Friday, February 5, 2016

Chapter 1 of the new Ari-Zoe story--quick peek

Here's a peek at the opening of the sequel to MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS.


"How did you find his body?" my sister Zoë asked, not because she wanted to know, but primarily to irritate me.

Tabitha looked around furtively, then spoke in an exaggerated English accent while pretending to peer through fake pince-nez. "Acceptable, my dear Watson."

She and Zoë guffawed. "More than acceptable, surely," Zoë said, setting the bait.

"And don't call me Shirley," added our other lunchmate, Samantha, in a Groucho voice. This sent both of the others into peals of laughter.

"Look over at the next table. The one in the red jacket. Hubba hubba hottie," said Tabatha between chortles. Rather too loudly.

"Cougars," said Samantha. "The kid can't be more than sixteen."

This observation--quite true--led to renewed hysteria.

"Quiet," I finally hissed, even without benefit of any esses. "He'll hear you."

"I don't care if he does, Ari. Men are all crazy." Tabitha dabbed at her eyes with the orange cloth napkin. They do it up right at Zorreia's Tex-Mex, even down to tablecloths of real linen and candles inside screened glass. "Want to hear what Lunkhead said to me after our fight?"

"Even though you're a fat bitch, I love you anyway." Zoë has always been droll.

All three of our companions started crying from the supposed hilarity. "He really didn't say that. Did he really?" Samantha wiped at her eyes with the hem of her tunic.

"Yes, I'm afraid he did." Tabitha nodded, then pantomimed pulling up one's overalls. "Boy howdy, he's a chubby chaser, all right. Always knows just the right thing to say."

"Ranks up there right after 'For a fat girl, you don't sweat much." Sam giggled.

None of us were fat. But it wouldn't matter if we were in Divine's league. Body size and shape did not define a person. Although I was grateful not to be constantly losing the battle of the bulge, at least not yet.

"I prefer the ever-popular 'Does your butt still hurt from where you fell out of Heaven?" Samantha looked at me, as though still believing I would come out with some witticism, or at least half of one.

The waiter interrupted their general hilarity. "Would anyone like to order? Have you heard today's specials?"

Zoë adjusted her half-moon reading glasses (she's far too vain to admit she needs them, so she won't wear bifocals, just gets Wally World cheapies with sparkly purple frames) and began to read, even though she has memorized the items on offer. "You still have the avocado enchiladas? Made with large crescents of avocado?"

"Certainly."

She slammed her menu. "With double rice, no beans. And a large peach iced tea. Unsweetened."

I ordered my usual, veggie quesadillas with a side of guac (which Zoë deplores, terming it "gorilla snot") and the other two got the lunch special, chicken fajitas to share. They'd probably take most of it away in a doggie bag, judging from their dieting obsession. Lucky doggie.

"Well?" My sister raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly at me. "What did you think of the waiter? Hottie, or snotty?"

"Shut up," I explained patiently. "You know I hate to categorize people by appearance. He was perfectly adequate. Maybe not the body beautiful of the world, but at least a Doll-Boy." I frowned down at the menu. "But what does it matter to us? We're not in the market."

"Speak for yourself, honey." Samantha's phone rang, and when she read the screen, she rose from the table. "Gotta take this." She headed for the front door.

"Apparently we're not to be privy to her special secrets." Zoë frowned. Surely (Shirley!) she wasn't actually irritated.

"Oh, no," Tabitha said, taking a large sip of her water-with-lemon. "It's probably work, and it's confidential."

"We're not exactly Close Personal Friends," I allowed. "Classmates don't qualify until they've been through initiation."

Zoë inclined her head to agree. "I'm just being mean," she admitted. Typical external behavior, although she was a cream puff inside that steel-clad barrier she'd built for protection.

We had signed up for this travel photography course at Renner Community College on a whim. Actually, I had signed both of us up, thinking it might be a good way to get Zoë out of her house for a change. She hadn't been going out much since we got back from Aaron's funeral in Marfa, and I was afraid she had slipped back into the slough of despond. Of course, she was entitled to, since my nephew Ricky had passed away only two years ago this month. Grief has no timeline. They tell you time heals, but it only makes it recede a little. You never got over something like that.

The class turned out to just barely make, with the only students being Zoë and I, these two (also sisters, although ten years younger at twentysomething than we were at thirtybouncing), and a tall kid who kept his baseball cap (worn forwards, for once) pulled down over his forehead and never said a word. Either reticent, or the FBI plant, we figured. At any rate, we'd looked at each other after the first class and agreed on lunch, and here we were making it a regular appointment. At Zoe's favorite restaurant.

"Anyway, here comes our food," I said in a deliberately cheerful tone. I was going to enjoy myself despite their sexist and appearance-ist conversation, by Zeus.

"Plates are hot," the server warned. And was right. I almost singed my fingers adjusting the platter.

I hadn't even taken a bite when Tab's phone rang and she also rushed out. I shot my sister a significant look.

Hating to not be the center of attention, my phone warbled.

I picked up. "Ari French, how may I help you?" I said without thinking. I'm used to answering phone calls at my job on the help desk at Aqualife, "the fishes' place." Had "Hello" gone out of style?

"Um. Yes," said a strained voice. "Are you the"--the voice consulted a rustling page--"the niece of Agatha French of Rachel, Arizona?"

A spider inched up my backbone. "Yes, I am, at least one of them, I mean."

"I'm sorry to have to be the bearer of ill tidings." The voice went on for a minute or so, but I could barely comprehend it. When it quieted, I thanked it and gently placed the phone on the tablecloth.

Zoe eyed me suspiciously. "What?"

"Aunt Agatha." A heavy sign escaped me. "She's dead."

For once, Zoë was speechless. "Not to put too fine a point on it," she said at last.

"I saw no reason to tease you and drag it out." Slipping my phone back into my purse, I spied our companions returning. "Cheezit until later. No use upsetting them."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Few Instructions--merely offered up

It has come to mah attention that someone is teaching, "Never use ellipses in fiction except to indicate that you are leaving part of the sentence out." **SIGH** Who do these posers think they are, changing the rules of punctuation at whim? This is total bullcorn (as Daddy would say if he knew I was in the room.)

They're talking about when you leave out part of a quotation or summary. You write, "Washington said he chopped down the [...] tree." This indicates you have left out "cherry." (Although I can't figure out why.) You use the brackets with the ellipsis points. This has to be what confused them.

But it's perfectly fine to use ellipsis points when a character is trailing off or stopping for a moment. {Perhaps your perp just realized he was about to give himself away, and has stopped himself to reverse the sentence. "Sure, I was right there when Henry brought the . . . I mean, that silly man! Yeah, that's the ticket! The silly man brought the lunches.") How else would you indicate that your character is trailing off at the end of the dialogue? "I don't know what I think about Henry. . . ."

(Implying that your character needs to think about this, or has more to say but knows it's imprudent to state it.)

Note that it's THREE ellipsis points when you have a pause or a "gasp" sort of stop-and-continue. It's FOUR when you are trailing off, because one of those dots ends the sentence. NEVER is there a proper reason in "real" writing to use more than four points. They must be separated by a space as shown. I don't CARE what Word auto-"corrects" that to. They are wrong. Your manuscript should not have those weird squashed points.

Dashes mean that your character broke off. It isn't like ellipses.
"What are you--stop!"
"Why is he--" "Shut up, everyone!"

See the Harbrace College Handbook, eleventh edition. That one won't steer you wrong.

In other news, are you passionate about something today? What's important to you today? Don't be obnoxious (you'll turn your listeners/readers off, possibly forever.) Don't be mean (in other words, if you are mad at Elaine today, you shouldn't post something nasty about her--that's unjust.) But be bold and speak up if you feel the need. Be nice! But firm. Preach it, sister and brother!

"In Germany, they came first for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me." (Martin Niemöller)

"The tongue has the power of life and death" (Proverbs 18:21)

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

"The Lord has set apart the Redeemed for Himself. Therefore He will listen to me and answer when I call to Him." (Ps. 4:3)

"If you don't SAY anything, you may be polite, but you're missing the opportunity to correct a wrong." (Shalanna Collins, today)

That is all.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Vote! Decide which novel I should polish and finish next.

Here's an opportunity that does not come along often.

I have two novels that I've worked on and been excited about in the past, but have always had to set aside when something more pressing came up to make me work on another novel that's now out. (The circumstances include winning contests that had publication as a prize, or getting an agent who wanted to market a particular series, or needing to work on the sequel to something successful, working with an editor to get a different novel out on time, and other similar things.) I always had these two on the back burner as Books Of My Heart. I love them both and believe in their potential. I'll finish both--I simply need to establish the order. Now I need to know which one would interest more readers.

So I'm coming to y'all! Here are the openings of both novels. Tell me in the comments (or answer in the Facebook poll) which one you would most likely buy and/or read.

The first is romantic suspense with a political edge. The second is for fantasy lovers and those who love a good "good witch" sort of yarn, like an episode of "Bewitched" or "Sabrina" (or even "Charmed," which is so much darker) gone wild. If you love fantasy, skip down. If you like romantic suspense with banter-dialogue, read on.

IN THE PUNDIT'S CORNER is the story of a woman who runs a cable TV program featuring a Rush Limbaugh/Bill O'Reilly-style pundit who comments on the political news of the day and always has a homily at the end, as though he were a priest--which is how many of his followers see him. Kate Underwood Fisher, however, knows he is at heart a showman. She doesn't let any of the politics bother her until the day a "consultant" shows up to evaluate the performance of her and her staff . . . ostensibly. She soon discovers his true purpose, which is to figure out if and how her personal pundit is sending signals and communications to a group of terrorists arranged in cells across the world. It doesn't help that their attraction is like that of huge electromagnets at their opposite poles. Soon it seems that the bad guys are "on" to them, as "accidents" and incidents begin happening, and she and Whit begin to run for their lives. . . .

In the Pundit's Corner by Denise Weeks

Chapter One

All the Underwoods have guardian angels.
Furthermore, most of them claim to have seen their angels at least once during this life. A few are sure they've barely missed out--having heard the rustle of a drapery or caught a flash of light just as the save took place, but having been too occupied with the crisis in progress to pay attention until it was too late and the angel had flown.
Kay Underwood Fisher was one of the latter.
She hadn't seen her angel, but she definitely had one. Otherwise, that black Ford F-150 would've taken her out a nanosecond ago.
"Help!" she shouted, flailing her arms from the muddy puddle at the curb where she'd landed. "I've broken my ankle."
The parking lot of Dallas Cable News Network was full of responsible types arriving to work right on time. The first to reach her was a rangy man in a plaid sportcoat. As others saw him taking charge, they detoured around, and she found herself looking him full in the face. An interesting face.
The face of a young leprechaun. Dreamsicle-toned hair in that boy-next-door-who-just-leaped-out-of-bed style. And freckles. Only a few scattered across his nose and cheeks, but still, enough to lend him a Dennis the Menace appeal.
The little-boy image faded from her mind as his resonant tenor filled her ears.
"Are you all right?" He offered his arm, a little awkwardly. Then he apparently realized what she'd said, and amended with, "I mean, other than the ankle."
A quick mental inventory told her everything was intact, except that her left foot was numb. It didn't hurt--it was oddly deadened, which worried her a lot more.
"I don't know if I can stand on it just yet." She tugged her skirt down over her knees. It had scrunched up to reveal quite a few inches of thigh, but it felt as if it had flown over her head in exactly the same way her dresses used to do when she was five years old.
"Where does it hurt?"
"My dignity," she choked out as a cloud of exhaust blew past. "My social standing. In fact, my standing at all." She rubbed at the ankle and tried to smile, but felt it turn into a grimace.
Skid marks traced a circuit around the parking lot and out onto the main road. Had nobody else heard or seen the truck? Maybe it had been really "black," in the sense of those secret government helicopters.
But no, because the stranger turned his head to peer down the street, although even the dust trail behind the vehicle had vanished. "Looked like a pretty close call to me." His flat accent was Garrison Keillor midwestern. "What happened?"
The truth? She'd seen a flash of movement behind her, but only as it reflected off the inside of her glasses lenses. Cold metal had brushed against her thigh, and the concrete rushed up to meet her elbows. She knew both her feet had been off the ground for a moment. There hadn't been time to think, let alone jump out of the truck's path under her own power. She had an inkling about what kind of power had pushed her clear, but she couldn't exactly say that she believed she'd been saved by her guardian angel. Whatever had happened, it was over.
She managed a self-deprecating smile. "I must've tripped on the curb."
"Hmm," he said noncommittally. "Then that truck peeled out just as you fell?"
"I suppose. I wasn't paying attention."
He didn't look convinced.
Above all, she didn't want to sound like a Hysterical Female. "It's probably not broken. I just panicked."
Without warning, he reached down and poked a warm fingertip gently into the spot atop her foot that was starting to swell. She gasped, but more from surprise than from pain.
He nodded sagely. "If it were broken, you'd have unbearable pain. You wouldn't be able to keep yourself from yelping when I press."
She begged to differ. "My cousin broke her leg, and she didn't feel anything until they got to the emergency room and tried to set it. Then she screamed." Kay bent her knee to lever herself up, ignoring the twinges in her tailbone, and found she couldn't stand on the foot. He was still brandishing his arm, so she caved in and gingerly grasped it. "I suppose you're going to have to play Florence Nightingale."
He reddened a bit, but met the challenge with a grin. She managed to get to her feet with minimal wincing. But a few flashes of pain made themselves known, and she felt slightly dizzy.
"All right?" He held her elbow until focus returned and she could steady herself.
She whooped involuntarily as she shifted to her left foot. It refused to take any weight, even though she'd recently lost fifteen pounds.
He looked grim. "Let's get you to the nurses' station."

*to be continued*

Now, here's the scoop for fantasy/"Bewitched"/"Sabrina"/"Charmed" fans. MIRANDA'S RIGHTS (yes, I know, someone stole my title last month for their mystery series, because this has been up on various teaser sites, so I might change that to RITES, but that is so much more hardcore, don't you think?) is the story of a woman who is surrounded by witches (GOOD witches . . . white witches . . . not semi-tricksters like Serena and Endora, much as I love them. Endora must be named for the Witch of Endor, don't you think? The one God warned against visiting?) and just takes it in stride now that her mother is one (retired, mostly), her tenant is one, her best friend is one, and now she works for one. Pagans galore, but she's still a staunch Episcopalian with an attitude of live and let live. Until her thirtieth birthday, when she wakes to find said best friend in the middle of putting a spell on her. An unknown spell. Her mother and tenant aren't worried, but when the effects begin to show up once Miranda is at work, she goes into action. Zepp, her ensorcellor, insists this is to help Miranda. After all, her husband Alex has recently moved out for "some space," but Zepp thinks Miranda needs to get over that and move on. Little does anyone know that Alex is in the clutches of yet ANOTHER witch . . . this time, not so "white" or even neutral. Zepp's spell and Miranda's use of it results in a witch war of sorts, and as it plays out, Miranda must ask herself what path she will take and how she will deal with events. If Alex does come back . . . does she even want him? (The romance takes second place to the screwball, madcap, side-effects-ridden magical ride. It's very like an episode of "Bewitched" gone mad.) This one also has a prologue starring the antagonist! So if you hate prologues . . . tell me.

Miranda's Rights by Shalanna Collins

PROLOGUE

The demon Asperioth felt himself being conjured just as he was finishing up a complex three-day working.
Because the first tug came when he had his hands full, he couldn't even try a countermeasure. The working was too strong, anyway; someone out there must have his Name. He rose up into the air tail-first, cursing and dropping the components for the last step of his spell as he was sucked into the vortex between the demons' realm and that of the mortals.
The feeling was like being pulled butt-first through a knothole. A too-small knothole.
He materialized in a deep-forest clearing bathed in the light of the full moon. Someone must know a little about what they were doing. His hooves crunched on pine needles; the scent turned his stomach. Looking down, he saw he stood in the center of a salt-encrusted pentagram inscribed in a double circle engraved in the soft dirt. Apparently, someone knew quite a bit.
Or had been reading up on Summoning in the occult literature.
He blinked. As his infravision adjusted to the harsh light, he could make out a petite figure. A human female stood before him with black-draped arms upraised, her toetips barely tangent to the edge of the magickal figure.
Her voice squeaked forth with a whiny nasal accent. "Asperioth, I command thee!"
She'd heard his Name somewhere, or read it in a book, he supposed. That made things tougher for him: once they knew your Name, you couldn't resist the conjuring when you were called. That was part of the reason he'd been pulled so suddenly. And unless you could fool them, you were compelled to obey. Within reason.
"What do you seek by calling me, O woman?" He boomed it out with an echo, hoping he sounded properly fearsome. Asperioth couldn't quite remember the language, the exact phrasing that he was supposed to use. It had been so long since he'd had his Name called by a mortal. "I have little time to spend here. Tell me your desire."
"I want more power." Her eyes gleamed in the moonlight. "More power at my command without all these material components and . . . rituals." Her lips parted, revealing slightly pointed canines at the edges of her smile, and she glanced over her shoulder.
Asperioth followed her gaze to a naked human male, almost as young as she, panting on a woolen blanket behind her. The youth lay unnaturally twisted and still, as though stunned from a working. It was a sophisticated method of raising power; she was no newcomer to the Craft, nor apparently to the rules of diabolical magick.
"I could give you more power in the same way this one has given it." Asperioth beckoned, hoping he wasn’t leering too obviously. "Come hither into the center of my pentacle, and I shall grant your request."
"I am young, but not one day old, dear." She grimaced. "A demon child is not in my plans. Anyway, I've never heard of going into the pentacle with the demon."
Asperioth winced. “Please--we prefer the more correct term, ‘antiangel.’”
She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”
Asperioth spread his arms wide, then pulled them in a bit as a shower of tiny blue sparks shot from the edge of the pentacle’s central pentagon, in which he stood. “I will do you no harm and plant no seed. You will find I can give you great pleasure as I increase your power.”
She gave him a hard look. "Don't mess with me. You can give me power at my command with a single word. I want that word of power."
Well, it had been worth a try.
"All right. But within the confines of this figure, I feel cramped and uneasy. When I am made to be so, I cannot think." The pentagram seemed claustrophobically small; it was squeezing his potbelly and his rear pillows. "Rub out a line so I can come forth, and I will grant you a word which will allow you to command power in an instant."
"Forget it." She glared at him. "You're not coming out here, and I'm not coming in there. Do I look stupid? You stand right there and think fast. Just give me the word."
All right, he would give her a word. But first he had to know what it was worth to her. "What is the payment you are willing to give for each use of this word?"
She scowled, pushing her wild dark hair back behind one ear. "What are you talking about?" So she hadn't read up as thoroughly as all that.
"I mean there is a cost for each use of the word. The power does not come from the sound of the word alone. It must be paid for by the sacrifice of some mortal component."
"Component." Her voice wavered a bit.
He paused for dramatic effect. "Your pet . . . the use of your right arm . . . your singing voice. . . ."
"Those things are not negotiable. They're too personal." She squinted into the blue light that surrounded him, as if thinking, although he doubted it was remarkably deep thinking. "What about another person?"
"That could be satisfactory." Asperioth looked at her with new respect. He had to admire her ruthlessness and her brazenness in demanding such things so confidently of a power like himself. And she was almost as free from the burden of compassion as he was. However, she should have had all her dragons in a row before Calling him. "This grows tedious. State your exact offer."
"I don't know yet. Can I state it at the time I use the word? Another person, still to be named."
"Named at the time of the casting. All right." He felt he was giving her ample exception.
But she paused. "Wait a minute--let me think if I want that, or if there's a better way." Stroking her chin as if she were an aspiring member of Z Z Top encouraging her beard, the human appeared ready to muse until Tuesday.
His own abandoned spell would be ruined, unrecoverable, if she kept him here much longer. He could feel steam rising out of both ears. "Do not anger me, mortal woman. Show the same courtesy you would use to a fellow magician, or better. You forget what I am and what you are."
"Sorry. Jeez--"
He clapped his hands over his ears before her invocation of Light could do any damage. "Please! No need for that kind of language. I have your word of power." After waiting one suitably solemn moment, he pronounced a word in the magickal tongue. Guttural and hissing all at once, it would be a challenge to her.
"Can't you give me an easier one?" She squinted at him as if things were blurring over, which would mean her hold on him was fading. She was running out of energy.
"The words are the words." He sent a hostile light out of his eyes to convince her. "They cannot be other than what they are."
"All right, all right. Say it again clearly so I can get it, and you can go."
He pronounced it once more for her, slowly, to be fair, because she had proven herself brave as well as admirably wicked. “Use it wisely. Remember the price.”
She smiled and raised her arms. “I release thee, Asperioth, and return thee to thy proper realm.”
He felt himself slipping back into his own dimension. "Thank you," he heard her calling as he clattered back onto the floor of his own workroom.
He bared his fangs in what passed for a smile. Her fatal mistake was a beginner's error. She had failed to pronounce the peace. She should have ended not with a stupid thanks, but with something like, "Depart now, and may there ever be peace between me and thee. So mote it be."
So now he had her. When she Called him next--if there was a next time--he had no obligation to comport himself with peace. "Mortals today," he muttered, picking himself up and dusting off his legs, which were sticky and covered with dried cinders from the floor. "Complete fools. But when has it ever been otherwise?"
Rhetorical question.

Chapter One

On the morning of her thirtieth birthday, Miranda Callahan came awake with the certain knowledge that her best friend was casting a spell on her.
"The moon enters the house of the dragon, and Hecate works her magick on me." Miranda groaned, raising her head off the sketches for her latest cartoon panel. She'd fallen asleep at her drawing table again.
Charcoal sketches are unforgiving. The entire page was smudged like yesterday's mascara. In the gentle morning light, the new cartoon seemed particularly uninspired. Her fingers flew to her temples, where they automatically started massaging in circles.
What could be worse than waking to unfamiliar magick--except, of course, waking up in a cold bed without Alex. Which she'd cleverly avoided by conking out at her desk around three in the morning.
She had to put a stop to this enchantment, immediately. Being manipulated was never her preference, no matter how well-meaning the manipulator.
But the spell was already working on her.
This spell was benevolent, though, she'd swear. She felt optimistic, for a change, and a little buzzed, as if she'd been affected by the margaritas she vaguely remembered drinking in her dreams.
Her stomach guggled. She hadn't been spelled unexpectedly like this since her mother had semi-retired from the Craft.

*more to come*

Well? Which one? I can get back into either of them. I don't know which one to devote my first energies to. You decide!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I was on the talk radio! You can listen to the podcast

Here's the link to the Red River Radio show that I was interviewed on for an hour (the other guest had an emergency, so I just kept talking when she didn't show up!)

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rrradio/2015/12/15/red-river-radios-no-limits-with-barbara-m-hodges

Here is a SORT OF transcript of the show, or at least what I meant to say on the show. Some of this I said, and parts of it I didn't, but I thought it might be amusing for you. She didn't ask me all of the ten questions I prepared at the end, oddly enough. . . .

SHORT BIO


I've been writing since I could hold a crayon.

Stories (or what passed for them) since I had chicken pox the second week of first grade (ruining my perfect attendance record) and Daddy brought me Robin Hood and Toby Tyler and other books from the library that he'd read as a child, and told me for the first time that books didn't drop from the sky fully formed like the Bible and the CRC Mathematical Tables had, but were written by mortals. However, Mama said that "storying" was "lying" ("storying" was one of her Southern words for lying) and it took her a long time to approve of fiction. Basically, until I was well into my thirties. Meanwhile, she told the child me that my plots and ideas were too juvenile, so I launched into a study of English grammar and usage and of literature that has stood me in good stead. My father, a mathematics professor and rocket scientist, died when I was fifteen, so by the time I was ready for college, my family told me I must major in a scientific field so I would have something to fall back on and MAKE MONEY.

Born here in Dallas and lived in Houston while Daddy worked at NASA and then back to Dallas where he taught at UTD and worked at defense contractors.

I graduated from Southern Methodist University a National Merit Scholar (how else could I have afforded it) with bachelor's degrees in computer science and in mathematics (with a minor in English); you'd have to look under Donolda Denise Gerneth, because that was before I married into the famous Welsh Weeks family. So my teachers from elementary school through high school who had such high expectations of me, this is how I turned out. For many years, I worked as a software engineer in defense and telecom. But I was always "really" a writer. All the while I was scribbling, scribbling.

I'm one of those two-headed authors--not two-faced--I write under two names, using a pen name for YA fantasy.

I play the piano and have tutored math. Used to belly dance and as a kid was a baton twirler (but no fire batons ever again, by order of the Fire Department)

Amateur radio operator call sign N5UTI (UTI! You women are laughing because you're a woman and you know what doctors mean by that, but in Morse code UTI is a palindrome and I have an affinity for palindromes. I prefer University Trained Idiot or, as one fellow ham came up with, Usually Talks Incessantly.)

Until last week, I was the sole caretaker of my 85-year-old mother, who has been disabled for years but was diagnosed with dementia last January and has spiraled down quickly. She can no longer stand, and has serious confusion and panic . . . they wouldn't let me bring her home from her Thanksgiving Day hospital visit. The doctor insisted on sending her to a nursing facility, and it has been an agonizing adjustment for both of us. I hadn't realized how difficult and all-consuming it has been taking care of her. She required every moment of my time and I could write and clean house only in stolen moments. She wouldn't talk to me when I called to tell the facility staff to listen in here, by the way. She's angry with me for not coming over to pass along my viral bronchitis and sinus infection to all the residents. But oh well.

My husband and I have been married *bleep* years and live in a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas, with our beloved yappy Pomeranian, Teddy.

I wrote my first book when I was four. It was a coloring book with captions. Pictures of a bug, our car, our house, and even God. (You couldn't see anything because He was behind a HUGE cloud, so all you saw was the foot of the throne under the cloud and the crown sticking up over the top.) Taped together. Made of that old onionskin typing paper. My mother had this up until a few years ago when her house burned down.

My dad had a home office (which was not standard in 1964 when I did this) and I would go in there to type stories on his blue Royal portable. A favorite name for a hero was "Werty." Look at the keyboard and guess why. By third grade I was sending my typed poems and short stories to the New Yorker. I'd get them back with sweet little scribbles from their interns who surely knew I was nine, then twelve, and they were very encouraging. I was on an Archy and Mehitabel kick for a while (you should read those books if you get the chance), and then I wrote these depressing Southern gothic flash fiction things. Not what you see in today's New Yorker. Still, that kept me convinced that I could do this.

The first non-juvenilia novel I ever finished was high fantasy, PALADIN SPELLBOUND, about a preteen girl in a totalitarian medieval walled city who was coming into her healing powers by laying on of hands--"Alyncia," a COOL name I made up. DAW wrote to say they loved the first three chapters, but there wasn't an entire novel at that time to send to them. My famous first non-juvenilia trunk novel. It really didn't deserve its fate as a trunkie. But it just grew and grew and I didn't know how to keep every secondary character from jumping in and grabbing the reins and taking us in yet another subplot direction. Oh, well.

Agents--I had an agent for a year, but we parted company over issues of changing MY book into HER book (without editorial decree--these were things SHE thought would make the book sell, such as explicit erotic scenes, gory violence, and what they call "torture porn," which didn't fit my artistic vision. But over the years, many MANY times I came THAT close with various books and various agents. As Agent 86 used to say, "Missed it by THAT much." Some agents were lovely to me and I still keep in touch with them. Still, they never believed that my earlier work was commercial enough. Often I would do revisions for a particular agent, but ultimately I couldn't spend my time doing revisions on spec.

(As Heinlein said, never revise except to editorial letter AFTER the contract.)

I had a health scare that was pretty scary a few years ago, and coincidentally the Kindle and small press publishing were just taking off. Everyone was publishing. So I decided that I'd take my next novel down the new path rather than starting over with agents and waiting up to a year to hear back at all.

That's when I went with Muse Harbor Publishing and Oak Tree Press and Pandora Press. I do not think of Oak Tree Press as a small press, by the way. Pandora is a TINY press with four authors, but OTP comprises fifty or more, and they're prolific. Still, New York publishing sees all of us as indie or small press.

Let me tell you, I was pretty frightened, because I had always been told that it would mean I'd never be taken seriously by New York houses, and that I would be a pariah. That situation has definitely changed. New York is no longer the ONLY place in the world, apologies to the New Yorker.

First public appearance as an author was in Borders bookstores, signings of DULCINEA, my first published novel and a YA fantasy. I also appeared at several conferences and spoke on panels and at schools.

Most high-profile was at 2014's Left Coast Crime in Monterey CA where we launched APRIL MAYBE JUNE and I got to meet my brilliant Muse Harbor editor and the lovely publisher of Oak Tree Press, as well as several wonderful fellow authors. I didn't get to do as much as I had planned because I suffered an outbreak of shingles two days before we left on the trip, and it hung around. I mostly stared at the ocean waves hitting the rocks and thought about how Poseidon would love to get me down there in Davy Jones' locker where they keep all the Monkees memorabilia.

Awards--Golden Rose for APRIL, MAYBE JUNE, first prize and publication for NICE WORK, lots of minor readers' awards--I have found that awards seem to have little influence on sales at my level. Perhaps if I won a Macavity, Hugo, Nebula, Pulitzer. But down here, readers don't take the bait.

Influences: C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Harlan Ellison, Phil Dick, Shakespeare and Shaw, Jane Yolen. The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew series, which I read starting around age four or five. I can't remember when I couldn't read. My dad sat around reading and writing on his mathematical proofs all the time, so that's what I did, monkey see. An only child back in the sixties didn't have a tablet and smartphone to make up for having no playmates.

HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS


1. I see that you write both fantasy and mysteries (including romantic suspense). What do you enjoy about both genres? What do you find difficult?

A mystery is at heart like the old morality plays of the Medieval church. It shows that justice will be done, and exposes the trouble that someone can get into when he gives in to temptation or acts rashly in his own self-interest. In a mystery, the reader is shown a crime being solved and the perp caught and (presumably) punished, and thus the imbalance (of the murder) goes away and balance is restored. All's right with the world. At least until the next installment of the series! I want to spend time in a universe where villains can’t hide forever, where right prevails, and where struggle is rewarded as a sense of order is restored. You don't often see that in the real world. With a mystery, I have to do a little planning so as to plant clues and red herrings. It has to be more logical and things must be believable in the context of the story, even if it veers into the paranormal, as MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS does, and as LOVE IS THE BRIDGE explores in more depth.

Fantasy also has to be consistent within the rules of the game that the author has set up. Fantasy has its own magnetic vibe; as the story opens, it invites us to play the game. Enter into the imagined world. "What if?" A willing suspension of disbelief. A curiosity about what might happen if an untrained teenager got hold of an ancient magical item, and then the magic got hold of her. What might happen if two preteen girls were summoned (magically!) by their outlaw cousin because the cousin says she needs to be rescued, but then the tables are turned on them and they must figure out how to use the villains' own magic against them. In APRIL, MAYBE JUNE, technology comes into play as well when April must figure out how to summon help with no bars on her cell phone. In DULCINEA, a semi-peasant girl, daughter of an apothecary in a rural town, discovers a new kind of magic altogether and gets dragged into sorcery, intrigue, and saving the town when her father gets a new apprentice who is not what he seems. In both books (and in my other fantasy such as my Kindle shorts), the rules are laid out and followed, even if they include being able to turn people into toads or fly on magical dragons. So the fun part is that anything can happen as long as you have the reader's sense of wonder engaged and their willing suspension of disbelief, and you don't break any of the internal rules that you have made apparent in the story. That last bit can be a challenge.

2. Why do you use a pen name for your fantasy novels and your real name (for whatever value of "real" there may be out there) for your mystery/suspense and mainstream works?

As the man said in "The Graduate"--a great film, holds up well, by the way--"I have one word for you. BRANDING." Author branding. Readers expect to be able to pick up a Shalanna Collins novel and have it take them on flights of fancy. They expect a read accessible to smart/advanced middle grade to YA to adults.

In the same way, readers expect to see realistic or mainstream mystery/suspense from Denise Weeks. Even if there are paranormal elements, the books will be aimed at adult readers. It's like Nora Roberts writing as J. D. Robb. Works for Joanne Rowling!

3. Why do you write both young adult and general fiction for grown-ups?

I can't remember who I'm quoting here, but they say, "Get 'em while they're young and you got 'em for life!" I read all of C. S. Lewis because I loved the Narnia stories so much as a fourth grader. I also enjoy reading a lot of young adult fiction--look at Harry Potter and how it has universal appeal. Twilight, The Hunger Games. My DULCINEA and APRIL, MAYBE JUNE are both called "Young Adult" novels, but adults have repeatedly said they read and enjoy them, just as they read and enjoyed Harry Potter. Both books are the first in a series.

I get all sorts of ideas from the Muses. The way I start. I get a character first, standing unsure on the threshold, and then his or her situation/dilemma comes into focus. The story question is raised and the character's emotions come through to me. I generally get the entire first chapter and a fuzzy idea about how the book will progress and end right there. You could call that the song of the Muse. It might be a grown-up tale, it might be YA, or it might be a sequel to one of my current works. I don't know until I start writing.

I think that the more advanced YA novels and series can be enjoyed by adults, the same way the Harry Potter series engaged the world and the way Twilight and the Hunger Games have captured adult imaginations.

On my website at http://shalanna.wix.com/aprilmaybejune I have published several study questions intended for a reading group or for classroom discussion of that book. Some readers enjoy that and book groups and schools use them.

4. When did you first determine to be a writer? (Somewhat a rehash of what I opened with)

At age six, when I had chicken pox and missed the second week of first grade. My dad had brought home several books for me to keep me occupied, including Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and the original Peter Pan. (I don't remember when I learned to read, but it was around age four, WAY before school; I got into trouble at school because I already knew how to read. But anyway, this was 1965.) He was talking to me about books and I discovered these tomes had not fallen from the sky like the Bible and the CRC Math Tables, but were written by mortal men and women. At that moment I determined I would figure out how to tell my stories, the ones my stuffed animals and dolls and I acted out during the lonely-only-child days before the Internet and cable teevee. It didn't hurt that writers at the time were considered public intellectuals and got lots of respect . . . unlike now. LOL!

5. Why are you spending your life writing books, when most people today prefer video or videogames and aren't as into text as they once were?

Books are important. My dad believed that, my teachers believed that. Books should be worthy of your time, and most of them have something to teach you. Stories help us make sense of life through illumination of the eternal human condition and showing us how to cope with situations we see vicariously (or how not to do it, in other books.) Good stories will feed your soul. That's why I am spending my life writing them.

Art is supposed to motivate us toward higher ground and model "right action" for your life (even if the author or director does this through an antihero, showing her mistakes and their consequences). My work generally asks the questions, "What is right action? How should we live? How can we live morally in a world that has lost its moral compass?" (But not asked straight out!)

Readers exercise their imaginations. They must enter the vivid, continuous dream in which they create the backdrop, the characters, the atmosphere of the tale. This, I believe, is a more fulfilling and helpful vicarious experience than that of watching a movie or attending a play, although all of those activities beat video games for me. I can't engage with videogames at all--never could.

6. How many books have you written?

Not counting the ones I constantly refine and am never quite satisfied with (LOL)? I have several still in revision. I have new books slated for Christmas release on Christmas Day, when people will have their new Kindles and be sick of sitting around the tree with the family, LOL. A new and controversial YA is THE DARKNESS AT THE CENTER by Shalanna Collins, which I hope to have as a Christmas/New Year's release.

Actually in print are 4 as Denise Weeks (my mundane identity). I have two traditional mystery series. NICE WORK is the first in the Jacquidon Carroll Snoop Sisters series and won the 2011 Oak Tree Press contest. MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS kicks off the Ariadne French mysteries with a somewhat paranormal take on things. If you want something with supernatural or mystic overtones that is actually FUNNY and rollicking and full of character-revealing events, try LITTLE RITUALS, a screwball literary chick lit story of a grown woman's coming of age through exploring ritual and luck. LOVE IS THE BRIDGE is a techie ghost story romantic suspense that investigates the nature of reality and asks whether anyone is truly safe on the Internet (and being so dependent on technology.)

3 books from Shalanna Collins--as Shalanna, I write YA fantasy/adventure. APRIL, MAYBE JUNE is a Golden Rose Grand Prize Winner about two genius-girl preteen sisters who undertake a journey to rescue their rebel cousin . . . but things are not at all what they seem. It investigates the question of what family is, and what is an appropriate sacrifice to keep family safe. CAMILLE'S TRAVELS is the story of an abused runaway who finds even more trouble on the road in the form of a magician who is pursuing her. She and her companions hide in a Renaissance Faire, on a freight, and at the National Hobo Convention (yes, there really is one.) But they're actually just searching for the safety of a home. DULCINEA is a more traditional fantasy novel like the works of Jane Yolen or Diana Wynne Jones, about an apothecary's daughter who discovers a completely new kind of magic and gets pulled into saving the town. I also have several Kindle Shorts up, one called THE SPLATTERFAIRIES, a fantasy about naughty fairies who cross the Veil to our human world once a year. One is a Christmas memory that's fictionalized--A CHRISTMAS MEMORY (oddly enough), by Denise Weeks. It should go up as a free download around Dec. 24th.

7. What's your favorite movie?

A tie between It's a Wonderful Life and To Kill a Mockingbird. If you insist on COLOR movies, how about the original Parent Trap and Trading Places. The original Parent Trap, NOT the remake!

8. What would you caution young or new writers about most strongly?

Aside from plagiarism, I think the worst danger is dumbing down your individual voice after you take all the workshops and go to critique groups. I see writers whose work becomes vanilla after they do all the things that everyone suggests. Use your judgment. Some things people say will simply be wrong for you and your work, although if more than one critiquer mentions something, it's probably an issue.

Don't bombard social media with news about your book every day. People will stop following you. I learned that asking for reviews was a good way to be banned from groups!

9. What do you think makes a good story?

There must be an original spark and the main character must be engaging and intriguing. Otherwise, it's just a rehash of stories that have been told over and over until no one can stand them. A good story is one that YOU would like to read, but can't find on the shelves, so you end up writing it yourself.

Whether a story is "slow-moving" or "gets right to the shooting," there must be a purpose or else the reader gets to the end and the book hits the wall--you feel you've spent all this time and then there was no closure, no fulfillment. People like to learn something when they read, even fiction.

10. What is something about you that might surprise people?

I was one of eight finalists in the Scotch Brand Most Gifted Wrapper Contest in 2008, back when the finals were held at Rockefeller Center. We wrapped various odd-shaped objects, including a baby grand piano! I won a prize in the Robert Benchley Society essay contest when Bob Newhart was the judge. He wrote me a congratulatory note, which I framed. I was a National Spelling Bee multi-county semifinalist back in the day and we were on WFAA-TV channel 8. I used to belly dance. I have been a finalist in the Dallas News Christmas Cookie contest.

MY WEBSITE http://shalanna.wix.com/aprilmaybejune
MY BLOGS http://deniseweeks.blogspot.com/ (DUH)
http://shalannacollins.blogspot.com/
Follow the blog of NICE WORK's main characters, Jacquidon and Chantal Carroll:
http://jackiesjotting.blogspot.com/

MY AMAZON PAGES
http://www.amazon.com/author/deniseweeks
http://www.amazon.com/author/shalannacollins

MY FACEBOOK PAGES
http://www.facebook.com/shalanna.collins
http://www.facebook.com/DeniseWeeksBooks/
http://www.facebook.com/shalannacollinsbooks/
MY AUTHOR EMAIL shalanna.collins@gmail.com

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pet Peeves and How Mysteries Differ--Cozy version

Don't you hate it when you're watching someone do something you know you're good at, and they keep screwing it up? I mean . . . I wince when I hear the results of lack of practice at most kids' piano recitals (I'm bad! I know!), I roll my eyes when people can't add one-digit numbers when they're on game shows (yes, it's tougher when you are under the spotlight, but still), and I go crazy when writers pull a fast one. It's as if I'm Houdini watching David Copperfield (no, not the Dickens character) saw a chick in half, and it's too easy to see the false floor and the wires and pulleys. You're supposed to rise above doing it the easy way (although I don't always do that myself. Raising the bar for published authors everywhere!)

I know you have pet peeves as far as your own reading. I do wish the mystery publishing industry would get tired of some of these creaky old overused tropes and start doing other things that we can make into peeves.

My own pet peeves in mysteries include:

That depressingly "heartbroken" "dark" hero or heroine. This sleuth or amateur sleuth is taken up with thoughts of the wife/husband or fiance or spouse-and-children who were violently or suddenly taken from them and are in Heaven now. This tragedy may have happened a while ago, but the sleuth has been scarred. Not scarred enough, I might note, to avoid immediately taking up with whoever is the detective assigned to the current case! Lots of pages are filled up with how wonderful the ex was and how wonderful the new one is. This romance is typically started in the first book in the series and thus has to be featured in the next book. Man, that same detective got assigned to the other murder she stumbled across! And he is in love with her, and vice versa! Sometimes that hampers the plot a whole lot.

I don't have this situation in my books because I find it so ubiquitous in all the other series. [In the NICE WORK series] Jacquidon broke up with college beau Colin almost a year ago. They'd been cohabiting when she discovered him cheating casually. With a man. He had been dismissive of her and was ruining her self-esteem anyway ("You're not really good enough for me," "I wish I could find someone better.") So she bought her own house, knowing her job was secure over at CSD where she had a very encouraging boss. Ha! Anyhow . . . we don't dwell at all on this, and there's exactly one reference to the past romance when she is shown to be attracted to Fred Gordon and her sister urges her on. A past co-worker, David, is also attracted to her, but she has to discourage his interest while still getting the info she needs out of him.

[In the MARFA LIGHTS series] Ari had pretty much gotten over Aaron's desertion, although she kept thinking she'd surely hear from him soon, when she hears he has crossed the Veil and has left her all his worldly goods (probably because he took so much from her and used her credit cards to buy the stuff he used to travel and relocate with, promising he'd bring her to be with him once he was set up in "the wilderness.") We don't dwell on that romance. She has enough trouble discouraging Gil, the creepy preacher who was Aaron's best friend in the new location, and a few others out in Marfa where she goes to hear the reading of Aaron's will and pick up whatever documents she needs to handle the disposal of the rest of the estate. So we don't get lots of dwelling on that one. Although at the end, her sister keeps wondering whether this has all been a huge scam and Aaron has actually used them as pawns--he was always a player, and it would be just LIKE him to disappear this way if, say, he were in Witness Protection (as a result of having written that code for crypto and getting into trouble with various federal agencies and corporations) and had been relocated. After all, they never saw the "body in the box" because they were busy being pursued by the perp during the service, and it was closed casket in the first place by Aaron's dictum. So who knows whether he might show up in a future story? For now, she has to shake off the tentacles of Gil and isn't dwelling on any of it.

I hate the way readers seem to LOOOOVE those romance deals with the cop on the case--and I despise it when they complain (loudly) that I could/should have squeezed down Jacks' romantic interludes with Fred and Dave. Just because they're not cops! Everyone else gets away with it, but I get dinged. Dumb-asses. /rant

No, really. Why can't MY characters have a romantic subplot when you tolerate the romances with detectives that all the rest of 'em have? I also think that the "keep out of the investigation" stuff coming from those cops would make more of an impression on ME, were I the sleuth. And I disbelieve the leaking of info they always do when on the phone with the sleuth!

Now, really, /rant. No, really.

I agree with this author, whom I met online (and may meet in person if I win the lottery and get to attend some conferences): "I would so much rather see a fully developed marriage with all its complications, than watch the falling-apart of the bereaved detective. Some authors seem compelled at some point in their series, to put the protagonist through this dark valley. I don't know why."--Siobhan Kelly, author of the new Through A Shot Glass Darkly: A Nebraska Mystery

I think the authors feel they have to compete with all the other dark, pathetic, twisted, bereaved/deserted protagonists who can NEVER be HAPPY.

There's something to be said for a cheerful protagonist. Jacquidon Carroll is basically happy and cheerful, despite her situation (being a suspect in the murder of her boss--whom she does mourn!! That's another of my pet peeves, when NO ONE cries or mourns or feels sad when the victim is offed), and her sister Chantal is the "happy moral compass" of the stories. True, Jacquidon does get kind of messed up emotionally while she is targeted as a suspect, and the visits to the BDSM clubs really unnerve her (they're checking out leads, not just having adventures, although these are adventures). She gets emotional when she thinks about the guy she worked for (whom she liked and believed to be a good person who liked her back--up until the last week or so there) having crossed the bar, and she gets upset when one of her ex-co-workers makes it clear that he has a "thing" for her, and she certainly has times of being terrified. But she's basically not a depressive and not always thinking about someone dead or some awful thing in her past. Refreshing!

Now, I have to be a bit shamefaced in this admission: Ari French (my other sleuth) is kind of a depressive. She is so much more like ME that it isn't funny. She *does* think about her losses (her nephew, her fiance Aaron who abandoned her and then did the Big Abandonment against his will) and her sadnesses (being estranged from her cult-entangled sociopathic parents, being burned out on her former passion for software and software testing, being reduced in circumstances because of Aaron's unwise decisions and things he did to her while he was alive). She does think deeply about some of these matters, and it can get heavily philosophical. She's vulnerable to people who make her endorphins pop for a short time (in other words, she might sleep around accidentally now and then, unlike Jacks and Chantal and even her own sister Zoe, who learned that lesson the hardest way and disapproves entirely of the two-backed beast.*) She is a thinker who weighs her options. If my potential reader is not a deep thinker and is one of the majority of Americans who are impulsive and approve of the "act now, even if it's wrong" and "ask forgiveness later because it's too much of a hassle to ask permission first and risk getting a NO" attitudes, that reader may see Ari as "too thinky" to identify with. However, she's more REAL (IMHO) than many of the perfect-figure perfect-everything heroines, so I think there's an appeal to a vertical audience who will BOND with Ari and will appreciate all that she goes through as she's sleuthing, and even when she's not.

* (Did you get that reference? Did you Google it? Should the editor have stricken it from my copy with the justification that "nobody will know what you're talking about, even in context"?)

Ari can be happy, though. We see it when she's with Gil (even as creepy as Gil can be) sometimes, we see it when she's bantering with her sister, we see it in her reflections upon her time with Aaron; we even see it when she's experiencing the Marfa Lights (terrifying though they may be on her second encounter with them). She is witty. She has witty internal asides. Again, this may not be some readers' cuppa. That's fine! Not every book is for every reader. But that doesn't make it a BAD book. It just means this particular style is not for you, and that you should seek out my other series where there's less thinkin' and more doin'.

AAAAAND back to general pet peeves in mysteries.

OH WHOA IT'S A CLUE--BUT LOOK, SOMETHING SHINY! REALLY SHINY!! This is when Our Heroine finds a Real Live Clue, but we can't let her immediately grasp what it means and how important it is, because then the book would be over. So for a hundred pages or more, the reader is "carefully distracted" from whatever it was, even though someone else might mention it just to keep that "fair play" ball in play. Suddenly, about three-quarters of the way though, someone says something innocent that reminds the sleuth about this clue. Aha! Aha! AHA! Now we know what that meant!

Sometimes authors can pull this off. Many do, I'll admit. BUT the worst thing in the WORLD is when the sleuth realizes the importance of that dull paper clip--and DOESN'T SAY SO. The sleuth jumps up from breakfast yelling, "I know! I know how Bogdorp offed Manimal!" And then proceeds to make phone calls that we don't overhear and go running around to set up police officers to be lurking in the background when the perp is confronted. The perp is cornered and either pulls a gun or does a full confession. Shades of "Murder, She Wrote"! Grrr.

If you are going to do this, TELL US what it is that she/he realizes. Don't be COY. I hate COY!

Also, why do these accused people give a full confession when cornered? I'd sure be over there with, "I was in Luxembourg at the AccordionFest when this happened. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." Especially when the only evidence Mrs. Fletcher has on me is that I plugged the wrong electric guitar into the amp. Even ONE fingerprint can be explained away if I often visited that victim's house (why couldn't I have stumbled two weeks ago over the victim's cat and caught myself on that framed needlework on the wall, and that's why my blurred print is on the glass, not because I touched it by accident while beating Aireheadina over the head with a tire iron that you still have not found?) Flimsy stuff like that would fall apart during a court trial!

Then there's the stunt that is endemic to category romance. "If You Don't Know, I'm Certainly Not Gonna Tell You." So many plots hinge on something that a character doesn't tell another character, even when it would be perfectly natural and usually obvious to tell. If they'd just TALK to each other and ask what that line MEANT, or ask for clarification, there'd be no plot, so we get to suffer through as we flip pages and moan, "Why doesn't somebody just ASK why the sweatshirt was inside-out? Why assume that it means the same as flipping the bird?" And don't talk to me about when a person sees someone with someone attractive and jumps to the conclusion that s/he is cheating, and then it turns out to be a long-lost sister or cousin or mom, or a talent scout from MGM. *gnash* JUST ASK, WHY DONCHA.

If your detective doesn't ask questions that a five-year-old would think of, readers assume you intend us to think the detective is stupid. We hate that. If he can't bring himself to ask, get a five-year-old. There is very little that a five-year-old will restrain herself from asking. "Mommy, is Tayllorr a lady or a man?"

AND . . . your heroine must save herself. You cannot have someone else accidentally open the door and rescue her. It's OK if she manages to send smoke signals to the cops, or if she manages to flash the miniblinds in an SOS pattern, or if she gets a cell phone to connect while the bad guys are discussing how to dispose of her body. She must do whatever it is that spurs the rescuers on. Or she has to kick the guy in the groin herself and RUN to the nearest police station. Make her be the HEROINE! Make her be the one who figures it all out, if you can.

PLEASE don't get me started on Too Stupid To Live. DO NOT have your heroine go to a secluded place or dark alley at midnight to get info from someone ALONE. If someone calls me with immediate sensitive info but I have to meet them in South Oak Cliff at a long-closed haunted house, I hang up. Who needs it? So should your heroine. And then she can suffer from not having the info. But I'll bet the person would pursue her to give her the info or get whatever it is he wants out of her. Ha.

And . . . So what? Who cares about my pet peeves? Do you have pet peeves? Let's hear 'em so I don't do 'em in the next book!

Friday, March 20, 2015

How reading has changed . . . part I

I'm old. I'll admit that. I just had a birthday, and I am so tired! (LOL)

I didn't grow up in the Greatest Generation like my mother, though. I was on the tail end of the Baby Boomers, the hippie sub-section, in the late sixties and the seventies. I feel as if I got the best of all worlds, beause not only was the nation still in a postwar boom, but we had a lot of respect for intellectualism and had a so-called "middlebrow culture" in which people felt it important to at least know many authors of "canon" novels and be aware of classical music (Western art music), acknowledging that these things have stood the test of time and must have merit (even if you personally don't prefer it.)

Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are equally valued. People post their opinions and views everywhere and consider that their say is just as valid and important as that of an expert in the field. We see a lot of people contradicting what scientists who are working in the field say, and we see people dismissing the advice of those who are studying whatever it is (world events/politics, music, whatever) and saying that their opinions are just as valid as the experts. "The End of Expertise" has been bemoaned (note my appropriate use of the passive voice, heh), and I think it IS a shame. Doctors know more about how to treat patients than the patients do. Professors of a discipline know more (even if you don't like what they say) than novices in the field.

The ancients were neither stupid nor ignorant. We are where we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we know today is based on research and knowledge from the past. I mourn the Library at Alexandria and wonder just how much we've had to rediscover because of its burning. We can learn much from listening to the greats (and even the lesser lights) or the past. We can learn a lot from just watching and listening to those of today, too. We might find out a lot if we don't discount the views of those who seem to oppose us.

BUT ANYWAY. I've noticed a change in the way that readers read, and it kind of hurts me.

Once upon a time, the "average" reader appreciated many of the allusions and literary r3eferences in books. Lots of people were conversant with Shakespeare's plays and with the King James Bible (as literature and history, at least), and many were conversant with a large section of the Great Books (by which I mean the Odyssey, Lysistrata, She Stoops to Conquer, the Commedia dell'Arte, The Importance of Being Earnest, etc.) The Western Canon was not despised but was largely revered. My dad and his mentor Angus Pearson knew EVERYTHING. You could ask either of them anything and they could provide an answer that was correct--sometimes as a result of an educated guess. If you ever watched the PBS series "Connections," you understand what I mean when I say that the knowledgebase you have will allow fairly accurate predictions in related questions. I saw my dad and Angus as perfect. When I was a child, I determined to be just like them when I grew up.

Now I find people complaining about encountering any sort of cultural reference in a novel or story. They say it "is just there to fill pages" and that it irritates them, and often they don't get it at all. People have asked me why I would have any reference in my novels to other novels or to plays, movies, and so forth.

Great Books founder Mortimer Adler (I think) was the first to use the term "The Great Conversation" to refer to the body of work that is the Western Canon in English (and other books that didn't get on the list, as well.) He points out that authors have a Great Conversation going with one another. If you "get" the allusions and references, it deepens your understanding of what the author you're now reading is saying. It adds resonance to the current story and relates it back to what has gone before. Donald E. Westlake used to get away with a LOT of this, as did Lawrence Block. Some now call them self-indulgent for doing it. I disagree.

If an author writes that a character looks like Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra . . . it's probably ME, so let's reframe that . . . I am using those older icons for a reason. I believe that most people have seen Grant and Sinatra on the screen and will twig to what I mean, that the character's general demeanor or charm makes you think of the actor. If I write that someone sounds like Garrison Keillor, perhaps that is a bit more obscure (he hosts Prairie Home Companion on PBS radio and has for many years--his "Lake Wobegon Days" was a huge best-seller and I still get lots of inspiration from his radio programs.) Still, those who get it will get it, and I think it will deepen their first impression of that character AND of the character who sees him that way. In other words, if Kay perceives Whit as sounding like Keillor, then you know she is the sort to listen to PBS.

Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it's fruitless to discuss this. Either you like this sort of thing or you don't. I don't use references to ephemeral things that won't be remembered in a couple of years because I know that will date the text badly. I think that most literate people should have some knowledge of the Western canon and of the culture before hip-hop ruled and baggy pants were on everyone's radar. I could, of course, be wrong.

But if you're thinking those allusions are just thrown in to fill space, or if they're tossed in without a lot of consideration, you're wrong. I always have a reason for referring to "It's a Wonderful Life" or "All About Eve" or whatever. I think other authors do, as well.

Just clearin' that one up for the Gipper.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Life Lessons Learned From Bad Book

When I moan about my miserable sales figures, people tell me to "read what is selling and write something like that." I did read several of the bonkbusters (sex plus violence::=simulated plot), but I can't write like that. Yuck! How could I live with myself or those characters for the year that it takes to write, revise, polish, beta-test, and fix a book?

But I figured out several life lessons from these books, and I want to pass them along.

I write mysteries (among other genres), but I do not put stuff in there that is grossout or psychotic. I believe the artist has a responsibility to society as far as not giving ideas to those among us who are twisted and who will pick up on these things and go out to actually do them. Ugh. The "from the psycho's POV" chapters especially bother me because they have such explicit psychotic thoughts. The author(s) must be psychopaths or they couldn't think this stuff up. My promise to my readers guarantees that you won't get thoughts such as, "Which body part will I cut out of this victim and keep in a jar?" or anything similar. Ugh!

ANYway. *ahem* I came up with several LIFE LESSONS people can learn from the idiotic actions of the idiots contained within these tomes.

LESSON: Have a "safeword" or codeword that you will use to signal to someone who gets your e-mail or phone message or phone call that YOU ARE IN TROUBLE. "Banana" or "puce" or "ankendosh." This is a word you will slip into any email you are forced to write or phonecall you are forced to make. Conversely, you may choose to put a different safe word somewhere in your legit emails so that the recipient knows you are OK or can guess where you are being held. Yes, some criminals will twig to what you are doing, but most evildoers are too dumb to figure it out. It's worth trying. SOME form of this should be in your bag of tricks.

One protagonist's sister supposedly sends her this email including "don't try to find me." This is so out of character that if it had been legit, it should have had the "banana" codeword in it. Because it does not, you know this is fake. OR . . . during the phone call that someone gets from her child while she is being held hostage (and you're supposed to convince the child you are not being held hostage), if the keyword "banana" is slipped in, the child knows there's trouble. This is something your child should have for herself! If someone shows up to pick her up from school or a party and does not give the codeword, RUN!

LESSON: If your sister or friend disappears and you go into her home, CHANGE THOSE LOCKS IMMEDIATELY. Duh!! Also, install a spycam to see who comes and goes. In this book, Amy hears someone who has a key actually opening the front door of Becky's apartment while Amy is in there. She didn't change the locks! She didn't do a spycam! Dumb! TSTL! If neighbors have had keys, take them away and change those locks. Take any laptop computers with you the first time you visit the place. Also any pets. This is just common sense!

LESSON: Never have a locking room or closet that locks from the outside with a hasp and doesn't unlock from inside. This guarantees (in these novels) that you will be locked in there, either to die or to suffer. If you see someone has installed a padlock and hasp, RUN. Have your cell phone charged and ON YOU at all times, like in a pocket. When I broke my kneecap and had surgery, my mom tied my cell phone around my neck on a long shoelace. This isn't completely wack, because then I could walk on the crutches and still have the phone if I didn't have pockets. Anyway--you don't need a room that locks you in from the outside. Which is worse--having someone steal some rusty garden tools out of your backyard shed, or getting locked into it?

LESSON: Have a hidey-hole in which you keep cash and a weapon (knife or even a Glock). This should be a fake electrical outlet or a fake cable TV outlet in the wall of your bedroom by the headboard OR in your bathroom. That way you can get to these things when the bad guy lets you go to the bathroom. It is insane NOT to have something hidden too well for the people to find. In a previous book by the same author(s), the search described of the property would not have turned up the hidey-hole and she could have gotten away. But then there would have been no book. Keep a screwdriver to remove door hinges. Whatever you might need. Or have a hidden panel like Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, in the back of the closet that you will hide in when the perp comes to get you.

And obeying the order to "not call the cops" and instead going solo to meet a stranger in a strange place . . . TSTL.

Slutty behavior is not a plus for me, so I don't respect the women who do this stuff at all. In MARFA LIGHTS, yes, Ari is weak and she takes comfort one time when she definitely should not have. But she did know the guy and he had been "vetted" by Gil and by society in general, so it wasn't as risky as it could have been. The incident was meant to show that she was so shaken up that she needed some sort of comfort, and that was what was available. Also, it was the opening move in the endgame because it allowed the dude to steal something of hers. Slutty behavior is when the women try to hook up all the time with whoever and don't seem to have any sort of standards. (IMHO, in a book!)

So . . . if you read a book like this, learn those life lessons it offers. Do as I SAY, not as THEY DO! Keep yourself safer out there.