Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thinking about the Masters

Hi all, it’s Debby, posting during my lunch break Hawai‘i time from a 7th and 8th Grade English class, where I’m subbing. (I know, you East Coast folks are probably sitting down to dinner.) Subbing is loads of fun, but I nearly crawl home. And it’s one of the few places where I’m totally in the moment, unable to think of my own writing—except for those flashes of appreciation I get when I’m reading the assigned literature along with the students. Somehow, it’s different than when I read on my own, silently, alone. Not only is my brain in a more analytical mode in a class, I have to go a lot slower.

The 8th Graders are reading Lord of the Flies, and wow, I’d forgotten the power in this book. There are times I can hardly contain myself, and I have to ask the kids what they think the author was trying to get at. No wonder E.M. Forster chose it as Outstanding Novel of the Year in 1954. This is heavy stuff, and masterful plotting. Most of you probably knew this already, but I read this a LONG time ago, and I know I wasn’t getting it then.

I avoided the sexual parallels when the boys slaughter the sow. Too much for 13 year-olds, and maybe too much for me. Perhaps the regular teacher will handle that, but there’s so much going on here that I could bypass that allegory and deal with the character who represented civilization (rules, order, intellect) and the character that represented anarchy (the darkness of the heart, blood lust, crowd psychology, power without compassion). I could go on and on, but I imagine many of you would be better analysts of the book than I am.

As a writer I’m intimidated and inspired. It’s great to take a step back and analyze a master I haven’t read for, well, about forty years. What’s that expression? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A surreal experience

Sorry about not posting last week. I had a blog entry half-done and then life got in the way — big time.

My wife and I were in Ottawa: she to adjudicate at a music festival for the week and me to meet with a client and just work in our hotel room since it included free high-speed internet. If you’re a graphic designer, you can really work anywhere as long as you have high-speed and your computer.

That first afternoon, we got a phone call from New York that my wife’s brother had died very suddenly that morning. All bets were off and we were back in the car, heading for Toronto so she could pick up her passport and grab a flight home. Our boys and I followed in a car the next morning.

Now here’s where the surreality (is that a word?) comes in. All during the succeeding days, I kept finding myself switching into “research mode”. What were people going through? What were they saying? What was happening around me at the funeral home?

It was simultaneously terrible and fascinating, and had me feeling very guilty. I mean, this was a family tragedy and I was turning it into a writing exercise — at least some of the time.

Do we writers all do this? A few Christmas’s ago, we were the first on the scene for an accident on the New England Thruway, just outside of my hometown of Mamaroneck, and I did the same thing. Fortunately, at this one, nobody was hurt, just shaken up, but the people who caused the accident jumped out of their car and fled the scene, so that involved cops and all sorts of interesting things (for crime writers). Finally my wife said, “Do you think we could leave now? I mean they took our statements over an hour ago.” I believe I would have stayed all night to watch the drama of the runaway perps play out.

I may or may not ever use any of what I observed last week, but if I do, you can be sure it will be with twinges of guilt.

Sleep well, Dan.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Trailer Awards

The wonderful trailer for Valley of the Lost is up for an award at New Covey. Hop on over and view the competition - I don't have much doubt of which you'll think is the best. Thanks Charles and Shad. Valley is number 19 of 20. View and then vote. Thanks.

Free? No thanks.

Vicki here with a question for all the authors out there: should you do free events?

I ask because I am beginning to come around to answering NO. With the exception of independent bookstores and your local library, perhaps schools, why should you? You’re not going to get anything out of it.

Why do authors do free events anyway? In the hopes of selling books, of course. But musicians don’t perform for free (except in the street or subway) in the hopes of selling CDs. Try getting into the next AC/DC concert by telling the person at the gate that you might buy a CD. Tell the ticket seller at the box office to let you in without paying because if you like the movie, you’re going to buy it when it comes out on DVD.

Ask any touring writer who the worst people are for buying books: Beginning writers every time. They’ll come to your workshops, attend your talks, stop by your table at the bookstore. And walk away without buying.

I recently was a guest at a one day conference. Admission was free – for a whole day of interesting panels, a workshop, and meet and mingle with the authors. Book sales were abysmal.

I am organizing a big reading event in Toronto in June. I’m getting local celebrities to read from the works of well-known authors. The authors will be there to give a bow. One really big name author (you DO know who he/she is) said after an earlier time s/he would never participate again. All that time to sell one book? No thanks.

Bottom line – attendees who enjoyed meeting that author won’t get the chance again.
Why do readers (presumably people who come to reading and author events are readers) think they can have a whole day or evening of entertainment or education and not need to even compensate the writer by buying a book?

Some people genuinely can’t afford books, sure, and we try to accommodate them – which is to our credit. But I bet most of them will go out the next night to a movie or sports event. Try telling the gate guard at a Blue Jays game that you can’t afford a ticket but want to get in anyway.

When Debby and I were touring we gave several workshops on writing. At one place we each gave a full ONE HOUR workshop. That’s two hours of education. Several people took lots of notes, asked questions, and left without even saying thanks, never mind buying books.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Guest Blogger: Richard Ciciarelli

I've often heard authors talk about how they had to struggle to reach their publisher's required 80,000 word mark for a novel that wrapped up nicely at 72,000 words. Writers of micro short stories (1 to 1,000 words) face a different challenge. Today's guest blogger, noted micro short story author and interactive-mystery playwright, Richard Ciciarelli, explains.

More years ago than I care to remember I received for Christmas a Hardy Boys book. From that point on I was hooked on mysteries.

I graduated to Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie. John Dickson Carr, and Rex Stout, and finally, when I was a freshman in college, I decided I could write a mystery novel of my own.

As it turns out, that was a loftier goal than I was capable of attaining, but I have been moderately successful in the short story genre.

In 1979, Eleanor Sullivan, then editor of ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, accepted my short story “Drive a Hard Bargain” for publication. Since then I’ve had sixty-five of my stories and articles published in some of the country’s top mystery magazines and on-line mystery sites.

In those thirty years I’ve learned a few things about short stories.

First, and most obvious, they’re short. That means not a paragraph, sentence or word can be wasted. While a novelist might spend a page or two on a flashback scene to establish a character’s motivation, a short story writer doesn’t have that luxury. He must somehow, in a sentence or less, convey that same motivation. Words are at a premium.

For example, in my mini mystery “The Bookstore Robbery,” which appeared in the March 10, 2008, issue of Woman’s World, I originally wrote “A thought crossed Jacobs’ mind and a smile slowly spread across his face.” I changed that to read “Jacobs smiled as a thought crossed his mind.”

That saved five words, and saving five words in every paragraph would shorten the story by over 200 words. That might not sound like much, but Woman’s World has a 700 words limit, so 200 words represents well over a fourth of the story. That translates into more than 50 pages of a 200 page novel.

But word count is only one part of short story writing. I hope to be able to discuss more at a later time.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hot Topics

Allow me to repeat a comment that Charles wrote in yesterday’s excellent entry:

Customers don’t want to hear what you want to say. They want to hear what they want to hear. In other words, if you are not saying the things that resonate with customers, they are not interested in your product.

This is the absolute truth.  However, I have no idea what customers (readers) want to hear.  I know what I want to hear, and that’s what I write about.  This is why I have my own avid and loyal following, but am not a best-selling author. I know what I like, but I don’t have a clue about wooing the general reading public.

I have heard publishers, as well as more well-known authors than I, say that if you want to get published, study what is being published.  Familiarize yourself with the books and authors on the best-seller lists, and be advised.

I am a great advocate of learning how to write by reading and studying excellent authors.  If you read a book that you enjoyed so much that you cannot get it out of your mind, then go back over it and try to figure out how the author did it.  Take notes.  What was it about the story that spoke to you?  The beautiful language and lingering description?  The fast-paced dialog?  The steamy romance, or the twist at the end?  If you enjoy reading it, you’ll probably enjoy writing it, and your love for your story will show in your writing.

I’ve learned all kinds of things from the works of master authors, even those who write the kinds of books I love to read but have less interest in writing myself.  I learned the proper technique for busting up a room from Lee Child.

As for trying to write about a topic or in a genre that is really hot right now, but doesn’t really speak to you ... I don’t know.  It takes so long to write a book and have it published, that when it finally sees the light of day, your hot topic isn’t going to be so hot any more.  If you really want to write a vampire book, then do it, but don’t count on the fact that by the time you finish it, vampires will still be the biggest thing going.  

If you set out to write a novel in a genre that doesn’t excite you, simply because it’s popular, I would think it might be difficult to create something memorable.

When it comes to promotion, much like Charles’ worldwide leader in the home security field, my “ads” for my stories tend to run on about aspects that I find fascinating, but as I pointed out earlier, I don’t really know what people who are not me want to hear.  

Not that I don’t care whether people buy my work, because I do.  I want readers to be fascinated by what I have to say, and I want to be able to create blurbs and ads that entice mobs of people to stampede to the bookstores demanding to buy my books. 

What to do?  Learn your craft, study and write continually, and write what you love.  Write the very best book you can, promote it to the best of your ability, and if you can afford it, hire a professional publicist.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Say What

TGIF. And TGICharles

First, a note of thanks to Donald Maass, last week’s guest blogger (see below). While I haven’t read his latest (yet), his Writing the Breakout Novel helped me to, well, breakout. Recommended without reservations.

Now on to the lesson.

Since I have a foot in both worlds, I’ve been blogging about the parallels between writing novels and writing ads. Last week I challenged all you authors out there to come up with a billboard for your work in progress, and a few can be found in the comments section below that blog entry. (Unless there are only 4 people writing books out there, the rest of you are late.) This week I want to talk about messaging, or, in non-jargonese, what you say to your readers.

You can usually tell when a business writes it’s own ad. They can be clever and sometimes quite good, but often—I’d risk saying usually—they miss the mark. These ads get all the right information out there, they just say it wrong. I don’t mean they use the company president instead of professional talent (although that is a common practice that should be avoided), I mean the tone and target of the message is wrong for the client.

The problem is that a company knows and loves its product and is justifiably proud of the company’s achievements, and the ads they come up with tend to extol the products virtues and highlight the company’s commitment to success.

Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn.

Customers don’t want to hear what you want to say. They want to hear what they want to hear. In other words, if you are not saying the things that resonate with customers, they are not interested in your product.

I work with a worldwide leader in the home security field. The products they offer are, without question, the finest available. The ads they used to run went on and on about their rating for this and their construction methods and their long history of innovation. And sales were flat. People did not want to hear all the technical details the company’s engineers found fascinating. That’s not what they want to buy. What they want to hear is how this product will give them what they really want—peace of mind. It took some time, but we were able to successfully reposition the company, and I’m proud to say that sales have exceeded the company’s best expectations. We still mention the testing and the standards and the independent certifications, but the focus is on telling people what they want to hear. Same product, different message.

It’s not what you want to say, it’s what they want to hear. You can still deliver the same product—a top-of-the-line home security device or a fast-paced mystery—but if you are not speaking to them in a way they want to be spoken to, you will not have any takers.

But you have important things to say! Your books are not a product, they are art, damn it! Fine. But let me ask you, how long do you keep reading a book that doesn’t deliver the kind of story you want to read?

Figure out what your reader wants out of a book—on the plot level, the character level, the scene level, in dialog, pacing and conclusion—and give them what they want to read.

NOTE: This Sunday’s guest blogger is author, playwright and short story ace Richard Ciciarelli. He’ll be tipping us to the wise on writing the short mystery.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Donald Maass on Creating Secondary Characters

We are very pleased to feature an excerpt from famed New York literary agent Donald Maass's new book, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great. In this book, Maass illuminates the techniques of master contemporary novelists. Some authors write powerhouse novels every time. What are they doing differently on the page? Maass not only explains, he shows you how you can right away use the techniques of greatness in your current manuscript.

Here's a sample - on writing secondary characters.

Secondary Characters

The heroes of popular series are memorable, but quick: Who's the most unforgettable sidekick in contemporary fiction? Takes some thought, doesn't it? Dr. Watson comes easily to mind; perhaps also Sancho Panza or Paul Drake? After that it's easier to think of sidekicks from movies or comic books.

We could issue the same challenge with respect to the great villains of contemporary literature. After Hannibal Lechter, who is there?

Come to that, how many secondary characters of any type stick in your mind from the fiction you've read in the last year? Do you read Chic-Lit? Have you ever felt that the gaggle of sassy girlfriends in one novel is pretty much the same as in the rest? How about killers and assassins? Do many of them seem to you stamped from the same mold? How about children? Do precocious kids in novels make you want to gag?

Supporting players in manuscripts are too often forgettable. They walk on, walk off, making no particular impression. What wasted opportunities, in my opinion, especially when you consider that secondary characters aren't born, they're built.

Who in your story has special stature? Is there an influential teacher, a spouse, a past love, a friend of long standing, a wizard at math? Is there a character in your story who might be given such elevated importance? It isn't that difficult to do. Next, explore the effect that this paragon has on your protagonist, then find a meaningful moment for that effect to be expressed.

Building a memorable secondary character begins with making that character memorable for your protagonist.

A literary agent in New York, Donald Maass's agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc.

Read more about The Fire in Fiction at Writers Digest.

Just the Right Word

Yesterday, Charles challenged us to come up with a billboard idea for our current project.  I find this most intriguing, because my current project was inspired by a billboard! 

Well, it’s inspired by a World War I propaganda poster. Tomayto, tomahto.  Large, muscular young woman dressed in long, filmy, gown, glares face-on at the viewer.  In one hand she holds an American flag, and the other hand points Uncle-Sam-like before her.  She is wearing a brimless cap with the words “Public Opinion” stitched across the front.  The caption reads : All Men Fear Me.

Which, handily enough, is the title of my book.

Anyone who is enamored of words, which most writers are, knows what it’s like to try and find that perfect word to convey the subtle shade of meaning you want.  My first drafts are filled with blank spaces, which I leave because even though I can think of one hundred nouns/verbs/descriptors that would be perfectly adequate in that place, I know the Absolutely Perfect Word exists, and I can’t quite come up with it.  However, I can’t afford to spend fifteen minutes wracking my brain for it, so I leave a blank and torture myself with it on the rewrites.Sometimes I do end up having to use one of those one hundred almost-right words, but when I do, I feel a sense of failure for not having adequately communicated with the reader. 

Subtle meaning is only part of what a writer strives for with the perfect word.  Sometimes the poetry of the sentence, the way it sounds, can only be served by a particular word.  In my current manuscript, I originally wrote a narrative in the voice of one character, but decided later that it would be better to have a different character experience this event and tell us about it.  Changing the point of view necessitated a major change in language, even though the gist of the scene was the same.

I read that if you ask an author why he writes, the better and probably more successful writers will answer that it’s because they love language.  I think that learning how to manipulate language is like* learning to manipulate the keys of a piano.  Language is our instrument, and if we don’t practice, study, experiment, and play with it, we might end up writing “Chopstick” instead of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.

Don’t fail to tune in tomorrow right here on Type M For Murder, when our guest blogger will be New York literary agent Don Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook


* Example : I almost wrote the word “analogous”, here, instead of “like”, but decided that “analogous” is too high-falutin’.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Ads Adds to your Writing

Professor Charles here again, with the second of my installments on the parallels between writing effective advertising and writing compelling novels.

Rick’s post (below) on revision made me revise my plans. Instead of posting about branding and character development, I want to ramble on a bit about micro-level revision.

When most folks talk about the revision process, they are usually talking about how they need to tweak the entire manuscript to ensure that it’s all going in the right direction—do I add a chapter here to explain Lord Philby’s obsession with marsupials, do I remove Aunt Glenda since, other than the one scene in the copper smelting plant she adds little to the plot, do I give Marvin an adorable obsessive compulsive trait in addition to his inability to conjugate French past-tense verbs? These are all good questions and work at this level is essential, but what I’m talking about are much smaller decisions—do I say ottoman or footstool, did he push the door open or was it more of a shove, did her eyes glisten or just water up?

Billboard ads seem so last century, but after almost 100 years they remain amazingly effective. One of the toughest assignments in advertising is to come up with an effective billboard campaign. What makes it so tough is that you have a blink to make an impact, a tiny handful of words—seven or so, tops—to get the message out there. Often, but not always, you get a good picture to work with and if you’re lucky, a well-known logo that can cut down what has to be said in words. I have written many times about how long it might take me to write a chapter in a book, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I have spent 20+ hours trying to come up with just the right set of words for single billboard. Sometimes you hit on the right combination in an hour, but the norm is much longer, and it’s all because of word choices.

Now authors make word choices every two seconds, but I submit that when you are writing an ad—a billboard, a print ad, a web banner, a point-of-sale poster—those word choices are critical to the success of the writing. In a novel you might have 90,000 words. If you sweated every word you’d never get it done. Yes, you think about them, but does any author have the time—or the need—to explore alternative word choices and phrasing for every single word, every single time? Sometimes you just have to open the damn door.

When you ponder word choices on a micro level, you get to explore all the neat denotations and connotations, weighing this word over that one, these two together versus these two, these three, not these three. It’s great fun, intellectually stimulating and painfully slow. I don’t suggest it as a way to approach your novel since you’ll never get it done (hmmm…good excuse, though), but when you have a scene that is just not working or a character who remains flat on the page, get down to the micro level and I bet you’ll see some progress.

So here’s your assignment—come up with a 5 billboard campaign for the manuscript you are currently working on. That’s 5 different billboards that sell your particular story (not you, the story), using no more than 7 words per billboard. Yes, you can use images. Here’s an example using the book I’m writing. It might go something like this:

[Image - Top down photo of the inside of a dresser drawer. Objects on the top of the dresser and inside make it clear it’s an older man’s dresser. Mixed in with the shirts and suspenders and old monogrammed hankies is a small black bag, and spilling out of this bag are un-mounted jewels. And just visible under the bag is the pistol grip of a handgun and a pair of black leather gloves. Upper right side of the billboard is an image of the book cover.]

[Headline] He’s not your typical grandfather.

You may not know anything about the book—and you don’t—but I bet you have some questions about this old man. Okay, it’s not brilliant, but you get the idea. Please post your billboards in the comment section. And trust me on this, writing billboards is harder than it sounds.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

thoughts on writing

It's Thursday, so Debby's chiming in.
Rick, that must feel great! Congratulations.

I know what you mean about not being able to stop working on the book. And I'll bet those two new scenes will enhance the work. I love those revelations, when an idea nudges your psyche with an insistence you can't ignore. Where I run into trouble is when I get them after the book has gone to the printer. Or how about when you're in the middle of a reading at a library or bookstore and you find yourself editing. Meanwhile, that inner voice is saying, "Yuck, what a stupid sentence. How could I have used 'fill in the blank' twice on the same page?"

Which brings me to a thought. I often use a quote from Justice Brandeis, which says, "There is no great writing, only great rewriting."

We’ve discussed outlining before beginning the actual novel. DorothyL members have chimed in with illuminating comments, too. One person (Beth, was that you?) uses a time line. How many others among us use time lines?

I do, but it’s incorporated into the outline I make as I write the actual novel. (Know that I am using the term outline loosely.) What I do is make notes on a chapter by chapter basis so I can find where certain events occurred. I make sure to note minor characters’ names, eye colors, spouse names, stuff I’m sure to forget later. It also helps me when I’m on page 252 and I can’t remember where a minor clue appeared. I can almost bet on needing to tweak it later. I also use this “outline” to make notes on what I need to change later, particularly if it’s a significant change that reflects characters’ actions earlier in the book.

Which leads me to another question: how far back in your writing do you go to edit? I usually edit what I’ve written the day before, but if I add or subtract a scene, I’ll probably need to make changes in the characters’ earlier actions or reactions. Instead of going back to page 76 to make the change I’ve effected on page 238, I make a note on my ongoing outline so that I can do a bunch of edits at once. This way, I get through my first draft without breaking my train of thought.

Which takes me back to Brandeis’s statement. However, I’ll bet writers use thousands of other methods, and I’d love to hear about some of them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Contest time!

Vicki here, posting out of turn with a contest. To celebrate the release of my newest novel, Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery, I am giving away two signed copies of the book. To enter, please go to my web page, and read the first chapter. Then send me an e-mail (via the contact page on the web site or to vicki at vickidelany dot com) answering this question: What is the name of the man found dead on the stage of the Savoy Dance Hall? The contest will be open until Wednesday April 22nd.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When a novel just won’t let you go

If it's Tuesday, this must be Blechta...

As you will know if you’ve been a Type M reader for any length of time, my current novel, The Fallen One, has been gestating for far longer than has previously been the case for me. The reasons are many, most due to how much -- or more accurately, how little -- time I’ve been able to devote to it.

Anyway, it’s now done, revised numerous time, and in the hands of the experienced Patricia Moosbruger, Agent Extraordinaire, and I have high hopes for a good outcome. The five people who have read the novel have REALLY liked it, and they’re not the kind who pull their punches. Anything that stinks, they'll be sure to tell me about, in great detail, numerous times, with no respect for my tender emotions, bluntly. Now I’ll just have to be patient to see what editors think of it, and as many who know me will attest, I am the Poster Boy of Patience.

But some extraordinary has also been happening behind the scenes. The novel is complete, yes, and polished as well as I can do it at this point. However, I can’t stop working on it. Yesterday, I wrote two additional scenes. One, I’m pretty sure might be asked for by an editor since it is alluded to several times in the book. Why didn’t I put it in when I first thought of it? I really can’t tell you. At the time, it just didn’t feel right, and I write mostly by feel.

The other just came to me out of the blue, starting as a small plot device, but soon spreading insidious tendrils out in several directions into the story.

Will these two scenes wind up in the finished book? I really can’t tell you. Will I ever use them, though? You bet. If nothing else, they’ll wind up on my website in my Deleted Scenes section.

Another small scene occurred to me this morning, and I’m just itching to write it.

Somebody stop me!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hats and a cookie recepie

The attached picture is of me wearing the hat I bought specifically for my appearances to promote Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery. I will try to find a better shirt to go with it!

Gold Digger is now available in some bookstores, particularly in Canada, but I’m holding off my big announcement until is it is stock in Amazon (there has been a delay).

In the meantime I had a great book signing at the wonderful Otter Books in Nelson, B.C. last week. Taking a tip from Debby, who baked cookies for one of our Hawaii appearances, I decided to bake also.

The cookies were a great success. I am usually pretty good at approaching people, but having something to offer really helped. People certainly appreciated them, and several asked for the recipe. So here it is.

Lucky Smith’s Kootenay Kookies.

1 c. Butter
1 c. Sugar
2 tbsp molasses
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
2 c. Flour
2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 ¾ tsp soda
2 c rolled oats
2/3 c raisins
2/3 c chopped nuts (or can use more raisins)
Combine butter and sugar until creamy. Add molasses, vanilla, eggs. Combine flour, salt, cinnamon, soda, oars, raisins, and nuts. Stir dry ingredients into butter and egg mixture.
Drop by teaspoon onto greased cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 for 10 – 15 minutes.

P.S. The cookie thing worked well in a small, busy, independent bookstore. I would probably not try it in a store in a mall or a big box store. I suspect the cookies would be gone in 15 minutes, taken by teenage boys on the way to the coffee shop.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Don Bruns's Thoughts on Writing

So I'm looking at the latest Library Journal review for my March release, Bahama Burnout, and it says "Another great read from Don Bruns, an underappreciated mystery writer."
And I'm thinking...99 percent of all authors are underappreciated. I mean, the best seller list is so limited. Publishers are sticking with Patterson, Cussler, Clark, Connelly, Woods and a handful of others. Because those authors are guaranteed sellers. The 'under appreciated', like me, like Debby Atkinson... there's no guarantee. We work as hard, we spend as much time ( maybe more), we travel, sometimes at our own expense, but sell fewer books...have fewer fans, and end up in many cases breaking even at best. And our works are often as good or better than the big sellers.

I remember when I first signed with St. Martin's Press. The Nanny Diaries had just come out and an article in USA Today had rocketed the book to the top of the charts. The book was paying a lot of bills at St. Martin's. We were all thankful that the two female authors had hit a home run. They were appreciated! And they paid the bills and helped pave the way for 'under appreciated' authors like me. Then they wrote their second book. And St. Martin's turned it down. They got a high powered agent, then another and another...and finally found someone who would publish the second novel. Does anyone know what it was about? The title? They are now officially underappreciated authors.

Robert James Waller's Bridges Of Madison County, not only sold hundreds of thousands of books, but like the Nanny Diaries, was made into a movie. It far surpassed the Nanny Diaries, and Clint Eastwood starred in the lead role. Waller wrote another novel. No one wanted it. He ended up having a small Texas publisher handle it, and if you can even name the title I'll send you a free copy of Bahama Burnout. (No, you could Google it.) He is now officially underappreciated.

I could go on with the stories of underappreciated authors. My point is, I would like to be appreciated. I'd like to sell books like my mentor, Sue Grafton. But when I look around and see all the authors who ARE underappreciated, I'm in pretty good company! Maybe I'm not making millions per effort, but there are a lot of talented people working at my level...and if that's what it's going to be for now, so be it. I'm underappreciated, and I'll deal with that.

Don Bruns

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Oh, So Many Things to Discuss!

Judging by the comments, Debby seems to have touched a nerve when she asked about writers’ outlining habits.  I was told once by a mystery author (who also happens to be a lawyer - a significant detail, I think), that before she begins writing, she outlines each and every one of her novels to the tune of at least one hundred pages, and never deviates therefrom.  One Very Big Name of my acquaintance never outlines at all, or even has much in mind when she begins her mammoth novels.  She writes dozens of seemingly unrelated episodes, then arranges them in some sort of order and cobbles them together with new scenes and segues.  This technique may sound pretty slapdash, but it seems to work for this woman, since she could buy and sell us all.

I have done both.  Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being.  I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind.  I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and the end, as well.  More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out.

I, too, have the same editor as Vicki, Debby, and Charles.  When we were first published with Poisoned Pen Press, returning authors were not required to submit the synopsis and first 100 pages.  On the rare occasion, I understand, a returning author would submit an unacceptable MS close to the deadline, leaving little time for a major fix and messing up the press’ publishing schedule.  Thus the adoption of the long editing lead time.

The synopsis/outline that I submit isn’t all that complex.  I simply tell the story in a short, narrative form, and that seems to be fine.  As for having the first 100 pages approved, that requirement has on more than one occasion saved me some major rewriting.

I must comment on Charles’ assertion that learning effective ad writing is a great way to sharpen one’s writing skills.  He is spot-on.  I have also read that learning to write poetry will improve narrative skills like nothing else.  A poet is continually striving to distill something as huge as a universal truth into a single image.  This is a skill that is invaluable in good story-telling.

My beloved husband Don belonged to something of a gang of four aspiring poets/writers when he was in college.  Forty-five years later, all four of them have been published, and one of them, Louis Jenkins, became an actual professional poet.  He was a protege of Robert Bly, has published a number of poetry collections, and has read his poems on Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion several times.  The fact that he is a friend from Don’s youth aside, Jenkins is one of my very favorite poets, and the reason is that he writes prose poems that are perfect gems of concept, story, and image.  They are also observant, wistful, and often hilarious.  I’d love to reproduce one here, but I haven’t asked his permission, so I will only quote the first sentence of a poem called Walking Through A Wall.

“Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps...”

You can read the rest, and several other delights, at   (Don’t neglect to read Football)

And finally, one last word about weather and the wellspring of my birth, Oklahoma.  The picture at the top was taken on March 28 by my sister-in-law Donna in her front yard in Tulsa.  Today my Oklahoma relatives and friends are trying not to burn to death.  One thing about weather in the Great Plains - you won't be bored. I received an e-mail just today from my friend Kevin, who lives in a small town in Northeastern OK, saying that he had just heard on the news that there were wildfires to the northwest and southwest of him, and tornadoes to the northeast. He thought it was a little "like waiting for a quorum for the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Better Novels Through Advertising

Charles here, in the pre-dawn hours at my office at Dixon Schwabl, the advertising, marking and public relations firm where I spend my days learning to become a better novelist.

Yes, a better novelist.

I often say that writing an effective TV or radio spot is a great way to sharpen your skills in terms of plot, character, setting and dialog. And when I say this people just smile at and mumble something like ‘you poor deluded man’. I try to explain the similarities between good ads and good stories, but after that first statement, people assume anything else I say will be equally ridiculous.

Fortunately for you, I will not give up.

For first in a series of vitally important and informative lessons on Better Novels Through Advertising, I get all academic on you. European academic at that.

First, watch this Nike video from 1998 called “Good vs. Evil”

Now, follow this link to and download The Rhetoric of Mythological Branding by Fabian Baustisa. (Yes, it would be nice to have a simple link that takes you right to the paper, but I can’t give you everything – you have to work for it to appreciate it.)

After you watch the spot and read the paper, you will see that, rather than spending all that money getting that degree in Creative Writing, you should have studied copywriting.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Outlines and other writerly stuff

Snow! OMG, you guys are having snow! Would you believe that I actually miss winter? At times, that is. I wouldn’t miss scraping my car windshield in April, though. So warm thoughts are coming your way from here in the islands. Where it’s kind of cloudy and cool, just in case you were curious.

On another topic, I know there are various opinions just among the five of us on the benefits of writers’ groups, or critique groups, whatever you want to call them. I work with one, and it helps me most of the time. We met yesterday, which brings me to a question for other writers who may have dropped by for a visit.

Do you use an outline before you begin a novel? Some of us on this blog share the same editor (not all of us, though), and she requires an outline of her established authors before we submit the entire manuscript. Then she wants the first hundred pages. I find the directive useful because my plots have a tendency to get complicated. The outline, from which our editor seems to expect us to deviate, serves as a road map. If I wander, I can find my way back.

I’ve talked to writers who don’t outline at all and others who make 200 page outlines. Mine run 15-20 pages. I do NOT use the format we all learned in elementary school (if you’re as old as I am, that is). I’m referring to the Roman Numeral, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, stuff. That’s just too anal-retentive for me. If I did that, I’d have to obsess more about the shape of the outline than the shape of the book. But I do try to think in terms of a “Three Part Structure,” plot points, the villain’s and protagonist’s motives and commitments. The outline helps me do this. How about the rest of you?

A parting thought—our guest blogger this Sunday is Don Bruns, author of two series and two anthologies. His latest in his Caribbean series, Bahama Burnout, has just arrived in bookstores. Read more about Don’s experiences on Easter Sunday.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Things we can’t do a thing about...

...or to be more gramatically correct, things about which we can’t do a thing.

Blechta here in snowy Toronto.

I often tease people in foreign climes about the weather here in Toronto since a shocking number of people think “Canada” and then automatically think “snow” for some reason. I wrote to someone just last week: “Well, the weather here is much better than usual. We’re down to a mere eight feet of snow and the polar bears have left town about two weeks sooner than expected. It really is shocking how much damage they do. We had four metal garbage cans torn to shreds this winter, two great danes went missing down the street, and several of our friends have been trapped for hours in their cars with the bears trying to chew their way in. The authorities really should do something about it.”

I went on in this manner for another paragraph or two. I don’t know whether my correspondent knew I was pulling her leg. Once, we had friends visit from the UK in May (when it’s quite warm and the gardens are in full bloom, and due to my stories about the weather, they brought parkas! And gloves!! And cute, knitted caps!!! My wife still hasn’t forgiven me — neither have they.

Well, I guess the fates took notice and I am now being punished. On the week that we’d planned to get our yard in order, the vegetable garden ready (even planting a few early vegetables), and the patio set up and ready for those warm spring days and slightly chilly but still wonderful spring evenings, it’s minus four celsius and snowing. It snowed yesterday and it’s going to snow tomorrow, for heaven’s sake! I am being punished, I tell ya, and the rest of southern Ontario got dragged into it. I am so sorry about that everyone. I hereby swear to never again tell whoppers about our Canadian weather. I will strive for 100% accuracy at all times. Honest!

What does all this have to do with crime writing? Not a heck of a lot, but I’m just feeling cold and miserable, wrapped in my down jacket, boots, gloves, and toque firmly in place as I shiver in my tiny garret, typing this out.

If there’s one thing being an author has taught me, it’s the value of patience. As writers, we wait and wait and wait for publishers to evaluate and decide on our manuscripts, pronouncing eventually their considered opinions about our beautiful literary offspring. It’s hard to spend days, months, years, waiting for the mailman, or your ISP, more than likely these days, to deliver the verdict. It’s never far from your mind on a daily basis. Will today be that day?

So authors learn to wait — just like the shivering robins and I are waiting for spring to return.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Launch of Vicki Delany's New Web Page

Today, I launched my new web page. Come on over and have a look: Let me know what you think.

It’s a complete redesign, intended to look modern and clean. One of the features of the new site is that it will be much easier for me to add content, particularly when I have news items to quickly post.

In my opinion a good web page is the most important tool in a professional writer’s promotional tool box. When you have something you want to tell the world, fast and immediate, a web page is the only way to go. You can’t easily send book covers, long reviews, or book trailers by e-mail, but you can put all that on your web page and direct your contacts there. Don’t have e-mail? Then you’re really doomed.

But even more than your contacts, it’s the contacts you don’t have yet that need to access your web page. Rick suggested an author for an event I’m organizing. I looked him up – no web page. Sorry, but I’m not going to hunt him down; I’ll go on to someone else whose books I can find details about and whose contact info is available. I hope that if someone hears my name, perhaps a friend mentions she liked my book, she can find me on the web with just a couple of key strokes, read about my books, read a sample chapter, watch the trailer, maybe check out my bio, and then, hopefully, make the decision to get a book.

The web page name (the URL) should be short and easy to remember, preferably just the writer’s name. You need to be able to tell a prospective web visitor the name and hope they’ll remember it even if you’re nearing the summit of Mount Everest and they don’t have a pen and pencil and your cards are back at base camp.

I have the misfortune of having a fairly common last name that is spelled uncommonly. I can’t call my web page But I have enough of a web presence (that’s also something you have to work at) so that most searches for Vicki Delaney will come up with my name.

I used to be a computer programmer. In the early days of the Internet, I wrote and maintained my department’s web page in raw HTML (the code the WWW is written in). So I know how to do this stuff. Do I? No, I’ve hired a professional. Because I want a professional looking site, and I just don’t have the time for learning all the new tools and for the time and frustration that would be involved in doing it myself. It can be expensive, but my advice is to either spend what you can, or spend the time to learn to do it well.

A good web page is your face, and the face of your books, to the world.

So please drop by my page, and say Hi.

Next week: A peek a my real face wearing the 1890s hat I've bought for the launch of Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Mapping It Out

This Sunday’s Guest Blogger is Diana R. Chambers. Her latest novel is Beyond the Border, a sweeping international story of love and intrigue in which the unlikely union of two families – American and Russian – sets off an explosive reaction that threatens to change the course of history.

She’s currently working on the third of a series with her now ex-CIA officer Nick and his now ex-agent Eve. A mysterious kidnapping leads them up the Mekong River to southern China.

You all must visit her website so you can discover more about this fascinating author. That is an order!


I was flattered by Rick’s invitation to pay you all a visit. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more anxious I became. Whatever the heck would I write about? When I consulted my host, he basically turned me loose and said whatever. Thanks a lot, Rick…because the “whatever” is the hardest part. Isn’t it?

Talking about the weather is always a good ice breaker, but you’ve done that recently. Then there was the question about mixing fact and fiction. Since this is something I do quite often in my work, I have to agree with Charles when he says, “hell yeah.” I would add, hell yeah, if it’s not a gimmick, but truly adds to the development of story and character. Which I know is what he meant.

I thought of all the newspaper clippings I’ve collected. Files of research and resource material, ideas to kick around, to get me going, set me on a path. That got me to thinking about all my maps, their role, actually their power, to lead me places. In truth, I have a thing for maps and see them as much more than large pieces of paper with different colored shapes framed by a lot of blue.

Lately, I’ve been poring over National Geographic maps of the Mekong River region, fascinated by the mix of worlds, trying to extract their sights and smells, imagining similar places I’ve been so as to create a reality in my mind…in case I don’t make it over there. Or at least, not yet. (Because these days, who can afford to travel?)

City maps are wonderful too. Once I wrote about the Tehran Bazaar, combining my Iranian research with sense memories of the Istanbul Bazaar. I never visited Tehran but did walk the streets in my mind. People raved about these passages of the book.

Previously I have studied maps of other areas I’ve written about, most recently the border area between Georgia/Armenia and Turkey. Aspects of the plot were suggested by the physical and political geography. And so I realized that to me, the place is its own character and often gives me an entrée into the story, or new directions for an existing one.

I could not have found a more appropriate topic since I met two of the typem4murder bloggers on a Left Coast Crime panel dealing with setting and place in writing. They are charming gentleman, despite all reports to the contrary.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Alternative History

Re Charles’ additions to the seven classic plot lines :  Sinus sufferer vs. foil wrapper is particularly horrifying, pervasive, and insidious.

Returning to our theme of how to mix reality with fiction, Vicki asked if it’s all right to put non-real events into real times and places.  Of course, that is done all the time.  I certainly do it.  The author has his fictional characters interact with historical figures or become caught up in historical events, like Charles Frazier did with Cold Mountain, or in  Markus Zusak’s Book Thief.  I could go on and on, and I’m sure you could as well, Dear Reader.

We screw around with reality, as well. (Quelle surprise!),  Vicki has murders happen where none actually occurred.  I decide that there should be a storm in Muskogee County, OK, on June 3, 1917.  I could easily discover what the weather on that day in that place was actually like, but why bother?  I’ve already decided that there’s going to be a storm in my fictional world whether or not  there was one in the real world.  Over my little universe-of-the-page, I am God Herself.

In fact, the authors of some novels change major historical events to suit themselves.  This is called “alternative history”, and I love it.  I am quite intrigued by how the past can be reconfigured by an imaginative writer.  Have you ever read Fatherland, by Robert Harris? What if the Nazis had won WWII?  Philip Roth’s Plot Against America is another popular alternative history.  I also liked Robert Silverberg’s  Roma Eterna.  It’s actually a collection of short stories, but they all posit the idea that the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt didn’t go as planned, and Christianity never became the dominant religion of Rome.

I’d love to write an alternative history, some time.  But rather than change the outcome of world events, I think I might alter the past on a much more personal level.  What if the circumstances of my birth had been exactly the same, but I had been a boy instead of a girl?  What sort of life would I have lived?  I am the perfect age for the Viet Nam draft. How would that have played out?  

Now that I think about it, I actually do write alternative history, of a sort.  In reality, I’m a childless, over-educated, ex-professional, left-leaner, who, through her series protagonist, gets to experience the life of a traditional farm wife and mother of ten children.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Plots Thicken

Charles here, starting off with a welcome back to Vicki and Debby, however since the Internet is everywhere, in terms of the blog they didn’t really go anywhere. But welcome back anyway.

Next on the list: Meg Abbott’s talk last night at St. John Fisher College. Meg was great, the crowd excellent, the room way too hot and the post-talk gathering at Good Luck was magnificent. Jared Case was there—and I send you to his blog (4/1/09) with my compliments, as you must read his nifty take on my new YA book title. (Well, tentative title. We’ll see what HaperCollins does with it.) Meg read from her upcoming book and, as befitting the Queen or Noir, it was amazing. Each of Meg’s books is better than the one before it, which is sad since theoretically she can only write a few more books before the Ultimate Noir Novel is written and the genre comes to a close. Till then, though, it’s a great ride.

I must give a shout out to the bartenders at Good Luck who did a great job on mixing some ancient cocktails—The Sazerac (5 stars), The Corpse Reviver (3 stars – a tad too weak for my tastes), The Nergoni (0 stars – one of the few cocktails I consider undrinkable.)

Donis has some neat stuff on classic plots (below) and that blog should be read by one and all. But I fear she left a few out. Some may argue that these are sub-plots or that they are patently inane, but I put them forward nonetheless:

Writer vs. Blank Paper
Office worker vs. jammed copier
Sinus sufferer vs. that iron-tough foil wrapper on the back of Sinutabs
Miles Davis vs. Smooth Jazz
King Kong vs. Godzilla (or other escapees from Monster Island)
Tiger vs. The Field (Always take Tiger, even when he’s not playing)
People looking for intelligent discussions about writing vs. Fridays on Type M For Murder

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Fictional Embellishment?

Vicki in Portland, Oregon. I'm resting up before three events in Washington State and another two in B.C.

Sorry that I missed so many of my posting dates, but finding computer time on the road can sometimes be difficult. Debby and I were so busy – some days we had three events, and we put in hundreds of miles between cities. We’ve parted ways now, as Debby had to join her husband and four teenage boys (not all hers!) on vacation and I’m heading North to Nelson.

This picture was taken in a charming Mexican Restaurant called Frank and Lupe’s in Scottsdale.

Debby and I called our tour “The Hot + Cold Mystery Tour” which is inadvertently a nice tie-in to the topic of last week: Weather in mysteries. As we explained, the hot and cold was a bit of a misnomer, as in Valley of the Lost is it 42 C one day (107 F) which is hotter than it ever gets in Hawaii. But the topic gave us a nice way to start talking about mysteries. Both our books are very setting-specific in that Debby’s books wouldn’t work if taken off the Islands, and mine wouldn’t work in someplace like Toronto or Detroit; not even in Picton, Ontario.

I’d like to turn Rick’s question about real issues in fiction around and ask, is it all right to put non-real events into real times and places? My newest book, Gold Digger: A Klondike Mystery, (Rendezvous Crime, April) takes place in 1898 in Dawson, Yukon. In the single year (1898-99) that was the height of the Great Klondike Gold Rush there was not a single murder in Dawson. That’s an important historical fact as it contrasts starkly with Skagway, Alaska, which was controlled over that period by the infamous gangster Soapy Smith, or Nome, which in the year of its smaller rush had something like 80 murders. The reasons are mainly that the NWMP stamped its authority on the territory immediately and was ready when gold seekers began to arrive, plus that the police simply didn’t allow guns in town.

So – is it fair to change that important bit of history and scatter dead bodies around willy-nilly? In Gold Digger, there is one murder, in the second book, Gold Fever, there are two.