Sunday, September 30, 2012

Are Free Books Worth the Cost?

Back in the dark ages of self-publishing (November 30, 2010) I wrote a blog titled Career Risk and Self-Publishing. In it I said that whether or not a book was self-published depended on the author’s financial risk. I also highlighted what I thought was a career risk authors needed to consider:

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.

Since that time one of the big changes I have seen is the free e-book giveaway on Amazon. The goal is to get as many people as possible to download your book so it rises in Amazon’s ratings and garners even more downloads. Those who “advertise” in multiple outlets, tweet and have lots of followers to re-tweet, generate thousands of “sales.”

Some of these deals are from authors with a number of traditionally published novels. This free book to get someone interested in your work might be just the thing to jumpstart a career, especially for midlist authors dumped by traditional publishers.

It’s the previously unpublished who self-publish three or four novels within a year that concern me. These authors have taken two approaches. Most seem to use one of their earlier works for the freebie, often the first in a series. I assume the goal is to get people to then purchase the rest of the series.

Some others give away their current book for a short period of time. Presumably they hope people will like the most recent book and buy the earlier ones. This approach makes sense to me. If I enjoy a book by a new (to me) author, I will often pick up earlier books and, assuming they are as good as the first one I read, I’ll inhale the whole series. I just did that with Louise Penny. If I’ve read a couple of good books from an author, I’ll give them a pass if one book is only fair and try them again.

The major risk in these giveaways occurs when the free book is an early work and not of the same quality as later novels. I recently downloaded five free mysteries (no cozies since they are not my preference) and here are my results: excellent reads = 0; good reads = 0; fair reads = 1; did not finish = 4;  authors I will ever read in the future = 0.

I may be cheating myself with these five authors, but I’ll never know. I already have lots of authors I like to read. I’d like to find new authors, but with so many good ones out there, each person gets only one shot.

My first novel (even though I revised it through eleven drafts) will always remain in my virtual bottom drawer—it will never be ready for prime time. That’s a hard thing in this age of self-publishing for an author to say, because some people would surely buy it—but it is not good enough for the current me.

What’s your experience been with free books?

~ Jim

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mea Culpa & Breaking Rules

Based on the discussions of Gloria’s blog this week, it’s clear I need to fess up and tell the truth: I messed up. I thought I had someone lined up for today’s blog, but I didn’t, and so I am confessing the errors of my ways.

Although I’m retired from traditional employment, I think of writing as my work. (I’ve convinced the IRS of that for quite a few years with periodic dollops of income.) I took on scheduling the Salad Bowl Saturdays as part of that work, and so my most recent screw-up got me thinking about how I handled earlier work mess-ups. And that got me thinking about rule-breaking.

Throughout my career people periodically asked what I thought the secret to my relatively quick series of promotions was. Three things, I answered. First I worked 25+% more hours than most of my peers, so I had more actual experience for the same time in position. Second, if I made a commitment, I tried my darnedest to meet it, regardless of the inconvenience I caused myself. Bosses learned they could trust me. Third, I made more mistakes than other people, so I knew more.

Invariably people believed the first two points and ignored the third, although the third may be a key ingredient to my success. Frankly, I don’t learn much from doing something right the first time, especially if I am “following instructions.” If it is too easy, I may not even remember the steps I took the next time I need to perform the same task.

When I mess up, the problem and eventual solution are usually memorable. The bigger the error, the more memorable it and its resolution are. Many of my errors arise because I try something a bit different from the “tried and true.” I think I see a short cut or a “brilliant” new line of thinking and try it out. Mostly, I rediscover why people have standardized their methods the way they have. However, even “failed” experimentation allows me to better understand the reasons behind the current approach. Sometimes, I do discover a better way and both my employer and I benefit.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t particularly like screwing up. But if I were afraid of being wrong, I would never take any risks. Had I not taken risks, I couldn’t have improved the systems.

But it is also important to know when you can experiment and when it is imperative to follow guidelines. Exploring in the woods you come across a mushroom that is new to you. The rules say to only eat what you know is safe. Ignoring the rules can be a Darwin event. (I.e. you remove yourself from the gene pool.) I am not going to eat that mushroom. The risks are too high and the rewards too skimpy.

In writing there are very few Darwin events, but breaking rules can still kill a manuscript—or make it an award winner. I’m only a decade into this writing thing, but I’ve learned that always following the rules is boring, but ignoring them wholesale will likely mean no one will read my opus. Consequently, I toe the line with only an occasional transgression when I think it really serves my purpose.

I read that in Michael Chabon’s most recent work he has a 4,000 word sentence. I guarantee I will not read it. I will admit to dabbling with the occasional conversation not including quotes. I’m not a fan of the final comma in a series, unless it is required for clarity, but when the editor for Bad Policy relied on the Chicago Manual of Style for guidance, I was stuck inserting a ton of commas I had left out.

My current favorite “error” that I keep hoping will take hold is to use “their” as third person possessive when the individual’s sex is unknown or ambiguous. Historically one uses “his” for the unknown. (Legal documents often include the phrase that “the masculine includes the feminine and the singular the plural” – unless it is a pension plan I once worked on for Visiting Nurse of New York which said that “the feminine includes the masculine…” – I digress.) But whether or not that deviation from the standard works is something which each person will have to make up their own mind about.

What’s your take on rule-breaking?

~ Jim

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Man in the Mirror

The Man In The Mirror

Standing at the sink, I look down at my hands. I have old man hands.  There are splotches on the back. Age spots, I think they’re called. The Boston Celtics haven’t called to offer me a tryout. I suspect I’m no longer on their list of who to call in a pinch. I can’t dribble a basketball, shoot or rebound, but I am slow.

The last time I came home from the hospital I saw my grandfather in the mirror. He had pasty white skin, a hairless head, sagging jowls and he was none too stable on his feet.  I don’t see him when I look in the mirror now.  There’s just some old codger who has a certain resemblance to me. 

More frequently when I open my mouth now either my father’s or my mother’s words come out. Actually that’s not a problem. My parents pretty much know what they’re talking about, even when they’re channeling through me.  

These days before I go on trips, I count my pills to be sure I have enough of each medication to last through the time I’ll be away from home.   When I arrive I have more pill bottles than electronic gizmos to plug in by a ratio of at least 2 to 1.   

Maybe I’m feeling a bit morose because the current round of chemo is kicking the crap out of me.  I can walk in the morning only because I’ve figured out all the possible bathroom stops along the way. I’ve had some close calls. Getting older is not for sissies.   Chemo is something sick people should never have to endure. I have only one Velcade shot left in this round.  I feel like Rocky Balboa coming out for the last round against Apollo Creed, battered and bleeding just putting one foot in front of the other.

I may never climb Mount Everest, but I’m still on my feet. Don’t count me out just yet.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Truth, Lies and what's Between

Most of us were taught the importance of telling the truth. Our parents emphasized this by telling us we would be in more trouble if we didn't. In school we were told the same thing, and we heard how George Washington told his father "I cannot tell a lie. I cut down the cherry tree." We later learn that was a fabrication invented by an early biographer of our first president. And as the years went by, we read many books and saw many movies where someone was being interrogated and told it would be better for them if they told the truth, which often ended with bad results for the one being questioned, especially if the interrogator was a bad guy. To some extent this changed our seeing the world in black and white. Over time we started seeing shades of gray. Maybe it started when we found ourselves still being punished when we told the truth and wondered if it was really a lesser punishment because we'd been honest.

Still most of us, I hope, find the examples of lies, cheating and dishonesty that we read or hear about on the news repugnant. We've learned of college students at Harvard cheating, school administrators fudging their student rosters to hide how their schools are really doing and Ponzi schemes of all kinds. Recently we found out about writers, sometimes well-known ones, who have paid reviewers to give them good reviews to move their books up on the best seller or Amazon lists. That can only make us wonder how valid the Amazon lists actually are. One writer blogged about doing it as if he'd found a wonderful new way to market his book. I can only hope most writers are more ethical than that.

And, of course, now with a major election season in  full swing, the lies, half-truths, hyperbole and misleading statements are filling the media nonstop. PolitiFact and are working overtime to get the actual truth out there, but I'm not sure how many people look for those fact checks. Do they only get their candidate information from the ads?  I hope not because the largest amount of money ever raised for campaign advertising is being poured into campaign coffers mostly be a few very wealthy people. A lot of people think all politicians are dishonest. Unfortunately some are, but I don't believe the majority are. Misguided maybe, according to my opinion, but there are a lot of good politicians who want to make our country better. I may not agree with the opposite party's viewpoints, but I don't think it necessarily makes them totally dishonest. (By the way, I have no idea who the men in the picture are so I'm not impugning their character in any way.)

That leaves us with the "In Between." Most small children blurt out the truth even if it's offensive like "You look funny," although at another time they can blame a sibling or an imaginary character for doing something they themselves did. As we mature we learn the value of the white lie; the way of fudging the truth so as not to hurt some one's feelings. When we get a gift we neither like nor can use, we don't tell the giver that. We look for something nice to say about it while wondering how we can get away with not wearing it or displaying it in our home. If someone asks us how we like their new dress, we evade telling them our true opinion by saying something like we love the color, but don't tell them it's very unflattering.

Cheating is a lie I have trouble condoning. Whether it's cheating at a game - how can anyone feel they really won if they cheated to win - or cheating on your income tax or something else. Of course, everyone has excuses if they're caught.

Is lying more prevalent today than it was in the so called good old days? I don't think so. Human nature being what it is, there have always been those who lied and cheated to get what they want. I think there's just more opportunity to be found out today through the Internet. Of course, there are more opportunities to lie, cheat and steal through the Internet, too. As for myself, I try to always be honest, except for those kind, little, white lies, and even those I try to avoid by not saying anything when possible. Guilty feelings are a burden on the soul and hard to live with.

When do you feel it's okay to stretch the truth?

Have you ever been caught out in a lie?



Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Karen Cantwell's Mad, Mad, Mad World

I met Karen at my local SinC Chesapeake Chapter when we launched the chapter’s fifth anthology of short stories, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job Is Murder. Her short story, “Next Stop, Foggy Bottom” highlighted Karen’s gift of writing humorous mysteries with a supernatural bent. But her series, starring Barbara Marr, takes her comedic flair to the traditional-demented cozy subgenre. So far, she has released three books in the series, Take the Monkeys and Run, Citizen Insane, and Silence of the Yams. Please welcome Karen to WWK.                                 E. B. Davis

It’s clear you think of your writing as entertainment since you spin the “fun” in dysfunctional. Was that part of your original conception for the series?
Absolutely! When I first decided to write a mystery series, I wrote down what I wanted to achieve with the books. First on my list was "entertain." Second was "make people laugh," and third was "when readers finish the book, they slap their knee and shout 'Now that was fun!'" If I've done those three things with the Barbara Marr series, then I'm a happy camper.

Is dysfunction the new normal?
Normal? I don't believe there is such a thing. When you get to know people, you find they all have their "dysfunctions" and so yes, I would have to say dysfunction is normal! What I've done for Barbara Marr, is place her in this "normal" setting--family life in the suburbs--then throw crazy circumstances and characters at her. That dichotomy and how she reacts is the humor and fun in the story. At least I hope that's how it works!

Having a man around the house doesn’t seem to be a problem for Barbara, but having her husband at home is a problem. Will that toilet ever get fixed?
I don't know, life is pretty nutty in the Marr home. I'm not sure about that toilet. It may run unchecked for some time. Although, my goal for Barb's character has always been that she's the kind of woman who can take care of herself, so maybe I just need to grow her a pair and have her fix the darned thing herself! I mean, if she can throw herself in front of a bullet to save her hubby, she can fix a toilet, right?  

Why did you choose a housewife as your main character, and with Barbara Marr in mind, do you think there is any such thing as a traditional housewife?
They say write what you know, and I know about being a housewife. I also know that a lot of housewives read, so I wanted to reach out to those women by creating a character that they could relate to and laugh with at the same time. The fun thing is that I have many fans who are men. They really seem to enjoy Barb as well.

Your titles put English on movie titles. Why?
Barbara loves the movies and her dream at one time in life was to write and direct movies. She didn't follow that path, but decides, when her life turns on a dime, to start her own movie review website. Hence, the movie-title theme. I have a blast twisting movie titles and I think readers are drawn to them easily. And, by the way, I take suggestions!

Barbara Marr’s best friend is no Ethel Mertz. Getting away from Barbara means moving to the West Coast. Can any of her friends take the heat?
Daunted by the danger that seems to surround Barb, Roz Walker does leave the scene in Silenced by the Yams, but don't count her out entirely. She's still Barb's best friend, after all! Peggy Rubenstein, Barb's other friend loves adventure, so she's right there with Barb all along. And of course, Colt Baron, well he IS heat! He's not going anywhere, trust me.

What kind of mother sets up her married daughter on dates?  
Barb's mom, Diane, is definitely not your typical mother and she is one of my more favorite characters to write for that reason. Rather than being the cookie-baking, gray-haired, sedate mother with just the right advice, she's a risk-taking, death-defying, big-fish-talking Amazon with odd ideas. But, of course, Barb still loves her. What's not to love about a woman who takes geriatric pole dancing lessons?

What experiences spring-boarded writing this series that you can tell us?
Several years ago while I was working desperately to gel a workable plot for my first book, my neighbors told me the story of a day soon after they first moved into their house over forty years ago. The wife was cooking spaghetti sauce on the stove and the kids were out playing in the yard. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful in their new home until the three kids ran screaming into the kitchen that there was a monkey on their roof. Sure enough, when she went outside, she found not one monkey, but four. A mother and her baby on the roof and two in the trees above. To make a long story short, after several phone calls and an hour or so of waiting, eventually a white, windowless, unmarked van arrived with men covered head-to-toe in safety suits. It was all quite ominous. They didn't identify themselves or even speak to her. They just retrieved the monkeys and disappeared into the sunset. You just don't hear stories like that every day so I knew I had to use it for inspiration, which I did, and Take the Monkeys and Run was born.

Does Homeland Security monitor your email?
I'm not sure about my email, but I sure do worry about my Google browsing history! I think all mystery writers have this fear. Earlier this summer while researching my latest book, I was searching on questions like "types of cleavers," "Can cleavers cut through bone?" "deaths by cleavers," and another time when I needed to know which poison would work fastest killing someone, well, you can just imagine the search questions I was typing in that day! "Best poison to kill a person fast." Yup, I'd be in trouble for sure if someone confiscated my computer before I could erase my browsing history. Which I do regularly, by the way!

What’s the title and hook of book four?
Book four is Saturday Night Cleaver, due out in December. And I already know the title of book five because I let fans vote and choose. I'm very pleased with the title and plot I'll be cooking up for that one: Dead Man Stalking.

Bonus: Beach or Mountains?  Oh, the beach. No question. Less to pack!

And thank you so much for having me! This interview was great fun with original questions. You actually made me think a little, EB! After a lazy summer, I needed to get that brain working again.

You’ll be able to find all Karen’s demented cozies at

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Well-Loved Books

I own twenty vintage children’s books—Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames and The Bobbsey Twins—published in the first half of the 20th century. They have been passed down through generations of mystery loving females in my family, usually sister to sister or mother to daughter. The collection was much larger when I was young, and I don’t know what happened to the rest of the books.

When I was eight years old my favorite pastime was to select one of these books and climb an olive tree in the back yard. I would sit in the “V” of two branches and read for hours, lost in the adventures of my “friends”.
The oldest book, “The Bobbsey Twins on a Houseboat,” was published in 1915 (almost one hundred years ago)!

Imagine the events that book has lived through: The Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the turbulent sixties, a man on the moon, the go-go eighties, 9/11, the recent Great Recession, and the upheaval of the publishing industry.
It also had many children lovingly, and probably clumsily, handle it over the years. I tried to treat all books carefully following the rule, “Don’t open it up and set it face down or you’ll break its spine.” But with that much use, it’s inevitable that pages rip or come loose.

Some books are falling apart probably past the point of repair. The pages are brittle and yellow, the covers faded or lost. I don’t think they are worth much money but they do have sentimental value. One has a handwritten birthday wish from the eldest sister to the youngest dated 1925 taped to the inside cover.

Older books have a different look and feel than modern books. The covers appear to be full cloth bindings and the back cover doesn’t contain a description of the book. Each book has a frontispiece with a hand drawn picture as well as a table of contents.

Many of the children who read them have passed on, but the books remain. Will they survive the technological revolution and e-books? That remains to be seen. Perhaps older, well-loved books will be relegated to museums or, sadly, thrown out. But they shaped many young children in my family and others by showing them possibilities…and that life can be a mystery and grand adventure.

Do you have any well-loved books?

Also, do you know how to preserve or restore books? I’d like to hear your ideas.


Monday, September 24, 2012

New Roles

My son became engaged this summer. I felt elated by the news, but then I also realized that with their marriage I would become a dreaded mother-in-law, and I—cringed.

Often the new roles we must play in life are fraught with bad examples. The mother-in-law is usually portrayed as a unlikeable, judgmental woman who competes with the son’s wife and makes power plays to force the daughter-in-law into the backseat proving Mom is still her son’s number one gal. This is all a bit too Freudian for me. As a mom, I want to help them as much as I can without interfering. How I will accomplish that is another matter, but I think it involves keeping my mouth shut as much as possible. Luckily, I have a life outside of my kids, which is often the main problem where mother-in-laws are concerned.

But this situation started me thinking about my role as an author. We have relationships to each other online and in person at conferences and to the public who we hope will read our work. Communicating with each other is much easier because we all know what we are up against and, except for having little time, writers are a helpful group. But in any group there are a few political and personal skirmishes that occur. Who can you ask to promote your work? Who will write a blurb for your jacket cover? Will anyone be insulted if you ask?

I’m still hesitant outside of the writing world to announce that I am a mystery writer. When I say my short stories have been published, people usually follow up by saying something about seeing me on the bestseller list someday. While this is a nice sentiment, it also downplays my current accomplishments. I usually reply with a depreciating comment because, of course, in our dreams, being on the bestseller’s list is the goal. The entire conversation makes me uncomfortable so I switch topics.

Authors who already have several books published may have an easier time, but if your book hasn’t sold a million copies and Oprah hasn’t recommended it, perhaps the role is still awkward. Awards and money do prove your success, and yet good work still abounds outside of the superstar realm.  
If someone mentions in conversation he/she is an engineer, no one asks if his/her work has garnered professional awards or made millions, but in the case of writers, the public expects us all to be recipients of Agatha or Edgar awards and/or be on the bestseller list. If not, you must not be a good writer. It’s as if writing is a profession for stars only. I wonder if actors and actresses go through this too. I imagine an actor being asked if he won an Academy Award to have him reply, “No, but I was great in that toilet cleaner commercial.”

Everyone starts somewhere, and perhaps in this profession it is especially strange because there are very few fiction writers who start writing after college and make it to the top while in their youth. Most of us are older, and therefore have the experience and life skills to give necessary depth and dimension to our work. In other fields, there are management trainees and continuing rungs on the ladder to the top of their fields. No one expects someone in business to start at the top. In writing, there are few instant success stories, but then, in any profession there are precious few. The public’s perception of writers I find incredulous and strange.

Do you find it difficult to talk about your writing to those outside of the field? Do you explain or smile and switch topics?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Landscape of the Heart


I have a theory that part of our inheritance comes in the form of genes and the rest comes in the form of stories. As with the nature/nurture debate we could spend endless time assigning weights to these two forms of inheritance but I’m not gonna do it today, no sir.
Well, maybe a little.
The gene part gave me and my sisters our looks. One of my sisters looks much more like Mom than Dad; my other sister and I look more like Dad. At the visitation for my father, who passed away last week, a lot of people told me I was the spitting image of my father. Other than for a two week experiment, my father never wore a beard and his hair was short. However, we’re both bald and fairly tall, especially in a room of older folks who have shrunk or are stooped. And people need something to say in the receiving line. A few people told my sister who looks quite similar to Mom that she looked just like Dad. Now there is wishful thinking or a demonstrated need for a lens correction.
People will see what they want to. I remember my Mother telling me about people who would swear she looked just like her father. Problem with that was she was adopted. So when people tell you how much you resemble someone else in your family, it’s time to reach for a salt shaker (for that grain of salt) – or sometimes even a salt block.
However, my partner, Jan, insists that as I get older my laugh and Dad’s sound more and more alike. And an ex-wife commented decades ago when watching my father and me walking together that we had the same gaits. I’m not sure whether these shared characteristics are genes, learned/modeled behaviors or salt-shaker material.
And frankly, I don’t much care. What is important to me, and I know has shaped me, are the family stories told. Since it was my father who died, I’ll concentrate on his side of the family. This very small semicircle of headstones represents the following achievements:
Abolitionist newspaper editor and circuit rider (1840s), founder of water cures 1850s (who believed in exercise, whole foods, no caffeine and alcohol), creator of the first ready-to-eat cereal (granula – no typo; granola came about because a rival cereal company lost a patent suit to the Jacksons and had to change the name of their cereal), one of the first US woman physicians (1850s or earlier) and proponent of the “American Costume” (loose fitting clothes for women) , Initial supporters of the first American Red Cross Chapter (Chapter #1 in Dansville, NY), Founder of the Dansville Fire Department, another woman physician (graduated in 1877), an early cost accountant, sober alcoholic, seventy-five-year Mason, decorated Coast Guard auxiliary member for life saving beyond the call of duty (at age 80+), early female graduate of the University of Rochester when women had to take chemistry labs in separate rooms from the men, several authors. And I could go on and on and on.
This past Wednesday we added Dad and all the stories we share of and with him.
~ Jim

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Today's Salad Bowl Saturday post is by renowned short story writer B.K. Stevens. Writing in the Last Editor Standing earlier this year, she takes on the issue of our changing English language.


The English language changes constantly, often for good reasons. New words emerge to meet new needs—“astronaut” and “cyberspace” come to mind as obvious examples. The need for “bootylicious” may seem less urgent, but the Oxford English Dictionary now lists the word, so some experts must think it serves some purpose. And sometimes, when words pass out of the language, we needn’t mourn them much. True, when we hear King Lear’s faithful follower, Kent, condemn Oswald as a “whoreson cullionly barber-monger,” today’s insults sound merely crude by comparison. But “bastard” will do for “whoreson,” and “vile” may be even better than “cullionly.” We may regret the loss of “barber-monger”—“fop” isn’t nearly as colorful and concrete—but at a time when vain men favor stylists, we should probably admit that “barber-monger” no longer meets our needs.

The loss of some other words, however, may do real damage by depriving us of concise, specific ways to express certain ideas. And it’s frustrating when words or their meanings are lost not because of changing needs but because of ignorance, laziness, or, in some cases, silliness.

For example, if your friend Joan says she’s thinking of buying stocks, you might be tempted to tell her to get advice from a disinterested expert. If you do, however, Joan will probably recoil: “No! I want advice from an expert who cares!” It would take a long time to explain that a disinterested expert is not an uninterested expert; rather, it’s an expert who cannot profit from any decisions Joan makes, because he or she owns no shares in (has no interests in) any companies in which Joan might invest. So chances are you’ll tell Joan to seek advice from an objective expert, even though that won’t convey your meaning as precisely. That’s one way in which words get lost: So many people use them carelessly that one hesitates to use them correctly, for fear of being misunderstood. By now, it’s probably too late to save “disinterested.” After decades of abuse, it’s become an unnecessary synonym for “uninterested,” rather than a useful word with its own distinct meaning.

“Fortuitous” is similarly endangered. “Fortuitously, both sisters arrived exactly at noon”—many people will assume that it’s fortunate the sisters arrived at the same time, not that their simultaneous arrival, for good or ill, happened by chance. In this case, I suspect, the confusion got started not because there was any need for a synonym for “fortunate” but because people thought “fortuitous” sounded fancier. I had an intelligent, well-educated colleague who always said “comprise” when he meant “compose”—“The committee will be comprised of six people elected by the faculty.” Usually, I don’t correct people when they make this sort of mistake, but once, when he drafted a proposal that would bear both our names, I had no choice. He listened impatiently while I explained the differences between the words and showed him the relevant pages in the dictionary and The Elements of Style. Then he shook his head. “But ‘comprised’ sounds better,” he said.

Probably, to many people, it does, just as “infer” sounds like a more elegant way of saying “imply.” It’s ironic when mistakes become so common that the wrong words sound more impressive than the right ones.

“Aggravate,” “hopefully,” “tortuous,” “anticipate,” “transpire”—in one sense, these words and many others seem in no danger of disappearing from the language, for we still see and hear them often. But they’re so widely misunderstood that their usefulness is disappearing. When “aggravate” degenerates into nothing but a synonym for “irritate,” we won’t need it any more—and we’ll have an unfulfilled need for a word that concisely expresses the idea of making something worse by intensifying it.

How serious is this problem? It may not be a crisis, but I don’t think it’s trivial, and I don’t think editors and English teachers are the only ones who should be concerned. In George Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government tries to limit the range of citizens’ thoughts by limiting their vocabulary. If “double-plus-ungood” is the only word available for describing something that’s foolish, or unjust, or shameful, people’s ability to explain exactly why they oppose that thing is diminished—they’ll have a hard time articulating their objection for others, perhaps an equally hard time clarifying it in their own minds. If people have only a fuzzy notion of why they distrust Big Brother, how likely are they to rebel?

Of course, we’re far from the sort of thought domination Orwell envisions. Even if all the words I’ve mentioned and dozens of others dissolve into superfluous mush, we’ll have a vast vocabulary to draw upon. Still, it makes sense to do all we can to stop the erosion. If we don’t, it might get worse. We should at least have the courage to use words correctly ourselves, regardless of the consequences. So you should tell Joan to look for a disinterested expert, even at the risk of having to explain; and I shouldn’t have waited so long to find a tactful way to talk to my colleague about “comprise” and “compose.”

The connections between language and thought are so close, so vital, that we need to guard our words fiercely. As Orwell says in “Politics and the English Language,” our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” In challenging times—and that means, really, in all times—we recognize the need to make our thoughts precise. We should work hard to keep our words as precise as we want our thoughts to be.

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published almost forty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. One Shot, an e-novella published by Untreed Reads, is a humorous whodunit that takes a satirical look at issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. B.K.’s awards include a Derringer and first place in a national suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark.

B.K. has a Ph.D. in English, has taught literature and composition at the college level for many years, and has published college textbooks on composition and on literary criticism and research. Website:

Friday, September 21, 2012

KIller Nashville Agent Roundtables

Agent Roundtables at Killer Nashville

A new experience for me during this year’s great convention “Killer Nashville” was to attend two agent roundtables.  Writers who were prospective clients were advised to bring multiple copies of the first two pages of their unpublished but completed novels to a room where one or two agents or publishers listened to a reader read aloud each submission.  The idea was to avoid having a long line of authors sweating and exuding massive amounts of anxiety waiting for overworked agents or publishers who were inevitably running late and wondering when they’d have time for a bathroom break.
I remember one time during an agent event when the woman immediately in front of me in line sat down at a table with an agent. A workshop staff member told her she was out of time before she had a chance to say a single word.  The agent the writer and I all objected.  I assured the staff member I was willing to wait until the writer had her full time with the agent.

I was surprised by how well the roundtables worked.  Two pages were enough for experienced professionals to get a flavor of the work and make insightful suggestions. I have always been aware of the need for strong openings and — wow— do I believe it now. I was very impressed by the quality of the submissions.  I heard a wide variety of genres and approaches with strikingly good writing.
I do have one hint for those who attend similar events:  Follow the directions! The agents I met with were polite when presented with single-spaced submissions, three-page submissions and two pages that were not the first two pages in the novel.  So this is my reaction, not theirs.  How utterly clueless. If you were an agent, and a prospective writer/client did not comply with simple, clear directions would that make you more or less interested in representing the writer’s work? Well?

I used to be part of a team at work that hired mental health professionals.  We always had at least five candidates for every opening. While it was often difficult to choose between qualified candidates, each time the task was made much easier by those applicants who disqualified themselves. Some people did not following the simple directions on the application form. Some submitted ungrammatical resumes with spelling errors and clumsy sentence structure.  (Writing clinical progress notes was one part of the job.) Inappropriate dress and/or behavior and a lack of basic information about the jobs, which was available online, were other clues that a person would not be a good fit. 

My wife used to help hire people for academic positions. She still talks about a candidate who called the next day asking to be bailed out of jail. That candidate was not offered a position.

What have you seen people do that undermined their attempts with an agent, an editor or an employer?  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Seascape "Escape to Write" Writers Retreat

                                         Hallie Ephron, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Roberta Isleib

      I just returned from Seascape, a writers retreat put on by Hallie Ephron and Roberta Isleib. Roberta's invitation to join stated "Devote a weekend to reinvigorating your creativity and revising your manuscript in the beautiful Connecticut River Valley. Tune out distractions from the outside world as you spend time brainstorming, critiquing, revising and setting goals with other talented, committed crime fiction writers." And it lived up to the introduction.

It was a rewarding and pleasant weekend at the Guest House Retreat Center in Chester Ct; a large, charming, renovated country inn surrounded by trees in a rural setting. There were comfortable areas to sit and visit with other writers, and our rooms were spacious, airy and clean each with its own bathroom. I had French doors on one wall of my room and a large window on another wall allowing a free flow of fresh air if I wished it. We had Internet access, but no TV in the whole facility to distract us. The only sounds were bird songs and the pleasant conversation and laughter of the guests. There was a grand piano in one room, but I didn't hear anyone play it.

Sixteen of us in addition to Hallie and Roberta attended this retreat workshop. Each of us had to submit the first 20 pages of our manuscript in advance of the members of our group to read before coming. We were divided into two groups. My group consisted of Debra Overton, Carol Lynn, Denise Terry, Marie Constanza, Mary Brookman, Rhonda Lane, Karen Cleveland, Rebecca Butler and myself. Although we mingled with the others in group sessions and meals, I got to know my own group best because of the in depth critique sessions. For our critiques, we were to read straight through the submissions first to get our overall impression of it as a reader. Then we were to go through it again following a list of things to look for and write what we saw were the major strengths and what needed to be worked on.

After our get acquainted session Friday evening, we went to dinner. Oh my, what a delicious meal that was. It was served buffet style with many choices including food for vegans and gluten free offerings. Coffee, hot water for a wide assortment of teas, lemonade, iced water and iced tea were available from early morning until nine or ten at night. Fruit was also always available.

Following dinner was the first of our two critique  sessions. My group met with Hallie and focused on the beginning of each manuscript. Each submission was given ten minutes for input from the others while the author remained silent. They were each to tell if they wanted to read on and why or why not. At the end if the author had any comments or needed to answer any questions, she then had that opportunity. (Left to right, Carol Lynn, Hallie Ephron, Denise Terry, Marie Constanza, and Rhonda Lane.

When it ended at nine, I was ready to go to my room since I'd been up since 4:00 a.m. to catch my plane with very little sleep the night before, and also because of all the information and thoughts I had to absorb. I was so happy to have a comfortable bed to crash in.

After a plentiful breakfast, which I couldn't thoroughly enjoy because I'd slept in, we had our 2nd critique session with Roberta on creating memorable characters. It was another good session with lots of helpful input from Roberta and my group. I've come up with a lot of changes I want to make to improve my beginning from both critique sessions. Between the critique session and lunch there was a session on "Character Driven Plotting" by Roberta. After lunch there was free time to revise, relax, meet with others or have a "One on One" with Hallie if you signed up for one. I think everyone did.

At 3:00 Hank Phillippi Ryan joined us to present "Using Techniques from TV Journalism to Pump Your Novel." It was interesting, informative and at times funny as Hallie would interrupt and correct something Hank had said. It was quite obvious they're good friends. If you've not met Hank, you're missing something. She's quite charming and fun.

Later after dinner everyone met again to present their elevator pitches if they chose to do so, and then there was a practice session for a panel session Hallie, Roberta and Hank are presenting at Bouchercon. It's their take on Family Feud with questions pertaining to mysteries. We were divided into two teams; one side of the room against the other. It was so much fun that there was almost constant laughter.  Our team won.

After breakfast on Sunday there was a session on "Pumping up Suspense" presented by Hallie. I had a "One on One" with Roberta during Hallie's session so I missed it, but I did get her handout. After my time with Roberta, I had to leave for the airport to catch my plane so I also missed the final wrap up and lunch.

Was the weekend worth the expense? Absolutely. I came away with ideas on how to make my manuscript better and I made new friends with people who have the same goal: writing a good mystery.

Have you ever attended any kind of retreat?  Would you like to do so someday?                                                                                                                                                

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

My Road to E-Publishing

I've been asked to share some of the tricks I've learned while publishing my short story on Amazon and Smashwords.

First off, I want to give a HUGE shout out to my editor, Nancy Adams!  She's been a boon to my writing by helping me wade through the grammatical errors I'd been making for much of my life.

I also want to thank the two writers groups to which I belong: Sisters in Crime - Northern California Chapter, and the Guppies (which stands for the Great Unpublished, for those of you not in the "know").  Through these groups I've met several people who have been helpful with their war stories and gentle prodding to get me in the right direction.  I even met Nancy through the Guppies, while looking for Beta Readers.

Also through the Guppies, I was turned on to the blog by CJ Lyons, titled "No Rules, Just Write."  Her blog arrives in my inbox every few days with amazing gems for writers.  Some of the past titles are Creativity's Secret Ingredient and Find the Heart of Your Story, and--being a self-published author herself--she has many blogs to help those interested in that as well.

Ms. Lyons even offers a great tutorial on how to format your book for publishing on Amazon's Kindle.  In 5 Easy Steps to Format Your e-Book she walks you through step-by-step instructions for getting it set up.

For those of you interested in publishing on Smashwords, they also offer in-depth guidelines on how to make your manuscript e-reader friendly.  Their information reads more like stereo instructions, but I highly recommend you read them anyway.  I didn't at first, and my short story was delayed from being published on their site for two weeks because of it.  And those who could see the story, it looked all wonky and weird.  NOT a good example of your "professionalism" in this business.

As for the cover of my story, that I made myself.  I used Adobe Photoshop software, and bought some images from Getty Images.  You can also buy stock photos from Shutterstock, or iStockPhoto.  These sites offer royalty free images that you can buy and use as many times as you want.  I also purchased a bundle from Getty, which allows me to download five pictures for one price.  I'm not sure if Shutterstock or iStockPhoto have that option as well, but I would assume they do.

For those of you not Photoshop savvy, you could check with neighbors or friends who might have knowledge of the software.  Lots of people are getting into graphics and graphic design these days, so I'm sure they wouldn't be hard to find.  But, if you're interested in learning it on your own, it's quite fun to see what you can create in Photoshop.  Yes, a professional would be able to make a great cover for your book, but they can also cost a pretty penny.  I'm sure it's worth it, but you have to look at where your finances are, realistically.

Hopefully this has given you some help and knowledge.  Stay tuned while I learn how to market my book(s), and I'll give you those pointers down the road.  :o)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dark night

I was so discouraged with my writing that my last blog was about sheep. Sheep are my respite. I had been struggling with two short stories, one that had been accepted and was back for a rewrite and the other that I couldn't quite jam into the call for manuscripts. I couldn't make it funny enough, and most of my readers didn't understand the basis of the story. Imagine Joseph's Technicolor Dream Coat set in the early colonial period on an island off the New England coast. Submission date was bearing down fast on me, so I made a few last minute fixes and sent it off with no hope for it. Too off the wall, too obscure. But done.
The second story was on my desk with notes from the editor. This time the story had more requested changes than I was willing to make. Police women in 1889? I don't think so. I have to figure out some way to satisfy the editors without making a mash up of my story. I can't change the weapons, since the story depends on the rifling marks on the bullets. Yes in 1889.
Under pressure from deadlines and not at all sure I could make either story work for the publications they were aimed at, I was beginning to wonder why I bothered. I could chuck both stories and start again.
I might just need to start something fresh to get out from under the burden of stories I couldn't seem to fix. Forget that I had deadlines and submit elsewhere. That would give me time to work through them more carefully.
Or maybe I needed to do something else like pay more attention to the sheep, write something new, take a cooking class. Or housework.
Or maybe I needed to suck it up and get back to work. I complained to all my on line buddies about how hard it was.
What keeps writers chugging along through the dark night of the writer's soul?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Contemplating My Pseudonym

  What's in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet;
      So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
      Retain that dear perfection which he owes
      Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
      And for that name which is no part of thee
      Take all myself.
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

My last name really isn’t Davis, but it’s similar. I wanted to use a pseudonym because of security (we do write about murder) and because I wanted personal privacy. Due to my horrible handwriting my last name, which is unusual, is often confused with the more common name of Davis. And that’s why I chose the moniker. (You have no idea how happy I am that it is a keyboarding world.)

I try to go with the flow, so I figured why not use the flaw to my advantage. I’ve been in many a doctor’s office where I’ve signed in at the desk and sat in the waiting room. Receptionists ask for “Mrs. Davis,” and I knew that they meant me. Of course, the doctor’s office needs to know my real name, so I’ve corrected them while apologizing for my lousy handwriting. But, from those experiences, I knew, when it came to signing books, I could use my signature and no one would know the difference. And that’s how my nom de plume came about. I thought it practical.

At the time, I didn’t know much about the book business, and in this business a rose by any other name is not just as sweet. Now that I know a bit more about the business side of authoring, I’m not sure if the name is an asset or a detriment. The name has one marketing aspect going for it; the initials eliminate proclaiming myself female, and because statistically most men don’t read female authors while women will read both sexes, the name doesn’t eliminate almost 50% of the reading population.

Others possess the name, which is a detriment. There is a black blues/gospel singer by the same name who possesses the url  “” There is an E. B. Davis, who is a basketball player and also another who is a professional marketer. When I started to write fiction seriously in 2005 and searched the Internet, I found those three people and debated the name. But due to my bad penmanship, I thought it was fate. Searching for myself resulted in nothing—virtually I didn’t exist. It wasn’t until we created WWK in 2010 that I had any impact on the Internet or social media. Since then, I’ve had six short stories published. Due to Google Plus, I now am listed second on the search engines and my blogger profile comes in listed at fourth, so I’m a bit more optimistic about the name.

There are those in book marketing who feel that the name represents a brand. If the book is of a particular genre, the name used is associated with that genre so that the reader knows what the product will be when purchasing the book. If the same author writes in a different genre, the writer must use a different name so that the reader isn’t disappointed or mad that the book is a different genre. Writers who change names annoy me. I read for the writing, not for the associated genre. As a reader, I’ll read almost anything as long as the writing is well crafted by an author, and therefore, is one I trust. I’m also not taken with the marketing concept because it presupposes that readers are stupid nonreaders. Doesn’t everyone read jacket covers before purchasing books?

I thought I’d get around that branding by associating my writing and name to the beach, as in “beach writer” since most of my fiction is set there, and I mainly write mystery. But sometimes my settings aren’t at the beach and occasionally I write romance or spiritual fiction so I’m not singular in that respect. A reader can’t always count on a beach mystery 100% of the time. So now I’m rethinking and wondering if I should change my pseudonym for different genres even if I dislike that concept.

A few weeks ago, a wonderful review appeared on the Internet for Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, in which my short story “Lucky In Death” appears. The review site listed each of the author’s names. If the author had a website, the names were links to their author sites. My name was not interactive because my only website is this blog. I’m thinking that it is time for me to have an author website. But since the blues singer “E.B. Davis” possesses the url, what am I to do? Change my moniker or obtain the url “authorebdavis,” which I’m not sure anyone will think to input?

What would you do? How did you determine your pseudonym?