Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I've Moved

Thanks everyone for reading and commenting here on Blogger with me. I appreciate your support and participation! After a long (and somewhat painful process), I've finally created a new site that combines my blog and my website. (I've coined the word blogsite, but it doesn't seem to be gaining any common usage :)

So click over to my new space and bookmark it. I hope to add more RSS features in the future and make dozens of other changes, but be patient. Wordpress is challenging, and the site is a work in progress. I intend for it to be reader friendly and interactive. For example, I have a book discussion page where you can post questions about my novels and I'll attempt to answer them.

I also hope to post photos and links and events. But for now, I'm blogging, and I hope you'll join me. My first blog is about what constitutes good writing. Stop in and tell me what you think.


Write First, Clean Later

Monday, May 11, 2009

Scene of a Homicide

I was on my way to an interview yesterday with a homicide detective, and she called to cancel because she was at a homicide scene. Of course I responded, “Can I come down there? Please!”

So I ended up at a riverside park with the whole homicide team, asking questions and feeling giddy with excitement. I know, I know. A person was dead, and that's a tragedy. But I couldn’t help it. It made me think about the show and character Castle, and how excited he gets when he’s called out to a homicide. How silly it seemed for him. Hah! I felt like a teenager at a party with the cool kids.

Of course, they didn’t let me anywhere near the body (dang!), but still, the afternoon was very educational. I learned about a cool gadget called “total station” that’s used to create computerized maps of the area. And I learned that a big guy in a black undertaker-like suit driving a mini van comes to pick up the body. I’m still checking it out, but I think he’s a contractor for the county who simply picks up dead bodies when called out and takes them to the autopsy room at the hospital. A mini van! It’s not how I visualized it.

Mostly what I realized is that you can strive for realism when you write these scenes, but you can’t replicate reality or you’ll bore your readers to death. Everything happens very slowly—unless the killer is still on the scene. Otherwise, there’s lots of standing around. When I showed up, the detectives were all eating pizza out of box flopped open on the hood of a cruiser. It seemed so odd, I almost laughed out loud. Nobody eats pizza at the homicide scenes I write, and no one ever will.

Other things I learned about the sergeant who invited me to the scene:
  • She supervises a team of eight male detectives and gets no flack about her gender.
  • She remembers the name of every homicide victim she and her team have investigated.
  • She’s still going to sit down with me for a formal interview next week, so I can ask about her career and write a profile about her for the paper.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Is Your Day Job Good for Your Writing?

I read a blog post recently that claimed having a day job is good for your writing career and it made me wonder. She supported the claim with several points, the first being that having a steady income is a good thing. No argument there. If your novels are not paying the mortgage, something has to. But putting aside the money/necessity issue, I’m not sure most day jobs are good for a fiction writing career. In fact, I'd bet most novelists would give up their day jobs in a heartbeat if they didn’t need the money. (The exception being doctors and lawyers.)

The blogger’s second point—that it “gives you the urgency to write when you do have time”— may be true if you’re a receptionist in a chiropractor’s office who spends most of the day reading magazines. But if your day job is, say, editorial project coordinator for an educational publisher, and you spend your day writing copy, editing galleys, generating ideas, tracking documents, planning and attending meetings, etc., then it’s very likely your brain power will be spent by the end of the day and no matter how much you want to work on your novel after dinner, it probably won’t happen. Or you’ll try and get very little done. On the other hand, a job that leaves you physically exhausted but requires no real brain energy (pulling green chain) might allow you to be more creatively productive in your free time. Having done both jobs, I speak from experience. (The chiropractor receptionist job I just made up. )

Another supporting point was that it “provides material for your writing.” Again, it depends on the job. The green chain job offers little in the way of stimulus for characters or scenarios, but it will give you that “urgency” to write. That sense of “I must finish this novel and get it published so I can quit this hellish job before I go insane.” Then of course, some writers get whole novels out of their day jobs (The Devil Wears Prada). Most jobs fall some where in the middle of the continuum as far being a source.

My own situation is that I work three days a week for a newspaper, which provides a steady paycheck. But on those days, after writing copy all day, I don’t write novels when I get home. I also do freelance editing and manuscript evaluations. But I do those projects on nights and weekends after I work on my novel. So most days, my personal writing gets the biggest surge of my creative juices. And this is why I’ve been able to write two novels in the last fourteen months. Not because I have more free time, but because I have more focus.

What do you think? Is your day job good for your writing career? Would you give it up if money wasn’t an issue?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hope for All Writers

Screenwriter William Goldman is famous for saying “nobody knows anything” about the people running Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Recent book discussion chatter about one of the Edgar winners leads me to think this is true of the publishing industry as well. (I’ve had my suspicions for a while.)

China Lake by Meg Gardiner won the Edgar for best paperback original. I have not read this book and, considering what my listmates at 4 Mystery Addicts and Dorothy L have to say about it, I probably never will. But based on dozens of comments, I have to wonder how it beat out every other paperback published that year.
Here’s just a sampling:
  • “I felt the protagonist, who had the maturity level of a 10-year-old, spent most of her time being too stupid to live, the police were portrayed as complete idiots—from the very beginning. From the structure of the chapters, to some of the worst metaphors I've ever read, to terrible dialogue, there were times I felt as though English were the author's second language.”
  • “The only thing that kept me from throwing China Lake against the wall was I was reading it in e-book form and couldn't throw the computer that far.”
  • “Our mystery readers' group read China Lake and the highest rating it received was ‘okay,’ otherwise it was rated ‘not recommended’ or ‘did not finish.’”
  • Hated the Gardiner and DNF'd it. (meaning Did Not Finish)
If you’ve read the book, please share what you think.

The point here is not to criticize this author. We’ve all had negative reactions to our work. What I mean to say is that the publishing industry (and the awards process) isn’t logical. There is no scientific way to measure the quality of a story. Strangely enough, the contradiction inherent in this novel winning an award gives me hope for every talented writer who has yet to be widely recognized. If a book this criticized can win an Edgar, then your book can win over an agent, find a publisher, and be loved by readers and reviewers.

Do not ever give up because one agent said you couldn’t write or five publishers said no thanks. I’ve had publishers tell me they loved my novel, then say no thanks anyway. The lesson here is to try not to make too much sense of it. It will drive you crazy. Just keep writing and improving. There’s hope for everyone.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Many POVs Do You Need?



As a fiction editor and evaluator, the most common problem I encounter is with point of view. The advice I constantly give writers is: Stick with one POV for chunks of text, then signal the change if you need to tell part of the story from another character's point of view.

Chester Campbell—career journalist and author of two mystery series featuring private investigators—takes the subject further and discusses the pros and cons of different POV approaches.


In my Greg McKenzie mystery series, the stories are all written first person from Greg’s point of view. This has become sort of standard for private investigators. I did vary it in the first two books with third person prologues. That gave me the ability to provide the reader with background information on the books that Greg was not aware of until later in his investigation.

The first person viewpoint gives a feeling of immediacy, allowing the reader to follow along with the detective, picking up the clues as he does. But it also means neither he nor the reader gets to see what else is going on nearby, out of sight or earshot, as they say. Greg’s wife, Jill, who becomes a partner in McKenzie Investigations, appears only as Greg sees her, or as she reveals herself through her dialogue.

When I decided to write a new series with a different protagonist, I switched to third person so I could use multiple points of view. That permitted the reader to learn what was going on in different areas than just where the main protagonist was involved. I was aware, however, that switching too often and involving too many different viewpoint characters could become confusing to the reader.

I gave my main character, Sid Chance, an unusual sidekick to share the viewpoint, sometimes with separate scenes in the same chapter, occasionally through separate chapters. She’s a successful businesswoman, board chair of a chain of truck stops founded by her father. But she comes with an intriguing past. Early in life she was kicked out of the family by her aristocratic mother for wandering into such unsophisticated circles as Air Force Security Police and championship professional boxing. She was a Metro Nashville policewoman before returning to her father’s good graces after her mother died.

Jaz LeMieux gets her first shot at the viewpoint in Chapter 5, after learning that her housekeeper’s grandson has disappeared. What has happened to the grandson becomes a crucial subplot and provides most of Jaz’s opportunity to take the spotlight. This subplot is woven in throughout the book, right up to the end.

Using the old technique of the thriller, I also tossed in a few brief POV shifts to update things from the bad guys’ viewpoint. It was designed to ramp up the tension. One thing I’ve avoided is shifting viewpoints within a scene. Most critics highly recommend against that technique, although I have seen it done effectively.

From my observation, it seems that the objections to changes in points of view are becoming more moderate. I’ve read several comments lately from authors who feel it isn’t as troublesome as previously thought. I suspect most readers, outside the sophisticated folks found in places like the DorothyL listserv, have little familiarity with the technicalities of point of view. Their only concern is that the story reads smoothly and they don’t have to re-read parts to find out who is talking or whose thoughts they are listening to.

If we achieve that goal, our multiple POV manuscripts should be successful. With readers, that is. With editors, that’s another matter.

Readers: How do you feel about multiple points of views?
Writers: Have you struggled with this issue or had editors request POV changes?

This is next to the last stop on Chester’s blog book tour for The Surest Poison. Leave a comment and you will be eligible to win some of his books. The final drawing tomorrow night will be for an autographed copy of The Surest Poison and the grand prize, a copy of all five of his books, including four in the Greg McKenzie series.

Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. The Surest Poison is the first book in the Sid Chance series. Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. He's also the secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Kindle Readers Aren't Snobs

“It's really expensive,” she [Sara Nelson, ex-editor of Publishers Weekly] said of the Kindle 2, which Amazon sells for $359. “If you're going to pay that, you're giving a statement to the world that you like to read - and you're probably not using it to read a mass market paperback.”

What? Kindle readers are too high-minded for mass market paperbacks? Hah! Do Kindle readers have a type? If I had to guess, I'd say they have two shared characteristics: they love to read and they're not afraid of new technology.

What is Nelson saying anyway? Because the Kindle is expensive, you shouldn't read genre fiction on it? You mean like drinking Budweiser out of a champaign flute? As though there's something low-class about mass market paperbacks!

The article went to say when people read on Kindles, you can't see their book titles, so you can't make judgments about what they're reading. It's about time. That's why I sell more copies of The Sex Club on Kindle than anywhere else. People don't have to ask out loud for it or let anyone see their purchase, which readers have admitted was embarrassing for them.

Meanwhile, here's the top 10 selling books on Kindle last week. If they're not mass market paperbacks now, most of them will be in a few months.
  1. Long Lost by Harlan Coben
  2. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  6. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  7. Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. Just Take My Heart: A Novel by Mary Higgins Clark
  10. Handle with Care: A Novel by Jodi Picoult
Do you own a Kindle? Do you download books for the masses every once in a while?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Publisher, an Agent, and a New Novel

I recently completed my third Jackson story—working title, Thrilled to Death. Most of my early readers think it’s the best Jackson story yet. We’ll see. The first person I sent it to was an editor at Berkley who asked to see in January while I was still writing it. She read the first two stories, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, and loved both. But she didn’t think she could sell the edgy, controversial themes to her sales reps. So she reluctantly passed, but said, “Please send me the next Jackson story and anything else you write.”

It feels pretty amazing and exciting to have this direct connection to a publisher. But I keep hearing that I still need an agent. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I need someone to read, understand, and represent my entire body of work, including my standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, which features Jackson as a minor character. I also would love to sell my work in other countries. (Wouldn’t we all?)

So I wrote a query and e-mailed it to an agent in the Trident Media Group. She responded the next day, asking to see all three Jackson manuscripts. I like her already, because she’s interested in the series from the beginning and wants to see the body of work. She also has extensive foreign rights experience. This could be great.

But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve signed with great agents and had one call me and say, “I’ll have an offer for you next week,” then have it fall though. I’m not counting on Berkley either. She’s turned me down twice. So the queries will keep going out.

I feel like I have a new momentum though that’s different this time. Once the next book comes out in September, I’ll feel like I actually have a little street cred too. I can’t wait for that. Come on Echelon Press!

So now I’m working on a fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead: The outline is complete, and I have a thousand words on the page. I’m trying a slightly new structure, and I’m excited to write this story.

Here’s the first paragraph:
Jolie's first hint that today would be worse than most was missing the homeless vet on the corner of 7th and Washington. She always handed a dollar out the window to the old guy with no teeth as she approached the intersection on her way to work. Sometimes when the light was green, it was tricky, because the person behind her got impatient and honked. But Jolie didn’t care. Giving away the dollar had become a talisman that she hoped would keep more shitty things from happening to her.

Does it make you want to keep reading?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Your First Draft Doesn't Have to Suck

I guest blogged today about how to write a great first draft. There's lots of helpful information. Stop in.
Working Stiffs

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Feeling Powerless

As the publishing industry evolves and new models are tested, it will be interesting to see if the role of the author changes. Specifically, I wonder if authors will gain more control over the product they create.

Currently, in the traditional publishing world, authors often feel powerless. They have little or no control over what the book is named, when it’s released, or how many copies are printed. They also have no guarantee that their publisher will pick up their next book. For non-bestselling authors, every novel feels like starting from scratch in the process.

This is the reason some authors self-publish. They want control over their product and how it’s presented to readers. They like to know their work will reach the market, regardless. They choose not to feel powerless. Who can blame them?

This subject is on my mind today because I evaluate manuscripts for a large self-publishing company. A few of the stories are good, many are unreadable, and many are written by doctors. Why are doctors writing and self-publishing novels?

My theory is they sometimes feel powerless too. Doctors’ novels are always about an individual MD making a dramatic improvement in the healthcare industry. I can only assume some physicians must also feel powerless to change a system they’re entrenched in and dependent on. So they write out their fantasies and pay to get their stories to the public.

This is the only power writers have: to create a story that entertainers, enlightens, or simply shares their way of looking at the world. For everything else, we must cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Staying True

Sometimes “no” is the right answer.

In early February I started a job at the Register-Guard, our local newspaper. I work 19 hours a week with no benefits, and I have one responsibility: write copy. It’s perfect (except for no health insurance). I work three days a week and write chunks of my novel every morning before going in. I supplement this income with freelance editing and manuscript evaluations.

Three weeks after I started, a full-time job opened in my department (special publications). Of course, I applied for it. In this economy, it makes sense to seize an opportunity for a nice steady paycheck, plus health insurance. Part of me really wanted the job too. I thought it would be a nice change of pace to concentrate my money-making energy into one place. As a freelancer, I’m scattered in many directions at once, and it gets a little crazy. I also wanted the health insurance and the security. Not that anyone working at a newspaper has job security.

But I didn’t get it. And when my boss told me I had not been chosen, I have to be honest and admit that my first physical and emotional reaction was relief. It would have meant a major lifestyle change. It would have meant that writing novels was no longer my primary focus. The job would have come with a lot of responsibility. It’s not the kind of position you can walk away from at the end of the day and forget about. My husband thinks it would have made me unhappy.

I see this as a sign from the universe that I need to keep novel writing as the focus of my life. It’s scary and exciting and insecure. But I’m wrapping up edits on the third Detective Jackson story this week. Early readers love it. By Friday the manuscript will be in the mail to an editor at a major publishing house, who is waiting to read it.

Everyone comes to these forks in the road. I’m glad I got pushed in the right direction. Have you an experience like this? What helped you decide which path to take?

Monday, March 30, 2009

What’s Wrong with Good Guys?

A post on on Salon about detectives said most characters “…fail to capture our imaginations the way a gritty detective with a bad attitude and a drinking problem does.”

It went on to say: “But even cops get boring after several decades of prime real estate on the small screen. That's why we need shows about time-traveling cops (Life on Mars), clairvoyant cops (The Mentalist, Medium), teenage detectives (Veronica Mars), obsessive-compulsive detectives (Monk), evil cops (The Shield), cops who work the system (The Wire) and many, many more.”

Does this premise apply to TV watchers only or has the need for quirky/morally-challenged/addicted cops taken over detective novels as well? Do cops have to have a “bad attitude and a drinking problem” or some other major character flaw to be interesting? What’s wrong with regular a good guy/gal who has a clear understanding of what’s right and wrong? A detective/FBI agent who is sober, thoughtful, and doing his/her best to balance work and family?

I say nothing is! In fact, my recurring Detective Jackson is such a character. He’s not perfect, but his flaws are minor. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t mind if she got involved with him. That’s not a bad test for whether your cop character is a good person: Would you want your daughter to date him? Would you be upset if your son married her?

Of course, there are the much-loved, loner-type Jack characters (Jack Reacher, Jack Taylor, etc.) who are fun to read, but in reality would cause sane women to run in the other direction.

Most of us read a mix of crime stories, from cozies to slasher/serial killers. But who are your favorite cop characters? Are they datable? Or are you attracted to those with “a drinking problem and a bad attitude”?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Blogathon! Be AFRAID!


Mystery/suspense/horror novelist Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath) stops in today to evaluate his experience with a blog tour promoting his latest release, AFRAID. I’ve seen reviews on the mystery list servs and they’re all great. Several people have said, “I don’t usually read horror, but I couldn’t put this book down.” I started it yesterday and am having the same experience. Very compelling!

Meanwhile, Joe has been on a nonstop blog book tour for 27 days, hitting multiple blogs each day. Few authors could keep up that kind of pace, but Joe is not your average guy. Now we find out if it’s been worth the effort.

You said earlier that you won’t know how successful the blog tour has been until you see your Amazon sales on April 1st. Did you set goals before you started? What kind of numbers will make you happy?
All authors have a love/hate relationship with Amazon, because it is the only way we can immediately view the results of our self-promotional efforts. If you do something on the Internet, and your Amazon ranking goes up, obviously some people just bought some books.
But Amazon ranks are confusing, and are far from hard science. The only way you truly know how you’re doing is when you get a royalty statement. If, in April, AFRAID is ranked higher than 20,000 on Amazon, I’ll be happy. It’s already spiked past there a few times this month. For a first book by an unknown author without a big marketing campaign, that ain’t bad.

Did anything about the tour surprise you?
It’s been a bit challenging to not repeat myself. By the end of the month, I’ll have been on close to a hundred blogs. That’s a lot of blogging. I’m pleasantly surprised that people are still tuning in, still following the tour. Personally, I’d be really sick of me by now.

Did it improve your promotional skills and repertoire?
It allowed me the opportunity to try different styles. My blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, is basically me lecturing about the biz. I don’t get very personal, and don’t do much self-promotion.
With this tour, I had the chance to blog about many topics I’d never do on Newbie’s Guide. I got to answer a lot of great questions, talk about my new book, AFRAID, goof around, and try to match my writing style to be simpatico with the blog hosting me. It was a terrific learning experience.

Can any author pull this off or do you think the blog tour is suited to certain genres and certain author personality types?
The best way to answer that for yourself is to go back to Day #1 of my tour, follow it up until now, and ponder if it’s something you think you could do. I can’t really speak for anyone else. I don’t think it has to do with genre. It’s more about networking, time constraints, and a willingness to adapt.

You’ve created a lot of momentum by doing 73 blogs in last 27 days. How important is it to have that kind of schedule? And is it worthwhile for authors to do a blog tour even if they can’t maintain your frenetic pace? And, BTW, how much coffee does it take to keep you going?
I have sort of a “go all in” personality. But I think there can be benefits from doing this no matter the scale. Obviously the more places you appear, the better off you are, but I’ve said before that you can’t every compare yourself to any other authors. Your race is with yourself, not with me. And my coffee machine is hooked up to me intravenously.

Why should an author follow another author’s blog tour?
We can all learn from each other.

Why should a reader/fan follow a blog tour? What do they get out of it?
Information and entertainment. But if you’ve been following this tour, you probably knew I was going to say that. ☺

Would you do it again? And if so, what would you do differently next time?
I would do this again, that’s for sure. But I’d plan it next time. I announced this blog tour on Feb 28, on a whim. In the future, I’d try to set things up in advance, and not be so rushed and disorganized.

If someone has never read any of your work, should they start with AFRAID? Or do you recommend they read your Jack Daniels' series first and ease into this scarier stuff?
People who like horror, will like Afraid. People who like thrillers, will like my Jack Daniels series. People who like both will like both.

Was it liberating to break away from your recurring characters and write a standalone? Was it harder?
It was fun. Writing is always liberating, no matter the genre. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, being able to do what I love for a living. The worst day I ever had writing is still a wonderful day.

Any negative feedback from fans (or publishers) who often just want more of the same?
Some people think AFRAID is too extreme. They’re probably right. It’s a pretty intense book. But I’m all over the place when it comes to genre. I’ve published mystery, thriller, horror, sci-fi, paranormal romance, humor, and a few genres I’m probably forgetting. If someone likes one type of my work, but not another, I’m fine with that. Everyone has a valid opinion.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cop Characters Credibility

Neil Placky’s excellent guest blog on The Kill Zone recently got me thinking about the nature of mystery series, police procedurals in particular. The series seem to fall into three camps: protagonists who are always linked to the criminal case being solved, cops who are sometimes linked to the case at hand, and detectives who rarely have an emotional connection to the case they’re working on. I’m not as widely read as I’d like to be, so my examples here are broad.

In the first category, the TV show Murder She Wrote comes to mind (as well as most cozies). In the third category, there’s John Sanford’s long-running series about Detective Lucas Davenport and Ridley Pearson’s series about Detective Lou Boldt. Neither detective hardly ever has a personal stake in their cases’ outcomes, yet they are favorites of mine—and millions of other readers.

My own series (and many others) falls into the middle. But even when Detective Jackson has a link to the case he’s solving, it’s not an intimate first-person connection.

I know many readers like emotional connections, but the question this raises for me is credibility. If your protagonist (whether a cop, an FBI agent, reporter, or private detective) is surrounded by people who can’t stay out of trouble, does he or she start to seem suspect? If every crime he/she solves is somehow personal, does your series start to lose credibility?

I’m thinking about this now because I’m plotting my fourth Jackson story and wondering how important the personal connection is to readers.

Writers: Do you connect your protagonist personally to his/her cases? Is it working for you?

Readers: How important is the personal connection? Can a series lose your respect if the protagonist has too many personal connections to criminal cases?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Junk Mail That Makes Me Crazy

Has anyone noticed how hard it is to cancel a magazine subscription these days? They simply won’t let you go. They may stop sending you copies, but the invoices just keep coming. Usually with some pitch like: “If you pay this low, low amount, we’ll keep you on our list.” I canceled my subscription to Entertainment Weekly at least three years ago and have moved twice since, but still I get “invoices.” How do they know where I live?

And what about those mailings with the block printing that says: “Warning: $2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment, or both for any person interfering or obstructing with the delivery of the letter. “ As if it’s REALLY important mail from the CIA or something. And then it’s some mortgage company offering to refinance your house. They need to get over themselves, stamp “Junk” on the envelope, and recycle it themselves.

Get this one. I recently started work for our local paper. So my paid subscription (which I’ve had for 20 years) got transferred to a free subscription (woohoo, my one benefit). So now the newspaper I work for is sending me surveys asking me how I like my new subscription. Save your money!

And then there are the free AAPR issues I’ve been getting recently. No thanks. Back off. I’m not there yet. (But how do you cancel a subscription you didn’t order?)

It’s one thing to kill trees for no good reason, but to annoy me at the same time? I always think about watching Andy Rooney one night on 60 Minutes talking about stuffing junk mail from one company into a return envelope from another company and mailing it back just for spite. That was a good laugh!

It can’t just be me. What kind of crap mail do you still get? And how can I stop mine?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Action Is Like Writing Sex—Advice from Novelist Mark Phillips


Today’s guest blogger is Mark Phillips, author of The Resqueth Revolution, a gripping, highly recommended sci-fi story with thought-provoking social commentary. But forget the social commentary for now. Mark’s here to talk about writing action scenes. As the editor of this new release, I can attest to his skill. I kept getting so caught up in the action, I’d have to go back and read again to do my job. As a novelist, I learned a lot about writing action from his story. In this blog, Mark describes how writing action scenes is a lot like writing sex scenes. So sit up and take note.

How to Write Exciting Action Scenes – Part 1 of 2
Action scenes most often involve physical violent confrontation between characters in your story. They can also involve characters trying desperately to avoid a direct confrontation, as in a chase scene or even characters fighting to stay alive in a natural disaster—trying to ski out of the path of an avalanche say.

Action is often violent, but not all violence is action. A slasher film can be all about violence and suspense and yet have little or no action.

Good action scenes ought to be exciting. They should vicariously provoke within you the fight or flight response, raise your heart rate, make you breathe faster, get your adrenalin pumping, make you feel focused in the present moment and vibrantly alive, ready for anything.

Suspense is similar to action except the option of physical release is withheld. As our characters labor to defuse the bomb and agonize over cutting the red versus the blue wire, the suspense may have many of the same effects on us, but what makes it all the worse is that we are forced to just sit there with our character’s face inches from the bomb. We can’t save ourselves by violent physical exertion. Indeed, in novels or movies with both suspense and action, action is the release for suspense, much as major chords provide relief after prolonged stretches of minor chords and dissonance in music. It works the same in sexually explicit material: prolonged episodes of teasing find their release in raw sex.

I suspect that a great many writers who have trouble writing exciting action scenes also have trouble writing exciting sex scenes or avoid writing sex scenes altogether. On the other hand, if you already know how to write exciting sex scenes, the transition to action scenes will be all the easier.

The first rule of action writing is counterintuitive: slow everything down. In real life, action happens so damn fast that many of us have no time to react effectively. In movies action mostly happens in real time, coming at us in an overwhelming rush. But in writing, your job is to slow everything down.

Real life and movies are overabundant in details. All the most relevant details need to be in the written version, which means hundreds or even thousands of words for all those images and sounds. Your reader has to understand the setting and the relative positions of opponents. You must describe anything that may contribute to the outcome of the action before it comes into play—you can’t have your heroine slip on wet pavement without having previously told us about the rain. Tactical decisions that in real time are often nearly instantaneous and subconscious need an explicit examination; options need a thorough analysis. Then consider all the necessary expressions of thoughts and emotional details.

Martial artists and combat veterans often describe a subjective time dilation, where everything plays out as if in slow motion. Often, action scenes in movies use slow-motion literally to slow down the action. Viewers need time to notice and absorb all the details. Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge in American Gunfight, a nonfiction account of the assassination attempt on President Truman, take nearly 350 pages to describe fully a gunfight that lasted 38 seconds in real time. The reader wants to know what everyone is doing, their positions, what they are thinking, what they are feeling at every moment. If your character uses a weapon, the reader will want to know how it feels in the hand, its heft and the sound it makes in use, exactly how it operates, and the exact devastating effects it has on the character’s opponent. That all takes time and your audience will give you their attention as long as you are making it possible for them to experience vicariously the exciting action.

Action scenes are really writing in microcosm. The reader wants to know how the story ends, but will delay that gratification so long as the journey to that resolution is enjoyable in itself. We must exploit the interplay between suspense and release, between arousal and orgasm, dissonance and harmonic resolution. The audience naturally wants us to resolve the conflict. They are desperate to know how it turns out, but at the same time they are reveling in the action itself and want it to go on forever. Like a pornographer, your job is to keep them desperately craving orgasm, but so thoroughly enjoying the details of the preorgasmic procedures that they simultaneously enjoy and regret the moment of release.

But, all that said, the final product cannot dawdle. You are not describing lilacs in bloom. Your prose must sweep the reader along as if caught in mad, crashing, unstoppable rapids. Use action words, the smaller the better, and short declarative sentences with only the most crucial adjectives. (The purple prose school of action writing revels in the adjective-laden poetry of it all—if the muse moves you toward this, don’t necessarily shut her up. I personally enjoy purple prose of the old pulp variety.) If grammar gets in the way of the natural flow, you may occasionally opt for sentence fragments. Without sacrificing essential detail, condense descriptions into the quickest, leanest prose possible. Think of a fast movement in music—more notes per bar and smaller notes than before. Think bodybuilding—you pack on the muscle mass but also lean out that muscle until definition is everything, until your prose is “ripped.”

What do you think about the sex/action scene analogy? What is your favorite action scene in a novel? Favorite action scene in a movie? (Commentors have a chance to win a copy.)
______________________________________
For the second half of this great article, stop in Thursday at The Dark Phantom. Tomorrow Mark will do an author interview at Katie Hines’ site.

Followers of the 2009 Resqueth Revolution blog tour will have two opportunities to win a copy.
  • Everyone who leaves a comment on the tour will receive one drawing entry per comment per blog site. Two entries will be drawn at random, and the winners will receive a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution.

  • Everyone who answers all quiz questions correctly will be entered into a drawing for the grand prize — a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution, a Resqueth pen, magnet and calendar, and a signed copy of Hacksaw, the first in the Eva Baum Detective series. Quizzes will post on March 21 and 27.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Defining the Blog Tour

This month I’m hosting two authors who are on blog book tours to promote their new releases. Mark Phillips, author of THE RESQUETH REVOLUTION (a book I’m proud to have edited) will be here on Tuesday the 17th to talk about writing action scenes. And JA Konrath, aka Jack Kilborn, will be here on the 27th to discuss his new release, AFRAID. JA also wrote an interesting post on blogging in general.

So blog touring has been on my mind, and I’m starting to plan my tour for this September when SECRETS TO DIE FOR is released.

The strategy for most tours seems to be: find blogs that relate to your novel and line up guest appearances every day for a month. (See the guru for more on this.) It seems straight forward, but hugely overwhelming to write all those Q&As and/or guest blogs in such a short timeframe and interact with guests every single day. Especially for authors who have day jobs. What I’m wondering is: How important is it to guest blog every day during a single month? Wouldn’t it be just as effective to guest blog every other day for two months? Or be on tour three times a week for three months?

I’m also wondering how many people actually follow an author on his or her tour, reading each blog stop on the way. And if you do follow tours, at what point do you buy the novel? Or do you already have the novel and are following just for fun? The real point of a tour is to reach new readers at every stop. In a traditional book tour, the author is on the road stopping at different bookstores every day because of the nature and convenience of travel. But from the comfort of your own home, couldn’t a book tour be more leisurely? Or does the everyday blogging in new locations actually build more momentum?

Tell me what you think. Are there other strategies I’ve missed?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Beta Readers—Are They Useful?

I have a rough draft of new novel completed (yea!), and people are offering (wanting!) to read it. One offer is from a somewhat well-know writer who will give me a good blurb if he likes it. And the other offer is from a fan/editor who will give me good feedback if it needs work. Great news for me on both.

The novel is completed, a fully developed story, and I'm a little nervous about sending it out. What I didn’t do this time was have beta readers review the story as I was writing, offering their input on the story development. When I was writing The Sex Club, I sent the first 100 pages to a story consultant and got great feedback from her. When I was writing Secrets to Die For, I sent the first hundred pages to several beta readers—because a lot of people seemed to think it was necessary to getting published—and the comments from them were so contradictory, they were useless to me.

One reader said, “I love the date/time references at the beginning of every chapter because it adds to the sense of urgency.” Another said, “I found the date/time references annoying.” One reader loved the cliffhangers at the end of chapters. Another hated them. One reader didn’t like that the mother was a drug addict, which was the underlying premise for the opening of the story.

When you have beta readers offering completely different ideas about what they like and don’t like, ultimately, you have decide how you want your story to go. In another blog discussion, several writers said they often ignore what their writing group suggests because it’s not how they see the story.

I write rather unusual crime stories, so maybe that’s a factor. Maybe beta readers are more useful in some genres than others. I'm thinking about this now because I'm outlining my next novel and wondering if I should get some feedback.

What do you think? Are beta readers useful? Has a beta reader ever improved or saved your story?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Authors Shoot Themselves in Both Feet

Two reader-forum discussions highlight how author protectionism can go too far.

The first being the Kindle 2 and its text-to-speech feature that allows users to have the book read to them in that robotic way only a machine can do. The Writers Guild and other author groups complained loudly about this feature, claiming Amazon was essentially producing audio books, which it had no right to do. So Amazon has backed down and only those books with publishers’ permission will be available in this format.

Writers gain nothing from this. The idea that they’re losing a royalty from a hypothetical audio book sale is ludicrous. No one in his/her right mind would buy and listen to a text-to-speech version of a book if a professionally read audio book was available for purchase. Calling these things equal products is like saying a hard-boiled egg is the same as a slice of quiche.

Who loses are the blind people, and perhaps other handicapped individuals, who might have listened to a book on Kindle because an audio version was not available. And if they enjoyed that author’s work, they might have purchased one of his/her audio books in the future when they became available. Or bought another of the author's Kindle books. Or recommended the author to their book club or their large book-loving family. Limiting access to a novel from a paying customer makes no sense. As I said, a shot to one’s own foot.

The second writer-protectionism discussion is equally short-sighted. Some authors complain about readers purchasing used books and thus not supporting authors with royalties. How can you hope to stop this? By producing books that self-destruct when the final page is read? And why make readers feel guilty about buying your book?

Having a book in circulation, moving from reader to reader, is better than not having a book in circulation. Every time someone reads an author’s work and likes it, they become future buyers and great word-of-mouth marketers for the author. Many readers try out new authors by getting their books from the library or buying an inexpensive used version. Once they become a fan, they often support the author by purchasing his/her new books.

I know many authors will disagree with this position, but my feeling is that a little flexibility and generosity can go a long way.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Blog Versus Website (or Blogsite?)

The more I learn the less I know. Especially regarding technology. But I keep trying.

My new plan is to combine my website and blog into a single online presence. It makes sense to me to send readers to one place instead of two. Yet I realize not many authors do this. Is it because website design software typically doesn’t include blogging capabilities? And/or because the free blogging sites (Blogger, Typepad) don’t accommodate web pages?

Wordpress.com says you can do it all. Add web pages to your blog or make your blog a sub-page of your website. This is exactly what I want to do—create a blogsite. But so far, I find the setup on Wordpress to be less than user friendly. At least in comparison to Blogger. So this could be a long and painful process. Especially the transferring of posted blogs from here to there.

So I’m conducting a survey. Authors: Do you maintain a separate blog and website? If so, why? Do you have more than one blog? And if you combine the two, what software or blogging platform do you use?

Readers: Do you like it when an author’s blog is part of his/her website? Or do you visit author websites looking mostly for book information?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Simplify Your Life

I started a part-time job recently (in addition to my freelance business) and am feeling a little scattered as I try to keep up with everything I have going on. And financially, we’re still struggling. So I’m on a crusade to simply everything—our finances, my promotion efforts, my online presence, my reading materials, even the amount of mail that pours into my house everyday. Most of these efforts are still in progress, but I feel relieved and less stressed already, so I decided to share what I’m doing in hopes that it helps someone else.

Online Presence:
My plan is to combine my blog and website. It makes no sense to send readers in two directions. Once I get this done, every time I post a new blog, I’ll also be adding new content to my website. And I’ll only have to update/freshen in one file. Most likely it will all end up on WordPress. I’d love to have someone design this for me, but no one wants to work that cheap and who can blame them. I also transferred all my domain names to GoDaddy from Yahoo. I’ll save about $130 a year and not have to think twice about spending $7 to register my new book title.

And I signed up for Ping.fm, which posts updates to all my social networking sites at once (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and more). This saves time and keeps my MySpace and LinkedIn pages updated now; before I was mostly ignoring them. And I've vowed not to join any new networks despite the zillions of invitations I get everyday. I don't have time to do them right, and I don't need the guilt for letting them languish.

Personal: I’ve eliminated half of my magazine subscriptions—because I only have time to half read half of them anyway. Down the road (when I’ve paid off the website redesign), I’ll cut the rest, buy a Kindle, and download what I want to read, when I have time. The people who lived in the house before us received every catalog you can imagine, and they didn’t forward any of them to their new residence. So now every time I get an unwanted mailing, I contact the company and make them take our house off their list. It takes time to do that, but it’s less crap on my kitchen table and less paper wasted. Long run, it will save time recycling all of it.

I also unsubscribed to many e-newsletters and am resisting the urge to sign up for any more. No matter how great the content, if I don’t have time to read it or follow up, then it’s just another e-mail to process. I also don’t look at e-mail until I’ve hit my word count for the day and/or finished work, so by the time I do, I’m tired and need it to be easy.

I do massive food prep on Sunday and/or Monday, so my lunches are ready to go for each work day and dinners for the next few nights are easy. It helps me hit my word count before work and keeps me from feeling exhausted after dinner.

Finances: We’re refinancing our house and getting enough cash back to pay off our credit card debt. At the same time, we’ll change our payment schedule to every two weeks—and shave seven years off the mortgage. Interest rates are so low now (4.7%) that we’ll end up spending less money on a yearly basis, even taking into account the refi charges and accelerated payments. Long-term, we’ll save a fortune on interest, all our debt will be in one place, and our single payment will be automatic.

In fact, we’re switching every payment that we can to autopay. Which means less mail coming into the house and fewer checks to write. And we’re making many of those payments with the credit card, which builds up flier miles, in case we ever get to go on vacation again. In April, when the option is available, we’ll switch our utility payment to a year-round standard and put it on autopay as well. I’m tired of seeing the winter bills for how much it costs to stay warm. This new way, we’ll pay the same amount every month, and I don’t have to think about it.

I’m still brainstorming ways to simplify (and save money) and if you have great ideas, please share them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Writing Software

There was long and passionate discussion on a list serv recently (Murder Must Advertise) about writing software. Many people posted about how much they hate Word, especially the 2008 version, and others talked about the alternatives they use. But of course, they all have to copy/paste into Word to send manuscripts to agents and editors—because that’s the industry standard. I’ve always used Word but in a limited way. (I use Quark or InDesign if I have desktop publishing needs.)

But I recently discovered the Notebook Layout View in Word, and I love it! It’s such a convenient way to keep several small idea files in one document without having to scroll. It’s part of how I keep organized while I’m writing.

Which is the subject of my guest blog today at a new site called Better Software to Write. Theresa de Valence is not a only a mystery reviewer, she’s a retired software programmer who’s developing new writing software. So if you have software needs that aren’t being met by your current program, this is your chance to tell somebody who actually plans to do something about it. Stop by and share your piece.

Better Software to Write/How I Write (and Stay Organized)

PS: This is my 100th blog post! Help me celebrate by following.

Monday, February 9, 2009

E-Book Buzz

As the Kindle 2 is unveiled, the buzzword in publishing is e-book, e-book, e-book.

It’s the only segment of the industry in which sales are growing, and this phenomenon has some readers worried (“I’ll miss the feel and smell of a new book”) while others are delighted (“The environmental benefits are worth the sacrifice”).

But what does it mean to authors? Speculation on that front is rampant as well.
  • “More new authors will be published because the production costs are so minimal.”
  • “Author advances will disappear, and it will be more difficult to earn a living as a novelist.”
  • “If you don’t have an e-book, you’re missing a whole section of the market.”
All three scenarios could come true.

Another interesting question: Will e-books fall into the same categories—traditionally published versus self-published—that print books do? Will novels from well established e-publishers automatically carry more prestige than an e-book from Author Unknown? I read a post today that stated unequivocally that one of the benefits of publishing an e-book is: “You don’t have to go through the obstacles and headaches involved in finding an agent and a publisher.”

What about distribution? If you don’t go though the headache of finding an e-book publisher, how will anyone find and buy your book? Just because your book is downloadable from your website or for sale on Amazon doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have buyers. The production quality and file choice matter too. You want your e-book to be downloadable to, and nicely displayed on, the major e-readers: Kindle, Sony Reader Digital, and Mobipocket Reader.

I’ve thought about all of this because I’ve considered self-publishing some of my early novels as e-books. Then I decided against it because the benefit would be minimal, and who needs the stigma of being a self-published e-book author? I know that statement will rile some people, but the attitude exists, whether valid or not. Well known authors, on the other hand, could probably do quite well selling e-books from their own websites.

Ultimately, as an author, I want to have all my books available both in print and e-files from traditional publishers with established distribution (and web traffic). But the publishing industry is changing and becoming much less clearly defined. As e-book sales grow and become a sizable chunk of the market, some of the old distinctions may disappear.

What do you think? Are e-books the future? And does it matter who produces them?

Status Update

I started a job last week at the Register Guard, our local paper. I’m writing features for the special sections (supplements to the paper with titles like Home & Garden and Tastings). It’s 19 hours a week with no benefits, but I am truly grateful to have a steady source of income. And so far, I like it a lot.

I hit 52,000 words on my third Detective Jackson story today and am on track to finish the first draft by mid-March as planned. I’m excited about how this story is turning out; it’s richer and more complex than I first imagined it to be.

The Sex Club will soon be available as an e-book from Echelon Press. I’m excited to make this story available to a much broader range of readers.

I entered one of my novels, The Baby Thief, into the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. I rarely enter contests, but decided there wasn’t any reason not to. There's no fee, and it’s an upload submission so there’s no mailing costs either. What the heck?

What's your status? Share your news!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Makes a Great Author Website

I’ve been thinking about redesigning my website. When I first put it up I was in a hurry, needing a web presence ASAP to support various promotional activities I had going. A graphic artist/friend designed the pages—and I liked the look—but I didn’t know what I really needed or wanted at that point. So for the last few weeks I’ve been asking about people’s favorite author sites and looking at dozens of websites to see what design elements they have in common (and what they have that I don’t). Here’s my findings.

For crime authors, most sites have a black or dark grey background with white text and red accents. So in that regard, my designer knew exactly what she was doing. Good examples:
Michelle Gagnon
Alafair Burke

Most of the popular sites also have very little text on the opening page (or top half of the opening page). Instead they have vivid pictures (often changing) and book covers. About half of favorite author pages have their photo on the opening and half don’t. Examples:
Alexandra Sokoloff
John Sandford
Nora Roberts

Many of the informal-survey favorites have a blog built into their site and others have page that is distinctive to their site—Sticky Notes, photographs, Fan of the Day, character bios. Examples:
Thomas Holland
JA Konrath
Chris Grabenstein
JC Hutchins

Almost every popular site I looked at had a row of clickable navigational links across the top of the design and often down the side as well. Many also had pull down menus from those tabs.

What they don’t have:
I was surprised to see that many author websites don’t have obvious BUY buttons. They may be buried somewhere but you have to search for them. And many do not have links to the home page on every other page. On some of the sites, I found it impossible to get back to the home page at all.

Overall, my favorite for design is Karen Olson’s. She hit all the right elements—clean gorgeous opening page, easy clickable navigation, black/white/red color scheme, access to the home page on every page, and big buy buttons. The only element she lacked that some others had was the unique page.
Karen Olson

And J.A. Konrath gets honorable mention for having the most usable content and an easy to navigate structure.
JA Konrath


Sunday, February 1, 2009

What Makes Me Keep Reading

I recently blogged about what makes me put down a novel, so to be fair, I thought I’d post about what makes me keep reading.
  • A great opening in which something unusual, unexpected, contradictory, or violent happens. For example, in Secret Dead Men by Duane Swierczynski, the third sentence caught my attention. “..but a couple of kids organized and impromptu club with a mandate to experiment on her corpse.”

  • Intriguing characters who are unusual, unexpected, contradictory, complex, or compelling. From the first page of the same story: “Then again, what do I know? I was a dead man impersonating an FBI agent.”

  • Characters who don’t fit the current clichĂ©s. I like cops who aren’t cynical, FBI agents who aren’t workaholics that can’t handle relationships, private investigators who aren’t alcoholic loners, and women who are soft on the outside and tough on the inside.

  • Complexity! I like parallel plots and interwoven stories and multiple points of view. And if it all comes together in a way that surprises me and makes perfect sense, I pick up the next book by that author.

  • Passion about a subject. I like politics, religion, and social issues in novels as long as it works for the story and doesn’t overwhelm it

  • Multiple plot points and plots twists that leave me thinking: Wow! Stunning but believable

  • Moderate levels of crime and violence written with sensitivity to the subject, the victim, and the reader

  • Just enough detail (setting and character) to make the story real. I like Elmore Leonard’s approach: Only write the parts that people will read.

  • Believable relationships of any and all kinds

  • Crisp, fast-paced, realistic dialogue

  • Fast-paced narrative with a great balance of dialogue and action in which the surprises just keep coming

What did I forget? What makes you keep reading?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reposting Blog Etiquette

A popular guy on Twitter recently asked: “Doesn't it seem like poor etiquette to post a copy of a guest post you wrote on your own blog? You guest wrote it for someone else, right?”

Good question! I have done that, reposting here modified versions of guest blogs I wrote for other sites. But in all cases, it was at least six months after the blog had been originally posted somewhere else. And I noted at the top of the blog that it was a reposting, so if a reader had, by some chance, seen it they could skip it.

Do others bloggers repost material?

My thinking is that the traffic on the other blog site is likely to be different from the traffic I now have on my site. So if it’s fresh content to most of my readers, why not use it? Sometimes, it’s challenging to come up with new material twice a week! Reposting parallels like the practice of repurposing information gathered for an article your wrote for publication. As long as you modify the focus and/or arrangement, it’s acceptable (and common practice ) to pitch similar stories to other magazines with different audiences—using the same material.

What’s your take? Is it okay to repost guest blogs you’ve written?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

More Odd Facts About Me

I'm behind today, so I'm reposting a slightly modified list I put together for a Facebook tag. Here's 12 random facts about me:

  1. I spent my early childhood in Las Vegas, then the rest in Cave Junction, Oregon. Had my family not moved to Podunk, I would probably be a stripper instead of a writer.

  2. I once rode my bicycle from Eugene to the Grand Canyon, crossing Donner Pass, an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Three straight days of uphill, heart pumping fun.

  3. Every birthday, I ride up a long steep hill just to prove to myself that I still can.

  4. I am addict . . . who no longer indulges in much of anything. I quit drinking December 17, 1989, and I quit smoking cigarettes January 1, 1991. New Year’s resolutions can work.

  5. My favorites foods are grilled ribeye steak and cold watermelon. If had to choose two things to live on forever, they would make the cut.

  6. I go bowling with my three brothers once a week. I never seem to get any better, but I don’t care. It’s fun and I love my brothers.

  7. I worked on a pharmaceutical magazine for almost a decade, so I know a lot about drugs.

  8. I was born in July and love summer! The only time the world seems right to me is when the sky is blue and the air is warm.

  9. It’s hard to chose, but I think my life-long favorite author is Lawrence Sanders. He’s so versatile—police procedurals, futuristic thrillers, and the lovable Archie McNally.

  10. I took a vow at the beginning of 2008 to not buy any clothes, shoes, or purses for the entire year. I broke it only once in October to buy a business/casual jacket for Bouchercon, then didn’t even wear it because the weather was so warm.

  11. I’m always swearing off of something. (See #4) This year it’s diet Dr. Pepper (love it!) I never had a problem with drinking too much of it until they made caffeine-free diet Dr. Pepper, which you drink right up until bedtime.

  12. My goal for the end of 2010 is to have four books on the market (and two more in production): The Sex Club, Secrets to Die For, Thrilled to Death, and The Baby Thief.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Things I Don’t Miss

Today, I’m simply grateful for how much easier the little things in life are now because of technology. So here a few things I don’t miss:
  • Writing out a check for every purchase and household bill and keeping up with the damn little check register, subtracting as I went along. Love online banking and bill paying. They do the math!

  • Running to check the answering machine the minute I got home to see what calls I missed (and often swearing as a result). Love cell phones!

  • Muting commercials and waiting endlessly for them to be over. Love digital recorders! (TiVo especially.) Recording programs and skipping through the crap is the only way I can watch TV.

  • Walking around Blockbuster reading the back of DVD cases, trying to find a decent movie. (And don't get me started on the damn late fees!) Love Netflix! And its new “Watch Instantly” feature.

  • Sending every single agent/editor query by mail and waiting months for responses. Love e-mail queries! Rejection is easier when it’s faster—like ripping off a band-aid.

  • Sending files to Adobe’s free converter program and waiting days to get the PDF back. Love making my own PDFs from Word and InDesign.
What have I forgotten? What don’t you miss?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meet Karen Olson, Mystery Novelist


If you like mysteries with original flair, great dialogue, and sassy humor, let me introduce novelist Karen Olson. I recently read Shot Girl, featuring newspaper reporter Annie Seymour, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (And as I may have mentioned recently, I don’t finish many of the novels I start.) Shot Girl opens with Annie musing over the dead body of her ex-husband. Who can resist that? Then it gets rolling when the police, while fetching flip-flops from her car for her, find a gun that matches the shell casings by the body. This fast-paced delightful tale is the last installment in the series, but Karen is busy writing another set of mysteries starring a tattoo artist. Sounds like more good fun. Karen was also sporting enough to answer a few questions.

What is the elevator speech for the novel you’re writing now?
The book I'm working on right now is Pretty In Ink, the sequel to The Missing Ink, which will be out in July. Since I'm still not sure just what Pretty in Ink is about (I don't outline and work by the seat of my pants), here's my elevator speech for The Missing Ink.

Las Vegas tattooist Brett Kavanaugh gets mixed up in the disappearance of a woman who was last seen in Brett's shop making an appointment for devotion ink to surprise her fiancé, whose name is not the name she wanted on the tattoo.

What is your best moment as a novelist?
While I'm writing and the story begins to build momentum and it takes on a life of its own.

What is your worst moment as a novelist?
Worrying about whether I'll get another contract.

If you could get one
do-over in your career, what would it be?
I might not have given Annie as much of a potty mouth. I had no idea how people would react to that, and while it's not gratuitous at all, I do know I've alienated some readers because of it. I do feel like I've got a second chance with The Missing Ink, though, and there is no cursing in that book at all. We'll see if it makes a difference as far as readers are concerned.

What was the last book you read that made you think “I wish I’d written that”?
Stewart O'Nan's Songs for the Missing.

Where can we find you on the web?
kareneolson.com and Wednesdays at First Offenders

Readers: Don't you think Karen should let her tattoo artist swear just a little? Do you have a tattoo? Would you read a mystery about a tatooist?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Love It/Hate It

If I have learned one thing in these past few years of writing/reviewing, it is this: The reading experience is completely subjective. Of course, we’ve always known that some people like romance novels, while others read sci-fi. But even within a genre such as mysteries, the opinions about a single novel vary greatly. As proof, year after year, the 4 Mystery Addicts listserv asks everyone to send in their top 10 reads of the year and their bottom 10 reads. Inevitably, several books repeatedly make both lists.

This year, 17 books made a least one top and bottom list. Here’s the five most loved/hated mystery books (according to 4MA), with the first number in parenthesis representing how many top 10 lists it made, and the second number representing the bottom 10 lists:

Another mystery listserv, Dorothy L, also asks for best reads of the year, and oddly enough there’s very little overlap in the two groups’ favorite books (with the exception of Blue Heaven and The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly).

It’s also been interesting to observe reader discussion about Oprah’s recent pick, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. Some readers rave about it; others find it completely unreadable. Stephen King’s Duma Key has generated even more conflicting reaction.

Why do some books make the lists for both best and worst of the year? You tell me.

What were your favorite books of last year? Your least favorite? Have you ever read a book and loved it, then read it later and hated it?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How to Create a Character Database

I recently set up a character database in Excel, and when I posted about it on Twitter/Facebook several people contacted me and asked “What’s a character database?” Sensing that this subject might be interesting to others, I decided to share the details. First, let me say that I’m not an Excel whiz kid, so trust me when I say that this file set up is really straightforward.

This type of database is especially useful if you write a series, and I finally set it up because I got tired of having to look back to see how I had described a character in a previous novel or to search endlessly for the name of a street. I started the file in a Word document, but that was too messy and didn’t allow nifty sorting features.

First, I established the column headers across the top. I’m still tweaking as I go, but for now I have:
  • First name
  • Last name
  • Category
  • Role/Function
  • Description
  • Car, address, phone
  • Other details
  • Book title 1 (The Sex Club)
  • Book title 2 (Secrets to Die For)
  • Book title 3 (Thrilled to Death)
  • Book title 4 (The Baby Thief)
Most of these headers are self-explanatory, but the Category column is where I assign the character’s level: 1=main character/recurring, 2=main character/specific to novel, 3=villain, 4=secondary character/recurring, 5=throwaway characters.

Next I listed the characters by row and inserted relevant information. I still have to go back into The Sex Club and find/input all the secondary characters, but with my new novel, I’m adding to the database every time I add important details to the manuscript. (For example, if my character dyes her hair, buys a speed boat, or adopts a pet monkey.)

What’s great about this file is that each column can be sorted individually. I separated out the first and last names so I could alphabetize/sort each list individually. So if I come up with the name Kirstin, I can quickly sort first names and check the middle of that column and see how many characters have first names that start with K. Yikes! Better come up with a different name.

The purpose of the book title columns is to be able to sort by title. I simply put an X in each column title that the character is present in. Then if I’m working in book 3, I can sort by that column and have all the book 3 characters come to the top of the spreadsheet, allowing me easy access to their information. And if I have one of those moments when I’m wondering, Was Officer Chang in my first story or just my second?— it’s easy to find out.

Important reminder: Even if you’re sorting by a single column, be sure to highlight all your data so the information for each row/character stays together. I hope you find this idea useful (and comprehensible). Feel free to ask questions and make suggestions. It’s not perfect by any means.

If you read my blog regularly, thank you. And, it would be great if signed on as a follower and/or linked to my blog from yours.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Why I Put Down a Novel

I start many novels; I finish few. After years of writing, editing, and evaluating works of fiction, I have reader ADD. I read mostly crime/mystery/suspense and some sci-fi, but here’s what makes me put down a book:
  • Slow start with too much day-in-the-life detail or too much backstory (I like it when a novel makes me think Oh shit in the first few pages)
  • Protagonists who do stupid things (especially before I start to like them)
  • Stories that jump back and forth in time for no good reason
  • Characters who have cutsie names or are obsessed with their pets (Sorry!)
  • Detailed gratuitous graphic violence
  • Detailed graphic sex scenes (They’re all gratuitous unless you write erotica)
  • Characters who bicker with their siblings or spouses (I’ve seen a lot of this lately!)
  • Too many characters introduced in the first few pages with no real explanation of who they are
  • Pages and pages with no dialogue
  • Protagonists who engage in immoral acts, like harming an innocent person (I need at least one person to root for)
  • Long, meandering side stories that take me out of the main plot
  • Serial killers (No offense if you write them, I’m just burnt out)
What makes you put down a book?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Goals for 2009—What's Really Important?

I must start by saying 2008 was the best year I’ve ever had! I wrote and sold a novel in the space of ten months. I garnered great reviews for my published novel. I established a significant online presence and attended a major mystery convention where I met and networked with others in the industry. Just to name some highlights. Some people would look back and say it was also the worst year we’ve ever had, with both of us unexpectedly laid off in March and our 401Ks devastated.

So at the beginning of 2009, I’m struggling with a weighty decision. I just found out that the health insurance I was counting on through my husband’s new job will cost $575 a month—and who the hell can afford that? So I have to rethink my strategy going forward. Is having health insurance important enough to make me change directions and get an outside job?

The thought breaks my heart. The best thing about 2008 was that I was able to focus on my novels—to put writing at the top of my to-do list for the first time in my life. Even the freelance work I did moved me closer to my goal of working exclusively in the fiction writing/editing industry. I believe a job, even a part-time one, will move me away from that goal. And looking for a job will be a major time suck.

So I’m vacillating. My mother wants me to get a job with insurance and security. My sons say to follow my dream—that I’m healthy and I’ll be fine. My husband is smart enough to stay out of it, accept as a good sounding board.

My thinking (at this moment) is to give myself more time and keep the momentum going. To finish the novel I’m writing (March is my goal), put it on the market, then reassess the situation at that point. I also plan to look into joining writers’ associations that offer insurance. (Does anyone have any experience with these policies and their cost?)

Meanwhile, here are my writing goals for 2009:
  • Write 1500 words a day, 5 days a week until my new novel is completed.
  • Outline the next (fourth!) Jackson novel between now and March.
  • Sign a publishing contract for this novel (the third in the Jackson series).
  • Sign a contract for my standalone thriller, The Baby Thief.
  • Write the fourth Jackson story before the end of the year.
  • Attend Bouchercon and possibly ThrillerFest (if my credit card mileage points allow).
  • Blog twice a week, write/develop a speaker’s presentation, and write three magazine articles (among other things).
Now that I’ve put that all down in writing, I realize that achieving those goals depends on having the freedom to write first, edit/clean later.

What are your goals? Any opinions on my dilemma?