Monday, July 30, 2007

Great Books, Part II

I'm going to riff on Joe Moore's existential blog from yesterday (and I'm usually the beach-bum philosopher of the group) and go concrete on y'all.

Name me the greatest book you ever read. The book that made you want to write. That made you dream. That made you weep. That made you scream. That made you soar. Ah, back to the beach-bum philosopher.
I'll start the game with my favorite book, Far Tortuga, by the great author Peter Matthiessen.

Known more as a naturalist and a non-fiction writer, Matthiessen's fiction is top notch. And Far Tortuga is my favorite of his - and that's a tough choice for me. It's a very difficult book to read style-wise, but if you can get into the rhythm and you love the sea as much as I do, this book will reward you with a singular reading experience. But I say that having recommended the book to several people and they hated it. Which leads me to the extra credit portion of the game.
Extra points if you love the book and everyone else hates it. Now that's a great book, eh Joe?

What Makes A Great Book?

by Joe Moore
How often have we heard someone say, "I don't understand why my book is being rejected while so many bad books are published?" Here's my spin: there's no such thing as a bad book. The reason I feel that way is I believe that all books are considered good or even great by someone.

No publisher will intentionally release a "bad" book. Doing so would be a stupid business plan. Their goal is to find the best written manuscript, give it the most professional editing possible, promote it within budget limitations, and work closely with the author to raise the awareness of the book in the marketplace. But no publisher has a plan that is immune to failure. Not all books appeal to enough readers to make back the original investment. The trash pile is full of great books that did not make it into the hands of enough readers. And we have all come across books that we personally didn't like or thought were "bad". That is individual preference, not quality of writing. If they are truly written poorly--spelling errors, typos, incorrect punctuation, etc.--that would be the failure of the editor.

I have never met an author who said, "Today I'm going to write a mediocre book." I've never dealt with an agent who was looking for writers with minimal talent. There are no publishers out there willing to risk their money on a sure-fire loser. All books are considered great by someone. That's why they were written, represented, and published. Did enough readers agree? Better yet, did enough readers even get the chance to agree. That's the battle we all face in trying to make money writing.

But even if we write a great book, there's no guarantee that we will ever be published, much less sell enough copies to make any money. Don't get me wrong, we do have to write a great book. But there are more great books that fail than succeed. Greatness is subjective, elusive and ambiguous.

I think all books are great to someone. What do you think makes a great book?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blogito, Ergo Sum

Why do we blog?

Let me tell you why that question has been rolling around the inside of my skull. Tuesday night I went to the Giants game to see Barry Bonds hit a home run or two. A failed mission. But between innings, the scoreboard had a quiz. Who is first baseman Ryan Klesko's favorite actor: A) Tom Hanks, B) Mel Gibson, or C) Jim Carrey? Then on came a video of Mr. Klesko in which he declared for B. The entire episode was sponsored by Hebrew National Kosher Hot Dogs. That seemed a little incongruous to me, given MG's anti-semitic rant of last year. So I blogged about it over at Dot Dead Diary.

Thanks to some instigation from my godson, and linked to my posting. Holy mackerel! I had more hits on my blog Thursday than I typically get in a month. Thousands.

But so what? Did it mean I was selling more books? I don’t think so, at least there was no effect on my Amazon ranking. So I started to wonder whether my more typical postings did anything for sales. Do I myself buy the books of the bloggers I read every day? Yes, but largely because they are friends whose books I’d buy anyway, not because they blog.

If blogging doesn’t lead to more sales, then why blog? As Dr. Johnson once famously said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Maybe we blog because it’s a way to keep in touch. When I lived in England years ago, I corresponded with friends via airmail. Blogging gives me the same kind of feeling of keeping in touch, but it’s more efficient since one posting goes to everyone I’d write to.

Or maybe we blog because writing is a solitary vocation (except for Joe and Lynn) and this is our way of crying out, “Hey out there. We're alive.” Descartes wrote, “Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am.” Maybe we’re saying “Blogito, ergo sum” or “I blog, therefore I am.”

I’d like to know why my fellow bloggers blog. And I’d like to hear from readers what they get out of this blog or the individual blogs of any of us Inksters. Finally, if any reader has bought a book – even one – because of the witty prose that shows up here five days a week, please let us know via a comment.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hearing Words

As a young child, my mother the consummate reader, would gather the four of us around and read Golden Books and Aesop's Fables to us and whatever else we begged her for. There was a particular luxury in not only hearing great stories, but having someone else do the reading.
Recently, both of the public libraries I have accounts with began participating in Overdrive, a nationwide program of free downloadable audio books. Free, that is to patrons, but libraries pay a fee to participate. With my .mp3 player in hand, I began to rediscover the joy of having books read to me. What brings me the biggest thrill is that I am able to listen to wonderful stories while doing ordinary tasks like cleaning, laundry, yard work and commuting to and from work. The only time I can't listen and absorb audiobooks is when I'm reading anything else.
I have to admit I'm becoming "narrator-sensitive," especially if the book is set anywhere in New England. I cringed while listening to Anita Shreve's Light on Snow when the narrator pronounced "Concord" like the plane with an "e" instead of its regional "Concahd."
The other curiosity I've discovered is that listening to the book read to me is a very different experience than holding it in my hands. The words reverberate dead center in my brain and seem to linger longer than when I'm reading in hand.
I'm curious if anyone has had their work produced on audiobook and what their experience has been? Is this a marketing venue worth pursuing? Does the author have any say in the narrator?
- Felicia Donovan

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Bookstore Signings - The Good and the Bad

by Deb Baker

Some booksellers go out of their way to make an author feel welcome. They’re the ones who realize we’re traveling on our own buck, and that a good turnout will reap benefits for both of us.

You know you’re in trouble when:

The bookseller forgets you’re coming.
The store doesn’t have any of your books, or
They dig around in the storage room and produce some. This means they haven’t done squat before you walked in.
The posters and bag flyers you sent aren’t anywhere in sight.
There isn’t a table set up or a chair and there aren’t any available. You’ll be standing with your books in your arms for two hours.
They put another author by the door and set you up in the back room with the used stock.
They want to know if you brought all your friends to buy books.
You arrive for a Sunday signing in a downtown bookstore and everything else in town is closed for the day.
The only employee in the store is a college kid who leaves you in charge while he goes out for pizza.

Yup. It’s all happened to me.

On the bright side, many booksellers are excited to meet us, they have our books displayed in the window and around the counter, they’ve sold them for several weeks before we arrived and will continue to promote them after we leave, they appreciate the promo we sent and even added their own touch, they talk you up.

I’ve discovered that the store owners who do events routinely have the best turnouts. And a mystery talk goes over better than a plain old signing.

Here are my favorite bookstores in alphabetical order.

Books and Company – Oconomowoc, WI
Booked For Murder – Madison, WI
Book World – Escanaba, MI
Martha Merrell’s – Waukesha, WI
McLean & Eakin – Petoskey, MI
Novel Ideas – Baileys Harbor, MI
Poisoned Pen – Scottsdale, AZ
Well Read Coyote – Sedona, AZ

Now, of course, I still have plenty of states to visit. So add to my list. Who are your favorites?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No Talking!

by Joe Moore
Is it just me or has anyone else noticed how hard it is to talk after spending so much time in front of a computer writing thousands of words? It seems that the longer I spend writing, the more my ability to speak with others has diminished. When I'm at a social gathering or pretty much any situation where I try to communicate verbally, I tend to open my mouth and stammer or stutter as fragments of thoughts shoot out like shrapnel. Talking with others in real-time doesn't allow me to craft my speak with first drafts, second drafts, rewrites, spell check, and thesaurus comparisons for alternative words. After all, I've spent hundreds of hours in a dark room with my eyes going buggy from the glow of my monitors while I labor over choosing just the right verb, avoiding passive voice, trying to catch myself from falling into the trap of using useless adverbs and flowery adjectives, over-writing, under-writing, starting my thoughts in the wrong place, line editing, plotting, split infinitives, dangling--well, you get the idea. As a writer, talking to others has become hard for me.

I find myself ordering pizza on the Internet from Papa Johns and Dominos so I don't have to talk to the person at the store. I send faxes, emails, text messages, IM, anything to get out of talking to someone. Talking has become painful. It seems that the more I write, the worse I speak. I open my mouth and people give me a pitiful, "I hope he writes better than he talks" stare.

Is this a byproduct of writing novels or is it just me loosing my ability to communicate with my mouth? Maybe I should consider voice recognition software. I wonder if those programs can interpret verbal gibberish? So, is it just me or what?

Monday, July 23, 2007

An Interview with Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen is one of the headliners who’ll be appearing at the 10th Anniversary Love is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights Conference in Chicago, Feb. 1 through 3, 2008. To learn more about the conference, go to

JCS: Tess, you wrote on your blog “…the less impressed I am by the culture of empty celebrity, and the more I value the chance to sit and talk with someone like Robert Edwards (former president of Bowdoin College. I want to know his journey. I want to know what propelled him through life.”

What propelled you through life? You write about being the daughter of immigrants, but you also note that they worried you couldn’t support yourself by writing. You already had a degree in medicine—a degree that would make any parent both proud and confident you wouldn’t starve—so why then did you want to write books?

TG: I always knew I wanted to tell stories, and I knew I was a storyteller by the time I was seven years old. But as for what propelled me through life, I think it was a drive that comes out of being an immigrant's child. I grew up understanding that my position in society was insecure, that I would have to work hard to be accepted. That insecurity seems to be an almost universal characteristic of successful people. We worry that we're not accepted. We worry that we'll starve. We worry that we're not "measuring up". And that's what makes us try so hard. Of course, it just so happens that I'm trying hard at something I really wanted to do anyway, which is tell stories.

JCS: You started writing when you had children. How did you juggle your work and being a mom? Did you ever feel stressed over the choices you made?

TG: Motherhood alone was hugely stressful! But I was blessed by having babies who took very nice long naps, and who went to bed by 7 PM, and that was my signal to start writing. Before then, I'd been working 80 hours a week as a doctor, so I was used to "double" shifts -- which is what I had as a mom. Taking care of the kids by day, writing by night.

JCS: In your blog, you wrote: “Before I became a thriller writer, I wrote eight romantic suspense novels for the huge romance publisher, Harlequin Intrigue.” A lot of successful authors start by writing romances. What did you learn from writing romances and how did that influence your work today?

TG: Romance novels taught me a number of really important principles of storytelling: Get the story launched at a full gallop. Introduce characters who are, if not completely likable, at least people who have a core sense of integrity. Keep the plot complex enough so that there's always a twist coming. Pay attention to your characters' emotional lives, which is exactly what every good romance novel does. Learn to introduce conflict in every chapter. Those principles end up being important to every genre. Finally, of course, I learned a lot about the writing business, from meeting deadlines to evaluating cover designs. Romance writers are the most savvy in the industry, so no wonder many of them go on to become bestselling authors in other genres.

JCS: You’ve written that the most important thing a writer can do is to keep the story moving forward while writing a first draft. And you’ve written about the worries you face when contemplating a second draft. (I call that the “crap” moment. You look at what you wrote and think, “Oh, crap. I picked the wrong idea. The wrong characters. And this is all just…crap.”) How do you get through the “crap” moment?

TG: I don't know that there's any good way to get through it except to just forge ahead. I have that "oh, crap" moment with every single book. Which means I have to figure out how to fix the problems, and it usually means tightening the plot and getting rid of extraneous details that are only distracting. The difference between an amateur and a pro is that the amateur doesn't think he has a problem, and the pro sees problems everywhere -- and proceeds to fix them!

JCS: Tess, what do you know now about writing that you didn’t know “then,” when you began? How would you counsel a “young” author? What nuggets of wisdom would you share?

TG: I would tell writers that if they know which genre they really, really want to write, they should just start right off and write in it and not waste their time doodling around in short stories or so-called "easy" sells. I know several novelists who think, "oh, I'll just try to sell a romance because it'll be easy to publish, and then I'll write what I really want to write." Don't waste your time. If it's not a genre you love, the editor will be able to see that. I also would counsel new authors to not give up on a book until the first draft is completed. Too many of them get halfway through a book and give up. And start the next one, and give up on that one, too. They end up with stacks of half-finished novels. If they only realized that getting discouraged midway through a book is normal, they'd understand they have to just keep on writing.

JCS: You teach a writing class. Is there anything you see that your more successful students have in common? (Besides the fact that they actually do READ books as well as want to write them?)

TG: The most successful students write using their emotions rather than with pure logic. They understand that the most interesting stories grow from the conflicts we have with other people, and not from who shot whom, and what kind of gun he used. The worst writers over-explain, and the number one problem I find among beginning authors is the "info-dump", where I get a character's entire biography in the first chapter.

JCS: You’ve also blogged about how some women won’t read books about “guy topics,” and you explain you weren’t very tempted by Myron Bolitar, Harlan Coben’s protagonist. Did you worry that men wouldn’t read your thrillers? Did it take a lot of courage to write under your own—obviously feminine—name?

TG: I know that I have a hard time getting some men to read me. It's just the way the world seems to work -- many men aren't interested in what women do or how women think, and I've learned to live with that. On the plus side, the vast majority of fiction buyers are women. Most of my male readers were introduced to my books through their wives, and once they've found me, they discover that, yes, a crime novel written by a woman can be interesting. The odd thing is that I've found my male/female reader ratio depends on which country we're talking about. In the UK, for instance, I've found my bookstore signings have attracted nearly 50% men -- does that mean Englishmen are more open to female authors? I don't know. But it certainly seems that way!

Visit Tess Gerritsen at her blog Her most recent novel is The Mephisto Club. The Bone Garden: A Novel will be released September, 2007.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

InkSpot News - 21 July 2007

Upcoming KEITH RAFFEL appearances:

Saturday July 28, noon-3pm, signing at
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park CA, 94025
(650) 324-4321

Sunday, July 29, noon-3pm, signing at
456 University Ave.
Palo Alto, CA 94301

G.M. MALLIET's short story, "Lockbox," has been accepted for publication in the mystery anthology Chesapeake Crimes 3, which is due out later this year.

TOM SCHRECK's article on what you can learn from Elvis about women is the feature article in the August issue of American Curves.

You can also read about what happened when Tom brought his dog Riley for a psychic reading and some Reiki in the upcoming issue of Westchester Magazine.

And finally check out ESPN2 next Friday night and see if Tom's screws up the judging in another nationally televised fight.

Friday, July 20, 2007

As Difficult to Penetrate as an Emerging Writer

Typos are universal in published work. There are few times I have read an entire novel and not seen at least one misused comma, misspelled word ("bass" for "base," for example), etc. May Day and June Bug have a couple, too. For the most part, typos are not distracting, especially if the novel is otherwise well-written, but sometimes they're funny. I just came across the following typo in an online mystery writing ezine, and it shows the power of little words ("as," in this case):

"The writing industry is often as difficult to penetrate as an emerging writer."

It makes us new writers sound like a pretty frigid lot, no? The ezine is otherwise fantastic, and I emailed them a heads up about the typo. The editor responded with this email, which made me giggle:

"I choose to blame my husband completely. He also put in a short story, when a cop was calling for paramedics after his partner was shot, 'Tell them to hurray.' Ahhh, typos."

As a college writing instructor for ten years, I've also seen some my share of student typos, like the paper calling for a ban on youth in Asia in hospitals, and the essay saying we needed to stop taking our rights for granite. Technically, those may be biffos and not typos because they weren't accidental. This is a good time to plug reading. Reading makes people smart.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter Mania

Less than a week remains in the countdown to the next and final installment of the Harry Potter series. The Internet is abuzz with conspiracy theories about Harry’s future and Ms. Rowling’s pronouncement that two characters will die in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My favorite character, aside from Professor Snape, is already dead, (Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black), but I do wonder who’s going to get axed in the final book. And yes, I will buy it. I won’t attend any of the midnight mania parties, but I’ll make my way to Costco or my local bookstore and pick up the book in hardcover. I owe Ms. Rowling that much. I mean, the woman has made millions of people excited about reading. Not the latest Xbox, or iPhone or Wii, but a book. Yippee! A book!

I also happen to love books filled with magic. Because of this, I’ve read the Harry Potter books as well as seen all the films. This week, I did an unusual thing: I went to a morning movie! Yep. Nine a.m. It was positively hedonistic and I even snuck in a coffee and bagel. (You gotta love big purses). Now, one reviewer claimed that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix should be renamed Dumb & Dumbledore and I won’t be that harsh, but the movie was less than magical. In fact, it was dull. I kinda wish I had the new book along with me so I could have read during the interminable scenes of slow dialogue and glum self-pity sessions. I was thrilled to see all of the professors, Potter friends, and a host of wonderful new creatures, and I’m glad my mind is refreshed on all things Harry before the new book comes out.

If you have kids or you’re someone who loves all things Harry, visit The Leaky Cauldron - a terrific fan-based Potter website. There’s even a timer letting you know to the second when the book will be available for sale.

I know that the main topic circling the new book is whether or not Harry will live. Let me pose another question to you – in your own reading history, has a character died that you wish hadn’t? I remember when Gandalf was killed in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (before I knew he wasn’t really dead) and my heart was broken. I cried. I was depressed. I loved him, Wow. What amazing writing, right? Did you ever lose a character friend?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Ok. I did try to think of ways this photo might have something to do with the writing life. But the fact is I just think it is an amazing photo and wanted to share it. I had never seen a moose this small - 12 hours old. The photo was taken by a family friend somewhere in the Alaskan suburbs. (Does "Alaskan suburbs" sound like an oxymoron to you, too?)
The photo does beg the question of why the mother moose wandered so far into civilization. Global warming? Let's hope not.

The Sisyphus Syndrome

by Julia Buckley
Remember Sisyphus, the poor sod who was doomed to push the huge boulder up an underworld mountain only to have it roll down the other side? And then he had to push it back up again? This was his fate throughout eternity. Albert Camus, in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," said that this was a good thing, not a punishment at all but a chance for true happiness. I have to say, though, that I know the torture of poor Sisyphus--and not just from the endless writing sessions that result merely in deleted paragraphs--I am getting ready for a child's birthday party.

Granted, the child is going to be nine, but that is the worst age for what I call the Sisyphus Syndrome. That is, wait until your mother has cleaned something (with much angst, sweat, and secret swearing), and then decide that the newly-cleaned spot is perfect for the game you wanted to play. Bring out all of the things needed for the game: swords, action figures, paper and markers for map making. Bring the smelly dog along, naturally. And don't forget some kind of crumbly snack. There! Now you have transformed your mother into Sisyphus. And this can be done with ease ALL OVER THE HOUSE!

For example, once the bathroom is clean, it is a primo time to take a bath. Leave a ring in the tub and the towels on the floor, and Mom will be forced to push her shoulder to the boulder once again. Don't forget that laundry--it's not going to leave itself on the floor. That is your task, young men.

After nine years, though, I should have learned my lesson. It's just family coming, and they know by now that I do not live in the most sparkling of castles. I should meet them at the door and say, "You're here because you love me and my children, so please reserve judgment on anything you see that might be termed slovenly." But I don't do that. I stress, and clean, and complain, and spend too much money on food that my ever-dieting family will not eat, and when the party is over I slump exhausted in a chair, viewing the new mess that I must now put away.

And after that, it's back to the writing and deleting.

Oh, Sisyphus, move over. There are plenty of us pushing with you.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Do You Have To Have Class?

I'm feeling the urge to explore new directions with my writing (and possibly other aspects of life). One option is to go back to school for an MFA in creative writing. I've been researching and asking questions over the past two months. What are the benefits? What are the downsides? It's too much topic for one post, but there's a "first issue" I need to resolve.

I've never taken a writing class. Not one. (I'm sure I am not alone in this category.) For me, this has always raised two not quite mutually exclusive questions:

1) What's the point of a writing class if you already can write novels that get published?

2) Would my books be better if I'd ever taken a class (or three or …)?

I'm not talking about a writers group - a peer-to-peer gathering where work is shared and critiqued. I very much appreciate the value of these groups. I'm talking about an honest to God writing class with an honest to God MFA holding, fellowship receiving, grant winning instructor lecturing about voice, point of view, character, plot, pace, dialogue, etc., along with the writing and group reading.

Of course, this brings up a topic that could take up blog after blog (and probably does somewhere): can writing be taught? As someone who has a degree in theater directing (another ephemeral academic pursuit) here's what I think: Anyone can benefit from a structured look at what artists they admire do and how they do it. Will that make you a writer? Depends on the student, I guess.

Having come to that conclusion, I figured I'd better check out one of these class situations as part of my research before I did something as drastic as uproot my life and go back to school. So last week, armed with a desire to learn what I could and explore something new, I crossed behind the literary fiction lines and enrolled in a 10 week session. I'm anxious about it. (I'm always anxious about writing. This blog haunts me for the 48 hours before I post.) I'm exhilarated. (Deadlines every week! I love a deadline.) I'm feeling a bit cautious about my position in this class as someone who has already published two novels and simultaneously feeling under qualified. (It's literary fiction. That's supposed to be something special, right?) And, part of me is thinking, "Christ, if one class does this to me, would I even survive a degree?"

I don't know what I'm going to learn in this class. Maybe I'll just end up with a couple of story ideas. That's OK by me. No matter what, I'll be one step closer to the decision about an MFA.

Friday, July 13, 2007

N. Kognito

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”--William Shakespeare, of course.

Mmhmm. Right.
I’m here to tell you that, sonnet-worthy or not, the brain-strain involved in concocting a PEN NAME, can be anything but rosy, my friends. And I’m finding the process particularly . . . thorny.

Which is exactly what my esteemed Critique Partner said of my first choice of a nom de plume: Candy Bramble.
“Hate it. Too thorny.” She pronounced.
Prompting me to admit to her that . . . ahem . . . it is my actual given name.

The same way, I argued, that Archibald Leach was a real name, until it was changed to Cary Grant.
She rested her case.

The fact is, that I’m currently writing a proposal for a novel that is not a mystery. And (cross fingers, toes, and spit over my left shoulder) when an editor acquires this work, he or she may very well suggest that I use a pen name to avoid confusing readers.
Plenty of authors do use pen names, for reasons like:
1) Their real name is difficult to pronounce, or . . . something like . . . Harold Butts. Whose friends call him Harry, and . . . you get it. Not bookspine-worthy.

2) They are seeking anonymity. As in a grade school teacher who stays up nights, writing Erotic Paranormal Romance.

3) They must compete in a gender-based genre. (Like mystery--or so says Sisters in Crime). Hence the common use of “neutral” initials in place of first names, like: J.K. Rowling J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts)

4) Or they are prolific writers in a multitude of genres.

5) Or (as I am) they are breaking into a new genre.

How about these notable pen names:
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski ~Joseph Conrad
Pearl Gray ~Zane Grey
Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) ~Isak Dinesen
A.M. Barnard ~Louisa May Alcott
Samuel Clemens~ Mark Twain

Or--the incredible pseudonym list of bestselling author Dean Koontz: David Axton, Brian Coffey, Deanna Dwyer, K.R. Dwyer, John Hill, Leigh Nichols, Anthony North, Richard Paige, Owen West, and Aaron Wolfe.

So, obviously, using a pen name is common and acceptable. The problem is lies in inventing one that “suits” you.

And complying with the cautions about using any surname beginning with a letter beyond “M,” since bookshelves are mostly alphabetical--and customers may be reluctant to stoop.
And--also because of the alphabetical aspect--the advice to choose a surname close to the spelling of a bestselling author.
Like Stephen King, Candy Kink. Mmm . . . maybe not . . .

Gad, so much to consider.

But then, why not simply toss caution to the winds, and use this online Name Generator:

Which, of course, makes me . . . Tyron Riberdy.

So, how about you--using a pen name? How did you choose it?
If not, what name would you choose, if you had to?

By the way, William Shakespeare was a pen name.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis

One of my favorite movies is Big Trouble in Little China. Aside from one great line after another ("Oh. My. God. What is that? Don't tell me!!") and delectably perfect over-the-top acting (Kurt Russell is incredible), there are constant and valuable references to various Hells. The Hell Of Being Cut To Pieces or the Hell of Boiling Oil. The notion of hundreds of Hells of varying specificities makes perfect sense to me. It seems the most apt way of describing life so much of the time.

At the moment, I'm in the Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis.

My agent asked for a synopsis for Chasing Smoke last week. 500-1,000 words she said. She also said, "I know they're so easy to write (ow! Ouch! Lightning!)" Yeah. Ouch.

So here's my question. Does anyone like writing synopses? Raise your hand.


That's so, er, hard to believe. Ahem.

My synopsis is currently sitting at 2,000 words, and I've only covered about a third of the novel. At this rate, it'll be six times longer than she wants, assuming I actually finish the damned thing ("the damned thing" being what I call it when I'm in a good mood, i.e. when I'm not actually working on it or thinking about it or remembering that it's still not done).

I was bemoaning the damned thing conundrum to my daughter, and she observed, "the author is probably the worst person to write the synopsis. You're too invested in the details of your story."

Exactly. If I wanted to write a short version of the story, I'd have written a short version of the story. In a synopsis, by necessity you have to leave a lot out, skim the surface, focus on the highlights. Assign varying degrees of importance to different aspects of the story. But here's the thing. If I didn't think it was important, I wouldn't have written it, and if I didn't feel like the best way to tell the story was to dramatize the events, I'd have written an essay. The lesson that gets beaten into writers over and over again is show, don't tell. The synopsis is the very essence of telling, not showing. It's anathema! Get thee down, Synopsis!

Of course, I know I can do it. I did it with Lost Dog. I wrote an elevator pitch, two sentences. And I wrote a short summary, about three paragraphs. And I wrote a full synopsis, about two-and-a-half pages long. So, sure, it's doable.

But it's hell, lemme tell ya.

The Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Secret Handshake

July 11, 2007

I was meandering through blogs the other day (in lieu of actually writing) and I came across a writer’s blog talking about mid-list authors, which she seemed to define as anyone who is not a bestseller (a subject for a different post, I suspect). Anyway, the point of her blog was that when you’re an unpublished novelist, you believe there’s some sort of secret handshake—knowing someone, meeting someone at a con, writing a particular book, writing “I look forward to hearing from you” versus “Thank you for your time” at the end of your query letter, using Courier instead of Times New Roman—that will get you published.

The truth?

Write a good, compelling novel, be persistent and get lucky.

Then the blogger went on to say that once writers (mid-list or otherwise, I suspect) get published, they start obsessing on what the secret handshake is to breaking out of mid-list into bestsellerdom—is it your blog, your website, your book tour, your postcards, your book signings, should you hire a publicist, should you blackmail Oprah?

The truth?

Hell if I know. And she didn’t either.

But let’s talk about those four categories of getting published briefly.

Write a good novel.
What’s a “good” novel? Oh, I’m ready to be tarred and feathered here. A “good” novel, in this context, is one that eventually gets published, is purchased by a reader, and read. Period.

Write a compelling novel.
Presumably a “good” novel is also a compelling novel, but the truth is, “compelling” (like good) is pretty much in the eyes of the beholder. I’ve read some supposed bestselling “compelling” thrillers that I thought were boring. In fact, one of the writers’ organizations I belong to gave a “best” award to a book I later tried to read and couldn’t even finish. So who’s to say? But the fact is, your novel, in order to be published, must be compelling to someone, presumably your editor. There’s no formula that I’m aware of.

Be persistent.
Sad truth of the publishing industry is there are a lot of books published in the U.S., but not by all that many publishers. So if you write a book and have an agent (this applies to getting an agent as well) you’re going to have to be persistent. You or your agent will need to determine a list of the 7 or 8 or 12 available publishers and quite possibly contact all of them. Legend has it that Elmore Leonard’s “Big Bounce” was rejected by 88 publishers. Every time I’ve read that I’ve thought: “Where the hell did they find 88 publishers in the United States?” Times have changed. I dare someone to come up with a list of 88 publishers, big or small, in the United States that publish mysteries or thrillers. Post it on your blog, you’ll get a ton of hits.

Get lucky.
Persistence leads to this, as does writing a “good” and “compelling” novel. But still, your manuscript, no matter how good it is, needs to land in the right editor’s hands on the right day. The day the editor got ripped in half by the publisher for her last thriller tanking and not earning back its advance is not going to be the right day for your similar thriller to land on her desk. Sorry. You have no control over this. But it does happen. By the same token, the day an editor tells your agent, “The thing I’m really looking for is a private eye mystery that takes place in Thailand” is the day your novel about Bangkok P.I. Ping Ng might have a shot.

And how does this all apply to increasing sales once published?

I think marketing is like Chinese water torture. We drop our books one at a time upon the public’s head, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We drop our postcards, blogs, e-newsletters, conference attendance, book signings, etc., on the public’s head one at a time, hoping eventually it’ll notice. We persist. We write good, compelling books. We get lucky.

Or we don’t.

No secret handshake.

Unless, of course, I know it and am not willing to tell you.

Mark Terry

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Going Back, Going On

by Nina Wright
author of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries

"Jade Greene, private investigator and proprietor of Greene I, Inc., would rather write mysteries than solve them. Since moving from Chicago to St. Pete, Jade can’t do either profitably, even with the enthusiastic help of three teens from St. Mary’s Academy. When their favorite teacher is arrested for killing her ex-lover, a real estate developer who hired Greene I, Inc. to stop the teacher from stalking him, Jade discovers disturbing parallels between the novel she’s writing and the case she’s working on. Is her subconscious mind solving the crime, or are stranger forces in play? Whose murder weapon of choice is a diamond-back rattler, and how can Jade keep the Academy Girls safe? Snakes, Pagans, and Icelanders mix it up in this darkly humorous, sparely written novel of suspense."

Recently I dusted off that plot summary and the 45,000-word partial manuscript that goes with it, a project I hadn't let myself think about for three whole years. I started that manuscript in another life, when I was living in Florida. Actually, I was living in Denial, trying desperately every day to convince myself that my husband wasn't a drug addict, and I wouldn't need to leave him in order to save myself.

I didn't know it then, but Denial had an expiration date, which coincided with the arrivals of hurricanes Charlie, Frances, Ivan and Jean. Within six weeks we were visited by all four. Newscasters spoke of "hurricane fatigue." My problem was Denial fatigue. I was a complete wreck, but not because we kept losing power and pieces of our home. Thanks to incessant threats of deadly weather, I finally lost my ability to pretend that everything would be okay if I just wished it were so.

I bring up my personal past because it raises what I find to be an intriguing technical issue. In rereading that partial manuscript from the summer of '04, I see the hand of a very different writer. Although by then I had already sold my first novel, Whiskey on the Rocks, I wanted--no, needed--to lose myself in the process of writing something completely new. So, with my husband unconscious in the next room, I poured myself into a terse, tense mystery featuring Jade Greene, a half-Asian, half-Jewish PI who flees Chicago for St. Pete because she can't handle cold weather or her own emotions. Go figure. Although Jade Greene is no more (and no less) Nina Wright than Whiskey Mattimoe is, that unique point in my personal evolution gave birth to her story.

Then along came the hurricanes--literal and metaphorical--and I put the manuscript aside. When I was ready to write again, I cranked out three more Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries and two teen novels. I didn't touch Jade Greene until last month, when I started packing for my latest move.

"Things happen when they're supposed to," a wise friend likes to say. I'm sure I wasn't ready to dive back into that manuscript until the memories it conjures didn't matter anymore. Beyond that, though, I'm oddly fascinated by the story I set in motion during that other life. It feels as if it was conceived by someone else.

Which brings me to my point: If we're lucky, the stories we spin find their way into print and endure. But the moment of their creation is ephemeral, even chemical. It's a tipping point: the unique synthesis of forces more potent than the sum total of our experiences to date. Fiction simultaneously masks and reveals our fears, hopes, obsessions, and environment. Hell, it even reflects the weather.

If I choose to finish my story starring Jade Greene, I know I can. Three years ago, I set enough gears whirring to carry me all the way to the end. But I could never have started that book now; I don't live in Denial anymore even though I remember the neighborhood.
Now available:
Whiskey and Tonic by Nina Wright

Monday, July 9, 2007

Pay It Forward

Pay It Forward

Recently I had the great privilege of doing a little 'pay it forward' activity. The first writing workshop I ever attended was WRW (Writer's Retreat Workshop) in Erlanger, Kentucky, four years ago. I was terrified and felt like an imposter. I almost turned my car around on the bridge from Cincinnati, but I sucked it up and went anyway. It was the most amazing experience. The photo above was taken off the back porch of the small Catholic retreat facility that has housed the Retreat for many years.
My whole world changed when I walked through that door and met other aspiring writers like me. I felt like my entire life I'd been speaking French, and suddenly I'd landed in France. I came in unsure and left as a writer. A stumbling one, but the tools I received over that ten-day boot camp allowed me to plunge onward with my book.

The next year I attended again with a half-finished manuscript and a pretty decent synopsis. I met with an agent at the Retreat, and she signed me for representation. The following year my manuscript was completed and being shopped, and the following year, this year, I returned as a published author.
I did a lot of speaking and teaching at the workshop, and it was wonderfully rewarding to pay it forward.
The founders are Gary Provost, often called 'the writer's writer' and Gail Provost Stockwell. Sadly, Gary passed away several years ago. One of the tools the workshop provided for me in year-one was a handout called "Gary's ABC's." This year (with Gail's permission) I revised the handout to include some of my own novel editing tips.

Susan's Editing ABC's

(Homage to Gary Provost's ABC's)
A: Active verbs and active characters
B: Brief, cut, cut, cut KILL YOUR DARLINGS
C: Conflict in every scene (two beating hearts locked in battles large and small, that's conflict.)
D: Description—have your description shown in action. Don't stop the action to describe.
E: Emphasis—put your emphasis at the end of the sentence, and often your emphasis at the end of a paragraph (and shhh—hide your clues in the middle of the sentence).
F: Funny isn't limited to comedy writing. Don't force funny, but it has a place in serious writing.
G: Grammar—know it, but don't sweat it.
H: Heat—turn it up. Keep the tensions and conflicts high and on the page.
I: Intention—Every word serves a purpose. Make every word count and make them say what you mean.
J: Journal: exercise those writing muscles.
K: Keep related words together—don't drink coffee with a jerk (unless that's what you mean.)
L: Lead—does your opening sentence hook them by the nose?
M: Music—listen to the music of your words. Do they flow?
N: Never intrude, make the writer invisible on the page
O: Organize your scenes. You may not have written them in the best order for the cause and effect of your story.
P: Pace: Use more short sentences at high tension moments, and shorter scenes toward the books climax. Fast is slow and slow is fast. Accelerate and abbreviate the slow spots, slow and expand time on the action spots.
R: Read your work aloud, the whole book if you can.
S: Style—Make specific word choices that reflect your unique voice. Your character's dialogue should reflect their voices.
T: Transition—"the next morning," "later that day," "back at the ranch." A story isn't everything that happened, it's everything that's important to the story and the reader
U: Up the stakes, milk the tension on every page
V: Verity—Are your characters actions true to their character? Is your story goal true to your heart? Are you telling the truth? Are you telling your character's story?
W: Word choices—Be specific, make them vivid. ("Stumbled," "plodded," "strode" versus "walked.")
X: Exercises—do your writing exercises, find your characters through free-writes and prompts.
Y: You and the reader write the story together. Writing less words will allow your reader to write with you inside her head.
Z: Zeeeeee end!!!!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Midnight Ink Authors @ ThrillerFest 07

Lynn Sholes, panelist
YOU'VE BEEN WARNED, Reality and Thrillers
Friday, July 13 @ 2:00 PM

Bill Cameron, panelist
HONOR AMONG THIEVES, How do bad heros live with themselves
Friday, July 13 @ 3:00 PM

Tim Maleeny, panelist
THE AVENGERS, Private eyes who see justice done
Saturday, July 14 @ 9:00 AM

Tom Schreck, panelist
DIE LAUGHING, A little humor can go a long way in a thriller
Saturday, July 14 @ 9:00 AM

Mark Combes, panelist
UNCOMMON DANGER, Thrillers aren't just for spies anymore
Saturday, July 14 @ 1:00 PM

Joe Moore, panel master
THE BLUE NOWHERE, Internet access to readers and writers
Sunday, July 15 @ 11:00 AM

Keith Raffel, attendee

For more information, visit the International Thriller Writers

Friday, July 6, 2007



by Tom Schreck, author of On The Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery

My main character’s home away from home is AJ’s Bar. It got me thinking about bars, the role they play in our culture and how the kind I like aren’t as easy to find as they used to be.

Here’s one man’s opinion on bars.

I love bars.

Bars should be dark. There should be enough bar stools.

There should be a TV that everyone can see and it should be on sports or the news. Nothing else.


The stools should have backs to them. There should be a brass railing or step for your feet.

There should be no frozen drinks or drinks with names like "Kamikazee", "Orgasm" or "Sex on the Beach."

If you want to or need to do a shot, it should be of a whiskey.

The bar should have today's paper.

The draft should be cold with a head.

There should be short narrow glasses.

If there's a juke box it can have different types of music but there must be Elvis, Sinatra, Bobby Darin (doing Mack the Knife), Waylon and Willie and the Temptations.

Regulars have their own seats. They aren't assigned or designated, they are understood.

The bartender can be a wise guy or quiet or in between but he has to serve the drink you want when you want it. He doesn't have the luxury of waiting until the inning ends or the home team punts.

The food can't be good for you.

If you answer the phone the proper response is always "I'm not sure if he's here. Let me see."

Don't stand in the spot where the bartender and the waitress have to go in and out of.

If you like esoteric beer from different countries or small breweries fine but don't talk about it. It is beer.

If you're new realize your rank and pay attention to it.

When you have a broken heart you can talk about it... once.

You can't bring a kid or an infant in with you. It's not cute and it's not the place for them even if they're quiet.

A bar should have one of the following; Schlitz, Pabst, Old Style, Schaefer or Stroh's.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Making Independence Day Personal

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

My posting today is going to piggy-back and expand on Mark Combes’ excellent posting of two days ago about independence and writing.

I do a lot of motivational speaking and my main topic is usually about turning dreams into goals and goals into reality. I always wanted to be a published author. And I mean always, ever since I was a kid. For years, I would go into libraries and book stores, find where on the fiction shelf my books would one day appear and physically spread that spot apart to make room for them … one day. Now I go into libraries and book stores to check to see if they are there.

What does Independence Day mean to me as applied to my life as a writer? It means not just choosing my destiny, but having the courage to choose it and follow it in the face of naysayers, critics, and time and finance restraints. It means making sacrifices to follow it wherever it might lead. It means having the strength and determination to keep moving when I get knocked down. And it means celebrating both the small and large achievements that help me reach for the next level.

Independence Day is more than just the celebration of the birth of our nation. Independence Day is a mind set. For me, independence is about making my dreams become realities.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

If it ain't broke

I recently had the pleasure of being part of the faculty at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference, an incredible event for anyone serious about writing crime fiction. It was like being a kid in a candy store. This year’s faculty included Michael Connelly, David Hewson, Jacqueline Winspear, Eddie Muller, Tony Broadbent, David Corbett, Kirk Russell, Cornelia Read and a host of other writers so good at what they do that everyone in attendance – including the other writers – felt like a student whenever someone started talking.

But what struck me the most was how everyone does it differently. About half the writers outlined before they put pen to paper. Others said they wanted to feel as surprised by the plot twists as their readers and therefore had no use for outlines. In effect, they wrote by telling themselves a story. A handful stopped writing about a third of the way through their first draft and then outlined to figure out where they were and where they might be headed.

Most, but not all, knew the ending in advance, but everyone agreed endings can change. One writer actually starts with the title and then creates the premise for the book from that combination of words.

The conference covered a broad range of topics including character development, plotting, and so on, but the biggest lesson of all was that there isn’t only one way to do this. You could almost hear a collective sigh as writers discussed their differences. (Writers are inherently neurotic and tend to second-guess themselves, even after they’ve become successful.)

If something isn’t working, feel free to try something new, because odds are someone else does it that way, too. But if the way you write brings your voice to life, stick with it and don’t worry if other writers do it differently. If it ain’t broke, stop looking over your shoulder and just tell the story that’s inside you.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Be good and you will be lonesome

Be good and you will be lonesome
Be lonesome and you will be free
Live a lie and you will live to regret it
That's what living is to me
-Jimmy Buffett

The 4th of July. Independence Day. Choosing our own destiny.

As the years of my life wind on, choosing my own destiny becomes increasingly important to me. It's one of the reasons I write. Hell, it might be the main reason. I know that. I write because I can control the story. I can control the life of my characters in a way that I find difficult in my own. I can choose their destiny. I can give them their independence.

And in so doing, I give myself some independence too. I live a life a little less lonesome; a life with a little less regret. Everyday I write I give myself a new independence day. Everyday I write I live less of a lie. And that's what living is to me.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

High Stakes Testing is Killing Young Writers

Okay, I just imported a picture to my very thoughtful blog about what high stakes testing in writing has done to to the teaching of writing. I spent a lot of time on it to be specific about how the very scripted formulaic writing being taught in response to the test has done terrible damage. I imported the picture, went to preview, there was no picture, I clicked SAVE and wanted to edit the blog, but behold--up in cyberspace it went. So, I'll try to recap. First, let me say I am a teacher and after many years came out of the classroom to train teachers to teach writing for my school district.

Today, in school, (in the majority of classrooms--there are still some very few doing it right) in the teaching of writing there is no attention to craft or process, only the formula of how to repsond to two types of promts. That's the only writing going on in so many schools. There is no attention to writing to make meaing, to choosing just the right word. Instead, kids are given a list of words to use, and similes to use, and specific transition words. Stepford writers. Even when they screw it up, like saying "The floor was humid" instead of wet, the sad thing is, they pass the test. They even say PLETHORA when the reference in only to two or three of something. They are taught that what they call a "million dollar sentence" is one that is at least 9 words long. Usually that just results in a really bad long sentence. They are taught to use a lost of adverb dialogue tags and even have a headstone on a bulletin board that says, "Said is Dead," followed by a long list of other ways to say said. So their writing is filled with chortled, barked, guffawed, muttered, etc. You get the picture. The kids are basically given a madlib to memorize, a skelteon paragraph, and they fill in the blanks. Let me give you an example. Let's suppose the prompt is an expository prompt (writing to explain why). Here is the prompt. Everybody has a favorite day of the week. Think about what your favorite day of the week is. Now, write to explain why that is your favorite day of the week.
Here is the formula given to kids.

Everybody has a ______________(in this case it would be favorite day of the week). But my ___________________(favorite day of the week) is __________________ for three reasons. My first reason is _______________________. My second reason is _________________. My third reason is ______________________.

First, _________________ is my __________________(favoirte day of the week) because ________________________. For example _______________________. One time ______________________(here they put a real or made up anecdote,)

Secondly, (repeat formula for second reason)

Lastly, (repeat formula for third reason)

In conclusion, _________is my _____________(favorite day of the week) because of these three reasons. (Repeat the reasons)

That's it. Finis. And the narrative formula is just as bad. But we can't blame the teachers. In my state (Florida) you can graduate with a degree in education from a college in the state university system and never have to take a methods course in teaching writing. Yet, this same state holds teachers accountable for teaching writing. Go figure. What's wrong with this picture?

IN CONCLUSION, I think we have done more harm than good. More fall out of high stakes testing. If we had any budding talented writers coming along, we've crushed them like cigarette stubs. I wish we had a writers coalition that could be of influence! Find out what is going on in your state. I'd love to hear from you.