Thursday, June 27, 2019

Thinking about Our Skills to Write About

We like to play to our strengths. We don't sit around and say, "What am I bad at? I think I'll do that again today."

I certainly don't think I'm the best storyteller around, but you would definitely want to hear my stories more than you'd like to eat my cooking. Or have me clean your house. Or give you driving directions. I could go on.

Image by Angel Nichols.
Recently I thought I would work on a self-help piece, for fun, in between fiction projects. I have a breezy writing style when it comes to how-to writing, and I don't mind making fun of myself. The combination works well in self-help writing, and I used it in a book on caregiving in the 1990s and in some of my books and articles on writing and publishing.

So, what do I know enough about to help someone else who wants to do it? The first thing that popped into my head was "moving." No, not yoga or jogging. Going from home to home.

I didn't plan to move as often as I have, but I've learned how to get organized, pack and unpack, and learn a new town. If I had to pick one word to describe moving success it would be listmaking. And doing the items on the list, of course.

I moved to Iowa because I wanted a lifestyle where I needed less money to live and had more time to write. When people would ask why I picked that state, I'd say, "Cleaner, cheaper, safer, quieter." This is not to insult my native state of Maryland, it's just that housing costs in the DC suburbs are astronomical.

Since moving to Iowa I've married and we've also lived in Indiana (and then to Iowa and back to Indiana) and Illinois. In each place, I moved from apartment to house or house to house. I'm probably certifiable.

Learning the Ropes

As hard as it is to get organized and complete the move itself, diving into a new town is what's challenging. Friends. I need friends.

In my new book, Fitting in After Fifty: to Your New Town, I talk about becoming acquainted with a town and its people in several groupings. You'll want to get to know your neighborhood and the larger community. You'll also want personal friends, maybe even want to date, and perhaps you'll volunteer.

Why the "after 50" in the title? In my humble opinion, it's easier when you're younger. Your job may be welcoming, kids' schools or sports involve meeting other families, and you have more energy. Of course, fifty is the new forty, so I remember having lots of energy at that age. :)

If you move to be near other family or to find an area in which to retire, you have to make your own reasons to meet people.

Getting to Know People in Your Neighborhood

To give you a sense of the kinds of information in the book, here are some ideas for making neighborhood acquaintances:
  • Smile and nod. That gives others an opening, should they want to engage.
  • Be willing to introduce yourself and stick out your hand, but don't be offended if your actions are barely (or not at all) reciprocated.
  • Attend announced events, such as block parties, as well as informal activities, such as rummage sales.
  • Buy what local kids sell – within reason. Some schools still raise money through direct sales (think cookie dough and wrapping paper), while Scouts now tend to set up at local shopping centers.
  • Become aware of local sports teams—school and professional. Sport pride and the weather are neutral topics in grocery store lines, which is where you'll see your neighbors.
  • Ask Suri or Alexa what's going on. I never thought I would talk to a round piece of plastic (I use Amazon's Alexa on an Echo Dot), but these devices (which require an internet connection) are handy for weather, local news, and activities.
Don't get discouraged if you don't have people to do more than nod to after a month. Everyone is busy and your neighbors are probably involved in their jobs and kids. Just keep at it.

Beyond Your Own Block 

I love being in neighborhoods where people are friendly and do things together. However, you can't know how that will work out. And you'll probably want to be involved in the larger community.

Have a look at the chapters in Fitting in After Fifty.

1. Reasons for the Move and Getting Started
2. Deciding How Involved You Want to Be
3. Getting to Know the Immediate Neighborhood or Complex
4. Beyond Your Street or Building
5. Deciding Whether to Volunteer
6. Making Friends or Dating in a New Place
7. Holidays: Do You Stay or Do You Go?
8. What about Major Life Changes?
9. Keeping Those New Friends

Each chapter has a resource listing at the end, mostly links to web articles, since that makes it easy to to go the info mentioned in the ebook. The resources would help the 'movee' as well as others who want to help family or friends learn a new town.

This won't be a book that people pick up to read for fun, but I hope they'll find it when they need it.

Fitting in after Fifty is in Kindle Unlimited. Maybe you'll want to give it to your friends...

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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Choices about the Profession for Amateur Sleuths

When I decided to write mystery series with amateur sleuths, I spent time thinking about careers that would put them in contact with a lot of people, provide a flexible schedule, and be interesting to men and women.

I had learned in an earlier stand-alone book that the protagonist couldn't be tied to her career. When would she investigate? I had created a teacher, and then had to have her break her arm so she wasn't in the classroom all the time.

I settled on a real estate appraiser for the Jolie Gentil Jersey shore cozy mysteries and a reporter-turned-gardener for the Iowa River's Edge series -- Melanie. It seems no matter what Jolie and Melanie do, they don't attract many male readers. Or at least, male reviewers. It seems women read male protagonists but men don't often pick up books with female sleuths.

The second question was how much daily life should mix with murder. Readers pick up a cozy in part because of the sleuth's profession. People can relate to bakers, dog walkers, and bookstore clerks. I figured a real estate appraiser was just different enough to be equally interesting.

Most people buy or sell a house at some point, so they would recognize the work without finding it too familiar. And boy, can Jolie get in trouble in a vacant house.

Newspaper reporters are more common in thrillers, less so in cozy mysteries. Melanie didn't last long in that role -- in fact From Newsprint to Footprints opens with her firing.

So, she became a gardener, which happens to be one of my hobbies. Most of us have planted something in the dirt at some point, so I figured readers could also get a sense of satisfaction when plants sprout along with suspects.

I plan to continues the two series and a third, which features a small-town police chief -- the Logland Series. I call that a police procedural with a cozy feel.

Lately, I've done a book a year in each series, but I think readers expect more regular installments. I traced publication dates over the last decade, and realized I did three Jolie books in the first publishing year. I'd written them over several years. I need to pick up the pace. Yikes.
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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Thoughts on Working with a Critique Group

I've benefited greatly from working with other authors through critique groups -- especially the Illinois group I now trade work with. If you don't have access to a group, it's worth thinking about creating one. One with other serious writers.

I suggest starting with one inviolable principle. When discussing someone’s chapter or poem, talk only about the writing, not things that come to mind because you read a piece. 

My twelfth grade English teacher (Ms. Virginia Baker) expressed this perfectly. She was having the class discuss some piece of literature (Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I think), and wanted us to talk only about the story. She said, “I don’t want to hear any I-had-an-uncle-once comments." 

Here are some things to consider as you assess an existing group, or options to consider if you have a role in creating one.


  • Does the group deal with a mix of genres, or only one?

  • Do new members have to ‘audition’ by submitting material, or can they be invited by one or more of the existing members?

  • How often does the group meet? Generally groups that meet more often review less content per meeting.

  • Do they share content electronically (with each member printing other members’ submissions), or does each member bring enough copies of their work to pass to others?

  • Are projects reviewed in advance, or do members read quietly and comment the same night?

  • Are comments provided verbally, in writing, or a mixture?

  • Does the group share work of several people each week/month, or is it one piece of work per session?

  • What are the parameters of comments? Story and characters only? Grammar and style, too?
  • What are the policies about responding to comments? Some groups say a member can only request clarification or respond to a point of information. No debating allowed! Others permit lively give and take, though still shy of arguing. These ground rules need to be clear.

  • If they share a meal, do members agree that meals should cost less than a certain amount?

  • Can members come to meetings if they are not writing steadily? 

There are plenty of “yes, but” rules for any group. For example, someone whose child is getting married in a month may be willing to critique others’ work, but isn’t writing new chapters themselves. The group agrees this is fine, but someone who “never has time to finish a chapter” may be asked to take a break from the group until their writing resumes. 

I’ve never heard of a critique group whose members read aloud. To me, that’s more like a shared reading group. I put a lot of effort into reviewing a project, and need to read it in advance. 

Finally, are there parameters to ask someone to leave the group? If guidelines are established in advance, discussions will be smoother. To me, people would generally only be asked to stop attending if they were rude or didn’t read material. Your group may want different guidance. 

This is a lot to digest. Much easier to be invited into an existing group! However, we writers work by ourselves, and I think it's worth the effort to create an environment for constructive criticism and encouragement. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
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