Sunday, August 31, 2008

Staying Sane While Working at Home

My commute was up the stairs. My workday was self-directed, flexible, and light on responsibility. Most people would call it the ideal job. For me, working at home for a magazine was a long slow descent into depression, anxiety, and claustrophobia. The rest of the magazine staff was in New York, and a week at a time would pass without a call from my co-workers. E-mails simply served to exchange files. I was alone for eight or nine hours a day for more than a year and it drove me insane. I am a social creature. I generate energy from being around people. But that period in my life was years ago, before CrimeSpace, Facebook, Twitter, and list servs.

Now I’m working at home again as a novelist and freelance editor. So far, I’m loving it. But it is different this time. I’m connected to people through the Internet, and I’m able to set my own hours and take breaks when I want. But I worry about what it will be like for me six months or a year from now. I want this career phase to work out long term. So here’s my strategy for staying sane while working at home:

  1. Make time to reach out to people on the Internet periodically throughout the day.
  2. Have lunch with real-live person once a week.
  3. Conduct interviews in person even if they can be done by phone.
  4. Schedule regular social activities (such as weekly bowling with my brothers).
  5. Join a writers group and meet periodically (I haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my list).
  6. Open Pandora, click my funk station and dance for five minutes at least twice a day. Dancing is so joyful, it wards off depression.

I assume that most of the people I interact with throughout the day also work at home. So tell me, how do you keep from getting cabin fever?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Blogs: Opinion Versus Promotional

I started to blog this morning about McCain's VP pick, then realized it was not a good idea. This is not that kind of blog. If you had to break down blogs into only two categories, they would fall into either opinion blogs or promotional blogs. As opinionated as I am, this blog falls in the promotional category—it's about reaching out to readers and writers and letting them get to know me (with the idea that eventually they'll buy my products).

And so, there are many subjects that are off limits to my blog, and many things about me that I can never share. There are many books that I will never review on this site. It is too easy to alienate people (readers) just by mentioning, hypothetically for example, that I don't read books that have cats on the cover or in title. I would never say that here. There are too many cat-loving readers and writers out there who would be offended. (As info: PS Your Cat Is Dead by James Kirkwood is one of my favorite books.) So my goal is to be a gracious host and blogger and keep politics (and many personal opinions) out of the conversation.

Other bloggers blur this line, vacillating between opinion and promotion with occasional side trips into the too-personal. For them, anything is fair game and every opinion is worth stating. Some, I believe, would call me a hypocrite or a chicken for limiting my subjects. What do you think? Do blog categories exist? Do you have expectations that some blogs should stay nonpolitical?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Easy Effective Edits

I’ve been editing the first draft of my new novel, and I became aware of some changes I consistently make—for the better. I’ll share them here, in case you find them useful.

1. I get rid of the word “it” and replace it with the specific thing that I’m referring to, even if I just named that thing in the previous sentence. “Jackson reached for his Glock. The weapon felt heavy in his hand” is better than “Jackson reached for his Glock. It felt heavy in his hand.” In verbal communication, repetitive use of “it” may be acceptable, but in narrative writing such lack of clarity is ineffective and often confusing.

2. The same is true of overuse of pronouns. So I’ve also consistently replaced “she,” “he,” and “they” with the specific name of the character(s). Sometimes it feels too formal to use the character’s name three times in a paragraph, but if the character, say, a guy named Jack, is talking about the suspect, a guy named Vinnie, then referring to either of these guys as “he” can be confusing to the reader. This is a point that Stephen King makes in his great book On Writing.

3. The third most consistent edit I make is to tweak individual scenes so that they read like mini-stories, with mounting tension, a climax, and a conclusion. The exception to that structure are scenes at the end of chapters, which I often leave with a revelation, a hint of a revelation, or a great deal of uncertainty (aka, cliffhangers).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Greatest Fan

I’d like to introduce you to Sergeant Isaac Hutchison, my greatest fan. He’s a military police officer stationed in El Paso, Texas. He just found out he’s going back to Iraq in January. He already spent a year and half of his young life there, but he serves his country willingly and proudly. And I am proud—beyond words—of him.

My proudest moment as an author came many years ago after a midnight phone call. I stumbled to the phone, half asleep and half panicked, thinking, “What’s wrong?” Isaac’s voice came on the phone and said, “Oh my God. You blew me away.” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “I just finished your novel, and I had to call you and tell you how much I loved it. I loved your characters. I want to be Eric.” He recently told me he read that particular novel four times. And it’s possible my story character shaped who he turned out to be—a thoughtful, passionate man who cares about so much of the world beyond himself.

Isaac was also my first fan. He started reading my novels almost 20 years ago when they were still in manuscript form. Anytime I printed a copy of a novel or first three chapters that wasn’t good enough to send out, the stack of paper would go into a recycling box for the kids to use as math scratch paper or for drawings. Isaac would grab a stack of paper from the box, take it to his room, and read chunks of my stories. They were often just bits and pieces, 10 pages of this section and 40 pages of something else. He would often ask me to tell him how it all turned out.

Years later, he was as excited as I was to finally see my novels in print. Today, he brags about me and my writing to anyone who will listen. Now he’s waiting anxiously for the next installment. Whenever I’m having anxiety about not being good enough, I can count on him for moral support. I’m lucky to have such a fan. And such a fine son.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

2 Hours/12 Minutes Without a Computer

When my miniMac produced the message "Restart Your Computer" in about five languages, I called Rent a Nerd. Doug said the problem was serious and that he needed to take my computer to his house for a few hours to reinstall my operating system using his computer.

7:07 p.m.: He unplugged my lifeline and walked out the door.

My heart pounded as I watched him drive away. For five minutes, I couldn't focus. I paced the house, trying to reassure myself that it would all turn okay. I had used my flash drive earlier to back up everything I ever wrote—seven novels, five scripts, hundreds of magazine articles, hundreds of query letters, dozens of essays, a handful of blogs, and a zillion other little things. It took 23 minutes to preserve a lifetime of work.

I couldn't stay still. So I started to clean. I swept and mopped the floors, then looked at the clock: 7:36: What now? It was way too early to sit down and relax with a book. That doesn't happen until 10 p.m. and not always then.

I started writing this blog in my head as I dusted the living room. My fingers itched to get the words down as they came to me. But I had no computer. I went back to my husband's office to see if he wanted to take a walk. He wasn't around. But there sat his computer, monitor on and keyboard still warm. It's a PC! I thought. But I needed to write. I needed to be productive. I can do this, I thought. I wrote my first novel on a Commodore 64, my second novel on a Brother word processor, and my third novel on a primitive PC. I looked around his menu for some kind of Word software and couldn’t find any! His Gmail was open, so I clicked "Compose" and started to write. It was awkward using a standard keyboard and Big Bear chair, but I had a story to tell. So I wrote most of this blog in an e-mail and sent it to myself.

8:15 and no call. I found my husband and we went for a walk, cell phone clutched tightly in hand.

9:02 and the phone finally rings. Doug did not have good news. I needed a new machine. But he brought my wounded Mac back to me and fired it up.

9:19 and I’m back in Word, online, and in my familiar world.

Yes, I am addict. And there is no cure.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Trikes, Tattoos, and Turning 40

This morning I'm posting an essay I wrote a few years ago. It's an opportunity to get to know me (and my writing). If I were to write a similar essay today, it would be called "Pain, Pools, and Turing 50." (Sounds like a another blog.)

Last Friday my husband turned 40. This weekend he’s putting the finishing touches on a three-wheeled motorcycle he built from scratch during the last few months. Are these things related? I think so.

First, the man is no mechanic. A fine cabinetmaker and all-around handyman, yes. But typically, I can’t even get him to change the oil in my car without nagging. So last fall when he announced he was going to build a vehicle, I was stunned. And skeptical. I kept it to myself of course, after gently asking, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do, honey? You know how much you hate to work on cars.”

But the “trike” was different—a funky blend of Volkswagen bug and Goldwing motorcycle that resembles a mutant dune buggy with fat tires and cool handle bars. The trike became an obsession. First he brought home the decrepit orange “bug” that would become a fixture in our yard for months. Then he spent hours searching the Internet for information, downloading hundreds of trike pictures in the process. Entire weekends were consumed with trips to Harrisburg and Springfield, tracking down obscure parts and make-shift pieces. Then the long haul began, night after night spent in the garage, step by painful step, putting the thing together.

My husband is not an electrician either, but he mastered the wiring system of a VW and recreated it to make the trike street legal. He also taught himself to weld steel, do extensive bodywork, apply fiberglass, and paint metal. It’s been a tremendous amount of work. I’ve never seen him so happy. Or so obsessed.

Turning 40 isn’t easy. You hear about men buying spendy red sports cars or running off with their secretaries. I’m proud of him for turning his mid-life anxiety into a creative endeavor that the whole family can enjoy. But I’m glad it’s over. The weekly trips to Furrow’s and Knecht’s began to drain our checking account. And I started to think he’d conceived the project just as an excuse to accumulate every tool he ever wanted. (Who really needs a compression gage?)

But I’m mostly anxious to get out on the road. I grew up with motorcycles and have missed the rush of adrenaline that kicks in as you swing your leg over the seat and fire up the motor. I’ll be forty soon enough myself, so I know what he’s been feeling. In fact, I found myself in a tattoo parlor yesterday afternoon having a blue butterfly etched into my calf. How did this happen? my mother and husband both wanted to know.

It was easier than you might think.

The night before, a youngster where I work announced her intention of getting a tattoo, and I was hit with a pang of jealously. I’d wanted one since I was a teenager. But I’d always worried that someday I’d be 40 and cringe at the sight, hearing that nag in my head say, “What in the hell were you thinking?”

But that day was almost here, and so still was the desire. Even the design and color I wanted remained unchanged after 20 some years. When another co-worker, also approaching the big 4-0 said, “Let’s do it,” I thought, why not?

It was a great adventure, a day filled with the same nervous excitement I experience before boarding an airplane—that tumultuous feeling of knowing that when I walked out of there, I would never be exactly the same again. And liking the thought.

Yes, I know, someday I’ll be 60, and possibly I’ll look at my tattoo and shake my head. But I’ll know what I was thinking when I got it. I was thinking that life is short and the thrills are few and far between once mid-life (parentally inspired) maturity sets in. So to hell with convention. Next weekend I’ll throw my tattooed leg over the seat of a trike and ride with the wind.

Monday, August 25, 2008

10 Ways to Keep Your Writing Organized

I’m currently working through the second draft of Secrets to Die For, and I’m continuously reminded of, and grateful for, all the things I do during the first draft that help me create a story without any major glitches: In case it might help you, here’s my process:

1. Once I have a basic story idea, I create an outline. Some people (Stephen King) will tell you not to. (But he’s Stephen King). I fill in as much detail as I can, especially for the first ten chapters and/or plot developments (As info: I use Word, that’s it. No fancy creative writing software.)

2. Next I create a list of POV characters and generate a brief personality sketch and physical description for all. (My rule is never more than 5 or 6 POV characters telling the story, and some of those only have small speaking roles.) Eventually, for POV characters that reoccur in other stories, I add all this information to my long-term character database.

3. Begin writing. I don’t worry about perfect opening lines at this point. It’s important to get the story moving.

4. Fill in the rest of outline as I write first 50 pages or so. Once I’m writing, ideas for the second half keep coming to me, so I add to the outline.

5. Keep an idea journal. As I write, I constantly get ideas (Ryan needs to see Lexa earlier in the story, where?), so I enter them immediately into a Word file. Some of these never get used, but some prove to be crucial.

6. Create a timeline. A lot happens in my stories, which usually take place in about a week or 10 days, and some events happen around the same. I keep the timeline filled in as I write each scene. This way I can always look at my timeline and know exactly when the interrogation took place (Monday, 8 a.m: Jackson interrogates Gorman in the jail). It’s much faster and easier than scrolling through a 350-page word document. And the timeline keeps one POV character from referring to events that haven’t happened yet to another character.

7. Create comprehensive name/detail list. As I write, I keep a list for every named person in the story and include any details they have (physical description, phone number, address, etc.) That way, if I’m trying to remember what I named the morgue assistant, it’s right there in my Word file (morgue assistant: Zeke Plamers).

8. Stop after 50 pages. Then I go back and polish the first chunk of the story in case anyone wants to see the first 50 pages or 3 chapters.

9. Use the highlight feature to tag things I want to come back to, such as a street names for a scene in a particular neighborhood. I don’t let these details interfere with the flow of writing.

10. Keep a list of things to fix. As problems or questions come up (How does Jackson know about Conner’s vehicle?), I enter them into my Fix file, which I keep open at all times when writing. I also glance through it before I begin writing each day.

My first draft is usually lean, mostly dialog and action, but of course it includes some character development and all physical descriptions. In the second draft I fill details for scenery, add some scenes, and slow the story down in places. Never too much description, of course. I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard, who says he leaves out all the stuff that people skip over and don’t read.

My process is in no way perfect, so feel free to share your writing process tips.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Packing for Bouchercon

I’m getting excited about Bouchercon, coming up in October—my first mystery reader/writer conference. I’m waiting to hear if I’ll be picked for a panel. It’s not likely, but I’m always optimistic. When I booked my flight, I had planned on traveling to Bouchercon with my good friend and fellow mystery novelist, Elaine Flinn. But her back condition will keep her home (boo!), so now I’m on my own. But I want to get this right so I’ve already made a list of promotional things to bring and giveaway:

50 books (The Sex Club, paperback, easy to travel with)
250 business cards
100 promotional flyers for my novel
50 promotional flyers for my editing services

I’m also considering making up bookmarks and flyers for my next novel, but is this appropriate? Especially since I don’t have a publisher or date yet? In promotion, repetition is key so the more times people see the name of this novel, the more likely they are to buy it once it comes out. What do you think?

And what am I forgetting? Those of you who have been to this conference, I am open to any advice you’d like to give: what to bring, what to expect, how to best spend my time, etc.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

New Promotional Goals (daily, weekly, monthly)

I made a list of promotional efforts that I want to be more consistent about and decided to share my new goals.

Give out more bookmarks! I read about people who say they do this everywhere and with everyone, and I must get into the habit. Goal: Give out 3 bookmarks a day. And I intend to start ordering them in large quantities from online printers. (Nothing like having 2000 bookmarks sitting around to motivate you to give them away.)

Send out one e-mail a day to writer/mystery/review blogs offering to guest blog or participate in a Q&A.

Send out two e-mails a week to writers I know online offering a free copy of my novel. If they like it, they’ll probably say so. Free promotion from other writers is as good as it gets.

Spend 10 minutes a day on Goodreads in discussion forums and adding books to my list. This is a direct connection to readers.

Spend 10 minutes a day on CrimeSpace. I used to do this everyday, then got out of the habit when I started spending more time on Facebook and Twitter (and blogging everyday). As a result, I’ve noticed a drop off in the number of books I sell on Amazon.

Comment on two other blogs everyday. This one is easy, and I'd like to do more of it, but I have to leave some time for writing novels.

Write one article a month and offer it online magazines—even for no pay—just for exposure. (This will be the hardest one to keep up. I hate writing for free...except for blogging!)

Get all of this into an Excel spreadsheet so I can track it and not get sloppy.

Get up earlier to get it all done!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Pros and Cons of Finding an Agent

Agents are still on my mind, and the world of publishing is changing fast. There are new questions and new answers every day. The question of whether to get an agent used to be a no brainer. Everyone agreed that having an agent was essential to publishing success. That may no longer be true. There are dozens of approachable small publishers. And my own personal experience with agents has not led to success. So now I’m faced with that decision again, and I’m getting conflicting advice. Here’s the pros and cons as I see them:

• An agent has access to editors at major publishing houses and can get your work read and accepted by people with the power to print a large quantity of your novel.
• A good agent can help you develop your story into a marketable manuscript.
• An agent can negotiate a better contract and maybe a better advance.

• Finding an agent can take months or years. (See Wednesday’s post.) And there's no guarantee you ever will.
• An agent will take 15% of any earnings she or he contracts for you (and mystery writers are notoriously underpaid). Some agents steal from their clients. See Tess Gerritsen’s post on Murderati.
• Most agents will want to help shape your story. This can be good or bad. It’s all subjective. An editor may like your story better the way it is. You never know. Either way, it takes time.
• An agent may only submit your novel to five or six major publishing houses, then give up (leaving you to submit to small publishers anyway).
• An agent may quit or move to another another agency after you’ve signed a contract. (Yes, this happened to me too.)

The disadvantages seem to outnumber the advantages. But the first benefit is so huge, that if it happens, its tips the scale. But that’s still a big IF. And I keep reading stories about people who say they didn’t get published until they gave up on finding an agent.

Tell me what you think. Do you really need an agent?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Sex Club Meets Straight From Hel

You heard right! The infamous Helen of Straight From Hel chats with L.J. Sellers, the infamous author of The Sex Club.

This is a Q&A you don't want to miss! So click straight over:

Straight From Hel

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Outrageous Agent Contest

In honor of all the hardworking agents in this business, I’m holding a contest today for the most outrageous story about a writer’s experience with an agent. The winner gets a copy of my novel (or if you already have my novel, I’ll host you on my blog—whoopee!) Being a good host, I’ll go first.

In August 2003, I attended a writers’ conference and pitched two novels to an agent I’ll call “Susie Strange." (You can name your agent, if you’d like. I have good reason not to.) She loved both pitches and asked to see full manuscripts for both novels, which I happened to have with me. So off she went to New York with about 170,000 words of mine. I waited the customary two months, then sent an e-mail. No response. I eventually sent another e-mail and made a phone call with absolutely no acknowledgment that I even existed. But this is not the bizarre part.

I went on with my life and wrote yet another novel called The Sex Club. As I neared the end of process, I started sending out query letters (with 3 chapters) to agents—knowing how long it takes them to respond. I sent one (on a whim) to Susie Strange. You know the opening: “We met once at a conference …” The date on that Word document is October 21, 2004.

A year later, I signed with a different agent, spent another year working with her on the story, then she failed to sell it. Then I spent another year or so bringing it to print through a niche publisher, followed by months of promoting it.

Then on February 7, 2008, I received a call from someone in Susie Strange’s agency. I didn’t recognize the caller’s name, but I knew the agency. The caller said she had read the first three chapters of The Sex Club and wanted to see the entire manuscript. I was confused at first. “What do you mean you want to see the manuscript? It’s a published book.” Then it hit me. She was responding to the query I had sent THREE YEARS AND THREE MONTHS ago!

The poor woman was new to the agency and had inherited an old slush pile, but she handled the situation gracefully. She asked if I was working on anything else and agreed to read the first 50 pages of Secrets to Die For. She got back to me within three weeks and said she loved it. Now she’s waiting for me to send the entire manuscript. As much as I want to be represented (as all writers do!), the idea of working with her makes a little nervous. After all, she is a protégée of Susie Strange.

First, I mean no disrespect to other agents. In fact, I have a very positive agent story to tell someday.
Second, the poll: Should I send her the manuscript? Should I send it to other agents as well?
Third, the contest: Can you top that outrageous agent story?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mystery/Suspense Review Sites

Another very busy day ahead (editing corporate profiles), so today I offer another version of the “lazy woman’s blog.” (Actually, it took a while, but I didn't have to think much!) Crime writers might find it useful. Following is a list of places to send your mystery and/or suspense novel for review:

Ellery Queen

Crime Spree
Mystery News (Black Raven Press)
Mystery Scene
Deadly Pleasures
The Strand
Crime Time
Mystery Readers Journal (if it fits a theme)
Crime and Suspense Ezine
Over My Dead Body
January Magazine
The Mystery Reader
Reviewing the Evidence
Tangled Web
January Magazine
Dead End Books
Mysterious Reviews
Bloodstained Book Reviews

If you know other good mystery review sites, please share.

Monday, August 18, 2008

New Book Cover (or Lazy Woman's Blog)

After 17 straight days of blogging, I'm giving my readers a rest. (I never actually run out of things to say.) I'm in the middle of revamping my website, with the main purpose of putting up a mock book cover for Secrets to Die For. . . so readers don't think I'm a one-book wonder. This is what my good friend and talented graphic artist Gwen Rhoads came up with on short notice.

The blurb (which will eventually go on the back cover) reads:
A brutal murder, conflicting evidence, and a target victim with a secret to hide—can Detective Jackson uncover the truth in time to save her?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Slowing Down for Feedback

I am one of the most impatient people I know. I want everything to happen now! And this is most true when it comes to sending out my work: articles to magazines, letters to potential clients, fiction manuscript to agents and publishers. I am always excited about my project and want to send it off as soon as I’ve finished it. And in the past, I have—only to discover later a typo or inconsistency. Or to come up with a better idea that it’s too late to include.

I am learning—the hard way—to slow down. Let the piece chill for a day, or a week, or a month. Look at it again. Show it others first. Rethink the whole thing. This is not easy for me.

Recently, Helen posted a question about the reader hook. Does the book have to grab you in the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, or the first chapter? I responded: First line is best, but by the end of the first page is essential. So now I need to know if I can pass my own litmus test. This is the first paragraph of my new novel, Secrets to Die For. Is it good enough to make you keep reading?

Sierra shut off the motor and glanced up at the puke-green doublewide with a chunk of plywood over the front window. The near dusk couldn’t hide the broken dreams of the trailer’s occupants, Bruce and Cindy Gorman. But Sierra wasn’t here to see them. She was here for Josh, their eight-year-old son.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

I’ve been sending my novel (with permission) to other writers I’ve gotten to know online. I haven’t directly asked them for a blurb, but that is my hope, that they’ll saying something nice that I can use for promotion. I’m also lining up writers to read and blurb (yes, it can be used as a verb) my new Detective Jackson manuscript with the idea that it will help sell it. This is common practice in the industry. I haven’t asked, nor do I want, anyone to lie or fudge or say something they don’t mean. But apparently, this is common practice in the industry too.

J.A. Konrath
has written extensively about the dishonesty in the blurbing business (authors who give rave blurbs without ever reading the book), but now the NY Times reports that a company has taken it to a new level: Blurbs for Sale.

Now I wonder if there’s any point in what I’d doing. Does the blurb still have value or has it become meaningless? Have you ever bought a book because a writer you like said good things about it? Will you do it again in the future?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Online Promotional Etiquette

This seems to be a hot topic, and so it's worth revisiting.

Even though I’ve been participating in the online community (in a significant way) for six months, I still feel like I don’t know all the rules about promotion. Yesterday, for example, a woman on a mystery list serv said she was in a funk and couldn’t get into any of the books she had at the house. So I sent her an e-mail and offered to mail her a copy of The Sex Club. Then instantly wondered: Was that improper? Will that be considered blatant self-promotion and therefore, unwelcome? So I sent another e-mail immediately afterwards and apologized. She was not offended and sent back her mailing address. But it’s so easy to cross this line. I know. I’ve done it. Because I’m never sure where it is. Especially after reading the following post from another blog about online promotional etiquette:

“You can’t just barrel in and announce you’re everyone’s friend and aren’t they lucky you have a book out now for everyone to buy. Well, you could. But I’m trying to be effective, not stupid. I get those emails a lot from people. I routinely delete them without reply. Every other blogger I talk to does the same thing. I see those kinds of posts on listservs I belong to, and I skim right over it as the ineffective mention that it is. The books I do mention on my blog, are by people I know, and like, and want to promote. The books I do notice on listservs are those talked about by actual readers as books they liked . . .”

I’m the kind of person who usually doesn’t hesitate to introduce myself or ask a question. I figure there’s no harm in doing so. But now I wonder if I can do actual harm to my writing career if I cross the line too many times or offend the wrong person by sending an unwanted e-mail. So what are the rules? Tell me what you think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Master of Interruptions

One of my corporate freelance clients sends me work in waves, and right now I’m riding a tsunami of company profiles that just keep coming. So my nearly completed second Detective Jackson manuscript (Secrets to Die For) is languishing, with only an hour dedicated to it each morning—and half of that spent trying to wake up.

The bigger problem is my family members (for whom I am the go-to guy) don’t really get it when I say, “I can’t talk right now, I’m working” or “I can’t give you a ride, I’m on the clock.” They assume that if I’m home—and setting my own hours—I should be flexible enough to accommodate just about anything.

I’m sure thousands of writers have learned to deal with this, and I will too. I’ve only been a full-time freelance for five months. (I did work at home for a magazine for a year, but that’s another blog.) Yesterday, I started screening calls and simply let the phone ring. Then felt so guilty. What if my brother needed me to drive him to the hospital? What if my mother fell down and couldn’t get up? (I checked in late last night and they’re both okay.)

But still, I have another profile to crank out today… and I have to decide how to handle all the interruptions (mine included). I’d love to hear from freelancers who have mastered this situation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Things I Want to Know

I’m veering off the subject of writing again for a moment to do a little more raving. Here are some hump-day humdinger questions:

Why do bills (i.e., monthly invoices from the electric and cable company) say “amount enclosed”? Is the payable amount optional? Can I send $49 instead of the $178 that’s listed in the amount due box? Or do they think this little phrase might encourage some people to pay extra?

Why is the checker at Albertsons wearing a wrinkled white t-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms? Is it “come as you are day” or has our culture gone that casual? (I work at home, and I still get dressed every day.) But does it matter? Is he any less efficient? Why does it bug me?

Why do men reorganize everything in the dishwasher before starting it? What difference does it make if the plates are lined up straight or not? Did men all attend the same disherwasher-loading class? And if they have five minutes to donate to housework—why don’t they do something useful instead and scrub a toilet?

Speaking of toilets, why is it so hard to start a roll of toilet paper? It’s as if the first six layers are melded together with Super Glue. Why is that necessary? Why can’t it be more like peeling up a little yellow sticky note?

If you know the answers, please share.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

L.J.'s Many Names

It’s serendipitous that Dani tagged me in this meme. I was just thinking about why I have always used my initials as a writer, as opposed to my given name: Linda. When I was young, I heard my father say that men were better writers than women. So from day one as a journalist, I submitted my work under the name L.J. Sellers, so readers could not prejudge my writing based on gender. And as an employee in the work place, there were usually too many other Lindas, so I always said, “Call me L.J.” But if I were to write under pseudonyms, here’s some possibilities.

1. Real name plus my husband’s last name: Linda Hutchison

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

3. Detective name: (favorite color/favorite animal) Blue Lemur

4. Soap Opera name: (middle name and street) Jean Lorrane

5. Star Wars name: (first 3 letters last name, first 2 letters first name) Selli

6. Superhero name: (2nd favorite color/favorite drink) Fuchsia D. Pepper

7. Witness Protection name: (parents’ middle names) Patricia Clark

8. Goth name: (black plus the name of one of your pets) Black Magoo

If I were ever to write a romance, Jean Lorrane would be the byline. And someday, when I write the futuristic thriller I have in mind, I think I'll go with Fuchsia Pepper. She's somebody I'd like to be some days. What's your favorite pseudonym?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blog Surfing Etiquette

All this blogging and reading and commenting on other blogs has brought up a question about etiquette. Most comment sections identify the commenter by name only (whatever they’ve signed in as). My instinct (as Karen Syed has trained me now) is to always include a link to one of my sites after my name or some kind of reference, such as: Author of The Sex Club. If someone likes what I've said and wants to know more about me, my blog, or my novel, it seems logical to let them know where to find me.

But I wonder: Is this socially acceptable in the blogosphere? A random survey of the blogs I visit indicates that most posters do not even include a full name signature, they just let the comment box identify them. So it uncool to post a url? Does it depend on the blog site and how well you know the person? What is your practice? What is your opinion?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Writing Habits of L.J. Sellers (as if you wanted to know)

I got tagged (thanks Marvin) for telling you all about myself, so here it is:

1) Computer, longhand, or other?

The only thing I write with a pen are lists. I have loved computers for writing anything and everything since the first day I sat down at one.

2) Coffee or tea?

Both! And lots of it. I start with strong black coffee (grinding the beans and all), then switch to green tea (lemongrass or jasmine), then drink licorice tea at night.

3) Day or night?

As my blog’s subhead says, “First thing every day.” I can, and do, write at night sometimes, but I struggle with it. (See April blog entry: Shaking It Up.)

4) Favorite genre to write?

I write what I love to read: mystery/suspense. I also write comedy for my standup routine, and I have written three comedy screenplays. I love writing comedy, but it’s very hard work. Some people manage to combine crime and comedy, but for me, they’re like oil and water, and I just can’t mix ‘em.

5) Pencil or pen to edit?

I edit my own work on screen, but I prefer to edit other people’s fiction on paper. I use three writing utensils: the black pen mark means “make this edit,” the pencil means “consider this syntax edit,” and the yellow highlighter means “look at this repetition or inconsistency.”

6) Unusual writing quirk or trait?

I wish I had something funny or cute to tell you, but I don't write naked and I don't wear hats for inspiration. In truth, I write very lean. My first drafts are mostly action and dialogue. Then I have to go back and fill with more detail and characterization.

7) Writing from home or writing in a cozy café?
I use an ergonomic keyboard, I can’t function without a mouse, and my workstation at home lets me stand up and work for periods throughout the day. In other words, I'm spoiled. Why would I go anywhere else?

8) Music or silence while your write?

Years ago, I could write with three boys playing Nintendo in the room. Now I like it quiet. But I’m going to try Karen’s suggestion of certain music for certain scenes.

9) Favorite motivational writing quote?
My own: Life is short. Get it done.

10) Favorite bookmark?

I use one of my own for THE SEX CLUB. It reminds me that I can write too.

11) Favorite fictional character of all time?

Tough question. Who comes to mind today is Irwin Fletcher, made famous by Chevy Chase. I loved the books and the movies! He’s a great example of combining crime and comedy.

12) Most admired living writer today?

I can’t pick a living writer because there’s too many. My favorite writer of all time though is Lawrence Sanders. He’s incredibly versatile and always entertaining.

And I tag Charlotte to go next.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

How to Be Happy

Lately, strategies for happiness have been in the news, and I've adopted them to my benefit. Two prominent ideas have a common theme. The first is to stop complaining. Completely. No exceptions. You train yourself to do this by wearing a band on your wrist. Every time you complain, you have to move it to the other wrist. The goal is to go 21 days without complaining—or moving the band. I’ve never made it 21 days (because some whining is cathartic!), and I stopped wearing the band (it’s summer!). But I keep doing the mental checks. It’s very productive in controlling negative thought cycles.

A second secret to happiness, which has been promoted recently in articles by psychologists and counselors, is to be grateful everyday. They say the strategy is most effective when you write down, everyday, the things you are grateful for (more listmaking!). The theory is that feeling grateful is a clear path to happiness. And it works by keeping your thought processes in a positive mode.

Then if you throw in the concept from the popular self-help book, The Secret, the formula for happiness is this: Stop complaining, express gratitude every day, and ask the universe for what you want.

The universe has not yet given me everything I want, but I have everything I need and I’m happy in my effort to go out and get the rest for myself.

PS Here is my gratitude list for the day: great family (husband especially), good health, flexible lifestyle, readers who love my work. What are you grateful for? What keeps you happy (and sane)?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Never Give Up (if you know its good)

Last weekend I finished the first draft of my new Detective Jackson novel (yes, I write and edit on weekends too), and so this week, I’m going back through to rewrite and clean up (find all the places where characters have morphed and street names have changed). This is such a strange process. One moment I’m excited and happy and thinking “This is the one. This is the novel that will be a breakthrough and get people’s attention.” Then two pages later, I’m disgusted by a line of dialogue, doubtful about the whole plot, and scared that this manuscript will suffer the same fate as all the others.

What is that fate? Here’s the short version of my “Almost” story.

My first “almost” was about ten years ago. I had a great story and found a great agent (president of Writers’ House) who sent my manuscript out to five editors at major publishers. One day he called and said, “Michelle Whatshername at HarperCollins loves your manuscript, and I’ll have an offer for you next week.” I danced around the house for days, but the offer never came and my agent gave up. I was so crushed, I stopped writing novels for a few years. (I wrote screenplays, instead. A whole ‘nother story.)

My second “almost” was two years ago. I finished another story that I was excited about, found an agent who said, “This story has great commercial potential,” then she sent it out to five editors at major publishing houses. Those editors said things like: “I read this story in one sitting!” “The writing is excellent.” “This is an outstanding piece of fiction.” But nobody bought it because the victims are underage. That story is THE SEX CLUB, which I brought to the market through a niche publisher. (An effort similar to using a toothbrush to dig a hole for swimming pool.) But readers love the story and want more.

So now I have another Detective Jackson novel, soon to be finished. I don’t want to go the same niche-publisher route (my toothbrush is worn out and my fingers are numb), and I have two agents who read the first 50 pages and are excited to see the rest. But this process—agent, wait, submission, wait, “no thanks”—scares me big time. Will it be a case of “Third time is the charm” or “Three strikes and your out”? I’m not sure I can take another “Almost.” But I am sure that I’m not giving up yet.

PS: Read tomorrow's post to find out how I stay happy through the crushing disappointments.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Listmaking vs. Goofing Off

As I drank a second cup of coffee and made a specific list of things to do today, my husband said, “Why don’t you take a day off? You know, just goof off for the whole day.” I rolled my eyes (while he laughed hysterically), then went back to my listmaking—which I may have taken to a new level.

First, there’s the life-quest master list, with all the big ideas like: Make the NY Times bestseller list, lose 7 pounds, be nicer to the husband. Nothing comes off the list until it’s accomplished. “Quit smoking” was on the list for 10 years (scratched it off 15 years ago!), and “Lose 7 pounds” has been there since college. (Maybe a nasty bout of food poisoning will eventually take care of that.)

Then there’s the ongoing writing/promoting/career list with things like: “Create a master list of character descriptions” and “Create and post a book discussion guide” (still haven’t done that). Then there’s the daily list of every little thing for that day, such as: blog, bike ride, work on novel, update website, water flowers before they die, have sex. Often there’s a fourth list of things to do while I’m out and about: bank, haircut, post office, Fred Myer. That list may include a list of things to buy at FM, or I may have a fifth little post-it note on my wallet that says: decaf, mints, meaties.

I also have lists for: books to read, blogging ideas, nonfiction article ideas, novel ideas, places to visit, websites to check out, editors, publishers, agents, and more.

So now you’re thinking, “That is truly anal.” And you are truly right.

But I get things done.

So back to my original thought: Have I ever goofed off for a whole day when I wasn’t on vacation in some place other than my home? Actually, no, I haven’t. Can I do it?

No, not a whole day.

But I recognize the need to occasionally have fun. (On vacation, I go all out and don’t even answer my phone. Scroll to the bottom of the page and see the photos for proof. ) But maybe I can sneak in a little fun now and then between vacations. But the only way it’s gonna happen is if I put it on the “must-do-today list.” Maybe I’ll give that try . . . when I get through list number 2.

PS: Did anyone notice that I didn't use cleaning as an example on my lists? (See blog title.)
Is anyone else a compulsive listmaker? Are there support groups for the addiction?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Party Crasher

Being a new author often feels like being the new kid in school. The cliques are already established and everybody else seems to belong. The fact that my book is from a micropublisher makes me feel like a party crasher too. I’m not on the list. I came in through the back door. People are being polite, but I suspect that they know I shouldn’t be there.

I know this sounds a little paranoid and it’s not typical of me. But recently I was unfriended on Facebook by another popular author (meaning well-liked by other authors), and that’s what started this whole introspection. I’m normally very self-confident, and I used to be unconcerned with the opinions of strangers. But as a novelist, you have to care about the opinions of strangers. In fact, you have to seek out the opinions of hundreds or, if you’re lucky, thousands of strangers.

I’m planning a trip to Bouchercon this October, and on the list of attendees, there’s an “A” by my name. So it’s official, I’m an author. But I can’t join Thriller Writers or Mystery Writers of America because Spellbinder Press is not on their list. (Thanks, Sisters in Crime for not being elitist! And thanks Mystery Scene magazine and all the reviewers who read and loved THE SEX CLUB.) A little part of me is afraid that before I get to B-con, someone will decide I’m not a real author and take away my badge.

The upside is that readers don’t care who published the book. They either like it or they don’t. And so far, readers like me. They really like me.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Career Misfits (aka, Love What You Do)

Today, I veer completely off the subject of writing to indulge in my second favorite pastime, raving. And today’s rave is about Career Misfits—people who seem to be particularly unqualified, at least on the surface, for the job they do.

For example, a women I met recently proudly claimed to be a hairdresser. I glanced at her “coiffure” (a white-blond crewcut with black roots) and thought to myself, never in a million years would I let this woman touch my hair. I could achieve more sympathetic results with chemotherapy. The poor woman might be surprisingly good with a pair of scissors, but who in their right mind would take the chance?

Then there’s the woman I encounter socially, very sweet, but substantially overweight. One evening I asked what she did for a living. (Are you cringing?) Of course, she owns a weight-loss clinic. I stood there nodding, completely speechless for the first time in my life. What should I have said? “New in the business?”

Seriously, how can you sell a product when you’re visible proof of its failure? It would be like Jason Alexander (aka, George Castanza) trying to pitch Rogaine. Don’t they know better? Doesn’t it hurt? Or is it possible they simply lack a sense of irony? If there were only a few of these characters, I’d call it a karmic snafu and let it go. But they are everywhere!

There’s the guy behind the counter at the health food store who raves about the benefits of nutritional supplements yet looks like he hasn’t eaten or slept well in weeks. And the brother-in-law who struggles to make a living as a remodeler, while his own home is such a cosmetic nightmare I’d love to torch it and make him start from scratch. (As a writer, I'm lucky there's no way to judge my competence by looking at me or the books on my shelf.)

I once knew cook who loved to grow exotic plants. When he told me he was studying psychology at the U of O, I impulsively blurted out, “Why? If you love plants, study botany. The key to happiness in life is finding something you love to do, then doing it until you’re good enough to make a living.”

I stand by my words. If these mismatched folks love what they do and are happy doing it, then more power to them. I will continue to bite my tongue—and ask for references.

Monday, August 4, 2008


I finished the first draft of my new novel, Secrets to Die For, yesterday. It’s nowhere near ready to go out to anyone, but it’s such a great feeling to have the whole story down on paper. To have a new product to sell. It’s impossible to get the attention of agents or editors without a finished manuscript. And at the moment, I have no freelance work in house. So I have a free day. And it will be a promopalooza! Here’s what I hope to accomplish:

Blog (done)
Update my website (create a page for Secrets to Die For, add more links, etc.)
Update my blog (add links to guest blogs, add a sitemeter, upload book trailer)
Post on all four list serves
Write/send query letters to agents
Send out free copies of The Sex Club to weekly winners and others
Query various blogs about appearing as a guest author or blogger
Update my books on GoodReads (add friends too)
Write and post a book discussion guide to website (this has been on list forever!)
Write and post a note on FB about blogging every day in August
Check out the 50 websites I’ve bookmarked and never got back to
Query people about reading my newly finished manuscript/ask for blurbs
Find a roommate for Bouchercon
Finish reading discussion novel and create list of questions

There’s more, of course, and I won’t get it all done today. But the list never goes away, and eventually, I'll get to it all. Meanwhile, I’d better get busy.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Second Worst Thing About Being a Novelist

I mentioned yesterday that now as a novelist I read differently than I did before I starting writing fiction. I am aware of POV changes (subtle and not), plot devices, foreshadowing, pacing, and more. Noticing these things often makes me stop and think, “Why did the author do that?” I am also extremely busy and have to make time to read, so if a book doesn’t grab me—or makes me stop too often to think about the author—I put it in the giveaway pile and move on. Consequently, I only finish one out of every three or four novels I start. (Which is why I almost never buy hardback books, but that’s another subject.) I don’t mean to imply that all these books are bad or unreadable, they just weren’t right for me.

Also as a novelist, I’m trying to get to know and network with other writers. I’ve made many friends online, and I look forward to meeting all these nice/funny/interesting people in person at conferences. But here’s the sticky part: What do I say if they ask me if I liked their novel and it was one of those I put down? Social training tells me to tell a little white lie and quickly change the subject: “Great writing. What are you working on now?” Let me point out that this causes me great anxiety. I want to like the work of everyone I know. (And I have taken a vow to never ask anyone that question about my own work.)

Here’s the trickier part. I’m a member of several mystery discussion groups, the point of which is to discuss books we’ve read. Other novelists are also members of these groups. How do I discuss a novel I didn’t really care for without offending or alienating the author who may be reading my posts? And what if I signed up to be the moderator for the discussion (before I read the book)? Which means I can’t just sit back and be quiet. I face this dilemma today. I’m supposed to discuss a book I haven’t finished. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with it. The writing is good and many people would find the character compelling. I just don’t care for gun-toting, hard-drinking, wise-ass men. Or stories about the mob. Being the kind of person who can be counted on to follow through, I’ll finish the book, post intelligent questions, and try to be as diplomatic as possible with my own opinions.
But I won’t volunteer to moderate any more discussions unless I’ve already read the book and loved it. Or the author is no longer living.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Worst Thing About Being a Novelist

As I opened my e-mail this morning and read through the new mystery list-serv postings, the theme was “July Reads.” At first I thought, I could post about this. Then I realized it wouldn’t be much of an offering. I didn’t actually finish a single book last month. I started several but lost interest and put them down. (More about that phenomenon tomorrow.) But I don’t lack for novels to read. I have a huge TBR pile.

For me, the worst thing about being a novelist is the lack of time to read novels! Before I started writing novels, I read at least one or two books a week. Now I feel lucky if I can read 10 novels a year. And it kills me. Especially when I meet other mystery/crime authors. I’d love to be able to say, “I read your new novel and I loved it.” But most of the time, I haven’t read any of their work.

I don’t know how to get around this. I’ve given up what little TV that I used to watch and that has helped some. But still, working as an editor, writing new novels, promoting my published novel, online networking, and spending time with family uses up almost every minute of every day. And the only one of those activities that I’d give up voluntarily is my editing job. (But then I’d end up homeless.) So not having enough fiction reading time is a painful sacrifice I have to make, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

As a novelist, I read fiction differently now too. The author’s choices (POV, pacing, foreshadowing, syntax) are always present. It’s much harder to simply be absorbed into a story and transported away for hours the way I used to. Sometimes I think that being an avid reader (back in the day) was more fun than being a novelist. But there’s no going back. I am a storyteller now; it defines me.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Being Faithful

As I drank my coffee and checked my list of things to do this morning, I vacillated about how to structure my day. A six-hour freelance editing project was sitting in my “in progress” file, waiting to be started. I was raised with the “work first, play latter” mantra, so my left brain kept telling me to do the freelance work and get it over, then work on my novel. But my novel beckoned me too. Secrets to Die For is so close to being a finished rough draft that it’s like being near the end of an exciting book and not wanting to put it down.

Then I remembered the August blogging challenge and opened my blog. And there were my words, “Write First, Clean Later.” Of course, I get paid to freelance edit, so it’s not exactly in the same category as cleaning, but still, “Write First.” And so I decided to be faithful to myself, my mantra, and my novel. Writing this blog is the only thing I doing before getting to work on my novel. But it’s writing, so it counts.