Thursday, December 31, 2009

14 Reasons Why Libraries are Writers’ Best Friends

Henry Lamb, The Artist's Wife 1933 You don’t have to spend a lot of money to become a better writer. That’s a good thing because most writers don’t have a ton of money to throw around.

The library has all the resources a writer needs. It’s always been one of my favorite places on Earth. Here are the reasons why libraries are writers’ best friends:


*Researching your book: Libraries have computers with internet capabilities. They have books and periodicals on a multitude of different subjects. They also have research librarians/information specialists who can help you with research and find reference materials to help you in your search.

*Researching your genre: You can easily check out a dozen recently-published books in your genre. It’s a quick way to see what publishers are looking for.

*Need help with grammar and writing style? The library will have reference books to help you. My favorite style book is Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s been around for ages.

*Books on the writing craft? Different libraries have different books, but there are some that will be in nearly every branch: like On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

*Some libraries will have subscriptions to helpful periodicals like Writer’s Digest.

A Place to Write

*Has your house gotten crazy? Kids/spouse driving you nuts? Is a coffeehouse too expensive? The public library is a great place to write.

Help With the Submission Process

*Looking for an agent? Look at the acknowledgements page in one of the recent releases in your genre. Agents are nearly always thanked.

*Another great way to find agent and editor names is by using Writer's Market and Literary Market Place. Using these books at the library means saving lots of money—these books are expensive.

*Need help quickly summing up your book in a query letter? Look at back cover copy of novels in your genre.

*Don’t have email and you need to email some queries? You can set up a Gmail or Hotmail account that can be accessed from a computer at your local library.


*Libraries are major book purchasers. Find out which libraries have your book. Go to, which searches libraries for content worldwide. You just plug in your book’s name, hit the search button, and find the results. For a listing of public libraries, go to Public You’ll get physical addresses, phone numbers, and websites (from which you can get the library’s email address).Send the acquisitions librarian an email or postcard with your cover photo, ISBN number, title of the book, publisher’s name, your name, release date, short summary, and any good review snippets.

*The librarians at my local branch are my friends, too. They’ve been incredibly supportive—my book is nearly always checked out of the library or on request because of their generous recommendations of my book to patrons. They’ve also put my book on a display with other regional authors.

*If you’re looking for a place to give a writing workshop or talk, your library usually has a meeting room that’s perfect for your event. Many of them will allow you to sell your book as well (it’s nice to give a donation to their Friends of the Library program if your signing is for-profit.)

*Libraries also provide locations for writing groups and book clubs to gather. For some writers, meeting with other writers and readers is a great way to network and find support and encouragement.

There are many expensive paths a writer can take toward professional development. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Writing shouldn’t have to cost more than the pen and paper you’re writing on.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2010 is a happy and successful year for all of you! And…if you’re throwing a party tonight, I have a party idea for you on the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What I’ve Learned in the Last Year

Self Portrait With Book 1923-5- Nella Marchesini-1901-1953 Time for all the year-end retrospectives. I sort of like them…but sort of not. So mine is more of a recap of things I learned this year and resources I gathered.

January—I discovered that you can get out of jury duty by being a mystery writer. Yes, there I was, pen and notebook in hand. I was completely ready to do my civic duty—and get an insider’s view on courtroom proceedings for a criminal trial. The defendant’s attorney? He did not want me there. I guess if you’re a lawyer, it’s best to stick with what you know. And he didn’t know how a mystery writer might react.

Feb-March—I worked through the revision process with Midnight Ink for Pretty is as Pretty Dies. I realized that promoting a book had changed since my first book was published in 2006. It had become a much more virtual process than a matter of a physical appearance. This was a huge relief since I’m 1) an introvert and 2) a stay-at-home mommy for whom appearances are difficult.

Early April—I got the green light to write a new series for Penguin’s Berkley Prime Crime—the Memphis Barbeque series.

April—I became curious about blog touring and discovered that several successful authors had attended Dani’s Blog Book Tour class on Yahoo Groups. Although she doesn’t have an upcoming class on her rota as far as I can tell, she has some great info in her archived Blog Book Tour blog.

May—Taking Dani’s class, I learned many interesting tips: RSS Feed buttons and Add-This and what RSS feeds and bookmarks do. Blogrolls Making room on your sidebar (collapsing your archives.) Qualities of a good blog. Buy buttons if you have a book to sell. How to handle Facebook.

Want a great overview? Try her Quickest Blog Book Tour Guide Ever.

Late May—I made some really wonderful friends that were classmates of mine in the Blog Tour class. Among them were Karen Walker, Galen Kindley, Jane Sutton, Patricia Stoltey, Stephen Tremp, and Nancy Sharpe. I also met graduates of Dani’s class: Marvin Wilson, Helen Ginger, L. Diane Wolfe. They’ve stuck by me through the months—which I really appreciate.

I also opened up a separate, professional Facebook account.

June—Welcome to Twitter. I start to make many new online writing friends and discovered what a fantastic writing community there is online. For a great sampling of my new friends, check out my blog’s sidebar or my award list.

Early July—Joined the fabulous mystery writing cooks at the Penguin/Berkley Prime Crime blog, Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen. I met some really welcoming authors who inspired me to ramp up my writing, as well as my cooking.

July—I learn that yes, you can write the bulk of a book while you’re kids are home on summer break. I wrote at the swimming pool and skating rink. (Link: How I Survived My Kids’ Summer Vacation.)

August 1—Pretty is as Pretty Dies is released. I guested on a variety of blogs and increased my book’s visibility on Google.

August, September, October—I made a lot more public appearances than I usually make…to promote the release of the new book. Here are my “Thoughts on Public Speaking.”

November, December—Revisions, revisions! Learned to juggle revisions on two separate books and write the first draft of a third. Still working on time-management. :)

Thanks so much to all of you who have made this such an incredible year for me. I’m looking forward to 2010 and connecting more with all of you! Your comments and support have meant so much to me.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tunnel Vision

Interior with head of a woman-- 1926--Mario Tozzi I’ve frequently been guilty of tunnel vision. I’m very Type A, and to me, staying the course sometimes means completing a project or train of thought.

You’ve sent me a Christmas card? You’re on my Christmas card list for life. I will continue sending you a card each year until I have proof of your demise in triplicate.

Change in schedule? I try to continue the original game plan for the day, while incorporating the change. In years past this meant carrying a squalling, unhappy toddler with me to lunch with a friend because someone eschewed naptime.

My first draft of my first book was the same way. Although I’ve never been a fan of outlines, I definitely had a plan for my book. I received well-meaning advice for my manuscript from first readers and a professional editor—but I was loath to take it. To me, it meant compromising my project. I wasn’t staying the course. And I felt the WIP was losing something that made it mine.

This inflexibility with editorial direction was, I now think, a sign of my immaturity…both as a writer and person.

At this point I’m open to both criticism and ideas. Bring them on! Usually even the toughest critique or harshest review has something useful I can take from it. Maybe it’s not something I can use for the current manuscript, but it might make a future book in the series stronger.

Tips for handling criticism and making it helpful:

Thank them for it. Even if I’m gritting my teeth, I’ll thank someone who criticizes my work in a non-nasty way. If they’ve taken the time to read my book or draft and think up ways to improve it, then they deserve some appreciation.

Don’t be defensive. When I’m defensive, I’m shutting down. I can’t be receptive to new ideas if I’m trying to defend something I wrote. And…it doesn’t really matter. Whether someone likes something I wrote or not isn’t up for debate. I don’t have any control over anyone else.

Consider the change. I write a quick version incorporating the advice and see if it’s better than I thought it would be.

Consider the essence of the criticism. Maybe there was a part that bothered your reader that they couldn’t exactly put their finger on. Perhaps they know there’s a problem with the protagonist, but they’re not a skilled enough reader to hone in on the exact nature of the problem. If a first reader says they didn’t like the character, find out why they didn’t. Was the character too static? Was the character whiny? Unbelievable?

Look for a second opinion. Have you got anyone else to read your draft? Did they stumble at the same spot? If not, ask them what they think of the criticism and whether or not it’s valid.

Is the criticism from your editor? Then…If my editor asks for the change? I just make it. For me, it’s always worked out better that way, even when I wasn’t jazzed about the change.

I’ve realized now that my books aren’t extensions of myself. They’re more of a collaborative effort—between me, my agent, my publisher, my readers…and even my critics. Once I came to that realization, it was all gravy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Unexpected

Unexpected Have you ever watched something unexpected happen?

My now-8 year old daughter was a cute baby. She was roly-poly and liked singing to herself in baby babble. Her hair stuck straight up and her serious eyes stared directly at or through you.

When cooing strangers in the grocery store came up to my baby? She’d fire them an unblinking, belligerent glare that could curdle milk. Then she’d recoil--withdraw her arm, her head, her whole body from the stranger’s looming proximity. She looked like an outraged adult, offended by an unwelcome advance.

The strangers would draw back and laugh nervously. I’d mildly say, “ I’m sorry. She’s so funny sometimes.” And then I’d laugh hysterically as soon as the stranger left my aisle. The strangers’ reaction to her unexpected response was always so funny. Just like watching “Candid Camera.”

I’m really fond of the unexpected in my writing and I lenjoy reading it, too.

What surprises are good for:

For adding humor or quirkiness: You think a character is going to behave in a particular way. You’ve carefully portrayed Edna as an uptight prude. Your protagonist views Edna that way. Then Edna says something outrageous and brazen that completely shatters this stereotype. Or Edna invites the protagonist to lunch—and serves McDonald’s Quarter Pounders with Cheese on her delicate china. And Bloody Marys.

For suspense: Your character juggles his groceries on one hip while he fumbles with his house key. It’s a ho-hum scene with a character focused on doing two things at once. Ho-hum until he feels the gun pressing into his side.

As a distraction: Mystery writers need to put in clues. We don’t particularly want our readers to notice the clue until it’s time for the case to be solved. A suddenly erupting argument or a quickly-contained but alarming grease fire provides a wonderful opportunity to slip in a clue under the radar.

As a breath of fresh air: Is your scene getting stale? Is your character going through the same motions every day? Are their days a little too ordinary. Liven things up with something unexpected. It doesn’t have to be something major (scary landing during their plane trip)—it could be something as minor as a flat tire or a broken air conditioner that takes their day on a different and surprising trajectory.

Surprises may not be as fun in real life as they are in books. Do you enjoy throwing in unexpected elements to your story? Do you use big or little twists?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Having a Writer for a Mom

Motherhood - Vu Cao Dam (1908 - 2000)








  • Tell your friends your mother writes books. Have them convinced you’re a liar. Have Mom verify later she actually does write. Maximum impact!
  • Your name is in actual, printed books (because Mom can’t resist putting you in the book somehow.)
  • You meet other writers sometimes.

Not Cool:

  • The teacher will definitely ask Mom to teach a class on writing at some point during the school year. And your mom can be soooo embarrassing.
  • If your mom is a writer, you always have to do your reading and English homework.
  • Your teacher will write notes on ‘B’-grade essays that say, “I know you can write better than this.”
  • Sometimes you have to go to conferences or book signings. These are tedious and even Mom doesn’t look like she’s having fun.
  • If you’re at a dental appointment after school, you can’t claim you can't do your homework because you don't have a pencil. Mom has at least fifty pencils in her massive pocketbook.

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I’m taking a short blog break for Christmas and reposting some of my older posts from 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.

And…my friend and fellow Midnight Ink author, Keith Raffel, is guest blogging for me at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen this morning.  Hope you can pop over. He’s got salmon with almonds that’s ready to serve!

When Characters Behave Out of Character

Anselmo Bucci-1887-195-- Labigia 1922 This post functions as a follow up to the last one. What if you do need your protagonist to go down into a dark basement?

I think most readers agree that one thing that immediately forces them out of a story is when a character does something out of character. Occasionally authors need a plot device to forward the resolution of the story and some poor character will have to do something totally contrived.

“Why,” wonders the reader, “would Kathy go into the clearing alone when she knows there’s a ravenous T-Rex there? She’s always been perfectly rational before…did she have a small stroke?”

Sometimes I can suspend my disbelief and just try to forge on and enjoy a book. But it’s gotten harder to do so. As a writer, I’m determined not to humiliate my characters by making them do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

But I still need a plot device. Usually, there comes a point in my story where I need my sleuth to confront the murderer. Naturally, this meeting never happens in the police station. Oh no, it’s got to happen in a scary, deserted location where my detective’s life is at stake.

But my sleuth is a smart woman. How to reasonably get her there? Was she expecting to have a partner present to ensure her safety during the confrontation? Did that partner end up in a car crash or unavoidably detained somehow?

I try to think like my character—what kind of excuses would they give for behaving like this? “I realized I’d seen something odd at the scene of the crime, so I went back to have another look. But the murderer went back too…to collect the evidence that pointed to him.”

I try to think of as many excuses as possible why a character would act out of their normal behavior pattern. Then I pick the most plausible reason, write it, and see if it works.

If none of the excuses seem plausible, it’s back to the drawing board. It’s worth some extra work to make sure I’m not losing a reader’s interest.

I’m thinking most fiction writers have the same problem. Why is the protagonist not using his magic powers to solve the problem? Why is the female protagonist making the same mistakes over and over again for no reason but to provide more plot conflict? I think it’s good to point out what the readers are already thinking and have the character answer their questions: (“Wish my magic powers could be used to stop time, but….” or “I know it seems like I keep making the same mistakes, but…”)

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I’m taking a short blog break for Christmas and reposting some of my older posts from 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Crafting a Good Protagonist

A Christmas Carol--Dickens What makes a good protagonist? This is a pretty subjective question since different readers like different types of heroes and heroines. But I see some common traits among the protagonists I admire:

They’re likeable. Now, I’ve read plenty of books with unlikeable protagonists (Catcher in the Rye, anyone?), but although I sometimes appreciated the talent of the author, I just didn’t care what happened to the protagonist. And that’s just a major problem. What if you have your whiny, unpopular protagonist and you’re building up to the major climax of the novel. He’s about to be thrown off a cliff….or is thrown off a cliff. If the guy isn’t someone I like, I’m thinking: “Eh. Too bad about him. Let’s see….what’s that next book on my reading list?”

If they’re not likeable (Ebenezer Scrooge) , they experience an epiphany and a radical change of heart.

Readers can relate to them. Or, if they can’t relate to them, they admire them, at least. Does anyone relate to James Bond? Anybody out there a crack shot, a pilot, a scuba diver, extraordinarily handsome, etc? But we can admire him. He’s one of the good guys.

They solve their own problems and, possibly, the problems of others. I don’t enjoy it when my protagonist gets rescued. Even in romances, that gets old (if they do get rescued in a romance, can the favor be returned at a later time? One-way rescuing all the time makes someone look weak.)

They’re intelligent. Or, if they’re not intelligent (Forrest Gump by Winston Groom), they have plenty of personality to make up for it. People who take the time to read are usually pretty intelligent. I think most readers have little patience for protagonists who aren’t too bright.

Related, but slightly different to the observation above: they behave intelligently. So, maybe they are smart. So why do they go down into the basement when they know the killer is down there? Why would they arrange to meet a murderer in a deserted location? Why?

Things happen to them. Maybe they have amazing luck—maybe they have amazingly bad luck. Maybe they’ve landed in a crazy family, or fall over murdered bodies all the time (Miss Marple), or have an interesting way of looking at the world. But they’re not boring and their life isn’t, either.

They have flaws. It’s so tedious to have a protagonist who is just too perfect. Unless they’re the Christ-figure in the book, they need to have some flaws. We’ll like them a lot better for it.

Do your favorite protagonists share common traits?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone! I’m taking the day off to celebrate Christmas with my family (and then clear tons of wrapping paper off my den floor!) I’m reposting an older post from June 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What to Read When You’re Writing


Like many writers, I’m a huge fan of books. If I hear a recommendation, I’m there. The library has made it so easy for me—simply sign in online, request a book, and go check it out. My favorites are purchased at bookstores and recommended to other book-loving friends.

But I seem to come up with roadblocks when I’m writing a book (which is, actually, all the time now.) I’m reluctant to read anything in my genre (cozy mysteries), even though they’re my favorite reads for escape. I have several reasons for this:

One is the fact that it’s less of a pleasure; I’ll read the book critically and pick it apart. Were the suspects introduced in an organized way? Were there too many/not enough suspects? Am I picking up on a clue or a red herring? Is the author’s description of setting distracting or does it add to the book? Blah, blah, blah.

Another reason is that I compare my work-in-progress to the completed, edited, marketed, beautified text that I’m reading. And, guess what—my book lacks in comparison. This brings on a huge case of insecurity and heebie-jeebies that may take me hours to shake off.

Another reason is that I’m afraid I may somehow, subconsciously, change my writing voice while reading someone else’s cozy.

The final reason? I have so little time when I’m writing a book.

At first, I felt stuck. Now I’ve come up with some ways to work around my love of reading and my love of writing.

Read something short: Pick up a book of short stories. There are books of short story collections in every genre out there. Check one out. This also helps with the low-on-time factor.

Try something different in the genre you enjoy: Broaden your horizons. If you enjoy cozies (and write cozies), try thrillers, PIs, and police procedurals.

Try something completely different: Now may be the time to read an inspiring biography. Or a nonfiction book on organizing your life. Or literary fiction.

Just do it: Galley Cat recently revealed that Barack Obama is reading Joseph O’ Neill’s Netherland right now. If he’s got time to read, what excuse do the rest of us have?

If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time or the tools to write.

Stephen King (1947 - ), On Writing, p. 147

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I’m taking a short blog break for Christmas and reposting some of my older posts from 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one. is Thursday! If you're hungry, please just pop over to the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen for a piece of frittata. I'm Riley there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Musing on Muses: the Fickle Nature of Inspiration


I think back to why I became a writer to begin with. It all started with a germ of an idea…multiplied by a hundred. Two hundred! Notebooks full of ideas: good ideas, rotten ideas. They popped into my head at the most random and inconvenient of times. And I loved every minute of it.

Now I realize we all have ideas. It’s the implementing of these ideas that creates the problem. Yes, it’s a lovely idea. Can you write about it for 250 pages or more? Will it hold someone’s interest for that long? What exactly is the plot conflict for this idea? Is it fresh? Does it have a hook?

Looking at “The Dream of the Poet or, The Kiss of the Muse” by Paul Cezanne (above, obviously) makes me slightly ill. Did Cezanne feel this way? Gosh, he must have—look at his body of work. An angel, coming from the heavens to kiss your furrowed brow and deliver the goods.

Lucky guy.

Not that I’m bitter or anything. But my relationship with my muse is..strained at best. In fact, we’ve not been on speaking terms for years now.

So what do we do with such uncooperative muses? Didn’t they realize we had an appointment with them? That we’re here, laptops in place, large mugs of coffee on our end tables, and an eager ear for their words of inspiration?

We plow ahead. One word at a time. Yes, it’s a blank page. Maybe what we’re covering it with isn’t much better than a blank page. But it’s a point to edit from. You can’t make something better if there’s nothing there.

Things I do while my muse is AWOL:

Work on a different section of the book than the one I’m currently stuck on.

Brainstorm: See how many ideas I can come up with---for the next two pages. Just the next two pages. Baby steps…

Research something pertaining to my book.

Edit a few pages. Sometimes reading back over something I’ve already written can get ideas flowing again.

Change the scenery: Run some errands. Find inspiration in the little things (jot little descriptions of the people I run across as I’m out, settings I see, the feel of the weather that day as I walk around.)

Hope my muse is the forgiving type and doesn’t carry a grudge for too much longer…

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I’m taking a short blog break for Christmas and reposting some of my older posts from 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for making my blogging year a happy one.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Comfort Zones

Willem Bastiaan Tholen-1860-1931--Open Water 1921 I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable leaving my comfort zones in the last couple of years (especially concerning public speaking, signings, appearances, etc.) And then I just got satisfied with where I was. No more growth for me!

I’ve noticed several other bloggers who’ve been interested in personal growth via shaking up their routines a little.

I always enjoy visiting Karen Walker's Following the Whispers blog. She provides a great oasis of reflection..something I ordinarily don’t schedule much time for.

In the link above, Karen posts on several ways that she’s stepped outside her comfort zone…for the month of December. Wow. That’s very inspiring to me.

Marvin Wilson, The Old Silly, made one of his pontifications on stepping outside our comfort zones. He calls it:

“A fundamental element in the path of self discovery and personal growth..”

On Eye Feathers, Tara McClendon’s blog, Tara mentions that many of the best things in her life resulted from big changes. She, like me, is still conservative toward change and acknowledges it sometimes results in loss.

Have you stepped outside your comfort zone lately personally or with your writing? Queried? Tried writing a different genre? Joined a critique group or other writing organization? Tried public speaking? How did you prepare yourself for taking the leap?

Monday, December 21, 2009

What Does Your Character Want?

blog1 Someone wrote a wonderful post on gift wish lists and what our characters might want for Christmas. I hunted through blogs on my Google reader, but couldn’t find the link. (Getting even foggier than usual as Christmas approaches and the busy factor goes up!) If it was your post, please leave a link in the comments.

I thought it was an interesting post. We always think about what our characters want in the big picture. What do they want and how can we keep them from it? We’re all about creating conflict!

But what about the day to day little things? What does our character value? If they could compile a wish list for Christmas or a birthday, what kinds of things would be on there? What does their wish-list say about them?

My character, Myrtle? She values her independence most of all. Her most prized possession is her driver’s license. Her wish list? It wouldn’t have a thing on it. She’s self-sufficient, thank you, and doesn’t need a thing.

My character Lulu would love a set of knives. She loves spending time in the kitchen…and may also need some knives to deal effectively with all the killers that are suddenly lurking around her.

What would your characters put on their wish list?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Technology and the Writer


Somewhere in the Southeast I am being unusually low tech. And probably feeling a little anxious.

I’m on the Christmas tour—seeing friends and family before heading back home for the big day.

My cell phone? It’s broken. Verizon Wireless has ordered a part for it. I won’t be able to get this part until Christmas Eve. I have a feeling that the Verizon Wireless store is going to be nuts on Christmas Eve, but I will be there, broken cell phone in hand.

I hate phones. But I love texting. I’m much better with words than I am in conversation…and texting means that I’ve avoided having a phone conversation.

On my Christmas tour I will frequently be internet-free.

It’ll be an adjustment. :)

It’s amazing how quickly technology has become important to me. I still remember the old typewriter days (I typed papers in college, even.)

Writing can be low-tech. That’s the amazing thing about it. You can write on old notebooks or even receipts (I’ve done that when really desperate before.)

But high-tech stuff for writers is fun, too. My favorite tools for writing:

Google: I love Google. I may love Google too much—I can get distracted when researching something. Nowadays I just mark the spot in my manuscript that needs researching and keep on writing.

Check out the Google Guide. Here are some of the more-useful search tips (excerpted right from the guide):

salsa dance the word salsa but NOT the word dance (that’s a minus sign before the ‘dance.’)

castle ~glossary glossaries about castles, as well as dictionaries, lists of terms, terminology

define:imbroglio definitions of the word imbroglio (or whatever word you’re looking up) from the Web

site: Search only one website or domain. Halloween (Search for information on Halloween gathered by the US Census Bureau.)

link: Find linked pages, i.e., show pages that point to the URL. (Find pages that link to Warrior Librarian's website.)

phonebook: Show all phonebook listings. phonebook: Disney CA (Search for Disney's phone numbers in California - CA.)

info: (or id:) Find info about a page. (Find information about The Onion website.)

related: List web pages that are similar or related to the URL. (Find websites related to the Healthfinder website.)

intitle: The terms must appear in the title of the page. movies comedy intitle:top ten (Search for pages with the words movie and comedy that include top ten in the title of the page.)

I also am a big Microsoft Word fan. Their word processing program beats the typewriter all to pieces.

Need some shortcuts to work through your manuscript quicker?

Useful Keyboard Shortcuts for Microsoft Word:

CTRL N :quickly opens a new document (great for those times you want to jot down a note, but keep writing on your current scene.)

CTRL end :moves the cursor to the end of a document (when you suddenly want to change your ending)

CTRL home :moves the cursor to the beginning of a document (when you suddenly want to change your beginning.)

CTRL E :Center a paragraph

CTRL Z : Undo (I use that one a LOT.)

CTRL 2 : Double space lines CTRL 1 : Single space

These are shortcuts that I find the most useful for me, but there are many more. If you’re interested, there’s a shortcut list for Word and one for Windows in general. If you’re on a Mac, their website lists some helpful shortcuts, too.

Do you go through technology withdrawal? Have any techie tips and tricks for us?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Into the Woods

The Shadow on the Tree--John Ritchie Fl-1858-1875

I’d promised my daughter I’d take her to the mall, one of her favorite places. I wonder sometimes if the stork brought me the wrong baby; she and I are so different.

I only intended to buy one or two things for the couple of people I had left on my Christmas list. But then…

It was all so…pretty… in the mall. The lights sparkled, it was cheerful and happy. Everyone was loaded down with bags. The mall played determinedly cheerful Christmas music. My bags multiplied. My daughter told me, “It was the glamour! Deadly glamour.”

It was a setting that meant business. The mall owners had gotten their setting perfect. You felt like spending money at South Park Mall. And the mall owners wouldn’t have it any other way.

Since I’m not a setting fanatic, I’ve always been interested in prêt-à-porter, ready to wear settings.

Anytime I tell my children a fairy tale and the characters go into the woods, there are certain expectations. Nothing good ever happens in the woods in fairy tales. We have witches with houses made of candy, wolves who eat grannies and children, and bears who dislike trespassers.

So that type of thing is fun and easy. Readers have certain expectations regarding dark basements in spooky houses, amusement parks, church sanctuaries, graveyards, etc.

It’s also fun and fairly easy to turn the expectations around.

The happy meadow in Bambi is also the ideal place for hunters to take clear aim at deer, for instance.

You can take your reader’s expectations about a setting and turn them upside down—introduce the element of danger to a safe place. A depressing setting (crack house?) could be the location for a life-changing epiphany for your protagonist.

Maybe the next time we go into the woods, things will be a little different there.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Judging a Book by its Cover

Irving Ramsey Wiles (American, 1861-1948) - I’m always looking for something for my 7th grade son to read. He gobbles books up instead of savoring them. And—he’s a picky reader. He’ll read 30 pages and, if he isn’t grabbed, he’ll look for something else to read.

I was relieved to discover there was a popular fantasy series, Discworld. And that there were 37 of these books (which are extremely popular in the UK.)

I decided to pick up the first title at the library to make sure my son liked it before investing a lot of money in the series.

It took a little while to work through the library system, but I picked up a copy a couple of days ago, told him I’d heard rave reviews, stuck it in his backpack, and sent him off to middle school with it.

He came home and said (only half-jokingly), “Did you want me to be laughed at all day in school?”

The book’s cover? It was pink.

This wasn’t something I’d even noticed, of course. But it was—hot pink. That might not bother a secure guy in college…but a 12 year old boy?

Which made me wonder. Why would a publisher’s art department sign off on a cover that would turn-off one segment of readers automatically? Aren’t many fantasy readers young men?

Looking online, I found other editions of the first title in the series in non-pink colors. :) I’m planning on getting one.

Authors don’t really have a say in their covers. I’ve felt really appreciative when I was asked my opinion on my last couple of covers. It’s a nice courtesy. And, fortunately, they were great.

No, we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But do we? Are we influenced as buyers and library patrons by book covers? If we see a really standout cover, is there something inside us that assumes the story must be just as good?

And, Discworld fans—don’t worry. I know how awesome that series is supposed to be. He’ll try the book again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Worse Before It’s Better

Tverskoi Boulevard 1917-Aristarkh Lentulov-1882-194 Wednesday afternoon, my daughter finished her math homework, started her spelling, then completely lost her focus. I decided she could take a one hour play break (she’s only eight) before picking it back up again.

Halfway through her allotted hour of play, she came downstairs. “I decided to reorganize my bookcase, instead.” I’m thinking that she must be Type A like me.

Since I’d just that afternoon done housework for an hour to clear my head, I totally understood. When her hour was up, she completed her spelling happily and then worked on memorizing her multiplication tables.

Her room? It was a disaster. Half of her bookcase was stacked neatly by size and half of it was on the floor of her room.

The same thing happens for me when I try cleaning out a closet. It always looks worse before it looks better.

First drafts? They’re like that for me, too. They’re disasters. I have Post-It notes all over the house and car with bits of ideas on them.

I have 15 or 20 different Word files in my WIPs folder. They’ll have random ideas, character names, plot sketches, and what-if scenarios on them.

I also have out of order chapters that I wrote when I couldn’t move in a linear fashion through my first draft.

It’s a mess.

Then it gets even worse.

Then, with the second draft, it’s finally better—both aesthetically and content-wise.

I put in chapter breaks. I don’t do that when I write a first draft.

I do “find” search for any asterisks. *** marks spots where I couldn’t think of the appropriate word, needed to research a particular point, or felt like I’d written something that needed a rewrite later.

I put a header on each page with my name, the project name, and the word count. It looks official then and a bit more professional. It freaks me out when I do it for a first draft, though.

I review all my random ideas from the Post-It notes and Word files. Which ones didn’t I incorporate? Why didn’t I? Are they any good? If they are, I’ll work them in. If they work better than the current text, I’ll delete the old and paste in the new.

I look at the big picture. Did I tie up loose ends? Can I sum the plot up in a couple of sentences? Does the story itself make sense?

I work on some no-brainer edits. I look at “to be” verbs (is, are, was, etc.) and slash most of them. I look for modifiers like “very” and “really” and “almost.” I look for my favorite words “just” and “sighed.” I look for “thats.” I remove many of them.

Then I’m ready for the serious revising: looking at individual scenes. Reading each page through a dozen or more times.

I can handle the serious revising because it looks better already. It’s the point when you’re still cleaning out the closet…but you’ve gone ahead and taken a load of old clothes to the Good Will. You’ve gotten some of the clutter out of the way and can move on with the project.

It's Thursday! Pop over to the Mystery Lovers' Kitchen if you'd like a piece of cranberry cake. I'm Riley there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Writing Brain

Guido Marussig-1885-1972--The Fan and the Eyes I think that mystery writers must have a very carefully suppressed criminal mind.

Apparently I look like a really innocuous person. Plus, maybe, a little foggy. I’ve ordinarily got my mind on other things as I’m wandering around.

I’m amazed at the number of times a stranger will get me to hold something for them or watch something for them while they hurry off to do something else. “Do you mind standing here with the car while I load it?” And their car is running while they run in the store to get whatever heavy item it is. And I think, “Wow. I could just drive right off with this car.” (I also wonder what the heck I’m supposed to do if a bad guy does come up to the car. It’s not like I’m armed or anything. I’d probably just let them take the thing.)

The number of open cash tills I’ve witnessed while clerks find managers to help them with a register problem is truly amazing. I could just reach in, grab wads of cash, and walk right out the store door.

My husband’s car hates me. His car alarm went off while I was driving. A policeman pulled me over, came to my window and then lazily said, “You certainly don’t look like a car thief to me. Do you know how to disable that alarm, ma’am? It’s distracting for other drivers. Do you have your manual with you?” I could have been driving a stolen car.

One set of denim-clad legs looks very much like another when you’re two years old. I was at Target some months ago, hurrying out the door, through the parking lot, clutching a bunch of shopping bags. I was loading up the trunk area of the mini van when I felt a set of arms go around my leg. I was horrified, as was the toddler who’d followed me out the Target, to my car. “We’ve got to find your Mommy!” I said, looking for whoever at the Target looked like she might be having a heart attack. All I needed for my Wednesday morning was to be locked away as a kidnapper.

As I swung around, there was a panicky mom just coming out of the Target. She saw me and relaxed, then hurried over. She said, “I’m so sorry! I guess she just thought you were me.”

I could have been a kidnapper. I could have been a really horrible person.

But I’m not. But I concoct really horrible people… easily. That’s because I can see the dark side of any situation and I’m always thinking ahead to the next mystery.

And now I’m thinking that I need to create a bad guy who looks and acts like me. :) She’ll completely escape detection.

I’m not sure how many other people go about their day thinking about possible criminal activities or motives for murder. I have a feeling that I’m in the minority among regular non-criminal citizens.

Do you find, as a writer, that you look at the world in a different way? How?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gender Roles—Can You Write Outside Your Gender?

La petite plongeuse-- 1901--Leandro-Ramon-Garrido-1868-1909 I’ve always taken gender stereotypes with a grain of salt.

I was tempted, even, to claim that gender roles were determined primarily by socialization and environment.

Keeping this in mind (and also having something of a cheap streak in me), when my daughter was small, I gave her all my old baby dolls…and I also gave her some of my son’s toys that he’d outgrown (4.5 year age difference.) “Here you are! Here are some fun cars to play with! Look how fast they go!” And I left the room.

I came back a few minutes later, and my daughter had made a little car family. There was a Daddy Car, a Mommy Car, and a little Baby Car.

My protagonists for my series are women. I get into their heads better that way, I think. But I have some very important male characters in my books and I’ll occasionally hop into their heads, too. My sidekick in the Myrtle Clover series is a man, and he makes a good foil for Myrtle.

Would I ever write a book with a male protagonist? It depends. I wouldn’t have a problem in the world writing a male detective or a cop. Could I write YA from a teenage boy’s perspective? I think so. Could I write literary fiction from a man’s perspective? I really don’t know. I think it would be challenging…or that I might end up writing a very introspective, artsy man. :)

How about you? Whom do you favor for your protagonists—male or female or both? Do you have a hard time bridging the gender gap?

Monday, December 14, 2009

You’ve Decided to Publish. Now What?

Twelve Months--Violeta Dabija

The biggest moment in my writing career came with the realization that I wanted to be published by a traditional publisher.

Once you realize that you really want to take that step…what do you do next?

It’s my day to blog on A Good Blog is Hard to Find. Hope you’ll pop over for some tips to help with your journey to publication.

And...if you don't blog-hop on weekends, you wouldn't know if you received an award yesterday. Might want to check Sunday's post, just in case.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Awards Day

Blogging Writer Award Every day the online community of writers amazes me. I get so much encouragement and inspiration from the blogs that I read and from the wonderful commenters on Mystery Writing is Murder.

Among the encouragement I get are awards for my blog. To me, they represent a “Good job!”—which I really appreciate.

I decided it was time for me to throw another Awards Day since the last one I did was…oh…August or something.

And then I thought, “I don’t know who has gotten what award.” I nosed around a few blogs and thought about making a spreadsheet with who has what…

But then I decided to make my own award! Because I don’t see any awards that mention “writing” or “writers” on them. And I know that none of you has this award.

Now I know I will never be a graphic artist when I grow up. I will not share how long it took me to create this very basic award. But it was a loooonnnnng time.

Blogging Writer Award

Since I made up the award, I get to make the rules. The only problem is that I’m really bad at both making and following rules.

So here we are.

My rules:

You can post this image to your blog…or not. You may share this award with others…if you like. You may adapt or alter this image in any way.

I want you all to know that I appreciate you. If you know that I’m hanging out at your blog all the time and I have inadvertently forgotten you (and y’all, it’s past my bedtime as I’m writing this) then please let me know so I can amend my post! And if I messed up your name or link, please do let me know so I can fix it.

Sometimes I lurk. But I’m visiting your blogs (usually I do try to comment.)

Blogs I read regularly (My blogging friends. Some are new and some are old.):

Confessions of a Mystery Novelist --Margot Kinberg Imagineering Fiction—Galen Kindley Patricia Stoltey --Patricia Stoltey A Million Blogging Monkeys –Alan Orloff Jane’s Ride – Jane Sutton Janel’s Jumble—Janel I’m Blogging Drowning Here!—Lorel Crystal Clear Proofing—Crystal * Inkspot---Midnight Ink Just Jemi --Jemi Fraser Crazy Jane --Jan Morrison Meanderings and Muses—Kaye Barley Write on Target -- Debra Schubert Karen…following the whispers—Karen Walker Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen –6 authors..incl. me, but… Elizabeth Bradley—Bits and Bytes –Elizabeth Bradley In Corra’s Words – Corra McFeydon Confessions of a Watery Tart --Hart Johnson It’s a Mystery --Elspeth Antonelli Cassandra Jade in the Realm –Cassandra Jade Thoughts in Progress –Mason Canyon The Writers Porch—Carol Murdock Journaling Woman—Teresa Carol’s Prints – Carolina Valdez Miller A Writer’s Point of View—Stacy Post The Conscious Cat – Ingrid King Spunk on a Stick – L. Diane Wolfe Cozy Murder Mysteries --Donna Lea Simpson Terry’s Place –Terry Odell Write in the Way—Kristen Torres-Toro The Write Worship—Tamika Sixty is Just the Beginning –Judy Harper Author, Jody Hedlund –-Jody Hedlund Eye Feathers—Tara McClendon Southern City Mysteries—Michele Emrath Coffee Rings Everywhere –Rayna Iyer The Old Silly’s Free Spirit Blog—Marvin Wilson DJs Krimiblog—Dorte Jakobsen Straight from Hel—Helen Ginger Lesa’s Book Reviews –Lesa Holstine ** Do You Write Under Your Own Name? –Martin Edwards The Giraffability of Digressions --Cruella Collett Breakthrough Blogs – Stephen Tremp Under the Tiki Hut – Carol Kilgore Silver Lining – Julie Dao Coffeehouse Mysteries –Cleo Coyle *** Poe’s Deadly Daughters—6 Authors Desperately Searching for my Inner Mary Poppins—Marybeth Constant Revisions—Simon Larter Woolgathering—Jen Chandler

* Crystal isn’t a writer. But she’ll help you be a better one.

**Lesa Holstein isn’t a writer. But she’s one of us.

***Cleo’s website is updated so frequently that it acts as a blog. I read a lot of blogs. I have many favorites. Today I’m recognizing some of my favorite places to hang out online, and some of the friends, new and old, I’ve made in my browsing trek.

I also want to thank everyone who takes the time to comment on Mystery Writing is Murder. I appreciate your thoughts and insights so much and only wish I could list everyone here who regularly visits me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Club

Girl Reading---Franz Eybl I’m getting the most interesting reader perspectives from my new book club.

At first, I had no intention of joining this club. As a rule, I don’t join clubs. I’m not really sure how I ended up joining this one. This, actually, was the book club that I based the disastrous club in Pretty is as Pretty Dies on. The club disbanded around the time that I described it (I’m sure those things are not connected.) It was resurrected a couple of months ago and I (feeling a little bit guilty about my portrayal of the club, maybe?), joined up, at a friend’s invitation.

The first book we discussed was Those That Save Us. I’ll just say right off the bat that this was a dry clean only book for sure. It was set during World War II and its immediate aftermath. It’s not one of those books that I really enjoyed reading. But it engendered some interesting discussion.

The oddest thing to me was that there were two completely different interpretations of this book. I mean radically different. One group looked at it as a love story. The rest (including myself) looked at it as a tragedy. The discussion got very passionate as each group defended its position.

I really just wanted to listen in, but I did think that the author should have done one thing different in the plot. She made a particular event happen to one character when it should have happened to another character. The way she wrote it didn’t ring true—but was a plot device.

Thursday night we had our second meeting and read While I Was Gone, which was a bit more of a machine washable read.

No one liked the protagonist. Not a single person in the group.

This interested me very much because I have a crusty, crotchety protagonist. My agent recently advised me to soften her up in two scenes before we submit to Midnight Ink. I’m going to take her advice. For those two scenes. :)

I noticed that out of the probably 14 or 15 people there, only 3 of us liked the book (myself included.) I thought the ending was weak, but overall thought the book was interesting (not fantastic, but interesting.) The rest of the group did not like the book because they didn’t care about the protagonist. She could live or die as far as they were concerned.

The author, Sue Miller, also had a couple of plot devices in her book. Those parts didn’t ring true for the book club members.

What am I taking away from my book club experience so far? Be really careful about coincidences and other plot devices in my book. Be careful about unlikeable protagonists. Different interpretations of the same book make for lively discussions—it may be okay to keep your theme a little vague if you’re writing literary fiction.

And be careful when writing about book clubs. You might end up joining the club you were making fun of.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Perfectionism—Resisting It

Edmund Charles Tarbell-- Across the Room 1889 I’ve been reading a lot lately about problems that happen when we try to be perfect or apply Type-A standards across the board in our life.

I’m definitely Type-A. Sometimes perfectionism goes along with that (other times I can be more careless.) I have several methods of making my day more stressful than it would ordinarily have been. Before I leave the house for any reason, I go through a very complex routine of questions: Do I need to start a load of laundry before I walk out the door? How about if I load the dishwasher really quick and run it? Oh! Can I run by the library on my way to my meeting? And, if I’m going by the library anyway, I should drop by the bank as well—it’s right there.

Then I run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I leave the house on time, run the errands on time, but if there’s any bad traffic, I’m toast. And then I’m a total stress-bucket because I have to be on time. I’m the most punctual person around. If I’m not on time, I’m somewhere very close by, jogging frantically in your direction.

It would be better instead if I just did the laundry load and the minor errands later on. I’m not raising my blood pressure that way and I’ll end up getting the stuff done later on, anyhow.

Another problem? I’ll think I don’t have time to dust the house. Why? Because I don’t have time to do it the Type-A way. Which involves taking everything off the table, dusting the individual pictures and knick-knacks, and then rubbing the wood down with lemon oil. I want to put off the chore until I have the time to do it right.

But I DO have time to do a quick dusting with the feather duster. And it looks fine. I just have to repress the Type-A urge and the house looks fine and dandy.

Writing a book—the Type-A or Perfectionist way:

I was an editing- as-I-went writer. I wanted every page perfect before going on to the next page.

Honestly? Perfectionism didn’t work for me at all. It took forever to get anywhere. Frequently I’d lose my momentum, my train of thought, or the creative spark.

I learned to tune out my inner editor.

Caveat—not every writer has that problem. But if you feel like your self-editing is holding you back, consider trying a different tack.

Submitting? I was a perfectionist there, too. I must have read 200 articles on querying before I actually did it. I had a tracking program and I was very careful about submitting one thing before submitting another.

It’s good to do research before you submit, definitely. But not so much that you’re immobilized. I had better success when applied what I’d learned as quickly as possible.

I thought originally that writing a book was about inspiration…that the book wouldn’t be good without that creative spark happening every day. I needed to wait for the perfect moment of inspiration to strike.

I learned that it’s more about sitting down and plugging away and going from point A to point B.

There are some things that should be as perfect as we can make them: our grammar and spelling before submitting is one that comes to mind. But trying to make it perfect as we go is another thing.

When perfectionism is especially bad:

It keeps you from working on your book because you’re finding so many faults with your draft.

You’re frustrated at the slow progress of writing your first draft…because you’re editing as you go.

You aren’t submitting because you feel like your manuscript isn’t perfect enough.

Reading other author’s books in your genre makes you feel insecure or immobilized with your own book.

I used to feel that perfectionism had to be a good thing—that it meant I was trying my hardest to do a Good Job. As I get older, I see more of the dark side of perfectionism and am working to be more flexible with myself and my work.

Are you a perfectionist? Do you feel it’s helping you or hurting you?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing According to Mood

Portrait de Jeune Fille--1932--François Emile Barraud I’d had a wild day but was on-time, no…early!…for a play that my daughter’s friend was in. I parked the car, opened the door, and—“Oh shoot! We were going to pick her up a little gift for after the play.”

We climbed back in the car and drove to a nearby store. We grabbed a little something, then I checked out at the cash register and swiped my debit card. “Do you want cash back?” asked the cashier.

“No thanks,” I answered, stuffing my card back in my wallet.

I was rushing out the store with my daughter in tow when she asked, “Mama! Why? Why didn’t you?”

“Why didn’t I what?”

“Why didn’t you want cash back?”

“Oh honey. It’s not like free cash. It’s like…well, it’s Mama’s and Daddy’s money. But it’s at the bank. And so, the store just…well, they…they get the bank to send over money…”


“Well, it’s electronic! Yes. So….well…”


My right brain had settled into play-watching, artsy mode and my left brain didn’t have a prayer. I told her it was an excellent question, but we were in a hurry so we’d talk about it later.

And we will. Because I certainly don’t want her to think that the Target hands out free money. But that wasn’t the moment where I was going to be able to connect with her. Not in a raging hurry and with a subject I’m not very knowledgeable about in the first place.

I’m like this with my writing, too. Some days it’s really difficult for me to write particular scenes—I’m just not feeling it.

Usually I can just write my first draft straight through. But sometimes I run into a block. For me, it’s better to just open another Word document, save it under a scene description, and write the scene I’m in the mood to write.

Fortunately, most books have as many different types of scenes as there are moods.

Am I in a melancholy, thoughtful mood? I’ll work on an emotionally-moving scene. Feeling energized? An action sequence. Analytical and precise? Work on revisions.

I definitely don’t have the luxury of waiting on my Muse to inspire me. Actually, my Muse and I aren’t speaking to each other. But there’s no reason I can’t write something that I can put more enthusiasm into.


It’s cookie week at the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen. If you pop over, you’ll find my recipe for a no-cook chocolate cookie. I’m Riley over at the Mystery Kitchen.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Being Careful

Max Beckmann, Still Life with Fallen Candles, 1929 My son told me on Monday that he might “ask out” his friend Mimi.

Once I picked up my jaw from the floor (and tried to banish the mental image of me chauffeuring my son and Mimi around town in my minivan) I said, “Honey, you’re just too young to go out on dates!”

Uh-oh. I’d become infected with the condition I call “Instant Ancient” again.

“Mom! ‘Asking out’ is just what we call dating someone. We just wear each other’s sweatshirts and stuff.”

“Oh. We called that ‘going with’ when I was in junior high. You know…like ‘John is going with Amy’.”

Instant Ancient again. I wasn’t even going to ask him how he planned on surviving a middle school day while wearing Mimi’s pink Abercombie sweatshirt.

I try to carefully steer clear of words and phrases that put me in the older-than-dirt category, as far as my son is concerned.

Caution with dating ourselves is important for writers, too. And I thought of other things we should probably be careful with.

Being Careful with Slang:

I’m thinking about words/phrases like ‘swell,’ ‘groovy,’ ‘totally awesome,’ and probably ‘radical.’ If we’re not writing books that are based in older time periods, we shouldn’t use the words above. And, if we’re writing books set in the present, we need to tread carefully. What’s slang now may be dated when a reader picks up our library book in five years.

Those of you who write YA? I don’t know how you do it. You’re obviously a heck of a lot cooler than I am. :)

Being Careful with Profanity:

Here I think we should know our reader and know our market. Each genre has pretty set boundaries for what’s appropriate in regards to expletives. In cozy mysteries (my genre)? You’re just not going to see much of it.

Being Careful with Dialect:

I love getting a real sense of a setting that’s foreign to me—and I prefer it in dialogue instead of in description. But there’s a point where it gets to be too much. M.C. Beaton does it well in her Scottish-set books, but every once in a while the brogue will make me frown and try to translate the passage.

I think it’s best to go light on dialect and instead try using phrases, idioms, and word choices that locals of an area would use. For me, I’d rather stick with the rhythm of Southern speech than take a stab at phonetic spelling (which would be really tiresome for a reader.)

Are there other areas you’re careful about when you’re writing?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What’s Important

Kroyer-- At the Museum--1888 I was busily writing at home last week when my husband called me up and asked if I wanted to meet him for lunch. I hopped in the car and drove the 25 minutes over to his office to pick him up.

Usually when we have lunch, we eat at a sandwich shop or get some Chinese food…nothing fancy.

This time, though, my husband was interested in going to the City Tavern—a white tablecloth-type establishment.

It sounded good to me. But then my husband hesitated. “Do we look all right?”

I glanced over at him—blue jeans (he works in IT) and a golf shirt. I looked at myself and I was wearing something such as a person writing at home might wear on a warm day—flip flops, capris, tee shirt. “We’re good!”

I was driving us over to the restaurant and chatting away about my morning when he asked again if I thought we looked okay.

I said something like, “Sure we do!” and continued on my train of thought.

But the third time he said it, we were about to go into the restaurant. I said, “Sweetie, I don’t think they’re going to turn away paying customers. We don’t look that awful.” He seemed so reticent, that I finally realized that even though I rarely care what I look like, it was important to Coleman. He’s a professional person. He might run into people he has a work relationship with.

I peeked in. I saw other people in jeans. One person had flip flops. We were okay.

Just because it wasn’t important to me, didn’t mean it wasn’t important.

I think that’s why it’s vital for me to have first readers (my parents, mainly) before my manuscript goes to my editors. Sometimes there are book elements that I don’t spend a lot of time writing (I always need to fill in more setting). Just because it’s not important to me, though, doesn’t mean it’s not important to a reader.

My mother is a great first reader for me. “I can’t really picture the porch at the barbeque restaurant,” she said.

I could picture it plainly…in my head. But I hadn’t put my vision on paper at all. It was as if, if I could see it, I thought everyone could see it.

A content critique is vital, I think. Sometimes I think I’ve established the relationship between different characters very clearly—but, again, it might have just been clear to me and I didn’t share it with the reader.

And then, like at the restaurant, there are things that I just don’t enjoy developing in a book. But I need to know when readers need more information: on setting, on character description, on backstory. Those are things I don’t incorporate a lot of—but that sometimes are more important to readers than I think.

Do you have a first reader that you give your manuscript to before its submitted?

Monday, December 7, 2009

Exchanging Ideas

LA COUPOLE, PARIGI --Anselmo Bucci-1887-1955 My husband spent five years working at Microsoft (the North Carolina division) before switching to his current corporation. It’s easy to get burned out at Microsoft.

I’d drive out there once a week or more for lunch with him. They actually had a food court in the building with real chefs.

The interesting thing about Microsoft was that nearly everyone there was genius material. And…different in appearance and demeanor (lots of long beards, flip flops, unusual clothing choices...quite a few nerds), but very nice. My IQ jumped just from being in the same building with them.

And when the Microsofties all got together—the ideas they bounced off each other and the information they exchanged was incredible. They fed off each other. I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about, but I was the good spouse and nodded along and said, “Right!” every once and a while in agreement.

At the time (2003-ish) I thought how nice it was to have professional peers to bounce ideas off of. I was struggling to find critique groups and writing organizations that fit my needs. And, five or six years ago, the online community of writers really wasn’t out there. I was online, looking for it—but, beside a few forums, there wasn’t too much there. And I was primarily housebound with my then-two year old daughter—I needed something online.

Now, of course, with the advent of social media and real-time conversations, we benefit from a worldwide network of writers. And the writing community is incredibly generous with its time. I can match my development as a writer to the point when the online community took off.

More difficult for me are face-to-face meetings. I’m a wretched club member. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm not a follower. I'm crummy at meetings, I don't remember names well, I have absolutely no time. And I'm reluctant to socialize. My modus operandi has been to join writing organizations, pay my dues faithfully, and then become a lapsed member.

The one exception has been the Carolina Conspiracy, a group of mystery writers here in the Carolinas. They’ve all written much longer than I have and I love getting together with them and exchanging ideas about writing, publishing, and marketing. We all had lunch on Saturday and I’m sure the restaurant was fed up with us by the time we left three hours later.

I’m a lapsed member of several different organizations—and there are three or four I know I should belong to (Mystery Writers of America being one of them.) But I feel so much support from the online community that I don’t really feel the need to reach out.

But I’m beginning to reconsider the local writing groups. I'm waffling. I remember how much my husband benefited from his in-person exchanges at Microsoft. And how much I enjoy hanging out with writers in the Carolina Conspiracy. My children are older and it’s easier for me to get away.

If I belong to a group, would they be okay with me not leading? With not following? With just taking lots of notes and sometimes piping up a contribution? But then I feel guilty because it's really me taking and not giving as much. (Yes, I overthink things.)

I like to learn. I'm all about learning. I'm wondering if I'm missing out, somehow.

How about you? Besides sitting down every day and practicing the craft, how are you learning? Critique groups? Online? Are there places where you lurk online or do you get more out of an exchange? Do you belong to any local writing organizations?

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Captain W Mohr a Squadron Commander of the Royal Norwegian Air Force serving with the RAF 1942 Saturday evening, my daughter’s Brownie scout troop drove to Huntersville (about 45 minutes away) to tour a historic home dating back to 1797. Latta Plantation was having a Christmas celebration, so we were learning how Christmas was celebrated long ago.

Since I’m the Brownie leader, I was put in the position of leading. You wouldn’t think this would be a problem for someone who somehow found herself in a leadership role (I was conscripted), but I’m used to leading children.

I don’t like leading adults. I’d rather they be responsible for themselves. They were all asking me which building we were going to next (the kitchen? the blacksmith?) and I just wanted to wander around. They also expected me to know my way around the property. I didn’t and asked them to refer to their map. Would there be costumed recreation? At what time? I had no idea off the top of my head…but it was on the program they were given, if they wanted to read their program.

The children, thankfully, are much less-demanding of their leader each week. I was delighted when the adults decided to form small groups and do a self-tour with their children. Excellent! No leading of adults. I’d gotten myself fired. :)

I’ll admit I don’t enjoy being a leader. I don’t enjoy being a follower, actually, either. I like being an observer.

But…my protagonists are both natural leaders. When they’re put in difficult situations, they jump into action.

I think that most protagonists are that way. That’s what makes them interesting. I would never write a protagonist like me—nothing interesting would ever happen! They’d sit around watching people and taking notes instead of tackling the world head-on. In fact, in my books, someone like me would likely be the next murder victim.

I like writing leaders. Strong, self-assured, take-charge. They think their way through their challenges. Even protagonists who aren’t natural leaders are interesting if they rise to the occasion when challenged.

Do you write leaders? Or followers? If you write a protagonist who is a follower, how do you portray them? Which are you?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Starting Over from Scratch

After the Rain--Arnold-Marc-Gorter-1866-1933 I’ve had a couple of questions about revisions, so I thought I’d share my revision process for a problem that was really getting on my nerves. (Boring post here! Most of us don't really like revision.)

I want to add that this was my third or fourth draft--I don't do any revisions as I write the first draft because it really slows me down. I like to get the whole thing on paper before I start editing.

At the end of October I was revising the latest Myrtle Clover (my personal revisions, not the editor’s.) I thought the beginning was ‘okay.’ But the more I looked at it, the more it really started bothering me.

I tried approaching it from a couple of different directions. I switched one scene with another as a lead-in.

Then I revised a long scene and made it much shorter.

I took out a phone conversation that I realized was unnecessary and instead started the next scene with the person doing the action they’d discussed on the phone.

Some of the sentences seemed longer than needed, so I broke them up into shorter ones, which made them read a lot smoother.

After all these changes, it was much better. But it still wasn’t the beginning I knew it could be.

I decided to pretend that I hadn’t written the beginning at all—that it didn’t exist.

I rewrote the entire first chapter, using a different approach. The nice thing about word processing is that we can easily see which one works better and cut and paste the different beginnings in.

The first beginning had a lot of set-up written in. I incorporated it with humor, but a duck is a duck. It was set-up. And set-up slows down the pace—and is boring.

With the second beginning, I ditched the set-up. Instead I included foreshadowing to let the reader know to keep an eye on a particular character.

I completely removed, in my rewrite, several passages that were unnecessary. For example: I needed to have a particular character at another character’s house. In the original beginning, I’d had a whole sequence to set that visit up. Boring.

In the second version, I just opened the scene with the visit and put in a passing reference to it in dialogue, “I’m glad you could come by, Jill, and help me out…”

Looking back at what I did, I’m thinking now that I should just immediately have done a total rewrite of the entire first chapter. Instead I spent a lot of time doing surface work on something that had a deeper problem. Yes, it did read better when I changed scenes around and toyed with my sentence structure. But, for this instance anyway, I got much better results with the radical rewrite.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Naming Characters

Mother and child in bassinet at window - Paul Sieffert- 1874 - 1957 There’s an interesting phenomenon that happens at the pool or the playground.

One child calls, “Mom!” and about ten women swing around.

Not a good thing to have in our books, though. It’s really distracting when I’m reading a book and wonder who the character is because there’s a Sam and a Sid. And sometimes the author doesn’t give little helpful hints to help me know which character he’s referring to (“Sam the accountant. Sid, who works at the barbershop.) I try not to have names starting with the same letter in my books.

I also try to find appropriate names for my characters. Right or wrong, there’s definitely baggage that comes along with certain names. If I were going to write a beauty queen, I probably wouldn’t choose the name ‘Gertrude’ unless I was trying to be funny. I wouldn’t name my intellectual Biff…again, unless I was trying to make a point. It would be too much work to try to undo the readers’ quick leap to stereotype.

Every book I seem to change a character name at least once. After eight chapters, they may not be the same person I thought they were in chapter two. By chapter eighteen, they might have changed again.

The last book I submitted needed a character name change in the 11th hour—the name was already taken by a real person…an actual author at another publishing house.

I’ve had fun playing around with names with my Myrtle Clover series. Some characters’ names have literary or historical references.

Name generators are also useful. The one I usually use is Seventh Sanctum.

Some names just fit particular characters beautifully. My favorite is Voldemort. Have you got any favorite character names? How does your character naming process work?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How Do I Do This Again?

Ritratto di Mia Moglie --Mario-Tozzi-1895-1979 After I write this (right now it’s Wednesday morning), I’m going to knock out revisions on two separate books, then get back to writing my second book of the Memphis Barbeque series.

This will be my 5th book. I’ve got two books on the shelves (one of them is out of print but still out there, mainly in libraries), two books in production, and one just starting out on a Word document.

Each time I start the process I feel a little at a loss. How do I do this? How did I do it last time? Because each time I’ve written a book, the process has been slightly different.

I try different approaches to see what I like best. The only problem is that sometimes I can’t remember what worked.

I’ve written books all the way straight through (A Dyeing Shame, Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Delicious and Suspicious). I didn’t even stop for chapter breaks—just put them in during revisions.

For Progressively Dead (in production), I wrote every chapter separately –I numbered out 18 chapters and just randomly picked one and wrote in it for that day. This was an odd and disjointed process and I’m not sure why I chose it. It took forever to work out the transitions between scenes and chapters.

For two books, if I got stuck at any point, I started writing a different part of the book until I was ready to tackle the part that stumped me.

The other two books, I just marked *** where I got stuck and picked up at the next scene and continued writing.

I always have a “random” file to put in all the disjointed ideas that I have when I’m writing a book. Many of them I’ll weave into the manuscript at some point.

Outlines never work for me. I have a half-finished 6th book that I’ve just put in the graveyard. Too pat when I’d outlined it. I’ll never outline again (except for my little mini-outlines where I sketch out the next scene, chapter, etc.)

I’m going to ignore my lost feeling. There’s nothing like getting words on the page to get rid of it—whatever the method is.

What works for you? Do you experiment with your process? Do you remember what worked?