Saturday, November 22, 2014

Letting Go by Bestselling Author Nancy Pickard


How is it that we can sit down to write knowing only where our scene is set and who is supposed to be in it, and then before we know it characters say things we didn't even know they thought, and they do things we didn't know they could do, and things happen that totally surprise us?

How can that be? There's no logical explanation for it that I know of, or for the sense that we get of being in a trance when that happens. There we are, sitting down at our computer or notebook, and suddenly we look up and our senses come flooding back on us, and we realize we've been writing for two hours without even thinking about it. When writers talk about things like this, other people find it eerie. It is eerie, but it's wonderful to experience.

I think it happens because we have given ourselves over completely to our writing, a phenomenon that can't happen unless we let go.
But let go of what? Of our inhibitions, our fears, our need to control every syllable that goes on the page, and of such mundane things as telephone calls, email, and all the other distractions that take us out of the zone and pull us back into the world.

By practicing a lot small acts of letting go, a writer can build up her muscles for bigger ones. Every time she lets go in her writing, to whatever degree she can do it, the rewards can range from nice to incredible I started practicing it from the very beginning of my writing career, when I did "free writing" every day for ten minutes, setting a timer and writing nonstop, without editing or censoring, about any subject that popped into my mind.

Writer Cecil Murphey tells what happens when he lets go--"I was working on a book, and I must have gone into a zone because       the ringing telephone startled me. I felt as if I had been working in another  dimension. At least an hour had elapsed and it seemed like minutes. When that happens--and it's not an everyday occurrence--the writing feels effortless, and words easily fill the screen."
Letting go comes with risk and sacrifice. It may be "just" the risk of sacrificing your fear or getting more "out there" in what you write or letting yourself write a scene of violence or sex, or sweetness, or whatever it is that scares you to do. There are endless ways of letting go.

In my opinion, writers need to develop some tolerance for free falling, because that's how letting go feels--like Tarzan or Jane letting go of one vine without knowing for sure they can reach the next one. When--if--they do, there's a rush of exhilaration and pride, along with the knowledge that they've got to keep doing it in order to get better at it, so they can fly through the jungle with confidence.

Publishing--it's a jungle out there, right? Writers who can let go and allow themselves to become the high flyers they have the talent to be are more likely to navigate it successfully.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, published by Poisoned Pen Press. Available in ebook and large print editions.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Book That Nearly Died


Writing Advice for Fledgling Authors
by Jackie King

The best advice I can give to fledgling writers is never give up! Don’t believe anyone who tries to discourage you, no matter how important that editor or agent may be. Don’t listen to the doubting thoughts inside your own head. You can be a selling writer if you follow these three rules:

     1)    Write every day it’s humanly possible.
    2)    Finish the novel you start.
    3)    Submit what you write.

I forget to follow my own advice sometimes and get into trouble. This happened with my 2nd Grace Cassidy mystery, THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR. Because of this lapse, the book almost didn’t make it to publication.

I started off okay. Starting is much easier than finishing. You just sit at your computer and ask yourself: “What if…”

What if the entire, odious family of Wilbur Wimberly shows up for a reunion at the B&B? This bunch of folk were sure to be so hateful that one of them might kill another.

And…

What if to complicate things, Grace’s awful boss had an identical twin? Only instead of being abhorrent, this man turns out to be so charming that Grace is attracted to him?

And…

What if when things were rocking along fairly well, her cat Trouble finds a body in the bathtub?

And so on.

As usual, I started the book with a great deal of enthusiasm. Writing first chapters are usually fun. The panic hits about midway when I begin to wonder when the heck this thing will be finished. Will I be able to connect all of the dots? Do the red herrings work? And worst of all: what made me think that I could write a mystery? Self-doubt attacks every writer. Ignore it.

I set my face to slog through to the end, when life dealt a blow I didn’t expect. Suddenly my energy disappeared. I’d always been a gal who could push herself even when bone-tired. Finish the draft and then go back and polish until I was satisfied that I’d done my best, no matter how tired I became. So I tried to forge through the malaise, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. I could write for about 20 minutes, then exhaustion seeped into my entire body. It seemed as if my bones had dissolved. I had to crawl into my bed and rest for a good-long while.

Had age finally caught up with me? Did I have some awful disease that the doctors couldn’t pinpoint? I went to my internist and demanded that he find out the problem. “It’s more than my age!” I said.

He began ordering tests. One was a sleep test. This insomniac had to spend the night with wires fastened over most of her body and a space-travel sort of mask strapped to her face. It was horrible, and it was inconclusive. I had to do the whole thing over again. I so wanted to quit. But I didn’t.

With a lot of determination or maybe just plain stubbornness, I learned to sleep in that *#!% mask.

The doctors also implanted a pacemaker for my heart problem . These two procedures gave me back my life.

These issues delayed me, but didn’t stop me from finishing and publishing my 2nd Grace Cassidy mystery.

THE CORPSE WHO WALKED IN THE DOOR
The Story:

The family reunion from hell is bound to end in murder. At least that’s what Grace Cassidy, inn-sitter, figured when her boss’ screams announced the arrival of his identical twin. This guy was supposed to have drown 7 years earlier, and no one in the family was happy to see him. When he turned up dead in Grace’s bathtub, she is the one who had to find out who killed him.

The Corpse Who Walked in the Door
Available on Amazon

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Women of Mystery Reviews


by J.A. Jance

An editor from New York once told me, and not tongue in cheek: "Original paperback mysteries are where anyone who wants to get published can get published."

Not only was I being published in original paperback, I was giving this woman a ride to a writer's conference. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I was not amused.

Once I was published, it was what is often disparagingly dubbed "genre fiction." I soon learned an additional ugly truth: getting mysteries reviewed in the main stream media was and is a tough sell, and it's even more so if you happen to be female. When Sisters in Crime was started, one of its main goals was to monitor reviewing media and try to make sure that women mystery writers get a fair shake. 

Time has passed and the situation is somewhat better than when I started writing. Even so, it's still not a done deal. I've been on the New York Times bestseller list numerous times, but I've only been reviewed by them ONCE--and that was back when I was still in original paperback. In other words, I've been writing for the better part of thirty years, but the Times doesn't exactly come calling on a regular basis. 

As for being taken by the Groves of Academe, it used to be that I would say,"'Forget it." But that's  no longer true. The University of Arizona Library has a special collection called, "Women of Mystery." The collection is devoted to the works of contemporary female writers in the U.S. They are collecting books. They are collecting papers. Some day when some scholar wants to devote some time to study the works of female mystery writers of the 20th and early 21st centuries, they'll have a place to go--my alma mater.

If you qualify and think you should be on the list, contact Carla Stouffle at the University of Arizona Library at stofflec@u.library.arizona.edu. Carla is a lifelong mystery fan and champion of women mystery writers.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

J.A. Jance Interview


Bestselling novelist J.A. Jance knew from an early age that she wanted to become a writer after her teacher introduced her to Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series. But, because of her gender, she was denied creative writing courses, and was forced to learn to write on her own. Determined and resourceful during her difficult life, she eventually made it to the bestseller list.

Judy, how did the J.P. Beaumont, Johanna Brady and Ali Reynolds series come about?

The first Beaumont book was published in 1985. When I wrote it I thought I was writing a one-time book. I was new to Seattle but the character was a Seattle native. I had to do a lot of research to write  that book, and writing from a male first person viewpoint was challenging. After writing nine Beaumont books in a row I was growing tired of the character.

My editor suggested that I come up with some other character so I could alternate. When I wrote the first Johanna Brady novel, Desert Heat, I knew that I was writing a series, but I could use my experiences of being a single parent and living in the Arizona desert, and working in a non-traditional job to create her character. 

Ali Reynolds grew out of seeing a longtime female newscaster pushed out of her job due to age factors.

What in your background prepared you to write grisly crime novels?

I have the dubious honor of spending sixty days of my life during the early seventies being stalked by a serial killer, someone who is still in prison. During that time I wore a loaded weapon and was fully prepared to use it. I used some of what I learned from that experience to create the background for Hour of the Hunter, Kiss of the Bees, and Day of the Dead.

Who influenced your own writing?

I started out reading Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene. I later read John D. McDonald and Mickey Spillane. Those were the people who showed me it was possible to write a series of books for adults.

What’s your writing schedule like and do you aim for a daily amount of words?

Since I’m on a two-book a year schedule, I write every day. I don’t have a set amount of words. I’m also a wife, mother and grandmother. I like having a life.

What are the basic ingredients in a bestselling novel, and how long did it take you to reach the list?

Characters and plots. As for when did I make the list, it was probably fifteen or twenty years ago, but making the list is entirely arbitrary and decisions are made far away from the author’s effort. I don’t think the books I wrote before making ‘the list’ were of any lesser quality than the ones that have.

When did you begin donating your bookstore earnings to charities?

Very early on. I don’t remember exactly. I’ve been involved with the YMCA, the Humane Society, the Relay for Life and ALS research.

Advice for fledgling writers?

When I bought my first computer in 1983, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that every time I booted up the computer these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written TODAY! Those were the words I clung to when I was a pre-published writer and still resonates with me.Today I am a writer.


(Next week: Judy Jance talks about mystery women's difficult climb to review status.)

Friday, October 24, 2014

The House that Nagged




by Marja McGraw

Sometimes a story is practically handed to you. What’s the old saying? Never look a gift horse in the mouth? Such was the case with What Are the Odds?

I have friends who bought a house in the desert that had been empty for quite some time. The house had a history that included murder. A house with a history can be compelling to a mystery writer. To make it even more interesting, it’s an unusual place. It has three levels and separate sets of stairs throughout the home.

I saw the house before it was renovated, and had a confrontation with a rattlesnake and black widows. Oh, so many black widows. My husband was there during a tarantula migration. A box fell and knocked a hole in the garage wall, and there was a hidden staircase behind that wall. It seemed like every time we visited or talked on the phone, something new and odd had happened. There’s a barn and stalls and, well, so many unusual things. I wish I’d taken a picture of the hidden staircase, but it didn’t happen. The book cover shows the real house, and would you believe, there’s a bullet hole in the front scre
en door? I had to include a fake hole because the branches I shot the photo around covered the real one.

Do I have your attention yet? No? Read on.

One of the neighbors thought the house was haunted, but I have to disagree. Now that it’s been renovated, it’s as homey as any house can be. Nothing other-worldly happened to anyone. The neighbor was rather high-strung to begin with, so she had her own ideas.

The house begged to be in a story. Most of what you read in the book that has to do with the house is true. However, all of the characters and the crimes are fictional. Believe it or not, there’s humor in the story, too.

The house called my name and wouldn’t stop nagging. This strange building was, after all, in the desert and not something I’d expected to come into contact with on an average day.

Research was easy because the place was in disrepair and I got to watch or help with some of the little things that needed to be done. The big things were left to others. All I had to do in this case was observe the house and what was going on around me.

The only problem I ran into while writing the story was trying to fit fiction into reality instead of the reverse.

If you’re a fledgling writer, or an old hand at it, observe everything out of the ordinary. Write notes to yourself so you don’t forget even small details. You can build a story around almost anything if you put your mind and imagination to it.

I’ve filled you in on some of the background I used for the story. Hopefully you’d like to know how I put it to work. Here’s a summary of the story:

What are the odds of buying a house with a history to turn into a bed and breakfast, and discovering it’s the house that just keeps giving - and giving, and giving? Sandi Webster’s parents, Livvie and Frank, are about to find out.

Sandi and her partner, Pete Goldberg, have finally taken the leap and married. It’s an interesting wedding, and things don’t go quite as planned – neither does the honeymoon. Instead of going on a trip, they drive out to her parents’ recently purchased house in the Arizona desert to help begin renovations, where they discover there’s more to the home than meets the eye.

Stanley Hawks and his new wife, Felicity, go along for the ride and Stanley has to face some of his worst fears. The desert hides all kinds of critters and bugs, and they aren’t necessarily cute little lady bugs.

A triple murder and suicide occurred in the house about twenty years earlier. Upon Sandi’s arrival a blonde woman starts dogging her steps. Who is she and why can’t Sandi, a private investigator, identify her? How does the intruder disappear so easily, and what does she want? Why doesn’t anyone else see the blonde?

Sandi doesn’t believe in ghosts. Will she be proven wrong? There are plenty of questions with answers just waiting to be found.

Thank you for having me in today, Jean. This book was a lot of fun to write and I love talking about it.


_________________


Marja McGraw worked in both civil and criminal law for fifteen years, state transportation for another seventeen years, and most recently for a city building department.  She has lived and worked in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona. She wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja has appeared on KOLO-TV in Reno, Nevada, and KLBC in Laughlin, Nevada, and various radio talk shows. She says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder! Books include both the Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries. 

She and her husband now live in Arizona, where life is good.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Writing a Book as Well as for TV


by John McFctridge

The TV program, "The Bridge,"  like my novels, is set in Toronto and  covers a lot of the same ground--cops and criminals. There are differences; my books follow members of the homicide squad (different cops in each book are main characters, and then they show up as minor characters in other books) and involve police procedure while also following the criminals (usually organized crime and drug dealers) and "The Bridge" is about a uniformed beat cop who is reluctantly elected leader of the police union and fights political corruption in the police brass and at city hall. "The Bridge" also has some police procedure.

There are similarities and differences in writing a book and a TV series.

When I write a book I begin with characters I think are interesting. In Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, I started with Sharon MacDonald, a single mother in her early forties (her daughter is twenty), an ex-stripper now running marijuana grow-ops in Toronto. She meets Ray, a mysterious guy who claims he has a lot of marijuana he'd like to sell wholesale but doesn't know where to start in Toronto. This gets Sharon and Ray involved with some of her old acquaintances in organized crime and brings in the police.

When I started the book, I only had a vague idea of where these characters would take me. But a TV show, I quickly discovered, is quite different. Every episode has to be outlined in advance of the writing and all the ideas approved by the "show-run"--in this case an excellent writer named Alan DiFiore, who wrote many episodes of a great Canadian show called "Da Vinci's Inquest," among others.

Every member of the story department is present and contributes to the episode outlines. Once every episode (in our case the two-hour pilot was aired as the first two episodes, so we were working on the next eleven), everyone contributes to the script outline and writing the scripts.

For a TV series, I think this is a great approach. It allows for character development over the whole season while at the same time each episode has its own story arc. With a TV series such as "The Sopranos," "The Wire," "Weeds," "Mad Men" and so on, taking on the season-long characters (and even story), TV series are becoming more like novels. The writing process is quite a bit different, but the basics--character, plot, theme--are the same.

___________

Canadian novelist and television script writer, John McFetridge, lives in Toronto and writes about organized crime. He also writes for the TV series, "The Bridge." His article was excerpted from Mysterious Writers published by Poisoned Pen Press.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Finding Time to Write


by Camille Minichino 

Everything in my life, from my day jobs, to volunteer work, to book touring, (both virtually and in person), takes large chunks of time. I'm sure it's the same with you—by the time you get through all the necessities of life, it seems there's little time left over. In fact, the older I get, the busier I get.

So when is there time to write? For those who might still be struggling with how to fit it all in, I have some tips to share.

1. Think small. No, not only in miniature, as I do for my hobby, but in terms of the time available to you. The best thing I've taught myself is to use small amounts of time productively.

If I have as little as a ten-minute window of "free" time at home or away I open my writing project notebook, or my computer file and make some progress. Even if it's just to tweak one sentence, change that character name I haven't been happy with, or flesh out those random scene ideas I had on my way to work. It's a way of keeping the story at the front of my mind no matter what else is going on.

Waiting for the perfect long stretch of quiet (which might be necessary at times), with the perfect temperature, and the perfect snack food, can stall the process. Any loss of momentum makes it harder for me to get started when that quiet evening does come along.

2. Sleep through household chores. I never use prime time for tasks like folding clothes or waxing the kitchen floor. (Does anyone do that anymore?) Those are labors for times when I'm least alert. So you might hear my clothes dryer going at one in the morning, which, by the way, is also better for the power grid.

3. Embrace technology. I know it gets a bad rap, especially when it's in the hands of rude cell phone users, but how great is it to be able to access calls on my home answering machine while I'm in line at Safeway? Headphones allow me to iron or write thank you notes while I'm on hold for my doctor. I say thanks to the geniuses who make it possible for me to screen my calls and TiVo my favorite crime dramas (for research of course!) for viewing at my own convenience.

Albert Einstein said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.” I interpret that as: take everything ten minutes at a time. Divide the day up like that, and I don't have only 24 hours, I have 144 ten-minute blocks of time to do something with!

Okay, so I'm only fooling myself, but isn't that all that matters?

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Process of Plotting


by Marilyn Meredith 

Because I write two series, a lot of what I need to do about plotting is already done. My main characters are all set, whatever story I’m going to write will affect them in some way.

Usually when I’m going to write a new book, I start going through my files and see if I’ve saved a news story or jotted down something from a Sisters in Crime meeting, or perhaps a story told at a mystery conference that will trigger an idea for me. What I’m looking for is some sort of interesting crime that I can build on and change that will work for a mountain community—a Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery—or a beach community—a Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery.

Once I’ve decided on that and how the story might go, mostly in my mind, it’s then a matter of figuring out who will be killed and why and who might have done it. (Always more than one person.) Thinking about motives and opportunity come next. To make it interesting, the key suspects should all have motives and opportunity so that the solving of the mystery is more of a puzzle for both the sleuth and the reader to figure out.

At this point I’ll be taking down notes, coming up with names for people and what they look like, who they are in the town. What relationship, if any, they might have with my ongoing characters.

Deciding on what time of year the story will take place is also important, because weather often plays an important part in the plot. (Raging Water is right after the first of the year, winter time, and a big storm with unrelenting rain plays havoc with everything that goes on in the story.)

Once I have most of these elements in place, I usually begin writing even though I may not know exactly where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. As I’m writing, more ideas pop into my head. I usually write these ideas down in a notebook so I don’t forget to incorporate them in the right places.

I also keep a simple calendar of days and keep notes on what happens on each day as the week progresses. I do this for two reasons, to make sure that all the action that happens could actually take place in that time period, and so I don’t leave out a day.

As the story progresses, I begin to see how things might work out and what will put my heroine or hero in jeopardy for that big climatic ending scene.

And that’s how I go about plotting.
___________

Marilyn Meredith is the author of over thirty published novels, including the award winning Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She's a member of EPIC, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and is on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. You can visit her website at http://fictionforyou.com and follow her blog at http://marilymeredith.blogspot.com/

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fixing the Publishing Industry is No Mystery



by L.J. Sellers

Jean asked if I was worried about the downturn in the publishing industry and what I think can be done about it. The fix isn’t a mystery at all. Three basic steps would change the industry’s business model to improve sales and cut costs.

1. Move away from the hardback fiction book. Publishers could simply not print hardbacks and let libraries and collectors laminate their own copies of trade paperbacks, or they could print very limited hardback runs with the bulk of the first printing done in trade or mass market paperback. Then the first run of each novel could be bigger and priced to reach the whole market. Publishers win by reducing their print costs and minimizing the number of returns. Readers win by getting a book they can afford when it first comes out, and writers win by reaching as wide a market as they can on the first publication. And if publishers produced an e-book version at the same time, it would open the market even further. And writers who didn’t hit the big numbers would never be stuck with a book that is only available in hardback—which is a spendy version that’s hard to sell at book fairs and special events, and limits sales even further.

2. Change distribution to a nonreturnable basis. This seems like such a no brainer. Approximately, 25 % of all books printed are returned and shredded. This is an unsustainable waste of time and resources. Once the new policy was in place, bookstores would have to be conservative about how many books they ordered at one time, but it would simplify the bookkeeping for everyone involved—especially authors who often have their royalties held back against returns.

3. Print only as many copies as are necessary to fill orders. Yes, there is a discount in volume, but if, in the long run, the model isn’t making money, it only makes sense to pay a slightly higher per-unit printing cost and have fewer returns. Money (and trees) would be saved from not printing, shipping, processing, and shredding books that never sale.

If all that happened, bookstores would have fewer returns to process and they could make money by remaindering books on their own premises. They could offer discounts and buy one/get one free deals to keep product moving. Publishers could cut their printing (and shredding) costs and spend more money on promotion for more authors, not just the bestsellers. This would take the pressure off each novel to perform to a certain standard and allow more novels to come to the market through traditional publishers.

Of course, this advice is aimed at the major publishers, which still control the bulk of the market. Many smaller publishers have employed these ideas. But they can’t work on a large scale unless they’re widely adopted. As long as the hardback book carries a certain prestige, publishers (and authors) who are in paper versions only will remain at a disadvantage.

(Reprinted from an earlier post, but still relevant.)


Bestselling author L.J. Sellers writes the Detective Jackson mystery/thriller series, which has twice won the Readers Favorite Award, as well as the Agent Dallas series and standalone thrillers. Her novels have received high praise, and she's one of the highest-rated crime fiction authors on Amazon.
L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon, the setting for many of her novels. She's also a Grand Neal Award-winning journalist who founded Housing Help, a charity dedicated to preventing families from becoming homeless. L.J. enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. To learn more about her, visit her website: http://ljsellers.com

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hallie Ephron Revisited

Bestselling author Hallie Ephron not only writes suspense novels, but how-to-books, including Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock 'Em Dead with Style, nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. She was also the recipient of the Salt Lake Libraries Readers Choice and David awards and is the Ellen Nehr Award winning crime fiction reviewer for the Boston Globe.

Hallie, how did your early environment influence your career as a journalist and novelist?

I grew up in family of writers (my parents wrote plays and movies; my sisters Nora, Delia, and Amy are all well published) in a house that was wall to wall books. The pressure to become a writer was tough to resist. I tried for three decades and then succumbed.

Did you ever consider following in your parent's careers as a screenwriter?

Dialogue isn't my strong suit, and that's what screenplays are. So it was not the natural place for me to begin.

Where did you work as a journalist and did the experience serve you well when you began writing novels?

I never thought of myself as a journalist. I wrote essays and feature articles for magazines and now I review crime fiction for the Boston Globe. Reviewing books--and more importantly reading lots of them--has helped me see why some books work and others don't. So it's really helped me as a teacher, and also as a critic of my own work.

Tell us about your psychological suspense novel, Never Tell a Lie. How did the story come about?

I got the idea when I was at a yard sale near my house. It was a big Victorian house, one where my daughter used to play with the children of a former owner. I was dying to find out how the interior had been transformed. I drilled the poor homeowner with questions until finally she said, “Why don’t you go inside and have a look around?” I didn't wait for her to change her mind. As I wandered on, through the upstairs, I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale. Somehow she manages to talk her way into the house. She goes inside and…she never comes out.

The idea made the hair on my neck stand up. I knew right away that my next novel would start with that yard sale. I knew that the woman running the yard sale would be nine months pregnant, and the woman who comes to the yard sale and disappears would be nine months pregnant, too.

When did you decide to write how-to writing books and what do they encompass?

I didn't actually decide... I was teaching a class for writers and the acquiring editor for Writer Digest Books sat in on a bit of my class. Afterward, she asked if I'd like to write a book about mystery writing. I jumped at the opportunity. I started my career as a teacher, and this gave me a chance to combine teaching and writing.

How do you select books to review for the Boston Globe? And do you always try to find something good to write in each review or do you just cut to the chase?

I pick from the 80 or so titles sent to me each month. Yes, I try to find books I like. If I don't like a book I stop reading and go on to the next one in the pile. But if I review I book I don't like, I say so--but I try not to be flip or clever about it, just as specific as I can.

What’s the best way to acquire an agent and are they necessary to sell fledgling books?

Yes, they are essential if you want to be published by a mainstream press. Agents have become the arbiters of taste. The process is well documented--in Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents it's all laid out plus detailed information about each agent and how to contact them. Just follow the rules about querying. And be patient. And revise, revise, revise if you are fortunate to get comments back.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep at it. Perseverance pays. Grow a rhinoceros hide so you don't take criticism personally, but hear it and use it to make the work better.

What do you stress most in your fiction courses at writers’ conferences?

Not to send a work out too early--I see so many authors jump the gun and send out manuscripts that still need work.

Which writer, past or present, would you like to have lunch with?

P. D. James. That's easy.

Thanks for taking part in the series.

Hallie Ephron's website: http://www.hallieephron.com/
Her blog: http://www.jungleredwriters.com/

Friday, September 12, 2014

Writing a Series

by Rhys Bowen

The truth is that the choice is often not ours to make. Many writers, including myself, find out that we’re writing a series when the publisher accepts the first book and asks, “Do you already have an idea for the next one?”

In fact most mystery writers get their start writing a series, and this has many advantages: you have a chance to build a readership over several books. You develop a presence on the shelves of the chain stores. You have a chance to develop an ever deepening relationship with your main character, rather like an ongoing friendship in which he or she reveals more and more interesting details about themselves and their pasts.

In many ways it's more comfortable to write a series. Each book starts with known facts, familiar characters, setting, subsidiary characters.

Of course there are disadvantages to writing a series: The biggest one is that you are stuck with your sleuth. Make sure you like him and find him interesting at the beginning. Agatha Christie came to loathe Hercule Poirot. You’re stuck with the environment. If you aren’t really fascinated with llama breeding, don’t make your sleuth a llama breeder. You’ll get mail from llama fanciers every day . You’l l be expected to go to llama shows and knit llama sweaters.

Certain crimes will never happen in your environment.

You are not free to try new approaches—alternating points of view, darker approach etc. Make sure you start off with the kind of book you want. If you start with a cozy series you can’t go dark in the middle, as I have found out. Your readers expect a certain type of book and will be angry if you change. My first Evan was deemed a cozy series. As I’ve come to know Evan better the books have become darker and meatier but they are still designated as cozy. There are some places I could never go with the stories. Likewise the readers of my Royal Spyness series expect to laugh and be entertained. They would be shocked by anything too dark happening.

And the last disadvantage: if the series becomes popular, you’ll be expected to go on writing it forever, which takes from you the chance to try something new. Or, as in my case, you want to try a new idea and find yourself juggling several books a year.It’s hard. A writer should be free to write whatever wonderful ideas come into her head, but writing these days is a business. I expect it always was. I expect Mr. Dickens’s publisher said to him, “Charlie, I told you, no regency romances.”
Bowen)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Isn’t Reality Enough?


by Sandra Parshall

The next time you’re in the fiction section of a library or bookstore, take a moment to really see what’s around you. Each of those novels holds between its covers a distinct world that was created inside someone’s head.

Every year thousands of fictional worlds, inhabited by nonexistent people living out imaginary lives, are written, published and sold. The hidden hunger for made-up stories is insatiable—and unique. No other animal feels a desire, a need, to live simultaneously in the real world and in a wild variety of alternative, imaginary worlds.

Why do people have such a strong compulsion to tell and to hear, to write and to read, fictional versions of human experience? Why isn’t reality enough?

Reading fiction is usually seen as an escape from reality—so much so that some parents worry their children read too much and don’t spend enough time with other children. They feel their children will be isolated and fail to develop the people skills necessary to succeed in society. A series of psychological studies done over the past few years, though, should set the parents’ minds at ease. In every study frequent readers of fiction were more understanding of other people’s viewpoints, better at reading the moods of others and more open to new experiences. They suffered less from loneliness and social isolation than people who primarily read nonfiction.

Fiction has social benefits even when it’s not in print form and bound between covers. In a 2010 study of pre-school children, a team of psychologists found that the more fictional stories the kids listened to, and the more fictional movies they saw, the better able they were to understand other people’s viewpoints and beliefs. Watching television, however, didn’t provide the same benefits. The psychologists theorized that TV shows are too simplistic and don’t challenge the mind and emotions the way complex forms of fiction do.

We need stories in order to make sense of human life. While we’re immersed in a fictional world, we set aside our own beliefs and concerns and adopt the point of view of the protagonist. The two worst things we can say about any fictional character are: “He/she didn’t seem real to me” and “I didn’t care about the characters.”

Most of us don’t read fiction out of mere curiosity, to watch characters we don’t care about move through a series of events we can never accept in the fictional world. We want to understand it, however different it is from our own experiences. Understanding fictional events and people makes us more open minded in the real world.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you read Sandra’s interview and learn more about her.)


Saturday, August 30, 2014

What a Character!


by Jinx Schwartz

How many times have we heard that phrase, what exactly does it mean, and how does it apply to my writing?

For starters, I have a lot of characters in my life. Not the ones in my books, but living, breathing characters, the kind defined by Webster as a person with many eccentricities. 

I admit that my lifestyle fairly screams for character encounters. We live half the year in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, where cruisers abound from all over the world and and all walks of life. One thing they have in common is that they’re adventurous types who have chosen a life way outside the box. I can pick up enough material from one potluck on the beach (which happens at the drop of a hat) to fuel many a book. When in port, a walk down the dock or a beer at a local watering hole and I have new best friends from, well, everywhere. Tuning into the daily ham radio nets, with boaters checking in from all over Mexico and the Pacific Coast, with the tale of the day, has me jotting notes for future plots, or idiosyncratic scenarios.

And then there is the other half of my life, living smack dab on the Arizona/Mexico border. Not only do we make the headlines frequently, the city of Bisbee has been named by a national organization as one of the quirkiest places to live in the United States. And they are right. My gardener packs a .380 in his boot, my Zumba instructor is a retired, gay, exotic dancer; and my nearest neighbor is a Rottweiler who lives alone. Her owner shows up with food and water once a day and I give her lots of treats, but otherwise, she has the house and yard to herself most of the time. Rosa is an equal opportunity barker; she targets illegal crossers and border patrol agents with equal hostility. She’s the best dog I never owned.

Even my more normal friends, (you notice I used the word more) are great book fodder. When one of them was banned from the Kremlin because she set off the radiation detectors (she recently had a nuclear stress test), I filed that away, et voila, and it became part of a plot point in Just Deserts, fourth in my Hetta Coffey mystery series.

And then there is Hetta Coffey. She’s a woman with a yacht and she’s not afraid to use it. Okay, so she isn’t real, but boy, sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. Many of my readers actually think I am Hetta, or that Hetta is me. Since almost everyone says I am a real character, maybe we are one.

The plot thickens . . .

* * * * * * *
Jinx Schwartz was reared in the jungles of Haiti and Thailand, with return trips to Texas. She followed in her father’s steel-toed footsteps into construction and engineering in the hope of building dams. Finding all the good rivers taken, she traveled the world, and like the protagonist in her mystery series, Hetta Coffey, Jinx was a woman with a yacht and not afraid to use it when she met her husband, “Mad Dog” Schwartz. After their marriage they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed for Mexico. 

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read her amusing interview and learn more about her.)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Loren Estleman


Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve ever known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.

“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.

His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.

Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”

Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”

He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”

(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dialogue Tags


by J. Michael Orenduff, Lefty Award winner and author of the Pot Thief mystery series.

Robert Parker was one of the most successful crime writers of all time, having penned almost 70 books in the Spenser, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series. He wrote 1,000 words every day, no more and no less. His many books in the pipeline led me to quip a year after his death that he had published more books dead than I had alive.

In a review of one of Parker’s books shortly before he died, I was surprised by the reviewer’s criticism of Parker’s reliance on ‘he said’ and ‘I said’ in dialogue. I had read all his books and never noticed an overuse of dialogue tags. So I grabbed a Parker off the shelf and started reading. The reviewer was right. Parker ended most of his sentences of dialogue with “he said,” “she said,” or “I said.” I was astonished that I had never noticed. I finally put it down to Parker’s prose being so good that he could get away with it.

If I could miss that in Robert Parker, I could miss it in my own writing.  So I reviewed my own use of dialogue tags. I found that I didn’t use them as frequently as Parker. But I did notice in my review of my dialogue that my most successful ones used fewer or no tags at all. In the time since I read that review, I’ve given a lot of thought to dialogue tags. I always notice them when I read. I have come to believe the best dialogue has no tags:

“I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
“It’s the restaurant syndrome, Hubie.”
“Restaurant syndrome? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Maybe you know it by its original name, le syndrome de restaurant.”
I groaned. “Please, no more French words and phrases.”
“But that’s it. That’s the syndrome. You start working in a restaurant, and you have to learn all those French terms. It begins to affect your thinking, like the twins thing.”
“The twins thing?”
“Yeah. You know, like how twins have this special language that makes it easy for them to communicate with each other, but it messes them up when they try to deal with normal people. Restaurant people are like that. We may start out normal, but after you begin using words like prix fixe, hors-d’oeures, a la carte, escargots, and raison d’etre, you get a little crazy.”
Raison d’etre?”
“I think it’s a raisin soufflĂ©.”

This passage is a conversation between my protagonist, Hubie, and his sidekick, Suzannah. The text makes it clear that they’re alone at a table in their favorite watering hole. How does the reader know the first speaker is Hubie? Because he is the one having problems. But even if the reader doesn’t make the connection, it is clear that Hubie is speaking because the response mentions him. I could have started the dialogue with, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I said. That would not be bad but I like it better without the tag. People don’t use dialogue tags when they speak, so keeping tags out of your dialogue makes it easier for the reader to fall into that perfect state when reading dialogue—thinking you are there listening to the characters.”

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read J. Michael Orenduff’s interview.)

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Fat Manuscript is a Dead Manuscript


by Lois Winston

Whether you're writing mysteries or another genre, your manuscript needs a great story, great characters and great writing. The quality of the writing determines the difference between an acceptance and rejection. As a literary agent and author, I see too many submissions where the writer needs to place her manuscript on a diet.

Before you submit your manuscript, make sure it's not bloated with excess wordage that drags down the pacing and bores the very people you want to impress. Your writing must be crisp as well as succinct to catch an editor's or agent's eyes.

The Bloated Manuscript Diet:

1. Reread your manuscript. Is every scene essential to the plot, or goals, motivations or conflicts of your characters? Does each scene advance the plot or does it tell the reader something she needs to know about the characters? If not, the scene is filler, and you need to get rid of it. Each scene must serve a purpose. No purpose? No scene.

2. Repeat #1 for all dialogue. If the dialogue is nothing but chit chat, ditch it.

3. Do a search of "ly" words. Whenever possible, substitute a more active, descriptive word to replace an existing verb and the adverb that modifies it.

4. Instead of using many verbs to describe a noun, use one all-encompassing adjective or a more descriptive noun.

5. Say it once, then move on. It's not necessary to repeat an idea or image in different words in the next sentence, next paragraph or next page.

6. Identify needless words and eliminate them. Every writer has at least one or two pet words that need to be eliminated.

7. Avoid a laundry list of descriptions by substituting more descriptive nouns and adjectives.

8. Do a search for "was." Whenever it's linked with an "ing" verb, omit the "was" and change the tense of the verb.

9. Choose  more descriptive verbs and omit the additional words that enhance the verb.

10. Omit extraneous tag lines. If it's obvious which character is speaking, omit the tag.

11. Show, don't tell. Whenever possible, you want to "show" your story through dialogue and active narrative, rather than "telling" the story.

12. Let your characters' words convey their emotions, not the tag line. Also, keep to the unobtrusive "said" in tags. You can't grimace, laugh or sigh dialogue. The character can grimace, laugh or sigh before or afterward, but not while speaking.

13. Avoid non-specific things like "it" and "thing."

14. Describe body movements only when they are essential to the scene. Don't break up dialogue every other sentence with having your characters shrug, giggle, smirk, glance, nod or drum their fingers.

15. Don't fill dialogue with interjections. We might have the bad habit of filling our speech with "well" and "like" but having a character constantly adding those words makes for lousy dialogue.

(Excerpted from THE MYSTERY WRITERS,  now in print, ebook and audiobooks editions, which includes Lois Winston's interview.)