Sunday, May 15, 2016

Thoughts on a Writing Career

Chris Redding, who writes the Nerds Saving the World series, asked me a series of thoughtful questions. With some variation, I thought I’d share the answers on my own blog.

How long have you been writing?
I wrote simply for pleasure for years, and in the mid-1980s I started taking classes, initially in play and screen writing. I wrote with the intention of selling at some point, but didn't have a timeframe. I wish I had set one earlier.
What was the best writing advice someone gave you? 
The late Davey Marlin Jones was a stage director and movie critic for decades. I took some classes from him at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD.

 It's pretty basic, but one evening when we were peppering him with questions he just looked around the room and said, "You know they call them shows, not tells." Anytime I get too wordy I think about that.

What was the worst? Did you know it at the time?
The 'write what you know' business. What I know is boring. Half the fun of writing is picking a setting or subject that you can learn something about as you write, or prepare to write.

How did you pick the genre you write in?
I think cozy mysteries picked me - though that's not all I do. My mother read all the women mystery writers of her day -- Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, some Agatha Christie. Then she'd talk about them, or mention her own ideas for how to fool mystery readers.  So I guess I was introduced to the genre early.

How many rejections have you received?
I could paper a bedroom, or a New York efficiency with the ones from the late 1980s to mid-1990s. A few with the first book of the Jolie Gentil series (a book that is probably 50% different than the way Appraisal for Murder turned out by the time  I revised a few times).

For a long time I kept the rejections, especially any that offered encouragement. At some point I decided that there was something to learn from the process, but it dealt more with publishing than writing. About six years ago I stopped sending anything out, and just wrote what I wanted.

I think my writing got better when I stopped reading publisher guidelines and trying to write to them

Why did you decide to self-publish some of your fiction?
I've published nonfiction with a traditional publisher, and it's neat to work with industry professionals and have someone besides me market my book. Initially,  I picked a setting (New Jersey beaches) and developed characters I wanted to work with over time, and I let some of my characters have a sense of humor similar to mine.

This is style I'm going to write for now, and I knew the Jolie Gentil series probably would not sell millions of copies, so why might a publisher buy it? If I had been 30 I might have been willing to shop it around for a good while, but I was 60, and I didn't feel like waiting.

I realize that sounds a bit arrogant, as if I assumed a publisher would want the books if I just pushed hard enough. I enjoy what I write, and people do buy the books.

Of course, all of this is possible because of e-books and print on demand. I would never have considered loading up my garage with 50 boxes of books and driving across country to sell them.

I’ve added the River’s Edge series, set in rural Southeast Iowa. These are still cozy mysteries in the sense that murders occur off screen, so to speak. However, the books are a bit more like traditional mysteries.  

The protagonist, Melanie Perkins, gets into autopsy reports and is less inclined to hang out with friends. Humor is still a component. I have a hard time writing mysteries without it. This series is with Annie Acorn Publishing, and I’ve just finished the draft of the second book.

Do you inject any real-world events in your books?
Interesting question, especially now. I had a low-grade hurricane in Any Port in a Storm, and I used the aftermath of Sandy in Trouble on the Doorstep. It was a life (and shoreline) changing event for the Jersey shore, and I thought that I would trivialize it by ignoring it.

For the River’s Edge series, I draw on what I learned living in Southeast Iowa, especially as it pertains to life along the Des Moines River. I don’t know any murdered newspaper publishers, as was featured in Newsprint to Footprints. However, I learned a lot about small-town papers from Van Buren County news editors.

An earlier version of this appeared on Chris Redding’s blog, and can be seen at

Sunday, May 8, 2016

My Mother's Lessons in Political Civility

The first thing I remember about the Kennedy-Nixon election is my parents sitting my oldest brother and me (ages 8 and 10) in front of the television for the presidential debate. She said, "You don't have to listen much, but you have to see this. It may never happen again."

I remember nothing else about the campaign (conducted before twenty-four hour news and raucous campaigning) except that Kennedy was Catholic (as we were) and a kid in the neighborhood thought he would do what the Pope said.

Rita and Miles in 1960.
The most striking memory is from the morning after the election, when Mom said, "Don't brag about Mr. Kennedy if you go to the Crocket's. They wanted Mr. Nixon and they will be sad." Sad, she said sad, so it must have really mattered to our next-door neighbors.

She was teaching respect for people with different views, something she did in thousands of ways on every topic (political or not) that came up. The big exception was in 1968 when George Wallace ran on his segregation platform. Wallace was "one-hundred percent wrong."

She did remark, several times, that he changed his thinking by his later term as Alabama governor. "Always be willing to change your mind." She didn't say that as often, since she usually examined all options before she spoke hers.

Both my parents voted for the person not the party, though they were pronounced Democrats. Mother pointed out that Maryland's Senator Charles Mathias and Congressman Gilbert Gude were "very good Republicans," for whom she voted.

She was not a fan of Richard Nixon because she thought Alger Hiss was innocent and that Nixon built his career on a lie. Her one intransigence was that she didn't want to read a book that came out in the 1980s or 1990s that seemed to show that Nixon may have been right.

She didn't make many disparaging political comments until Watergate, even given her dislike for Nixon, in general, and "Johnson's Vietnam War." She and my dad often mentioned that they weren't talking about "the soldiers in the war." I'm not sure every parent made that clear.

I believe Rita Rooney Orr made her most prophetic comment in the early 1970s. We were watching Walter Cronkite talk about the Watergate hearings and she said, "All over the country right now children are hearing their parents scream obscenities about the president of the United States. America will never be the same."

She wasn't talking as much about Nixon as disrespect for the office of president. She was right, and perhaps even more so about disrespect for presidential candidates.

If she were alive and Donald Trump were nearby, she'd give him one of her very rare spankings -- probably without the warning that always accompanied them. My single one was for convincing a younger brother to ride down the steps in a cardboard box. She always said a spanking hurt the parent more than the child, but she would likely not have been pained by the one for Mr. Trump.

In fairness, Trump's lack of civility is not unique. It is, however, far more damaging to the nation than a collective disdain for Watergate. It encourages a level of "us versus them" thinking that I don't believe has ever been seen in our nation.

Such thinking can only grow.

There may one day be two respected men or women running for the office who vow to conduct a campaign based on issues without any childish rhetoric. I long for an election like that, but my fear is that it will take a national tragedy to bring it. Not necessarily a political tragedy, maybe an earthquake that kills tens of thousands and destroys much of a region. We'll have to work together to absorb the violent shaking of lives and the economy. A 9.0 disaster in some form.

I wish my mother's civility on all families. I also wish she had been wrong about the rarity of presidential campaign debates.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Writing Fast: Sometimes You Get Lucky

There's much to be said for banging away for a while on a new book or article. Essentially, you are grabbing the most prevalent ideas and organizing thoughts as you write. 

You hope so, anyway. It's also possible to write 5,000 words and wonder why you got to a stopping point. The answer may be that you didn't spend enough time gathering thoughts early in the writing process.

I cannot claim to be an outliner or a pantser (as in one who writes by the seat of a pair). Usually I get an idea, or perhaps an opening sentence, and write the equivalent of a chapter before deciding if the idea is worth growing into a book. 

I have a lot of one-chapter folders with the start of a story that did not advance.
I also have a lot of finished books that started the same way.

For me, nothing gets finished without stopping to make notes about where a story is going after that first few thousand words. Oddly, some of these notes are on the Sunday program at my church, usually not while listening to a sermon. Most are on a yellow pad in a coffee shop or at my desk.

These broad brush notes become scenes and then chapters, and the ending of a mystery is not always what I thought it would be when starting. It probably would be more efficient to do a detailed outline, but my brain is simply not wired that way.

Perhaps my most useful habit is doing a reverse outline, by chapter. There is a great deal of detail, far more than if a publisher asked for an outline. Essentially this reverse outline becomes a guide as the book progresses. It helps me move scenes or remember if I planted a certain clue.

At the bottom of the outline I make quick idea notes, some things I may want to use later. While more cryptic than the reverse-outline bullets, I need enough detail to jog my memory later. It's amazing what leaks out over the course of a few days.

I have always liked the expression “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," which is attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca.

I wrote plays and stories for years, but my best preparation for books was years writing nonfiction for work. I think quickly. Sometimes that leads to writing before an idea is well-formed, but mostly not.

Lately, several friends and I have been feeling especially grateful that we can write books for a living. Semi-retirement and ebook publishing hit concurrently. Some might say we got lucky, but I prefer to think of it as the Scout motto coming to fruition.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Target Your Audience - or Miss Them

A friend and I were discussing how to reach more readers and I commented that I have begun spending more time skimming books in my genre (cozy mysteries) to see what the best selling authors do well. "Oh, I just write and don't worry about that," was the reply.

Every author has their own technique for getting words on paper or, very important to me, selling them. I wrote several books and plays thinking only about the story and characters. At the time I hoped to publish them or see them produced. Now I'm glad they weren't, as what I've written since is better.

What helped me sell more books was putting more thought into what people want to read. I don't mean simply doing research on search engine optimization (SEO), which means figuring out which items come up most in search engines.

For those who don't know, one approach to SEO is going to Amazon and starting a search relevant to your books. For example, type in "cozy mysteries with" and you get:
  • a psychic
  • witches
  • narration
  • cats
  • gardening 
  • recipes
This means people looking for cozy mysteries often type in these types of queries. If you haven't started a book and you don't care about the protagonist's profession, these are popular today. They may not be when you finish your book. That's why you probably want to pick a sleuth's profession that interests you or you are comfortable writing about.

Enough about SEO, especially since I said that wasn't my main purpose.

I believe the best way to learn what readers want is to read reviews -- of your own books or those of other authors in a genre. I'm not talking about the one-line I love/hate this book, or the ones that mostly repeat the plot synopsis.

Many readers write very thoughtful comments. For example, I was surprised that several reviewers  said the Jolie Gentil character (in early books of my Jersey shore series) was not likable or was self-centered. Part of it was intentional on my part (we would all tend to be more self-absorbed after a husband embezzles money from us). I had not intended for some of her internal thoughts, which I found funny, to be thought of as snarky.

I believe I've made her more likable. At least those comments don't appear for newer books. I didn't have to do that, but it made sense. Readers wanted a protagonist they felt more sympathy toward.

I also learned Jolie was not the favorite character in the books, so Scoobie appears more and Aunt Madge and he got their own book for the holiday season.

You reach a lot of readers by making your books stand out for those with similar interests. My friend Karen Musser Nortman writes the Frannie Shoemaker Campground Mysteries. She and her husband are regular RV campers, so that puts her in contact with people who could be interested in the subject -- in fact she wrote the books because she could not find camping mysteries. She also advertises in publications geared to campers. Very smart.

I made Jolie a real estate appraiser because I wanted a profession that gave her a flexible schedule, and one that could appeal to men and women. In retrospect, I don't hang out with a lot of appraisers, so maybe another choice would have been better. However, I can get her in a lot of trouble in vacant houses.

I continue to read cozy mysteries of bestselling authors, even if the locale or profession isn't one I would usually look for. I learn a lot about good writing. Reading their reviews also tells me more about what readers like. Of course, they don't want to guess the ending early.

Many positive comments have to do with believable characters or settings described so well they can be envisioned. I don't do the latter nearly as well as some other writers, so if readers look for that, I may need to consider painting a better picture.

In essence, go where readers are. Maybe it's joining book clubs at the library or participating in Goodreads groups. I belong to groups relating to mysteries and to writing or publishing in general. Seeing other readers' discussions of what they like in a cozy mystery is really helpful.

So, write how you want in terms of style or substance. As always, it's the readers who decide if you've written a good book.

And by the way, my second series features a gardener (the River's Edge series). I wish I could say I knew that was a popular search item. Sometimes luck wins.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

From Baby Steps to a Book

“I have a great idea for a book.”

“I have no time to write a book.”

“I’m waiting to start until I can spend the entire weekend writing.”

People who say these things may some day finish a novel. It won’t be soon.  Why?

Because they are looking for a sea of time when writing is more likely to get done in trickles.

While it’s true that a page a day produces a 365 page book in a year, writing in fragments has its own challenges. By the time you are back “into” the story, it’s time to get to bed so you’re alert for the day job.

If you can carve an hour or two once a week, there are ways to make it productive time. The first assist has nothing to do with writing paragraphs. It’s about remembering what to write. Carry a three-by-five card or small notebook at all times.

Ideas for a character or plot point wander through a writer’s brain while driving, cooking, or coaching softball. No, don’t jot a note while driving. Pull over.

Those ideas seep out as quickly as they sneak in. There are few things more frustrating than being certain that you had a great idea and lost it.

Capturing thoughts helps build a positive frame of mind for writing, in part because the writing process becomes more a part of your routine.

Here are a few more ways to keep a project moving when you can’t write every day.

Writing distraction Stella.
  • While on the subway or when waiting for a child to finish music lessons, read something about writing or an article that deals with the time period or something else related to your novel.
  • Work on a computer without Internet access.
  • Forget about perfect prose in your first draft. Grammar errors will be there to fix in the second draft.
  • Put a padlock on the refrigerator.
  • Leave the mobile phone in another room.
  • If a random idea occurs as you write, add it to a bullet list at the end of a chapter. If it’s in the computer file you won’t lose the thought.
  • Put the cat or dog on the porch.
  • If you have an hour to write, write the entire time. Research isn’t writing.

I wrote a 100,000 word book in pieces over two years. It’s not very good and will never be published. What I learned by writing regularly even when I “didn’t have the time” taught me a lot about putting a book together. And just maybe those later books are better because I valued that early writing time so much.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Getting that Book Into Print

I've had a lot of fun the last few years -- fifteen books, a bunch of writers' conferences, many book signings and...most important...many new reading and writing friends.

Indianapolis Barnes & Noble. Yea BN!
At a Sisters in Crime Booksigning at an Indianapolis Barnes and Noble in December, another author asked how I had published so many books in just a few years. I love this question, because the answer is simple. Write every day, or as close to that as life permits.

The question prompted me to write (in three weeks) Writing in Retirement: Putting Your New Year's Resolutions to Work. I was told the title might limit sales. However, the point is that those of us of a certain age have lots of experience and hopefully more free time than in our thirties and forties.

Writing in Retirement takes you through the "do I want to do this" thought process, discusses types of writing, lets you know how to put your books for sale at online retailers, and provides guidance on marketing your books. While geared to self-publishing, the ideas apply to those who want to get a publisher.  

Writing can be fun. I enjoy it, but I also treat it as a part-time job. The ideas come fairly easily. Getting them into decent shape for a book, which I'm asking readers to pay for, take a lot of time. And a couple of cuss words now and then. I try not to have too many of those make it into books.

Writing to sell is a major commitment. I don't say that to scare people. The nice thing about semi-retirement is that our deadlines are largely our own. If a sick child or grandchild needs attention or some volunteer work
 becomes more pressing, those are important. Once those obligations clear, writing can be prominent again.

If we wait for the perfect time to write, the so-called large block of time, there won't be too many finished projects. Writing is a lot like learning a foreign language. You need to spend a consistent amount of time regularly, and you can't worry about doing it badly before you do it well.

In case you say you don't know where to start, I can recommend another of my books: Words to Write By: Putting Your Thoughts on Paper. The premise is that we have done many things well, so we may not want to tackle something (writing) that seems daunting. The book offers an approach.

Just take it in pieces, and start with something you know. Or begin with something you want to learn about. That's even more fun. Just get started Writing in Retirement.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Writing in Spite of Technology

Sometimes technology gets the better of me so much that I have to laugh. Mostly because it beats crying.

Here are my system failures, so to speak, of the last couple of months. Most are in the last two to three weeks.

1)   Laser and ink jet printers die almost simultaneously. I figure one was mourning the other. Problem solved by buying two new ones, with a dent in the wallet where bills used to be.
2)      Hard drive died on the laptop. I don’t own a PC, though I have one of the original Acer notebooks with one gig of RAM (honest). After much help from Office Max staff, I decided to buy a new hard drive. Reasonable price (on sale, even labor!), but the wallet is again lighter.
3)      Cell phone (which also gives access to email, though not a smart phone) won’t retain a charge. Find a battery for $5 online (because of course no local store has it). Yea! Battery does not help. Turns out when a phone is dying, it won’t hold a charge. Boo!
4)      Buy a new phone, not a smart phone. (Like I could really learn to use GPS on one.)  The voice part of my new touch phone transfers immediately. Not so data in any form—text or email. Spend more than two hours on live chat. (I did like that direct access.) After many resets and “is it working now?” exchanges, two technicians decide I have a dud and they will replace it. At least the old phone can be turned back on. It works when plugged in and for 15 minutes on battery.
5)      Return envelope arrives to send back nonworking new phone. Ask me if the replacement phone is here yet, after ten days. Nope.
6)      Buy another new phone, this time online so it’s just like my old phone (which is kind of like a Blackberry). It’s coming via FedEx today. I figure it will arrive too late for me to go run errands. Odds are the original replacement new phone will arrive in two weeks. No acceptance signature for that one!
7)      In the midst of phone fun…remember that new hard drive? The computer dies.
I’m talking no booting, RIP, time for burial. (See hammer, which I would like to use on the laptop.)
8)      Good luck here. It’s the day before Thanksgiving (yes, that’s good luck, no 
computers used during dinner). That means sales afterwards, and I get an HP Laptop for a really, really cheap price. And no one got trampled. Wallet is now very light.
9)      Gee, computers need software. I’m 900 miles from home and don’t have any of mine with me to load, so try the free 30-day Microsoft Office 365 trial. It lets me work but – and this may be the biggest advantage to the computer meltdown – I don’t like it at all. So, good old Office 2010 awaits me upon return home.
10)   Are you laughing yet?
11)   Take RIP computer to Office Max. Ask them to migrate my many gigabytes of files to a 32 gigabyte flash drive – for no charge. They agree, and will also study the dead computer—likewise for free.
12)   Just had a call from the Office Max staffer who installed the new hard drive. Computer is fine. Hard drive came loose. He has added more screws. (No, I did not say screw you, he’s young and has been very patient in explaining many things to me over the last couple of months.)

Is there a moral here? A couple of people have suggested yellow pads and pencils, but I compose at more than 100 words per minute on a keyboard.

The moral is: email yourself important files. I had all the fiction I was working on stored in my yahoo email account. Yes, one can use Google Drive or some other online storage system. Ask me how. Go ahead, ask.

I have no clue. I’m sticking with email (and flash drives) because my mind is so tired of learning new technology.

When the Fed Ex truck comes with the second new phone, I’m going to pick up my now-fixed computer. All wagers on the next breakdown will be accepted. Prize is a dead phone.