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Tests and the waiting game

Okay, Tom Petty, you know your stuff. The waiting is the hardest part…at least so far.

The initial diagnosis happened so fast. It was Boom! Lump. Boom! Mammogram and ultrasound. Boom! Biopsy. Boom Boom Hiss! It’s cancer, bitches.

Darth Turdy

Darth Turdy

Just two days after learning I had breast cancer I met with my breast surgeon, Dr. Boobcutter. A week after that I met with my oncologist, Dr. Cappucino. In between and since has been a whole lot of waiting.

What am I waiting for?

  • Genetic testing to see if I carry the breast cancer gene BRCA. Why is this a big deal? Because if I’ve got it, there’s a 30% chance that the cancer will recur. It’s in this case that we start discussing a double mastectomy. Upside: Angelina Jolie reconstruction tits? Downside: All of my relatives and descendants are in jeopardy. My blood was drawn for this on March 12. Dr. Boobcutter said it would be 7 to 10 days.
  • Breast MRI. This will give us a clue as to if Turdy has sent scouts into my lymph nodes. Why is this a big deal? Because if my nodes are clean we can probably just evict Turdy and do a round of radiation. I.e. no chemo. What’s the holdup? My goddamn menstrual cycle. [Editor Me: Yuck, are we really doing this? Writer Me: Are we going for pretty or honest? Editor Me: *sigh* Writer Me: Okay, then.] Because boobs swell and change over the course of the month, they need to pinpoint the MRI between day 7 and day 13 of the cycle. Which means that I’m supposed to call the scheduler when I get my period. So they (Boobcutter, Cappucino, and the MRI peeps) are all waiting for that to happen. And you know how being stressed out about it helps that situation. This may be even more stressful than a teenage broken condom scenario.
  • HER2 Antibodies. The initial test (IDC or immunohistochemistry) came back 2+ or “equivocal,” requiring further testing. The second test (I assume FISH or Fluorescence in-situ Hybridization) was also inconclusive. So apparently they are now running a third test. Why is it a big deal? Because if my cancer has HER2 antibodies it is very aggressive. And I may get chemo prior to surgery (this is called neoadjuvant therapy). If Turdy the Tumor is HER2 negative I may not need chemo at all! So HER2- = maybe chemo HER2+ = Chemo City. Basically, this is a test I want to flunk. HER2-positive cancers are much more likely to recur and the five year survival rate drops significantly. Do not want.

So, really, I’m just sitting around waiting to take tests and to get test results. Except when I went to see It Follows with Gunny last Friday. And spent most of the film checking for messages from Dr. Cappucino’s office because at that point the second HER2 test was already a week late. Halfway through the film I saw a missed call and went into the hall to return it and found out that it would be another week for that pesky HER2 shit. That was scarier than the movie.

I have a new book coming out next week and it’s really hard to give a shit. I want to DO something. I mean besides bingewatch Empire and Bloodline and The Jinx. I want this fucker out of my body.

Telling a young child about cancer

What should we tell our five-year-old daughter about my cancer? What is the right thing to say so that she will understand but not be terrified or confused? How much can her Kindergarten brain handle?

My husband and I spent a lot of time in the days since my diagnosis thinking about these questions. And there are plenty of resources that exist for just such a dilemma. The National Cancer Institute has a great page on talking to kids about cancer. But me, I tend to put stock in personal experience. So I asked around in the discussion boards at breastcancer.org. There were some women that said Allison is too young to be told anything, which pretty much no one agreed with. It was so refreshing for me that none of the differences of opinion led to threats of rape and death. I think I’ve been tainted by gaming forums forever.

Blog_Calvin_Temper_Tantrum

I feared two things: That Allison would completely freak out and never have another happy carefree moment in her life and/or that I would at last break down and cry about this cancer shit, causing a domino effect in which everyone in the family was weeping and rending garments.

The plan, as of Wednesday was to keep gathering intell and formulate a plan of communication. So basically the plan was to make plans at a future date. It was like being back at Microsoft.

Now, my daughter is on the melodramatic side and always has been. Combine that hard-wired tendency with the knowledge of mortality that arrives around age four and the burst of super-emo in kids around six when the desire to be independent struggles with the urge to still be a baby. Let’s just say Kid 3 and I have already had several tearful conversations about how someday Mommy is going to die. And every time I wanted to promise her I will never die but of course what kind of shitty parent does that?

So, this all had powder keg potential. I knew it had to be done, but maybe I could wait until I was going in for surgery? Or maybe even hold off and tell her if/when I lose my hair? These were the desperate musings of a professional procrastinator.

Wednesday after school she came home wearing different clothes. She’d had an accident. This is a kid that never has accidents. Like maybe once or twice when she was three, and nothing since. My mom instincts told me that it was time. She’d heard us talking, she knew something was going on and no one was being straight with her. We were treating her like she wasn’t even part of the family. It was time. I didn’t even discuss it with my husband.

I pulled Allison onto my lap and said, “I want to tell you something.”

I see Gunny’s eyes widen.

“Mommy has a yucky thing in my boob. Right here. And a doctor is going to get it out and make me better. Okay?”

“Okay.”

The yucky thing has a name. Its name is cancer.

“I heard that word before.”

“It’s not like a germ, so you can’t catch it like a cold, okay? You’re not going to get it and Daddy’s not going to get it. The doctor will fix me and I’ll be fine, okay?”

She started to cry. “I’m worried!”

I don’t know what I said. Mommy-murmurs of “It’s okay, I’ve got you” probably. We dried her tears and had some cookies. Because the ladies at breastcancer.org had advised it, I sent her Kindergarten teacher this email:

“Dear Mrs. Kindergarten,

I just wanted to let you know about something going on in our family that might effect Allison’s behavior at school. Last week I was diagnosed with breast cancer (it’s early: stage IIA) and yesterday we told her that I have a “yucky thing” in my boob and its name is cancer and that the doctor is going to get it out. And that she can’t catch it.

So, we wanted you to be aware in case she starts talking about cancer or boobs or acting out in some way.

Thanks for understanding. You’re very important to Allison.”

The next day Allie brought home a picture she’d drawn for me. I got an email from her teacher saying that Allison had come back from lunch upset and they talked about what was going on at home. Mrs Kindergarten told Allie that her own grandma had the same kind of owie and the doctors made her better. Then she gave Allie some extra time to draw a “love note” for me.

Allison drawing

For the next couple of days Allison was extra clingy and required many many cuddles. We had a sleepover one night in her bed and watched Barbie Princess Power. She cried a little and threw herself on top of me wailing “I’m worried about that boob thing!” On Friday before her dad walked her to the bus stop she asked me if I’d be here when she got home. She thought maybe it was the day the doctor was going to cut the yucky thing out. I assured her that I will let her know when that happens.

As for the picture she drew me, I keep it in a Spider-Man folder with all my test results and insurance approvals that I carry to my various appointments. So she’s always with me. Because I love my life and my family desperately, but this little girl is why I’m needed on this planet.

Suddenly, cancer

Six days ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Dun dun dunnnnn.

How did this happen? Beats me. All I know was that I discovered a lump, waited a month to see if it went away, and then showed it to my primary care doctor. She sent me for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound.

*NOTE* I’m 46 years old and I’ve never had a mammogram. A few years ago—maybe even before I turned 40—a study came out saying that the benefits of regular mammograms before age 50 didn’t outweigh the extra costs, anxiety, and false positives. There are other schools of thought that disagree. Because this one helped me avoid the tit-press, it is the one I chose to believe. Me, to my doctor: “I thought I didn’t have to have them until I’m 50. Doctor: *eyeroll* (She’s cool, and I’m paraphrasing). The lady who actually operated the tit-press rolled her eyes the same way.

So, there was the lump on the mammogram, all nice and bright. It existed. An ultrasound revealed that it was solid. If it had been fluid-filled it would probably be a cyst and therefore no big deal. But although 80% of these solid boob blobs also turn out to be no big deal, you gotta stick a needle in them to be sure.

Me, to radiologist (who looks like a movie star, btw): “Can you stick a needle it in right now?”
Radiologist: Naw, I think we’ll set up an appointment.

So, because I’m a regular taker of ibuprofen and aspirin for headaches and whatever else hurts (but not my boob, which had no pain until I found the lump and then “felt” (I say, because I’m pretty sure it was psychological) like a spikey burr of potential death) which are blood thinners, I had to wait five days until the blood thinners GTFO’d.

*NOTE* Intra-parenthetical parentheses, Christa? Really? Shut up. I have cancer.

The biopsy was scheduled for Monday, March 9. I spent most of the days in between the two appointments lurking in the forums at breastcancer.org and consulting Dr. Google. That, and playing iPhone games and watching TV. Nothing else got done. Nothing. The kid would have starved to death if my husband hadn’t been doing everything. At this point, my older daughter becomes suspicious. I’m waiting for phone calls and casually mentioning doctor’s appointments, two things she knows I hate. So, I admit (with the preamble “Don’t freak out…”), that I found a lump yadda yadda and we we’re checking it out and no big deal.

During the biopsy, there are times that I am just chilling in the room, lying on my side, staring down the blob on the ultrasound. I’m memorizing it. Because I’ve been told I will not have the results of this biopsy until Thursday. If I’d had my phone with me, I’d have captured it for future perusal, but all my stuff was in a locker in the dressing room thing. I looked deep into its tumory soul and I did not like what I saw there. It looked like a soft-serve turd, complete with a fuck-you swirl like Bob’s Big Boy hair. In the lines and shadows I thought I saw an evil little face. I drew it for my older daughter like this:

turdythetumor
Dr. Movie Star came in, gave me a shot to numb up my boob and then stuck a little hollow needle in the tumor three times—each time withdrawing a tiny chunk with a ka-chunk sound like a stapler. They bandage me up and send me home where I convalesce on the sofa with more binge-viewing. My plan is to wait out the results this way: distracting myself with other people’s drama.

After a lazy day on the sofa, I’m awake until 3am, doing research on my phone next to my snoring husband. I Google stuff like “characteristics of benign tumors,” and “ultrasound differences between benign and malignant tumors” and I come up with some good stuff:

  • My tumor is rounded not spiky. (Cancer is spiky as fuck)
  • My tumor is wide, not tall. (Benign tumors grow with the grain of the breast, cancer goes wherever the fuck it wants)
  • My tumor has clear borders. (Cancerous growths often appear fuzzy or blurred at the edges—it doesn’t want to be contained)
  • My little soft-serve turd tumor is probably benign! Hooray!

The next morning, I tell my husband and older daughter of my medical research, and how I feel quite relieved. My daughter goes to her dad’s and I tell her I will text her when I hear back from the doctor on Thursday. “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “It’s going to be fine.”

Around five o’clock that evening I see a missed call. It’s a private number. I listen to the voicemail and it’s Dr. Movie Star. He wants me to call him. I’m heading for the privacy of the bedroom and searching frantically for something to write with so I can jot down the number and call him back. The phone rings again. Dr. Movie Star really wants to talk to me.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this…”

It’s cancer. Here are the notes I took during this call.
cancernotes
My husband comes into the room and I give him the thumbs-down.

Now, a week before this, I wouldn’t even have known to ask about hormone receptors or HER2 status, but now I know that the particulars of the cancerous fuckwad will tell me how aggressive it is and how we will fight it. But Dr. Movie Star reveals that the full pathology report hasn’t come back, just the headline “Yup, It’s Cancer.” He’s already called my primary care doc and the breast surgeons that he thinks are the best.

He apologizes again. “I really thought it would be benign,” he says and I say “I know, it was curvy instead of spiky!” He sounds genuinely bummed and surprised and I find myself saying “Don’t be sad. Thank goodness you decided to stick a needle in it.”
*Note* Comforting other people about my cancer diagnosis has already become a familiar thing.

I walk out to the living room with my piece of paper. I give my husband the details. I don’t cry. I have to tell my daughter and I don’t want to. She’s going to freak out. I don’t want to put this burden on her. I make jokes, downplay. This, too, will become a familiar flavor.
calliemessage
I send her a message and, hilariously, “ductal” auto-corrects to “ducktail.”

She’s only been gone a couple hours, but she comes back. “I want to be with you,” she says. Which, if you have teenagers you will know is a rare and marvelous thing. Like a unicorn. She comes home and sits next to me on the sofa, holding my hand.

*NOTE* Here is where I get clever. I know she’s interested in healthcare professions and she’s not…super motivated yet. I ask her to be my cancer buddy, my assistant, my amanuensis. She’ll go to appointments with me and be an extra set of ears. Take notes. Help me keep track of my stuff. This way she knows what’s going on first hand AND y’know if it stimulates her interest in the field, then bonus.

I call my dad. This is difficult. A year ago he had a quadruple heart bypass and still isn’t 100%. I tell him “Uhhhh I guess I have a little bit of breast cancer.” Talking to your father about your boob is weird. He agrees with me that I should wait until my mom gets home from Hawaii before I tell her. Because why ruin her vacation, right?

That night, lying in bed in the darkness I have an odd sense of relief. I’ve been afraid of getting cancer my whole life. I always suspected that this would happen, and it’s as if that other shoe has finally dropped. Part of me has been dreading this for so long that for ten or twelve hours I am almost at peace.

Wednesday I text my son (who is 23) an invitation to come over for dinner. I have to tell him, and I figure in person will be better. He doesn’t want to come over. I text that I need to tell him something. Should I just go ahead and do it in text? He replies “sure.” I am stymied. I don’t know how to begin. It was easier with my daughter because I’d laid the groundwork of what was going on.

I turn to my husband and daughter. “What do I say?”
My husband says, “Put ‘I have breast cancer.’”

Simple, right? But four words that change a person’s world. He’s my baby boy and I don’t want to cause him pain and worry. I type the words into my iPhone and I can feel the reality settling in. I. Have. Cancer.

Naw. Not possible. Someone’s going to call me and say there was a mix-up. My little soft-serve tumor-turd wouldn’t do me like that. He’s curvy and swirly! Someone mixed up the pathology reports. Everything will be put right tomorrow at the consultation with the breast surgeon. He’ll come in with a file chuckling and shaking his head, “Mrs. Charter, there’s been a mistake…”

My husband and daughter accompany me to the breast surgeon. He’s the first person to look me in the eye and talk about my cancer. He’s the second doctor to tell me that because I have big boobs I’m a good candidate for lumpectomy. (They take out the tumor and some stuff around the edges instead of removing the whole boob.)
We take a look at my pathology report. Turdy the tumor is estrogen positive. Okay, that means we can fight his ass with hormone therapy. If we cut off his supply of estrogen (through drugs or sometimes removing the ovaries) we may be able to starve him out.

The report on HERS2 antibody is inconclusive. They have to run another test. If it’s positive it means my cancer is more aggressive, BUT it will give us another weapon to fight him – antibodies. So, more waiting.

Ki-67. This, I hadn’t read anything about. Basically, it determines what percentage of the cells in your tumor are actively dividing (to make copies of themselves). It’s normally about 7 or 10 percent. A high rate would be over 20%. Turdy is at 50%. He’s growing like a motherfucker.

My surgeon, who is basically the hot-shit surgeon that other surgeons send their wives and daughters to, tells me that what we’re probably going to do with Turdy is throw everything we’ve got at him. I have found it useful to think of this in Star Wars terms.

death star

  1. Destroy the Death Star. That’s Turdy, and cutting him out of my boob. Lumpectomy.
  2. Go after the tie-fighters and any spacecraft that might have made a run for it. This is radiation.
  3. Scour the galaxy for any Imperial drones or outposts. This will be the chemo.

Another thing we’re waiting on is the genetic testing to find out if I’ve got the breast cancer gene. Because if I do, there’s a big chance that it will recur and that’s when we start talking about lopping off everything.

So. Status report. I have stage IIa breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma in my right boob. The tumor is 2.6 cm. As of this moment there is no indication that it has spread anywhere else, and that is a good thing. If this cancer stays in my boob, it cannot kill me. If it gets out? If the Empire makes its way into my bones or lungs or brain? Then I freak out.

But for now, I am thinking of this as a problem that is fixable. If I lose a boob (or two) and my hair…well then, whatever. Better to be bald and flat-chested than six feet under, right? I have an appointment with the oncologist this week, and a breast MRI (to see if any of my lymph nodes light up under radioactive dye. And yeah, I already asked if I could get superpowers from this.), and then appointments with more people and more doctors. Basically, we’re assembling the cancer avengers and we’re going to knock this fucker out.
AvengersAssemble_052113_1600
This is really long, sorry. Here are some questions you may have:

Why are you even blogging about this? It’s TMI.
Because writing is how I process things. I’ve blogged about every other damn thing, so why not this? Plus, as soon as I became aware that I needed a biopsy I searched for a breast cancer blog so I could learn something via human experience versus a bunch of numbers. If you’re creeped out, go ahead and unsubscribe. No hard feelings.
Is this a cancer blog now?
No. I am not my cancer and I have a million and one things I’m interested in besides this. My intent is to keep blogging about writing and stuff with some cancer sprinkled in as needed. (As needed by me. Your mileage may vary.) Honestly though, I’m not making promises because I don’t know how I’m going to feel.
You’ve scared me. What if I have breast cancer too?
Then finding it early is your best weapon. Get a baseline mammogram as soon as you turn 40. If your mom, sister, or aunts have had breast cancer (or you know you have the breast cancer gene) you need to start getting mammograms earlier. Like ten years before the age your relative was when diagnosed.
Are you going to die?
Yes. We all are. My intention is to live into my nineties like both of my grandmothers. If that isn’t in the cards than I will fight like hell to get as many years as I can. My youngest child is only 5 and still needs a lot of mothering.
What do you need? What can I do?
Um, nothing right now, thanks for asking. I don’t feel sick yet. If we know each other and you’ve been through this yourself, I’d love to hear from you. As a new pledge in this shitty sorority I could use a big sis.

The Care and Feeding of Minor Characters

coal-miner

A miner, not a minor.

Let’s talk about minor characters.These are your protagonist’s family members, friends, and coworkers. Important enough to have a name, but definitely not an above-the-title name. They mainly exist to help move the plot along, often being on the receiving end of your protagonist’s witty dialog or exposition. “OMG Amber, let me tell you about what happened this summer at camp! You’re gonna freak out!”

They can also be plot devices: getting abducted, being diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses or accused of a crime, forbidding the protagonist to do what they want to do, or betraying them in some way. Nearly every cop’s wife in Western literature exists only to a) complain that the cop is never home or b) get threatened/abducted/killed.

Your protagonist lives in the world with other people, and how she interacts with them both humanizes her and gives your reader clues as to the kind of person she is. A hard-nosed business tycoon can show her secret tender side when she visits her grandmother in the nursing home. The nanny who is all sweetness and light with her charges may have a dark side that she explores in secret sex clubs.

Regardless of what purpose they serve, you should make sure your minor characters stick in your reader’s mind as people, not set-dressing. They don’t need to be as fully fleshed out as your main characters. In fact, to give them too much page space or backstory may indicate a higher importance to your reader than you’re going to deliver on. That’s not to say you can’t give a character more real estate than makes sense in one story because you’re setting him up for a larger role in the sequel. I had this conversation with my editor, Marti McKenna, while we worked on Griefed (Lexy Cooper #3).

Marti: I’m not quite sure why this Archie Wolfe guy is getting so much screen time. There’s not really a payoff…
Me: He’s important in Lexy #4.
Marti: Aha!

Let’s now make a distinction between the minor character and the “extra” or “walk-on.” These are characters that appear briefly to serve a specific purpose and then disappear. A taxi driver that gets your protagonist from point A to point B and maybe delivers one piece of news. A bartender confirming the alibi of a suspect. A beat cop who makes an arrest.

They are necessary to move the action along, but they don’t need backstory, motivation, or even a name. (Unless they do. If that bartender is supplying a false alibi because she’s sleeping with the suspect then she’s not a walk-on, she’s a minor character and she’s gonna need a name.)

Here’s an example of when not to name the baby. This happened during the editing of Glitched (Lexy #4)

Harper showed the letter to the only lawyer she knew—Xenon’s corporate bulldog—and she suggested that Harper zip her lip and try to move on…

Marti: I suggest giving the corporate bulldog a name to avoid pronoun confusion.

But, this bulldog will not be seen again until Lexy #6. I don’t want to commit to a name this far out, and more importantly, I don’t want to give readers the impression that this character needs to be loaded into memory yet. The problem was easily solved by the elimination of one letter. “She” became “he” and poof! No more pronoun trouble.

pronountrouble1

Don’t litter your book with a cast of thousands. Your reader can’t keep track of that many characters unless each and every character stands out. I bet if I name an obscure character in the Harry Potter series, fully half the world’s population will know who I’m talking about. Because Rowling paints a vivid—though sometimes brief—picture of every character and each serves a purpose.

For the rest of us? My best advice is to keep the cast lean. Only write characters that you need. And only give them names if you want your reader to recall who they are later in the book or series.

Billable Hours – A Writer’s Day

Okay, novelists don’t really have billable hours. I worked in a PR agency for a brief, miserable period and keeping track of how much time I spent on every little thing was a massive pain in my ass. That 15 minute chunk of time when I was staring out the window watching pigeons have sex on the neighboring roof? Which client can I bill that to?

Anyway, I got to thinking, now that I’m only working for me (and my readers), what if I had to account for every quarter-hour of time? So, today, I kept track. Submitted for your approval, my non-billable hours or

A Semi-Productive Day in the Life of a Novelist

8:30 – 8:45 Screw around on Facebook. Check email. Read over yesterday’s work. Post Instagram of Hiatus Project.
8:45 – 9:00 Select and post a snippet from Glitched on Lexy’s FB page

9:00 – 9:15 Source reference photos for Hiatus Project
9:15 – 9:30 Write Hiatus Project
9:30 – 9:45 Watch Magic Mike XXL trailer.
9:45 – 10:00 Tell reader via Instagram that Glitched will release March 31

Magic Mike XXL10:00 – 10:15 Send email to editor and proofreader about trying to hit March 31
10:15 – 10:30 Log into Lexy’s twitter account and follow-back new followers. Also, post Gronk photo.
10:30 – 10:45 Write Hiatus Project
10:45 – 11:00 Research makes and models of Mercedes-Benz sedans (for project, I swear!)

Gronk spike

11:00 – 11:15 Realize plot of Hiatus Project has similarities to popular 90s film. Text best friend to confess.
11:15 – 11:30 Curate appropriate playlist to inspire Hiatus Project writing. Fall down a “Stripper Anthem” rabbithole.
11:30 – 11:45 Fold laundry while pondering the temperature of imminent Hiatus Project sex scene
11:45 – 12:00 Write Hiatus Project

Gronk shirtless12:00 – 12:15 Realize this is an early release day for school. Panic.
12:15 – 12:30 Write Hiatus Project furiously until mind starts to wander…
12:30 – 12:45 Watch YouTube videos of Gronk spiking footballs
12:45 – 1:00 Rewrite chunk of chapter two of Hiatus Project so chapter nine won’t be fucked up.

IMG_09311:00 – 1:15 Google “Gronk shirtless”
1:15 – 1:30 Write Hiatus Project
1:30 – 1:45 Eat lunch while playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
1:45 – 2:00 Write this blog post

2:00 – 2:15 Kindergartner arrives home. Work day is finished.

All in all, I did get some stuff done. I wrote 1,948 words on Hiatus Project, my editor says March 31 is good with her (still waiting to hear from my proofreader), and I totally Gronked out.

Arrive Gronk Leave

In the Beginning – Starting a New Novel

-it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night-pin-2120-pMy ninth book (Glitched) is with my editor right now and so, it’s time for me to start writing the next one. Book number ten will be the second in the Mike Malick series, and it’s unique in my experience for one reason. I don’t really know what it’s about.

Here’s what I’ve got:

A title: You Go To My Head (yes, another Sinatra song).

A pretty solid cast of characters.

A reference photo for the cover art.

Reference for the cover art. You Go To My Head...get it?

You Go To My Head…get it?

And a news story about a real crime that gave me the germ of an idea. I’m not linking to it, obviously.

Other than that…I got nothin’. Every other time I’ve actually sat down to start placing words one by one into a coherent story I’ve had a pretty fleshed-out plan in mind. Sometimes those plans change. But this is the first time I’ve sat down to a fairly rasa tabula.

So what now? I’ve got to turn this

In the beginning blog post

I do this bit right after finishing the prior book. The satisfaction comes from adding the newly-written one to the “Also by this author” list.

into a full novel that

  • Gives readers what they’ve come to expect in a Malick novel: snark, crime-solving, waitress-banging
  • Tells a compelling and complete story from the discovery of crime to the solution of whodunit
  • Touches on and advances the subplots and story arcs in the series
  • Feels familiar but not too similar to the first book Summer Wind

Where do I begin? I start with a victim. Right now I don’t know the name, gender, or method of murder. All I know is why the person was killed and who did it. But this dead body will put Malick and his partner Cricket Yi on the train that will carry them to the end of the story, some 300 pages away.

It’s unfamiliar and sort of scary but also a bit liberating. BRB, gotta go kill someone.

All About That Pace

keep-calm-and-pace-yourself-24Let’s talk about pacing, i.e. the action in your novel. Does it start slow and build to an action-packed climax? Do you hit on your main themes in a regular pattern? Do you sprinkle humor here and there?

I wasn’t sure how I did it. I’ve had readers comment that they like the pacing in my books, so I guess I was doing something right. But to be honest, I don’t consciously think about pacing much. Well, except for the first Lexy book in which I was convinced each chapter needed to be 5,000 words and I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Hmmm Lexy hasn’t gotten laid in a while. Better fix that.”

But I know that pacing is important and I was curious to see what exactly I’m doing and when I’m doing it. So, as I reviewed and revised my new book Glitched, I kept track of certain elements of the story and where they appear. This is what it looked like:

Glitched Pacing

There were quite a few pacing relationships I was particularly interested in. Sex vs Romance is one of them. Maybe they’re not different for you, but they are for Lexy. At least in Glitched.

Also, Sleuthing and Skills. This fourth Lexy mystery is different in that alternating chapters are not in Detective Malick’s POV. In fact, the murder isn’t even Mike’s case. This is the first time that Lexy is actively trying to solve a murder. Now, she hasn’t hung out a PI shingle, and she’s still working at Xenon full-time, but neither is she stumbling on evidence or just lending Malick a hand. In this book–and going forward–it’s important for Lexy to have agency. For her to do things on purpose with intent instead of have things happen to her. Ergo, sleuthing is when she’s investigating the case: talking to witnesses, doing research, staking out a location. Skills is when she’s purposely trying to improve her sleuthing. Mainly recalling something she’s learned from Malick about being observant or getting reluctant witnesses to talk.

stake out

Then there are the ongoing story arcs: her relationships with recurring characters. So, Romance hits on her interactions with a certain character (no spoilers) and Rivalry hits on her interactions with Agent 54.

When you’re writing a series there is also a fair amount of Backstory or references and reminders to what has happened in previous books, and Set-up, laying the groundwork for the next book: introducing characters and situations who will be important in Lexy 5.

A couple other things I tracked were Humor and Trouble. Humor’s pretty obvious, and there are funny (I hope) Lexyisms throughout, but these were situations I included solely for comic relief. Trouble refers to situations when Lexy purposely does something knowing it will get her in trouble or stir the pot. Just because she’s Lexy.

Chowder

Lexy’s new roommate?

I also tracked her use of drugs and alcohol, and her smoking. She’s always been a closet stress-smoker and when she’s upset she indulges. If you check the grid, you see that she smokes less as the story continues. Is it because I forgot to put a cigarette in her mouth? Nope, it was that she was busy chasing baddies and had other stuff on her mind.

Looking over this, it occurs to me that I did a pretty fair job pacing this without much planning. The question is, do I want to track as I go with the next book (potentially leading to “hmmm Malick hasn’t gotten laid in a while” thoughts) or do I just keep on keepin’ on?

The Sleepless Nanny is FREE

The new cover by Sara Nicholson

The new cover by Sara Nicholson

My first novel, The Sleepless Nanny is free to download this week on Amazon.com. I wrote this book a long time ago and shelved it for almost as long. Then, with the arrival of the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, I unleashed it on the world in 2011. I wrote about that long lull here. Since then I’ve written and published seven more books with another due to hit in a couple of months. This book changed my life. Your mileage may vary.

BTW that new cover design is by the super talented Sara Nicholson who also did the cover for my book Summer Wind.

Snap up this free novel by January 30, 2015. Happy reading!

Finishing touches: Getting your novel in top condition

This post isn’t about that final-final review when your manuscript has already gone through professional editing and proofreading. This is about getting your manuscript ready for the next step, whether that’s beta readers or your editor.

Getting to the end of the first draft and typing “The end” is a fantastic feeling and nothing should diminish that sense of accomplishment. But you’re not done yet. At least I’m not. Because I’m the kind of writer that appreciates momentum over all. If I’m writing a scene, I don’t like to stop and look up a fact, ponder a new character name, or go back through my story to verify a date or time. I type XXXXXXX and I move along.

So, once I’ve written my final scene, and after some celebration, I need to go back and fill in those blanks.

Filling in the blanks

Since I use the multiple X convention, all I have to do is search for it in my document and there’s a list of all my unfinished business. I can methodically go through and replace X’s with the good stuff. (Here are some tips on character names, btw).

Next up–and this is especially important in the mystery genre–is making sure all my dates and times match. Ensuring that the Time of Death pronounced by the medical examiner in the beginning of the book is the same window in which my suspects must account for their whereabouts. In short, if the victim was killed between midnight and four a.m., my sleuth doesn’t need to check alibis for noon to three p.m. To that end, I created two calenders: one shows all the action in the book by chapter and the second shows the details of the crime. What happened when, where each suspect was, and when evidence is revealed.

It's blurry by design. No spoilers!

It’s blurry by design. No spoilers!

Sometimes the facts that need checking are of the real world and not the fictional world I’ve built. For my upcoming book, Glitched, I’ve verified quotes from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Supertroopers, names of Pokemon characters, the color of Top Pot Doughnuts carry out boxes, tracks on Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours album, the number of city blocks between Pioneer Square and the Seattle Police Department headquarters and whether one says “on Maui” or “in Maui.”

And, of course, as I go through this process (printing out chapters, making edits in pencil, and then doing corrections in the Word doc), I find stuff that bugs me. Awkward phrasing, or unnecessary sentences. Other times I make additions that clarify the action or make it more powerful.

This is the part of the creative process that feels most like work, but in the end will make my book better. And may even save me money! The less time my editor has to spend checking my facts and cleaning up sloppy shit, the fewer hours she’s going to bill me.

The most important part of this phase is to stay focused. Here are my top three techniques for the finishing touches:

  1. Bite-sized chunks. I do three chapters and then take a break.
  2. Block out the real world. Noise cancelling headphones, isolation booth, hotel room.
  3. Be extra nice to your spouse/housemates/friends. When you’re not hunkered down, nose to the grindstone with music blaring in your private headspace you’re probably thinking about the book and not really engaging with your humans. You are kind of an asshole right now. Once you hand off to your editor, please cook your people a nice meal, take them to the movies or otherwise reward their patience and understanding.

Stop saying this shit in 2015!

speak-no-evil

“The feels” 
Example: “All the feels” [link to kitten video or other heart-string-tugging media]; “This got me right in the feels” What it means: “This provoked an emotional response. Emotions remind me of being a child, so I will use toddler-esque language to express myself.” Grow up!

“Nailing it/Killing it/Sedating it, cutting it up and burying it in a shallow grave”
A sloppy fallback that implies perfection when it’s not what the user means. Also, the world is pretty violent already. What say we go easy on the bloody imagery?

“Because ____.”
This sentence fragment needs to fuck off. Especially “Because reasons.” It’s tired. It doesn’t make sense. If you don’t know the answer then say so. If you do know the answer fill in the fucking blank with a complete thought instead of the equivalent of pointing and grunting.

“You’re doing it wrong.”
Hasn’t this died yet? Fuck you. I’ll do it how I do it.

Hyper-hyperbole
Examples: “The greatest video you will ever see in your life.” “This wins the Internet forever.” “This photo of Jennifer Lawrence is EVERYTHING.” Clickbait headlines are the main culprit, but I see it creeping into regular use. “I’m dead from the cute.” “The feels have ended me.”

This post just killed. It’s literally the last thing you’ll ever need to put in front of your eyes. If it doesn’t hit you in the feels you’re doing it wrong. Because reasons.

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