Monday, January 9, 2017

Finding Affordable Audio Books

    I always have a book going in the car. For me it takes a CD, since my car doesn't have Blue Tooth. I don't want my car to die. But I'm looking for any excuse to buy a car that lets me listen to digital books -- which are books in mp3 format.

     You can listen to digital books on any portable device -- your ipad, Kindle, most phones. I have used my Kindle with headphones to listen to audiobooks. It works fine, but if I'm driving I pay too much attention to the technology. Better (for me) to have a built-in system in the car.

     Without digital listening, the library is the best bet. I take out three or more at a time, and if I'm going on a long trip the local library extends the due date.

     Retail sellers of physical audiobooks include Penguin Random House Audio, Audio Bookstand, and Goodwill Books Online.

     Yes Goodwill. They don't have all books every day, but a search for J.K. Rowling's books (on CD) showed they were less than half the price of other sites. Sure, it's more convenient to order a book today for $55 than to check back to see if you can get it for $22 later, but that's a big price difference.
     In a pinch, I stop at a Cracker Barrel and rent books on CDs. You pay an up-front deposit, but if you return the book you pay only about $3.50 per week and get the deposit back. I'd rather pay that than listen to blaring music or argumentative talk radio. (See the bottom of this post for the Cracker Barrel program. No, they aren't paying me. I just love affordable options.)

     My audiobooks are published in digital format only. A CD set would be cool, but I don't see people paying $45 for my books. Using Audible (an Amazon company that provides digital copies) they are under $20.

     The HUGE advantage to using Audible is that Amazon sometimes offer people who buy the Kindle version a discount on the audio version. I just looked at Behind the Walls (Jolie book 6), and it shows the Kindle version for $2.99 and audio narration added for $1.99.

Buying the Audible book and a Kindle copy means reading is synched between devices -- if you read ten percent on the Kindle and switch to the audiobook, it starts you in the same place. Amazing.

     An author has to permit Whispersync, but many do. You do need a Wi-Fi connection to make the sync.

     How does Audible work? The one-month free trial lets you borrow one book (of any price) for free. After that it's $14.95 per month for one book, and you get 30% off of others. Very affordable compared to buying audio CDs. (You provide a credit card, so you have to remember to cancel within 30 days.)

     What happens if you cancel an Audible membership? The books you bought are still available to you. Very consumer-friendly. See the Audible Help Center.

     Why did I write this today? My mom would have been 95 today (January 9th) and she lost most of her sight because of MS. She would have gone bonkers without the Library of Congress' Talking Books' Program (what she called the service for those who cannot see or hold a book). It's officially called the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and is free if a person provides appropriate information. Your library will have info.

     I hope you have what you need to enjoy listening to a book. If you want to listen to what I deem the absolute best audio books, borrow a copy of any of the Harry Potter books, as read by Jim Dale. You will be mesmerized -- as we are by a good book.

 Cracker Barrel Rental Program
Purchase a Books-on-Audio title at full retail price at any of our over 630 locations, listen to it, and return it to any of our locations for a full credit less a $3.49 per week exchange fee (plus tax where applicable). Book prices range from $9.99 to $48.00 (plus tax where applicable) based on the number of cassette tapes or CDs (or size of the book). If you are not able to return it to a location you may mail it back to Guest Relations at P.O. Box 787, Lebanon, TN 37087.
 **  Want to get updates on my books and occasional special offers? Get on my email list. I'd love to be in touch!
*** If you are an author who wants to know how to produce audiobooks at no cost, check my blog post on audiobook production. It's a lot of work, but very rewarding.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Getting a Book to Readers

   Sportswriter Red Smith is known for saying, "Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed."

   I don't find writing especially easy, but telling people about a new book is even harder. It's kind of like looking for a job. You need to let people know you're hunting, but you feel a little as if you're imposing.
   Still, it's fun to be in touch with readers. I love sending a note to my email list and getting replies saying they've been waiting to know what a set of characters is up to.
   I had a welcome holiday gift of sorts when my publisher (Annie Acorn LLC) put Demise of a Devious Neighbor for sale (preorder) Christmas Eve. Savvy marketer that the firm is, they believe that readers will be anxious to use those new Kindles and Nooks they received as gifts.
   As we look to a new year, I thought I'd share some marketing ideas. They'll help authors, but can also give readers places to look for new books or bargain reads.

Goodreads has hundreds of reader/author discussion groups, and authors sponsor giveaways of paperbacks. Even better, it's a place where readers can list all the books they are reading or have read, and many review their favorites.
BookGoodies reviews and promotes dozens of books each week. Many are new, some are presented at reduced prices.
Facebook Groups bring together readers and authors interested in particular genres. Though some individual authors have created groups, I find those such as Cozy Mysteries 24/7 and Crime, Thrillers,  and Mystery Readers Cafe, better places to meet readers. Still, if you have a favorite author, search for them on Facebook. Mid-sized groups seem to have more interaction among members than larger ones.
Choosy Bookworm features books by authors from multiple countries. It also lets authors post books they are willing to provide to readers in consideration of a review. (This meets Amazon guidelines, because authors are providing a copy, just as they would for a paper's book review supplement.)
A Girl and Her Ebook does longer features on the books on its site, and also promotes new releases and giveaways.
   I'd love it if readers would add comments about sites where they look for new books.
   And by the way, Happy New Year! May your writing and reading bring you joy.

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Monday, December 5, 2016

Setting a Book Where You Live

I envy people who lived in one place for years and had a natural following of friends. I've had that, but I move a lot, so the hometown elements vanishes. The friends I keep.

Then I had a major Duh Moment. If I set books where I live now, I meet more friends.I was a bit late for Iowa, the River's Edge series came out after my husband I left the state. (Still root for the Hawkeyes!)

2006 Ottumwa signing, with Alberta
Even so, my Iowa friends rallied for the first book in the 2015 series. KTVO television did a fun interview, and the Ottumwa Courier and Van Buren County Register in Keosauqua featured From Newsprint to Footprints. The book felt like home, even though home had moved.

It's not all about publicity. It's fun to have your friends read your books and ask how the writing is going. Especially fun when your book club reads them. You also learn a lot about your neighbors. The photo at left shows the late Alberta Lambeth. Because of a book that came out ten years ago, she invited me to her apartment to see some of her incredible craft creations. Art takes many forms, and I would not have seen hers unless I promoted my stories.

As I wished for more contact with reading and writing friends, I was starting a new book, Tip a Hat to Murder. For some (inexplicable) reason, I initially set it in Nebraska. Perhaps because of good-natured ribbing with a cousin who roots for the Corn Huskers.

Then I thought, "Why am I setting this in Nebraska? I live in Illinois now!" Thus was born the fictional town of Logland, Illinois, set in south central Illinois. Why Logland? Because Illinois is the Land of Lincoln, and I played with Lincoln Logs as a kid. The path through a writer's mind has many curves. Plus, the book is meant to be wacky.

So, I have now murdered people in New Jersey, Iowa, Illinois, and Bath, England. I only kill people in places I like.

I love to take pictures, which means local books are a big plus. Though my towns are fictional, the images in my head are not, largely because I drive through Iowa and Illinois a lot. Not so much New Jersey, but I asked a friend to take photos of the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk this summer, so I have a new crop to feed my imagination. As I start a new book in the Jolie Gentil series, those boardwalk scenes become even more delightful.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

When Characters Come Second

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
—Ray Bradbury

I love it when a fresh idea wanders into my brain. Sometimes I'll write ten pages to give a spark to the concept. I have a drawer full of these first chapters.

A story only goes beyond the ten pages if a character threatens to strangle me if I don't bring them to life. I generally don't do complicated character back stories, but I do make notes so that their personality is clear. Then the character grows with the story.

I learn more from mistakes than successes, and I recently made a big one.

I had this great idea for a motive for murder. Say you worked in an eatery (elegant restaurant or greasy spoon) and you made a lot of money through tips. Then say the owner decides patrons would really like it if they paid just a little more for a meal but no longer had to leave tips.

What?! You'd make the same as the slacker who takes a bathroom break every time a family with three small children walks in the door.

That restaurant owner needs to stay away from sharp objects -- or at least not let the food servers near the steak knives.

The idea morphed into Tip a Hat to Murder, and I quickly wrote one of the best first chapters I've come up with. In my humble opinion. And then the story sloooowed down.

For quite a while this made sense -- I had a deadline for another book, so that came first. Then that book was finished. Then I needed some surgery -- that takes time, plus I swear anesthesia addles brains for weeks.

And the story still progressed slowly. Finally it hit me. The idea was good. The characters never took form except for their duties in the story.

I wanted them to do certain things, but had no idea what element of their psyche would make them want to do these things. Or maybe make them not want to.

I didn't have to go back to the proverbial square one, but I spent a couple of weeks pondering each character's life and motives. A number of aspects of the plot changed -- even the murderer! (The first one simply wasn't angry enough.)

The lesson is one I thought I had learned long ago. There is no good story unless there are well formed characters.

As I finished the first draft, I was ready to be done. Other stories are percolating. However, the characters have taken hold and I hate to leave them.

In fact, I meant this to be a stand-along mystery and am considering making it the first of a new series. Since I don't think I can balance three series, that likely won't happen. At least not now. No matter what, the characters in Tip a Hat to Murder are in my brain to stay. They should have been there from day one.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Making Your Fiction Better

Authors constantly look for ways to improve their writing. Even the best plot and characters who grab readers may not be perfect. Or they may be, but the author hasn't let them show it.

With much hard work and a little luck, we writers figure out how to apply fixes as we work or while in revision mode. Some of the 'quick fix' things I've learned to do through the years are:
  • Get rid of he-said and she-said. Readers need to know who said what. Generally, the designation can be made through action rather than constant repetition of words such as said, mentioned, exclaimed, replied, or told.
  • Watch for all forms of the verb 'to be.' These can dilute the punch of a phrase. After reading Jane Cleland's 2016 book (Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot), I searched for 'was' in the final draft of Demise of a Devious Neighbor. I changed sixty sentences! For example, "I was seething but tried not to show it"  became "I seethed, but tried not to show it." Some of the changes entailed a complete rework of the sentence, to put emphasis on the action.
  • Show emotions or frames of mind through action or adjectives rather than using adverbs to imply them. I won't go so far as to model Stephen King, who believes "the road to hell is paved with adverbs." However, saying, "Samuel studied distractedly while he waited for his mom," is lazy. More descriptive is: "Samuel unfastened all connecting paperclips in the drawer and walked to the window every three minutes. Study was nearly impossible as he waited for his mom." Sure, if Samuel is in a room with no paperclips or windows, the author needs to express distraction in different ways. It's the old axiom -- show rather than tell.
  • Give characters different speech patterns. A teacher may speak with perfect grammar and diction, but her high-school-age son probably won't.
As a largely self-published author I can change a book -- probably some kind of heresy. I did go back to some of the early books in the Jolie Gentil series and changed a lot of the "she said" types of phrases.

I usually had action in a segment -- "...she said, patting the dog's head." I moved a number of the phrases to precede the dialogue. "Jolie patted the dog's head" (as a complete sentence) would be first, then her dialogue. It's clear Jolie is talking and also gets rid of a gerund -- I find ing words almost as annoying as misused adverbs.

 The reader has a cleaner read.

 For a very early book, I did change some substance. In 2006, Author House (a firm for self-published books, long before Amazon's KDP) issued Searching for Secrets. It was a short mystery that put almost as much emphasis on a potential romance between the two main characters, a teacher and police officer in Iowa City.

After a lot of thought, I revised the book. The romantic elements of the older version seemed forced and took away from the plot. I liked the story, so I reworked parts of the book. Searching for Secrets is probably 90 percent the same, but with less focus on the characters' thoughts about one another. It flows better and emphasis is on what the characters do rather than think.

Some will call this sacrilege. I am much happier with the new version. A friend's note confirmed that the revision was a good decision.  He had just finished reading Appraisal for Murder and said, "It is a good read; much better than your first effort Searching for Secrets." Only a good friend will tell you something like that.

I believe the writer has a responsibility to keep working until a book is as close to perfect as it can be. We aren't just asking for a buyer's money, we're asking for a reader's time.

However, as a part-time writer with a very busy day job in the early 2000s, I didn't work with a critique group. I hadn't read a lot of books on writing or taken as many courses that focused on mysteries. But I had probably read twenty or more and attended a lot of writing workshops, which only serves to stress how much we can learn by doing more to improve.

An effective review technique I now use is to send a draft book to my Kindle. Seeing it as a reader does points out typos. It also emphasizes the pace of the book. Where does it lag? (It isn't always the middle.) I don't send it to Kindle until my Decatur critique group has reviewed it, but I read it on Kindle prior to sending it to beta readers.

Don't know how? Every Kindle has its own email. After signing in, check in the "Manage Contents and Devices" link at the bottom of your Amazon page. Look at your individual devices and you'll see the email. Send the book as a "doc" not a "mobi" file. Look for it in the documents part of the Kindle, not as a regular Kindle book.

 Are my books perfect now? No, but the reviews are consistently good. More important, I continually work hard to improve.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Writing a Stand Alone Mystery

What's a stand-alone mystery? One that is not part of a regular series. We all know P.D. James' Adam Dagliesh books, but she also wrote Children of Men, one of my favorites. If you are looking for some, Goodreads has a good list of stand-alone mysteries.

I write the Jolie Gentil and River's Edge traditional (cozy) mystery series, and love the characters and settings -- small towns on the Jersey shore and along the Des Moines River in Iowa.

This spring I finished the second River's Edge book and decided to try something different. I like humor in mysteries, though not if they have a lot of sitcom-style dialogue. Even zany characters need to be enough like real people for me to buy into a story.

I didn't initially have a specific idea or setting, but then it occurred to me -- why not set a book in Illinois? I moved to the state in 2014 and have been exploring towns in the south-central part of the state. And I do like small-town settings.

Once I'm thinking about something, ideas start to percolate. In this case, that's a great term, because Tip a Hat to Murder (out later in 2016) is set in a diner. A diner with a lot going on besides cooking hamburgers and hotcakes. Images of a cigar-shaped silver building, booths, and tiled floors began to dance through my brain.

Ideas about who would hang out there and what would lead to a murder in a diner took form. Sometimes I scare myself.

Now what? I have developed the characters in the two series so much that the their actions are almost second nature to me. We've been writing companions for years.

I decided to let the characters evolve. It turns out that's shorthand for "not sure who they are beyond their role in the book," which slows down writing. For example, the local police chief is pretty smart. Why is she in this small town? Oh, the author should know that reason. Simply the fact that the sleuth is in law enforcement rather than an amateur is also a switch for me. How much "police stuff" should be in the book to make it realistic?

The book was a slog-along affair until I grappled with these questions and figured out a few other things. Does Chief Elizabeth have friends? What other kinds of business owners are in that town, and how can they contribute to (or impede) solving the murder?

Now my mind is churning with future possibilities for these characters. So far, no plans for a new series. In fact, Tip a Hat to Murder has probably slowed down Jolie Gentil and crew in Ocean Alley, New Jersey. Time to get back to them.
      * * * *
Surprise! Tip a Hat to Murder became the first book in the Logland Mystery Series.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

What to Read When You Want to Write

Each time I finish a project I read a book about writing. In addition to learning, in general, the process is almost like an initiation to the next book that's percolating in my brain. Generally, I buy a paper copy rather than an ebook.

This list is certainly not inclusive, but these are some of the books I've kept. Since I write mysteries, most focus on them. Keep in mind that 'conflict' is part of any novel, so these books can help writers of most genres.

Mastering Suspense, Structure, and Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats by Jane Cleland happened to be published (April 2016) just as I finished the second book in my River's Edge Series. Cleland starts with the basics--consciously picking your genre, researching it well, and analyzing good writers. I found her best advice to be about pacing and using subplots without letting them overpower the plot. Cleland uses some of her own work as examples, but judiciously so. She also employs examples from masters of literary and mystery fiction.

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri is a classic that focuses on script writing. However, its discussions on conflict and characters are some of the best I've read. I read the book thirty years ago and periodically pick it up again.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King has several editions, and you don't need the newest one. Though the title makes it clear they deal with revisions, the discussion on point of view is good for any stage of the writing process.

Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. You say you don't write murder mysteries? It reads like a novel and the section on Prohibition era poisoning (much through bootlegged alcohol) is gripping. Besides, if you read mysteries, this is fun background. One of the reviewers criticized some of Blum's chemistry, for lack of another term, so maybe you should double check a potion if you plan to pick your poison based on the book. (Smile)

Writing Murder: a Basic Guide to Writing Mystery Fiction, was edited by S.M. Harding and published by the Writers' Center of Indiana. I don't usually like books with myriad authors, as they tend to duplicate each other or simply not flow well. Not so this book. It is a good introduction to plot, building suspense, dialogue, pacing, and more. Plus, it's the most reasonably priced book on this list.

Story Building Blocks: Craft Your Story Using Four Layers of Conflict, by Diana Hurwitz. This is especially good for novice writers, and perhaps for those who give talks on writing. She devotes chapters to the components of all good stories (plot, characters) and then moves to discussions of almost any genre and how their structures vary -- or are similar.

You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts is a soup-to-nuts overview in 121 pages. If you are even thinking of writing a mystery, read this first. Sometimes longer books are overwhelming, or lead you (or at least me) to overthink character or plot development. Roberts taught writing and English, and writes the Amanda Pepper mystery series, among many books. Her experience in both roles is clear.

On Writing Romance: How to Craft a Novel That Sells by Leigh Michaels has sections helpful to any genre that has a romance element, especially character interactions. Michaels also covers the business angles of publishing well. I've read several of her books on writing, including Creating Romantic Characters.

What book about writing am I reading next? I just bought Joyce Carol Oates' The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art. As you can tell from the title, it is more reflective than how-to. Who better to learn from than the woman many believe is America's most talented living writer?