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To Swear or Not to Swear: Bad Language in Thrillers

It happened again not too long ago: a reader wrote in to take issue with bad language in my books. “I find the use of the four-letter expletive to be unacceptable,” he wrote — not specifying which word or even which book, but I can guess.

The reader, who was very polite and said kind things about my books, noted that I’m not alone. “Every author I read . . . has a tendency to throw the four-letter vulgarity in almost every chapter.”

Well, I’m never happy about making readers unhappy — but this topic is one I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about, and I think it’s worth discussing again.

My goal is to write a book that’s both entertaining and a fair depiction of the worlds I’m trying to portray. I’ve written before about research (and will again). I spend a lot of time in the environments I write about, trying to get the details right. One of those details is how people talk to each other.

So when a reader writes to ask, “Why do your characters use profanity?”, my first response is, “Well, why do some people use profanity?” Once the doors are closed, the language in many high-level corporate offices could come straight out of a David Mamet play. In VANISHED, I wrote about some very bad people doing some very bad things: stealing, lying, aiding and abetting murders. Without giving too much away, I’ll tell you that even worse people do worse things in BURIED SECRETS. A villain who doesn’t care about trust, honor or human life is probably not going to be too careful about his language. Therefore, both VANISHED and BURIED SECRETS include some words I wouldn’t say at a dinner party.

But I am sensitive to people’s concern, especially when readers say they don’t feel they can share my books with their kids, or certain friends. I want everyone to be able to read my books, including my own teenaged daughter and her friends. I don’t want the language in my books to distract from the story I’m trying to tell. It should all be seamless, so that you believe the environment I’ve created.
So I’ve gotten more careful about the language I use, and I pay close attention. If characters in one of my books use bad language, it’s because those people would do that in real life, and I think it’s necessary to show them as they are. On the other hand, if they wouldn’t — as Nick Heller’s most trusted colleague, Dorothy, and COMPANY MAN’s Audrey Rhimes wouldn’t — it’s important to show that, too.

The Perfect Signing Pen, At Last

The search for the perfect signing pen may be over — for now. 

I’ve written about this before. It’s not a small thing for authors on tour: we need a pen that’s reliable, that’s bold enough but not too thick, that doesn’t leave blots or bleed through the page. 
The pen I used for years was a rollerball, the Uni-ball Gel Impact, once known as the Uni-ball Vision Elite. It was (and is) a great pen, with the essential advantage of not bursting or leaking on airplanes — crucial, on book tour. The Uni-ball is popular with everyone from President Barack Obama (that’s him holding one on the cover of Time magazine)
to motorcycle daredevil Kelly Knievel (see his right hand).
The Uni-ball Gel Impact is a terrific pen for everyday use, but I was never completely satisfied with it as a signing pen. I wanted something with a broader swath and more flair. 
So what about Flairs? They’re still made by Paper Mate(R), and have a good, strong fiber tip, but the line’s too thin. The Sharpie? Too thick, and the ink bleeds through paper (though it’s fine for baseballs, I guess). The Sharpie extra fine is also too thin. I found a pen I really liked under the OfficeMax brand, but they stopped making them.
Finally I walked into Art Brown, the International Pen Shop, when I was in New York City one day. I asked the guy behind the counter what he recommended.
“You gotta go with the original,” he said. “They never made ‘em better,” and he handed me a Pentel Sign Pen. As the catalog says: “Perfect for general writing, drawing and adding character to any signature.” 
So that’s what I used, and it was fine. Not perfect, but fine.
Last week I stopped by Boston’s Levenger, the store co-founded by my friend Steve Leveen and his wife. Steve happened to be there, and he handed me my new signing pen: the Levenger L-tech rollerball with the 2.0 mm (broad) fibertip refill. It’s not a conventional rollerball; it’s spring-loaded, with a broad fiber tip designed especially for signatures. It doesn’t bleed through, and feels great in my hand.   It may be the perfect signing pen — at last.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Why is a raven like a writing desk?
— The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll doesn’t give us an answer to this question, but one look at my own desk supplies an answer: both ravens and writing desks (mine, at least) collect shiny things.

Ravens’ tendency to snatch up things that catch their eye and hide them for later makes them natural role models for writers. My desk is full of treasures and distractions, although everything on it is something I really need: my computer, of course; two monitors, so I can look at more than one thing at once; my favorite pens; my hourglass, to measure out uninterrupted writing time; my beloved Blackwing pencils, for marking up manuscripts; and the latest addition, my Batphone, because you never know when Gotham might need saving.

But I’m in good company.


Want more? Check out dozens of other authors’ and artists’ workspaces. The sands of the hourglass on my desk have run down, and it’s time for me to get back to writing . . .

Now That You’re Writing, Keep Going

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, or even if you’re just trying to write a book on your own, you may already be noticing how the excitement of getting started begins to slip away. That first week may have the thrill of any new beginning, but by the middle of Week 2, it may already start to feel a little tedious, or less important than it did at the beginning of the month.  

Writing is a habit like any other. Like exercise or any other discipline, it takes some time for it to become part of your routine. The experts say it takes about a month for a good habit to take root, which is another reason I see value in NaNoWriMo: if you’re really doing it, by the end of November, you should have formed the habit of writing.  
So here are four more pieces of advice to keep your momentum going.
1. No e-mail! In order to write you really need to get into the zone, and to get into the zone you need to be distraction-free. E-mail interrupts our attention span and scatters our concentration. I love e-mail, but it’s the enemy — so I ration myself. When I’m writing, I’ll check email at scheduled intervals. I police myself with a computer program called Freedom, which blocks Internet access for periods of time up to eight hours. If you don’t want to download another computer program, use an hourglass or a kitchen timer, if the ticking doesn’t drive you crazy. But do whatever you have to in order to get yourself at least 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted, undistracted writing time at a sitting.
2. Set interim goals. While NaNoWriMo’s target is a “short novel” of 50,000 words, a full-length novel can be anywhere from 75,000 to 150,000 words, or even longer. You can’t think about writing 150,000 words (400 pages); you’ll panic and paralyze yourself. But if you write 1,000 words a day, you can finish the first draft of a 200-page novel in less than three months, even if you take some weekend days off.
3. Work toward a deadline. NaNoWriMo’s deadline is November 30, but even if you’re not participating, you’ll see that your life presents natural deadlines: the end of the year, your next birthday, your 25th high school reunion, etc. Everyone needs deadlines.
4. Reward yourself. One of the biggest challenges of writing is turning off the internal critic, the part of your brain that second-guesses everything you’re doing, or harps on all that stuff you’re not doing while you’re writing. Override those voices by promising yourself rewards for getting work done. “When I hit 5,000 words, I’m going to the movies,” or even, “When I finish this paragraph, I can have another cup of coffee.” It worked in kindergarten and it works for me now.
And I’ll add this, while I’m handing out advice: more quickly than you might expect, you’ll figure out what works for you. Every writer I know has his or her own way of getting the job done, whether it’s scheduling cups of coffee or doling out M&Ms as a reward for meeting word count targets. There is no right or wrong here, as long as your word count continues to rise. Good luck!

NaNoWriMo and I Agree: Just Write It

It’s November again, which means that it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In case you don’t know, the object of NaNoWriMo is to write a 175-page novel (50,000 words) between November 1 and November 30. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality: “By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes.” 

Is NaNoWriMo a stunt? Sure. Does it produce much publishable work? I have no idea. But I think it can be a useful incentive, and I could not agree more with the underlying concept: just write the book, already. 
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: setting out to write a book is a risky thing to do. Every day people tell me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book, if I could find the time.” What NaNoWriMo says — and I agree with — is, the time is now. 
If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, or even if you’re just finally sitting down to get started before another year ends, I’ll repeat a few pieces of advice I’ve offered before. 
  1. Write it now, fix it later. I was fascinated by this NPR story about how much work Jane Austen’s editor might have done on her manuscripts. I love reading about Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’d be lost without my own editor, Keith Kahla. No one’s first draft is good. It doesn’t matter. You have to get it written so you can fix it later. 
  2. You have the time, if you’ll make the time. Don’t believe me? Do what dieters do: keep a journal of your day. Mark down the time you spend watching TV, talking on the phone, emailing, Tweeting, etc. Then decide what portions of that time you’re going to use to write instead. Maybe you’ll sleep an hour less; maybe you’ll stop watching the nightly news. It helps if you can make this a regular time slot — the same amount of time every day, at the same time. Get into the habit of writing. 
  3. Treat your writing like a job. It doesn’t matter if no one’s paying you yet. If your goal is that someone will, it’s already a job. If you don’t have an office, set a place aside that is just for you and your writing — the attic, the basement, a corner of the laundry room — and ask your family and friends to respect that. No one thinks twice about interrupting a hobby. You should make it clear to yourself and the people around you that your writing isn’t a hobby, it’s a job. 
  4. Be ruthless about your time. No means no. If you’ve set aside time to write, hold yourself to it. Set a timer if you have to. I have an old-fashioned hourglass on my desk; when the sands are running, I’m not doing anything but writing. No phone, no research, no conversations, no distractions. 
Since I need to get back to my own writing, I’ll continue these thoughts next week. If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, good luck!

The best Mexican food I’ve ever had — really

This is a tiny place located in a Texaco gas station in Tupelo, Mississippi. It was recommended to me by a friend who’s a major foodie and really knows his southern road food. I went there a couple of weeks ago, and then again, and again… Their soft Tacos al Pastor are amazing.

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