Tuesday, December 30, 2008

One Crazy Day in the Life of a Novelist

As I looked back on this year, I found this guest blog, which sums up the highs, lows, and strange encounters a novelist can experience in one day.

9:42 am: As I write page 162, I realize that an entire investigative thread in my new novel is not quite logical. And there’s no way to massage it or spin it. So I go back to the beginning and try to pick out and rewrite every reference to this line of inquiry. Did I get them all? Or did I leave a little silver of foreign material that will pop up and irritate readers? Now I have doubts about other plot threads. So I decide to print out all 162 pages and read through them before continuing to write the story. How many trees have I killed in my career as a writer and editor?

12:29 am: Another writer posts on my Facebook page, “Congrats on the review in Mystery Scene. ‘A thrilling, eye-opening read.’” I am excited. I haven’t seen this review, and it will make a great blurb. I search Mystery Scene’s webpage, but I can’t find the review and I don’t have a copy of the magazine. So everyone in mystery world knows what this review says, except me. I worry that the one line I know about may be the only positive thing the reviewer said.

3:10 pm: After months of waiting, my beta reader sends an e-mail with her feedback on the first 50 pages of my new story, Secrets to Die For. After commenting, “This is a very worthy story, a page-turner with great potential,” she says, “Try to SHOW rather than TELL.” Aaaghhhhh! I like to think that I live by this ubiquitous writing rule. But now I wonder: Do I even know what I’m doing?

6:17 pm: After months of waiting, the book trailer for my recently published novel, The Sex Club, arrives via e-mail. I excitedly click open the file, ready to be thrilled and amazed. But no, the trailer is weird and confusing. The girl in the last scene is at least 20, dark-haired, and kind of heavy. She doesn’t even look dead. The victim in my novel is 14 and blond and thin and very dead. I show the trailer to my husband. He hates almost everything about it and cannot stop talking about how much he dislikes it. I am crushed. I spent the last of my promotional money on the trailer, and I counted on it selling a few books. Now I have to compose an e-mail that diplomatically says, “Start over.” It takes an hour that I don’t have. (New and improved trailer is viewable at the bottom of this page.)

9:05 pm: I receive an e-mail from a mystery book club leader named Ruth Greiner, who apparently does have a copy of the Mystery Scene review and says she’ll never read The Sex Club no matter how great all the reviews are. She does not say why, and she does not have to. Just seeing her name horrified me. The antagonist in The Sex Club is a very nasty woman and her name is Ruth Greiner. How was I to know? Now I have to write an e-mail that explains how I chose the name—Ruth is Biblical and strong, Greiner is the name of a street in my old neighborhood. I also try to carefully express my concern for her feelings, without admitting any liability. I offer to send her a free copy of my next novel, then feel lame about it.

10:16 pm: Yet another fun-filled e-mail arrives. This one is from a local author whom I met at a book fair and exchanged novels with. He says he’s quite sure he’ll find a publisher for his new novel and wants to know if I’ll read his book and write a blurb for the front cover. This is the first time anyone has asked me for a blurb, and I’d like to be excited. I’m flattered that he thinks I have any clout. But I didn’t get past the first page of his first novel (which started with a rectal search by a large German woman), and this one, he says, is much more sexually explicit. How do I get so lucky? Oh yeah, I wrote a novel called The Sex Club, so he must think I’m a sex fiend. (It’s a mystery/thriller, really!) I spend 20 minutes composing an e-mail, then delete it, thinking I'll deal with it tomorrow.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sex Sells—Or Does It?

Sex sells. That’s what marketers always say. And it seems to be true for tight-fitting jeans and toothpaste. But it is true in crime fiction? In my experience—not necessarily.

Some of the best reviews I received for my novel, The Sex Club, started out with a disclaimer like this: “I didn’t think I would like this book, but . . .” The readers/reviewers went on to say that the title (and sometimes the cover) had originally turned them away, but that they’d read it because another reader raved about it. They ended up loving the story, but still, their initial aversion concerned me. So I asked members of Dorothly L (a mystery discussion forum) what they thought about the title. Many said they would never pick up the novel in a bookstore or library because of the title.

So then I wondered: How many bookstores and libraries had decided not to stock my novel because of the title? From the comments of a few, I believe there might be many. After realizing this painful reality, I started adding this footnote to all my communications about the novel: “Despite the title, the story isn’t X-rated.”

It is not a good sign when you have to explain or make excuses for your title.

On the other hand, many writers on the CrimeSpace and Facebook networking sites have posted great comments about The Sex Club’s cover and title. One writer posted, “Judging by the title, that’s a book I HAVE to read RIGHT NOW.” Many others have simply said, “Love the cover!”

During a discussion with writers about the word sex in a crime fiction title, the reaction was also mixed. One writer said, “If sex is in the title, isn’t that a lot of emphasis, leading the buyer to think the book might be in the wrong section of the bookstore?” A quick search of Amazon brought up only one other mystery title with the word sex —Sex and Murder (A Paul Turner Mystery). But at least that author was smart enough to get the word murder in the title too.

My conclusions: 1) If I had it to do all over again, I’d change the name, 2) Bookstores and libraries are critical to sales, and authors can’t afford to alienate them or their patrons, 3) Mystery readers prefer dead bodies to warm ones.

What's your reaction? Do you shy away from books with sex in the title? Do you mind a little sex in your mysteries or do prefer that the characters stay on task?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Power of K

I originally posted this blog on BookBitch about eight months ago, but yesterday I read a manuscript that had eight or more characters whose names started with K. So I realized it was worth posting again.

Marketers and comedians have long taken advantage of the powerful K sound. The K sound is especially emphatic at the end of word, which is why Jack and f**k are both so fun to say. Can you think of a comedian who can get through his/her material with saying f**k or jerk or some variation of jack (jackoff, jackass, jackshit)?

Crime writers (maybe all writers) love the K sound too, they just may not realize it. Think about the name Jack for protagonists. Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jack Keller, Jack Taylor, Jack Davis, Jack Carpenter, Jack Irish, and Jack Palms to name just a few. Then there’s Taylor Jackson and my own Detective Wade Jackson. Not to mention the Jakes (Jake Riley, Jake Riordan, Jake McRoyan, and more).

The X sound is really K with a little S on the end, so Alex is almost as popular with crime writers: Alex Cooper, Alex Cross, Alex Archer, Alex Delaware, Alex Duarte, Alex Bernier. And Cooper and Cross are both pronounced with the K sound. Then there’s Kinsey Milhone and Greg McKenzie, which has a trifecta of winning sounds: the double K sound and the popular Z. Marketers like Z almost as well as K.

There’s plenty of K sounds in other protags too: Lincoln Perry, Lucas Davenport, Elvis Cole, Kelly Jones, Joe Pike, John Cardinal, Michael Kowlaski, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby. Apologies to the hundreds that I’ve likely missed.

In my recent novel, THE SEX CLUB, which has both K and X sounds in the title, the main characters are Detective Jackson and Kera Kollmorgan. Jackson’s daughter’s name is Katie. In women’s fiction, Kate is the female equivalent of Jack—a short, powerful K name (Kate London, plus many others).

It’s not just me. Author Jack Getze has a protag named Austin Carr who encounters a bad guy named Max, whom he calls Creeper. In as single scene, he writes about Carr and Creeper as well as an AK-47, Alka-Seltzer, a stockbroker, an Escalade, a Caddy, and a Lincoln.

Another writer told me, “I had so many K names in my first book I had to change all but one.”

What is it about the K sound that we like so much? One amateur theory is that as babies, we all heard a lot of K words and noises: cootchie-coo, cutie-pie, cuddles, etc. But it could be that this is simply one of those things that is hard-wired into our brains from human experiences long ago. Whatever the reason, readers and writers like the sound K, so keep it coming ... just not all in the same book. And give Jack a rest.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

When to Ignore Good Advice

Advice for writers is everywhere. Rules for writing. Rules for querying. Rules for submitting. Like most writers, I also actively solicit advice from beta readers, successful novelists, and others in the publishing business. There have been times when I followed what seemed like good advice and ended up regretting it. Other times, I ignored perfectly good advice and was glad I did. How do you know up front when to ignore sound advice? Listen to your own instincts.

Long ago, an agent advised me to write a YA novel because she knew an editor who was looking for YA manuscripts that dealt with troubled teen scenarios and she thought I would be perfect for the series. My instinct said it wasn’t right for me, but I thought this agent had a solid connection that would get me published. Total waste of time! I am not a YA writer. (I’m not sure I was every really young. My mother swears I was born 40.)

One very successful agent who I was once signed with kept advising me to write a cozy mystery series because that’s what all the publishers wanted. I don’t read cozy mysteries, and I didn’t think I could pull it off. So I never tried. That was smart. See above. So my rule for myself is: Never write a novel I wouldn’t read. (Unless someone gives me a boatload of money upfront and and all the time in world to complete it.)

A beta reader once advised me to not make the murder victim’s mother a drug addict who had died of drug-related complications. She thought it was distracting and unnecessary. But it was the basis for the character’s personality! It was why she ended up in the situation she was in at the time of the murder. Wrong advice! Easy to ignore.

Everyone in the business says to never query an agent before you finish writing the story. I have routinely ignored this advice (when sending snail mail) and have never had an agent respond to a query before the manuscript was ready. Agents are notoriously slow (I once got a response three years and three months later), so why not eliminate that waiting gap with productive writing time? Sending queries early also motivates me to get it done.

A successful mystery writer and dear friend once advised me not approach an editor at a major publishing house directly. She felt strongly that I should get an agent—that the editor would never consider a manuscript submitted without one and that it might seem unprofessional. But this editor had read The Sex Club as a manuscript and loved it. She knew my name and my writing. I felt there was no harm in asking if she’d like to see the next installment in the Jackson series. So I queried her directly anyway (via e-mail). Then a few weeks later, I ran into her at Bouchercon and pitched the novel again. A month later, she e-mailed me and asked to see the manuscript. I’m still waiting to see how this turns out. But even if she passes on the series, I’m still glad I ignored that well-intended advice and made that direct connection.

I've learned to write only the stories I feel passionate about, regardless of what’s currently trendy; to trust my own instincts about what works best for those stories; and to never let fear get in the way of making connections.

Do you ignore standard industry advice? Does it usually work out for you?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

And the Winners Are . . .

Thank you everyone for participating. I received so many good names, I may eventually use them all. But after conferring with my story consultant (aka “husband Steve”), we realized that three of our favorite names came from the same person! So, the big winner is Cigdem Aksoy, a Facebook friend, who currently lives in Turkey. (The postage will cost more than the book, but well worth it.) She submitted:

Seth Valder, who is now a sleazy strip club owner in Thrilled to Death
Eddy Lucas, who runs a “Dirty Jobs” business. I had already chosen “Eddie” for this character (who is really a bad guy-lite), and “Lucas” is the perfect last name for him.

She also submitted the winning name for the con man/misogynist, but I realize now that I can’t reveal it without ruining the mystery for those of you who plan to buy this story in 2010 when it comes out. (You are planning to buy this book, right? )

And in the spirit of giving, I’ll send books to these honorable mentions:
Zoran Mircovich (submitted by Scott Roche aka Spiritual Tramp) Liked this name so much, I’m going to create a part for him.
Stig Bloodcutter (submitted by Anthony Taylor) Made me laugh out loud!
Randy Cockrane (submitted by Gayle Carline for the strip club owner) Very clever!
(Winners, please e-mail me with your mailing adddress.)

Cigdem also provided links to places to find names, so I'll share them here.

Seventh Sanctum
Villain Names
Mactyre
Stone Dragon Press


Thanks again for playing!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Name That Character

I’m at that point in my new story where I need to settle on some character names. I’m writing a series, so the recurring character names are decided (like them or not). For others, I often grab a moniker for the moment and keep going if the writing is flowing, then go back and search/replace when the perfect name comes to me. Sometimes, the first name that comes to me is the right name. I love it when that happens.

I have also changed the name of main characters after writing the entire novel. I hate when I have to do that. After thinking about a character as “Sierra” for six months, it’s hard to let go of that identity. And now it’s hard to remember her new name when I’m discussing the novel, which is embarrassing. But I changed it because I had too many female characters whose names ended with “a” (the schwa sound).

What I need now are bad guy names, and I feel stumped. So I’m having a contest.(My brother asked me to name one of the antagonists after him, so one down, two to go.) One of the bad guys runs a strip club and various other sleazy deals, and the other is the ultimate con man/misogynist, who puts on one face for the public while engaging in the worst sort of behavior behind the scenes. That's all I can say without giving away the mystery.

I’ll give away two copies of THE SEX CLUB — one to each of the top two submissions. You can post your submissions in the comments section, which could be fun for others and/or e-mail them to me, using the link on the right.

True character-naming story: When I was writing THE SEX CLUB and needed a name for the psycho bomber lady, I picked Ruth because it’s short, strong, and Biblical. I picked Greiner because it’s the name of a street near my house. Three years later, I was horrified to learn there was a woman named Ruth Greiner who is an avid mystery reader, leads a mystery book club, and is on the same popular mystery list serv that I am. She got wind of the name through a review of THE SEX CLUB in Mystery Scene magazine and e-mailed me to express her displeasure. (So don’t submit one of your relative’s names, unless he/she never reads anything but Mad magazine.)

Even if you don’t enter the contest, share your “I wish I could take it back” character-naming story!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What Is Your Price?

In the New York Times Sunday book review, Paul Greenburg wrote (humorously) about bailing out writers. His introduction refers to writers as losers, who, instead of selling books, are selling their home furnishings to stay afloat.

What is interesting is that the concept he proposed is not a bailout at all. Greenburg believes that the problem with the writing industry is that there are too many writers now and not enough money to support them all. He mentions the 185,000 listed by the National Endowment for the Arts who support themselves through artistic endeavors. This, of course, does not include the thousands and thousands who write in their spare time and support themselves by some other endeavor.

His hypothetical proposal: “About 275,000 new titles and editions are published in the United States each year. Let’s say we want to eliminate half of them. Assuming it takes about two years to write your average book, we would offer book writers two years of salary at the writers’ average annual income of $38,000 a year.”

The catch? Those who take the money would have to stop writing. This is a buyout, not a bailout. When companies have more workers than they need, they offer cash incentives to employees leave their job voluntarily… forever.

It’s an interesting premise. If someone offered you $76,000 to never write again, would you take the money? If not, what is your price? What if you only had to stop writing for two years, would you do it for that price?

This question is like the “Would you sleep with an ugly stranger for a million dollars?” scenario—only with a lot less money and a much harder decision. If nothing else, it will make you think about how important writing is to you and what you would sacrifice for it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

All I Want for Christmas… is Nothing!

It’s two weeks before Christmas and, as usual, I’m on my way to the Goodwill. Not to shop, but to make room in my storage space. My donation box contains an assortment of last year’s Yuletide gifts from my family—lawn lights, ski gloves, a music box, and a Twister game, to name a few. What does a middle-aged woman with bad knees and a fat husband want with a Twister game? Really. I’m trying to keep the emergency room visits to a minimum, especially now that I no longer have health insurance.

Guilt sets in as the small man in a blue smock sorts through my stuff. Some of these items were chosen with care. Such as the wok (from my brother who knows I love stir-fry) that almost set fire to my kitchen. But the basket of scented soap was a last-minute panic grab by someone who either forgot or didn’t care that perfume gives me a headache.

My niece calls while I’m collecting my receipt, and the seasonal madness starts all over.
“What do you want for Christmas this year?” she demands, high on the adrenaline of power shopping her way through a Fred Meyer half-off white sale.
“Nothing,” I say, as I do every year.
“I’m going to buy you something anyway, so you might as well give me a clue.”
“Please don’t. I would rather you gave the money to charity.”
“You’re no fun.” She hangs up and goes back to shopping; there are 20 people on her list.

Why does my family continue to buy me presents when I have asked them year after year not to? I am middle-aged, I (used to) earn a good living, and I acquired everything I need long ago. I am also making good progress in accumulating everything I want. The only things that I want—that I don’t already have—are too expensive for me. Which means they are also too expensive for my family and friends.

I do not need another crock-pot, fry-baby, or nut-cracker. (I am far too lazy to ever purchase nuts in the shell.) I do not wear fuzzy sweaters because they make my skin itch, and if a sweatshirt is red or green with any sort of reindeer or snowflakes, I’d could walk around naked with less embarrassment. And as long as I’m being a snob, I don’t eat the plastic cheese or greasy processed-meat sticks from Hickory Farms either. On the other hand, I do love chocolate—but it makes me look fat. So anyone who wraps it in irresistible pink and silver and puts my name on it doesn’t really love me.

Having run out of other options, some family members have started giving gift certificates. But seriously, what is the point of two 40-something siblings simultaneously exchanging cash at the end of December? In what way is this meaningful or logical?

At the bottom of my donation box are two ceramic Santas, three assorted-sized silver bells, and a collection of green and red candles that could torch the neighborhood if they were all lit at once. As I part with the decorations, I think: I haven’t put up a tree since my kids moved out. Does my family really think the sight of a three-inch Saint Nick in red suspenders and shorts is going to turn this Scrooge around? Hah!

On the way home, I call my niece back. “I changed my mind,” I say. “I know what I want for Christmas.”
“Cool. What?”
“An indoor swimming pool. With a hot tub.”
“You’re so funny. Will you settle for a bag of York Peppermint Patties? They’re low fat.”
“Sure.” I hang up the phone. One down. Sixteen to go.

PS: If you have to/like to buy Christmas gifts—buy books!

Monday, December 8, 2008

How to Fix the Publishing Industry

What if major publishers. . .
  • abandoned the hardback fiction book altogether and let libraries and collectors simply laminate their own copies of trade paperbacks? Then the first printing of each book could be bigger and priced to reach the whole market. Publishers win by reducing their print costs and minimizing the number of returns. Readers win by getting a book they can afford when it first comes out, and writers win by reaching as wide a market as they can on the first publication. Novelists would also never be stuck in hardback form only—as many are—a spendy version that’s hard to sell at book fairs and special events and never reaches its full audience.

  • changed distribution to a nonreturnable basis? Bookstores would have to be conservative in how many books they ordered at one time, and publishers could simplify their bookkeeping for everyone involved.

  • printed only as many copies as were necessary to fill orders? Money (and trees) would be saved from not printing, shipping, processing, and shredding books that never sale.

If all that happened, bookstores would have fewer returns to process and they could make money by remaindering books on their own premises. They could offer discounts and buy one/get one free deals to keep product moving. Promotional bargains pull in customers who spend money. It’s how retailers make money at Christmas.

I am not the first to suggest these changes. So why doesn’t the industry do it? No one wants to go first. Every major publisher is afraid to lose business to the other company who isn’t doing it. Meanwhile, the big houses aren’t making real profits. Only the small publishers who have adopted some of all of these ideas are in the black year after year. What will it take for the industry to recreate itself?

As an novelist, would you care if your book never came out in hard back? As a reader, do you buy hard backs? Would you miss them?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Back Up Your Backup

Watching the fires in California recently made me think about how it would feel to come home and find my house in ashes. All I could think about was how devastating it would be to lose my electronic files. Not the computer itself, the lifetime of creative work. All the other things—clothes, books, appliances—are replaceable. The insurance check would buy more stuff. But if my files are ever lost, I’ll be lost too.

This is not the first time I’ve had this thought. In fact, I once had a hard drive (in a PC) catch fire, and I lost the e-file of a great novel that I spent years on. I had made a backup disk, but it mysteriously disappeared. (Teenage computer geek son grabbing floppy disks without thinking!) That was a devastating moment, saved only by the reassurance that I had a printed version. Eventually, I paid a transcriptionist to retype the paper copy into a Word file.

So I developed a healthy sense of paranoia and thorough backup system. And as anal as it makes me sound, I’m sharing it so other writers will remember to back up their files and store them in several safe places.

  • I have an external hard drive and software (LaCie) that I back up the whole drive with—files, e-mails, bookmarks—once or twice a week. But it’s sitting right next to my computer, so if my house burns, it’s toast too.

  • I also carry a flash drive in my purse that contains all my creative files—novels, scripts, promotional material, etc. I carry this with me mostly for convenience and peace of mind.

  • Once every couple of months, I burn a CD or two of all files (Word, Excel, InDesign, PDFs, etc.) and take it to my car. (Flash drives are unreliable, and if you tell a techie that’s what you’re using, he will roll his eyes.)

  • Every time I complete a new novel, I burn it to a CD and take it to my mother’s. The car could go up in a fire too. Or get stolen. Or wrecked.
I started all this before there were online backup services available, so I’ve never used one. Maybe it’s time. Are you backed up?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fast, Fun Mystery!


In case you’re tired of my ramblings, today I’m interviewing fellow mystery writer, Jean Henry Mead. Jean is on a two-week blog tour to promote her new mystery, A Village Shattered. This cozy whodunit is a fast, fun read, featuring senior sleuths, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty. The story is Jean’s third work of fiction, but the author has a long career of writing, interviewing, and taking photographs. But I’ll let her tell you in her own words.

What’s your elevator speech for your new novel, A Shattered Village?
Two 60-year-old widows living in a retirement village are suddenly confronted with the deaths of their friends and club members, who are dropping dead alphabetically. A serial killer has stolen their membership roster and their own names are on the list. Dana Logan, a mystery novel buff, and Sarah Cafferty, a private investigator’s widow, decide to solve the murders themselves when the newly elected sheriff bungles the investigation, but not before Dana’s beautiful daughter Kerrie is in danger of being killed in the process. San Joaquin Valley fog hides the killer and helps him commit the murders.

Who are your characters, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty, modeled after? Which one is more like you?
I didn’t realize until Dana and Sarah are discussing the first murder of their friend Alice Zimmer that Dana resembles actress Gina Davis, and Sarah looks like Shelley Winters. Dana is tall like me as well as stubborn and a little eccentric. There the resemblance ends.

You were a journalist and nonfiction writer long before you wrote novels. When did you make the switch and why?
I actually wrote my first novel in fourth grade, a chapter a day to entertain classmates, and have always wanted to be a novelist. But I worked for my high school newspaper and graduated to editing my college paper while working as a cub reporter for the local daily newspaper. After I had written my third nonfiction book, Casper Country, a centennial history, I had stacks of research notes left over, because I had read 97-years’ worth of microfilmed newspaper. So I decided to write a novel, utilizing all that research. The result was a recent publication, Escape, a Wyoming Historical Novel, featuring Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and a kidnapped young heiress disguised as a 12-year-old boy.

Is there other overlap between your nonfiction books and
yo
ur novels?
Yes, Escape is about 50% actual history and 50% dramatization. Most of the real characters are true to life, and I added a few fictional characters to move the story along. With my latest senior sleuth novel, my police reporting came in handy. And my husband is a former highway patrolman, so his advice helped as well. A Village Shattered is the first of my Logan & Cafferty senior sleuth series, which will be followed next spring by Diary of Murder and later, Died Laughing, both of which take place in Wyoming.

You’ve done a lot of work and organization on behalf of western writers, founding the Western Writers Hall of Fame and working for the Western Writers of America? What motivated you?
I was serving as president of Wyoming Writers when Western Writers of America held their annual convention in Casper. A local writer, Bill Bragg was hosting the convention and asked me to do advanced publicity. I joined in 1979 and became national publicity director for WWA. Two years later I established the Western Writers Hall of Fame and wrote Maverick Writers, a collection of interviews with some of WWA’s most prominent members.

You’ve interviewed some very famous people. Who was you favorite person to interview and why?
I enjoyed all of them, but Louis L’Amour, A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and Wyoming governor Ed Herschler top the list. I also enjoyed interviewing Gerry Spence, although it was in a crowded Ramada Inn lobby while he was holding court. Louis L’Amour was downright shy about being interviewed, which surprised me. He submitted to very few interviews and invited me to his home in Bel Air for an hour, which stretched into several hours of talking about his past. He showed me his office, which contained some 10,000 books with hinged floor-to-ceiling book cases that revealed identical ones behind. I expected him to be arrogant, but he was just the opposite and made me feel at home. A. B. Guthrie was full of himself but was hospitable at his modest A-frame home at the foot of Montana’s Sawtooth Mountain range. I felt privileged to have interviewed them both. Governor Herschler was in his golf duds when I interviewed him at the state capitol building in Cheyenne. He was very candid about his life and court battles against his friend Gerry Spence.

What is the one thing in your life or list of accomplishments that you are most proud of?
Having my books published, which will soon number over a dozen, and hearing from my readers, who have said they enjoy my books. What more could a writer ask?

Who are your favorite authors?

I learned to write fiction by reading Dean Koontz’s novels and he remains a favorite. I also read James Patterson (without his co-authors), Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, and the classics at the moment. I read Janet Evanovich when I feel in the mood to laugh. I like a lot of writers, who are too numerous to name.

What's next for you?
I’m working on my first children’s book, The Mystery of Spider Mountain, which is a takeoff on my childhood home in the Hollywood Hills. I’m also working on another western historical about the unwarranted hanging of Ella Watson-Averell, who was nicknamed Cattle Kate by her cattlemen executioners. Reading about the hanging made me angry, which is a good reason to write a book. And, of course, I’ll continue to write Logan & Caffery senior sleuth novels.

Where can we find you on the web?
My webpage is located at: JeanHenryMead.com. I have two blog sites. One is a writer’s advice site, Write On! at: http://advicefromeditors.blogspot.com/ and my Western Historical Happenings site: http://awhh.blogspot.com/. I’m also a member of two mystery blogs: Murderous Musings and Make Mine Mystery.

The rest of my blog book tour is listed at: http://myblogtour.blogspot.com/. I hope everyone will stop by to leave a comment to be eligible for the drawing for three of my signed copies of A Village Shattered.

If you have more questions for Jean, feel to to ask!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Back on Track: aka New Rules

In November, while everyone else was cranking out a 50,000 word novel, I had a pathetically low word count. Why? Shit happens. More specifically, I spent a lot of time trying to drum up freelance work, I spent a lot of time babysitting, and I let myself get into the “I’ll make up the time tomorrow" mode. Wrong! It’s always today, and there’s never enough time to do anything extra.

So here’s my plan to get back on track:

First, I unsubscribed to half the e-mails I was receiving. Who has time to read all those newsletters? Sorry to those of you who put them out, but I just don’t have time.

I stopped opening e-mails first thing in the morning. In fact, it’s now a rule. No e-mail until I’ve worked on the novel for a few hours. (Unless the e-mail is from an editor/publisher!)

Another rule: No Twitter or FaceBook or reading blogs during writing time. They all have to wait until I move on to freelance work. (This will be the hardest rule to keep!)

I’m going to give longer deadlines for the freelance work I take on, then stick to working in the afternoons and evenings (if needed). Mornings are for writing!

And my husband is going to take our niece to school on one of the mornings she’s here, so I’ll only have one morning each week interrupted by that adventure.

And for balance, I’m adopting a new motto: Experience joy every day. Get up and dance! I do not have to be productive every second of every day… As long as I get my three or four hours of writing done, first thing every day.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Podcasting with NetDrag

My podcasting venture has begun. I had a conversation last weekend with Ken Lewis, who is the police chief of Rogue River, Oregon; the author of the mystery/suspense novel, Little Blue Whales; and the host of NetDrag, a podcast featuring crime writers. It was a great conversation (although I sound like I have a little marble under my tongue) and those who have listened said they loved it.

We talked about mystery conferences, Oregon writers, THE SEX CLUB, and the difficulties of finding a publisher if your story has young victims or deals with controversial issues. Ken gave my detective an 8 (out of 10) for believability, and that’s high praise coming from a police officer. He also said my story/mystery stumped him and that he felt Detective Jackson’s bafflement and anguish every step of the way.

Check it out here: NetDrag

I was a little nervous about being recorded, but the conversation was so relaxed and enjoyable, I soon forgot about that. For the mechanics of it, we both called in to a service that he's subscribed to that records the conversations and allows him to make minor edits.

My next step is to do my own podcasting by recording the first chapter of THE SEX CLUB and making it available. I have everything in place but the time.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When Is an Old Story a New Story?

Most novelists who have been writing for a while have an unpublished story or two that they haven’t given up on. You keep thinking that if you could just find the right twist or revise a character you can make it marketable. But how much do you have to change the manuscript to consider it a new story? Can you send a revised novel with a new name to the same editors and agents as though it were something fresh for them to read?

Or what about his scenario? You write a great sci-fi story called Death March into Armageddon. Publishers seem to like it, but no one offers you a contract. A few years later, you publish the story with a small press that goes out of business shortly after. Your novel only sells a few dozen copies. Five years later, you get a great idea for how to make the story better. You make those changes, spruce it up with a new name like Heavenly Invasion and submit it to a different publisher.

Can you consider this work to be “previously unpublished”? Is there a legal definition for how much a story has to change to be considered a new work? Do you have a moral or legal obligation to tell the new publisher about the manuscript’s history and the two dozen copies of the previous version that are still out there somewhere?

Has anyone been in this situation? How did you handle it?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Break From Reality

So Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber both have book deals, with Sarah’s rumored to be worth $7 million. These kinds of book contracts are what make hard working, talented, undiscovered, underpaid writers (like me) CRAZY! That’s all I have to say. Except, maybe, WTF!

If you’d like to hear more from me today, check Pop Syndicate where I have a fascinating author Q/A with Angela Wilson.

http://www.popsyndicate.com/books

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Problem with Unions

I had been thinking about unions lately and wondering if they have become counterproductive. Then yesterday I heard that autoworkers at General Motors make around $71 an hour when you include benefits. Holy shit! No wonder the company is going broke. This is clearly not a sustainable business model.

And then there are the teachers’ unions, which many people believe keep bad teachers in their jobs and contribute to the decline in education. Before you get all riled up, I support teachers and think they should be better paid. (I wouldn’t teach middle school for any amount of money.) But I also think teachers should be held accountable for the job they do, and those that don’t cut it should be fired—like anyone else.

So what does this have to do with writers or books? Not much. But independent writers have no market protections and no real benefits (which is the case with most low-wage workers). Of course, there is a Writers’ Guild, but it’s mostly for scriptwriters who are already making good money and can afford the $2500 joining fee. Some writers are represented by agents, but an agent can’t guarantee anything. Health benefits? Hah! Paid holidays? Dream on. Livable hourly wage? If I ever did the math on my novels, it would make me cry.

I don’t begrudge anyone else these benefits just because I currently don’t have them. But as a taxpayer (who pays teachers’ and government workers’ salaries), I expect my money to be invested wisely. So if we the people bail out GM, its employees should have to live in the real world with the rest of us where there are no unions, no guarantees, and no one is fighting for you—but you. That’s life.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Will Big-Name Authors Go Rogue?

I read an article about a speech Simon & Schuster president and CEO Carolyn Reidy gave at a publishers’ convention. She mostly talked about the state of the industry and how publishers have to find ways to cut costs. Then she said a couple of interesting things. First she mentioned “powerful retailers who have ambitions to be publishers.” Does she mean Walmart and Costco? How would they make the transition? They would need big-name authors to sign directly with them, and they would have to allow distribution in bookstores as well. But this could happen, especially with nonfiction authors.

Then Reidy talked about self-publishing and wondered, “is it only a matter of time before one of the major authors actually strikes out on his or her own?”

That would be an interesting development. What would motivate a best-selling fiction author to step away from his/her publisher and self-publish? An opportunity to make more money? Probably not. If this ever happens, the dispute will likely be about content. Maybe the issue will be an entire story that the writer wants to bring to market, but the publisher won’t because it’s controversial or outside the writer’s genre. Or maybe it will be an environmental issue. An author who refuses to have his book published in hardback form because so many are returned and shredded. And his publisher won’t concede, so he self-publishes in trade paperback with smaller print runs that sell out each time.

What if such a venture proved successful, and the author was able to reach a wide audience and make money? Would more authors follow? What would it mean to the industry? Would publishers change their business model to keep authors onboard? Would it finally blur the distinction between traditionally published and self-published authors? And who will be first? Stephen King has already stepped out on his own with serial e-content (and made money), and I believe in time more authors will do the same.

It’s fun to speculate. What do think?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Giving It Away (aka Free Books!)

Every week I give away a free copy of The Sex Club on my website. I gave away 75 copies of The Sex Club at Bouchercon, and I’ve sent hundreds of copies to bookstores, book clubs, and readers who asked for it.

Meanwhile, I have a collection of new/nearly new paperbacks that have nowhere to go. Our local Book Exchange went out of business, so I’ve decided to give them away. To win one of these titles, simply e-mail me and ask for it. (Click the contact link on the right of this page.) I’ll randomly pick winners at the end of the week. Don’t forget to enter The Sex Club giveaway. (And you might consider ordering a few copies as the perfect stocking stuffer for your siblings and co-workers.)

My next step is to podcast The Sex Club and give it away in audio form. If I only had the time! I’m also thinking of offering a free download of one of my unpublished stories. My only hesitation is that I’m a better writer now than I was then. So does it make sense to offer an earlier story as a first exposure to my writing? Has anyone tried this strategy? I want to know what you think.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Early Thanksgiving

I’m celebrating Thanksgiving today (sans turkey) because I have so much to be grateful for that it can’t wait.

  1. We have a new president! A thoughtful Democrat who will value the things I value and raise our standing in the world.

  2. I have a new book contract! My recently finished story, Secrets to Die For, will be published for people to buy and read. Oh happy day!

  3. I have three great sons, who all contacted me yesterday (calling, texting, visiting) to let me know they had voted (and for Barack Obama).

  4. My husband has a job, and I have some freelance work coming. We will stay solvent!

  5. My wonderful husband has worked hard to resolve my exercise issues, and, as a result, my chronic knee pain is diminished!

So today (and going forward), I am grateful for these things and more. I posted this list next to my computer where I’ll see it first—and last—thing every day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

New Day, New Goals

Last January, I set two main goals for the year: 1) establish a freelance fiction editing business and 2) write and sell a second Detective Jackson novel. With the help of a layoff from my job, I sort of accomplished the first. And yesterday, I signed with Echelon Press to publish Secrets to Die For next September, so I can happily check off the second goal.

And I did it with two months to spare, so now I can write like crazy on the third Jackson story during November, also known as National Novel Writing Month. I don’t expect to finish the novel in 30 days, but if I have 30,000 words down by December, I’ll be very happy. (And yes, technically it’s a new goal.)

I’ve also come to accept the idea that the publishing industry is moving—slowly—away from paper products. In fact, I bought a Kindle the other day (I still have a credit card!), something I never thought I would do. (It hasn’t arrived, so I can’t report on it yet, but I will eventually.) So now I’m thinking seriously about nonpaper media, with ideas such as 1) creating an audio version (podiobook) of The Sex Club, 2) creating a downloadable e-book of a story I wrote years ago and never tried to sell, and 3) podcasting the first chapter of several of my stories. All viable projects—all time consuming. But I have two months to spare this year, so why not branch out?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Do You Podcast?

The first time I was asked to do an interview on BlogTalkRadio, I turned it down because I was leery about the host and not impressed with the quality of the production. Then I felt guilty and wondered if I’d missed a great opportunity.

Recently, I was invited do an audio podcast with another host, so of course I said yes. Why not? It’s more exposure—another opportunity to get my name and book titles out there to the public. Every time a reader hears your name, you’re one step closer to a sale. But then I started to wonder: How much time would it take? How much exposure would I get? Podcasters likely keep stats, but what do those numbers really mean?

I’ve been invited through various venues to listen to other author’s audio podcasts, and the sad truth is that I rarely participate. I try to be as give and take as I can. I want people to buy and read my book, so I buy and read theirs. I want people to read and comment on my blog, so I read and comment on other blogs. So I have tuned in to a few podcasts, but they usually don’t hold my interest for more than a few minutes. I think it’s partly because I’m not someone who normally listens to the radio. People talking without having a face or expressions to focus on don’t seem to grab my interest. Watching a video podcast is a different—and better— experience, but few podcasters who are interviewing authors are doing those.

What I want to know is: How many readers/internet users regularly listen to audio podcasts? What do you like to hear about from an author? Personal stories or information about his/her books? Has a podcast ever motivated you to buy an author’s book? Have you done a podcast and what did you get out of it?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Living with Uncertainty

If I were a widget maker who went to work in a factory at the same time every day, I would leave work at the same time and the collect the same paycheck. There would be no uncertainty.

Instead I’m a novelist and freelance editor. No two days are alike, and uncertainty is a way of life. Will this novel I’m writing sell to a publisher? After spending 25 hours on this manuscript, will the writer actually send me a check? Will I have enough freelance work this month to pay my mortgage?

A little background: I’m a Type A personality and a bit of a control freak. I never leave on a road trip without a map and a hotel reservation. I am not cut out for uncertainty.

And yet, the life of a widget maker would drive me insane. Conversely, I love this life as a novelist and freelancer. So I must learn to live with uncertainty. Some days are easier than others. Yesterday got the best of me. Financially, this is the worst year my husband and I have ever had, and things will get worse before they get better. But in some ways, we are happier than ever.

Financial insecurity is not the worst of it though. The question of whether my recently completed novel will sell sometimes hinders my ability to move forward as a novelist. I have a new story outlined and two chapters written, yet a little part of my brain says, “Why bother?”

I always manage to push past this point. (Although, it once took a few years.) And I will again. I write because I am a storyteller. And the life of a storyteller is always filled with uncertainty.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Elaine Said It Best: Writers Are Whores

The last time I had lunch with Elaine Flinn, the funny, vivacious author of the Molly Doyle mysteries, she summed up this business of being a writer rather graphically and succinctly. Leading up to that moment, I was talking about Lynne Cheney (wife of the vice president) who had gone on Jon Stewart’s show to sell her memoir. My husband thought her guest appearance was shocking, considering that Jon had called Dick Cheney the Prince of Darkness, among other horribly unflattering things. I was less surprised by Lynne Cheney’s appearance, after all, she was a writer with a book to sell. But Elaine summed it up best, “We’re all whores.”

We burst into laughter and drew stares from the diners around us. Neither of us cared much.

Of course what Elaine meant was that we want so desperately for people to read our work—and love us in return—that we will go just about anywhere, say just about anything, participate in just about any gimmick (contests, human auctions, dressing in character, standing outside a bookstore with a three-foot poster), and put up with all manner of inconvenience and insult. Writers often sell their books one at time in a very personal exchange. Seldom does anyone actually get naked during the transaction, but it does feel a little whorish at times.

I’m not complaining or disparaging anyone. We do it for the love of the craft and the love of the readers. Few of us are in it for the money. Which is a good thing, because street walkers never get rich. But to take this analogy one step further, Elaine Flinn was a high-class call girl. And I will miss whoring around with her.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Things I Want to Know

It's time for another non-writing/reading rave. These have been simmering for a while.

Why are automated voice mail greetings so long?
How many options do we need and does anyone ever use them? Wouldn’t voice mail be much friendlier if it simply said, “No one is answering, so leave a message”? Furthermore, it seems that few people actually listen to their voice messages. Time and again, people who call me back say, “So what’s up?” or “I saw that you called.” I politely ask, “Did you listen to my message?” Because I don’t want to bore them with a repeat of what they’ve already heard. They invariably say, “No. I just saw that I’d missed your call and called you back.” My feeling is that if I suffer through five minutes of voice mail options, waiting patiently for the tone that says I can finally talk, I expect you to listen to the thoughtful message that I’ve left. Because if I’m on my way to the emergency room, I may not be able to answer when you call back.

Why is all packaging so hard to get into?
This would be the reason that I’m on my way to the hospital—because I just sliced open my hand with a utility blade trying to open a package a batteries. Don’t manufacturers know that people who need batteries need them right f**king now because the damn smoke alarm won’t shut the hell up?

Sleep-aid packaging is the worst. Each pill is set in a little plastic cup with a paper covering glued down over the whole thing. It’s after midnight and I’m exhausted yet can’t sleep, so I’m in the kitchen trying to access a single little sleeping pill. I do not have sharp fingernails, and like everyone else my age I can’t focus well on things that are 18 inches from my face. After five minutes of clawing and tearing, I realize the task is beyond my skills. I reach for the utility knife, then remember the incident with the batteries. So I think "to hell with it" and grab the Nyquil. (Fortunately, I have mastered childproof caps.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Who Is an Author?

The big discussion at Dorothly L this week is about the author rule for conventions, particularly Bouchercon, which had lax rules. Left Coast Crime in Denver this year apparently had a stricter rule, and as a result, some authors were offended and did not attend.

Boiled down, The Rule (as it is known) is that if an author participates financially in the production or editing of his/her own work, then that person is excluded as an author. It seems that the purpose of the rule is to keep self-published authors from wearing a badge that says “author” and from participating on panels. Exceptions are made for authors who have been short-listed for awards or won awards.

Which brings up the first interesting point. If self-published authors are sometimes nominated for (and occasionally win) awards, then clearly there are great books that are sometimes rejected by major publishers. Because most self-published books aren’t even allowed to compete for awards, we don’t really know how many great self-published books are out there. Supporters of the rule would say, “But we’re trying to keep the crap out.” And everyone knows there is a LOT of self-published crap. But what about traditionally published substandard novels? How do you keep them out? Shouldn’t novels be judged by their content, instead of their publisher?

One idea is to have two or three participants read each author’s latest work and decide if it is worthy, regardless of publication method. I started to write “but that’s not realistic” then thought “why not?” You could require every author who wants to attend the conference to read one or two selections from other authors and to provide an anonymous evaluation (or a simple yes/no)—and also to submit their own work to the process. What could be fairer? (This was the basis for Project Greenlight in the film industry.)

The second gray area is the concept of “financially participating in the production and editing” of the novel. Don’t most authors pay to have their work evaluated and/or edited before they even send it to an agent or publisher? (I certainly do!) And what about marketing? I think it’s safe to say that all publishers want their authors to participate financially in the marketing of their novels. Why is it okay for authors to spend thousands of dollars on travel, bookmarks, and mailing free copies to book clubs, but if they spend their own money to hire a graphic designer to produce a better cover than what their publisher has in mind, then suddenly they are not a real author?

I commend Bouchercon for keeping participation open, and I understand the concerns of those who think the rule is necessary. I also think there is room for a better way to determine who is labeled an author at conventions and who is not. What you do think?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Submitting Directly to Small Publishers

I gather publisher names the way some people collect author names, and my list now totals nearly 100. Many of the companies are imprints owned by big houses, and many are niche publishers aimed at a specific market (Christian, gay/lesbian). I culled out a few small publishers that accept a variety of submissions directly from authors. They share a few basic guidelines:
  • They want manuscripts that are 65,000–95,000 words.
  • They print in paperback form only.
  • They do NOT want paper submissions.
  • They can take six months or more to respond to submissions.
Here’s a little more information about each:

Echelon Press
Publishes a variety of novels, romantic suspense to mystery to self-help. It also has an erotic and young adult imprint. Echelon is currently NOT accepting any submissions for print books, but it is taking submissions for e-books. The company also publishes novellas and short stories. Query by e-mail and follow directions.

Five Star Publishing
Publishes a wide variety as well, but is currently looking for romance, women’s fiction, and mystery (which includes suspense/thrillers). It publishes almost 150 books a year but sells mostly to libraries. So as an author, you’ll have to do the work to get your novel into bookstores. Query by e-mail.

Medallion Press
Also publishes a wide variety of genres, including nonfiction. Accepts both paper and e-queries and says it can take up to 12 months to respond to submissions. Follow directions!


Hilliard & Harris
Publishes primarily mystery series, but also accepts thrillers, sci-fi, horror, historical fiction and some young adult within those categories. The rumor mill says this company is hard on authors.

The following publishes are more narrowly focused on some time of crime story:

Poisoned Pen Press
This is the largest in this group, but you do not need an agent to submit. PPP publishes mystery/crime, but no incest, torture, drugs, terrorists, or spy stories. Start with an e-mail query and proceed from there.

Capital Crime Press
As implied, it publishes crime stories and seems to be looking for edgier submissions—the stories Poisoned Pen doesn’t want. Start with e-mail query. Its website is outdated, so I can’t tell if it’s taking submissions or not.

Midnight Ink
Publishes mystery fiction and suspenseful tales of all types: hard-boiled thrillers, cozies, historical mysteries, amateur sleuth novels, and more. Accepts e-mail submissions only. Currently closed to submissions except through referrals from its published authors.

Hard Case Crime
Publishes hard-boiled crime stories and picks up out-of-print crime classics from the past. Accepts e-mail queries, but no guidelines are given.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

More Bouchercon Notes


In this photo are two of the sweetest people I met at B-con. On the left, Kaye Barley, voted Most Popular at the conference this year. And in the middle is B.G. Ritts, who generously gave me a neck rub and vanquished my blinding headache. Love her!


I also attended a panel that discussed the role of alcohol in fiction and in the lives of novelists. Liz Zevlin, a voice of reason and sobriety, held her own in the midst of Ken Bruen, Jason Starr (below), and others. I chatted with Liz later and discovered that she swims regularly in the ocean.
Brave woman!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bouchcon: Live in the Moment


Kudos to everyone who was able to blog about Bouchercon while they were there. I had good intentions, but I was just too tired at the end of each day to feel coherent. I also failed to take very many pictures. But I decided early in the conference that it was more important to experience every moment and to meet every person that I could rather than to record the event in detail. I decided to live in the moment. For example, it made more sense to me on my last night there to go out to a late dinner with other writers (including Simon Wood) than to sit in my hotel room, blogging about the day. It was the right choice. (Above picture is me with Shane Gericke and Robin Burcell.)

My objectives for the conference were to meet as many people as I could and to give away as many books and promotional materials as I could. I also hoped to get know Karen Syed of Echelon Press. I accomplished all those things. And more. Here are some memorable moments.

I met Troy Cook, author of 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers. He is a sweet, modest man who is rapidly on his way to the top. Hearing his story—having several agents fail to sell his book, then getting picked up by a small press on his own, followed by great reviews, awards, great sales, and a movie deal—was very inspiring.

I also shared a long shuttle ride to the airport with Julia Spenser-Fleming, (an award-winning mystery author) and we talked seamlessly for more than an hour. She’s bright and friendly, and I enjoyed her company. She probably won’t remember my name, but you never know. I feel like I made a connection with her.

The panel I was on Saturday morning with Bob Morris, Jack Getze, Rebecca Drake, and Marion Moore was a blast. Bob and Jack told wild stories about their days in the newspaper business (including large amounts of alcohol and occasional gunshots), and I got in some good jokes about working for a pharmaceutical magazine. Being anal, I also prepared a handout for the attendees, listing about 20 authors who write about reporter characters. So that roomful of people will remember me. It’s important to promote other authors when you can and to resist the urge to talk incessantly about your own book. In fact, when I met an online friend and mystery lover, he commented that was what he really liked about me—that I’m everywhere online, making friends and being nice, but never going for the hard sell.

Another observation: People who are friendly online are friendly in person! And mystery fans are great—warm, friendly, and happy to meet anyone who writes the stories they like to read. In fact, Kaye Barley may be the sweetest person I've ever met. (Picture below: Michelle Gagnon and Ken Bruen)

I may keep adding to this blog as I sort through my notes and business cards, so check back.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bouchercon Day 1

Up early after a late night to start the day with a panel called We Didn’t Start the Fire. They discussed the balance of writing about social issues in fiction without being preachy. It made me want to take another look at my novel. I met Karen Olson and Neil Plakcy, and Karen may guest blog here soon.

Second panel of the day was Does Sex Sell? The discussion was more about whether sex scenes were necessary in mystery/crime fiction. No consensus was reached, except that romance outsells mystery 10 to 1.

I introduced myself to dozens of writers, gave away about 25 copies of The Sex Club, and handed out bags of books as a volunteer. No one is going home empty handed from this conference. I also had dinner with Karen Syed of Echelon Press, a funny high-energy dynamo. I think we could be an ass-kicking combo.

Took exactly one bad picture today. I'll do better tomorrow with visuals.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Getting to Bouchercon

I almost didn’t make it here today. I blame bad information and J.D. Rhoades. I was sitting at gate 23B, where I had been told to go, and reading Safe and Sound, by the aforementioned J.D. Caught up in the story, I forgot where I was for quite some time. Suddenly, I looked up and thought Oh shit. Where is everybody? What time is it? I am in the wrong place!

So I ran to the nearest staff person, looking at my phone as I ran. (I am not supposed to run. Very bad right knee.) It was 6:55. My flight was scheduled to leave at 7:10. The woman at gate 24 informed me that my flight had been changed to gate 21. So I ran again, pulling 40 or so pounds of luggage (books!). As I reached the terminal, I realized no one was there. The flight had boarded. The ticket taker was still there, microphone in hand, saying, “Sellers, your flight is leaving. Last call for passenger Sellers."

Heart pounding, I ran down the tube and boarded the plane with 100 people looking on. I sat down and began to shake. Did I still have everything with me? My kind seat neighbor buckled me in, and moments later, the plane started moving. I thought about myself an hour earlier, drying my soaking wet boarding pass under the hand dryer in the bathroom. Another stupid story involving icing my bad leg! I began to laugh and thought, I made it, and that’s all that maters.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Is a Stereotype Character?

Recently someone posted on a list serv that he “wouldn't support an author who characterized all Irish people as ignorant and lazy or one who characterized all Jewish people as devious, greedy manipulators or one who painted all Sicilians as Mafiosi.” That sounds reasonable on the surface, but it leaves me wondering: How does an author characterize ALL Irish people as ignorant and lazy? The presence of a single Irish character who happens to be lazy wouldn’t give readers the idea that you were prejudiced against the Irish, would it? How many lazy Irish characters would you have to include in your novel for readers to come away with the idea that you had characterized ALL Irish people that way?

Or, for example, if you wrote a novel in which most of the characters were Sicilian and Mafioso (The Godfather), would readers assume that the author thought ALL Sicilians were mob-connected? Does anyone think Mario Puzo is a racist?

Clearly, as novelists, we have to be careful about not playing into stereotypes. But stereotypes exist for a reason and are based on widely held perceptions. If you avoid every character detail that could be considered a stereotype, you’ll end up with rather dull characters who don’t resemble real people. To avoid offense, you could simply not label characters with any ethnic background. Still, you have to give everyone a name. Not having any ethnically associated names (O’Callahan, Schakowski, Botticelli) in your novel may go too far in the other direction and make you look like a bigoted WASP.

Then there’s the popular TV show Rescue Me. The main character, Tommy Gavin, is Irish, alcoholic, and often out of control—and so is his whole family! The show plays directly into a stereotype. Are people offended by that? I’m certainly not. And I’m part Irish and come from a family of alcoholics.

Then there's the issue of the antagonist. If the serial killer in your story has a German-sounding name, will Germans be offended because you've characterized them as serial killers? I would hope not. Yet a few people have reacted that way to the killer in my story (who happens to be religious), calling her a stereotype and offensive to religious people. (For the record, she represents no one but herself.)

As readers, what sort of character stereotypes offend you? As writers, how do you portray real people with real ethnic backgrounds and flaws without offending readers or being labeled a bigot?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

L.J.'s Footnotes

I’ve been tagged twice now, so I’ll play. Here are six things you probably didn’t know about me.

I once rode my bike from Oregon to the Grand Canyon, crossing Donner Pass on the way. It took us three days to ride uphill to Truckee and only 45 minutes to descend into Reno. There was 12 feet of snow along the sides of the road at the top and six inches of slush and sand on the road coming down. Crazy! (I was 23 at the time.)

I have jumped out of a perfectly good airplane (loved it!), gone up in a hot-air balloon, and often zoom downhill on my bike at speeds of 40 mph.

I was the third of six children in a fairly poor working class home. But in many ways, I was the oldest—the first to get a job and a car and the first to leave home. My siblings all live here in Eugene, they are my best friends, and we bowl together every week.

I tried to have my tubes tied when I was 20 years old, but no one would do it because I was too young. I ended up with one biological son and two stepsons and also took care of my sister’s twin girls. For a long period, my husband and I had six children in our home every night. Life often turns out differently than you expect.

In addition to writing a bunch of novels you’ve never heard of, I've also written five screenplays. Two thrillers: Beyond Conception and Breaking Point. And three comedies: Addictions, Shoes, and Lost in Hollywood.

Writing those comedy scripts led me to a comedy writing class. At the end of the class, we had to perform our material in a nightclub. It was terrifying and exhilarating. The audience loved my routine and they invited me back to perform again and again. Writing new material and performing again is on my list of things to do.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fiction Editing Proposal

I just sent this proposal to a prospective client, and I thought I'd post it here as well—in case anyone is considering my services and would like more detail.

I’m willing to undercut the industry-standard rate and edit for $2.25 a page. By page, I mean industry submission standard: double space, 12-point Times font, with approximately 1.5 inches of white space (including footers) on all sides.

An 80,000-word novel should print out somewhere around 325 pages, depending on how much back-and-forth dialogue you have. $2.25 a page at 325 pages is $731.25. Which sounds like a lot of money! If it makes you feel any better, I’m paying someone to edit my current 347-page novel right now. She’s charging me $28. per hour, with no cap and no estimate of cost.

Another option is to pay by the hour at $25 an hour. This will work out to less money if your novel is pretty clean to start with and has a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. (Expository pages are denser and slower.) Also, if you only want proofreading and syntax suggestions (no plot/structure feedback), then the per-hour rate will save you money. Even when I work per hour, I put a cap on the project. In this case (325 pages), regardless of which pricing structure you chose, the cap would be $731.25.

I’m also willing to peruse the first 20 pages and see how it goes. If it’s moving quickly, I’ll recommend a per-hour structure. The last novel I edited was 110,000 words and took about 32 hours. A 75,000-word mystery would likely take around 20 hours and cost $500 or less.

Other details: If you send me the Word document, I’ll print it here and mail the hard copy edits back to you at my expense.

I would love to edit your novel, and I hope I can work something out with you. I have references! Please contact me if you have any questions.

PS I posted a blog about commas on the Blood-Red Pencil, if you want a peek at my editing style.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Do I Like This Character?

I’m reading a crime story with a fast-moving plot and terrific writing, but I may not finish it. What’s the problem? (Besides the fact that I’ve developed reading ADD.) The character, although well developed, is not someone I relate to, and the world she lives in is sleazy. I want to see how this story turns out, but every time I put the book down I feel like I need a shower.

I had this same problem with another book I read recently. In the middle of the story, the protagonist, supposedly a reformed criminal living a good life, participates in heinous crime. As a reader, I wanted him to get caught and go to jail. So I lost interest in the story. This happens for me with movies too. If there is not a single character who I find decent enough to root for, then I shut it off. I’m typically not someone who sees the world in black and white, but with crime stories, I want good guys and bad guys who are clearly discernable. (Elmore Leonard is the exception! And everyone can cheer for a likable jewel thief.)

Other readers in the book discussion said they didn’t have to like (or relate to) the protagonist to find a story compelling. I guess for me, good characterization means developing characters that readers care about, relate to, like, or respect in some way. But that definition may be narrower than the rest of the reading/writing world sees it. How do you define good characterization? Can it include protagonists who are unlikable or deeply flawed? Have you written a story with an unlikable protag, and what motivated you to do so?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Character Description

How do you feel about writers who don't describe their protagonists? How much description do you want to see?

I saw this question on a list serv today, and it hit home because I asked myself this same question yesterday. It occurred to me that there is almost no discussion of my protagonist’s physical appearance in my new novel. In the first Detective Wade Jackson mystery, readers get a brief description of Jackson from another main character early in the story. But in this installment, there is no opportunity for that. So anyone reading Secrets to Die For who did not read The Sex Club has no idea what Jackson looks like— except that he’s taller and heavier than a suspect who is coming at him.

I feel compelled to fix this. But there are limited options. He’s not a man who will look in a mirror and assess his appearance. I may be able to sneak in little bits of physical information here and there, but it will not amount to a full description early in the story.

As readers, how do you feel about this? Are you okay with coming up with your own visualization? What happens when you picture a character as blond, blue-eyed, and stocky, only to learn 100 pages into the story that he’s tall and dark? Is it disturbing, or do you just roll with the image?

As writers, how do you handle describing your protagonist if you don’t have another character who can do it for you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Networking: Quality Versus Quantity

A year and half ago when I first developed a marketing plan for my novel, I made a list of websites to check out. In time, the sites ended up in categories: places to send my novel for review, places to list my novel in their database, places with general information, and social networking sites.

The social networking sites I put off until last because they take time. I started with MySpace but never got into it. Eventually I created a Facebook page, then let it sit for months until I called in my niece to help me get going on it. Now I have 1200 friends and enjoy the time I spend there. In between those events, I created a CrimeSpace page and spent enough time there to develop a presence and to introduce myself to hundreds of authors. I’ve also been active on Twitter, which doesn’t require a lot of time.

But the networking opportunities keep coming. I’ve since joined LinkedIn, BookPlace, and recently Multiply. And I notice other Twitterers talking about Squidoo and other sites. But my memberships in the last three are just sitting there un-nurtured, and Squidoo is not even on my list. I also belong to six list servs, so the e-mails keep coming too.

I’ve decided that I’m maxed out and will not develop my new memberships. I only have so much time each day to spend on promotion/networking. For me, fewer venues with quality time spent on each one is more productive than a minimum amount of time spent on a multitude of sites. But I may be wrong about this. What do you think is more effective marketing? Quality time in fewer networking sites or a minimal presence in as many sites as possible?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Exposure! Grab What You Can

I’m headed for Portland today for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow. I’m still surprised they chose me for an author signing (50 authors were turned away). I almost passed on this event because the fee is $125, I have to give away 50 fifty books, and drive two hours in each direction for a 30-minute signing session.

Why am I going? Because it’s an opportunity to meet bookstore owners/managers from all over the Pacific Northwest. It’s an opportunity to hand them my novel and my promotional flyer with all the rave reviews. Even if they don’t order my book, they will hear my name, see my story and series character, and file it away somewhere in their brain. And someday soon, they will order and stock my books.

In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In book marketing, it’s exposure, exposure, exposure. You can't buy better (or cheaper) advertising than this event.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The End of Publishing (as we know it)

According to an article in the New York magazine, publishing in its current form is coming to an end. The article opens with a description of watching books being shredded, a fate that awaits 25% of the product produced by major publishers. This in itself is reason for change.

Then the article describes HarperStudio, an offshoot of HarperCollins, and how it will revolutionize the industry with its new model. In this new world, authors forgo large advances (or in some cases, any advance) in exchange for half of their books eventual profit. The idea is that by not over-investing in certain projects, there is more money to promote an entire line of books. Essentially, HarperStudio is forgoing the blockbuster model, in which most of a company’s profits are generated by one brand (J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown). I also believe I read earlier that HarperStudio plans to NOT take any returns from bookstores, which would eliminate the massive book shredding.

The article discusses many other industry problems: consolidation, declining book sales, imprints from the same company bidding against each other and driving up prices (advances), the growth and influence of Amazon, the low moral of editorial staff, editors constantly changing houses leaving authors to fend for themselves, and more.

For those in the business, this article is worth reading or at least skimming through. As for HarperStudio’s new model, I think it’s a step in the right direction, as long as profit is clearly defined so that authors aren’t cheated. Moving away from the blockbuster model to a more vertical platform will benefit writers by:

  • spreading the promotional dollars more evenly
  • taking the pressure off each novel to perform to a certain standard
  • allow smaller print runs and more novels to become available in paperback
  • allow more novels to come to the market through traditional publishers
  • inspire all authors to market their own work as much as possible

What do you think? Will publishing really change that much? As an author, are you willing to take a no-advance contract with long-term gain as the goal?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Power of Jack

Warning: This is a repost of a guest blog, but still a good read the second time.

Marketers and comedians have long taken advantage of the powerful K sound. Crime writers have too, they just may not realize it. Think about the name Jack for protagonists. Jack Ryan, Jack Reacher, Jack Keller, Jack Taylor, Jack Davis, Jack Irish, and Jack Palms to name just a few. Then there’s Taylor Jackson and my own Detective Wade Jackson. Not to mention the Jakes (Jake Riley, Jake Riordan, Jake McRoyan).

The K sound is especially powerful at the end of word, which is why Jack and f**k are both so fun to say. Can you think of a comedian who can get through his/her material with saying f**k or jerk or some variation of jack (jackoff, jackass, jackshit)?

The X sound is really K with a little S on the end, so Alex is almost as popular with crime writers: Alex Cooper, Alex Cross, Alex Archer, Alex Delaware, Alex Duarte, Alex Bernier. And Cooper and Cross are both pronounced with the K sound. Then there’s Kinsey Milhone and Greg McKenzie, which has a trifecta of winning sounds: the double K sound and the popular Z. Marketers like Z almost as well as K.

There’s plenty of K sounds in other protags too: Lincoln Perry, Lucas Davenport, Elvis Cole, Joe Pike, John Cardinal, Michael Kowlaski, Vicky Bliss, and Jacqueline Kirby. Apologies to hundreds that I’ve likely missed.

In my recent novel, The Sex Club, which has both K and X sounds in the title, the main characters are Detective Jackson and Kera Kollmorgan. Jackson’s daughter’s name is Katie. In women’s fiction, Kate is the female equivalent of Jack—a short, powerful K name (Kate London, plus many others).

It’s not just me. Author Jack Getze has a protag named Austin Carr who encounters a bad guy named Max, whom he calls Creeper. In as single scene, he writes about Carr and Creeper as well as an AK-47, Alka-Seltzer, a stockbroker, an Escalade, a Caddy, and a Lincoln.

And another writer told me, “I had so many K names in my first book I had to change all but one.”

What is it about the K sound that we like so much? One amateur theory is that as babies, we all heard a lot of K words and noises: cootchie-coo, cutie-pie, cuddles, etc. But it could be that this is simply one of those things that is hard-wired into our brains from human experiences long ago. Whatever the reason, readers and writers like the sound K, so keep it coming.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What Makes a Character Great?

I’ve been thinking about characters lately, mostly about how to make them more compelling. So I asked: Who are my favorite fictional police detectives? I came up with Lucas Davenport (John Sanford’s Prey series) and April Woo (Leslie Glass). I thought I might find commonalities that attract me as a reader. Instead, I discovered that they are very different.

Davenport seems to have no family, no parents or siblings that he is connected to in any way. April Woo has parents who are very present in her life. Davenport has a lot of money and doesn’t need to work. Woo has money problems (mostly because of her parents). Davenport knows how to play the political game to get what he wants out of the department. Woo is incapable of playing politics and lacks social skills in general.

So why do I like both these characters? Perhaps because they are both independent and unconcerned with what others think of them. They are also very good at their jobs. But I’m not satisfied yet, and I’m still thinking about this. So who are your favorite characters and why do you like them so much?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Find a Better Day Job

About halfway into my fiction writing adventure, I read an interview that changed my life. The featured scriptwriter had recently sold his first screenplay, which was made into a blockbuster movie. When the interviewer asked him if he would do anything differently (given the chance), he said, “If I had known it would take ten years to sell a script, I would have found a better day job.”

That hit home with me. At the time I was waiting tables and doing a little freelance writing. I had recently failed to sell a novel even though my agent had told me we had an offer. So I came to the immediate conclusion that I needed a better day job. I needed a job that put my journalism degree and inquisitive mind to work every day in some productive and satisfying capacity. I realized that I how spend every day is important. All we have is the here and now. The future (as glamorous as I envision it) doesn’t exist . . .yet.

So I stopped living for the future—that day when my novel would sell and my life would change. I found a job as a magazine editor, and I accepted, on some level, that magazine writing and editing would be my career and that it would be enough.

But I continued writing novels, and ten years later I have my first book out there getting great reviews. I am so glad I spent the last ten years editing and developing a successful career instead of waiting tables. So for all you aspiring writers (actors, artists, musicians) who are working at jobs you loathe or that don’t mean anything to you while you wait for your big break—find a better day job!

Life is short. Enjoy every day.

Monday, September 8, 2008

10 Writing Resolutions

I’m in an unusual space at the moment—waiting for feedback on my latest novel and trying to leave the manuscript alone in the mean time. But this phase is also an opportunity to write other things, form new habits, and expand my knowledge base. With those goals in mind, I developed 10 writing resolutions, some of which I’m already working toward and others that are new and exciting.

1. Write every day. That means during the week, spend a minimum of three hours on my current big project and on weekends, write blogs, articles, short stories, comedy material, letters to the editor—almost anything to keep the juices flowing.

2. Write bold. Do not be afraid to offend an occasional reader. I can’t make everyone happy. If I did, my stories/blogs/comedy would be boring.

3. Dig deeper into characters’ motivations. Who are these people and why do they act the way they do?

4. Make more trips to the library. I only finish about one in three books I start, so I have to buy books regularly. I’ve been ordering from Powells and buying a mix of new and used. It’s expensive, but I’m supporting other writers, so I don’t feel bad about the money. Yet I need to supplement my purchases with more library books (titles that I’m uncertain about and new books that I can’t afford).

5. Read more literary fiction. Maybe read an occasional poem for inspiration. My writing is straightforward and lean and could benefit from an occasional poetic flair.

6. Conduct research interviews. Meet with law enforcement personnel and others in the community to develop background knowledge for future stories.

7. Listen carefully to first readers.
Be open to criticism and willing to fix problems. This is the point of having first readers and why it’s called a first draft.

8. Do not be in a hurry to submit. Let the manuscript sit untouched for a few weeks. Then revise the story with early readers comments in mind. Then send it out to other readers.

9. Start outlining my next novel. So I’m already writing it when the rejections start coming in. It’s easier to think “This next story will be the one,” if I’m in the process and feeling good about the new story.

10. Write new comedy material. It’s hard work, but great fun at the same time. It’s an important creative change of pace to get away from the serious crime stuff. Then go perform that material.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

10 Things to Know About L.J. Sellers

And you thought you knew everything about me by now ....
For 10 more facts, click right over to my guest blog at Lisa's Book Critique.