Monday, December 30, 2019

It's All in the Appearances

“The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.”
― Mary Roberts Rinehart

The next line should be, "The great mystery writers can manipulate appearances without being dishonest with readers."

I just finished Louise Penny's book Kingdom of the Blind, an Inspector Gamache novel, which has a great premise -- the suspended head of the Sûreté du Québec finds himself drawn into the estate of someone he's never met. The elderly woman must have had her reasons for naming three seeming strangers as her executors.

Add to the requisite murder associated with the strange will is Gamache's intense need to locate a cache of drugs he's let loose on Canadians. While done in the interest of solving crimes in a prior book, the potential deaths weigh heavily on him. And the earlier decision has caused his suspension.

As I neared the end, I told a friend I knew she would enjoy it. Then the end arose and it turns out Penny had two unreliable narrators throughout the book. So, it wasn't just that what appeared to be was not. The author thought she would lie to her readers.

As much as I have enjoyed prior Gamache novels, I won't be able to read another. What's the point of being drawn into a plot when you are in a character's head but (throughout the book!) you don't know what the character knows?

A sleuth, professional or amateur, will often learn (or understand) something before the reader does, but the reader isn't kept in the dark for too long.

I wish books with the so-called unreliable narrator would have a stamp on the cover. Then I wouldn't waste my time.
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Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Power of Persistence

When asked if one thing helped them succeed, authors are likely to mention persistence. Of course the book or poem has to be good. Much of what is written and submitted is.

When a new (or experienced) writer accepts feedback and keeps writing, they are likely to achieve what they define as success -- publishing a book, having stories appear in literary journals, being asked to read their work in a bookstore. The people who get discouraged after a bunch of rejection slips and stop writing or submitting won't get there.

Sounds simple. No magic formula, no particular writing style, just persistence -- and perhaps a teflon ego.

Today someone asked me for general advice to a new writer. Without thinking much, I dashed off the following.

My basic advice is always the same. Nothing is finished until you place your fanny in a chair and just keep at it. It's really important to get that first draft done. It will not be (cannot be) perfect, so don't take time to try to make it so. Give yourself permission to do some good rewriting, but at some point stop. If you go over the same work a lot, it can lose its edge, and you won't be doing anything new.

C'est tout.
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Monday, December 16, 2019

Increase Book Availability via Smashwords and BN Paperbacks

I tend to write more about writing than marketing these days. However, I had puzzled about how to reach more readers on ibooks, Kobo, and BN (via Smashwords), and have come up with something that works for me.

Many authors give away free ebooks sometimes. I decided to make the first four books of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series free and wait to see if it made a difference. 
These are not books I sell on Amazon -- you cannot price a book less on another site than you do on Amazon. You agree to this when you publish with KDP.


Waiting was key. For the first few months, Smashwords reported no downloads -- keep in mind, it was free. Three months ago I saw downloads of the free book and sales of the NEXT box set began to grow on Apple. Since sales are up (I assume) my books are showing higher in Apple search results.

 Sales have also increased on Kobo and Barnes and Noble, but not as dramatically. This could be because I already had more sales on these sites. 

Pretty much the only promotion I do is regular tweeting about the free box set. I occasionally mention it in a cozy mystery Facebook group.

I now do my books also as BN paperbacks as well as Amazon. It means people can walk into a Barnes and Noble store and staff can immediately find a book and order it. There is no independent bookstore in my town (Springfield, IL) and BN has become very supportive of local authors.

A book uses the same Library of Congress Preassigned Control Number in all paperback editions. I choose to use a different ISBN from my own company, but I believe BN gives them free for paperbacks. If you use a site's free ISBN, they are listed as the publisher. The author still holds the copyright, of course.

Books have to be priced a dollar higher than on Amazon, where I no longer do expanded distribution. They could be priced the same, but the revenue per book would be less.

BN lets you work on covers in three pieces (front, back, spine). You can create them in Microsoft Publisher or jpg, and convert/load the front and back as pdfs. They do the spine. I like this method very much.

My books are largely self-published, which is why having easy access via BN stores is so important.


My Tarot cards and crystal ball have malfunctioned for months, so no predictions here. The experience does tell me it seems to pay to offer a free box set for Apple, BN, and Kobo -- via Smashwords. I publish some single books directly to those websites, but it's simply easier to do one big book via Smashwords. You only fix the epub once if there are errors.

Caveat. Free books used to increase sales a lot on Amazon. I'm not sure they do now -- at least not mine. Of course, books in KDP Select do pay some when people borrow (and read) them via this exclusive-to-Amazon marketing program.

Perhaps there are fewer free books on the other sites, so free still attracts readers. Keep in mind the book has to be a good one for readers to then buy the next books in a series. And keep writing more.
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Friday, November 29, 2019

Finding Time to Read

One troubling thing about writing a lot of fiction is that I have less time to read. I not only write my own stuff, but I participate in a critique group in which we read one another's work weekly, and I manage my writing business. The latter does not interest me much, but if I don't do it well I sell fewer books.

Several years ago I began to read audio books all the time. I have them in the car and by my bed. That guarantees me at least twenty-four works of fiction a year.

I've finally begun reading books on my phone (in addition to a Kindle) because I'll always have my phone with me. I tend to make these lighter works, because I dive in and out of them in grocery store lines.

I haven't read much on paper for the last few years. After moving several times and giving away a lot of books, I made a conscious decision to largely buy ebooks. Of course, I use the library.

But several times in the last year I ended up in a situation where either Wi-Fi wasn't available or my phone battery was low. Nothing worse than waiting in a doctor's office with nothing to do. (I won't touch the magazines--think how many sick people have leafed through them.)

So I've started keeping books in the car again. My library has a huge used book room, so paperbacks are only seventy-five cents. I've finished a couple books in the last few months, and last week read an entire paperback on a train trip.

So many books, so little time...
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Monday, November 25, 2019

When Does the Back Story Need to Be Told?

            Until December 20, write a comment below this blog post and you're
                  entered to win a copy of my newest book, The Twain Does Meet.

Part of knowing a character's motives (for good or bad deeds) is knowing their past. I jot notes about where my characters were when, but I don't usually write pages. The exception would be for Scoobie in the Jolie Gentil series, and that may be why he strikes many as the most well rounded character in the books.

Common writing principles say the reader needs to know enough of the back story to understand why a character behaves as s/he does in the story. More than that and the reader will wonder why they have to wade through so many details that were not germane to the plot or relationships.

I had so much material on Scoobie (and Jolie) that I finally did a book called Jolie and Scoobie's High School Misadventures. Why stop there? Why not delve into the college years and the first part of their twenties? Because the high school years were when they were together prior to the start of Appraisal for Murder, and most relevant in their lives from that time going forward.

For some reason, likely a daft one, I wanted them to be the parents of twins. But I didn't want to bore readers, or myself, with 2 AM feedings that made Jolie too tired to pursue a clue or potty training that saw Scoobie with fodder for his poetry.

So the twins came into the story at age 3. That's also the point when I think kids become more independent and their senses of humor are more evident. Sometimes earlier, but it's also an age when parents can feel comfortable with a schedule that has the kids in day care or with friends -- not in the way of crime solving.

However, I had promised readers that I would tell the story of the twins' birth at some point.

I mulled that over for more than a year. Had to be funny, of course, but not syrupy or slapstick. I also didn't want Jolie solving a murder while pregnant. Not good for fetal development.

As I started The Twain Does Meet, I realized it was also an opportunity for readers to learn more about Scoobie's much younger brother, who had unexpectedly joined their lives. I needed to learn more about him, too.

Since a story needs to go beyond day-to-day activities, and I didn't want to include much on mood swings or stretch marks, there had to be meaningful action -- discovery other than finding a murderer.

The final criterion was that readers of the Jolie Gentil cozy mysteries needed to know they would be reading a fun story, but not a true mystery. I suppose that's in how I present the books to readers. I didn't want them to be disappointed if they didn't get the whodunit they expected. I think I've made it clear.

In any event, it's some fun backstory, and I had a blast writing it. I hope readers enjoy it when it becomes available December 20th. (For a link to all sites selling it, go to my website.
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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Making the Bad Guys Worse

Every author needs to be able to critique herself. My most consistent comment is that I resolve conflict too quickly. That's great in life, but not so good in mysteries.

After giving it more thought, I believe this is because I don't fully develop the villains of the story. In my head, I look at almost everything from one of my antagonist's point of view. I'll think carefully about how a murder takes place and the immediate reason, but not the ultimate why.

In preparing for a presentation on villains I considered several books and movies. Some portray the hero's life and motives so well we don't need  to fully understand the bad guy. Every year I watch It's a Wonderful Life (the Christmas story with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed). We see the clear angst George Bailey feels at having to remain in Bedford Falls and we understand why his wife Mary loves being there.

Slowly George comes to see himself as the town sees him, and he understands the full value of his life. But what about Mr. Potter? We know he's a skinflint, know that when he didn't return the Bailey Savings and Loan Bank Deposit it sets the stage for George's belief that the world would be better off without him in it.

But why is Potter a mean, miserly man? Is he angry that he ended up in a wheelchair? Did his parents abandon him? We don't know, and in that story, his actions matter more than his motives.

Consider the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. The story opens with Darth Vader chasing the rebels to secure the return of the plans for the Death Star. Leia is important, but it's when Luke's aunt and uncle are killed on his home planet that he gets the drive to combat the evil of the Empire.

So did the theft of the plans start the action? I'd say no. Darth Vader was compelled to seek to quash the rebellion because, in his words, he felt "a disturbance in the Force." Of course he wanted those plans, but he knew how strong his weapons were. Surely he would have felt it possible to combat any threat.

Except the threat that challenged his very existence. As the story progresses through three movies, we come to fully understand his desperation.

Where does that leave us? It tells me I need to know the enemy's backstory, his or her motives, to develop an enemy as strong as Darth Vader and the Empire. Strength comes in many forms. I think the strongest ones are secrets.

How will this realization change my writing? I've  decided it will be okay to jot down ideas for a plot or the main characters (the antagonists, for me), but I won't let myself start another mystery without developing the entire story from the villain's point of view. I probably won't use all the material in the novel, but knowing it will created a stronger enemy for my sleuth to overcome.

I'll keep notes as I go and let you know how it turns out.
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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

It's More than What they Say

Possibly because I started out writing plays, dialogue is my favorite part of any story. I like to give characters fairly distinctive speaking patterns without going to extremes. If everyone has perfect grammar and diction, it can reflect a graduate class in literature, but not much about life in the real world.

When Annie Louise Bannon asked me to do a guest post on her blog, I titled it "How Characters Talk," and I used examples from the Logland Mystery series. Since it's a police procedural with a cozy feel (as opposed to a cozy mystery series) I can be more relaxed about what characters say. That doesn't mean they swear like sailors, but some of them are a tad raunchy.

Take a look at the post -- How Characters Talk -- and let me know what you think.

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