Author: Rob

Women in Coding

Women in Coding

The protagonist of my novel is a woman programmer at MIT in 1990. My own career has been in IT, and I was a programmer myself early on (albeit a mediocre one, so I went into management!). And as a person in the field I was aware of the change that happened around that moment, when suddenly there were fewer women entering the field.

A great article in the NY Times yesterday, “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” tells much of the underlying story. As it turns out 1984 was the high water mark, when 37.1% of students graduating with IT degrees were women. But by 2010 it had fallen to an abysmal 17.6%.

There are a number of sociocultural reasons for this that the article outlines, but the real tragedy is the dominance of “bro culture” in many software companies, and an unsurprising list of sexual harassment cases at companies like Google.

It was interesting writing about the gender and power politics at that moment in time, and to recognize that little has changed. That, ironically, it’s actually gotten worse.

Down in the Weeds

Down in the Weeds

Awesome author friend Brenda Buchanan was shocked that I didn’t have Crime Bake, the yearly Massachusetts crime and thriller conference, on my schedule. I just went to my first one, and wow, what an experience.

What really hit home for me was thinking about editing, the process, the outcome, the skills. I’m in heavy edit mode now on my novel, and am blown away at how exhausting it is to keep the focus needed to abstract from your own prose. We all fall in love with our own writing, with our own characters. The darlings we are exhorted to kill don’t die easily. I’ve got almost 60,000 words to cut to get the manuscript to a publishable length. And it’s putting up a pretty good fight.

But I got some amazing insights in the very first panel I attended at the conference: Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “Great Beginnings,” a deep dive into the importance of your first 100 words. What I’ve found is that there are moments when the novel is just too big for your head (from Walter Mosley’s great Thrillerfest 2018 Keynote I described previously), and you just can’t face undertaking such an overwhelming task as editing the beast. So you have to switch it up and go deep.

She talked about the micro-level considerations you need to have in mind when you put yourself in the reader’s head. After all, your reader wants to find a character to love and care about. We’ve all put down books that didn’t engage us. But the reader also must quickly know what genre they are in, have a sense of action or suspense that propels them forward. We’ve all also put down books where some promise gets broken by the author. A mystery that’s solved Deus ex Machina, or a thriller with stupid technology mistakes (my wife has mostly gotten used to me yelling at the TV when a show screws up some tech issue).

Readers will put up with some bumpy writing if they’re already committed. So the in the weeds edit, starting with that first page, and extending that same care to the rest of the book is what makes it good. It’s what makes the reader want to stay in it for the long haul. So I’m deep, deep in the weeds now.

Gasoline on the Fire

Gasoline on the Fire

I’ve been working on techniques to improve the tension in my narrative, and was thinking back to the point of view techniques of two different authors: Stephen King in Mr. Mercedes and Jo Nesbø in The Snowman.

As he builds to the climax in Mr. Mercedes, he gives us a series of vignettes, each from the point of view of a different character. Each of them sees roughly the same scene, so we are held in limbo, narrative time on pause as we journey through the character’s minds. This cliff’s edge clarifies each character’s stakes, and heightens the breadth of the risk if the killer should succeed. In my book, I was able to do much the same, with multiple characters experiencing a moment of frightening violence. (Selections from this section were what I read at Crime Wave!)

Another technique that I admire is the one Jo Nesbø uses at the end of a number of his chapters in The Snowman. To drive up tension, he inserts a short scene at the end of the chapter in the killer’s mind. This gives us a not-so gentler reminder that he’s still out there, still hunting, still eluding the police. So no matter how safe the other characters think they are, the reader knows what waits for them. It’s effective because it’s so brief, just a hint of danger, like showing that you have a gun, but not brandishing it.

It’s been fun making POV work for me, driving up narrative tension, and pouring gasoline on the rising action fire.

Editing and POV, a Software Story

Editing and POV, a Software Story

I owe a debt of gratitude to Doug “D.P.” Lyle, with whom I took a Master CraftFest class at ThrillerFest in NYC in July. Not for what he did in the review of my manuscript (which was awesome), and not for what else he did, which was to inspire the hell out of me with his casual generosity (as did Gayle Lynds and all of the other kickass authors with whom I interacted there), but for doing a quick demo of the writing software Scrivener.

OK, full admission: I am a tech snob. I spent my whole career in tech, and am really good at learning and using software. I started my tech career teaching how to use tools like Microsoft Word in the early 90’s, so I know keyboard shortcuts like the back of my hand. So, when I’m asked about writing tools by other budding novelists, I proudly talk about writing in Word, outlining in Excel, and note-taking in Evernote.

But Doug did a quick 10 minute demo of how he uses Scrivener, and the scales fell from my eyes. Yes, that is a little hyperbolic, but seriously–the software rocks. What inspired me to today’s particular procrastination while figuring out the revisions to part one of my novel was the extra trick that Doug taught us: tagging the POV of each chapter.

Since Scrivener allows you to break up a manuscript into independent documents representing scenes or chapters (which are equivalent for my manuscript), you can see how the manuscript flows at a scene level. And that is very useful, but Doug’s trick of color tagging POV is even more important, as it allows me to think about the impact of whose voice is relating each chapter.

And why did that make a big difference for me? Because it forces me to think about voice in each POV: a collection that includes a female graduate student, her male Harvard humanities housemate, her MIT research advisor, and a running-to-catch-up FBI Special Agent, among others.  Who best to tell each story, move each plot element forward, build action, delay information, challenge reader expectations?

The tool is forcing me to become a more aware writer when I am tackling the very real challenge of being a novelist, what Walter Mosley in his ThrillerFest keynote so perfectly identified: your novel is bigger than your head. Trying to make these meta-level edits is already hard enough, and any help is very much appreciated.

So, thanks Doug!

Two Minutes in the Slammer

Two Minutes in the Slammer

I had the pleasure to attend another Maine Crime Wave last week, as produced by the amazing Maine Writers & Publisher’s Alliance.  With great talks and panels, including a fascinating keynote by F. Lee Bailey, and several sessions featuring honoree Doug Preston, it was, as always informative and fun.  But new for me this year was my participation in the Two Minutes in the Slammer event, a reading slam featuring the writing of conference goers.  I could have renamed it “two minutes of terror,” as I was exceptionally nervous in front of the crowd (ironic since I have done public speaking for my whole professional career!).

I read a scene from late in my novel-in-progress in which an FBI agent and his team execute a forced entry to defuse a hostage situation.  I got through the reading just under the bell and sat, listening to other excellent, thrilling and compelling snippets from other conference attendees, thinking how great the writing was.  So I was completely flabergasted to hear MWPA Executive Director Josh Bodwell call my name as the winner!  Thanks to the judges, and Josh, for that experience, and for the lovely prize:  a writing class with the super compelling thriller writer Chris Holm, most recently the author of the Michael Hendricks assassin thrillers!

And as a final note, as I was still shaking my head in surprise at the outcome of the slam, only then did I realize it had been my first time ever reading my own creative work aloud, and it had been as terrifying as the prospect of a real stint in the slammer.