Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Career Risk and Self-Publishing

Recently I’ve become aware of more and more authors self-publishing a portion of their oeuvre. Before I comment on this trend and then duck, I need to define self-publishing. For the purposes of this discussion I mean any work where the author maintains most or all of the financial risk. If the author has to pay for post-acceptance editing, the layout, publication costs, cover art, etc. and a contractual advance does not cover those costs, then from my perspective the work is self-published.

The clearest examples are at the ends of the spectrum. If the author has a traditional contract with a large publishing house, is paid an advance and additional royalties after the advance has paid out, this is not self-publishing. The publishing company is investing a bunch of money in the project and once the author turns in an acceptable manuscript, the author is not required to pay for anything further.

Similarly, if the author pays for all the publication costs and receives all of the revenue from the sales, this is clearly self-publishing.

A contract with an independent publisher who does not pay an advance, but charges nothing for taking the book from manuscript to publication and who pays royalties on sold copies, is not self-publishing because again the author is not financially on the hook. Conversely, I would generally consider as self-published the scheme I recently read about in which the author has to buy upfront a certain number of books (like 100) in order for the publisher to provide “free” services. The publisher is making sufficient profit on the 100 books to cover their costs.

With e-publishing, the total costs of production are smaller than hard-copy publishing because there are no physical publication costs. Regardless, my criteria remain the same: who is on the hook for the costs of converting the manuscript into appropriate electronic formats? Who pays for the cover art? If the answers to these are the publisher, then it’s not self-published; if the author has an open checkbook: self-published.

In today’s market, authors will often be responsible for some marketing costs (bookmarks, business cards, etc.). No matter. If the publisher is laying out a bunch of money before getting any back, they are taking risk and for today’s discussion it is not self-publishing.

Okay, with that definition in mind, what are the risks to self-publication?

Financial risk: The more up-front cost the author pays, the more the publication needs to sell to break even, so self-publishing ups the ante. Of course, the flip side is that if people can’t buy your work, you don’t get paid anything for your time and effort in writing it.

Career risk: This is the two-edged sword. We need to split how we consider the issue into two groups: those with traditional publication histories and those without.

With a traditional publication history: often self-publication is the only way to keep abandoned titles available and many authors have found this an excellent source of revenue. Some (think Joe Konrath as a positive example) have also self-published past novels that did not sell to publishers, old stories and whatever else they think fans might be interested in.

Without a publication history: The proponents of self-publishing maintain that getting your work out in front of the public and building an audience is a good thing. Even better, once people start buying your stuff, you’ll have an enhanced chance of getting an agent and/or traditional publishing contract for your next work.

There are examples of people who self-published something no agent would touch, it turned into a viral success and New York bought the rights for beaucoup bucks...and then there is everyone else.

Skeptics ask, “What happens if despite your best marketing efforts you don’t get much of a sale? Does that make it less likely an agent or traditional publisher will be interested in you?” I’m not an agent, so I don’t really know.

I do know how I choose books to read, however. With an established author (the Joe Konrath approach), if I like their current stuff, read something from the backlist and don’t like it, it’s not a problem: I won’t buy the old stuff, but will still get the new. If I’ve really liked an author, they get one free less-than-stellar work before I give them up.

A new-to-me author has only one chance to impress me. Fail on the first book I read and I’ll never read the second or third. If a self-published author gains my attention and I read their book, they are taking their one chance with me. If it’s only okay, they’ll never get me to read the next novel, which may be great. I know it’s unfair, but my reading life is too short for second chances. I suspect I’m not alone with this triage method of what to read next.

My writing is still improving (and my fiction has not yet found a home with a traditional publisher), so unless I think something from the past represents me well, I’m hesitant to reincarnate it by self-publishing or even putting it on my website.

That said, in a couple of weeks as part of Writers Who Kills holiday story giveaway that started yesterday with the first part of EB’s story, I do plan to share one of my stories that was published in an anthology several years ago. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I have my fingers crossed on this one.

~ Jim

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Christmas Present

Over the next four Mondays, I’m posting a Christmas short story I wrote in the spirit of the season. I hope you enjoy it. E. B. Davis

The Christmas Present

Unlike most men, I knew what to get my wife, Janet, for Christmas: a new husband. The gift wouldn’t have made her a bigamist since I died two years ago. Janet deserved a great life and a reliable companion to share her years. None of my shopping has resulted in a gift to wrap, though that may have been due to my mixed feelings.

Like most men, I’ve wanted to protect Janet and our seventeen-year-old daughter, Ashley. The guy I had in mind would have to be physically fit, trustworthy and true, a St. Bernard dog of men. Protecting those you love when you no longer filled the physical realm hasn’t been easy. But I’ve learned to manipulate some inanimate objects.

Janet thought she could protect Ashley and herself. Because of her independent nature, she’s deluded herself, like most of mankind, mistaking independence for power. What a crock! Mankind’s power dripped like candle wax compared to the power of Heaven’s Niagara Falls. Janet sinned by conceit, but she wasn’t alone.

My sin? Gluttony. I haven’t blamed Janet, even if she served a pot roast with gravy that my fork couldn’t stop shoveling, because unlike me, Janet still fit into the same size eight as when we married. When my pants hit size forty-eight, my out-of-control weight problem had to be stopped, so I acted responsibly and went to the gym, where I dropped dead from a heart attack. They’ve assured me here, that I would have died from my heart problems before too long anyway. The gym hastened my departure.

I sensed Janet’s awareness of my spirit. Maybe she couldn’t hear me, but we were married for so long, she sort of read my mind and felt my presence. There were times over the last two years when I reached out to her, consoling her in a hug, felt her shiver at my touch, and our souls linked in commiseration. Kind of like now, as I watched Janet and Ashley through the side window of the SUV.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, Janet Gavin clutched the dashboard and gritted her teeth when the SUV hopped forward. The tires spun rubber on the parking lot’s asphalt. “Honey, let the clutch out slowly. I’ve told you before.”

The SUV jumped and then stopped abruptly as Ashley popped the clutch and stalled the car. “Mom, if you were less critical it would help. Dad wouldn’t have criticized me while I’m trying to learn.”

Janet peered out her side window and rolled her eyes so Ashley wouldn’t see her reaction. She reined in her feelings. “Ashley, I have to tell you what you’re doing wrong so you can correct it.”

The mall parking lot, devoid of traffic and lit by tall pole lamps, seemed like the perfect place to teach Ashley how to drive a manual transmission. Janet stopped glaring at her daughter, who wore a face of frustration, and turned her head toward the sounds of thuds, grunts, and men’s voices emanating from outside. Ashley had stalled the SUV behind the stores where employees unloaded trucks. An eighteen wheeler, backed up perpendicularly to Crofton’s Department Store’s loading dock, stood with its rear doors open.

“I thought the parking lot would be less crowded on a Sunday, especially after hours.” Janet looked at her watch. “It’s seven-thirty. The mall closed over an hour and a half ago.”

“Yeah, but Christmas is in two weeks, Mom.”

“Maybe they have to work overtime.”

Men loading the truck looked at the SUV and stopped working. Janet had assumed the sounds they’d heard would be the men’s laughter at Ashley’s poor skill on the clutch, but curiously, they weren’t laughing. The men watched as if the women trespassed on their territory. Stepping down off the loading dock, a man walked toward Janet’s SUV.

“Mom, that guy’s coming over here.”

“Lock your door. If he seems dangerous, move—but pull out slowly like I taught you.”

“Mommm,” Ashley whined.

“Shush, here he comes.”

Janet rolled down the window a few inches as the man approached. He appeared in very good shape, long legged, muscular and surprisingly old for a dock worker. From the few silver streaks snaking through his black hair, Janet guessed his age near her own.

“Good evening, ladies,” the man said. “If you could move out of the area, I’d appreciate it. We have a situation involving gasoline that could explode at any time.”

“Oh, my goodness, we had no idea.”

“The store management hasn’t updated their safety equipment, and we have a spill. Profits compete with safety. I don’t approve, but then no one asked me.”

“Thank you for letting us know. I really appreciate it,” Janet said, and couldn’t help but smile at the twinkle in the man’s eyes. His subtle flirtation, just his eye contact, letting her know of his attraction. His articulate candor and his appearance attracted her, too. Janet felt relieved by her reaction. During her first nightmarish year of widowhood, she had no thoughts of other men. Over the last year, her feelings had changed from apathy to interest, but she hadn’t found anyone worthy, until now, perhaps. “We’ll get out of here and go home.”

“That’s a good idea,” the man said, and tipped his cap with a small grin revealing one dimple in his cheek. He turned away.

Janet rolled up her window and said, “Try it again, only slowly this time, and drive to the front of the mall.”

Ashley grinned, as she pushed in the clutch and started the car, and then looked at her mother. “For an older guy, he was hot.”

Janet skirted Ashley’s comment. Although they had talked about sex, the discussion had focused on Ashley’s future sex life, not her own, or more accurately, the lack of her own. Pondering the right words and grimacing from forced abstinence, she hesitated and then said, “He took the initiative to come over and tell us of the danger, which I certainly appreciate, and yes, I found him attractive.”

“Yeah, hot,” Ashley said.

Seventeen-years-old and full of contradictions, Janet thought of her daughter. Perhaps those contradictions were a sign of Ashley’s increasing maturity since her father’s death.

As Ashley slowly let out the clutch, the SUV moved forward smoothly around the back of the stores to the front parking lot.

“That’s really good, Ashley, but why are you stopping?” Janet asked, when she saw Ashley put the car in neutral.

“You can drive home in the dark on the street. I’m not good enough yet,” Ashley said. Another sign of maturity, Janet thought, learning one’s limitations. Her realizations were bittersweet. Next year, Ashley started college, beginning a brand new cycle of life for both of them. But what would life hold for her?

Once in the driver’s seat, Janet pulled out onto the road and forgot about the gas leak. She asked Ashley about an item on her Christmas list. Ten minutes later, they pulled into their driveway.

I knew the long, lean, too muscular man attracted Janet, and “Dimples” had made his attraction no secret, but I didn’t believe him. The law prohibits gas storage around malls and shopping centers where the public congregates. Dimples had lied, I’d bet. I drifted over to the loading dock to eavesdrop.

Come back next Monday for Part Two.  Thanks E. B. Davis

Friday, November 26, 2010

Scripture Cake

Scripture Cake

One of the many pleasures of reading Sharyn McCrumb’s Appalachian Ballad novels is learning about the legends and customs of the people who live in the Appalachian Mountains. For example, Nora Bonesteel bakes a Scripture Cake in The Rosewood Casket.

She (Sharyn, not Nora) gave me permission to share it here. She also warned me if I got the recipe wrong I would hear about it from readers. She told me her book had inspired bakers on four continents.

4 ½ cups: 1 Kings 4:22

I cup: Judges 5:25

2 cups: Jeremiah 6:20

2 cups: 1 Samuel 30:12

2 cups: Nahum 3:12

2 cups: Numbers 17:8

2 tbsp: 1 Samuel 14:25

pinch: Leviticus 2:13

½ cup: Judges 4:19

2 tbsp: Amos 4:5

6 of: Jeremiah 17:11

Mix like a fruitcake and at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, or until done.

A slightly different version for those who don’t want to thumb through their bibles:


½ cup butter, Judges 5:25

1 ½ cups white sugar, Jeremiah 6:20

3 eggs, Isaiah 10:14

2 cup[s all-purpose flower, 2 Kings 4:22

2 teaspoons baking powder, Luke 13:21

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 Kings 10:10

1 teaspoon ground mace, 1 Kings 10:10

1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 Kings 10:10

½ teaspoon salt, Leviticus 2:13

½ cup water, Genesis, 43:24

1 tablespoon honey, Proverbs 24:13

I cup figs, 1Samuel 30:11

1 cup raisins, 1 Samuel 30:11

½ cup almonds, Genesis 43:11

Blend butter, sugar, spices and salt. Beat egg yokes and add. Sift in baking powder and flour, then add water and honey. Put fruits and nuts through a food processor and flour well. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Pour into a 13 x 9-inch pan and bake at 375 degrees F for one hour.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

J. R. Lindermuth Interview

A retired newspaper editor, J. R. Lindermuth lives and writes in central Pennsylvania. He is librarian of his county historical society where he assists patrons with research and genealogy. He is the author of seven other novels and publishes regularly in a variety of magazines, both print and on line. His most recent release is Being Someone Else, a "Sticks Hetrick" novel, Mr. Lindermuth's police series. Visit his website at http://jrlindermuth.com/.
EBD: How long have you written fiction?

JRL: I was making them up before that, but I first started putting them down on paper when I was in high school. My first acceptance was a little magazine called The Answer, which folded before the issue with my story came out. After that, there was a long period of submissions and rejections before I started placing stories and articles in a variety of smaller magazines. Ironically, Schlussel's Woman, my first novel, was also accepted by a publisher, who promptly went bust. This writing can be a discouraging process.

EBD: Do you participate in a critique group? Attend any conferences?

JRL: I've not participated in any critique groups. I did attend Killer Nashville in 2009. I couldn't make it this year, but hope to go again. I'd love to attend Bouchercon, provided it ever gets closer to Pennsylvania again.

EBD: You've written a variety of books, some historical and a police series. Were you always interested in history? What is the subject matter of your historical novels?

JRL: Yes, I've always been interested in history. Historical novels and mysteries have always been my favorite reads, too. So I suppose it was natural for me to focus on those genres. Actually, Schlussel's Woman, Watch The Hour and even The Accidental Spy have elements of the mystery to them. The first two are concerned with history of the anthracite mining region. Spy deals more with the espionage aspect in the Revolutionary War.

EBD: Your latest release, Being Someone Else, is set in a small town to the west of Harrisburg in central Pennsylvania and is one of your "Sticks Hetrick" police series novels. Are political situations described in your novel similar to small town politics in PA?

JRL: Though Swatara Creek is a fictional place, it is similar to many of the older Susquehanna River towns that have become bedroom communities for Harrisburg. Much of my newspaper reporting career dealt with politics in towns like those.

EBD: Would you give us a short synopsis of Being Someone Else?

JRL: An out-of-state reporter has been found murdered at a disreputable bar. Daniel 'Sticks' Hetrick, former police chief of Swatara Creek, has been acting as unofficial consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker. As they investigate the murder, the trail keeps leading them back to the family of a wealthy doctor who has retired to his hometown.

EBD: Being that I too am from central PA, I was amused at the language used by characters in your book. You used "youse" once, which is a familiar localism. I was surprised by the lack of "we'ens" and the use of the term "hain't," which I'd never heard before. What is it a contraction of, "have not?" Is it used often where you live?

JRL: The language of my characters is a mix of the Pennsylvania German common in the Harrisburg vicinity and a few expressions like "haint't" imported from the coal region where I grew up and now live again. Hain't is simply another variation of the more familiar ain't. It's odd, but a lot of expressions used throughout this region would not be unfamiliar further south in the Appalachians. I had an aunt who used to say "aaron" for "iron" and "faer" for fire, yet none of her siblings did.

EBD: Have you always written in third person multiple POV? Have you ever tried first person?

JRL: I haven't tried third person multiple yet. The Accidental Spy is written in first person. And I've signed a contract for a novel called FALLEN FROM GRACE (which is in first person) with Oak Tree Press's new Western line

EBD: How did you decide on Whiskey Creek Press as your publisher?

JRL: I stumbled upon them on line, submitted Something In Common, first of the Hetrick novels, and was offered a contract. They're a small but growing firm and we've forged a good working relationship.

EBD: I noticed that Whiskey Creek Press doesn't take returns. Has that hurt your sales?

JRL: Yes. One of my main local outlets was an independent bookstore, which was forced to close this year by the economy and chain competition. To date I've had no luck convincing the nearest chain to stock my books. I realize no store can carry every published book. But it seems to me good business sense to carry the books of a local writer with an established platform and whose books have had good reviews, a sales record and a retinue of repeat customers.

EBD: What marketing do you do to promote your books?

JRL: Every option I can find. On the local front, I write a weekly column for my hometown daily and have received publicity in it and other area newspapers. I do signings and speak to clubs and organizations. I also have a webpage, a blog and promote on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Goodreads and every other on line venue I can find.

EBD: What question haven't I asked you?

JRL: Maybe what's next for Sticks? I'm currently working on the fifth in the series, tentatively titled PRACTICE TO DECEIVE. In this episode, Sticks and Anita go on a cruise before he's scheduled to take on his new job as county detective. A passenger with ties to home is murdered in Jamaica. Sticks joins forces with the local authorities and calls on the home team for assistance via email. Meanwhile, Flora and the others are dealing with crimes of their own.

Thanks John, for allowing WWK to interview you. Good luck on your newest release Being Someone Else, the fourth “Sticks Hetrick” mystery.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Fine Line: Knowing Yourself

Earlier this month Nathan Bransford announced he was leaving the literary agent business to join a tech company. This news did not shock me; I had already labeled him in my categorical thinking as a sometime-agent. What do I mean by that? I mean someone whose primary work is something other than agenting. It doesn’t mean the person isn’t or can’t be a good agent; it means their heart is somewhere else.

How can you tell about some else’s intent? How can you tell about your own?

The best way to understand a person’s real intent is to observe how they spend their time. If someone is twittering all day long, making multiple posts on a number of listservs, has a daily blog that is often irrelevant or continues to emphasize an aspect of life other than the “main” area, then one should wonder if the intent isn’t more social than work-related.

I admit there may be a fine line in differentiating between activities to make oneself known, a.k.a. marketing, and those serving some other (maybe subconscious) objective. Take blogs for an example. Literary agent blogs can be particularly useful as marketing tools for newer agents who are building their reputations. A good blog draws readers who, when it comes to submitting their manuscripts, may be more likely to submit to agents they got to know through their written words. Blogs can also be a way for agents to give back to the writing community once they have become established.

I had the sense Nathan was more interested in (1) his own creative efforts (which seem to be doing well) and (2) technology for technology’s sake. Thus, his news did not shock me.

It was, however, a catalyst for me to think about how I spend my own “marketing” time—especially writing, reading and responding to blogs. I contribute to Writers Who Kill and My Two Cents Worth (Before Inflation) . The Two Cents blog is a bully pulpit where I write about money (use and abuse) and miscellaneous ideas that strike me as interesting. I write it because I like to; I have no expectation of any future payback, but have been pleasantly pleased when people have told me a post or series of posts has helped them in some way.

For Writers Who Kill I had multiple objectives: to entertain, to develop a following and to share my experiences in hopes they may help other writers. It’s been six months and time to reflect on how that’s going.

Any opinions you want to share?

~ Jim

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Mayhem Gang

I started TOASTING FEAR, my work in progress, in May. Setting a goal of querying agents by September was unrealistic. I knew that at the time and set that goal by design because of self-knowledge. I procrastinate. I’m a pressure writer. With a deadline, I produce. Swearing to sit down, think out my plot and write, I do, but what I write ends up as a new short story, a new blog, or ideas for new novels and shorts. An aspect of procrastination, self-sabotage, isn’t all bad. It’s an effective way to avoid a goal, like setting a date for going on a diet and then eating twice as much before that date. Taking the opportunity to try out delicious recipes, creating culinary masterpieces, the dieter achieves different goals while avoiding the pain of losing weight.

By July, I hadn’t written a new word, continuing to edit and caress the chapters that I’d already written. When Betsy Bitner, the critique coordinator for the Guppies, (The Great Unpublished, which is actually a misnomer because many Guppies are published) a subchapter of Sisters in Crime, solicited for new novel critique members, I grasped the opportunity. Having critique partners to keep me on a writing schedule would force me to produce. Has it worked? Yes.

For the group to work, all members had to be at the same stage of creation. One member dropped immediately because she thought her manuscript was polished, but later rejoined the group anyway. The rest of us admitted to not having our first drafts completed. We decided on a week interval in which to complete our reviews of approximately twenty pages of manuscript. This schedule allowed three weeks for those of us not finished our manuscripts to produce at least twenty pages and complete three reviews. I thought this was a reasonable schedule.

We are now up to the start of submission five, or about page 100, and already changes have occurred. The member who thought her manuscript polished has re-dropped out of the group. Of the remaining three, it is clear that one of us has a complete manuscript. We remaining two are scrambling to produce because we now have two weeks to complete twenty pages of script and two reviews. Writing sometimes flows more easily than at other times. The schedule will be daunting. I think another factor affecting our production is that we have started those chapters that are hardest in a mystery to write; the investigation.

This week we took a week off, enabling some of us to catch up. This change has initiated in two worthwhile results. Taking the week off has resulted in a more relaxed, realistic and forgiving attitude. Recognizing that writers are human beings in need of slack time may make us better critique partners. Writers aren’t machines and things come up that prevent us from keeping to the straight and narrow: jobs, attending conferences, sickness, etc. But now that I have no more previously written chapters for review, as I did in August and September when I was ahead of the cycle, I have to produce, and I am. It is what I envisioned when joining The Mayhem Gang.

Many writers are now participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo-or-NaNo for short). I think for the very same reason that I joined a critique group: to provide motivation to write. Do you procrastinate? Do you need a critique group or NaNo to produce?

Friday, November 19, 2010

MY First Sale, For The Third Time

I recently sold a short story, Monster Movie, to Jean Goldstrom, editor of the anthology, STRANGE MYSTERIES III at Whortleberry Press. Thanks, Jean.

It’s my first sale of material I wrote after my second bone marrow transplant to treat multiple myeloma (bone marrow cancer.) This is the second time I have recovered my ability to write. After each transplant I was concerned about eating, excreting, breathing, sleeping and walking for quite some time before I could concentrate long enough to understand a half hour television program. Reading came after that. Messing around with works I had written before gradually turned into editing. Writing returned last.

Before my transplant I emptied my works in progress file of anything remotely ready to send out for possible publication. Luckily I still had a few clunkers left to tinker with. Don’t tell me there’s no point in writing badly and hanging on to the crap.

I feel I have reawakened or perhaps come back to life. My local Sisters in Crime chapte, Boarder Crimes, helped. I am a proud brother in law in Sisters in Crime. Ray Bradbury helped. Not in person. His ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING, Joshua Odell Editions, 1996, encouraged me to rekindle the passion involved in the creative process.

Friends, family and other writers have been wonderfully supportive. Thanks to you all.

What have you overcome in your writing?

Thursday, November 18, 2010



Although agents and editors walked among us at the Crimebake conference, and attendees could listen to panels focusing on how to get published and how to promote one’s writing, I want to write first about authors discussing their work and characters. I thought the successful authors had lost none of their enthusiasm for creating fictional worlds. They loved to talk about their characters.

Charlaine Harris was the guest of honor. She has charm, was very approachable, and spoke honestly about her work and life. Before the Sookie Stackhouse series, she wrote only conventional mysteries but she was bored with these traditional mysteries and wanted to broaden her readership base. Anne Rice had set her vampire mysteries in southern Louisiana so Charlaine decided to set her series in the more staid north. She researched vampires, guns, synthetic blood, the Civil War, Vikings, and reflective glass before writing Dead Until Dark, the first book in the Sookie Stackhouse series.

Her agent didn’t like the book at first and hawked it around the publishing world for two years until the book was picked up by Ace. (She’d already written two series. No wonder an unpublished author has to wait so long.)

When Charlaine talked about Sookie, it was clear she’s involved in the development and many facets of her character. In real life, Charlaine thinks telepathic powers could be a disadvantage. Imagine going on a first date and knowing what your date is thinking.

The series is supposed to end with the thirteenth book and already fans are protesting that they want more. Charlaine said there may be one more book after the thirteenth as long as the series ends on an upbeat. She doesn’t want to have to produce another book in a series after she’s lost interest in it.

On the first night of the conference, I saw an episode of Trueblood. There was more blood and violence than I expected since I hadn’t read the books but I developed an interest in Sookie and the other characters. Also, I could appreciate the humor in the restaurant and family scenes.

Charlaine had nothing but praise for Alan Ball, the producer of Trueblood. She said she lets Alan do what he does well and he lets her do what she does best. When she saw the first episode of Trueblood, she told her husband they’d have to move. The blood and gore was more vivid in a visual medium and she lives in a small town in the bible-belt. However, neighbors rejoiced in the success of a local person so she continues as an active member in her church and community.

In her writing, she said she wants to deal with larger issues, especially those involving discrimination. She doesn’t want to shove her views down her readers’ throats but to present a different way of looking at the world. Vampires are the outcasts in the small town where they live. In looking at vampire outcasts, a reader might think about other groups that are stereotyped and shunned. When we look at monsters, we look at ourselves.

As well as guest of honor speaker, Charlaine was a member on a panel of best-selling authors and on a panel of short story writers. Charlaine’s short stories include stories about parts of Sookie’s life not in the novels. I plan to find out if one of my protagonists has an interesting enough life to support a short story or two.

In another blog, I’ll address ideas I learned from the best-selling authors and from the authors of short stories. I was happy to listen to Charlaine Harris because I could see how much she enjoyed what she did. On Saturday, there was a red and black, Vampire Ball and many people dressed up as vampires or monsters. Monsters, vampires, and those wearing red and black danced to DJ music. Conference attendees in their twenties to, I guess, their seventies enjoyed dressing up and playing a game.


With all the bad news about the publishing world, do you sometimes forget that writing and reading are creative and exciting?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Interview with Susan Schreyer

Susan Schreyer is an Indy Author and lives in Monroe, Washington with her husband, two teenage children, an untrustworthy rabbit and a demanding old cat. Her horse lives within easy driving distance. When not working diligently writing her blogs Writing Horses and Things I Learned From My Horse, articles for worthy publications, or about people in the next town being murdered, Susan trains horses and teaches people how to ride them. She serves on the steering committee of the Sisters In Crime-Guppies Chapter and is co-president of the Puget Sound Chapter of SinC. DEATH BY A DARK HORSE, is Susan's debut mystery and the first of a series. Her website is http://www.susanschreyer.com/.

EBD: Is your novel DEATH BY A DARK HORSE a mystery or is it a cross genre?

SS: I tell people it's a cozy-type mystery. Most of the bloodshed takes place off stage and it's in a small town with a cast of characters who all know each other. That said, there's a bit of "language" you don't normally find in a cozy and there's perhaps more emphasis on romance than what you'd normally find, too, although not in the formula one expects to find in that genre. At one point it was suggested I rewrite it in a romance format—alternate points of view between the hero and heroine, and introduce the hero very early on in the book. I chose not to, mostly because I'd have to change much of what goes on with my main character's love interest. He doesn't play the role you'd expect in solving the crime.

EBD: How much time did you spend writing and revising the book, and were you in a critique group?

SS: It only took me about three months to complete the first draft of DBADH. Now the editing and revising…well…that went on for several years! Being my first novel, it was a learning process of major proportions for me. I was fortunate to hook up with some wonderful critiquers—both where I live, and in Guppies (an online chapter of Sisters in Crime). The generosity of other writers is amazing.

EBD: Did you market the manuscript to agents? How many agents did you query and over what time interval?

SS: I started shopping the manuscript to agents soon after I'd finished the first revision and gained some immediate interest, which was thrilling. Of course the subsequent rejections were equally devastating, but I joined Guppies soon after I started the process, and the support, encouragement, and shared experiences really helped me to keep going. I've queried close to one-hundred agents and small publishers (combined), and still have about thirty-eight queries outstanding!

EBD: What was the pivotal element that determined your decision to self-publish?

SS: There wasn't a single circumstance, but it was rather a nexus of circumstances. The list is quite lengthy! Combine the "query situation" of being continually close to getting an agent, offers from small publishers that didn't sit right with me, the soaring popularity of e-books, my own love affair with the Kindle, other people's experiences with self-publishing in an e-format, the current state of the publishing industry, and my desire to earn a living wage and you could say I was pretty much walked right to the point I am now. I've run my own business in the past, so taking this kind of control over publishing my books is not a foreign feeling. There is a great deal of empowerment in making one's own way. And it's not like there is a void of support and advice. There's plenty to draw from when needed. Still, the decisions are all my own. It's a thrill.

Most important is that when I made the decision to self-publish it felt right for me. I didn't make the decision because I was angry with the traditional path to publishing, but chose this route after a good deal of research because it fit with my goals and desires. And it fits with my personality.

EBD: Did you employ a professional editor?

SS: Yes! Absolutely! I've had three. And I must point out each of the three had a different purpose (although you can't help but get some overlap). I used a copy editor, and two content editors, one of whose job it was to help me polish the beginning of the book—my most difficult part.

EBD: Did you pay for cover art?

SS: Yes. Although I do artwork myself, I knew this was beyond my capabilities. I simply don't know how to use a computer for graphic art, I don't own the software necessary, and the bottom line was I didn't want to do it. I tried, but found I had no vision for the cover, either (which was something that I found astounding). I hired Tracy Hayes because I saw her work and fell in love with it. As I suspected, she came through with flying colors (pardon the pun). She not only had great ideas of her own, but listened to my input, making it feel like a collaborative effort.

Many self-published authors will do their own cover work, others will hire it out, and some have friends who will pitch in and help. You do what works for you. There are no rules, except to have a cover!

EBD: What companies did you contact to self-publish and what formats were required?

SS: I looked into most of the typical self-publishing companies (like Lulu and iUniverse) and ultimately decided to use Amazon and Smashwords as my aggregators. Their business models fit what I wanted. Between the two of them, I have pretty much all the e-reading devices covered. Their ease of accessibility to readers (the people-type) is well known, and their distribution network is extensive. Add to that free downloading, excellent royalty rates, access to up-to-the-minute sales data, a monthly paycheck, my own control over content, price, and samples—it pleases the control-freak in my soul.

EBD: What type of marketing will you do to attract readers?

SS: This is an ongoing learning curve for me. I expect it will be the process I adjust more than anything else. But that's the beauty of e-publishing. There's such a long tail that you can try new approaches. Immediate sales feedback lets you know if your efforts are good or a waste of time. Currently, I've got a website—http://www.susanschreyer.com/—and two blogs which I update weekly. One blog—Things I Learned From My Horse —is aimed directly at my horse-loving audience and the other—Writing Horses--is aimed at those more interested in the writer's perspective. I blog about my journey through the self-publishing world as well as talk about my books, interview characters, and bring in guest bloggers.

I also use Facebook and Twitter, and regularly visit blogs and websites that interest my target audience. My aim is to simply become known, so when my book comes out people will recognize my name and go have a look.

I think it's important to help fellow writers, too. I help them promote as much as I am able, buy and read their books, and write reviews on Amazon or other places. Of course I hope they'll "talk me up" too when the time comes.

EBD: Can you give us the hook and a short synopsis?

SS: My hook is horses, and specifically dressage. My protagonist Thea Campbell is an amateur dressage rider who has a very special connection with her horse Blackie, a seven-year-old Hanoverian gelding (who isn't black, by the way). Here's the short synopsis:

Thea Campbell goes out for revenge when the one person who is simultaneously the most likely and least likely candidate for thief steals her horse. But Olympic hopeful Valerie Parsons is past caring about being arrested. She’s dead. At first Thea’s horse is assumed to have killed the woman, but when the coroner determines it was a human hand and not a horse’s hoof that ended Valerie’s life Thea becomes a person of interest. Now intimidating people with little regard for due process are showing up on her doorstep looking to even the score.

Toss in her wrecked love life, a sexy geology professor who stirs up more than dust, and an alleged psychic horse, and it soon becomes apparent that Thea’s predictable life is now out of control. As she takes charge of clearing herself of the murder she discovers the victim had a knack for making enemies—one of whom is Thea’s ditsy sister. She pursues her investigation with more at stake than ever, and in a seedy biker bar comes face-to-tattoo with information that will lead the police to the real killer. She dutifully reports to the detective in charge. But Thea is wrong. As close to dead wrong as she ever wishes to get.

EBD: Where and when will your book release occur?

SS: DEATH BY A DARK HORSE is scheduled to be released in e-format on both Amazon Kindle and Smashwords (who provides downloads to most of the other e-readers) in February 2011, although that date is looking like it will move up to December 2010. Sample chapters will be available (free!) on my website http://www.susanschreyer.com/. If you don't own an e-reader, content can be downloaded onto your computer from either of those sources. The software for downloading books is free.

Since the time this interview was conducted, Susan's book has been released.  Please look for it on-line at e-book providers' sites. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Science Fiction and the US Government

The election is over. By now you are either ecstatic with the results, depressed over the results or didn’t much care all along. I’ve listened to spokesmen from the parties (two or three depending on whether you think the Tea Party folks will play well in the Republican sandbox.) Given their disparate agendas, I forecast much flash and noise and little of substance for the next two years. Therefore, I have a proposal:

In the lame duck session extend all laws that were going to expire before the next general election by two years. (For example, the Bush tax cuts in their entirety would remain in effect through 2011 and 2012 as would the most recent health care legislation.) Without such a blanket extension, there may be minor tweaks to current laws, but that’s the most that can happen. Republicans controlling the House may have other ideas, but Republicans in the Senate need a dozen or so Democrats/Independents to support any cloture vote to even address the House-passed legislation and even more to override a presidential veto. Therefore, nothing major will pass in the next two years unless there is truly bi-partisan agreement.

Here’s the gist of my proposal: close down Congress for the next two years. Fire their staffs (allowing the Tea Party folks a victory in shrinking government and allowing the staff folks to reflect on whether unemployment benefits are one of the things that should be continued or eliminated in the future. Perhaps by the end of two years some will even get a chance to test the Medicaid system, food stamps, the Earned Income Credit and other support programs.)

We’ll keep Congress on the payroll and force them to sit down as a committee of the whole and talk to each other about how to fix the various messes we are in. Should they come to agreement on something, they would have to write the bill in language they can understand themselves. They are mostly lawyers, so in theory they have the training for this minor task. While Clarence Thomas and I might never agree on the Original Intent of the country’s “Fathers” when they wrote the US Constitution, we could agree that they wrote their own material and it seems to have held up well over a couple of centuries.

In the meantime, the Senate should provide its advice and consent (or dissent) on any treaties, judicial nominations and administration nominations presented to it. Since they won’t be doing much else, they might actually clear the backlog of nominations. Vote them up or vote them down, but no more hanging people out to dry in limbo. (We authors know what that feels like when we send out queries, partials and full manuscripts that agents neither pass on nor accept us as clients.)

What productive use can we make of all the House and Senate staffers no longer drawing paychecks? They should apply their talents to writing Science Fiction. They have the requisite training. Consider:

. They create alternate realities out of whole cloth.
. Only science fiction and fantasy can get away with 2000+ page manuscripts (reference the most recent health care reform bill.)
. They already are adept at the new trend of product placement in their writing. This could be particularly helpful in providing them financial support should they choose to self-publish after discovering no one much cares for their alternate realities.
. From their previous training they have met an interesting cast of characters from which to model their protagonist, antagonists and even aliens if they choose to base their fiction on another world.
. They work long hours with little public acknowledgment of their work, which is what happens to most authors.

I’m rooting for a few to succeed. Surely, with so much talent some could produce novels worthy of reading.

~ Jim

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sisters in Crime (SinC) Chesapeake Chapter

I consider myself fortunate to have had two of my short stories published this year. “Daddy's Little Girl" appeared in virtual print in July within the pages of ezine, Voices from the Garage. In May, I entered a contest conceived by Mozark Press. The editor, Linda Fisher, chose my short story, along with twenty-four other stories, to include in a print anthology called A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas. My short story, “Implicated by A Phrase” drew two, average middle-age women on a day of shopping and lunch into murder while touring vacation rental homes on Hatteras Island, N.C. Not all of the stories included in this volume were mysteries, but all of the stories contained female middle-age protagonists.

The Mozark anthology came off the press in October, and shortly thereafter, a writer from the Chesapeake Chapter of SinC called me with an invitation to a promotional meeting for the authors in the chapter published this year. My reaction? I was dumfounded, amazed, and impressed. I hadn’t known that anyone else but the twenty-four other short story authors contained in the anthology knew of its existence. Sylvia Straub, another Chesapeake Chapter author, wrote a short story included in the same volume as mine, and Lina Zeldovich, a SinC member. Sisters in Crime lets no one slip through the cracks.

Photo courtesy of Robin Templeton
We met in a room of a retirement village. Residents were invited to the meeting. From the Chessie Chapter, twenty-seven authors had books and/or short stories published this year. Because I’m fairly new to the chapter, I hadn’t known that November's meeting always honored those authors published during the year and sold their books and short story anthologies, some of which were developed by the chapter itself. Each author stood and presented a short description of their published work.

A local indie store, Mystery Loves Company, set up shop in the retirement village. I don’t know how many books they sold, but the room was full of shoppers when I stopped by. Hopefully, they will make a nice profit and remain open, unlike many indies who are just about the only physical bookstores to carry small press books written by many of the authors that I’ve interviewed on this blog. During the sales time, I had the thrill of signing my first book.

While I was in Hatteras last month, the kindly owner of Buxton Village Books, Gee Gee Rosell, bought two books from me to sell in her shop. If you are ever on Hatteras Island, stop by and buy a book from Gee Gee, who is knowledgeable of SinC and a pleasure to meet.

The print and Kindle versions of A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas are also available at Amazon.com.

For those mystery and crime writers who are not currently members of SinC, I hope my experience proves the advantages of being a member. Join at: http://sistersincrime.org/.

Today, I’m giving away three copies of A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas by randomly drawing names of those who make comments on this blog.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Writing with my Father

When I wrote about helping my father with his memoirs in this blog, many people responded with stories about their parents and family memories. I talked with my father, who is now 87, and he seemed pleased that others were interested. He gave me permission to share his memoirs with others as I pleased.

One thing I tired to keep in mind as I wrote was that I was telling my father’s story; not mine. I tried to use my father’s “voice” in the phrasing, vocabulary and subject matter. When writing I always try to find the voice of the protagonist. For example, in my short story Lady of Quality, although the writing took about three years to complete, the voice of the protagonist never flagged. No matter how long it took I always knew I would finish eventually. With my father’s memoirs, I had a lifetime of listening to work with. There have been times with my boys when I opened my mouth and heard my father’s words come tumbling out.

My father has a Midwesterner’s reluctance to call attention to himself and to downplay his accomplishments. That does not mean he lacks confidence or ambition. He does not. We agreed that readers would most interested in his war experiences and that should be the opening of the book. My father was insistent that he was not a hero and would not accept any description implying he was.

We discussed starting with the Battle of the Bulge, crossing the Rhine River over the only intact bridge left in all of Germany or earning a bronze star. My father suggested his first encounter with a jet might work, but I thought t would be less impressive to readers well acquainted with jets than it had been to him when his life was suddenly threatened by a weapon he’d only heard rumors about.

I searched for a theme, we talked extensively and I reviewed his thoughts, Finally I suggested an opening that we mutually evolved into the following:

My childhood ended on December 17, 1944. I was twenty years old then, but it wasn’t my age that mattered. On that date, the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, I was sent to the front line as a replacement for a man about my age who had been killed. When I went off to war my dad told me to do whatever I had to do to survive and come home again. I thought the man I replaced probably had similar instructions from his dad. The instructions didn’t save him. My dad’s instructions couldn’t deflect bullets of shell fragments. I knew I could be killed and that knowledge destroyed my childish illusion that everything would work out for me in the end. Surrounded by strangers, shivering in the bitter cold and aware that I could die without warning, I thought about how I ended up in a hole in the ground with people shooting at me. But combat was the defining experience of my life.

Would you like to hear more about his memoirs?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I hope Jim arrived safely in Georgia. Those of us who remain in snow country think the migrators are wimps. You don’t want to risk losing an ear or a finger whenever you step outside into a wind that takes a person’s breath away? You’re not going to drive down icy slopes and try to avoid a pedestrian who’s too cold and disoriented to look before stepping into the road? Where’s your sense of adventure? I wonder why people worry about losing their refrigerators when the electricity goes off. Put your food outside on the porch. If the food isn’t frozen already, it will be soon.
Although convoluted descriptions of place are so outdated, a character’s response to the environment helps bring a story to life. After all, if a species doesn’t adapt, it dies out. (I do hope Polar bears find a new food or a different way of hunting). How well has the protagonist adapted to her present surroundings? How will she cope with a new habitat?
In the spirit of someone who learns to like where she is, I offer two poems.


I love the afternoon shadows of fall.
Long, dark fingers slide over grass
and trees like slivers of time passing.

Sunlight glows more warmly in contrast
brightening the yellows of sunflowers and
black-eyed Susans. Shadows linger
and creep closer to encircle my house.

The sun starts to leave, pink and red
between the slender black trunks of
pines dropping needles on roofs.
I want to reach out and touch the deep
velvet of shadows, shape-shifting and
fleeting. So easy to blend with this light-
time changing and leaving. I could

merge with this moment, be still, and not fight
the stark, cold black and white of nature’s dying.

And, adapted from an Indian folk tale,


Deer chew moss and clover near the river
coyote remarks on their coats and asks the doe
“how do you make your children so attractive?”
she ignores him and takes her kids to a thicket
still needing a reply, he skips around the group
finally she sighs saying that she digs a hole
surrounds it with leaves from the silverberry
kindles the twigs and as they pop
sparks makes colored patches on her kids’ coats

coyote runs home and tells his children to dig
the smallest shiver as he pushes them into the pit
“don’t worry, you’ll soon be pretty”
the fire melts their flesh until it shrinks
their teeth show as though they are smiling
he tips water on the flames and calls his children
pulls an ear of one and the tail of another
the parts come away in his paw
as he kicks the ashes the bodies crumble

coyote springs up and down, rushes to find the doe
not seeing her, he sets light to the shrubbery
the dry bracken and wood creak
he says the deer are crying

I wanted the lines of poetry to be single spaced but no way would the site let me do that. Lines should look like prose or be new paragraphs. That's the rule. In an effort to save space, I cut out two prose paragraphs. Sometimes, you have to compromise.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jillian Chantal

First of all, I’d like to thank E.B. Davis for allowing me to drop by and visit Writers Who Kill. I love reading this blog and to be here as a guest is wicked cool.

My name is Jillian Chantal and I write romantic adventures with an International Flair. Most of my stories have an element of intrigue and at least one death, so I guess I’m a “Writer Who Kills.”

In my day job, I work as a lawyer and back when I first started to practice, I did a lot of criminal work. This early saturation in crime and criminals has come in handy as I write my tales of romance with an element of crime. I love to travel as well and try to have my characters travel to other continents in each book. I have a book coming out in July 2011 called Redemption for the Devil and the hero even goes to the Arctic in that one.

Solo Honeymoon comes out in January 2011 with Siren-BookStrand and it takes place in London, in Italy and New York City. I was hoping to have my cover art by now, but I don’t, so I can’t share that today. I can share the back cover blurb:

Emma Chauncey finds her fiancé naked with one of her bridesmaids on top of him three days before her wedding. Burned by the experience, she takes a friend on her honeymoon. They travel to an Italian villa where Emma plans to nurse her broken heart.

Wealthy, titled, and handsome, women’s shoe designer Dario DeLuca is also at the villa. In disguise as a dance instructor, he’s determined to find a woman to love him for himself, not his wealth and title. Sparks fly between Emma and Dario, until she learns his true identity.

Hurt that another man has lied to her, and distrusting her own judgment, she flees. Dario follows her to New York. But Emma’s former fiancĂ© is back with an agenda of his own. Can Dario convince Emma he’s the man for her even though he lied about his identity? Can he convince her she deserves true love?

To celebrate the release of my debut novel in January, since the hero in Solo Honeymoon is a shoe designer from Milan, I’d like to send one person a shoe charm. Leave me a comment about your favorite place to travel and I’ll draw from the names for the charm.

You can reach me at: JillianChantal@gmail.com.  My website and blog: http://jillianchantal.wordpress.com/  And I also blog every Saturday at http://southernsizzleromance.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

All My Bags Are Packed…

Birds do it. Butterflies do it. Caribou do it. No, not that “it.” They all migrate, and today (11/3) I start my semi-annual journey. I always have mixed emotions about this change in residences. I love being up north for spring, summer and fall. In many ways I like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula winter where the snow stays white for months…and months…and months.

And there’s the rub. With eight miles from our house to the first road that the county plows, I either need to hope logging companies are working nearby and plowing the roads or I must push aside a lot of snow with my trusty Bobcat. Jan and I did stay the whole 2006-7 winter and we both agree it was great. I could be persuaded to do it again, but I don’t think Jan is up for it—after all, staying up north can be an “all in” experience.

As the time for leaving approaches, regret for what might be lost turns into anticipation of what I will soon gain in Georgia’s low country—warmer weather not the least of the positives. We leave one set of friends for another. We trade the deep north woods for the wide open vistas of salt marshes. This time of year we gain almost an hour and forty minutes of sunlight!

The biggest difference between our two residences is the people. In the north with so few days of decent weather, there is an unconscious push not to waste time. The growing season is short and people stay BUSY. The South is lugubrious in comparison. I don’t want to imply people in the South don’t work hard, but there is a measured pace to everything from speech (the drawl) to foot speed to the pacing in literature. Storytelling in the north traditionally occurs huddled around the woodstove during long winter nights. Storytelling in the south takes place while it is too dang hot during the heat of summer days to do anything more robust than slowly rock on the veranda.

These differences become apparent in the literature styles of the north and south. I suppose you could epitomize them with Robert B. Parker representing the north: short, choppy sentences with lots of dialogue to move the plot along, and James Lee Burke representing the south: long, flowing descriptions of the bayou country and how a protagonist fits into the landscape.

Reminds me I’ll always be a northern boy, even when the time comes that I live only in the south.

~ Jim

Monday, November 8, 2010

Appreciating Frustration or Not

I remember a woman saying to me after the birth of my son, “Oh, it’s such a happy time.” I wanted to slap her.

At the time, I was still dealing with the physical trauma of childbirth, which every mother knows is worst with the first baby because after the first, you’re broken-in (and I’m not talking figuratively), enduring sleepless nights and realizing the horror of being responsible for another human’s well-being. Her comment sounded like the murmurings of a happy idiot. Since her children were ten years older than mine were, I didn't appreciate her nostalgia as I went through the agonies. She’s a wonderful person, but she sure wasn’t looking at it from my perspective. To this day around new mothers, I’m sympathetic because I can still feel the grit under my eyelids from those sleepless nights.

Currently, I’m in the same infancy stages with my books as I once was with my children. I wish it could be “such a happy time.” But like then, it isn’t now. Although I observe nine of the Ten Commandments Nathan Bransford published for writers, that first commandment “Enjoy the present” I just can’t seem to abide. I’m frustrated. I’m unconfident of my writing. I’m unsure that my approach is “correct.” I’m almost certain whatever I write will be instantly rejected by the hirelings of queried agents. My vision often doesn’t match what my critique partners say. I’m feeling harried by too many things to do, prompting me to reevaluate my priorities. I need to focus and have a singular vision.

It all comes down to that one manuscript that makes it out of the slush pile.

I researched Janet Evanovich, Fern Michaels, Margaret Maron and Heather Graham. Each author started writing short stories and expanded to novels. Some took ten years to get that first manuscript accepted. Some combined motherhood and writing (unlike me, some are superwomen) and, for Fern Michaels, it was a challenge by a now ex-husband who told her to "get off her ass and get a job"  when the nest emptied. She had no skills except writing and motherhood (and now lives in a haunted house). I love her story and admire her.

My first novel was the sorry first-born experiment. Although my second novel required many revisions, it was fun to write, but wasn’t so much fun when I received query rejections after the promise of interest. Now I’m writing my problem child—that one in which my visions may not adequately address my readers’ expectations. At least one of my critique partners thinks my manuscript is good, the other is clueless as to where I’m taking the novel, which may not be so good. I’m at the stage that editors say is the hardest--that middle stage like an adolescent child who has growing pains and vexes the most loving parent.

My kids are 23 and 20 years old and are accomplished well-adjusted adults. I did okay as a parent. As an author, can I achieve the same success? I guess only time will tell. But whenever I commiserate with other aspiring authors, I’m so glad that they never say, “Oh, it such a happy time.”

Friday, November 5, 2010

One is the Loneliest Number

One is the Loneliest Number

Apart from writing teams, like the original Ellery Queen, writing is a solitary activity. Like other writers, I have given up activities I enjoy, avoided friends and family, and lost sleep to pursue the muse. Fortunately, I have an understanding wife who can tell from the look on my face when I am involved in an important internal writing discussion over matters such as whether a semicolon would work better than a period or the word “and” or whether “punched” be more appropriate than “clobbered.”

Writing is one solitary activity that absolutely requires other people. I don’t know any successful writers who can compose work entirely on their own. Every accomplished writer has what author Joel Goldberg describes as at least one “informed reader” who has the skills and knowledge to give meaningful feedback about the author’s unfinished work. The reader could be an editor, an agent, a writing partner, a teacher or a critique group. In addition to knowing about writing, the reader needs have no personal agenda and the credibility to give negative comments in addition to pointing out strengths.

Much as I like compliments, and believe me, I LIKE compliments about my writing. What I value even more, are comments on what needs improvement. I believe there is a thin line between work that gets published and work that almost gets published.

There is no guarantee of publication, of course. Your brilliant depiction of vampire Viennese poodles may have arrived just after a story about vampire Viennese poodles has been accepted. Tastes vary of course. More than one editor has said he or she liked my writing without ever accepting any for publication.

Most of my experience has been with critique groups although I have one writer/publisher/friend who can critique my work and have it sounding more like what I would write than what I did write.

Who helps you write?

Thursday, November 4, 2010


When I taught freshman English classes at Northeastern University, I was curious about my students’ recent educational experience since I’d never attended an American high school. One of the main objectives of freshman English was to teach students to write good term papers. To achieve this goal, books on writing often divided the twenty page paper into a series of writing techniques, such as persuasion, cause and effect, contradictions, or logic.

Without exception, when students wrote about their high school experience, they used the category writing section and divided their peer group into jocks, nerds, and party animals. When I questioned whether people could be divided into just three groups, students added an outcast group. Students seemed reluctant to even think about an outcast category. I’m not suggesting that people categorization is unique to America but that’s where I’ve lived most of my life.

Although I saw the students as individuals (a result of my own educational and institutional experience), they all accepted peer categories as a fact of life. Once a person was placed in a group, I gathered only Superman could move that person into another category. As freshmen, many of them wrote about their difficulties adjusting to the new norms of college life. I guessed that, although the high school groups were restrictive, they did grant a measure of security. The freshmen searched for new groups to support them. The college encouraged students to identify by major. But what about all the unwritten social rules of behavior and acceptance? They could be a mine field for eighteen year olds.

Years ago I knew a brilliant man who taught at three different universities. Why didn’t he seek tenure at one, dig in, and build his scholarly reputation? I’m guessing the answer was because he was gay and he spent much of his energy and time trying to hide the fact. Basically, he was a good man who respected the rights of others but sometimes, the need to defend his secret made him lash out at others or act in a less than honorable way. His need to keep his secret and to pretend he belonged to a group of heterosexual males divided his psyche and changed his life. Nowadays, being gay doesn’t necessarily ruin one’s career but an openly gay teenager is very likely to suffer more rejection and bullying than a heterosexual teen.

Peer group conflicts can re-emerge among people long-passed high school age—at work, for instance, where the stakes are at least as high as they are for teenagers. Individuals need their jobs to support their families. An individual’s identity and self-esteem is often tied to his/her job. A manipulative boss can tap into group mentality, often just below the surface, and lead a group into indulging the boss’s whims and needs instead of focusing on the job and the best outcomes for the group as a whole. If anyone tries to halt the downward spiral, the boss makes sure that person is ostracized and ridiculed. The group has norms. Conform or else.

We need social groups for support, learning, and survival. Even if we find ourselves in a group with some norms that make us uncomfortable, can we break free, survive alone for a while, and find another group where we feel more at home? Or do we make the choice to stay in the group where we feel uneasy at times and try to make changes?

Writers often look into the lives of so-called outcasts. During their research and multiple drafts, writers discover the worth and humanity of those who don’t easily fit into acceptable categories. I suspect hate groups yelling at others and threatening anyone who doesn’t conform to hate group norms aren’t doing much reading. At the most they limit their reading to material that supports what they already believe. As long as members of hate groups or even pressure groups at work or school feel better about themselves because of group support and the simplicity of their thinking, the group maintains cohesion. It’s scary to watch and worse to be the target of such a group.

What’s the solution? I think society’s been working on that, off and on, for centuries. Anyone have a solution or idea?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Today, I introduce a former police secretary, a writer, and a member of Sisters in Crime, Pittsburgh. Imagine the insider knowledge she learned at work, details that create a realistic background for mysteries and police procedurals.

JOYCE TREMEL, guest blogger

A lot of people don’t even realize there is such a thing as a police secretary. After all, they never show them on TV. But I’m living proof they really do exist. I was one for ten years.

The department where I worked was in a Pittsburgh suburb of about 30,000 residents. Our PD had approximately 30 officers which included a Chief, two lieutenants, a sergeant (the only female officer), two detectives, and the rest were patrolmen. There was also full time administrative assistant, who was basically the Chief’s secretary, and a part time secretary—me.

My job involved answering the non-emergency phone calls and greeting any visitors or complainants who came into the station. If someone needed to speak to an officer, I’d track one down and tell them to “10-19 for a 10-12,” which meant, “get your butt in here and talk to this person.” Well, not exactly, but you get the idea. (My last year there, the county eliminated the ten-codes in favor of using plain English over the radio, which I thought was a bad idea—busybodies, anyone? But no one asked my opinion.)

The main part of my job, however, was entering police reports into the computer. Every call the officers’ received had to be documented, no matter how minor. They logged the calls on a daily log and assigned a case number to each. They wrote a report for every call. The front side of the handwritten report contained pertinent info, like complainant’s name, address, type of complaint, time of call, time officer arrived on scene, time cleared, etc. On the back of the page, the officer wrote a narrative of what happened. At the end of the 4-12 shift, all the reports for that day were bundled up and I got them the next morning. (On Mondays I got the reports for the entire weekend.)

Entering the daily reports usually took most of the day. The administrative assistant usually helped me out on Mondays. Otherwise I’d always be behind. We used a software program specifically designed for police reports. There were many days I’d have to track down an officer or two to have them decipher what they wrote. (For the record, most doctors have better handwriting than police officers.) And some of them weren’t the smartest grapes in the bunch, if you know what I mean. One thing that drove me nuts was that I wasn’t allowed to correct their grammar or anything when I entered the reports. The narratives had to be typed exactly as they wrote them—even if they didn’t make any sense.

Some of the guys were pretty funny. When the sergeant told one officer his reports weren’t detailed enough, the officer got him back. After a call for a sick raccoon, he wrote a hysterical narrative detailing how the raccoon stared at him with his glassy, black eyes. He took the raccoon out in rather dramatic fashion. When another officer got calls for tree branches on the roadway, he’d write a report regaling how he lifted a giant sequoia from the road and hefted it into the forest, to the great applause of all his onlookers. I really miss some of those guys.

I also ended up with duties that really weren’t in my job description—like fingerprinting. When new state laws required a lot of people like teachers and nurses to be fingerprinted, the detective got backed up and asked if I’d mind helping out. Another duty was doing pat down searches on female arrestees. I did it a couple of times, then decided I wasn’t getting paid enough to take a chance getting stuck with a junkie’s dirty needle.

I wrote about a lot of my PD experiences on my own blog and on Working Stiffs (http://workingstiffs.blogspot.com), which a lot of the guys I worked with read on a regular basis. My former boss even gave me ideas for a couple of the posts. Even now, the post I wrote over two years ago (http://joycetremel.blogspot.com/2008/04/what-does-police-secretary-do.html) on my own blog about being a police secretary gets at least a couple of hits a week.

In July of 2008, however, the officer who chose and outfitted the police cars took issue with a post I wrote making fun of the latest car choice (Hey, it was a Dodge Charger! All I could think about was the Dukes of Hazard.). Hurt his ego, I guess. He went to the township manager and complained. The manager thought my posts “put the township in bad light,” and I was suspended, and then terminated. It still bothers me that the Chief never backed me up, especially because he encouraged me to write about the department. I see him in church once in awhile, and to this day, he can’t look me in the eye.

Instead of being bitter about the experience (although I do have my moments as you can see) I’ve chosen to be thankful, because it gave me the idea for my WIP. It features a police secretary whose boss drops dead in her office. Heh. Coincidence? I think not.

Feel free to ask me any questions about working in a suburban PD—or anything else you want to know. I’ll keep checking back and try to answer them the best I can. Thanks for having me here today!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Make Your Vote Count

In the United States, today is Election Day. As the political ads fade to silence, throughout the land citizens collectively sigh in relief. Thankfully, I live off-grid and so political phone calls cannot reach me; I don’t watch much television, so didn’t overdose on political commercials that assume I must be an idiot.

NPR, however, brought me news of a number of obnoxious political ads. The one that most upsets me urged a particular segment of the voters to stay away from the polls in protest. It isn’t that I’m against boycotts, because I am not. The women and men of Montgomery, Alabama who brought the bus company to its knees over segregation showed the positive power of such boycotts.

What is so pernicious about the approach of the ad is that the people who sponsored it didn’t suggest these voters should vote for candidate X because that candidate would better represent them. No, they suggested that the best thing these people could do to voice their concern with the last two years was to voluntarily disenfranchise themselves and not vote for any candidate.

Suggesting a strategy of withholding your vote makes as much sense as telling a young child that the best way for them to protest a smaller than desired piece of chocolate cake at dinner is for the kid to stomp off to bed without any dessert. That will sure show them, by golly.

My mother has proposed a voting solution when none of the candidates is adequate: ballots would have one additional box, none of the above. Checking that box subtracts one vote from every candidate. To win, a candidate must have the highest vote count and it must be positive. If all candidates score negative, the parties have to come up with new candidates until someone gets a positive vote.

Our system is far from perfect, but it is the one we have. Voting is a right, not a requirement. Unless you happen to be a white male who owns property, generations before us toiled and shed blood to earn your constitutional right to vote. Even if none of the candidates for a race meets your preferences, one is always closer to your ideal than another.

To make your vote count, you have to vote. Please do.

~ Jim

Monday, November 1, 2010

Murder Mystery Minds

I have a great fear of Walter Mitty, James Thurber’s character from his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” and a character he repeats in his novel, My World and Welcome To It. My fear: I’m too much like him.

Driving up Route 64 through Norfolk, I see a store located just off the road. Its reputation rubs me the wrong way and, before I get to Route 295 in Richmond, I’ve created a character who doesn’t like the store either. After I’m on the killing field of Route 95 North, a murder occurs in the store due to its testosterone-laced merchandise. I ensure that readers champion my protagonist.

When a cold day causes me to turn on my car’s heater, I wonder if it could be used to murder someone. A man, who wants to kill his wife, drives her to a remote spot on a cold day. After he gets out of the car, he tells her to stay in the car and keep warm by turning on the heater. He seems like such a loving man. I envision him to be a combination of Dorian Gray and Richard Cory. As she reaches for the controls and turns the heater on, the chameleon husband whips out a benign granular substance and pours it into the car’s air intake. Upon hitting the air intake and the heater’s temperature, it oxidizes into a toxic gas, killing his wife instantly.

I’m driving on a highway. In my side mirror, a red pick-up truck pulls beside my car on my left. The pick-up turns into a 1956 red Chevy convertible. My SUV turns into the 1967 gold Camaro I drove in high school. The year transforms to 1972. I look to my left and see a man who resembles a beardless Kris Kristofferson. When he smiles at me, I’m “lost” in his piercing blue eyes, but my crotch screams, “found.” In an instant, the pick-up truck reappears and I’m back to reality. I’m certain that Kris and his 56’ Chevy will drive through a manuscript I write someday.

A friend and I are touring rental homes in a beach town in North Carolina. Alone, we walk through an empty house. As I walk into the master bedroom, I wonder what would happen if a murderer entered the unlocked house or a murderous homeowner entered with their own key. Would we be killed? Or would they have brought someone who they intended to kill to the house and my friend and I end up witnessing a murder?

Like a memory that can be triggered in a variety of ways, my murderous mind takes on a life of its own and I fantasize characters and plots. If I try to invent characters and plots, usually they are abysmal. But when I’m in a boring situation, like long distance driving, my mind has no trouble spinning fiction. With no distractions, I can build and embellish, plot and plan, devise and kill, and trap and capture.

Is it the muse? Or do murder mystery minds think a common thought? Have I inherited Uncle Walter’s disease? I’m not sure of the answer, but if anyone can tell me what substance to throw into a heater to turn it into a killing machine, please let me know.