Monday, October 31, 2011

Angels Among Us?

Angel Condemned by Mary Stanton.

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

Brianna Winston-Beaufort has two law practices. The "temporal" office, the one that pays the bills, is located in an office building on Savannah's Bay Street. The celestial office is located in a house on Angelus Street, and can only be found by Bree and the Company who work there with her, and perhaps the occasional client.

The staff and clients of the Angelus office are not living humans. The staff are what is commonly known as angels, while the clients are the souls of the dead who believe they've been wrongly condemned to Hell.

In this, the fifth installment in the series, Bree's aunt asks her to represent her fiancé Prosper White. Prosper is being sued by an antiques dealer for allegedly stealing a valuable magazine cover for a museum display. Bree hopes to settle out of court, but before she has a chance to do much, Prosper is murdered and Cissy is the prime suspect, although there is no shortage of people who disliked Prosper.

Meanwhile, Bree is trying to ignore the summons of a celestial client, who also claims to have been wronged by Prosper as well as Allard Chambers, the antique dealer.

Mary Stanton has created a believable protagonist in Bree, who understands the task she has inherited, but sometimes wants to decline, and is always frustrated by bureaucracy, whether temporal or celestial. And although all the elements of a horror story are here: evil attorneys opposing Bree, mirrors that reflect demons and paintings that portray reality, this is not a frightening tale.

Rather, the philosophy underlying this unputdownable book, that there is someone working to correct divine mistakes, is a comfort.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher, who sent me a copy of the book for review purposes.

All Hallow's Eve giveaway!
CFC is giving away two thrillers as a Hallowe'en treat. Andrew E. Kaufman and L.J. Sellers have each offered an e-book to a commenter (one to each of two people) on today's post.

Drew's treat is While the Savage Sleeps

and L.J.'s is Secrets to Die For.

Comments must be posted by midnight on October 31st. The drawing for each book will be made by its author.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

When we last left Gayle, she was forgetting something...

I had an entire essay to post for my turn last Thursday, then forgot to actually post the darn thing, so LJ told me to just post it on Saturday. I thought I would rework it slightly to cover why I got so befuddled Wednesday evening. As they say, when life hands you lemons, squeeze the crap out of them. Then stick the peels down the garbage disposal to remove odors, and trade the juice for chocolate.

My brain flew out the window on Wednesday because my new book finally hit Amazon and I needed to let everyone know. It's not a mystery book, it's another humor book. I now have two humor books and two mysteries.

By quantity, I write more humor than mystery, simply because, since 2005, I've provided the Placentia News-Times with 600 words every week, telling some story about my family in the most exaggerated, and hopefully funniest, way possible. And yet, when people ask me what I write, I tell them I write murder mysteries.

I try to say that with a demure smile.

I'm guessing there are probably 100 mystery writers to every 1 humor writer. Just go into any bookstore and look around. "Mystery" gets its own section "Humor" gets one shelf. So why do I want to align myself with an ocean of writers, instead of trying to be the big fish in the smaller pond?

The problem with being a humor writer is that comedy is so subjective. Everyone recognizes that Hamlet is a tragedy, even if they are not moved to tears. However, if I walked across the room, tripped spectacularly and fell in a heap, some people would gasp and rush to my side, and some people would help me eventually, after they stopped laughing.

Because some people laugh at slapstick. Others laugh at erudite, New Yorker stories. There are people who love bawdy humor, who love puns, who love knock-knock jokes, etc. If you write something which appeals to one of these groups, they will pronounce you funny. The rest of the folks, however, will not say, "Yes, I recognize it as humor, but it's really not my style."

They will say, "I didn't laugh, therefore, it wasn't funny."

Therefore, you are not funny. You big loser.

Even if you feel confident in being humorous within your group, and you are a good writer, humor is very difficult to write. When I'm writing my mysteries, my character can trip over a table or the table without too much trouble. Action is more forgiving. In humor, though, one word can make or break the joke. One example:

Erma Bombeck released a book of her columns called, I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression. Funny title, yes? What if the word "the" was replaced by "my"? Suddenly, I Lost Everything in My Post-Natal Depression isn't so funny. It's now a sad, yet ultimately redeeming memoir (that we've all seen before).

So now I'm consumed with my new book, checking to see if it's on Amazon yet, and now is it on Barnes & Noble? I'm doing a Goodreads giveaway, and I put a Media Release on my website. I'll be talking about it briefly on my own little two-cents-worth blog. If you're a writer, you know the drill, and how everything else falls away while you're taking care of the bird in your hand.

So how do you market humor? Ideally, you're looking for that subset of people who laugh at the things you find funny, and trying to avoid the people who don't get you. The straight approach of "Read this book, it'll make you laugh," doesn't always work. Maybe some people will think it's funny, but others will take it as a dare. I love to laugh, but when I see ads for books or movies that tell me they're "uproarious", "hilarious", "gut-bustingly funny", etc, I want to run the other way. Mention "zany" or "wacky" and I'm in the next county.

Here are some of my rules for marketing.

1. If you're writing humor within a genre, market the genre. My mysteries have a lot of humor, but I'm afraid if I brag about how hilarious they are, I am just begging for a snarky beatdown. Instead, I describe my mysteries as fun romps. I allude to the humor, as in, "it's got a little humor in it." That way, either readers like the story and don't get the humor, or think it's funny and I'm being too modest, or don't like the story anyway, making it a moot point.

2. If you're writing straight humor, compare it to someone else's style. This doesn't mean you're copying them. It means you write in the tradition of Robert Benchley, or David Sedaris, or Tina Fey, etc. Or perhaps, like me, you write Erma Bombeck-style, slice-of-life humor. It's like saying the password, opening the door, and finding your people.

3. Market your sense of humor. This means writing your ad copy, your press releases, and all other marketing materials in your "funny" voice. If you write a blog, you should include your humor there. If you have a website, same thing applies. This goes back to the first rule of writing: show, don't tell. Don't tell your reader they'll laugh if they read your book. Show them the funny!

4. Last, your marketing kit should include plenty of steel wool. Scrub yourself with it on a daily basis. You're gonna need thick skin for this business.
Hope you enjoyed my little rant, and if you don't get my kind of humor, it's okay. If you can't say something kind, say something snarky, right?

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Scene of the Crime

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

Tom Adair's post this week inspired me.

I'm forever curious about the spaces in which people live and work. Do they surround themselves with memories, or are they more utilitarian?

Both C.J. West and Tom wrote recently about things people leave behind, and what those things say about them. Well, I'm here. This is where I spend most of my days, and much of my nights.

What you see above is my trash can, and my Buzzy Slippers (they have a buzzing mechanism triggered by pressing down just a little) which I haven't used all summer, but will be perfect for this winter.

This is where I imagine crimes and research them. Where I pit people against their own demons and try and give them the worst possible obstacles to overcome. Or not. This is my scene of the crime.

The candle is important. Not sure why, but it is. There's a fireplace near me too, and it's loaded with wood and ready to light.

The photograph is my mom. She believes in me and tells me constantly that I can do this. She was a very smart lady, and there's no reason for me to quit paying attention to her now.

The bookends are special. The one nearest the photograph says, "Do read to someone. When words are infused by the human voice, they come alive." ~Maya Angelou

Different encouragers include more family photos, and four shelves of books—either research-based or craft based.

I've come to learn that simply surrounding myself with this much knowledge doesn't get the trick done.  So, I've read bits and pieces of almost all of them.

This photograph is the most important encourager of them all—the Love of My Life. I call him George.

I like my pens, too. They're cheerful.

And that little round disc? That's a remote for the fan. With the candles and the fireplace and the western exposure and certain flashes of the hot variety, it comes in handy.

And finally, my little code words that have nothing to do with a car manufacturer.

I love the feeling I get when the ideas are flying and I'm pretty much in a trance while I write. Way better than drugs.

Now that you've seen bits and pieces of my space, there's something else I should share: I can imagine a critic one day saying that the only crime committed here was Peg Brantley trying to write. But that's another story.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On the Horizon: What We're Excited to Read

As avid readers, we’d thought we’d share some upcoming titles we’re looking forward to.

Marlyn is eager for a little poison:

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, 21 February 2012): This will be Robinson’s first standalone since 1995’s No Cure For Love, although he has published several short-story collections. His plots are complex without being arcane, and his characters are well-depicted.

The publisher’s summary of the novel reads as follows: Through the years of success in Hollywood composing film scores, Chris always promised his wife they'd return to the Yorkshire Dales one day. Now a widower, Chris feels he must not forget his promise. Back in the Dales, he rents an isolated house that will allow him the space to grieve and the peace to compose his piano sonata. But when he finds that the house was the scene of a murder in the 1950s, and the convicted murderer was one of the last women hanged in England, he finds himself increasingly distracted by the events of sixty years before . . .

Poison Flower by Thomas Perry, Jane Whitefield #7 (Grove/Atlantic, 6 March 2012): Jane Whitefield helps people disappear. Actually, she’s the non-government version of the Witness Protection Program. Her clients aren’t necessarily witnesses, but they are usually innocent of any crime.

Poison Flower is the first Jane Whitefield book since Runner in 2010, and is summarized here: Jane is spiriting James Shelby, a man unjustly convicted of his wife’s murder, out of the heavily guarded criminal court building in downtown Los Angeles. But within minutes, men posing as police officers kidnap Jane and, when she tries to escape, shoot her. Jane’s captors are employees of the man who really killed Shelby’s wife, who believes he won’t be safe until Shelby is dead, and his men will do anything to force Jane to reveal Shelby’s hiding place. She manages to escape but she is alone, wounded, thousands of miles from home with no money and no identification, hunted by the police as well as her captors.

On a lighter note, Gayle is looking forward to:

Michele Scott's next, as yet untitled book. It's about a young girl who comes to L.A. to break into the music scene. She moves into a house that's littered with the spirits of dead rock stars who all talk to her (yes, I think Elvis shows up). Of course, there's a murder to be solved.

Also, Dancing at the Chance, which is NOT a mystery, but historical romance by DeAnna Cameron. Says Gayle: I don't usually read romance, but I read her book, The Belly Dancer, and loved it. Dancing at the Chance takes place in the vaudeville era, in New York City. DeAnna did such a fine job taking me to turn-of-the-century Chicago with The Belly Dancer (at the World's Fair), I can't wait to go back to old NYC.

And L.J. has plans to read The Litigators, by John Grisham, which just came out. Not only does she enjoy Grisham’s legal thrillers, but this one involves a drug company, another favorite subject of hers, after seven years on a pharmaceutical magazine.

What books are you looking forward to? Share your reading excitement. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Who Will Become Amazon's Next Victim?

By Andrew E. Kaufman
It’s been all over the news the past week—this fall, Amazon will publish 122 books in a number of different genres through their own imprint, and reports say this is just the beginning. According to industry insiders, they’ve been aggressively courting some of their top authors, and just last week the company announced they’ll publish actress/director Penny Marshall’s new memoir.

Amazon has already shown authors they no longer need an agent or a big-name publishing company to get their books into readers' hands, thanks to their groundbreaking self-publishing model. However, this next move seems push the notion up a notch and has many wondering if traditional publishers will soon find themselves on the same boat as bookstores did after Amazon singlehandedly brought them to their knees.

Word from industry insiders is that publishers aren't just wondering about that prospect-- they're plenty worried about it, too, and rightly so. There’s history to consider. Amazon revolutionized how we read with their Kindle, and if this publishing endeavor succeeds, they just may influence what we read as well.

Will Amazon one day put publishers out of business? Several years ago, that might have been a preposterous question, but today more than a few feel it's a distinct possibility. The publishing industry hasn’t exactly shown much tenacity when it comes to keeping up with Amazon’s fast-moving forward-thinking business acumen, one that has placed them far ahead of the pack. And in an industry that as of late seems to be reinventing itself practically by the minute, not keeping up could mean falling by the wayside. Historically, we’ve seen this happen repeatedly--will we see it again here?

Amazon has already proven itself as a force to be reckoned with on the technological front as well after its Kindle survived the great iPad invasion. Now they’re raising the stakes by aggressively going after the market share with their new Fire, a smaller, lighter, and most importantly, cheaper tablet that could give Apple a run for their money. But more than just a media device, the Fire may also help push Amazon into the role as publishing giant. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has referred to the device as an "end-to-end service," which can only be interpreted as something that will keep them in the loop every step of the way, from the product's inception to its final destination: the customers' hands.

Of course, opinions vary on the subject, and this is just mine. But what about you? Do you think publishers will become a thing of the past? And if Amazon does manage dominate the book biz on every level, what do you think the implications of that might be?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Defining the “Normal” Crime Scene

by Tom Adair, forensic scientist and author

You often read text books comparing CSIs to archaeologists. In some ways that’s a great comparison. Like archaeologists, we examine “artifacts” left behind from human activity (crime), and endeavor to determine the events occurring at a particular location as well as something about the owner. Having my undergraduate degree in Anthropology I might appreciate these factors a little differently than other CSIs.

You see, one of the most interesting aspects of my old job was not the investigation of crime; it was the investigation of people. How they lived, what they surrounded themselves with, what they valued, and what they didn’t. When I went to a crime scene, I put on my anthropologist's hat. Getting an unvarnished behind-the-scenes look into people’s lives has a way of shattering any paradigms one has. The compass heading that once pointed towards “normal” now spins wildly in all directions.

That’s because, as the old saying goes, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In fact, new CSIs sometimes have a hard time allowing those old paradigms to die. Everyone tends to believe that other people are just like them. I’ll wager that, as authors, you’ve all written a scene, then trashed it saying “nobody would ever do that.” Am I right? After all, aside from subtle differences, we all have the same bearing on right and wrong, don’t we? Nope.

Most people assume it’s the blood and brains that must be the hardest to take as a CSI. The truth is that you come to expect finding blood and brains. What you don’t expect to find is what really plays with your mind. How people can live in abject squalor with dead pets and feces scattered around. How a father will spend all his family's income on booze and car rims while his children starve to death. How a child molester, who thinks nothing of the pain he inflicts on the innocent, can rant about the “evils” of eating meat.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is no “normal.” There’s just behavior. Now I’m not suggesting that you throw the rule book out the window and create a behavioral free-for-all with your characters. But criminals, by definition, are rule breakers. It’s a state of mind and a state of being that goes beyond the written rules of man. This condition transcends society's morals, dogma, and etiquette. Thankfully, the degree to which criminals are willing to bend these rules varies greatly, but they do vary. Extremes are still extreme, but the fact that a sliding scale exists gives you some latitude in creating characters and scenes.

Think of all those bizarre and horrifying news stories you read about abusive parents, serial rapists, and child killers. Then recognize the fact that the media only reports on a tiny portion of crimes and almost never has all the facts. These horrible acts are merely snapshots in the life of a criminal or deviant. While some of these are crimes of passion, most criminals don’t wake up one Tuesday morning and decide they’re going to shed all their family values. So the next time you find yourself rejecting a scene or character because they don’t fit your notion of “normal,” ask yourself this question: What’s “normal”?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Heightening the Suspense, Part III

by Jodie Renner, editor & author                 

In Part I of this series, I discussed the definition, elements and stages of suspense in fiction. In Part II, I listed some general, "big-picture" techniques for creating and heightening suspense in your novel. Here, in part III, you'll find some

Specific Techniques to Ratchet up the Suspense:

-      Use the setting to create anxiety and suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings, of course. Also, appeal to all senses, not just the visual… breaking glass, a dripping faucet, footsteps on the stairs, a crash in the basement, rumbling of thunder, a sudden cold draft, an animal brushing the skin in the dark, a freezing cold, blinding blizzard, a putrid smell coming from the basement…

-      Create a tense mood, with fast pacing: Thrillers and other suspense fiction generally need an ominous mood, tight writing, and breathless pacing throughout most of the novel, with “breathers” in between the tensest scenes.

-      Use compelling, vivid sensory imagery. “Show, don’t tell.” Invoke all five senses to take us right there with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening her.

-      Raise the stakes. As the author of a thriller or other crime fiction, keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the difficulties more insurmountable, we worry more and more about whether he can beat the ever-increasing odds against him, and suspense grows. And as a bonus, “Increasing pressure leads to increasing insight into the character.” (Wm. Bernhardt)

-      Add a ticking clock. Adding time pressure is another excellent way to increase suspense. Lee Child is a master at this, a great example being his thriller 61 Hours. Or how about those great MacGyver shows, where he had to devise ways to defuse the bomb before it exploded and killed all kinds of innocent people? Or the TV series, 24, with agent Jack Bauer?

-      Create obstacles and complications. The hero’s plans get thwarted; his gun jams or falls into a river during a scuffle; he’s stuck in traffic on a bridge; he’s kicked off the case; her car breaks down; her cell phone battery dies just when she needs it most; the power goes out, leaving the room in total darkness; a truck blocks the only way out of the alley… You get the picture. Think Jack Reacher, Lucy Kincaid, Elvis Cole or Stephanie Plum in any number of escapades. The character has to use inner resources to find a way around these obstacles or out of this dilemma.

-      Incapacitate your hero. Your heroine is given a drug that makes her dizzy and hallucinating; your hero breaks his leg and can’t escape or give chase; she’s bound and gagged; he’s blinded by sand in his eyes…

-      Create a critical turning point. Which way did the bad guys go? Should she open that door or not? Who to believe? Go up the stairs or down? Answer the phone or let it ring?

-      Make the ordinary seem ominous. Zoom in on an otherwise benign object, like that half-empty glass on the previously spotless kitchen counter or the fresh mud on those boots in the hallway, and imbue it with extra meaning. Who was here? When? Why?

-      Plant something out of place in a scene. Or even something just slightly off, just enough to create a niggling doubt in the mind of the reader. An address book with pages torn out, a whimpering dog, a phone off the hook, an open window, wet footprints on the entranceway floor, an overturned lamp, a half-eaten breakfast in an empty house, etc.
But of course, you can’t keep up tension nonstop, as it’s tiring for readers and will eventually numb them. You need to intersperse tense, nail-biting scenes with more leisurely, relaxed scenes that provide a bit of reprieve before the next sensory onslaught begins. 

Copyright Jodie Renner 2011
Hallie Ephron, The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel
Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Creative Bond

by L.J. Sellers, mystery & thriller author
Last fall my husband started building his seventh trike, just as I started writing the fifth book in the Detective Jackson series (and my tenth novel). Dying for Justice was released in March, just as Steve took his first ride on the new trike. Always having a creative project in the works is one of the bonding elements of our 23-year relationship. He listens while I talk about plots, publishing, and promotion, and I listen while he yaks about Type 1 Volkswagen engines, fiberglass bodies, and adjustable foot pegs. He reads my novels, and I take trike rides with him. I believe he gets the better deal, but I’m biased. Still, I think the three-wheeled motorcycles are so cool, I’ve given my main character, Detective Jackson, a trike-building hobby.

You wouldn’t think a three-wheeled motorcycle and a crime fiction novel have much in common, but the creative process is surprisingly similar. Both start with a concept, a simple idea that each of us has been thinking about and can’t wait to develop. For me, it could be a vivid opening scene or a character that sparks the whole novel. For him, it’s often a type of engine or a new way to connect the two halves of his vehicle.

Next is the planning/designing phase. The first part of this process is all mental. We both spend a couple of weeks thinking about our projects, turning them over in our minds until they began to take shape. I can look at the expression on his face and know he’s thinking about his next trike. Honey, you’re focused on your trike and haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? On the other hand, I do a lot of my brainstorming while I’m exercising. (Those endorphins help produce some great plot twists!)

Then the tangible planning takes place. For me, it means outlining. Determining and plotting, day-by-day, what happens in the story and in the investigation, then mapping it out in a Word document. For Steve, my trike builder, planning means drawings. He starts with a pencil drawing of the whole trike, then progresses to CAD versions of all the individual components, including dozens of parts for the frame alone. We each modify our plans as we go along, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

Then he starts building and I start writing. For both of us, this is the hands-on work, the joy, and how we spend the bulk of our time. We’re both happiest in the crafting phase. Of course, we have occasions when we get stuck. I’ll realize a plot element doesn’t work because of wrong timing and have to back up and revise. He’ll recognize that two components don’t fit together the way he envisioned, so he’ll stop and redesign.

But it’s just part of the process. We know from experience that we’ll work through whatever glitches we encounter. In all our years, he’s only abandoned one trike project, and I’ve only abandoned one novel. (But my agent at the time discouraged me from it, and I may finish the thing yet.)

I don’t mean to imply we’ve always worked in tandem—in fact, we’re often in different phases—but we do have a similar process and timetable. And eventually, we both end up with a finished product that we’re proud of. Some people insist that what we both do is art, but we think of our projects as crafts…and now, small businesses.

Here’s where the difference comes in. Steve sells each trike (or motorcycle) to a single individual to enjoy, and I sell my novels to thousands. But we both love what we do and can’t imagine our lives without a project in the works. Sharing a creative compulsion is a big part of what keeps our relationship healthy.

What is your creative process or hobby? Share it with us!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Telling Details

by CJ West author of Addicted To Love, released this Tuesday!

My brother loves junk. He’d tell you he works with antiques and collectibles, but my dad likes to call it junk. I’m somewhere in between. A lot of it is junk, but I see the good stuff mixed in.

Last weekend I went to the home of a woman who died after a long illness. My brother was hired to prepare the estate for sale and asked us to come over and look at some work he needed done. None of the family was there, but being curious as I am, I discovered there is much to be learned from the things we use in our daily lives. I promise there is a story here, so come along on my tour of this woman’s estate.

We pulled up to an overgrown house in an established neighborhood of small homes. I assumed the family was of average means and had been here a long time. After our time inside, the quality of the items suggested they were things any average family might have. The volume of items would almost certainly tell you the home was in America if you didn’t know. It was stuffed to bursting with every consumer item you could imagine. Not only did the clutter make maneuvering difficult, it made the puzzle of life in this house difficult to decipher. The trick then is figuring out what few items in all the clutter told the story of this family.

In the garage I learned that the woman was almost certainly married. There were five various handled tools that looked like hammers, but there wasn’t a single claw hammer of the type a carpenter or homeowner would normally use. The man of the house was certainly handy. Building materials abounded, flooring, wooden handrails, nails of every size. He owned complicated tools like a gear puller and others that I wasn’t sure of their function. But nowhere was there a wrench or a pair of pliers. Odd.

We waded through a kitchen that looked like it had been bombed. With items pulled from all the cabinets, every available space was covered with miscellaneous stuff of every size and shape. I moved away from the sensory overload into the living room where I noticed some family photographs in a plastic bag on an end table. It was then I noticed there were no framed photos around the house anywhere.

In the basement, I noticed an old safe and two large freezers, some blanks for leather belts - probably another hobby of the husband was my guess. There were also dozens of empty jewelry boxes. When I saw a box full of small plastic bags, I assumed this woman was in the business of selling jewelry. That hunch was borne out when I later discovered several empty display cases with small compartments suitable for rings or earrings.

The last thing I saw was the one that really got my wheels turning. In the garbage can by the door were several locks. The woman who owned the house had passed, so who were the new locks intended to keep out? I remembered that there had been no jewelry anywhere in the house. The pictures had been removed, ditto the everyday tools.

My scheming writer’s mind imagined a scenario where the old woman had been picked clean by her family, that she’d known what the kids were up to and left the house to the butler (I don’t really know who got the house). Maybe the kids tampered with her medicine and bumped her off only to discover they’d been written out of the will.

Whatever the truth happens to be, picking through that house was great fodder for a mystery. It also helped me think differently about the particular details I include in my work.

What will the things you leave behind say about you?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Setting Up the Right Writers Group

By Judith Yates Borger

Before I began writing mysteries I asked my experienced mystery-writer friends for advice. The best piece  of advice I got was "Be careful whose opinion you ask."

Today, seven years later, I couldn't agree more. It's the most important tool a writer has.

So, how can a writer choose her writers group? I suggest that she think through what kind of feedback she needs. For example, I'm in two writers groups each chosen for different reasons. They both meet on Tuesdays, one weekly in the morning, the other monthly in the evening.

There are four of us in the weekly morning writers group, each of us with different strengths. One member  is a picky, picky copy editor, who catches my many mistakes. If you've read my posts you know I need her. Another member uses words like a fine violinist. She feels the prose rather than reads it. She tells me when the emphasis is wrong or the pacing is off.  The third member can look at the sweep of my work and tell me when it needs a different direction or a certain character needs better development. The three of them are wonderful writers but they're not mystery writers.

The monthly evening group is comprised of three mystery writers. If they find a typo or grammatical error they circle it and move on. There's no discussion of word choice, timing or character. We three spend most of our time talking about plots. Who gets killed? When? Where? What's the protagonist's motivation? What's the best device that will put the murderer in the right place at the right time to do the deed? Is a particular plot point plausible?

The two groups also have different rules. The weekly group requires that everyone bring at least one three-sentence paragraph, but no more than eight double-spaced pages. The idea is that no matter how complicated our lives are we can all write at least one paragraph. The discipline keeps us moving ahead. We meet at a coffee shop, with free easy parking, at 11:30 a.m. sharp. If someone is late the others go on without her. The tardy one's work is considered last so if we run out of time before the 1:30 p.m. adjournment that person's work gets the least attention.

As you might expect, the monthly mystery writers group is much more relaxed. We meet in each other's homes, 7 ish and wrap up about 8:30 p.m. Snacks are served. There are no requirements on what we submit to the group and it's ok to show up with nothing. The discussion meanders as we brainstorm.

I've been in writers groups that fell apart. There were many reasons, as I recall. In one people routinely showed up late and unprepared. In another one member monopolized the discussion mostly trying to prop up her own ego. She didn't know what she was talking about. In another absenteeism for no good reason was a common theme.

Is it unusual to be in two writers groups? I don't know. Probably. But being in two makes me feel twice as accountable in my work.

What's your experience? Are you even in one? How many members do you have? How often, and where, do you meet? What is the most important rule of characteristic of your group?

Let us know, please.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pilcrow A-Go-Go

Or, How to Make Paragraphs Without Really Trying.
A prospective client wrote recently, inquiring about conversion services, sending first one manuscript, then, immediately upon its heels, a second, which, she asserted, she had “cleaned up” to get the best quote. I wasn’t quite sure if I’d seen her cleaned edition, so I asked her how I would recognize it—how I would distinguish it from the first. She replied: “the last one had most of the paragraph reversed P's removed.”
And I muttered to myself “OhMosesOnAPony, I certainly hope not.”

I debated upon naming this post, “Pilcrow, Friend or Foe,” because so many people seem to do battle with this wee symbol, not understanding its function in the hierarchal and layout kingdoms of word processors. The Pilcrow (etymology utterly unknown other than ME) means nothing more than “paragraph,” and for those of you who’ve never dared turn on “Show/Hide Formatting” in Word or its equivalents, looks like this:

...and all it means is that this mark distinguishes the end of one paragraph, and the beginning of the next. Simple, elegant...and utterly frustrating if you've never learned how to see it or use it.
How do you get to see this in your own documents? Simply select “Show/Hide” if you’re using Microsoft Word (click the pilcrow on the menu); “View->NonPrinting Characters” or CTRL-F10 in Open Office’s Writer program; and WordPerfect has always had Reveal Codes (and it’s probably still F3). Why do you want to see it? To save yourself hours of hair-pulling and frustration.
An excellent resource--and one I cribbed from shamelessly for this post--is this column on Paragraph Essentials from the Microsoft Office site: Paragraph Essentials. (Seriously: bookmark this article. I'm also recommending the two videos we show in our Tutorials and Videos section on our new Knowledgebase: Knowledgebase Here.) As the Microsoft article mentions, almost every document is in three major components: font, at the lowest level; paragraphs, at the core, and sections, at the top-most level. But what really drives the bus, for the vast majority of the document, is your paragraph, and its formatting. This is true whether you're using Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Open Office, or Bob's Big Boy Word Processor.
Why does the pilcrow matter? Because the magical thing about the pilcrow is this: it can make or break your formatting; it can drive you crazy or make your typing life easier; it's essential when you're formatting a book for e-publication…and here's something you mightn't know: it contains all the formatting instructions for the paragraph that comes before it. How many times have you carefully formatted a paragraph, (maybe a diary entry that your detective discovers!), getting it just right, just so, go galloping on, typing away on the next bits of dialogue-then change your mind about something, wallop the "back" key with all your might-and your precious, carefully-placed formatting on that previous paragraph disappears?
Yes-all too often, I know. I've had it happen to me, more times than I'd ever care to admit. And what about all the times you carefully formatted that epigraph, or dedication-but when it came out, the lines broke in weird places? The same thing happens when those selfsame paragraph marks are inadvertently placed at the end of a line-not a paragraph, but a line-invisibly, causing broken paragraphs, because without the pilcrow visible, if that line just happens to be roughly the same length as the other lines in your paragraph, you may never notice, until it's too late. But if you turn on the Pilcrow, you can see those errors before they ruin your painstaking efforts.
It'll take more than 500 words to explain everything that's important about seeing the codes inside your documents, so I'll stop now, strenuously recommending that you at least watch the "Video on Word Styles" in our Tutorials and Videos section of our Knowledgebase at (it's not really the shameless plug it seems-someone else did the videos), and next time, I'll try to explain how ignoring the pilcrow's superpowers can break your paragraphs, your document, and your spirit.

by Kimberly Hitchens ("Hitch)--founder and owner of, an ebook production company.

So-so Seventeen

Smokin' Seventeen by Janet Evanovich.

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

Stephanie Plum has been around for some time now. The first book featuring the hapless bounty hunter One for the Money, was published in June, 1994. Seventeen years later (to the month) Smokin' Seventeen was released.

Stephanie's fans (and even many of those who aren't fans)know that Stephanie can seldom apprehend an FTA (Failure To Appear) without injuring herself or the criminal. Also, she can't make it through a book without having at least one car explode.

In this book, the staff of Vincent Plum Bail Bonds are working out of a motor home because the building originally housing the business burned down. Luckily, Vinnie had worked out a deal with the owner of the neighboring bookstore so a heavy cable runs between the shop and the trailer, providing it with electricity so secretary Connie can use the computer.

Stephanie has to deal with her sometime-boyfriend Joe Morelli's grandmother giving her the evil eye (not for the first time) as well as multiple people trying to kill her, along with the usual attempts by her mother to fix her up with a nice boy.

So, business as usual. However, Stephanie's capers just don't seem as funny as they used to. Has the quality of Evanovich's writing changed, or has familiarity bred ennui?

If you read the Stephanie Plum books, what do you think?

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Pursuit of Imperfection

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

Once upon a time, a fearless little girl lived in my body. Peggy Ann dreamed little girl dreams and went after them with a sureness that startles me when I think about it today. Her parents told her she could do anything she wanted to do, and she believed them.

It took me decades to realize she'd gone missing.

When I tried to figure out where I had lost that gutsy dreamer, I understood there was probably no single defining moment. I'm pretty certain though, it had to do with failure. The successful people I saw had auras around them. Perfect auras. Anointed. They didn't fail. Ever.

I can still hear my dad's voice. "If you're going to do something, do it right." Dad encouraged my sister and I in character building almost every day of our childhoods, so when he wasn't telling us we could be anything we wanted to be, he was telling us that a half-assed approach to things was not acceptable. At some point, I morphed "right" and "perfect" and adopted the philosophy that if I couldn't be perfect at something, I shouldn't do it at all.

It became easier to let dreams fade; to turn my back on them. To walk away before I could once again be reminded I wasn't perfect. That way, I couldn't fail. Right?

Fast-forward to a new century. I will love Anne Lamott forever for telling me in Bird by Bird that I could write a "shitty first draft" and survive. But I never quite believed her—I'm a lot closer to my dad than I am to Anne. So although I had information on a logical level, it never quite made a permanent connection.

One of the tools I learned from The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is the idea of writing morning pages. They have given me direction more than once in the few short months I've been writing them. This morning I wrote my three pages almost entirely surrounding the idea that dreams are achieved by imperfect people. Say what? By people who reach out of their imperfection to touch something bigger than they are.

No one will ever be perfect. No book will ever be perfect (and between us, that still drives me a little wild), but imperfect people write perfectly wonderful imperfect books.

By people just like me. Peggy Ann.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Getting a Grip on My Heroine

by Gayle Carline
My mysteries are character driven, because that's important for me when I'm reading a book, or watching a TV show or movie. I'll forgive a Plain Jane story as long as there's an interesting person taking me along for the ride.  

That being said, I had a hard time developing my main character. I knew I wanted her to be a 50-year old woman who used to be a housecleaner and has recently gotten her private investigator's license. But I needed her to be real in my head so I could make her real to my readers. Who was she?  

I attended a workshop by Michele Scott, who suggested interviewing or journaling your characters in order to understand them. So, I called Peri and set up an appointment. If you're a writer, you understand that.  

(I'm not crazy. I'm not I'm not I'm not.) 

* * * * *

Due to our hectic schedules, Peri and I decided to meet in her office on Sunday morning. She rents a small space on the first floor of the Founders Plaza. It's sparsely furnished and decorated, but the back wall is a floor-to-ceiling window, overlooking the atrium. Peri stands up from behind her desk to greet me. She's about half a foot taller than me, with cornsilk blonde hair, and she's wearing khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt over a blue tank top that matches her eyes. She offers her hand to shake and I put a cup of coffee in it. 

Peri: (laughing) How did you know? 

GC: It's seven in the morning. Who doesn't need coffee? 

(We both sit down.) GC: Why don't you tell me a little about yourself? 

Peri: Well, I was born in Spreckles, California, which is next door to Salinas. My parents moved to California from Minnesota when they got married.  

GC: Why? 

Peri: My folks were kind of beatniks, I guess. Early hippies. They had this idea of moving to a farm community to "get back to the land." So we lived in this rented farm house on about ten acres where my dad was always trying to raise things. 

GC: What did he raise? 

Peri: My mom's blood pressure, mostly. You know that joke about the new farmer who can't raise chickens? "Either I'm burying 'em too deep or watering 'em too much." That was Dad. Good thing he figured out he couldn't do it for a living – he got a job as a banker so he could play farmer on the weekends. 

GC: And your mom? 

Peri: She was probably the true hippie. Dyed her own cloth, made clothes and sold them at the farmer's market. Rescued animals, that kind of thing. 

GC: Tell us how you got into housecleaning as a career? 

Peri: Well, it all started because my parents wanted me to go to UC Berkley and I wanted to go to UCLA, which meant I went to UCLA on my own dime. I had some scholarships, but I earned the rest of the way working for a housecleaning company. Once I got my Bachelors in English Lit, I worked for a couple of years writing ad copy, then went back to cleaning. 

GC: I heard there was a pretty interesting story about your transition back to housecleaning. 

Peri: Yeah, well, I was working for a pig of a boss for this ad agency, and I really hated it. The ad men thought grammatical errors and misspelled words are really great gimmicks for selling a product, so I had to write the accompanying copy for some really stupid slogans. One day, Pig Boss came to my desk and threw my latest write-up at me, yelling because I had tried to write something meaningful about some snack food with the slogan, "It Tastes Gooder." (Lowers her voice) "I don't want your damned two-dollar words. Write it like a five-year old with learning disabilities." 

I stood up – I was much taller than him – and said, "You want a five-year old?" I took my cup of orange juice, poured it on his head and told him, "I quit, ya big butthead." Then I stuck my tongue out at him and left. 

GC: So why the career change, to private investigation? 

Peri: I was a successful housecleaner for years. I did private residences, offices, you name it. Didn't make me rich, but I could afford to buy a little house, put food on the table. When I turned 45, I started thinking about how long I'd have to work before I could retire, and I pictured myself at 60, on my knees several times a day, scrubbing bathtubs. I'm in good health, but what if I had back or joint problems? 

My friend, Blanche, always teased me about figuring out everyone's secrets just from emptying their trash. It made me think I could make a living doing something that didn't involve bleach and rubber gloves – as a rule. 

GC: Should we talk about your love life? 

Peri: If we don't who will? (laughs) I've been dating Skip Carlton for, um, about 6 years now. He's a detective for the Placentia Police Department. 

GC: Wow, six years is a long time. 

Peri: I know what you're thinking. It's what everyone else is thinking. Six years and no marriage? Skip wants to, but I don't. I've been married three times, so for me, it's kinda "been there, done that, got the t-shirt."  

GC: So, it doesn't sound like marriage is for you?  

Peri: Not really. My first husband was in the Navy, a nice guy but we were both too young and it was probably more about the physical attraction than anything else. I tried to pick the second husband based more on what we had in common. We both liked Eric Clapton and old movies, but he also liked being a sociopath.  

GC: And the third?

Peri: Brilliant, funny, gorgeous, kind, generous. Unfortunately, a year into the marriage he figured out he's gay.  

GC: Whoa, that would have been nice to know earlier. 

Peri: Ya think? Anyway, I like the way things are now. Skip and I spend a lot of time together, but we both have our own places, so when things get too tense, we can go to our corners and cool off. 

GC: How's Skip taking this change of careers? 

Peri: Ha, speaking of things getting tense. He tries to act nonchalant, but I know it makes him nervous. Now he knows how it feels. 

GC: Now that you've been doing it for awhile, how do you like being a private eye? 

Peri: Sitting in my car with a camera sure beats schlepping garbage, although I wish people would stop beating me up and trying to shoot me. Nobody did that when I scrubbed their grout. 

* * * * *

After I had "interviewed" Peri, I wouldn't say I knew her inside and out, but I had enough of her history to be able to get inside her head and see how she handles situations. Sometimes she still surprises me, though. She acts like she doesn't like walking down dark alleys, but I suspect she enjoys the adrenaline rush.

What about you? As a writer, how do you get to know your characters? As a reader, what bugs you more - cardboard characters or too-simple plots?