Saturday, August 27, 2016

Planning a Mystety Novel from Start to Finish

by Marilyn Meredith

That’s the topic Jean asked me to write about. I’ll modify the subject a bit because I’m going to tell you how I plan a Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery from start to finish.

I’m fortunate because I already know who the characters are going to be. The series follows the men and women who work at the Rocky Bluff Police Department. Though they each will show up in a book, a different person may play a more prominent role. That’s something I usually don’t decide in the beginning, it just happens as I’m writing.

 Because I keep newspaper clippings and notes I’ve taken at Sisters in Crime meetings and from the Internet of intriguing crimes, I go through them and see if anything pops out at me that I’d like to write about. Of course, what I write is never exactly what the original story was about. I think things like “What if it wasn’t the wife that killed him, but his very best friend?” and then I go from there. 

Though I don’t outline, I do write down a lot of notes. I think about things like who the murder victim is, who might have wanted this person dead, and alibis. More characters are being added to the story which means finding the right names and descriptions for each one. 

I know exactly what the town of Rocky Bluff looks like—but I need to describe new people’s homes, where the victim is murdered, all the details that make a mystery fun to read. Though I may not write all this down at first, I will keep notes. 

Beginning the story with a bang is important. The first sentence, first paragraph and first scene set the tone and often will be the reason a person keeps reading. 

I begin writing, and as I write more scenes and situations occur to me and I continue taking down more notes. Sometimes the characters themselves suggest what should happen next. I always want the reader to make the discovery of every clue right along with the detectives and other police officers. Of course, often things aren’t quite what they seem. 

In between the crime solving, my officers (yes, this is my police department so they are my officers) and their families have other problems that crop up just like it is with all of us. I need to be sure to continue something that has been going on in a previous book and has yet to be resolved.

I always like to have an exciting scene at the end, sometimes nail biting, where everything comes to a climax.

 As I’m writing, I’m often reading the manuscript chapter by chapter to my critique group who help make sure the dialogue sounds realistic, letting me know if what I’ve written needs more clarification, and mistakes I’ve made. The next day, I edit the chapter carefully, not always taking my group members advice, but usually fixing what they pointed out one way or another.

When the book is completed, I go over it again, looking for more mistakes including continuity errors. I do use the editing tool on WORD—though sometimes I ignore what it tells me.

When I’m sure I have the manuscript as clean as I can make it, I send it off to the publisher. In time suggestions may be made, and I’ll have a draft of the book to check for mistakes. I’ll send back a list of what I’ve found. Once they’ve been fixed, I’ll have another chance to check. Despite going over a galley proof carefully, sometimes mistakes still pop up in the book. I’ve decided there are gremlins out there whose only job is to plunk in an error or two, and sometimes more, in any published book.

Then I wait for a glimpse of the cover to give my approval. After that, the books are printed—and then it’s on to the promotion part.

That’s the way I do it, start to finish, it’s what works for me.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Conversation with Bestselling Author Lorraine Bartlett

Lorna Barrett is the nom de plume of bestselling novelist Lorraine Bartlett. Lorraine's other alter ego, L.L. Bartlett, writes psychological suspense and the Jeff Resnick mystery series. She's done it all, from drilling holes for NASA to typing scripts in Hollywood, and lives a life of crime in western New York. Her first sales were to the confession magazine market. In all, she's sold nine short stories, including one on Amazon Shorts.

Lorraine, why do you write under three names?

I write under the name L.L. Bartlett for my Jeff Resnick/psychological suspense series, because my agent at the time felt it would be better to disguise my gender. She felt (and it’s a known fact) that men often will not read books by women.

I write under the name Lorna Barrett because my publisher asked me to take a pseudonym. Some cozy readers don’t want to read books by authors who write darker fiction (like psychological suspense).

I’ll be writing under the name Lorraine Bartlett (yea! my own) because enough people now know that I write cozy mysteries under the name Lorna Barrett. What goes around, comes around.

Tell us about your three mysteries series and if you write them concurrently?

My Jeff Resnick series is currently on hiatus while I concentrate on writing cozy mysteries and building that audience. The first book, Murder on the Mind is out of print in hardcover and paperback, but is available as a Kindle download and on audio from Books in Motion. The second book, Dead in Red, is still available in hardcover. (It’s easiest to buy it from Amazon.)

The Booktown Mystery series features Tricia Miles, who owns a mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue, in the little village of Stoneham, also known as Booktown because of all the bookstores.

The Victoria Square Mysteries feature Katie Bonner, who takes over as manager of an artisans arcade after its owner has been murdered. The first book, A Matter Of Murder, was be released on Feb. 3, 2011.

You’ve had a varied background. Tell us about drilling holes for NASA.

After I got laid of from my first job as a secretary, the State of New York sent me out to a machine shop. I worked production for 18 months. We did contract work for NASA and I drilled and tapped holes on parts for the Shuttle. I was very picky about drill sharpness and didn’t let my parts go out of tolerance--so I got to do a lot of those NASA parts! Very boring work, but I had lots of time to plot out stories in between pieces.

Which genre of scripts did you write in Hollywood?

I didn’t write them, I typed them. I worked for 20th Century Fox in their Script Department. We broke down scripts, retyped them, and sometimes collated them. This was before computers. I’m sure one person now does the work of about 20 people. We worked on "Mash," "Trapper John MD," and typed lots of movie scripts. (This tells you how long ago that job was!)

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

I try for (and often don’t make) 1250 words a day. Some days are better than others. When the writing is going well, I take weekends off. When it isn’t, I try to write seven days a week.

What’s it take to get on the bestseller list?

At least 10,000 sales the first week a book is out.

My second Booktown Mystery, Bookmarked for Death, made it to the extended Times list--starting at #33 and rocketing all the up to #30. My third Booktown Mystery, Bookplate Special, was #20 on the in-print list, which is a bit more impressive.

While I can't be certain how I made it at all, I have to believe it was the support of Barnes and Noble, and hundreds of independent booksellers that made it possible--and of course, my readers. Bookstores took to the series because the protagonist is a bookstore owner. A lot of handselling happened, and I will be eternally grateful.

How important is social networking online?

I’ve gained a lot of new readers because of social networking, so I consider it an important tool for promotion. That said, you can get sucked in and waste a lot of time. I try to log on in the morning, post something, and then log out. (Although I do go in to answer questions readers ask, or comment on their comments.)

How do you promote your books?

I don’t travel a lot, so I rely on the Internet and snail mail. I send out bookmarks, bookplates and postcards, I belong to a number of reader loops, I network with other authors, and I belong to several social networks. It all takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it if I can expand my reader base.

Advice to fledgling writers?

Read, write, rewrite. And rewrite a lot. Also, have patience--a lot of it. Surgeons don’t operate their first day out--most first manuscripts aren’t publishable, either. Don’t take the easy way out. Decisions you make because you’re antsy to be published can come back and bite you later. (Says she who has been severely bitten.) Join a writers organization. If you’re writing mystery, there’s no better place to be than the Sisters In Crime Guppies Chapter.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Comedian/Novelist Chris Grabenstein

A prolific novelist, Chris Grabenstein began his career in a comedy troupe with Bruce Willis. He also wrote for Jim Henson and the Muffets as well as television and radio commercials, his mentor James Patterson. He now concentrates on thrillers, children's ghostly novels and screenwriting.

Chris, what was it like to perform in the same comedy troupe with Bruce Willis during the early 1980s?

A lot of fun improv, like they did on the TV show, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" is a terrific way to force your imagination to come up with something wonderful right away. I still use improv techniques every day when I write. Back in the early 80s, Bruce Willis was just, well, a young actor named Bruce who had moved to New York City, like everybody else in the troupe, looking for his "big break." Agents and casting people would come to our shows, hoping to discover talent--like that scene in "The Goodbye Girl" where Richard Dreyfus is in that horrible production of Richard III down in a Greenwich Village basement. That was us. Bruce, as I recall, was tending bar. I was a temp secretary. Others were waiters. We all did our day jobs to make money and then came alive at night when we went to rehearsals or did our shows.

How did James Patterson discover your writing talent?

In 1984, tired of making ten dollars a show doing comedy while spending forty hours a week to make money to support my "habit," I decided to look for a job where I could be creative during the workday, too. Mr. Patterson at the time was the creative director of J. Walter Thompson Advertising in New York and ran a full page ad in The New York Times, headlined "Write If You Want Work." Two thousand people took the test. I was the first person hired. Jim took me under his wing and taught me how to write copy...techniques, which translated, later, into how to write books people can't put down.

Tell us about your writing background in advertising and screenwriting.

I spent seventeen years writing (mostly) television and radio commercials, ending my career as an executive vice president and group creative director at Young & Rubicam. In my early years of writing advertising, before it became an 80 hour a week kind of career, I also found time (following Mr. Patterson's example) to work on screenplays, etc. "The Christmas Gift," a made for TV movie I wrote with a college buddy, is still on the air every year. Starring John Denver, it premiered on CBS in 1986 but still earns residuals every year. In 2009, my partner and I split $26. We're talking big time. I also wrote for Jim Henson and The Muppets and took a lot of screenwriting courses. A lot of what I learned in all those writing experiences helps me in my day to day novel crafting.

A number of your mysteries have been published since 2006 when you won the Anthony Award for your first novel, Tilt a Whirl. Are you a rapid writer or did you have unpublished manuscripts in reserve when the first was published?

Well, they've been published since September, 2005 (right before my 50th birthday). Six Ceepak mysteries (Tilt a Whirl, which won the Anthony Award for best first mystery, Mad Mouse, Whack a Mole, Hell Hole, Mind Scrambler, and this month, Rolling Thunder), two Christopher Miller Holiday Thrillers (Slay Ride, Hell for the Holidays), and three middle grades ghost stories in my Haunted Mystery series: The Crossroads (winner of the Agatha and an Anthony), The Hanging Hill (winner of the Agatha), and, this August, The Smoky Corridor [and more]

I am, I think, a disciplined writer and, after all those years in advertising, used to sitting down and writing for a good long time every day. I also have a bunch of unpublished manuscripts as, it seems, I typically write three to four books, a short story, and a play per year.

How did your children’s ghostly novels come about? Did you plan in advance that your wife would do voice overs for the audio editions?

I wanted to write something that my nieces and nephews could read--since the adult mysteries and thrillers were all a little too adult. And, even though the stepmother, Judy Magruder, in the books, is based on my wife J.J. Myers, it wasn't our plan that she do the narration for the audio books. When, however, Random House asked me for suggestions, I gave them two: If they wanted a male, go with Jeff Woodman who does a brilliant job on the Ceepak books for Audible, or J.J. Myers, who knows the material inside out, because she is my first editor. They picked J.J. and she won a Headphones award for her work on The Crossroads. She is really, really good. Created not just voices but characters for all 42 people in that book.

You have quite a family of pets. Have they helped with your storylines?

Definitely. Fred, the dog, helps me on a daily basis because I use his dog walks to day dream about story lines. He is also the inspiration for much of what Zipper does in the YA books. My first dog, Buster, was the inspiration for Ceepak's dog Barkley. The cats help, too. Parker, the gray guy, became the crazycat Jinx, the back-from-the-dead feline in The Hanging Hill, and Tiger Lilly, who is always getting into everything around our apartment, was the inspiration for Curiosity Cat, the character Judy Magruder writes children's books about and who we brought to life this year in a play I wrote for the Children's Theatre of Knoxville, called, "Curiosity Cat", of course. That play, which had its world premiere last month and was a big hit with the kids in the cast as well as the audiences, will be available for production everywhere soon via The Samuel French Company.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you aim for a certain amount of words or hours at the keyboard each day? And do you write every day, including while you travel?

I try to write 2,000 new words every day, no matter how long it takes. Some days, I'm done in three to four hours. Others, 8 or 10! I try to write Monday--Friday and have found that trains and airplanes make great writing rooms, if I have my headphones and a good iTunes playlist. I take a week off between projects to recharge my brain and usually spend the time doing something that allows me to daydream--like washing windows or working on our roof garden.

What are the main ingredients in a bestselling novel?

Gosh, if I knew, maybe I'd be a best seller! I try to write the kinds of books I loved to read when I was working in advertising and flying around the country on shoots or to visit clients: Page burners. Compelling characters and stories that you can't put down. Conflict and tension on every page. Lots of reversals and twists. The longer I am in publishing, however, the more I realize becoming a true best seller requires the major support of your publisher to position you to become a best seller. Without it, you can write the best book in the world and very few people may ever know.

What’s the best way to attract an agent?

Write a story they can't put down. Something they haven't seen. Something with your own unique voice. When I was a group creative director, I always hired copy writers who had something in their portfolio that made me say, "Man, I wish I had written that ad!" With manuscripts, you need, now more than ever, to elicit a similar response. The best place to "meet" an agent, I think, is at a conference or seminar. I've heard agents say the same thing.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Keep writing every day. And--this was the hardest advice I was ever given--decide whether you want to be a writer or to write the one book you have written and keep rewriting because you know it will be a best seller just as soon as people stop rejecting it. To be a writer means becoming someone who is constantly writing something new, not constantly reworking the same idea until someone buys it. Eventually, you need to put that first book away and move on to the second or third. Tilt a Whirl, my "first" book, was my fourth manuscript.

Also, learn from others. Find a book you love and tear it apart. Strip it down and analyze its structure. Look for the ghost in the machine. What makes it tick? Learn the craft from a master craftsperson you admire.

Chris's website:

Saturday, August 6, 2016

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.)