not accept the dates of our flights. Lufthansa still has the bag, they know it is ours, but they refuse to send it to us because we have not filled out a form that their lost-bag system refuses to accept. Wonder how much Lufthansa makes from the sale of ‘unclaimed’ luggage? After all, it is ‘found money.’ Just be very careful if you ever are cursed to fly Lufthansa or its cohort United. And it’s not just us - I was surprised to find their customer service satisfaction rating is in the cellar.

So after my December ‘vacation’ I have to get back to writing... and it’s hard, harder than I expected. I have gotten to like sleeping late in the morning, and being able to do things during the day besides staring at a screen. And I do have ‘encouragement’ in the form of deadlines - my blogs, my newsletter, two novella contracts (which are due alarmingly soon) to say nothing of the books I want to write on my own, two of which are so tantalizingly close to completion. But still it is so hard to sit down at the one-eyed monster of my computer, open a file and create something from nothing but imagination - and caffeine. Never forget the caffeine!

I have written professionally for most of my life (I was first paid for writing when I was nine years old) and on the whole loved it. Writing is part of my being, as much a part of me as the color of my eyes or the shape of my chin. I cannot imagine living the rest of my life without writing... just the next few weeks. Leisure is so insidiously addictive. 

But, like cranky old wells, one sometimes has to prime the pump to break the vacuum and make the water flow, and that is what this ill-tempered screed has appeared to do. The act of writing this blog, of seeing my fingers move over the keys and the black squiggles of letters and words appear on the screen, is both soothing and invigorating. I might even open up one of my novella files and see if the feeling continues.

Or I might just go take a nap.