Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Adventure Begins

Life is a series of adventures, some of them more exciting than others. At least, that’s how I like to look at it. Today marks the beginning of a new adventure for me, my first blog post on Type M. I’ll be here every other Wednesday, taking over Hannah Dennison’s spot. (Thanks to Hannah for suggesting I do this!)

Let me introduce myself. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and now live in Southern California. After years in the computer industry, designing and writing code, managing programmers and projects, I turned to a life of crime writing. Maybe you’ve read one of my short stories. My work has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine as well as several other online mystery magazines.

The big adventure for me this year is having my first novel published. Fatal Brushstroke, the first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series set in the world of decorative painting, will be released by Henery Press Nov 18. I’m now learning about Goodreads, blog tours, author pages, book contracts . . . all the stuff you need to know to be a writer today.

Like most writers, I love books. I remember clearly the day my adventure in reading began. I was five. I’d just started kindergarten. I found a book on the classroom shelf that had pictures in it of pigs and a wolf. I wanted to know what was happening, what those black marks on the pages said, but I couldn’t yet read. (At that time you learned the alphabet in kindergarten and how to read in first grade.) I didn’t want someone to read it to me, I wanted to read it myself! I wanted to know what those three little pigs and that wolf were doing. Sure, I could figure out the basic story from the pictures, but it just wasn’t the same. Those marks on the page were saying something important. I could tell. I remember being so frustrated.

Out of that frustration a reader was born. I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, pretty much reading everything in sight. The library was my favorite place growing up. Like so many before me, from the comfort of a chair I traveled to mysterious places and spent time with historical figures. I learned about hot air ballooning, falconry, and Esperanto. I cracked the case along with Encyclopedia Brown and fell through the rabbit hole with Alice.

Now I’m happy to have the opportunity to write stories for others to enjoy. Which reminds me, that second book is due in a few short months. Better get back to it.

See you in a couple weeks,

Sybil

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grabbing time and space to write

Right at this moment, I’m writing my weekly Type M post from a rather bizarre location: The Cloisters, that museum of buildings and art of the Middle Ages located at the northern tip of Manhattan. It’s one of my favourite places in New York City. The summer day is perfect by anyone’s measure (unless you prefer rain, snow, or hurricanes) and it’s a pleasure to sit here on a bench in the shade in the Bonnefont Garden, one of three outdoor areas the facility features. Now, if only all the other visitors would disappear. Places like this seem to demand solitude.

I enjoy getting away from home to do some writing. I’m also generally more successful when I write away from my usual cold, dimly lit garret. It has nothing to do with “getting away from it all”, either. There’s something about a change of scenery that seems to encourage my creative juices to begin flowing.

My ideal writing excursion would be to rent a villa somewhere in Italy or possibly France and write a novel from start to finish. I don’t have any trouble focusing on the task at hand the way I do at home, despite whatever local temptations might be at hand. A quiet location with a reasonably comfortable seat would be all that I’d need. Under such conditions, it’s no problem for me to write for six, seven, or even eight hours a day. While not strictly necessary, a good high-speed internet connection would also be helpful for researching those pesky plot details that always seem to be cropping up.

In the evening, it would be a pleasure to make a nice meal or perhaps enjoy dinner in a local restaurant. The rest of the hours before bed could be filled with some reading – not crime fiction, though. It’s my hard and fast rule to never mix writing crime fiction with reading it – unless I want my prose to start resembling some other writer’s.

Someday things may work out that I could attain this little piece of personal heaven. Until then, I’ll have to be content snatching little “glimpses” of what it might be like – wherever I find them.

Like here at The Cloisters on a sunny afternoon in August. And now, back to the novel-in-progress…

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Dreaded Typo

By Vicki Delany

I now its good but is it rite?

My spell checker picked up exactly one typo in the above sentence when there are, in fact, three major ones.

Thus proving that you can’t rely on spellcheck to help fix your errors. As well as missing things, spell checker can be out and out wrong. 

So, what’s a writer to do? First, of course, read your own stuff carefully.

But even that isn’t good enough. Everyone knows that you can’t edit your own work. When you read your own writing, particularly something you have read over many times before, you don’t see what is actually there: you see what you THINK is there.

What brings this to mind is an interesting article I read explaining how this works.  It’s not a bug: it’s a feature.
What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

Essentially, our brains are so efficient that we don’t need to re-read every word of what we supposedly already know:


We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” 

In short, you may think your manuscript is perfect and error free. Your spell-checker might even agree with you. But it isn’t, if you haven’t let someone else have a read of it.

My advice to beginning writers is often to join (or form) a critique group. A good critique group can help you fix sticky plot points, point out character inconsistencies, question what’s going wrong. All that as well as provide a friendly community and an impetuous to keep on writing.  But a critique group isn’t always the best to do your copy editing or proof-reading, not if they are focused more on big picture items like plot and character.

On the other hand, you don’t have to pay a professional editor, unless you want a professional standard of editing.  If you are planning to send your manuscript to publishing house editors and agents, it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it does have to be as good as it can be. You don’t want that editor or agent to be constantly drawn out of the story by all the spelling and grammar mistakes, do you?

All you really need is the ‘average reader’.  The sort of reader who can spot an error in:
He is was a big dog.

If you are not looking for feedback and constructive criticism, you can even ask your mom!

If you really can’t find anyone to help, back to the above article:

Stafford suggests that if you want to catch your own errors, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font or background color, or print it out and edit by hand. “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How To Successfully Succumb to the E-Book Universe by Guest Blogger Brendan DuBois


It's a pleasure for me to introduce my good friend – and one of the genre's best story writers – Brendan DuBois. Brendan has published 16 novels and more than 120 short stories. His works have earned critical acclaim, including starred reviews and translation into several foreign languages and published in Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Italy, South Africa, Japan, Estonia, and Poland. His series of mystery novels featuring Lewis Cole is set on the New Hampshire seacoast; the latest novel in the series, Fatal Harbor, was recently released. He resides in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife. 
Brendan's tales have appeared in publications such as Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (which included the likes of Raymond Chandler, O. Henry, Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck), and in such magazines as Playboy, Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
These stories have earned him the 1995 and 2001 Shamus Award for Best Short Story of the Year from the Private Eye Writers of America; three nominations for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story from the Mystery Writers of America; the 2007 and 2010 Barry Award for Best Mystery Short Story of the Year; the 2005 Al Blanchard Crime Fiction Award from the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. His short stories have also been extensively anthologized, including the 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1995 editions of The Year's Best Mystery & Suspense Stories, as well as the 1995 and 1997 editions of Year's 25 Best Mystery Short Stories, and the 1997, 1999, 2001 and the 2003 editions of Best American Mystery Stories, and the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 editions of The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories.
As an aside, he is also a one-time Jeopardy! game show champion.

Here, Brendan will share something he's been helping me with for five years – how to make money in the e-book business. 

You can learn more about him by visiting http://www.brendandubois.com/.

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Although I love science and science fiction, and stories of technological prowess make my soul sing — I once went to Florida to see a space shuttle launch (an incredible experience) — in truth I’m a bit of a Luddite.

My first two novels were written on a typewriter, as well as twenty or so of my first short stories.  In 1989 I got my first Apple computer, and since then, I’m always a few years behind in getting the newest and latest computer. If it works it works, has been my philosophy. I got on Facebook a few years after it became incredibly popular, and my cell phone has a flip-top, and I’ve probably sent a half-dozen or so text messages in my entire life.

So there you go. But having said that, I find myself in the unusual position of having twenty-four of my works (novels, anthologies, non-fiction articles and short stories) up for sale on the Kindle, Nook and Smashwords e-book platforms.

How did that happen, you might ask? The simple answer: fellow authors were doing it and were getting money and recognition. Not a bad combination, and I wanted in on the deal.

But it did sound daunting, and I delayed for months before diving into the e-book pool. Yet I kept on going back to thinking, hey, if they can do it, why can’t I?

And yet, the daunting remained. Heck, I didn’t even own an e-book!

But one quiet day in my office, I decided to go to the 800-pound gorilla that’s Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing empire, and found that it was…

Easy.

Absurdly easy.

I mean, really easy.

So I took a deep breath and dove in.

But before I did that, I made a key decision which was vital, and which I pass on: Don’t try to upload a book-length manuscript your very first time out.

Don’t.

While working with Kindle is easy, there is a demon out there, and that demon is called Formatting.  Many a strange thing can happen twixt a manuscript and an e-book, and you can’t believe what whacky things can occur while converting one of your works. Bad paragraph breaks. Odd-sized fonts.  Weird line spacing.

Which is why you don’t work with a book first. It will drive you mad and discourage you, and the ultimate joys of e-book publishing will forever be beyond your grasp.

So what I did was to take an original short story, and upload that. The story was only a dozen or so pages, so when I worked with it, I could fiddle with font sizes, paragraph breaks, and all that good stuff.

And you know what?  I did it even without having a Kindle, because Amazon has an on-line viewer that duplicates what a Kindle page looks like. So by uploading your first attempt — short story or small non-fiction piece — you can see how it will look on a Kindle without having one at hand. And if it looks funky, you can go back to your original document and make the necessary adjustments to make it look fine.

From there, everything fell into place. Other authors’ experiences showed that for shorter pieces, like short stories or magazine articles, the best selling prices was 99 cents. For book-length projects, the proverbial “sweet spot” was a price of $2.99, which meant it was an attractive price for readers, and with an average royalty of $1.97 per book sold.

Having an attractive cover is also very important, and lately, Amazon has made that easy as well, with a cover design program as part of the Kindle set-up that offers numerous cover options.

One word of note, however, is when you decide to enter the e-book universe, Kindle will ask whether you want to have an exclusive agreement with Kindle. There are some upsides to this — you get a better royalty rate from some overseas markets — but it also restricts your distribution. There are two other e-book platforms out there — Nook from Barnes & Noble and Smashwords — which offer other markets. I always do better via Kindle than Nook or Smashwords, but I figure the trade-off is worth it, by getting the widest possible exposure to my works.

And I find it does eventually pay-off. My first conversion to a novel took almost an entire month. Now it can take about a week. And you don’t need any fancy conversion programs; all three platforms will accept your manuscripts in a Word .doc format.

One more thing: there are many professional editors out there who will assemble an e-book for you, and that just might work best for you. But I’m a crusty New Hampshire Yankee who likes to pinch pennies and do things for himself. So keep this in mind… if you pay someone $400 or $500 to make an e-book for you, you’ll need to sell 200 or 250 copies of your e-book before you start making a profit.

And how much profit? Well, as in anything, your mileage may vary, but with all of my works up for sale, I can sell on average 150 to 200 books a month. That’s not quit-your-day-job money, but it’s a nice income stream that can introduce new readers to your works without much effort on your part.

And I still don’t own a Kindle!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Lizzie Borden, Enigma

The protagonist in my amateur sleuth series is named "Lizabeth 'Lizzie' Stuart". When I was looking for a name for her I thought Lizzie suited her personality, but I also liked the idea of having my crime historian share her first name with a 19th-century accused murderess. I was sure that my Lizzie -- who was named by her grandmother -- would have been fascinated when she discovered the Lizzie Borden case. That might well have been what first drew her to criminal justice as a discipline. The Borden case and the mysteries that surrounded it would have given her that first experience of doing historical research as she read old newspaper coverage of the case. But it was Lizzie Borden herself -- Lizzie, the enduring enigma -- who intrigued -- still intrigues -- my sleuth.

I have to confess that I was weaving my own experience with Lizzie Borden into my protagonist's biography. Lizzie was not the reason I became a criminal justice professor/crime historian, but I did learn that nursery rhyme about the murders when I was a child ("Lizzie Borden took an axe . . ."). It wasn't until years later that I learned that the number of "whacks" that she allegedly gave her mother and father were greatly exaggerated. But I still recite that nursery rhyme to my students when I want to jog their memories about the case. 

I'm writing about Lizzie today because I spent yesterday reading the New York Times coverage of the case. The Borden murder case received extensive "breaking" news coverage because of the unique elements of the case -- wealthy banker and his wife murdered in their home in a busy neighborhood on a summer morning with no one aware of what had happened until the man's daughter discovered the father's body and sent the maid running for help. From the beginning, questions abounded. How had the daughter and the maid heard nothing when Abby Borden, the wife, was killed upstairs in a guest bedroom? Where had a murderer hidden until the father came home and stretched out on the sofa to take a nap?

There were other suspects -- the visiting brother of Andrew Borden's first wife, the mysterious strangers reportedly seen arguing with Andrew Borden and his wife at their door the day before or climbing over a fence into the Borden yard or encountered by a farmer in a field four miles away. But in the end, as the police checked out these leads -- discovered the uncle had an alibi and two of the strangers were not viable suspects, discovered a small boy had lied  -- attention began to focus on Lizzie Borden. Her sister, Emma, had been away from home. Bridget, the maid, had no motive for killing her employers. But Lizzie, a "spinster" in her 30s, who had loved her father, was also known to have been frustrated by his frugality. She was known to have resented -- perhaps hated -- her stepmother. Lizzie had gone to a pharmacy to try to buy prussic acid to clean a sealskin cape. Lizzie, it was later allegedly by the prosecutor, might have intended to poison the victims, but been force to turn to more violent means when the pharmacist refused to seal her the acid. In fact, the family had reportedly all been feeling ill on the morning of the murder -- bad mutton or Lizzie's tampering with the food?

But when I turned to the New York Times articles yesterday, it was because I was interested in Lizzie's clothing. One of the enduring mysteries of this case is how Lizzie -- who was acquitted of the murders but is still at the top of most people's list of suspects -- how could she have committed two bloody murders and then been seen shortly after the last with no blood on her clothing. In a made-for-TV movie about the case, Lizzie (played by Elizabeth Montgomery, best-known as "Samantha" in the sitcom "Bewitched") commits the murders in the nude. I spent the day reading the coverage of the matter of Lizzie Borden clothing. There were some wonderful period details related to a closet the women used for their dresses. This became a major aspect of the testimony by Lizzie's sister, Emma. According to Emma, she had returned from her travels in the aftermath of the murders. She had needed another hook in the closet for the dresses she was hanging up and discovered an old dress of Lizzie's taking up one of them. The dress was smeared with paint, and she had -- Emma claimed -- asked Lizzie why she hadn't burned the dress. As a friend of Lizzie's later reluctantly testified, Lizzie did burn the dress in the stove a few days after the murders. This was somewhat unfortunate timing because the prosecution later argued that the dress had been the garment Lizzie Borden wore when she committed the murders and the stains had been blood not paint. But as one of Lizzie's defense attorneys noted, it was a matter of frugality to burn old clothing rather than pay the rag man for collection. The seamstress who had made the dress was also called to testified. She told of her stay in the Borden house while she sewed some dresses for the women. The dress she said was made of cheap material, and Lizzie had put it on as soon as it was made. It was intended to be worn around the house. The dress had become smeared with paint when workers were painting in the house.

In another reminder that these murders took place in 1892, there was the testimony from police officers when they were questioned about the thoroughness with which they had searched through the women's clothing. Could they have missed a bloody dress hanging in a closet or in a trunk in the attic? Reading the newspaper accounts of their testimony, the officers were in less than total agreement about how well they searched. They were also poor witnesses when called on to describe the gown that Lizzie Borden was wearing when they arrived at the house. In fact, Lizzie Borden had several blue gowns in different shades and patterns and this become a matter of confusion for everyone, including Bridget, the maid. But all of the witnesses did agree that there was no blood visible on Lizzie's clothing when the neighbors and the doctor and the police arrived at the crime scene. The clothing that was collected and sent to the prosecutor's expert -- a college chemistry professor -- proves useless as evidence. If Lizzie Borden had committed the murders what she had worn -- perhaps one dress over another -- and how she had carried out her quick change or cleanup, remained a matter for conjecture.

But she had been charged with the crimes, and after a year-long process that involved an elaborate preliminary hearing and a grand jury, finally went to trial. For my purposes -- the clothing and crime book I am writing -- I was interested in reading again about Lizzie Borden's attire during the trial and her courtroom demeanor. However, the coverage reveals -- as scholars have discussed -- why Lizzie Borden was acquitted. The jurors (as in the OJ Simpson case a hundred years later) needed to be convinced that Lizzie was guilty beyond a reasonable double. She was a upper-middle class white woman who seemed to have led a blameless life. Perhaps she had gone insane, but there was nothing to indicate that in her courtroom demeanor -- except perhaps her calmness and occasional laughter. But that was explained by her family physician, who testified he had been sedating her since the day of the murders. This was the testimony that allowed the defense attorneys to have her statements made during the inquest excluded during the trial. Those statements had been full of contradictions -- understandable if she was drugged at the time. Of course, one of the three justice presiding over the trial seemed inclined to favor the defense. Whether or not he believed Lizzie Borden innocent, it was also true that he had been appointed to the court by one of Borden's attorneys -- a former governor of the state of Massachusetts. This may have influenced the justice's charge to the jury in which he seemed to challenge the case put forward by the prosecution. But by the time the case went to the jury, the prosecution had already suffered a number of defeats. Public opinion was clearly in support of Lizzie, the martyred daughter, and against the bumbling police and the prosecution who had gone forward with the case. When Borden was acquitted, the spectators cheered and grown men wiped away tears.

Free, Lizzie went home -- or, at least, to stay with friends until the crowds around the Borden house dissipated. Later, she and Emma bought another house. The Times reported this story. Newspapers would go on to report, Lizzie's troubled life following her acquittal -- her involvement with theater people that scandalized Fall River society, her estrangement from Emma, her kleptomania. For years, the press would cover the anniversary of the murders. A hundred years later -- after plays, novels, ballets, short stories, and an Alfred Hitchcock episode based on the case -- scholars conveyed a conference to look back at Lizzie Borden. There was discussion about her motive for murder -- perhaps not just the desire to inherit half of her father's fortune -- perhaps jealousy inspired by an improper relationship between father and daughter. After all, he had worn only one piece of jewelry, a ring that Lizzie had given him, and she had hated her stepmother.

One of the the theories at the time was that Lizzie had killed her stepmother in a fit of rage. Then she had been forced to kill her father because of what she had done. She had known that he was a stern man, who would not have helped her to cover up the murder of his wife. Or, perhaps, the murder of Abby Borden had been done with cold deliberation, killing Abby first so that her relatives would not inherit Andrew's estate. Both murders a matter of greed on the part of a woman who had wanted a different life.

Whatever happened that August morning, Lizzie Borden remains an enigma. Both my protagonist and I remain intrigued by her. The case proves the enduring power of an unsolved mystery. Such cases also provide us with insight into another time and place. The sketch of the house done by the engineer brought in by the prosecution, the details of the women's lives, the information about such matters as milk and mutton -- all useful for those of us who write mysteries that draw on or are set in the past and those of us who study the crimes as scholars.






Thursday, August 14, 2014

Victims



Last week I got hold of a fabulous book on the act of creating, written by one of my favorite historical novelists, Steven Pressfield. It's entitled Do The Work : Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way. It's a little tiny thing, less than 100 pages, but like all of Pressfield's writing, it is pithy as hell and right to the point. The blurb for the book says that it is "an action guide that gets down and dirty in the trenches." One of the first things he suggests a writer (or any artist/creator) must do before he begins is determine what the work is about. After I read that sentence, I had to put the book down and ponder for a minute.

Do The Work
Steven Pressfield

You see, I'm right in the middle of the first draft of a novel, and the best I can say is that it's about...150 pages long. I have a fabulous set up, great characters, some fantastic scenes. I have a point in mind. But I haven't killed anyone yet. I know where and when the killing should occur, but I don't know who my victim is. This is something of a problem for a crime novelist.

A few weeks ago, there was a thread on one of the mystery writers' discussion groups concerning victims. Why, one author asked, are most victims in mysteries horrible people? Why then would anyone care if the killer was caught? Interesting question. It made me think back over my seven mysteries and consider who I have killed, and why anyone cared. Thus far, my victims have been: 1) an old buzzard who had it coming, 2) a sad case, 3) a member of the family, 4) another member of the family, 5) a couple of haunted young men, 6) a guitarist in a mariachi band, 7) a really, really bad guy.

Of the slate of victims, only two were terrible people whose deaths left the world a better place. None of the rest deserved their fates. So the point in most of my mysteries is to find justice for those who met a tragic end. However, why would a reader care who killed the bad guys? Does it have to do with the simple intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle? Does it have to do with making sure an innocent person isn't implicated? In my most recent book, Hell With the Lid Blown Off, the victim is awful but all the suspects are perfectly lovely people. No matter who gets fingered, it's going to be sad. Or is it?

So who am I going to kill this time? One of my characters is going to have give me a really good reason to do him in.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A juggler's life

Barbara here. The last few blogs on Type M have essentially been about balls in the air. Keeping track of them, wondering who put them up there, worrying whether they will land on our head. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for everyone's lives in the hectic, multi-tasking world most of us live in today.

It is certainly a metaphor for a writer's life. My children have all grown up and moved away, I have retired from my full-time professional career, and yet still my life is running full tilt. Either that, or my mind and body are not as nimble and efficient as they used to be. I prefer to think that's not the case! But I can't imagine running a household of children and working a full day on top of my current workload.

Here I am in the dog days of summer – August, that lazy month when people are on holidays, lounging at the lake, or sipping mint daiquiris on the patio. Not me! At least I am at the lake as I write this, listening to the rain pattering on the steel cottage roof. But here's a sample of the balls up in the air.

I am currently rushing to write most of the first draft of my latest mystery novel before my research trip to Newfoundland in three weeks. It's a tight race. When writing a first draft, I discipline myself to write at least one scene a day, typically writing for 3 hours in the morning. Every day, seven days a week (although I admit sometimes I cheat). Why do the first draft before the research, you wonder? Because I don't know what the story is and what information I need to research until I have written at least a rough story. There will be lots of holes in the draft, and the information that I learn on my trip will no doubt change details, but I hope the bones will stand up.

At the same time, I am also gearing up for the release of my latest Inspector Green novel in October. Although it's still summer in my head, fall is lying in wait around the next corner. Book tours and signings have to be set up, launches have to be planned. Invitations, venues, media... I have to update my website, my publisher's website, and the Crime Writers of Canada website to include all these new events. Stay tuned for the Toronto launch on October 7th and the Ottawa launch on October 29th.

Every day, I also have to attend to social media – Facebook, this blog, etc.– to keep myself connected with readers and friends, and to promote the upcoming events. This Saturday, for example, I am doing a reading with my good friend Vicki Delany in Perth Ontario at the Perth Classic Theatre, as an opener for their mystery play DIAL M FOR MURDER. I must find time to post a notice about it. If you live or vacation near Perth, come on down!

And somewhere in the middle of all this, I am waiting for an additional ball to come flying out of left field, in the form of the edits of my latest Cedric O'Toole mystery, due out from Orca Books in the spring of 2015. When they arrive, I will have to step out of my Newfoundland world and set aside my promotional efforts of NONE SO BLIND, in order to reconnect with Cedric O'Toole. When we write, we truly enter the worlds of our characters and our story, so jumping in and out is no mean feat.

In between, of course, I have to eat, sleep, and find time for friends and family. Sometimes I wish time would slow down just a little. But what a privilege it is to be doing what I truly love.

So then I think, the rocking chair can wait.