Thursday, January 31, 2008

Your Time Machine Question

February 1, 2008

I'm stealing an idea from John Scalzi's blog because his responses were so interesting.


You invent a time machine and go back to your 15-year-old self. What do you tell yourself?

Come on everybody. Participate.


Mark Terry

Toons to Tempt the Muse

by Nina Wright

That’s not a misspelling. Although music moves me as I write, so do visual images, including—yup—cartoons.

Now you know why I subscribe to the New Yorker magazine and have for almost 20 years. My office bulletin board is festooned with recent faves; I rotate them to suit moods and assignments. Current attractions include cartoons by Tom Cheney and P.C. Vey. Since I don't have permission to post them here, I'll (lamely) describe a couple that connect to my work. If you're curious, I'll email you the jpegs.

You may think I like cartoons because I write mainly humorous stuff. But there’s more to it. I'm in awe of art forms that are at once succinct and insightful. While I, the novelist, trudge through tens of thousands of words to deliver my point, other artists perform their jobs with stunning concision. In that camp I include cartoonists, poets, short-story writers, songwriters, musicians, potters, painters, and photographers, not to mention comedians, floral designers, and chefs. We can appreciate their work in a single sitting, a glance, a gulp. And when it thrills us, we replay it. We view it from various angles. We chew slowly.

A cartoon, like any good picture, is worth a thousand words, and may require as many to describe. You can recount a cartoon to someone who can’t see it, but there’s no way you’ll match the artist's punch. It’s like describing a hedonistically delicious dessert or a brilliant comedic monologue. (Or, for that matter, great sex, but that's for another blog.) In short, you gotta be there.

But cartoonists face some of the same challenges that we novelists do. For instance, they must create a viable world. A favorite Tom Cheney toon features a Realtor showing a property with a gaping hole in the floor through which the cosmos is visible. The Realtor says, "Of course, the real charm of the place is that hole in the space-time continuum."

I write about fantastical phenomena and Realtors, though not always at the same time. Drafting my novel Sensitive, I took pains to vividly render my characters astral-projecting and talking with the dead. Since I had never done either, I had a license to imagine the experiences as well as an obligation to do enough research to get the details mostly right. When we spin suspense fiction, our series protagonists regularly bump up against violent death. Thus we must build a universe on the page that makes heinous crime both shocking and inevitable. Whiskey Mattimoe is a Realtor whose clients have a high probability of turning up dead. I enhance that probability by making Magnet Springs a resort town that attracts the rich and greedy.

Like all true artists, cartoonists make connections where none typically exists. They twist clich├ęs and thwart expectations. And yet they make sense. If they don’t, we don’t "get it," and the cartoon fails. The same is true of the stories we tell on our own broad canvases. Our characters must be recognizable but completely fresh. Our endings must satisfy and surprise as solidly as a single-frame cartoon.

In closing, allow me to describe a toon by P.C. Vey: Two women are having tea. Next to the hostess is a cat wearing a Zorro mask. The hostess says, "I know it's illegal, but quite frankly we couldn't get by without the cash and jewelry he brings home every night."

Yeah, yeah, you gotta see it, and I did. And it started me drafting a new mystery series starring a woman who trains her Devon rex cat to steal. If you think that's impossible, you haven't seen this video or met my Devon rex, Flannery, who as far as I know steals only hearts. Still, Flan gets into enough trouble to make a genuine cat burgler seem plausible. At least in the world of art I can make.
P.S. Happy birthday to fellow Midnight Ink author, G.M. (Gin) Malliet! My protagonist (Whiskey) and I raise a glass to you.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


liars-diary Today, InkSpot joins with over 300 other blogs to help promote THE LIAR'S DIARY by Patry Francis. Patry is faced with an unfortunate situation that keeps her from promoting her new novel -- the paperback version is being released today. Patry was recently diagnosed with a progressive form of cancer. She's had several surgeries and her prognosis is good.

patry-francis But given that she won't be able to do much promoting, fellow authors and bloggers like InkSpot are stepping in to help get the word out for her. Below are some links to visit and a "cover story" video clip along with ways to purchase your copy of THE LIAR'S DIARY. Please join the Midnight Writers in wishing Patry a full recovery and much success with THE LIAR'S DIARY.

Patry Francis' website

Order your copy of LIAR'S DIARY from:


Barnes & Noble


Monday, January 28, 2008

Convention Speak

By Tom Schreck
Author of On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery

Well, I’m off to the Love Is Murder convention for mystery authors and fans and you know what that means?

It means I’ve got to start making up bullshit answers to questions I’ll be asked to keep up with the other authors.

Let me see…

Question 1.

What is your process as an author?

Answer I’ll give

Ah, yes, my process. (insert contrived patronizing chuckle.) Yes, of course, my process. You see writing is more religion than craft for me. Each morning before I commence writing I meditate and chant naked in a sweatbox given to me by a group of Apachees who were appreciative of a short story I wrote about their relationship with the buffalo.

Then, once cleansed, I sit at the oak desk that belonged to Millard Fillmore’s accountant, and use the Mont Blanc fountain pen (I won it at Sotheby’s) that Hemingway stabbed a rude Cuban bartender with. Then, and only then, I begin my art. I wear a traditional Shaman’s gown and go commando. ( I launder the gown only after I complete the first draft which has sometimes caused some chaffing.)

By the way, I write only on Peruvian parchment scented with vanilla that gets flown in and left at my door every morning.

The Truth

Because the three dogs won’t stop barking and the puppy is eating the couch I write at the McDonalds on Holland Ave in Albany NY. I wear headphones and listen to a white noise CD, which doesn’t stop Juanita, the woman who sweeps, from talking loudly enough for me to hear her say:

“I got me one of them computers just like that, yes I do,” which she says every single day.

Question 2.

What is your background?

After quarterbacking Notre Dame to seven straight national championships I yearned for something more meaningful. I trained with a band of Malaysian mercenaries who were plotting to overthrow the Nestle’s corporation. Then, I went through a dark period where I worked as an assassin and a pilates instructor in Warsaw.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the House of Representatives representing a district 200 miles east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I played third base for the Yankees for half a season but tired of the attention Jeter always got, did a brief stint as an inventor where I came up with the Bamboo Steamer that you see sold on late night TV and then I taught Kindergarten on Guam.

The Truth

I work in an office and teach junior college.

Question 3

How many hours a day do you write and how much do you write?

Answer I’ll give

I write for exactly 16 hours and thirty one minutes every single day except on the anniversary of the Hindenburg tragedy. I write between two and three words a day.

The Truth

I write for 30 to 45 minutes a day before work depending on how loud Juanita talks and how much I drank the night before. I get between 2 and 3 pages.

Question 4

How much do you read and what do you like to read?

Answer I’ll give

I read for 17 hours a day. I prefer those wacky light hearted Russian authors; Tolstoy, Blok, Gogol and especially Puskin, though I believe Puskin had trouble with the semi-colon.

I’m currently reading a collection of Solzenitzen’s private love letters to Ludmila, the woman (and concubine!) who rented his garage for her small engine repair business.

The Truth

From April to October I read the New York Post articles about the Yankee games that I watched the night before.

Question 5

Do you outline and plot?

But of course! I write at least 11 outlines before I start my first of a dozen drafts. My outlines are usually 3,000 pages. Then I break down each syllable I’m planning on writing and put it on a series of color coded index cards. I have my team (my agent, manager, publicist, editor, strength coach, masseuse and landscaper) act the plot out in mime.

I’m sure other authors do things differently but it’s this is only way I can work

The Truth

I make shit up at McDonalds and type it.

Question 6

What are your goals as a writer.

The answer I’ll give

Hmm… (at this point I’ll lean back and begin to weep. Then, wiping the tears from my eyes I’ll continue.) I just want to touch each and every reader, to change their view of the world-- just a tiny bit so that for that moment, for that single solitary moment, they can be transported away from the mundane to a place where their existential conflicts, though maybe not resolved, will look different to them.

The Truth

I want to sell as many books as Maleeny

Saturday, January 26, 2008

InkSpot News - 26 January 2008

InkSpotters on the loose:

Sue Ann Jaffarian will be at the following events in the next two weeks:

Saturday, January 26, 11:00 – 4:00; Mystery on the Menu, Cerritos Library, 18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA (This is a ticketed event. For more information call (562) 924-2474.)

LAUNCH PARTY for Thugs and Kisses, Sue Ann's latest Odelia Grey adventure! Saturday, February 2nd, 5:30-7:30, Mystery Bookstore, 1036C Broxton, Los Angeles, CA (Westwood). This will be a joint launch with Christa Faust, who will be celebrating the release of her book Money Shot.

Bill Cameron will be making the following appearances:

Sunday, January 27, 5pm
Murder by the Book
With Gregg Olsen
Discussion, Q&A, and a drawing for free books!

Wednesday, January 30, 7pm
Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
With Gregg Olsen
Discussion, Q&A, and a drawing for free books!

Saturday, February 16, noon
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
With Gregg Olsen
Discussion, Q&A, and a drawing for free books!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Coming Up for Air

Whew. I’m finished. Okay, maybe not finished, finished, but pretty damn close to finished. I’ve finished the second book in the Phil Riley series.

It’s a pretty good feeling actually. Being able to settle back in the chair, nod the head at the computer screen and say to yourself, yeah, that will work. Okay, some touches here and there. Oh yeah, gotta change her hair color to keep it consistent, but yeah, this will work.
So there you go.
But the smile fades as you slowly come to the realization you aren’t finished.
Not by a long shot.
Remember that idea that’s been pin balling around in your head? Yeah that one. Better get started on it while the idea still seems good. Okay, okay. I’ll start next week. Give my self a little vacation from the writing gig. But right now, I’ll create a new folder to store the chapters for that new novel. Oh, I’ve got a couple more minutes before I really should go to bed. I’ll put in the headers and footers. Well hell, while I’m at it….
It’s grinding cycle. I’m like that Hawksbill turtle that occasionally needs to surface for air but also must live underwater to survive. I know my time at the surface is limited. My time for a breather is limited. My time away from writing is limited.
So I take a quick peek at the clouds, maybe roll my face toward the warming sun, Then, like that turtle, I take a big gulp of air and head back down to the reef.
It’s what writers do.


By Lynn Sholes
Deadlines are killers and saviors. I am sitting on one now and my life is dictated by it. However, I have found that a deadline can be a good excuse. That little nephews birthday party I didn’t want to go to—well, sorry, can’t make it——the deadline. And then there is the silly girl thing every Wednesday night where all the women get together and have their bash. Bridge, Mahjong, Bunko, or simply dinner and margaritas. Now don’t get me wrong, I love margaritas, and I love my girlfriends, but every Wednesday night gets to be old. Just taking the break from it is more exciting.

But deadlines suck big time. I can’t get out all my creativity. I know the book would be much better if I had all the time I wanted to write it——like the first book. I wrote when I felt like it, when I was inspired and I wrote good stuff——I thought at the time. Well, maybe I wrote acceptable stuff, not good stuff. But, oh, to have that leisure again, not to sell on a proposal with a delivery date. The thrill would be back. Kind of like making love in the back seat of a Chevy. Not something planned, just something that exploded in the moment. Not that I ever did that, but I sure have fantasized it. I’d like to write like that again, from the gut, from the heart, with all the time in the world to express myself. But that ain’t what the business is all about. So when I read some poor author whose latest seems to fall flat, I’ll keep that in mind.

Meanwhile, back to the keyboard and chapter whatever. Another day, another fifty-cents.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


By Felicia Donovan

There’s no busier time in a writer’s life than when a book is released. Book launches include rounds of publicity events, media interviews, signings and readings. The demands of this endeavor are rigorous under the best of circumstances.

Fellow author Patry Francis is faced with an unfortunate situation that precludes her being able to do much publicity when her novel, THE LIAR’S DIARY, is released in paperback from Dutton on Jan. 29th. Just a few weeks ago, Patry was diagnosed with a progressive form of cancer. She's had several surgeries and her prognosis is good, but given that Patry won't have much energy for promoting, a number of bloggers are banding together to do it for her.

THE LIAR'S DIARY Blog Day is going to be held January 29th. Mark your calendars. Anyone who wishes to participate is asked to mention the book on their blog that day and link to Patry's website ( and the book's purchase page on Amazon, do a liars themed blog, review the book, sponsor a contest, or do anything else they think might help Patry get some much-deserved notice. Bloggers are also asked to encourage their readers to buy one and buy one for a friend between January 29th and Feb 1.

I’ve never met Patry in person but we’ve communicated several times via e-mail. Her warmth, strength, positive outlook and deep appreciation for all that is being done is heartfelt. Patry's blog, "Simply Wait, chronicles her recovery with grace, humor and dignity.

I invite all the readers and fellow authors to band together on Jan. 29th to make THE LIAR'S DIARY Blog Day a memorable one in publishing history.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

InkSpot News - 19 January 2008

Sue Ann Jaffarian will be at the following events in the next few weeks:

Saturday, January 19th, 3:00 – 5:00; Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA, with Harley Jane Kozak, Patricia Smiley and Kathryn Lilley.

Saturday, January 26, 11:00 – 4:00; Mystery on the Menu, Cerritos Library, 18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA (This is a ticketed event. For more information call (562) 924-2474.)

LAUNCH PARTY for Thugs and Kisses, Sue Ann's latest Odelia Grey adventure! Saturday, February 2nd, 5:30-7:30, Mystery Bookstore, 1036C Broxton, Los Angeles, CA (Westwood). This will be a joint launch with Christa Faust, who will be celebrating the release of her book Money Shot.

Bill Cameron will be making the following appearances:

Sunday, January 27, 5pm
Murder by the Book
With Gregg Olsen

Wednesday, January 30, 7pm
Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
With Gregg Olsen

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Live Nudes - At A Book Signing!

Recently, I held a margarita party to launch the latest supper club mystery: Chili Con Corpses. Because the book centers around a Mexican and Spanish cooking class, I wanted to have a fiesta at my house. I planned this two months ago and thought the party would come off without a hitch. Well….there were several hitches.

The first was that I ordered 48 plastic margarita glasses on eBay - all of which had different handle designs. Some had cacti, some parrots, etc. They were really cute and I figured no one would get their drink confused with someone else’s. Well, two days before the party the glasses had still not been delivered to my house. When I looked back at the eBay page, I saw that on the VERY bottom of the listing, in minute, size 4 font, was a message reading that no items would be shipped until Jan. 6th, being that the seller was on vacation.

The party was on the 4th!

So I ended up buying plastic pink and orange cups that split when they got too cold. Being that I served traditional and strawberry margaritas, I have a lot of floor and rug cleaning ahead of me today.

The second hitch was that I also ordered this super cool neon margarita glass sign on the Internet. I paid extra for FedEx so that it would be delivered a mere two hours before the party. I was so delighted to see the UPS man that I almost kissed him (he’s cute too). Imagine my surprise when I opened the box and saw, instead of my margarita glass, a sign reading LIVE NUDES. Well, what’s a girl to do? I hung it up outside for all the neighbors to see! Why do they say LIVE nudes anyway? If they were dead, it would mean we're lining up for a mortician's convention, right?

The last hitch was that our downstairs toilet overflowed at the very second that my mother-in-law was trying to sneak the children in from outside and up to bed. It flowed all over the floor and out into the hall.

It was the best signing I ever had!

Any funny party stories from this past holiday season you’d like to share? Wedding stories? Crazy signing occurrences?

Why didn't I think of that?

yellow-sub1By Joe Moore

On this day in 1969, the Beatles released their Yellow Submarine album. Like everything they did, it was wondrously original; another path they chose to travel where no one else thought to go. Looking back at their music, from their first U.S. hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the final chord of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)", the last song they would ever record as a group, they were the benchmark of originality for which all other musical groups are judged. And they delivered a total package: music, art, fashion, hair style, spirituality, politics, moral consciousness, lifestyle, and so much more. They were a force of nature, and the impact of their work is still being felt.

I remember pre-ordering and pre-paying for their Sgt. Pepper’s album at a local record store, and I still had to stand in line for over an hour to get my copy. To say that it contained sounds I'd never heard before would be an understatement. It left me breathless.

It’s hard to imagine that the Beatles were mere mortals. In fact, it’s easier to just assume that they were musical gods endowed with super powers beyond our understanding. Certainly from the standpoint of originality, there have been few names in music or any of the arts that remotely compare.

So, what is it that makes someone or something original? What causes us to be left breathless? Is it merely the first time something is used or done? After all, most people think that everything has already been said or done in one form or another. Of all the zillions of songs and books written, why do some stand out as totally new thoughts or lyrics or melodies? Even to the point of causing artistic and cultural paradigm shifts as the Beatles did.

First, I know something is original when my reaction is, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that”. The Beatles overwhelmed us with originality almost to the point that we took it for granted.

Second, their ideas were always simple, and I think that might be a key lesson to be learned as writers. Keep it simple, stupid. In the process of writing our books, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that to be original, we must be complex. And yet, there is nothing complex about a message like, "All You Need Is Love".

Third, true originality appears effortless. The Beatles left us with a feeling that anyone could have written their songs. For instance, we all need love, so why didn't they call it "I need your love all the time" instead of "Eight Days A Week"? How many writers have been frustrated and willing to do just about anything to get published? But no one ever expressed it quite like the Beatles did in "Paperback Writer". Relationships can be as up and down as a roller coaster ride. And yet, who has said it in simpler terms than in the song "Hello, Goodbye". When we fall in love with someone, we love everything about them. So why didn't the Beatles call their song "everything" instead of the elegance of "Something"? It's hard to get much simpler that expressing life as "A Hard Day's Night"? And my favorite Beatles song title, "Help!" I mean, come on, no one would ever write a song called Help because, well, what rhymes with help? But they did.

So to be truly original, I think it should be simple, leave us breathless, and make us wonder: "Why didn't I think of that?"

Anything left you breathless lately?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Creative Spark and How to Re-Ignite it

by Julia Buckley
I haven't written for a while. The other day I tried venturing into the shallows by attempting a short story. My husband read it and said it didn't seem "like something I'd put my heart and soul into." My soul? I don't know that I put my soul into my writing.

But I do know that the creative muse is hard to pin down.

My oldest son (newly thirteen) asks me to type his assignments for him, so I am given access to writing that he would normally not bother to show me. Recently I looked at his freewriting--journals that they must do in class but which the teacher doesn't always read. Her philosophy is that they should be writing all the time, whether she has time to go over it or not. I think that's a good idea.

In any case, I read Ian's journals and was amazed by their energy. They were fun, creative, interesting--everything I want my own writing to be. Perhaps, though, I want it too much. The advantage of Ian's writing is that it's done without pressure. Come up with a journal, jot it down. No fear of whether or not it's quality stuff, no fear of rejection. He's not writing for publication, he's writing for himself.

He did, however, give me permission to publish one of his journals here--one that struck me as a humorous modern day fable. Here it is:

The Snowman Who Could Turn Invisible

Once upon a time there was this snowman that lived in Queens. He was made by some kid who abandoned him in a park. One day he was pelted by freezing rain, and gained a thick coating of ice. That night two losers who had nothing better to do put the snowman on a sled and pushed him down a hill. He stayed in one piece the whole time because of the coating of ice around him. Eventually, he crashed into an electric fence. Then he passed out.

It took him until he woke up to realize that he was ever alive. And then he realized that, for some reason, he could turn invisible, probably from the power jolt from the electric fence.

First he thought he should use his powers only for good. Then he decided to use them just to annoy. So for the next few weeks, he’d turn invisible and push someone into the snow, or tie someone’s shoelaces together.

One day, he made a mistake and didn’t turn invisible when he pushed one kid over. Then everyone knew that a snowman was causing the problem, so they thought of a solution: they used a guy as bait, making him wait in the snowy park. Now they could see the snowman’s footprints as he walked through the snow.

Then someone ran out with a blowtorch and melted him into a puddle.

The End

What do you think? Does he have the creative spark, or is it my imagination? :)

(Photo courtesy of me--that's a candle making cool lines on my wall.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Nerves...How to Control Them When You Speak

Because I once made my living as a motivational speaker, people often assume I don’t get nervous when I speak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, every professional speaker I’ve met—and I’ve met a lot of the big names in the field—gets a touch of anxiety before stepping up to the microphone.

And yet, they do it. They get right up there and speak.

How do professionals control their nerves? What do THEY know that you don’t?

First of all, they know they are prepared. They have practiced their presentations hundreds or thousands of time. Out loud. That’s the key; they’ve harnessed the power of muscle memory. Muscle memory is why you can hop on a bicycle after years out of the saddle and ride off into the sunset. Muscle memory kicks in whether or not your “thinking” brain is engaged.

Second, they understand that a little nervous energy is a good thing. Better to be excited and energized than lethargic and boring. As one of my friends once said, “Sure I get butterflies. The trick is to make the butterflies fly in formation.”

Third, they’re prepared for the things that inevitably go wrong. They have fun comebacks for when the microphone squeals. “Must be microphone mating season!” Or when they forget what to say next. “Okay, any mind readers out there? What was I going to say? Any ideas? Me neither!” Or even, gulp, hecklers. “Did my ex-husband send you?”

Fourth, they know that NO ONE expects the speaker to be perfect.
In fact, people don’t like perfect speakers. They like speakers who care about the audience, not speakers who are overly concerned about making a mistake. One corporate trainer I knew regularly dumped a cup of coffee on himself the first day of his week long training sessions. Why? He wanted the group to know he wasn’t perfect, and he wanted them to relax. He did that by making the first mistake.

Next month I’ll share with you tips for getting an audience to like you BEFORE you ever say a word.

Meantime, if you are coming to Love Is Murder, I’m presenting “How to be a Better Panelist…Or Presenter …. Or Guest Speaker.” The handout and tip sheet should be useful. I've collected some of the best tips on presenting and serving on a panel, and I'm delighted to share them. Stop in and say, “Hi!” I’d love to meet you.

You're also welcome to ask me any questions about giving presentations. Send them to me at I've had just about every weird situation imaginable (and some you couldn't imagine and won't believe) happen to me while speaking. If I can help you--or encourage you--let me know.

And for more tangible help, check out my textbook Using Stories and Humor: Grab Your Audience ISBN: 0-205-26893-5. It’s recommended by Toastmasters International. I guess it caused quite a stir when Benjamin Netanyahu's speechwriter told the Israeli press it was one of his favorite resources!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Travelling Close to Home, by Jess Lourey

belizeMy mom, my two kids (ages 9 and 5) and I just returned from Belize, Central America.  It's a tiny country about 300 miles south of Cancun, Mexico. We were there for 12 days of toucanriver expeditions, Mayan ruin exploring, caving, jungle hiking, snorkeling, and birdwatching.

I chose the country as our vacation destination because it has some of the best close-to-shore snorkeling and diving in the world, and I am trying to get my kids to love snorkeling as much as I do. I'm also fascinated by Mayan history and am tossing around an idea for a mystery series featuring an archeologist who investigates the crossover between ancient unexplained stories and current events, sort of Da Vinci Code meets Indiana Jones. That makes the trip a tax write-off, right? 

Like most vacations, there was a lot of stress and a race to relax, and it seemed like we could never hit the weather right. I also spent too much money. But now that I'm back, I am remembering why it is that I go on these trips every year--they remind me how small the world is and how generous most people are.

The citizens of Belize were unfailingly kind, funny, and intelligent, and constantly challenged the stereotypes that creep up on me living my sheltered life in St. Cloud, Minnesota. For example, at the Baboon Sanctuary outside of Belize City, the four of us went on a tour led by a snaggle-toothed, dreadlocked, sunken-cheeked man howler monkeywho tried to sell us some shaggy plants to keep  the bugs off. He smelled like menthol Parliaments and a Drakkar knockoff. I followed him into the jungle against my better judgment, and it turned out my better judgment really wasn't. This guy was one of the founders of the entire howler monkey conservation movement (there are no baboons in Belize, or this hemisphere, for that matter; the British misnamed the howler monkeys baboons, and it stuck), including creating a co-op of local landowners willing to voluntarily leave land undeveloped so the altun hamonkeys could survive.

That's what the Belizeans were consistently like--knowledgeable about world and local politics, environmentally aware, and crazy-wise about rainforest medicine, which I find fascinating. Also, the country has a minimum wage, universal health care, and social security. My point is, sometimes my world gets too small, and I get too sure of my place in it. Travel shakes me out of that. If you can't afford to go far (which it turns out, I couldn't), do something today that breaks you out of your regular routine. I challenge you to eat at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant that you always walk past, pick up a book by an author you've never read but always thumbed your nose at, or volunteer at your local Humane Society. Do something, anything to rattle your own cage. The payoff is good. I promise.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Terrible Reality

I write mysteries and thrillers. When writing them, I live in an alternative reality where deaths occur. It turns out though that alternative reality is not as real as the one I live in when not writing.

I met Benazir Bhutto in college where she kept the name Benazir to herself and introduced herself as “Pinkie.” One night at a bull session in my dorm room, she and I had a screaming match over what should be done in the Arab-Israel conflict. One of her friends ran from the room crying because she could not handle our disagreement. For me politics discussed at high volume was situation normal. Evidently for Pinkie, too, and our argument made no difference to our casual friendship. Someone told me that newspapers in Pakistan opposed to her ex-foreign minister father alleged that his daughter was hanging out with Jews and left-wingers. Maybe so. I myself did not spend a lot of time with her, but I did fit both categories.

Pinkie and I overlapped at Oxford, too. I remember going by her room at Lady Margaret Hall, which in those days was women-only. She seemed overly appreciative of the visit and insisted I take an oversized tea tin – which I still have somewhere – as a gift.

I did not see Pinkie after Oxford, but when she was assassinated two days after Christmas, I felt it. My college friend had been murdered. Bullets had torn through her. That’s reality and it’s terrible.

Pinkie as an undergrad

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Distinguished Company

What am I doing hanging out with the distinguished authors who blog here along with me? Just lucky, I guess.

What am I talking about? Well, I just saw the nominee list for Left Coast Crime Awards which includes the following Inkspot bloggers (who make up over a quarter of the nominations).

The Lefty (most humorous mystery of 2007): Jess Lourey, Knee High by the Fourth of July

The Rocky (best mystery of 2007 set in the West): Bill Cameron, Lost Dog and Tim Maleeny, Stealing the Dragon

The Arty (best cover art of 2007): Tim Maleeny, Stealing the Dragon (again!?)

A hearty mazel tov to Jess, Bill, Tim, and Tim (again)

Out of the Woodwork

by Sue Ann Jaffarian
Here’s a side benefit of writing that I never considered until it started happening.

My last name, Jaffarian, is not a common name, but because of my growing presence online and in the writing community, I’ve had many wonderful surprises. Here are a few examples:

After one library event, I was handed a note by the librarian with a name and number. The last name of the woman was Jaffarian. The woman was elderly and wanted to know who I was. Said she didn’t recall any “Sue Anns” in the family. Turns out, she is the widow of one of my father’s cousins and also knew my mother years ago. We had a nice chat.

Janet Gustafson, my roommate during my freshman year in college, wrote me after finding my books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. She was working there part-time during the holidays. We had a delightful online chat and caught up on our lives.

Paul Smith was reading my blog because his mother enjoyed my books so much and saw a photo of my brother that I posted. Paul was a Boy Scout years ago in my brother’s old troop.

Recently, I heard from Ernie Jaffarian, who attached the above photo and this message: “While searching for an address online, I came across your name and was shocked at how much you look like a member of my family.” No wonder – Ernie’s grandfather was my Uncle Martin (seated). The fact that Ernie and I don’t know each other is no surprise considering my father was the youngest of 13 and we moved from the East Coast when I was 8 or 9. Though I did meet Ernie’s dad and a few of his aunts and uncles when I was very young.

I was also contacted by John Jeffire (Jafaryan), a writer in the Detroit area who was researching his Armenian ancestors. We corresponded, though I’m not sure if we’re related. Both of our ancestors came from Turkey, so there is a good chance there is some connection.

I saved the best for last:

Early last year I received an e-mail from a woman who finds birth parents for adult adoptees. In researching for her client, a Stefan Niemcewicz, she came across my website and contacted me. She gave me some details about Sefan’s birth, including the fact that his mother was a Jaffarian, and asked if I had given up a child for adoption in San Francisco years ago. I immediately responded telling her that, while it wasn’t totally impossible, I was only about 11 or 12 when this man was born. I also let her know that there were Jaffarians located in the Northwest (very distant cousins) and perhaps it was one of them. She wrote back thanking me and gave me a few more details about the birth mother, and asked if I knew anything more to please contact her.

Well, as soon as I saw the new information about Stefan, I picked up the phone and placed a call to my cousin Judy in Florida (who, by the way, is also related to Ernie Jaffarian, above).

Below are photos of Judy meeting for the first time Stefan, the son she gave up for adoption when she was a young woman. Stefan (born Michael Jaffarian) is now a welcomed member of our family.

It is a small world, after all, and so filled with unexpected joy.

Has your writing brought surprises like this?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Sticking Points

So there I am, happily pounding away at my keyboard, full of promise and verve. The words flow onto the screen, meaning takes shape; I’m in the zone.

Then it happens. That Feeling. Creeping in, growing stronger. The typing slows. Stops.

Something is wrong.

That Feeling is pretty familiar to me by now, working away on my fifth novel. And I’ve learned not to ignore it. It comes as I’m writing and also when I’m editing/rewriting. Sometimes it’s only a squiggle of a notion, but it’s always reliable. The scene isn’t working for some reason. The character is resisting the plot. There’s a logical hole I need to figure out. The tone is off. The pacing is off. The action isn’t adequately grounded. I need to do more research in a vital area. Whatever it is, I'd better fix it.

While it’s disappointing to have to move out of that magical timeless place I go when the writing is going really well, at least I have a toolbox of methods with which to tackle those hiccups in the process that I think of as sticking points.

Journaling as the character: This is particularly effective if the problem seems to be a recalcitrant character. Writers often talk about the characters taking over the story. Magic and muses surely affect the process, but a writer knows her characters pretty well. If I oh-so-cleverly plot something that’s inconsistent with the way my character would really act, then try to write them into doing it anyway, it doesn’t work. I mean, I don’t plot against my characters (so to speak) on purpose, but sometimes mistakes are made. If I journal the scene from the character’s perspective, I generally discover what they would really do in that situation. Sometimes that’s what I write. Sometimes I have to throw the scene out altogether and figure out an alternative.

Clustering: This is a method I’ve seen used in workshops, but which is probably best set out in the book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. You start off with a word or phrasee drawn in a circle in the middle of a page, and then rapidly draw lines and circles out from that circle and the subsequent circles, free associating ideas. It taps into the right side of the brain, and oddly enough, as you do it a linear solution falls out of the process. I find it particularly helpful for working out plot points and relationships between characters. I’ve looked at old clusters, and they look more like an alien barfed words all over the page than any kind of meaningful anything, but hey, it worked at the time I did it.

Take a walk: Nothing new here. We all know how getting out and moving helps the brain kick in.

Talk to myself about the problem: Not recommended for use in coffee shops or other public places, this method can be helpful in a pinch. Something there about hearing your own voice concretizing what needs to be fixed. I do have to be careful not to let in negative self-talk. Also, it’s good to have a partner who likes to talk to themselves, too, so they don’t think you’re stark raving nuts.

Sleep on it: I love this one, especially for when I’m figuring out what needs to happen next in the plot. Go to sleep with a question in your head, and then let your brain work on it while you’re off in dreamland. Because it frequently works very well for me, I am delighted by the sheer efficiency of it. For more detailed information about how this method works, check out a little book called Sleep Thinking by Eric Maisel.

And if none of these methods work, my motto is: Don’t let it stop the writing for long – if the issue isn’t solved, make a note (always), and come back to it later. Sticking points can be paralyzing if not solved quickly, so sometimes the best thing is to move on, leaving it sticky for now. Future writing may provide just the right solution.

What do you do when you get to a sticking point? Any tried and true approaches you return to again and again?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Funny 101

It is October1997.
In the past eighteen months I have survived an unexpected divorce, the flooding of my home, and a fractured neck. But I’m far more nervous about the latest challenge: a first-ever blind date, taking place right after my hospital shift.
My co-workers, on the other hand, are completely titillated. As I rush to the nurses' locker room to change out of my scrubs, they make me promise to stop by the ER for their approval of my "date wear".
Because I’m a fool, I agree.
I do a complete wardrobe change, top to bottom. Fresh and hopeful as a new beginning.
Short skirt, high heels, great sweater--deep breath. I frantically stuff my work clothes into an open-top tote bag. I’m late, but I promised to . . .
The ER is Friday-night-packed.
I arrive to appreciative hoots and whistles from fellow nurses, doctors, paramedics--and even a few drunk patients who get caught up in the excitement.
My ego is boosted. My date jitters abate, my confidence soars.
I do a girly pirouette, like Mary Tyler Moore on steroids, right in the middle of the ER--
And something flies out of my tote bag.
It skids across the vinyl floor.
A male nurse moves to scoop it up; I rush forward to take it from him and . . .
The scene turns to slow-mo, as the horrifying truth hits me and--God help me--everyone else.
The mortified male nurse hands me my panties.

I am never the same.

So . . . I turn to writing comedy.

Author John Vorhaus (The Comic ToolBox) and Billy Mernit (Writing the Romantic Comedy), agree on this basic equation:

The TRUTH of the blind date mishap is that to try something new involves risk. The PAIN is that sometimes you make a fool of yourself.

And when it happens to someone else, we laugh--because we see our own worst fears coming true. It could have been us.

Athena Critique Services asked me to teach a 2-week writing workshop next month, “My Funny Valentine: Writing the Romantic Comedy.” I got excited about it, and then I started to wonder--what is the best way to share the “art of funny”? Vorhaus starts with the basic element of any good story: Character. He asks the writer to define the “STRONG COMIC PERSPECTIVE” of his character, or the unique ( skewed) way that this character views the world, which differs from the “normal” world view. Then EXAGGERATE this, add FLAWS, and HUMANITY (the element that makes us bond with the character, thinking “he’s just like me”).

It’s easy for me to picture these elements, when I think of TV’s phobic Adrian “Monk.” Monk’s STRONG COMIC PERSPECTIVE: he is the infallible authority on crime solving. This perspective is EXAGGERATED because he is compelled to solve crimes despite the fact he lost his badge as a result of the effects of stress and OCD. His (also exaggerated and incapacitating) FLAWS: Monk views the world as a contagious and dangerous “jungle”--he’s even afraid of milk, for godsake! And his HUMANITY: He deeply loves his deceased wife, and feels responsible for her death.

All of which made me think of the heroine of my funny & romantic Darcy Cavanaugh Cruise Mystery series. How do Vorhaus’ elements of a comic character relate to her?
It struck me, that my tendency toward likening the series to “I Love Lucy meets ER on The Love Boat . . . to solve a murder,” was very apt. Because, like Lucy Ricardo, Darcy Cavanaugh’s:

COMIC PERSPECTIVE: is that she can do anything.

Which is EXAGGERATED by:
A sense of responsibility to defend the underdog, and to right unjust wrongs.
Her FLAW: She’s impulsive, jumps to conclusions, leaps without looking first.
And Darcy’s HUMANITY: She cares enough to take risks. And we love her for that.

What about your characters? Regardless of whether you write humorous fiction, and even if it's "dark"--what's their comic perspective?
As a medical professional, I can testify to the fact that a sense of humor is a life (and sanity) saving attribute. Accordingly--

Vorhaus also throws out this interesting challenge: What is YOUR own personal comic perspective? In what unique way do YOU view the world--and, very likely, imbue your writing?

And, finally, do check out Athena Critique Service. I’ll be starting my class, “My Funny Valentine: Writing the Romantic Comedy,” on February 5th.

No whoopee cushions, fake doggy doo, or squirting cameras allowed.
Undies to remain discreetly out of sight. Thank you.

Friday, January 4, 2008

on the hunt

The other day, the bill for my website came due, and while I was in the web site control panel to update the payment info, I spent some time checking out the Usage Statistics for my site. I haven't looked at them in forever and so I spent a while seeing what's what. And it turns out that when I got down into the Search String section—the words folks type into Google or Yahoo when they're searching for something—I discovered a magical world of wonder and delight.

Here are the search strings people have used to find my web site since the start of the New Year (and please note, some of the words are naughty, at least in what I guess is the intended context):
  • bill cameron (okay, this one makes sense)
  • bill cameron soccer (still makes sense, though my site has exactly zero soccer information on it)
  • bure (huh?)
  • cop looking for 6 c cell maglite (Interesting. Weird, but interesting.)
  • kept woman (okay, not a search string I'd likely put into a search engine, but at least I have a short story on my site called "kept woman.")
  • she lets me touch her vagina (uh, double huh?)
That last one was particularly eye opening. What an odd phrase to type into Google. I mean, "cop looking for 6 c cell maglite" makes a certain kind of sense. Maybe you're a cop. Maybe you need a new MagLite, and maybe you want a 6 C-cell version, and since you're a cop you want the search engine to know you're a cop in case maybe there's like a cop-friendly source for C-cell MagLites. Works for me.

But. Um. That last one? All I can say is if it's you, email me. I have some questions. (One of them is, "Who actually lets you touch her there anyway, bub?" Most likely answer: no one.)

Now, if you type "she lets me touch her vagina" into Google, a link to my site appears on page 2 (as of this writing). What's amusing to me is the link is to my story "On the Road to Find Out," which, I confess, does have all those words in it, though not in that particular order and certainly not all in a row like that. And, I swear, none are used in a fashion that would in a million years elicit prurient interest. I hope.

Needless to say, after a few minutes with the January 2008 Search Strings, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. The candy shop of random Google searches, sure, but sugary sweet and delightful nonetheless. So I started looking back in the statistics for past months to see what else people were searching for when they found me. It was wonderful.

Now, sure, there are lotsa unsurprising search strings. Variations on "cameron" and "bill", which will find you not only me (and in fact, not usually me), but also a dance instructor, a prolific blogger in Great Britain, a guitarist, and links to the late and much beloved CBC broadcaster of the same name, among others.

But once I got past boring old "bill cameron," things started cooking. For instance, I was surprised to learn there seems to be a deep and abiding interest out there on the interwebs in "kept women." These strings showed up often:
  • well kept woman
  • are there really kept women
  • looking to be a kept woman (who isn't?)
  • how to be a kept woman (there's a manual?)
  • kept woman find I want (Yoda has unexpected tastes)
  • kept woman salary (They get a salary?)
Another string that got my attention was:
  • what if she rejects me
Oh, lord. How forlorn is that? I mean, if you're entering that into Google, I feel for ya.

Some other favorites:
  • nylon feet shoeless
  • bill cameron chain gang (Aiieeee!)
  • lost dog reviews touch wood (They do?)
  • good looking woman hump (I have a feeling I know where that one was going.)
  • short mysteries for fifth graders (I can assure you, I didn't even write short mysteries for fifth graders when I was IN fifth grade.)
  • author of book about lost dog (That would be me. Among others. As it happens.)
  • settings of the man and his dog (sandwiches of the ham and his cheese)
  • cameron mysties (a deep-fried treat available from some crazy vendor down on the boardwalk)
  • dipsey doodle poodle (Yes, there is an actual page on my site with those precise words on it)
  • find out about a kid named jt (I would like to find out about that kid myself. I mean, seriously. What's that kid up to, anyway?)
Sadly for many searchers, my site features a serious lack of imagery, though I do have a short video featuring shoeless nylon-clad feet. I also have a picture of a lizard, not to be confused with the "lost trouser snake" of one mysterious search query. (I don't want to know how one loses his trouser snake.)

Ultimately, if you've got a website, marvelous entertainment can be found just perusing the visitor statistics log to see what search strings lead to your site. I mean, come on, how else are you going to find out if "sex in the frontseat of a car" finds you?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ups and Downs

January 3, 2008
I have yet to meet a writer who doesn't seem like he or she is a manic-depressive sans medication. We're elated about a contract, we're down about having to promote, we're up about how the work is going, we're down about how the work is going, we're excited about a positive review, we're down about...

You get the idea.

It's possible, of course, that all artists of one sort or another are like this. In fact, I suspect they are.

(Actually, once I became educated about depression, I realize just how many people out there are depressed and would benefit from some medication--have you ever worked with someone who's a REAL manic-depressive? I have and it ain't any fun. But that, as the saying goes, is a different story).

Part of the problem, I suspect (aside from the relative comforts of 21st century American life--I mean, if how well your novel is or is not being received is the worst of your problems, try living in Rwanda or Iraq or Darfur for a while and shut the hell up) is that any creative endeavor in the marketplace, anyway, has a lot of ups and downs.

I remind myself--daily it seems like--that very few careers in any field run in a straight line. There are a lot of zigs and a few zags and quite a number of setbacks. How we bounce back from the setbacks may be more important than anything else we do.

I had a big setback in December in one area of my creative life.

Then on the 2nd of January I got a call from a probable new big client and all I could think of was the cliche was true: when one door closes another one very often opens.

If you want to keep your sanity as a writer (or, for that matter, as a human being), it's best to get used to the capricious nature of the fates and try to enjoy the ride.

And no, I don't know how they got that 4-month-old to bounce like that on the trampoline. I'm not sure I want to know.

Mark Terry

To Every Story...There is a Season

by Nina Wright

As we conclude the holiday season, let's contemplate seasons in another light. Think of a particular novel or movie and ask yourself what time of year it takes place. Or, if the story sprawls across seasons, which ones are most significant, and why? Is time of year a mood-setter, a point of contrast or a catalyst? How conscious of season does the writer want the reader to be? To what end does the writer manipulate time of year?

Season is an element of setting, equally linked to time and place. With a nod to latitude and longitude, time of year dictates rituals and holidays in addition to weather. It can affect all five senses as well as state of mind.

In fiction the role of season ranges from texture to plot point to theme. Doctor Zhivago is first and foremost a story of place and time (and character), but the wintry elements are what many of us remember best, especially from the film. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, for all its hilarity, is about Thanksgiving: Steve Martin’s character wants only to be with his family while John Candy’s character has no family and nowhere to go. The Wizard of Oz depends on tornado season to provide a key plot element as well as the revelation that there's no place like home.

Season can be an efficient means of revealing character. How does our protagonist respond to a pile of soggy autumn leaves? The lack of sunlight in winter? An April Fool’s joke? Neighborhood kids playing with firecrackers the week before the Fourth of July?

Season creates reader expectation. For instance, juvenile fiction set in summertime seems to promise a lack of structure and adult supervision. But exceptions abound, as I discovered while playing with notions for my teen novel Sensitive. There could be summer school or summer camp. Or a summer job. The point is that novelists can elect to follow or flout seasonal expectations. Oh, the possibilities inherent in, say, no teachers showing up for the first day of school...or a January that's warmer in Montana than in Tennessee...or a Thanksgiving when our protagonist has nothing to feel thankful for....

Season is on my mind, and not just because I’m stuck in Ohio for the winter when I would rather be at least three climate zones to the south. I’m writing Whiskey with a Twist, the fifth book in what some might call a season-based mystery series, emphasis on humor. Each installment takes place during the next tourist event in or around a Lake Michigan resort town. It starts with leaf-peeping in Whiskey on the Rocks, moves on to a winter jamboree in Whiskey Straight Up and then the annual Miss Blossom pageant in Whiskey & Tonic, followed in Whiskey and Water by a rash of riptides. My novel in progress was inspired by my own experiences at a fall dog show in Lancaster, PA. Whiskey with a Twist features Afghan hounds amid the Indiana Amish. Add harvest season, and this fictioneer can’t type fast enough.

What role does season play in the novel you are writing or reading right now? Does the author comply with seasonal expectations or defy them? How does season impact character, plot and/or theme?

As I write this, a new year is opening before us. Whether the season is sunny, snowy or rainy where you are, I wish you a bright Aught-Eight.