Saturday, November 19, 2016

Change of pace for a moment

For a change of pace, let's see how many of these questions people know the correct answers to.

How many branches of government are there?
How many members are there in the House and Senate?
Who’s third in line for the presidency?
Describe the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
What are the term limits for the American president and the representatives/senators?

You probably had an easy time of the first. Executive, legislative, and judicial. There are checks and balances built into the way these three branches function so that we have a fairly level system.

Easy answer on the Senate--fifty states, two Senators each, so 100 Senate members. The House is tougher. The number of voting representatives in the House is fixed by law at no more than 435, proportionally representing the population of the fifty states.

The line of succession is President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tem of the Senate, Secretary of State. If we ever had to go further than that, we'd be in BIG TROUBLE. (LOL)

The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, while we declared our independence with the other document. Do you know the Preamble to the Constitution? We used to have to memorize it in seventh grade.

The President now has a limit of two terms (after it appeared that FDR could serve forever.) Congresscritters have no term limits and can return over and over. There's a movement afoot to slap term limits on them, as well. Now, why did the Founding Fathers not put limits on them? They had NO IDEA there would ever be such a thing as a career politician! To them, it made sense that someone would put himself out there for a few years and serve the country, and then return to his huge land holdings to manage his business affairs. They couldn't have envisioned the way it works today.

How do you feel about the Electoral College? Never mind . . . don't need a flamewar. LOL

Friday, August 19, 2016

Two series/serieses--why? Why not?

On FB, we were discussing whether or not to do character sheets/character questionnaires. I don't do this, because the one time I did for a class, I lost all motivation and interest in writing about the character. I would be the person who put all those details in instead of only the ones that were needed. I do keep a file with significant information, such as hair/eye color, occupation, and that sort of thing for each character. I sometimes need to know who knows Morse code or whatever without searching the file.

But once I realized I was writing two mystery series, both with thirtyish female amateur sleuths, I opened a file called "Jac vs Ari." Jacquidon's book is in intimate third person; Ari's story is first person. Jacquidon is the college grad who had such great career opportunities, Ari the loner who had a distant mother and an admired elder sister who got into trouble young. Jacquidon is the elder sister to Chantal; Ari is the younger sister to Zoe. Zoe had a child who died last year; Chantal is single and has a boyfriend who never comes on the scene in person but is a comic relief figure who has often JUST called and is often invoked or quoted or has given Chantal some piece of the puzzle somehow (or sent just the right tool to use to fix something)--this is used for comic effect as well as to advance the plot. He's like Mrs. Columbo--remember, we never saw her int he original series, but he was always saying, "MY wife--she thought of this, and I wanted to ask...."

That kind of thing. But the reason for that file was so that I could show others that they weren't at all alike and that I couldn't possibly "just make both books about the same sleuth" for the sake of having one series. The books are rooted in the world known to each character and what happens/plausibly occurs to her.

Jac's books are light, funny, witty, Snoop Sisters-type, like the Anne George novels crossed with Joan Hess (or so I fancy). Ari's stories are darker, deeper in a sense, have more emotional development and change (at the end of the first book, Ari's sister has come out of her self-imposed hermit state somewhat in the process of solving the crime, and may come back out into the world from which she retreated when her son passed.) Jac's story clues use technology/computers. Ari's are more traditional mystery clues.

So now you know. I could NOT "combine" them, no matter if that was a Penguin editor saying so. Note that Penguin has discontinued most of their cozy mystery series just a couple of weeks ago. They no longer have that hashtag on Twitter. SO they're serious about it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Plot Nuts and Bolts, Part II (Conclusion)

Last time, I talked about plot bolts--a way to keep your story's threads tied together.

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. So--

Let's take an example from my upcoming standalone traditional novel, Southern Discomfort. 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.) 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 where there's a convenient machine 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 disc 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 video 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 video he promised to get off the Internet 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 during the Gulf war suddenly showing DEBBIE DOES DJIBOUTI. And trying to find THAT target. (Not to worry: nothing graphic is going on at the beginning of the recording, at least not YET.) It's not a pretty sight, all those caregivers and mothers screaming and dashing for the DVD player. The one who ultimately snatches the disc 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 this item 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, such as 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 part 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 it.

And if you find a nut for one of them, twist it down tight!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Plot Nuts and Bolts, Pt. 1

WOW. We just went without the Internet or cable television for a week, after a storm knocked a tree down on the cables that run from the house to the pole (narrowly missing the power as well, because other trees caught the top of the falling tree just short of that), and it was tough. I went to Starbucks a couple of times with my tablet to check mail, and I used an antenna to pick up some local stations to monitor the weather, but otherwise I was without global communication (LOL). I knew that Facebook was my major social outlet (most of my close friends keep in touch that way), but I didn't realize how isolated I would feel once I couldn't check in regularly.)

The world is wired in nowadays. I needed to do LOTS of business transactions by phone, and I'd always be regaled with how much easier it would be if I'd only come into the 21st century and do it online. I explained to people, and they said to move. (LOL)

ANYWAY! Let's talk for a moment about plot nuts and bolts, something I learned about in a long-Long-ago workshop that's worthy of your attention if you want to write stories.

(The article "Plot Nuts and Bolts" by Shalanna Collins is copyright 2016. A version of this appeared years ago on the FUTURES Web magazine site, but has been offline for a while.)

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 ? 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," the cat familiar Pyewacket goes over to the Jimmy Stewart character's house and causes him 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 otherwise have no connections (or maybe have to rely on coincidences).

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 Harryette. . . .

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."

Next time, the PLOT NUT (nope, that's not a fan who has all the plotlines in the old STAR TREK series memorized) and how it ties these bolts together so we have a framework that makes sense and the reader gets a wild ride through the tale.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Musing: why is there air? (Warning: thinky)

"Why is there air?" asked Bill Cosby on an early comedy album, WONDERFULNESS.

"To fill up basketballs. To fill up pool flotation devices."

Sure! It's that simple. For the persona in Bill Cosby's early comedy album, anyway. That's the important reason that there's air! A sports reason!

But then those of us who BREATHE it say, "If you don't think breathing air is important, try not doing it for a while."

The point being that we are all prisoners of our own viewpoints, and we often react by seeing what we expect to see or what we're accustomed to seeing. Why is air important to the coach? Filling up basketballs. Why is air important to the hot-air balloonist? We've gotta have lift. Why is air important to the rest of us? *cough cough*

But anyway . . . when you're writing, your character will notice what he is inclined to notice. It's probably not the same things about the room that you, a writer, would notice. Or that you, a firefighter, would notice. Or that you, a police officer, would notice. Are there fire exits and are they marked? Is there a place someone could lurk and surprise you? You see what I mean. Always question what you are doing, in the smaller and larger senses.

People who don't question what they're doing aren't usually doing anything important.

Is what you're doing important? Is what you're writing going to be significant to other people's lives? Is it going to make them see the world in a whole new way and encourage them to change their lives accordingly?

In order to understand if what you're doing is worth it, you must question everything. Ask yourself what you're trying to do. So many writers really just want to "have written."

Why do you write? You can try to answer this--and most have tried--but you probably won't be able to come up with a pithy, quotable answer. PLEASE don't cop out with, "I can't not write," because that only means you need a creative outlet of some sort. This isn't your fault. It's like asking "Why do you want to live?" It's not that the answer is bad, but that the question is stupid.

Why do you write? Is it to tell a story? To impart some wisdom and meaning to people's lives? To play with words and string them together into a progression of interesting thoughts? To present an idea that hasn't been presented before? Is it to entertain? To make money? To explain your life or views?

These are all valid reasons. Any combination of these would be a decent explanation. But you should think about which applies to you.

Why? Because if you know what you're doing, or trying to do, you're going to have less doubt about it. You're going to have confidence. You're going to find your mission in life.

And you won't leave this world without fulfilling your eternal destiny.

Your job is to find out what it is, and then start on that path. Now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cozies being cut by major NYC mystery houses--AAAACK

I was sorry to hear of the many cozy series being dropped by the major NYC houses. The astounding part of it for me is that many series are still popular, but aren't making money for the house, so they're discontinued. Also, some of the authors won't be able to take the series elsewhere because the characters or series name/identity is owned by the publisher.

I will venture a guess as to why the industry decided to downsize them, though. I realized the other day that the last six or eight cozy mysteries I have read were VERY similar in setting/form/setup. The sleuth is a woman who runs a shop on the restored main street of a small town or resort town. (A pickling shop, a cupcake shop, a popcorn shop, a yarn shop, or whatever.) She is next door to other women who are running similar businesses. She lives above the shop or nearby. A murder takes place and she is a suspect or her best friend/neighbor is. The circle of people she interacts with is full of suspects. The shop is popular when she is not under suspicion (and the town must be full of extremely unhealthy people, for they come to the chocolate fudge shop or cupcake shop daily to fill up! I have never seen such successful small businesses! LOL) and business falls way off when she is under suspicion or suffers from rumors. The sleuth usually has an estranged hubby who would like to either get her back or sabotage her. She also has a boyfriend (sometimes two!) and probably a dog or cat who helps defend the turf. Often the detective is a love interest.

OK, I will admit that I read and enjoy them mostly BECAUSE of the mundane details. I wish I could find such a town free of economic or environmental issues in real life. The recipes, the talk of neighbors, the puzzle (not generally super-challenging, though), the lack of overt gore and extreme violence porn (most of the time), and so forth make the books a reliable bubblegum read. You usually don't have to worry about animals getting seriously hurt (although there have been exceptions) or descriptions of extreme torture porn or yuckiness (ditto). You can usually relate to the protagonist, who is "determined to make it on her own without help from the ex and despite the town turning against her."

Those old ropes do fray, however. The problem is that there's so little originality and so much similarity. You could just about exchange one book in a series for another book in a different series and track right along. It stretches credulity that the shops could all be viable in a small town--because many stores are having to go out of business in real life, and this just isn't realistic. The authors are not stretching themselves creatively and the reader is getting into a rut. I'm pretty sure that this is another reason that the genre is being downsized. We need some new tropes and different plotlines. (Yes, the caterer's food was poisoned by a baddie who wanted her put out of business as a nice side effect. Many, many times. How about something new? True, there is nothing new under the sun. That IS a difficulty.)

Sorry to sound so harsh, but maybe the abandoned authors will now stretch and go to a more traditional mystery format. A traditional mystery that is not a cozy can be set elsewhere and might have different tropes. My own MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS is a paranormal without being a zombie/vampire/witch/werewolf deal, and NICE WORK explores the seamy underside of the BDSM lifestyle (and the minds of unscrupulous people.) Different, but still mysteries with the normal mystery feel. (Who did it? Why? Justice must be done. Goodness must prevail. Love conquers all.)

Who knows--the new books could even revitalize the field. After all, we do not want another "Twilight" fad with werewolves VS zombies or something to overtake the industry . . . aack! ;) Let's see if we can turn this to our benefit. Not to say that I never want to read another cozy-knitting shop-cozy again, but perhaps it IS time for the next fad to take hold. (Just hope it isn't more zombies.)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Ensemble casts, part 1

The ensemble cast is what keeps readers/viewers coming back for more, every week (on TV), every few years (in the movies), or every few months (in books). What makes an ensemble cast so charming?

First, let's look at a few ensemble casts I see as being near-perfect.

The cast members must have chemistry. By this I mean they've got to have that spark when they interact. They must make me BELIEVE. (Alan Young of MISTER ED never gets enough credit; he made me believe the HORSE IS TALKING! That's what I mean when I say the actor makes me buy into it and I *believe*.)

My husband hates any show I like (and pretty much does it for spite, IMHO--LOL), so he hates EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND with Ray Romano and cohorts. But even he has to admit that this ensemble cast is nigh-unto perfect. Note-perfect with the relationships and with how they interact. I *believe* that Robert is the neurotic cop. I *love* Frank (did you realize that he's the one who played Frankenstein's monster in "Young Frankenstein"? They pay homage to that in one of their Halloween episodes!) And I would normally HATE any woman who acted as Debra is often forced to, because I just hate bee-yotch characters . . . but she HAS to get angry and be mean very often in the show, and I find myself saying, "Yes! Deb is in the right! No one could do any differently!" And thus I like her character, against all odds. I even like the interefering mother-in-law, Marie, because she is letter-perfect at being like my own mother and mother-in-law when they got That Way (not all the time, like Marie! Just occasionally.) The cast has chemistry and I *believe* that Robert and Ray are brothers. Watch a couple of episodes sometime and you'll see what I mean. There are almost no false notes (not even with Amy and her parents), and that's why I rank this one up top even above I LOVE LUCY (another ensemble that would not work without all four of them) and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (the original) and even THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW ("You have spunk. I hate spunk.")

My own ensemble casts, I hope, are like this one. I think Ari and Zoe French are a duprass of sorts; there are fans who want to see them in action again ASAP, and even fan fiction being written about them. They function well and are a sort of Bickersons pair. Compare to Jackie Gleason and Art Carney. When they get into it together, Katy bar the door!

Another of my ongoing ensemble casts encompasses Jacquidon Carroll and her sister Chantal. They are more like Lucy and Ethel, it has been said often, and they don't argue as fiercely as Ari and Zoe, but they complement one another when it comes to sleuthing. They have an ongoing foil in the form of Chantal's long-time main squeeze, who is referred to as "Smedley" most of the time. He's like Mrs. Columbo in that we don't see him, we don't hear him talk on the phone, but we hear about him and what he's doing or what he is about to do. It's part of the comic relief. It's a schtick, sure, but (I hope) a good one.

Often your ensemble cast will include a boyfriend/girlfriend or serious marriage prospect of the moment. I have this situation in both LOVE IS THE BRIDGE and in LITTLE RITUALS. If you don't have this, then you'd better have all sorts of flirting and the like going on with one of your main characters, because it's a big draw. Make the decision in the first book as to whether you will have explicit nookie scenes or will draw the curtain and let the waves crash onto the beach as in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, when we didn't get to see Burt Lancaster's hoohoo. Oh, well. But readers have distinct preferences as to whether they think a cozy should have hardcore scenes or not, so decide right away so as not to anger readers who skip that sort of stuff because they're older than fourteen and don't need an instruction booklet (can you tell which type of reader I am? Except for Henry Miller. I make an exception for Henry Miller. Don't ask me why. But if you want porn, you couldn't do better than Henry Miller, because he has interspersed sex scenes with his philosophical musings and other activities. Try the SEXUS/NEXUS trilogy. Or try D. H. Lawrence. If you want class with your, um, *ss, they're the ones, I guarantee. *Unless you can find a good translation of Baudelaire.*)

Other members of your ensemble cast will probably fill roles such as Sidekick, Mentor, Jester, Lovable (or not) Rogue, Guide (Spiritual/Moral Compass or Tour Guide), Guardian (or Threshold Guardian), Shapeshifter (this can be metaphorical, and generally is, at least to some extent), and even Trickster. Chantal and Zoe are (purportedly) the sidekicks in my mystery series books. Mentors come and go in all my books, but will be apparent when they first appear (so to speak, or "soda speak" as Kevin Robinson, mystery novelist extraordinaire, would say.) Gil Rousseau in MARFA LIGHTS is a Lovable Rogue--Tour Guide who is also possibly a Threshold Guardian and could even play Trickster in a pinch. Tricksters are a lot of fun to write, but you must be certain they're not taking over the story. Your heroine/sleuth/whatever MUST solve the puzzle for herself, save herself, have an epiphany of her own, experience growth and change at her own pace. Someone else can't do it for her, or the reader feels cheated.

So, anyway. You need to make sure your ensemble cast functions well together so that your readership will want more and will come back for more.

Your setting will often (ideally) be a character and will shape the way your cast interacts and what they do for fun (you ski in Denver, but you go tubing in San Marcos (TX) and you surf in Santa Barbara.) The best settings are the ones with a personality of their own and eccentric residents that are already familiar to your readers. For example, in New Orleans your characters will encounter street jazz musicians (and jazz funeral processions!), French quarter tourists, and voodoo priestesses. In Marfa, Texas, you will get the typical artists' colony weirdies plus the Marfa Lights followers. It's also a Western town, so you might even meet a few cowboys in their Airstream trailers. Consider your setting carefully, and be sure you do your research. A few road trips might be useful in this endeavor.

Next time--more about the archetypes and minor characters, and how they fit into this scheme.

Monday, March 28, 2016

For writers and readers: thoughts on structure

The beginning of a novel--ideally, the first few lines, unless we are in a prologue, about which more next time--should open a window and set a scene immediately. Readers should be able to see, hear, smell, maybe touch, and sometimes taste the setting and surroundings very soon, if not right away (because we're in a character's mind, or we're observing something closely, frex.)

Readers must know within moments who the main character(s) is/are and the situation at hand (the story world, the "ordinary world," if you will). Also, the TONE of this opening paragraph needs to signal to the reader whether this will be a light-hearted romp or a heavy, philosophical, convoluted read. However, this is all preliminary to "THE STORY." A novel doesn't have liftoff (even if we have readers already immersed in the Vivid, Continuous Dream that their minds should be constructing) until we pass through the Doorway of No Return.


What do I mean? Well, we're about to lose that ordinary world. The footing is unsure. A chasm is about to open beneath our feet. There is a door standing ajar, and perhaps a monster in pursuit of Our Heroine. Once she accepts the challenge and steps through the portal, she won't be able to get back home until the major plot problem is solved AND she has changed, fundamentally, herself. (A book has to be about the most important thing that has ever happened to the main character, and she has to undergo a transformation. Ideally, she will face her worst fear and conquer it. This doesn't hold for mysteries and series blorfs, but it SHOULD.) This challenge should be before the 20% mark or first 1/5 of your book, or else readers will get bored and drop the book. It really should be much earlier than that, for today's readers.

Is your hero or heroine intriguing, charming, worthy of following for 200+ pages? Is there a disturbance in the opening pages that pulls readers forward to know what will happen and/or if the character will succeed? Does this set the proper tone for the rest of the book? (Don't have a Torture Porn opening if you're then going to do a screwball comedy in the rest of the story.)

And most of all, for the author who is beginning to tell the tale: Can YOU live with this character, love her, root for her, put her through the wringer, for up to a year as you write the book? If not, you'd better go back and rework it so that you DO want to spend time with this person. Because if you don't like this character, readers won't, either.

Oscar Wilde Quote of the Day:
"There are men nowadays who cannot distinguish between the truth and the last thing they happen to have read."

Friday, February 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoe eyed me suspiciously. "What?"

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Few Instructions--merely offered up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is all.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Pundit's Corner by Denise Weeks

Chapter One

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

*to be continued*

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

Miranda's Rights by Shalanna Collins


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

Chapter One

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

*more to come*

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