Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Reader’s Dilemma

So many books; so little time. I could never read all the interesting books in the world, let alone those published in any given year. The question, then, is how to choose which books to read.

I am an eclectic reader, which makes it even tougher. I am not like one poster at a blog I read who claims to never read more than one book by an author—I’ll read someone’s entire oeuvre if it keeps my interest. But I am not a slave to reading only authors I know.

Just for fun here are my last ten reads and the reasons I picked them up.

#10 Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Jan and I traveled to the Canadian Maritimes early this summer and we stopped at Green Gables and walked the area. I had given the book to one of my granddaughters a few years back, but had never read it myself. Having walked the area, I was curious, so when we got home, I borrowed it. I found it a very good read, and was glad none of my children or grandchildren had quite the knack for getting into trouble that Anne had.

#9 206 Bones by Kathy Reich. Jan and I were in the airport and she needed a book to read. Neither of us had read Reich before, but I knew lots of people who enjoyed her books, so I suggested she get it. We had earlier on the trip spent several days in Montreal where Reich’s protagonist hangs out. We both found the book a very good read.

#8 The Culture of Contentment by John Kenneth Galbraith. This had been on my to- read list for more than a decade (maybe more than two decades). I found his observations to be just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. I labeled it a very good read.

#7 Don’t Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden. I find with “how to” books that each has its own emphasis, and I get the most out of them by reading several. Chris’s was the most recent self-editing book I’ve read, and I found it had a number of ideas I had not read elsewhere so, again, I had another very good read.

#6 Shockwave Rider by John Brunner. The novel I started writing a couple of weeks ago is set in the near future (80 or so years from now). I wanted to read some of the classics of dystopian fiction, and this book was on many lists. It was my first book by Brunner; I rated it as only fair.

#5.5 The Island Within by Richard Nelson. Jan and I have an agreement that works well for us. While we are at our Upper Peninsula camp, we revert to typical male/female work roles. It’s not that I’m not willing to do the cleaning—I don’t meet her standards. However, we’ve found something that works very well for us: she cleans up after the evening meal, and I read to her. We tend to like essays and nonfiction personal stories for these readings because they have natural stopping points. I had read this book several years ago and enjoyed reading it to Jan. Very good.

#5 Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Also part of my pre-reading for futuristic novels and again a first book by the author. This one I found very enjoyable.

#4 The Burning Wire by Jeffrey Deaver. I’ve enjoyed all of Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme books as well as his stand-alones. Jan found this at our library on one of our bi-weekly stops. This one I rated as excellent.

#3 Crimes by Moonlight edited by Charlaine Harris. I am not into vampires, were-creatures or generally things that go bump in the night. However, I had enjoyed short stories by several of the anthology’s authors and thought it might be time to expand my reading a bit. These are cracking good tales with just a touch of “woo-woo.” I rated it excellent, but I’m not rushing off to read all the latest vampire books.

#2 At Risk by Patricia Cornwall. I had read several books in Cornwell’s Dr. Kay Scarpetta series and for me they got to be the same old, same old and I had given up on her. Jan, who hadn’t read Cornwell when I did, picked it and a Scarpetta up at the same time she found the Deaver. She read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I read it. Glad I did; I rated it excellent.

#1 Bitter Medicine by Sara Paretsky. I’ve read most of Paretsky’s V I Warshawski’s novels, but somehow missed this one, so it was filling in a missing piece. As with most of Paretsky’s books, I found this one to be excellent.

My eleven books included one reread; one on my to-be- read list for years and years and years; several new authors; several repeat authors; and an anthology that stretched my usual genre.

How do you decide what to read?

~ Jim

Monday, August 30, 2010

A Leap of Faith

In last week’s blog, I wrote about my difficulty in classifying my novel because it crosses genres. I have concluded that while there is safety creating a novel that fits neatly on the shelf, the slush pile awaits for too generic manuscripts. As a new writer without a track-record, I must have a unique voice to obtain an agent and sell a manuscript to a publisher, and yet stay within conventional parameters, which will assure a certain amount of sales given a specific target audience. Hopefully, the unique voice will draw the target audience and attract new readership. Will TOASTING FEAR, (my new working title this week) accomplish this balance?

The dilemma reminds me of one that I had as a young adult: obtaining credit without a credit rating, but without a credit rating no one will give you credit.

Getting shorts published is one way to build a track-record within the industry, I am told. Judges for Mozark Press recently picked my short story “Implicated by a Phrase” for inclusion in a print anthology called A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas, which will be published in time for holiday sales. This cozy mystery short story fits neatly on the shelf and represents some of my work, but not my current work in progress, the next manuscript that I will query to agents.

Having the short published may help show agents that people like my work, especially if the anthology sells, but since it doesn’t represent my current manuscript, will the published short ultimately help? It won’t sell a manuscript, but will get my name before the public even if it doesn’t represent my WIP nor provide the foundation of a brand. Along with my other published short, "Daddy's Little Girl", which provides the history for TOASTING FEAR, I’m building a track-record. “Daddy’s Little Girl” is not traditional or cozy. Its content is uncomfortable and doesn’t fit nicely on the shelf, but it was also my first published piece. Was that fact a coincidence?

I doubt it, and that doubt gives me hope that TOASTING FEAR may have a chance. How did “paranormal” become a reference to vampires and shape-sifters? Charlaine Harris, who currently has two books on the mass-market best-seller list, created that niche’s association. Anne Rice created what she calls “metaphysical thrillers” and has done well on the best-seller lists. Perhaps I should give readers the storyline and run a contest to coin a new niche for my novel.

In the end, there is still the dilemma of how to bring a unique book into the marketplace yet stay within the parameters of proven winners. After reading the biography of Lisa Lutz, best-selling author of The Spellman Files, I have concluded that someone, most probably her agent, took a leap of faith. The Spellman Files is unique not only for its storyline but also in form, having caveats and amusing footnotes within the text of mystery fiction. Providing motivation to an agent, and then an acquiring editor, to take that leap must come from the strength of my work, and that strength most assuredly will not lie in following the pack, but in taking a risk.

Agents and publishers want to hear a unique voice captivating readers. That uniqueness helps build a brand, which assures readers that their future read will meet their expectations and assures sales—everyone in the industry’s dream. Of course, by its very nature, a brand demands a lack of uniqueness in an author’s future work, but that’s a worry for another day.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The F Word

by Ramona DeFelice Long

In May, I had the pleasure of teaching “The Basics of Mystery Writing” at the Pennwriters Conference. It was my first time on the faculty, and I am always pleased at the leap of faith writers take to attend one of my talks.

A Pennwriters member introduced me. I gave my standard beginning (“Can you hear me in the back?”) and told the group what I planned to speed-cover in the next 45 minutes. Then I launched my opening sally—that I was going to use the F word—and waited for the group’s reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed. Was I, a pleasant looking grownup in casual but professional attire and (because I’m from the South) wearing rose-colored lipstick, going to talk smack? If the group had been cartoon people instead of living people, little balloons would have popped over their heads, saying “Is this a trick?”

Of course it was a trick. When I spoke to elementary school groups, I often introduced my “Life as an Author” talk by saying I was going to speak about words. If those kids had been cartoon kids, their little bubbles would have read, “Boooring.” But then I told them I was going to start by saying a funny word. And I said, “Toilet.” All I had to do then was wait for the eruptions of laughter to die down. Toilet is, indeed, a funny word, particularly to a group of fourth graders.

I didn’t pull the Toilet joke because I wanted to revisit my childhood; I survived middle school and have no desire to go back, thank you very much. Every time I said, “Toilet,” the kids sat up a little straighter and looked at me—a pleasant looking grownup wearing casual but professional attire and rose-colored lipstick—with a bit more interest.

The same applies to a group of writers who hear the phrase “the F word.” The real joke is that, when I announced that the F word in question is Formula, you’d think I had, indeed, dropped a real F bomb.

Many new writers who seek my editing services insist that they want to do something new, break the rules, stretch the limits, fire through the parameters. This is a perfectly fine goal. I like experimental fiction and admire those who try it.

“Agents want something fresh!” “Editors are dying for something different.” These are true statements. However, writing a fresh and different story does not necessarily mean an author must venture outside the standard structure of storytelling.

“I don’t want to write a formula novel.” I hear this and I wonder, why not? What’s wrong with a formula novel, if the elements within—character, plot, voice, setting, theme—are engaging and well done?

In terms of writing, Formula is a word that I think is misunderstood. According to Webster’s Online, one definition of Formula is “a customary or set form or method allowing little room for originality.” That does, indeed, sound limiting. That sounds like every cozy mystery novel, for instance, must drop the body in the first chapter, with subsequent chapters that must include four viable suspects, two red herrings, a shootout, a car chase, a false arrest, a pet cat and at least one good looking Cop Boyfriend.

The truth is, many cozy mysteries do contain most (and sometimes all) of those elements. Why? Because those element work. That’s what readers expect. That’s what readers want.

Words have many meanings. Toilet is funny, but it’s also useful. Formula may refer to the Three Act Structure, Setup-Conflict-Resolution, Rising and Falling Action, Freytag’s Pyramid. These are all types of Formulas. Sometimes they’re call plotting plans or story structures, but essentially, they define the form of the story. There will be an inciting incident, a call to action, setback, roadblocks, mistakes, danger, a climax and a denouement. Those are the inherent parts of what constitutes a mystery novel. There’s no need to fear or diss any of them.

In other words, if the wheel ain’t broke, why reinvent it?

In the past month or so, two of my clients scored with publishers. One sold her first mystery novel, which stuck to the classic Three Act Structure formula. Her novel sold because she wrote an engaging sleuth with a hilarious, but dangerous, set of problems.

Another client wrote a short story that fit the “how-to write a short story” mold perfectly: two appealing characters discover a conflict, one grows, the other resists; there is an epiphany; the characters move apart, changed from where they started out. Nothing particularly new about the form of the story, but it was beautifully written, the situations were touching, and it sold to the first magazine she queried.

Why did standard forms become formulas? Because they worked. Different and new can come from character or setting or plot, but mystery readers like what they like. There are always trailblazers, and it is great if you are one. But it is not necessary for you to be one to get published. The classic form works, and that’s why it’s been around for so long.

For new writers, embrace the formula and experiment with other story elements. If you get frustrated, bogged down or discouraged, you can always cheer yourself up by saying, “Toilet.”


Bedbugs, not something I pictured in my mind until recently. The hotel stay that promised no cooking, no washing up, and no dirty linen to process, is gone. If I pluck up the courage to spend a night in a city hotel, I think I’ll stand with a flashlight and a bar of wet soap, waiting for the critters to show up for their nightly meal.

I shouldn’t be so surprised and horrified at the vitality of the insect world. In parts of Boston, where I used to work, people have learned to live side by side with the wildlife. A fireman thought a wall was heaving with the heat of the fire but it was the inches deep layer of cockroaches protesting at the sudden rise in temperature in their happy home.

A TV series showed cities ten, twenty, forty, etc. years after people no longer existed. Vegetation destroyed cement and mortar. Bridges succumbed to rust. I didn’t see it in the series but I imagine cockroaches expanding their real estate holdings and clinging to buildings like the most lush ivy vines, beetles carpeting floors, and ant mounds reaching gigantic proportions.

The bedbug epidemic draws my attention to the trillions of bacteria reproducing at a rate that makes rabbits look like amateurs. When I was a student nurse, one of my instructors suggested I not despair over the millions of bacteria in my eyelashes. After all, their presence meant I was never alone.

How easy it would be to introduce a fatal disease into an orifice or wound of an enemy. Of course, that’s been done before in fiction. I never forget Oscar Cook’s short story set in a jungle in Borneo. An earwig marches across the brain of a would-be killer and lays eggs. The agony of the victim is enough to make anyone think twice about killing for love. A writer could come up with a variety of ways to introduce a mindless creature into the human host it will destroy.

Is it only in the West where cold winters kill or make dormant many insects, where antibiotics are as common as aspirin, and new types of bug spray are developed daily that bugs and bacteria are abhorred? People who travel to Africa are surprised by the apparent indifference of the inhabitants to killer bugs and bacteria. The inhabitants don’t expect to win against their small enemies. Not even people from the West can destroy them all. In fact, when people from the West visit Africa, they sometimes succumb to diseases they’ve never met in their hygienic world.

I can’t help feeling our bubble of security in the West is more vulnerable than we think. Microscopic creatures surround us in the air, the water, and underground where they join up with rodents. I wonder what the miners trapped in a mine in Chile have to face from creatures who prefer the dark.

At one of the Crimebake conferences I attended, Tess Gerritsen said, when she thought about writing a thriller, she imagined what she most feared.

I’d be horrified to discover a once tiny creature was growing and multiplying inside me, and one of its offspring resided in the vitreous humor of my eye. What would it see or is it blind?

What makes the hairs on your arms stand up, even when you can’t see it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Interview with Daphne Finalist, Polly Iyer

Polly Iyer, a Massachusetts native living in the South, found writing late in life after a career in art and business. She’s written nine books and in between writing new ones, keeps rewriting the finished ones. Over and over and over, always striving for perfection even though she knows there’s no such thing as perfect. She enjoyed illustrating storyboards and running an upscale home furnishings store, but writing turned into the passion that had eluded her. She loves creating characters who murder, love, hate, and connive, who get under her skin and keep her up at night thinking about them because they’ve become so real. She speaks dialogue in the car while driving, makes notes in the middle of half-heartedly doing something else, and prays that no one notices her idiosyncratic behavior and carts her off to some place nice and quiet where she can be treated. But no one has found her out yet, so she’ll keep writing and rewriting and loving every minute. Polly’s website can be found at: http://www.pollyiyer.com/.

EBD: A few weeks ago, the Romance Writers of America’s (RWA) Kiss of Death (KoD) subchapter announced the winners of their annual Daphne du Maurier contest. Unpublished writers may enter their manuscripts in one of six categories. Polly Iyer came in second place for her InSight manuscript in the “Mainstream Mystery/Suspense” category. I wanted to interview Polly because I had thought about entering a manuscript, but chickened out. Polly gives us the inside scoop on this prominent contest.

EBD: Are you a RWA member? A Kiss of Death member? Do you think it matters if you are a member?

PI: I’ve been an RWA member for years, but not a KoD member. I don’t think membership matters in the judging of the contest, if that’s what you mean. These contests entries are blind. The judges have no idea whether you belong to either group.

EBD: In the contest’s rules, you must submit only the first five thousand words. Then they suggest that those five thousand words end in a hook. You have to write to the contest because a normally written manuscript may not just happen to end in a hook at that point. I find that contrived. Did you write the manuscript with the Daphne in mind or did you tweak a ms you already completed?

PI: Fortunately, my five thousand words/twenty pages had a hook that I didn’t have to manufacture, and my guess is that most writers can find a good place to stop within the given confines of the contest. My stopping point wasn’t the end of the chapter, however, but on the second go-around, I added the remaining pages to complete it. I didn’t write the manuscript with the contest in mind. In fact, I wrote the book some time ago and even entered it in the romantic suspense category of the Daphne before, obviously without the same results. When a writer decides to enter any contest, she must accept the parameters set by the contest rules; otherwise, contests aren’t for that writer. If the rules affect your sensibilities, don’t enter.

EBD: How did it feel knowing that those first 5000 words, which are the limit for initial entry, could eliminate your manuscript from the competition?

PI: Actually, I didn’t really think about that. First of all, I entered two books. The second entry didn’t fare as well. I got one perfect score, but the other judges didn’t agree. In both instances, I wrote the best beginning I could. The reason for entering a contest is for the feedback you get. Sometimes it helps to read what four objective judges think are the plusses and minuses of the first twenty pages, which we all know is the most crucial part in attracting an agent or editor. That doesn’t mean you’ll agree with everything. Ultimately, it’s your choice to either make changes based on their comments or not.

EBD: How did you decide on a category? My manuscript could have fit in one or more.

PI: Mine, too. I already mentioned that InSight fit into the romantic suspense category. Mainstream may or may not have a romance, and I judged both books I entered to be more suspense than romance. So that’s where I entered them.

EBD: For the mainstream category, which subcategory did you choose? And did you choose one from the examples that they stated in the rules? If so, was that calculated?

PI: Choosing the subcategory was a no-brainer. InSight doesn’t reach the level of thriller. There’s too much character development, and a thriller is more a constant series of heart-stopping action. I definitely don’t write cozies or chic-lit, and it wasn’t a YA. That left mystery/suspense.

EBD: I hate it when contests or agents ask for a synopsis and then tell you to end in a hook. To me, that’s a pitch, not a synopsis. In a synopsis, you give the ending away, but not in a pitch. How did you handle that?

PI: I took that to mean to wrap up your synopsis in an enticing way. Something that makes an agent or an editor want to read more. Synopses should tie up the story, and, yes, include the ending. The genre of your manuscript will dictate how you end your synopsis. Example: romance should have a happily-ever-after ending. A book in a series might hint at things to come. On the other hand, I agree with you. A pitch is a tease—a one or two line “hook,” if you will, given verbally or as a blurb in your query that entices an agent or editor to ask for the first few chapters, or better still, the full manuscript. Both are different, but the end goal is the same.

EBD: On second round, you submit the first twenty-five pages along with the synopsis. Did you again tweak the manuscript so the chapter ended at page twenty-five and again with a hook? (I assume you did that before the contest so you wouldn’t have to scramble.)

PI: You have the option of increasing the page count to twenty-five, on second round, but you don’t have to. Some finalists decided not to mess with success. I did send the rest of the chapter, which again, ended without tweaking. Well, maybe a word or two. I’m a constant tweaker anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever read over anything of mine that I’ve left alone. My critique partner can attest to that.

EBD: Winning contests is a goal of many writers because it gets their names above the pack. Have you been contacted by any agents or editors? (St. Martins, Donald Maass or anyone else?)

PI: No. I do have an agent, but neither of the judges asked for more, and my agent is pitching two other books, not InSight. The characters in my book are disabled, and that’s not an easy sell. Agents and editors say they are looking for different, but I’ve had this book rejected early on by prospective agents on the premise that it wouldn’t sell because of the subject matter. So, different but not too different. I’m not saying that’s the reason no one asked for more. The work obviously didn’t do the trick for either of them. I did get a “Good Writing” comment from the editor.

EBD: Do you have any advice for next year’s newbie competitors?

PI: Write the best manuscript you can. Look at the contest as a critique opportunity not a pathway to publication. A good contest like the Daphne is a way to improve your manuscript and possibly connect with an agent or an editor who will be interested in your work. It’s a win-win, as long as you go into it with the right attitude.

EBD: Was the feedback you received from the judges enough to warrant a rewrite? Do you think it will make your manuscript more sellable?

PI: No. I think if you’ve reached the level of finalist, top five out of one hundred in Mainstream, you wouldn’t have received a critique that warranted a major rewrite. Sure, there are parts I will tweak because of the comments, but a rewrite? No. Actually, the score that was thrown out, the lowest one, had some very good comments. But that’s because she found more wrong with the manuscript than the other judges.

EBD: How did you feel about the judging in general?

PI: These ladies volunteer. Personally, I can’t express the gratitude I have for the coordinators and the judges. They did a spectacular job, taking time away from their own writing to benefit others. It’s very difficult to judge a complete book from a six-hundred-seventy-five-word synopsis. Judges want to know more, and it’s impossible to include every nuance, detail every secondary character, explain every plot point, and still maintain the salient aspects of the story. Frankly, I’d rather write ten books than a short synopsis—let me clarify, any synopsis. But it’s a worthy exercise. Hopefully, the judges got a sense of the story. I think they did.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Devil’s in the Details

Mystery writers pride themselves on fairness: the reader has the same clues as the characters in the story, and part of the fun of reading a mystery is figuring out who done it. The writer buries clues in the most mundane places, tries to tie us in knots with misdirection from MacGuffins and other red herrings and wows us with a final twist after we are sure we know the answer.

Great stuff, and it’s all ruined when Mr. Smith on page 46 has brown hair and on page 235 is a blond—and it isn’t a disguise or caused by a recent trip to the beauty salon. Such an error kills the author’s credibility. Because mystery readers are looking for every little clue, they, more than other genre or literary readers, will spot these kinds of mistakes.

What is a writer to do? Rely on the copy editor to catch that stuff?

I suggest writers keep track of these details using spreadsheets.

Authors often create detailed “biographies” for their major characters. Go online and you can find templates for “learning” about your character. These serve a purpose, but not what I am talking about. I’m referring to keeping track of the little things, like color of hair, or a personality quirk that is (or should be) just hers. For that I have a spreadsheet I call “Fictional Creations.”

This file contains a separate worksheet for characters, companies and geographical locations I have created. (I also keep track of books and music referenced in my writing.) Major characters may have a separate worksheet with lots more information as part of the documentation I keep for each novel, but for minor characters the entry tells me anything distinctive I’ve written about the character’s appearance (physical or behavioral). Here are the columns I use for people:

Name (I include nicknames in parenthesis)
Quicky Description (Something to remind me who the person is)
Titles (A separate column for each novel, so I can easily collect my cast of characters for a given piece with a sort; titles for short stories)
Additional Information (Descriptions used)

For Companies I have columns for:

Company Name
Location/What they do (although for fictional companies, I try to make clear from the name what their business is)
Titles – again with separate columns for novels, and a listing for short stories

I started this with my first novel and have continued chugging along, but maybe there are better ways. I’m listening for ideas…

~ Jim

Monday, August 23, 2010

Classifying Your Novel

My first instinct, when people ask what my novel is about, is to say it’s unique. Em, yeah. Isn’t everyone’s book unique?

Categorizing one’s book is a hard decision, one that can determine if the book will be published. Among mysteries there are subcategories. Is the book contemporary or historical? Hard boiled, noir, police procedural or amateur sleuth? The list is almost endless.

Cross-genre books pose an even more interesting dilemma to authors. Books must be categorized by the author to figure out which agents to query. Some agents only handle romance or mystery or science fiction, etc. Then, the agent further categorizes the book to sell to a publishing house. Some publishers will only deal in certain genres or have created imprints for publishing specific genres. By the time your book goes to a publisher, they will have determined what to categorize your book for the market shelves, which is the ultimate categorization. Those books within a single category have an easier time making it onto the shelves, and yet the market seems to favor those books of cross-genre flavor.

I balk at categorization even though I know it is necessary. When I first started writing FIGHTING SPIRITS, the new working title of my book, I classified it as a paranormal romantic mystery. In a recent class I took, the instructor said that anything with ghosts or demons would be categorized in the horror section. Me, write a horror book? No way!

In the paranormal genre, the current bestsellers focus on vampires and shape-shifters. My book has neither, but I want to call it paranormal because it is more menacing supernatural than horror. There are also the mystery and romance elements distinguishing it further from horror. Although my book is darker than Carolyn Hart’s new ghost series, which is still classified as a mystery even if solved by a ghost, my book’s main character is a human amateur sleuth, so I think of it as primarily a mystery.

One of the criticisms that I received by members of my chapter-by-chapter novel critique group, The Mayhem Gang, is that I focused on humor rather than on horror, which was necessary for the hook. I admit that I need to increase the darkness, the fear aspect, but know where I’m going with this book—to the good and positive. Unfortunately, I’m so against writing a “horror” novel that I sabotaged my hook by not starting with darkness. All will be changed and revealed eventually, but I have to start with darkness to get to the light. So, yes, perhaps I must write a bit of horror. But since, during the course of the book, good prevails, I’m still hesitant to classify it as horror because it is only one aspect.

How do you categorize your books? What characteristics define each category? How is a book categorized when it combines and crosses lines among the various subgenres? Categorizing you book in the wrong genre may kill its chance for publication. Are you afraid of getting cut by an incorrect choice?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Battling Backstory, Part III

by Ramona DeFelice Long

Welcome to WWK’s final episode of our three part series on Battling Backstory. The series ends with a look at characters' private thoughts and feelings expressed through internal dialogue.

But first, let’s review. In Part I, we discussed why and how to inject backstory into a story’s second chapter through narrative. Our sample tried to let the reader learn about the relationship between the two characters without resorting to the all-purpose Info Dump.

In Part II, dialogue was the device used to articulate information, rather than narrate. To be or not to be a Talking Head was the illustrative point as Mark and Jane, and eventually Sarge, shared the story through speaking.

This week, let's use internal dialogue, to show how a character’s innermost thoughts adds to the story. Internal dialogue comes straight from a character’s head, but only the reader can hear it. As such, a few rules apply.

1. In internal dialogue, the character (in this case, Jane McCoy) always speaks the truth, as she knows it. A reliable character can certainly lie to or mislead other characters, but she will not lie to herself. In Parts I and II, everything Jane said about Mark was accurate, because it was presented as fact. But if Jane secretly thinks he’s a lousy cop and a rotten partner, she may say, “You’re a good cop, Mark,” out loud, but internally, she would add, Good enough until I can get a better one. A character speaking through internal dialogue does not lie to the reader. Why? Because internal dialogue addresses the Self. Jane can lie to Mark, to Sarge, to her brother, etc., but she would not lie to herself.

(Note: Jane is a reliable narrator. Everything, and everyone, in this story is/are as they appear. An unreliable narrator would tell the truth as they know or believe it, although their “truth” may be wrong because of denial, delusion or some other reason.)

2. Effective internal dialogue is responsive and reactive to the plot. Like people in real life, characters react to what’s happening around them. When the Sarge yells for Jane and Mark, she’s not going to start thinking about her upbringing in MyFavoriteTown. Like a normal person, she’ll wonder why Sarge is yelling, and she will guess or contemplate about what’s going on. In other words, internal dialogue stays on task. If the scene is about their handling of the body found at the river, her thoughts will focus on that and the private thoughts she has about it.

3. Because internal dialogue is private and true to the character, it can reveal motivations and insights that are not available through spoken dialogue. If the Sarge asked Jane, “Does Mark’s vanity ever worry you?” she might say, “No, sir. Mark’s got his peculiarities, but so do I. As long as we clear our cases, I’m good.” This is what she’d say out loud, while internally she may wonder, Is this a test? If Mark thinks I’m going down with him because he has to look good, forget it, Bud. Is this a fishing expedition because of those rumors about Mark’s clothes and that dispatcher?

What the reader gets from internal dialogue, in addition to backstory or factual information, is a closer glimpse into the character’s heart. Good internal dialogue is not filtered; it is immediate and honest. It takes the reader inside the character’s head for a private, intimate tour.

To illustrate, I’ve rewritten our Mark-Jane scene by giving us a private glimpse into what’s really going on inside Detective McCoy:

“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Det. Mark Hatfield said.

Jane McCoy stared at her partner over her coffee cup.

“Us?” she said. “I’m not the one who showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a dinner matinee.”

She set down the cup, remembering last week at Two-Bit’s bar, when she overheard a couple of beat cops wondering out loud how someone could afford designer suits on a detective’s salary. And now this.

Damn it, Mark, she thought, I always knew your vanity would get us in trouble one day.

Mark shrugged. “So I take pride in my appearance. You never complained about it. You complained about how I always drive, and I always choose the lunch spots and I always take the lead in interviews.”

“Like complaining would do any good,” Jane said. “I know you’d just pull your seniority card.”

Mark laughed, and didn’t deny it.

At least he’s honest about it, Jane thought. Not that he’s so honest to his wife, or that dispatcher.

Sarge’s door opened. “Hatfield! McCoy! Get in here.”

“Show time,” Mark said, straightening his tie.

Jane followed him into the office. Show time was right.

She knew other cops were curious about them. They were both from MyFavoriteTown, but Mark was a homeboy who knew half the low-lives in town, and her family had zero experience with police until she’d become one.

But they were good partners and had the case record to prove it. Mark was punctual, kept the car clean, wrote flawless reports, and even told a good joke. It’d be nice if he didn’t check himself out quite so often in the rear view, but he was decent to her little brother, he could run down a suspect decades younger, and he always answered a fellow cop’s call for back-up.

At Sarge’s door, he let her go first.

Ten years, she thought, and he’s never let me down.

She paused in the doorway. “Don’t worry, Mark,” she whispered. “I’ve got your back.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Endings Can Be Better than Expected

No torture of children or animals, that is a frequent rule magazine publishers state in their submission guidelines. I don’t want to peer into the minds of child molesters as they commit their crimes. I don’t want to learn a sympathetic understanding of parents who consistently neglect and beat their children, as I’ve seen more than enough of that in my work as an RN.

However, we have an Amber Alert in this country for a reason. I’d thought crimes against children were under-reported. When the clergy sex scandal broke, the number of such crimes was staggering. Runaway teens or even teens who are lost are in serious danger of being forced into prostitution and drug addiction.

Fiction doesn’t seek to educate. Its primary goal is to entertain. How can crimes against children be entertaining?

As well as being entertained, I want to know how characters react in different situations, including distasteful ones. I want to take the same trip authors take as they explore characters who’ve survived stress and shock. I want the characters and situations to tie into the society in which I live. I don’t believe novels that explore the subsequent lives of traumatized children are always cathartic outpourings of survivors of such trauma.

Amy McKinnon’s TETHERED, Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER, and Laura Lippman’s WHAT THE DEAD KNOW take the reader into the minds of adults who suffered as children. I can believe traumatized children don’t always repeat the abuse they suffered. Perhaps the suspicion that they might makes them hide their pain and the more fortunate shun them.

I wouldn’t necessarily pick up these books or books with a similar subject matter before my flight in economy class. There’s no shortage of books with lighter subject matter in the airport book store so I’m not forced to deal with difficult social issues.

It’s interesting that children and animals are grouped together. Both lack many legal rights and they don’t vote. Naturally, publishers can make whatever rules they wish about what they are willing to publish and I respect that. Not all readers are looking all the time for a constant diet of characters functioning in bubbles of security who never challenge what we thought we knew about the world and our neighbors.

What do you think about novels that cover difficult subject matter?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Interview with Avery Aames-Part 2

Avery Aames is the author of The Long Quiche Goodbye, the first in A Cheese Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. The Long Quiche Goodbye debuted July 6 and has already hit national bestseller mass market paperback lists -- #7 for Barnes and Noble and #13 for Bookscan.

Avery likes to read, cook, garden, and do amateur photography. You may visit Avery at http://www.averyaames.com/. She also blogs at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, a blog for foodies who love mysteries, as well as at Killer Characters, a blog overtaken by cozy authors’ characters.

You can purchase The Long Quiche Goodbye at Avery’s bookseller page: http://www.averyaames.com/book1_sellers.html.  And look for a sneak preview of Lost and Fondue, book two in the series, which may be found at the end of The Long Quiche Goodbye.

EBD: I grew up near Lancaster County, PA where the Amish also live, cheeses are made and dairy goods are abundant. One of the wonderful aspects of growing up in the area was the ability to tour food processing plants, fascinating places. Will you include cheese facts and processing descriptions in future books, such as in Joanna Carl’s award winning chocolate mystery series?

AA: I toured a few cheese makers in the Ohio area. As you say, the process of cheese making is delicious. I tried to incorporate a little of that when describing Jordan’s farm. I’ll include it in other books, as well. I do include cheese facts now. I also write a newsletter that shares a history of cheese in each volume. {These are available on my website.}

EBD: Have you tried all of the wines and cheeses you cite in the book? If so, have you gained weight since writing the series?

AA: I’ve tried many of the cheese and wines. I have to admit that some I describe after reading about them or talking to cheesemongers. But any recipe I offer, I have made and have tasted to my great delight! No, I have not gained weight during the series but that is because I believe in all things in moderation. A bite or two of cheese, a glass of wine. I also operate at a very fast pace, which drives my husband and my friends crazy. I’m also a celiac, meaning I have to eat gluten-free, so that keeps me from eating a number of things that could drive up my caloric intake. Mind you, I’m not a saint. I do indulge in lots of sweets. Like Charlotte, I love Hershey’s Kisses. I know, I should like Scharfenburg or some exotic candy, but I really like Kisses.

EBD: Do you enjoy watching the “Barefoot Contessa” more than Paula Deen or Rachael Ray?

AA: I love Barefoot Contessa! Aren’t her meals extraordinary?? I love lots of shows on Food Network. I especially like the competitions and Iron Chef. And I find RR fascinating for what she can put together from leftovers in the refrigerator.

EBD: How would you characterize the publishing process?

AA: Hard. Demanding. A debut book requires so much personal PR. It’s exhausting. But the writing is worth it. And hearing from fans after they’ve read the book, delightful. I’m making people smile. That’s a good thing.

EBD: How are you promoting your book?

AA: I’m doing book signings, an extensive blog tour (both are listed on my website), radio chats, Twitter, Facebook, letters to cheese shops, donations to libraries, going to conferences, having contests. Lots of things. As I said, exhausting and quite time-consuming, but it all seems to be paying off.

EBD: What is your favorite part in the entire process of getting a book on the shelf?

AA: The smile on my husband’s face. Seeing the artwork. Sharing successes with my family. Interchanges with my editor. Letters, notes, from fans. And yes, feeling like my writing is actually good enough that someone wants to pay me for it. {Granted, it was good before, and the journey was wonderful whether I was published or not, but there’s something about seeing a paycheck that gives just that much more corroboration.}

EBD: How much control does the writer have once the book is written and in the publisher’s hands?

AA: I was able to talk to my editor about the story, the editing. I was able to put in my two cents regarding the artwork and I’m thrilled with the book cover. I was able to obtain my own blurbs for the book, which really helped. They’re cute and clever. I was able to ask the publicist to send out review copies. The publisher chooses the pub date, the quantity, which stores the book will go to, etc. All my personal PR work has been fruitful. The publisher is very thankful, of course.

EBD: As well they should, since your series is bound to win awards. Pick up a copy of The Long Quiche Goodbye, it will capture your fancy and have you waiting for the next book. Thanks, Avery, for the interviews, and we wish you more success with the next book in the series.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Whatcha Working On?

For quite a while I have not been writing anything new. Early in the year I was putting the finishing touches on my contract bridge book submission. Then I began an edit/rewrite of a fiction WIP Bad Policy based on feedback from two full manuscript swaps and the completion of critiques from my twice-monthly online critique group. I had also taken on writing two blogs: this one and one regarding finance and money. All the while I was doing mental work developing the world of a futuristic novel I planned.

The Jungle Red Writers issued a challenge: before reading email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, hitting the web for research, put butt in chair and write at least one page of new material. Perfect for jump starting my new novel. That challenge started this past week.

At the beginning of the year I had set a goal of spending at least 1,000 hours in 2010 on writing. I have been meeting and exceeding that goal; but it was time to check how I was spending my time, so for the last two weeks I kept track of time in several categories. Here are the results for the 2,962 minutes (49 hours and 22 minutes):

39% Self-editing -- 1,150 minutes
18% New Writing (Either on the new futuristic novel I just started or on the next bridge book) -- 504 minutes
15% Misc. (Reading Blogs, writing related emails, Yahoo Groups, etc.) -- 486 minutes
12% Critiquing Others’ Work -- 360 minutes
6% Writing Two Cents before Inflation Blog -- 182 minutes
6% Craft Study -- 180 minutes
3% Writing Writers Who Kill Blog -- 102 minutes

Sometime next year I’ll need to add another category—marketing—to recognize time promoting my bridge book, but for now the time falls into the Misc. category. One could argue I should also keep track of time I spend reading, since that is also important craft study. I figure I read enough and I don’t need to measure it.

Some of Misc. could rightly be included in Craft Study, but honestly a lot of it is probably minimally effective time. (How does one measure the positive effect of Yahoo group communities? If I read two weeks of someone’s blog and get one excellent idea, is that a good return on my time, or should I ignore blogs and stick with craft books?)

For now, I’m going to withhold self-evaluation and continue recording my time until I have a month’s worth of data (which will end up including time when family comes to visit.)

I’m curious what you think of my percentages and, for the writers among you, how you spend your time.

~ Jim

Monday, August 16, 2010

Critique Groups-Part 2

I belong to two short story and one chapter-by-chapter novel critique groups, keeping me hopping at times. Among writing my own work, critiquing others’ work, blogging and querying markets, I have very little free time. Keep this in mind when joining a critique group. It is a commitment, one that has enormous benefits, but also responsibilities.

Of my two short story groups, one is much more active than the other. I joined these critique groups in January. Since that time, I now have two publishing credits to my name. The first, I announced recently when an ezine published my short story, “Daddy's Little Girl.” This week, I received notice that my short story, “Implicated by a Phrase” won a contest for inclusion in an anthology called A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas. Scheduled for publishing in time for the holiday gift giving season, this anthology will appeal to the middle-age women on your list. My track-record since joining critique groups proves that these groups are very worthwhile joining, if you take the comments of your critique partners seriously.

It’s a known fact and cliché that two heads are better than one. This is the basis of critique groups, a good thing for me. Personally, I don’t “see” my own work. I can look at the page, read a passage one hundred times and don’t see a typo, an incorrect tense, a character’s misspelled name, a homophone (for which I am famous, writing isle for aisle, quite confusing for the reader), etc. The list is endless. Critique partners are essential for me. Catching these gaffs is only one benefit. As I said last week, editing and critiquing are two very different talents. Luckily, my short story critique groups have astute members who perform both tasks.

Here are a few tips for those of you who have not participated in or are having trouble in a critique group.

Don’t refute a critique partners comments. If you don’t agree with a reviewer’s comments think twice. You may be right, but then, you may be wrong or the reviewer has hit upon a flaw other than those stated. For example, one of my shorts received comments that seemed to contradict. I was stymied and confused. I asked an outside reviewer, one not in the critique group, to go over the piece. She hit upon the problem, and my subsequent changes resolved all of my critique partners’ concerns. The addition of one more scene providing extra information negated some comments and took into account the others. Simple, unless you’re lost.

Remember, there is a reason for their negative comments other than your partners are mean and nasty. They see something that your readers will see and criticize. Getting negative comments privately hurts a lot less than a professional review raking your work over the coals in public. I should be so lucky.

All that being said, a word of caution: Personal relationships among critique partners can cause problems. I received advice once from a partner that just had wrong written in red all over it. I ignored the advice to include extraneous material that would have led to a totally immaterial tangent slowing down the action and eating into a narrow word count. At the time, it never occurred to me that someone would lead me astray purposely, but sabotaging a piece out of spite happens. Beware of jealousy, and be nice to your critique partners!

Thank your critique partners for their time and effort. Completing a critique takes a lot longer than merely reading. Most groups use Microsoft Word Review, track changes, when critiquing. Word’s 2007 version or later has the best review software and takes time to master. Often reviewers read a piece more than once, then go back to edit and post comments. This takes time. Even if you end up ignoring their comments, thank them for the time they devoted to your piece.

If you know your specific audience, let your critique partners know. In “Implicated by a Phrase,” I knew that my audience would be mainly middle-age women. A male in my critique group negatively commented on my inclusion of children in the piece. Knowing my audience, I kept those characters because children are a priority for mothers of any age. You are still the author, not only with the right to reject comments, but you maybe an authority on your subject, making you the best judge in certain situations.

Be prompt responding to others pieces. When a writer is in “mode” having immediate criticism is important. We all go through productive periods when we immerse ourselves in a piece. Keeping that momentum going to re-work, polish and finalize helps enormously. If you are submitting a piece with a deadline, do your partners the favor of telling them of your timing needs. Limiting the review to one or two aspects will enable their meeting your time deadline.

My novel by the chapter group, The Mayhem Gang, is slowly evolving. Next week, I’ll focus on that group and let you know some of the very basic problems I never anticipated.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Battling Backstory, Part II

by Ramona DeFelice Long

Last Friday here at WWK, I began a pretend story to illustrate different ways to address backstory in the first chapters of a novel. The first post focused on narrative; this week is dialogue; next week will be internal dialogue.

Part 2 - Backstory through dialogue.

Learning information through characters conversing is usually more interesting than reading it in a chunk of narrative. Why usually? Because sometimes writers make the mistake of having characters speak in chunks of narrative. When characters do this, they become Talking Heads.

Talking Heads are characters who are actually talking to the reader, sharing information that gives the story logic. But isn’t that what all dialogue is meant to do? Yes. The difference between talking characters and Talking Heads is that the Heads say things that people in real life would never say to one another.

Below are two examples of backstory given in dialogue. The first has a bad case of Talking Headitis. As a learning exercise, and to reinforce my love of office supplies, mark what you think sounds unnatural with a highlighter.

Here’s a hint: Does Mark need to inform Jane that they have been partners for 10 years? No. Jane knows this, so he is really informing the reader, but in reality, would he say this? No. That makes him a Talking Head. That should get a highlight. Now you try:

“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Det. Jane McCoy grumbled. “Both of us, even though you showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a dinner matinee. People wonder how you can afford those suits on a detective’s salary. I always knew that, one day, your vanity would get us in trouble.”

Det. Mark Hatfield stared at her over his coffee cup. “You always knew that? In the ten years we’ve been partners, you’ve never mentioned it before. You’ve mentioned how I always drive, and I always choose the lunch spots and I always take the lead in interviews.”

“That’s because you always mention your one year of seniority on me,” Jane said.

“And you always mention how you’re from the nice side of MyFavoriteTown, and I grew up on the shady part. I know everybody in town. That helps us clear cases,” Mark said. “ What else do people wonder about me?”

Jane leaned forward over the desk they shared. “For starters, you and that dispatcher over in the next precinct. And how, every time we get a female witness, you have to put your big comforting arms around her so she can cry in them.”

Mark set down his coffee cup. “What are you saying? Do my clothes and my one year of seniority and my attractiveness to women offend you so much you want a new partner?’

Jane leaned back. “Of course not, Mark. You know we are a good team. We clear our cases. You might overdress and make me eat hot dogs so you can visit your haberdashery on our lunch break, but I’ve seen you run down a much younger suspect because you keep in such good shape. You are punctual and your reports are always spot on. You tell good jokes and you keep the car neat. People gossip about your personal choices, but if I can put up with you, it’s not their business.”

The Sarge’s door opened. “McCoy! Hatfield! Get in here!”

“Show time,” Mark said. He straightened his tie. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. You’re a good cop, too, Jane. So is your little brother. That’s why I’m willing to put up a round at Two-Bits for him and his beat cop friends.”

“I appreciate that,” Jane said. “I just wish you’d let me drive once in a while, and didn’t check yourself out in the rear view mirror so often. Most of all, I wish I didn’t have to pretend in front of your wife that I don’t know anything about that dispatcher.”

Now, in example two, we have a third character. See how he interjects the information about their 10 years together. Is this more natural?

“Sarge is going to ream us out,” Detective Mark Hatfield said.

“Us?” His partner, Jane McCoy, slammed down her coffee cup. “I’m not the one who lost evidence because I showed up at a crime scene dressed like it was a Broadway play. I knew your vanity would get us into trouble one day.”

“When have I ever gotten you into trouble?” Mark said. “Name one time my so-called vanity kept me from answering a back-up call or be late or let a perp get away because I couldn’t run him down.”

“I never said you weren’t a good cop,” Jane said. “You are. You even tell a good joke. But it would be nice if you let me drive or choose lunch or lead an interview once.”

“That’s not vanity, that’s seniority.”

“One year,” Jane grumbled. “One lousy year you got on me.”

"Yeah, and don't you forget it."

The Sarge’s door opened. “McCoy! Hatfield! Get in here!”

Five seconds later, Sarge said, “I read your incident report, Hatfield. All squared away, per usual. Except for why you dropped that flashlight.”

Mark said, “Sir,” at the same time Jane said, “Sarge.”

The sergeant chuckled. “You know, I pegged you two for a lousy team. Miss Nice Side of MyFavoriteTown and the homeboy who knows every lowlife in town but dresses like a million bucks? I bet you drive her nuts checking yourself out in the rear view. But you clear your cases, your car is spotless and I even hear you stand rounds at Two-Bits.” He looked at them. “How long you been partners?”

“Ten years,” Mark said.

Sarge said, “Well, I guess one bit of questionable judgment in ten years is not too terrible, Hatfield. One that’s on paper anyway.” He waved at the door. “Get out of here.”

Back at the desk, Mark said. “What the hell did he mean, questionable judgment?”

“I don’t know, maybe he’s heard stuff.”

“Stuff? What stuff?”

“Stuff like how can you afford those suits on your salary? How come you spend so much time at the next precinct with that dispatcher?”

“Who’s saying that?" Mark demanded. "Your little brother?”

“No. Everybody except my little brother.”

A third party can do the job in dialogue of asking questions that the primary characters would not ask, because they know the answers. Try it.

Next week, we get away from Talking Heads and get into heads with Backstory through Internal Dialogue.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I’m using Ramona’s blogs on “Battling Backstory” and “The First Chapter Coloring Project” to revise my first three chapters. Advice on writing could fill a city library so no writer can legitimately claim lack of help led to bad writing. As a writer, I think writers hear what they need at the time they need it. I was wondering what to do with those first three chapters that I’ve read a hundred times and remembered Ramona’s blogs.

After removing backstory from the first chapter, I focused on showing character traits and leaving interesting questions to be answered later. The process felt like removing clutter from a closet so everything inside was visible as soon as the door opened.

I’ve never used the omniscient voice that sounds very nineteenth century to me. Past experiences with others do motivate our relationships in the present. A character’s opinion of another character lets the reader know about both characters. In my writing, I often omit the thinking that precedes a character’s action. Critique partners have commented on this but not all of my critics want the omission rectified. In my heart, I believe we are what we do. Sure, we often need to think before we act but, if we keep thinking about life and not doing anything, are we living in any way except the biological?

I think the often subconscious idea that actions speak louder than words gives us a sensitive antenna for hypocrisy. If a person keeps telling us how much she loves her family and friends, I wonder if she has many unresolved relationship issues and could be manipulating family and friends for her own gratification. If a person keeps telling me what a great sex life she has, I wonder if she’s covering up fears and dislike for her partner or partners.

Acting on Ramona’s advice, I’ve removed backstory from the first chapter. Now, I’m working on how my characters think about their histories, those snippets and flashes in the mind that color what characters do. A character steps up on a stage to present her point of view and remembers the constant teasing she received as a teenager so her heart rate triples and she gives a lousy performance.

Revision makes a writer expand or deepen characters. Thank you to Ramona and all the authors who’ve written books about writing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

An Interview with Author Avery Aames

Avery Aames is the author of The Long Quiche Goodbye, the first in A Cheese Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. The Long Quiche Goodbye debuted July 6 and has already hit national bestseller mass market paperback lists -- #7 for Barnes and Noble and #13 for Bookscan.

Avery likes to read, cook, garden, and do amateur photography. You may visit Avery at http://averyaames.com/. She also blogs at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, a blog for foodies who love mysteries, as well as at Killer Characters, a blog overtaken by cozy authors’ characters.

You can purchase The Long Quiche Goodbye at Avery’s bookseller page: http://www.averyaames.com/book1_sellers.html.  And look for a sneak preview of Lost and Fondue, book two in the series, which may be found at the end of The Long Quiche Goodbye.

EBD: Your book, The Long Quiche Goodbye, is a cozy mystery. Are there elements of the cozy genre that are fixed, “must haves,” in the publishing industry?

AA: Cozies come in a lot of shapes and colors lately. Some are slow-paced, others are fast-paced. Some are located in small towns while others are in major cities. I think the one constant is that usually the killer knows the victim, and justice is always served. In my cozies, I want my protagonist to have a personal reason to get involved.

EBD: The “white space” of dialogue seems to be favored on the best seller lists. You balance descriptive narrative so well against dialogue. Is there a secret to that balance, and are the requirements of narrative and dialogue different in cozies, as opposed to other genres?

AA: In thrillers, pace is very important. They have shorter sentences, less description. In a cozy, an author is defining an entire setting, a town, a community of people. But the cozy can’t be all about description. As in a thriller, it still must be driven by character and story. The difference between a thriller and cozy (according to Lee Child, so my friend Jamie Freveletti says) is that in a thriller, you have Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall ready to fall off. The protagonist has to keep HD from falling. In a cozy, Humpty has already hit the ground and gone splat. The protagonist has to figure out who would want HD dead and why.

EBD: The Cheese Shop and Providence, Ohio are described so vividly I “saw” it in my mind’s eye. Were the shop and the town based on real models?

AA: No. The shop is a compilation of a lot of shops I visited. And Providence…it, too, is a compilation, of the little town I grew up in, in California, as well as towns I saw while I roamed Ohio doing research. The rolling hills of Holmes County are real. The farms in the area are widespread. I drank in the scenery and tried to put that on the page.

EBD: The name Providence is so similar to Provence I wondered if it was deliberate because it surely induced associations in my mind, and the redecorated archways and colors of the shop were indicative of that area of the world. Was that the reason you chose the name of the town?

AA: Actually, the publisher wanted the town of Providence. I don’t believe Providence was chosen because of Provence. However, isn’t it lovely? It suggests hope and kindness and fate. When I checked the name online, I discovered that there was a Providence, Ohio. It turned into a ghost town. --No, there are no paranormal plans for this series. :}

EBD: The main character, Charlotte Bessette, is a mixture of American and old world sensibilities since she was raised by her French born grandparents. Do you think our way of life here in the States has lost a connection to nature, to our senses, and to each other?

AA: I think people are working very hard to bring back their ties to the past, to nature. Community is something I strive for in the series, because I do feel that ties to our family and towns are important. “Family first” is one of my favorite sayings. [It ranks right up there with “Say Cheese!”] I have a very extended family including my natural son, my stepchildren and my nephew. All of their families are growing as well. We can all help and love and support. I try to reflect that in Charlotte’s world. She care about her grandparents, her cousin, his nieces, her friends (who are like sisters), and her friends’ families.

EBD: Do you have French heritage and speak the language? Are your own grandparents role models for Charlotte’s grandparents?

AA: I am not French. I don’t speak the language, though I’m trying to learn. I did play a Frenchwoman on stage and sang in French. Writing about a cheese shop demanded the French heritage. So much of cheese history is based in France, though there are cheeses now from around the world, across America. Because this is a work-for-hire series (meaning the publisher came up with the initial idea and hired me to write it), I was give not only the character of Charlotte, but the basic characters of Charlotte’s grandparents. However, they took a life of their own when I started to write. They are full-fledged “real” characters in my mind. I adore them.

EBD: I always enjoy animals and pets in books, like Charlotte’s cat Rags. Do you have a cat of your own?

AA: I had cats growing up. Inky was my first. I now have a dog, a beautiful mutt I found at the shelter. Max. My hairdresser and I talked about our pets and she had a Ragdoll cat. I was enthralled and learned all I could about her cat, then added Rags to the story. A pet humanizes a protagonist. A cat demands attention in the most unique ways.

EBD: Unlike other cozies, the main character’s history doesn’t affect the plot of the book. In fact, only a few references reveal her personal backstory. Will her history come into play in future books?

AA: I like to weave a little backstory into each book. Her history will come into play in future books. Wait and see.

EBD: You write Charlotte’s twin nieces with great authenticity. Will they play a greater role in future books?

AA: Thank you. I adore the nieces. They play a constant role in the books. They are like her children without being hers. She takes care of them, cooks for them, worries about them like a mother. They play a unique role in every book.

EBD: Although many cheeses in the shop are imported, you’ve emphasized buying locally made cheeses. Is this part of the movement back to locally grown and eaten foods, or are some cheeses actually better without transport time and handling?

AA: I think that so many people are trying to buy locally and support America’s own productivity. Though Charlotte sells and serves cheeses from around the world, I like that Charlotte is actively trying to draw from her local farms. Tourists appreciate that and Providence is a haven for tourists.

EBD: Before asking Ms. Aames questions, I read The Long Quiche Goodbye and can recommend it for those last few vacation reading days. Curl up with this cozy, drink a glass of wine and try a new cheese, but use a plastic flute if you read it on the beach.

Catch the second half of this interview next week, August 18th.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Words and Phrases That Make My Teeth Ache

Each of us overuses certain words in our speech or writing. We have traits we learned as a tyke or adopted later in life that help define who we are. They are as much a part of us as our hair style. In other words, we can change these word patterns if we choose, but it takes effort.

When I listen to people converse, I react to incorrect usage such as “Me and him went to the mall and…” the same way other people respond to chalk squeaks: it hurts so much I cringe. Of course it seems like only yesterday that I remember my grandparents yelling at the TV, “Winston tastes good AS a cigarette should.”

Language changes, but we tend to stick with those verbal mannerisms we learned growing up. To the careful listener these verbal tics come through regardless of later veneers. I don’t mean to say we don’t add new flourishes or that our vocabulary is frozen. (Although I’d be willing to bet it doesn’t grow much after schooling stops.)

I once sat on a barstool next to an expert in speech patterns. After talking with me for a while, he announced I had grown up in Upstate New York, lived a short time in the northern South (Virginia or North Carolina, say) and currently lived in the northeast New Jersey. Good thing I didn’t bet him. I grew up in the Rochester, NY area, spent second and third grades in Blacksburg, Virginia and was then living in Bergen County, New Jersey—it’s most northeastern county.

When I go back to Rochester, they talk with an accent highlighted by nasal a’s. My father has a tape of me drawling the Cub Scout pledge in third grade. In Bergen County, they do funny things with their r’s. I don’t know how this guy could be so accurate because I don’t sound like any of those places—but I guess to a trained ear, I do.

What is the value of listening for these telltale words, phrases or accents? Skillful writers drop them as verbal clues to characterization. I love it when an author grounds me with these little details.

Laura Lippman sets her novels in Baltimore (which native speakers pronounce as though there were no second syllable ) and has her characters say things like, “Joe was police before he passed the bar exam.” Not “Joe worked for the police,” or “Joe was a policeman.” In that region, Joe was police.

If I wanted to show a stuffy, erudite pundit, I’d have him sound like the late William F. Buckley, Jr. (although I’d need a thesaurus to do it). Low education: small vocabulary and improper grammar (no thesaurus necessary, but my teeth may ache). In one of my novels I have a minor character who never swears or uses contractions. No sh—I mean, no kidding.

How about you? Any examples from books you’ve read recently or works you’ve written?

~ Jim

Monday, August 9, 2010

Critique Groups

I had a boss once who had a compulsion to edit. Even when nothing was wrong, she edited to change my writing to her style. Maybe she wanted me as her clone, but perhaps I should also add that she never had children. A spurious correlation? No, I think her words were her babies. Up until then, I’d never wished pregnancy on another woman. She was a good writer, but never recognized that she wasn’t actually improving my writing, just making it in her own image.

She was the boss, so I never defended what I had written. But when I started writing fiction, I developed an ego about my writing. Having an ego and being egotistical are two very different things. Writers need to have egos, if not, you’d have nothing else. There is so much rejection, having an ego is like wearing a safety helmet before dirt biking. It’s just crazy not to have one.

Soon after I finished my first novel, I realized critiques by friends weren’t worth much. Terrible to say, but too much personal baggage gets in the way for friends to effectively critique. Since I often write about child abuse, the first thing they wanted to know was if I was an abused child, and looked at me dubiously when I answered negatively. I took their comments as a complement to my writing since I must have portrayed abuse with realism. I also write about characters seeing demons, crouching in closets to avoid gunfire or freeing kidnapped children, all of which I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing. Writing fiction calls up our muse or imagination, which is invisible to our friends so they assume we don’t have such fanciful dimensions. Only other murder mystery authors understand.

Friends don’t have a professional viewpoint that will home in on a manuscript’s problems. Unless your friends happen to be in the fiction business, most people do not have the skills to critique or edit.

Critiquing is about concept, structure, impact, characters and plotting. Editing is not only making sure that what you have written is grammatically correct, which doesn’t include dialogue or personalized narrative, which may be purposefully incorrect, but also that your use of language is effective. Less is often more. An astute editor also provides advice on the elements of the manuscript much like critiques. Critiquing and editing are two very different sets of skills. More often than not, an editor can do both well due to the volume of fiction they edit. They know what others are writing and who is getting published, in short what will fly. Of course, editors aren’t cheap, so new authors find critique groups, hoping that some in the group have more experience than they do.

My first critique group was a disaster. We sent each other our pieces via email, critiqued and minimally edited, and then met in a restaurant once a month to discuss the critiques. Did it happen like that? No. More often than not, people talked of other things, ate, socialized and very little was actually accomplished by getting together. We could have forgone the socializing and accomplished more on-line. When people meet, other factors come into play than the actual writing.

I joined an on-line short story critique group that works well. These writers are published, know the market, and have the experience to provide worthwhile comments. Problem? Out of a group of twelve, only four to six members respond to a piece submitted for a critique. Granted, any response from these experienced members is valuable and not everyone can respond every time. But then, that’s why a group, rather than a few individuals getting together is better. A large enough group provides that some of the members will respond to all pieces. Like any voluntary group though, the same people tend to respond. Too much dependence can develop among members of too small of a group, and dependence on a few people narrows the prospective through which a piece critiqued. The more critiques you receive the better.

My third novel, Sparkle Days, (I haven’t decided among the twelve other titles I’ve drafted) is ready for its first critique. I joined a slower chapter-by-chapter group since my manuscript is a rough first draft. Our start wasn’t smooth because our novels were in too varied stages. Two members dropped out, one because her novel was at the polishing stage. The other thought her draft too rough. Now that our membership has stabilized, we begin the critique stage. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I am hoping that my boss’s ghost doesn’t possess one or all of us. Maybe I should ask them about their children.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Battling Backstory, Part I

by Ramona DeFelice Long

We’ve been discussing backstory here at WWK, how to define it and decide its best place in the story. Despite its bad rap as a momentum killer, backstory delivers history to the events, humanity to the characters and sometimes is the spark that sets the plot in motion.

Often, the backstory itself is not the problem; it’s the delivery. To illustrate ways to give the reader backstory, I offer you a Show, Not Tell.

Let’s start with a pretend Chapter One :

A young man runs along a river bank at night. He’s carrying a flashlight. He is frantic, frightened, exhausted. He repeatedly wipes blood from his eyes. At the water’s edge, he slips on a rock, hits his head, falls into the river. The flashlight bounces into the grasses nearby.

The next morning, two kayakers spot the body and call 911. Emergency personnel arrive, including two detectives. The female detective wears jeans and hiking books. Her male partner wears a suit. While she speaks to the kayakers, he inspects the body. He spots the flashlight and picks it up, but his dress shoes slide on the slippery rocks. He tumbles into the river. Shocked laughter of everyone (except the dead body and the upset kayakers) echoes along the riverbank as the detective sputters up from the water. He looks around, but the flashlight is gone.

There’s no backstory here. It’s all action. It also briefly introduces the story’s stars: the two detectives. The detectives share a lot of mileage, and their relationship impacts the plot.

Let's assume the reader should know that from the start and begin Chapter Two with the detectives’ history with one another. There are three ways to deliver their backstory: in narrative; in dialogue between characters; and through internal dialogue.

This week, we’ll examine two ways to deliver backstory in narrative. That means that the backstory is woven into the action, hopefully in a smooth and compelling way and not in that “let’s get this out of the way” fashion known as the Info Dump.

Example one is told using third person omniscient point of view, the nameless, faceless narrator who knows all, sees all and tells all—eventually.

Chapter Two

Mark Hatfield and Jane McCoy had been partners for ten years on the MyFavoriteTown police force, but Mark had one more year of seniority, and he used it: Mark drove, Mark chose the lunch spot, Mark led in interviews.

It wasn’t like Mark was a bad partner, or a bad cop. Just the opposite. He grew up in the unsavory side of MyFavoriteTown and knew by name more people than most people could count. If things got hot on a call, Mark wasn’t afraid to go physical, and he always responded to calls for backup. He was a dapper dresser and a neat freak, but his reports were solid and he guy’d—and gal’d—around with junior officers without acting like a know-it-all or making anybody feel small.

And if he gal’d around with a married dispatcher from the next precinct, and if some people wondered how he afforded fancy duds on a detective’s salary, they kept that to themselves. Mostly.

Jane was just as solid a cop. She was from MyFavoriteTown, too, but the nice part, and she seemed to tolerate Mark’s finicky habits and questionable views on fidelity. Mark and Jane did their jobs and cleared their cases. And if sometimes Jane swore that Mark’s quirks would do them in, everyone took that as a joke. Because, as every cop knows, partners need to be able to rag on each other.

But after Mark Hatfield slipped into the river and lost a vital piece of evidence on an open case, it wasn’t a joke to their sergeant.

This is about a page and a half of background before the story picks up where chapter one left off. In the next line, we’re in Sergeant’s office as he reams out Mark for dropping the flashlight.

Now let’s try example two. First person POV, with the story told by Jane.

Chapter Two

I always knew that Mark Hatfield’s vanity would land us in hot water. How many times did I cool my heels outside his stupid haberdashery while eating a hot dog for lunch, instead of sitting down at MyFavoriteTown Diner? Or dug through dumpsters while he interviewed witnesses? Or peeled crying “witnesses” out of his sympathetic arms?

That one year of seniority Mark had on me--it was the bane of my life.

Not that Mark was a bad partner. Hell, no. He was as vain about keeping fit as looking fit. If a suspect turned rabbit, Mark ran him down, no problem. He could turn on the charm and knew when to turn the screws. He told good jokes, kept a neat car, wrote meticulous reports and believed in being punctual. He treated the beat cops with respect, including my little brother. Maybe especially my little brother.

But it would have been nice if he’d let me drive once in a while, if he didn’t glance at himself in the rear view mirror quite so often and, most of all, if he’d drop the beat wife I pretended not to know about in front of his real wife.

I kept my mouth shut about that, just like I kept my mouth shut as Sarge yelled into Mark’s face, in front of everybody….

This version gives us the same basic information, in a slighter shorter fashion. We know that Jane will be telling us the story, at least in this chapter, and we end up in the same place—Mark getting reamed for dropping the flashlight.

In both of these examples, nothing new happened until we got to Sarge. But is this information vital? Do you think what you learned here is important to the story? Do you think it’s an interesting way to start their story?

Next week, we’ll look at dialogue between characters, and how to have them talk about their history without slipping into Talking Head syndrome.

Poor Mark Hatfield. He’s going to have a rough couple of weeks at Writers Who Kill.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Reality Check

I’m writing a tangential follow-up to Elaine’s comments on authenticity. Authenticity vs. appearance was not something that occupied my twenty year-old mind. I’d heard people shout at the top of their lungs, “I’ve got to be me.” I’d heard of people traveling vast distances to find themselves. My thoughts were, “Who else am I going to be?” Or, if I take a trip to California, it will be to enjoy a vacation not to search for myself as though that was a package left at a bus terminal.

A course in twentieth century American Literature turned my attention to the choice between authenticity and appearance. The book that most exemplified this issue, according to the teacher, was Saul Bellow’s THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH. I never finished this book because I was tired of reading picaresque novels about males finding their identities. The way I saw it, white males in academia had more than a head start over any female. White men should acknowledge their advantage instead of figuratively gazing at their misunderstood navels.

Another professor, much respected, said that a noted female actress of the time was seeking to have more than her body admired. How ridiculous is that, his tone implied. I’m sure he wasn’t just talking about the famous actress but about all the small-brained female students and teachers who wanted him to see their achievements as well as their curves.

Back to authenticity and Saul Bellow. Despite not finishing THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, I received an A for the course. Was my grade authentic or for appearance only?

The American Literature professor had to be in his sixties and had spent his adult life teaching. I believe he was examining his roles as teacher, parent, and a Jew in America. During his lectures, I caught glimpses of the professor struggling in his role as a parent, especially towards his daughters. He questioned the value of what he taught. Was he helping the young people who took his courses? What did it mean to be Jewish in America where Christmas and Easter are as important as July 4th?

A quarter of the tenured staff in the English Department was Jewish, way more than the percentage of Jewish-Americans in the population. So why were his religious and ethnic origins an issue for him? Because he felt obliged to give the appearance first and foremost of being a New England Yankee? When I attended college, no Black of Hispanic teachers taught American Literature in the department.

I learned more about the difference between authenticity and appearance from the teacher than from the assigned books. He was genuinely trying to come to terms with his roles in society. He seemed to care deeply about whether he examined issues truthfully or in accordance with the norms of Academia.

So, maybe my A for the course wasn’t a farce. I continue to think about the differences between authenticity and appearance. As an immigrant from the UK many years ago, I could’ve embraced the stereotype my neighbors and co-workers wanted to give me. Something made me resist sinking into the ready-made role. It didn’t correspond with what I knew of my childhood in the UK.

I’ve seen others battle with authenticity. Sometimes achieving authenticity seems not such a good thing. I want to say, “So you’re authentic self is a flake. Maybe you should’ve stayed with appearances.” Or, “So you’re authentic self is a macho, all feminists are lesbians mindset. You’re hitting on the wrong broad.”

Appearances create a façade displaying wealth, perfect democracy and justice, images of people too content to wrestle with the issues of authentic vs. appearances. Once a person steps through the façade, that person has to sort through confusion to find out who he/she is.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

KD Easley Interview Part 2

Last week in “Welcome Wednesdays,” we featured mystery author KD Easley.( KD Easley Interveiw Part 1) Where the Dreams End, her first novel, was released last year along with her short story anthology, Nine Kinds of Trouble. In June of this year, Ms. Easley’s second novel, Murder at Timber Bridge, was released. Ms. Easley can be found wearing a dashing hard hat and building scaffold in various nuclear power plants around the United States. Visit Ms. Easley at her website, KD Writes, or drop by KD's Blog and leave her a message.

EBD: Murder at Timber Bridge, your novel released in June 2010, features three characters that you presented in the short story, “Nothing Much Has Changed.” Do your characters often originate in short stories and then develop fully into novel characters?

KDE: I actually wrote “Nothing Much has Changed,” to post on my website and help build interest for Murder at Timber Bridge. At the time, I had an offer from a publisher and thought publication would be imminent. It didn’t work out and over successive re-workings of the website, I removed all off my short stories and decided to put them together in a collection to help promote my books. So far it’s worked the other way. Readers buy the novels and then come back for the shorts, but in the end, it’s all good in whichever way they purchase them.

EBD: Is Murder at Timber Bridge a traditional mystery?

KDE: Murder at Timber Bridge is a traditional mystery in that it features an amateur sleuth. There the similarity ends. It’s not sweet. I think it’s on the high side of PG13. There is some violence and some language, but it is funny. If you don’t laugh out loud at least once, I won’t feel like I’ve done a very good job.

EBD: I had a good friend, Dinty, who was a chocolate Lab. What do you have against black Labs?

KDE: I actually love Labs. They are big, sweet, slobbery, easy to train, and beautiful. What’s not to love about them? They’re like big teddy bears. But on a visit to Oklahoma, my mom took her little Jack Russell Terrier with her. The neighbors that lived behind my grandmother had a black Lab that was a couple of kibbles short. Every morning this dog would lay down to have a nap next to the fence, and every morning Max would head out to inspect his territory for the day and one of the things he marked was the dog sleeping against the fence. It cracked us up every morning and the Lab never found a different spot to take his morning siesta. So in this instance, art does imitate life.

EBD: You had me going on this one, lots of red herrings. I really thought that Lex was the killer, but he is someone isn’t he?

KDE: Lex is a very complicated individual and we’ll learn a lot more about him in the next book. Believe it or not, when I invented Lex, he was supposed to be the bad guy. But he just didn’t want to be. He kept doing nice things and messing up my plans and truth to tell, he is my favorite hottie in the book. He’s the one I’d like to go home with.

EBD: Your biggest red herring was quite believable. I’ve often wondered if some cops want to get behind a badge for instant authority. Do you think that’s a problem in our police force?

KDE: That’s a really tough question. I think that a police officer has to be comfortable with confrontation. If they’re not, they won’t last long, and might not even make it through the police academy. So, there’s a personality type that gravitates to police work, and I think the personality type that gravitates toward criminal activity often have some of the same traits.
So to answer one of your questions, absolutely, some people become police officers for the authority the badge gives them, but I think the majority of them just want to help people. Police officers, firefighters, EMT’s, do their extremely difficult jobs for relatively low pay and I don’t think they do it for the power trip. I think they do it because someone has to right the wrongs. And I for one am just tickled to death that they’re around to take care of me. Even when I get stopped for speeding.

EBD: The last time I interviewed you, I asked how you wrote men so well. This time, in Murder at Timber Bridge, your main character is Randi Black, a woman. But she’s not a typical woman. Were you, like her, brought up in a house full of males?

KDE: I wasn’t brought up in a house full of guys. I’m an only child, and I spent most of my time with adults and those adults spent most of their time at the racetrack or in the racecar shop. I cut my teeth on a set of mechanics tools, and I was lucky enough to have parents that didn’t try too hard to dissuade me from whatever I wanted to try. So I grew up with the opportunity to learn to cook and work on my car; to fix the lawnmower and learn to sew. The best wedding gift I received was from my mom. It was a toolbox that she put together for me to keep in the house so I could take care of the little things that break or that I wanted to change without having to wait for hubby to do it, which is a good thing, cause they might not have gotten done at all otherwise.

EBD: Are you a twin? If not, why did you decide to make Randi a twin? And do you think most twins are close?

KDE: I am not a twin, but one of my fondest wishes was to be a twin. When I got old enough to realize that wasn’t going to happen, I decided I would just have twin boys when I got married. There are tons of twins on both sides of my family and the generation was right, so I was hoping, but it didn’t work out that way. My son married a twin, so maybe I’ll get twin grandbabies instead.

EBD: Randi and her mom don’t get along, but then her mom and grandmother don’t get along well either. Is that typical?

KDE: Randi’s mom is very traditional. Randi and Granny Bert, which is actually her father’s mom, are a bit untraditional. Randi by upbringing, because she grew up with a ton of men and boys in her life, and Granny Bert because she’s lived long enough to know some things are important and the rest of them just don’t made a bit of difference in the long run. As for me and my mom, we got along very well, and she actually asked me once who Randi’s mom was patterned after. I told her it was her mom.
My grandmother was not traditional in a lot of ways, but she had a way of making you feel unworthy even when you thought you had done something worthwhile or well. That’s kind of what I tried to do with Randi’s mom. She does love Randi, but she’s so much different than Alice feels a woman should be that they have no common ground and Alice ends up making Randi feel a bit small. Granny Bert goes a long way to making this hurt a little easier to live with.

EBD: Randi and AJ have an interesting back story. Will we find out more about their relationship? Do any secrets come to light?

KDE: Randi and AJ do have a lot of baggage both individually and together. As the series moves forward, we are going to learn more about Randi, about AJ and there might even be a secret or two revealed one of these days.

EBD: Will we ever find out how Bill gets on the roof?

KDE: Ah, Bill the cat. I won’t say we won’t ever find out how Bill the cat gets on the roof, but I don’t have any plans at this time to give away his secret. Bill is a pretty important guy though. He’s not going anywhere.

EBD: Small town life plays a detrimental role in this book, which is typical at least in my experience. Does it in your real life?

KDE: I’ve lived in a small town most of my life, with short stints in middle size cities, and shorter stints in large ones. A neighborhood in the city, we’re talking subdivision or suburb not inner city here, is very much like a small town. You know all of your neighbors. The kids run wild from house to house and every mom is everyone’s mom and if one tells you to shape up, you’d better do it or they will make you go home.
The difference in living in an actual small town instead of a small community inside a city is you never get away from it. You can’t go to the other side of town for a date, or there’s no reason to ‘cause you’re going to see the same people there and at least one of them probably knows your parents. But I kind of like it. There’s something to be said for walking into the diner for breakfast and having five or six people yell hello or ask how your dad is. It makes you feel connected. I don’t think I would change it for the world.

EBD: So, which sequel will be next? Brocs, the main character of your first book, Where the Dreams End, or Randi in Murder at Timber Bridge?

KDE: That’s easy. Murder at the Jolly Roger, sequel to Murder at Timber Bridge, will be out no later than June of next year. Possibly sooner. It’s in final edit now, and the cover art is done and fantastic, so basically everyone’s just waiting on me. I’ve actually just started the next Brocs Harley book. It’s so new I don’t even know who the bad guy is or what he wants yet, so I don’t think Brocs will be ready before Randi’s next appearance.