Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Joplin Fundraiser Update

I’m delighted to report that together we raised $833.50 to send to the Rodriguez and Ramierz families in Joplin who lost their homes, cars, and even a workplace in the devastating tornado last week. A huge THANK YOU to everyone who bought books, spread the word, or made a direct donation to the cause, and a special thanks to friend of the blog, Lois Hirt.

Our real total was even higher, because we received several emails from readers who asked for the family's address so they could send cash directly, and Judith made an additional donation to the After the Storm efforts for North Minneapolis.

In other news, I was surprised and pleased when my local paper (the Register Guard) ran a short piece about our fundraiser. Every link, Twitter, and news story helped make a small difference in the family’s life.

I wrote this post last night, at the end of Memorial Day, and it seemed fitting to be reminded of the tremendous generosity and courage of so many people around the country. From the smallest acts of kindness to the sacrifice of soldiers' lives for our country, we have much to be grateful for.—L.J.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Vampires, and Werewolves, and Faeries! Oh My!

Dead Reckoning by Charlaine Harris.

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

In the unputdownable eleventh Sookie Stackhouse novel, Sookie is minding her own business, waitressing at Merlotte's, providing room and board for two of her faerie relatives, and just being the girlfriend of the vampire sheriff of Louisiana when a Molotov cocktail is thrown through the window of the bar while she's at work. Luckily, she's not seriously hurt, nor is the building. Sookie and Sam at first assume that it's the work of militant weres, angry because Sam has forced the two-natured to "come out".

Meanwhile, Sookie is troubled by the bond between herself and Eric Northman (her husband, by vampire standards), which allows them to sense strong emotions in each other. She knows that Eric is deeply troubled by something, the details of which he won't share with her. And everything they do is monitored closely by the new vampire King.

The popularity of this series has grown since it was made into the television series True Blood in 2008, and with the help of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (both books and films), the subject of vampires has become an international craze.

Yet vampires have actually been part of popular culture since before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, based on a folk legend, in 1897. Stoker might also have looked to John Polidori's The Vampyre (1819) and Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu. Then there was Annie Rice's Interview with a Vampire series in the 1970s and 80s, and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It has been theorized that in the 19th Century, vampires symbolized the male as a predator versus the innocence of the female in a "paternalist world in which women were constantly threatened by seducers, and the consequences of pregnancy outside of marriage really were life and death"*.

And today? Grady Hendrix on Slate says "Many male vampires are portrayed in popular media as sensitive, literate and emotionally available, the ideal for a lot of women."

Though Eric Northman may be literate and is very sensitive to Sookie due to their special bond, he is definitely not emotionally available. This is especially evident in Dead Reckoning as he refuses to tell Sookie what is disturbing him until she finally guesses. Of course, Sookie doesn't open up to Eric much, either, but it can be argued that she's just a woman trying to cope with an unusual amount of stress.

What do you think?

*Peter Logan, Professor of English at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Books for Charity: Helping a Family in Joplin

Posted by L.J. Sellers
As I watched families pick through the rubble of their homes, looking for shoes for their kids, I felt sickened and helpless. As helpless as they must have felt to see the tornado coming and not be able to do anything but hide and hope for the best. I tried to imagine what it would feel to have lost everything and not have enough money to rent a motel room for the week.

So rather than feel helpless, I decided to do what I could. Together with my blogger partners, we’re raising money to help a family in Joplin, Missouri. Drew, Judith and I have pledged 100% our Amazon book royalties (print and digital) through the end of month to this charitable cause.

The family we're helping is Francisco and Natasha Rodriguez and their children Zion and Adriana. Natasha is pictured here with the kids. They plan to share the money with other family members Jose, Sabrola, and Fabian Ramierz, who lost their home, cars, and workplace.

The amount of money we raise will be up to readers. We hope you’ll take advantage of this opportunity to buy some great books and donate to a good cause at the same time. Here’s a list of the participating novels with links to Amazon.

Drew’s bestselling title: While the Savage Sleeps

L.J.’s bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries:
The Sex Club
Secrets to Die For
Thrilled to Death
Passions of the Dead
Dying for Justice
And standalone thrillers:
The Baby Thief
The Suicide Effect

Judith’s guilty pleasure Skeeter Hughes mysteries:
Where’s Billie?
Whose Hand?

Friend of the blog author C.J. West has decided to join us and donate 100% of his e-book sales. His titles are:
The End of Marking Time (A creative, compelling story, L.J. adds)
Taking Stock
Randy Black thrillers:
Sin & Vengeance
A Demon Awaits
Gretchen Green

Another way to help out is to spread the word. Use Facebook, Twitter, or any of your online accounts to let other readers know about this charitable cause. If you want to help this family directly without buying books (as some readers have requested), please email me or anyone else on the blog for their mailing address.

The outpouring of support has been terrific! Thank you!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Writing a Killer Thriller, Part I

by Jodie Renner
(a small section of Jodie's bookcase above)
- Some key techniques for writing a compelling suspense-thriller…or any other page-turner. 
To unwind, I love reading thrillers, romantic suspense, suspense-mysteries, and other crime fiction, as they provide just the escape I’m looking for after a long day of ... editing crime fiction! Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from writing gurus and my own editing experience on writing a suspense-thriller—or any other story—that will keep your readers up until the wee hours.
First, what’s a thriller, anyway?

See my article on Thrillers vs. Mysteries. In a nutshell, as James N. Frey says, “the main ingredient of a thriller is pulse-pounding suspense.” The time-honored formula for successful thrillers is, according to Frey: “A clever hero has an ‘impossible’ mission to foil evil. The hero is brave; he or she is in terrible trouble; the mission is urgent; the stakes are high; and it’s best if the hero is self-sacrificing for others.”

So what makes a compelling suspense-thriller, the kind you can’t put down?

Most thriller writers and readers would agree that some of the essential ingredients for a thriller that sizzles are:
  • An opening that grabs you by the collar and drags you in
  • A likeable, resourceful hero
  • A ruthless, cunning villain (or more than one)
  • A riveting plot with a powerful story question and lots of intrigue
  • Plenty of tension and conflict
  • Fast pacing, with tight, to-the-point writing
  • An unexpected, satisfying conclusion   
But how do we achieve all that and more? In this post and two more to follow, we’ll discuss some techniques that can help you create a page-turning, adrenalin-inducing thriller. 
To start with, As Frey, says, “To write a damn good thriller, you need a killer attitude.”  For Part I, we’ll just touch on your opening (first page), characters, and point of view.

~ Write an opening that hooks ‘em in.
Put your protagonist on stage right away, in media res – in the middle of things. As James Scott Bell says, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.” Start with a powerful story question, and get that inciting incident, the first threat, in there quickly. Don’t open with a description of the setting or weather, or with interior monologue. A dialogue with tension and some action is much more dynamic.
But don’t stress over getting the perfect opening for your first draft – just get your story down, then come back at a later date to revise and spice up your first paragraph and page. For more on writing compelling openings, click on my article “Act First, Explain Later.”  
~ Create complex, compelling characters.
Your lead character, according to James Scott Bell, needs “grit, wit and it,” so make him or her gutsy, smart, witty and charismatic. Your hero should be strong, resourceful and likeable, but not perfect. As Bell says, "Leads, to be realistic, must also have flaws and foibles.”
         According to Jessica Page Morrell, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion.”
James N. Frey takes it a step further: “All damn good dramatic characters are larger than life, theatrical, determined to overcome the obstacles that are put in their path. They are an extreme of type, larger than life, and they have a ruling passion that defines who they are.” This applies to both the hero and the villain.
Frey advises us to create characters that, “in addition to being multifaceted, are interesting in the way real people are interesting. They’ve done things, they’ve been places, and they have unusual views. In other words, they’ve ‘lived.’ Such characters have an individuality that stamps them as fresh.” And give your characters internal conflict, moral dilemmas, and tough decisions and choices to make, as these help develop and define them.
And make your antagonist a nasty but believable villain, powerful, cunning, relentless, unpredictable, selfish, and cold-hearted. But not 100% evil – give him depth and complexity by showing us how he explains and justifies his actions.
For more on this topic, check out my blog post, “Creating Compelling Characters.”
~ Zoom in on your hero.
Limited viewpoint, where we experience the story from the point of view of the protagonist(s),  gets us “up close and personal” with the main character, so we start to identify with him right away, and get emotionally engaged fast, which is critical for effective fiction.
As Maass says, when discussing the weaker manuscripts his agency rejects, “Too many manuscripts begin at a distance from their protagonists, as if opening with a long shot like a movie. That’s a shame. Why keep readers at arm’s length?
“Novels are unique among art forms in their intimacy. They can take us inside a character’s heart and mind right away. And that is where your readers want to be. Go there immediately. And when you do, show us what your hero is made of. If you accomplish that, then the job of winning us over is done.”
And as David Morrell points out, “Modern readers have a mania about credibility. To the extent that the omniscient narrator intrudes with godlike information, the illusion of actuality is broken.” Steve Berry says, “Don’t let you, the author, enter the story.”
So for more impact and to draw your reader in more to your story world, get us into the head and heart of your protagonist right away. Then express each scene, including the setting, from your viewpoint character’s point of view. Colour the description with their feelings, attitude, reactions, etc., rather than stepping back and describing the scene from a more impartial, distant authorial stance.
Also, see Part II and Part III of this article (plot, suspense, conflict, dialogue, tension, pacing, style) and Jodie's book, Writing a Killer Thriller.   

  • James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing
  • Steve Berry’s 8 Rules of Writing, Writer’s Digest, September 2008
  • James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
  • Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction
  • David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
  • Jessica Page Morrell, Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Publishers be Crazy...or Desperate

This guest post is by April Hamilton, founder of Publitariat and managing editor of Kindle Nation. It's reposted from her personal blog. 

I just read this article about Bookish.com, a new joint venture being launched later this summer by Hachette Book Group, Penguin USA and Simon & Schuster. Per the article:

"The site intends to provide information for all things literary: suggestions on what books to buy, reviews of books, excerpts from books and news about authors. Visitors will also be able to buy books directly from the site or from other retailers and write recommendations and reviews for other readers."

The publishers — Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group USA, and Hachette Book Group — hope the site will become a catch-all destination for readers in the way that music lovers visit Pitchfork.com for reviews and information. A couple of sentences further down, you'll read:

“There’s a frustration with book consumers that there’s no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors,” said Carolyn Reidy, the president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster. “We need to try to recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment, but which we don’t believe is currently happening online.”

There are three problems with Ms. Reidy's statements.

First, there is NOT "a frustration with book consumers that there's no one-stop shopping when it comes to information about books and authors," because in fact, there are several sites that offer one-stop shopping for author/book information. Perhaps Ms. Reidy just hasn't heard of such obscure, underground sites as Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, Shelfari.com, and LibraryThing.com.

Second, nobody needs to "recreate the discovery of new books that currently happens in the physical environment," because for the average consumer, discovery of new books NO LONGER HAPPENS IN THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT. Once again, it's Amazon, Goodreads, Shelfari and LibraryThing to the rescue here, not to mention genre-specific online communities like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and format- and device-specific online communities like Kindle Nation Daily.

Third, Ms. Reidy and her compatriots don't "believe [this is] currently happening online." Why not? How is it possible that publishers are THAT FAR out of touch with book buyers? I'll tell you how: traditionally, publishers have viewed booksellers as their customers, and book-buyers as the customers of booksellers. They have little to no idea what's bouncing around in the head and life of the typical consumer, because they haven't had to know those things to run their business at any time in the past —past being the operative word there.

So these three major publishers are sinking massive amounts of time, effort and money into a huge new initiative that I think just about any typical book-buying consumer on the street could tell you today is destined to fail. And how do you suppose they'll be financing this new initiative? Certainly not by reducing the prices of their books, or signing more new, unproven authors, or keeping books on physical shelves longer to give them a better chance of catching on, or giving individual authors more marketing money.

I'm sure the publishers would say this initiative is all about supporting their authors and marketing books in a cost-effective way, so kudos to them for good intentions. But while they may know book and author marketing today is all about author platform, they clearly don't understand that author platform is all about community, and community is about making personal connections and feeling like you're part of a movement. Which do you think a fan of Stephen King would rather visit: Stephen King's personal site and online community of fans, or the obviously corporate umbrella site, Bookish.com?

Bookish.com content will necessarily be vetted and vanilla, so as not to hurt the corporate images and reputations of its backers and to avoid offending any site visitors. Anyone who wants the raw, unfiltered version of musings from their favorite authors and opinions of others in those authors' communities won't bother with Bookish.com when they can get the straight scoop right from the horses' mouths elsewhere.

I hate to sound so negative and dump all over publishers like this, because it's a good thing that they're finally willing to try something new. But at this point, they face the same problem Microsoft did with its Zune MP3 player: Apple got there first with the iPod, and they did it very well. If you're going to enter the marketplace with a new product for which the demand has already been fulfilled by someone else (or several someone elses), then your product has to be so incredibly, amazingly compelling that consumers will feel they're missing out by not switching to it. Microsoft tried it with the Zune; I think by now we can all agree they failed to capture enough of the MP3 player market to even make Apple break a sweat. And Microsoft has decades of experience with technology and marketing direct to consumers.

So Bookish.com gets an A for effort, but a goose egg for vision and sustainability.

Publishers: maybe you're looking at this all wrong. Maybe instead of trying to supplant the Amazons, Goodreads and Shelfaris of the world, you should be looking for ways to leverage what those sites and communities are already doing, and doing very well: crowdsourcing.

Let them tell you what the readers want to see in print and ebook forms. Listen to consumer complaints about ebook release windows and pricing, and respond accordingly. Switch to POD book production so you can offer a much wider variety of titles at a much lower cost; grousing about the lack of variety and fresh, new voices from mainstream pub is so common as to be a pastime in reader communities. Stop chasing after blockbusters and start tuning into the pre-existing discovery network to locate your new literary stars. Keep your ears to the ground for breakout indie authors, and sign them, knowing they're already proven commodities. Get and keep a bead on technologies consumers are excited about (color ebooks, interactive book apps, etc.) and invest in those technologies.

Your role as arbiters of taste and gatekeepers is a thing of the past, and the position of Reader Community Leader has already been filled. Own it. Restructure your businesses and legacy thought patterns to embrace this new reality. Now, your role is to find out what consumers want in print books, ebooks and emerging media technologies, and give it to them. Period.

Friday, May 20, 2011

So, You Want Me to Buy Your Book. Are You Kidding?

By Peg Brantley, Writer at Work, Stumbling Toward Publication

Rant Alert.

A few months ago, I met up with my critique partner at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. We were on our way to North Carolina for the Writer's Police Academy. She was traveling from San Antonio, and my flight originated in Denver. Since there are no direct flights from either of our cities, DFW was where we could catch a connecting flight. (Either Dallas or Chicago. What???)

Kelly and I have become friends over the years, but still spend most of our time talking about books and writing and everything else related to it. Our friendship is a gift, but the writing discussions are like breathing. And when you only get so much time to breathe, well . . . that's what you do.

We were sitting in the boarding area, talking about our recent reads. I was telling Kelly about Tim Hallinan when I noticed a woman across from us perk up and follow the conversation. Turns out she was an author from a state west of mine, and north. I'd never heard of her, but then there are a lot of us. She had a nice smile and seemed interesting. New friends are always nice.

We exchanged cards (hers was really cool) and we moved on to the next stage of our journey as we boarded the flight. When we landed in North Carolina, the three of us regrouped a bit and talked some more.

That's when she found out that we weren't 'big name' authors. From that point on, she never said a word to either one of us. Not one. Except to quickly inform us we couldn't join her at her table that evening because she was expecting someone else. Not a word of regret. Not a word of kindness.

Fine. Be that way. We made our own table.

Now, here's the deal. I know what it is to have someone attach themselves to me. Not only is it not a growth experience, it's not fun. But I'm here to tell you that neither Kelly nor I look like a leech. We're writers. Heck, we crave solitude from time to time. So I'm not buying that argument.

Was 'pleasant' too much to ask?

I went online and checked out this author. Turns out she's written a LOT of books. Turns out some of them sound interesting. Turns out she could have been on the list of authors I want to check out. Turns out she won't be.

I'm just sayin'.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

By Andrew E. Kaufman

As an author, I find it difficult to write about murder without taking a trip to the Dark Side. After all, I think on some level we sort of expect that. Logically speaking, if you're going to have a killer, then you're going to have deviant behavior. The two seem to go hand in hand. But just how dark and how deviant?

For me, I draw the line where gratuitous begins, and most often, that's where I find trouble lurking between the pages of novels. Using sex, drugs, or violence just for the sake having it or for shock value does a book little good. In fact, I think, it'll do more harm. Readers know the difference, and they know when they're being played. If you don't believe me, check out some of the emails I get. These folks know their stuff, and many understand plot structure as well as any author.

In my novel, While the Savage Sleeps, there is violence. No question. It's graphic and it's frequent. But here's the thing: it's also absolutely necessary. Not only are the plot and the characters driven by it, but the final resolution also depends on it. Without that element, the story would fall flat and the reader would likely feel short changed. Context is the key, and I think a good question for any author to ask him or herself when considering whether or not an element belongs is: Would this story suffer without it? If the answer is no, then chances are you don't need it, and chances are the reader will feel the same way.

As for sex, typically, I don’t put it in my books—not because I’m a prude or that I have anything against the act itself. It’s just that logistically it doesn't seem to make sense.

Here’s an example: There’s a killer on the loose, and Sam and Linda are running for their lives because he’s hot on their trail. If all that weren’t enough, Detective Holiday thinks Sam could in fact be the killer. The clock is ticking and the two must not only prove Sam’s innocence, they must also find the real suspect.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking sex is going to be the last thing on Sam and Linda's minds. Not only that, but it would seem in addition to slowing down the pace, adding this element would also detract from the story. Now I'll agree that there are authors who can expertly weave sex into a suspense thriller rather seamlessly, and I applaud them for that. It just so happens that I’m not one of them. But from what I’ve read, neither are a few others, and when I see it needlessly thrown in, it comes across as contrived and gratuitous. It’s also the exact point where they lose me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the F-bomb, namely, whether or not it belongs in novels. I'd guess the answer depends on the reader’s tolerance level. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, and I use it whenever I feel it’s necessary in terms of character development. My job is to make fiction seem real, and the reality is, people do use the word. I also believe that when implemented correctly it can add authenticity to a character. Think of it this way: if a cop said,“darn it” in a novel, would it make you want to continue reading? Not me.

Of course, throw in a drug-addicted, sexually compulsive, cussing sociopath, and really, anything goes. Again, it’s all about context.

Overall, I know opinions on this subject vary, and as an author I’m always interested in knowing what readers think. So I’d like to ask: Do these elements bother you in a book, and just how far is too far?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Old School Hollywood

Bit Player by Jeri Howard*

Reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

Browsing in a Hollywood memorabilia shop, PI Jeri Howard comes across a poster that reminds her of her paternal grandmother, Jerusha Layne Howard who had been a bit player in the movies before her marriage.
The elderly man behind the counter of a Hollywood memorabilia shop tells PI Jeri Howard that her paternal grandmother and namesake Jerusha Layne Howard, once a bit player in the movies, had been involved in the investigation of the murder of a British actor named Ralph Tarrant. He didn't specify what Jerusha's role was, but the comment is enough to pique Jeri's curiosity.
She contacts her elderly Aunt Dulcie, in the hope that Jerusha's sister might remember something, and is thrilled to learn that Dulcie has saved the letters she received from Jerusha during those years. Reading them, Jeri finds out that her grandmother had shared a house with three other young actresses, and that one of them had dated Tarrant.

While searching for background information about the old man in the memorabilia store, Jeri stumbles onto the murder of a woman who collected Hollywood memorabilia, who had refused to sell any of her items to the store. When another collector is killed a few weeks later, Jeri begins to wonder if the present-day murders might be related to the decades-old case involving Jerusha. As Jeri investigates, the reader learns along with her many real details about the early days of the movie industry.

Dawson's first Jeri Howard novel since A Killing at the Track(2000), is a riveting mystery, at once historical and contemporary, for which she has obviously done deep and thorough research into the Golden Age of Hollywood.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to the publisher, who sent me a copy of the book for review purposes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Why Are Sleazy Protagonists Popular?

by L.J. Sellers, author of the bestselling Detective Jackson mysteries

Alcoholics, sex addicts, porn stars, thieves, and kidnappers. In today’s crime fiction, these characters are often the protagonists, and as a reader, I’m expected to root for them. I rarely can. I’ve put down many well-written and well-plotted novels lately because the main character was not someone I could relate to.

For example, in one story, the protagonist—a reformed criminal, living a good life—participated in a kidnapping to keep himself from going to jail. If I had not been reading the book for discussion, I would have put it down immediately. For me, there was little point in reading about a protagonist I wanted to see caught and punished, especially since I knew he would not be.

In another story, the character was well developed, resourceful, and good-hearted and I really wanted to like her. But the world she inhabited was sleazy and everyone she encountered gave me the creeps. Despite the terrific writing, I finally gave up, because spending too much time in her world was a little hard to take.

Don’t get me wrong. I love crime fiction! And I’m certainly not a prude. I write a mystery/suspense series, and the first book is called The Sex Club. My main character is a homicide detective who’s a hardworking family man. Not perfect, by any means, but he’s also not a cynical, pill-popping alcoholic with dysfunctional relationships. I’m tired of that cop stereotype, and I want my character to be someone readers can relate to.

But it’s not a clear-cut issue. Two of my favorite books last year had protagonists who were criminals…or at least they had been. In Beat the Reaper, the main character is an ex-hit man who becomes a doctor. But he’s trying to redeem himself, and it’s a terrific (and often funny) story. The Lock Artist, another novel I loved, is about a psychologically mute safecracker. But the reader knows from the beginning that Michael goes to jail and hopes to change his life. So I rooted for both characters all the way.

For me, good characterization for a protagonist, especially a recurring character, means creating someone readers will care about, like, and/or respect in some way. (I make an exception for Elmore Leonard’s stories, in which everyone is shady, but often likeable, and I can always cheer for a charming thief, especially if he’s played by George Clooney.)

I realize I may be somewhat alone in this thinking. In my book discussion groups, many other readers say they don’t have to like the protagonist to find the story compelling.

How do you feel about protagonists who are unlikable, deeply flawed, or simply not someone you’d ever spend time with? Does it spoil the story for you? Can you name a novel you thoroughly enjoyed even though you didn’t like the protagonist?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I thought I only had to stick a microphone in his face

Superb interviewing is an art to be practiced. When it's done well writers can get telling little details that can be dropped into their writing like the perfect spice to highlight the best tastes of the  meal. That said, there are some tricks that writers can use to move them along in the right direction.

A colleague at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked as a reporter a while ago,  suggests that interviewers notice details about their subjects, then ask questions. For example, you may notice that the medical examiner you're interviewing wears a watch on each wrist. Two watches? Why?  You may learn the doc travels a lot and can't keep local time zones straight and wants to always call home before his daughter goes to bed. Or, the doc may be nuts about being on time and figures two watches will double his chance of punctuality. Or, one may have been a gift from someone important to him but it loses minutes and he relies on the other watch to tell accurate time. In any of those cases, you've got a personality quirk that can help you define the medical examiner in your mystery.

Then you've got to figure the best way to record those answers. Some writers use digital recorders, often built into their phones, while others go the good old fashioned paper and pen route. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both.

When using a digital recorder writers can forget about taking actual notes and hone in on the subject instead, confident that the device will do all the work. That can be very effective if all goes as planned -- which it never does. I've done that a time or two, only to learn the recorder didn't work, or couldn't pick up the voices or got accidentally deleted. Then I don't have a scrap of reminder to tell me what the guy said.

With paper and pen writers don't have to worry about technical malfunction, but unless the writer takes shorthand some words are going to be lost. Besides, paper doesn't capture inflection or weird little turns of phrase that, again, can be descriptive details for a character. Some subjects get nervous when they see a pen scribbling across a page but seem to forget when a recorder is capturing their every ummm.

Myself, I like to use both. Paper is a good backup to the recorder, and vice versa. But to be honest, I try not to refer exactly to the notes/recording after the interview, although I tuck both away in my files in case I change my mind. Rather, I like to just let the subject's words marinate in my head for a while before I write. That way, the most important details seem to bubble up, while I forget the stuff that would clutter up my pages with non-telling detail. But that's just me. What method do you use?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Show, Don't Tell

by Jodie Renner
“Show, don’t tell” is the most common mantra among advisors to fiction writers. It’s about bringing the scene alive and putting the reader right there, inside your characters, experiencing her fear along with her, feeling the sweat on his brow and his adrenaline racing, your pulse quickening right along with theirs, muscles tensed, ready to leap into action.
            A common mistake among aspiring fiction writers is to describe or narrate (tell) events as if they took place at some point in the past, instead of putting the reader right in the middle of the action and showing the events as they occur, in real time, along with the characters’ reactions, feelings, and actual words (direct dialogue).
To clarify what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” think of it this way: Which would you rather do, go see a great movie in a theatre with a big screen and surround sound (“show”), or hear about the movie from someone else afterward (“tell”)? That’s the difference we’re talking about here.
            According to Ingermanson and Economy, “Showing means presenting the story to the reader using sensory information. The reader wants to see the story, hear it, smell it, feel it, and taste it, all the while experiencing the thoughts and feelings of a living, breathing character. Telling means summarizing the story for the reader in a way that skips past the sensory information and goes straight to the facts.”
Janet Evanovich considers “show, don’t tell” to be one of the most important principles of fiction: “Instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.”
As Jack Bickham says, “Not only does moment-by-moment development make the scene seem most lifelike, it’s in a scene [with dialogue and action and reaction] where your reader gets most of his excitement. If you summarize, your reader will feel cheated – short-changed of what he reads for – without quite knowing why.”
            Shelly Thacker points out, “Readers of popular fiction don’t want to experience the events of your novel at a distance; they want to FEEL what’s happening. They want to laugh, cry, hope, worry.” Shelly advises, “Strive for more dialogue than narrative. … Narrative tends to slow things down and usually leads to telling instead of showing…. Showing with action and dialogue creates vivid characters and a fast pace; telling only bogs down your story.”
Also, the bulk of the scene needs to be about a conflict of some kind between characters. No conflict = no scene. According to Jack Bickham, the conflict part of the scene “draws readers out through a moment-by-moment drama, extending the scene suspense with pleasurable agony.”
Of course, you can’t show everything, or your book would be way too long, and it would tire your readers out – or worse, end up boring them. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”
The rule, says Bell, is “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.” That’s the difference between scene and summary. You don’t want to describe every move your characters make at down times, or when going from one place to the other. That’s where you summarize or “tell,” to get them to the next important scene quickly, without a lot of boring detail. 
           The main thing to keep in mind is to never to tell the reader, after the fact (or have a character telling another character), about a critical scene. Instead, dramatize it in the here and now, with dialogue, action, and lots of sensory details to bring it to life for the reader.

Resources: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell; The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham; Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy; “10 Tips for a Top-Notch Novel” by Shelly Thacker (www.ShellyThacker.com).

Jodie Renner, a freelance fiction editor specializing in thrillers and other fast-paced fiction, has published two books to date in her series, An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: WRITING A KILLER THRILLER and STYLE THAT SIZZLES & PACING FOR POWER (Silver Medalist in the FAPA Book Awards, 2013). Both titles are available in e-book and paperback. For more info, please visit Jodie’s author website or editor website, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Decision

By Peg Brantley

Traditional or Independent?

How will one of my best friends in the writing world feel when she finds out my vision has shifted? Will she think I’ve abandoned my dream? Will she think that since I’ve redirected my focus to readers rather than publishers my talent is less? Will her nose suddenly begin to look like a pig’s snout whenever she hears my name? (Ugh. Didn’t mean that to sound ugly. Really. And she wouldn’t. But still.)

There is, beyond any doubt, the question of affirmation. When an agent champions you, and a publisher puts their money on the line, you know you’ve managed to convince some pretty key professionals you have what it takes. Nothing wrong with that. But for every worthy manuscript that goes to print via a traditional publisher, there are countless more, perhaps better manuscripts, that get rejected. I’m not the only one who has read some dogs, right?

But damn. What about when, as a writer, I’m done with the drama? When I decide I want to be truly self-employed and not subject to someone else’s idea of what might make them profitable? An employee driven to make the bottom line or risk losing his or her job? Haven’t we all had enough of that?

If affirmation is the thing (and for me it is), what are some of the other ways I can measure my value? Can you tell I’m an approval seeker? Yep, it sucks.

My dream, though shifted, remains as big and strong as ever. And now? The affirmation will come from readers—one at at time—that I’m so happy to meet now rather than later. Or never.

Come join me as I take this indie author thing on. My dream is muddled right now, but it’s clear in that I want to offer readers, when I’m ready, something they will enjoy.

What about you? As writers, what’s your dream? Is it for readers to get their hands on your story or a publisher to tell you you’re worth their investment?

And as readers, what are the things you’re looking for when you make the decision to buy a book? Is it the publisher? Does it matter to you if it’s a hardback on the bestseller list? What really, really matters? How do you separate the chaff from the wheat?

It’s all better with friends.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Visit with Death

By Andrew E. Kaufman

Of all the questions readers ask me, what seems to interest them most is my trip to the autopsy room during the research for my novel, While the Savage Sleeps.

“What was it like?” they’ll often ask.

Pretty gross, actually, but at the same time, illuminating because it confirmed my theory that one of the best ways to draw the reader into a story is to experience that which you describe. Googling a topic may be a good start but won't cut it if you're trying to create a solid and meaningful sense of setting.

A former television journalist, I know how to combine words and pictures to tell a story. However, writing fiction, I've discovered, is a completely different world. Unlike with TV, in novels there's no video to convey the tone and mood of a particular scene. Here, your words are your pictures, and if readers can't see them in their minds, you'll lose your audience in a heartbeat. With my autopsy chapter being one of the most critical in the book, I couldn't afford to do that, and despite a rather strong visceral resistance, I felt I simply had no choice.

You may find my reluctance a bit odd considering I'm often accused of writing some very gritty stuff in my novels. Besides that, I'm no stranger to blood and gore—I'd seen a fair share during my tenure in television news. Still, somehow, the autopsy room seemed different to me, like an intimate dance with death, a messy one, which I much preferred to sit out of. But as it often does, logic won, and like it or not I was off to experience my first—and hopefully last—autopsy (at least from a vertical point-of-view).

First stop, the freezer. This is where they keep the bodies before examination, a thirty by fifteen room with shelves lining three walls, stacked three high. At the time of my visit, every seat in the house appeared to be taken, standing room only. I walked in, gazed at the sea of body bags, then stopped in my tracks. I'm pretty sure this was the exact point where reality finally set in: I was surrounded by dead people, lots and lots of dead people. Guess it makes sense that with a city as large as San Diego, plenty of folks die each day, and they all have to go somewhere; I just don't think I had expected to be standing among all of them.

Next stop: the autopsy room. But first, a little advice before entering: I was shown the exits and told to use them if I began feeling ill.


Once inside, besides an all out assault on the senses (no need for explicit detail here), I think what surprised me most was what a busy place the autopsy room was. Now, I'm going to show my age here, but as a member of the Quincy generation, my preconceived notions were far more simplistic than I had imagined. In my world, I expected to see a lone autopsy table center stage with the medical examiner standing over it and a sanitized view of what went on. All this and, of course, wrapped up in less than an hour.

So not the case.

The place was busier than any newsroom I'd ever worked in, except it wasn't the clicking of keyboards I heard—it was the buzzing and whining of saws; probably why they had me change into a white space-suit-looking getup with transparent facemask before entering. Yes, folks, cutting, sawing, and drilling human remains is messy business. Things do fly.

Ten stainless steel tables lined the wall, each with a faucet at the top, a drain at the bottom, and yes, each with a body laying on top—all in varying degrees of examination, and most of them clearly missing things that shouldn't have been. I have to say that the ones without heads were the most unnerving. As they say, parts is parts, but parts belong where they belong. Looking around at the people working here, I got an odd sense of extreme desensitization, that this was business as usual and walking past headless bodies was like a walk in the park.

Wish I could have felt the same.

As for the autopsy itself, after getting past the initial shock, it did become somewhat easier to watch. I’m not saying it was a piece of cake—it wasn’t—but one does adjust to their surroundings if they stick around long enough. Even in situations like this.

As an added bonus, the medical examiner not only described what he was doing as he removed the organs—he also handed each of them to me (luckily I was wearing gloves). Kind of gross, I know, but nevertheless a valuable experiences for a mystery writer. After all, you never know when you might need to introduce a disembodied organ or two into a story—a kidney here, a spleen there. Like I've said, I'm known for writing grisly scenes.

I could go on describing every detail, but at the risk of losing those of you who have made it this far, I'll stop and say this: Despite everything, my autopsy chapter never would have been the same had I not gone through this experience. Unpleasant as it was, the truth is that as writers, we sometimes need to get our hands dirty—in this case, very dirty—but it’s all for the sake of the craft. Simply put, sometimes you have to give until it hurts. I did—I'm pretty sure of it.

Did I achieve my intended goal? I hope so, but if you'd like to decide, here's a link to the chapter, along with a warning: It's a bit gruesome, but at the same time, depicts reality, and that's what we, as writers, should always strive to do.

Andrew E. Kaufman is the bestselling author of While the Savage Sleeps, a forensic paranormal thriller.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Odd Couple?

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward.*

reviewed by Marlyn Beebe.

I was uncertain what to expect when I opened Heads You Lose, especially after I had watched this promotional video.

Lisa Lutz, the author of the popular Spellman Files series, decided she wanted to write a collaborative novel with her old friend (and ex-boyfriend) David Hayward. She was to write the first and all odd-numbered chapters, and he would write the even-numbered ones. Neither of them was allowed to undo a plot development created by the other, so commented on each others' chapters using footnotes. They also wrote each other notes between chapters; these notes are included at the chapter's end. (This is explained in a letter from the Editor at the beginning of the book.)

The novel is the story of orphaned twenty-something siblings Paul and Lacey Hansen who live together in their family home, scraping by on the profits from Paul's pot farm and Lacey's job as a barista.

Late one night, while taking out the trash, Lacey stumbles across a headless corpse. Not knowing who it is (without the head, the body has no face), but not wanting to call the police because of their less-than-legal garden, they decide to dispose of the body, and quietly try to determine the body's identity and why it had been deposited on their property.

Although it might be expected that Lutz's chapters would be written from Lacey's point of view, and Paul's from Hayward's, this is not the case; both write from a third-person viewpoint, and seem to enjoy inserting details to frustrate the other.

Reading the footnotes and the between-chapter messages in which each bemoans this tendency in the other is almost as much fun as the story. Although these asides are distracting, most of the chapters are long enough to absorb the reader's attention (until the next footnote or comment).

For this reader, Heads You Lose was not the type of book that was so absorbing that bedtimes were missed, but it was a light, fun read. And, despite the unusual nature of the relationship between Lutz and Hayward, the messages included in the book might even be helpful to authors (even solitary ones) in terms of the writing process.

*FTC Full Disclosure: Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers, who sent me an Advance Review Copy.

Just for fun, I'm doing another giveaway. I have one copy of Jasper Fforde's latest Thursday Next book One of Our Thursdays is Missing for one person who comments on this blog post. Deadline to comment is midnight on Tuesday May 3.