Monday, June 29, 2009

Trying to learn from other writers - 3

I’ve just finished reading the second Claire Hanover mystery, and I’d have to say Beth Groundwater’s main character is another one strong enough to my interest through a series.

Claire, of course, is a very different character from Sam Acquillo or Gus LeGarde. For a start, she’s a woman. Plus, while enormously resourceful, she really doesn’t have the kind of background or physical strength to be an action hero. But she does have lots of character, or chutzpah, as one of her friends has been known to say.

Claire has the confidence to believe what she sees and to tell it like she sees it. Just because no one else saw the ski tracks doesn’t mean they’re not there. Just because no one else sees the danger doesn’t mean she shouldn’t protect her daughter. Just because…

So she walks into police stations and describes exactly the sort of details that someone unaccustomed to such places would notice—the presence or absence of family photographs, the pictures on the walls… She walks into a night club and learns the right words for the music by making mistakes—okay, so daughter’s embarrassed, but Mom’s taking charge. She leaps into action, rightly earning the nickname Mama Bear. And the reader follows along, all the time amazed and impressed and, if you happen to be me, just plain wishing I were more like her.

I guess Claire’s more of a niche hero, perfect for us moms with kids fleeing the nest, and ideal for the recipients of gift baskets. She makes me want to ski again. She believes in ibuprofen. She’s real and she’s fun. And she’s more than capable of leaving me eagerly awaiting her next adventure.

So maybe “write what you know” means write about people you might understand. And learn the unknown details on the way, as I’m sure Beth Groundwater did, to make the plots and locales ring so vividly true.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Trying to Learn from Other Writers - 2

Another series I’ve recently started reading is the Gus LeGarde mysteries by Aaron Paul Lazar. I’ve sort of started at the “wrong” end with them, having just read an advance copy of Mazurka which doesn’t come out until August, but I’m already hooked.

Gus LeGarde is a very different character from Sam Acquillo. If I saw Gus in a coffee shop he’d probably be reading a fascinating book or magazine, or talking music with a friend. He’d be kind, polite and moderately sociable. And I’d feel safe if he were to nod and smile at me. Gus lives in a beautiful house with land and views, and has a fascinating family. He travels to France in Mazurka and I love sharing the trip. I know Gus has had his dark times, but I don’t get the feeling that he ever sets out to make trouble.

It’s not just the background of the characters that’s different. Gus is much more open about himself than Sam Acquillo, who seems always on his guard. Aaron Lazar writes generous passages about Gus’s past, answering his readers’ questions, whereas Chris Knopf seems to reveal cautious details about Sam Acquillo, which only lead to more puzzles. Still, the different techniques really work. Sam becomes that fascinating stranger in the corner of the coffee shop. Gus becomes the welcoming face with a smile and a tale to tell.

So what have I learned? Perhaps that it’s good to tailor the telling of the story to the character’s disposition. Maybe if I can be true to the character’s level of trust and comfort in what I reveal, I might find myself creating a character strong enough to support a series.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trying to learn from other writers

I read an interesting interview with Chris Knopf the other day on Jungle Red. He has a series of mysteries out with a small publisher, the Permanent Press, and I'm currently enjoying meeting his lead character, Sam Acquillo, in the first book, The Last Refuge. But I learned the author's been signed up by St. Martin's to do a spin-off series, so soon he'll be ready to tell us how big and small publishers compare. It's neat to know that publishing small really can lead to publishing large, but I suspect it only works if you're a really good writer. Chris Knopf does seem to be that.

Sam Acquillo's not a particularly nice guy, not safe, not easygoing. But he already seems very real to me. I trust him and I like him. I watch for him to appear at the coffee shop. And I admire a writer who can make someone so very real that I'm reading the book with the same thoughts in mind as I would have if I were drinking my coffee. (Well, yeah, I might be drinking coffee at the same time as reading, but you know what I mean.)

So now I'm trying to work out how the author does it so well. He's certainly not telling me everything - when I first meet Sam he's kind of down-beat, kind of negative, and I'm wondering what does he do all day, why's he on his own, where does he get his money. He's kind, but he doesn't think of himself as kind. And he's sort of abrasive. So I'm full of questions and the book doesn't telescope any answers for me, but dribbles them over conversation and keeps me looking for more. It's like slowly getting to know someone as I see them more often, with the added bonus that I really do want to follow the investigation too; something just doesn't sound right.

If only I could write like that...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Not liking the sound of my voice

My Mum didn't like the sound of her voice on recordings when we were kids. I didn't know why. It sounded the same as usual to me. And I loved to imagine hearing my own voice reading all the stories I wrote to make sure they came out right.

My Mum didn't used to like the way she looked in photographs either. But I learned to understand that recently when I joined the "Meeting the God of America" project. On the web site my photograph is reflected, to make me look at the writing instead of away. It feels wrong and I cringe when I see it. But it must be the same as the image I look at in mirrors every day. I guess I just grew up more accustomed to photographs than Mum did.

Still, going back to voices, I think I'm finally sharing my mother's dismay. I've started writing book reviews, and as soon as they're posted I always think there's something I want to change. There was I thinking writing could always be fixed by second thoughts. Then I became a contributor to "Poetic Monthly magazine" where I'm meant to write a column every month. I write and I edit and I read and I write and I listen to the voice in my head and it seems to sound all right. And then I send it off...

When I see my column in print I find I've grown up just like my Mum. I really don't like the sound of my voice on the page.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Treading on my dreams

As part of out last writers' group meeting we responded to a prompt which asked us to imagine ourselves ten years from now. We each had to write at least three paragraphs, including 5 published book titles, 3 awards and 3 authors that we'd like to be compared to. Afterwards we were invited to read out what we'd written, but only one volunteered.

I thought I was pretty good at writing exercises. I can usually think of something for almost any prompt. But not this one--this was treading on my dreams. I don't want to "imagine" myself ten years hence; I'd only put myself in places I don't want to be. But I don't want to voice my dreams either or it might be an invitation for them to fail.

Still I did learn that there's lots of awards out there that I've never heard of. And only two of us elected to imagine we won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Me, I picked ???, ??, and ? as my imaginary prizes. I couldn't have read it out loud if I'd tried.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fathers' Day Dinner

We went out for dinner with our sons yesterday to celebrate Fathers' Day. I don't know about my long-suffering husband, but I had a wonderful time. The restaurant had separate menus for gluten-free and vegetarian that looked just like the real thing--no hastily printed slips of paper photocopied in the back room. My vegetarian son didn't have to search for the ubiquitous "v," or read the small-print for meat, and I didn't have to ask all the boring, and embarrassing, questions about "Please will you check with the chef." What luxury.

Then there was the food. They brought bread and sauces while we waited, and explained straight away that there'd be something for me in a few minutes. I'm not sure exactly what it was--some sort of coated fried vegetable--but it dipped beautifully and tasted just great. They even brought separate sauce for me so we wouldn't have to worry about breadcrumbs. All without my asking! All at no extra charge!

Dinner was delightful, everything beautifully prepared and beautifully presented. Gluten-free sauces for me. Gluten-free crispy coatings. Wow! All the things that I miss. And then when we were nearly stuffed, they brought the dessert menus, including at gluten-free one (they remembered!) that again looked just like the real thing. I couldn't resist the chocolate decadence--such a treat to have a "serious" dessert. So we shared melt-in-the-mouth chocolate cake and ice-cream and sauce and crispy corn, and everyone wished gluten-free tasted half so good at home.

Ah yes. This was my best Fathers' Day ever! And my husband seemed to enjoy it too, which is good. Thank you Andina, in Portland Oregon.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I really like 2009 !

It looks like I'm walking on air again, with another exciting email yesterday, so please excuse me while I do the happy dance. 2009 is just such a good year!

First I made the quarter-finals of ABNA.
Then Lulu put my books on Amazon.
Then my short story got accepted for Mythica’s Maybe Tomorrow.
And now my triptych of Western Tales has made it into VoiceCatcher 4.

Now, if I could just make a few good sales...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Keep turning the pages

I read two thrillers recently. One was un-put-downable, even when I was only halfway through, while the other, though I was definitely interested, was easy enough to leave for the next day’s reading till I got near the end. For myself, I’d like to write so the reader is hooked all through the book. So I found myself trying to analyze what the two authors had done differently.

Both books were thrillers. Both involved somewhat unlikely premises about the characters that required me to temporarily suspend disbelief. In one case, I wondered how the author would make the premise more plausible. In the other, the information that worried me was just background to the character. So perhaps I should learn to make sure that any special features feed more directly into plots.

Both books included flashbacks and background information on the characters. The character studies in the slower book were fascinating, but often answered questions I hadn’t thought to ask, or not yet anyway. The other story moved much faster, with questions left unanswered for longer, and memories introduced as they fit the events. The technique left me wanting more, and eager to read on. So I should keep my readers guessing I suppose, and not give away too much.

Both books involved quite a mixture of showing and telling. The faster book invited the reader into the thoughts and backgrounds of the most important characters, but left some really interesting people shrouded in mystery. The slower book showed the thoughts and memories of many minor characters, reserving secrets for the ones whose true identities were hidden till the end. Was it the number of heads I entered that posed the problem, or was it a question of their relevance to the plot? I’m still wondering about that.

And both books were good. I have no doubt of that. But the only one my husband’s likely to read is the faster one.

I hope I learned something from the exercise. I'll try to put it into practice anyway, and maybe, if I ever get good at reading like a writer, I might write like one too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gray Hair

Someone knocked at the door so I rushed up the stairs to answer. The nice young man told me he had a crew trimming trees in our area. If we want they can give us an estimate, so "I'll talk to my husband tonight," I tell him, after checking they'll still be working around here tomorrow.

He adds as he's saying goodbye, "We give good discounts for seniors."

And I check in the mirror to see if my hair's gone grayer overnight. Should I write it on the calendar, or maybe try to forget it ever happened - the first time someone's suggested I might be a senior?

But the discount would be nice.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Adam's Apples

Another 100-word challenge from the Genre Shorties writing group on Gather.

This time the challenge was to write romance where a modern-day character travels back in time to meet someone famous from history. I'm not sure how well this fits the requirement, but it was fun trying...


They say you should always take snacks on trips through time. But don’t share with the locals or you’ll contaminate the journey back. I took an apple.

Of course, the fruit on Eden’s trees was absolute temptation. The scents were out of this world; hints of strawberry, apricot wine, summer distilled into winter’s brilliant pearls.

She walked, hips swaying, with perfect lips poised for the perfect kiss, and he was perfect male. But the fruit fell from my hands as I stared. Two apples on the ground. One snake coiled round. If they choose wrong I’ll be trapped here forever.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Turning Ideas into Novels, part 2

I tried to take Phillip Margolin’s advice. I wrote a paragraph for each part of the book, and felt like it was really taking shape. But then I tried to expand my paragraphs and found the story dissolving into lists of facts. “This happened. Then that.”

I tried to ask all the questions to help it grow. When did this happen? How did it make you feel? But it really wasn’t working. My characters squirmed in the interview chair and looked at me like I was crazy. “Come on. Who cares?”

Then the phone rang and I went outside to take my friend’s dog for a walk. My friend is very nice and has a very nice dog; a beagle that stops the smell the flowers, the dandelions, and every blade of grass. Then she runs, and we laugh, and my characters chase after me. “Hey, did I tell you about…”

When I came home I started writing chapters again.

Turning ideas into novels

I've read lots of blog posts and articles recently which ask "Where do you get your ideas?" But last week I went to a Willamette Writers' talk on "Turning ideas into novels" by Phillip Margolin. And yesterday I tried to follow his advice with my ideas for Book 2 of Hemlock, which now seems to have morphed into Books 2 and 3.

Margolin had lots of interesting and amusing anecdotes. But more importantly, he had some very wise and practical advice. I'm probably not organized enough to keep files full of ideas in my "office" as he suggested, though I've plenty in my head. But once I've got my one idea and written my one scene (25 pages or less), I'll take all the help I can get turning it into a novel.

Ask the questions, Margolin said. "Who, what, where, when, why and how?" Look at your scene. Who's there? Where? Why? etc. And when the scene's over, how will they deal with the aftermath? He said you only need one idea for a novel, then you ask your questions till the rest grows out of it. And it seemed to make sense, particularly when coupled with an example from one of Margolin's books. (I'd not read the book, but I'm sure I will sometime.)

With Hemlock, I'd already asked the questions. That's why I was on book 2 instead of book 1. But knowing where to begin and end was getting more complicated. One idea? I had plenty, so maybe that was the problem.

Margolin's next advice really helped. He went on to explain what he does when he's writing a novel. And no, he doesn't sit down and write that first scene first; I must have misunderstood. He writes a paragraph, synopsis of the tale, then turns it into two, to three, to more. At each iteration the story has more paragraphs, until each one represents a chapter and then it's time to write and tell the tale.

The advantage, he says, is that you can't get writers' block. You already know what happens next by the time you're writing it.

The advantage, I say, is it doesn't feel artificial. I write stories, not spreadsheets, and organizing scenes always felt too much like stifling my character's voices. But if I'm just writing a very short story, then finding out more and writing more, well that sounds okay. So I listened to my characters' clamor in my mind, and Hemlock 2 turned into 2 and 3. Today I plan to write...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Dark and Stormy Night

The sun was glowing orange as it fled into darkness. The distant horizon crawled closer with night, while owls called their ghostly cries, and creatures rustled in the trees. The children huddled close, voices frozen to stone, and their thin arms shivered, chilled by fear or the cold.

“And then?” whispered one, as silver moonlight bathed her face in white, and starlight dripped like tears. “What comes next?”

The storyteller turned. “And then,” she said, “the ghosts appear, floating high over the table, one for each of you.”

And it’s true. Vanilla pudding does look ghostly when served by moonlight.

Story written for Genre Shorties, a new gather group that I joined yesterday. The writing prompt was to tell a sci-fi story in 100 words or less, including at least two of the words: glowing, darkness, orange, fear, and pudding. I like drabbles.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My Wonderful Husband

Father's Day's coming soon. Sales and coupons abound. And so we got up early and went shopping on Saturday morning. The aim was to buy some new shirts for my husband, new jeans, and a new pair of sandals to replace the ones that fell apart a few days ago. But the entrance to the store was surrounded by doorbusting prices on ladies' clothes, and we ended up spending almost as much on me as we did on him. My wonderful husband kept picking out beautiful things and insisting I should try them. He even found a pair of pants that were so exactly my size... They'll probably shrink when I wash them, or I'll expand, but just for now I have a perfect pair of pants and they make me feel, well, almost perfect I guess.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

This little book went to market...

Lulu have put my books on Amazon as part of their "Amazon marketplace pilot." It's really exciting, especially now that the Amazon prices are the same as the prices I set. But of course, just having the books out there doesn't mean anyone's going to buy them. Or even that anyone's ever going to find them. My books are pretty small needles in a very large Amazon haystack. And seriously, how many readers - besides my husband, my mother and my best friend - will ever think to type "Sheila Deeth" into Amazon's search bar? So I tried typing a book title in instead.

Did you know that "Christmas!" is the same as "Christmas" in an internet search? Yes, I know; I should've known. The exclamation point really doesn't help, and my Christmas book appears so far down the list that no one would ever turn that many internet pages. "Easter!" is just as bad. But "Genesis People" fared better. Once I'd told Amazon to just search for books, it made the bottom of page 1, somewhere below the People's Bible Commentary on Genesis. I clicked on it and found there was "1 new" available from "these sellers" - Lulu I guess - but there was no information about the book. Just a nice bright picture. (Try it. You'll see.)

Somewhere down the page I saw an option to "update product info," so I gave it a try. The link leads to an Amazon sign-in screen, followed by a page where you can update page-count (103), format (paperback), publisher and language etc., provided you give a valid web-site for reference. I gave them Lulu. But what I really wanted to do was update, or even create, a product description. You know, just a few words to distinguish my children's stories from the People's Bible Commentary, which I'm sure is an excellent book, just not the one I'm selling.

Just as I was about to give up, I noticed a side-bar falling off the edge of my screen. Apparently authors can update product descriptions if they use their Amazon Connect accounts. So all I have to do now is wait for Amazon to verify I really am the "author" and give me my account.

Just a moment. Did I just say I was the author? The a-word? Me? But I really do want to update the description, and I'd love to sell some books...

Meanwhile Amazon sent me wandering back to the product page, where I found the fascinating fact that "No one has tagged this product yet." "Help others find this product," it says, so I clicked on "suggest a search." This takes you to a page where you can type a search phrase and a 300 character description of why it's relevant. "Preview your search" seems to suggest the 300 characters might even get displayed, so maybe this is a way to create a very short product description. It's worth a try.

But now the family want the computer back... So many links to click on. So many avenues to trace. So many hopes and dreams... Meanwhile, this little book went to market, and I'm hoping it won't stay home.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Window on patience

I thought I was the patient one.

I patiently hadn't done the yardwork yet when the wind suddenly fell on us and spun the patio dry. It was pretty dramatic. So was the thunder and lightening, but we weren't worried--we'd already switched the computers off.

Except the Vista one was updating still. And the power went out.

Now we're playing that uphill game, trying to get our Windows back. The world outside the glass in the family room has gone dark. And the world in the computer went light and dark, light and dark, light and dark... till we found a way to stop it from restarting and said yes to the option to repair itself.

That was hours ago. But it seems my son's the patient one after all, relaxed and unconcerned while the computer says "preparing to install" unchangingly. Of course, if it fails to install, it's me will be reinstalling Windows tomorrow, but at least I won't have to clean the patio.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Walking on Air

I just got an email from Mythica Publishing. They've selected one of my short stories for inclusion in an anthology. They’ll publish in print and e-book format, and “royalties” will be shared between the eight “authors.”

Royalties! Authors! Me!

I’m walking on air. Thank you Mythica!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lunch-Break E-Books

One of my favorite online magazines is Nights and Weekends, and not just because they’ve published some of my stories. They do nice reviews of books, movies, music, and even board games (a popular subject in our household). They publish new fiction every week. And they’re fun and friendly, easy to follow, with a nice inviting format and clickable topic links neatly arrayed.

A few weeks ago they were looking for reviewers for lunch-break e-books—a new book review column that they’ve just started. I wasn’t sure what an LBE would be, but I’ve been writing a number of book reviews recently, so I asked if I might try.

It seems a lunch-break e-book is one designed to be downloaded and read during a single lunch break. The books cost about the same as a cup of coffee, and they’re way more interesting than just checking emails or playing free-cell while you eat. They could even be a diet aid—instead of whipped cream on that sweet chocolate mocha, you could buy a helping of food for the imagination with a simple coffee.

The first book they sent me was Shiloh by Kathie Harrington, and I really loved it. They must have thought my review was okay ‘cause they’ve posted it this week.

So, if you fancy a book with that coffee, just wander over to Nights and Weekends, click on columns, then Lunch Break EBooks and see what you find. Happy reading, and enjoy your lunch.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Discovering Quincy Morris

A year ago we wandered round Blockbuster in search of a new TV series to rent. The old ones had just reached the ends of their seasons and the long summer evenings stretched ahead. My husband had heard of the Dresden Files at work, and the cover picture was intriguing, so we made a quick decision, paid our money and went home.

Harry Dresden, Chicago wizard. We were hooked…

Nine months ago we were wandering round Borders looking for books on tape for the long car journey to our son’s college. Harry Potter would’ve been good, but it cost too much, so we settled for listening to Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden instead. We were definitely hooked.

And though the TV series is good, the books are way way better.

So six month ago we searched Powell's for presents, hoping to find some deals. We got books 1 and 2 of the Dresden Files, read them, went back for more, found 3 and 4. Now we’re almost up to date…

And less than three months ago in the curious wilds of the blogosphere I met some friends from Gather on Moonlight, Lace and Mayhem. There I was introduced to Quincy Morris, a fascinating character, as envisioned by Justin Gustainis. I didn’t just visit. I won an autographed copy of the first Quincy Morris book - Black Magic Woman - and I have to say, I’m hooked. I’m guessing my husband will soon be hooked on them too.

There’s a quote from Jim Butcher on the cover of the book—“Keep an eye on Justin Gustainis.” I certainly will. Now to find book 2 in Powell’s…