Posts Categorized: The Writing Life

Today I read an article in The New York Times: “Hands Up, It’s Showtime.” In it, columnist Kurt Andersen explains how MRAPs and paramilitary stuff have grown in the police departments across the country—and many people, including some law enforcement, think it might just be over the top, and possibly dangerous.

The really crazy thing? The TV cop shows are taking their cues from the SWAT teams throughout the country. From police departments big and small. The movies and TV shows apparently didn’t influence the police departments. They influenced themselves.

All this military-grade hardware stuff that goes BOOM! is now the norm for most police departments.

A moment of silence for Sheriff Andy Griffith and Deputy Fife’s one bullet.

This is what I wrote in my Cyril Landry thriller, Spectre Black:

Probable Cause, these days, in certain towns, in certain counties, in certain states, in certain regions, could be stretched beyond recognition. Stretched, wrung out, hung on the line, ironed, folded, spindled, and hung up in a closet. If they’d been playing by the rule of law, they would have had no Probable Cause to arrest him. And they certainly had no basis to let him go, after he nearly pulped Earl to puree.

Police in this town were a law unto themselves.

He wondered how Jolie had fit in to this brave new world in Playa County.

The police here had become paramilitary. Police departments and sheriff departments across the country were getting more and more hardware that they didn’t know what to do with. And it did not dawn on them that they had everything they needed to fight a ground war in Afghanistan.

Army Surplus was king. They had everything they needed: SWAT gear, tactical vests, Armor-plated vehicles called MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), tear gas, M-14s, and probably a grenade launcher or two.

Considering the fact that municipalities liked to get their money’s worth, Landry was lucky to be alive at all.

****

Police Forces are a paramilitary entity and always have been. But now they’re going Full Rambo. I can just picture a woman sneaking out a bag of potato chips from Krogers into her cart, suddenly being over-faced by SWAT, weapons all trained on her.

“Hold the grocery bag high, Ma’am. Turn around and walk back toward me. Don’t make any sudden moves, and everything will be all right.”

For a limited time, all three books in the CYRIL LANDRY THRILLERS are on sale now!
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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle Book Deals – You can find them here: https://goo.gl/7DUvbe

Categories: Books Cyril Landry Spectre Black The Writing Life Writing

One of my dearest friends is a thriller writer I met back in 2003, when I ended up selling two books to the same publisher. (We met at a local Tucson bookstore.) Michael Prescott is a brilliant thriller and suspense writer.

Oddly enough, his protagonists are usually women.

Most authors write in the Third Person, so they can jump around in other people’s heads. I do it, and so does Michael Prescott. I have never worried about portraying a male character —it seems to come easily to me —and it’s believable to the reader.

There was something liberating about writing from a male point of view, just as writing from a female point of view was liberating for my friend.

I admit to being less buttoned-up when writing a male character.

Which led to Cyril Landry.

Cyril Landry was just a walk-on part. He was a killer and had been dispatched to a house in Aspen where he was supposed to kill a celebrity. If I hadn’t given him a name, he would have been Assassin #1.

But Cyril Landry had other ideas.

Outside the house of the target, he spoke to another operator who had just gone into the house-

He waited for Jackson to report in.
“Upstairs clear.”
“How many?”
“Two. The couple. They were laying in bed.”
“Lying,” Landry said.
“What??!!”
“Lying in bed. Not laying.”
A pause. Then, “Roger that.”

Cyril Landry didn’t want to be a walk-on part. He didn’t want to be Bad Guy #1 or Operative #2.

I understand him. I don’t like everything he did, but I like him. I liked him so much I put him in three books: THE SHOP, HARD RETURN, and SPECTRE BLACK.

There’s something freeing about writing the opposite sex. I’ve had many characters that I’ve loved, but Cyril Landry takes the cake.

I love him best of all.

For a limited time, all three books in the CYRIL LANDRY THRILLERS are on sale now!
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle Book Deals – You can find them here: https://goo.gl/7DUvbe

Categories: Books Cyril Landry Spectre Black The Writing Life Writing

One of the most fun things to do when you’re writing crime fiction is . . wait for it . . The Research Trip. Sometimes it’s an excuse to go on a trip some place really cool, like the Painted Desert in Arizona or the high mountains of New Mexico, or New Orleans, or even another country because you’ve just got to keep it real (and tax deductible).

Since the next book of mine is set in and around Tucson, Arizona, Glenn and I stuck closer to home.

culvert

What I pictured was a dead guy in a culvert. We’re coming on to summer in the southwest, so my character, Samantha Stark, will be shading her eyes against the intense sunlight, and will be grateful for the shade the culvert offers and cars go whizzing overhead. I knew what I wanted, and pictured it, but what the hey….

RESEARCH TRIP!!!!!!! So Glenn and I went looking. We found our culvert and proceeded to take photos of it. We had to dodge whizzing traffic on the road before clambering down into the dry arroyo, and got great photos of our crime scene. I’d already written the scene, but now I had the frame for it. And I could place it properly, too, within the context of the story. Samantha Stark is a sheriff’s detective, I wanted the crime scene to be outside the city limits, even if only a little bit.
culvert and road
The victim is a young guy, a “sign-spinner” who advertises businesses outside shopping centers.

I’m thinking that since River Road is the demarcation line between city and county, the kid in the culvert could be half on one side and half on the other. At this point, just at the beginning, I have options. One way or the other, here’s my crime scene.

Categories: The Writing Life

The FREEDOM ON-THE-MOVE tactical surveillance system

The FREEDOM ON-THE-MOVE tactical surveillance system

You never know when you’ll find something that will not just fit into a story, but might GIVE you one. One night, a number of people from Start Up Tucson were gathered at an open-air bar in downtown. Start up Tucson is a non-profit organization that fosters entrepreneurial ventures. I was sitting with one of the staff, Greg Teesdale, under a summer moon, and he told me a story that intrigued me.

He described a ride-along with the sheriff’s office and a Tucson company called Strongwatch. On that particular night, police used a Strongwatch vehicle to patrol a desert area down near the U.S./Mexico border, looking for border crossers or drug runners. The vehicle had a unique selling point: an infrared camera that goes up on a telescoping pole that could catch movement in the darkness of the desert. People, animals, any living creature that could be seen in the dark.

Union Pacific Train, Pantano Arizona

Union Pacific Train, Pantano Arizona

He told me how bad guys robbed freight trains. This kind of train robbery is sneaky, smart, and oftentimes the engineer has no idea that part of his train has been decoupled–hijacked–left behind in the desert where the bad guys could crack it open like a tin can and get away with the contents. A slick train robbery.

My author wheel started turning. I knew this would be a great beginning to a crime fiction thriller. And so I took some notes and set up the scene. I found a great character in detective and sharpshooter Samantha Stark, put her on the board, and started the story with a train robbery.

Categories: Books Samantha Stark The Writing Life

If you look at my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, you will see a lot of journals, spine out. They’re easy to find. I pick mine up at Ross Dress for Less—they usually have some hardbound journals, many of them very beautiful. (My current one is embossed with a peacock).Peacock journal for writing in longhand

Most important, though, they have ruled pages where I can write my thoughts. When I start a new book, I always go there, past the inexpensive clothes, past the purses, past the boots, past the toilet articles, and find that special shelf where they (sometimes) sell journals.

Why I’m bringing this up? I just read an article about something I already knew: writing in longhand makes you learn better. Check out this article from Business Insider.

Bottom line: it slows you down. The act of writing by hand slows you down and helps you to assimilate what you are writing.

I have always tried for a personal best. There have been breakthrough books. My first breakthrough book, Darkness on the Edge of Town, came after I did a serious self-assessment after a failed supposedly “easy to sell” mystery novel. Journal page writing in longhand

And so I talked to myself – writing in longhand. (Thanks, Dad, for bequeathing me your beautiful Palmer method writing style.) (Thanks, Mom, for bequeathing me many great things, like a love of writing, but sadly, not among them, your writing style).

I wrote in the journal, at the same time I was reading the best of the best: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, James W. Hall, T. Jefferson Parker, John Lescroart, J.A. Jance, etc. And I knew that my home was in crime fiction and crime fiction thrillers.

And so I wrote. I talked to myself. I figured out things I needed to learn from the books of the great ones. I gave myself a good talking-to, as well. It was pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps time. But mostly it was just writing in longhand and going from one place to a NEW place, just by the flow of the pen and the wandering of the mind.

Here are some examples:

“5 people who defined her. The bullies. Her friend in high school who was kidnapped. Her parents. An influential superior in the cop shop? A mentor?”

And:

“Already, I’m seeing a difference. Seeing more clearly. I’m starting at the beginning, with character, I’m thinking bigger.”

And:

“Mystic? No. Is Bob a mystic? No, he’s a Sherpa.”

And over the years, I’ve had to do that again and again to get better or explore unknown territory. That is my safe place that I can control—but also expand on. My journal for Darkness on the Edge of Town was the turning point for me as a writer.

Categories: Books Darkness on the Edge of Town The Writing Life

I admit it: I thought ebooks were a fad. In 2010 I had been beating my head against the wall for three or four years after my last book deal with a New York publisher. I couldn’t sell a book to save my life.

So my husband and I began putting up all the books we’d gotten the rights back to. I thought it wouldn’t work out. But I liked designing the covers with him.

And it didn’t work out. At least not at first. My best bud and fellow New York Times Bestselling author, Carol Davis Luce, was also putting up a book. We launched our first books on Amazon in the fall. And I promptly sold about one book a month for three or four months. One. Not a very good business model, right? Eventually, Carol and I started selling about seven books apiece. It was an arms race, sort of.

With very few arms.

Everything changed the following February. I was looking at my numbers and all of a sudden I had sold 300-plus books in the course of an hour! What was that all about?
Laura Cardinal Series by J. Carson Black
And it didn’t end there. My books started selling like hotcakes—if hotcakes were on the internet and were strapped to a rocket. By June I sold 10,000 books in the Laura Cardinal series. I got up to 300,000+ before I stopped counting. My friend Carol was doing just as well. It was the Wild West and we were like those homesteaders who put up stakes in rich bottom land and ran cattle on the range, ready to build a dynasty.

And it lasted a long time. I joined other authors in various promotions. And we all sold like flapjacks at a church breakfast.

But the thing was, for most of that wild and crazy time, I didn’t write at all. It was like watching the stock market. I sat around eating cheese crisps for lunch, my face ten inches from the computer, hitting refresh on the browser, watching as my numbers went up and up and up.

I wasn’t an author anymore. I was an e-trader.

After a while (a good LONG while) the numbers started to fall off and it wasn’t as much fun anymore. Nobody likes to go downhill, and there was no way I could sustain those kinds of numbers.
The Shop by J. Carson Black
Then I sold The Shop in a two-book deal to Thomas & Mercer. But that meant I needed to write another book. It was a tough one to write, because I really missed sitting on my ass eating cheese crisps and watching my numbers. But finally I got into the story and wrote the best book I could. Icon was born.
Icon from NYT thriller author J. Carson Black
I look back on those days and think of it as a haze. As if I’d been swallowed down the rabbithole.

But I have to admit, those cheese crisps tasted darn good at the time.

Categories: Publishing Hub-Bub The Laura Cardinal Project The Shop The Writing Life

So I was wandering around The Huffington Post, which often turns up some very interesting stuff, and I discovered an illuminating article regarding creativity in human beings: 18 Habits Of Highly Creative People.

Having written twenty-odd books, I consider myself “creative” (also, a pretty good liar, at least on paper).

I could relate to every single trait “creatives” share, but one of them stuck out. At first glance, the one that stuck out would be kind of embarrassing to admit:

Failure-graphic

Failure. I’ve done plenty of that. Writing a book. Cutting it in half. Rewriting the book. Cutting THAT in half. Sending it out to friends. Having THEM cut it in half.

Trying to get a literary agent. Getting a literary agent. Despite the efforts of the literary agent, not selling a damn thing. Getting dumped by a literary agent. Trying to get another literary agent. Finally getting one, selling a book–and the book goes nowhere. Dumped by the publisher. Trying to get another literary agent. Rinse and repeat.

All of those were opportunities for me to get better. To go back to my little workshop and craft a better book.

So the line in this article that resonated with me was this: Creative people “fail up.” Here is what the article says:

“Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that “sticks.”” And this: “Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler wrote in a piece on Einstein’s creative genius.”

Failure is how you learn. Failure gets you closer to your goal, because you have to try other ways to get the result you want. You have to go back to the drawing board and really throw yourself into getting better at what you’re doing. I know in my own life that failure has always preceded success (okay, it could be two-and-a-half years of preceding, but…still).

Failure and Success are two sides of the same coin. The failure part isn’t fun, but that’s the engine that makes you strive to get better at your craft. Failure is the little engine that could.

At least that’s what I tell myself on those occasions when I cry myself to sleep.

Categories: The Writing Life

In my writing career I have been published in mass market paperback by a few publishers, then kicked out after a book or two. I’d come back, and get a better deal…and then get kicked out again. There were reasons for this. For one thing, the book biz as it was before Amazon, relied on book sales throughout the country. If you have a small print run, then maybe one book of yours goes out to the Barnes & Noble in, say, Tucson, Arizona. And that book is spine out on a shelf among many other books.
publishing distribution chain
The publishers send these books out all over the country, but all is contingent on “sell-through,” which means selling a good number of these books. (And face it, it’s hard to notice a book spine-out in the mystery section of a bookstore when you’re really looking for Lee Child’s latest). Books cost money, so who’s going to take a chance on a paperback by an unknown? Or a hardcover, for that matter? For the reader, how do they find more good books to read?

The writing process

Now authors have more power and control over the writing and publishing process

Every time I was dropped by a publisher it spurred me to take my time and write the best book I could. I learned from the best in the business, by reading the best and marking up their books–writing notes, drawing arrows, and circling passages. And that was how I got better and better as a writer. I always thought of my readers who are always looking for more good books to read. I went through the revolving door at the publishers four times. I did not come out smelling like a rose. I have to mention here that there are many many savvy authors who did manage to make this Rube Goldberg machine work. Many who built viable and even stellar careers.

And then:

Ebooks came along. The digital tsunami that transformed the music industry swept over book publishing.
jcarsonblacklauracardinalseries
Ebooks leveled the playing field for many authors who were busy building their craft and getting bought by the New York publishers before getting kicked out again. And good writers can come from anywhere. They just have to develop their craft, and many writers did just that.

Now the marketplace is more open–at least distribution is more accessible. A smart author (many of whom have been going through the revolving door of New York publishing for years) can go out on their own and be their own shopkeeper. Thanks to the ebook etailer platforms, authors can easily look at dozens of books in their genre and that will help them determine cover art and cover copy.

All in all, it’s a great time to be an author. You just have to have some publishing and marketing skills, work with good people on cover art, copy editing and other aspects, and above all–write, write, write. And with digital, you now have the chance to reach many more readers and offer them more good books to read.

Categories: The Writing Life

I wrote stories all my life, but my two college degrees were in operatic voice. Which is funny, because as a kid from sunny Arizona, I wasn’t big on late nights, crowds of people, and big cities. Plus, even though my pipes were pretty good, I suffered off and on from stage fright all my musical life. I guess I got into singing by taking the path of least resistance. Everyone said I had such a good voice. I had some success (between bouts of terror) and talked myself into being an opera singer way longer than I should have.

After a summer in Austria, I finally realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be what I always was in my heart: a writer. At that point, I had no idea I was to become a thriller writer. I was going to write a book—a novel. Since I loved Stephen King, I wrote a ghost story. It took me three years to find an agent and sell it. I thought I would make millions (I’d bought the whole famous wealthy author story), but my first book garnered me 2500 bucks with Zebra Books, which I had to split with my agent.

So the book came out in mass market paperback. The cover was of a terrified woman with film tied around her neck. There was no “advertising budget.” But I got to do book signings in town and sold two more books to Zebra. A few more books followed, sporadically—as I went through five agents, one of whom died, and another who didn’t use email and sort of wandered away. But as I wrote, I got better. In between books, I received a ton of rejection. Every time I started a book, I tried to improve on the last one. I read the best in my genre, and studied a handful of authors who inspired me.

And I did get better. I was on my way to be a thriller writer.bookcover for Darkside of the Moon

Darkness on the Edge of Town was a huge step up, the first book in the Laura Cardinal series, and my agent sold that book for mid-five figures. Again, I thought: “This is It!” Made in the shade. The publisher bought the second book, Dark Side of the Moon.

The publisher declined more books.

Then Amazon came along. My husband got the rights back to all my books, and just in time. We put Darkness on the Edge of Town up on Amazon, and sold maybe one a month for five or six months. And then, one day, it exploded! The number of Kindle owners reached the tipping point. Just like that, I was selling ten thousand, then fifty thousand, then a hundred thousand books.Darkness on the edge of town by J. Carson Black

It was The Great Ebook Boom of 2011, and made a lot of authors household names. It made a lot of authors rich. People were filling their Kindles, and they went after the books that somehow rose above the babble. After that I sold five books to Thomas & Mercer, the publishing arm of Amazon.

They (who’s “they?”) always say “never give up.” The life of a writer–thriller writer, romance writer, science fiction writer, etc.–has a lot of ups and downs, but never count yourself out. Hone your craft and write a lot, and you WILL get better. And opportunities WILL come along. If you have a modicum of talent, if you write because you love writing, if you write because you can not NOT write, if you write a lot so you get better and better and better, if you find a genre you love, and keep at it consistently, you’re living in the best possible time to be successful.

Categories: Books Darkness on the Edge of Town The Writing Life

I’ve always been a picky eater. I drove my mom crazy. I liked this, but not that. Battles over vegetables were epic. So it stands to reason that I’m picky about where I set my books. I have to like the place. Or have some feeling for it. It has to mean something to me.

When I was a kid, we went all over the West in a camper, staying in national parks and campgrounds, driving through small towns, seeing all the landmarks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. I grew up in the West, and I love the West. I love the road. And because it’s my world, I set books in places I like to be. A lot of these places have long vistas under blue skies.

My latest Cyril Landry thriller, Spectre Black, takes place in southern New Mexico. Plenty of blue sky and long vistas.  There’s one sequence on a long stretch of highway near the Mexican border that involves semi-trucks made near-invisible by cloaking technology.  I’ll go into that in more detail in an upcoming post.

It’s not worth it to me to go to the inner city. I don’t understand the culture, and even writing about being hemmed in by tall buildings makes me nervous. Somewhere along the line I realized that if I want to write for joy, I could set my books where I wanted to set my books.

I spent one semester in the University of Arizona MFA program, having decided I didn’t want to be an opera singer after all. (Big cities, again, and late nights, and spending most of my time indoors. Nope.) The other students were younger than me. They wrote bleak stories. Angst. Misery. Ugly gray scenes. I think it might have been because that was what was popular. I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t fit in. But I didn’t stop writing.

My suggestion to anyone wanting to write a book: find a setting you want to set a whole book in. If you like bleak, go bleak. If you like the high Sierras, write about it. So much goes in to the Salad Shooter of our brains to make a book, and setting is an important part of it. Write what you want. Write the characters you want and the place you want. Don’t try to emulate someone else in that regard. Write for your soul. You get to build the world, so enjoy it, whatever it is you choose.

Write what you want.

Categories: Books The Leg Up The Writing Life