Tuesday, August 31, 2010
The trick to planting herbs is to contain them in pots. That is, unless you want your garden overrun with mint and sage and oregano and thyme. I stick to this rule, because I want my garden to produce tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers too. Except there’s this one peppermint plant that went rogue years ago. It’s small, I thought, I’ll be able to keep it tamed. Besides, a Buffalo winter will surely kill it.
I’ll pause so all you gardeners can laugh.
This is that peppermint plant today:
The only way I keep it out of my garden is ruthless hacking. I make tea from the leaves, so it’s a useful beast, but an unruly one.
Which brings me to SNIs (Shiny New Ideas). I’m deep in the sequel to Force Of Habit. Yet there’s this YA that’s nagging me. On top of that, this morning as I drove to the grocery store I saw a deserted parking lot with seagulls fighting over some stale bread, and I started to write an entire scene in my head. For yet another book.
Just like the rampaging peppermint, if I don’t contain these books, they’ll devour my sequel time. This is why I keep pen and paper in my glove compartment. I sketched out the scene. It was like giving a treat to my hungry cats so I could finish a task before feeding them. The SNI settled in its corner, gnawing its tidbit of attention. Like this oregano:
When the sequel is with betas, I know I’ll have time for the SNI files. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I’ll squee as I open their boxes and dither over which to play with first. I’ll allow the many scenes and characters and story arcs I’ve tucked away to audition for the starring role of my new WIP.
I can hear them now, rehearsing their parts, putting on their best makeup, shining their tap shoes. They’ve seen what a well-tended plant in the right pot can look like and they want the same result.
Since rogue herbs don’t yield a useable crop, I’d love to hear how everyone else handles this. All the writers reading this post (writers of fiction, nonfiction, songs, anything): how do you contain your peppermint?
Monday, August 30, 2010
For Richer, For Danger is the sequel to For Better, For Murder. It continues the saga of Jolene Asdale, her sheriff’s deputy husband Ray Parker, and her unpredictable younger sister, Erica.
In this novel, after years of ambivalence about parenthood, Finger Lakes sports car dealer Jolene Asdale is now driven to adopt her foster child, the daughter of fugitive robbery suspects. But some major roadblocks arise, including an open hit-and-run case and a recent murder—with the silent, uncooperative birthmother as the prime suspect.
I’m excited about this release but also continually reviewing the last year, during which I met a lot of wonderful authors and readers at Bouchercon and Malice Domestic, attended two fun book club discussions of For Better, For Murder, held a well-received library talk, learned my friends and family can be counted on to show up for book signings and to promote my books, met some great booksellers and librarians, heard from a number of enthused readers, and truly appreciated the total surprise and thrill of having For Better, For Murder named a 2009 Agatha Award finalist for Best First Novel.
The last year will be a tough act to follow.
But the year of For Richer, For Danger has started off early with a welcome first time review in Publisher’s Weekly, who called it a “winning second mystery.” Kirkus is still on board, although a little more cryptic this time in their comments. Both reviews are much appreciated.
Just last week I sat down for an interview with a reporter from a Finger Lakes area newspaper. No one has ever asked to interview me before—except for a job, of course. This kind of interview was way more fun.
And I had a lot of fun writing my first two books, as well as the third and fourth in this series which are now finished. Hopefully that fun shows in the work itself.
A local radio announcer closes his timeslot every day with the saying, “If you had fun, you won!”
That pretty much sums it all up.
And just for fun today, I’m offering a giveaway of For Richer, For Danger. If you’d like to enter the drawing, send me an email at Lisa@LisaBork.com with “Drawing” on the subject line. I’ll pick two winners randomly on Friday and send the books out promptly thereafter.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Nearly every fiction writer I know has one or more failed novels tucked away in a drawer someplace. Novels that were at least somewhat inspired in their concept at the time, but were perhaps poorly executed in their craft. I have two, plus an original screenplay.
The first is a thriller titled The Walking Man featuring a homeless vet as the stories main character. The second was a crime tale titled Law Dogs Don’t Chill, featuring a cop who is trying his best to retire but who just can’t seem to put down the cause. And then there was the screenplay First Hostage, that I pitched as something akin to “Die Hard meets The Hunt For Red October.”
In their essence, all were conceptually pretty good, I think. But in looking back now, it becomes obvious that I simply hadn’t yet acquired the skills to pull them off. It took several more years before my first short story was published and longer still before Midnight offered a book deal on my Del Shannon series of mystery/thrillers.
All this—the work, the learning, the development, the patience—took place over a period of some ten to fifteen years. So, it raises the question:
When do you know when you’re good enough?
Elmore Leonard once said, “I never really became a writer until I stopped worrying about what my mother would think.”
In the beginning, I believe, a writer (or for that matter a beginner in just about any field of endeavor) starts perhaps with a dream to become a success. But short of that dream there is little skill to back it up.
I’ve had it defined for me as four stages of learning one goes through to be a master at anything:
Stage One—Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know.
Stage two—Conscious Incompetence: As you grow you start to become aware of how little you do know.
Stage Three—Conscious Competence: At this level you begin to realize you abilities and take confidence in them.
Stage Four—Unconscious Competence: The Master. Your skills are so honed you can accomplish them blindfolded.
We all dream of reaching Stage Four, to be a master of the art. To be the Jack Nicklaus or the Peggy Fleming of our chosen field. To fly completely in the zone. To acquire the rewards that come with being the best there is.
I spent quite a few years (I think most do) working and studying and practicing my way through stages 1 & 2 as a writer. My wife, Diana, would tell you she believes I reached Stage 3 somewhere in 2006. I had just written a short story called Something Heavy When You Need It. I had given it to her to read and critique, as is our custom. When I came downstairs a short time later, I found her crying over the manuscript. She would say she knew at that very moment that I would one day be a success.
To me, I think it came sometime later. In 2007 I wrote a story called Trust A Dead Man To Keep A Secret. The plan was to submit it to Deadly Ink for their Deadly Ink competition. I remember writing that story with a certain confidence. A feeling that I knew (somehow knew) that the story was good, that it would stand up strongly against the other stories that would be submitted. I believed—in writing it—that I would actually win. And did!
That wasn’t arrogance talking, believe me. I was still questioning much of what it would take to become a successful writer. But there was a certain confidence that I had going into it. Confidence born of experience. It was further affirmed a year later when my short story The Art of Avarice, appearing in the anthology Politics Noir, became a finalist in the Derringer Awards. And again earlier this year when Midnight Ink offered me a book deal for Del Shannon.
I have a long way to go to reach Stage Four, I know that. And maybe it’s at that level where the idea of “natural talent” comes into play. You either find the zone or you don’t. What I do know (what I have learned) is that with hard work and a willingness to persevere you can accomplish almost anything.
I ask earlier, “When do you know when you’re good enough?”
I think the answer is… You just do!
What’s your take on it? When did you begin to realize your craft as a writer? And if your specialty is in another field, when did you first know you were truly getting the job done?
Leave a comment. I’d really like to know.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
No, contrary to what the photo might indicate, I'm not going to talk about searing initials into an author's flesh with a hot iron stamp! Instead, I'm going to talk about the marketing concept of branding, creating a recognizable identity in the marketplace. A well-regarded brand name is a mark of consistent quality. That's why people keep returning to Nike shoes, Cascade dishwashing soap, and Gerber baby food. They trust the brand name to deliver what they expect and desire. This is what publishers and authors want people to think about them. That if a reader picks up a Midnight Ink book in the bookstore, they know they're in for a suspenseful mystery with interesting characters. And, that if they pick up a book written by Beth Groundwater, they'll get the same thing, with the added feature of a setting in the Rocky Mountains.
The Midnight Ink art and marketing departments have been working on creating a brand for my March, 2011 release, Deadly Currents, and the subsequent books in the series. They immediately nixed my idea of calling the series the "whitewater river ranger" series because it was too limiting (My protagonist, Mandy Tanner, and her boyfriend Rob plan to expand their adventure outfitting company into climbing, horseback riding, and fly fishing guiding.), and because it was too close to the author's name--Groundwater. So, after some brainstorming, the first idea was to call it the "Rocky Mountain Adventures" series, to allow Mandy to have adventures other than whitewater rafting in locations outside of Colorado.
Then, when the art department got involved, the question was how to develop a pictorial logo for the series that would be carried onto each book cover. That's when the idea came to have the series logo be the actual logo of Mandy and Rob's outfitting company. Unfortunately, Rocky Mountain Adventures is the name of an actual rafting outfitter based in Colorado. So, I did some research and gave Terri Bischoff, our acquisition editor, a list of the names of all the existing outfitting companies in Colorado. Also, I suggested some alternative names for the fictional company that wouldn't conflict with a real one.
Terri came up with the really creative idea of naming the company "RM Outdoor Adventures," where RM stands for both "Rocky Mountains" and "Rob & Mandy." Success! If you look at the cover of Deadly Currents below, you'll see a round logo at the bottom with mountains and a river inside and "An RM Outdoor Adventures Mystery" in the red rim. This is the brand logo for the series, and is the brand for Mandy and Rob's company, minus the words "An" and "Mystery."
What else did we do to establish a brand? Terri requested an outdoor headshot from me, and I provided one where I'm standing in front of trees while wearing a PFD (personal flotation device or lifejacket) and holding a kayak paddle. Also, I posted photos of my whitewater rafting "research" trips on my blog, and I will continue to do so. I mention my outdoor-oriented activities and research for my books on my blog, my Facebook page, and in mystery-oriented yahoogroups. For mystery conferences, I suggest that I be put on adventure/outdoor-oriented panels. In collecting blurbs from other authors, Terri and I chose ones who write mysteries set in the Rocky Mountains and other outdoor-oriented settings.
I've rafted, hiked, biked, and skied Colorado before, but I haven't talked and written about it as much as I do now. That's why I love living in the state, because of its beautiful settings and the outdoor activities it offers. And, that's probably why I chose to write a mystery series starring a whitewater river ranger!
I will be on the lookout for further opportunities to establish my brand for the series and for me. Here's where you Inkspot readers can help. I'll be attending a few mystery conferences next year to promote Deadly Currents, starting with Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe in March, and I usually try to donate an item to the charity auction at such conferences. A gift basket donation really goes with my other series, the Claire Hanover gift basket designer mystery series. I could always go with an old standby, a character name, but I'm hoping you Inkspot readers will come up with something more creative for me that's related to the series brand. For information about Deadly Currents, to give you ideas, go to my website. So, what do you think I should donate?
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
by Kathleen Ernst
Last month I visited the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park & Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa. It is a tiny historic site in a tiny village. The Ingalls family only spent a year here, helping to run a small hotel while trying to recover from a grasshopper plague-induced financial crisis.
It’s not a place most readers are familiar with. I stopped because I loved the author’s “Little House” series as a child. I was in the area anyway. Also, I write and blog about historic sites, and so am always on the prowl.
I took a tour with a French family of four, and a father-daughter team. The family had come to the US to do the grand circle of sites relevant to Laura’s life and work. The dad seemed particularly enthused. He carried a French-language edition of one of the books, and explained that the “Little House” television series had been extremely popular in France when he was growing up. He’d watched the entire series several times, and read all the books.
The dad-daughter duo was also making the grand circle tour of all LIW sites. The daughter had just graduated from high school, and it looked like the two were having a wonderful road trip adventure. “I just love all those books,” the daughter said happily. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time.”
It was joyful to see fans so excited about an author’s stories that they planned entire vacations around them.
My sisters and I have talked about doing the LIW “circle,” although the right time has not presented itself. (I’d love to visit the sites relevant to the “Anne of Green Gables” series, too.)
But the settings for my travel-to wish list isn’t limited to books I read decades ago. I’ve enjoyed travel to certain places largely because an author had intrigued me with plot, character, and/or setting.
So…what about you? Has a book ever inspired a vacation? Is there a place you’d love to visit in real life, having “visited” within the pages of a beloved book? I can’t imagine a better compliment for any author!
On a different note – I have been surprised and touched and delighted to hear of people pre-ordering a copy of Old World Murder. If you have, or do, drop me an email with “Old World Murder” in the subject line. k.ernst -at- kathleenernst.com (use normal email formatting). No receipt necessary—I trust readers! On October 1, I’ll draw two names; each will receive a bookstore gift certificate.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Authors, like any business owner in a competitive field, are expected to promote their products. It has always been this way, the need to set yourself apart from the pack and carve creative time out of the haunch of the promotional beast. Just ask Charles Dickens, who literally collapsed while on book tour. I don’t know if the pressure for authors to promote is stronger now, but I do know it’s more varied: Facebook, Good Reads, signings, blogs, blog tours, videos, Twitter, phone-ins to book groups, appearances at conferences, newsletters, is there more? Probably. And I’m probably not doing that, either.
You see, two years ago, about the time August Moon, the fourth book in my series came out, I gave myself permission to pare down my promotional obligations. I did this with a great deal of guilt shaded by jealousy as I watched my fellow authors promote circles around me. At least at first I did. But now, I revel in this tiny bubble I’ve chosen for myself, feeling only a twinge of guiltosy when I hear about new promotional breakthroughs for writers. It’s for sure the next best thing, let’s call it Twitbooking, but it’s not for me.
I’ve brought my focus back to writing. I blog monthly on the awesome Inkspot, I save enough money to attend one conference a year, and I set up a dozen or so signings in my region and happily show up for TV and newspaper interviews when a new book comes out. All that extra time that I used to spend desperately riding the next promotional fad I’ve channeled into volunteering for MWA (SinC is also a great place to invest some time, as are many other local and national writing outfits) and the rest goes right back into writing, or my kids, or my boyfriend.
That’s my balance. And each book sells better than the last. That might be because I’m building an audience with the series, or it might be because my writing has improved as I’ve made more time for it. Either way, I’m happier, and so are the people around me. To those of you who promote across the spectrum, I applaud you and I send some spare energy sparks your way to use when you feel overwhelmed. To those of you who are scrambling to do it all and who find you just can’t, I give you permission to stop Twitbooking and redirect that energy into being the most amazing writer you can be. We’re all in this together, I believe, and we all have to find our own right way.
There are many good ways to promote a book. There are also many good ways to write a book. Problem is, they both take time. What is your balance?
Monday, August 23, 2010
My college ethics professor gave essay exams. When asked how long she expected our responses to be, she said, “Long enough to answer the question. If that’s one word, great. If it takes three pages, so be it. But if you try to fake knowing the answer by writing a bunch of B.S. I’ll give you a zero.”
I liked her.
Last month Craig Johnson spoke and signed at my local Indie. Mixed in among his usual amusing anecdotes and good ol’ boy humor was the revelation that when Viking signed him they asked him to cut down his first manuscript in the Walt Longmire series. Like, a lot. Enough reduction in word count to make me shudder.
A couple of my friends attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in July. We were in frequent contact as they navigated the choppy waters of agent and editor appointments, not to mention bracing total strangers in elevators, hallways and bars. One has written a contemporary, humorous thriller. The other a historical romantic suspense. They’re both quite good and not in the least overwritten. But, over and over, their story concepts were less important than how long the manuscripts were. Both are over 100,000 words. Not by a lot, but that seems to be the magic number which nixes the possibility of publishing.
On my recent book tour in the Seattle area I spoke with a Sisters in Crime member who has more than one finished manuscript and is looking for an agent. A well-known name was on the verge of signing her, then changed her mind based on the length of my friend’s manuscript – which, again, was right around 100,000 words.
Everyone is cutting back. I get that. Frugality and cost cutting are my middle name. Names. Whatever. And genres do impose certain size expectations. Thrillers and romantic suspense used to be acceptable at 100,000 words, though. So did some mainstream mysteries. But while there are still some epic tomes of Wonder Boys proportions being published, (Neil Stephenson comes immediately to mind) they’re the exception to what appears to be an increasingly rigid rule.
Are publishers cheating readers by insisting on shorter manuscripts? Is it necessary to ensure their survival in this time of change and uncertainty in the industry? Or is short what more readers really want? Have sound bites, ten-second commercials and communicating via text, Twitter and Facebook updates altered our tolerance for stories that take longer to tell – and read?
OR: Is this just a situation where I happen to be hearing this same story over and over, like when you learn a new word and then suddenly you see and hear it everywhere?
Saturday, August 21, 2010
In the meantime: The Guardian.co.uk offers a short quiz on weird words. Warning: This is not an easy quiz, even if you're British.
Friday, August 20, 2010
By Deborah Sharp
Aspiring writers are always advised to bring balance to their fiction: A mix of action and narrative. Dialogue and description. Short, punchy sentences leavened with longer ones of a more leisurely pace.
Just finishing up my fourth book in this new career as a mystery writer, I have a pretty good handle on the balance issue. Okay, some might quibble I'm a bit heavy on dialogue and a bit light on description. But overall, I've learned pretty well the lesson on balance in writing.
So how come I've lost track of the balance between writing and life?
I usually try to be funny when I post here. But I don't feel funny today. I feel tired and stressed. Overwhelmed. Unsure how badly I want to keep racing along on this gerbil wheel that can be the writer's life. I know, I know. Some of you out there who dream of being published are tsk-tsking me about now.
''Oh, poor Deborah. She's on her fourth book, and her life is sooooo busy.''
Well, to you I say this: Be careful what you wish for.
I just saw Eat Pray Love today, so maybe I've got balance and self-fulfillment on the brain. Tomorrow, I may be sorry for this self-indulgent rant; ashamed of whining about a life that many unpublished writers yearn for.
Absolutely, seeing your work published is fantastic; a thrill like few others. But, honestly, a lot of the stuff that goes along with getting published can be a time-sucking pain in the rear. The blogging. The message boards. Keeping up on Facebook, and Linked In, and Good Reads and Book Tour. I've got so many different passwords, I feel like a high-security military installation. And then there's the travel, the press-release-writing. The showing up at a bookstore to a disappointing crowd; or, even worse, showing up with an encouragingly large crowd, only to discover the bookseller only ordered a few of your books.
Some of my author pals are superhuman dynamos. I watch all they accomplish, and wonder why doing less seems to take so much out of me.
Maybe I need some vitamins. Or more caffeine. Or better balance.
For the mortals out there, for the writers with kids, family obligations, full-time jobs, or health issues ... how do you decide where to draw the line between the writing life and the rest of life? Do you ever want to just disconnect from everything electronic, sit down someplace quiet with a pen and a journal and just write? Not for a blog. Not to post on Facebook. Not even for your contractually required next book.
How do you find your peace and quiet? Your time to think? Your time to breathe? How do you find your balance?
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Usually, the dog days of summer don’t affect me. I’m content to plod along on whatever project I happen to be involved in. This year, for some reason—be it the unrelenting heat, the monsoon-like deluges, or the crazy pace I’ve been keeping—I’m ready to just kick back and relax. And read some of the dozens of dozens of books in my TBR pile.
So no deep-thinker post today (unlike all my other posts :) ). Instead, a top ten list (with apologies to Mr. Letterman):
The Ten Best Things About Being a Writer
10. People think you know stuff.
9. A business trip means going to the bookstore.
8. Fame and fortune. Not.
7. You can blame your misfortunes on your agent.
6. You “get” to blog and Facebook and Twitter.
5. Showering is optional.
4. You can kill people who annoy you with abandon (or with a gun or a knife).
3. Watching Comedy Central counts as research.
2. Those voices in your head are supposed to be there.
And the number one best thing about being a writer:
1. Casual Friday becomes Underwear Friday.
Got any to add?
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Imagine life has gotten pretty bad.
Hopelessness, helplessness and extreme loneliness are constants.
Ending it becomes an option. I volunteer on a suicide hotline and I talk to people who feel like this. Some people around you are in an intense amount of pain.
I just read a story about a woman in Virginia. She was missing for two days in the woods. The news reports didn’t give her name or a lot of detail but a clear picture formed in my mind after working a shift on the phones last night.
Picture feeling so bad that you parked the car and went into the woods to put an end to things. Maybe you’ve got pills with you, maybe a firearm or maybe a razor. You could end it and no one would find you for a long time or maybe ever.
Then something happens. A little spark says “don’t”. A mom or dad from the past plants a seed or maybe just that kind smile you get at the coffee shop in the morning resonates that life might–just might–be worth another try.
Except now you’re in the woods, disoriented and hypothermia has set in. Concentration has been tough for awhile anyway but now it’s at a crisis level. You didn’t tell anyone where you were going.
Two days go by and you’re lost, oh so lost, in so many different ways.
Then, from out of nowhere you hear something. A rustle, the tread of sets of feet and it’s getting closer and louder.
From out of the brush comes a 140 lb creature tethered to a police officer. A bloodhound who somehow was blessed with the ability to find the lost.
“Schnoz” you find out is his name and he runs to you and playfully jumps up to say “I got you. You aren’t lost now.”
You’re rescued and, for now, physically safe. It wasn’t time and maybe life won’t be a picnic from here on out.
But it wasn’t time to die.
It was time to not be lost.
It was time to be found.
That’s what Schnoz did.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Molly Weston of Meritorious Mysteries is a fantastic tour guide and hostess extraordinaire who has planned the tour I’ve taken in central North Carolina with Krista Davis, Ellery Adams (Jenn Stanley), and Avery Aames.
The grand finale was a wonderful panel discussion and signing at the Paige-Walker historic hotel in Cary. Molly has been conducting a lecture series there on Monday nights for years and has built up a great following of mystery lovers. We were fortunate enough to have them all come out and see us last night.
We’ve been in central North Carolina since Friday. Here are some of my thoughts on book touring:
It’s really nice to go with people who you get along with well. Not only does it make the time pass a lot nicer, but the folks in audiences have a lot more fun, too. Each one of the ladies I toured with has a great sense of humor. It means a lot when you’ve been to five bookstores in one day.
Calling the bookstores ahead is the best way to go, even if you’re doing a stock signing. The bookstores had all ordered more copies of our books and we went to at least 12 stores, signing stock. Frequently, the stores put our books on a special table or end-cap near the front of the store after we signed them….and they had those great “autographed copy” stickers on them.
It really helps if you’ve got a local contact in the towns who can drive up attendance at different events. We were on the front page of one of the local papers and Molly mentioned our events to her mystery reading groups. In addition, Molly offered us great advice on venues.
Schedule a few breaks. As you can tell from the photo above—you can get really tired out from all the events! :) (Or have these mystery authors been murdered in the McIntyre’s book store?)
Monday, August 16, 2010
The first thing you have to know about me is that I’m a city girl exiled to the suburbs. I’m much more comfortable in a concrete environment with mass transit than the land of malls and minivans. The second thing you need to know about me is that I have two black thumbs. With few exceptions, plants see me coming and commit suicide rather than suffer a prolonged death at my hands.
Heaven knows, I’ve tried to develop a green thumb, but I swear there’s a conspiracy in the Garden State. Whatever I don’t kill, the squirrels devour. Along the squirrel grapevine the word is out; my address is passed from varmint to varmint. They hold conventions in my driveway and feast on whatever I dare to plant, leaving my neighbors’ gardens full of flowers and produce.
One day I arrived home to find what looked like cloves of garlic scattered all over my front porch. On closer inspection, I discovered they were the remains of the spring bulbs I had planted the day before. Every single bulb had been dug up, and while I was running errands, the squirrels had been throwing an all-you-can-eat party on my porch.
Another morning I looked out my kitchen window to find a squirrel perched on my gas grill, a green tomato between his thieving paws. I went outside to shoo the little bugger away and check my two tomato plants that the day before had been loaded with green tomatoes. Every single tomato had been yanked from the vine, chomped a few times, then discarded in the dirt.
After years of gardening frustration I finally discovered the one plant that seems to be both Lois proof and squirrel proof -- zucchini. The first time I planted zucchini, I made the mistake of planting three, figuring that if the garden gods were smiling down on me, one might survive. All three not only survived but thrived. And that’s a heck of a lot of zucchini. Zucchini is the gift that keeps on giving. And giving. And giving. And giving.
The strange thing about zucchini is its rate of growth. In the morning it’s the size of your pinkie finger, and by evening it’s big enough to feed your teenager’s football team. There are only so many ways you can disguise a zucchini and fool your family into believing they’re eating something other than those green things taking over the backyard. So that first year I wound up giving away a lot of zucchini.
Ever since then, I only plant one zucchini each spring. Still, I have a bumper crop of zucchini from early summer to late fall and continue to give away almost as much as I serve. But I’ve become very adept at zucchini camouflage. You wouldn’t believe the dishes I hide zucchini in. Remember the scene in Forest Gump where Bubba rattles off all those different ways to cook shrimp? I now have just as many ways to serve up zucchini. Here’s one of my favorites that even the most vegetable-hating kid will enjoy:
CHERRY CHOCOLATE CHIP ZUCCHINI MUFFINS
3 cups flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups grated zucchini
¾ cup vegetable oil
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
¾ cup chocolate chips
½ cup dried cherries
Beat eggs, then stir in oil and vanilla. Mix all dry ingredients together, then add gradually to egg mixture, mixing until smooth. Fold in chocolate chips and cherries. Coat muffin tins with non-stick spray. Fill tins 3/4 full. Bake 15 - 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
New Jersey is known for its Jersey tomatoes. I’d love to be able to grow my own instead of having to resort to the supermarket. It would also make a nice break from zucchini. If you’ve got a sure-fire way to keep the squirrels at bay, I’d love to know your secret.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
In other news: Joan Acocella writes this week in the New Yorker about Agatha Christie. The article is in the print version and/or available online to paid subscribers, but there is a free online quiz about Agatha's life (see below).
And the Washington Post asks if the personal library will disappear in the digital age.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Like most readers and writers of this blog, I LOVE books. Actually, it has become obvious to me as well as to my loved ones that I am addicted to books. If it were possible, I would probably snort books up my nose. I might even attempt some version of bathtub books, knowing it was illegal and the results almost certainly toxic.
What I am talking about here is the need to purchase and own books, especially new books, which is related to but different from the love of reading. People who simply love to read are also sensible sorts who have learned the cost-saving benefits of owning a library card. This is my downfall. I have a library card I seldom use. In fact, I have two, one for a neighboring county. No matter. If I really love a book, or even if I think I might sort of maybe like a particular book (crucial distinction), I have to buy it.
There are telltale signs of an encroaching book-buying addiction like mine, and as a public service, I thought I would share with you what some of them are, as in one of those “Is he cheating?” articles you see in women's magazines. If any of these scenarios seem familiar to you, you may be in the first stages of a full-blown book addiction:
• You tell your parents, spouse, or other person who cares where you will be that you are going to the library, when you are in fact again headed to the bookstore, where you will probably buy yet another book(s) you may never get around to reading.
• Book conventions for you are the equivalent of Ben and Jerry’s for the carbohydrate deprived. You have been known to leave your shoes and heavy clothing behind in your hotel room to make room for the extra books you want to take home on the plane.
• A box of books arrives from Amazon.com, and you sneak it into the house before anyone can say, “That isn’t another box of books, is it?”
• You flatten the empties from Amazon.com and hide them in the neighbor’s trash bin.
• You hide the newly purchased books in your underwear drawer.
• You've tried to cut your book buying to an average of one a week but find you can't.
• You pay cash whenever possible at bookstores so as to leave no paper trail.
• You refer to your local bookstore manager as your book mule.
• You would seriously consider trading in one of your pets or children for a lifetime B&N membership card.
• You have installed bookshelves to accommodate your growing book collection, at a cost equal to the GDP of a small nation, rather than donate any more of your precious collection to the library.
Sound like anyone you know?
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
by Felicia Donovan
My guest today is Sandy Ratliff, a veteran English teacher who has "challenged the challenge" on books with her innovative "Intellectual Freedom in Literature" class.
Nudity. Sexually explicit. Offensive language. Drugs. Unsuited to age group. Homosexuality. Racism. Anti-family. Religious viewpoint. According to the American Library Association (ALA), these are the reasons for the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009. These works include classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye and contemporary works such as Twilight, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In 2009, the Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 460 challenges to novels and textbooks in schools and libraries, so the question herein is Why?
As a veteran English teacher I became intrigued with banned and challenged books, so in 2005 I researched the subject in the hopes of developing my own senior class dealing with this hot topic. I also began hanging posters all over my classroom, thus sparking the interest of my students. They could not understand why such works as Bridge to Terabithia and Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic were challenged, or banned, in some schools and libraries. As I discussed this issue with my then freshmen and seniors the fire inside me ignited further. Therefore, I approached my principal with the idea of a class called Intellectual Freedom in Literature. After I pleaded my case, she wholeheartedly agreed to let me try, and during the 2006-2007 school year 75 students enrolled.
Intellectual Freedom means the right to seek and receive information without restriction, but it also means the right to voice your opinion, however unpopular it might be. My students, who admitted they enrolled just to see what the class was like, were surprised at the number of challenges, the reasons for challenges, and the “arrogance” of people who try to force their own morals and values on others. During the semester, they were required to read four challenged/banned novels - Fahrenheit 451, The Color Purple, Ordinary People, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower - and read an additional challenged/banned novel from the list of top 100 banned books for a 45 minute class presentation. By the end of the semester, they were knowledgeable of 25 other novels challenged or banned, and they ranged from children’s books (And Tango Makes Three, on 2009’s top ten list again, and The Goosebump Series) to young adult novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Giver, Alice in Wonderland, Go Ask Alice, and the Harry Potter series.
The class also delved into case studies of documented challenges, from the violent Kanawha County, West Virginia one to the Pico vs. Island Trees, NY classic that changed the way books are challenged today. Previous students sometimes couldn’t believe how school board meetings could become so incensed over a novel, so this year, 2010, I decided to make them feel it. With the help of a minister friend of mine, we set up a fake meeting with the students so my friend could discuss the class and “how he was concerned about what was being taught in my classroom.” His approach was to be nice to the students and express his concern about “What is considered ‘normal‘” in the classroom curriculum. Within ten minutes, the students began to “feel” what members of those communities felt, as they respectfully but vehemently defended The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They admitted he could voice his own opinion, but that he had no right to tell them what they could or could not read, that he missed the themes of the novels, and that they face the issues in the novels and should not be sheltered from them in any way. At the end of class, my friend, who actually is a huge supporter of Intellectual Freedom, and I admitted we had “punked” them. Once the shock wore off, they understood why I did it. They knew I had wanted them to “feel” this issue, and now they did, and they left the classroom telling me they will never forget what I taught them, nor how I did it.
The end of my first year teaching the class a student gave me a card. It read, “I can’t thank you enough for opening my eyes to the notion of censorship in literature. You taught me to question and to be aware of bias and motives of different groups. You made me want to read novels that normally I would never pick up.” Her favorite novel is now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Five years later, I’m still teaching this class to incoming students who have now heard about it and can’t wait to “see what all the controversy is about.”
Just what right do individuals and groups have over other people’s children? What is considered acceptable or not in the classroom? In the library? And should the First Amendment be left at the Schoolhouse Gate? Intellectual Freedom is at least alive and well in my classroom, but not so for many other students who will never have the opportunity to read The Color Purple or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Click here to read the complete list of ALA’s 2009 list of challenged books. That’s 2009, not 1950.
Think about it.
For more information, click here to visit the American Library Association's Banned & Challenged Books section.
Dick Buckley had this picture of him with Count Basie and Joe Williams hanging on his wall.
Last month my husband lost his only living parent–-his father–-and Chicago lost a jazz legend. If you Google my father-in-law’s name–-Dick Buckley–-you’ll be able to read all sorts of wonderful tributes written to him by people in Chicago radio and television and by people who were devoted fans.
When Dick started his jazz show in Chicago back in the 50s, he did the show from his apartment on Lake Shore Drive. Sometimes you could hear a baby crying in the background (that was my husband’s sister, Jan). Later he did a show called Jazz Forum at Chicago’s WBEZ, and played what he called “The Good Old Good Ones,” by jazz artists who were household names. Dick had met many of them, and he knew all the stories behind the scenes. He told those stories in his show, but he also told people the truth as he knew it: that jazz was the most beautiful music in the world.
When my husband was growing up, he gravitated toward rock the same way his father had honed in on jazz. His father often told him that he was listening to the wrong music. Once, when Jeff was in his room listening to Jimmie Hendrix’ version of the National Anthem, Dick said, “What in the world is that?” Dick’s comment to Jeff was that “if he had ever really listened to the National Anthem, he might be alive today.” Jeff wasn't sure what that meant, but it provides much amusement now. He also recalls that when he listened to Black Sabbath in his room and his dad was listening to jazz in the living room, his dad would turn the jazz up louder. It was clear whose music was going to take dominance in the house.
Generally, though, Dick was an easygoing man. He listened to jazz all day, and his wife Marge ran the household, and they were both okay with that arrangement. In fact, they were one of the happiest and most devoted couples I ever met. When she began to succumb to Alzheimer’s at the turn of the century, he visited her every day until they told him to come less often–-that it was too upsetting to her to see him with such regularity. He was, in fact, the last name and face that she forgot, but she held on to him for as long as she could.
Later in his career, Dick did his show from his home again–this time from the house where he and his wife had lived for more than 40 years. When my high school friend Kevin found out I had married Dick Buckley’s son, he was overwhelmed. He told me how much he loved Dick’s show, how much he had learned about jazz. “One of my favorite things is that his chair creaks when he puts in a cd,” he said.
Not getting it, I said, “Oh–-I should tell him. Maybe he could use a different chair.”
“No!” he yelled. “That’s one of the best things about his show. He’s a real guy doing it from his house. It’s great.”
When Dick died, that same friend e-mailed me and said, “Everything I know about jazz, I learned from Dick Buckley. Everything.”
That was one of many beautiful eulogies I heard in the last several weeks, including one from an 88-year-old fan named Theodore Drew, who drove forty-five minutes to attend the wake and got up to speak when the time came. He said that he had listened to Dick for 50 years, and his wife would say “Is there anything on that radio but Buckley?” and he would tell her “We have two radios in this house.”
The tributes, the memories, are still pouring in. It’s good for us, for my husband and his siblings, because it gives Dick a sort of immortality. His voice lives on, and his voice was amazing. You might even recognize it from television commercials in the 70s and 80s–a side career to be sure, but one much more lucrative than jazz announcer and which, according to my husband, “put siding on our house.”
In any case, some people listened to Dick’s show just to hear his voice, beautiful, modulated, paternal. One fan wrote on a memorial blog that she moved to Chicago as a young woman and listened to Dick’s show every Sunday not because she liked jazz, but because he was her surrogate father.
In the local paper, a fan was quoted as saying "Dick Buckley died, damn it."
Thanks to You Tube, you can experience his voice, his humor, and his style for yourselves. Here he is from a 1989 Documentary called “Radio Faces” that aired on Chicago Tonight after Dick passed away.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
We authors try to believe it's the quality of our prose, the unforgettable nature of our characters, the verve of our plotting, and the freshness of our voice that really count in winning over readers. Maybe. But to win them over in the first place, we have to get them to pick up -- or look online at -- what we've written. That makes the title and the cover of our books critical to their success.
It's a little early to worry about the cover of my work-in-progress. As Jessie noted in her post yesterday, some writers need a title to start writing. Not me. But since I have a draft done, I think it is time to start working on a title.
I came up with the title of my last book in online discussions with blog-friends (here and here) and I'm hoping for a little help from my friends this time, too.
How much do you have to know about the book to come up with the right title? Not much, I think, because the whole point is to attract readers even before they know anything about the book. Okay then. I'm looking for something compelling. So far I've been calling it Two Octobers which doesn't exactly cry out, "Read me." Here are some alternatives I've been mulling over.
2. Two Times on the Brink
3. War and Love, Won and Lost
4. Twice at the Edge
5. Two Octobers on the Edge of War
6. Two Octobers on the Brink
Now that you've seen some potential titles, should I tell you a little more about the book? Maybe one of you will have an inspiration that trumps any of mine. The book opens at Stanford U in 1940 and then skips ahead to Washington, DC in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. JFK, of course, plays a role. The idea, of course, is to prevent the world from being blown up.
Please leave a comment, opinion, suggestion, or preference.
I get by with a little help from my friends,
Mmm, get high with a little help from my friends,
Mmm, gonna to try with a little help from my friends
Monday, August 9, 2010
Saturday, August 7, 2010
Beth is also hosting a mixer for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America at her home at noon on Saturday, August 14th. If you live in Colorado and have wondered about MWA, please contact Beth at her website to find out how to attend.
Friday, August 6, 2010
I know you all LOVE to write mysteries. I know you'd rather be a writer than anything especially an accountant, a house painter, a runway model, a professional athlete or a small town police chief who's constantly outsmarted by the local amateur sleuth, but what if...
What if you suddenly inherited a bundle of money from an uncle you didn't even know existed and you were obscenely rich, then what? Would you continue to pound out mysteries? Would you travel with your laptop even when skiing in St. Moritz or trekking in Bhutan? Would you continue to worry about deadlines even while your yacht was anchored in Cannes for the festival?
Would your life be empty without writing? Would you feel at a loss with no goals except to have a good time? Or would you devote your self to serving the poor and giving away your millions as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are doing? OR would you continue to think up new plots and characters who beg to come to life on the page?
I don't know. I just don't know. But I'd like the chance to find out.
Do you write because you have to or you want to? Tell the Truth.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
Terri, before coming to Midnight you owned a mystery bookstore, dealing with the end product. How does that compare to being at the beginning of a book’s journey through publication? Do you miss being a book seller?
Being on the front end is very different, but just as exciting. I would get so excited when new releases or ARC’s came in… here I get excited when I read a great manuscript. It is tremendous fun to be involved in the development of a book.
I miss bookselling. I miss the personal connection to customers. I was certainly in my element in a bookstore, and I miss talking about crime fiction all day long. I do not miss owning a bookstore!
Had you worked in publishing before coming to Midnight?
Nope. I started bookselling in ’95 and I worked in three different indie bookstores before my partner and I purchased Booked for Murder in Madison, WI. We had BfM from 2003 to 2008.
You are coming up on your one year anniversary with Llewellyn/Midnight Ink, isn’t that right? What changes have you implemented in the way they acquire mysteries or what accomplishments are you particularly proud of?
It will be a year in October. I honestly don’t know what changes I may have implemented - I just jumped in with my own style. I am incredibly backlogged with submissions because I try to make sure to give every submission a fair chance. I’m sure other editors would hit the rejection button much faster.
Well… I am incredibly proud of the work we did on Murder in Vein. It’s not the first book I acquired, that was Assault with a Deadly Glue Gun by Lois Winston, but Murder In Vein is the first of my acquisitions to be published and the first hard cover published by Midnight Ink. 2011 is going to be scary and exciting. We have a ton of debuts and I acquired a lot of the list. So keep your fingers crossed for me.
What is on your wish list for the future of Midnight Ink? Where do you see Midnight Ink going in the next few years?
I was just asked this at our most recent sales conference by the sales manager. I want MI to be a force in the world of crime fiction. I want to acquire the best books we can. I want to steal authors from the large NY publishing houses. I want agents and authors to think of us right away when they start shopping their manuscripts. I want our books to win more awards (which we will in time).
What is your take on the growing popularity of e-books? Do you feel e-books will have a negative impact on the sales and future of print books or will the two be able to cohabitate in peace?
I think e-books and printed books will get along in time. E-books aren’t going away. Nor do I think bound books are. I can’t read on a computer all day. My eyes just can’t take the strain. I love browsing in bookstores and holding a new book. I know I’m not alone!
What do you look for when digging through your submission pile? Anything specific, such as subgenre or topic, you’d like to see coming across your desk?
I am currently not looking for anything specific. I think writers should write the story that they have inside them. If it’s not for us, it might be the right fit for another publisher.
What types of books are you receiving way too many of?
Really dark, paranormal stuff. A lot of Janet Evanovich rip-offs. Since we publish on the softer side of the crime fiction spectrum, I get a lot of submissions that read the same.
What makes a submission stand out from the rest?
Sometimes it’s very hard to put my finger on “it”. When a submission has “it”, you know it rather quickly. I also get a lot of “almost there.” Those are much harder to judge.
That said, I am looking for books that are both plot and character driven. The storyline has to be compelling and believable. I want to know the characters and why they do what they do.
What makes a submission cause you to toss it aside? Be as specific as you can.
First, if they don’t follow the submission guidelines on the Midnight Ink website.
Second, cutesy or messed up fonts. Seriously, I don’t have time to reformat submissions. Right now I estimate that I have over 300 submissions in my inbox.
Third, any submission that refers horror.
Fourth, when the author doesn’t know the genre – for example, calls William Kent Krueger a cozy writer.
What do you think will be the next big trend in mysteries? Are you already searching for manuscripts featuring that topic?
I hear it’s currently zombies. Good thing I have a book on the 2011 schedule that features several different paranormal characters, including zombies.
I wish the trend would go back to crime fiction. Right now I think writers are trying to cross as many genre’s as they can. I can understand the marketing reasoning, but it’s getting harder to differentiate between a romance with a mystery sub-plot and a mystery with a romantic sub-plot. Don’t get me wrong, I like relationships in books – but the romance cannot consume half of the book.
If you could only give one piece of advice to a hopeful writer, what would it be?
Be as knowledgeable about crime fiction as you can. To do that, make friends with your local bookstore folks, join mystery organizations like Sisters in Crime (especially a guppies group), attend conventions and network.
What is your all-time favorite mystery and your all-time favorite non-mystery book?
Seriously? That’s like asking me to pick between my three boys. Can’t do it.
Some of my favorite authors (by the way, I refuse to include any Inkers for the same reason – mom is not playing favorites) – William Kent Krueger, Ian Rankin, Karin Slaughter, C. J. Box, Dana Stabenow, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Lee Child, Charlaine Harris. By the way, my list changes depending on what I’ve read most recently. I haven’t read any non-fiction in a while that wasn’t related to child development. But when I do, it’s usually history or funny memoirs like David Sedaris.
Since you have to read so much for work, does it diminish the pleasure you receive from reading for fun?
No, it doesn’t take away from the pleasure, but I don’t read as much for pleasure as I used to. It’s getting harder to find the time.
Have you ever gotten the itch to write yourself?
Because I live half my life reading books, I have plots running around in my head all the time. When I can’t sleep at night, I make up stories and eventually I fall asleep. But I don’t have the courage, time or perseverance to sit down and try to write a novel. I have a deep respect for writers – not only for the art of crafting characters and their stories – but for the dedication it requires. I am happy to be a reader.
Thank you, Terri, for being with us on Inkspot today, and for giving us a glimpse into your career at Midnight Ink.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
And every morning after breakfast, I sat by the lake and wrote. This was my writing view:
For a change of pace, I wrote by the pool or the other side of the lake:
Okay, I also did other vacationy things like bocce ball, swimming pool games, billiards, trivia, long walks in the evening with my husband (everyone say “awwwww”). I didn’t need to cook a meal, make a bed, clean anything, or do laundry for seven days.
And that made me think of famous writers in history: Mary Shelley. Tolkien. Jane Austen. Lewis Carroll. CS Lewis. Beatrix Potter. For the most part, they had servants to cook, clean, wash, shop for groceries. Their Day Jobs (those who had one) left them time to write, write, write. (Pardon me while I check my skintone. It may be taking on a greenish tinge.)
A week of vacation increased by about 10Kthe word count of Book 2 of The Falcone & Driscoll Investigation series. It’s all longhand—the fruit of my fountain pen, sunny days, and lots of time. Thus my twinges of envy over great writers who had money and a staff to take care of the zillion little details of keeping the home together.
Am I alone in this? When other writers go on vacation, does their word count increase exponentially? Fellow Inkspotters, do you get bit by the “time” bug? Do you wake up some mornings thinking, “If I'd been born into a landed gentry family, this book would only take me 2 months to write.”
Of course, all the grunt jobs I’ve worked in my life have given me great fodder for my books. Did someone call me a cockeyed optimist?
Monday, August 2, 2010
But today I’m going to state what I know—or think—about cars. If I’m wrong, please be so kind as to not disagree. Here we go:
- In America the overall number of passenger vehicles outnumbers licensed drivers. (Hence I thought cars might be of interest to some readers.)
- Automatic cars are simpler to drive than standard (read: the accelerator can be used like an “on-off” switch which is how I like it).
- Drivers’ tests are easier in an automatic, even one the size of a Dodge Polara (read: boat).
- My protagonist drives a standard—a Porsche. I drive an automatic (see above). This is not to say I have never driven a standard. It is to say I didn’t learn to do it well, which is why I never drove my husband’s Corvette or Porsche.
- Good visibility is important. My first car was a used 1972 Ford Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood’s car in the 2008 movie Gran Torino, only navy with a black top). It had a lot of horsepower and very little rear window visibility, especially for a petite teen. I backed into the trash cans in our driveway, which my dad still finds hilarious.
- It is always fortuitous to resell your first used car before the bolts rust through and the transmission falls out on a major roadway. (Consider the slogan: “Have you driven a Ford lately?)
- Never buy a used Monza (car number two) at night in a dim garage or you might end up with an oxidized hood and white leather upholstery covered in dog hair.
- $800 off the sticker price of a new Chevy Cavalier IS NOT a good deal, even if your father thinks it is.
- Red sporty cars like an Eagle Talon attract attention and compliments. They are not, however, convenient for car seats and must be sacrificed upon birth of first child to obtain a four-door Subaru Legacy. Having beloved Talon crashed by new teenage owner within a week only adds insult to injury (the teenager was fine, really).
- It is not so much fun to be a racer’s wife when your husband’s car is slammed frontend-first into the wall right in front of you and your children. It’s better to be one when your husband gets out of the car, hopping mad.
- With time and skill, a crunched or rusted car can be awesome again. [Kinda wished I still had that Gran Torino when Clint’s movie came out.]
I own a Mazda Tribute now. So, anyone else want to share car tales? What was your first or favorite car?