Friday, July 27, 2012

Unanswered Questions


As past readers know, I have been in a transition period in my personal life, which has extended quite naturally into my life as a writer. I began my last SDWW post like this:

“I can’t write about writing or the writing life today, because I am not doing any of the former, and as to the latter, I don’t have one.”

I still haven’t opened the file on either my novel being marketed presently, or the one I had just finished drafting when my husband, Jim, was showing signs that the end of his life was near. Now, they both seem like a dream from a different world, and it’s fortunate that neither demands my attention.

I suppose once you’re published you are permanently an author, but I don’t want to picture myself in the future telling someone that I used to write. I do self-identify as an author, and it has been a bit concerning to me how my interest in writing vanished overnight.

I don’t kick myself about it. I just have questions about that aspect of my life. Of course I do. I have questions about every aspect of my life as I refashion myself in my new reality.

Writers constantly engage in self-questioning even when they are at their most productive, and I think that this ongoing questioning may play a big role in keeping us motivated.

I don’t mean the big question that plagues novice writers: Can I do this? Or, to give it a little more bite, can I do this without embarrassing myself? Can I do this well enough to get published? How about to make a living at it? Writers have many of those kinds of questions starting out.

I think I speak for most of my author friends when I say that we don’t go there anymore. Though the blank page, or computer screen, is just as formidable an obstacle the tenth time as the first, the question of whether we will be able to come up with a finished, marketable product has already been answered in the affirmative, in some cases many times over.

I had an artist friend in graduate school who painted the most exquisite watercolor landscapes. She told me that painters look at a new work as a problem they want to solve. Rembrandt might have wanted to work on how shadows fell across a nose; Ingres might have wanted to work on that subtle area just under the eyes, which I have been told is one of the most difficult challenges of portrait painting.

As writers gain experience, we move from the question of whether we can do it in a general sense, to whether we can meet more specific challenges. I knew my time to write Young Adult library books was at an end not because I didn’t like learning the things I wrote about, or couldn’t use the money, but because there were no questions left about me as a writer in that kind of work.

Historical fiction opened up a phalanx of new worries. Can I write vivid descriptions of places? Can I differentiate characters by mannerisms and speech? Can I sustain a plot over 350-400 pages? Can I write a death scene? A sex scene? A battle scene? Can I write from the point of view of a child? Can I condense time effectively? Can I foreshadow?

Those questions, and others, are answered now. As a result, the challenge now lies in part in keeping myself engaged about continuing to write novels now that I know I can do it.

So as I relax into my new life, I can’t predict where my writing will go. I can’t say, though, as I did in my last post that I don’t have a writing life. I do. It just hasn’t quite shown me yet what it will be.

Friday, July 20, 2012

On a Personal Note, About LOST GIRLS

By Caitlin Rother

When I set out to write LOST GIRLS, I tried to assure John Gardner's mother, Cathy Osborn, that she would stop being the target of blame once the book was released. I would be the one to take the hits. And as most people in San Diego who watched or read the news have witnessed over the past month, I was right.

I don't need to feel validated by being right, especially in this context. I just want to say that my determination to hold my course was fueled by my deep-seated belief that no matter what the blowback, I would not stray from my journalistic ideals, because I truly believed that my research and writing could foster much needed change.

Today, after a month that started out with personal and professional attacks and also resulted in a tremendous outpouring of support and encouragement from fellow authors, former newspaper colleagues and total strangers, I don't regret for a moment my decision to write LOST GIRLS, the story behind the rape and murder of San Diego area teens Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner.

I will say it again. I am sorry for the loss of Chelsea's and Amber's parents and I am sorry that they feel “deeply hurt” by this book, because that was not my intention. My intention was to honor their daughters' memory by working to prevent future victims from falling to the same fate.

Despite being described by some critics as greedy, repulsive, disgusting, and insensitive, I am choosing to focus on the polar opposite comments from supporters who described me as calm, rational, gracious and compassionate throughout these past weeks, not to mention in the sensitive way I wrote the book. I'm especially grateful for the positive and supportive e-mails and reviews from law-enforcement sources, defense attorneys, prosecutors and government officials, expressing their appreciation and hope that the book will open some eyes.

Here’s the bottom line: If it took me being a target of anger and controversy for people to read LOST GIRLS, absorb and process the red flags in Gardner's life as well as the multiple flaws in the system that allowed him to roam free and kill these two girls, then so be it. As a society, let's now take advantage of this anger and direct it toward fostering change and furthering public education to spark new legislation, changes in regulations or at the very least to create a new awareness of what genetic and environmental factors can produce sexual predators like Gardner. Let's do further study of the systemic holes I’ve identified so we can put some protections in place to protect ourselves – and the predators from themselves, once they go into freefall.

In the end, I feel that the blowback has been worth the personal toll it took, that my goal of trying to spur lively debate has been met and for that I am grateful. I can only hope that people will stay fired up enough to keep the momentum going so we may find some answers to these difficult problems.

For me, this is my most important book to date and that's why I put so much time and effort into telling the story right, proactively addressing the needs of all the families involved, both Gardner’s and the victims’ – because I knew this content would be so personal and so potentially inflammatory.

I'd like to add a couple of personal notes for the record: One, I am no stranger to tragedy or media scrutiny into my personal life, and perhaps that’s partly why I'm so drawn to this genre. And two, I am not a mother, a point that a few critics jumped on to accuse me of ignoring how the victim's parents would feel about the book. That said, I always wanted to have children, one if not two, and I married a man at 33 with that very purpose in mind.

My husband, who was at one time a public figure -- the chief investment officer of the San Diego County pension fund -- fell from grace and was written up in the newspaper more than once. He was an alcoholic who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the same disorder as Wayne Adam Ford, the other serial rapist killer I wrote about in my book BODY PARTS.  While my husband was the CIO and I was a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, he was arrested for stealing items from the gift shop at the Phoenician resort in Arizona, where he was attending a professional conference.

I learned after his death in April 1999 – from the police report that he hid from me – that he'd been in an alcoholic blackout at the time of his arrest. He was not only an alcoholic but a compulsive spender of his personal money. But he was so ashamed of being a man broken by his addiction that he chose to let the public – and the beneficiaries of the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association – believe that he was a thief so he didn’t have to reveal his flaws during the civil service commission public hearing process. That decision cost him the job he loved so much, and perpetuated a downward spiral that ultimately took his life. 

After being sober for a year and two 911 calls I’d made – once to report him as a 5150 (deeming him a danger to himself or others) for making suicidal threats and once after he picked up a bat when I tried to take away his vodka bottle – he relapsed one too many times. I told him our marriage was over, and he committed suicide several days after our last phone call, during which I asked if he felt as though he were going to hurt himself and he said no. He was severely depressed; he couldn't live with alcohol and he couldn't live without it. 

And there, for the record, went my dream of having children. It was just too late and I decided it would be too selfish to have one on my own.  When I spoke of his alcoholism and depression in his obituary, I received e-mails thanking me for helping to remove the stigma. I feel the same way now, as if I'm navigating some of the same waters by writing this book and dealing with all the questions about my integrity and motivations.

Maybe now people will better understand why I really write these books, that I personally do understand tragedy, and how I can and do empathize with the victims and their families. If I were trying to make money, believe me, I would've gone into a different field. But I think I'm right where I belong, doing what I love, because the work is so rewarding.

I hope some of you can join me for my last scheduled book talk/signing for the summer, tomorrow, Saturday, July 21 at 3 pm at the Rancho San Diego library in El Cajon.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check her website,

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Wrestling the Black Bear: On Editing and the Editorial Letter

by Margaret Dilloway

A few weeks ago, my agent sent back a longish editorial letter for my new work in progress, which concerns a 12th century samurai woman and two half-Japanese contemporary women.

About a week before he read it, I had a new idea. I e-mailed him asking if I should include an additional samurai-era character. He said go for it, so I added her in.

This resulted in the longest manuscript I've ever written, with four points-of-view. Not only that, a good half of it is historical fiction, which I have never before attempted.

Yep, I jumped into rougher waters than usual, but I managed to swim. Barely, it felt like.

Thus, due to the historical and highly ambitious nature of the book (plus it is now 581 pages!) I was already extra anxious when I sent it to my agent (also, it'll be our first book together, so I really wanted him to love it).

When I received his editorial letter, my first reaction, as it always is when I get an editorial letter, was DESPAIR. I ignored all the good and nice things he said about it and looked at the rest and thought, 'Dear Lord! How am I ever going to do all this?' and stared at his comments for a couple of days.

Then, I actually read the letter more closely. Once my frazzled brain slept on it, I determined it wasn't a)entirely bad and b) how to break it down to do the work.

My husband says I panic too easily when faced with a letter like this. This is true. However, I think despair is definitely a stage you have to work through.

So I've composed some advice to my future self, when I get my next letter and have to wrestle the bear.

  • Accept your despair/anxiety as normal.
  • Let the thing marinate for a few days. Then reread it. It probably won't be as overwhelming.
  • Think about whether or not you agree. Circle the items you agree with, or otherwise make an action plan.
  • Consider doing a few different editing rounds. For example,  one editing round might be to just to add a single aspect, like setting, to each scene. Another editing round could be for dialogue or certain subplots.
  • Check off the things on your master to-do list as you go through and make changes.
  • Be open to the fact that the list might necessitate changes the editor didn't think of.

Another editing trick:
If you hate deleting your ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT scenes that are not necessary to the story, make another file titled CUT SCENES. Put your cut scenes in there. It will make you feel like you're not deleting them, plus you can use them again, or parts of them, if you need to.