Friday, July 29, 2011
Living a right life is fine for you, but awful for your characters. They need to make bad decisions. They need to do the wrong thing. They need to suffer and be insufferable. There has to be conflict, tension, mayhem. If you're not sure how to make that happen, start with common wisdom and have them do the opposite.
"Great people talk about ideas. Average people talk about things. Small people talk about other people." –Eleanor Roosevelt
Feel free to talk about ideas and things yourself, but make your character petty and mean. Have her gossip about everyone and everything, including herself. She feels put upon by the world and gets even by starting rumors about her handicapped co-worker, the twelve-year old boy who cuts her grass, the neighborhood Schwann's delivery guy, a fellow volunteer at the shelter. How would she handle a religious conversion?
"Be the change you want to see in the world." –Ghandi
That never works, does it? Perhaps your character is trying to be the change, all zippity do-da, courteous to everyone he meets, kissing babies and serving meals at a soup kitchen that feeds the homeless and their rescued dogs. Life is Good with a capital G. How would he react to finding out that one of the weekend-only volunteers has been telling everyone that his doctor put him on anti-psychotic meds?
"Eat right and exercise." –Mom
For you? Yes. For your character? Yawn. Pump him full of sugar and processed foods, then put him in his car to drive two blocks to the convenience store for a twelve-pack of Monster Mayhem, the 100% caffeine thirst quencher, for the party he's throwing for his friends to watch two weeks worth of Tivo-ed Ultimate Fighting matches. What happens when his grandma comes over with his favorite strudel?
"Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." –Ben Franklin
No, no, and no. Sick, poor, and stupid is much more interesting. Keep your character out clubbing into the wee hours (but please don't make her a vampire), then send her out at four o'clock in the afternoon to spend her last $3.00 on breakfast. What would she do with the puppy she agreed to take care of while her sister is on her honeymoon?
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." –Winston Churchill
The only way an optimist would make for interesting reading is if he keeps getting sideswiped by life. Make things easy on yourself and make your character glum and suspicious and with a serious case of malaise. He won't bend down to pick up a dollar bill because he might get a paper cut. He wouldn't cross the street to avoid his worst enemy because he might get hit by a car. He won't accept a promotion at work because the pay raise will put him into a higher tax bracket. What does he do when his newly engaged brother asks him to be best man at his wedding?
"Eighty percent of success is showing up." –Woody Allen (no relation)
Reliability is a great trait for automobiles and overnight delivery services, but not for characters. Not interesting ones, anyway. Never let your character show up for anything—jobs, dates, classes, hair appointments. What happens when her parents force her to sign up to be a camp counselor?
Stories are about character change and growth, so the guys and gals who people your stories should be somehow different at the end. When you ignore common wisdom, you have a path for change. How you get there is what makes the story.
As writers, what methods do you use to define your characters? As readers, what are some of your favorite well-drawn characters?
Author of the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop Mystery Series
If You Can't Stand the Heat
Now available on Kindle, Nook, and eBook
See my poem "A Friday Afternoon" in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar
Thursday, July 28, 2011
By Deborah Sharp
I was butt naked on a hospital exam table when I realized being Mrs. Famous isn't all it's cracked up to be.
My epiphany occurred during a colonoscopy. Everyone of a certain age – okay, past 50 – should have the procedure. Katie Couric even had a scope inserted from the bottom up on national TV a few years ago to check the health of her colon.
Which brings me to my husband, Kerry Sanders, pictured above. He's nowhere near as well-known as the network anchors are. But as a correspondent for NBC News, he's still seen by millions, reporting from wars and disasters, infamous trials, and the occasional cushier assignment.
For Kerry, it’s his job. But unlike selling insurance or fixing teeth, the fact that his job is on TV renders even sophisticated people star struck. Trust me on this. Let’s say my husband was at a cocktail party with Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, and Shakespeare, all amazingly resurrected. Guests would bypass the genius, the saint, and the most famous playwright ever to make a beeline to the guy they’ve seen on TV.
''You covered Casey Anthony,'' one party-goer might say, ignoring Einstein riffing on relativity. ''What was up with that verdict?''
''Tell me,’’ another would gush, as Shakespeare scribbled sonnets unnoticed, ''what's Matt Lauer REALLY like?''
We've been married 22 years. I've become accustomed to watching people's eyes go glassy when I talk about what I do.
''I saw Kerry on the news,'' they’ll interrupt. ''Tell him I didn't like that yellow tie.''
I thought things might be different at the hospital, as several nurses arrived to prep me for my procedure. They all gathered 'round my gurney . . . and started quizzing my husband about TV. As usual, I was the invisible woman.
''Is Al Roker really as nice as he seems on the Today Show?’’ one nurse asked.
''I used to watch you reporting from Baghdad,’’ another said. ''Your eyes are SO blue.’’
''It’s funny, you look taller on TV,’’ the last nurse told him, my IV forgotten in her hand.
''Hey! Watch that needle,'' I yelled. ''Terrified patient here.’’
Finally, they wheeled me off to the colonoscopy room, leaving Kerry on his own to wait. As things got underway, I remember an open-backed gown, a chilly breeze, and insistent prodding from behind. The last thing I recall were these words from my doctor, as he began to scope:
''I still think about Kerry reporting from Hurricane Katrina.’’ Poke. Dig. Poke. ''How does he do those kinds of stories?'' Dig. Poke. Dig.
Just then, thankfully, the drugs kicked in. Away I floated to my happy place: A land with no TV, where someone – occasionally – will ask about me.
How about you? Do you ever feel overshadowed by a better-known or higher achieving family member? What is the weirdest place anyone’s ever chosen to ask you about them?
BTW, the colonoscopy results came back fine. When I called the insurance company later to iron out a billing problem, the woman on the phone noted Kerry’s name on the family policy. ''Hey, is that the same Kerry Sanders that’s on TV?’’
''Yes.'' Sigh. ''It is.''
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The brisk air crackled with unanticipated excitement on the septuagenarian morn; blue-black crows cawed their nervous greetings above the ever-rolling hills, purveyors of nuisance. Beyond the craggy, distant, snow-covered, imposing peaks,—
Muse: Stop. Please stop.
—a plume of wispy smoke wisped up to the azure sky, signaling—
Muse: What are you doing?
Me: Writing a scene. Why?
Muse: I step out for a minute to stretch my legs and this is what happens? What’s with all the adjectives? And dude, use a dictionary.
Me: I thought I’d try something different.
Muse: We’ve been through this. Your readers don’t want different. They want you. Your voice. Writing what you write. No space aliens. No romance novels. No vampires.
Me: What’s wrong with vampires? They’re popular, you know.
Muse: There’s nothing wrong with vampires. But you’ve never bitten about vampires before.
Me: Hey,I’m the writer; you’re just here for inspiration. Please leave the wordplay to me.
Muse: See what happens when you try something new?
Me: Point taken. So you’re saying to stick to what I do best.
Me: Like simple sentences with simple words? Sentence fragments? One adjective per page? Stories about normal people in sticky situations?
Muse: It’s what your readers want. Frankly, you can’t handle much more than that.
Me: So no stories about talking trees? I was hoping to branch out.
Muse: Maybe we should both lay off the wordplay.
Muse: Take your Last Laff mystery series. Please.
Me: Of all the muses I could get, I’m blessed with Henny Youngman? I thought we were going to stop the funny-biz.
Muse: Sorry. But seriously, in that series, you’ve taken a fairly normal protagonist, at least for a stand-up comic, and put him into a sticky situation. That’s what your readers expect from you. That’s what will make them happy.
Me: Not my sense of humor?
Muse: You’re lucky it’s not that. In your books, there’s some humor, but they’re primarily suspense/mystery stories. The humor is just a backdrop. At least that’s what you’ve been telling me.
Me: So what should I do if I feel the burning desire to write in another genre?
Muse: Try to quench it.
Me: And if I can’t?
Muse: That’s what pseudonyms are for. And personal journals. And Twitter. And epublishing.
Muse: One more thing. According to my union, it’s one muse per genre. So you and I would have to part company. And I know you don’t want that.
Me: Is my next muse likely to be funnier than you? Or at least nicer?
Me: Okay, then. Let’s get back to work.
What about you, Inkers? Have you had the urge to write something in another genre? What’s been your solution?
(BTW, that’s a picture of my muse working a pool party on his day off. I guess I don’t pay him enough.)
Monday, July 25, 2011
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Lots of press this week for several Midnight Ink authors.
Two items for ROBIN ALLEN's clean, humorous amateur sleuth mystery, If You Can't Stand the Heat.
1. Virginia Wood, long-time food editor of the Austin Chronicle, wrote a wonderful review in the current issue.
"My most enjoyable reading diversion so far this summer has been a new culinary mystery..."2. For one week (7/20/11-7/27/11), Amazon.com is selling the Kindle version of the book for $2.99.
* * *
DEBORAH SHARP's Mama Sees Stars (September 2011) received a starred review in Library Journal.
"This zany fourth entry in Sharp’s series is a feature worthy of the big screen...The mystery aisles can always use more humor, and Sharp delivers..."
* * *
JESSIE CHANDLER's Bingo Barge Murder was featured on local Minnesota station KARE11 as a great summer read.
"If you like funny, fast-paced Minnesota flavor..."
* * *
For one week (7/20/11-7/27/11), Amazon.com is selling the Kindle version of JESS LOUREY's Knee High by the Fourth of July for $1.99.
Friday, July 22, 2011
What, if anything, do you read while writing? For me, usually nothing. I’m a full-time teacher and a mother of a 12 and a 9 year-old. I also have a wonderful boyfriend, serve on the national board of the Mystery Writers of America, am active in Tae Kwon Do, and volunteer in my community. When I add writing a novel on top of that, reading is usually the first thing that has to go. However, the young adult novel I’m working on at the moment requires a great deal of research. I find myself writing in fits and spurts, broken up by necessary reading, and it’s driving me crazy!!! I can’t meet my 2000-word-a-day minimum, and I feel like a humongous slacker.
So maybe this post is more about asking how you all make time for writing. I get asked that question regularly, of course. Every writer does. One time, a couple years ago, I half-jokingly (which=embarrassingly true) told a reporter that I have time to write novels because I don’t watch TV, have a social life, or shower on the weekends. That become the two-page, full-color headline for the article, over a photo of me with my 19-year-old cat in my arms: “I Don’t Have a Social Life and I Don’t Shower on Weekends.” This is how cat ladies are born, people. Shame combined with the realization that personal hygiene is negotiable.
Nowadays, when I teach creative writing for MWA-U and am asked how I make time for my writing, I gently correct my students. We all make time for what is important, I say, so the question is not how to make time for writing but how to make writing important to you.
That answer works great as long as you’re not under deadline, right? I need to get this YA novel done by September 1, the December book in my Murder-by-Month series by December 1, and I hope to have a magical realism novel completed by May 1, 2012. I had it all within my grasp, right up until I realized I had far more research to do for the YA novel than I had allotted time for. So I repeat: how do you make time for writing, especially when it requires researching?
On a profoundly unrelated note, last month, my publisher kindly put forth June Bug as a free ebook download. Tens of thousands of copies were downloaded, and even more exciting, the sales of the other five books skyrocketed. You know what else? The entire six-book e-series is still in the top 10,000 ranking for Amazon.com’s Kindle downloads, weeks after June Bug has returned to full price. Thank you to Midnight Ink for their brilliant support and inventiveness, and for allowing me this opportunity to reach a new group of readers.
And finally, this is my last post for Inkspot. I’m going to toot my own horn and say that starting this group blog was my idea a few years back, and it’s morphed into this amazing thing through the efforts of some of the best writers in the business. Thank you for your time and friendship, Inkspotters, and I’ll continue to follow your stories with great anticipation.
p.s. Breaking news!!! Thanks to an Amazon.com promotion and some more forward-thinking from my publisher, Knee High by the Fourth of July is a $1.99 Kindle download for this week only. Read on!
Truthfully, I couldn't really believe it either. It's one of those books everyone has read at some point or another, right? One of those books I'd always planned to tackle, along with War and Peace.
"You really ought to read it." It's funny when your kids start talking like this. Echoes of all the things you've told them for the past twenty-one years circle back. You want to do a little happy dance, because here is your middle kid -- the one who was a wee bit challenging there for a while -- and he wants to discuss a book with you.
Nate went back to Burlington, Vermont, where he goes to college (and works in the summer) and a few weeks later I found myself there unexpectedly. We had dinner together and he again asked me about The Fountainhead. When I confessed I didn't have it yet, he insisted on making me a copy of the first ten chapters to listen to on the ride home to Maine. "This will get you started," he said, handing me a disk.
The next morning I began my journey east on Rt. 2, the sounds of The Fountainhead filling my Toyota. Ten minutes into it, I was hooked. I listened for the whole six hour ride and then grabbed the book out of the library the minute I got home.
I'm only about halfway through, but I can safely agree with Nate's assessment -- The Fountainhead is astounding. I could probably blog about nothing else for several years and still have plenty to say about the strongly drawn characters, riveting story lines, and complex philosophical themes. The language is rich (these are the kinds of sentences you want to read out loud to someone else, just to savor how finely crafted they are) and I can't begin to describe the author's use of metaphor. Clearly Ayn Rand was a masterful storyteller.
What fascinates me (and Nate as well) is how Rand managed to write in such a timeless style. Despite the occasional reference to a "speakeasy" or a "switchboard," her story of two architects struggling to succeed in Manhattan feels as if it is happening right now. Granted, no one is using a cell phone, writing a blog, or stopping at a Starbucks, and yet the setting seems contemporary and fresh.
Why is that?
Is it precisely because there is so little technology integral to the story? Or is it because she focused on universal human truths and questions? Do we, as writers, care about how our novels age? Is that even something you can think about while writing a book?
How will your mysteries age, and does it matter?
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Today I'm announcing my participation in a new project called Spoilerville. It's a website created by mystery author Jan Burke to provide a place for authors and readers to discuss books without fear of causing riots on lists and blogs, and without spoiling the fun of those who haven’t read those books yet. In these discussions, we can talk about who died and why and reveal all the secrets, including "whodunnit," while asking and answering questions about the plot, characters, themes and other issues in books.
Spoilerville is just getting off the ground and new authors and their books are being added every day. If you're an author and would like to be added to the site, go HERE. If you're a reader who has just been dying to know why an author did X in book Y or what other readers think about it, go to Spoilerville and see if the author has signed up yet.
I've signed up, and I'll periodically check the topics put in place for my three published mystery books, including Deadly Currents, the first book in my Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventure series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner, and the first two books in my Claire Hanover gift basket designer series, A Real Basket Case and To Hell in a Handbasket.
So, if you have a question you've been dying to ask me or other readers about one of these books that reveals something that happens in the book, ask away! That's what Spoilerville is for. I'm hoping this project succeeds and provides a safe place for some interesting discussions. I've started the ball rolling by posting one comment each on the topics for A Real Basket Case and To Hell in a Handbasket.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
My stint in the publishing world is short (three years) and my novels are “critically acclaimed” as opposed to “bestselling”, but I’m satisfied with this venture. It’s the little things that make me feel this way.
Earlier this year, my son’s third grade teacher phoned me. When she identified herself, she paused after her name, as though waiting to see if I recognized it. While it’s been five years since my son left her class, I never forget someone I’ve met and certainly not if I liked them. She was calling because she’d seen my books written up in the local newspaper. She’d run out and purchased them, and she wanted to know if she could come over to our house to have me sign them. Heck, yes. Come to find out, her son works for Harlan Coben’s publisher, and she’s learned a lot about publishing, including how important it is to support new writers.
A couple months ago, my husband suggested I contact Life in the Finger Lakes magazine to ask them to review my second book, For Richer, For Danger, which was set in the region. Before I had a chance, the magazine’s editor contacted me and asked if I could send a copy to their reviewer. Heck, yes. The review came out last month: “A most entertaining tale.”
Over the last few months, I’ve spent a few minutes a week friending people on Goodreads and asking them to check out my books. I always wonder if people find being approached in that manner more annoying than friendly. But in May, two reviewers specifically said they were “so glad” I contacted them.
A family friend doesn’t read often, okay, almost never. But she purchased my first book and read it within a couple days. Her husband said she just finished the second within a day and can’t wait for the third.
When I entered the publishing world, my only goal was to write a book that a recognized publisher would buy. Everything else has been icing on the cake.
So, care to share any of your own warm fuzzies? What little things of late have made your life choices that much more satisfying?
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
One of the greatest joys of being a writer is to see a character you’ve created jump off the page and come to life. It’s something you can’t always plan, can rarely predict, and sometimes can’t explain even after it happens. It’s simply characters taking on a life of their own, turning in an award wining performance. And it often comes as a complete surprise to the author.
What a great feeling to have been the one to breathe life into them.
For a character appearing for the first time, then, the story becomes something of an audition. A screen test. A pilot episode that can either leave the character in relative obscurity or propel them into a very real life that will see them recur time and time again. Though not every character wins the Oscar, if an author is lucky, a handful of characters go on to story stardom.
To date, I’ve written and had published close to thirty short stories, my first novel in the Del Shannon series, Nazareth Child, is forthcoming in September, book two in the series is completed and has been turned in to the publisher, and my latest short story has been chosen for inclusion in the Lee Child anthology, Vengeance, slated for publication in April-May next year. All told, I estimate that I have created more than 150 primary and secondary characters (maybe another 100 walk-ons). Several of whom have become so real to me that I have taken them on more than one story journey.
They are all part of the fictional world that I inhabit as an author. And what great fun it is to see one of them continue down the path of life. Even more so, to see one stumble onto the landscape of another character’s story. It’s like running into an old friend at the bank (although, in this case, the old friend is probably there to rob it.)
Elmore Leonard does this superbly. I came to know Raylan Givens from the Leonard novels "Pronto" and "Riding The Rap". Later, I thrilled again to the character in the short story, "Fire In The Hole," appearing in the Leonard collection "When The Ladies Come Out To Dance." I’m now a devout follower of Raylan in the FX television original series, Justified, based on the character. I feel as if I have known Raylan (and, in some respects, Elmore) personally, for a very long time.
What about you? As an author, have you created characters that have demanded their own life and space in your fictional world? As readers, how does it feel to recognize a character from the past? What’s one of your most befriended recurring characters?
Friday, July 15, 2011
Okay, first we have to talk about FREE STUFF.
In celebration of the recent release of my fifth Home Crafting Mystery, Wined and Died, you can enter to win a FREE Author Website ($900 value!) from the creative folks at Bizango Websites for Writers until July 29, 2011. The winner will also receive 2 years of FREE hosting. For more details and information on how to enter, please visit my Hearth Cricket blog.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…
But they’re crafting mysteries. I was on a panel at Left Coast Crime once that discussed exactly this issue. One of the questions was, “Do the subjects of your books make them cozy?” The idea was that if you’re writing mysteries about crafts (me), antiques (Jane Cleland), or gardening (Rosemary Harris) then they must be cozies. Two panelists were unable to attend, and Reed Farrell Coleman stepped in to balance out the panel (because of the wine connection in his Moe Prager mysteries, I assume). It turned out that despite our subject matter and the fact that we were all considered cozy writers (well, all except for Reed), none of us particularly related to the cozy label.
There’s outside evidence that I color slightly outside the cozy lines. There was that cozy author I asked to write a happy little blurb for one of my books who refused to be associated with it because it featured a stalker, a possible rapist, and an elderly woman was attacked. For a (very) brief moment there I felt like Hunter S.Thompson or Harry Crews. Another blurber was somewhat taken aback by the untraditionally fast pacing.
By the way, that thing about the pacing will make my writing buddies crazy, because they’re always telling me to speed things up. “But it’s a cozy, “ I say. Even if I only kinda, sorta mean it.
“What does it mean to know someone in the biblical sense?” is the opening line of Wined and Died, and it comes from an eleven-year-old girl. Throughout the series, serious issues like alcoholism, clinical depression, cancer, suicide, abuse – oh, and murder, helllooo – keep cropping up. In Wined and Died we’ve got us a little problem with some backwoods marywanna growers, drug dealing, and addiction.
Not terribly cozy fare, though it’s generously sprinkled with soap making, herb craft, gardening, how to make dandelion wine and ginger ale, information on mead, cooking, plenty of recipes, and, I hope, a bit of humor. There isn’t any explicit sex but two main characters are recently married, so there’s reference to their sex life. There was before the wedding, too. Wined and Died doesn’t have a lot of gore, but others in the series have had their share. Now that I think about it, the then acquisitions editor asked me to tone down the first page of the first Home Crafting Mystery because the description of the dead body was too graphic. (She was right, too – I totally went overboard on the ick factor.)
Yet middle school librarians stock my books. I rate them as PG 13 on Authors Den. At nearly all of my signings, at least one teenager buys a book, and I always tell the parents that there’s some mildly bad language and references to adult behavior. “Worse than television?” And I have to shake my head and offer them another molasses-oatmeal signing cookie.
So now I call my books contemporary cozies, because I guess that’s what they really are – a little faster, a teensy bit more edgy, not – as Robin put it in her recent post – “pink.” But they’re still about colonial home crafts, and that is cozy fare. Kinda sorta. Pretty much.
There are a lot of books out there that I’d call contemporary cozies. Or do you think “cozy” has been redefined over the last decade and that modifier is unnecessary?
Thursday, July 14, 2011
by Kathleen Ernst
One of the great things about writing novels is having the opportunity to explore interesting topics along the way. Since my Chloe Ellefson mysteries are set at historic sites, I have all kinds of opportunities to introduce readers to aspects of the museum world.
When planning book 2, The Heirloom Murders, I decided to shine a light on the role historic sites play in preserving old agricultural traditions. Interpreters at living history sites help perpetuate not just old methods, but historic livestock breeds and antique varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
It’s a pretty big deal. According to the USDA, we’ve lost ninety-seven percent of the vegetable varieties once grown in the United States. People have gotten out of the habit of saving their own seeds, passing them along, swapping with neighbors. Large seed companies have overtaken small local ones. Vegetables grown today are largely chosen for their ability to look good after being shipped long distances. Luscious-tasting varieties that didn’t look pretty were discarded. We’ve lost a lot of flavor and diversity along the way.
Even worse, some of those old varieties might have been the only type to withstand the onslaught of some new pest or disease. In The Heirloom Murders, Chloe explains the situation to cop Roelke McKenna this way:
Chloe tapped her pencil against her clipboard. “You’ve heard of the Irish potato famine, right? Mass starvation, mostly because a blight hit the potato crop?”
“Yeah. Lots of Irish people came over here.”
“Right. All the potatoes in Europe succumbed to the disease. But in the Andes, people were growing hundreds or thousands of potato varieties, and some of them proved to be resistant to the blight. If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t be eating mashed potatoes for dinner every Thanksgiving.”
I didn’t know anything about heirloom gardening until I went to work in the historic sites biz myself, way back when. Now I grow heirlooms in my own gardens. Mostly vegetables, but a few flowers too.
My first goal for any novel is to tell a good story, about characters that readers will come to care about. But if a couple of readers get intrigued by old varieties of vegetables, fruits, or flowers too…well, that would be pretty darn cool.
All photos were taken at an agricultural fair held at Old World Wisconsin, which has an extensive historic agriculture program. For more information about heirloom seeds, check out Seed Savers Exchange.
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Imagine being embarassed about your child's appearance. Not the color/length/amount of their hair or their low-slung jeans and silly t-shirts (well, okay, this one is clever), but the closeness of their eyes, the thinness of their lips, the de Bergerac-ness of their nose. You had no choice how they came out, really, but you have to live with these attributes for the rest of your life.
Same thing with authors and book covers. Our books are our babies. Whether the rest of the world grades them as A students or D, we think they're honor students. We believe we've written a beautiful story and we want to present it to the world in a stunning outfit.
Authors don't choose their book covers. (Unless you're Stephen King, I imagine, but some of his covers make me wonder if even he isn't consulted.) For the most part, the inside belongs to the author and the outside belongs to the publisher. The publisher can do anything they want. Anything. Black eyes, grotesque mouths that drool, ginormous hairy noses that leak into the drool. Unless you're Stephen King, you probably wouldn't be happy with that.
After I made my deal with Midnight Ink, after the contracts and the champagne and the congratulations (friends, family, self, etc.), I started to think about the cover of my book. I read horror stories (not written by Stephen King) about authors so distraught over their book covers, they fled the country or took a vow of poverty. I love both Texas and money, so the worst thing I could come up with was to draw a line in the sand.
Midnight Ink does great covers. (Lookie here. Or look at our covers on the right side of this blog.) I liked most of the ones I saw and didn't dislike any of them, so I knew I wouldn't be embarassed by mine. But would I love it? Would it represent the story? Would it be too precious? Would it feature a nine-toed baby even though there are no babies or toes in the story? Or worse--would it have a curlique typeface?
When my editor, Terri Bischoff, asked me what I'd like to see on my book cover, I knew a) that I loved her and b) exactly what to tell her: "I didn't write a pink book and I don't want a pink cover." I may have repeated myself two or three or eighteen times.
So, as you can see, my baby is beautiful, thanks to Desmond Montague.
The stock pot (= kitchen story), the skull and crossbones on the stock pot (= mystery), the steam rising into skulls (= danger, death) , the hot dog on the badge (= humor), the HowardJohnson color scheme (= I have no idea, but it takes me back to my childhood when my parents would take all four of us kids across town in the station wagon to eat fried clams).
It's funny that the saying, "don't judge a book by its cover" is so well-known and popular, yet publishers spend a lot of time, effort, and money on book covers.
I'm not a nihilist, so a clever title or interesting cover will make me pick up a book, but I'm also not a sucker. I'll always read either the first couple of pages or flip to a random page to judge the writing.
I do pre-snub covers, however, and am immediately warned off by blurred images (literary fiction = inordinant number of descriptions of things I don't care about) or children (coming-of-age story = 400 pages concerning things I don't care about).
What about y'all? Have you ever bought or not bought a book because of its cover?
Author of the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop Mystery Series
If You Can't Stand the Heat
Now available on Kindle, Nook, and eBook
See my poem "A Friday Afternoon" in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
Now I’ve also got an albino opossum, possibly a pregnant one, living under the deck along with the rabbits. I guess they’ve formed a sort of détente because I thought opossums ate baby bunnies. I’ve also had chipmunks and birds in my attic over the past year. However, nothing has been as bad as a mouse in the house.
I’ve lived in four suburban houses my adult life and never had a mouse in the house until six years ago. Remember, I said I’m a city girl. So I didn’t even recognize the evidence of a mouse at first. I thought those black things on the counter were rye seeds from the bag of bagels. No, I later discovered that’s what mouse droppings look like. Euuwww! I haven’t eaten bagels with rye seeds since.
It turns out the mouse had decided to make himself at home in a kitchen drawer where I keep take-out menus, chip clips, and coupons. Don’t ask me why. We caught that mouse six years ago and ever since have kept traps in various locations in the basement and kitchen. A year ago I discovered a dead mouse in a trap under the utility sink. At first I thought the sewer had backed up. It’s amazing how much one dead mouse can stink!
Anyway, fast-forward to the other day. I opened the drawer with the take-out menus and found some mints I’d tossed in the trash, cracker crumbs, and those rye seed looking droppings (I always thought animals didn’t go potty where they live, but what do I know?) -- evidence of another mouse, one who’d managed to avoid all the traps in the basement and kitchen cabinets. We did eventually catch the little bugger, but I’m still amazed that six years later a mouse had decided to camp out in the exact same drawer as his predecessor.
What about the rest of you? Any critter phobias?
Friday, July 8, 2011
A newspaper editor from way back in my previous life always said only a lazy reporter can't find a good story.
"Stories are everywhere,'' he'd say, taking a drag from the cigarette burning on the edge of his desk. Yes, I'm so old editors still smoked in their offices when I was a wide-eyed cub reporter. Drank, too, but that's a tale for another day.
Anyway, his advice set me on a path of always looking for the offbeat, the unusual, the toss-away observation that might turn into a story. Even though I write fiction now, I'm still doing it. These days, my eyes are peeled for the kind of details that could add something to a plot or to the characters who people my Mace Bauer Mysteries.
Occasionally, I do it just for fun. Just to see if I still have the chops for observation.
The scene: The sidewalk along State Road A-1-A, the beachfront highway in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale. My eyes -- and my notebook -- are open when I spot a couple of lowlife-looking guys, hanging out and drinking beer across from the Elbo Room. Their bicycles lean against the Wave Wall, under swaying palm fronds and a Turtle Nesting sign that details the yearly schedule for lights-out along the beach.
These guys are clearly members of the sun-baked, hard-living crowd my husband and I identify as BWI, or Biking While Intoxicated. They've already been found guilty of DUI, lost their drivers' licenses, and now get around on salt-rusted bicycles with holders on the handlebars to tote their beers. Flouting the law against open containers, Dude No. 1 has tucked a dirty washcloth around his beer can, like that'll fool the cops who patrol the beach.
Dude 1 sports a 'do-rag and a bright orange T-shirt touting a soft-drink, It's Crush Time. The cool thing about being a fiction writer, though, is I get to improve the scene with a better T-shirt I spotted in a tacky souvenir shop about a block away: I Support Single Moms, it said, above a stripper on a pole, One Dollar at a Time.
So, now Dude 1's wearing that T-shirt instead, chugging from his washcloth-wrapped Budweiser.
Dude No. 2 asks him, ''You've had a few, right?''
No. 1 nods.
Dude 2 holds up a 32-oz. plastic thermos. "This is my first one.''
In the spirit of show and tell, Dude 1 puts down his Budweiser so he can pull something from his pocket. Click. Snap.
''That's a switchblade!'' Dude 2's bleary eyes widen. "That's illegal, man.''
''I didn't know you were such a law-abiding citizen,'' says No. 1.
So, that's where the scene ends, as they mount their bikes and make their way south. But I couldn't help but wonder What If? (The two favorite words of a fiction writer, right up there with The End.) What if Dude 1 killed somebody with that switchblade? Or, what if he simply found it somewhere after someone else used it in a fatal stabbing? What if Dude No. 2 has to step up to help? Sober up, slay the demons he's keeping at bay with that thermos of beer, and use the skills he learned as a trained military investigator to clear No. 1 from a bum murder rap?
Maybe, or maybe not. But at the very least, that T-shirt with the stripper pole will turn up in the pages of my next Mace Bauer Mystery. So what have you observed lately that made you ask What If? Has there been something that made you wonder WTF?
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Another book will be throwing its hat into the 2012 ring: DEADLY CAMPAIGN, set for a January release.
This is my third book, and it was still a thrill when I saw my cover for the first time. And what a cover it is! Eye-catching, colorful, enticing (I hope!). For my money, Midnight Ink does the best covers in the business, and I’m very grateful to be part of the team.
Believe it or not, until about three weeks ago, I hadn’t connected the fact that this book—with a congressional campaign as a backdrop—was coming out in an election year (I know, duh!). Maybe it’s because I live in the D.C. suburbs and politics is in the news every single day, election year or not.
My two previous books were both Spring releases, so this will be my first Winter release. Hopefully, the book will appeal to all those who receive bookstore gift cards doing their shopping in early January.
Okay, so what’s the book about? Here’s the description from Midnight Ink’s website:
A new Last Laff Mystery from Agatha Award-nominated author Alan Orloff: Comedy club owner and occasional performer Channing Hayes thought the comedy business was tough, but it's a stroll in the park compared to politics. When he and his business partner Artie attend a congressional campaign event for their friend Thomas Lee's nephew, masked thugs storm in and break up Lee's restaurant with baseball bats. The candidate's people insist that the police not be involved, so Lee asks Channing to investigate. As Channing searches for answers, he finds himself immersed in a corrupt world of payoffs, gangs, illicit affairs, blackmail—and murder . . .
My name is Alan Orloff, and I have approved this message.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
After the first draft coomes the first and second edits before you give it to your beta testers, who take their sweet time reading and editing. Then you take their suggestions, edit again, send it to your wonderful agent for her to edit, make the corrections she suggests, edit again, and finally it's ready to shop around. And if the publishing gods deign her worthy the publisher will have you edit it at least twice more. So "The End" is simply the beginning of a grueling process, almost like raising a child, where you will curse your characters for ever entering your imagination or life in the first place at least once or twice. But you love her regardless, and you solider on to do your best to help her grow.
There is so much else that goes into getting the book from the first draft to the last as I pointed out. But yesterday I started the final, final, final edit of "Mind Over Monsters." She has gone through so many changes since I started it seven(!) years ago I barely recognize her. The beginning chapter I started with is completely gone, characters names have changed, and I don't know how many paragraphs have been shortened or expanded. She (like all cars manuscripts are female) has grown from a seed in my mind to an infant as I did the first draft. All her parts were there, her personality, but she needed shaping to become a productive member of book society.
So through the years I did my best to trim her fat, improve her vocabulary, scream at her when she wouldn't listen to me, and make her the best she could be. (Those teenage years...shudder. I almost gave up on her when I was trying to sell her, but we soldiered through). Now it's as if she is about to graduate college. She's standing on her own two feet, but still needs her Mommy for a few last bits of advice. That's what I'm doing now with the final edit. Never again will I be able to change words, add to characters, plug in narrative holes, etc. She will forever be out in the world as is for other people to judge, enjoy, or just plain hate. She is her own entity now. I just hope my baby will become President instead of a bum. Regardless, I have to let go. I've done all I can to get her to stand on her two feet, and I am proud of her...though I never want to see her again.
Now onto her siblings.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Now that I’ve been writing full-time for about four years, friends and relatives are finally getting used to the idea. I’ve impressed upon them that writing a novel does indeed count as work. They have learned not to refer to my time in the software world as “back when you were working.” And maybe out of fear of being a defendant in a wrongful death action brought by my heirs, they no longer ask if I am enjoying “retirement.” That vein that starts throbbing on my forehead gives them a warning that an apoplectic fit cannot be far away. In fact, many of those friends tell me something like, “Actually, I’ve read your latest book and it’s pretty good.” I don’t know if I should be insulted by the tone of surprise, but I’ve decided to just go with it and say “thank you.”
Well, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m screwing the whole thing up. I’ve gone and taken on a day job. Why would I do something like that? I cannot say that writing novels has been quite as lucrative as working in software, but it’s not just the money. (I can’t say money plays no role at all. It was Dr. Johnson who said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”) For my entire post-college life I’ve just gotten that itch to try something new every four, five, or six years. And happy as I was spending my days in my neighborhood café rapping out the stories of Ian and Rowena and Sam and Cecilia, I still am excited to be started something new. Leaving aside a few flings like my six months as a gambler at the race track, I figure this newest incarnation is my fifth.
I’ve overcome the shame of admitting that I went to law school. Even worse, I went intending to become a corporate lawyer. A summer job at a Wall Street firm cured me of that folly, and I decided instead to do my bit in saving the world. (Another folly.) I pounded the hallways of the Capitol in Washington and was hired as the junior of three lawyers on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before the end of my first year, the other two had left. I was 27 years old and the senior lawyer on the committee overseeing the government’s secret intelligence activities. Holy s**t! (I mined that experience in my latest book, Drop By Drop.) Then I got a little too big for my britches and went home to Palo Alto to run for Congress. My experience running for elective office was like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. No matter how much fun the ride was, what I remember is the landing. Splat – like an overripe tomato hitting a concrete floor! So ended my life in politics and career #1.
Next I landed at ROLM Corporation in Silicon Valley, where Ken Oshman, a brilliant and demanding executive who’d been CEO of the company from his 20s, took a chance on me. I was there when we introduced the first successful corporate voicemail systems. After we sold the company to IBM, I stuck with high tech, but eventually found myself in a company where I loved my colleagues, my boss, and the product, but I was still getting a little bored. So I did what you do in Silicon Valley under such circumstances. I left my job and started a company. That was the end of career #2 as a high tech employee and the beginning of #3 as an entrepreneur.
After six years of 70 hour weeks, we sold the company. Part of closing the deal was promising to stick around for awhile. Once my indentured servitude had lapsed though, I left and started casting around for my next move. I thought about starting another company, but an old Japanese proverb kept running through my head: “Every person should walk to the top of Mount Fuji, but only a fool does it twice.”
And so ended my third career and the start of #4 as a novelist. I love writing. When I walk into my neighborhood café, the staff turns down the music and brings me my pot of green tea. I put on noise-canceling headphones and pretty soon I’ve made the jump to another world where I have adventures as another person – one braver, smarter, and more attractive to women than I am. I’ve written five manuscripts. Midnight Ink published Dot Dead and Smasher. Drop By Drop has just come out as an ebook original – which is going great. I have delivered two more manuscripts to my agent. Writing is a great gig. But still, dammit, I found myself needing to scratch that itch to try something new.
I knew I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Whenever I thought about it, a picture of Mt. Fuji would pop into my brain.
At a New Year’s party at the beginning of the year, I mentioned to a friend that I was feeling that itch to try something new. She said something to a friend of hers, who in turn said something to her husband. And the upshot of all that? I’ve just started a job at a genetic sequencing company. What the heck is that? Well, it turns out that humans have 21,000 genes that are written in something like computer code. It cost over a billion dollars to sequence all of a human’s genes in the Human Genome Project that finished up in 2003. The company I’m at now does it for less than one hundred thousandth as much. Why does it matter? Sometimes when one or more of those genes run amok, cancer results. Anomalies in other genes can lead to a predisposition for heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Researchers are figuring all this out. In the not distant future, it will possible to take medication targeting our own specific genetic make-up (or genome). We’ll find out if we have a predisposition for diabetes or cancer and have the option to change our diet and exercise patterns accordingly. I participated in Silicon Valley’s Internet revolution. This was a chance to participate in the personalized medicine revolution that is definitely coming! Could not say no!
It turns out to be harder to leave career #4 behind than my first three. On the job only for a week and I already have ideas for thrillers set in the world of DNA sequencing and research. Yes, I am starting another career, but without abandoning the old one. I am still an author.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Also today, Alan Orloff will be appearing at the Grand Opening of Novel Places in Clarksburg, MD. His presentation/book signing for Killer Routine begins at 2 PM (followed by Donna Andrews at 3 PM). Come by and enjoy some food, fun, and books!