Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nextel Phones and Other Annoying Things CSIs Deal With

It’s a funny thing but when I hear a Nextel phone squawk I get an instant urge to bash the little black box with a sledgehammer. Overkill? Maybe, but these feelings have been conditioned into me from years of call-outs. Some criminalists work shifts (usually days, mids, or graves) and aren’t routinely subject to call outs. They work their eight or ten hour shift and then they head home turning the baton over to the next shift. Other criminalists, like me, were on call. That means that if a crime occurs after hours you’re jolted from your sleep to schlep out into the night.

Criminals don’t keep an outlook calendar so it’s hard to predict when a call out may occur. That uncertainty can lead to a restless nights sleep. A CSI may work a 10+ hour day, go home to deal with issues around their house, and an hour after putting head to pillow that damned Nextel erupts like a screeching owl. Hence my urge. I was reminded of this the other day when visiting some former colleagues in their lab when one of their Nextels went off. I was surprised that, even after three years absence from law enforcement, those old emotions bubbled up from somewhere deep inside me.

The reasons are deeper than simply losing a well deserved night’s sleep. After all, call outs should not come as a surprise to CSIs. We know what we are signing up for and we accept the fact that we may be called out at the most inconvenient times such as holidays, birthdays, important events, and intimate moments. What erodes our morale, in part, is when the call out is for something petty or simple. Imagine getting called to respond only to place an article of clothing into an evidence bag. Something every fifth grader could do. In one case I had a patrol officer dust for prints, develop a print, place the lifting tape over the print and then called me out to lift the tape off the item because they were suddenly overcome with fear that they would damage the print if they proceeded.

I’m not bringing this up simply to complain. All law enforcement professionals have to deal with things that annoy them and CSIs are no different. I merely suggest that authors take note of these issues and incorporate them into their story lines. Authors are pretty good at incorporating the “big” conflicts law enforcement professionals deal with like getting shot at, divorce, or crashing cars. As in life though, many of our most trying moments don’t come from the one big event but from the accumulation of the little conflicts.

Think of events in your own life. You may be able to handle a blown tire, having a valid credit card denied, or accidentally knocking over a large display in the grocery store and still have a pretty good day. But stack all those things together and your mood can go from pleasant to pissed in no time at all. Little things that can annoy the criminalist include spilling an entire jar of fingerprint powder onto a victim’s nice carpet, locking your keys in a crime scene vehicle, and hearing the squawk of your Nextel at midnight! So when laying out your story consider how these “little things” might affect your character’s demeanor.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Developing Your Story Using Software Applications

by Ian Walkley, author of the action thriller, No Remorse   

Does anyone still use a typewriter or write their stories by hand? 
I’m something of a software application junkie, and if there is something out there that claims to help writers write, plot, develop characters, improve vocab or whatever, I’ve probably tried it. Pity there’s not something to help debut authors get published. 

Anyway, I thought I’d give a quick overview of some of the apps available for writers and aspiring writers. But I do want to emphasize that these applications can only ever facilitate the writer’s journey. It is the writer that must determine the story’s route, the travelers, and the destination.

Scrivener’s corkboard provides flexibility with chapter and scene structure.

While I used Microsoft Word to write my first novel, No Remorse, I’m enjoying using Scrivener to write my second. I bought it because I was getting frustrated using index cards. I would spread them out on our dining table, only to have to collate them at mealtime. I had previously tried Curio, which is great for brainstorming and mindmapping, but doesn’t offer flexible index cards, and Throughline, which has index cards but is very basic (and stopped working when I upgraded my iMac to the Lion operating system). Scrivener is a Mac application that has recently become available for Windows for only $45. It has a word processing function and allows easy restructuring of chapters, brainstorming, plot structure, character data sheets and many other great features.
For character development, I use Character Writer. It gives prompts on demographics, appearance, personality, relationships, dialogue and psychology. There is an Enneagram personality typology option, which helps with the understanding of character motivations and behaviour. My only beef is that Character Writer doesn’t automatically update the overall description when I edit one of the sub-categories.

For plot development, I’ve tried lots of different apps, including Dramatica Pro, which I had trouble understanding and seemed to limit my options. It also stopped working when I upgraded my iMac to the Lion. (I’m still cursing Apple about its Lion “downgrade”).
I also use a fairly inexpensive app designed for movie scripts, called Contour. It allows me to fit my story into a classic three-act plot structure. With about 26 plot points, Contour is useful for identifying where to place obstacles to confront the protagonist, and add plot twists.

If you’re just starting a story, you might consider Storyweaver, a program from the co-creator of Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips, which uses a series of prompts to help build the story. I haven’t used it from scratch, but I might give it a try next time.
For vocab, I have Master Writer, which offers some helpful extensions to a traditional dictionary/thesaurus, including a pop culture reference, but is a little on the expensive side for what it offers.
And finally, if you’re considering converting your story into a movie, there are two apps that will help with the screenplay layout: Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, which is the one I use.
There are, of course, many other products competing out there for the writer’s dollar, most easily searchable and most offering trial periods for free.

Of course, if your computer screen starts to make you feel like you’re Captain Kirk in Star Trek, there’s always the default—good ol’ MS Word, which is somewhat configurable and has a dictionary and thesaurus. You’ll probably end up using this to format your story into a document to send to agents and publishers, most of whom now require the manuscript to be sent by email. That pretty much rules out a typewriter or hand-written manuscript. 
These days, I can barely hand write enough to scrawl a greeting in one of my books. What I’d like to know is, how the Dickens did writers manage before computers?

Thanks to Jodie Renner, my editor, for inviting me to be a guest blogger here today.

  Ian’s debut action thriller, No Remorse, is available at http://www.amazon.com/No-Remorse-Ian-Walkley/dp/0980806607/
and will be available FREE as an ebook in a special Amazon promotion for two days only, on February 1 and 2, at the above link. 
If you don't have an e-reader, you can download the free Kindle reader for PC or iPad or phone at: 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Is Amazon Select Really The Big, Bad Wolf?

By Andrew E. Kaufman

I woke up Wednesday morning to a barrage of emails. It appeared an independent author’s sample anthology, to which I belong, was being taken down. The reason was that it violated the terms of Amazon’s new Select program (several of the authors are enrolled in it). The anthology offers excerpts from our books, and according to the exclusivity agreement, enrolled work cannot be distributed digitally elsewhere. This includes excerpts shown on websites (that's right folks, if you're a Select author and running excerpts from your book on a website or anywhere else, you may want to take them down).

Word of this sent the emails a flyin’.

Very quickly, the discussion turned hostile with lots of anger aimed at Amazon and its Select program, as well as the authors enrolled in it. Some complained that they were being punished because of the actions of a few. Others insinuated that Amazon is underhanded, manipulative, and self-serving. One person even went as far as calling them an “evil empire.” There was even talk of staging an indie author boycott of Amazon. For my part, I chose to stay out of it. I didn’t agree with much of what was being said and felt the facts were being skewed.

Now I realize I'm going to take some flack for this, but I'm having a hard time understanding all the anger directed at Amazon. I mean, let's face it--we wouldn’t even be here having this discussion if it weren’t for them. There would be no indie movement, no platform to showcase our work, no audience to read our books. Many of us would still be on the outside looking in, trying to break through those iron-clad gates, the ones kept locked up for years by the mainstream publishing industry.

Amazon helped us find our audience much more than any traditional publisher ever did. They gave us a platform, then they gave us the tools necessary to make money at it, offering an unprecedented seventy percent royalty for our books, something previously unheard of with traditional publishers. 

In short, they let us in and put the power where it belongs: with the readers. 

As for  the Select program, I don’t understand the anger there, either. Amazon isn’t forcing anyone to enter exclusive deals; they’re offering them an opportunity. The program is completely voluntary. Those who wish to enroll are free to do so; those who don’t, can go on with business as usual, selling their books wherever and however they wish. For those who do choose to go that route, they're being compensated with cash which Amazon has taken out of their own pocket.  Many authors would still jump at the chance for an exclusive deal with a publisher, and yet they're balking at the idea of doing the same thing with Amazon.

Amazon isn’t evil; it’s a business just like any other. Lest we forget, they invented the e-reader. Everyone else jumped on board after that with their own versions. Is anyone faulting them for trying to cash in on the craze? Of course not—it’s business. So what’s so wrong with Amazon trying to stay competitive in a market they created? I say, nothing.

Are they forcing a monopoly?  I doubt it. Even if Barnes & Noble goes under, the Nook will likely live on under another name, and there is this other company called Apple, who, when I last checked, is getting ready to launch their own digital publishing platform. And I'd say they have the muscle to be a formidable competitor.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Why I Love Conventions

By C.J. West

Last weekend I visited the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Dallas as a volunteer for Mystery Day, several panel presentations by current mystery writers. This morning I was thinking about how energized I am when I come away from these meetings and wondered why.

For those of you who’ve never been to an ALA meeting, the exhibit floor displays everything from books, to furniture, to technology, hundreds of booths with hi tech displays offer anything you’d need to open a library save the bricks, mortar and plumbing. Major publishers display thousands of books, but very few authors have a presence. If you’re an author and you rent a booth at one of these shows, be prepared to give away lots of books. Publishers come with cases of them and offer them free by the hundreds.

My focus for the day was a room in the back corner, arranged with a stage and about 50 chairs for panel discussions.

You’d think I’d be tired of listening to panels by now. A few years ago I started going to conventions to meet people in the business. I was always that kid in school who followed the rules, so when I started attending conventions, I sat in the audience for panels, lots of panels. That's what's on the schedule during the day, so that's what I did. I’ve listened in on some great conversations and I’ve seen more than a few fall flat.

The success of a panel in my eyes comes down to two factors. A panel needs either a rock star or a fantastic moderator. A rock star needs no explanation. Certain writers like Tim Hallinan, Dennis Lehane, or Charlaine Harris can carry a panel no matter who is asking the questions. The only thing that can spoil a panel with a rock star is a newbie who hogs the conversation.

Absent a rock star, a moderator makes or breaks the panel. The irony is that the moderator does the most work by far and receives almost no credit whatsoever. Anyone can ask:

“What’s your writing process? Or schedule? Or office space?”

“Why is (insert main character name here) fun to write?”

“How much research do you do?”

Blah. Blah. Blah. Heard it all before.

I admit if you’ve never heard an author panel before, the answers would be interesting. After 50 times, not so much. 

I was really impressed at last year’s Bouchercon by the job Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik did coming up with unique ideas for panels. They helped the moderators and authors put on a brilliant show. A great panelist can also make a panel fun. JoAnna Slan told a story about a dead armadillo that she turned into a table lamp. I’d heard the story. I knew she was going to tell it. I still couldn’t help laughing.

But not every panel can have an armadillo-turned-table-lamp story. Even if it could, it’s important to have someone driving the ship on an interesting course the rest of the time.

A great moderator takes a topic and gives the writers fodder for thought. The discussion gets the writers to share great ideas about their latest book, the writing life, and society in general. It’s these ideas that inspire me when I get back to my desk.

So tell me, do you notice moderators ? Who’s your favorite?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Research, or Where I find My Ideas

A guest post by Kit Sloane.

When I decided to make my female protagonist a feature film editor, I had no idea what this would mean to me, research-wise. I’m lucky that my daughter (and cover artist for all 9 books, through 3-different publishers) is part of this Hollywood business as an art director and production designer. Thanks to her, I’ve been able to learn some of the complexities of film production. I’ve met people who work in this fascinating field, as well as gone to location shoots and watched, but mostly, I’ve listened.

At the time it just seemed a neat idea to have Margot O’Banion, this shy, wall flower type personality, involved in mysteries. As time has gone on, she’s become romantically involved with a distinctly UN-shy writer/director, my co-protagonist Max, and they have had adventures in Guatemala, Panama, the UK, and, of course, the wilds of California—all places I’ve been and were colorful enough to make me itch to include them in a story. Like the “Golden Ladies” of British mysteries, location is another character in my books. One terrific, unintended, consequence of this choice for my character’s profession was that I could place my stories anywhere in the world. Film people travel!

When we think of a movie we usually look first to who’s starring in it or, maybe, who is directing. But behind the finished product, there are weeks, sometimes months and months of pre-production. It takes hundreds of different people to get a movie made. These people are all highly trained and their fields range from electrician to construction to designer to makeup artists to writer and director. Each facet is distinct. Each person on every crew is working toward one thing, a completed movie.

Needless to say, these are highly sought after jobs. Networking is used extensively. If you have a poor working reputation, word quickly gets out. Good, efficient, on time workers reap the rewards. Competitive? Ohmygoodness. Many of these crews have dozens of “interns” lined up just hoping to help, ignoring the 17-hr. workdays. Unpaid, of course. All of them hoping for the experience of making a movie to put on their resum├ęs. 

So when I’m visiting on soundstages or on location. I cruise the sidelines and stay out of everyone’s way. I have managed NOT to trip over miles of cable spread over the floors or knock over any of the horribly expensive lights. So far, so good!As I mentioned, I’ve found nearly all my ideas from listening to these busy people. From “First you’ve gotta have the money,” the basis for Location, Location, to the sentence that struck a chord for my new one, Close-Up.

A year ago my daughter, the production designer, was working on a commercial shoot for a very fancy product with a very fancy fashion photographer. I lurked. Positioning myself near the cameras, the TV monitors, and the director, I stayed in the shadows and waited. The sets, of course, are brilliantly lit, but the shadows that surround them are dark and perfect for eavesdropping…

As we all stood there, watching the set being completed, the diva makeup artist ran up to the director/photographer and said, “Ohmygawd! I couldn’t make her up. She came in already done.”

The director/photographer never took his eyes off the lighted set in front of him and replied, “I know. It’s Jenny’s work. I recognized the eyebrows.”

The eyebrows. That just struck me how utterly detail-oriented these professionals are. And what a lovely clue for a story. The eyebrows.

So I wrote Close-Up about the ins and outs of trying to get 15-more minutes of fame for a group of “mature” actors, 75,000 words all from a spark fanned by that one remark.

I think that reading my standalone series is like eavesdropping. The reader is behind the scenes, grappling with the tensions and anxieties of a high powered business. The fact that sometimes even the most intelligent people make some really poor decisions plays right into a suspenseful mystery.

So if you like inside stories with colorful characters in interesting locations, give the series a whirl. Don’t be like that NY editor who once told my agent, “Who really wants to know about Hollywood, anyway?” I often think of her during the Academy Awards show!


A graduate in Art History from Mills College, Oakland, California, Kit has published short stories and many articles on the art of writing and the writing business. She served as first fiction editor for Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. She especially enjoys lecturing about the writing world and mentoring new writers. A long time member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Mystery Women of the UK, she was named one of Mills College’s Literary Women in 2007. Kit and her professor husband live on a small hilltop horse ranch in Northern California's sublime wine country.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

WTF? -- Why That Font?

By:  Kimberly Hitchens is the founder and owner of Booknook.biz, an ebook production company that has produced books for over 500 authors and imprints. 

Ooooooh, my pretty!  My PWECIOUS!!!

And so the horror begins...the moment when an author decides that s/he is going to use one of the gorgeous fonts "freely" (pay attention, now) available to him/her on their computer...whether it's in Apple's "Font Suitcase" or in Microsoft Office's Word program (or any of the other various and sundry word-processing programs).    And so--as is the case in a manuscript (for both print and digital conversion) that I received today, I have an author using not one, but three copyrighted fonts, those being AR Julian, (a Times New Roman look-alike), Copperplate Gothic Bold and my personal favorite, "Final Draft Courier," which isn't merely a copyrighted font, but it's a copyrighted font inside a copyrighted piece of software (just like the others).  OH--I nearly forgot--and Calibri, (a fourth!) another perennial authorial favorite and, yes, you guessed it, licensed-to-Microsoft, not you, font. 

When I tell authors that they have to either license those fonts, or find Open Source alternatives, I'm always regaled with vituperative hate mail or angry phone calls, as if I'm trying to torture the writers, or make them jump through hoops for my own amusement. 

I'm Not. 

What I am trying to do, however, is to protect the intellectual property of someone else--the font designer.  Moreover, I'm trying to protect the author from getting a cease-and-desist letter, at best; or a demand for royalties/licensing fees, at worst, from the original licensor of the font.  Just as I wouldn't give away the copyrighted property of our authors, I won't knowingly use a font that's been licensed by Microsoft (or Apple) for your personal use only--not for redistribution, which is "for sale," which means:  use in a book, print or otherwise, being sold. 

How do you know if a font is copyrighted?  One easy way is to cruise Fonts.com, or Whatdafont.com, and give Free-fonts-ttf.com a try; but the safe bet, given US law, is that if you can't explicitly determine that the use of a font is free (or Public Domain or Open Source) is that it is copyrighted.  In the US, just like your book, the font is copyrighted upon creation.  Just like your book, it can't be used (sold) without express permission.  A quick check on the fonts mentioned above shows that AR Julian seems to be MIA (Missing in Action)--so I've  told my client to find a substitute.  Copperplate Gothic is a $200+ font package; (a sans-serif font with some serif overtones, in all caps) he can license it or find a really undetectable substitute on FontSquirrel. 

Our friend Calibri can be licensed for a mere $35; but "Final Draft Courier" is in the wind--and given that Courier has been in the Public Domain for my lifetime, I'd recommend to the client that he just use a basic Courier font. 

So, remember:  The Best Fonts in Life Are Free.  ;-)

But--what does "free" really mean?  "Free," in Open-Source terms, means "freely copyable, useable and changeable," not necessarily "free of ANY cost."  Many, if not all, "open source" fonts have either small licensing fees, or require credit lines in your books.  Don't confuse the Darknet--pirated works--with Open Source, and don't assume that Open Source means FREE of any licensing fees.  Any time you pay for Creative Commons or Open Source (or even Public Domain) "stuff" you're paying for something else:  bundling, delivery, maintenance, etc.  The  content itself is free (France uses the term, "libre" for this type of usage, which is, as Our Man in Oahu, Rick, pointed out, a nice cross-lingual pun.  I should in fairness tell you that he wrote most of the last two paragraphs.)

So, distinguish the difference like the Open Source guys do, and remember this when picking your fonts:  

Free as in speech, not Free as in beer. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Family Matters

City of Whispers by Marcia Muller.

A review by Marlyn Beebe.

It's hard to believe that City of Whispers is Marcia Mullers 29th Sharon McCone novel. It seems like just yesterday I was reading the wonderfully entitled Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first in the series, published in 1977.

Generally considered to be the first modern female private investigator, Sharon has (unlike some other long-running series characters) grown and changed with time. She has a successful marriage, a successful business, and an ever-growing family. Having learned that she was adopted as an infant, Sharon found her birth parents, both of whom are Native Americans.

In City of Whispers, Sharon receives an email from her half-brother Darcy from an internet cafe in San Francisco. Informed by her mother that Darcy, who has continuing drug and mental issues, has never been in SF before, Sharon mounts a search with the help of her nephew, tech-wizard Mick. The pursuit of Darcy becomes much more complicated than Sharon expects, involving some of the city's wealthiest families.

At the beginning of the series, the story was told in the first person, from Sharon's point of view. Here, Muller includes some chapters written from Mick's and Darcy's viewpoint (though not in the first person) allowing the reader to view the same incidents through several pairs of eyes, as well as to experience things that Sharon does not.

Of course, opinions are divided as to whether or not Sharon's gorwth has been positive or negative. Some readers complain that too much of the action now takes place inside Sharon's head, that too much of the action is external, that it's wonderful to see Sharon happy in a stable relationship, that her husband is a cloying character. She might as well be a real person.

Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for providing me an e-book to review.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From Crabwalk to Cakewalk

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

I didn't walk when the calendar said I should walk.

Other children my age, and younger, were doing the stumble-step baby thing garnering oohs and aahs, cheers and applause. Not me. Mothers were comparing their offspring's talented developments with pride, and not a little bit of competition. Not mine.

My mother took me to our doctor, certain he would discover something horribly wrong with me. After all, not only was I not walking, I hadn't crawled like other children. Apparently I had this crablike move that managed to get me from Point A to Point B quite nice, thank you very much.

Assured that she had a healthy child, my mom braved out my lack of progress the best she could. I sort of think she minimized her embarrassment by keeping me home alone most of the time, which may explain why I never became a social butterfly.

One day, I got up on my feet and decided to walk. That very same day, I ran. Even though I'm sure the relief she felt about the fact that she wouldn't have a seven year-old who maneuvered around on all fours while moving backward and looking at the ceiling was profound, I'm sure she had days when she wished I couldn't get in to as much trouble.

Earlier this month, I turned 57. (Had to do the math to come up with that one.) I'm hoping to have my first manuscript published in early April for my mom's birthday. She's not with us physically any longer, but she still inspires. And I'm pretty sure I'll hear a few oohs and aahs, cheers and applause from her direction.

We all get there in just the right time, I'm convinced.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The facts about my fiction

By Gayle Carline

When I look around at the writers in this blog, I am impressed by their professionalism and dedication to their writing. They do their homework, research carefully, and craft books that tell exciting stories in the most authentic way possible.

They make me feel puny in comparison.

When I was writing Freezer Burn, I turned to my cop friends for advice and opinions, which they were happy to provide. As I wrote my outline, I kept notes on what I needed to know. For example, could I go down to the Coroner's Office and interview anyone? My protagonist's BFF is an assistant coroner, so I might want to have a scene there.

And I should at least visit my local Placentia Police Department. It's in the courtyard with City Hall and the Library, so I've walked past their door a bunch of times, but never even wandered in.

While I mulled all this over, I was reading Joe Konrath's blog, or maybe it was his discussion group, and someone asked him how he got access to the Chicago police department in order to write his Lt. Jack Daniels series. His answer floored me.

"I make it all up."

Butbutbut - his scenes seem so real. I can see the police station and Jack's office and feel the bad ventilation and smell the staleness of the old building and…

So I made two decisions:

1. I was not going to get cozy with the PPD. For one thing, I didn't want any of the police officers to point to a character in the book and ask if that was them. It probably wouldn't be, since I don't write that way, and it would just be awkward. For another thing, I was afraid, if I tried to make the book too realistic and got one pencil holder out of place, there'd be someone to call me on it. Better to just imagine what it looks like and claim ignorance.

2. I was not going to try to tour the Coroner's Office. I just wouldn't set any scenes there.

I still consulted my friends, and even emailed D.P. Lyle about some forensic details, but mostly I went on my merry way, just like Joe, making stuff up.

The results were interesting. One of my friends questioned every move my fictional police did, claiming they would not have done it that way in real life. One of my friends said they had gone on patrol with their local police and they were surprised at how realistic I had made everything look. That surprised me.

One of my friends thought I painted the police in a very bad light, which alarmed me since that was NOT my intent at all. I tried to show them as professional, thorough, and process-driven, but often without resources to take things as far as one stubborn private investigator who is being paid to do nothing but solve this case.

I guess people can read the same words and still understand them differently.

Sometimes I want to walk down LJ's path and interview cops and go to crime-and-forensic seminars and be able to write more police procedurally. Then I would be a serious writer.

But who am I kidding? While I'm writing my stories, I picture them as a TV show, specifically on USA, where characters are welcome (if you ask them). Show of hands: who think Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, etc, could ever happen in real life?

(You, in the back, we need to talk.)

Last Sunday, I went to our monthly Sisters in Crime meeting (the Orange County chapter, for those of you who are mildly interested) and heard a wonderful presentation by Gary Bale, a former investigative homicide specialist, about the differences between reality forensics and TV forensics.

As we talked about the role forensics plays in current mystery books, one of the members said that if you are going to write a mystery set any time after 1990, you must include forensic science. It is used to solve cases nowadays, so the old Sherlock Holmes Deductive Theory solutions wouldn't work.

Another member said it's probably why she tends to like historical fiction better, because she really doesn't like a lot of procedure and forensic description in her mysteries as a reader. She just wants a good story.

I've long thought there are two camps of readers: those who want their entertainment as close to the facts as possible, and those who will accept an entertaining fictional world, whether it's fantasy, history, or yesterday.

You can find my tent in the fictional camp. You can't miss it - it's really big.

What camp are you in?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

And so it Begins...

 By Andrew E. Kaufman

This is a weird phase in my novel-writing career. I now have two books under my belt. It’s exciting. It’s invigorating. Feels like I’m on my way to being semi-prolific.

But it also feels a little strange. I’ve gone from putting the final polish on one book, to once again, staring at a blank page. Kind of like going from a beautifully sculpted statue to a formless lump of wet clay. I have some idea of what I want it to look like, but not a clue yet how to go about getting it there.

One step forward, two steps back? Well, yeah, sort of.

Since it’s only my third novel, I don't think I'm at the point where I find this part of the process exciting. Don't know if I ever will. Many do—they see the endless possibilities before them, new worlds yet to be imagined. They reach into their vast Bag of Ideas filled with stories waiting to be told, then with a flourish, pull one out. Not me. I don’t even have an idea bag; all I have is lots of anxiety.

I do my best in a structured environment, so finding my story, plotting the elements, then knitting them into a finely woven tale is always my biggest challenge. I spend a lot of time at this stage staring at walls with a blank expression on my face and equally blank thoughts running through my mind. I cuss a lot, play lots of word games on my computer, chew my fingernails, and cuss some more.

Then there are the false starts: times when I think I have it, only to realize that I don’t. I pitch the once-promising, now-disappointing manuscripts into recycle bin, start all over again. Cuss some more. This can happen anywhere from six to eight times.

In the beginning, I used to fret a lot, wondering if I could do this, and even worse, why I do this. But with experience comes a degree of confidence. Now I sit back and trust the process, knowing that things will eventually fall into place if I let them. I’ve learned to squash the nay-saying demons within, the ones who try and tell me that the first two novels were just flukes, that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, that I will fail.

The good news, I suppose, is that I’m not alone. Other authors tell me this is normal, that they too go through the same experience. There’s comfort in that, knowing I’m not alone, but also, there’s a degree of sadness, too; it makes me realize that after I finish this one, the process will rear its ugly head once again.

But for now, I've managed to triumph, once again. 
Over the weekend I found my story, and once again I’m on my way, busy at work on my third novel. The lump of clay is taking shape.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Forensic Evidence of Motive, Means, and Opportunity

As crime writers, most of you are familiar with the concepts of motive, means, and opportunity as they pertain to developing suspects. Detectives often establish these facts through interviews and statements gathered during the course of an investigation. Statements like Brad hated Jessica for leaving him (motive) or Brad owns a gun (means) can carry a lot of weight. Detectives may also rely on certain documents like dining, bank, or gas receipts to place a person in a given location at a given time (opportunity).

But what about evidence at the actual crime scene? Detectives may not always have witnesses to talk to. Witnesses also lie. Sometimes the victim's identity is unknown. Some victims are very private and don't share a lot of information about their lives with friends and family (assuming they have either) so an evaluation of the evidence at the crime scene could be crucial in determining a number of things including;
  1. Is this a crime of premeditation or opportunity?
  2. Does the suspect know the victim?
  3. Could the suspect have physically committed the act?
If CSIs don't know why the crime was committed they might go off in the wrong direction chasing leads that won't pan out. Coincidentally writers must consider these factors as well if they want their fictional crime to make "sense". Authors and CSIs however, approach motive, means, and opportunity from opposite ends of reason. The CSI attempts to discern these things from the evidence left at the crime scene whereas an author begins with the condition and attempts to fashion the "evidence" to demonstrate it.

As an author I always begin by asking myself "what is the motive?" There are a number of categories to choose from including jealousy, revenge, profit, or to conceal another crime. Once that is decided I then try to figure out the best way to demonstrate that to the reader. How do you "show" jealousy through physical evidence? A torn photograph perhaps? A stack of surveillance photographs? A box of love letters; each one more desperate and rambling than the last? If you want to add a twist then select evidence that could be interpreted in different ways. A love letter torn to sheds may not tell you who shredded it. Was it the jealous lover or the spouse?

Showing means is a bit more straightforward. Does the suspect have the ability or capacity to commit the crime? This will depend on the conditions at the crime scene. An adult male of reasonable physical strength could beat a victim with a baseball bat. But what about an elderly woman? Could a man you describe as a "linebacker" fit through a doggie door? Would a stranger have the security code for an alarm system? Would the reader believe that a suspect who doesn't own a car could elude the police in a car chase? These are all things to consider when laying a foundation for your characters.

Opportunity is usually a matter of keeping your time line straight. What kinds of physical evidence do police rely upon when considering opportunity? Receipts, surveillance video, text messages, toll charges, can all be good choices but they all depend upon one critical element; the correct time. How can you tell from a surveillance photo if the clock on the wall is showing the correct time or has dead batteries? Date/time stamps can be off by minutes, hours, days, even years. Police can account for this discrepancy by noting the time they collect the evidence or inspect the device but what if they forget? What if it was purposely altered? A surveillance video showing your suspect in the area of the crime might seem like great evidence until a forensic expert determines the shadows in the video are from the morning and not the afternoon when the crime was committed.

So as you are developing your story ask yourself "How do I show motive, means, and opportunity"? The evidence may be straightforward or it may have dual meanings. I find that people typically express themselves clearly. Sometimes it is a matter of eliminating all of the other possibilities. A photograph of a woman with a knife through it can only be interpreted so many ways right? These types of clues help keep the reader engaged and invested in the story. Whatever you choose to express yourself make sure that each of these issues is eventually addressed for the reader. If you don't...they'll surely let you know.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Show Those Feelings — and Reactions!

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, & speaker        

One of the main reasons I put down a book is because it seems flat to me, the characters cardboard cutouts, the protagonist bland, bored and boring, or even cold and unfeeling. If the characters don’t seem to care about others or react to what’s happening to them, why should I?

Most fiction is character-driven, and to get into the story, we need to be able to identify closely with the protagonist. And we won’t do that unless they have some warmth and determination and hopes and dreams and insecurities and fears – and react to things! Then we feel and react too, along with them, and start to worry about them and cheer for their small victories. Once you have your readers fretting about your hero and rooting for him, they’re hooked.

As Jack M. Bickham says, “Fiction characters who only think are dead. It is in their feelings that the readers will understand them, sympathize with them, and care about their plight.”

So bring your characters to life by showing their deepest fears, worries, frustrations, hopes and jubilations. If readers see your hero pumped, scared, angry or worried, they’ll feel that way, too. And a reader who is feeling strong emotions is a reader who is turning the pages.

Jessica Page Morrell tells us that in fiction, the writer’s main responsibility is to “make the readers care; that is, bring us to tears or outrage or heart-thumping worry. Stories with emotional power engage the reader’s intellect, senses, and emotions as he sees and hears the unfolding action.”

Donald Maass wrote a whole book, The Fire in Fiction, dedicated to putting passion into your writing. In discussing your opening, he says, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like in a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?”

He continues, “Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately.”

And emotions take the reader into your story world, too. As Maass says, "It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story's characters experience it." 

So always take time to show the characters’ feelings, thoughts and reactions to what’s happening around them. Don’t let a stimulus go without a response, an action without a reaction. And as your characters respond, so do your readers.

But don’t go overboard with it — you don’t want your protagonist to come across as gushing or hysterical or neurotic. It’s important to strike a balance so the readers want to relate to and empathize with your main character, not get annoyed or disgusted with her and quit reading.
As Morrell says, “Emotions also help propel a story forward, but it’s not easy to strike the exact balance of emotions in each scene. No emotions on the page, no emotions in the reader.” BUT “Melodrama on the page and you inspire indifference in the reader.”

She continues, “Beginning writers often fall into the trap of overdoing with shrillness or silliness. Their characters have hair-trigger tempers and are forever howling in fury, throwing tantrums, and issuing ultimatums. On the flip side, sometimes beginners pen a sob story of misty-eyed sentiments or a way-too-cheerful and saccharine, gee-whillikers tale.”

But you don’t want to have a story that leaves readers “feeling nothing besides shades of boredom.” So how do we strike that balance? How do we as writers find the emotions to bring our characters to life, but also find a happy medium between flat, emotionless characters that bore us and hysterical drama queens that make us cringe?

Morrell advises, “Since emotions are embedded in the human condition, you need to find a way to portray jealousy, betrayal, grief, misery, rage – the whole gamut of strong emotions – with nuance yet believability.” Friends, beta readers and critique groups can be an invaluable help with this.

Jack M. Bickham advises us to consider how we’ve felt in similar circumstances, then over-write first, and revise down later. “I would much prefer to see you write too much of feeling in your first draft; you can always tone it down a bit later…. On the other hand, a sterile, chill, emotionless story, filled with robot people, will never be accepted by any reader.” He counsels writers to “avoid the impulse to play safe.”

In Part II of this article, we’ll discuss specific techniques on finding those emotions and striking a balance between showing too little and too much emotion.

Do you have any techniques for bringing out your characters’ reactions and feelings? And for ensuring that you don’t go off the deep end with it?

Resources: Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes; Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction; Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us.

For more info, see "Appeal to the Senses -- and Emotions!" Jan. 10, 2012

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The End of Bookmarks?

By L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers

I was packaging a book for my editor and realized I only had one bookmark left. I wrote on my to-do list: Order more bookmarks? The fact that I put a question mark after the notation indicates just how much this industry has changed. Even a year ago, having bookmarks on hand seemed essential. I would have never let myself even run low, let alone run out completely. Yet now, I’m not sure I should spend money to buy more.

In the past, many of my bookmarks went out with books I mailed—review copies, contest winners, gifts—or with books I sold at events such as the Holiday Market and at book signings. I've also given away hundreds at conferences like Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime and at literary events in Portland, like the Library Association’s annual meeting.

But I send out fewer print books with every new release. I recently published Liars, Cheaters & Thieves and only sent out seven review copies in print. Two years ago, I would have sent thirty. But I no longer waste money mailing books to organizations that have never reviewed my work. I used to think it was worth the $8 each ($5 for the book, $3 for mailing), in the off chance that I might get a national print review. Now I don’t bother. And most of my regular reviewers want digital copies instead.

I also used to drop off bookmarks at our Borders store every two weeks, but we all know what happened to that.

In addition, I’m attending fewer conferences and events. For example, I no longer drive to Portland (five hours on the road) to sit at a table in the Willamette Writers booth for two hours passing out bookmarks. It’s simply not worth it. (Driving and sitting in bad chairs are very hard on my knee.) And I did my last bookstore event in late 2009 (seven hours on the road!). Last year, the only conference I attended was Left Coast Crime, and that will likely be true again this year.

Don’t get me wrong. I love conferences! I love meeting people and hanging out with my writer/reader friends. But conferences are expensive, and travel out of Eugene is a royal pain. To get to Bouchercon, I have to take three flights, and each descent makes me physically ill. I can’t justify the financial or physical costs anymore. And people at conferences are not picking up bookmarks like they used to.

If I buy bookmarks, what am I going to do with them? Most of my readers purchase ebooks and have no use for bookmarks any more. Yet I can’t stand the idea of not having any, because I also pass them out to people I meet instead of handing them a business card.

So I've decided to buy a few. But this time, I’ll order 200 instead of 2,000. And it will likely be the last time I purchase bookmarks—another staple of the industry disappearing.

It makes me a little sad. What about you? Do you still use bookmarks?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Have B&N Execs Gone Mad?

By CJ West

Last week Barnes and Noble issued a press release including results for the holiday sales season and an announcement that they are seeking to spin off the Nook business. Store sales rose 2.5% and digital content sales rose 113%. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this business is headed. So why is B&N getting ready to spin off the most strategic portion of their business?

The NY Times applauded B&N for the inroads they have made competing against Amazon for a share of the digital book market. They report that B&N has captured 30% of the digital book market and is seeking outside investment to help them compete against Amazon.

I agree with the Times that B&N has its hands full fighting Amazon and that it is good for the business to have another big player in the e-book market, so for the market as a whole, I think the B&N move is a good thing. Amazon has a history of flexing its muscle with publishers and authors. The KDP Select program, where Amazon asks for an exclusive on digital content in exchange for the opportunity to offer a book free to Kindle users, is certainly heavy handed if not anti-competitive.

The problem I see for B&N execs comes in once the two groups are split. B&N has invested heavily in the Nook and when future results begin coming in and there is strong growth in the Nook business and a steady decline (or modest growth) in the brick & mortar outlets, B&N will be forced to make another series of investment or cost-cutting choices and it is the brick & mortar outlets that will suffer.

We haven’t yet felt the long term impact of all those shiny e-readers given as gifts this Christmas—not to mention the many authors and bloggers giving e-readers as prizes—but you can bet those new users have already downloaded millions of e-books in the last two and a half weeks. When the weather gets warmer, those proud digital book owners will be out in parks and on beaches and they’ll become e-reader evangelists like the generations of Kindle owners before them.

To me this move looks like the beginning of the end for B&N stores.  Digital Book World reports that B&N continues to lose money online and off.  It may take 7 or 8 years for financial pressure to force stores to start closing, but B&N can’t overcome the economic disadvantage of selling a mass produced product at a cost higher than its most significant competitor.

Not only does it cost more to stock a book on store shelves, but in-store book buyers have little information to help them choose books. Online customers can click through scores of reviews and ratings, but giving in-store customers access to this information also lets them see how much more they are paying for the convenience of buying a physical book off the shelf.

It seems the only concrete competitive advantage stores have is the physical space to bring people together and I see only a few true indies making the most of that advantage.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the years to come. I for one am glad that my future doesn’t rest on the success of stories printed on paper.