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Alison Armstrong and the Independent Creators Alliance FB group

alison-armstrong-with-michael-easton-roger-howarth-aug-2016

Roger Howarth, Alison Armstrong and Michael Easton last summer.

Alison Armstrong is a gifted author I met through online fan groups for Michael Easton, the General Hospital actor who inspired my vampire soap opera thriller Hope Dawns Eternal. Alison and I met in person at a GH fan event in New Jersey in 2014. This morning she’ll be meeting Michael and his GH buddy Roger Howarth at another event in New Jersey. Since I couldn’t afford the trip this time around, I sent Alison a copy of Hope Dawns Eternal in hopes that she can hand it to him directly, along with a letter and a couple of poems I hope he’ll enjoy.

Back on October 8, 2016, Alison and I both participated at an Indie Authors Day held at libraries nationwide. Soon after, at my request, she sent me the following post about the event:

Having attended an Indie Book Fair recently as an author, I learned some valuable information regarding marketing and distribution; however, the overall message of the advice left me feeling disheartened regarding the arbitrary standardization of the publishing industry and upset about the commoditization of the arts in general.  Instead of focusing on creativity and literary talent, the speakers at the book event emphasized orthodoxy in page design (justified text, avoidance of stylistic content-driven page and paragraph breaks, etc.) .

Although I support the importance of proper grammar and punctuation and feel that these aspects, along with originality in content, expression, and style, are essential in quality writing, I do not believe that standardization of font, margins, and other traditional publishing practices should be given such a high priority.  Nevertheless, despite the increasing numbers of indie authors, the publishing industry persists in perpetuating typographic conventions that are usually not used in Word or other common writing programs.  In so doing, the publishing industry imposes an arbitrary standard to differentiate between traditionally published and print-on-demand authors so that the “indie” writers may feel pressured into purchasing services to make their work appear more like traditional published materials, thereby making their work less independent, more restricted by financial concerns.   Along with the standardization of text format , book publishers seem to be promoting an increasingly conventional approach to cover design, resulting in a glut of covers featuring monotonously similar figurative clichés associated with the book’s genre,  such as the faceless torsos displayed like slabs of cosmetically enhanced meat on the covers of lurid romance novels.

The arts in general, especially in the United States, are generally viewed in a similar way as those hunky yet generic slabs of flesh, something to readily consume as entertainment or profit from.  Favoring the familiar, the already established, the tried and true moneymakers,  publishing companies, recording companies, and movie studios sign fewer new authors, musicians, and filmmakers.  The newbies and the “indies,” therefore, seek new ways of gaining exposure for their work.  However, as with the “indie” book fair example, even some resources and organizations presuming to work on behalf of the independent artists devalue certain aspects of individualistic expression.

Independent authors, musicians, artists and filmmakers represent a challenge to the financially-driven industries that struggle to maintain a monopoly on the arts by propagating lookalike, superficially pleasing but often substanceless clones. The literary renegades, such as William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, the ravaged voices of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith, these muses of rebellion and individuality epitomize the freedom, intensity, and expressive potential of the independent, creative spirit.  

Inspired by artists such as these, I have created the Independent Creators Alliance group on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/269464480120915/ ). I invite creators in any of the arts to join in solidarity, supporting each other and the ideal of artistic freedom. I envision this group as a place to express our ideas regarding the arts and integrity to our vision while connecting with other creative people. It can be a place to network, brainstorm ideas, share sources of inspiration, and collaborate perhaps on projects. In these rather depressing times, we need the arts more than ever to heal the soul.

alison-armstrong-indie-book-fair-10-8-16

Alison Armstrong at Indie Book Fair last October.

Alison makes some provocative points that are deserving of further discussion. I’ve joined her Independent Creators Alliance group on Facebook, and I hope you will too. And by all means check out her books Revenance and Toxicosis, both available on Amazon. But don’t confuse her with the other Alison Armstrong, who writes books about how women can please and communicate better with men. That’s definitely the wrong Alison!

Conquering my Internet angst

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00069]Hallelujah! I just updated the signature that goes out with my e-mails, and it took me only an hour and a half to figure out how! Mark Coker, CEO of Smashwords, says e-mail signatures are one of the most effective and easiest ways to market your work, but for me, when it comes to internet technology, nothing comes easy.

Lest you think I’m a total ignoramus, I’ve known how to create signatures for ages, but they’ve been tiny and self-effacing, in the plain text that’s standard with Thunderbird. To promote my new book, Hope Dawns Eternal, and let people know it’s for sale on Amazon, I wanted something flashier that will jump out at viewers, and for that, Thunderbird told me I need to use – insert gasps of horror, hyperventilating and pounding heart – HTML code. For the uninitiated, that stands for hypertext markup language.

I’m proud to say I didn’t have an anxiety attack. I’ve come a long way since acute panic made me drop out of a web design course at Hudson Valley Community College a few years back. Instead, I calmly clicked on Thunderbird’s HELP menu, found the information on creating custom signatures, and printed it out for further study. Call me old-fashioned, but for truly assimilating new knowledge, I still prefer paper.

The Thunderbird tutorial took me part of the way, but my signature didn’t look right, so I Googled “HTML code beginners.” That brought up millions of hits, and some further surfing turned up what I needed to know.

<Insert break here. It’s time for General Hospital.> 

Anthony Geary with this years Daytime Emmy

Anthony Geary with this years Daytime Emmy

Okay, I’m back. Luke Spencer saved one of his sons from a grisly death by defusing a bomb, only to face armed gunmen who – oh, never mind. Michael Easton, my favorite actor on GH, isn’t on this week. They’re concentrating on Luke because the actor who plays him, Anthony Geary, is retiring and moving to Amsterdam, and they want to give him a spectacular send-off. I doubt they’ll kill him, though, because he may get bored and want to come back for a visit.

But I digress. True, Hope Dawns Eternal is about soap operas, but it isn’t about General

Michael Easton as vampire Caleb Morley on Port Charles

Michael Easton as vampire Caleb Morley on Port Charles

Hospital. The hero, Jonah McQuarry, is a police lieutenant played by the reclusive actor Mark Westgate, who used to play a vampire on a long-gone soap called Oak Bluff. When a talk show host turns up dead, drained of blood, suspicion soon falls on Mark . . . You can learn more by checking out previous posts, or still better, by reading the Prologue and Chapter One right here on this blog. Then, of course, I hope you’ll buy it.

The world of publishing has changed dramatically in the years since I published my two previous books, and indie authors like me have more opportunities than ever before. But the trick lies in learning to harness the infinite power of the Internet, and for technophobes like me, the challenge is daunting. The learning curve is steep, fraught with perils and frustrations, but I’m determined to hang in there and master at least the rudiments of self-publishing.

My cover illustration for the original ELDERCIDE

My cover illustration for the original ELDERCIDE

When I published Eldercide and Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders, a small firm in Texas handled the formatting and design. They did a beautiful job, and I loved the finished product, but they took a huge percentage of whatever measly sales income I managed to accrue, and my royalty checks were minimal. Though I can probably never prove it, I’m convinced they swindled me out of some earnings.

Now, with the generous royalty arrangements available through Amazon, Smashwords and other distributors, I won’t get fooled again. By summer’s end, Eldercide and Mood Swing will be available in new editions, in a variety of e-book and paperback formats. I’ll be in total control, but the learning curve is less a curve than a raggedy zig zag line. The overall trajectory tends slowly upward, but there are lots of hidden hazards and pitfalls. Often I feel the way all those cops must have felt bushwhacking through the Adirondack woods in search of the killers Matt and Sweat, wary of ambushes and sometimes doubling back on their own tracks.

One example: The design of this blog. Notice how the headers at the top are superimposed on each other like a double exposure? I know exactly when the problem arose; it was when I changed “themes,” as WordPress calls its design templates, from “Misty Look” to “Koi.” While my blog was relatively inactive, I let it go, but recently I spent a couple of hours trying to fix it, in every way I could think of, but to no avail.

Finally I clicked on the WordPress link that says “Contact Us” and arrived at a site called “Happiness Engineers.” There I texted back and forth with a friendly fellow named Amal, who gave me all kinds of hints and suggestions to try. Alas, he couldn’t fix it either, and after a couple of hours, I thanked him for his efforts and signed off. The next day WordPress sent me an email with a questionnaire asking how the experience had been, and I didn’t answer, not wanting to get Amal in trouble.

Learning the rudiments of HTML is another challenge, but I’m hanging in there. I’ve got all summer to fine tune my marketing campaign and expand my online network. For example, once again I’ll be featuring guest bloggers, beginning around Bastille Day – but that’s a topic for another blog. Right now, I’m heading out to enjoy my shade garden and a gin and tonic.

Ready for May Day Lift Off – Hope Dawns Eternal

May Day! May Day! I’ve zeroed in on the first of May as the launch date for Hope Dawns Eternal. That gives me a few days to figure out how to upload everything to Kindle and CreateSpace. I’m thrilled with the gorgeous cover illustration by Kim Killion, and Rik Hall has finished formatting the manuscript, but I’ve still got a steep learning curve to figure out the next steps before it’s actually accessible to buyers. With my technophobia, I’m still in acute avoidance mode.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00071]

Now it’s high time to focus on marketing strategies. The publishing scene and especially the online opportunities have changed dramatically since I published Eldercide in 2008, and this time I swear I’ll be relentless in promoting my work, because as outlandish as it seems, my happiness seems to hinge on becoming a successful author.

My first publicity salvo was shot down almost immediately. I posted a shot of the cover to one of the soap opera fan groups I belong to, telling them how excited I was that the book would soon be available. I assured them they’d love it, since the hero is inspired by the actor the group is about. Big mistake – my post smacked of blatant self-promotion, and the group’s moderators removed it with a message warning me not to make the same mistake again, lest I be banned from the site.Caleb Morley

Fair enough, but how do I let people know about the book without being obnoxious about it? Word of mouth is reportedly the best way of creating the buzz that boosts sales, and there are multiple ways of going about it. First and foremost, I’m renewing my connections to the writers’  networks I’ve lost touch with over the years. I’ve rejoined Sisters in Crime, and I’m about to rejoin Mystery Writers of America, especially so as to get the discounted rate to their Edgar Symposium in New York City on April 28th. As a member, I’ll be able to attend their wonderful cocktail party that evening, where schmoozing with authors, editors and agents is lubricated by an open bar and bountiful hors d’oeuvres.

For the first time ever, I’ve joined Romance Writers of America and their Capital District chapter, because this book is the most romantic – even, dare I say, sexy – I’ve ever written.*

Most of all, I want to reach my primary audience – the millions of devotees of soap operas and especially of General Hospital – without being blatantly obvious about it. My fictional network, QMA, and its last remaining soaps retain only the sketchiest suggestions of the soaps and actors that I solemnly swear didn’t inspire me. (Yeah, right – if you swallow that, I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.)

So what’s my strategy? I’ll be networking like crazy. I’ll trade guest blogs – you can be on my blog if I can be on yours. I’ll be looking for reviewers. If you like, I can send you a free advance review copy. Just leave a comment or email me at julielomoe@nycap.rr.com, and we’ll figure out the logistics.

eldercidefrontcover1Above all, I solemnly swear I won’t launch Hope Dawns Eternal into the vast black hole of oblivion that swallowed my last two novels, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders and Eldercide. Those mysteries basically sank without a trace, triggering major depressive episodes that laid me low for far too long, and I hope never again to experience those depths of despair. To that end, I’ll be resurrecting both novels in new online and print editions in May, or at least before the summer solstice. In the meantime, you can still buy the first editions on Amazon, but I’d rather you buy them from me directly, because I suspect the original publisher hasn’t been paying me the requisite royalties.

Speaking of money, I’m reviving my GoFundMe campaign. At the rate I’m racking up expenses, it won’t be long before I max out my credit card, and I can use all the help I can get. You could win prizes, including maybe an acknowledgment or a character named for you in Sunrise or Shadow, the sequel to Hope Dawns Eternal. For more information, check out my GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/gep8ts. Every little bit helps, and who knows, before long you may be able to brag that you knew me when! I’ll be eternally grateful for each and every donation.

*Strictly speaking, Hope Dawns Eternal is the most romantic and sexy since The Flip Side, my unpublished first novel inspired by my work as a creative arts therapist in a mental hospital. One of these days, I may actually publish it too!

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Wanted! Advance Readers and Reviewers for HOPE DAWNS ETERNAL

Caleb MorleyHow would you like to be one of the very first to read my vampire soap opera thriller, Hope Dawns Eternal? So far, only my husband has read the entire novel. A few writers have read isolated chapters, or heard me read scenes aloud, but no one else has read it in its entirety.

I’m not looking for critiques or editorial suggestions. I welcome comments, but I’m not going to change anything – not unless someone signs me to a three-book contract and pays me lots of money upfront. My last post about why I don’t want an editor inspired some spirited discussion in some online discussion groups, particularly the one associated with the International Women Writers Guild, but I’m standing my ground for now.

Right now I’m looking for people who will commit to reading the entire manuscript and then writing blurbs or brief reviews that I can use in publicizing Hope Dawns Eternal online. If you’re really speedy, I may be able to quote you in the book itself, because I still haven’t completed the front and back material. I’m envisioning the kind of quotes you see filling the first couple of pages of a trade paperback, comments that tempt the reader to buy.  But you need to get them to me by Sunday, February 22nd, at the latest, because I’m going to send the book off for formatting next Monday. If you miss that deadline, I’d still welcome your comments for future use, but they won’t appear in the book.

Not my cover but it has the right noirish feel

Not my cover but it has the right noirish feel

Of course if you hate the book, you don’t have to write anything at all. But I welcome your opinions anyway – if nothing else, I may take them into account as I begin the next installment. You can even tell me I should have hired an editor! I especially welcome comments from published writers, and I’ll gladly include a book or series title after your name. But if you’re simply a reader, that’s fine too. And I’d love to include quotes from a few soap opera fans, because you’re the audience who will love this book the most.

So how much reading am I talking about? The manuscript stands at 78,318 words. That’s 265 pages double-spaced, typed the way you’d see them fresh out of my printer before formatting. If you’re interested, please e-mail me privately at julielomoe@nycap.rr.com. In addition, please leave a comment on this blog so that I’ll know you’re motivated enough to actually type something!

If you’d rather donate money, that’s great too. Go to www.gofundme.com/gep8ts. Better still, do both! You’ll have my undying appreciation.

Woman reading summer hammock

UPDATE Saturday, February 21st. Since I published this post two days ago, I’ve changed my strategy. It’s too late to expect you to read or react to anything by Monday, and I’m not going to include blurbs in the first edition, but I’m still looking for readers – especially published writers. There’s no longer a huge rush. But please, if you’re interested, include a paragraph about who you are and why you want to read it, so that I know you’re literate. Also, I may send out just the first couple of chapters. Then, if you like it, I may send more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hobnobbing with Agents in the Big Apple

 

Site of the IWWG Summer Conference in August

Site of the IWWG Summer Conference in August

Back in April, I attended the second day of the International Women Writers Guild’s Spring Big Apple conference. I wrote the following piece for their newsletter, and I’m delighted to learn that they published it almost in its entirety. (They diplomatically deleted my critique of the old events, which were held back when IWWG was under different leadership.) Their newsletter included the link to this blog, so I’m hoping some of their members will wander over this way – and maybe subscribe and leave comments.

I’m excited about my newly finished novel, Hope Dawns Eternal, and eager to see it in print, so I was all set to go the self-publishing route, as I did with my two previous mysteries, but IWWG’s Spring Big Apple Conference inspired me to rethink my strategy.

I was ambivalent about signing up. I’d attended a couple of these events a decade or so ago, and although I did get a couple of leads – which ultimately didn’t pan out – I found them disorganized and disappointing. Queuing up in long lines in order to get a couple of minutes to pitch my work to the agents, I could barely muster up the poise it takes to deliver an effective elevator speech, and most of the agents seemed as frazzled as I felt.

This time, with 10-minute sessions scheduled online in advance, I decided to give the Meet the Agents event one more try. Once registered, I printed out the blurbs for the agents, studied them and targeted those who handle fiction. Though the slots were filling up fast, I managed to schedule appointments with four agents and one lawyer. With Cynthia Stillwell and Kristin Conroy as time keepers and task masters, the sessions ran like clockwork, and I felt I had each agent’s undivided attention.

The earlier talks and panels gave me some valuable pointers on how to craft my pitch, and I’m delighted to report that all four agents want me to send them my work. Even better, three of the four seemed genuinely enthusiastic to an extent I’ve never experienced at similar events in the past. But then how could they resist a paranormal thriller about vampires and soap operas?

Remember Port Charles?

Remember Port Charles?

So it’s back to the classic routine I thought I’d abandoned forever – crafting an enticing query letter and synopsis, polishing my first few chapters and sending them out either online or with the old-time SASE, depending on their specifications. I’m researching other agents as well – I won’t necessarily restrict myself to these three. Meanwhile, I plan to reissue my older novels as e-books and keep building my presence online, in hopes of landing the agent of my dreams.

My heartfelt thanks to IWWG for putting together such an inspiring event – one I’m confident will help me reboot my career and take it to a level higher than I’d ever dared to dream of.

To learn more about the International Women Writers Guild, go to www.iwwg.org. They’re having a four-day conference in Litchfield, Connecticut this August. I attended several when they were held at Skidmore in Saratoga, and I have writer friends who go religiously every year. I recommend it especially for women who are suffering from writer’s block or need help finding their voices as writers. Fortunately, I no longer fit those categories, so I’m probably going to pass this year, though who knows, I could still change my mind.

Please subscribe and leave your comments – I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

UPDATE – Saturday, June 7th

Two major changes since this post:

  • I’ve decided to go to the IWWG conference after all.
  • I’ve decided to self-publish after all, rather than retreat to the old model of querying agents.
Me and Romeo at Lake George on June 5th

Me and Romeo at Lake George on June 5th

The conference in Litchfield looks irresistible, especially because of the location. Wisdom House is set on 70 acres, with a swimming pool and labyrinth, and it looks as if I’ll have ample time and space to have my own mini-retreat if I’m not in the mood for nonstop conferencing and socializing.

My husband came back from a day of workshops on e-publishing at the recent Book Expo in NYC, full of information and enthusiasm for the opportunities for authors who have the gumption to go it on their own.

I’ll blog more about these soon. But right now, I’m off for some shopping and gardening before I settle in to watch the Belmont. Romeo, the horse I rode at Lake George two days ago, has the same coloring as California Chrome – chestnut with a white blaze and feet – though he and I are a bit slower. I’ve always loved chestnut horses, though, ever since as a teen I fell in love with one named Diablo.

Anyone out there going to the IWWG conference? I’d love to hear from you – and from anyone else, for that matter.

Jean Henry Mead’s blog becomes book

Jean Henry Mead

Today I’m delighted to welcome Jean Henry Mead, whose Mysterious People blog has given birth to a brand-new book with Poisoned Pen Press.

 *The Blog That Became a Book*

*By Jean Henry Mead*
 
           When I first began interviewing mystery novelists for my blog site, Mysterious People, I had no idea they would wind up in a book, although I had published three other books of interviews with Western and Hollywood screen writers, politicians, artists and ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things.

           So it made sense that a book about mystery writers was in order, but who would publish interviews that had already appeared online? Bestselling novelists such as Carolyn Hart, Jeffrey Deaver, Louise Penny and John Gilstrap undoubtedly sold the book. Three publishers were interested and I decided to go with Poisoned Pen Press, the number two mystery publisher in the U.S.  Coincidentally, quite a few of PPP’s authors had already been interviewed.

           Because mysteries appear in a variety of subgenres, I divided the writers according to their specialties: the traditional mystery or cozy, historicals, suspense and thriller novels, crime, police procedurals, private eyes and senior sleuths (sometimes called “geezer lit”). There are also medical thrillers, romantic suspense as well as science fiction mysteries and the niche novels which cover endless subjects. I had no idea there was such diversity until I started categorizing them.

           Those I’d interviewed had fortunately written articles about various aspects of publishing, including writing tips, marketing and promotional advice, and their opinions on the current state of the publishing industry, among other topics. So the book is a good read for aspiring mystery writers as well as readers. I can say that objectively because I didn’t write the book, I just asked the questions.

           Carolyn Hart, bestselling author of the /Henrie O and Death on Demand /series, talks about her new protagonist, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, who returns to earth as a ghost to anonymously unravel complicated mysteries. John Gilstrap explains why a bestselling novelist still holds down a fulltime job and international bestseller Rick Mofina provides sixteen great tips for writing thriller novels as well as discussing his struggle to the top of the charts.

           A number of Canadian and UK authors share their publishing views as well as comparing books from their countries with those of the US. Suspense novelist Paul Johnston writes from his native Scotland as well as his home in Greece while Tim Hallinan divides his time between Thailand and southern California, writing much of his work in Bangkok cafes. Gillian Phillip writes YA mystery novels from Barbados and her native Scottish highlands, and international airline pilot Mark W. Danielson composes his suspense novels during layovers in various parts of the world.  One of my favorite interviews was with Bill Kirton, whose humor and compassion led to an Internet friendship. I also enjoy his writing.

           Another English native, Carola Dunn, writes historical mysteries about her countrymen as does Rhys Bowen, who lives and writes in California about historical English royals. Other historical novelists include Larry Karp, who writes about Ragtime music and the people who made the genre popular during its heyday.  And Beverle Graves Myers, who brings operatic mysteries to life from eighteen century Venice.

           Jeff Cohen, Tim Maleeny, Morgan St. James, Phillice Bradner and Carl Brookins add humor to their mysterious plots, so prepare to laugh when you pick up their books. There are police procedurals, medical thrillers and romantic suspense novelists represented here as well as niche mysteries designed for readers who love dogs, scrapbooking, zoos, the Arizona desert, space shuttles, weight loss clinics, actors, designer gift baskets and other specialty subjects.

           Nonfiction books about the mystery genre round out this eclectic collection with Edgar winner E.J. Warner, Agatha winner Chris Roerden, Lee Lofland, Jeffrey Marks, and small press publishers Vivian Zabel and Tony Burton. So there’s something for everyone who enjoys some or all the mysterious subgenres.

           The book is currently only available on Kindle at: http://tiny.cc/zsgsl as well as Barnes & Noble and Sony readers.

Jean Henry Mead began her career as a news reporter, later serving as a news, magazine and small press editor. The author of four novels, she has also published nine nonfiction books. Her magazine articles have won state, regional and national awards and have appeared domestically as well as abroad.
 
 

 

Writing the Breakout Mystery: Donald Maass’ Quickie Version

How do you write the breakout mystery, the novel that transcends genre and takes your work, and perhaps your career, to the next level? Literary agent Donald Maass gave a condensed workshop on the topic at the Mystery Writers of America’s recent Edgar Symposium in New York City. I picked up lots of good pointers and I’m passing on a few of them today, along with an exercise you can use to deepen the plot of your proposed book or your work-in-progress.

I was delighted to realize that Eldercide, my suspense novel about end-of-life issues, has many “breakout” characteristics; here I’ll refer to them to illustrate some of Maass’ key points.

Higher purpose – philosophical questions: breakout novels aren’t simply about an isolated crime. (Eldercide addresses the question: When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead? Our society is rapidly aging, our allotted life spans growing ever longer, but at what cost?)

Multiple points of view and story lines as well as more characters – breakout novels usually utilize multiple third-person voices, often including those of children, old people, or the antagonist. (Eldercide opens with the viewpoint of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, a client of the home health care agency Compassionate Care. Several of the victims have their own points of view, as does the villain.)

The victims matter more than in the usual crime novel. (In Eldercide, we empathize with the victims, whose struggles with declining health and dignity are described in vivid detail).

There’s at least one three-dimensional, fully developed antagonist, who may or may not be the killer. (My villain, Gabriel, is  charismatic, conflicted and reasonably compassionate. He refuses to harm animals, even if it costs him his job, and he channels his obsession with the protagonist, nursing supervisor Claire Lindstrom, into passionate, expressionistic paintings.)

Here’s Maass’ exercise for creating larger, more multiply layered stories with more resonance:

Give your protagonist a life issue separate from the main story. Now complicate the problem: how does it get worse? Think of a solution – why doesn’t it work? Think of another way the issue gets worse, and the way most people would solve it. Why wouldn’t this work?

In the workshop, Maass challenged us to use this technique with our own novels. (I chose to work on the sequel to Eldercide and explore the travails of Paula Rhodes, the CEO of Compassionate Care, whose experience is inspired by my own eight tumultuous running a home care agency.) Complicate the situation still another way, he told us. Who’s going to get hurt? How does the situation cripple the protagonist? What brings the problem to a crisis?

Next, he said, give the protagonist still another problem, but a less serious one, perhaps something humorous or annoying. (I gave Paula secret problems with clutter and disorganization, topics close to my heart.) Again, envision an easy fix, why it won’t work and how it gets worse. What’s the worst-case scenario?

Maass estimated that enfolding these additional story lines into an existing plot might add an additional 30 or 40 pages for the protagonist, and suggested using the same techniques to enrich additional characters as well. There’ll be more scenes, more events, more characters, but the novel will be the richer for it.

It’s also possible to use similar techniques to develop the major themes and settings of the novel, but those are topics for another day. Maass gives intensive weekend and weeklong workshops, and you can learn about them by visiting his agency’s website, www.maassagency.com. More economically, you could buy his book Writing the Breakout Novel by going to the same site. You can even download his book The Career Novelist free of charge.

Reviewing my notes from the conference, I’m amazed how many intriguing twists and turns I came up with for Paula’s character in just a few minutes. Will I try Maass’ methods with the sequel to Eldercide? Absolutely! I’d love to write a breakout novel that actually breaks out.

Have any of you used Maass’ techniques or similar methods? How did they work for you?

Laura Lippman and Lee Child share the view from the top

Laura Lippman

Early in your writing career, you have to believe you can reach the top of the best sellers lists even if you never confide that conviction to anyone else, according to Laura Lippman. That was one of the tips she shared at the Q&A session with fellow best-selling author Lee Child at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Symposiuim last week. Capping a day of illuminating panels, their informal dialogue conveyed a vivid sense of what it feels like to be a best-selling author – and it’s anything but easy.

Lee Child

When they began writing mysteries, both Lippman and Child already had 20 years of media experience, Lippman as a journalist and Child in the TV industry. The initial goal for both? Simply to get published. Child knew he would make it, at least to the entry level of publishing. “You need to be blind to the possibility of failure,” he said. Both began writing to please themselves rather than worrying about the “oughts” of mystery writing or the ingredients for commercial success.

What’s luck got to do with it?

Both consider themselves lucky to have reached their level of success, but “luck accrues to those who work hard,” according to Lippman. She acknowledged, though, that some gifted and hard-working authors just don’t catch a break. Some fall by the wayside, and “the people who persevere may need to reinvent themselves and write under a new name” with a new series if that’s what it takes to keep getting published.

Both authors emerged in 1997 along with Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. They all kept “showing up,” publishing a book a year with the goal of making each book better than the one before. Writing never gets easier, said Lippman. If you ever think it’s easy, you’re in trouble. And with increasing success, there’s more pressure and more anxiety.

“There’s nothing that will ever convince you you’ve made it,” says Child. “The horizon keeps shifting” as authors like Dan Brown come along and dominate the best seller charts.

Keeping a series fresh

Lippman has written four stand-alones, including the recent Life Sentences, in addition to her series of ten Tess Monaghan novels. They allow her to explore characters and themes that don’t necessarily mesh with her series, but after the time away from Tess, she’s grateful to be back in her company. “Make sure you write about a character you like spending time with,” she advises.

Child, in contrast, has no plans to write stand-alones. He plans to stick with his protagonist Jack Reacher. “I’m not as smart as Laura,” he quipped. “I’m just trying to get by.” This of course elicited comments from Lippman about his brilliance. Child pointed out that Reacher has the advantage of traveling to many settings for variety. Nonetheless, he said with self-deprecating humor, “It’s okay to write the same novel over and over again with minor changes – it’s what people want and expect.” Over the years, readers build up a relationship where they feel they know Child, and they often write to him confiding things they don’t tell family or friends.

I came away from this discussion with a vivid sense of the unremitting hard work, dedication and self-confidence it takes to maintain a writing career at their level of success. “There’s always something new to chase,” said Lippman. “You’ve never arrived.”

“If you write the perfect book,” Child concluded, “what do you do next? You’re done.”

What about you? Do you have the admirable qualities you need to take your work to the next level? Or do you ever feel as if you’re “done,” perfect or not? I’d love to read your comments. And stay tuned for my report on Donald Maass’s workshop on the breakthrough mystery.

Lee Child’s author photo is copyrighted by the celebrity photographer Sigrid Estrada, whose work I remember from many years ago when I worked at Ladies’ Home Journal. He really does look this good, and he’s friendly and charming as well. Lee is past president of the Mystery Writers of America, and Laura’s the new president. Her author photo reminds me more of Cybill Shepherd than of the unassuming way Laura looks in person – not that she doesn’t look great, mind you. But I decided it was unfair to use a studio glamour shot for the man and a more ordinary candid shot for the woman. 

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.

GETTING THE CALL 

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

http://www.gerrieferrisfinger.blogspot.com

http://www.gerrieferrisfinger.com

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.