Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Writer's Sandbox (the Joys of Reading and Writing)

by Beth Terrell

Years ago, when I first entered the teaching profession, I asked one of my co-workers if she’d read a particular book. She cocked an eyebrow and said, in a voice that can only be described as supercilious, “I never read anything but professional journals.”

One after another, my fellow teachers made it clear that reading for pleasure was something they rarely, if ever did. I remember thinking, “How will we ever teach our kids to love reading if we don’t love it ourselves?” What were they learning, except that reading was a chore?

True, there are those who think of reading as hard work, and maybe it is—in the beginning. Then after a lot of practice, it becomes both easy and exciting. Novels are like movies we can carry around with us everywhere, but unlike the kind of movies we see in the theater or on T.V., when we’re reading a book, we can decide what the characters look like and how their voices sound. We’re the ones who make the writer’s words come to life.

A good book can take us into another world or help us understand what it would be like to live in another person’s skin. I hope I’m never lost in the woods and forced to survive with only a hatchet and what few things I can scrounge from a crashed airplane, but when I read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, I can imagine what it would be like from the safety of my own living room. I can explore Oz with Dorothy or save Middle Earth with Frodo and Sam. I have read The Lord of the Rings an average of once a year for the last thirty-three years. I still cry when Boromir dies. That’s powerful stuff.

That ability to touch a reader’s heart is part of what draws many of us to the profession. There are some books that, as a writer, break my heart. I think, “Why couldn’t I have written that?” and, “I’ll never be that good.” To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. If there’s a more perfect book in the English language, I don’t know what it is. Over the years, the list of books that take my breath away have grown. A Separate Peace, The Outsiders. Mystic River. The Time Traveler’s Wife. We Need to Talk About Kevin. Books that touch something deep in the reader’s soul, make us think, make us feel. What writer doesn’t dream of accomplishing that?

“I can’t write,” my students used to tell me. “I can’t spell. I can’t put the commas in the right place.”

“Spelling and punctuation aren’t writing,” I would tell them. “Spelling and punctuation are editing.” Editing is a courtesy to the reader, to make a story easier to read. Writing is just about putting ideas down on paper in the first place. That first draft is like a block of artist’s clay or stone. Michelangelo didn’t make David from thin air. He started with a block of marble and carved away everything that wasn’t David. By the same token, most writers don’t spin completed novels from nothing. They write a loose first draft—the kind that make you worry that, if you die before it’s finished, people will find this horrid mishmash of a story and think, “What?! And she thought she was a writer?” Then they trim a bit here, polish a bit there, move this to an earlier spot, add some foreshadowing...A draft or so later (or ten or even twenty), there is a sparking, shining novel. Easy, no? Well…no.

But there is another reason to write, one that is valid whether you are a professional author, an aspiring professional, a teacher, a student, a mechanic, or a professional bull rider, and that is that writing is just plain fun. As professionals, sometimes we forget how much fun it is just to play with words and stories. I write and publish suspense novels, but I also write fantasy novels. Maybe they will be published one day. Maybe not. Either way, I love creating the world and the events that happen in it. I love capturing ideas; like monarch butterflies in a field of milkweed, they are everywhere.

You might enjoy writing, too. Mystery, romance, sf/fantasy, or literary, choose what appeals to you, make up a character, decide what he or she wants and why he or she can’t have it, and start writing. If you get stuck, ask yourself, “And then what happened?” You’ll probably get a lot of good ideas about what comes next. You don’t have to be a professional author to have fun writing, and you don’t have to give up the pleasure of writing when you become a professional.

Happy Writing!

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, where you can read Beth Terrell's interview. The book is also available in a large print edition.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Key to Success Isn't Luck

by Marta Stephens

A few months ago, I was leading a chat for a group of writers when the question of luck came up.

How much does luck have to do with an author’s writing success?

Some may argue that good fortune has everything to do with a writer being at the right place at the right time. For example, what writer doesn’t dream of attending a particular conference and meeting an agent/editor who happens to be in a generous mood? The agent listens to the writer’s elevator pitch and immediately gives him the thumbs up. Okay, it could happen, I’m sure it has, but ask that author if it was a lucky break that got him published and I’m sure he’ll recite the number of years he’d studied the craft, how many hours a day he spends writing and perfecting his prose, and the countless revisions it took to polish his final manuscript.

Success doesn’t fall from heaven—you make it. Work for it. Study the craft, practice, read everything you can get you hands on, and write every day--not just when the mood strikes you either and success will happen.

So when asked what I’d say to an aspiring writer, I pull out my top ten list.

1. Nothing worth doing is without sacrifice. Are you willing and ready?
2. Never stop learning. It’s the key to keeping ideas fresh.
3. Know the mechanics of writing. Practice them until they become second nature to you.
4. Find your voice. It’s what will make you stand out from the crowd.
5. From beginning to end, the quality of the story depends on you. There are no magic wands, no shortcuts, or easy answers only hard work. Love what you do though and it won’t feel like drudgery.
6. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few selfless souls who will guide you along the way. Network, give back, and pay forward as much or more than you have received because you never know where the road will lead or who you’ll meet along the way.
7. Listen to the advice given by those whose works you admire, but be sure to give your inner voice equal time.
8. Falling in love with your words can stifle improvement.
9. Find a critique partner who will offer constructive feedback. A fresh pair of eyes or two or three or four are key to a polished read.
10. The limelight is brief so remember your "please" and "thank you" (see number 6).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Promoting Your Book on TV

by Carl Brookins

So now you’re touring with your book. You’re booked for a local TV appearance. Good deal. I’m a former TV professional so here are some observations and tips drawn from years of experience.

Be prompt, especially if it’s live. Producers are paranoid and if a guest isn’t present well in advance of the segment, you’ll likely be cut. Realize that you might not get on. Stuff happens. That’s part of the attraction of live television.

Study a few interview programs to note deportment and what guests wear that works. Wear a becoming blouse or shirt in a soft pastel. Don’t clutter it with dangly bright metal neck wear. Avoid neck wear or finger, ear or nose rings of polished metal. They reflect light into the eye of the camera and thence into the eyes of the viewers, sending them fleeing from the room.

Be sensitive to your image. Even seated at a table watch your posture. Keep your knees together, sit up straight and look alert. It doesn’t matter whether you are wearing pants or a skirt, keep your knees together. Wide-spread knees on an open set can be distracting as Hell to the interviewer and viewers.
The program may be repeated at different times of the day or night. If you show up on the tube at six a.m. wearing clothes more appropriate to a local night club, the impression you impart may be damaging.

Ask the show’s producer if you can have a straight chair or a hard cushion. Lie if you have to; you have a bad back from all those hours hunched over a hot word processor. Soft, overstuffed chairs and couches are guaranteed to make you look rumpled, overweight and out of sorts. If there’s no choice, sit straight, legs crossed at the ankle, and don’t let your shoulders touch the back of the couch.If you have to walk onto the set after the show has started, remember posture and your smile. Unless you have great hips and legs and don’t mind showing them to everyone, avoid tight, short skirts or tight pants.

Smile, look happy even if it is five a.m. Assume people are watching, even then (they are). You still have a chance to win over four or five technicians in the crew. Smear a tiny dab of cold cream on your upper front teeth to keep your lip from sticking. Try not to drink anything while on camera. Use the toilet before the program starts.

Now we’re in the studio, bright and perky, waiting for a cue. Assume, from the moment you enter the studio until you depart, that there is a live microphone somewhere near you. Stories abound about the sorry and vulgar things said in unguarded moments, that have ruined careers. Avoid becoming another of those legends.

Unless your interviewer turns out to be a total jerk, avoid giving short or one-word answers. Interviewers use the time during your answers to find the next question, or perhaps try to work that bit of breakfast bacon out of the crack between their bicuspids. Avoid saying, “Gosh, these are bright lights. I don’t know how you can work under these conditions.” Be polite.

Speak in your normal voice at a conversational level. Projecting, the technique learned in elocution or theater class won’t get your voice out there farther, it’ll just irritate the sound engineer. Talk to your host. As early as possible, mention the name and location of the store where you are or were signing. If you wait for the host to ask, unless the bookstore is the program sponsor, it won’t happen. If you do it early enough in the interview, you may get a chance to repeat.
Become aware of the social/political climate. Here you are in an uptight law-and-order community where the son of the mayor has just embezzled the city treasury and decamped to South America. Gosh, it sounds just like the plot of your book. Could the jerk have gotten his idea from your book? Don’t go there! You came here to sell yourself and your novel, not get lynched.

When the host asks you what you meant by the scene on page 47, don’t reveal you wrote that scene three years earlier and haven’t seen it since the galleys went to the publisher two years ago. Keep two scenes in mind, one near the beginning and one toward the end. If the question arises you can say, “You mean the scene when John lures Mary to the barn.” The host probably won’t recall what’s on page 47 anyway, and certainly won’t say so even if s/he has actually read your novel. Assume the host has not read it. Avoid swearing, blaspheming, bad grammar and jargon. Howard Stern you ain’t.

Park your ego at the door and complete your personal toilette before going on camera. Pulling, tugging, tucking, twitching, scratching, hair-combing, nose picking, or removal of wax or shower soap from ones ears is terribly distracting to the viewer. Don’t be self-deprecating. You worked hard writing, polishing, and editing your book. Thank everyone after the program is over, including the studio crew. Keep a record so when you are back flogging your next novel, you’ll know whom to contact. If they remember you with pleasure, they’ll invite you back. And they might just buy your book.

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can read Carl Brookins' interview.)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why Write About Geezers?

by Mike Befeler

On television or in movies, it’s the glamorous young people that you primarily see. But there is a worldwide revolution taking place. The population is aging. On a worldwide basis, the median age today is twenty-six but by the year 2050 this will increase to thirty-six. By the year 2030 in the United States alone there will be seventy-one million people aged sixty-five and older, of which nine million will be eighty-five and above, a doubling of this population from the current time.

So as a mystery writer, I’ve chosen to write about this increasing demographic—geezers and geezerettes. My writing has been inspired by people I’ve met in retirement communities and in the general populace. Some people have criticized me for adopting the term “geezer,” but I use it affectionately since I’m a geezer-in-training.

I’ve also focused my volunteer time to address issues of aging. I’m on the Outreach Committee of the Countywide Leadership Council and on the Aging Advisory Council for Boulder County where I live. Through these organizations I’m speaking to groups to promote a positive image of aging and reviewing funding for services provided to the older population.

So in spite of the problems that older citizens may face with health, finance, family, transportation, housing and retirement decisions, there is also something very important that older people have to offer—wisdom. Life experiences can be shared with younger generations in a positive and meaningful way. Also creativity may increase in the later years. As an example, the majority of folk artists began their careers after the age of sixty. My own personal experience is that I published my first novel at the age of sixty-two.

In my Paul Jacobson Geezer-lit Mystery Series, my protagonist is an octogenarian with short-term memory loss. It would be so easy to write off someone like this who can’t remember yesterday, but Paul has a love of life, steps up to the challenge of solving a crime he is unjustly accused of, experiences romance with a young chick in her seventies and trades quips with his precocious preteen granddaughter. I’ve found that when I strike up a conversation with a group of people in a retirement home I’m visiting, that I always encounter an engaging discussion on a wide variety of topics.

So in my writing I try to present a balance of the problems and opportunities for older people. Things aren’t always rosy and there are many challenges as we age. But life doesn’t stop after sixty—there is much to be experienced and shared.

So remember the importance of an older citizen. It may be the person you see in the mirror every morning.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Stay in Front of Your Audience

by Morgan St. James

Posting blogs on multiple sites can be extremely time-consuming, but let’s face it—that’s what drives readers to your website. So here are a couple of hints to make it a little more effective.

Compose your post in Word, off-line instead of doing it directly on the site. Save it as an HTML document which will help preserve the formatting. Then copy it and paste it into each of the blogs or journals you submit posts to. Customize certain parts of it for the particular readership before you do the final post. That way you only have to do some edits on the same post for multiple sites to personalize them rather than writing a separate piece for each.
Did you know that through an RSS feed your Live Journal can automatically post to your author’s page on and All you have to do is click the RSS syndication button one time and from that time on, whenever you post to Live Journal it will automatically appear on the Amazon and Borders sites as well.

Readers like to think of you as a person as well as an author. When you post on various sites, mention some personal facts or experiences that you think would be interesting. It’s important to be able to connect in that way with your readers and future readers and writers. After a library authors’ panel, a girl about eleven years old approached me. Her father said she was shy but he encouraged her to go for it. I was delighted to spend some time with her.

One of the things I told this young girl was to start writing and not to worry about whether it was perfect. Just get into the habit of putting her thoughts on paper and being able to read them later. I posted how important it was to me to be able to share what I’ve learned with others. That post produced several comments from readers.

Save as many e-mail addresses as you can in a special address book file. I learned that the hard way. Either I didn’t save the addresses, or did without any note about why I had them. When it came time to send out announcements, my list was very slim. Now I have an address file called “Book Announcements.” I don’t have to wonder why those names are on that list, and notify them every time I have new publication.

If you don’t already use one, create a signature with your websites or blog addresses, current books, stories and announcements of upcoming ones. You might want to store more than one type of signature, depending upon the content of your message. I keep one for Silver Sisters, a personal one and one for Sisters in Crime. That makes it easy to choose which one to use. Happy posting.