Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anti-Procrastination Day

I’ve been an off and on follower of Fly Lady for years. I keep many of her general housekeeping principles each day (quick clean-up in the morning, devoting a particular day for different household tasks…including errands and bills, etc.) It helps me to have some sort of method for the madness—I am, after all, a grime-fighter. :)

One of my favorite things that the Fly Lady has instituted is Anti-Procrastination day. Anti-Procrastination days take place on Wednesday every week and we’re encouraged to tackle at least one thing that we’ve been putting off doing. This could be something like making a medical appointment, sweeping the front porch, replacing a light bulb, calling the plumber about the leaky sink, or sending in a claim form to the insurance company.

I think the concept is useful for writing, too. I definitely have writing-related tasks that I put off doing. How about you? Have you ordered those bookmarks? Postcards? Business cards? Have you put all your writing-related receipts in a separate envelope (I believe even those of us who call writing a hobby for the IRS can claim some deductions….it’s something to check into)? Have you brainstormed on a sheet of paper how to finish that difficult chapter? Was there a scene you need to go back and revise? Promotional phone calls to bookstores to make?

I have postcards I need to send out to libraries. And I’m going to tackle that chore today (just for 15 minutes.) I might be finishing up this chore next Wednesday, but at least I’ll feel better knowing I’ve made a start. And there's also a picture I've been meaning to hang.

What have you been putting off doing? Can you find 15-30 minutes today to do it?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Different Perceptions

Jays by Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939) Like most people, I have random and vague memories from being very small.

I remember being on an airplane at age two and being offered a Coke. I was amazed that my mother let me have one because I wasn’t allowed to have soft drinks usually (I got rambunctious after sugar or caffeine.)

I also have a very vague recollection of a little girl with several hundred Barbie dolls in an elegant hotel lobby. My grandmother and great-grandmother were there, which was unusual because they lived in another state.

I couldn’t put these snippets into any kind of mental catalog or file them away in the appropriate place, because I’d been small and picked out the pieces that seemed important to me.

When I asked my mother about these events years later, she was able to put them in context for me. But to her, the highlights of the experiences were definitely not Coca Cola and Barbie dolls. They were the flight’s destination at Sea Island, Georgia and the event we were attending at the elegant hotel. Neither of which I remembered a bit of, could describe, or even cared about.

This concept of individual observations interests me in fiction. In a mystery, it’s easy to use—different witnesses to the same event could perceive the event very differently, just because each has his own concept of what’s important. You’d get different viewpoints, colored by each person’s priorities and experiences. The sleuth tries to piece together the truth by merging the stories—and sometimes completely discounting a person’s observations as being incorrect (maybe because they’re lying about what they saw or did).

The idea is interesting in biographies. What is the truth about a person? How do we arrive at the truth? There could be twenty different biographies on Princess Diana and they might well all be different—depending on whether the information about her was given by a friend or from someone who she was at odds with in the palace. Most of us are mixes of good and bad---but if you’re writing a biography, what is your motive? What are you trying to portray—the truth? Whatever sells? Or your own romanticized idea of the person you’re writing about? I read bios with a lot of interest and a hefty amount of skepticism.

Nonfiction books on events like Vietnam? I can only imagine the range of opinions that could influence the writing of such a book. But then, if you stick only to the facts and don’t include interviews or opinions, then your book might be less interesting. I think you’d have to apply journalism principles and try to get all sides of a story…unless, again, your motives were to show only a particular side of the event.

It’s interesting in general fiction when someone finds that the truth about a person is different from what everyone has told them is the truth. Glenda of Oz directs Dorothy to a wizard she describes as great and powerful. Everyone in Oz shares the same perception of the wizard—one which isn’t accurate at all. Here you have inaccurate perceptions, deliberately given by someone who wanted the truth about himself (that he wasn’t a great wizard at all) to stay hidden.

You might have a character who ordinarily is extremely trustworthy; a person your protagonist frequently goes to for an opinion. But maybe this rock-solid individual isn’t a good person to talk to when it comes to a particular problem. Maybe their past experiences have warped them in some way to make their judgment unreliable.

We all have our own ideas on people and events, colored by our backgrounds and interests. I love seeing our differences played out in books. And working them into my own.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Staying Motivated and Dealing with Rejection

Life & Still life No.3 by Robert Brackman--1898-1980 It was a big weekend for me, promotion-wise. Saturday I spoke at a writers’ workshop at the Gaston County Library in Gastonia, NC. There were around 75 people there, which is a good-sized group. Yesterday I spoke with my promotional group, The Carolina Conspiracy, at the Waldenbooks at the Carolina Mall in Concord, NC. It went well, too ( but I felt more distracted since my eight year old daughter was with me.)

One thing I picked up on from both workshops was the interest that writers in the audience had in handling rejection. Lynette Hall Hampton spoke on the topic and Joyce Lavene said a few words, as well. People actually spoke out in the middle of the workshop and thanked them for their encouragement.

Submitting material to agents and editors is very difficult.

It feels terrible to get rejected.

We all get rejected.

Lynette talked about the huge number of rejections that she’s gotten in a long career of writing for periodicals and writing books.

Joyce (who has co-authored nearly 60 books with her husband for Berkley Prime Crime, Midnight Ink, Avalon, and others) spoke about planning for rejection. To actually expect the rejections in advance and what your plan for the rejection letters would be: a bonfire, a bathroom papered with them (both have been done by writers she knows), or a treat you give yourself the day you get a bad email or letter.

I have a whole drawer of rejections. I don’t know why I keep them. But they’re there. I was actually rejected by my current agent before. And by many other agents and publishers. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been rejected.

Joyce mentioned a great point: remember the rejection is a business decision. It’s nothing personal. It might be the right project, but at the wrong time. Continue submitting.

I got rejections.

Things that helped me deal with them:

Feeling I was cheating a little bit. I never followed the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ rule. But I made sure that everyone who did get a query letter from me was well-targeted and researched. I made sure they published the kind of book I wrote: both the subject matter and word count. I went to the bookstore and found books that were similar to mine and got the publisher’s name and the author’s agent and editor’s name (nearly always included in the grateful author’s acknowledgements.) For some reason, this tiny little rebellion made me feel more in control.

Finding publishers that didn’t require I have an agent. Read: smaller national publishers. This could be Bleak House, Poisoned Pen, Midnight Ink, Avalon. They’re big enough if you’re starting out. They’ll put you in the bookstores. Your print run might be smaller, but you’ll sell-through your advance quicker. I was not finding it easy to get an agent, so I decided to go right to the source. And this worked for me. (Now I do have an agent…a must when dealing with a big publisher like Berkley Prime Crime/Penguin Books.)

Working on different projects. I decided it wasn’t wise to write a sequel for a book that hadn’t been accepted by a publisher. So I started writing something completely different, to distract me.

Finally…I got an acceptance email. And another acceptance email.

Keep at it. Don’t get discouraged. Know the rules and follow them…to a point. Make your submissions well-targeted and well-written.

Expect rejections.

And keep on writing.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Social Media for Writers

Social Media for Writers

Follow Me on Twitter Today I’m over at Jean Henry Mead’s blog, Writing Advice and Good Books, discussing social networking for writers. I wasn’t an easy convert to the applications (Facebook and Twitter), but using them has turned into a successful, easily manageable, and enjoyable enterprise.

Hope you’ll pop over and visit me there.


Unfortunately, it looks like my links at Jean’s site are dead right now! Until they go live, here they are, here:

Twitter :  There are great online guides to help you learn the basics. Like this video tutorial.

Helpful Sites that List Agents, Authors, Editors, and Publishers on Twitter:

Authors on Twitter

Book Trade People on Twitter

More Authors on Twitter

Libraries on Twitter

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Revision Brain Freeze

Jorge de Castro--1934--Candido Portinari,December 29, 1903 - February 6, 1962 It’s that time again! Yes, revision season has hit my little writing world yet again. Wait, you say, you just finished doing revisions. Yes, but those were my revisions. Now I’m working on my Berkley Prime Crime editor’s revisions for my Memphis Barbeque book.

And there’s a little phenomenon I’ve noticed during the several books I’ve worked on an editor with. I’ll share it with you:

I open the email attachment. I must be alone for this process. The reason is that…

I start cussing. Loudly. %##!!!! What was I thinking!? I did this, too? *&^!!! Look—I did it again, here! ()^%$. (Yes, Generation Xers are fluent in the lost art of the expletive.)

I question myself. What was I doing when I read this section over? Was I revising, then I had to kiss someone’s boo-boo, then I just accidentally skipped this part? Did the oven timer go off at an inopportune moment? Did I suffer a mild stroke?

The requested global revisions give me brain freeze. What? I need to add what? I need to fix what recurring reference ? Uhhhhhh…..

Panic sets in. I run off some excess energy by scrubbing various parts of my house for twenty minutes.

Then the tide turns….

Relief. Oh wait. Most of these revisions are dialogue tags (added, since I so dislike them that I try not to use them.) Or they’re minor word substitutions. Or they’re formatting issues.

Common sense. The global revisions? They completely make sense. And…I have a great idea how to work them in!

I get some paper.

Planning. If I do this, then the text will be really smooth. Let me look through the manuscript and see where I can work this idea in. Oh look--the perfect place to fit it in!

Communication. I email my editor back (and she’s really not expecting to hear from me until Tuesday.) Hey, I got this idea about this problem! What do you think about this….?

I turn into a six-year old again. Okay, this is my idea: we could pretend that this happens. Then this happens. Or, if you’d like, we could pretend that this happens, instead! What do you want to pretend?

I start to work right away.

Rinse and repeat. :)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday’s Forgotten Books

Some Must Watch--Ethel Lina White Today I’m over at Patti Abbott’s website, posting for her recurring segment, ‘Friday’s Forgotten Books.’

Hope you’ll pop over and say hi and read my review of Some Must Watch, also known as The Spiral Staircase, by Ethel Lina White.  There are three of us writing on three different books for the post, so you’ll need to scroll down for mine.

This is a great segment to be involved in, and very popular, for those of you interested in making different kinds of appearances on blogs.  It’s a fun place to visit and a great site to pick up some recommendations on little-known books to read.  For a listing of some of the reviews this year, click over to this site.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

An Interesting Article and Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut Squash Soup It’s Thursday! And I’m doing soup again because I was snarky about sick people last week and now I have sick people at my house. So being ugly doesn’t pay, just like Mama always told me. This soup is Roasted Butternut Squash. It’s pretty and yummy, but it does take a little time. Next week I’m probably going to feature pancakes or something… it’s time for something easy!

My friend Cleo Coyle who writes the Coffeehouse Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime sent me a link to an interesting article. It’s Redactor Agonistes by Daniel Menaker, who is former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker.

Usually I don’t quote a lot of text from articles (and, clearly, you can all read it yourselves), but his article struck a real chord in me—I think because it sounded honest. And, frequently, I think writers are told what we want to hear by our publishers and agents.

Mr. Menaker paints an interesting behind the scenes look at the publishing industry. He makes eleven negative statements about the editing job. Included among them are:

  • The editorial department is frequently out of touch with the sales department.
  • The acquisitions departments include competitive editors who are going to basically stab you or your favorite project in the back.

Check out #9:

Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author's and agent's specific knowledge. Well, meetings are held to determine which of those books your company is going to emphasize -- talk about most, spend the most money on, and so forth. These are the so-called lead titles for those seasons. Most of the time, the books for which the company has paid the highest advances will be the lead titles, regardless of their quality.

On readers:

I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good -- engaged, smart, enthusiastic -- generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful -- that is, literarily superb -- readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor.

And this statement (should our feelings be hurt?):

Usually, writers, like anyone else who performs in public and desires wide recognition, no matter how successful they become, have an unslakeable thirst for attention and approval -- in my opinion (and, I'm embarrassed to say, in my own case) usually left over from some early-childhood deficit or perception of deficit in the attention-and-approval department. You will frequently find yourself serving as an emotional valet to the people you work with. It can be extremely onerous and debilitating, especially given the ever-decreasing number of your colleagues and the consequent expansion of your workload.

And more about writers (and other problem areas of the biz), but this is funnier:

“--to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on--“

At the end of #11, I was feeling fairly horrified, but fortunately he ended with a good note. #12 included a list of fun parts of the job, including:

  • Despite their often intense neediness, writers are often fascinating and stimulating company.
  • And most important, within its plentiful samenesses, every day brings with it some highly variegated tasks and challenges. Every single book is its own unique enterprise, every agent his or her own kettle of fish, every writer an education (sometimes in dysfunction), every book jacket a distinct and different illustrational project.

I’ve been chewing over this article like cud for days. Thoughts?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On Carpool and Satisfying Storylines

The Half Holiday, Alec home from school by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes--1859-1912 It started at the end of last week. I was driving the elementary school carpool and was sitting in the carpool line waiting the ten minutes for the school to open its doors. It’s best to get there early since the carpool line goes berserk in just minutes.

I noticed the girls were being really quiet. This usually makes me suspicious, but this particular morning I was just pleased at the amazing amount of silence at 6:50 a.m. When the doors opened at 7:00, I called to them to hop back in their seats and buckle up—they were all the way in the back, trunk area of the minivan.

Later that day I was putting groceries in the trunk when I saw our rechargeable personal DVD player back there, loaded with a Harry Potter movie. They’d hidden it under a sheet of plastic that I’d had in the trunk to lay plants from the nursery on.

Ohh. So that’s why they were looking so pleased with themselves.

Monday I was in the carpool line again and they clambered into the very back of the minivan once more. I nearly called out to them to just bring the DVD player into the second row of seats. I couldn’t care less if they quietly watch movies for ten minutes.

But then something stopped me. I realized that the whole reason they were having so much fun is because they thought they were getting away with something. To a kid, that’s just about the most fun you can have. If they could write a story about an exciting adventure, it would probably involve getting away with some misdemeanor. Very satisfying. They were just as pleased as punch.

This led me (naturally) to think about writing. What storylines satisfy me as a reader. What makes me sigh and feel pleased when I’ve read a particular passage or finished a good book? What makes me pleased as punch as a reader?

    • Boy Gets Girl/Girl Gets Boy.
    • Subplot where a deserving secondary character makes great personal strides or develops tremendously as a character.
    • Overcoming the odds.
    • Narrow escapes from death or disaster.
    • Good triumphing over evil. Or good crushing evil totally.
    • Order restored from bedlam.

Do you have any favorite plots that always make you feel satisfied as a reader? Do you incorporate them into your writing?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Little More on Promoting

Sea and Sky--Joan Eardley My notes on promoting seem really scattered. That might be because promoting can be overwhelming to me. There’s this huge ocean of books and my own recent release is just a bitty drop in it.

But I do have some method to my marketing madness.


I blog daily, which gives me an opportunity to stretch my writing muscles—and also gives my name and book name and genre more prominence on Google.

Twitter: I use Twitter primarily to keep up with industry news, read interesting posts and articles on writing, and to bring people to my blog.

Facebook: Facebook is a fun way for me to interact with other writers (I have a hard time interacting on Twitter for some reason. I lose conversation threads there.) Facebook has also become a way for me to connect with readers and interviewers. Apparently, if you Google me, Facebook is one of the top ways listed to contact me. I’ve gotten emailed interview requests there for print and online interviews, and have interacted with readers who’ve asked me about my first book (which is currently backlisted.)

Website: I try to keep the website updated, too. A lot of people have shot me emails through my “contact me” page. I need to update my appearances section (to get more people at my signings…and to let my publishers know what I’m doing.


Midnight Ink’s publicity department took care of the big stuff (reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, etc.) Whenever a print reviewer is interested in reading and reviewing my book, they usually contact me and I contact MI’s publicity department (and they send out the book copy.)

I did send out press releases (that Midnight Ink provided me) to some local news outlets.

I’ve had more fun—and felt I had more exposure to readers—through blog touring and appearances and reviews on book review blogs.


I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of appearances. But I’ve done both signings (and, now I suppose, readings) and workshops.


I’ve done them solo and with other writers. I enjoy the ones with other writers best. The only problem is that if you have a table full of writers, it can be a little intimidating for readers (who might only want to purchase one book) to approach. If you’ve got a friend or a family member who can pass out flyers or bookmarks to passing readers, that might help pull them in.

Workshops: I like doing workshops the best (although it took me a while to warm up to them.) The writers who attend are very attentive and usually I sell some books. Plus, I like talking about writing. I’m probably more comfortable talking about writing than I am talking about my book.

Helpful Tools, Sites, and Recommendations:

This literary agency’s site details the pre-pub publicity process—mostly what your publicist is doing behind the scenes and how you should work with him or her.

This site covers “Your Book Promotion Countdown Checklist” (and might also scare the pants off you if you have a release coming up and haven’t done any of these things.) I wasn’t that organized.

Bookmarks (freebies for people to have during your signings), postcards (for marketing your book to libraries and bookstores), and business cards (for anyone who asks about your book in person) are must-haves.

Get a Facebook and Twitter account. They’re free.

Start a blog or comment on other blogs. Become part of the writing and reading community.

Enjoy! Most days it’s fun.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Book Signing I had a signing yesterday at Barnes & Noble in Charlotte, NC. It ended up going well, although my plans for the event were completely hijacked. (Yes, that’s me in the corner of the picture, listening to the talented Joyce Lavene read from her latest book.)

We were seated in the mystery section and were planning on doing a regular signing. Then a lady came in (a customer) and asked for us to speak instead. There were no chairs set up at the time (because it was to be a regular signing). So the CRM at the bookstore kindly brought over some chairs and we started talking about our books.

The customer also asked us to read. I’ve never read from my books. That’s just not usually part of my dog and pony show. I don’t ordinarily enjoy hearing other people read their books, either. “I don’t read,” I whispered to her. She raised her eyebrows. “I mean, aloud.” Again with the eyebrows. “Except to my children.” She looked stern. So I ended up reading my prologue.

On the upside, I sold a good number of books. Some of the customers didn’t have time to sit and listen to speakers, but they came up to me on the side and I signed books for them during our impromptu program.

The delightful Customer Relations Manager (CRM) at the store offered to put me on her list of authors they could call up to speak at different local high schools. This will probably also pan out into more sales.

Someone else asked how much time we spent promoting and Joyce answered that 90% of our working time was in promoting (and she and her husband Jim have written over 50 books). It’s so true. I spend a lot more time promoting my book (online promotions with blog interviews, Tweeting, Facebooking---and in-person promoting) than I do with my writing. But the writing is woven into my day.

It’s funny. Promotion is a huge part of what writers do…but we’re all basically introverts who don’t like to leave home. Or read aloud. I think most of us are good sports---I had to be pulled out of my comfort zone, but it resulted in book sales.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Epcot While I was writing in Mexico (Epcot’s Mexico, let me hasten to add), a very pleasant Hispanic Disney staffer came over to talk to me. He was curious about what I was doing. This was fair enough, since I looked curious—I wrote for 1 1/2 hours in a notebook and occasionally took pictures of unusual-looking people.

I explained what I was doing and he was very interested. Was I planning to write in a Latino or Latina character?

I started out with a quick “no,” but then stopped short. Well, why not? The Hispanic population is probably the fastest-growing segment in the South. Wouldn’t it be odd if I didn’t include a Latino?

I included several African-American blues musicians in the Memphis Barbeque book. They’re a vital part of the culture and talent base of Memphis and it doesn’t make sense, culturally, not to make them part of my book.

But I’ll admit to some discomfort. I always want to do a Good Job. I’m no expert on different ethnic and racial groups and I don’t want to write anything to accidentally upset anyone. Besides, the South doesn’t exactly have the best reputation for its sensitivity. I don’t need to make matters worse by sticking my foot in my mouth (hand in my mouth?)

So I’m curious. How many of you have ventured into writing about other ethnic groups? Did you feel you were successful? Were you especially careful to avoid stereotypes? How did you handle it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sticking With What Works

A Woman Writing a Letter--Dutch artist Frans van Mieris, 1680 At first glance (and second and third glances, too) my writing process is chaotic. I pick up and put down the laptop, I write at stoplights, I grab my moments. All summer I wrote wherever my kids--and their friends--wanted to go.

My sister called me out of the blue (she lives here in town, but 45 minutes away from me) and said she had a conference for her work that was going to be held at Disney World. Did I want to go? I could stay with her in her hotel room, and write all day long until her conference got out at 5:00.

Of course I jumped at the chance. :) It was the perfect opportunity to freeload.

On Monday morning, my sister went to her conference and I opened my laptop. I had nothing to do but write! No laundry, no cleaning, no cooking, no watching of children. I only needed to write.

It was too quiet.

I kept trying to write in the quiet. The last time I was at Disney, I was there with my children. We stayed at Pop Century at the resort and it was a noisy, buzzing place.

The Hilton? VERY QUIET. Very serious people are at the Hilton, doing very serious things. Very quietly.

I went to the pool. This worked well for a while because there were two noisy preschoolers there. But when they left, I was faced with the Very Quiet hotel room to write in.

So I went to Epcot. I sat at Mexico, had some food, and wrote. Perfect!

Now I’m thinking that I don’t need to mess with success. Right now, I don’t know how to write on command. I don’t know how to do it when it’s very quiet and still and there’s no visual stimulation at the same time I’m writing. I don’t know how to force it.

I’m sure I can adapt to peace and quiet…someday. Right now, I’m just going to stick to what works. However crazy it might be.

Friday, September 18, 2009


picture1 I’m going to take a walk on the wild side this Friday morning. Here we go: what role does luck have in getting published?

This is something of a controversial topic. I’ve heard it said that mentioning the role that luck plays in getting a publishing contract is discouraging to writers who are working their fingers to the bone honing their skills and making the perfect queries to the perfect agents and editors. After all, if it’s just a matter of luck, it’s out of our hands. (My missionary brother in law would question even the existence of ‘luck.’ But I don’t want to go even farther into the wild side and delve into religion this morning!)

There are many talented writers who research the industry. They’re miles ahead of the people who slop together a poorly-crafted, rambling, error-ridden manuscript and snail-mail it to a YA publisher (when they needed a Sci-Fi publisher).

But what about all the gifted writers out there who are doing everything right?

I think luck plays a part. I think my unrequested manuscript landed on Midnight Ink’s desk at exactly the right time…accidentally.

Talent is important. Self-editing is important. Researching the industry’s expectations on submissions is important. Targeting the right agents and editors is important.

Timing is important. And that’s out of our hands.

To me, that means perseverance is key. If writers keep sending out well-written, well-targeted submissions, they increase the chances their work gets into the right hands at the right time.

I got a ton of rejections from agents and editors. But I kept submitting, sometimes to the same people—after I’d done more touching up on the manuscript and if they’d given me even an inkling of encouragement. Actually, I don’t think I even needed encouragement. I resubmitted anyway, after a decent interval, some significant changes in the manuscript, and a reworked submission.

What do you think? How important is luck? How can writers increase their chances at getting lucky?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Disney, Writing…and Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup Yes, it’s Thursday morning again. Today I’m sharing a bowl of chicken soup…with all the ailing passengers I encountered on my flights to Orlando and back. Enjoy!

Yesterday I touched a little on my thoughts on Disney’s talent for entertainment and how I think we can capitalize on some of their ideas. You’re not going to be able to write War and Peace with their approach, but I think some of their general entertainment techniques are sound.

Sometimes, simple is effective. Nearly all of their rides combined humor with thrills. They didn’t get too analytical. They didn’t get too complicated.

Suspense. They kept me wondering what was going to happen next. I never knew what was around the next corner. By not giving their riders too much information, they kept us guessing and engaged.

Their endings were satisfying. They didn’t leave their guests hanging at the end. Everything was tied up and ended on either a humorous note or a relieved one (you survived whatever scary ride you were on.) Life isn’t like that. But neat endings for novels can be satisfying for a reader who’s stuck with you through an entire book. If you’re writing a series with a continuing storyline, it’s still important, I think, to tie up some loose ends for the reader, even if they’re just minor plot points.

Disney was a unique experience—I didn’t have my kids with me this time! The pure creativity and imagination spilling out of the place was inspiring to me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

What Disney Taught Me About Writing

picture Say what you will, Disney is one of the long-time masters at presentation and delivery. If you go to their parks with the mindset that you want to have fun, they’ll do their best to make sure you’re not disappointed (long lines not withstanding.)

I’m flying home probably as you’re reading this (unless something dire happened at the airports with delayed flights).

But here’s what I learned from my 3 days at Disney:

They were masters at quickly identifying real characters among their guests and immediately capitalizing on the find. I went to an interactive show (the Monsters Inc one). They’d studied us as we came into the room and the people who became characters in their show had vividly-colored clothing on and an unusual manner. There was a bald man who looked like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, a sweet-looking middle–aged woman who later exhibited an unexpected devilish look in her eye, and a suspicious-looking pre-schooler who glared fiercely whenever the camera was directed at her. They were hilarious. There was just something unique about them. And Disney had spotted those qualities during our 5 minutes in their holding tank before the show.

Using their technique, I took some great shots with my camera of some really interesting people. Disney World is apparently rife with interesting characters. I think I got 3 books worth of characters that I could accurately describe and create entire storylines around.

Want to learn how to write engaging beginnings that pull in the reader quickly? Disney’s got it down pat. They had, as far as I could tell, several techniques for doing it.

  • The big one was directly addressing the audience in a conversational manner. (e.g.: “Oh! Hi there! Come on—come a little closer. Not that close!”) You know the technique. That works well for rides, but pulls the reader out of the book a bit if you’re writing it.

Their technique can be modified, though. The point is that they’re beginning with engaging dialogue. Honestly, most of the books I read don’t start with dialogue between interesting characters---they start out with some sort of narrative (which can lose me sometimes).

  • Another technique they used (well) was foreshadowing during their rides’ beginnings. Now, there is plenty of talk about writing ‘rules’ and foreshadowing frequently makes the list of no-nos. Well done, though, I think it can be enormously effective. A hint of some kind of upcoming turbulence. Or even an emphasis on how happy and perfect everything is. They know their audience is mistrustful when everything seems to be going too well. Something’s got to go wrong. The audience itself has foreshadowed disaster, then…they didn’t even have to do it for them.

Their entire aim is entertaining their guests. They don’t go off on self-serving tangents. They don’t preach to their audience (even environmental messages are housed in an entertaining fashion). They don’t lose sight of their ultimate goal. They don’t stick in bits and pieces that have nothing to do with the tightly plotted show or ride theme. Too many books that I read start rambling about description that I’m not interested in, or observations that don’t seem to stay on-topic.

Honestly, they entertained so effectively that I’m going to touch on their techniques again tomorrow, including their satisfying endings. Hope you’ll come back by.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Setting: Stereotypes and Expectations

Sir George Clausen--Gathering Potatoes--1887 Driving my car to the airport, I was nearly blown off the road by a car on the highway. It flew by, then cut directly in front of me and sped off.

As I was being passed, I knew what state and county would be on the car’s license plate. Fulton County, Georgia.


Sure enough (and I’m always delighted when my setting stereotypes prove true), the car was indeed from Atlanta.

Charlotte, NC drivers are very aggressive, too. I’m sure when I’m speeding through small towns, the drivers look resentfully at my North Carolina tag and guess I’m from Charlotte.

Sometimes I think a book’s setting alone—without description—can set reader expectations: e.g., a small town. The reader might immediately conjure up a slow-paced, friendly, gossipy place. You don’t really have to work too hard if that’s what you’re interested in portraying. But if you want to twist it and show how cliquey, insular, and suspicious of change these towns can be, you’re taking the reader in a different direction.

I’m not a big fan of setting description; actually, I tend to skim through it when I’m reading unless the setting is very interesting to me—like Louise Penny’s books set in Canada. But just like I enjoy describing characters through dialogue and quirks, I like giving the reader a sense of place through the residents’ behavior and mindset.

Although I would have initially been disappointed if the car blowing me off the highway was from a small town in Mississippi, I think it would have intrigued me more. Why are they driving so fast? Are they late for their plane? Have a medical emergency? What’s the story?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Murdering Characters. And, Thoughts on Flying

murder_scene Today I’m over at the Midnight Ink blog, Inkspot. I’m sharing some thoughts on a movie about writing that I thought was interesting, and I’m sharing some regrets about having murdered a few of my characters. Hope you’ll pop over.

Thoughts on flying:

Security, post 9/11, was a lot tougher than I’d realized. Wow.

They don’t make coach seats for tall people. And, I have now come to the conclusion that I have monkey arms. When I was finally allowed to pull out my trusty laptop on my flight, I had to hunch up my shoulders to be able to fit my hands on the keyboard. And I had my pointy elbows jutting out on either side of me. I should have been labeled as a sharp object.

If you sit in the middle seat and are writing about killing people (especially a scene involving a poisoning, which I was revising), some people read your text and look at you and read and look. So I pulled up Windows LiveWriter and started writing my blog for today, instead. The topic of my blog? “Murdering Characters.” Didn’t seem to inspire any more confidence in my co-passenger. It’s amazing how well I can block things out, though, when I’m typing.

Does the airport food seem more expensive to you? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten such an expensive meal for one at Qdoba before….

There are interesting characters in airplanes. One of them was furious at not being allowed to use the first class bathroom and plowed through 1st class, loudly, in protest, cussing all the while. (I was in coach, and it was interesting seeing the flight attendant trying to block him.)

I don’t think an airplane is a good place to loudly make out. Just me?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


The book signing yesterday went well and I sold about a dozen books.  The staff was great, the customers were nice, and I got to visit with my parents! So it was a successful trip all round.

Now I’m in the airport, getting ready to board a flight for Orlando. My sister has a conference at Disney World, and I’m going along for the ride. The thought is that I’ll write during the day while she’s at the conference, then I’ll go out with her to the parks in the evening and have fun.

I’m in the middle of my trek to Orlando (connecting flight thing.) This morning was the first time I’d flown since 2000.  There’s been no need to fly before now—Charlotte is 3 hours from the beach, 2 hours from the mountains, and our family is all within easy driving distance.

Of course I’d read about all the airline changes.  It’s very different  flying in a post-9/11 world.  I used to take my son to the airport when he was a toddler and he’d be fascinated watching the planes take off and land.  I’d bring a book to read and we’d happily kill a couple of hours at the airport and then drive back home.   No flight, just a free toddler-entertainment activity.

So this morning I had no idea what I was doing.  The security people were smiling a whole lot at me—but not, I think, in a nice way.  I’d done the taking off of the shoe thing, and I took off my watch and a metal necklace I had on.  Then I put my bags on the conveyer belt.

“Ma’am.  We’ve got to take your laptop out, put it in a separate tub, and run it back through again.”

“Oh, okay.  Of course.  Whatever we need to do.”  I start tugging on my laptop.

“Ma’am! Do not touch your laptop! You’re not allowed to touch your laptop.”

“Oh.  Okay.  You were saying ‘we’ but you meant ‘I’.”  I’m not trying to be a smarty pants, I’m just trying to explain why I was violating their security protocol.  I didn’t want to be  detained or anything. He had a pronoun usage problem.

Harsh look from the security man.  He pulls out my laptop and runs it through.

Finally I get to my gate. An elderly lady and I start talking to each other.  She needs to go to get something to eat and asks me to watch her bags…I must look trustworthy.  So I watch her bags….then stern announcement comes on about not watching other people’s bags.  I’m in trouble again.

I get on the plane and open up my laptop.  NO!  Bad Elizabeth! No computers during take-off.

I’m looking forward now to getting on this flight to Orlando and making the final leg of my journey there.   And writing.  I think that will help calm me down. 

And on the way back home….well, now I know the ropes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Thoughts on Book Signings

A Young Woman Reading--by Freek Van den Berg Love them or hate them, book signings have become a necessary part of what it means to be a published writer.

I think that even if you’re an extrovert (not that many writers are—which is why we spend hours at a solitary activity), there are stressful aspects of book signings. How many people will be there? Will people give you the cold shoulder or come up to your table? Will it be worth the gas money you spent getting there?

Today I’m signing books at Books-A-Million in Anderson, SC (where I grew up.) Unfortunately, the publicity I carefully sent out in advance didn’t run (with the whittling down of news room reporters, the stacks of paper on individuals’ desks and emails in their inboxes has grown.) So…no publicity set up. I’m not even sure if the store has a sign up on their door announcing my signing or not.

Can this book signing be saved?

I think so. But I have to adjust my expectations going in.

Things I know:

Any buzz generated about my signing there will be carefully orchestrated by my parents, who still live in Anderson. Thanks, Mama and Daddy! It does help when you’re doing a signing in your hometown or a town where you were a former resident.

Most shoppers are not going to come up to my little table. I’ll have some bookmarks and other publicity info to hand out for them. Sometimes that makes people chat with me for a few minutes.

There will be several people who come up and ask me what my book’s about. I’ll have a snappy, quickie answer for them.

There will be several people who will ask me where the self-help/humor/children’s literature sections are. At least two people will ask me where the restroom is. But later on, they sometimes come back near me (in this bookstore, they usually have me close to the cash register.)

Still, there’s something exciting about being in a bookstore. I enjoy being in a bookstore at any time—I could cheerfully kill a day there. My biggest problem is staying near my little table instead of wandering around the store.

Friday, September 11, 2009

When Secondary Characters Steal the Show

Portrait of Pagu--1933--Candido Portinari With my Myrtle Clover series, I developed a protagonist who is a very dominant main character. The characters alongside her are far weaker in every way. Even when Myrtle is pitted against a killer, she’s the dominant force in the scene.

With the Memphis series, I wanted a different kind of protagonist. I planned to create a solid center for the storm of activity that whirls around Aunt Pat’s Barbeque Restaurant. After all, someone needs to solve the murders.

The big challenge was the colorful cast of characters that surrounded my straight-‘man,’ Lulu. I have a bubbly group of docents from Graceland, a trio of retired blues musicians, and some really animated suspects. I worried a little that Lulu was going to fade in comparison, although she’s the book’s key player.

I’m hoping my editor at Berkley thinks I did a good job keeping my secondary characters under control.

My approach with this:

  • If the secondary character is the focal point of a scene, make sure my protagonist is the one asking the questions and in control of their conversation.
  • If a conversation takes place between several secondary characters, ensure my protagonist is making observations (even mentally) so that the reader views the scene through her perspective.
  • Show the importance of the book’s central character to the secondary characters. If a secondary character wants advice, a shoulder to cry on, or someone fun to go out with, they call Lulu.

Do you have any scene-stealing bit characters? How do you wrangle them?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Revision Thoughts and Apple Cobbler

Southern Apple Cobbler

It’s Thursday! Today’s Heart Attack on a Plate is sponsored by “Southern Apple Cobbler.” Want to know how much sugar is in this recipe? Pop on over and find out! :)

Revision Notes:

So I’m working on this manuscript that I haven’t worked on since March. I did a quick read-through and didn’t micro-edit at all. My writing friend Jane Kennedy Sutton recommended I treat it as if it weren’t my manuscript. I did that, and it worked beautifully.

During my quick read-through to reacquaint myself with the manuscript, I marked scenes with a simple “weak, good, strong.” If I saw a real problem, I highlighted it in the Word program.

The second go-round:

I went back to the scenes I’d marked as weak and rewrote them. I kept my only vague impression of the old scene…I didn’t re-read it. That way, I had the gist of the scene but rewrote it in a fresh way.

I made notes for additions I’d like to make. New scenes, new subplots.

I realized I needed 20 more pages. I made some quick notes on areas that needed fluffing out.

I still haven’t micro-edited for punctuation, typos, etc. I don’t see any reason to until I’ve put the additional scenes in. Otherwise, I have to do it twice.

Yesterday’s schedule approach for the stay-at-home writer? I did hard writing first (tough revision, scene rewriting, new scenes). Then I did housework. I never did make it to the grocery store. Pros—I felt like I’d accomplished a lot with my writing. Cons-- But I felt like I’d dropped the ball on other things. Oh….how long was this laundry in the washer? Oops. Supper planned? Oops. So far I like Tuesday’s approach of putting pressing household matters first before writing. Tomorrow I’m going to try to meld the two and see how that goes. It seems like that would work out best---but then I’m not doing either one 100% well.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Thinking on My Feet and Trying Out Different Schedules

This week I’m going to be trying some new things.

One thing I’m going to do is practice doing live interviews. I’m not a fan of live interviews, I have to admit. I remember from my journalism years how easy it is to get flustered and for journalists to take things out of context.

My last phone interview was so-so. For one thing, I hate phones with a passion. If I have to be on a phone, I’m usually texting, not talking. For another, I don’t think the interviewer was exactly the most seasoned person on the news or entertainment desk. One of her questions was: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and another was “What’s been your biggest accomplishment?” She sounded like she was reciting the questions she’d been asked for her job interview. So my answers were “writing” and “getting published.” I just couldn’t tell what she wanted from me.

My interview tomorrow looks to be a lot more thorough. I don’t want to be stammering my way through it. I started thinking about Presidential press conferences and how they usually stay on the topic the President wants to talk about. No matter how the questions starts out, it ends up on his talking points.

I’m going to make some note cards with some likely questions (frequently there is some overlap with interview questions—understandably.) I’m going to pen some succinct answers. I hate going “uh-uh-uh” on the phone.

Along these same lines is a radio show (podcast) I’ll be doing in a month or so. My reservations about that is that it’s live so any stupidity of mine will run, unedited. Also---my Southern accent. I do drawl, but it’s not remotely heavy…to me, anyway. But on the answering machine and other times when I hear my voice recorded, I can tell it’s thicker than I think. Those automated customer service reps? The bots never understand me.

My practice for that will be similar to the phone interview. I’m going to come up with my very own set of talking points. I’ll be a lot less nervous if I’m prepared, after all. And if I’m not nervous, I can stray off-topic and I’ll be fine and dandy. It’s just when I’m not prepared that I’m a wreck.

I’m also playing around with new schedules for my writing—I’m vetting a different schedule each day. Yesterday I decided I’d get all the ordinary household stuff out of the way first---it’s necessary, after all, and some days it hangs over me while I write. So I did laundry, made doctor appointment phone calls, sent off bill payments, etc. first. Then I did blog stuff, then I wrote. Pros—I felt like I’d accomplished a lot in an hour’s time. I was energized after running around the house and it translated into my writing. Cons—I didn’t start writing until 10ish. That’s late for me.

Today I’m going to try something different and see how it goes. I never know how my little experiments are going to go, but I’m willing to try anything that might work with my problem areas (phone and live interviews, and my busy schedule.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656–57 There was a funny episode of Seinfeld ages ago where George Constanza decides that all his instincts in life are misguided and that every life decision has been wrong. His life is the direct opposite from everything he’s set out to accomplish.

His solution? Do the complete opposite from every instinct he feels. He approaches attractive women and asks them out, introducing himself : “My name is George. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.” Immediately he encounters great success with this method and begins applying it to job-hunting (“My last job was in publishing ... I got fired for having sex in my office with the cleaning woman..” he confesses during his interview), and even his choice in food (“Nothing's ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted ... and a cup of tea…”).

Sometimes I feel like I know my characters so well that I’ve stuck them in a rut. It’s particularly easy to stick them in a rut since I’m writing series. I know what they would do when faced with a dangerous snake in their yard. I know which ones would run off screaming, which would shoo it off and continue gardening, and which would get a hoe and commence whacking the creature to death.

What interests me is eliciting different reactions from characters. The bigger the stretch, the better:

Timid, tiny Tina flings herself at the armed man because her small son is threatened. (Unusual courage under duress.)

Stern Gertrude bites her tongue instead of scolding her sassy son-in-law Simon during Thanksgiving dinner. But her restraint results in a wild rainbow of color across her face. (For comedic effect.)

These are cardboard cutout examples, but I’m going to spend time today playing around with the idea.

What I don’t want to do is manipulate the character in an unnatural way (the usually intelligent heroine irrationally descends into the dark basement after hearing a suspicious noise scenario.) That’s the kind of thing that makes me throw books across a room.

But I also don’t want my regular characters to become predictable. Maybe they won’t have the success with their opposite-day approach that George did, but it might provide them with some opportunities for growth.

And, I think it could be fun. A bonus is extra internal character conflict. It’s stressful to leave our comfort zone(although, maybe, not for George Costanza.)

Monday, September 7, 2009


Paysage sous la pluie avec un chemin, des promeneurs et des arbres-polcassel1892-1945 Mysteries are full of conflict. It’s a good versus evil struggle with internal and external conflicts abounding.

Most novels, in fact, are heavy on conflict. Otherwise, it’s a dull book. Even if the scene’s conflict is a monkey-wrench thrown in a character’s carefully planned day, that’s conflict.

External conflict is everywhere. It’s on the evening news, it’s happening during raucous PTA meetings and toddler playgroups. I’m a person who doesn’t like making waves and doesn’t like being involved in conflicts. But I don’t mind observing them as a third party.

I was in a shipping center the other day to mail off a package. A radio was playing the news in the background and the sad story of the girl who’d been kidnapped and held hostage for so many years came on.

The owner, who wasn’t originally from the US, said loudly, “This is disgusting! Do you want to know what’s wrong with America?”

The people in the line were politely pretending that they didn’t hear him and all began messing with their cell phones. I cleared my throat. “I do,” I said. “I want to know what’s wrong with America.”

There was a collective groan behind me. But come on. Great way of finding out what bugs people. What bugs people in their everyday, ordinary life provides wonderful conflict for someone like me.

In the kind of books I write, the things that just get under your skin may end up in a mysterious death.

The guy at the shipping center was delighted to launch into a rambling monologue of American ills. It was extremely educational and might be used for future material. :) On the downside, I think my fellow customers were about ready to string me up at the end of his discourse.

I get lots of other material from the local news…the more local, the better. In fact, if there was a subdivision newsletter, that might provide even more ideas for plot conflict.

Conflicts I’ve observed in local news include:

*Land disputes *Irritating, obnoxious neighbors *Long-time family feuds *Church schisms *Teenagers with too much family money and not enough sense *Fraudulent financial planners *People furious at real estate developers *People furious at the local school board for changing zoning *A man who has a sign posted, saying, “The Town of Matthews Stole my Farm." (An eminent domain issue.)

Really, the newspaper is a treasure trove of ideas for plot conflict, especially for mystery writers. There’s certainly lots of other conflict out there, but again, I won’t touch a friend’s personal problems.

But conflict makes the plot go ‘round for fiction writers. And, luckily for us, inspiration is everywhere.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Setting Boundaries

Unknown--Antonio Ortiz Echague--1882-1942 My sister told me a hilarious story the other day. It was so funny. She and I had such a big laugh over it!

But I can’t share it. She’d have my head. The story involved something silly that she did that had unexpected consequences.

She has a reasonable expectation that I won’t share it with a bunch of mystery or blog readers.

I don’t always keep interesting stories to myself. Pretty is as Pretty Dies has one story in it that’s absolutely true. The book club listed in the book? It exists. Or…well, it used to exist before it disbanded. You can tell from my book that it was a querulous group—and my insight into the group came from a friend who was letting off steam.

I asked her if it would be okay to use the material, somewhat fictionalized (there were no men in the group). She gave me her blessing.

The gnomes in the book came about when a friend complained about her neighbor’s yard art. Which I immediately went inside and wrote into my book.

My children (the darlings) make it into the blog quite a bit. But they don’t have to worry that I’ll be splashing embarrassing photos of them or putting their names out there on the internet. I’ve promised my family a certain amount of privacy---which they deserve. There are boundaries, definitely.

There are some fascinating stories I know—they’re not happy ones, though. And they’d hurt people who’d certainly see the parallels between their lives and the fictional characters’ lives. No one else would, but they would know. And that’s enough to keep me from ever fictionalizing it.

Things I tiptoe around:

Leave personal tragedies of friends, family, and acquaintances alone or else completely generalize them. Obviously, some tragedies are universal (loss of a spouse, child, job, etc.) But singular events that would be immediately recognizable to the parties involved—those I don’t touch.

Ask permission to fictionalize stories that friends provide me. They’re sure to recognize their story in print, no matter how distorted it might be. I don’t have enough friends to risk losing the ones I do have.

Things I don’t mind using:

News stories are completely within my limits. I do change them around with “what if” scenarios.

I steal names like crazy. Sorry folks…it’s fiction. Unless you have a copyright on your name, it could end up being mine. I need waayyyy too many character names in each book.

A reminder:

Anyone remember reading Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again? The writer who writes about the residents of his hometown until they start driving him away? That novel was semi-autobiographical.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Extra Commitments and Explaining Writing to Non-Writers

Studio Window--Guy Pene du Bois I’m the Queen of taking on too much.  It’s never my idea, mind you, but because I’m known as a volunteer (school, Scouting), people come to me with ideas on more ways for me to volunteer.

They know the school is my soft spot.  Just about anything they ask for me to help with at the elementary or middle school, I’m going to do. I’ve read stories, talked to classes, sent in supplies, given parties, assisted with the writing programs, passed out waters during field day, watched the class for the teacher while they attended special events…the list goes on.

I’m also a Brownie Scout leader for my daughter’s troop.  I was asked, in person, to take that commitment on.  I started with it last fall.

In the middle of the commitment to the troop, I got an extra book deal.

I continued going to mandatory trainings, meetings, camping trips, and troop events.

The upside (and there’s always an upside) is that I was spending a lot of one on one time with my daughter.

The downside was that I really didn’t have the time to do all this.  And I hated the district meetings with a passion (I’m not a meeting person. I spend the time wondering if all the information couldn’t just be emailed.  Or why they didn’t set up a Yahoo Group for us to get the information.)

I decided I would give the Brownie Scout coordinator (who’d recruited me) a year’s notice. That next fall I wouldn’t be able to continue this commitment.

It didn’t go as planned. :)  The coordinator is a very determined woman.  She said, “Maybe play it by ear?  After all, you’ll have turned in your two books by next fall.”

“But then,” I explained, trying not to sound like a big-shot, “I have another book to turn in.  November 1, 2010.  And I’ll be promoting three other books.”  At this point, I felt like banging my head against a wall.

I’ll admit I’m a black and white kind of person.  I like to do a Good Job and there are no compromises. But then the Brownie coordinator gave me an out.  She certainly knows me.  “No meetings… don’t have to go to any of the district meetings.  Only attend the events you want to.  That’s all I need.”

It ended up that that worked for me. She modified what I needed to do to make it manageable for me. 

But I did learn from our exchange:

Non-writers don’t understand the process.  They understand the amount of work that goes into writing a book, but they don’t understand the promoting.  They don’t understand that you’re either writing a book, revising a book, promoting a book, or trying to sell someone on a new series…or doing all of those things simultaneously.

If you try to explain this process to a non-writer, you sound like you’re exaggerating.  Or bragging.

Best just to say the writing is consuming all of your time.  They may understand that better than the other stuff you’re doing.

If you’re in a time-sucking commitment, see if the parameters of the commitment can be adjusted before you drop it altogether. It’s a very tough time to find volunteers right now….many former volunteers have had to return to the workforce.

When you’re asked to take on a new commitment (even if they ask you face to face), tell them you have to sleep on it and will email them back.  I can write beautifully, but I’m awful on the phone.  I can elegantly explain why I can’t take on a new commitment via email where I’d somehow end up taking it on if I’m on the phone with the person.

So far this fall I’ve  scaled back on one commitment and avoided another.  I’d like to take on a lot of volunteer work, but right now I’m more limited, time-wise, in what I can handle.  This is the year I’m more cognizant in realizing when I’m getting in over my head.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Spider I’m a mystery writer, but my books are only minimally scary. They’re more about the puzzle and the characters.

But I think it would be fun to try something different.

The other day I was doing some yard work and noticed a HUGE spider. It was one of those zipper spiders, the kind that’s pictured above. The funny thing is that I’m not even scared of spiders. But I was scared of him. He was beautiful, but I didn’t realize he was so close to me. I had accidentally bumped his web and for a split second he raced down it, thinking he had a goody in there. I don’t think he’d have been able to handle me, but he was big enough to have considered it.

Cozy mysteries don’t ordinarily have a lot of scary scenes. But I’d like to incorporate something frightening with one of my next books. To me, the scariest things are the things we’re suddenly startled by---like the huge spider in the bushes that I didn’t realize was there.

One of the scarier movies to me was the first Halloween movie. The part that scared me the most? When Michael stood on the sidewalk and watched the girl he was stalking in broad daylight, then slipped behind the bushes when she spun around to see if he was there. It was scary because it was a sunny, beautiful fall day…and there was a psychopath right there in the middle of it.

Hitchcock was a master at making ordinary things frightening. The Birds was one of those movies. And Rear Window, where a bored voyeur spots a horrifying crime (or the evidence pointing to one having been committed.) Vertigo took a fear of heights to a whole new level.

Clearly, thrillers are best at delivering fear to the reader. But that’s not appropriate for my genre. I’d like to do it more subtly and work it in. Have a scary surprise.

What ordinary things do you find scary? Do your books have frightening aspects to them?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

An Interview and a Solution to my Problem

cozy mystery Yes, it’s a busy day here at Mystery Writing is Murder. For those of you who are just joining me, I have a post below this one that persuades you that asparagus would be an excellent vegetable for you to revisit. My post also addresses a problem I’ve had with rereading an old manuscript that I haven’t worked on for 5 months (and which is due to be submitted in November.)

Today I’m being interviewed over at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews . Sharon, who reviews books on her blog as well as for various newspapers, is a freelance entertainment journalist who has been reviewing books for 14 years and has over 1500 reviews to her credit.

Sharon is kicking off a Cozy Mystery Week today and one commenter will be picked to win a mystery gift basket. It could be you! :) (Is my smattering of advertising experience showing?)

Hope y’all will pop on over for a visit.

And now…..I have found for me the perfect solution to the rereading the old manuscript conundrum. And I have the lovely and talented Jane Kennedy Sutton to thank for it. She suggested that I pretend the manuscript isn’t mine.

The genius is in the simplicity of this plan.

There are no highlighters involved. No picking apart.

I’m already 60% done with the re-read.

Pretending is what writers do best!

Jane Kennedy Sutton rocks!

More Thoughts on Getting Reacquainted with Your Manuscript—And Asparagus

 Asparagus With Bacon Yes that is an incredibly healthy looking picture for a Thursday morning on the Mystery Writing is Murder blog.  But hold your horses.  It does have bacon and nuts in it.  My thinking is that the vitamin benefits outweigh the fatty risks. :)  Check it out on Mystery Lovers' Kitchen.

And now…a report on day 1 of the getting reacquainted with my manuscript project. My grade for my revision technique yesterday is a C.

I had a really tough time not picking the manuscript to death. I’m wondering if the transition was tough because I just came OFF picking a manuscript to death.  But the difference between the two projects is huge—the Berkley project was something I’d been working on for months straight. It was time to pick it apart. This poor project has been on the backburner since April.  I should be reading it through quickly and getting a sense of the plot and characters again.

Very hard.

Today I’m going to approach it differently. I have several different ideas for the new approach:

  • Make content change notes on a separate Word document.
  • Highlight errors I find, instead of correcting them immediately.
  • If all else fails, print the document and see if that helps at all. 
  • Chant “I will not fix it.  I will not fix it.” until I make the first initial pass through the manuscript.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Getting Reacquainted

Dining Out--Guy Pène du Bois (1884-1958) Maybe this post should be about the family I neglected the past few days before my project deadline. But no, it’s actually about a manuscript that I need to dust off and start working on again.

In the middle of the revisions for Pretty is as Pretty Dies, I wrote the next Myrtle Clover book for Midnight Ink. So about a year ago I started it, then I finished the first draft in February.

I fiddled with it in March and early April. But then, in April, I started working on the Memphis Barbeque series for Berkley. And I haven’t picked up the Myrtle Clover draft since.

Now the plan is that I submit this manuscript in November to Midnight Ink. That gives me two months to really make it shine. I can rewrite any passages I’m not pleased with, or even chuck huge parts of it and overhaul it. It’s enough time.

Simultaneously, of course, I’ll be concocting Lulu’s further adventures in Memphis for Berkley’s book two.

I don’t think this will be a problem. (Okay, I’m putting this in print. So if I start wigging out in a month or so, remind me.) After all, revisions and drafting a manuscript are two completely different processes. I’ll revise part of the day and I’ll be creative the rest.

I’m really, really curious to pick up the Myrtle Clover book today. I’ve got to find the USB drive it’s on, actually---my laptop’s OS was blown away and reinstalled several times since April. And I’ve gone through two laptops since then. Got to get my hands on the right backup drive.

I wonder what mistakes will jump off the page at me. I wonder if the jokes will be as funny as they were when I wrote them, or if I’ll frown and groan and rewrite them.

This is my plan for reacquainting myself with the manuscript:

Read it all the way through.

Make notes of only big problems. Don’t micro-revise on the first reading.

How strong is the basic plot premise? Are there any big holes? Does anything not make sense?

Have I reintroduced these characters? Have I made it balanced enough so that first-time readers can get to know them and earlier readers won’t get tired of back story?

Have these characters grown and changed since the first book?

Is the basic timeline sound?

Do the characters sound like themselves?

This is the first time I’ve put a manuscript down for this long and then come back to it. Usually, if it’s put away for five months, then it’s in my little manuscript graveyard. But it was only circumstance that made me put this project away. Now I’m excited to read it again with fresh eyes—at first to get reacquainted and then critically.

Do you ever put your projects on the back burner? Does it help? Can you pick up on your original train of thought and plan for the book again?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

24 Hours Before Deadline: One Woman’s Story

5 a.m. Yesterday, the day before deadline—get up, drink coffee.Decide to pack kids’ backpacks before writing. What’s this? Seems to be an uncompleted sheet for son’s 7th grade Business Computer class. And…oh no. The school needs my signature on about 8 documents relating to son’s science labs and dangerous equipment.

5:30—Start revisions

6:—Get son up to complete homework that he’d forgotten about. Get daughter up, since she has to be at school at 7 every day.

6:45: Drive carpool. Nip carpool argument in the bud.

8:00—12:00 Read the second half of the manuscript over again. Realize I have a timeline error. Fix the timeline error. Read through second half of manuscript again quickly, making sure timeline is correct and I haven’t missed any parts.

12:00—Go get cupcakes for third-grader’s teacher’s birthday at the elementary school.

12:15—Realize that Costco sells cupcakes packaged in groups of 20. I need 24. I don’t need 40. I don’t need 20. Decide to get cake instead.

12:20—Brainwave—if I get cake instead of cupcakes, this means I also need to get plates and forks. I go to that aisle and get a massive amount of plates and forks (this is, after all, Costco.)

12:30—I’m in the car. Oh. If I’m doing a cake instead of cupcakes, I should have candles. I could skip candles with cupcakes, but not with cake.

12:40—I’m back home. And I suddenly realize I have no more birthday candles because the Birthday Princess wiped out my supply when she turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. But I do have matches. And oh! I need a cake server.

12:45—I’m in the car, driving to the school. I park and call a friend. “Do you have birthday candles?!?!”

1:00—We have the birthday party. Teacher is surprised and delighted and it’s all worth it.

1:55—Waiting for school bus in my car at the top of the hill. Scanning my manuscript (I have my laptop with me in the car.) I frown. “This isn’t right. This character wouldn’t do this! And…oh…he’s doing it here, too."

2:00—Talk to another mom at the bus stop. She asks how the book is going. “Great. Except it’s due tomorrow and I just found these two messed-up scenes.”

2:10—My daughter is coming off the school bus. She has homework and doesn’t understand it. Neither, it turns out, do I.

3:00—Back on the manuscript. What can I do with these two scenes? Think. Think.

3:30—Son is back from middle school. He does understand his homework. Excellent. He’s in honors and I’m not bright enough to help him even if I wanted to.

4:00—I proofread the recipes in my book. Waaaait a minute. There’s no measurement listed by the cheddar cheese. Call my mother to double-check the recipe.

4:05—The children pick the moment I’m on the phone to go completely insane. They run up and down the stairs whooping and hollering. I slam my door shut and keep talking to my mother. My daughter opens the door. “Mom, he’s….” She stops at my threatening look.

4:10—My mother is distracted because she’s got a huge household emergency involving broken pipes and a workman who has an urgent question. I continue pressing on the cheddar cheese issue.

4:30—6:00—Revise. Children are scared to bother me.

6:00—I decide Hamburger Helper sounds like a great meal for the family. Oh. Why is the meat still frozen? I put it in the fridge the night before…

6:30---A computer problem erupts. What have I done to displease the gods? I am consumed by the problem. Nothing will work…no printer, no online connection, the keyboard is possessed by a demon that makes me type in the wrong spot in my document.

7:15—My husband comes home from work and considers returning there after seeing wife who appears to be having a nervous breakdown.

7:20—Husband starts working on computer issues.

10:00—Husband finishes fixing all related computer issues.

10:05—I realize I’m exhausted. I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. and go to bed.

10:10—I can’t sleep.

10:15—I take a Benadryl.

10:30—I have an idea to fix the two messed-up scenes. But now the Benadryl has kicked in. I turn on the light. I scribble on a post-it and stick it to the top of my laptop.

4:00—I get up. I put lots of sugar in my mug. I drink lots of coffee.

4:15---I fix the two scenes.

6:00—7:00—Repeat the process of getting children up and doing carpool.

7:15—9:00--Put finishing touches on the manuscript.

9:02—I realize I don’t have a title for my book. Or the series.

9:05—I put a bunch of ideas on a piece of paper.

9:15---I email my editor with the manuscript and the ideas for the titles.

Now? I’m planning a lunch with my husband. And I think I’ll take the rest of the day off…..