Monday, October 21, 2013

Start your book off strongly, but don't be lame!

Everyone's always talking about how a first line can make or break a book.

I can't believe that the FIRST LINE is the only thing a serious reader goes by when deciding whether a book is worth her time. It's tough for me to imagine that it's the only thing an acquiring editor or agent judges an entire novel by. I should expect that they'd give it at least a couple of paragraphs or perhaps the entire first page, on the grounds that this entire bit is the "opening" that should hook, intrigue, or at least interest you enough to get you turning more pages.

But they tell me that isn't true nowadays. The sample they download of your book (usually the first chapter or a little more) on the Kindle is going to get read if and only if they're not bored. I have had my opening lines picked over by critique partners and workshops until I wondered just how short an attention span can be.

Still, we can all agree that the first line is important. If the last line can circle back to reference it, so much the better. But let's look at various fun ways to start your book.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . ." Um, taken. "It is a truth universally acknowledged--" No! Too many big words already. (LOL)

I like to begin with something a little philosophical. Some people get lofty and call it "a question about the meaning of life or a statement of eternal principle." Whew!

Leo Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by writing, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Guess how many counseling seminars have been opened with the very same quotation?

Occasionally this can take the form of a single statement of theme. What is to come in this story? What is to be shown or demonstrated to us as we read this narrative? The theme can be in the subtext of the statement, or it can just be a straight-out declaration that makes readers go on to see if this can be proven or if it will be challenged.

"The primroses were over," begins Watership Down by Richard Adams. This may seem like a boring statement of fact, but to British readers, it did much more. It establishes the time of year and to some extent the setting (by implying that we're not in an urban environment but in the country, because the flora isn't as important as the streets of a city.) It illuminates a primary theme of the book, posing a story question by implication (what does this mean? What were the primroses indicating? Here, it establishes an ominous air if the reader is aware of the usual literary associations with primroses and the end of their blooming season. A bit obscure to the modern American readership.) The astute reader will also wonder whether the book will be mainly concerned with nature and the cycle of life as demonstrated in blooming/fading of plants. This line is echoed at the end of the novel, as well.


Your first few lines should indicate the tone of the novel--comic, dramatic/serious, wry. You don't want to promise the reader one kind of book (suspense) and end up writing another (cozy). You should establish the mood and the color right up front. Is it a moody horror story with an ominous tone? An action-adventure that promises to move quickly enough to obscure any plot holes? This prepares the reader and sets up what to expect.

The ideal first line should do all these things:

Illuminate the theme of the book. This justifies the novel's very existence. Good luck with keeping something like this in, though, because so many readers today only pay attention to story and they want BOOMS in the opening scene, sigh.

Raise the first story question. This propels the reader forward because she wants to know the answer. Does Mary say "yes" to John's proposal, be it marriage or just living together? Does the cat catch the mouse, or does it succeed in getting under the house? A curious reader is a reader who continues to read. You must, however, make the reader care, or else the question is, "Who gives a hoot?" Momentum stays up because when you answer this story question, it raises the next story question. Note that this does not have to be a direct question. It can be implicit in the situation.

Establish the tone/mood, reveal the setting, and begin to develop the character(s) as someone interesting enough to spend 300 pages with.

Within this hook should lurk some form of the KEY to the story. Is the key a plot thing, or is it about the character's, well, character? This can be subtle or direct. Agatha Christie often put clear hints to the resolution of her mysteries in the first line or first few lines. Literary novels are notorious for this. If you can, provide the foundation for circularity or closure with the last line echoing this.

THIS IS WHY YOU DO NOT START WITH THE KILLING OR DRAGGING OF THE CORPSE OR WHATNOT. We don't yet know who we are supposed to root for, and it's boring to see the same beginning as so many other novels have. "Yeah, yeah," mutters the reader or viewer, "I get it, a murder. So WHY do we care, other than every man's death diminishes me and all that jazz?" Give us a few lines of the ordinary world so that we'll see why the murder disrupts the sleuth's life so much that he has to go investigate it.

I would caution you against a "frame" story, although those were immensely popular for years. I can't stand FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (one of my mother's faves and very big with her crowd), in part because both the novel and the film are frame stories that are simply not necessary and don't add anything for me. (I also hate the way they disposed of the abusive husband. It isn't even a little amusing.) On the other hand, a "looking back" sort of frame from a first-person narrator to establish why the tone is elevated although the narrative takes place while the POV character is still a child can work well. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and A SEPARATE PEACE work perfectly with this.

Don't forget about what you began the novel with. So many books now will have a REALLY EXCITING thing happen in the opening, only to abandon it entirely and never explain what it was about. A book starts out with a mugging or explosion, but it's not related to the main story of the book, just a way to throw the hero into a panic. Don't do this!

Anyhow . . . what are some of your favorite opening lines?

Sunday, October 6, 2013


My guest this week is John M. Wills, who has joined the Oak Tree Press family of authors. Have you ever asked questions of a former police officer and retired FBI agent? Well, here's your chance! (Don't get too gross and detailed on me, though--try to ask about his books!) And, unlike me, he's photogenic and good-lookin'! (See below.) He graciously allowed me to use this interview with him as a guest blog post. Welcome, John!

John M. Wills

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a former Chicago police officer and retired FBI agent. After retiring, I became a freelance writer and award-winning author in a variety of genres, including novels, short stories and poetry. I’ve published more than 150 articles relating to officer training, street survival, fitness and ethics. I also write book reviews for the New York Journal of Books and I’m a member of the National Book Critics Circle. My non-fiction book, Women Warriors, is available online and at the National Law Enforcement Memorial Gift Shop in Washington, D.C., and my latest novel, The Year Without Christmas, is available now.

Tell us about the series you created, The Chicago Warriors.

I created The Chicago Warriors Thriller Series when I had my first novel published: Chicago Warriors Midnight Battles in the Windy City. Midnight Battles introduces my two protagonists, Chicago Police Officers Pete Shannon and Marilyn Benson. We find these two street cops working a beat together on the midnight shift, patrolling the mean streets of Chicago. In the second book of the series, Gripped by Fear, Shannon and Benson are promoted to detective, and are assigned to track down a psychopathic rapist who is preying on housekeepers in downtown Chicago. The third book, Targeted, involves the two detectives enlisting the aid of the FBI, as they try and stop a sniper who is murdering cops. In a unique twist, another story runs in tandem with Targeted, It describes the story of a Catholic priest who is on the run from the law. The two unrelated stories merge in the violent finale of the book.

How did your career in law enforcement impact writing this series?

My twelve years as a Chicago cop, and twenty-one as an FBI agent fully prepared me to write the book from an experiential and technical point of view.

How do you create and maintain dramatic tension?

I’ve never had a problem creating tension, whether it’s a part of the main story, or dealing with my characters. I ensure that there are many serious dilemmas to solve, both in the characters’ personal lives and in the cases they are working. I try to plant precursors and foreshadowing at selected places while the story develops. Some are quickly resolved, others may not be as easy, and some may be incapable of being resolved at all.

How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

I have a vague idea of who my characters will be, except for my main protagonists, who I’m modeling after real people. I think of my story line, write a brief synopsis, and then insert characters as needed. I try to use diverse people who have ambiguous backgrounds, even illegals and black marketers from foreign nations. I keep it interesting for my readers.

Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

Since my novels have a Christian theme running through them, one, however, that does not affect the realism or brutal nature of dealing with thugs and crime, my readers seem to include an equal number of men and women, as well as law enforcement.

What common misperceptions do you think people have about police work and the F.B.I.?

I don’t think that many people recognize that men and women in law enforcement are a microcosim of society. They are just like you and me, have the same likes and dislikes, and share the same problems that life throws their way. The additional burden they bear is that they’re expected to be role models above reproach. When law enforcement errs, it’s always magnified because of who they are.

You review books for the New York Journal of Books. How does writing book reviews help you grow and develop as a novelist?

I’m blessed to be able to review new novels before their release date. I read with a more discerning eye, being an author myself. I try to glean from the books the manner in which each author develops plots and characters, uses figures of speech, etc. Most of the authors I review are famous, best-selling writers. Therefore, I am learning from the masters, so to speak.

What was your journey as a writer?

After retiring from the FBI in 2004, I began writing professionally, focusing on writing law enforcement related articles for websites and magazines. To date, I’ve had more than 150 articles published. However, I’ve always had the urge to write fiction. I have hundreds of stories bouncing inside my head from 35 years in law enforcement. I procrastinated for a while, wondering if I could master the process, and fretting that perhaps I wouldn’t get it right. Finally, my wife told me to just sit down and start writing. That was all it took; I’ve been writing ever since.

What is your writing process?

I write “something” each day--an article, a blog entry, or a few pages of a book. I’m in the habit of doing this each day. Once you develop the habit of writing, you’ve stepped over the threshold.

Which authors most inspire you?

I like Richard Paul Evans, Dean Koontz, Michael Connolly, Dan Walsh, Noah Boyd, Stieg Larsson . . . is that enough?

What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

The Shack.

How have you marketed and promoted your work?

I do virtual book tours, blog interviews, newspaper interviews, book signings at book stores, cafés, schools, and libraries. I also use Facebook and Twitter.

Tell us about your new book, The Year Without Christmas.

I loved writing this story, and experienced a gamut of emotions while doing so. Briefly, a small-town family’s peace is shattered when a tragic accident sends them plunging into the darkest times they have ever known. The members struggle with their new reality, as the husband disappears and his grandson faces a life-threatening disease. It’s a tale about loss and unwavering hope, and it demonstrates the power of love, faith and a family’s will to survive.

Thank you for hosting me and allowing me to get the word out about my Christmas novel. It’s a tough story, but one that will warm your heart and restore your faith in the power of family.

Go to for further info and bio.

Buy The Year Without Christmas here:

Okay, y'all, start commenting!

Monday, September 30, 2013

A great opening line. . . ?

I just saw someone recommend this opening line as a REALLY GREAT opening for a novel.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life. But first let me tell you a little about myself." -- Max Shulman, SLEEP TILL NOON (1950)

Max Shulman is the genius behind "Dobie Gillis" (yes, showing my age again, but I saw the show on Superstation KTVT in reruns, not during the original run! Still think Dwayne Hickman is hot.) He knew better than to start a book with something this ridiculous--but I believe he did this to make fun of the Mickey Spillane-style openings that are always being touted by a segment of the publishing world. Shulman knew this was an outrageously ridiculous opening, and that is why he used it, winking at his audience because he knew they'd understand. To open with something whizbang and then go immediately into a flashback of complete boredom . . . is bad. To open with gunshots without establishing why we should care and whether this is the good guy or the bad guy . . . bad. To EVER write, "and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life" is . . . wait for it . . . bad. Amateurish. Straight out of a junior high school "What I Did Last Summer" or "How I Lost on Jeopardy!" essay.

I'm perfectly serious. Shulman already had a following. They understood he was yanking their chains. You could not use that as a "straight" opening for a book today, even if you had a following, IMHO.

However, there are people who insist a book of any stripe should begin with what they feel is a REAL GRABBER. It doesn't matter whether the book is going to be a thriller or something else, you should always grab 'em with something outrageous, even if it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. "They'll forget," say these writers with confidence. They don't see a book with a last line that circles back to its opening and completes some sort of cycle (giving closure or illuminating some aspect of the eternal human condition--or just some aspect of a small personal life event) as being "better" or even "good." They believe what the workshop people have told them about having things open with a WHAM.

Why do I open MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, the first Ari French mystery, with a scene between Ari and her big sister? They're bickering as they cooperate on a project, and the phone rings with the news that Ari's fiancé (who has been missing for a few weeks) has been found dead and that she has inherited everything. She accepts the invitation to come out to Marfa, Texas, and settle up Aaron's affairs. Her sister warns her not to go ("You don't know these people or anything about them. What if it's another one of his scams? What if it's someone who has Aaron and now is going to get YOU as well?"), but Ari is determined to go and tells her sister that these thoughts are paranoid. She'll fly in the morning.

Okay, WHY do I open the book this way? Some contest judges and judgmental types who have learned Da Roolz scream. "This is throat-clearing! You should open with her landing in Marfa and being met by the preacher!"

I could have done that. But this is not a thriller. It is a traditional/cozy that kicks off a series in which the two sisters sleuth, and their relationship is an ongoing part of the series. By opening with them together, readers are promised that they'll continue to experience this relationship and also get some background that they'll soon need in order to understand Ari's behavior and inclinations. If I hadn't done this, it would have been abrupt to have Zoe appear in Marfa a few days later (after she grows concerned about Ari's safety). I needed to set up their relationship and the protective sort of approach that Zoe takes. Also, Zoe becomes a hostage near the end of the book, and if she had been a drop-in ("Oh, yeah, I have a sister"), there would not have been any emotional investment on the reader's part. Many readers tell me that they like Zoe better than Ari and wish she were the POV character. This reveals that I did things right in getting that emotional investment early.

(In a previous journal entry, I explained why Zoe would be a particularly BAD POV character. She is a foil to Ari. That's why people like her. If she were the one observing the scene and making caustic remarks, she'd turn people off. There wouldn't be a big enough "save the cat" to rescue the book from that point on. Foils can be the ones who are abrupt, abrasive, funky, crazy, opinionated, and so forth. They are amusing and entertaining as well as informative. They reflect the hero/heroine in a better light. But if you were inside their heads, you wouldn't like it much, I'll bet.)

Never promise something in the first few lines of a novel that you do not intend to deliver. Had I opened the book with a BANG, people would have expected me to continue ramping it up. Pretty soon there's nowhere to go because you started at the top of the rollercoaster. If you are writing a cozy, promise the readers a cozy. That's your audience for the book. "The promise of the premise" in this book is that Ari will come to terms with Aaron's death (the ultimate abandonment of her after his earthly disappearance had already upset her) and that the sisters will stick together throughout these events. The solving of the murder and identification of the perp is there, but is secondary to the larger set of character arcs (including those of a few of the various suspects.)

Readers are smart. Trust them to understand what you are doing. If you know what you are doing, stick to your (um) guns and don't feel that you have to ZAP 'EM immediately. As long as you're entering the story on the day things changed, you have a little leeway to show the ordinary world before the heroine receives her call to adventure.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Female archetypes of the 21st Century?

I was intrigued by a remark made by a fellow author in a review of a mystery novel (not one of mine, though).

She said:

"In our twenty-first century American culture, we have a dearth of female archetypes. I have heard it said that we have only the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene."

I'm not sure I agree with that at all. I suppose you could amend it to say, "ADMIRABLE female HEROINE archetypes," and I could agree a bit more. But I think there are many female role models/archetypes around today. We aren't constrained by the gender roles of the 1950s/60s and before. In the "olden days," the ultimate achievement for a female was to be the prettiest so that she could marry the rich boy and make babies, like Cinderella. Even Madame Marie Curie is never mentioned without strong discussion of the love of her life, Pierre, who helped her in her work but was not the rescuing Prince by any means. But now we have Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, Roseanne, and all those other strong women who model independent womanhood. (LOL!) Seriously, we must have examples of the Domineering Little Old Lady With Wisdom (commonly termed the Crone) and Middle Manager Mama and so forth that we would instantly recognize.

Who are the female archetypes of this century, do you think? I don't mean that you need to come up with people who are of the stature of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, but really . . . Mother Teresa? And to get away from the religious perspective, haven't there been others like . . . I don't know, Rosa Parks, Hillary Clinton (however you may feel about her, she has broken through the glass ceiling in many senses), Sandra Day O'Connor?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review a book? I don't DO book reports. Here's help--

(* EDIT: I do not mean to imply that people should go review MY books with these suggestions, but ANY book that they adore or appreciate. If you want to review one of mine, I'll cheer and shout, but that was not the entire intention of this post. Some people have perceived it that way, and I don't want that to happen, so I'll point out that you should review only the books you really love. These are merely suggestions. And you only have to choose one or two of the questions to answer, not all of them. Remember, this isn't a school book report! Sorry for any misunderstandings. *)

So many people tell me that they're not writers and they didn't like it in school when they had to do book reports, and therefore they have NO intention of doing any book reviews. Or they say they'd be willing to do reviews of books they really like, but don't have any idea where to begin.

Well, now there's help!

You SHOULDN'T think that you have to do a summary or synopsis of the book. Everyone else has already done that, and it isn't really what book-review readers want to know. No? No! What they want to KNOW is. . . .

What did the book make you experience? What did it make you feel? What was your reaction to the characters? Do you remember any of the characters after closing the book? Would you read a sequel or another book by the same author? Did you feel the book was derivative, or was it original within the confines of its genre, or was it _sui generis_ (a thing all its own)? Were there typos and howlers, or was it clean? Did you like the author's style--or at least note that it was original, even if it was a bit off-putting (or maybe it wasn't off-putting but charming)?

Did the setting entice you to plan a vacation to the place? Was there a profession or hobby (such as bird-watching, ham radio, hot-air ballooning, hacking) that got explored such that you learned a lot or were intrigued by something you'd never read much about before? Did one of the characters appeal to you, or seem TSTL, or make you laugh?

WHAT DID YOU GET OUT OF READING THIS BOOK? Did you learn something? Did you feel a sense of closure at the end? Or did you close the book thinking, "Why did I waste my time? Why did the AUTHOR waste his time? Is that all there is?"

NOTE: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ANSWER ALL THESE QUESTIONS! Choose one or two that appeal to you. Whatever it is that spoke to you while reading the book.

These are the sorts of things we can only learn by reading your review. We don't need another CliffsNotes-style summary. We want to know if we will like the book or should give it a try, and we're trying to figure that out from reading what you thought.

So the next time that someone has sent you his or her book for review, don't panic.

Here are some things that people have said about my books:
(I include them here so you can steal them or modify them as you like. Use these sorts of phrases in your "happy" reviews, and you'll make authors very happy.)

This book satisfies on every level. Nuanced and filled with subtext, unlike most popcorn reads of today.
I came for a funny romp and a puzzle to solve, and I got more.
The sisters' relationship made me wish for a sister of my own, and there is a lot of philosophical stuff.
One strength I noticed about the book is that the sleuth and others actually mourn the victim(s). In so many books, no one mourns or even blinks an eye. Often no one even tries CPR or anything, simply rushing over to the fallen victim and declaring, "He's dead, Jim." This book handles it far more realistically in terms of replacing the functions that the victim served in people's lives and so forth.
The story is very well written. I enjoyed the turns of phrase and interesting metaphors. Great voice.
I laughed out loud. Parts of it were like an "I Love Lucy" episode with the sisters pulling a fast one.
I liked it. But then I used to date the author.

You don't have to write a masterpiece of a review! And you don't have to do a piece of fluff that's obviously from a friend of the author ("This book will change your life! Unputdownable! This author is too wonderful! Treat yourself to a copy today!") You can write an honest, balanced review by answering a couple of the questions I suggest above, and your review will not be cookie-cutter. Isn't that a good idea?

"This book was as much fun as Paul McCartney on a skateboard!"

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Unity in fiction. (Aristotle's idea!)

A brief post for the Labor Day weekend. I had nothing better to do than work today (heavy lifting around the house, cooking, and writing a few pages here and there) because I don't watch pseudo-thons without my beloved Jerry Lewis, so I thought I'd blather here a bit. About writing, I suppose, because not very many people here have asked for posts on classical piano playing or my other specialty, number theory and superstition. AND WHY NOT, I MIGHT ASK?! But anyhow, that's what I know.

You think you have finished your novel? Great! It's wonderful! You're going to let it lie for a week or two, preferably even longer, before you go back to read it over and start editing and polishing.

When you do, think about your theme.

Figure out your theme or message, and then work back to front to make sure every scene illustrates that message. This means cutting or editing anything that doesn't show the pros and cons of embracing the story message (theme). Scenes that illuminate character should also show how the character arc intersects with the graph of the function plotted for the theme of the tale and how the character comes to know or believe whatever it is he/she was supposed to learn with this episode in life.

First you take the desired result of the events in the story (how your character ends up feeling, thinking, believing, acting). Then work backwards to find out which of the major choices or changes resulting from the inciting incident and following string of cause/effect events has brought about the character change. Especially look at the climax, dark moment, and turning points. Observe how every scene illustrates some aspect of this theme, if possible.

Let's say that our theme is: LOVE comes to us when we stop looking for it in such a desperate and clawing fashion.

A story with this theme begins with someone who feels unloved and lives inside herself. Perhaps her before worldview is something like, "When I am worthy, I will be loved. I will be worthy when I am famous for my sculpting."

You can see what a mess this is and will continue to be unless she lets go of this. She could be the best sculptor around and have all sorts of hangers-on who want to profit from her successes, but she won't necessarily be loved for herself. The events of the story will reveal this to her, and the resulting pressures and insights will lead her to choose or accept what she really NEEDS, which is often the opposite of what she starts out thinking she wants. What is her heart's desire? Does it change over the story arc? Then we're doing it right.

I tend to write episodically sometimes. Today's trend/rule is to have cause leading to effect1 which leads to effect2 which is the immediate and direct cause of effect3. I often set up dominoes and let them build to a higher level before they all begin to topple and we see the way that this has all come about. So I have to fight all the time to prove I am not writing a picaresque. But anyhow, if you don't define your theme and fulfill the promise of your premise, you can end up without a meaningful character arc with change and also without UNITY. This means reader confusion and anger. This leads to books being thrown against the wall.

So go look at your theme and how it builds a character arc for each of your main characters. Everyone has a character arc--anyone who has more than a bit part, at least.

But that's a rant for another day.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Craft of Writing: PLOT NUTS . . . AND BOLTS!

No doubt you've heard people talk about teaching or learning "the nuts and bolts of writing," right? Some time ago, SF writer Michael Stackpole coined the term "plot bolt," and now I'd like to discuss the concept, along with the nut that sometimes goes with it (and I'm not talking about the writer.)

What, you may ask, is a plot bolt? Just as a bolt fastens objects together by sticking through them and "hanging them from the holes," a plot bolt extends _through_ the plot of a story and helps to hold the parts together. Plot bolts pull a story together by helping the reader to see the connections and how things "all come together as a connected whole." The role can be played by a minor character (a "foil," for you literary types) who flits between the two major characters. Perhaps the nosy neighbor a la Mrs. Kravitz on Bewitched, or a pet bird who flies between the two houses, or a cat like Pyewacket who runs away and has to be rescued; maybe, instead, it's a "maguffin" or semi-valuable object like the Maltese Falcon. These "minor" things are not so minor, and their scenes are not mere incidents, because the items or characters keep reappearing, helping to complete the circle of the story.

In the film Bell, Book, and Candle, remember how the cat familiar Pyewacket goes over to the Jimmy Stewart character's office and causes Jimmy to march over to the Kim Novak character's shop to return him? The cat also causes several other events in the tale connected to reconciliations or another fight. When he runs away, the viewers know that Gillian has lost her powers from being in love. All these functions bolt the story together at places where we'd have no connections (or maybe have to rely on coincidences) otherwise.

Character "business," "tics," or "tags" may also add to the wholeness of the whole. Perhaps a characteristic little bit of action like Shalanna tugging at her earlobe when she's lying can irritate Drynxnyrd at first, until he figures out that she's always fibbing (she wouldn't go further than a compassionate white lie) or telling the incomplete story when she does it, and this can reveal to the hero later that she's not telling him the whole truth about that old boyfriend of hers who shows up later. It is something that starts out as characterization, and then the reader giggles when she sees it, but later she exclaims, "Of course! I should have expected that to be useful."

In Mary Stewart's THE GABRIEL HOUNDS, the narrator always reacts to the presence of a cat, even when she can't see it. This is established in an early chapter, when a kitten spooks her. Later in the book, she realizes that another character, supposedly a relative of hers, is an impostor, because the real relative shares this reaction--but the impostor doesn't even jump when a cat walks into the room. This one's related to all the movie scenes in which a character is "passing" for another character UNTIL the dog growls or snaps at him or her, and people realize that can't be good old Harry. . . .

A plot bolt basically ties one strand of the plot into an entirely different strand. This may be the only thing that makes the subplots related. It's the realization of the reader that the romantic subplot that's been running through the last five chapters has just crossed paths with the minding-the-store thread, and they mesh. The reader doesn't see it coming in advance, but once it's there, it's inevitable. It's the only way things _could_ be. And the book is praised as "tightly plotted."

Okay, now for the PLOT NUT (nope, that's not a fan who has all the plotlines in the old STAR TREK series memorized.) What I'm talking about is a "helper" for your plot bolt. It's a reaction to the plot bolt that strengthens the connection. It's the equal and opposite reaction to whatever it was that prompted the "plot bolt." And it starts an entire string of events by its very presence or existence. This is tough to explain without an example. . . .

Let's take an example from my crazy so-far-unfinished screwball comedy/romance, Love, Brad. Let's say that Christopher and Diane (two City Council members) know that Kimberly (a shrew, and his stalker--um, I mean she has a major jones for him and intends to win his heart however she can, even through blackmail or whatever) is watching them through the surveillance camera at the spa (she got a job there as an aerobics instructor just so she could follow him when he works out, say.) OK, Chris and Di wait for a quiet moment in the hot tub and strip, starting to make out, just when they KNOW Kimmie can't get aloose and come bursting in on them (she's stuck covering the security cameras or something while others are at lunch.) This isn't real attraction, but just X-rated implication to frustrate and torment her. Let's say that, furthermore, they are doing this while they whisper about the conspiracy working against Kim (to reveal her theft from Chris's campaign's money when she was on his staff as treasurer.)

Twist the nut on a little: Kimmie shoves in a blank DVD-R and records the whole "show." Then she mails it to, um, the local TV station--these two are high-profile city council members, let's say, and are assumed not to be involved with each other because of a conflict of interest, not to mention that they are both "taken." Whoa--the plot thickens! The station manager shoves the DVD into his pocket and heads off to blackmail Chris.

On the way, the station manager has a fender-bender with a little old lady (in her car, not as a pedestrian!) as he's headed for the council meeting to confront Chris. He throws off his overcoat (which lands somewhere on the hood of his car) to change her tire and then to help the man hook up the tow truck for his Ferrari (these things are expensive, you know--you can't have Just Anyone touching the axle, or whatever.) The homebrew DVD (you saw this coming, but you were giddy for it to happen, weren't you?) slides out of his pocket onto the pavement, of course. The tow truck guy picks it up to hold it for him and forgets to give it back. Guess what is in the pocket of the tow trucker's coat when the trucker gets back to pick up his wife, who runs the city's biggest day care place . . . and the owner's bratty kids pull it out, thinking it is their Rainbow Frog DVD he promised to rent for them. Suddenly, on the screens of the kids' day care room, there is a suggestive picture that does not go unnoticed. . . .

As someone said, imagine those smart missiles aimed at various Middle Eastern targets (sent by other Middle Eastern targets) suddenly showing DEBBIE DOES DJIBOUTI. And trying to find THAT target. (Not to worry: nothing graphic is going on at the beginning of the video, at least not YET.) It's not a pretty sight, all those caregivers and women screaming and dashing for the DVD. The one who ultimately snatches the DVD out is the best friend of Chris's long-time girlfriend, a woman who has long hoped to "wake up" her friend and make her dump Chris because of what she feels are his Unethical Practices. She'd love to get him off the city's power base. Now she has the ammo!

I'd say that the video is a little more than a maguffin, perhaps a Plot Nut that holds that Plot Bolt (which was the intersection between the Kimmie-is-stalking-Christopher thread and the City-Council-Scandal thread) firmly on. It helps to make the coincidences and implausibilities in the plot seem a lot less so.

I've used this technique to connect two wildly varying plotlines: subplot 1, the girlfriend who wants Chris and her friend to break up (hey--possibly so that SHE can snag Chris for herself, or so she can snag her girlfriend for her homely brother Gus who is in place to console her . . .) and subplot 2, the mayoral race in which Chris hopes to be a candidate, and which would be lost for him if he were caught fooling around with Diane, who is the wife of the current mayor. (This book is major screwball comedy.) Tensions heighten and the audience squirms in delicious anticipation of the blow-up that is sure to come.

Let's try something more subtle. Henry does not talk about his family, ever. In this mystery, the prologue and some scenes from the (unnamed) murderer's POV have established that he's doing it to protect a secret in his family. Every time anyone asks about Henry's holidays, relatives, etc., he quickly deflects the question, never having to answer. (There's the plot bolt.) Everyone suspects Henry, of course. (A nice diversion.)

Late in the book, Theo (our sleuth) is at a party where the punch is spiked and also (unknown to any of the party-goers) doped with a fashionable party drug. Theo (our heroine) is the only one besides Henry (and the real killer) who does not drink the Mickey Finn punch, leaving her the only one to deal with the killer who drugged the punch. Naturally, she's now convinced Henry didn't drink it because he spiked it, and therefore the killer blindsides her when he takes Henry hostage. The hero arrives, and the two of them play out the final confrontation with the killer, who now has Henry as a hostage. (Here comes the plot nut.) The reason Henry never spoke of his family is because he's ashamed: his father, who's all the family he has, has been jailed for (hot checks?) drunk driving (and has dodged the bullet once with a vehicular manslaughter charge) and is an alcoholic. And that's why he didn't drink the punch: he saw the gin being surreptitiously added, and he won't touch alcohol. The suspicion (a bolt throughout the book) is answered and ties right into why he's the only other one left on his feet for the confrontation, forming a plot nut.

Naturally, MOST of the best plot bolt and nut combinations are serendipity. Usually, when you were writing the first scene, you didn't realize why you were putting in that part about the alcoholic daddy until it came time that the later scene was flowing from your fingertips. And then people ask how you come up with these tight plots. Only another writer could understand the unexpected thrill of that plot nut screwing into place!

You can, of course, plan a connection between your subplots from the very beginning. That's why the subplots are there--to enrich the main story--and thus they need to be related. If you can come up with something that really sets up conflicts between major characters, such as his being a pilot and her being totally petrified of any thought of heights or flying, so much the better. Then she'll HAVE to get in the plane with him, barfbagging it or cowering on the floor of the light plane while they do the dogfight, or whatever. Conversely, maybe she turns out to be right about heights when he realizes the plane will NOT get off the ground in the shape that it's in, and then they jump out and let the criminals steal it and crash it into the stand of trees just across the road from the airstrip.

. . . this is called "setting up your crisis early" with things that your critique group tries to get you to cut, claiming you don't need these little hints that are obviously in there only for characterization. NOT!

The heck with them, say I. Plan your plot bolts, and place them throughout your book to strengthen and tighten it. And if you find a nut for one of them, twist it down tight!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

More from that interview

Remember that interview with me . . . where they couldn't use ALL the questions we talked about? Well, here's another snippet from the leftovers.

Q. What’s your attitude toward the standard advice: write what you know?

A. I would say that you'd better know what you're talking about, because readers will call you on any mistake or typo! But I also say, "Don't be boring." That is rule one. If your work becomes boring and mundane and repetitive (notice how this sentence is an example of what it describes), readers will begin skimming, then skipping, then quitting.

I believe that a book set in an unusual place or with a protagonist who has an uncommon profession will appeal more to readers who are sick and tired of the usual tropes. For instance, I can't stand one more mystery/suspense tale in which the heroine is a recent widow, starts going out with the detective immediately, and holds all her scenes in the car on the cell phone or in some boring coffee shop. People like to learn something when they're reading, so why not do some research and set your next book in the Grand Canyon or on a hot-air balloon--or at least something different from the usual fare? I have found that if I call just about ANYONE and tell them I'm a novelist and need their expertise on Amtrak trains, automobile engines, ham radios, or cave exploring--take your pick--those people are eager to tell me all about what they do and how it's done. I usually pick up some fun factoid or two that'll fascinate the experts and make them think I've actually done whatever it is I have my characters doing. I've even called the local police to ask them about police procedure . . . I'm probably listed as a "person of interest" by now. (LOL)

You're competing with hundreds and hundreds of FREE and cheap Kindle books and with authors who give away dozens of copies of their books in blog contests. What makes your book catch a potential reader's eye? What makes it different? Haven't we all read so MANY books that are "eh," that don't have huge flaws, but are just the same old boring tropes? Wouldn't you rather read something with a few scenes set in a lumber mill or a hot-air balloon or just anywhere except the car and the cell phone?

What I see over and over is the mystery that starts with the "alpha" protagonist waking up, stretching, showering, feeding the dog and cat, thinking about whatever it is in the backstory that the author wants you to know, getting to work, discovering a body, being questioned, going to a restaurant with gay best friend or other sidekick to grouse about the questioning, beginning to sleuth by making dozens of phone calls and going to mundane locations such as more restaurants or offices (instead of someplace interesting that could be fun for readers to learn about), making several stupid mistakes that are not to be questioned (because they'll bring on a turning point) even though we are constantly told how smart the sleuth is and how she went to Harvard and so forth, starting a romance with the detective while still being told "stay out of it" and "don't leave town because you're still a suspect," sleuthing a bit more with disastrous results, having a confrontation with the perp in which he/she spills his or her guts while holding a gun on the sleuth . . . and then the door behind the perp slams open into him/her and knocks him/her out, and we're rescued. The End. Wake up, reader . . . it's the end!

Make yours different. NICE WORK takes my naïve Snoop Sisters into a convoluted maze of BDSM clubs and hangouts and requires them to navigate the hidden Internet sites these groups communicate in as well as to commit burglary. MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS takes my sleuth (and later her reluctant sister) to mysterious Marfa, Texas, where she must handle the eccentric residents as well as the Marfa Mystery Lights themselves, while she investigates an algorithm for encryption that everyone seems to want (software weenie stuff). LITTLE RITUALS explores the superstitions and rituals that just about everyone uses to structure their lives, and asks the questions, "Is there really such a thing as luck, and if so, can we affect our luck, or are we powerless against Fate's forces? What is right action and how should we live? What are we meant to do, and do we have a mission in life?"

In other words, they're not stuffed with the same old scenes in coffee shops. They're different. If you have a strong voice and your hero/heroine does too, then your book is going to be different. I think that's a Good Thing.

I write books. It is only in recent years that authors have had to create a "brand" and stick with one genre or subgenre. Once upon a time, Twain or Dickens could write what I call a BOOK book that wouldn't be categorized except as literature. You didn't get the "this is a mystery, this is young adult," labeling. Anyone who picks up a book should be ready for an adventure without worrying so much about what the genre is. But that's just my take on things.

Love to hear from you in the comments!

Friday, August 2, 2013

What do they MEEEEAN dept., BOOKS div.

Often when people talk about a book that we've both read (and sometimes that we've both reviewed), I marvel that we could both have read the same text and have gotten such different mileage out of it. Readers are constantly amazing me as far as what they come away from my stories with. I often think I am telling a tale of redemption, and they come away with a completely different take on it, all about revenge and payback time. It's always illuminating to hear about this, because I can often go back and find the clues they found (even though I meant them to mean something else, at least on the conscious level.)

But the way I, a baby boomer, read appears to differ from the way most Gen X/Gen Y/Millenial readers read. We are apparently looking to get different things out of our reading. While storytelling is archetypal, the way in which our culture has traditionally handed down stories to its children is changing. Readers have very little patience now, and I think that's a shame, because sometimes it's good to take your time.

For instance . . . when someone says a book is "slow" or "sluggish," I often agree, IF the problem is something like the first three chapters being nothing but a character waking up in the morning, getting dressed, making coffee, thinking about what he's going to do today and what happened yesterday and where he went to college and how he just broke up with his fiancé and yadda yadda yadda. Stephen King and Michael Crichton seem to be able to get away with introducing a character by having her wake up and think about all this rot before a single bit of plot-related action begins, but not too many other authors can do this.

I generally find fault with books that begin with "false" prologues pulled from the middle of the book followed by a first chapter heading reading "Six Months Earlier." They used to do this all the time because they thought there wasn't enough oomph and hooky action in that first chapter. Related to the bit I just mentioned that King gets away with is the opening that freight-trains several overworked introductions of a bunch of characters with stuff like "she took her bachelor's at CalTech and then her Ph.D. at Stanford--she went on her Rhodes scholarship; she married and divorced a Welsh miner; blather blather" as if I am supposed to say, "Oh, boy! This character is my superior! She is superwoman and a size 4 to boot! I must luuurve her!" (I don't.)

What about the "false promises" book that starts off with three polished chapters (probably chapters that have made the rounds of workshops and contests for a while) and then continues in quite a different tone, possibly even another genre? I see this with things that start out like thrillers and then hit the brakes.

Frankly, some authors can make this sort of thing work. Off the top of my head, I can think of a blockbuster book (okay, Michael Crichton's TIMELINE) that has at least two of those faults. And in some contexts, the techniques are not really faults.

But most of the time, everyone will agree that these tricks should be replaced by better storytelling.

On the other hand, I hear people calling a book "too detailed" and saying that they didn't understand why there were details about spiders, earthquakes, or whatever. Well . . . in one of my books, the murder might have been committed by a person who put a rare poisonous spider on the victim while he was passed out after an evening of drinking. Thus my sleuth needs to find out about spiders: who in the area knows about them, who raises them, who might HAVE one. Because most tarantulas and similar spiders are not poisonous. An Australian spider that's venomous gets imported (smuggled in) to North America now and then for fanciers. This sort of "detail" is something the sleuth has to investigate if she's to go to the police with some trumped-up tale about a spider bite. In another book, there's an explanation of the various types of gluons. Why? It has to do with the nefarious mad scientist's plot. The reader needs to know this stuff.

Maybe some readers feel that they don't. If they're not trying to put together the pieces of how the crime could have been committed and follow the trail back to the person who could have done it, I suppose it doesn't matter. If they're happy enough to read a book in which the author seems to have just chosen a murderer at random (with little motivation or reason) and hasn't bothered to follow the rules of fair play, all right. But my books aren't going to be like that. There is going to be enough evidence for a reader to put together a case against at least two suspects, and the red herrings can be interesting sidelines to follow. I don't think that equates to "too much detail."

It all goes back to what a reader expects from a book. If they're expecting a fast parachute jump with shiny distractions in the form of gunfire and explosions, they'll be disappointed in my books. However, I feel there's still an audience for the sorts of books I like to curl up with. They'll be meaty and philosophical and mostly character-driven, and they'll explore at least one question that's similar to "how should we live?" and "what is right action and how can we live morally in a world that has discarded its old moral compasses?"

You'll find a theme in ANY book. I promise you. The theme may be lame or not explored properly, but it's there. You might as well accept that any book with no theme is going to be unsatisfying and leave readers mystified as to why they spent so much time reading an empty shell. So when I read reviews that say a book took itself too seriously, I feel kind of disappointed that the message was transmitted too heavy-handedly. What ever happened to subtlety and subtext? Part of the problem is the disapproval of complex sentence structure. Some concepts just can't be condensed into soundbites.

Soundbites are fun, but remember, they're a "bite" and not a satisfying, nourishing meal.

The next time you start skipping "those boring details" because you feel they have nothing to do with the story, rethink it. Perhaps the author could have done it better, but if it's in the book, he or she thought you needed to know it or would be edified by it. Often an important clue is buried in "meaningless detail," and if you miss it, you might miss part of the experience of a good story.

The thing that bugs me the most is when a reviewer comes back saying that he or she didn't like encountering words that weren't immediately familiar. I don't just mean when someone complains about a word like "numinous," even though I think you could probably get that one from the context, and what are we doing wiring ourselves up with online dictionaries and encyclopedia when we aren't going to use them? No, I am talking about readers who aren't trying. A reviewer of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (an incredibly evocative and dense text that tells a terrifying tale) said that he didn't like Bradbury's use of words. "For example, he says that one of the carousel horses had teeth 'the color of panic,' but never explains what that means." Well, DUH. If you don't get an image from that phrase and you want it explained, you are not my kind of reader. Use your imagination and figure things out. And sometimes you don't need to always KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS. "A poem should not mean, but be." (Princess points to those who get the reference.)

I don't know. Maybe I'm just a crazy old curmudgeon. Probably.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

CRAFT OF WRITING: feeling blocked?

Today a new interview with me is up over at the Dames of Dialogue! It's really cool. Go on and click to visit and then come back here. You know you want to!

They asked me some good questions that just didn't fit into the final interview, but I didn't want these to go to waste! So I thought I'd do a few "Craft of Writing" posts over here again. I always appreciate it when they don't ask "The Same Ten Questions We Ask Everyone." (I miss "Jane" and especially "Sassy," where a celeb was always asked the same ten questions. Those magazines were fun because they employed people with great voices and who weren't corporate cookie-cutter types. "Lucky" mag was the closest thing I had there for a while, when founder Kim France (with whom I went to high school for a while--she sat behind Debby who sat next to me in French class) ran it, but now they've completely thrown it away and it's nothing but a "Teen Vogue" clone, ugh. I need to cancel the rest of that subscription I have.)

BUT I DIGRESS [as usual]. One of these days I'm going to do the old "Sassy" Ten Questions We Ask Everyone. Or maybe the ones they ask on "Inside the Actors Studio."


LAUREN: Any good suggestions for overcoming writer’s block?

ME: I don't believe in writer's block. I think it's procrastination. Or maybe you have written yourself into a corner. (Try not to do that!)

However, I have some cures. Take a large piece of posterboard and turn it "landscape" mode. Begin freewriting across the board with a crayon or marker. The idea is to turn off your internal editor and get your inner child writing. The editor will not take this seriously (what? A marker on posterboard!?) and will turn off, and the child will come out. Write whatever comes to your mind. "I hate the color gray because it is dead." Start with a grocery list or anything, and then move on to what you are thinking. You will be astounded at what comes forth.

If you have written yourself into a corner, access the HiveMind. Ask a Yahoo! group or mailing list how to resolve the problem so you can go on with the scene. I can't tell you how many times the WRITING mailing list that I am on (a relic of the old FidoNet BBS network) has led me through to an answer. Your character needs to figure out a clever way to get past that herd of buffalo? Worry not, as the HiveMind has many ideas. Weed out the truly outrageous and find one that fits. It works!

Have you been picked on by a critique group or workshop? That can make you lose all confidence in your own ability. Dump anyone who is getting his jollies by cutting you down. If you are not getting constructive criticism with at least one bit of praise (surely there is ONE line in your masterpiece that he can say something nice about), leave. Nicely. But get out. That isn't helping, anyway. Find someone else to exchange text with. You'll be much happier.

You might be stuck/procrastinating without the usual easy flow of words because of something else that's blocking your emotions or intellect. Meditation can sometimes break through these things. Occasionally you need to clear the air with, say, your spouse or best friend. Have they been taking you for granted, treating you like dirt, acting as if they have all the power and you are but a minion? And you've been "being nice" because you've been told you're "too sensitive" and "imagining things" and that "Southern ladies are nice" (insert whatever group you're supposed to be part of). But this will get bottled up inside you, and you've got to get it out and clear the air. I finally blew up at my own family a couple of days ago, when there was a BIG problem that no one thought was bad because the only person it hurt was me, and it has made things much better. They're treating me like a person, at least for a while, and it's pretty nice. To show you just how much it took to get their attention, I developed a blister on the end of my tongue from channeling the Devil as I read the riot act. (LOL!) Anyway, if there's something blocking your life's energy and creative drive, you have to move that out of the way so that you can return to being a force of nature. Here's hoping that you can get your point across without having to go to DEFCON 2. (But if you have to--it's not a sin! You are worthy! Your voice is to be heard! Let them hear your concerns, and don't let them shrug it all off this time.)

Remember, it's always better to use your own imagination than to be fed always by others. . . .

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Today we have a guest post from a debut mystery author! I love these ideas for getting rid of cell phones, Google searches, and other technological assists so that our heroines sink deeper into the quicksand. See if you don't agree!

Kill Google First

A Guest Post by Kristen Elise

My protagonist was racing through Egypt faster than I could type, her quest to find her husband’s killer preceding my own quest to put her latest predicament on paper before I could forget what I had in mind. The clock was ticking. Katrina had every reason to suspect that someone was hot on her trail, and that the best-case scenario was that it was Middle Eastern law enforcement. I was in the zone.

Then my editor read the section and totally deflated my ego. “Why doesn’t she just Google herself?” she asked.


The Internet age has created new hurdles for the author of mysteries and thrillers. What is left to investigate, when everything you need to know is right at your fingertips? Instead of action-packed, unpredictable adventures, our heroes have smart phones. Which can make for the most un-thrilling thriller ever written.

Here I offer a collection of ideas for neutralizing the digital age, or even using it to up the stakes in your story:

The smart phone:

1) Drop it in a river, an ocean, a fountain, a toilet, or any other body of water. Someone important is expecting your call when this happens.
2) Enter a dead zone (trains, planes and automobiles are particularly good for this.) Get the critical message too late.
3) The bad guy pirates your data. Now he knows the home addresses of everyone in your contacts.
4) The person you need to speak with is a heavy sleeper in a different time zone. Or, dead.
5) Dead battery. Power outage.
6) The government, your employer, or your spouse is tracking your cell phone activity. What they find could harm you, or it could kill them.
7) The phone is stepped on by a horse, dropped off of a skyscraper, or thrown out the window of a speeding car. You’re next.
8) You left it sitting on the train ticket counter. The ticket vendor happens to be in cahoots with the bad guys.
9) Garden-variety cell phone theft by a total stranger. The stranger ditches the phone in the absolute worst possible spot.
10) Your service was just shut off for lack of payment. Your payments are automatic and were current four days ago, so what gives?

The computer (some of these also apply to smart phones…):
1) Cash only at the Internet café. You’ve been mugged.
2) Google search results screw up your whole plan.
3) What you need is on your personal desktop. Your personal desktop is in another country.
4) You’ve been dropped in the Amazon, and there’s not a Starbucks in sight.
5) Your email account has been hacked, and you are now sending messages that will certainly get you killed.
6) The email and text messages you have been receiving are actually from the killer.
7) GPS brings him right to you.
8) Can’t drive (or fly a plane, or sail…,) fight off an axe-wielding maniac and run a Google search at the same time.
9) No wi-fi on sailboats, especially those with axe-wielding maniacs as first mate.
10) The bad guy has Google too. He knows everything about you.

I suspect that as technology evolves, our methods for dealing with it in our novels will too. What are some of your favorite ways to kill Google in your stories – or better yet, to use it to up the stakes?

Kristen Elise, Ph.D., is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print ( and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.)
About The Vesuvius Isotope: When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Speaking at Mystery Book Club!

On Wednesday, Mama and I visited the Mystery Book Club at the Barnes and Noble store at the Firewheel Mall in Garland, Texas. The club meets on the second Wednesday of every month around 7 PM to discuss the book they've chosen for that session and to talk about mysteries in general.

We got there early and had our choice of seating. Soon the group sponsor/leader, Theresa, joined us, and I showed her the books I had brought (a couple of copies of each of the mysteries and one copy of each of the others, including the Shalanna Collins oeuvre) and nattered on about my writing. In a few minutes the member who had so kindly invited me, Cassie Wilson, came along, and I spoke a bit more about writing and the current state of publishing. By 7 PM the rest of the membership had come along to fill in the circle, and the meeting officially started.

I do NOT know why I can't remember to get everyone to stand up for a group shot! Again I forgot about this. Aaarghh! But I like the candid sneak shots I did get.

Going around the circle, we had each person introduce herself. (It was a hen party this time, as I'd expect with mysteries, if not SF/Fantasy. But that's the fun of it.) One was a special ed teacher who works somewhat near us, then the coordinator who works at B&N, then a retired librarian/English teacher, then a psychologist, then the president of the Dallas Rose Society and other garden clubs, then another retired librarian . . . all devoted readers. I got the chance to pass around each of my books and to give everyone my promo postcards. I also gave out some of my business cards that show my blogsite and Web page. I'm hoping some of the attendees will investigate me further and perhaps visit my Amazon author pages.

One of the topics we touched upon was the increasing grittiness of most mystery/suspense titles that are coming out today. It seems that just about half of the titles I pick up or look at on the Kindle Storefront deal with serial killers.

"I don't WANT to be in the head of a twisted person," said my mother. "I want to be entertained, amused, comforted, and learning something interesting when I read. I already know those people exist, and I wish they didn't. What's interesting about someone who just wants to kill you?"

"Yes," said Cassie firmly. "It's far more interesting when there's a group of suspects instead who were pushed into a corner or felt they had to murder in order to save their careers or marriages. The motivations and desperation of the people are lots better than a serial killer deal."

We agreed that often, a real PAGE-TURNER is too plotty, with events happening just so that something "exciting" can be going on, and weak motivation from characters. When a character is lauded as "sooo smart" but then goes on to make poor choices and prove that he's Too Stupid to Live, it's really disappointing for the reader. What do you remember from a book--the plot? Or the characters? I'll bet that you can remember the plot sort of sketchily, but when you think of the characters you've loved, they come back in living color.

The discussion of the book assigned for the meeting began. It was Lisa Scottoline's first book, Everywhere That Mary Went. Everyone agreed that the writing was good and the style interesting, and a couple of people confirmed that the behavior of workers in a big law firm is indeed as she portrays it. But just about everyone said that the ending happened too fast, that it seemed the author simply "picked one" from the short list and made that person the perp. I thought the ending was one of the book's major weaknesses myself (I went back and read the book last night on the Kindle), because the perp just suddenly APPEARS and has flipped out with no warning at all. It's kind of contrived and forced, to me. I also thought that everyone in the book was pretty unethical, but maybe that's just me. However, the ENTIRE group gave the book thumbs-up, so who am I to argue? They said they'd be looking for other books by the author.

Next month's book is by Bill Crider, The Wild Hog Murders, and they're really looking forward to it. I'd better find a copy so I can keep up! Bill Crider is one of our cohorts over on the DOROTHY-L mailing list, and I always enjoy his novels with a Texas flavor.

Mama started getting asthma about ten minutes before the club broke up for the evening, but she enjoyed herself and got to talk about her favorite books. (To Kill a Mockingbird and the "Murder, She Wrote" tie-ins.) Talk about Atticus Finch and the anniversary of TKaM ensued. I think the group enjoyed her.

I don't know whether my books made an impression or not. It's so common nowadays for someone to have written and published books that it's just not remarkable any more, and everyone assumes that your book is a "Chiclet"--one of the hastily cranked-out works that is not meant to last, but is intended merely as a quick read for $.99 or so. I get discouraged when I walk into gigantic bookstores and see all those glossy, beautiful titles stacked on the tables and lined up on the shelves. It's the competition! Who but a fool would keep doing this when it's basically hopeless and SO MUCH WORK? But oh well. I never said I had to make sense.

If you're in the area, come on down and join the fun! You don't have to have read the book-of-the-month, although it helps. You can just come to hear people who love books talk about books and about their thoughts. It's something worth doing.

We're going to try to make this club a regular stop. If I can bribe the hubby to watch the Pomeranian again and keep him OUT OF THE FLOWERPOTS, I mean.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Our goals as writers or readers

Reading Mary Montague Sikes' latest blog entry, "What Are Our Goals as Writers?" made me think about what my goals actually are, versus what most people think they are or should be. (LOL)

First, I want to talk about our goals as writers.

She mentions winning writing contests. Well, I've done that. I can do that. I won the Golden Rose award a couple of years ago with APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. (Their award is an actual gold-plated rose. My mother went crazy over it, and I put it on one of her bookshelves to be admired. It didn't come with a publishing contract or make anyone interested in the book, though.) I won prizes in the Robert Benchley essay contest a couple of times. (This year, they haven't yet announced the contest. ???) The way I got into Oak Tree Press was via winning the Dark Oak Mystery contest and getting NICE WORK published in 2011.

But I've noticed that contest winners aren't much appreciated. The St. Martin's Press contest would seem to be a major big deal, and you'd think winning one of their contests and publication would be a coup. However, I don't really see sales going big for those who win the contest, not since Donna Andrews was discovered (her books are that perfect blend of over-the-top funny and believable.) One recent winner has gone off to publish newer books with small presses, saying that she has more freedom there. I don't know whether winning an award of any kind does anything for your career. Getting your book made into a film or TV show, on the other hand . . . yes.

She also mentions financial success. That has always eluded me. I haven't made it a major goal, though. As I see it, those who attain financial success are usually the people who can schmooze and sell. If you are a born salesman, you can sell yourself, and the people will want your product. This sort of thing has never been my strength. I haven't had to rely on my writing to make a living so far, which is definitely a good thing.

What about readers? What are our goals as readers?

For many readers nowadays, it's ALL ABOUT PLOT. They don't mind wading through clunky prose (they have no ear for it, or don't care one way or the other? Don't know which) and aren't bothered by stereotypical flat characters. They're reading for WHAT HAPPENS, and if things aren't happening fast enough for them, the book hits the wall and they grab another (so many free downloads out there, why bother to push through all that thinking or feeling?) They were weaned on action movies, and they want to see things blow up and see people make snap decisions, whether or not the decisions are wrong.

But that's not STORY. Teresa Nielsen Hayden once said, "Plot is what happens, but story is a force of nature." I believe people need/use story to make sense of life, to understand what life wants from them and what they want from life. A story is a promise to the reader that they're going to learn something or have some sort of insight as a result of reading it. Otherwise, they close the book and say, "So what? What was all of that FOR?" They "got nothing out of it." It was "a waste of time that they can't get back." This is not what we're aiming for, I'm sure.

Story has always been a means of transmitting the culture down to the next generation(s). The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens--the Great Books, if you will--have passed along the great ideas of Western culture over the centuries. A great story should give you some new insight into the human condition. It shouldn't feel hollow when you finish, as though you were waiting for the author to make his or her point but never got anything. You can write solely for entertainment and still have a point . . . I'm not saying that everything has to be Ponderous and Meaningful. But most people want to feel they've learned something from your book, if only that the Kelvin temperature scale goes down to absolute zero or that 73 is the perfect number (because it means "Best regards" to hams!)

It seems that the popular kids have decided they're going to write books. They never wanted to do this before, but now that it's a matter of typing into a word processor rather than feeding endless pages into a typewriter, they want to. EVERYONE is writing a book and putting it on the Kindle or going with a self-publishing deal. Writing books was always uncool before. It's kind of nice for it to be The Latest Thing, but I suspect that these same people tried to be rock stars and found they couldn't sing even WITH AutoTune, and turned to writing because they wrote in journals all through school and figured, "How hard could it be?" Some newcomers to writing are natural writers, of course, but I suspect that some just fell into it and have had lots of luck (and lots of friends who like them and therefore read their books). There are more books being published every minute these days than there were every YEAR in past decades. Lots of choices--good. Lots of slush--check. (LOL) Many books that leave you feeling hollow, as though "is that all there is?" were the question.

So why DO we bother to write books, when there is so much else out there that our stuff probably will come and go without being noticed?

My purpose in writing stories has always been to be heard--to reach those I would never otherwise reach with my voice or during my lifetime. I have always hoped that my book would be sitting on a shelf (or waiting for a download, wink) when someone who needs its message/philosophy/theme right then comes along and picks it up or downloads it to read. This person may be younger or older, in the future or in the present, but whoever the person is, he or she needs to hear what I have to say with this book, needs to be entertained with witty banter, needs to commiserate with the dilemmas and celebrate the happinesses of my characters. This person can experience vicariously a hot-air balloon ride, hear about someone's fairy godfather, work on perfecting the Schubert Moments Musical, and do whatever my characters do . . . it's a tour of my mind in my voice that no one else can give them, and I like to think it can enrich their lives and make them happy for a moment and then for several moments as they think on these issues and ideas I have brought to them.

That has always been my goal, and that is why I often resist making my books into action movie screenplays. I like to leave in the parts that made the books I have loved throughout my life into "keepers." I haven't thought much about temporal success, although my family and friends are quite fixated on the dollar; I do know that money is the way most people keep score, and the way they judge your work's quality, at least initially, so I guess I should at least TRY to do a popular book so my other books can have a chance at being checked out.

What if no one were keeping score? (Grin) If I serve art (Art) (whatever), that should be enough (but it probably isn't.)

So what are your goals? What is your purpose in writing stories?

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Signing!

Welcome to Lucky Dog Books!
Goodies to be raffled off and won!


Judy Serrano, the author and reporter who is going to review our books--and she donated four of hers to the raffle basket!

I wish I'd been able to take photos of Wendy and the other Books-A-Million lady employee who came along to bring Jenny's books and who ended up blowing up balloons with my mother (the newly-83-yr-old in the red sweater) to share with everyone's children . . . or photos of said children bouncing the balloons off their hands, their heads, and various authors . . . or photos of people standing up to find more books . . . or the general raucousness that was the signing/speaking time. But I was either doing the author bit or running about like the proverbial headless chicken trying to accomplish various tasks related to running the event. I never realized just how complicated and labor-intensive it would all be--especially hauling the books, food, and etc. up the front stoop and back to the extra-cool signing room! Most of the photos were snapped by my mother, in fact, and she really did quite well for someone who hadn't handled a digital camera very much. The pictures really do NOT give you the flavor of the event. You should see that place in person! If you can get over there to Lucky Dog Books, please do! Stop by and tell 'em I sent ya! (Jenny left about 10 signed books there and about 10 at the Grapevine Mills location of Books-A-Million, and we need you to go buy them NOW. You'll have to get my masterpieces from Amazon, though (Denise's page for MYSTERIES and ROMANTIC SUSPENSE and LITERARY CHICK LIT and Shalanna's page for YA FANTASY/ADVENTURE and URBAN FANTASY), because I didn't think to make an agreement with the store . . . I just hauled all those boxes back to the van. Duh!

After the three and a half hours of fun and hilarity, the authors took themselves to lunch at El Fenix (Tex-Mex) in Preston Hollow. Janis Susan May Patterson and unidentified husband (LOL); Jenny and Kevin Tipple discussing what to do with a book that you don't want (not really--there is no such thing!)

AND the bluebonnets were in bloom. What more could one ask than good friends, good books, and good weather?!

Monday, April 22, 2013

DALLAS BOOK SIGNING: A Charity Event! With me!

SUNDAY, APRIL 28 from 1-4 PM in Dallas, Texas: Charity Book Signing!

Ever doubted my supernatural powers? Well, doubt no more. I've enticed several best-selling authors to Dallas and we're all doing a signing--for charity!

Jenny Milchman, author of the suspense novel COVER OF SNOW (recently released by Ballantine Books in hardcover), will be in Dallas on Sunday, April 28, and will hold a book signing from 1 to 3 PM with me (Denise Weeks AND Shalanna Collins--you know, like Athena is also Minerva), Janis Susan May Patterson, Kevin Tipple, and Earl Staggs at the Garland Road location of LUCKY DOG BOOKS.


Here's how it's going down.

Jenny will speak briefly at 1 PM and take questions from the audience. We'll be collecting books from each author present during that time and putting them into a raffle basket. Then we'll have the signing! Everyone who buys one or more of our books gets a raffle ticket. We'll draw a name out of the hat (watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!) and award the basket of books! We'll then draw ten more names, and those lucky people will get to stay after for a "Getting Published/ Craft of Writing" session with the authors.

Now, about the charity part. Where will the profits go? Ms. Milchman intends to donate all profits she makes from the event to a Plano family, Kevin and Sandi Tipple and their two sons, who are saddled with medical bills and overdue rent. (Ms. Patterson and I wlll be donating a large share of our profits; we had to buy our books from those mean old publishers at almost full retail, alas.) Pretty cool, huh? Anyone who wants to help out will be welcomed with open arms. In fact, pretty much anyone who shows up will at least get a handshake and a cookie!

Here's the official flyer for the event. We'd love to see you!

Map/Directions to Lucky Dog Books, Lochwood location on Garland Road in Dallas (Casa Linda area, next to Casa Linda Bakery, in fact)

Lucky Dog Books is about a mile or so from White Rock Lake near the Lochwood Shopping Center, located on Garland Road just past Jupiter (if you're coming from the east). The store is next to a church (in fact, I think it's located in an old church building itself) on the right-hand side of the street a few long blocks past Jupiter Road, just beyond the Casa Linda Bakery. You can reach it from the north and/or west by coming east and southeast on 635 (LBJ) and taking a right turn on Jupiter Road and then another right on Garland. If you aren't that far north, just take Northwest Highway to Jupiter and then turn south on Garland Road. It only SOUNDS complicated. Better directions on their website.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

GUEST POST: Marilyn Meredith's DANGEROUS IMPULSES blog tour!

Today I have a special guest! Marilyn Meredith, aliass F. M. Meredith, is here to promote her new mystery for Oak Tree Press, DANGEROUS IMPULSES. As a fellow Oak Tree Press author, I have her books on the "buy now" list. She's going to talk about the rocky road to publication. (I myself have had flat tires on that road, and it's currently under construction!)

I'll step aside and ler her talk.

The Rocky Road to Publication for the RBPD series

Perseverance has been my mantra since the beginning of my career as a writer. I could easily have given up long ago and never had the great time I’ve had all these years. None of it has been easy--and getting and keeping my Rocky Bluff P.D. series going is a good example.

I started writing the series when my son-in-law was a police officer in the town we both lived in. He’d come home with tales of what he did on his graveyard shift. Several things happened during this time period to men on the department and my mind began perking. The first novel in this series was Final Respects. I took bits and pieces of what I’d learned along with other things I knew about, sprinkled them with lots of imagination and this first book was born.

I landed an agent and I kept on writing. I had three more books done and submitted them. The only encouragement I received was that I came up with great titles. I finally gave up on the agent.

While studying the big Writer’s Digest Market book, I found a publisher who was looking for police procedurals. I submitted Final Respects and it was accepted. The only catch was this publisher was an e-publisher. Who knew what that meant? Not me, or anyone else. I couldn’t even figure out how to buy my own book once it was published. And the only place to read it was the computer. That was not a successful venture.

Time moved on, and the Rocket eReader became available, along with many new e-publishers. I found one that looked good, queried, and sent Final Respectsoff. The book was published as an e-book and trade paperback. It looked great. I purchased some and sold them. I sent the second in the series, Bad Tidings, to this publisher and it was published. The only problem was, though I could see people were buying the books because of reviews that appeared in various place, I never received a single royalty payment. When I asked about it, I was sent a small check and a rude reply. I parted company with that publisher.

It took a while, but I finally found another publisher who did e-books and trade paperbacks and she accepted the next two in the series, Fringe Benefits and Smell of Death. She did a great job with editing, the covers, everything. Then the bomb dropped—she decided not to continue with the publishing business.

I figured the next one I’d written, No Sanctuary, would never see the light of day. I met Billie Johnson, the publisher of Oak Tree Press at a Public Safety Writers Association’s conference. We became friends and saw each other at the next conference too. We began emailing one another and I queried her about No Sanctuary. In the meantime, she asked me to come to Illinois and present at a writer’s conference she was holding. I did, and she came to the motel where hubby and I were staying and brought me a contract. Yes, I signed it.

This has turned out to be a wonderful partnership. Not only did Oak Tree Press publish that book, they’ve printed all the rest I’ve written and she republished the earlier books too both as e-books and trade paperback.

When anyone asks what my best advice for authors is, I can honestly say, “Never give up.”

Thank you for hosting me today; I’ve enjoyed being with you. Tomorrow you can find me here:

Now a bit about Dangerous Impulses:
(You can click here to visit it and buy on Amazon!)

An attractive new-hire captivates Officer Gordon Butler, Officer Felix Zachary’s wife Wendy is befuddled by her new baby, Ryan and Barbara Strickland receive unsettling news about her pregnancy, while the bloody murder of a mother and her son and an unidentified drug that sickens teenaged partiers jolts the Rocky Bluff P.D.

The person who comments on the most blog posts on this tour may have a character named after him or her in the next Rocky Bluff P.D. crime novel or choose a book from the previous titles in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series in either paper or for Kindle.

Rocky Bluff P.D. Series:
Though each book in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series is written as a stand-alone, I know there are people who like to read a series in order. From the beginning to the end:

Final Respects
Bad Tidings
Fringe Benefits
Smell of Death
No Sanctuary
An Axe to Grind
Angel Lost
No Bells
Dangerous Impulses

F. M. Meredith’s Bio:

F.M. is also known as Marilyn Meredith, the author of the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series. She first became interested in writing about law enforcement when she lived in a neighborhood filled with police officers and their families. The interest was fanned when her daughter married a police officer and the tradition has continued with a grandson and grandson-in-law who are deputies. She’s also serves on the board of the Public Safety Writers Association, and has many friends in different law enforcement fields. For twenty plus years, she and her husband lived in a small beach community located in Southern California much like the fictional Rocky Bluff. She is a member of three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Epic, and Mystery Writers of America.

And I’m on Facebook and Twitter as MarilynMeredith

Thanks, Marilyn! We wish you luck on your online excursions.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Go read my guest post!

I'm up on Judy Hogan's blog this morning. As usual, it's an awfully LONG interview, but then when you ask me twenty questions, you're in for it. LOL!

The word on the street (although it ain't Easy Street) is that authors can get more attention for their books by guest blogging anywhere they're allowed to. I don't know whether this is true for those of us who aren't exactly Stephen King or Stephenie [SIC] Meyer, but it could make a couple of people interested, so it's worth a try. I'm sure some of my answers are wacky, but that should interest the sort of people who might like my work. At least I am not putting on a false face, I mean. LOL!!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dialect--how do storytellers put that on paper?

Writers! Do you know what I mean by "dialect"? I'm talking about the parts of Huck Finn that are so tough to read because they're phonetically spelled, or the entire oeuvre of the "Br'er Rabbit" writer (Joel Chandler Harris, who was still on the Western Canon lists when I was in elementary school) that is absolutely unreadable now because it's in so-called "eye dialect."

Recently, a poster on a mystery readers/writers mailing list I'm on mentioned how much she liked dialect. It was said that a couple of writers who use dialect in dialogue "have taken a lot of criticism for it from readers." (To me, there's your first bash from the cluestick: if readers object to something, then you certainly need to re-examine it, why you do it, and how you might get the same effect across differently. But I digress.) She mentioned Faulkner, saying, "If it works for Pulitzer Prize winners, then it certainly can work for them!"

Well . . . let's consider this for a moment. (I'm not sure exactly what kind of dialect the original poster intended, but let's assume the worst, for purposes of argument. Argument being in the nature of a debate, not the finger-pointing and hair-pulling kind, mind you.)

Laying aside the issue that the Pulitzer Prize winners who did this (perhaps we must include Alice Walker, but she doesn't do strict eye dialect all the time) won the prize many years ago, as far as I know, and might not win today because tastes have changed so much, let's look at how a reader experiences a text.

Dialect is very difficult to read and slows a reader down quite a bit. There's a reason that standardized spelling stuff caught on, y'know. (LOL) Mark Twain uses eye dialect (that's what this is called) in Huck Finn, but it's one of the difficult things about the novel. That's because he does phoneticized spellings.

I don't think dialect done that way works well at all today (if it truly ever did).

There are alternatives. Rather than phonetically spelling a misprounounced or differently pronounced word, such as "gulls" for "girls" or "wimmin" for "women," writers can repeat the way they mispronounce the word in the next sentence (instead of respelling it inside the sentence).

"I can't stand that place. All them barren women." Cain't. Wiiimmin.

In this technique, the narrator is "hearing" those words for the reader. A little of this goes a long way; dialect done like this tends to wear on the reader's inner ear very soon, unless done very lightly and skillfully. Best to use this for a minor character and only do it the first couple of times he speaks--and perhaps the final speech of his, as well.

The way to do dialect nowadays, it's pretty much agreed, is to suggest it by diction/word choice and word order. One of my Russian-born characters in MIRANDA'S RIGHTS says things like "Give to me this box." She is also puzzled by some idioms and cliches in English. "He is thinking he pulls the blanket over our eyes. Hah! Him I understand all too well."

A lot of this can make readers roll their eyes. Keep the cast limited to one or two people who have these unusual ways of speaking, unless you want readers to go nuts. Also, don't load up the cast with faux-Aussies and Scots (as in a book I just read) for no reason other than to have them talk funny. It's not funny; we've all seen CROCODILE DUNDEE.

Whatever you do, DON'T try to reproduce dialect syllable by syllable, or even word by word. Don't try to reproduce pronunciation, unless there is some key element that ties into it. What happens is this: your reader (henceforth known as "he") sees the first clues to the way your character ("she") speaks, and thereafter will imagine that accent. So if you have constant strange spellings and "reminders" of the accent, the reader will hear a more and more exaggerated accent, and the whole thing will become ridiculous, no matter how accurately you portray the dialect. If you indicate just enough to suggest to the reader that the character is, say, Southern, he will hear a normal Southern accent when you write, "That boy ain't right. Run over yonder and close that winder, will yew?" This comes across loud and clear, particularly if the character's grammar or word order or slang reminds you of someone.

BETTER. The same question three different ways: "Do you want me to do it?" "Would you prefer that I do it?" "You want I should do it, God forbid you should ask?"

You just "saw" three different people, right?

The main character in one of my novels has a Hispanic mother, and I occasionally have the mother speak a few words in Spanish. The rest of the time she speaks English, with a few un-idiomatic phrases here or there that might show she isn't native-born. As such a character speaks, she will use phrases or words or syntax in a way that reminds the reader. If you have a long bit of dialogue, she can speak standard English, but still keep your character's voice in the ear of the reader. You can use many foreign phrases that are pretty much understood in America without translation--"faux pas," "loco," "dreck." If you're concerned, you can give a translation the way I showed above. "That man is loco." Crazy.

In fantasy/SF or experimental prose, you might have your own phrases in your invented language that you can use this way. "He hated the veroon. It stank."

You don't necessarily need many French words to suggest a French accent. The way a character answers questions can be telling. The French start many answers with "mais oui" or "mais non"; in English, the idiom to use is "but x." (Grey Poupon's ad: "But of course!") "That is not the French way, ma cherie (mon cher)!" Don't go too Maurice Chevalier, though. I had an Arabian character once, and I suggested his broken and accented English by having his grammar slightly fractured, like the cartoon 7-11 clerk: he'd say, "They are pretty much completing." "You do the car washing in your dressed-up pants?" (I guess you had to be there. It sure sounds racist when I retype it like that. My friend Aziz read it for me and laughed, but maybe he was fuming on the inside, right?)

Careful--don't let it drop into parody.

Also, a steady stream of poor grammar out of characters' mouths grates on the reader like sandpaper. A little goes a long way to suggest what you mean. It doesn't take much irregular diction to get the idea of illiteracy across. Believable dialect comes, for the most part, out of using a collection of key phrases and eccentricities. (I wish I remembered who I was quoting there.)

Many moons ago, an acting teacher told me that if a character has a certain trait--a stutter, a limp, whatever--an actor should display it to good effect during the first few lines of her first entrance. After that, just hint at it, without exaggeration or emphasis. Subtlety is the watchword. I think the same method works well in fiction. After all, you embody all the actors as well as the playwright and director here.

You can also have a character drop into his/her "down-home" way of conversing while under stress, in response to certain situations, and when talking to certain people. It is a subtle way of indicating the character's comfort level. Similarly, you can have her subconsciously or deliberately segue into the dialect of another when talking to him.

Have fun with it as you write--but then, when you go back to the draft to revise and polish, check to see that you're doing it one of these ways, rather than the "Br'er Rabbit t'ain't a-goin" way. If you trust me on nothing else--trust me on this.