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?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Peace by the Water

Chesapeake Beach, MD in the 1980s
    I have been intrigued by running water since my parents took my brothers and me fishing at Hains Point on the Potomac River in Washington, DC. I was all of five or six, and never wanted to touch the worms. I would sit by the metal railing and just stare into the river.
    Later, a friend and I bought a tiny cottage (a.k.a. falling-down clapboard house in need of much TLC) on the Chesapeake Bay. It sat high on the rocks, so no threat of flooding.
     I often sat on the back patio wrapped in a sheet so the mosquitoes didn't get me after dark.
    This lifelong love is probably why I was immediately enamored with President Kennedy's quote that shows how we humans tie to water.
    “All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came.”
    The quote, which I knew I'd read but could not find (in the pre-Internet days) led me to the JFK Presidential library in Massachusetts. It was a good break from a business trip, and a great opportunity to read more of his writing and see many photos of JFK on the water.
    It's natural that my two mystery series are set near water -- the Jolie Gentil series at the Jersey shore and the River's Edge series along the Des Moines River in Southeast Iowa.
Des Moines River, Farmington, Iowa
    Lots of movies and TV shows depict the shore. My cozy mysteries are far less gritty than most. The ambience of an east coast beach town varies with the seasons, with most of my books set in the off-season. Otherwise, the setting would be much like any tourist beach town.
    I have sat by the Des Moines River hundreds of times in the last few years. A park in Bonaparte Iowa and benches by the water in Keosauqua are two favorite places. Just last week I found a batch of poppies along the bank in Farmington.
Keosauqua, Iowa
    River's Edge is fictional, but the series draws from many small towns in Van Buren County Iowa. Rural Iowa is corn, but it's also fall festivals and bike rides along the river.
    These river towns are small, generally less than 1,000 people. In fact, if you added up the items in the antique shops, there would be more antiques than people. But, that's part of the charm and why visitors are welcome.
    So that the River's Edge characters would have plenty of opportunities for trouble, I gave that town a population of 7,500. It has a thriving newspaper, old-fashioned diner, a plastics plant, and a meat packing facility. If there aren't places to work, there wouldn't be enough people to make the mysteries interesting.
    And probably not enough people to murder.

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.
                                            *   *   *
Elaine Orr writes the Jolie Gentil and River's Edge mystery series.