Sunday, May 31, 2009

Making Assumptions and Jumping to Conclusions—in Life and Writing

To kill a mockingbird So I was at Costco, buying a couple of bottles of wine (great prices there, by the way), and went through the check-out line. I have long hair, so my face was shielded while I rifled through my massive pocketbook (see previous post) for my debit card. The guy doing checkout said, “$45.67. And…I’m gonna have to see some ID.” Well, my head just bobbed right up in surprise. And then he said, when he saw my face--I will never forget this--: “Oh. Never mind.”

Let’s couple this episode with another one. This time I’m in the grocery store and I had just popped in for a couple of forgotten ingredients for what would pass for supper that night. I had some sour cream, some breadcrumbs, and maybe a container of chicken. So the bag boy bags them up prettily and says, “Do you need help to the car with that?”

Oh dear God, I thought. I look old and feeble! So I scampered to the department store and shopped in the Junior’s section for an inappropriate dress that will embarrass my children if I wear it out.

I will probably return this dress in a couple of days, because I no longer feel old. I realize that I was jumping to conclusions…at least with the bag boy. He probably had to ask everyone if they needed help. Maybe.

Mystery writers rely on their readers to jump to conclusions, too. One of Agatha Christie’s favorite tricks was “the unreliable witness.” She would introduce a character, usually a garrulous one, who would rattle off all kinds of nonsense. Then she would have them slip in some information that was a genuine clue. But because the reader has come to expect little of this character in terms of believability, the clue would frequently go unnoticed. A clue in plain sight.

I think other fiction writers could use the jumping-to-conclusions-ploy, too. Maybe you could have a character that the reader finds completely trustworthy because of some good behavior at the beginning of the book…but then they can become turncoats and start behaving badly. To Kill a Mockingbird had Boo Radley, who seemed like a terrifying person to the children in the book, but who ends up saving Scout from an attacker.

I love adding the element of surprise to a novel, and I think leading the reader astray by having them make assumptions is a great way to achieve surprise.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Useful Keyboard Shortcuts for Writers (Windows)

computer And now for something completely different.  This post is for writers like me who are impatient with clicking between open windows and open programs, or who want to quickly move through their manuscript. 

There are really dozens of such shortcuts, but here are the ones I find myself using most often. I use Windows, but there’s a link below for the Mac lovers, too.


ALT+TAB: Switch between open programs

CTRL+Z: Undo

CTRL and either + or - :makes text larger or smaller on websites for easier viewing on eyes that are getting older.

CTRL and click a website link :opens links in a new window

CTRL + TAB: switch between open windows that are all in a line

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.)

These are shortcuts that I find the most useful for me, but there are tons 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.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Inside my Pocketbook

carpet bag I went to lunch with a friend and, at the end of the lunch, looked in my purse for one of those reward card thingies. You know, the kind where they hole-punch the card and after six meals, you get a freebie.

Fortunately, this was a good friend and did not flinch when the gobs and gobs of stuff came out of my bag.

There was a book light, my daughter’s nylon wallet, an old retainer in a plastic case, expired coupons, pictures of my kids in case they get lost (the authorities would have to do a time-lapse thing on them, because the pictures are years old), headphones, a necklace…well, you get the sad picture.

The only useful things I did have (besides the reward card, which I finally did find), were paper, pens, and a box of pencils.

I think the reason I carry so much in my pocketbook is a somewhat misguided attempt to be prepared. Because I was a Girl Scout, back in the day.

But, unless I needed to suddenly straighten someone’s teeth while peering in their mouth with a book light, I really wasn’t prepared to do anything but write.

That’s the nice thing about writing—you can pick it up at a moment’s notice if you have just a scrap of paper and a pencil. And I spend a lot of time writing on the go.

If you’d like to be able to write at a moment’s notice:

Know a short scene you can write. Have a smattering of dialogue you need to write? Need to write some setting descriptions to intersperse in your book? These are quick things you can write.

Know where you left off. The nice thing is that you can pick up in a different part of your book if you’re not sure. Because, by golly, I have rewritten a scene while I was waiting for my car to be washed and didn’t remember for the life of me that I’d already written that section. If you’re not sure, pick up at a different point.

You can find interesting extras for your book almost anywhere. I believe I mentioned the tanning booth lady at the roller skating rink. Sometimes, just like a movie producer, you need some extras for local color. If you’re out and about, this can be a good time to canvass the area for traits, unusual habits, and dialect.

Write short outlines. This is a great time to sketch out a plan for the next few pages, the next scene, or the next chapter if you’re feeling ambitious.

Brainstorming lists can be done in minutes. Think about something completely different. What if your plot suddenly took a tragic turn? What might happen next? You don’t have to commit to this plan…it’s just there to fire up your imagination.

Describe your characters. In only minutes, you can think up as many adjectives as possible to apply to a character (and get to know them better). Or you can think of different scenarios and how they would react: If John were in a dentist’s chair, he would be acting ________.

I’ve actually managed to get some quality writing time on the go, thanks to having paper and a pencil in my pocketbook and a plan in my head.

Now I just need to work on getting the rest of that stuff out of my purse.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mysteries to Get Non-Mystery Readers Hooked

Crombie I’ve frequently found that there are many people who don’t think of themselves as mystery readers. But because there are so many different types of mysteries—police procedural, thriller, private investigator, cozies, etc.—there’s really a little something for everyone. If you’re interested in stretching your genre boundaries, think about adding some of these novels to your summer reading list.

Here are a few elements of a good mystery and some books that embody them.

A protagonist you can care about: Water Like a Stone. Detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James seem like real people, not the police stereotypes we all get tired of reading about. Jill McGown’s Detective Chief Inspector Lloyd & Judy Hill Mysteries also has a winning detective team that the reader will enjoy spending time with.

An interesting setting: I love M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series which is set in the Scottish highlands. Beautiful dialect and fun characters really make the series a stand-out.

Suspense: Try John Hart’s King of Lies. Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley series is also full of tense moments as the police attempt to solve the mystery.

A puzzle: Try P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish series or Ruth Rendell’s psychological suspense tales.

Something unique: For something a little different, you can’t beat Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity series. Any time a ghost figures prominently in a book, it’s bound to be different.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Writing Likes and Dislikes

When I talk about writing, I usually use a sweeping statement: I love it! That’s true—sort of. Actually, I have more of a love-hate relationship with writing.

A few things I don’t like:

Revision.  Ick. I tend to cut through my pages like a machete.  And the whole time I’m wondering: what was I thinking?  Why is this character a PETA groupie?  And why on earth is the sleuth and her sidekick having this conversation about the killer’s identity in a diner, surrounded by friends of the killer?  What about this blimp?  How does the blimp figure into this equation?  Was I under the influence of my allergy medicine when I wrote this?  (Okay, I’m exaggerating…..sort of.)

Knowing that I wrote poorly that morning.  It’s important for me that I write every day.   But the days I write poorly and know I’ll have to come back later with my machete I wonder if I’d have been better off doing yard work or something.

Promoting.  Because now they’re so intertwined that I can’t really divide the writing and the promoting up into two separate groups.  I graduated from college during the recession of 1993, and had to go into sales at one point in my jobless wanderings. Let’s just say I was the poster child for poor sales skills. 

A few things I like:

I love unexpectedly getting an idea.  When I get an idea, I hang onto it until I can grab some paper and jot it down. (With my brain, it will be gone forever unless I focus 100% on the idea until it’s committed to paper.)  I had a conversation with a lady at my son’s flag football practice. As she spoke, I realized how much she looked like Camilla Parker Bowles. It was then that I realized I desperately needed a Camilla character in my book. Unfortunately, since I wasn’t listening to the lady speak, it meant that I somehow got signed up for bringing snacks to the next flag football practice (and, consequently, that I forgot. Because I needed to get to paper to cryptically write ‘Camilla’ down.)

I love it when I know I’ve written well that morning.  I’ve got a glow that carries through the rest of the day.

I love it when I get so absorbed in writing that time flies by.  I’m lost in the little world that I’ve created.  It’s almost like going back in time to being a kid.  Remember how you could get lost in what you were playing? 

What are some of your likes and dislikes? 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Books that Made Us Want to Write

The White Rabbit--Alice in Wonderland When I was a kid, there were some books that really fired up my imagination. I loved Alice in Wonderland. The White Rabbit made a huge impression on me and I remember wishing that Alice would just hustle her bustle a little bit and catch up with him. What was he late for? Why was he in such a hurry?

My parents and grandmother read The Wizard of Oz series to me in elementary school and I loved them. Baum’s world was so colorful that I felt I was right there with the strange creatures that populated it. The characters were almost like friends to me (the Scarecrow was my favorite.)

It was around second grade that I got hooked on mysteries and I’ve been buying them ever since. I read everything, but my favorite books are mysteries. I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew. (The Clue of the Dancing Puppet was the first one I read. How I remember this and can’t remember what I did last week is anyone’s guess.) Then there was Trixie Belden. She wasn’t quite as mature as Nancy, but a lot of fun.

So I was wondering---when did everyone realize they wanted to write? Were there books that made you say “I want to write like that!"? And, do you write the genre that you read the most growing up, or have your reading/writing interests changed through the years?

Monday, May 25, 2009

What’s Your Alias?

Since it’s a holiday, I thought I’d post something on the lighter side today. Recently, I had to come up with a pseudonym for myself for an upcoming project. I wish I’d found this online gem before I chose it. :) Who knows what my name might have been? The directions are simple and the result is fun. But my name is singularly bad for this type of exercise! I’m sure y’all will have better results.

1. Your real name: Elizabeth

2. Your Gangsta name: (first 3 letters of real name plus izzle.) Eliizzle

3. Your Detective name: (fave color and fave animal) Yellow Dog

4. Your Soap Opera name: (your middle name and street you live on) Spann Haviland

5. Your Star Wars name: (the first 3 letters of your last name, first 2 letters of your first name) Crael

6. Your Superhero name: (your 2ND favorite color, and favorite drink). Blue Guinness

7. Your Witness Protection name: (parents’ middle names) Alva Begg

9. Your Goth name: (black, and the name of one of your pets) Black Shadow

I hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Thoughts from the Roller Skating Rink

roller skates Yesterday I spent 4 1/2 hours at the roller skating rink with my second grade daughter and her friend.  They were absolutely delighted to spend the afternoon skating and I got a lot done.  I also I learned a lot during this time.  Here are some of my observations:

People don’t look as curiously at you if you have notebooks and pencils at the skate rink instead of your laptop.  I had my laptop last weekend and felt like an exhibit in the zoo.  No problem with the spiral notebooks, though.

It is possible to block out disco lights and blaring pop music.  The pop music was completely foreign to me.  If they’d been playing 70s and 80s stuff it might have been harder to stay focused. I did get distracted when they played the Hokey Pokey.  In fact, I think I still have it going through my head…

When your daughter says, “Mom! Look at me!”, you must look.  Look and smile and wave.  Otherwise, she’ll look behind her as she skates to see if you’re looking, and she’ll fall down like a block tower. 

Put your feet up in the plastic booth you’re sitting in.  Because you can get hurt by rollerblades, even if you’re not on the skating rink.  Trust me.  I still don’t understand how this one child’s spectacular fall (he wasn’t hurt, but brother, I was), caused him to end up under my booth. Somehow I could hear his rollerblades connecting resonantly with my shins over the rock music.

Bring lots of change.  My daughter and her friend went through about $10 worth of drinks, chips, and candy at the concession stand.  I finally just put a pile of ones and change on the edge of the table so I could continue writing instead of being a human ATM.

People at the roller skating rink are excellent extras for your novel.  I saw this mom with the most incredible tan.  Now, I know I live in North Carolina, USA.  I know it’s been 80 degrees the last few days. But honey, that tan wasn’t normal.  She was probably just that dark in January.  I’m sensing a tanning bed fanatic….just the lady I need for some local color in my current mystery. 

So to all the parents out there who are looking for a large block of writing time on Memorial Day weekend, consider taking your kid and their friend roller skating.  I got 3200 words written and some outlining and editing done.  Give it a go.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Protagonists with Shortcomings

Sherlock Holmes and Watson Yesterday was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 150th birthday and Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, is nearly as popular today as he was in the 19th century.

Conan Doyle was a master at character creation.  Although readers became extremely affectionate towards Holmes, there was nothing innately loveable about him. He was frequently described as cold (although he became very passionate when on a case.) He was a habitual user of both cocaine and morphine. He was rude and arrogant.  But he was gifted, and continually amazed readers with his powers of observation and deduction.

Conan Doyle eventually tired of his famous detective and decided to kill him off to work on his historical novels.  Holmes and his arch enemy, Professor Moriarty, fall to their deaths over a waterfall in "The Final Problem.”  The public would hear nothing of it.  First Conan Doyle tried to satisfy the public by producing The Hounds of the Baskervilles, set before Holmes’ death.  Readers, however, weren’t happy with this solution and Conan Doyle eventually brought Holmes back (as many soap operas today bring back popular characters from death.)  Conan Doyle’s publishers were, of course, delighted. 

I’m a big Sherlock fan myself and enjoy reading Conan Doyle as well as watching adaptations on television.  I love that Holmes is so popular despite his shortcomings…and maybe because of them.  I write a character that also has plenty of failings,  but try to balance them out with positive traits.  I enjoy brusque characters with hearts of gold.  Or characters that are tough on the outside but who stand beside their friends through thick and thin.

Do you enjoy reading about protagonists that have obvious faults?  Do you write these protagonists?  How do you make them interesting without making them unsympathetic to the reader?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Letting Go

blog50 Right now I’m under a couple of tight deadlines and a little less clingy to my works-in-progress. But last year, I fiddled with my manuscript just about every waking hour (this would be the book that’s being released in August.) I couldn’t decide when it was done. I mean, editing and rewriting are completely necessary and a vital part of writing. But when do you know that you’re done? When do you know when you’ve finally dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s and are ready to send your baby off into the big, bad world?

I don’t really have an answer to that question. Now I think that when my deadline day comes then, obviously, I need to have something ready to send in that is as perfect as I can possibly make it.

I think, also, that I got to the point last year where my rewrites were actually making things worse and not better. Do you know what I’m talking about? It seemed like I’d just starched some darned scene and ironed it out flat. Grammatically beautiful but I’d lost the soul of what I’d originally written. That’s when I printed the manuscript and sent it off. But it would have been nice to have known before that point that I was done.

I was thinking today about how I broke my children of their pacifier habit. I know this seems like a complete non sequitur, but bear with me. They were determined little suckers (oooh, I’m punny today) and slept with the darned binkies. Actually, they did everything with them but eat with them in their mouths. So one day we went to the party supply store and got a bunch of helium balloons. A lot of helium balloons. I tied every one of their little binkies onto them and we went out to a park. There we stood in the middle of the park and I handed my children the balloons. They let them go and it was a spectacular sight, let me tell you. The balloons were a vivid splash against the blue skies and they soared off. My children waved at the balloons as they left. They didn’t ask for them that night at bedtime because they KNEW the pacifiers were gone. They were off in space, as far as they could tell. And they had a nice toy in their place.

I’m thinking this is how I need to approach my writing. I need still need to rewrite ad nauseum, but now I’m approaching it differently. I need to move on after I’ve submitted. When the edits come in, I’ll work on them, but then get back to my work-in-progress. I need to figuratively attach that submission to a bunch of balloons and move on. Work on the next story. Not have empty-nest syndrome over the end of that project or get too wound up in the reviews that come out later. To remember that I’ve done my best.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Very Brady Ending


I’ve mentioned on my blog before that I’m generally a fan of happy endings.  The Brady Bunch always ended happily, too—Mom and Dad had a talk with the wayward Brady child about whatever mess they’d gotten into.  Maybe the kid had to mow the Astroturf lawn as restitution for their wrong.  Then everyone was cracking jokes for the final segment before the credits rolled.

The books I like to read have happy endings, loose ends tied up, and normalcy restored.  I think it’s a satisfying feeling.

But I have to wonder if the phenomenon of the happy ending is primarily a modern one and dictated by reader preference.  As an English major, many of the books I read didn’t have happy endings.  In fact, I want to say that most of the novels I read didn’t.  There’s Moby Dick, The Awakening, House of Mirth, Lord of the Flies, King Lear, Metamorphosis, Animal Farm, etc.

I think that most people view reading as an escape.  We want to take a little break from our lives and be transported somewhere else.  Somewhere maybe a little happier.

I’m not opposed to reading the occasional unhappy ending in modern books.  Oddly enough, the unhappy endings in classic literature doesn’t bother me as much—it may be because it takes place in another place and time and while I emphasize with the protagonist, I don’t identify quite as much or put myself in their shoes.  I’m an outsider, looking in.

Maybe with modern literature it hits too close to home to be able to maintain a sense of separateness.

Are there books with sad endings that you enjoyed? Do you write unhappy endings?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Creating Conflict

blog47 Today, I was put in a situation that I was not at all comfortable with.  In fact, I was stuck in a situation that I frequently have nightmares about.

I was back in middle school.

Well, today I was an adult volunteer at my son’s middle school and proctoring a state exam (the North Carolina EOGs).  But gosh, the flashbacks.  The lockers with unworkable combination locks.  The hormones.  The cliques.

When you proctor a test, you’re basically there to ensure that the teacher and the students aren’t cheating and that nothing funny is going on.  Yes, it’s hours long and borrrrring.  My mind wandered.

I started thinking that if I were writing a book about myself, this would be a fantastic conflict for the character representing myself.  Because middle school was miserable.  I mean, you could promise me eternal youth, but if I had to spend it as a middle schooler, I’d turn you down flat.

That’s the best way to create internal or external conflict for your characters.  What’s their worst nightmare?  What scares them the most?  That’s what needs to happen to them, for the best internal/external plot conflicts.  That’s what keeps us, as readers, interested. It’s an: “Oh Lord!  How are they gonna get out of this one?”

So make them rush into a burning building.  Make their child get kidnapped.  Have them lose their job or their home.  Torture them a little for the sake of the story and see what happens.  Riveting reading is usually the outcome.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Obligation do Series Writers Owe their Readers?

It’s funny how my perspective changed on book series when I started writing two different ones. As a reader, I was very impatient to see the next book in a series be released. Really, I was about as bad as my son with the Harry Potter books. When was the next Elizabeth George book coming out? What do you mean she’s not writing an Inspector Lynley novel? A book of short stories, instead? Oh no…

You get the idea. I was just as bad when the incredibly productive M.C. Beaton would turn out an Agatha Raisin instead of a Hamish Macbeth. Although I enjoy both, Hamish is my favorite.

Then I started writing series.

I thought it was very interesting to read a post by author Neil Gaiman on this same issue. Because, if you think about it, we now have a real window into the world of our favorite authors. We can follow them during the day on Twitter, we can read their blog posts, we can see that they’re messing around on Facebook. So what if you do have a dedicated reader who’s put out that you blogged about spending the day doing yard work instead of churning out his eagerly awaited book? What obligation do writers owe their readers?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Care and Feeding of Writers

blog45 Writing can be a very isolating activity.  Actually, it’s the perfect activity for an introvert (which most writers are by nature.)

But most writers don’t just define themselves by their writing.  They’re also sons and daughters who may have a role in the care of their parents, employees, caregivers of small or older children, and volunteers.

And yet we still have to spend time wracking our brains, delving into our emotions, and creating something exciting on a blank word processing screen. So we’re just a wee bit busy. 

Usually, I put myself at the bottom of the list of things I need to take care of for the day.  This isn’t something I do on purpose, but it’s just sort of how the chips fall.  This is what I’m looking at for today:  Sheets need to be changed, upstairs badly needs dusting, cat fur everywhere that needs vacuuming, oh gosh—we’re out of eggs, the car needs an oil change, the garage is a wreck, the children need to rest up for the EOG testing, blogs and writing goals need to be met, oh…and I need to maybe look decent and possibly even wear makeup today.  Because I might be going to an ice cream party for Brownie scout leaders, if I can get there.

I think my husband and son are classic enablers.  My husband says things every day like: “You always look nice” or “That color looks great on you” or “Wow, you’re aging well.”  My middle school son says “You’re the prettiest mom I know.”

But then there’s my daughter—the truth-teller.  She squints as she looks at me and winces.   “Did you wear that shirt two days ago?”  “But it’s clean,” I say.  “But you have a pretty dress in the closet.  Why don’t you put it on?”  Hmm.  And “Mama.  Don’t you ever wear lipstick anymore?”  And “Mama.  You’re not going out in that?”  

That may sound awful, but really, she’s looking out for me.  It’s a reminder that I need to show myself a little respect and TLC or what can I expect from everybody else?

This isn’t limited to personal appearance, although that’s probably the most obvious indicator of where we’ve put ourselves on our to-do list for the day. We also should eat well, exercise, drink water, and get plenty of sleep.  (The sleep thing probably won’t happen for me—major insomniac—but I can try to rack up a few more minutes at least.)

I wrote yesterday on Poe.  There’s an extreme example of someone who didn’t look out for himself.  But I think most of us could do a little better.  Maybe if we take better care of ourselves, our work will improve.  I think it’s worth a try.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Poe


What would Edgar Allan Poe have thought about the observations this year of the 200th anniversary of his birth? I can’t help but think he would be stunned.

This is a man who was found delirious, wandering the streets of Baltimore in clothing that wasn’t his own. He called out repeatedly for “Reynolds” in the hospital, though no one knew to whom he was referring. He died in the hospital days later. It was a mysterious end for a man recognized for spawning detective stories.

He had an unusual and unhappy life. He married his thirteen year old cousin who died of tuberculosis only two years after they wed. He never made much money on his stories, or drank away much of the money he did make. He was the first well-known American author not to pursue a day-job, but to attempt to make a living from his writing alone. A letter Poe wrote to his publishers, apologizing for his drinking and asking for more money, was purchased by the University of Virginia for an exhibit marking his 200th birthday. In the letter, Poe asks his New York publishers, J. and Henry G. Langley:

"Will you be so kind enough to put the best possible interpretation upon my behaviour while in N-York? You must have conceived a queer idea of me — but the simple truth is that Wallace would insist upon the juleps, and I knew not what I was either doing or saying."

Wallace was his friend and poet William Ross Wallace.

Despite his struggle with alcoholism and personal tragedies, Poe was extremely productive as a writer and poet. He’s not only credited with introducing the detective story genre with his detective, C. Auguste Dupin, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841); but also with increasing the popularity of the gothic and horror fiction genres.

Poe’s detective used logic and keen observation to solve the case. But he also had rudimentary forensic analysis in The Mystery of Marie Roget.

I wonder how Poe would have handled his success and recognition in the year 2009. Would it have inspired him to get some help? Or would he have followed the same path? Was his troubled life the source of all his inspiration and would success have given him writers block? He died at the age of 40….I can’t help but wonder what other literary gems he could have created if his life hadn’t been cut so short.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Summer Reading—What’s on Your List?

blog46 Most writers are avid readers, even when we can’t find enough time to do the reading we’d like to.  Since it’s a hot and summery Saturday (here in North Carolina, anyway), it seems like a great time to exchange book lists.  I, for one, can definitely use some new reading material.  Currently I’m enjoying Lisa Miscione’s Smoke. Right now it’s a missing person’s case, but I’ve got a feeling a body will be popping up on the scene soon.

Stephen King gave his summer reading recommendations recently to Entertainment Weekly.  There were a couple of surprises: King reads Jodi Picoult and Charles Dickens. Who’d have guessed? I like Picoult myself, but guess her new book must be more on the thriller end of things than her usual.  Dickens I’ve admired for years, but I don’t usually wade through his novels during my all-too-brief summers (there was a period of time—can we say Bleak House?—where Dickens was being paid by the word.  He must have been trying to send someone to college at the time.)

My list here will be pitifully short (this is why I need help pulling a longer list together.) Right now I’ve got Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (because I didn’t get around to reading it last year) and the follow up The Girl Who Played with Fire (Coming out July 28.)  I also want to read M.C. Beaton’s next in the Agatha Raisin series, A Spoonful of Poison. P.D. James has Original Sin coming out on July 14, so I want to catch that, of course. My beach read will probably be Dorothea Benton Franks’s Return to Sullivan’s Island.

Any good recommendations—for any genre?

Friday, May 15, 2009


blog43 There are lots of great stories out there about artists, inventors, and entertainers who got their best ideas through dreams.  How can I get in on this process? 

Rolling Stone Magazine has an entire article about the impact of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on rock and roll.  The famous riff for the song?  It came to Keith Richards in a dream one night in a motel room in Florida:

He woke up, grabbed a guitar nearby and taped the music racing through his head on a handy cassette machine. Richards played the run of notes once, then fell back to sleep. "On the tape," he said later, "you can hear me drop the pick, and the rest of the tape is snoring."

And then, of course, we have Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.  The full title is Kubla Khan or A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment. Coleridge stated that he'd written the poem while waking from an opium-enriched dream. A visitor came unexpectedly to his door, shattering his dream and the images he was hurrying to commit to paper.

Salvador Dali called his surrealistic masterpieces (above) ‘hand-painted dream photographs.’ They were inspired by his dreams and hallucinations.

Elias Howe invented a better sewing machine after a particularly bizarre dream involving cannibals waving spears with holes in them. Apparently the movement of the spears indicated to him a way to make his machine work.

Some of the people on this list may have had particularly vivid dreams induced by certain mind-bending substances.  But I wonder—are there any writers out there who get bits of ideas or dialogue or story ideas directly from their dreams?

Because, frankly, my dreams are remarkably unremarkable.  Most of them can be categorized this way: 1) I’m back in middle school/high school/college and can’t understand my schedule, forgot my locker combination, or am not fully dressed.  2) I’ve forgotten to feed a neighbor’s dog and cat while they’re out of town and the poor beasts are ravenous in the neighbor’s house.  And pooping everywhere.  And I can’t find my neighbor’s key.  3) I’m back at some dearly-departed relative’s house.  They’re alive.  I’m not a child, though.  And their house has REALLY changed—it’s sort of like my house as an adult, it’s sort of like their house…and I’m totally lost.

You get the picture.  Random insecurity dreams.

Are there others out there cursed by pedestrian dreams?  How do we get out of our dream rut?  :)  It would be nice to explore my subconscious a little….

Thursday, May 14, 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…

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Writing: the Fantasy and the Reality

The fantasy: I knock out a ton of writing at the beginning of the day.

The reality: I’m frequently distracted by email when I first wake up.  It seems vital to me that I respond immediately. This takes some time and then abruptly, it’s time to drive the school carpools.

The fantasy: A picturesque writing cottage  in a lovely village is my inspiring retreat as I pen timeless masterpieces that will be studied by collegians for generations.

The reality: I write on the go. I frequently write in the car, pediatricians’ or vets’ waiting rooms, the playground (while trying to ensure my daughter is not abducted by strangers) and carpool lines.  I’m a paperback mystery writer…fun stuff that’s a good escape. Not exactly The Divine Comedy, though.

The fantasy: After a restful night in the arms of Morpheus, I scribble quickly as my personal Muse prattles on and on.

The reality: I’m a raging insomniac. I rarely sleep more than 3 hours straight.  The Muse is never there; I have apparently deeply offended her, so I’m left to my own devices.

The fantasy: I write perfect prose while keeping an immaculate house, neatly attired children, and providing nutritious suppers.

The reality: I write decent first drafts. Draft ten, however, is much better. The house looks fine unless you look too closely (which I don’t advise. Please back away from the refrigerator, sir.)  The children do usually pass muster. Supper is hit or miss. Occasionally we’ll have a special occasion, which I call Breakfast for Supper --a charming name for Eggos, cereal, bananas, and pre-cooked bacon. (Oddly, this meal is a tremendous hit with my husband and children.)

The fantasy: A fan of my series approaches me with great excitement, burbling with admiration about my appearance on the Today show.

The reality: I’m recognized by someone who read a write-up in the local paper. Unfortunately, I’d just finished a grueling day of yard work in 95 degree Southern sun.  I hardly even recognized myself.

The fantasy: I write for myself at all times. Anything less would be selling out.

The reality: I write for my editors and my readers. Anything less and I would not be selling at all.

The fantasy: I am living my dream.

The reality: I am living my dream.  In the real world.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Defining Yourself as a Writer

blog40Defining yourself as a writer is a topic that I’ve touched on before. Agent Nathan Bransford's blog post last week covered his exasperation with people whose identities are too wrapped up in being a writer. I usually agree with much that he writes, but this post had me scratching my head.

I guess he deals with many people who think themselves better writers than they actually are. I’m sure it’s frustrating to receive so many queries from people who write poorly and expect you to quickly respond with an eager acceptance of their manuscript. But do you have to be good to consider yourself a writer? Could you happily write a family history that delights everyone in your extended family and still be a writer? Could you pen the company’s monthly newsletter and still be a writer?

I think so.

Because being a writer goes a little deeper. It’s something many of us feel passionate about. I thought one of the comments on Nathan Bransford’s blog was interesting. It was by reader Adam Christopher and he wrote:

Say Mandy has a passion for rock-climbing. She goes all the time. She blogs about it. She takes part in a rock-climbing forum. She goes on big trips. She's a bona fide, through-and-through rock-climber. During the day, she's a receptionist at the HQ of a stationery chain. So what is she? Is she a receptionist? Does that define who she is? Not at all, she's a rock-climber. Rock-climbing is her life.

I frequently don’t mention that I’m a writer when I’m doing mom stuff with other moms. It’s such a conversation-stopper. Much easier to be Mama and go with the flow. But I know deep down that I’m a writer. And it’s one of the greatest pleasures in my life.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Feeling Like a Twit—Learning Twitter and the Art of Brevity

blog39 I’ve been learning Twitter this week, and I feel a little like the bald guy in “The Scream.”

Folks who read my blog know that when it comes to reflecting on a topic, I tend to write on the more exhaustive side. Hopefully not the exhausting side.  Oddly enough, I’m not long-winded at all with manuscripts. I’m a big fan of The Elements of Style and its reminder to “omit needless words.”

Twitter certainly doesn’t allow for verbosity.

In fact, Twitter doesn’t allow you to put much of anything in context, either.  I love putting things in context.  ‘Having a rough day’ can mean you spilt your coffee, bit your tongue, and forgot the milk at the store.  Or ‘having a rough day’ could mean you lost your job, your dog, or your good health.

I just need to get used to Twitter, I think.  Facebook I like and get. For some reason, the interactions seem a little more personal.  This could be because I only have friends on Facebook and Twitter incorporates many other people—many of whom I don’t know.

Another problem with me and Twitter is that I feel a little like a Twit when I send a tweet. Oh, I’m fine when I’m forwarding cool links.  But my own personal observations and interactions don’t seem blather-worthy. 

If you’d like to follow my fledgling tweets, I’m: @elizabethscraig.

So these are my ideas for incorporating Twitter into my life. I’d love to hear anyone else’s, if they’re so inclined. 

Tweeting on mystery releases I’m excited about.

Tweeting on or retweeting interesting links and posts for writers.

Tweeting my writing progress each day (especially as a tool to keep myself on track.)

Some personal tweets, but not a lot. Not yet.  Maybe more once I warm up to the medium.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Avoid Burnout –Set Attainable Writing Goals

I’m a goal-setting kind of person. I love making lists and keeping notes. I like tracking my progress. And I like New Year’s resolutions.

But I always feel sad at the end of January each year. That’s when I realize that I have no trouble getting a treadmill at the YMCA…because all the people who made goals to lose weight or to get more fit have fallen off the bandwagon. I have to wonder what kinds of goals these folks made—was it something like ‘exercise 45 minutes every day’ or something more attainable like ‘exercise 20 minutes, 3 times a week?’ Did they say they wanted to lose 30 pounds, or did they make a more attainable goal of 5 –7 pounds in two weeks?

Writing is the same way. Many people tell me wistfully that they’d love to write a book if they had the time. But none of us have the time—we really don’t. The difference is that we’ve set workable objectives for ourselves and have applied a certain amount of discipline to the writing process.

When I was starting out, my goal was always a page a day. I knew that some days I’d be on a writing tear and would go far over a page. But that didn’t mean that the next day I didn’t have to write. I knew I needed to write every day, but only needed to produce a page by the end of it. An incremental goal, a daily goal, works well for me.

I’m writing more these days, but I’m still not setting myself up for a fall. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel each day. Instead of saying, “My goal is to finish this 215 page book",” it’s “My goal today is to finish chapter 8.” For me, anyway, workable objectives keep writing fun. The challenge is still there, but it doesn’t overwhelm me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reader Turn-offs: What Topics and Techniques Should Writers Avoid?

I can be a squeamish reader. And a picky one.  I’ll give anything a whirl (particularly if it’s a book recommendation from someone I respect.)  But sometimes I don’t stick with a book; there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to plow through novels that don’t suit me.  I’ve compiled a list of things that bother me in novels and find that they’re things that I also avoid like the plague when I’m writing.

Topics I personally avoid:

Brutality towards children:  This is a big deal-breaker for me when I’m reading.  Before I had children, I was able to easily read books like Stephen King’s It and other books that portray children in dire straits. As a parent, it’s become too nightmarish for me.

Brutality towards animals: Same concept.

Anything overwhelmingly depressing for most of the novel. Maybe it’s today’s tough economic times and my need for an escape, but if I feel more unhappy reading a book than I was before I picked it up, then I can’t usually slog through it.  Give me a ray of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel.  A ‘this too shall pass.’ I can read 200 pages of depressing text if I know there’ll be a pleasing payoff, a redemption at some point.

Techniques I personally avoid:

Too many characters.  Or too many characters without enough tags to remind me who the heck they are.  Because of my busy lifestyle, I'm picking up and putting down a book sporadically.  If a book has thirty characters and no context to remind me of their identity, I’m irritated.  Do I need to leaf back through the book and figure out who this bit-part person is? Why not just say something like:  “Carol sighed. ‘What a day! I must have permed a dozen heads of hair today.’?”

Too many cliffhanging chapter endings. Don’t get me wrong—I love being forced to read a book past my bedtime. But don’t have cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, for Pete's sake.  Makes it more like an episode of Dynasty or something.

A meandering plot.  Is it a mystery?  Where’s the dead body?  Give me a body pretty soon, if it’s a mystery.  General fiction?  Then what’s the plot conflict?  What’s the internal/external conflict for the book? What’s the point?  Lovely descriptions of setting are all well and good, but I don’t have time for the book to rhapsodize prettily on the locale.

Too much internal dialogue. Sort of like reading a self-obsessed teenager’s diary entry.

These are just my pet peeves. And there are exceptions to the rules, of course.  Lord of the Flies, for instance. Breaks many of my tenets and I enjoyed the book immensely. What are some of your pet peeves as a reader? Do your peeves influence your writing?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Parenting and Writing—Some Tips on How to Survive and Thrive

blog39 This post serves as a shout-out to all those parents out there who write.  All writers face obstacles to writing,  but this post specifically addresses the unique problems faced by moms and dads with kids still living at home.  Like me.

What I’ve learned (and believe me, people ask how I’m juggling this stuff):

Write first.  Do it early.  Get up before everybody else.  Get up before the chickens.: I hate to say that for all the late sleepers out there.  But the silence of the early morning, plus the relative disconnect from the outside world (no one is on Facebook at 4:45. Trust me…I know. And no one sends you emails then—except for retailers) creates the perfect environment to write.

Get the kids’ school stuff ready the day before. Or earlier.  I find that it’s easier for me to keep up with packing lunches, putting stuff in backpacks, etc. The kids have plenty of their own responsibilities; this is one I don’t mind taking over and doing in record time. I make 5 little sandwich bags of pretzels for school snacks, 5 days’ worth of allotted chocolate chip cookies, 5 days of chips at the beginning of the week.  The night before I put grapes or a banana in the bag.  The morning of, I do make the sandwiches (don’t want them to get stale in the fridge.)  The kids’ papers are signed as SOON as they get home the day before. I have a checkbook in my hand as soon as they come through the door because there’s always a yearbook to be ordered, Scholastic book orders to be sent in, field trips to pay for, donations for the school, etc. that need payment.  I do these right away and just turn those suckers back in.

Make the coffee the night before.  This one is essential.

Have breakfast ready before you wake the kids up.  And after you’ve done a bunch of writing already.

After the kids go off on the bus or carpool, do a 15 minute pick-up.  You know it’ll drive you crazy if you don’t.  This is not the time to dust the ceiling fan blades.  Just pick up stuff that should be thrown away, put in a desk, or taken to another room.  If you stay at home, you can write much easier.  If you go to work, you won’t be greeted by chaos at the end of a long day.

Start a load of laundry.

Remember the fact that at some point, everyone will need to eat at the end of the day. I’ve rediscovered my crock pot. And found these sites: and . I throw the meat, vegetable, and sauce in and pray that it resembles supper at the end of the day. 

Cram in more writing at some point during your day (lunch break, etc.)

Whatever you do, make sure your mind is focused on your kids when you first see them after school.  This is not the time to be inventing cool dialogue between your two favorite characters. Because kids know when you’re not really listening.  Believe me: my daughter nailed me on it yesterday.  “Why did you say ‘umm-hmm?’ You weren’t at recess today!”      

Do the signing paper/check writing thing again.

Put that load of laundry in the dryer before it mildews.

Feed everyone. 

Make sure your kids put out the outfit they want to wear the next day.

Do you need to put some chicken or beef from the freezer into the fridge to defrost for supper tomorrow?

Collapse in bed.

Oddly enough (and with many different variations on this theme: insert sick kids, sick parent, upchucking dog or cat, errands to run, grass to mow) the basic structure of it seems to work.  For me, anyway.  How do you parent and write and run a home?  How do you deal with any other obstacles to your writing goal?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Inexact Science of Book Blurbs


“From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

Groucho Marx

“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.”

George Orwell quotes (English Novelist and Essayist, 1903-1950)

“A real page-turner! I couldn’t put the book down…”

How many times have we read that type of book blurb (or a variation on that theme)?  But the fact that it’s a well-known or established author giving their thumbs-up makes the book suddenly more appealing.  I’m including myself in that statement; I find myself saying something like, “Oh…well I really like this author.  So maybe I’ll have to give this new author a go…”

Book blurbs are primarily useful for up-and-coming or unknown authors.  And the author giving the blurb is generally at the top of their game.  What are they getting out of it?  Obviously, they’re getting a little plug for their own book/series in.  But I really feel that many authors enjoy giving a helping hand to writers who are just starting out.

Bestselling author Tess Gerritsen says in her blog that her book blurbing is an attempt to “pay it forward.”  She also addresses the downside of blurbing: if you blurb for too many books, you’re branded a blurb-slut; readers might blame the endorsing author for a read they purchased but didn’t enjoy; and the time it takes for the author to read the galley (for Gerritsen, five hours of time away from her current project).  But she remembers with gratitude the authors who gave her first book an endorsement when she was an unknown writer.  And she enjoys returning the favor by helping out other new authors. 

Michelle Gagnon’s blog post mentions the importance of finding an author whose books match “your tone and subject matter.” Her concern is that a fan of the blurbing author might be dismayed to realize that instead of a sci-fi fantasy, they’ve got a thriller in their hands, or vice-versa.

A New York Post article on book blurbs references a publicist and best-selling author who garnered enthusiastic reviews…the Post implies….via her many publishing contacts.  But the author, Crosley, disputes that the book blurbing business is under-the-table.  She comments: “"The clues are generally there all along, 'lurking' in plain sight via the acknowledgements page."

A recent Publishers Weekly article is entitled “Reforming the Book Blurb Bull: This Dehumanizing System Has to Stop.” The article’s author, Courtney Martin, proposes a requirement for big-name writers: “Maybe each author informally agrees to read (at least in part) five new manuscripts a year by unknowns, thinking of it as their dues for succeeding in a difficult industry. Even better, maybe we throw a big party, get some whiskey company to sponsor it and do short readings from new manuscripts. Authors who’ve heard something special can follow up right then and there with their genuine praise. Everyone interacts face to face. Everyone gets a shot at the literary dream of having random readers like my mom find their book on a shelf, flip it over and say, ‘Wow, if Zadie Smith likes this, I’ve definitely got to pick it up.’”

What do you think? Do book blurbs influence your buying habits? What other things pull you to one book over another in a bookstore?

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mini Outlines—a Great Compromise

 blog33 I participate in a promotional group for mystery writers.  We have a great time, promote our books, and share ideas.  We talk about our books and answer questions about writing for readers.

One of the questions we frequently find ourselves answering is: “Do you outline?”  It’s probably the most divisive question for the group.

I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that our rather large group is divided in half by those who are adamant about outlining, and those who couldn’t outline if you put a gun to their heads.

I’ve written both ways.  And I see the pitfalls in both. If you outline, you can feel bound to a structured plan. If you go off on a tangent, you have to fit your diversion or subplot in somewhere. If you don’t outline, you’re writing a book in a sort of loosey-goosey manner and may not know what direction you’re going in. 

So here’s my solution.  It’s not for everybody.  But if you find yourself divided between the clean, organized lines of an outline and the freedom of writing as you go, maybe it will work for you.

A mini outline:  There are different ways you can give this a whirl.

A plan for a scene. This is perfect for the non-planners in the group. You’re not bound to a huge game-plan, but you have written with purpose. You could write notes at the top of that page almost like script or screenplay notes: setting, scene (what characters are present and what they’re doing), time of day, mood.

A plan for that chapter.  For instance, in the mystery I’m writing now, I have specific goals for each chapter. It’s not good to have pages that don’t further the plot, so I jot at the top of the chapter what clues or red herrings I’m including, or what suspects my sleuth is questioning.

A plan for several chapters.  Sometimes I like to write three chapters, then edit or add subplots to those chapters before moving on to the next few. If I jot down a plan for what I need to get accomplished in those chapters (I need to throw suspicions on one character, have another seem very sympathetic, need to include an important clue while diverting attention away from it, etc.

This method is a way I reconcile my need for organization with my need to brainstorm freely.  How do you outline?  Or do you do it at all?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why we Write


“Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”

Jules Renard  (1864 - 1910)
”We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”

W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965)

If you haven’t yet read bestselling author Lynn Viehl’s blog post on the breakdown of her royalty statement, it makes for interesting reading.  For a variety of reasons, actually. 

I guess in most industries, people try to see how their compensation measures up to others’. I’m certainly not above that. It’s nice in some ways to know that our wages are on target with the profession as a whole.

But to me, the most interesting facet of the royalty statement was that it illuminated the fact that even best-selling authors aren’t making gobs of money in this business.  Don’t get me wrong—netting $26,000 for one book is good gravy for a writer.  But, if you’ve got a family, you’re not exactly quitting your day job over it. 

So why do we do it? 

I think most of us write because we absolutely have to.

Toni McGee Causey posted a very interesting blog post on Murderati entitled “How Do You Know When to Quit?” Actually, however, the post focuses on not quitting.  It references Christie Craig’s inspiring story of her long road to a published book. 

I love mysteries. When I read mysteries, I want to write my own.  The ideas fly through my head and I grab paper and pencil to put them down.

Writers who stick with the process, who put in the hours, who edit their manuscripts umpteen million times, who do all this despite the money---they’re the ones who’re dedicated enough to stay in for the long haul. 

So here is my own, personal Top Five list.  Top Five Reasons Why I Write:

1. It’s cheaper than therapy.

2. It’s cheap, period. Think about it---no other hobby or profession can match it.  If you can afford the dollar store, you can afford to write.

3. I need to express myself creatively. I’m a creative person who can’t act, paint, draw, sculpt, or dance. Writing is my outlet.

4. The voices tell me to do it.  Okay, I’m being funny here….sort of.  Am I the only writer who has 2 characters’ dialogue running through their heads?

5. I feel driven to do it. I write, not necessarily by choice, but from a real need to write. Even as a kid, I filled journal after journal. I wrote for school magazines and newspapers.  Then I graduated to getting signed up for internships, and sending packet after packet to publishers. 

How about you? Why do you write?

Monday, May 4, 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

Sunday, May 3, 2009

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine…)

blog28 I’ve been listening to dire warnings way too much lately. I’m something of a news junkie (print, web, and television), but I’ve had to cut back on my habit like so many others that aren’t good for me. After all, how much bad news can we take?  The economy is falling apart around our ears, unemployment is up, crime is up, schools are in dire need of funds, there’s swine flu for God’s sake….

For some reason, out of all the negative news out there, the ailing publishing and newspaper industries seemed to hit me the hardest.  At first.

The idea of not having a newspaper to cuddle up with at five A.M. was…disturbing to me. The last 18 years of my life have involved mornings with the newspaper and a cup of joe. I’m a creature of habit.

Bookstores facing bankruptcy gave me chills.

The news of layoffs in the publishing industry, coupled with news of publishers cutting back on their lists or not signing new authors also gave me pause.

I wasn’t even sure what I should feel about this story about a man writing a 100,000 word novel on his cell phone.

Then there was the Kindle. I felt very conflicted about the Kindle. Books on a computer screen.  Hmm. 

But if you think about it, books (or reading, even if you’re doing it on a Kindle or Sony Reader) is an escape. You can’t really read a book and do anything else at the same time. I’ve been to both Borders and Barnes and Noble and they’re crowded with people. People who aren’t at home watching cable news.  People who are drinking coffee and reading newspapers and buying books.

Sales for mysteries and romance are up (both provide excellent escapes from reality.)

And then I realized that it doesn’t really matter what the medium is.  I can change with the times.  If I’m reading my newspaper online or if I’m downloading books, I can adapt.  The important thing is that there are still reporters out there who are uncovering dirt and making sure that I’m informed.  There are fiction writers out there penning books that transport me to another world (no matter how I’m reading them.)  And I feel fine…

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Juggling Promotion and Writing—When You Know You Need to Cut Back


Writers’ roles in book promotion have changed a lot in the last twenty years.  Instead of being expected merely to write and edit, they’re looked at as partners in the publicity process.  If you’re not promoting your book in some way (signings, interviews, blog tours, website giveaways), then you’re really not doing your fair share.  This doesn’t come as a surprise to any writers who are plugged into the writing community.  After all, with Yahoo Groups like Murder Must Advertise, and writing forums that share tips on promoting, writers would have to have their heads under rocks to not realize the current climate for book marketing.

But when are you too committed to promoting a book instead of writing the next one?  Is there an alarm bell that goes off when you’ve spent too much time away from your manuscript?

In an interview with Galley Cat, Sue Grafton confessed that it used to take her nine months to complete a book.  "It used to take me nine months to write a book, then ten, then thirteen, and so on," she explained. "Over the years, the publicity has begun to encroach on the writing process. Around the time of K Is for Killer, I began to realize that every time I had to do a phone interview, I was getting annoyed—'leave me alone, I've got work to do!”   She said that she went to her publisher to ask for more time to write and less time for interviews, and was able to work out an arrangement with them.

I’ll admit that I’m learning how to juggle promotion with my writing goals. I’ve just enrolled in a very informative online course, Blog Book Tours, which will help me organize and arrange blog publicity for my upcoming mystery, Pretty is as Pretty Dies (August 1, 2009).  I’m also trying to stay active in my promotional group, The Carolina Conspiracy.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.  If you’ve got some tips to share, please chime in with comments.

Write First—Your writing is the reason you’ve got something to promote. Make sure you satisfy your writing goal for the day first.

Get Ahead With Your Blogging—Feeling pinched for time? Try penning several blogs in a row. That way, if you have a day when you’re pressed, you’ll have something thoughtful to post on your blog.

Multitask—Okay, I know this is a difficult one.  But it can be done (this is coming from a mom who frequently writes at stoplights, mind you.) But you can read and post comments on blogs while a pot of water is coming to a boil. You can write your answers to a blog interview while monitoring your kids as they do their homework.

Know When to Say No—Are you getting too stressed out? Is your stress level pouring out into your interactions with family and friends?  You should scale back.  Nothing is more important than people who are close to us. 

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