Archive | April 2010

Am I a patient here? My mysterious ophthalmological morning

Alex Katz

Tomorrow’s the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Week Symposium in New York City. I sent in my check back in February, especially because the cocktail party that follows the day of talks and panels is limited in size, and I wanted to be sure to snag myself a reservation in plenty of time.

I’m ambivalent about going, though. If my check hadn’t already cleared, I might stay home. Instead, I’m psyching myself up to catch the Amtrak train at 5:10 am so as to make it there in time for Donald Maass’s opening talk on “Writing the Breakout Novel.” I’ve got brand-new bookmarks to pass out, but I’m ambivalent about those as well. Iconix did an excellent job and carried out my instructions exactly, but they turned out a tad busier and more lurid than I’d hoped. Oh well, live and learn.

With two self-published novels, I haven’t exactly “broken out,” but maybe Mr. Maass will inspire me to take it to the next level. Then there’s that cocktail party with the bountiful hors d’oeuvres, the open bar, and the agents and editors wearing specially colored name tags so the authors can more knowledgeably accost them. By then I hope I’ll be feeling more jazzed and sociable than I am right now.

This morning threw me badly off my stride. When I showed up for my 9:30 appointment for an ophthalmology checkup at the office I swore I’d been to before, the receptionist said they had no record of my appointment. The office looked strangely different as well.

(Note: the following saga is tangential to the topics I usually blog about, but I feel the need to vent. In case you prefer to skip the rest of the post, this is a reasonable place to stop.) Continue reading

Getting the call from Ruth Cavin – Gerrie Ferris Finger’s story

Gerrie Ferris Finger with her poodle Bogey

Today I’m excited to welcome guest blogger Gerrie Ferris Finger, the latest winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition for The End Game, scheduled for release on April 27th. I just finished reading the advance review copy she sent me. The novel’s thoroughly engrossing, and much edgier than I’d expect from a Malice Domestic winner.

Next week I’ll review the book and give you some of my thoughts on Gerrie’s story. Here’s her description of the many years of dues she paid before getting the call from Ruth Cavin telling her she was a winner. I hope you’ll find it as inspiring as I do.


By Gerrie Ferris Finger

I wrote my first novel before I began my newspaper career, right after I got out of college, while I was babysitting my two children. It was a war novel – hey, why not start with something you know everything about, right? It’s a good thing I love to research.

I sent it off to an agent friend, a classmate in college. He told me it was hard to believe a woman wrote the book, and that if he sold it, I should use initials so buyers would think I was a man. Then he gave me friendly advice. He said I should write women’s non-fiction like the stuff in “Cosmopolitan”. Sex positions was going to propel me to the top of the Best Seller List.

I went to work for a newspaper instead. After twenty years as a writer, editor and columnist, I retired to write novels in earnest. Like most journalists, I had a few manuscript starts, but never finished them.  My first effort was a mystery overlaid with romance. I didn’t consider genre when writing the manuscript. I just wanted to tell a story, sell it to a publisher and have a large reading audience. I hired an agent and wrote four books in what she called the romantic suspense genre, before she told me romantic suspense wasn’t selling well.

So okay, let’s do something else. I created Moriah Dru, a former cop turned child finder. Already in love with a detective, Dru wouldn’t be drifting into romance. My agent didn’t like The End Game, because she didn’t like the heroine. Dru had too much angst. After three years, my agent and I parted, and I sent The End Game to large independent publishers (of which there are few) and got requests for the “full” manuscript from all. I wrote the second book while waiting for offers that didn’t come.  

I entered The End Game into the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Minotaur competition for Best First Traditional Mystery novel and started another mystery series. I’d forgotten about the Minotaur contest. Who wins contests anyway? Then my contest reader called to tell me she’d sent the novel on to St. Martin’s. The process starts with readers who receive manuscripts from all over the country. They choose the best in their estimation and send them to St. Martin’s.

A couple months went by, and I “got the call” from Ruth Cavin. I was working on a straight romance and almost let the phone ring. Instead, I said “Hello”.

I swear my heart stopped beating as I listened to her words that went something like: “This is Ruth Cavin with St. Martin’s. I’m calling to tell you that your novel won the St. Martin’s contest. Congratulations.”

It couldn’t be any of my joker friends. They didn’t know I’d entered the contest. My husband didn’t know.

My mouth was open and dried-out when I stuttered, “You’re kidding?”

She laughed and said, “I had some wonderful manuscripts to choose from, but I thought yours was just the best.” Just the best. Her wonderful voice still resounds in my head.

When I told my husband I was going to be published by a big New York house, he said, “At last!”  

Thank you Julie for letting me relive that call on your wonderful blog.

Gerrie Ferris Finger

Outliners, blank-pagers, and the challenge of series writing

Jan Vermeer

As a writer, are you an outliner or a blank pager? This is one of those perennial questions that comes up time and again at writers’ conferences, and I’ve heard countless twists on the topic, but never have I heard of a spreadsheet system as elaborate as what Donna Andrews described at the Empire State Book Festival.

Donna has just released Swan for the Money, twelfth in a series of mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Meg Langslow, and she was part of a panel titled “Laugh or I’ll Kill You – Humor in Mysteries.” The topic was a tricky one – asking authors to describe how funny they are is a challenging proposition, and the three authors, all from St. Martin’s Press, took turns assuring each other and the audience how hilarious their colleagues truly were.

Things got more interesting during the Q&A when someone posed a question about working methods and Donna described her spreadsheet. She aims for a manuscript of 80,000 words, then breaks the project down into specific word counts pegged to specific dates and deadlines. She incorporates the plot outline into the spreadsheet as well, so on any given day, she knows exactly where in the story she’s supposed to be and whether she has any catching up to do to meet her self-imposed schedule.

Personally, I’m more partial to Rosemary Harris’s approach. She’s just published Dead Head, the third in her “Dirty Business” gardening series, and she outlines as she goes along. “My synopsis is more like an elevator speech,” she says.

Jane Cleland, author of the series featuring antiques dealer Josie Prescott, falls somewhere between these two extremes. She writes from a detailed synopsis – around 20 pages, although she says her editors would prefer a shorter synopsis of 10 to 12 pages. Her publishing career with St. Martin’s falls between the other two authors as well – her newly released Silent Auction is fifth in a series.

I can’t help wondering how much these authors’ approaches are influenced by the demands of cranking out a book a year under contract with a specific publisher. It’s a challenge I’d dearly love to have, but it’s got to be daunting. Rosemary’s series is the newest, so perhaps she’s still in the early years of inspiration where her characters are concerned, whereas when you reach the twelfth book in a series, a spreadsheet may well be critical in maintaining your momentum.

But I’m just projecting here – the question of how it feels to come up with a book a year in an ongoing series is a topic for a whole different panel. And what author would dare tell the truth if she’s no longer enchanted with the series she’s committed to? I’ve heard Sue Grafton speak, most recently last year at the Edgar Symposium, and I haven’t caught her saying, “I’m sick to death of Kinsey Millhone and I can’t wait to get to the end of the &*(^% alphabet.” That wouldn’t do much for sales!

This train of thought is fueled by two books I’ve just finished, both by well-regarded and gifted authors of popular series. (I won’t disclose their names, because I don’t believe in dissing people online, but they’re not people I’ve mentioned in this post.) Both had minimal plot lines that didn’t hold my interest as much as earlier books in the series, and both were padded with repetition and extraneous detail. I can easily imagine the authors slogging their way through spread sheets, trying bravely to come up with the requisite number of words to meet a deadline.

Still, I’d love the luxury of producing a series on schedule, and I’m hoping to make that happen with the folks at Compassionate Care, the home health care agency in Kooperskill, New York, that’s featured in Eldercide. But till I get that elusive agent and publishing contract, Claire Lindstrom, Paula Rhodes and the rest of my cast of characters will have to put up with my blank-page approach to literary inspiration.

What about you? Are you an outliner or a blank-pager, or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Please leave your comments, and if there’s enough interest, perhaps we can have an extra day devoted to your contributions on the subject.

Blogging trumps poetry: I’m so much cooler online

Tonight I’ll be reading my poetry at the Albany Word Fest, an annual event that’s a virtual orgy of the spoken word. I thought I should come up with at least one new poem for the event, but instead I came up with a severe case of writer’s block. I managed to confront it in the following poem.

Word Fest features a 12-Hour Friday Open Mic that kicks off at 7 p.m. I’m scheduled for 10:30 p.m., so by all means stop by to cheer me on (and buy my books, if you haven’t already.) There’s be dozens of poets and spoken-word artists there, and it’s always a festive night. It’s free, too! Come to the UAG Gallery at 247 Lark Street.

I’m still planning to cover more topics from the Empire State Book Festival, but today this poem took priority. By the way, I borrowed the phrase “I’m so much cooler online” from Brad Paisley’s megahit of the same name.  As an entertaining lyricist, he’s peerless in country music.


My fingers have stage fright.

Knowing I’ll have the floor

tonight at Word Fest, I sit paralyzed at my computer.

Picturing people perched on metal chairs in narrow rows,

faces inscrutable, judging my every word,

my brain slams on the brakes, then sputters out,

rolls over and plays dead. As a poet I’ve grown shy and tongue-tied,

probably because

I’ve become a blogger.


Blogging, I measure my audience in hundreds,

rack them up as hits on my stat counter,

check the numbers daily. Nearly sixty thousand now,

but are they human beings, or merely phantom ciphers?

Some are real people. I treasure comments

from Albuquerque and Australia, schmooze with friends

I know by photos from their books, mostly self-published.

We all look our best on line, young for our actual ages.

We spill selected secrets, shout in virtual keystrokes, 600 words or so,

enough for a few pithy points, stopping just shy of boredom.

I feel I know them better than folks I know face to face.

I’ve become a blogger.  


My words flow free and easy when I blog.

I keep it bright and breezy, mindful that readers can abandon me

with a single mouse click, never to return.

Still, I’ll never know the pain of their rejection,

never see their restless jiggling legs or condescending smirks.

Month by month I’m turning inward,

conjuring an adoring virtual audience,

withdrawing from flesh and blood communion,

leaving a minimal carbon footprint as I cleave to my computer,

swaddled in my fuzzy pink schmatta from WalMart.

I leave home less and less.

I’ve become a blogger.


My fictional career is on sabbatical. Why write fiction,

when I’ve living in the World Wide Web,

spinning my tales, creating my character, branding my name

in Musings Mysterioso. Racking up the readers,

watching my WordPress graphs spike ever higher.

Mystery novels grow redundant, slow the flow.

Who needs them, reads them anyway?

I’ve become a blogger.

                                                                        ©2010 Julie Lomoe

Empire State Book Festival – so many authors, so few book sales

I spent last Saturday in the bowels of Albany’s underground Convention Center, listening to authors talk about their writing at the Empire State Book Festival. This first-ever event was sponsored by the New York Library Association and billed as “A Celebration of New York State Writers, Books and Literacy.” But how celebratory was it, really? I came away with mixed feelings, though with enough material for several more blog posts.

Ever the diligent student, I attended six panels, each with several participants. That’s a couple of dozen authors, and as is traditional at large conferences, their books were for sale in a separate book room, with tables set up in the adjoining corridors for signings by these authors and well over a hundred others from the many concurrent panels. To my surprise, though, the book room didn’t have much traffic, and when I went to cash out with three books from the mystery writers’ panel I’d attended, there was no line at all.

There were virtually no lines at the authors’ tables either. They sat marooned at their tables, some with their game faces on, others looking more like folks in the dentist’s waiting room. A few chatted with writers at adjoining tables. Initially I’d been miffed that, like most Capital District writers, I wasn’t invited to participate, but after making the rounds of the sales and signing area, I was relieved to be excluded. There’s no more depressing way to spend a beautiful spring day than sitting ensconced behind a table waiting to sign books that nobody’s buying.

There was New York State money behind this festival, but an advance news story made a point of stating none of the authors were paid to attend. The majority traveled from out of town, especially New York City, so I expect they’ll be taking the day as a tax write-off. The same is probably true for the vendors. At $275 a booth, only a few small presses took the opportunity to hawk their wares, and the cost no doubt discouraged many.

Still, the festival was free, and thousands of people reportedly attended. The workshop rooms were packed with avid listeners who asked intelligent questions. So by many measures, the event was a success. Here’s hoping some of the authors thought so too, even if they didn’t sell many books. After all, it’s good to get your name out there, or so they tell us.

At the end of the day I came away more drained than invigorated, but part of that had nothing to do with the contents of the conference. I’d bought some pricy new shoes I’d hoped would be perfect for events like this, but the straps sliced into my insteps. Parking my behind on the same unforgiving chairs for hours wasn’t much better, and there’s something about the low-ceilinged cement aesthetics of the convention center below Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza that’s inherently oppressive. Fortunately, my husband showed up in time for the last workshop and to take me out to dinner.

Although you might not think so from the above post, I’m glad I went to the Empire State Book Festival. The panels gave me considerable food for thought as well as ingredients for three posts:

  • Hints for structuring a book-length project
  • Judging a book by its cover
  • The future of the book – Is publishing in freefall, or just in flux?

I’m sure many of you have been to big book conferences like this, either as authors or fans. What’s your take on them? Are they worth it? Are they just a drain on your time and your pocketbook, or do the networking and the inspiration make it all worthwhile?

Five reasons I’d rather write than paint

A new gallery, the River Front Art Coop, is opening in downtown Troy, and I’m schlepping some of my work down there this afternoon with a view to showing it on consignment even though when it comes to the visual arts, I’m feeling pretty rusty. I did the cover illustrations for both my mystery novels, but aside from a few collages, I’ve neglected what used to be my primary means of artistic expression.

 All my formal training was in the visual arts, so why have I reinvented myself as a writer instead of a painter? Off the top of my head, I can think of lots of reasons:

  • Writing is so much speedier. At the computer, my ideas flow from my fingers. Saying it’s effortless would be lying, but for me, it’s a heck of lot easier than painting, and you can say so much more in a shorter time.
  • Writing is cheaper by far. A decent computer and Internet connection, a ream of bright white multipurpose paper from Staples, a new toner cartridge now and then, and I’m good to go. Have you priced art supplies lately?
  • Writing requires less space. In a space six by six feet – that’s 36 square feet – I  have my L-shaped computer desk, my file cabinet, my comfy office chair, a little wicker stand that serves as a cat bed, and a picture window with a lake view. In our present home, alas, there’s no space that’s remotely adequate for my needs as a visual artist. If my longing to paint becomes overwhelming, I’ll have to build or rent studio space.
  • Writing makes me happier. I believe I’m better as a writer than I ever was as a painter. I don’t have that inner critic nagging me about what a mediocre writer I am – at any rate, not until I begin dealing with the marketplace. When I’m drawing or painting, in contrast, my inner critics are relentless and nasty. They tell me my work is crap – pedestrian, amateurish, unoriginal. Where do these voices come from? Some are former art teachers. They weren’t actually all that discouraging, but I’ve internalized them anyway – especially a world-famous art therapist who told me my work was “hopelessly vulgar.”
  • Writing enables me to reach more people more affordably. Over the course of decades, I’ve developed a jaundiced view of the art world. One-of-a-kind works of art are luxury items, and few people can afford to buy them. For centuries, the visual arts have been the province of the privileged – commissioned by the church or supported by wealthy patrons. Books, on the other hand, are still relatively affordable. And writing on the Internet, I can reach a potentially limitless audience for free. It feels much more politically correct than hanging my work in a gallery.

 Nonetheless, those big empty walls at the River Front Art Coop have a powerful allure. The space is magnificent – a high-ceilinged commercial space that reminds me of my old lofts in SoHo, with a view of the Hudson from windows at the back. I miss the camaraderie of the community of artists I knew in New York City, and perhaps the three women starting this gallery, including the stained glass artist Terry Faul, will be able to help fulfill that particular void in my life.

So after I publish this post, I’ll get to work unearthing some art work and loading it into my Focus hatchback. I’ll try to shush the inner critic who tells me the work isn’t good enough, subject myself to their scrutiny and see what happens. Who knows, I may be seduced back into the visual arts, at least part-time. If I clean up my office, I might even find space for that new drafting table I haven’t unpacked yet.

A tall tale featuring my top ten tags

Julia Child

Today’s blog post is a statistical experiment. Never fear, I know that sounds dreary, but I’m going to have fun with it by creating a fictional journal entry using key words and phrases that seem to have drawn people to my blog.

I study my stats religiously, and they’ve been down in the past week. Perhaps my topics haven’t been uplifting or intriguing enough – I wrote about the death of an artist friend, website anxiety, agita and acid indigestion. On the other hand, “affordable funerals” has been one of my most popular topics to date, so go figure. Today, I’ll start with a true statement; after that, all bets are off. I’ll highlight the popular tags in turquoise, and see if I can drive up my stats for the day.

As Administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, I get a lot of inquiries about affordable funerals. I’m fairly well versed in what’s going on with funeral homes in upstate New York, but I decided it was time to broaden my horizons. What better place to start than Baltimore and the grave of Edgar Allan Poe? I’d visited there before when I went to Bouchercon, but I didn’t want to linger, so after paying my respects I caught a shuttle to the Baltimore-Washington airport.

Next stop: London. Once there, I realized I wasn’t in the mood for research, at least not of the kind I’d come for, so I decided to cure my jet lag by exploring the local nightlife. I found a pub in the Soho district, and lo and behold, a devastatingly handsome bloke named Harold was soon chatting me up. He looked much the way John Lennon might have if he’d lived to see 60.

Jimi Hendrix

I regaled him with tales of my past – how I’d shown my paintings and won a prize at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, how a disc jockey had helped me sneak my paintings into the Beatles’ suite at the Warwick Hotel, how I’d lived in New York City’s SoHo district at the height of its glory. How Jimi Hendrix bought me a screwdriver and asked for my phone number at a Greenwich Village club, and I stayed in my loft for a week waiting for his call in vain.

Baseball diamond

Harold and I discovered we both had a passion for blogging. I told him how amazed I was to be getting hundreds of hits a day, but that I couldn’t figure out what made certain posts more popular. I could understand the appeal of “Norman Mailer ogled my chest” and “Julie and Julie and Julia” Parts 1, 2 and 3, but why “My blogging story arc – a field of dreams?” Enid Wilson’s steamy take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was a big hit too. Michael Jackson I could understand – I blogged about Michael as the archetype of a tortured artist. Harold and I agreed about the poignancy of his death, but that he’d probably passed his prime, and that the brilliant film “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” was a fitting legacy.

After my second Black Russian, I was feeling confident enough to pull both my mysteries out of my carry-on bag. He raved about my cover illustrations, and immediately insisted on buying both Eldercide and Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders. My first sale on English soil! I was thrilled.

“I’d love to show you more of London tomorrow,” Harold said.

“That would be great, but I’m not sure my husband would approve.” I pulled out my BlackBerry. “Come to think of it, I’d better give him a call. . . .”

 [the scene ends here]

Actually, it turns out that most of the above is fact, not fiction. I’ve been to Baltimore for Bouchercon and and visited Poe’s grave, but I don’t have plans to return any time soon. I didn’t jet off to London and meet a dashing Englishman, but everything I told him about my background and my blogging is true. Now I’ll type in all the tags and see what happens.

Hey, this isn’t a bad creative writing exercise – maybe I’ll try it again sometime. You’re welcome to try it as well. What tags and subjects have drawn the most people to your blog? Can you turn them into a story? I’d love to hear from you.

Agita – agitation, acid stomach, or both?

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

In my post about website design anxiety, I really wanted to use what I thought was a Yiddish idiom to convey the sense of gut-wrenching agitation the challenge invokes in me, but the word escaped me. It turns out AGITA is the word I wanted, and my search brings up a few thoughts about the internet, Merriam-Webster, and the changing nature of research.

First, thanks to my friend and Nia instructor Richele Corbo for answering the question when I posed it on Facebook. (I also ended the last post with my query, but no one’s come up with the answer here.) “Aggitah!!” Richele wrote. I’d tried adgena, agina and other similar combinations, and consulted lists of Yiddish idioms to no avail, but no wonder I couldn’t find it – it’s of southern Italian origin.

Playing around with the spelling, I tried my huge old Webster’s Unabridged without success, but I finally found “agita” on Google. One definition came from a medical site:

Agita: heartburn, acid indigestion, an upset stomach or by extension, a general feeling of upset. Italian American slang, from Italian “agitare” meaning “to agitate.”

The online Merriam-Webster’s had the word as well, along with the date 1982, suggesting this was when the word was added. They even had an aural application giving the correct pronunciation aloud. 

Agita: S. Italian dial. pron. of Italian acido, literally heartburn, acid from Latin acidus, therefore a feeling of agitation or anxiety.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

So one source claims the word is rooted in agitation, the other in acid. But both agree on the confluence of anxiety and indigestion as well as the Italian origin. It took Richele, who’s of Jewish origin but married into an Italian family, to come up with the link I needed. Here I could wax rhapsodic about our wonderful American melting pot and how it’s enriched our language, but I’d rather focus on the word itself, and how I can now use it with confidence to describe that physical and psychological state that arises from too many hours spent trying to decipher new computer programs. (If you want a fair facsimile, try overdosing on caffeine or trying the wrong antidepressant. Or, come to think of it, those pharmaceuticals I experimented with back in the sixties – but we won’t go there.)

My exploration of agita also reinforces what my husband always says when we try unsuccessfully to prune our book collection: there’s no need to hang onto outdated research materials, because it’s easier to find what you want on line, and the paper versions simply clutter up the house. But does this mean we’ll throw out our entire collection of dictionaries and reference books? I wouldn’t bet on it.

How about you? Do you suffer from agita? And have you been pruning your collection of old-fashioned printed reference materials? Or do you think that’s meshugana?