Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Lou Berney Interview, by Jess Lourey

Acclaimed screenplay and short story writer, raconteur, and self-proclaimed liar Lou Berney has just imagereleased his first novel, the humorous thriller GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, and it’s burning up the charts (Really. Check out those Amazon ratings). He was kind enough to cyber-sit down with me for an interview to discuss writing, promotion, and filthy bird rescues.

1. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT has earned raves from the big boys, including a starred review from Booklist. Describe this novel in five or fewer words, and one of them has to be a preposition.

LOU: Luck love larceny Panama of.

2. Nicely done. On to the next question. I like to play the "what did the publicist take out?" game where I read blurbs and use my imagination to replace ellipses. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Lou Berney's fiction...sings with modern slang and timeless insight." I'd like to imagine the original blurb was, "Lou Berney's fiction…is the best out there, but I'd rather listen to Neil Diamond, who…sings with modern slang and timeless insight." Please play this game with me by replacing the ellipses in this Publisher's Weekly review of GUTSHOT STRAIGHT: "A fast-moving caper...smoothly blends humor, action, and romantic frisson."

LOU: First of all, can I just say how unfair it is to have to go funny to funny with Jess Lourey? Unfair. I should get some kind of head start, or she should have to crack wise while using only vowels. OK, fine, anyway:

“A fast-moving caper…with teenage vampires, boy wizards, cute photos of dogs, recipes for tasty three-minute meals, fascinating Civil War history, and lots of valuable coupons that…smoothly blends humor, action, and romantic frisson."

(*Interviewers note: Sorry, busy looking up “frisson.”)

3. You wrote GUTSHOT STRAIGHT during the Hollywood Writer's Strike image (that's what we call it here in Minnesota. The Hollywood Writer's Strike.) Can you tell our readers more about your experience writing for the big and little screen?

LOU: Unfortunately, nothing I’ve written for Hollywood studios and networks has gone into production yet. I have, however, written quite a bit for Hollywood studios and networks – original feature scripts and one-hour TV pilots, plus feature adaptations of novels and stories – and the pay has been handsome. Or if not exactly leading-man handsome, at least not comedy-relief homely.

Most recently I adapted a literary thriller by Pete Ferry, TRAVEL WRITING, for Rob Reiner to direct at Warner Brothers. Around the same time I adapted a family-friendly Christmas novel, WHEN ANGELS SING, by Turk Pipkin, for independent producers in Austin, Texas. How’s that for diversity?

4. You are a man of many hats. Is there a GUTSHOT STRAIGHT screenplay in the works? If so, who's gonna play Shake? Gina?

LOU: Negotiations for an adaptation of GUTSHOT STRAIGHT are currently afoot. I don’t know if I’ll be doing the screenplay, but I amimage more than happy to take this opportunity to play studio honcho and cast the movie. If George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Clive Owen are unavailable, I’d like to snap up Nathan Fillion to play Shake. As for Gina, she sometimes gets mistaken for Sienna Miller, so that might be a smart play. Though Michelle Monaghan would be really good too.

5. Excellent choices, particularly Fillion, whose is that rare credible funny/action hero. You are currently on the road promoting GUTSHOT STRAIGHT. What is the most memorable signing experience you've had, and what promotional advice can you give other writers?

LOU: I don’t know if it was my most memorable signing experience, but the one that pops to mind occurred in Seattle, where I had an event at the wonderful Seattle Mystery Bookshop. A woman wandered in off the street and over to the desk where I was signing. I started telling her image about my book, but it turned out she’d come in because she’d spotted a pigeon outside with an injured leg and was worried about it. After lengthy and involved negotiations with JB, one of the booksellers at SMB, she agreed to buy one of my books if JB agreed to call the city and have them rescue the pigeon with the injured leg. So it was win-win for everybody – me, JB, woman, pigeon! From then on my touring slogan has been: One book at a time, one bird at a time.

Oh, wait, there was that other signing experience, in Vegas, when the three showgirls showed up late and drunk and half-naked with the illegal –What? OK, sorry, sorry. Jess is telling me I’m out of space, cut to the chase.

My promotional advice: get promotional advice from people smarter than me. That was the best thing I did. I went to Bouchercon in Indianapolis and threw my dumb-ass self on the mercy of incredibly generous writers such as Jess Lourey, Julie Hyzy, Sean Chercover,image JT Ellison, Derek Nikitas, Andy Gross, and Keith Raffel. I learned, for example, to concentrate a book tour on independent mystery bookstores, an approach that has really worked out well for me. I’ve had the opportunity to get my book and myself in front of the terrific people who really know crime and mystery fiction, and who spend all day selling it. That’s been invaluable.

Mainly, my advice about the promotional process is to enjoy it. See it as a chance to meet lots of great people, have lots of great conversations, maybe save a bird here and then. If you sell some books along the way, that’s cool, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to dive in focused only on that, on selling selling selling. It’s not healthy and it’s probably not effective.

6. I agree completely. Where can we find your remaining tour schedule, as well as more information about you and your writing?

LOU: You can get more information about me and my writing (Excerpts! Contests! Free stuff!) at

(*Interviewers note: Thanks for joining us at the Midnight Ink blog, Lou! The experience imparted a frisson of joy.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dedicated to:

Cricket McRae

I've been thinking about the dedication for my upcoming home crafting mystery, Something Borrowed, Something Bleu. This is the fourth in the series. Above, you can see my choice for Book #3, Spin a Wicked Web. The women in my family have had a tremendous influence on my domestic passions as well as my writing.

'G.G." was what we all called my great-grandmother, Essie McCoy, because "great-grandmother" was just too much of a mouthful. And by "we all" I mean her twenty-four great-grandchildren. Well, most of them. There were a few who called her "G.G. Pickle." Her cucumber and watermelon rind pickles were quite the treat when we visited.

The second in the series, Heaven Preserve Us, was "For Kevin." Aww. At least that's what people said when my dear one would just happen to have the book in his hand and allow it to fall open to the dedication page right in front of them. (Do you know how hard it is to make that look casual?) There was a lot going on in our lives -- some off-the-hook good and some amazingly awful -- while I was writing that book. He was unfailingly supportive and encouraging through it all.

As for the first book, Lye in Wait, I couldn't bring to mind the dedication. Mortified, I walked to my bookshelf to take a look. Imagine my relief when I realized I was more stupid than forgetful. There was no dedication.

And I remembered why. I'd written that first book in a kind of vacuum. No writing group. No feedback. No one read it as I went along. Just me, rewriting and rewriting and editing, making decisions alone, sending out queries one after the other. The first person who read Lye in Wait besides me was an agent. Then about a dozen more agents and my ex. Then some editors. And, finally, the acquiring editor at Midnight Ink. The Home Crafting Mystery Series was born.

At the time, I just couldn't think of anyone I wanted to dedicate that first book to.

Likely candidates for my next mystery are plentiful, though. There are my writing buddies who comb through my prose, point out inconsistencies with a gentle hand, and are still not afraid to say things like, "What the hell does this mean?"

There are the readers who discovered the series, enthusiastically spread the word, and check in regularly to find out when the next one will be released. One of their emails can keep me going for days.

There are the independent bookstores where they ask me to come sign and then hand sell the heck out of my books. We all know how important the indies are to an author's success.

Who have you dedicated your book(s) to? Any regrets? Does it feel like an important decision, or just another thing to check off your to-do list?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

You're Such a Character!

By Deborah Sharp

A friend got me one of those writer's sweatshirts for Christmas: Careful, or You'll End up in My Novel. Since South Florida has actually had a taste this year of what the rest of the country calls winter, my new sweatshirt's gotten a lot of wear. I'm still a recent-vintage novelist. I love to see people's eyes light up when they read the logo and find out I write mysteries.

Believe me, this never happened when I wore my newspaper reporter's t-shirt: Journalists Do It Daily. Members of the media rank somewhere between politicians and Wall Street titans on the public's love-o-meter. Sad, but true.

The logo on my new sweatshirt has me wondering, though. When did I stop thinking of people as people, and start seeing them as characters?

Example: I ride my bicycle along the river in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and spot a woman on a bench. She wears a blue-flowered dress and crumples a tissue in her lap.

What I'm telling you is I don't want to do this anymore
. . .

She pauses to listen.

It hurts too much. I just can't.

She presses the tissue to her eyes.

I pedal past, and just like that, this poor woman's misery becomes a snippet of dialogue. I tuck it away for some future cell-phone breakup scene in a book.

I continue on to meet some friends for breakfast. As they chat, I check out the cafe. There's an older couple, she in a poly pantsuit, he in a fishing cap. They never say a word to each other as they sip their coffee. He takes his black. She uses too much sugar.

I feel a quick rush of fear: What if that's my husband and me, 20 years down the road? But my next thought is how to make them work, fictionally. Forty years of marriage, and nothing left to say. Maybe there's rage roiling beneath her placid features. Perhaps he's disappointed at how life turned out. Or, maybe he's taken up with a younger woman who sells fishing lures along Lake Okeechobee. This is the last breakfast before he walks out on his wife.

My gaze moves on to assess the next group of diners -- three guys with neat hair and tight t-shirts. Male models? Personal trainers? But then my attention turns to a woman sitting alone at a table in the corner. Pen in hand, she has an open notebook on the table. She stares thoughtfully. At me. I feel a flush on my face as I realize maybe I'm fiction fodder for her. I imagine her character notes:

Middle-aged, lacks social skills. Disengages from her table's conversation to watch everyone else. Spends too much time in her own head.

I turn my attention to my friends, smile and ask questions. I am not disengaged! Stealing a glance at this other writer, I see her head is now bent over her notebook. She's scribbling away. The nerve! Who does this woman think she is, reducing me to a character in her novel?

How about you? Do you put real people in your fiction? Have you ever become a character in someone's book? Do you think those writer's sweatshirts are stupid?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Being Committed vs. Being Committed

Every time someone asks me what it takes to be a published author, I give the same answer: Commitment.

Commitment to plant your butt in a chair day after day, week after week, month after month. Commitment to the process of submitting your work to agents and publishers. Commitment to publicity and marketing. You can’t just go through the motions. It will show.

With the Winter Olympics coming up in about two weeks, we will be hearing a lot about commitment as the personal stories of the athletes unfold between the televised events. I love hearing the stories of these dedicated men and women who have sacrificed so much, juggling family and jobs to pursue their particular discipline and dream. It makes watching the events much more dramatic and personal.

As writers, we’re participating in our own Olympics. I’m not talking about competing with each other for prizes, but competing with ourselves for each book to be better than the last. The Olympians, while vying for medals, do that. With each luge run, slalom or triple jump, they are competing with themselves to better their last performance. Only commitment will bring improvement.

Then something occurred to me. Being committed is also the term used when someone is placed in an institution for mental problems. In that instance, being committed is equated with being crazy or at least unbalanced. That led me to that old saying: The definition of insanity is doing something over and over and expecting different results.

Hmmm, does that mean the Olympians are insane? Or that we're crazy for pounding out book after book and expecting each one to be better than the last?

I’ve been called insane for the schedule I keep, and crazy for the number of books I've agreed to write each year. In a few days I will deliver Murder In Vein to my publisher. It’s the first book in my new vampire mystery series and I wrote it in just over two months. My manager thinks it’s the best book I’ve written to date. I’m not sure about that yet. To me, it’s still a blur, like the faces of a crowd standing in the snow watching me race downhill towards the finish line.

I made a commitment and will deliver on it. In the meantime, I feel like I'll be ready for a straight jacket when it’s over.


Sue Ann Jaffarian
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Conspiracies Part II

by Tom Schreck
Author of "Out Cold"

Last time I blogged on conspiracies, the consensus in the responses was that, while conspiracy stuff is fun and makes for interesting story telling, it shouldn't really be taken seriously.

But what about Operation Northwoods?

In 1997 during the JFK Assaination Review, a top secret plan was declassified and released to the public.

In short, Northwoods was a "False-flag" plan. A "False-flag" plan is when a government commits acts upon itself and blames another entity to garner public opinion to attack that government.

In 1962, the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Secretary, drew up a plan to have the CIA commit acts of terrorism on the US and make it look like Cuba was responsible. We're talking hijackings, bombings other acts where real innocent Americans would lose their lives.

Journalist James Bamford summarized Operation Northwoods in his April 24, 2001 book Body of Secrets:

"Operation Northwoods, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere. People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war"

You can read the now declassified plan here

Ultimately, JFK rejected it. However, Northwoods showed what the government seriously considers.

Is it so hard to believe that leaders after JFK would come up with similar plans and that perhaps presidents after JFK might accept such plans to get their agendas and needs met?

For instance, suppose your oil money was endanger if the world shifted from using American currency for trade? Or suppose an extremist group stopped the development of heroin in their country cutting off the CIA's favorite way to raise money.

Wouldn't favorable public opinion towards war be convenient?


Tom Schreck's latest book "Out Cold" explores such conspiracies

Monday, January 25, 2010

Friends and Sidekicks


There are books out there where the protagonist works his way through the plot solo, without friends to bump ideas or thoughts off of. Without close advisers to interact with. Without friends to support or even irritate him.

Those books tend to have a lot of internal dialogue or are man-against-nature stories of someone trying to survive while stranded out in a snowstorm or at sea.

But most books I’ve read have the protagonist paired with another character. And I think it definitely makes life easier for writers. Think of all the ways a friend can help us out:

Provide the main character with advice and insight. The protagonist needs someone to bounce a few ideas off of. I love sidekicks in mysteries—they keep the sleuth from having long internal monologues about who the killer is.

Take the plot on a different path. The friend could talk our character out of a potentially good or bad decision. He could create obstacles for our main character or help him meet his main goal.

Help the reader know what the main character is thinking or feeling about something. Maybe the friend actually analyzes the protagonist a little bit, providing us with some background depth. “I haven’t seen you this quiet since your mom’s death when we were in high school.”

Introduce conflict. Maybe this friend isn’t such a good influence. He’s been the protagonist’s friend since they were kids, but he’s been in and out of trouble his whole life. Maybe he drags our protagonist into his seamy underworld while our main character is trying to rescue him from it.

Help reveal backstory. Like the example where the character helps reveal insight into our character, the friend can also shine some light on other important, plot-related events in the protagonist’s life, through dialogue. We have to be careful not to make this an info dump and to work it in seamlessly.

Provide humor (to release tension), or a great subplot. Even thrillers can use a little comic relief every once in a while. When life starts getting really stressful and tense in our novels, a little well-timed humor can do a lot toward reducing it. Our protagonist’s friends can also provide us with an interesting subplot (extra points for tying the subplot into the main plot).

Do your protagonists have friends? What role do they play in your novel?

Friday, January 22, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friends…

better Monkey-typing Being a writer isn't hard. You sit down at your computer and start stringing words together. Words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, and paragraphs become scenes. If you're writing a novel, put enough scenes in a semblance of order and there you have it - a manuscript.

If you're game, you can do some revising, some editing, some polishing. If you get bored, you can always go outside and play. Maybe you'll return to your work. Or not.

What will you do with that work? You can show it to others if you want. Or you can keep it tucked away somewhere safe, in a folder or a secret file on your laptop. It all depends on what kind of writer you want to be. There's nothing "wrong" with writing solely for yourself. Millions do.

It's entirely up to you.

But if your dream is to become a published writer, things get a little tougher. Somewhere along the way, it won't all be up to you. Others will read your work, and various members of the publishing food chain will provide input (some solicited, some not!).

Family members, workshop participants, critique group members, writing instructors, agents, editors, marketing experts, cover designers, publicists, and many others will pony up their ideas, comments, suggestions, corrections, additions, creations, alterations, and inspirations. All with (hopefully) a single goal in mind: to make your work stronger.

In my case, this is a GOOD thing.

I consider every comment and suggestion (although I don't agree with many of them, I consider each one). I think I come up with some pretty good ideas on my own, but I know for a fact that other people's ideas are often better. If I can be the beneficiary of their clever ideas (and best intentions), then that's a GOOD thing.

I'm not shy about stealing good ideas making changes; I can use all the help I can get!

That's why I'm glad I'm with a publisher like Midnight Ink. They know what they're doing.

Some evidence:

The title of HIDDEN FACETS (my original title) was changed to DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD. Verdict: much better.

The title of THE LAST LAFF (my original title) has been changed to KILLER ROUTINE - A Last Laff Mystery. Verdict: much better.

Like I said, change can be a very GOOD thing.



Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie

by G.M. Malliet

For years now, my husband and I have talked about leaving, moving away, just packing up and going, like the footloose hippies we are.

That was a joke. The last thing you'd find either of us doing is packing a knapsack and suddenly heading out in some devil-may-care fashion for the Wild West. We'd need to check the GPS first for hotels, museums, hospitals, coffee shops, shopping areas, and all-night diners.

We are planners. We are researchers. We are ditherers, in fact, and the Internet has given us the excuse to ponder our options endlessly. The pros and cons of America's small towns and large cities? A spreadsheet waiting to be born. Forbes Magazine with its endless "Best Places to Live" articles is pretty much a nightmare for people like us. Their World's Best Places to Live analysis sparked endless debate on passports, visas, housing, exchange rates, political climate, and so on.

With the whole world to choose from, how could we ever narrow it down?

A traffic jam where we actually live is often the catalyst for these wishful-dreaming discussions. We are on the outskirts of DC, which means we basically live in a parking lot with a roof. An expensive parking lot. We don't have a dog, much as we want one or two, because a) we travel a lot and b) we don't have space on the patio for a dog to run. We don't have space on the patio for a hamster to run. A garden where we grow our own food (another fantasy) is out of the question. It is truly bad some days: We feel hemmed in, and the thought of selling up for a few acres, an apple orchard, and a houseful of pets is very tempting. Heck, we could even raise goats and sell goat cheese! If only we had a clue how to do that!

When we do move away, I strongly suspect it will be to another urban setting, albeit a smaller and more manageable one. Unless I switch gears entirely and become a nature writer, which would be a sad, sad effort, because I always have to ask other people the names of trees and things, and I can barely tell a squirrel from a chipmunk. No, it would be another urban setting because I need to look out my window, as I just did, and see people repairing the neighbor's chimney. People talking, walking, laughing, quarreling. People doing things that I can write about.

My real fear is that if you stuck me too far out in the suburbs, in the country, or in a house on the prairie, I would not produce The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit or Little House on the Prairie. I would instead go mad, ever so slowly, like Stephen King's Jack in the Overlook Hotel. "All work and no play," endlessly repeated, formatted in every possible font and color that Microsoft sends.

But the escape fantasy--the longing for a Thoreau-like house in the woods (or by the ocean, even better)--never quite leaves. It is a common fantasy among authors, I think. As much as we know ourselves, as much as we know it would not (in my case) work out, the desire to find some perfect place to write is always there.

I know some MI authors are in fairly remote circumstances, so it must suit you. You're probably not afraid of bears, either. Are you happy there, or are you dreaming of finding a spot where you can choke on exhaust fumes all day?

If Forbes would only come up with a top ten best places for writers list, we might get somewhere.

Photo of Blacktail Prairie Dogs taken from
Photo of folk at Walden Pond taken from

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

And My New Name Is...

by Felicia Donovan


I recently bumped into a fellow author at a party for a mutual friend. This gentleman, whom I'll refer to as "George," is a fairly successful published author with a mystery series. On several occasions, we have chatted (make that "commiserated") about the joys and frustrations of the publishing world, while checking in on each others' writing projects.

I asked George how his latest book was coming along. He smiled smugly and said, "I just gave Mary (the party hostess), a review copy. It will be out in two months."

"Really? Can I see it?" I asked looking around the room.

For a second, his eyes landed on a nearby table. I followed his glance to see the soft cover copy sitting, face down, next to a birthday gift. I took a step forward, but felt George's firm hand on my arm.

"I'm using a pseudonym."

I paused mid-step and turned to face him.


George rubbed his wrinkled chin with the palm of his hand.

"It's my agent's idea. You know how it is. Old guy like me can't draw in the young crowd so she thought I could reinvent myself. It's all very silly if you ask me, but don't you know I landed a three-book deal?"

"A three book deal?"

"And," he continued, "it's a better contract than I ever had with my series. You know how those marketing people are. They came up with some younger sounding name and I'm supposed to be some hip young guy in his late twenties. Go figure..."

His words conveyed disdain but there was a clear glimmer of deep satisfaction in his eyes.

"It's the business we're in. After all, they don't call it 'fiction' for nothing..."


And my new name is...

Dealing With the Blahs

by Julia Buckley
Have you noticed a bit less pep in your prose lately? Less vinegar in your verbs? Even writers can fall victim to Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Do you have any of these symptoms?

•Afternoon slumps with decreased energy and concentration
•Carbohydrate cravings
•Decreased interest in work or other activities
•Depression that starts in fall or winter
•Increased appetite with weight gain
•Increased sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness
•Lack of energy
•Slow, sluggish, lethargic movement
•Social withdrawal

Gee, now that I look at it, I have these during EVERY season. :)

Seriously, though. I recently found myself looking at the fourth day of gray and gloomy and snow-threatening skies. It made me feel rather sad and helpless, and I'm a person who has never minded snow overly much. Still, after a time, this season can affect my productivity.

SAD is actually a form of depression, and so most Internet sites about it will tell you that if your symptoms are severe, you should speak to a mental health professional. However, there are certain common sense things you can do that might perk up your personality and your prose.

Here are some tips from E-how:

1. Exercise three times a week. This will build your immunity and help you sleep better.

2. Eat well, but not heavily. Think nutrition.

3. Laugh, even if you're faking it. Studies show that even fake laughing boosts one's mood. (What a great pre-writing activity! As if writers weren't eccentric enough).

4. Wear bright colors and things that make you feel good.

Perhaps this last one can extend to your writing area. Over Christmas break I cleaned my desk and the surrounding shelves, as well as a few drawers, and it REALLY made me feel better.

So, do you think SAD is affecting your writing? If so, what solutions work for you?

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Dozen Quotes for Writers

Keith here.

Although I have nothing philosophically against them, I'm not one of those guys whose office is festooned with inspirational posters. You know the kind I mean -- some quote written over a picture of a soaring eagle, crashing wave, or fluttering flag. Still along the way, I have collected some quotations that have applicability to the writer's life (or at least to this writer's life). Here's a list of a dozen favorites. They do not come with any guarantee as to veracity. Some are listed because they amuse me, some because they seem wise, and some because, I must admit, they inspire me.

1. "Writing is easy; I just open a vein and bleed." Red Smith, journalist

2. "This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense." Winston Churchill, politician/writer

3. "Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?" Lennon & McCartney

4. "Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." E.L. Doctorow, novelist

5. "Whenever I am asked what kind of writing is the most lucrative, I have to say ransom notes." H.N. Swanson, literary agent

6. "I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it is something I never expected.... If I'm not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out..., I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety." Stephen King, novelist

7. "Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep." Buffalo Springfield

8. "The instant my first book was accepted for publication, I switched from being delusional to being tenacious." L.M. Vincent, author

9. "In our field there are only two kinds of stories -- the salable and the unsalable. Our highest acclaim is a two word sentence -- 'It sold.'" William Campbell Gault, novelist

10. "On all great subjects, much remains to be said." John Stuart Mill, philosopher

11. "Happy and bouyant don't force you into action on the page; you go shopping when you're up." Margaret Drabble, novelist

12. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Samuel Johnson, man of letters

Please add your own favorites in the comment section!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Writing Organizations

Among the Colorado writing community, I am known as the "Networking Queen" and have given talks at writing conferences and to writing organizations on the importance of networking for a writing career. The photos are from the Pikes Peak Writers' 2008 annual "American Icon" reading competition. The first one shows me (in my dreaded reading glasses!) working with fellow program planner Barbara Nickless and the three judges to determine the winners. The second one shows the happy winners with their certificates and prizes. Does it look like this was a fun event? It was--it included wonderful writing, booze and chocolate desserts, so how could it not be! My number one piece of advice for fledgling fiction writers is that you should join at least three writing organizations:

1. A critique group so you get other writers to evaluate your prose and give you feedback, allowing you to improve your writing until it is publishable and to keep it of top-notch quality from then on (See the recent post I wrote at my own blog praising my critique group!).
2. A local writing organization with educational meetings and/or workshops about the business and craft of writing that you will attend and learn from.
3. The national/international organization for your genre so you start thinking of yourself as a professional writer and learn all the unwritten rules for being a professional writer in your genre.

Now, as a "Networking Queen," not only do I follow my own advice, I've joined twice that many organizations. :-) As a mystery author, I am a member of:

1. My local critique group of six fine writers, to which I've belonged for ten years,
2. Pikes Peak Writers, based in my home city of Colorado Springs, CO,
3. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, based in nearby Denver, CO,
4. Mystery Writers of America and the Rocky Mountain Chapter,
5. Sisters in Crime and the Guppies online chapter,
6. The Short Mystery Fiction Society.

I have gained valuable knowledge, opportunities, contacts, publishing contracts!, experience, friendships and so much more from my association with these groups. The value of these gains is waaaay more than the expenses I've incurred for membership fees, driving to meetings, etc.

But, do you want to know the secret for how to increase the benefits you gain from belonging to writing groups even more? Volunteer! Yes, take your turn serving on the board, running an event, or tackling a volunteer chore. Then you become part of the "inside crowd", trading favors with other members, and making your name and work known to them so when they come across an opportunity appropriate to you, they think of you and make that connection. I have served as a board member, organized events, driven speakers, stuffed conference registration packets, schlepped tables and chairs, waived my speaker fee, judged contests, and much more. And I'm happy to do it, because the benefits I've gained in return have been ten-fold.

So, go out there and join up, my writing friends! What writing groups do you belong to? Which ones are your favorites and which would you recommend to fellow writers?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Blessed with "Bigmouths"

I signed a contract with Midnight Ink for books three and four in my Broken Vows mystery series. Pretty exciting considering the first book, For Better, For Murder, only came out in September. Given the continued interest in the series, that book must be doing all right. What a relief!

I need to thank my “bigmouths:” the people who talked up my book, some more excited than me to see it in print. My apologies if I miss anyone—and thank you, too.

First, the reviewers: Kirkus Reviews, CrimeSpree Magazine, Booklist, BookPage, Mystery News, Mystery Scene, Cozy Library, The Mystery Reader, and Once Upon A Romance. I credit my publicist, Courtney Kish, for seeking the attention of so many including The Finger Lakes Times and The Naples Record, distributed in the region where my series is set. In turn, a librarian who read about my book in The Finger Lakes Times invited me to speak at her library. Love it when promotion snowballs!

Then the librarians. Our local librarian took my book flyer to a countywide librarian meeting. Next thing I know, my book’s on loan in multiple branches and our town library held their first local author signing and book sale—and I was invited! Sweet!

And the booksellers. When I arrived at my second book signing, a woman was waiting. She said she comes to the bookseller every week and the manager puts the newest mystery releases in her hand. Mine was one. Great to know the booksellers are on the job!

And my family. I’m not much of talker, but I’m blessed with a family of them. My dad gave bookmarks to restaurant waitresses and his exercise class. My aunt used this sales pitch: “My niece just published her first book, and you must buy it.” Under anesthesia in November, she pitched her nurse. My mother-in-law purchased more books than anyone else. My brother put me on his Facebook page. That’s how we learned his classmate from high school works for Llewellyn. Small world! A cousin selected my book for her book club discussion. My husband offered bookmarks to all his office visits and posted online announcements to his car buddies. Even my kids told their teachers.

Last, but not least, my friends. My fellow writers and critique partners took my bookmarks on vacation to Mexico and Florida, left them on subway trains, and carried them to mystery conferences. One sent my book overseas to the troops. My book club attended my first book signing, bringing their friends and relatives. My neighbors put my book on their Facebook pages. I was invited to guest blog and recommended through online lists and discussions. Best of all, my friends bought and read the book and suggested other people read it, too. Awesome!

All this leaves me grateful and with ample time to polish book four. Book three is done. I just wanted to be sure to thank my “bigmouths” and wish them—and you—a very Happy New Year!!!!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Be True to Your Voice

You’re ready to write a novel. You’ve outlined all twenty-three chapters and plan to write about vampires in a fresh, exciting, and bound-to-be profitable way. Soon, Twilight fans will have a new obsession and you’ll be raking in the profits from the bestselling novels, movie rights, and merchandising.

Or not. In fact, the rejections of the proposal it took you six months to create have cited something “missing” in your voice. How could that be? You penned a supernatural love affair for the ages! It should be sent straight to the most powerful editors, not to the slush pile!

Don’t despair.

I’ve been there too. I’ve written more than one less-than-stellar proposal, believe me. Back when chick lit was all the rage and any book resembling a Sex in the City episode flew off the shelf, I decided to pen a chick lit-style mystery. My agent (the fabulous Jessica Faust of Book Ends) regretfully informed me that my voice wasn’t working. She was right. My attempts to form a plot focusing on cocktails, high fashion, and one-night stands fell flat. Road kill flat.

The book wasn’t me. Chick lit was selling, but I couldn’t write it. These days, vampires are hot, but I can’t write them either.

Then what do we do, fellow writers, when we can’t put our spin on what’s already selling? We color our voice with personal experience.

If an experience can move you, then it can move your readers as well. Case in point: I’d returned to church after a twenty-year hiatus and, inwardly kicking and screaming, joined a monthly Bible Study group. Taking this risk changed me. The people in the group changed me. I assumed they’d be a bunch of stuffy, judgmental, humorless, blue-haired Republicans and, except for the Republican part, I was completely wrong. They were flawed, funny, courageously honest, generous, beautiful, and wise. I’d never laughed so freely or cried so openly as I did in their presence.

I wanted to write about these precious people. I wanted them to solve crimes, to puzzle over obscure clues, to ensure that good triumphed over evil. In the end, I wrote a mystery series about church folk and two major publishing houses offered to buy it. And there wasn’t a single vampire in my proposal. I was in heaven (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Your richest, most believable voice will be born out of dozens of such personal experiences. So don’t get hung up on Carrie Bradshaw or Bella Swan or whatever the next trend may be. After all, you don’t want to ride a trend; you want to start one. Forget what you think people are looking for and write your story. Your voice will outshine even the glitteriest vampire.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The 140-word Novel, by Jess Lourey

Sherman Alexie was recently on The Colbert Report to discuss his latest novel, War Dances, which he has refused to release on Kindle or in any other digital format. You can watch the interview below (and I recommend you do), but his main point is that once books are digital, we lose the celebration of the book as an art form and as a community-creator, not to mention the potential royalties lost as readers pirate books as easily as music listeners pirate songs.

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

Most authors lack the industry clout to refuse to sell the digital rights to their books, but even more than that, I think many of us don’t know what it means to have our books digitally available. The Google lawsuit seems to be muddying that water even more.

What are the pros and cons of Kindle, and other digital readers? I’m asking you as a reader and/or a writer. What do you see as the future of book delivery, and how will that affect writers and readers? The environment? Privacy?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Kids These Days

Cricket McRae
In early November I received an email from a local high school sophomore. She was looking for a community mentor to help her with the personal project she was doing for the IB program she was in. She wanted to write a novel.

I agreed. Meet once a month for six months, answer questions, give advice and encouragement. No problem.


First off, she didn't just want to write a novel. She wanted to write a novel and get it published. The first time we met, in the second week in November, she said she planned on having the first draft done by the end of the year. It was right there on the goal sheet she'd worked out with her project advisor. Six weeks, one book.

Okay, I said, and to her horror brought up the calculator on my phone. To write a 250 page book she'd have to write 6 pages a day. Every day. And it might a good idea if we met more than once a month.

With a relieved expression she waved it off. "Oh, I can do that."

And she did. In fits and starts, around school, advanced homework, violin lessons, orchestra concerts and travel for speech and debate, she wrote a book. The last seven chapters hit my inbox at 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday. From what I can tell from all the chunks -- she's putting them all in one file now -- it's over 300 pages about a group of teenagers coming of age.

I'm so stinking proud of her.

It's rough, and she realizes that. On Tuesday she was ready to start rewriting. I reviewed all of it as she wrote, and very deliberately kept my feedback to structural, character and plot issues. Left her writing alone, not wanting to trip up her considerable momentum.

The writing has a crazy, raw vibrancy. Some places it's nearly unreadable, others are crisp and spot on. Some of the dialog is amazingly good, other places she's feeling her way with the characters and it shows. She's learning how to show rather than tell, and has a real knack for describing characters.

I handled the text-y dialog (OMGee Yay! jsyk) and the occasional dip into hip-hoppity lingo all right, fo' shizzle. Then toward the end of the book I cottoned to the fact that a lot of the dialog between the teens is in song lyrics.

Pointing out a particular line, I asked her about it. The look she gave me was full of pity. "You don't know that song? It's Queen."

Hrm. I know that look. See, my brain is the place song lyrics go to die. But I recognized what she was doing, finally, because I live with a musician, and he quotes songs all the time. Sometimes I notice and sometimes I don't.

"Do kids actually talk like that?" I asked.

"My friends and I do all the time. It's like a code."

I am so glad I'm not in high school now.

So my mentee is plunging back in to her book. She has three months to rewrite and research publishers (and agents) and send out queries. I'll be giving her more specific feedback on her writing now, but I don't want to step on her decidedly unique style.

I know a lot of you are teachers, and even more have kids. Any advice?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

No Drawer Left Unorganized

By Deborah Sharp

I think Book No. 4 is going to be a 10-pounder. Not that MAMA SEES STARS is going to tip the scales at 10 pounds. No, I'm going to weigh 10 pounds more than I do now if I ever manage to finish the darned thing.

Ah, avoidance. Often, it takes the form of deciding I need a little snack before I can start a new scene. And I never decide that a couple of carrots or a stalk or two of celery would really hit the spot. I've had three cups of hot chocolate with marshmallows tonight. Yes, it's unseasonably cold in Fort Lauderdale. But still. Three cups??? Last night it was tortilla chips with melted cheddar. (It's cold out, right?) The night before, a can of chocolate peanuts left over from Christmas. Note to husband: Lock up the chocolate.

It's not all about eating. I've also done laundry, paid the bills, watched TV. Including re-runs of shows I didn't like the first time. I've even organized drawers -- cleaned out drawers! -- in a desperate bid to avoid getting back to the book I promised myself I'd dive back into come the New Year. Well, the New Year is now a week old. The notebook awaiting my next chapter is growing cobwebs.

Is it just me, or is everyone else having trouble getting back into the swing of writing? (Sue Ann Jaffarian, don't answer that. Your work ethic puts every other Midnight Ink author to shame. Three concurrent series??? You know the rest of us suspect you're an android, right?)

Fess up, y'all. Let me know I'm not alone. What's your favorite avoidance tactic? How do you finally get back on track? How many pounds did you pack on finishing your last book?

How about the non-authors out there? Anybody gotten ANYTHING done, work-wise, since mid-December? And clean drawers don't count.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

HBC or LBC? – Decisions, Decisions

No, HBC and LBC are not new cholesterol acronyms or new TV networks. They stand for “High Body Count” and “Low Body Count.”

Every time I start a new book, Rudy, my former boyfriend who still reads my works-in-progress, asks: “So, does this new book have a high body count or a low body count?”

The first time he asked, I replied, “Huh?” Then he pointed out the body count differences in the books I’d already written. For example, my Ghost of Granny Apples books tend to be LBC (ghosts notwithstanding), while in my Odelia Grey series, the number of corpses can fluctuate greatly from book to book.

When I write the books, it never occurs to me to count the dead bodies. I simply write what comes and let the corpses fall where and when they may as the plot progresses. Of course, I always know ahead of time the featured victim – the one who gets the ball rolling – but the others are often left up to the muses. Although there are times when I get three fourths of the way through a manuscript and think: “Hmm, another dead body might raise the tension. (drumming fingers on desk) Who shall it be?”

When Rudy received the first several chapters of Murder In Vein, the first book in my new vampire mystery series, he made a sniffing noise and said: “I can smell an HBC coming.”

Well, duh! It’s about vampires. Of course, it will be an HBC!

How about you? Do you know ahead of time whether your new book will be HBC or LBC?

Sue Ann Jaffarian
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Why Do We Like Conspiracies?

Tom Schreck, author of OUT COLD.

The Lincoln assassination.

The Kennedy assassination.

Martin Luther King

Pearl Harbor


The financial bail out of the richest companies in the world.

The Bush/Gore election.

All have been speculated to be conspiracies. All the conspiracies have been debunked by experts.

To believe in a conspiracy is to voice your lack of trust in the world and the power structure that runs it.

Are conspiracy theories merely collective psychological defense mechanisms to help us conceive of monumental events? Are they just a way for us to deny that catastrophic things can happen randomly?

In OUT COLD, a schizophrenic, PTSD suffering patient winds up on Duffy's caseload. He's nuts and believes in every conspiracy ever. He also predicts future conspiracy-type events.

Then, they start coming true.

In the end it's left for you to figure who's nuts.

What is the healthy stand to take? Trust no one and believe the powers that be are out to screw us or blindly follow what the governments, the media and the "experts" tell us?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Creating Unlikeable Characters


My daughter was a little bored yesterday afternoon, so I offered to play a game with her. I didn’t want to play a long game with her (like Monopoly), and it happened that there was a deck of Old Maid cards very handy.

She did not want to play that game.

When I finally persuaded her to play, she shrieked whenever she got the card and did everything in her power to give it back to me. She was a wreck.

Luck was on her side and she won 2 out of 3 games. The one she lost really upset her. And she doesn’t even know what an old maid is. She just didn’t want the card with the leering, goofily-unattractive woman on it. She seemed to associate some really sinister feeling to the card.

I need characters like this sometimes. I need characters that no one wants to be around, that throw monkey wrenches into my plot.

I’m not talking about flawed characters. Flawed characters are interesting and fun, well-rounded, and sympathetic to readers. I’m talking about characters that other characters run away from, screaming.

You know them—the Uriah Heeps of the world.

Ways to Conjure Up the Ick Feeling for the Reader

Other characters’ negative perceptions of the character. Do they cross to the other side of the street when they see them? Does a chill go up and down their spine when someone mentions their name?

Invade the reader’s personal space. Have the character stand too close to the protagonist in conversations. Bestow them with unpleasant smiles full of bad teeth and malodorous breath.

Grate on the reader’s nerves. Conjure up that fingernail on the chalkboard feeling with a whiny, discontented voice or the habit of arriving at houses uninvited and staying far too long.

It’s not too hard to do—we’re basically going to imbue the character with annoying habits, poor table manners, and anything else that personally bothers us. We just have to be careful not to overdo it—make it a character that goes onstage only for short periods of time or after long intervals offstage.

Have you delved into the world of unlikeable secondary characters?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

party hats1 2009 was a very good year for me (if you aren't nauseated by some serious horn-tooting, you can check out my recap, writing-wise, here). But it's human nature to try to do better.

That's why I'm big into New Year's Resolutions. There are usually plenty of areas in my life than can use some good resolving, so every year I draw up a list. Diligently. Thoughtfully. Some years I even write them down. (I resolve to write more stuff down, rather than rely on my spotty memory.)

To be honest, most of them, like G.M.'s, are somewhat vague. And a lot involve incremental language. I'll eat a little better, I'll exercise a tad more, I won't yell at my kids quite as much. Hard to quantify, thus hard to fail at. (I resolve to be somewhat more concrete when I make my resolutions.)

I guess if I wanted more quantifiable yardsticks, I would compile a list of goals. But "New Year's Goals" doesn't have the same ring to it, and I suppose that goals are really a whole 'nother kettle of fish when you get down to brass tacks (I resolve to use fewer clich├ęs.)

During the course of my resolution-crafting, I sometimes get philosophical. Why do we (humans) have to wait until some arbitrarily appointed time to make resolutions to better ourselves? Why can't we address our shortcomings as they crop up instead of putting it off? (I resolve to procrastinate less. One of these days, I'm sure I'll get around to doing that.)

My quest for self-improvement is not a solitary one. I'm always amused by all the ads for exercise equipment, gym memberships, and weight-loss programs that proliferate in January. Ditto for the storage containers and home organizing products. Then I'm doubly amused come February--or March for the slightly more dedicated--when the pages of eBay and Craigslist swell with treadmills (hardly used!) and unopened crates of Jenny Craig lasagnas (hardly used!). (I resolve to spend less time reading ads for stuff I don't want or need.)

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for bettering myself. Like I said, I compile a list of resolutions every year, and (pat on the back) I think I do a pretty good job of sticking to them. But during those last few weeks of the year, when my exercising has waned and I get a glimpse of the overflowing file cabinets in the basement I had resolved to go through eleven months earlier, I always question my, uh, resolve. (I resolve to stick to my resolutions better.)

Here are a few additional ones:

  • Read more.

  • Maintain my exercise regimen (I've been a little lax on the stretching component).

  • Spend my time more wisely, and its corollary, don't waste so much time surfing the Internet and cruising the blogosphere (some version of this one ends up on the list every year).

  • Take Vitamin D.

  • Reduce clutter. Simplify.

  • Eat a new food (Every year I resolve to add a new (healthy) food to my repertoire. Some winners: beans, avocados, hummus. Still can't do Brussels sprouts. And don't get me started on cheese. This year's candidates: edamame or fennel.)

How about you? Any "unusual" resolutions this year?

Have a very happy and healthy 2010!