Friday, May 29, 2009

Cut, Crop & Die Hits the Shelves

by Joanna Campbell Slan
Cut, Crop & Die, the second book in my Kiki Lowenstein Mystery Series, has hit the stores. How do I know? Booksellers are emailing me to ask if I’ll come do signings. Scrapbook store owners are hearing from their customers. And gosh, what a difference it makes to be releasing Book #2 in a series! It’s so fun to be “known,” to not have to plow fresh ground, and to have folks who are clamoring for “more, more, more!”

Personally, I love reading books that are a part of a series. I like getting to know the characters, watching them grow, and frankly, watching the author grow, too. Each new book is like a visit with an old friend.

In Cut, Crop & Die, one of the subplots is how Kiki’s newfound independence is threatened by a new employee, Bama. Bama’s much vaunted high-falluting degree in art leaves Kiki feeling both jealous and inept. Concurrently, Kiki’s job has become ever more precious to her. For the first time in her life, Kiki is calling all the shots. She’s a “real” grown up, responsible for herself and her daughter, Anya. She’s living solo without a parent or a spouse to tell her what to do. She’s even decorated her home in her own personal style, whereas the gorgeous McMansion she owned with her husband was furnished to his taste by a decorator.

People ask me, “Is it true that authors need to write what they know?”

Boy, wouldn’t it be a boring world if we did? I’ve never been shot at. I’ve never killed anyone. But I write about those things. So, no, I don’t always stick to what I know…except when it comes to emotions. That’s where I use my knowledge. You see, I can remember living on my own after my first marriage failed. I had a great job selling newspaper advertising—a job that threatened my first husband’s ego so much he couldn’t stand it. Finally, I decided I couldn’t stand him, so we were even.
I got rid of 275 pounds of ugly fat. I divorced him.

I got my own little apartment, decorated with castoffs, but certainly reflecting my own style. I can recall what that time was like, the freedom, the fears, and the sense of finally finding myself. Those are the emotions I gave Kiki. Her relationship with Bama reminds me of how I felt when our advertising boss hired a woman he praised to the skies. I remember how he even bragged about paying her more than all of the rest of us salespeople, even though she was less experienced. He felt justified because of her stature in the community. I remember how that eroded my self-esteem and how I worried about my job performance.

I learned a lot from that experience. Fear of failure provides a marvelous incentive to work harder, to be more prepared, to think creatively, to hold nothing back. At least, it works that way for me.

And that new employee? She didn’t last long and she sure didn’t outsell me.

The neat thing about being a writer is nothing is EVER wasted. Those pains I felt, that sense of being “less than,” I don’t call them up every day. But they came in handy when I wrote Cut, Crop & Die.

Care to read an excerpt? Go to

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's Your Writing Routine?

Cricket McRae

"Can you tell us a little about your writing routine?"

"What time of day do you write?"

"Do you have a daily quota?"

Sound familiar? Lately I've been speaking to local libraries about my books, home crafts, and writing. There are always aspiring writers in the audience, and they always ask one or more of those questions.


I'm a signing/reading junkie from way back, so I get it. When I first began writing I wanted to know the magic formula as much as anyone else. Of course, there isn't one, but it sure seems like there ought to be.

JB's post yesterday touched on a lot of the magic, not least of which is applying butt glue, sitting down, and writing in some kind of regular way. That's what I encourage folks because I can't really recommend my personal routine to anyone else. Everyone has to find what works for them.

Having said that, here is mine in brief:

I research primarily at night. After seven o'clock I lack creative bandwidth, but am able to spend long hours reading, googling, checking and cross checking to the point of tedium. First drafts are better written in the morning. I start out writing a thousand words a day on a book, which eventually turns into about twenty-five hundred as the story gains momentum. My left brain likes afternoons, so editing and rewriting happens then, and I try to sit outside if it's nice. However, I may polish twenty pages or only three.

So my routine depends completely on what stage of a project I'm in. And when I'm working on more than one project, I may be at it at all hours of the day, especially taking into consideration how much time goes into book promotion.

My writing habits don't make much sense to anyone but me. However, the desire to know how other people write and create is so strong that there is a site called Daily Routines
where you can try to discern the magic formula from the greats.

For example, did you know W.H. Auden consumed Benzadrine, Seconal, and vodka to keep his routine balanced? Not high on my list of recommendations, btw, but still.

A few other tidbits:

According to Lisa Rogak who wrote
Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King, King has a glass or water or tea and begins writing in the morning between 8:00 and 8:30. “I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon."

John Grisham told the San Francisco Chronicle in February, 2008 that when he began writing he had "these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important ... The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I'd jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week."

From Joan Acocella's article about writer's block in The New Yorker, June 14, 2004: "[Anthony] Trollope reported in his 'Autobiography,' he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: 'Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.'"

Also from The New Yorker in October of 2008, regarding Emily Post: "Post worked on 'Etiquette' for nearly two years. Claridge describes her daily routine as follows: she woke at 6:30 A.M., ate breakfast in bed, and began to write. Midmorning, she took a break to give instructions to the household help; then, still in bed, she continued to write until noon."

I rather like Emily's regimen, myself.

Okay, so how do you write? You know you've developed the short answer to the question, so give!

To The Unpublished Writers: Today Is The Day!

Back on January 1st, you may have made a resolution. In the spirit of a new year, you may have created an entire list of resolutions for 2009. Your list might have read: Lose ten pounds, quit smoking for good, be nicer to people who bug me, finally write that novel.

Here’s the thing. Scores of folks make weight loss or a new exercise routine one of their resolutions, but by February, most have slipped or given up altogether. The gym I attend was jam-packed in January. I remember overhearing a woman on the treadmill beside me say to her friend, “I give the fresh meat two weeks. We’ll have the gym to ourselves by February.” Unfortunately, her snide remark could also apply to a long-term goal like writing a novel.

Like good health, writing takes discipline. I know you’ve got a job, kids, a house, pets, in-laws, and an inbox filled with time-consuming emails. Me too! But if you want to do this thing – be a writer, that is – you’ve got to get started. You’ve got to work like you’re ALREADY published. Give yourself a year to write a book and start now. Seriously, mark it on your calendar. Today is the day!

I’ve heard many different stories about how what writers accomplish each day. Some write 1,000-2,000 words and some try to knock off three pages. I try to complete a task such as a highly descriptive scene, a long section of dialogue, the editing of a single chapter, or the plotting of the next one. I don’t outline the whole book and will suggest that you don’t either. Map out three chapters and start hammering away on the keyboard. Once you’ve written fifty pages, map out three more.

If you can’t write every day then don’t, but it’s easier to write a page a day than seven pages on a Sunday night. Think of it as eating sensible meals instead of binging. You’ll feel better if you crank out something each day. I write in the mornings because my mental abilities start declining after five p.m. Try to find your good time to write and if that silly job interferes with your ideal time then beg, borrow, or steal minutes away each week to devote to your project. And save the editing until the chapter is done. Don’t second-guess your writing as it streams forth or you’ll stifle the creative flow.

Lastly, get a separate calendar for your writing project. Give yourself a few weeks to sketch your characters and plot out those first three chapters. Then, mark your calendar with some goals. Let’s say that you’ll have fifty pages done by the first of August. If you succeed, then celebrate on that day with a huge cheeseburger, fries, and a milkshake. Why not, you’re not still on that diet, are you?

Monday, May 25, 2009

I've Been Blog-Tagged

I've been blog-tagged by an author, which means I have to answer her questions and then tag four more people. Why does this feel like the new chain letter? I can do it, though, because it beats writing a novel right about now. Here are her categories and my choices:

4 movies you would watch over and over:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • O Brother Where Art Thou
  • Murder by Death
  • Star Wars Trilogy (the original)
4 places you have lived:
  • Tacoma, Washington (born here)
  • Paynesville, Minnesota (raised here)
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota (rebelled here)
  • Battle Lake, Minnesota (inspired to write murder mysteries here)
4 TV shows you love to watch:
  • The Office
  • House
  • 30 Rock
  • Little House on the Prairie

4 places you have been on vacation:

  • Cozumel (scuba diving and snorkeling)
  • Florida Keys (scuba diving)
  • Aruba (snorkeling and a wedding--not mine)
  • Canada (um, the Canadians?)

4 of your favorite foods:

  • Popcorn
  • Ice Cream
  • Bagels with cream cheese
  • Dark chocolate with nuts

4 Websites you visit daily:

  • Inkspot
  • Mine (to make updates)
  • St. Cloud Technical College
  • Google

4 places you would rather be right now:

I believe in always making the best of whatever place, person, or moment in time I am so I'd like to just say I'm happy right now where I...screw it:

  • At a bank, cashing a check for $1,000,000 for a three-book deal
  • In the arms of that rare intelligent, funny, and emotionally mature straight hot guy who is telling me he loves me
  • On a beach with my kids, teaching them to snorkel
  • At my French villa with friends and family, drinking red wine, eating cheese with crusty bread, and playing Trivial Pursuit

Tag 4 People you think will respond:

  • Janet Evanovich (why not?)
  • Alan Orloff
  • GM Malliet
  • Keith Raffel

What would be your four answers to any of the categories above?

Friday, May 22, 2009


By Sue Ann Jaffarian

“Should You Write In The Nude?” That is the title of a chapter in the wonderful book The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes – one of my favorite books on writing. But it also brings up the question: Do you write in the nude? Or, more to the point, what is your favorite attire for writing?

I’ve attended and been on panels and read blogs where authors talk about their writing process, the time of day they write, their schedule, their favorite locations to write, even whether or not they listen to music while they write. But I’ve never seen or heard any formal discussion on what writers wear to write.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I have participated in unofficial discussions on the topic with other writers. Those usually occur when we are in private gatherings away from the public, and generally alcohol is involved. But nothing on record.

I know a lot of writers who write in public places like libraries, coffee shops, and bars. The only time I write in public is when I’m traveling. Then I’ll write in airports, on planes, and in hotels. The reason is I like to be unencumbered when I write. That means NO bra. I like my girls to be comfy when I write. Like the Playtex commercial says: “When the girls are happy, I’m happy.” Happiness and comfort allow my creative juices to flow free. And while a lot of female writers can go without brassieres, I cannot. At least not without causing second looks and scowls regarding decency. In winter I like to wear sweat pants and a sweat shirt while writing, along with heavy socks. In spring and fall, it’s yoga pants and a tee shirt. My summer uniform is pared down to cotton knit shorts and a tank top. If it’s really hot (my apartment does not have AC), it’s just panties and a tank with a fan blowing at my back. On weekends, there’s a good chance I might stay in my PJs. I believe in taking “business casual” to the edge.

I know several women who don’t write a word until they’ve showered, dressed, done their hair, and put on full make-up. Geez, Louise. I barely do that when I go out. When under a severe deadline crunch, I’ve been known to write almost non-stop for three days wearing the same jammies and without showering, pausing only for pottie breaks and to eat and brush my teeth. And even the teeth thing is sketchy. After one such episode, the man I was dating at the time informed me that he NEVER wanted to see me like that again. Like my girls, romantically, I am currently unencumbered. Big surprise, huh?

So, do you write in the nude? Inquiring minds want to know.

You can also read about Sue Ann's fears this week at ForeWord Magazine's Publishing Insider blog. Follow Sue Ann on Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Last of the Congenial Shopkeeps

by Julia Buckley
There's no doubt that I can buy office supplies more cheaply at one of those big-box office warehouse supply stores where everyone wears a matching polo shirt and displays, at best, an anemic interest in me, my questions, and my purchases.

Sometimes, though, I put out the extra money that it takes to go to a little local shop. It's one of the last stores of its kind--small, personal, convivial. There isn't much stock, but what's there is interesting and unique. Usually a cat dozes among the Underwood typewriters that make up the window display. Today when I wandered in a woman looked up from her label sorting and gave a friendly smile. A man in shirt and suspenders, whose neck was warmed by a multicolor scarf that may once have belonged to Dr. Who, knew me when I came in because I was clutching my empty cartridge box and had called to reserve one of his.

"Buckley?" he said.

"That's me," I agreed. I saw a little dog in the corner; he seemed impatient to go for a walk and gave a growling sigh.

"Just a minute," said the woman to the doggie. She told me, when I asked, that the dog was a long-haired Schnauzer. He was very cute. Everything about this place was quaint, and the service from the man who immediately placed the requested cartridge in my hand was almost unsettling. It was personal. So few stores provide that anymore.

I hung around after I paid, smiling at the dog and soaking up the ambience of the little stationer's shop. "These cartridges are so expensive these days," I said. "I print out one copy of one manuscript, and the ink is gone."

Dr. Who grinned at me. "Write short stories," he suggested.

"Or haiku," added the woman.

I laughed. "I guess that's the style that fits the new economy."

They agreed, and I took my leave of them. I realized that I missed many stores like this that had once existed near me: the little hardware store which had been owned by the same man for sixty years until he had to close it down, where the merchandise was piled precariously to the ceiling; the woolen shop with exotic yarns and unusual patterns and women who offered knitting lessons; the second-hand bookstores--tons of them--that my husband and I used to stroll to on a Sunday, where cats would lie on the windowsills and mystery paperbacks cost ten cents each.

We may be saving money at the ultra warehouse stores, but we're losing out every time one of these tiny stores closes. These stores are peopled by the real thing--those who care about their products and their customers, and who serve with congeniality.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker

First, a shout out to G.M. who continues to garner award nominations (and awards) like mad. We're all so proud of you!

I write mysteries about a manufacturer and purveyor of various unguents and goos -- a soap maker, if you will. Sophie Mae Reynolds sells her Winding Road Bath Products on the Internet. She works hard, and she manages to make a living at it.

Yep, I did that. At first it was all about putting together a business plan, coming up with unique formulations, designing packaging and plotting marketing strategies. After a while it became more of a manufacturing job than anything else, and the prospect of renting a facility and hiring employees loomed large. There would have been considerable financial risk, as well.

So I quit.

There was a time when I would have made a different decision and embraced the entrepreneurial spirit, but the truth is all that soap making didn't allow me any real time to write.

And I wanted to write, so I switched from my tales of western grit and wrote about a soap maker who also preserves food and spins yarn. Who makes cheese and gardens and bakes and keeps chickens.

My work informed my writing, but so does my whole life.

Which makes me wonder about all those other jobs I've had over the years. Maybe I could write a mystery series based on an eighteen-year-old driver's license examiner in Wyoming. She could solve cases of cow tipping while giving harrowing road tests to a populace known to start driving in a field when they turn five.

Or how about the port of entry clerk who solves oil field murders while writing hundreds of oversize permits to truckers hauling fractionation tanks and eighty-thousand-pound scraper blades? That sounds like a winner, no?

Oh, maybe I could do something with the tobacco mixologist and pipe saleswoman. Meerschaum, not water. Though, come to think of it, there are bound to be some pretty punny titles with the word "bong" in them.

The gig selling life insurance for children would be too dark (and I'm not interested in revisiting it, either), and as for the mystery-solving software program manager, well, I'll leave the techie mysteries to Keith Raffel.

A trucker mystery, though ... could be worth a little more consideration.

How have your day jobs informed your writing?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

News Flash: Malliet Nominated for Anthony

The recent Agatha winner, Death of a Cozy Writer, written by our own G.M. Malliet, has just been nominated for an Anthony for best first novel. Bravo! Winners will be selected by attendees at October's Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Indianapolis this fall.

Plodding Along

Some famous wag/wit/writer once quipped, "I don't like writing. I like having written."

That's how I feel about jogging. I don't like jogging, I like having jogged.* 

While out on recent jog, I was struck by how similar writing and jogging are. sports_clipart_running_athlete

Both are solitary pursuits. When I write, I stick my butt in my chair and keep my fingers on the keyboard. With jogging, it's all about feet pounding pavement. Left, right. Left right. Nobody trails along or peers over my shoulder telling me how to jog (faster!) or how to write (faster!).

When I run**, I follow a pre-determined course. If I didn't, I'd get lost or lose track of how far I'd gone. When writing, I follow a pre-determined outline. Without one, I'd get lost, too. (Of course, I'm allowed to detour whenever I feel the urge, as long as I leave a trail of breadcrumbs or some detailed notes.)

Each is done for a finite "distance." When I run, I go 5K (5 kilometers), then stop. When I write, I go 2K (2000 words), then stop. After I've reached my daily quota, I'm free to do something else without guilt.

For me, both writing and running are marathons, not sprints. When you look up and you're at page 45 of a 300-page novel, you know you've still got some work to do. You've got to put your head down and keep on chugging. Ditto after hitting the one-mile mark. Just Do It.

Jogging and writing both build muscles and endurance. More importantly, they both build confidence. After you've run a few miles one day, you know you can run a few miles another day. Same for writing. Once you write ten pages, you know you can crank out twenty. Or fifty. Or a complete manuscript. Or a series...

Whether jogging or writing, I watch for hazards. On the road, potholes, traffic, rabid squirrels, and other obstacles appear in your path. If you let them, they can derail your progress. At the desk, you have to contend with the Internet, a stack of books to be read, the telephone, the Xbox, and a host of other diversions calling out to you, "Hey buddy, time to take another break. Come play with us. You know you want to." You have to learn to say, "Shut up, diversions!"

Jogging or writing, I break a sweat.

Jogging or writing, I'm always alert for roadkill--and it can be pretty ugly. (Sometimes in my first draft, when I've written something especially putrid, I'll change the color of the text to "white" so I don't have to keep seeing that particular roadkill until I'm ready to clean it up.)

Both can lead to aches and pains. Often when I run, my knees hurt. Often when I write, my head hurts.

Of course, there are some differences between jogging and writing. When I run, I listen to music on my MP3 player. When I write, I can't listen to anything, lest I won't be able to hear the voices in my head. (You know, the VOICES. The ones TELLING ME WHAT TO WRITE.***)

Frequently, when I'm running, I get great ideas about my writing--devilish plot twists, snippets of witty dialogue, the perfect way to describe the mole on a character's face. Sometimes I get so many ideas, I'm afraid I'll forget some of them before I get back. When I'm writing, I never get great ideas about my running. Not once have I thought, "Hey, maybe today I should try left, left, right, right."

After jogging for a while (years), I expect to be rewarded with low blood pressure. After writing for a while, and after turning in a complete manuscript to my agent or editor, I know I'll be rewarded with high blood pressure.

The bottom line is this: I feel good after I've jogged, and I feel good after I've written. So I guess I'll just keep right on plodding--and plotting--along.




*To be clear, when I say "jog," I mean plod. And by plod, I mean going at a pace somewhere between a slog and a saunter.

**Another euphemism for plodding.

***Yes, sometimes the voices SHOUT.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Rhetoric of Online Dating

I have tried online dating off and on for the past several years. I start out hopeful but always seem to end up across the table from a post-operative transsexual, acne-ridden adolescent, or sexually-confused man. And so I quit for a while, and I have my fictional mystery characters spout lines such as, "Men, like leather pants, should never be shopped for online." Then I remember I really like men, and that Minnesotans are too polite to flirt or pick one another up in public (and prefer white food), and so if I want to date again, I have to go back online. It's a vicious cycle, one a friend and I are going to plumb to our journalistic advantage. We're going to research the rhetoric of online dating and try to publish an article on the topic. We're both college English instructors, which lends credibility to our seedy topic, don't you think?

Here are three random online profiles featuring men in my immediate area. Join me in my research, if you will, and help me to study how they use and misuse language to reach their goals:

My favorite thing to eat is barbeque ribs. My color is purple. When it's raining out I like to work on my crafts, sit and cuddle watching a movie with the special person in my life. I love music & reading the newspaper. I Like to go bike riding. I love to eat at Famous Daves Barbeque or even a nice romantic restaurant.

OK, I'm gonna give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the "69" refers to the year he was born and is not a crude sexual promise of beautiful things to come, and I'm even going to ignore the "See Dick run" construction of his sentences. What I can't escape are the double references to his love of smoked meat and the use of "cuddle," and "special person" in the same paragraph. That's gotta be code for something.


I'm guessing that the only handle worse than "Duckfiend"--FreeMustacheRides--was already taken. But what I'm getting from this is that I have to be slender, not care that he's fat, and hang out at home watching the dogs and waiting to be wickedly sexy and naughty as soon as he gets off the duck blind, reeking of elk urine and Schlitz lite. Have I already sufficiently horrified you with the online dating prospects in rural Minnesota, or do you want one more?

Have youever seen stars after a kiss I can make it happen. I like doing all kinds of outdoor activities like fishing, camping, hiking , sitting around a campfire, Ilike to cook for someone special like to cuddle on the coach and watch movies with the fireplace going and have some hot popcorn (I like to surprise the one Iam with flowers, little notes a hug or a kiss when they are not expecting it like to have candles lit in the house makes for a romantic setting I like to run a hot bath for that special person and have candles lined along the tub I also give very good back rubs. I like to watch football sometimes

You can see someone tried to help this guy--tell them you like to cuddle and bring flowers!!--but he has his own idea of what women like, as you can see from his posted picture. And who am I to say he's wrong? There are surely women out there who like a simple man who can provide, as well as decorate their double-wide with dead animal parts whilst running them a bath in the rust-stained tub. My point is that Duckfiend, WhiteyBlue69, and BestKisser1 are all you get on the rural Minnesota buffet of love. From this well springs inspiration to continue my Murder-by-Month series, featuring an amateur sleuth looking for love in greater Minnesota and ending up with dead bodies, instead.

Any advice for me, or the guys above?

UPDATE: I've expanded my online dating net to Iowa and surprisingly, may have scored. Who would have guessed?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Author, author

Five authors in one car and the talk is bound to turn to famous authors. The newbie was really distressed to hear one of her favorite children’s authors was not a very pleasant person. She felt her enjoyment of this author’s work was forever tainted by knowing that this woman was not kind and generous but prickly and abrasive.

At the time, I thought she was na├»ve. People are people and not all of them are warm and fuzzy. I’m okay with that.

Then tickets for a James Taylor concert went on sale. And for the first time in a long time, my visceral reaction was no. I didn’t want to see him play. And I know why. I’d found out he’d been like in his younger days.

I’d read the book Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, which is about Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. A wonderful read, full of insights about the sixties and fun facts about the singer/songwriters’ lives. And loves. And, I have to tell you James Taylor doesn’t come off very well.

I know he was young, and an addict to boot, but he was a jerk. He’s not that person today, but the songs that l loved were all written in the time period. Now instead of insightful and meaningful, I read the lyrics as indulgent and misogynous.

It shouldn’t matter, I know. The author/songwriter should be judged on her work. Nothing else. But people react. They don’t like what that author stood for, who she voted for in the last election.

The internet has made it much easier to get to “know” your favorite authors. I’m thrilled when Dana Stabenow comments on my Facebook page or when Joshilyn Jackson writes about the difficulty of sitting down to write every day. On the other hand, language used by another author on a blog turned me off.

So my question is this: in this era of Facebook/Twitter/blogging, when is too much information too much?

What about you? Has meeting an author turned you on or off her work? Has something someone tweeted or posted offended you enough to swear off buying their books? Do you worry about the image you’re projecting as an author?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It’s A First!

My debut novel, For Better, For Murder, will be published in September 2009 by Midnight Ink. As a result, the Inkspot members graciously invited me to blog with them. I accepted then realized I would have to write my first blog entry—ever.

I’m taking the easy road this time and telling you a little about my new book and how it came to be. I’ll try to work my way up to something a little more edgy in the future.

Over two years ago now, I wrote For Better, For Murder because, as a stay-at-home mom, I found only so many hours could be filled with laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, dog walking, okay maybe a little mall shopping and lunching, volunteer work, children’s activities, and, oh yes, the ladies of The View. I craved purpose, earning potential, and some brain exercise. Then, when these characters started talking to me, I couldn’t stop writing until I’d completed three books in the Broken Vow Mystery series. Currently I’m taking a rest from writing, but, as my friend likes to say, ideas keep “percolating” in my head. Book four will pour out of me one day soon, I’m sure.

I intended to write a cozy, but my agent called this book a “cozy with an edge”. The acquiring editor at Midnight Ink called it “whatever this thing is that you wrote”. I took that as a compliment. I wanted this book to be different. Fresh. Entertaining. If you laugh out loud a couple times, come close to tears once, and remember something unique to the story months after you’ve finished reading it then I’ll have accomplished my goal.

The protagonist of For Better, For Murder owns a sportscar boutique in New York’s Finger Lakes region. I wanted to write about a protagonist with an interesting hobby or profession. When I took inventory of my own, I realized another author had already written about them. So I stole my husband’s hobby—cars. He’s been talking to me about them for seventeen years. Three quarters of the time—okay, half the time, but let’s keep that a secret between us—I was actually listening. Then I picked the Finger Lakes region as the setting for my fictional town, because I spent a lot of time there in childhood and now as an adult with my own children. I’m just hoping I didn’t make it sound so inviting that everyone flocks there and I can’t get a table at my favorite restaurants anymore.

Now for the plot: in For Better, For Murder sportscar boutique owner Jolene Asdale craves business success and a quiet life in her upscale Finger Lakes tourist town. But a corpse in her showroom Ferrari and the arrival of her almost-ex-husband, the deputy sheriff assigned to the investigation, creates a tense situation that only heightens as the evidence keeps pointing to Jolene as the murderer.

I’ll tell you a story about Jolene in my next post.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Ghost Face?

Keith here.

We all know the expression “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” The joy of the Susan Boyle phenomenon is finding something magnificent inside a body that looks undistinguished and frumpy.

Does it work that way in the book world itself? If we write great prose, does it matter what we look like? If only.

Book buyers do seem to think you can tell a book by its cover. In a recent story on NPR, Martha Woodroof reports “the use of novelist photos steadily increased as the text-driven magazines of the first half of the 20th century gave way to the picture-driven ones of the second half.” Nicholas Latimer of Knopf relates a conversation with a People’s Magazine editor who told him that “if you have an attractive looking author, there’s a better chance that your book will get reviewed.” Latimer bemoaned this state of affairs: “That is just shocking to think that you have to have an attractive author first, and then if they’ve written something interesting they might review it.” (Click here if you want to listen to the whole NPR story.)

I’m screwed. Damn! Is a plastic surgeon as necessary as a good editor then?

Jessa Crispin, the BookSlut, tells NPR listeners, “You know, I have met too many writers who look absolutely nothing like their author photo. So you meet them at a party, you're like, who are you? Like, did you hire somebody for your author photos? Should I get someone to stand in for me?”

Good idea! I have a book coming out in October. Maybe getting the right stand-in for my author photo is the answer. Others employ ghost writers. I'll use a ghost face.

Below are four potential author pix. Which one will send Smasher to the top of the bestseller lists?
Please let me know your choice via commenting.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Things That Make Me Say Uh-oh

By Deborah Sharp

If only I had $20 for every time someone told me, ''I have a great idea for a book!''

Some of Midnight Ink's more experienced authors are well-accustomed to that refrain. But our once-small stable has quite a few newbies -- recently signed, about to have their first book published, or still learning the writerly ropes, like me. In the whopping seven months I've logged as a published novelist since Mama Does Time debuted, I can say: I've heard it a lot.

Being seen as an expert by aspiring writers takes some getting used to. It's flattering, of course, and I'm usually pleased to offer advice. But it can also be frustrating. Here are some things that make me go uh-oh when an aspiring writer speaks.

Me: ''So, have you written anything yet?''
Aspiring Author: "Nope, it's all in my head.''

Me: ''You should join a writers' group. It's a good opportunity to get feedback on your work.''
AA: ''Oh, I don't want anyone else to know about what I'm writing. They might steal my idea.''

Me: "What's your main character like?''
AA: "Well, there's not just one main character. I want the story to unfold through five different main characters.''

Me: ''You've got the makings of a nice story, but nothing happens in Chapter 1.''
AA: "Yeah, but ....''

Me: ''I'd be glad to look at your first 10 pages.''
AA: ''You really need to see the whole book to understand the first chapter. It's 600 pages.''

I may make a little laminated card to hand out, Top Five Tips for beginning writers:

1. Get something -- anything -- down on paper. For 15 years, a sports reporter pal has been describing to me what could be a wonderful memoir about small-town life and healing childhood grief through baseball. Trouble is, it's still in his head. He fears it won't be any good. Well, first drafts seldom are. That's what re-writing is for.

2. People in a writers' group are extremely unlikely to steal your idea. Plagiarism is rare. That's why it makes big headlines if it happens.

3. Choose one character to be your readers' eyes and ears; they're called ''main'' characters for a reason. Some seasoned authors seamlessly meld multiple points of view. I can't; you probably can't either. Not yet. Would you put a toddler taking his first steps onto a circus high wire?

4. Banish Yeah, but ... from your lexicon. As in "Yeah, but the story really gets interesting in Chapter 5.'' Sorry, but it needs to be interesting in Chapter 1. Some things that are interesting: Action. Conflict. Trouble. Some that aren't: Long descriptions of characters' traits or backstory without them saying or doing anything.

5. Make your first chapter work hard. It sets the book's tone. It introduces your main character. It has action to propel the plot and make your reader go on to Chapter 2. (PS: 600 pages is about twice as long as your first book should be).

How about you? What are your Uh-oh danger signs? Or, what tip helped you as an aspiring author? (For me, it was ''Put the body in Chapter 1.'')

Monday, May 11, 2009

After Malice

What could be better than Malice? With great panels, meeting old friends and making new, and the wonderful Berkley dinner, Malice is a tough act to follow. However, the folks at the Mystery Lovers Bookstore in Oakmont, PA, did just that. Each year on the Monday after Malice, they put on the Festival of Mystery.

I'd heard about this mythical one day event last time I was at Malice. Talk of many authors, many books sold in just a few hours. So Joanna and I climbed into their rental car and made the 400 mile trip to PA.

The next day a volunteer, Joyce Tremel (whose mystery is with an agent, fingers crossed for her), picked me up at my hotel and we drove through the rain-slicked streets of Pittsburgh to get to the first event, a tea thrown by the libraries of Alleghany county. We mingled with the librarians and locals, some book club members, some Friends of the Library and I introduced myself to authors I’d missed at Malice.

From there it was on to the Greek Church Hall for the main event. There was a line of people outside. Did I mention it was raining? I learned later that they’d come from all over and started lining up hours earlier.

We entered through the kitchen, glamorous as always. I found my name on a table piled high with my books. Right next to Elaine Viets and Heather Webber to one side and Heather Terrell and Marcia Talley to my right.

The doors opened and the place was packed. Readers, armed with their lists, gathered up books from their favorites. My books were new to them but many were willing to take a chance on a new author. I got the feeling that they’d discovered many wonderful authors at this event, and so were open to try new series.

After the first hour, Richard Goldman interviewed the authors on a little stage in another part of the hall. The audience, sated from their book buying frenzy, sat in rapt attention. He was a gracious host, as was Mary Alice Gorman. The event lasted four hours with all the authors being introduced and fans lingering even as clean up (by a crack team of volunteers) began. Afterwards, it was back to the bookstore for pizza and down time.

According to their email, over eighteen hundred books were sold, a 15% increase over last year. 8 books a minute!

What a wonderful event for both readers and writers! I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope Richard and Mary Alice continue doing this. One way to ensure this is to support them and other independent book stores. You can order directly from them at I’m going to buy some of the books I saw last Monday night.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Saving the Brick & Mortars

Cricket McRaeLast year one of Colorado's premier mystery book stores, High Crimes, closed the doors of their shop in Boulder. Unlike many of the smaller independents that have disappeared, they transferred their business to the Internet. Now High Crimes is an online indie that still specializes in mysteries. They even continue to host the occasional author signing at a local coffee house.

Of course, we all know of independent book stores that are either in danger or have gone out of business. Times are hard and the major chains and Amazon are not only accessible but offer discounts. And book stores aren't the only ones in jeopardy; local businesses of all types face increasing odds as the recession wears away at them and their customers alike.

The 3/50 Project is a nationwide effort to stem the flow of dollars out of our local economies. Now, I'm not a fan of the idea that we need to all run out and spend a bunch of money to stimulate the economy. In fact, I get a bit riled every time I hear it suggested. However, we all need to buy some stuff, don't we? Might as well spend our money at home.

A couple of tidbits from the project's website:

"If just half the employed U.S. population spent $50 each month in independently owned businesses, their purchases would generate more than 42.6 billion in revenue."


"For every $100 spent in independently owned stores, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 remains here. Spend it online and nothing comes home."

The project has gone viral, and has been covered in a number of newspapers and blogs. I'm doing it again here because it's important, and it's something we can participate in as individuals. Other organizations that emphasize local buying are the American Independent Business Alliance, Indiebound, and the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies.

Check these folks out -- and spend your money in a way that not only benefits you, but your entire community.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Inkspot News - May 9, 2009

Photos from the recent Malice Domestic conference are posted here. (Click on the Photos tab at top if you aren't taken directly there.)

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Best Part of This Job Is...

At presentations I do for school kids, I’m often asked, “What’s the best part of being an author?”
I love that question. Really I do. But there are so many good parts, I have trouble picking just one. Here’s a partial list I’ve developed—and I’m counting on my Midnight Ink friends to add to it.

1. The dress code—I can do my work in jammies, without makeup, with makeup, in jeans, or even in the buff. (But I wouldn’t do that because my chair covering is itchy. Don't ask how I know.)

2. The hours—Okay, they are long, but I do have some control. I can start early and work late or work late and start early. I can work weekends. I can work in the middle of the night. I can work from the road. I can read which is working, sort of...

3. The office staff—Rafferty and Victoria, my dogs, are very accommodating. They don’t gossip. They don’t interrupt too often. I told them about my Agatha nomination first thing. I swore them to secrecy feeling quite confident they’d never spill the beans--unless someone bribed them with yummies.

4. The escape—I tell lies, and I believe ‘em. I make a nicer world than the one most folks live in. When reality presses down on me, I can go to “my happy place,” and take a mental vacation. I don’t need drugs or booze or expensive flights to exotic spots.

5. The fans—I meet the sweetest people who say the nicest things. A man at Malice told me, “I was reluctant to read about a scrapbooker. But…I figured I owed it to you to read all the books up for Best First Novel—and I have to tell you that I LOVED your book! The characters were so human! I can’t wait for the next one.” (Yeah, I’m bragging, but it was a cool moment, so indulge me.)

6. The fan mail—Also, totally awesome. One woman told me my book helped her forget about the problems with her mother's health. Another told me how much she loved the references to the St. Louis area. Yet another told me she totally identified with Kiki Lowenstein and that feeling of being an outsider. I ask you, how many people get to open good mail like that every day?

7. The travel—Just got back from Festival of Mystery, and I can honestly say Pittsburgh has fascinating neighborhoods. Last fall, I drove through eastern Tennessee and the view was so gorgeous I nearly drove off the side of a mountain. Flying over DC this year on my way to Malice Domestic, I had a terrific look at our national monuments.

8. The other authors—When I walk into a bookstore or read the NYT Book Review, I think to myself, “I’ve met him; and her, and him, and talked to her, and corresponded with him” etc. It’s a cheap thrill, but one I still get. This year at Festival of Mystery I sat next to Wendy Corsi Staub. Last fall I signed with Lora Leigh and Julia Quinn. Emilie Richards is one of my mentors. (I still pinch myself to realize that.) Shirley Damsgaard is my best bud. Talk about high clover. It doesn't get much better than rubbing elbows with these industry titans.

9. The librarians—Always wonderful, erudite, thoughtful, intelligent people. Who doesn’t love librarians? I'm going to give a presentation in July to the library in Vincennes, IN, where I grew up. I can't wait to tell them how their kindness and their book collection made a big difference in my life.

10. The bookstores—Every shelf promises ideas, excitement, and entertainment. So many choices, so little time!

I’ll stop now. But how about you? If you’re an author, what do you think is the best part of the job?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What Should I Read?

Well, I'm at that stage again. (Cover your eyes, fellow Inkers) I've read a dozen mysteries in a row ranging from Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built to Louise Penny's A Rule Against Murder. I loved most of the books I read but folks, I need a genre break. I'd love to read a moving women's fiction novel or an imaginative historical fiction or even a fantastically original sci-fi or fantasy book. In fact, I love a good YA novel as much as any middle-schooler, so the field is wide open.

What I don't want: The Oprah Book Club  gloom and doom but oh-so-literary type of book. It's spring and I"m in the mood for renewal, not suicides or overdoses. 

I know our blog followers are voracious readers. You have given me incredible recommendations before - many of which I would not have discovered without your guidance.

So think back over the past few months. What book did you talk about most? What book did you pass on to a friend and say, "Put this on the top of your TBR pile!"

Summer's coming and I bet we could all benefit from a new reading list so please share.

And congrats to G.M. and Joanna for being on the prestigious Malice Domestic Agatha Awards ballot. To me, you both won right from the get-go. It was great to see you gals. (And Alan too!) 

A Mystery of History: Where is Cleopatra?

by Julia Buckley
A news update here suggests that archeologists may have found the final resting place of doomed lovers Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

Cleopatra, generally assumed to be a beautiful and clever ruler, was the last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt; though her love affair with and marriage to Mark Antony was the stuff of legend, she was first married to her own brothers (Ptolemy VIII and Ptolemy VIX) and was the mistress of Julius Caesar, who was more than thirty years her elder. With Caesar she conceived a son, Caesarion. She also bore three children to her husband, Mark Antony. Caesarion was later executed by the ruler Octavian, but the three children she bore to Mark Antony survived their parents' deaths and were protected, ironically perhaps, by Antony's former wife.

Today's publicity agents could only dream of keeping their clients in the public consciousness for as long as Cleopatra has fascinated the world--and all without representation. :) Of course, Cleopatra had historians on her side, and her legend was recorded by writers like Pascal and Plutarch. It is generally thought that because she was able to charm and manipulate men and to stay alive amidst much violence and chaos, that she was beautiful. Today a general picture of Cleopatra has emerged--based more on Elizabeth Taylor's performance in Cleopatra than on any sense of reality.

Her affair with Mark Antony was immortalized by Shakespeare in his play, Antony and Cleopatra. His character Enobarbus, convinced that Antony's love for her is dangerous, describes her this way:

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies."

Now Zahi Hawass, an archeologist who dresses like Indiana Jones, is trying to lure the world to his latest site by drawing on the continuing fascination with Cleopatra. The AP's Paul Schemm hints that perhaps people shouldn't yet get their hopes up. Says Schemm in the linked article, "Hawass' claim is the latest spectacular announcement by the archaeologist, who continues to capitalize on the world's fascination with ancient Egypt. He regularly unveils discoveries that are often met with skepticism and bemusement by Egyptologists abroad."

Still, the most interesting thing about this story is that it is a story at all, and that after 2000 years a woman's bones are potentially as compelling as her living self. What is the lure of Cleopatra, of Antony, of history?

Why do we cling to the mysteries that can never be solved to our satisfaction? Is it because they cannot be solved that we love them?

Your thoughts?

Cleopatra photo link here.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Would You Get Knocked Out for $12 million

by Tom Schreck, author of the Duffy Dombrowski Mysteries

Saturday night I spent fifty bucks to watch a fight that lasted less than six minutes.

Well worth it.

To the casual observer I'm sure it looked like two tough guys beating each other up.

To me it was ballet.

Hatton, the Brit, came right at Pacman, the Filipino.

Pacman stayed his ground and with a total economy of movement avoided getting hit and hit back hard.

Hatton went down three times and the last one scared the hell out of me. Slow motion showed he was unconscious the instant he was hit.

Hatton is probably in the 99.8 percentile of excellence in the boxing world. Unfortunately for him, Manny Pacquaio is two tenths of a single percentage point higher.

Hatton got paid 12 million dollars to get hit that hard.

Would you take that shot for that salary?

Before you answer think:

Would you being willing to have a headache the rest of your life?

Would you be willing to risk early dementia?

Would you be willing to roll the dice with things like sanity, pain and quality of life?

$12,000,000 is a lot of money for six minutes.

Forever is a long time to hurt.

And maybe this explains my rage when sports announcers claim that golf, tennis or even football are the most demanding sports.

Let's see Tiger hit a chip shot when his eye is closed from swelling, or Nadal approach the net if he was going to run into Pacquaio's left hand as he did or even let me see Ray Lewis try to hit someone who sees it coming, who can hit back and isn't wearing body armor.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Breaking News: Agatha to InkSpotter G.M. Malliet

The winners of the Agatha Awards were just announced at Saturday night's Malice Domestic banquet and guess who picked up the laurels for best first novel? Our own G.M. Malliet for Death of A Cozy Writer. Terrific. Fabulous. Fantastic. Congrats to Gin!