Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Writers Behaving Badly--Trashing Reviewers

There are good things and bad things about the immediacy of social networking. On the good side, Twitter and Facebook are useful networking tools. Now writers can easily interact with their readers, booksellers, agents, editors, and reviewers. On the bad side---people who don't think before they tweet. If you haven't read about author Alice Hoffman's poorly thought-out response to a mediocre review, check out Galley Cat and Gawker for the play-by-play. Basically, Ms. Hoffman got on Twitter and flipped out. The review wasn't that bad. No, the reviewer wasn't wild about her newest release, but praised her past books and stated this one wasn't up to par with her others. Ms. Hoffman posted the reviewer's phone number on Twitter and asked her fans to call the reviewer and complain. For me, the unprofessionalism involved is the worst. The reviewers do their jobs, we do ours. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I try really hard to remain unaffected and professional with both good and bad reviews. So far I haven't gotten any real stinkers, but I'm sure they're coming. If you have any longevity in this business, you should get both over your career. Right now my policy is to post the good ones on my publicity stuff and put the lukewarm ones out of mind as I write. There's even a blog called The Worst Review Ever: Feel the Pain. Heal the Pain. Now this is a more healthy approach to getting a bad review...with humor. I've enjoyed reading the posts (and readers then rate the review on a scale of bad to horrible.) The idea behind the blog is that they're looking for the most scathing review ever. Not exactly something I want to aspire to, but fun to read. And to all the reviewers out there---thanks for reading. Good or bad, these reviews translate into publicity. And writers can't afford to drum up our own.

Monday, June 29, 2009


I love subplots. I love reading them and writing them and watching them on television. I think they should be approached with a degree of caution; you don't want to distract from the primary plot for too long, you don't want to inflate your book with fluff, you don't want to add too many extra pages to your book. That being said---they're just fun. Things I like about subplots: When it seems there's no resolution in sight to the primary plot, there's usually a steady and easily-seen process toward resolution for the subplot (every time it's introduced, something has changed.) It's a good way to introduce a different element to a particular genre (introducing romance to a thriller/mystery, introducing a puzzling mystery to a non-mystery, etc.) Sometimes I like to connect my subplot with my main story at the conclusion of the book (I've done this with my current WIP.) Maybe something the reader thought was completely an auxiliary strand ties in with the plot in a surprising way--my subplot in the current WIP, that seems totally unrelated, plays a part in saving the protagonist's life. In some cases, the subplot can affect the book's outcome. It adds another layer of intrigue to a book---something else the reader wants to see resolved. I'm careful not to add too many subplots---I don't want to create confusion over the real thrust of my story. But frequently, I enjoy writing my subplots most of all.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


It's that new-release time for me again and I need to get my rear-end in gear. Publicity in even the most casual way (giving someone your card when they ask about your book) requires a certain amount of prep work. Let's just say I'm a little behind. :) I'm going to try to catch up this week, especially since I've missed a few opportunities recently to hand out something nice about my book. Vista Print is a good resource for post cards, business cards, flyers, and brochures. I've used them a few times and have been very pleased with their low costs and lack of hassle I've encountered. As far as groups that have great ideas for promotions, my pick is Murder Must Advertise. The threads cover all aspects of promotion (and the group isn't limited to mystery writers.) Interested in blog touring? I recommend Blog Book Tours for information on making your own blog successful and what to look for in a potential tour host. Publicity prep isn't the easiest thing in the world (and it can be very time-consuming.) But I try to remember that it's just as important as the other parts of the writing process.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Absent Families

fairy tales Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, Harry Potter…and it’s not just in children’s literature that there are absent mothers/fathers/wives/husbands.

If you think about it, many novels (except, maybe, ones that are specifically focusing on family life) have protagonists with no significant other.

Why is that? I think it’s because husbands or wives or--in the case of children’s lit, parents--can be domineering, interfering, or overly influential. Worst case scenario, they can weaken the protagonist as a dominant force in the story.

I was editing my current WIP yesterday and noticed that my protagonist is a widow. Not only that, but four supporting characters are spouse-free.

I’m fine with my sleuth being single (her husband might try to curtail her crime-fighting activities: particularly after they put her in danger), but I’m going to take another look at the bevy of single characters in the supporting cast.

I always thought it was funny in Cheers that Norm’s wife became a character, even though we never meet her. Just his remarks about her were enough to bring her to life.

I think the trick is to have these characters fleshed out and represent them as part of a family—even if it’s one that doesn’t mind if they’re out at one a.m., fighting crime.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Managing a WIP While Editing

Soooo....I'm editing. I've got this 70,000 word document on a computer screen that needs to be assessed, reorganized, and added to/subtracted from. I wrote it primarily on my laptop (although sometimes notebooks were used when I was 'on location' at the park, roller rink, pediatric waiting room, etc.) But looking at the expanse of screen and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling is very awkward. I can't flip quickly between page 22 and page 222 (well, I can, but it involves computer commands.) At this point, I'm using my unwieldy print-out of the manuscript. I went to Office Max yesterday morning and bought some 1" binder clips that I've slapped on it to keep the thing from falling apart. I have a large supply of Post-It notes that I stick onto a page when I've got a question that needs to be checked out (like a continuity question, setting issue, forensic or police procedural fact, etc.) I also attach sticky notes to pages that have clues, red herrings, alibis--important plot points--on them so I can easily access these pages later. I've printed the story on one side of the paper and use the opposite page to add text to a scene or to dialogue. Cutting text is easy--just draw a line through it. I've also got a collection of photographs from magazines or printed pics I found online that I'll stick in the pages of my manuscript. Sometimes I come across faces in news media that remind me of my characters. When I do, I tear or print them out so I can picture these folks more easily. Drawbacks to this method: These papers are a mess and they get messier everywhere you go. They've been rifled through, drawn on, there are Post-its sticking out of the top, etc. A kid dripped on them at the swimming pool yesterday and I doused my pile of papers with coffee this morning. Another draw-back is that anything you do on paper has eventually got to be transferred to the Word doc. Even with these issues, though, I find I edit myself better on paper. It just helps having something tactile for me to shuffle through.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Someone Who Wouldn't Use Profanity I’m from the American South, so it should be cussin’. Basically, I’m covering profanity here, and am curious to poll writers’ and readers’ thoughts.

Generation X, including yours truly, had a certain amount of profanity ingrained in them from their peers. To us, it wasn’t that big of a deal….the profanity was not usually used in anger and it filled in nicely whatever noun, verb, adjective, or adverb we needed at the time (now, this was with our peers. Not in the classroom, not with parents, not during job interviews, not in our cubicles at whatever menial jobs we were able to find during the recession of the early 1990s.)

Then we had kids.

The only time I’ve let something really fly that I wish I hadn’t since I’ve become a parent (besides the mildest forms of profanity…and a lot of euphemisms) was when I was on the highway recently and suddenly had to swerve to avoid a pick-up truck that was consumed by a raging fire and had flames licking out over my lane. My middle-schooler raised his eyebrows at me; less at the fireball than at my language.

What about in our writing?

I write cozy mysteries and I do know my market pretty well. I use ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ but not often. I would never use any of the four-letter words I used so carelessly 10-15 years ago.

Why use any at all? This is hard for me to answer. Occasionally I just come across a situation that seems to warrant it. Oddly enough, I use it more when a character is in a humorous, but frustrating situation.

I’ve seen many movies and read many thrillers where I found the profanity a tremendous distraction. It was repeated ad nauseum, and I’m no prude. But when I start to flinch, it’s too much. And to what purpose? That’s what I can’t figure out. Why ruin (in my mind) a great movie like Good Will Hunting with overwhelming vulgarities?

So….is there a formula, depending on your genre? How much is too much? What’s the right amount for the effect we’re looking for?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Content Checklist

I’ve gotten to that part of the manuscript.

You know the part I’m talking about.  I’ve written the first draft from beginning to end, and now it’s time to make some assessments.

Where am I with word count?  (With my current project, I’m six thousand words short of the contracted number I agreed to write.)

Are my scenes in sequence?  I frequently write scenes out of order (helps with writer’s block), so it’s good to go back for a read-through.

Did I tie up my loose ends?

Did I finish writing each scene? Or did I intend to come back later to finish one—and forget to?

Is my manuscript believable?

Will the reader get an image of each character in their heads?  Or should I spruce up my character descriptions?

Have I described each of my settings? (The town, characters’ houses, various meeting places?) Brief is fine, but non-existent won’t do.

After I do a read-through on my checklist, I move on to the next stage---slicing and dicing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Critiquing

Sometimes when I’ve got my writer hat on (conferences, signings, publicity things), I’m asked to look over someone’s draft, short story, or manuscript.

If I’ve got the time (and usually I try to make time if it’s something short-ish), I’ll do it. The only thing is—I’m a horrible critiquer.

I really am—I’ve sat in critique groups before and heard people give really sound advice on someone’s WIP and thought, “Gosh, yes. That’s absolutely right. Why didn’t I see that?”

I’m great at proofreading. And I know when something is good or if it needs work. But I just can’t successfully edit anyone’s material but my own.

I read two short stories for someone this week. I realized one was far superior to the other…but couldn’t figure out why.

At some point I realized this failing of mine and banned myself from writing critique groups. During these groups, I’d found myself saying, “I thought this was great!” with absolutely no reason why I thought so. Or really disliking something and thinking, “Ick.” But I’d have no ideas on how not to make it icky.

My favorite way to help aspiring writers is by getting them connected to online help. There’s so much information out there on finding an agent or publisher, on honing your writing skills, on writing a killer query. I hope that I can be more helpful with the links I have.

When friends ask me to help them write a letter to a business or a school, I just write the letter for them. So much easier than trying to tweak theirs!

The funny thing is that my father is an English professor and wonderful at critiquing. So maybe it’s not a genetic thing.

Maybe some writers are just lousy at editing. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. Let an agent or an editor who is paid to make someone feel rotten give the bad news. I’m glad to just do a swift proofread and give grammar tips and help making connections online. And after all, maybe the content that I dislike will be more appealing to other readers than it was to me.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Hanging Out With Writers

I was part of a writers’ conference this past weekend and talked about developing characters for mysteries.

The audience was attentive, the library that hosted the event was gracious, and my topic seemed to go well. People laughed at the right places and even took notes.

But my favorite part of the whole event? Lunch afterwards. We met at the Artist’s Cafe in Newton, NC and had a delicious lunch and a very productive conversation on poisons. I’m on the lookout for different poisons (2 different series) and need something good. I have a great book on poisons, but it was so much more helpful to have the other mystery authors discuss poisons…and for me to listen in.

I think we may have startled the waitress. I was so caught up in the conversation that I didn’t notice, but one of my friends explained to her at one point that we were mystery writers. “Oh,” she said, “that explains a lot!”

I really enjoy my time with other writers, both online and in person. Sometimes writing is such an isolating activity that we forget there are others out there we can make contact with. Sometimes making contacts is good business sense—but other times it just keeps us sane.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Catching Up

Van Gogh --Orchard in Blossom With View of Arles Sometimes life happens to a writer and they get behind. Not me, of course! I’d never do that. But some writers do. If you’re one of those writers (poor things), here are some tips I have for catching up on your WIP. I sat in deep thought to come up with these tips, since I never get behind. Especially in the last two weeks. Okay, so maybe I got behind. But I’m almost done with my first draft now (I have a September 1 deadline for the finished product) and here’s how I caught up:

Don’t Google anything. Google will suck your time up like crazy. When you get to the part in your manuscript where you need to make sure the town name you’re mentioning is spelled correctly, just type *** . Later, when you’re caught up, you can do a “find” search for *** and insert the correct information.

When you can’t think of the right word to use, put in ***. Same idea as above. Pretend you’re taking the SAT or some other standardized test---move on to material you do know.

Go somewhere where you feel uncomfortable. If people are looking at you and wondering why the heck you’re pounding away on a keyboard at a park, then you won’t even look up from your monitor--you’ll be so busy ignoring them and focusing on your WIP. Trust me.

This should go without saying, but unplug thyself. Don’t Facebook or Tweet or email or DIGG or blog or…..just write.

Have your parents take your young child for the week. :) (I kept my indentured servant older child here.) Thanks, Mama and Daddy! It was Camp Nana and Papa for my rising third-grader.

Write at the library. This is sort of the same principle as writing where you feel uncomfortable, but with a tinge more excitement. At our local branch, I plug in my USB drive with my WIP on it. I type in my library card number and PIN. And then---there is a countdown clock on the screen, detailing how many minutes I have left (and it only gives 60 minutes.) I have to admit this gives me a nerdy thrill. In fact, I speed-type to see how much I can write in an hour. Such excitement!!!

Hope no one else gets in my predicament, but if you do, give the above tips a try.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Memory and Writers?

The Persistence of Memory--Dali I’d just like to check and see if anyone else is in the same shape I am, memory-wise. It seems that my head is so full of imaginary friends (and I do mean my characters…I gave up on Super Elizabeth a long time ago) that I’ve become very, very forgetful.

I forget things I’m supposed to attend. I forget where I’ve put something. I forget why I went upstairs. I forget why I went to the store.

And very frequently, I’m forgetting people. This is very bad because these people never forget me and spend their lives tormenting me in the drugstore, grocery store, post office, and library: “Elizabeth! How are you? And how is your husband? And your two children? Gosh, your son must be going into 7th grade now? Wow! Please tell your family I said hi.” And I am smiling and stuttering and wondering who the hell these people are.

My good friends know that I will never introduce them to anyone because I won’t remember who the person is who acts like they know me.

Lately I’ve tried to do a pre-emptive strike: if a person looks even vaguely familiar, I go up to talk to them. If I act like I know them first, then they won’t realize I don’t remember them at all.

This led to a very embarrassing situation for me at the Harris Teeter grocery store the other day. There was a middle-aged man in the frozen foods that I thought looked familiar. “Hi there!” I said brightly and started a conversation with him. He looked surprised, but pleased. I ended up with, “Well, I hope I’ll see you at Boy Scouts soon.” “Oh,” he said with crinkled brow, “I don’t have a son.”

Dear God. So my poor memory led to me chatting up strange men at the grocery store.

Anyhow, the point of this story is to find out if anyone else is in the same mess? Oh---and also, do people talk to you when you’re in your own, creative little world and they have t0 say “Ma’am? Ma’am? Ma’am?” a few times before you snap-to?

Or do I need to make an appointment with my GP?

Friday, June 19, 2009


Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes

We all need a little help.

I’ve been the recipient of a great deal of help the last few days---in the form of my twelve-year-old son.

We were at Walmart and he wanted to purchase something there….and he was a little short. He wanted me to spot him---$40.00.

I know a good deal when I see one. He’s young, he’s strong, and he needs money. Now I have myself an indentured servant for the next month and boy: I am definitely taking advantage of that fact. Yesterday, he and I went through my desk. The process took about an hour and a half. He spent most of that time shredding, filing, and occasionally rolling his eyes. But he also had some very good ideas about how to make the process easier.

Ideas are important and we don’t always get them ourselves. Sometimes we’re so stuck in the rut of our routines (but…this is the way I always organize the desk…) that we don’t view challenges with fresh eyes.

Sidekicks are wonderful additions to our novels. Dr. Watson for Sherlock, Captain Hastings for Poirot, Robin for Batman. For one thing, they keep our protagonist from having long internal monologues about their conflicts---instead, they can share them with a sidekick. And maybe bounce some ideas off them, too.

It can be a little boring reading about the perfect protagonist who solves all their own problems. Much nicer, much more realistic, I think, to have them tell a friend about them…and maybe get a fresh perspective on their challenges.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Information Dumps and How to Avoid Them

Uriah Heep--Charles Dickens

Today was my first day to blog at InkSpot—the blog for Midnight Ink writers.

The topic I wrote on was “Information Dumps”—you know, when you dump a whole bunch of information, usually backstory and character description, on a reader at one time.

Hope you’ll pop over to InkSpot and visit me there.

Different Perspectives

Optical Illusion

I’ve always been fascinated by different perspectives (like the optical illusion on the left. Do you see the young woman with her face turned away? Do you see the hag with her chin tucked into her fur coat?)

Whenever a plane crashes, the eyewitness accounts are usually radically different: “The plane banked to the left.” “The plane’s nose turned to the ground.” Even the eyewitness accounts of the Titanic differed: did the ship break in half? Did the ship descend into the sea fully intact and nose down?

I like the use of different perspectives with mysteries and think there may be other applications in both fiction and non-fiction. In mysteries, different eyewitnesses may have completely different versions of events. This means a sleuth may rely on the account of one witness: “When I heard the noise it was eleven o’clock. Woke me up out of a sound sleep and sent shivers up and down my spine…” but then discover from another witness: “Jim? No, he wasn’t awake at eleven o’clock. Snoring like a baby. But I did hear a ruckus around 11:45….scared the life out of me.”

What about in non-fiction? Journalists usually interview more than one witness to get information for a story. What if you were doing an in-depth report on the election debacle in Iran? You would hear one completely different account from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supporters and another from Mir Hossein Mousavi’s. It’s always interesting to include opposing opinions. It may make the proponent of the wrong-sided opinion look ignorant, but it’s almost always entertaining.

In fiction, you could have a protagonist who seems to go from one conflict to another, fueled in part by their pigheadedness. What if they had a best friend who slapped some sense into them and started them on a completely different track? What might that do to your story?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Google for Writers

I don’t know about you, but the site that I use most frequently is Google. I have it set as my home page now, since I bring it up so much.

There are some time-saving tips for use with Google, in case you’re like me (always searching for something in a hurry.) 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 site:www.census.gov (Search for information on Halloween gathered by the US Census Bureau.)

link: Find linked pages, i.e., show pages that point to the URL. link:warriorlibrarian.com (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. info:www.theonion.com (Find information about The Onion website.)

related: List web pages that are similar or related to the URL. related:www.healthfinder.gov (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.)

It can be really frustrating to Google something specific and have thousands of unrelated hits come up. These are tools to narrow down what we’re looking for and get our information quicker—and get back to writing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Not Dating Our Manuscripts

Whistler's Mother Lately, my characters want to make disparaging comments on the state of their 401Ks, the economy in general, and rising gas prices.

I tell my characters to put a sock in it. If I mention the economy in the manuscript, there’s no promise that the crisis will still be happening at the May 2010 publication date. (Wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t?)

And the crisis should definitely be over in a couple of years. So I could really date my book by mentioning current events.

I’m also careful to make only vague references to the type of technology my characters are using. While it’s fine to say my character is on the computer, I don’t want them to say they’re on Facebook or Twittering. Who knows what the cool social media application will be in five years?

Sometimes I’ll discover a new author and will check out their first book from the library. While I still enjoy books that make references to new-fangled VCRs and 8-tracks, it does pull me out of the novel for a few minutes.

With any luck, people will still be reading my books in libraries for years to come---I just want to make sure readers aren’t getting a blast from the past when they do.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Marilyn--Warhol I’m part of a panel of mystery writers that’s teaching a writing course next weekend. I usually don’t have any trouble talking about my assigned topic, but whenever I’m asked for advice on approaching the publishing world, I’m hesitant. There are so many different approaches and no real ‘right way’ to find a publisher.

The topics that I’m usually asked about (and my takes on them) are:

Agents: I was fortunate enough to obtain a nice publishing deal on my own, but that wasn’t for lack of trying to get an agent. Now I’ve got a great agent (Ellen Pepus with Signature Literary Agency) and feel that she’s been a tremendous help to me with my next project.

Conferences: They’re expensive. They’re a great place to network, but there are other, cheaper ways to network with people in the industry (Twitter, blog commenting, etc.)

Queries: I emailed them unless I was told not to in the agent’s/publisher’s guidelines. I never attached a query unless the guidelines said it was okay (lots of folks are worried about viruses.) I simultaneously submitted and mentioned it in the query…the process is just so slow.

Critique groups: Mixed bag. I think it’s like playing tennis: you don’t want a regular partner that blows you off the court with their skills and you don’t want to be the far-better one, either. I always enjoyed the folks in my groups, but had mixed success with them. I no longer belong to any critique groups.

But… everyone should have different opinions on these topics, based on their own personal experiences. Other thoughts?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Catching Your Breath

Ernest Shepard--Enchanted Place

The other day, my college roommate sent me an email.  She was going to the beach house on Sullivan’s Island, SC (near Charleston)—did I want to come?

Of course, I had no business going at all.  My broken laptop put me  behind on my WIP.  I need to connect my daughter with my parents this afternoon for a week at their house and I needed to do her laundry and pack her suitcases.   I’ve got stuff to do in the house and yard and … “YES!” I said.  “I’m coming!”

So I left my kids at home with my husband yesterday morning at 6:00 A.M. and drove the few hours there.  We had a wonderful day at the beach, wearing floppy straw hats, cackling over old jokes, and getting four and a half straight hours of sun (if my dermatologist is reading this---yes, I did have sunscreen. But no, I didn’t keep from getting burned somehow.)  We stayed up late and ate take-out and had a great time.

So…obviously I didn’t get any work done yesterday on my writing.  But the funny thing is that I woke up this morning and had all these fantastic ideas. And driving home this morning, the ideas kept flowing.

Maybe sometimes we need a little break from the ordinary to get our brains revved up again.  It must have been the stimulation of something different that generated my brainstorming (it sure wasn’t the junky food I ate or the wine I drank, or the late hour I stayed up until.)  I think sometimes it’s good to get out of our ruts, see different people, and get those rusty gears in our heads churning again.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Having a Writer for a Mom

Mother and Child--Mary Cassatt Cool:

  • 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.

Friday, June 12, 2009

When Characters Behave Out of Character

The Thinker--Rodin

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…”)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Technical Difficulties Beyond Our Control

Ohhh, it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  I don’t usually like reading blog posts where the person has a long list of gripes.  This time, though, I’m going to write a list of gripes.  I want y’all to judge whether I have an evil spirit at work in my house.

The evidence for an evil spirit conspiring against me:

The transmission on one of our cars died (and the car was a Honda.)

The kitchen sink suddenly went berserk (but did it sneakily—I didn’t know about its misdeeds until the back-splash of the sink suddenly separated from the wall.)

The upstairs printer died.

The upstairs monitor died.

The wireless repeater died.

My laptop died spectacularly….sizzling and popping during its death throes.

My new laptop seems to think some hot keys are running.  It’s striking through this text as I write and I’m going back and correcting it.

The new printer immediately ran out of ink.

It appears my new laptop (Dell) may have to be returned because the “t” only works on the keyboard some of the time.  I don’t want to go without a laptop for another 2 weeks.

Evidence for no evil spirit—None.

It’s awful, but all of these problems the last couple of weeks have put me behind on my WIP.  And I really need to catch up quickly.  Is there someone in the group who can rid me of this blight?

Wednesday, June 10, 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?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting Our Settings Right

Pennsylvania Landscape--Andrew Wyeth

I have always been fascinated that American Martha Grimes writes a very successful British police procedural series.

The series is set around different British pubs, and includes deft descriptions of various British locales.

How does Martha Grimes do it? I think it would be extremely hard to accurately portray an area of the world where you’re only a visitor and not a resident.

The location for my Myrtle Clover series is Bradley, North Carolina. No one will write me to say that Bradley absolutely doesn’t have a tree-lined Main Street because the power company had the trees cut down. They won’t remind me that there are no one-story houses bordering the lake there. No one will catch me misrepresenting the menu in the favorite diner there.

Because Bradley, NC is completely made up.

I’m going out on a limb with my new series, though. It’s set in Memphis, Tennessee (and I’m a North Carolina resident.) I’m going to spend some time in Memphis in July to make sure all my setting descriptions are accurate. But I’m a little nervous. There’s nothing like messing up the facts to bring a reader out of a book that they were previously enjoying. Although I don’t spend a ton of time writing setting, it’s an important component to my books…and I want to get it right.

Does anyone else write books set in areas where you don’t reside? How do you do your research—online, in person, or a combination of the two?

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Each Character has a Job

The Wind in the Willows

It’s a rough world out there right now, job-wise.

It’s even rough for characters in manuscripts. I’ve found that if one of my characters isn’t doing their job in telling the story, then it’s time for them to get canned.

After all, we don’t have all the time in the world to just let a story meander around. If I’ve written a character in, they need to perform. Some of them need to create conflict for my protagonist (like the interfering son who won’t let my sleuth do her investigating.) Some of them need to provide clues or red herrings for my detective. Some need to be killed, some need to be murderers, and some of them need to be bystanders….but even the bystanders have a job to do. They should be entertaining or colorful in some way.

I need quieter characters, too—like Ratty and Mole in The Wind in the Willows. They were gentle, quiet creatures—and great foils for Toad. Some of my characters are straight-men for my funny protagonist. Some of them are sounding boards so my sleuth isn’t having long conversations with herself, wondering who the killer is.

But if I have a character that isn’t really doing anything, or if they’re just kind of hanging out in my manuscript without a purpose, it’s time for them to get their pink slips. Let them mess up someone else’s manuscript.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Editing and Rules of Grammar and Style

Do not put statements in the negative form. And don't start sentences with a conjunction. If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do. Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all. De-accession euphemisms. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky. Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague. ~William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Sorry for the long quotation, but I just love that bit by Safire. Right now I’ve got three totally different things going on (hope this won’t be news to either of my publishers). I’m editing a completed manuscript, writing a first draft for a different series, and gearing up to promote an August release.

I thought I’d surely say that the promotional stuff is the worst out of the three, but I think the editing/revision has won out.

Actually, I frequently break many of Safire’s rules. I guess my style of writing is colloquial….or chatty. It’s conversational, at any rate. I frequently have fragments in dialogue or in narrative, I’ll start with conjunctions, and end with linking verbs. I was an English major and know these things are real boo-boos, but no one has stopped me yet. I mean, editors have really revised my writing, but not the stuff I thought they might go after.

This makes me wonder….are the rules changing? Are we relaxing some of our grammatical and style standards? And why aren’t I feeling horrified if that’s true? I’m definitely a word nerd and I keep thinking I should shape up, but when I follow the rules (particularly in dialogue), my text sounds really stiff.

Here are some fun sites for all the other word nerds out there:

On Twitter: GrammarCops

Blogs: Grammar Cops (Blog) , Apostrophe Abuse, Wordsplosion, The Cliche Slayer, Gr8Grammar

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Interesting People

Picasso's Weeping Woman...1937 Lately I’ve really paid attention when I’ve had an “aha!” moment when talking to people. You know the kind of moment: one minute you’re having a boring conversation with a mom about the snack schedule for soccer practice---and then you happen to notice she has a Grateful Dead tattoo.

Maybe there is something about an acquaintance that really gets under your skin. They’re chronically late, but always blame it on a litany of unlikely occurrences. Or your friend frequently gets annoying songs stuck in his head and keeps singing the tunes so they’re now stuck in your head. Or your plumber has an odd take on news events that’s very different from everyone else: “Well, the reason General Motors is in so much trouble is because our military is spread all over the world trying to fix other people’s problems.” Uh…right.

How about the people who have a completely different side of them? The “Clark Kent” syndrome. One minute she’s a mild-mannered banker, then she gets off work and joins her friends to see Rocky Horror Picture Show for the 4,000th time.

When I’m with someone and they’re either really fascinating me by throwing me a complete curveball (I didn’t know they lived at a commune before they became church-going choir members!) or they’re doing something I find really annoying (you’re chewing gum? At a funeral? And blowing bubbles?) I pay attention. I write it down. Maybe I can use it to flesh out a character. Maybe I can use it to create a bit character. But these types of encounters really spotlight how different we all are from each other…and that’s worth writing about.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Writing and Our Circadian Rhythms

Van Gogh Siesta

I’m definitely a morning person. I get up at 5:00 each morning, if not before. Actually, I’m up most of the night, but that’s the insomnia thing.

Because of this schedule, I find I’m most productive first thing in the morning. That’s when my writing flows fastest and when I’m more creative.

In afternoon, I’ve already switched to mindless housework (laundry, straightening up, wiping down counters and bathrooms).

By evening, I’m pretty much done. I watch the news, read a book, shoot emails, and go to bed (I get my best sleep before 1:00 A.M., then the insomnia kicks in.)

Today, I’m going to try to switch this completely around.

Can it be done? I have no idea. But my daughter is having a sleep-over here tonight, and the girls will be up really late. I need to be up late too, and I thought I may as well get some good writing time in while the girls were occupied with movies, nail painting, and Barbies.

This means, though, that I will be writing at night. And I’m not a night writer.

I’m curious to see how this experiment goes. Are there many night writers out there? Do you write in both morning and evening?

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Savannah Bird Girl

The Devil in Manuscript: Nathaniel Hawthorne

"I do believe," said he, soberly, "or, at least, I could believe, if I chose, that there is a devil in this pile of blotted papers.”

I was having a conversation with my online author friend Galen Kindley, and the topic of abandoned manuscripts came up.

Does everyone have a book graveyard at their house? Either a manuscript that they gave up on (or got disgusted with) or a novel they bought and intended to read until it started dragging in the early chapters?

Even Samuel Clemens had an abandoned work-in-progress: a nonfiction book on England that he was trying to write at the same time as Tom Sawyer. Can you imagine? Writing Tom Sawyer would be draining enough.

Sometimes I’ll wonder if I’ll ever go back to these rusty old projects of mine. I’m thinking no. Maybe the original idea was a good one—I know it must have been one that I was originally excited about, or I wouldn’t have started writing. But at some point I realized it stunk. I hate to put it so bluntly, but there it is.

What made Samuel Clemens give up? Did he read another author’s fabulous account of England and realize his came up lacking in comparison? Did he just take on too much at one time? Was he more excited about his Tom Sawyer WIP (who wouldn’t have been?)

Here's what made me give up on the projects in my graveyard:

My protagonists didn't have "it." They simply weren't interesting enough to carry a story.

The plot didn't have a hook. It was too derivative of similar books in that genre.

I'd written myself into a huge hole. I do this with other books, but can always write my way out of them. But with these books, I was so disgusted with the WIP by that point that I let my protagonist live eternally in my plot hole.

Do you have a manuscript graveyard?

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You Get a Book Idea--Then What Happens?

Today I’m guest blogging at the Darkened Jade website.  I’m discussing what happens after you get the initial idea for a manuscript (which I really think depends on the type of person you are.)  Hope you’ll pop by.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bad Guys


Iago made the perfect Shakespearean villain. Evil to the core, he was determined to abuse Othello’s trust. He manipulates Othello and plots to destroy him.

Wow. My bad guys are murderers, but Iago would eat their lunch. But then, that’s Shakespeare for you.

What makes a really frightening villain? I’ve always found the calm, emotionless psychopaths in movies and literature to be terrifying.

What about the eerie “bad seed” children out there in books? They give me the willies, too.

Extremely capable villains are frightening. More than competent in their evil-doing, they match wits with authorities and win over and over---until the end of the book when they’re (usually) captured.

The British newspaper Telegraph did a piece last December on “The 50 Greatest Villains in Literature.” I thought that was a pretty provocative title, and sure enough, there were plenty of dissenters. Some of the greatest villains were a little odd, but the list as a whole was very interesting.

One interesting point they made was in reference to Moby Dick. Was Ahab the bad guy, or was the whale the villain? Interesting.

Here’s a recap of the Top 10. See what you think:

10 Vindice from The Revenger's Tragedy, by Thomas Middleton

9 Mr Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

8 Claudius from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

7 Ambrosio from The Monk, by M G Lewis

6 Robert Lovelace from Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson

5 Voldemort from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

4 Iago from Othello, by William Shakespeare

3 Cruella de Vil from The Hundred and One Dalmatians, by Dodie Smith

2 Samuel Whiskers from The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, by Beatrix Potter

1 Satan from Paradise Lost, by John Milton

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dabbling in Religion

Michelangelo's Creation of Man I’m feeling daring today, so I’m going to touch on one of the more difficult topics—religion. (Hope this isn’t one of those things where I wonder later what the heck I was thinking….)

Now, the books I’m writing are very secular in nature. We’re talking murder mysteries here. But I’m a Southern writer, and these books are based in the American South where life and religion are more naturally entwined. So the characters go to church meetings (where they, naturally, discover all kinds of clues to the murderer), attend funerals in churches….and even discover bodies there.

I’ve been reflecting that it seems actually more unnatural to ignore religion or spirituality in books that feature major conflicts. After all, these folks are having a rough time. In murder mysteries, people are dropping like flies and the characters may be endangered, themselves. Isn’t it stranger that they wouldn’t look for a little spiritual guidance? And in most fiction I’ve read, the protagonist is beset by a myriad of problems. But Eat, Pray, Love was the only book that I’ve recently read that included a spiritual quest (and it was nonfiction.)

The trick is to fit religion or spirituality into secular books in a non-preachy way. I usually use humor to make the reader more comfortable. And I try to weave my references in naturally. Because….I’m not writing Christian literature here. The church is the background, not the focal point.

Has anyone else dabbled in religion in their manuscripts? Why or why not?