Saturday, October 31, 2009

It Takes the Time it Takes—Guest Post by Elspeth Antonelli

s546612892_237509_8425 A few years ago, I decided that the time had come. I would make bread. My house would be filled with that wonderful aroma and I could finally look a picture of Martha Stewart in the eye. I read the recipe. It looked to be fairly simple; wake up the yeast with some warm water and sugar and then mix it all together. Let it rise. Punch down the dough, form it into loaves and let it rise again. Bake. I assembled my ingredients. Why hadn’t I attempted this years ago? Many, many hours later I had my answer. My dough was a flat soggy mess and my kitchen looked as if a tornado had decided to come home to roost. Bread isn’t easy. The yeast can’t be rushed; it takes the time it takes. Read the instructions carefully. Be prepared for the unexpected.

Writing is the same.

Read the recipe. Write an outline. It’s up to the individual author on how detailed it is, but write one. Mine are fairly detailed; I write notes giving the main events in each chapter. I find great comfort in knowing every time I lose my way I can check my outline.

Assemble Your Ingredients. These are your characters. Your outline is going to give you a fairly good idea how many you need, but write each of them down. Start asking questions. Have you given each of them the correct name? Who knows who? I write mini-biographies for each of my main players which I find a huge help when I start putting words in their mouths.

Mix it All Together. This is when you write your first draft. It’s messy and it often doesn’t go the way you want it to. Keep plugging away and slowly that magic word count will start to look respectable. Shortcuts get you nowhere; there is no quick way to write a first draft.

Let It Rise. I like to take some time away from a project once I’ve completed the first draft. It gives me time to gain some distance so that when I return, I can look at my writing with fresh eyes. Time lets me see any huge holes in my plots or any inconsistencies in my characters’ behaviour.

Punch it Down and Let it Rise Again. The editing process (mine, not my editor’s). This may turn into a completely new draft, depending on what I see. Then there’s the notes from my editor. Edit again.

Bake. It’s gone. Nothing left but wait to enjoy (or pace and wonder what you forgot).

The biggest lesson? You can’t rush bread. You can’t rush writing. It takes the time it takes. Best of luck with your bread!

Elspeth Antonelli Twitter: @elspethwrites

Friday, October 30, 2009

Do Writers Need to Be a Little ADD?—Guest Post by Martha Nichols

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Many thanks to my guest blogger today, Martha Nichols.

Martha is a freelance magazine writer and editor who runs WOMEN = BOOKS, the blog for the Women’s Review of Books based at Wellesley College. She also teaches in the journalism program at the Harvard University Extension School.

If MAADD didn't evoke drunk drivers and an earlier generation of enraged mothers, I'd be all over it: Middle-Aged Attention Deficit Disorder.

My attention divides and divides again; I can't even spin a good acronym without referencing something else. This is a bad thing—right?

I used to think that was a rhetorical question. The answer was obviously yes. Lack of focus took me away from my work. It stopped me from following through on a thought; it made me unable to fix the logic of a short story. I became just plain grumpy and distracted, a state in which I couldn’t wrestle ideas into their proper form.

But lately I’ve had the strangest epiphany: Maybe writers need a little ADD. Maybe their brains need to be shaken, not stirred.

How else to explain why I’m writing more and better than I have in years? I’m far busier—sometimes exhaustingly, hopelessly, ridiculously busier—than when I had more uninterrupted time in my schedule to write.

Once my son Nick joined our family, I dropped much of my freelance editing business. When he was a baby, then a toddler, I felt constantly distracted and unproductive. Ironically, I was focusing on my own fiction writing—part-time, to be sure, but that level of focus seems luxurious now.

And it didn’t work for me.

Reams have been written about the fractured attention of mother-writers, whether they’re Anne Tyler famously burning the midnight oil after her kids were asleep or Grace Paley producing telegraphic short stories at the kitchen table.

I'm not ADD in any clinical sense. I’m a parent. But one book that became a touchstone for me a few years ago was Edward Hallowell's CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!

Hallowell, a psychiatrist in the Boston area, has popularized ADD and ADHD as diagnoses, and has written a number of well-known books about coping with these disorders. But in CrazyBusy, he goes a step farther, arguing that our multi-tasking, post-millennial, "CrackBerry" era fosters a form of cultural ADD. In that sense, we're all suffering.

I used to agree completely. Two years ago, when my son entered kindergarten, I gave myself permission to go back to full-time work. It took awhile to settle into my current whirl, and I felt like a juggler with one hand and five hundred torches. I’m a freelancer, so finding work was more complicated than just landing a single job.

There are still times when I wish I had one employer or one work mode—editor or writer or teacher or blog manager—rather than shifting among them all.

But what’s surprised me is how alive my mind feels now. I've gotten better at mental juggling. I won't claim I'm more organized, but my constantly dividing and skipping attention seems to be sparking me as a writer. I find myself excited by ideas all the time.

A few years back—say, 2006, when CrazyBusy first came out—this attitude would have seemed like grounds for Lithium. When my son was four or five, his wildly shifting attention seemed a match for my own disintegrating brain. I found it profoundly disturbing to be so scattered. I kept exhorting him to focus, as if focus and control of all those flowing ideas were a kind of Holy Grail I was searching for myself.

There's no doubt some of my attention struggles were and are physiologically rooted. Many researchers now believe that what those of us in middle age really experience is failing attention. In "The Midlife Memory Meltdown,"an article for O magazine adapted from her book on the topic, journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin says of our aging brains:

"When the frontal lobes are in top form, they're adept at figuring out what's important for the job at hand and what's irrelevant blather; a sort of neural “bouncer” automatically keeps out unnecessary information. In middle age, that bouncer takes a lot of coffee breaks. Instead of focusing on the report that's due, you find yourself wondering what's for dinner. Even background noise—the phone chatter of the coworker in the next cubicle—can impair your ability to concentrate on the task before you."

But I've always been like this. I'm great at synthesizing ideas, but I've never been good at memorizing facts. Historical dates elude me; foreign vocabulary evaporates as soon as I'm not immersed in it. (My French is terrible, and I lived in France. And let’s not even mention—not here, anyway—the Vietnamese class I’m currently taking.)

The best shift for me has been one of attitude, not a new wonder drug or a brain transplant. I’ve learned to embrace my proliferating ideas, to find in the strange twists a far clearer, more personal writing voice. This Martha is not quite so careful, has more fun, and is —I think—more fun to read.

Blogging encourages such creative idea generation, which may be why I’ve taken to it. It's no accident that I'm running four blogs now, one in an editorial capacity with multiple authors on assignment with various deadlines.

In CrazyBusy, Hallowell himself distinguishes between the "stress" that gets your juices flowing and the anxiety-producing mess of having too many commitments:

"If you’re busy doing what matters to you, then being busy is bliss. You’ve found a rhythm for your life that works for you. This world is bursting with possibilities; its energy can be contagious. If you catch the bug, you want to jump out of bed each day and get busy, not because you are run ragged by details or because you are keeping the wolf from your door, but because you are in love with this fast life."

It’s also true that I’m doing less fiction writing these days. My excuse for the moment is that I need to be entrepreneurial with WOMEN = BOOKS and my other blogs. Traditional print journalism and book-publishing have imploded; like so many magazine writers, I feel compelled to get online and to make the future happen tout de suite.

An excuse is an excuse is an excuse, however. Somewhere under the blizzard of ideas, I know it’s time for me to focus again on longer writing projects, too. I need to find a balance, although I’ve never been good at that.

We all have our particular demons to conquer. Mine is an extremely abusive, judgmental inner editor. Maybe all that’s changed is that I now accept both my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I no longer bludgeon myself into perfectly transparent, orderly prose—and that’s liberating—at least for me.

Yet there’s a bit of cultural demonizing at play here as well. Scattered attention seems like a formidable problem if you believe order is all—or that the only real goal is an end product. But creative flow is not served by an obsession with order. And for writers, being in control is not necessarily a good thing.

So what say you, fellow writers and readers? Do you struggle with divided attention? Do you ever find it a blessing?

Where was I?

Martha Nichols


This post has been adapted from “Am I Crazy to Study Vietnamese?” on Martha Nichols Online. I also blog at Talking Writing and Adopt-a-tude


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Age of Media: Have We Come Too Far? by Guest Blogger Michele Emrath

Michele Emrath

Thanks to Michele Emrath for guest blogging for me today! Michele is a writer, freelance news producer, wife, and mother and hails from my home state of North Carolina. Her blog is


The Internet.

Fact books.

The telephone.


These are sources we cannot imagine living without. But they haven't always been around, and people have been writing magnificent manuscripts for thousands of years.

Every generation thinks they are the first to discover something great. Did the Beat poets discover poetry? Did Casanova discover love? Did the Woodstock generation discover sex? Did Al Gore discover the Internet?

The truth is: writing came long before us and research predates our very modern ways. Stories predate the written word. So what would it be like to write a book without the benefit of electronic resources?


If I am stuck on a word, I speedily key in and have a synonym within seconds.

If I need to know what type of weapons SWAT officers use in a meth house takedown situation, I peel open my well-worn copy of book1 Police Procedure & Investigation by Lee Lofland. If I need to parse out some architecture facts I grab my ever-handy cell phone and call my father, Michael Hindman.

And the technology keeps coming. I mentioned e-books at the top of this blog. Personally, I like the smell of the glue and the feel of the pages. I like the color and myriad fonts of spines lining my bookshelves. But I see the future and it has the name Kindle. Downloading books at the speed of web-surfing! Forgoing the long trip to B&N or the local Indie and having a new read minutes after finishing the old one. (Or is this, too, naive? Will it be seconds?) Saving trees and money while doing it. And upping the amount of research books we can afford.

But is it all necessary?

At a recent writers conference I met an author who says she has never been to a single location about which she writes. She uses the Internet and various contacts gained through the Internet to gather her facts. This wouldn't work for me: I am an emotions-based person. I have to feel it to write it. I have to experience the place to describe it to my readers. Besides, why would I write about Paris and not get the benefit of travelling there?

Furthermore, I think a lot is lost in the use of electronic media. I am an electronic media journalist by trade. I am very aware of its benefits, but I see books as emotional and as art. They should be as much labors of the heart for the writer as for the reader, and that cannot be done through a machine.


Several years ago my sister gave me a beautiful coffee table book, New York Interiors. It is filled with magnetic portraits of just that: modern lofts juxtaposed beside Louis XIV palace apartments (a la Trump). On page 108 begins a portrait essay on David McDermott and Peter McGough. The artists share a Brooklyn home and a lifestyle that they have chosen to set back about one hundred years. They walk everywhere they can, or, on rare occasion, drive their Model-T Ford. In their art they use original cameras and costumes. And in their home (a former bank built in 1896), they reject modern amenities like television and CD players.

Agatha Christie. Daphne du Maurier. Fyodor Dostoevsky. Giovanni Boccaccio. Homer.

They all did it. Can we?

Postscript: I referenced five times while writing this post.

Michele Emrath SouthernCityMysteries

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Walking a Mile and Getting 'Round—by Guest Blogger Margot Kinberg

Margot Kinberg1

Thanks to guest blogger Margot Kinberg for posting for me today! Margot is the author of Publish or Perish and an associate professor at National University in Carlsbad, CA.

It never seems to fail. I’ll be settling down for a few hours of undisturbed writing when the phone rings. Or the dogs need attention. Or the Moccasinslaundry needs to be moved along. On other days, I’ll be inspired by an idea, but it happens while I’m in an important meeting at work. Or in a long line at the bank. Or sitting in traffic on the way home from work. The problem sometimes with being a writer is that real life keeps getting in the way.

But that’s just it. Good writing is real life. The best characters are real characters who behave in believable ways. The best plots come from real-life situations that we all face. The most memorable stories are stories about people who could be us. So instead of resenting the real life that seems determined to intrude on my make-believe world of writing, I’ve learned to embrace it. I’ve learned that with a few tricks, I’m able to harness the real-life situations that I face and use them in my writing. Not only does it help to improve my writing, but I also get to feel very smug and productive even when I’m not actually at the computer ; ).

Here are the tricks that work for me:

Savor those distractions!

Sometimes it can seem as though distractions are only irritating wasters of time. But they are also the stuff of real life. Those distractions can actually help me to connect with my characters in ways I probably wouldn’t be able to do if my life ran more smoothly. Characters in my novels have to drive through bad weather, fix flat tires, pay bills, walk their dogs, deal with work issues and a thousand other things. When I experience those things, too, I’m able to empathize with those characters and write about them in ways that help readers empathize with them, too.

Distractions also help me stay connected to other people, and that’s important, too. When I’m standing in line at the dry cleaner, for instance, I connect with the other people there and with the person behind the counter and that reminds me of what real people do in those situations. That makes it much easier to write real-life scenes. For instance, there’s a grocery store scene in my book B-Very Flat. That scene’s the product of a thousand trips to my own grocery store on the way to or from work. I can empathize with the characters in that scene because I’ve been there and done that.

I admit it’s not always easy to step back and appreciate a distraction for the opportunity it is. I get as irritated as anyone when the day doesn’t work out the way I’d planned. But I’ve learned that it’s just those distractions that have taught me the most about real characters and therefore, well-written characters.

Remember what it’s like.

This one takes a little preparation, but I’ve found it to be really useful. When I’ve been pulled away from my beloved computer, instead of seeing it as “wasted time,” I try to remember how it feels to pull warm, soft clothes out of the dryer, or successfully complete a work project I’m proud of, take a long plane ride or attend a convention. All of those emotions are also the stuff of real life, and remembering them helps me to empathize with my characters when they have similar experiences. If I can empathize with them – walk in their shoes – I can make them more real, so readers can empathize with them, too.

Of course, emotions are fleeting things. That’s where the preparation part comes in. I’ve found that it helps to keep a little pad of paper and a pen handy, so I can make notes that I use to jog my memory. I know other writers use audio recorders for a similar purpose, and I’m sure that they work well, too. In some way, it’s important to try to capture the feelings one has, because that helps in giving characters believable reactions to life.

Use it!

Most writers hit “dry spells,” where the dialogue seems forced, the characters “flat” or the action unrealistic. I know I do. There are books, workshops, even courses designed to help writers create interesting and realistic stories. Those can be very useful. But the reality is, most of us don’t hit “dry spells” at convenient moments, such as just in time to register for an interesting workshop. We hit them at very awkward moments, such as a week before an important deadline.

That’s where those annoying, but very useful distractions can come in very handy. Using those experiences to “breathe life” into a character, a conversation or an event can do a lot to make writing more “real” and engaging. Using experiences we’ve had ourselves, like waiting at a dentist’s office, answering phone calls and buying a birthday present for someone can make characters more “real” – more “well-rounded.” And after all, those “round” characters are the ones that are most appealing. Readers empathize with them because they have walked in the same shoes.

I’ve found that if I look back on the situations and experiences that pull me away from writing, and remember what they are and what they feel like, I’m able to use them to draw me back to my writing. In other words, if I use my own experiences to “walk a mile” in a character’s “shoes,” I can make that character or situation more “real” – more “round.”

What do other people advise?

Author Ken Brosky has some useful ideas about using your own experiences to make characters more real.

Here is author Simon Wright’s article on using personal experiences as the basis for writing: is also a very valuable resource for writers. It’s got a lot useful links and article for writers, including this one on using your own experiences.

Kelly Stone has also edited a fascinating book, Time to Write on integrating personal experiences and writing so as to work writing into a busy life. There’s an overview and preview of the book at

What do you do when life seems to get in the way of your writing? KinbergCoverHow do you make those myriad distractions work for you?

Margot Kinberg Confessions of a Mystery Novelist @mkinberg (Twitter)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pimp Your Mystery With Crazy Truth—A Guest Post by Glen Allison

Glen Allison

Thanks to author Glen Allison for his guest post today. Glen writes the Forte suspense novels, featuring New Orleans child rescue specialist Al Forte.

A teenaged girl is found wandering the hard streets of New York. She doesn't know who she is. Or where she came from. Or how she got there. Her fingerprints lead nowhere.

On her arm is scrawled a birthday greeting and some Chinese characters.

She does recall some lines from a fantasy novel. She found herself reciting them. Why? What does it mean? She has no idea.

Sounds like the start of a mystery novel, doesn't it? Nope. True story. It was in yesterday's (Friday, October 23, 2009) news.

But here's the thing: I have a novel idea that involves an amnesiac kid. Think I'm not going to swipe a scintillating fact or two from the lost girl story?

Maybe you should, too. (Not this story but some other story that smacks you in your news collector.)

My point is this: There are stranger-than-fiction tidbits flying past us all the time, true tales of intrigue that are there for the picking. If we will only open our eyes and see them. And reach out and pluck them.

Don't worry about copyright violations and lawsuits. You aren't going to use the facts and act like you made them up. You are going run the real-life stuff through the creative mazes of that pinball mind of yours and by the time the idea goes DING, it will be your own concoction of mysterious fictional fun.

Off the top of my head, here's how I would use the true lost girl in a story: Remember the fantasy novel the girl is quoting? I'd have the author of that book behind it all. Maybe she staged the whole situation to give herself some buzz for her book. But something happened. The girl was intercepted by nefarious cads and brainwashed. Those Chinese symbols on the girl's arm? They are a code for something more sinister. Something that bodes trouble for the “lost girl” and the author both.

See how it works? Go loosen up your Weird-O-Meter as you scan the news. You'll crazy up your stories a bit. And your readers will benefit.

Glen C. Allison Author of the Forte suspense series @glen_allison

Monday, October 26, 2009

I’m a New Author. What is the Best Way to Get Published?—Guest Post by Marvin Wilson (The Old Silly)

Marvin Wilson

Thanks so much to Marvin Wilson for guest blogging for me today! Marvin is “An old Hippie rock and roller, a non-religious, dogma free, Maverick spiritualist Christian. I am an author, with the audacity to write novels. I also am an editor. I’m on the editors staff at All Things That Matter Press and also do freelance. For a rate quote, contact me at”

Having gone through the daunting and laborious task of getting that first book published, I thought I’d take some time and write down some things I’ve learned along the way. Maybe some talented new writer can read this and cut down on the amount of frustration, confusion, and anxiety that I went through trying to break through the barrier from “amateur writer” to “published author.” As the published author of just three books so far, with three more scheduled to be published in 2010, I am certainly no senior writing sage – don’t profess to be. However, I am a quick learner, and I think that if you are new to this industry, or even started on your way, you will find my observations and recommendations more than sophomoric. Let’s get started.

First, you have to know what you want, and at the same time you must be realistic in your expectations. Unless you are already famous in some other area, in the literary world you are an unknown. If you have never had a magazine or newspaper article published, never hosted a successful blog, never had so much as a poem in print anywhere, no literary resume of any weight, you have to realize that nobody knows you, and nobody cares that you’ve written a book, even though you may believe it’s the next Great American Novel. Your friends and family have read your manuscript. They may have filled your head with affirmations of how wonderful your precious book is, encouraging you to get it published, assuring you that you are at least equal to Stephen King and will most surely be fantastically successful.

Probably not. Not with your first go-around. Maybe not even with your second or third or fourth book. The King himself went through decades of living as a starving artist before his breakthrough novel, “Carrie,” vaulted him into ‘overnight’ success. (Read On Writing by Stephen King. This is mandatory reading for all aspiring authors). Trying to get a major publisher or literary agent to pick you up, as a novice, is about as easy as herding cats, and as much fun as a root canal. If you go about it the wrong way, you may well become despondent, frustrated, and give up. This article is intended to help you find your way with some clear, proven methods of getting your writing career up and running.

So, let’s get started. Here are your down-to-earth choices, Mr. or Mrs. Novice Author. There are four realistic choices available to you.

They are- 1. Self-publish 2. Go with a vanity press 3. Go with a POD 4. Get a contract with a small traditional publishing house

Choice number one: you can self-publish. This is a monumental undertaking. You buy your own ISBN number, you copyright the work yourself, you produce the cover art (or pay an artist for it), you hire a printing press to produce the copies ( now has a self-pub option with BookSurge that makes it a little easier, I’ve been told), and then you seek a distributor to distribute your books (which you probably will not be able to get) or you market and sell your books yourself. True self-publishing makes sense only if your work is too controversial for any publisher to print, or if your book relates only to a small geographic area, or perhaps if you just want to produce a textbook for a class you are teaching in some obscure subject that you are an expert at – those types of scenarios. Otherwise, it’s too much work (for this author, at least) to take on.

While the next two options are often (mistakenly) called “self-publishing,” they are actually not. These are publishing houses that do it (all that work we discussed above) for a fee. They are the vanity presses and the POD (print on demand) publishers. Some of the better known vanity presses are iUniverse, XLibris and AuthorHouse. But there are hundreds of them, just do a Google search. They are the easiest way to publish. With many of them, you just pay a fee and they’ll publish your work, even if what you’ve written is the most pathetic drivel ever penned. So if you are with me so far, we are now left with two other choices. Get with a good, reputable POD publisher, or go for a small traditional publisher’s contract. Let’s talk the POD route first.

A good POD publisher will have standards. The more respectable the outfit, the higher the standards. They don’t publish just any rubbish. You will in most cases need to submit a query letter to get their attention. You also need to investigate the company enough to know if they are accepting submissions and/or queries at this time. Remember, they are small; they can only publish so many books in any given year. Nowadays they all have websites, so go there and read up on them. Find out what genres they accept and which they do not. Most do not want a full manuscript submission before reading your query. If they like your query, they will usually ask for a sample first three chapters.

Know this: submission guidelines vary - so do your homework. Your book could miss a chance at being published just because you didn’t take the time to read up on how a particular publishing house wants you to submit your query/sample/manuscript. That nettles veterans in the industry. If you are too unprofessional to read and follow simple submission instructions, or for some reason can’t read, they don’t want anything to do with you. Remember, these are professionals. They’ve been at this a long time, and they can smell an unpromising, slow-learning amateur from a continent away.

After reading your query and sample, if they still like what they are reading, they will likely ask to read the whole manuscript. Then, and only then, (and after an agonizing long wait, most cases – I’m talking months - really) will you find out if you have landed a publisher willing to publish your work. So, first off, you need to learn how to write an effective, attention-getting, professional looking query letter. There are plenty of sources for tutorials on the do’s and don’ts of writing a good query letter. Do a Google search. Two sources I highly recommend from personal experience are Carolyn Howard Johnson’s book, The Frugal Book Promoter, and Janet Elaine Smith's Promo Paks.

Now we come to the fourth viable option, landing a contract with a small traditional publishing house. Here are some of the advantages of going that route:

A) They pay all the expenses to publish your book. You have no out of pocket costs. Unless, that is, they don’t have an in-house editor to your liking and/or standards and you need to hire one. And, a side note here, you must use a good editor. The best authors with dozens of best-sellers already to their credit have an editor. Even editors use another editor for their own books. As the author, you often cannot “see” what is actually on the page. You think it’s there, but it’s not clear or missing altogether – or visa versa. Good editors will spot plot/subplot/timeline inconsistencies, character trait/speech inconsistencies, poor sentence and paragraph structure; I could go on and on. This is mandatory – hire the services of a professional editor, a good one. Back to the advantages.

B) Unlike the Big Houses, small traditional publishers still allow you a large amount of control over your work. You will still most likely have the say in what the cover looks like. A company I worked with recently, (Cambridge Books), even welcomes the author submitting the cover art his or herself if they have it. Also, if they like your manuscript enough to pay to publish it, they probably won’t demand that you rework it in any major way.

Now some disadvantages to consider.

A) As with POD’s, small traditional publishing houses do not have staff and budgets to market your book for you. You are just as alone here as with the POD’s. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

B) When I say “small” traditional publisher, that’s exactly what I mean. You have not hit the big time. Getting your first “real” contract can lull you into a deadly slumber, thinking you’ve “made it” and have no work to do except write for a living from now on. Your book could go nowhere, and probably will, unless you start promoting and marketing the living bejeebers out of it starting months before the expected release date.

C) You make less money on the sale per book. Since the publisher has shelled out the bucks to publish your book, they take a higher cut of the proceeds from sales. Your royalties will be a smaller percentage than with POD’s, and your net ROI will be somewhat less on personal sales than with a POD publisher.

There you have it. Four avenues to consider for publishing your book. My best wishes I send to you as your pursue your new career in the wonderful and challenging world of literature.

Marvin D Wilson Blog at: Avatar Award Winning Author of Owen Fiddler Tweet me at:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Starting Out

The Farm Pond--Henry Herbert La Thangue  1833--1929 On Friday evening, a friend of mine asked me some questions about mystery writing while I was at the Brownie Scout sleepover. Naturally, since this is my favorite thing to talk about, I was happily prattling off all kinds of info when it occurred to me that my non-writing friends aren’t ordinarily that interested in the process of writing. They’re incredibly supportive, but not usually asking the kinds of questions that my friend was asking.

I’m slow on the uptake, I’ll admit it. Especially in conversations. “Oh! You’re interested in writing.” Which was wonderful. Because if I could convert everyone into becoming a writer, I’d do it. The world would be a happier, if odder, place.

My friend wanted some ‘starting out’ information about writing. My mind really boggled. There’s such an incredible amount of information out there. Where do you start? What’s useful?

I think it’s good to do some research ahead of time. Some. Not enough to stifle the creativity. Not enough to feel like the process is too daunting. But enough so your first attempt isn’t way off course.

What genre do you want to write? What do you read? What do you like to read? Is it different from what you feel like you should be reading? You might even want to focus in on a particular subgenre—a paranormal mystery. An apocalyptic sci-fi. It would definitely make it easier to query later on because agents and editors want to know what kind of book you’ve got.

In that genre, what is the usual word count range? For a ballpark idea on what you should think about shooting for, try this article. Why is this useful? You need to think about whether your idea is sustainable for 75,000—95,000 words (which is likely the range of most adult books.) And you want to stop yourself before you write too much material. More usually isn’t better, as far as agents and editors are concerned.

Where do I start? At the beginning….or not. There’s no rule that you have to start at the beginning if that’s the part that’s tripping you up. Skip the beginning and move on to the next scene. You could even write the ending first.

Set a small, attainable goal. Otherwise, it’s like a New Year’s Resolution that ends up getting ditched. Even 10 minutes a day is good, as long as you’re looking at your manuscript and writing.

Don’t worry about agents and editors until your book is doneunless you’re writing nonfiction and want to send out a proposal for your project before writing it.

Aspiring mystery writers—and other genre-writers (since some of the info isn’t genre-specific)—here are some links I’ve thought were helpful in the past. Most of them I would only use if you get stuck. If you try to read a whole bunch of information before writing, it can really mess with your mind (at least, it does with mine.) Obviously, take what you need and ignore the rest. There is a formulaic aspect to writing mysteries, but we all infuse the process with our own personalities on paper.'s Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula This can give you an idea of what plotting a mystery is like if you’re not really sure where different elements come in. It’s by no means a Bible…and the word count is usually higher than 60,000 words. Write That Novel , which has useful, printable sheets for characterization, plotting, storyboards, etc. Book Crossroads , which has links to online mystery writing groups, hardboiled slang dictionaries, forensic information, and legal overviews. Twenty Mystery Writing Rules

Writing Clues: Help for mystery writers

Don't Drop Clues: Plant them Carefully! by Stephen Rogers does a great job covering the types of clues, how to misdirect your reader, and mistakes to avoid.

Suite 101 covers planting clues in different ways: tucking them in a paragraph, heightening the drama, clues of omission, missing weapons, and clues from real life.

Author Sandra Parshall's website explains how "Clues Drive the Mystery Plot."

The Christie Mystery website demonstrates how Agatha Christie used clues and other plot devices.

Stephen Rogers writes a different article on red herrings and how to use them effectively.

Thanks so much to everyone who is helping me out this week! I’m really excited about the interesting group of bloggers who are guest posting for me as I take care of my son (and spray Lysol disinfectant everywhere!) First up, tomorrow morning, will be the fabulous Marvin Wilson, better known as The Old Silly.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tips on Author Websites

Robin with friend and Trixie, 1952 by Peter Samuelson (20thc.) As I make blog rounds and visit Tweeted links, sometimes I can see a pattern of interest in a subject over the course of the week. This week I kept running into tips on tweaking our author websites. Or…maybe I was subconsciously interested in the topic and those were the links I kept clicking on.

Website designing software has gotten so easy to use that most of us are able to come up with a simple design, then maintain and update our own sites.

I’ll admit that I’m not a decorating type of girl. As you can see from my blog. :) Not a whole lot going on, aesthetically, on the blog. In fact, the Blogger template was called “Minimalistic.” My eyes have a hard time reading anything but black on white, so I went with what was easiest for me, since I’m spending the most time on the blog.

The website is a little different. I do think websites should pop a little bit.

These are the sites I came across this week. I think I need to spruce up my website a little, so I’m going to use some of the tips I came across. And, unfortunately, H1N1 has hit my house (courtesy of my son) and so I may be spending some quiet time around the house the next few days. Or longer. Or maybe we’ll all end up with it and I’ll talk to y’all again in a month. :)

The Book Publicity Blog, which is new to me, seems to be a good resource for many different things. I’m linking to their post on author websites. Most interesting point this article made: including your contact info for your agent. I never would have thought of doing that. So Ellen—I’m putting your info on there now!

Literary agent Nathan Bransford’s post on author websites. Most interesting point: Be very, very careful about posting excerpts from a book you’re hoping to have published.

And this site just seems hilarious to me: The Intern. Basically, it’s written by a young woman who’s been working (for free) for a publishing company. She’s seems really witty and sharp---fun to read. I’ve linked to her post on websites. Most interesting point (and I’m quoting directly):

INTERN gets confused if the author website the author provides doubles as the author's personal ferret photo collection/manga link farm/news feeds from other random websites, and one has to sift through all this other stuff to find writing-related information. Save your author website for content directly related to your writerly self (and/or your professional self, if applicable). Please?

I’m going to look at these tips and brush up my site, which I usually neglect doing in favor to spending time with my blog.

On a separate note: There’s a fairly good chance I’ll come down with swine flu. Not only was there flu present at the Hannah Montana sleepover that I chaperoned last night (a girl fessed up that she hadn’t been to school that day because she had flu--and had missed school all the past week suffering from it. MOM—What are you thinking?!?!?! This mom may end up as a victim in my next murder mystery…) but it’s in my own house now, too. Is there anyone who’d like to write a guest post for this blog? Y’all know the kind of thing I stick on here. Or you could write something different.

If you’re interested, please just email me a story, links, photos. I’ll throw them up on the blog. I usually like to post very early in the morning…except, well, for today. Because of Hannah Montana and the fact that my air mattress had a hole in it and my bony back was on a gym floor. :) So you could email it to me the night before and I'd schedule it for the next morning.

I’ll take the first 7 people, for right now. I think I’m going to be on Lysol and Clorox wipe duty for a bit, even if I stay healthy, so it might be nice to grab a quiet week. Thanks, y’all.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thoughts on Podcasting

I thought I’d do a follow-up post on my radio/podcast experience yesterday at Red River Writers. I’m giving y’all the link but be advised I sound really, really quiet there right now! I promise I have a big voice. :) Really! I don’t even usually need a mike when I talk. Maybe they can tinker with the audio a little bit. In the meantime, you could turn up the volume a bit and hear me a smidgeon.

As usual, life was completely chaotic before I went on the air. I was emailing Barbara Ehrentreu about 45 minutes before the show, ironing out some last-minute details. I suddenly got a text from my son: “Help me.”

I text back. “What’s wrong?!”

“Feel sick.”

“Why r u txting during class? Can u hold on?” The dismissal bell was only45 minutes off.

Then it was time to run out the door and pick up the drama class carpool. They ran 10 minutes behind.

Get home at the same time as my nauseated son, who arrives home via carpool. He goes up to bed and goes to sleep.

I tell my 8 year old to please not bother me. Mama is going to be on the radio. Please do bother me if the house is on fire or if you start bleeding profusely. Please, please don’t bother me any other time!

I put the corgi, who gets excited sometimes, out in the backyard.

I lock my bedroom door.

I was going to get in the walk in closet, but then I decided the landline phone would be better than the cordless.

I had a glass of water. I had a couple of notes. I think that under pressure I could potentially forget the name of my book.

Everyone was really nice and Karen Hunter was really interesting to listen to.

About halfway through, I hear some tapping at my door. Which I ignore. The tapping continues. I continue ignoring it, and speak even louder on the phone, indicating that I’m busy to the little person on the other side of my bedroom door. I see no flames coming beneath my bedroom door or pools of blood seeping underneath, so I’m assuming that whatever is happening on the other side of the door is not an emergency.

The corgi starts barking in the backyard. I shut my window really quick.

After wrapping up the show, I open my door. My daughter was dying to tell me that she had unlocked something on the Wii video game. Yes. That’s what she wanted to tell me.

“Sweetie! I told you Mama was on the radio!”

“But you weren’t. You were on the phone!”

So my only advice as a newbie radio interviewee? Be really clear with children about what you’re doing. REALLY clear. Reconsider that closet to call in from. Talk louder than normal. And have fun. :)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A New Frontier: Radio

 blog5 Barbara Ehrentreu who has a great blog for writers, Barbara’s Meanderings, very thoughtfully invited me to be interviewed by her on the Red River Writers podcast.  The interview will run live at 4 p.m. EST (3 p.m. CDT).

LIVE! Because I’m calling in at 4:00 to the show.  From my house.  My house which goes berserk at promptly 4:00 every day.

I’m thinking about doing this radio interview from my closet. I’ll let you know how that works. 

More information on Red River Writers:

Wish me luck. 

Finding Your Niche

I was always a writer, like many writers are. I was the elementary school class reporter, the middle school reporter, the high school reporter and worked on the literary magazine. That was my extracurricular activity of choice.

So I was in London, working for a weekly magazine. My editor, John, was a nervous, hyper, chain-smoking fellow. I wrote whatever they wanted me to: I interviewed people, reviewed books, wrote articles on “slimming,” whatever. I was waaayyyy down on the totem pole, but they were all really nice to me.

One day John came to me in a panic. It was deadline day and somehow they’d come up short when they were laying out the copy.

“I need,” he said as he dashed up behind my rolling chair, “a story. Right now.”

“On….?” I asked.

“Spring fashions. Yeah. London’s spring fashions.” He dashed off again—this time out the door.

Well, I was in a fix. This was before the internet. Okay, yes, there was internet in the early 90s, but it was in some government building somewhere and the computer it was running on was as big as a city block or something.

At that moment I realized that nonfiction could be a major pain in the rear end. I was recently off the plane from America. I don’t follow fashion. I didn’t have any contacts to call up.

So…I made it up as I went along. It was my opinion of what the trends would be in London--heavily influenced by the trends in South Carolina, USA. Oh, I did look out the window for a few minutes to see what people were wearing as they walked down the street, but that was about it.

I continued working for different magazines after that, but I was a whole lot more interested in making things up full-time.

I chose fiction and my genre because that’s what I read. I’d read so many of them, I knew I could write my own.

I still write articles occasionally and they’re challenging in their own way. But…it’s actually easier for me to make stuff up.

Have you ever changed from fiction to nonfiction or vice versa? Did you like them both equally? Have you found your niche? Are you happy with it?

018 Lasagna at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen today, y’all! Run over and help your plates…

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stress and Tipping Points

Self Portrait 1937--Rita Angus I’m one of those people who usually likes to go with the flow. I think that’s because I’m in a writing fog half the day. But once I come down off my happy imaginary high, reality hits. And once I get my hackles up, watch out.

I’ve unfortunately been on a roll the past week of problems that needed to be addressed. The tipping point for each thing, the bit that spurred me into action? My children, each time.

It started with a group my son volunteers for. It was a school night, the day before a test. Pouring down rain, very chilly. He was with some other middle school boys, removing a barbeque pit that they’d help set up the week before for their yearly barbeque sale to raise funds for the group.

He had a nasty cold. Two hours into the mandatory volunteer work in the cold rain, I called his cell phone. “I’m on my way to get you.”

“Mom—they said I’m not allowed to go.”

“Well, I think you’ve done well to work for two hours. I’m going to pick you up and you can work on studying for your test tomorrow.”

“Mom—he says I’m not excused. We have another hour to go.”

A pause.

“Tell this gentleman your Mama wants to talk to him.”

A moment and a quick conversation later and suddenly it was absolutely fine that I could pick up my 12 year old so he could study for his math test.

Ohhh, I hate to act ugly. Why is it that the squeaky wheel gets the grease?

Confrontations or getting ready for a confrontation is stressful to me. I’m a very different person when I’m stressed out or angry.

My characters reach their tipping points, too. Everybody has something that’s going to set them off. In a mystery, that straw that broke the camel’s back could result in a murder.

As I’ve mentioned before, our characters are stressed out. Their lives are completely upside-down. I wrote about the way the confusion they might feel a few posts ago. Yes, they would feel very taken aback at the way their lives were running completely off track.

But what about stress? What kinds of things might a character do under stress?

  • They could say something they shouldn’t have said. This could cause a ripple effect in many ways but could especially create a rift between characters during an argument.
  • Stress could cause them to briefly act out of character. Have you got a well-controlled, polite character? Reacting to a stressful situation could make their temper flare up and open up some plot possibilities.
  • A character might drink too much under stress. This could create a whole host of other problems and conflicts in our plots. They might start a bad habit, like smoking, again.
  • They could react in a very wholesome way—increasing the amount of exercise they’re getting, watching what they eat, and trying to work in more sleep. (But really, what fun is that to write with? :) )

In my murder mysteries, stress causes my murderer to kill again. Naturally, the killer wants to remain unknown and will eliminate anyone who knows his identity.

Stress causes my suspects to point the finger at other suspects—who had been their friends prior to the murder investigation.

Character stress causes arguments and conflicts in my small town settings and old grievances bubble up to the surface again.

Got stress?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Aristarkh Lentulov (1882 - 1943)--Moscow I had a problem with one of my kitchen cabinets for over a week.

The problem was that when I opened the door to the cabinet, Pyrex dishes and Tupperware flung themselves at me. “$%#$#$!!!” I’d say, but would end up stuffing the glassware and plastic back in there with one hand while pulling out whatever it was that I needed.

The next day was a repeat. I’d open the cabinet and, “^#%$R#$#!!!!” once again.

Yes, I had a whole week of getting assaulted by my own cookware. Each day I’d have to stop what I was doing to work around this problem.

Finally I actually got a clue, opened both doors to the cabinet, sat on the floor, and looked at the problem critically. Oh. Two round pitchers on the bottom of everything. Yes, that’ll do it. Round things aren’t good to put a collection of 9 x 13 inch glass casserole dishes and stacks of Tupperware on. Once I took out the pitchers, my problem was over.

I have this scene in my next Myrtle Clover book that was the same way. Every time I read over the scene in my revisions, I’d frown at it. Something wasn’t right. But I never really stopped to find out what the problem was—I just skipped right over it and kept on reading. Whatever it was wasn’t too egregious, but it just wasn’t right.

Then I looked at it critically. I’d obviously liked the scene when I put it in. But now:

*It seemed awkward *The actions of the protagonist seemed out of character. *And—the kicker—it didn’t further the plot that much. I’d already accomplished the point I was trying to make in an earlier scene. It seemed like I was belaboring the point.

Thanks to the magic of computers, I cut out the scene and pasted it on a blank document, in case I wanted it back. Then I read over those pages again, this time without the scene.

Much better.

I think sometimes it could possibly mean the scene isn’t in the right location---too early in the story or too late in the story. Or maybe you’ve written in some scenes in the revision process that made the old scene unnecessary and redundant.

Either way, when something is popping out at me, I’m going to pay attention for a few minutes to correct it.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Plotting for the Future

Elizabeth Spann Craig While I was at the beach this weekend for a house party with friends, I got a great idea for a book. I could see the whole book—murderer, victims, clues, red herrings, and the role the setting would play in the novel. It would be a house party gone horribly wrong.

The only problem? I can’t write that book right now.

My next Myrtle Clover book is due in early November. My next Memphis Barbeque book is due April 1.

There’s no way I can work a beach party into my Memphis book. It would be geographically challenging. :)

After the April due date, I have a November one for Penguin and have the plot for that book set already.

Soooo….I’m thinking I can’t write this book for about a year.

My memory? It’s awful.

Usually I just create a new Word file, sketch out my idea, name it, and save it out to another location (usually I’ll email myself the file….lazy, but I can always locate it.)

This time, though, there’s a lot of data that I need to capture and I don’t think I have time right now to write out a full synopsis. Plus the fact that I don’t like writing to outlines.

Today I’m going to try something new and see how it works. I’ve got a voice recorder and I’m going to talk out the plot and characters. I’m hoping that it’s going to get all of my thoughts and ideas down, but won’t be as “official” as an outline or synopsis. I might see how far I can talk it out.

It’s the saving of the voice recording that I’m not sure of. I’ll need to make sure it’s someplace I can find it again.

I’m hoping that when I listen to it again, the excitement in my voice will ignite the creative process again and make it a quick write.

Does anyone else use a voice recorder? How does it work for you?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Changing Times

In the Orchard--Sir George Clausen (1853-1944) Today, I should be on my way back home from a fun, hopefully relaxing, weekend at the beach (Isle of Palms, near Charleston). My wonderful parents took the children for my husband and me and we headed off with friends.

In preparation for the car ride to the point where my husband and I were handing off the kids to my folks, I went to the Blockbuster movie rental place and got several videos for them to watch on their little DVD players in the car.

This means the most relaxing car ride for the adults.

My sister and I got along extremely well in the car when we were kids. But we did get bored on the long drive to Macon, Georgia to see our grandmother. We’d play the license plate game, look for VW bugs (beetles, we called them), etc.

When I suggested the cow counting game to my son, he looked at me in disbelief. I explained, “No, it’s fun! You count as many cows as you can and if you pass a graveyard, you lose all your cows.”

“And Nana came up with this game?” he asked, stunned. Then, of course, I realized that the number of farms in the South had greatly decreased. And there aren’t too many cemeteries lining the interstate highways.

Mom had dated herself once more.

I’ve touched on this before, but I’m trying not to date my books. I have high hopes that they’ll live on for a few years in libraries, and I don’t want to draw people out of the story.

I did mention Twitter in passing for the Memphis book. I had to think about it, but decided it’s a strong enough pop culture reference that it’s going to stay on for a little while. It’s star is still rising. But that was the only thing I can really think of that will place my story in a particular place and time.

How about you? Do your characters ever Facebook? Tweet? Do you refrain from making social media references at all?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

When Days Get Hijacked

Deadlines On Thursday, I had a completely different plan for my day. Since my deadline was Friday, I was going to leisurely take the day to read the complete manuscript again, with my revisions. I was going to read it in one sitting and correct any additions that jarred.


I forgot my daughter’s dental appointment until it was practically time to hit the road.

I didn’t have time to rearrange carpool, so I drove it. One little girl cried the whole way to the elementary school because she hadn’t done her spelling homework. I’ve got to get back home to take my daughter to her dental appointment. “Sweetie? Why not go to the media center (what they call libraries at schools these days) and finish it up.” She won’t get out of the car. She’s sobbing hysterically. I walk her through the process of collecting herself, sitting inside the school’s library and finishing the homework. –15 minutes from the game plan.

I go to the dental appointment with my daughter. –45 minutes from my plan, since I’d forgotten the appointment. Her dental appliance is checked and ruled fine.

Daughter realizes in dentist chair that her math homework might be wrong? Or she might not understand it. We sit in the lobby of the dentist office and I try to 1) Understand the homework and then 2) Explain it to her. -15 minutes.

Brownie Scout meeting is that night. I’m not the leader for the evening, but I have the craft box. Does the craft box have Elmer’s Glue? asks my co-leader. I have to locate the craft box in the crazy closet under my stairs. I try to find the ziplock of Elmer’s Glue. -15 minutes.

Neighbor calls. Conflict with the afternoon middle school carpool and the elementary school drama class. Can I take an extra child home? Sure. -35 minutes.

Drama class lets out late. Some weird forms we have to fill out that are Very Important. I sign the one for my child and the child that I’m taking home. -10 minutes.

Come home. Daughter is starving. I give her a bowl of sliced mixed fruit---watermelon, grapes, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon. Her cross-bite braces fall out. This, I might add, on the same day of her dental appointment. I call the pediatric dentist…they’re closed and won’t open up again until Monday. I am very irritated. My daughter is very upset. I drive over there…maybe they’re there and aren’t answering their phones? A dental staff meeting? No, they’re not. -45 minutes.

I’ve calmed down my daughter. I fix supper, feed the kids, and I go to the Brownie meeting with the glue. The co-leader’s helpers for the evening have not shown up. Because I’m the other leader, I stay there until the other helpers show. -25 minutes (and very high blood pressure gauged. )

Everyone has these days come along…whether you’re in an office or retired, or a mom of small kids. I wrote when I could. I read the revisions when I could. Unfortunately, this day was out of my control.

So….we’ll stay up later than we planned. Get up a little earlier. It’s important…to us. Don’t play catch-up every night, but this is writing. And for everyone addicted to the writing process, we’ll squeeze some time out of the craziness to get it done.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Publishing Humor

It’s been a busy week, jam-packed with a revision deadline, children’s extra-curriculars, errands, small household emergencies of various types and descriptions, houseguests, and preparation for an upcoming short vacation.

I grabbed my grins where I could find them.

Today, for your blog-reading pleasure, a compilation of funnies. My sense of humor was a little twisted this week, but hope you’ll find them worth a smile, too.

Amusing quotations, courtesy of:

  • I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork. Peter De Vries
  • A catless writer is almost inconceivable. It’s a perverse taste, really, since it would be easier to write with a herd of buffalo in the room than even one cat; they make nests in the notes and bite the end of the pen and walk on the typewriter keys. Barbara Hollan

A spoof in The New Yorker about the demise of in-house publicity at publishing houses: : Features a “letter” from an intern that’s been hired to take the place of the publicity department. She starts the letter to the author by praising the writer’s book, Clancy the Doofus Beagle: a Love Story and finishes the letter by saying she’s “looking forward to collaborating with you to make A History of Moorish Architecture, 1200-1492 the biggest success it can be.”

In between, the intern says soothingly, “Don’t worry if you think you’re not on Facebook, because you actually are. Jason enrolled you when you signed the contract last year, or at least he was supposed to, and he told Sarah Williams he did before he had to retire and Sarah left for nursing school. You currently have 421 Friends, 17 Pending Requests, 8 Pokes, 5 Winks, and 3 Proposals of “Marriage.”

An article in the Huffington Post entitled “Book Pitch Gone Bad: How to Piss Off Those You Most Want to Befriend : . It’s really a fairly serious article, but the publicist was so outrageous and clueless, it made me smile. I thought the title was funny, too.

I don’t remember why I was watching this video in the first place, but it’s really funny (and helpful, too for those of you facing a face-to-face agent pitch at a writing conference) and features several industry professionals in it:

How to Make the Perfect Pitch to an Agent

Hope one of these will give you a grin, too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When Settings Attack

Die Trattalmen--Alfons Walde (8 February 1891 - 11 December 1958)

Most of the time when I’m out running errands, I’m in a happy little Neverland, thinking about other things.

Yesterday I was actually mulling over settings while I was out and about. I wanted to add some short but punchy descriptive scenes to my Memphis Barbeque book. I’m not a fan of reading setting descriptions and a common editorial comment on my WIPs is that I need to incorporate extra description of _______room or ______person or ______place. I got that exact editorial direction again and have been busily making additions.

So I’m thinking about my settings (since my deadline is tomorrow), and I walked into Target (a discount store, for my non-American friends. A slightly more upscale Walmart.)

It wasn’t my Target, though—the one I usually go to that’s nearest to my house. It was a Target that was near some other errands I was running.

A foreign Target. And—God forbid—it was backwards. Do you know what I’m talking about? The whole store was set up completely backwards from the one that I usually go to….from the location of the entrance all the way back to the pet food aisle.

The store’s setting was so unexpected, in-my-face, and distracting, that I forgot half the things I’d gone in there for.

Which is exactly what I don’t want to have happen in my WIP.

If the setting description is distracting, it detracts from the purpose of the scene. I want my setting to provide an accent, not function as a main character. I’m not writing a man against nature book, where the setting would play a tremendous role. There are many books where the setting works like a character. I like some of those books. And setting helps me to tell my story. But for my books, it still needs to stick to the background.

I think that’s what I find jarring about description, as a reader. I love it to provide atmosphere. I love it to contribute to the conflict (confined setting, limited number of murder suspects, etc.) I don’t love it when I’m reading happily along and the writer starts waxing poetic about the setting:

And now I’ll impress you all with my lovely, spellbinding descriptions. Aren’t I a clever and talented writer?

So I went back through yesterday and made sure my setting additions weren’t slapping anybody in the face. I made a couple of changes to make my additions more seamless.

  • I included some descriptions via dialogue.
  • I compared one character’s appearance to a well-known person (which is tricky. It’s better to use a historical figure than a pop culture figure who might date your book.)
  • I mixed it up and used descriptive smells and sounds instead of only visual descriptions.
  • I tried to make one major standout, focal point for a setting or character description, instead of a laundry list of details.

I’m hoping my story’s descriptions will enhance my book. The last thing I want is to be eligible for an episode of "When Settings Attack.”'s Thursday morning. I had the pleasure of interviewing the fabulous Berkley Prime Crime author Laura Childs for the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen. She shares a delicious recipe for Chocolate Sour Cream Scones. Hope you can join us.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shopping for the Right Publisher

blog1 For the first time ever, my son asked to go shopping with me on Sunday. This was a real jaw-dropper, since our usual modus operandi has involved my going to the store, buying clothes, and forcing him to try them on later at home. Then I’d return what didn’t fit or what he didn’t like. And this was worth it to me because he was such an unhappy shopper and made the experience miserable for both of us.

But this time he was raring to go. He wanted a new pair of jeans, some new shorts (we’re entering a cold streak, but it’s still pretty warm on normal days), a sweatshirt, and some other things.

That day, he got hungry at 2:00 in the afternoon (two hours after eating a filling lunch of a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, yogurt, chips, and a plum). He ate a barbeque sandwich, edamame, and grapes. Two hours later, he ate a huge plate of alfredo pasta.

He’s thin as a rail.

I’m guessing he’s growing.

This influenced where we were going to shop. He wanted cool clothes. I figured he would outgrow them very, very soon. Old Navy was my pick…no Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch on this shopping trip.

When I was shopping for a publisher for Pretty is as Pretty Dies (necessary, because my first book from five years ago was with a small publisher that has—as many small publishers have lately—unfortunately gone under), I had a shopping plan, too. I needed a larger publisher with a more substantial print run. I needed to approach a publisher that wouldn’t require me to have an agent--which, at the time, I didn’t have. I needed someone that was currently open to admissions. I needed a publisher that published humorous cozies. I looked to ensure the publisher published regional mysteries, too. I found Midnight Ink and they were a perfect match for my manuscript.

All the writers I’ve ever spoken to have had similar shopping trips. You increase your chances substantially by not sending your YA book to a romance publisher. Or by not sending your 120,000 word mystery to a cozy publisher (who will be looking in the 75,000 word range.)

Publishers are shopping too, of course. Some of the things they’re looking for: conflict, hooks, riveting beginnings, original characters, and a strong voice.

They’re also looking for basic things like correct spelling, good grammar, active voice, showing-not-telling (some of the time, anyway), and some indication you’ve done your homework (their name is on the query, you’ve spelled their name correctly, you know the type of books the house publishes, your manuscript isn’t extremely long or extremely short, your query doesn’t state that your neighbor/child/cat loved your manuscript, etc.)

If I’d been looking for a suit for my son, we wouldn’t have gone to Old Navy.

If a publisher is looking for non-fiction, they’re not going to come to me. If I’m looking for a cozy mystery publisher, I’m not going to submit to Forge.

But if we do our research and have the merchandise publishers are looking for, both sides will get what they want.

Shopping Tools:

Writer's Market : Online, or in bookstores and libraries (be sure it's this year's edition) Literary Market Place: Same as above

Online searches--Have a publisher you're interested in? Google the publisher's name + submission guidelines. Then, look at the publisher's website and see what their most recent releases are. Check those books out from the library or look for them in a bookstore and compare them to your own.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

Alice through the Looking Glass--Lewis Carroll--1872

Have you ever had a day when you felt like Alice?

I had an Alice moment yesterday when everything turned into nonsense. Of course, I was writing at the time that my cell phone rang. It takes me a while to reconnect with real life, so the fact I was writing didn’t help.

The call was from an art studio. Their art teachers had switched days for teaching classes, due to personal conflicts. Would my daughter want to change to Tuesdays to stay with the same art teacher?

My mind whirled. What?

“My daughter took art from you two years ago, but she’s not taking now,” I said, still really inside my manuscript, but attempting to communicate.

“Your daughter is Charlotte.” This in a very matter-of-fact voice.

“No, no. She’s not Charlotte.”

“We have Charlotte down.” The soothing tone of the caller seemed to indicate a general lack of confidence in my sanity.

“We’re in a suburb of Charlotte, the town. No daughters named Charlotte.”

“But your last name is Gregg.”

“Noooo.” She was so certain-sounding that I nearly hesitated on this very basic information. “No….it’s Craig.”

“So,” (she’s now somewhat impatient), " is Tuesday good for you?”


At this point I could only start from the beginning. My daughter had taken art classes from them a couple of years ago. She was no longer taking art, she was taking drama. She is not Charlotte. I’m not Gregg. But then there was the matter of our automatic draft for the class 2 years ago. Were they—God forbid—drafting our account to pay for little Charlotte Gregg’s classes? I never could get a good answer from the rather confused artist on the phone with me, so I’ll have to pick through my account. Sigh.

It got me to thinking about my sleuths. They’re falling over dead bodies all the time. Don’t they feel like they’ve stepped through the looking glass, too?

Mine seem to take it in their stride. They’re concerned. They may even be a little shaken. But they don’t seem nearly as confused as I was yesterday. And they had something much more complicated to digest.

If we have conflict in our book (and by-golly, we should have conflict in our book or the poor manuscript won’t ever leave the nest), then our characters are dealing with big, baffling issues: whether it’s murder, divorce, Alzheimer's disease, or Armageddon. Are we showing their state of mind? Are they reacting? Can they react or are they too stunned?

Our characters have walked through the looking glass. Their lives are turning upside down. Are we capturing that? Because I’m thinking that maybe my characters are way too blasé about their challenges. Maybe some extra internal turmoil will help to spice things up a bit.


And now….well, y’all—I’m somewhere else today! :) Yes, I’m the Traveling Elizabeth this week. If you want to check in with me today (and this might be more of a genre-specific thingy, so y’all non-mystery writers are certainly excused), I’m over at Cozy Murder Mysteries today, explaining why I love writing mysteries.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Writing Process—Going from Idea to Finished First Draft

Young Girl Writing at her Desk with Birds--Henriette Browne (1829-1901) I know I’ve been bopping around from blog to blog lately. And…guess what? I’m doing it again today. :) I’m on A Good Blog is Hard to Find today with a post on the importance of developing a personal writing process, and sharing mine. I think that once we have a routine for approaching a new project, we don’t really have those ‘freak out’ moments with the blank paper (which I definitely used to have a lot more of.)

I also wanted to thank writer and librarian Stacy Post of A Writer’s Point of View for a really generous review and writer and news producer Michele Emrath of Southern City Mysteries for listing me with her ‘Friday Finds.’ I really do appreciate it!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Writing Obsessions, Part 2

Poe's Deadly Daughters

Once again I’m the guest blogger at Poe’s Deadly Daughters, a blog for mystery lovers. I’m covering my “Writing Obsessions.” Is writing taking over your life? If you’re a mystery writer, do you casually bring up murder when talking to non-writers? Find yourself picking your manuscript to death during the revision process? Then pop over to Poe’s Deadly Daughters and tell me I’m not alone!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Writing Obsessions

Poe's Deadly Daughters I’m the guest blogger at Poe’s Deadly Daughters, a blog for mystery lovers. I’m covering my “Writing Obsessions.” Is writing taking over your life? If you’re a mystery writer, do you casually bring up murder when talking to non-writers? Find yourself picking your manuscript to death during the revision process? Then pop over to Poe’s Deadly Daughters and tell me I’m not alone!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Superstitions and Other Forms of Irrational Thinking

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath--Theodore Chasseriau 1819-1856 For all its emphasis on the religious, the South is a very superstitious place. When I was pregnant with my son (living in Alabama at the time) I had people dangling strings over my stomach to tell the gender of my child, and received dire warnings that I should give my cats away because, “They’ll suck the life right outta that baby!”

I didn’t dare laugh at them.

But some superstitious have gotten ingrained in me. You should see my behavior when salt is spilled. Don’t make me walk under a ladder. I shuddered recently when my son broke his hand mirror he uses to put his contacts in. I make the sign of a cross when a black cat crosses my path (and I’m Presbyterian.) I’ll back into a car and get sopping wet to keep from having an umbrella open indoors.

This makes no sense. It’s completely irrational. But it’s become second nature to me. I won’t mess around with getting hexed!

So, in a small way, the superstitions are controlling my behavior in rather ridiculous ways (throwing salt over my left shoulder, crossing myself, avoiding construction areas.)

I’ve been playing around for a while with having a superstitious person in my books. They’re vulnerable to manipulation, I think. And they behave in unpredictable ways, which can be interesting.

I started thinking about all the irrational things that people do. When I write, I think I focus only on the believable. In fact, sometimes I’ll hear stories on the news and think, “Well, there’s no way I can write that as part of my book. My editor would say it’s completely unrealistic. Truth is stranger than fiction.”

But what about the odd things that people do? The phobias they have that prevent them from flying or from having a pet, or from being around people?

What about even eccentric habits that have gotten ingrained in people and which they’re loath to stray from? The person who always eats his supper while watching Wheel of Fortune. Comfortable habit? Or something more?

What about their past experiences that make them behave in an irrational, but understandable way—their reluctance to become intimate with anyone—taken to the extreme.

Or… their superstitions.

I think it would be interesting to play around with pushing characters in directions they don’t want to travel in. Make them take that plane ride. Tip them over the edge into pyromania from their little candle-burning habit. Turn their clutter into hoarding. Make their superstitions affect their daily behavior…or make them completely wrapped up in their daily horoscope. What kind of conflict could this cause, both internal and external?

Dry-Clean Only Books

Unknown Dutch Master - Still-Life with Books (ca. 1628, Oil on wood, 61,3 x 97,4 cm) I shop like a woman on a mission. I walk in, usually clutching the postcard or coupon that has been mailed to me. Must get navy slacks! I find the navy slacks. I sometimes don’t even try them on, just hold them up. Looks like they’ll fit! I buy them, race out the door, and I’m free! Free with navy slacks!

Except—they’re dry clean only.

I don’t even think about dry clean only. Not in my world. Not with muddy children and a husband who works for a dot-com corporation. They don’t need dry clean only clothes.

I don’t need dry clean only clothes.

The sad process is always the same. Since I never change it, the outcome never changes. I decide that the clothing manufacturer is in cahoots with a dry cleaning syndicate. I put the clothes in the washer on the gentle cycle.

And they die a horrible death.

I can’t handle “complicated” for books, either right now. It’s terrible to admit this— but I just don’t have the time, no matter how much I’d like to.

Right now I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—take II. The first time it had to be returned to the library before I was able to finish it. I decided to buy the book for my second attempt.

It’s a complicated book. There are many family members listed. I felt like I needed a family tree. The plot has different lines and elements. It’s a rich book, though—complex and unique.

I wish I had more time to devote to it!

I write machine-washable, dryer-friendly books. Go ahead and give them a try---you can pick them up, put them down, pause for a week then pick it up again…you shouldn’t be too confused.

  • I don’t write similar-sounding character names.
  • I don’t have more than six suspects. I don’t have more than two victims.
  • I frequently tag a character that’s been off-stage for a while when they come back on: Jim, Karen’s husband, sauntered up to the group…
  • There is no forensic stuff that you feel you need to go to med school to grasp.

The reason I’ve adopted the way I write is because I’m reading in spurts. I’ll start reading, then a household emergency comes up. I’ve read several mysteries that have unveiled a killer and I had to flip to the beginning to figure out who they were. Not cool. I’m writing books for busy people like me.

We need both kinds of books…the dry clean only and the machine washable. Life goes through cycles. I’ve had Bleak House periods and beach book periods. I’m having a great time with Larsson’s book, even though it’s taking me a huge amount of time to digest it.

How much time are you spending reading? Do you gravitate toward quicker reads? A little of both? Which do you tend to write and why?

And now---it’s Thursday morning! You know what that means…009 food!

This morning I’m serving up garlic cheese grits at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen. For those of you curious as to what the heck grits are, all will be explained at the Kitchen. :)