Thursday, August 19, 2010

Starting to Query

DEATHBLOW is finally finished. 73,000 words read, re-read, corrected, re-written, every flaw ferreted out. I have sent a query to my four top choice agents. Those who say they are (a) looking for crime fiction, (b) they encourage new authors, and(c) who have a sales list of the sort of authors that I would like to become some day.

So, just when I thought my manuscript was flawless, and I'm sending the first chapter to an agent, I notice a typo! Give me strength.

Now that I have my third mystery novel done, The Man I Married zings this thought at me. My strong suit, he says, is humor, and instead of police crime, I should seriously write funny crime or funny detective novels—whatever. He's got a point. I have written humor columns for newspapers for years, and I crack myself up. It's something to consider.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Common Writing Mistakes

I find the most common "stupid" mistake I make in writing can be titled the I Knew What I Meant mistake. For example, my alpha reader will say, "What's your detective talking about? He's referring to his notes, but notes from where? From whom?" I say, "From the people at the fireworks, of course." And he says, "Well, maybe you know that, but you've got to tell your reader that." And my mind says to me, "Duh!" because he is absolutely right and I have made that stupid mistake again.

I use "stupid" mistake to distinguish this type of error from my other "careless" mistakes, "inaccurate" mistakes, and "bad writing habits" mistakes. To name only a few of my mistakes.

The big lesson in this post is that a person should always, always have readers. Bless them!

Monday, August 2, 2010


I have been reading various justifications regarding self-publishing recently, written by self-published authors. The points I see made most often are: (1) Self-publishing does not have to mean lack of literary quality, because authors who strive for excellence often self publish. I will admit this is true. (2) Self-publishing is a viable option in the face of increasingly picky agents and publishers. I will agree that agents and publishers are becoming more selective.

I have quibbles, however. (1) As a reader, I can trust that traditional publishing guarantees that I'm not going to pay good money for absolute dreck, whereas with self-publishing there's no artistic winnowing---it's a crap shoot. (2) As a writer, I ask myself, if no literary professional thinks my book is good enough to invest money in, why would I, a literary amateur, invest in its publication?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What To Do While I'm Waiting

I finished the re-write of DEATHBLOW yesterday and have it out to a few readers of varying interests and critical styles, so I should get a good cross section of comment. In the meanwhile, what to do? I think I'll take a week off and catch up on all sorts of roundtoit administrative things that have been piling up. (Including tornado pick-up.) After that, I may go back and add some to SLEEPER. The idea being to keep myself busy until feedback on DEATHBLOW comes in.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Short Observations

A short piece I wrote two years ago about fairies at the bottom of my garden keeps popping into my head. I wonder if someday it becomes the first chapter of a fantasy book.

I am excessively fond of Robert B. Parker for many reasons. One is his style of having Spenser use pantywaist words to describe his huge manliness. It's a lovely author's device.

While researching current definitions of "high concept," I was reminded that the most egregious example of a high concept statement was the title of the movie "Snakes On A Plane."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Offered a Contract

I was recently offered a contract to publish NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE---and turned it down. After all the querying and fussing, it seems like an insane thing to do, doesn't it?

From time to time one can find advice on the Internet insisting that no agent is better than a poor agent. I guess now I'm here to tell you that I think no publishing contract is better than a poor publishing contract.

There were so many aspects of this contract that hit me negatively, and I don't want to be boring with all the details. Generally speaking, the publishing company wanted to buy the copyright outright, the book would not be offered in any retail outlets, the novel would have to be trimmed by 15,000 words to fit the publisher's eBook format, and eBook copies would be offered only from my and the publisher's web site.

Actually, I'm about ready to tuck Nice Girls away for a few years. So may of my queries have yielded requests for more pages, and then nothing, that it's about time to wake up and smell the coffee. The book isn't good enough.

Monday, July 5, 2010

First Draft Finished

Yesterday I finished the first draft of DEATHBLOW. Now I'm eager to get to re-writing. I have a nice fat list of things I want to correct, watch for, tighten, revise, improve and add in. The first draft is a little over 67,000 words. When re-writing is finished, I'm guessing it will end up around 70,000.

I started writing on December 13, and gave myself a deadline of July 24, my birthday, to complete the first draft. Twenty days ahead of schedule. I hope finishing early is good.

I'm reminded of an old Shelley Berman routine where he's on a plane flying to the west coast and the pilot announces that they'll be landing 20 minutes early. The comedian says, "That fills me with terror. We could land two hours early if he puts it down in Grand Canyon."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Accepting Criticism

This past month I have been unsuccessfully trying to advise a Beginning Novelist. She is searching for someone who will read her completed novel and give opinions about the plot development and inherent appeal. Several people have read the first chapter and discovered she is not at all at a point where that sort of assessment is needed. Obvious from the first 30 pages, her writing is filled with inconsistencies, lack of transitions, confusing descriptions, inaccurate word choices and out-of-character dialogue. I, and other writers, have communicated to her that she needs to solve many basic problems before she worries about finding someone to assess her novel overall.

Our Beginning Novelist's reaction is that she will solve these "minor" problems later on, and those who have pointed out the places in her first chapter that need work need to learn how to give proper feedback. She continued to challenge our writers' network regarding someone to read the whole novel.

We finally found a fellow writer who volunteered to read the whole book and we put Beginning Novelist in touch with her. BN asked this Volunteer Reader for her qualifications, editing experience, and publishing history before things went any farther. Volunteer Reader abandoned all interest in the project.

Beginning Novelist is being as foolish as many beginning writers can be. She's very aggressive for what she thinks she needs. It is hoped that someday she will wake up, smell the coffee and become just as aggressive for improvement.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

My Own Voice? Style?

So many agents and writing advisors urge us to write in our own voice. I haven't the foggiest idea what "my own voice" is. I don't consciously write in a particular "voice," I just write what I want to tell.

I have, however, figured out what my own "style" is. It came about when a writer friend of mine read something of mine with no name on it, buried in a pile of other somethings of others. She said she recognized my style immediately. That got me to thinking, because I also didn't have the foggiest what my own style was. After much thinking, I believe I have nailed down a definition of my particular style. It's heavy on dialogue, light on descriptions, and is broken into short pieces--much as a screenwriter would write, I assume.

Yes, it may sometimes leave the reader filling in the blanks, but I feel that's what a lot of really sharp writers do. Writers of genre mystery, anyway. Mainstream may be different.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Close To Finishing A First Draft

I'm three-and-a-half chapters from finishing my first draft of DEATHBLOW. I'm excited about the writing I am doing now. I'm heading for the climax and my foreshadowing is coming to roost. It seems to me that it's good stuff. No cynical smiles, please; I've finally gotten to the point where I can recognize pure dreck in my writing, and I can recognize pretty good stuff. It's the in-between that still needs work. I wish there was a "Find" function in my software that could ferret out my dread habit of overwriting.

At any rate, I am excited about once finished, going back to the beginning and making sure the novel starts as excitingly as I think it ends.

Oddly enough, the goodly number of near misses I had querying NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE, give me hope for this novel, which is better writing. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Rewriting & Seminars

Yet another agent has asked me for more pages of NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE. My query letter continues to get requests for additional pages, but nothing ever goes farther. I suspended my work on DEATHBLOW and reviewed Nice Girls. I found I could tweak a word here and there, but basically it is the best book I could write at that time, and it will have to stand. If I were to take my main premise and write the book all over again, it might be different, but much would remain the same. It is a campy humorous cozy, period. Perhaps if I am ever well-published otherwise, an agent will find it more attractive.

I've been thinking about all the seminars many of my writer friends go to. While I don't deny that I have much to learn yet, I shy away from seminars. I don't want to spend my time doing writing exercises about subjects in which I have no interest, listen to comments on the thing I wrote without interest, and listen to others read the thing they wrote on a subject for which I have no interest. I would much rather spend my time writing my novel and find people to make comments on it. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Monday, June 21, 2010

Writing After A Tornado

A tornado went through our yard Thursday night. It came out of nowhere. The weather guessers were saying it would just be a good strong rain storm in our area. It dropped 15 of our trees, took out 400 feet of six-foot stockade fence, damaged the pool liner, played havoc with shingles and gutters, but with the exception of a couple minor issues, completely left the house alone. It was very loud, but lasted only 12 seconds. All of that I can cope with. As a writer trying to concentrate, however, I am terminally fatigued by the four-day noise of chain saws, cranes, wood chippers, and stump diggers. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Monday, June 14, 2010

Finding The Word & The Niche

Technology has made it much easier for writers. I use the "Find" function on my word processing program very often. Today I was writing, and had someone's eyes twitch as he thought of a lie. Twitch I said to myself. It sounded familiar. I was in chapter 45; had I written of people twitching all over the place? Was my police procedural full of twitches? Guilty twitches? Geriatric twitches? Smoker's twitches? Compulsive twitches? Yikes. But, knowledge was at hand. I asked "Find" to locate all the twitches in the manuscript and made sure the word was not overused.

Today I also, for what reason I know not, began to wonder if I was writing what I should be writing. I had finished a campy paranormal cozy, had written half of a horror/haunting novel, and had a charming one paragraph treatment of a lady who found a fairy in her garden. And here I was, writing a police procedural. Did I know what I was doing? Had I found my niche yet? Was I wasting my time killing people when I should be writing about little winged creatures? Should I make a stab at a mainstream novel? I decided the issue by asking myself what I liked most to read. Well... John Sandford, P.J. Tracy... Also, most mainstream novels put me to sleep. So I'm keeping on with this current book, DEATHBLOW, and never mind these niche fantods.

It did give inspiration for the next Minnesota Writers' Alliance newsletter, though. The newsletter focused on finding one's niche, deciding what to write. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Starting A Writers Network

Back in August of 2009, a writer friend and I got to talking about the lack of connection among writers in Southeastern Minnesota. We decided to start something. The Loft in Minneapolis was held up as a role model by my friend. We needed to wait three weeks while my friend cleared a conflict from her schedule. Then she had another conflict, and another. February of 2010 we were still waiting for this Renaissance woman to clear her schedule, so I lit out on my own, forming Minnesota Writers' Alliance, a nonprofit corporation whose main purpose is to network all writers in SE MN. We started by advertising for writers to identify themselves, then started a monthly newsletter, then started an Editing Network of people wanting to exchange their writing for comments. Our next gambit is to set up a play reading event. So far things have gone well. We have about 100 contacts in the 11 counties. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Making It Real

I just had another "breakthrough!" My breakthroughs are small and mostly realizations, and I have a new one about once a week, but still they're valuable to me. I go leaping and enthusing to The Man I Married to tell him all about it, and often it's such a trivial (or obvious) realization that he has to work at keeping a fascinated look on his face and say, "That's good!" when I pause for breath. However, knowing all that, I'm still excited, trivial or not. I was reviewing a paragraph I had just written, and it was clunky. I had rewritten it many times, and it was still clunky. It just wasn't "real." It was "writerish." I mentally smacked myself across the chops several times, and said to myself, "Okay, doofus. Forget about what you've got written. Pretend you're telling a gossipy anecdote and give us the sense of what you're saying. Out loud. Just the way you'd gab to a friend." And so I did. I fell over in amazement, then clawed my way back to the keyboard and got it written down. The sense was there and the paragraph was "real." The office cats will be hearing a lot of out loud gab from now on. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Agent Responses

I'm still catching up with my tale of growing as a writer. This incident happened in April.)
This week I have had 3 agents ask to see more pages of NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE. I'm getting to be a tricksy old dog, though. The agent I heard back from this morning, asking for the first 50 pages, was quoted in a recent interview as saying she was open to mysteries, but no vampire books, please, because they had been done to death. So.... do I have nerve or what? This is the first paragraph of the query letter I sent her: "Dear Ms Smith; If the reading public sees one more book about vampires, they're going to barf. Unless, of course, its a campy cozy and the vampires are batty middle-aged antiques dealers in Minnesota who refuse to play the game. Cheerful bumblers, these ladies may be undead, but they're going to be nice about it." Well, it worked. Let's see what she thinks of those first 50 pages. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Improving Both Novels

I just went back and kicked 550 words out of DEATHTRAP'S Chapter 6. From 1,779 to 1,228 words. Actually, once I got into the mind set that I was removing ugly fat, it wasn't too much of a wrench. And the final product reads MUCH better. What I did was go through the chapter and highlight the few pieces of information that absolutely had to be conveyed to the reader at that point in time. Then I went back to see what could easily go without changing the inclusion of that information. Often, I found whole chunks that could just be deleted, or that could be replaced with a short phrase. In the end the novel is probably going to run to 85,000 words.

A reward for NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE being in the running in the second phase of the Amazon Breakout Novel contest is that the 3 readers make brief comments. My comments are very interesting. Most of them have to do with the fact that the judges are looking for mainstream novels and don't have much respect for plot-driven genre efforts. However, beside that issue, they still said that my pacing was slow and my writing was still "writerish." So.... work for the future. I am always happy to get critical comments; they point the way to improvement. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Amazon Breakout Novel Cut

On the day of the announcement for the second cut of the Amazon/Penguin Breakout Novel, I was all set. My novel NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE had made it through the first cut, when they narrowed entries from 5,000 to 1,000. Now we were waiting for the cut that would narrow 1,000 down to 250. To honor this day I bought a new frozen pizza that looks to die for. It has a thin, thin crispy crackly crust, no tomato sauce, lots and lots of white garlic cheese, and spinach! True, the spinach is applied to the cream-colored cheese base in what you might call splorts, and looks mostly like pigeon poop, but I'm not going to let that deter me. If I make the cut, it will be a celebration pizza. If I don't, it will be a consolation pizza. On the home culinary front, it's a win-win situation. Alas, come the announcement, I had not made the cut. Consolation pizza. P. S. This was the first time I had tried this type of pizza. It wasn't all that good. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Chapter Time Sequence

I never realized until now that being a mystery novelist can sometimes mean re-arranging time. I recently spent four hours trying to figure out a proper arrangement for my chapters. You remember in algebra when we had those story questions--Train A leaves Station A at 6:40 heading east on Track A traveling 40 mph and Train B leaves Station B at 10:00 heading west on a parallel Track B, traveling 60 mph. If the stations are 83 miles apart, at what time will the trains cross paths? My book is like that. I've got two groups of people whose actions start five weeks ahead of the first murder, but I cannot reveal their existence until after the third murder happens. So some of the chapters leap backwards in time. Then, when the trains finally cross paths, I have to speed the time up for the two groups that started early, so their actions now parallel the cops/murders. Got that? Neither did I. I thought I had it figured out three times, but each time when I finished re-arranging chapters I would see the flaw in my reasoning. I thought I had solved some of my problems by moving one of my groups into "real" time, but after sleeping on it, I concluded that my reasons for having their thread start way back were good reasons, so I'm going to change that. This explanation doesn't seem to make sense, but I think it will in the novel. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Friday, June 4, 2010

The "Cop Chat" Rut

I find that in writing my police procedural, it is so easy to stick in quite a bit of "cop chat" that serves no real purpose. I like doing it because I think I'm such a great one for coming up with fascinating and humorous remarks that my cops bounce off each other. But actually, it's a wannabe's device for making the book longer with stuff that is probably going to bore the reader to tears. My office floor is littered with the ghosts of really charming cop chat chapters that I have wept to delete. I'm trying to do better. What I do is take myself in hand and ask what new and substantive information is included in all that cop chat. Then I find a more action-filled way of presenting that small amount of necessary information, and delete the rest. I certainly hope the muses will someday reward me with publication in return for kicking out the boring cop chat. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Thursday, June 3, 2010

When to Use First Names

I'm presently dealing in my police procedural with when to use first names and when to use last names. In some published works I have found it to be confusing when the author jumps back and forth between first and last name, especially in non-dialogue passages. (Huh? Who's that?) I finally made myself a sort of formula. I use the first names of my police characters only when someone they know well addresses them directly. Otherwise, all police are called by their last names without any honorific. Non police people (suspects, witnesses, etc.) always get an honorific when addressed directly, but just the last name without an honorific when spoken of outside their presence. The novel contains a group of homeless people who identify themselves to each other only by first name, and so they are called by their first names in every situation. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When To Ask For Comments

I have heard many discussions regarding when to let your work out for comment. Not too soon, people say, because a first draft is, well, a first draft. You don't want to be stuck saying, "Yeah, I know I have to fix that," "Yes, I intend to flesh that out," "Yes, I do intend to clean up the punctuation later," "Yeah, I know I need to look up the right model number for that gun," and things like that. And meanwhile this reader is concluding that I'm a no-talent doofus with a lot of defensive excuses. Nevertheless, I do want someone to point out, "Why was Anthony killed in Chapter 3, but helping with the investigation in Chapter 7?" long before I've done 28 rewrites! I finally settled down to a double standard. It doesn't bother me to let serious writers see my work after just a little rewriting, because I know they know the difference between an early draft and a polished piece. But I probably wouldn't let hobby writers comment on my work until it had 53 rewrites. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Do Colors Have Character?

I'm reading something written by another author I know who is also writing a police procedural. When offering him comments, I ask about his habit of giving subjective qualities to colors. He speaks of eyes being a "rich hazel" color, for instance. I can see light hazel, dark hazel, speckled hazel, hazel with a dark rim, but how can the color hazel be "rich?" I assume he means a medium brown with yellow in the coloration. He speaks of a carpet being "lush green." Again, I see green as light, dark, blue-green, mottled, whatever, but not "lush." If a piece of slime were the exact same shade of green, would it also be "lush?" I think not. I think the carpet is lush, its color is green. His room also has "lush avocado" drapes. My old refrigerator was avocado green; was it also "lush?" This is such a minor point, and the reader still understands what the author means, but I wonder if it isn't the beginning of a slippery slope. If we do that little descriptive side-step with colors, what shortcuts in our writing will come next? Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Monday, May 31, 2010

Writing Has Its Ups and Downs

I'm still catching up on the story of my development as a writer, so although I'm adding this at the end of May, it actually happened the first week in March. It started with a Holy Cabooses moment. I sent an email query to an agent at 1:00, and got a return request for a partial before 2:00! Then at my writers group meeting in the evening, I learned the group would be going into hiatus because the others had life plans that would make writing and meeting very difficult for them. This was seriously bad news for me. Even though I chivvied them with my "bear went into a bar" analogy, these ladies were the best help I had ever had. Maybe I'd better amend that. These ladies were one of the best editing sources I had. My husband is cutting-edge accurate at strategy--pointing where a chapter should build, when to lay the da-bump-bump on the reader, and what's drivel. My writers group excels in tactics--where a sentence doesn't flow, when there's an illogical change in tense, what's the right word. I still have the wonderful husband, but I seriously miss those ladies! Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cozies Gone South

I think most of the cozy mysteries that I loved have gone out of popularity. The good old English plots that started Chapter 1 with a dead, but not ghastly dead, body in the library and Chapter 2 with a roster of suspects, are no more. Instead we seem to have a passel of homey ladies dishing out recipes and accidentally stumbling into a crime solution while they bake brownies for the Cub Scouts. I miss Miss Marple. Even the home-baked pie and home town murder books seem to be published in diminishing numbers. We have all been given too many apps and seen too many post mortems on TV. The not-ghastly dead body in the library that would have shocked Queen Victoria, no longer amuses us. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jumping From One Novel To Another

I was 10 or 12 chapters into SLEEPER and felt I was doing well. I was using third person limited point of view, but changing the person from chapter to chapter, while at the same time intermixing chapters of the events of 1938 which seemed innocent but ended horrifically, and chapters of the events in 2009 which started innocently and became increasingly horrifying until the people who actually lived through both--the ghosts--create destruction. At about that time I began reading the P. J. Tracy books with enormous delight, and realized that these ladies and John Sandford and Robert B. Parker were my all-time favorite reads. Why was I writing horror, I asked myself, when I should be writing what I loved to read? Suddenly a police procedural concept popped into my mind.

I have to explain the way my mind works. We've all seen an infinite number of movies and TV series where the cop sees or hears a little thing, and s/he stands frozen, usually with mouth open, while the people and sounds around fade into silence. After a bit of drop-jawed thinking, the cop snaps back to full focus and says "I know who did it!" That's exactly the way my mind works. Every now and then, seemingly from not much, a concept will occur to me, and if I stand still and let it come, it grows and grows, rapidly piling up detail and event, until I have close to a full-blown story. I rush to record the idea. I know this sounds a bit pretentious, but remember, I'm not claiming the ideas are any good, just that they come suddenly in a rush.

So... I wrote a lengthy outline of the police procedural concept, put aside SLEEPER, and started a new pp novel with a working title of DEATHBLOW. My writers group was not totally sure I was doing the right thing, but I assured them that the outline for SLEEPER was so extensive and detailed that I would have no trouble picking it up again in the future if I wanted to. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Starting a Horror/Haunting Novel

With NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE making the rounds of agents, I wanted to start another novel right away. Amanda Hocking recently interviewed me in her blog, one of her questions being what monster I feared when I was young. In the process of answering I mentioned that our house had a ghost who was not frightening. That house, its rural location, and that ghost had been perking in the back of my brain for some time. I determined to write a horror/haunting novel. The location descriptions would be easy because I had lived in that weathered two-story frame house for seven years. It had a ghost whom I saw often and named Oscar, but he was benign and occupied himself by walking from room to room and staring out windows. What did cause a little frisson of spookiness, however, was the name of the previous owners of the property. The family's last name was Sleeper. I would title my novel SLEEPER, it would take place in that old remote frame house, and it would have three malevolent ghosts rising from a bloody incident 70 years previous. I was excited by the idea and began by creating a 14-page, single-spaced outline. The outline is my way of knowing if my concept has meat on its bones and if I have enough arc to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. It's something like the way The Man I Married first builds a fully-detailed scale model before he begins construction of a stage set. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bad Query

It was at about this time that I was talking to another writer who had completed a mystery thriller. He wished me well in my quest, but bemoaned the fact that even though he had carefully researched how to send submissions to agents, he had gotten nowhere after three years of trying. I asked to see his query letter, and he sent it.

It was addressed to a literary agency, and started out, "Dear Audrey, Bob, Robert, and Adrienne." (Address one and only one agent specifically.) "I have wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old. My dream has always been to..." (Mention your few best writing qualifications. Do not go into your hopes and dreams; they don't care.) "You ask for the first ten pages, but to save time I am sending the entire manuscript...." (Send exactly and only what they ask, how they ask.)

I won't go on, but his query didn't get any better. The letter mentioned a title, but never exactly what the novel was. I hope that I never have brain freeze, thinking I have been careful about good advice when I haven't been. I read submission instructions 16 times before sending anything. Thanks for reading. Joan Sween

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Query Letter

I was ready to start sending queries to agents. I researched how to do it. The advice was simple: (1) Only query agents who handle what you write, (2) Address one and only one agent specifically, (3) Describe your book as excitingly and briefly as possible, (4) Mention your few best writing qualifications. Do not go into your hopes and dreams; they don't care, (5) Send exactly and only what they ask, how they ask. This is the query letter I devised.

Dear Ms Smith;

There are thousands of batty middle-aged antiques dealers in Minnesota, but only two of them are vampires---and they refuse to play the game. They may be undead, but they're going to be nice about it.

In my campy mystery NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE, complete at 85,000 words, Louise and Erleen return from a vacation in Romania to discover they can't see themselves in mirrors., they can lift cars, and can see in the dark. Horrified, they vow not to reveal what they have become, and to continue to lead normal lives.

The challenges inherent in their new lifestyle---really bad breath, makeup without mirrors, dining without biting, going to church, not letting on that they're you-know-whatses---are difficult. Wiping out a drug ring masterminded by a Norwegian crime lord from Minneapolis, and two drug dealers from Colombia is easy. After all, staying alive no longer seems to be a problem.

Some might call this a paranormal mystery, but it really isn't a vampire vampire book; it's a funny take on remaining "nice" despite the temptations.

I am a published columnist and an unpublished novelist. NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE is my second completed novel. I'm an MFA, former regional vice-president of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas, and founder of Minnesota Writers' Alliance, a nonprofit support group for writers in southeastern Minnesota.

May I send you the full manuscript of NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE for your consideration?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fixing The Novel

I went back and rewrote much in NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE. I made my villain unappealing and slimy, I added two heartless Colombian drug lords intent on killing my girls. I made my first MacGuffin a red herring, then added a second MacGuffin, which turned out to be a red herring, then added a final surprise revelation of what the prize was. I deleted my climactic chapter. In it, I had tried to keep my girls pure, but the only logical thing to do was for them to reluctantly use their vampire transformation and scare the main villain into a confession. They may have tossed him around a bit and gnashed their fangs at him, but they DID NOT BITE. I actually thought the new final chapter was a winner. When all was done, I was still hovering around 90,000 words.

Then I had The Man I Married read the book. You think, yeah, yeah, her husband; what does he know? Fortunately for me he is a voracious and somewhat omnivorous reader with a fine sense of timing. He's not the "I really liked this chapter" type; he's the "Okay, the tension is off in this chapter. You need to move this conversation closer to the end and have it happen just after they learn where the villain is going. Then you'll have a ta-bump, bump right at the end that should spring people into the next chapter." He's that kind of guy. Isn't he wonderful? This time, upon reading the entire manuscript, he gave some good pointers, but looking at the book as a whole, he said, "You're too in love with writing dialogue. Your ladies talk too much, too long, and it's boring. You've got to seriously tighten up the whole novel. I had another moment of clearly seeing what I should have been seeing all along. I went back to the beginning, and tightened that puppy up! I now had a novel that was much less boring and had slimmed itself down to 85,000 words.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The End

I did it! I wrote the last word of the last chapter of my 90,000-word novel, NICE GIRLS DON'T BITE, and a pretty good chapter it was, I said to myself. I triumphantly sent the final chapter to my writers group. When we met, they went over the chapter bit-by-bit, as was their habit. Then, they leaned back, and said, "Let's look at the book as a whole." Their collective opinion was that (1) The book had no red herrings, no surprises, the desired object, the MacGuffin for you Hitchcock fans, was evident from the first, and therefore boring. (2) My villain was not villainous enough. (3) My climactic scene was unbelievable and unexciting. You know how sometimes you need someone to point something out before you can clearly see what you have been seeing all along? As they pointed these things out, my mind was flooded with thoughts of "They're right! They're right!" My next thoughts were "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" I raced home with these concrete guidelines for making the book much better.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Using "Find"

I was many chapters into "Nice Girls Don't Bite," thinking I was doing just swell, when I came upon that writing advice about amateurish verbs and word choices. I reviewed my writing. Yeeks! I wasn't doing well at all. I was up to my literary armpits in amateurishness. Thanks goodness for the "Find" function in my word processing software. Every new chapter, I have it search for "is, have, can, just, ly, ing, and" and "ould." That's not a typo. "Ould" gives me "could, would, should." When I have searched them out, I put them all in red, and then go back to the beginning and get rid of the red by re-writing better.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Alternate Writers Groups

05-10-10 Alternate Writers Groups
There are two other writers groups in my area that I am aware of. "The Library Group" meets once a month, varies from 9-12 attending, and is open to all. Writers preferably send their work to each other ahead of time. It is the style of the group for Member B to comment on Member A's work in its entirety. Then Member C comments on Member A's work in its entirety. Then Member D comments on Member A's work in its entirety. And so on. Member A may be writing a historical romance, Member B poetry, Member C narrative nonfiction about the discovery of rubber, Member D children's picture books, but all observations are welcomed. This format works for many as the group continues to grow in membership and enthusiasm. I faded away because my output needed review more than once a month and I desired to hear only from people writing mysteries. Bear went into a bar syndrome.

The other group, sometimes called "Open Mic," sometimes "3-Minute Mic," meets in a town half an hour away. Once a month, between 10 and 25 writers gather. It is the style of the group for the first approximate hour to be a presentation by an area writer of some note, and after that, writers get up and read from their work for about 3 minutes. In the meetings I attended, I discovered no one observed the suggested time limit and no comments were made of the readings. I most certainly could see the value of reading aloud, however. I practiced my sections aloud to the cats many times beforehand to make sure I could read them smoothly and that they conformed to the 3-minute limit. The cats offered no comments, but my own ear did hear, and I corrected, several awkward spots.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rewriting! Rewriting!

I wonder if I'm weird or if other writers are like me. I can't just start writing, go to the end, and then worry about going back and shaping things up. I'm writing mysteries, for heaven's sake. Everything has got to fit all along the way. Every clue has to fall in a certain place. Every important discovery has to be foreshadowed. As I write, I get interesting ideas additional to my outline, and I write them in, but then I have to go way back to the beginning and rewrite in order to foreshadow and to make sure the logic is consistent. If, for instance, I suddenly decide it would be cool if a villain had a missing trigger finger, then he must have a missing trigger finger in all preceding chapters. And if, in those preceding chapters, I have to give him a different weapon because of the problem with the finger, then I have to go back and change the weapon. And if, while changing the weapon, I get a great idea about a physical habit he develops because of the particular weapon, then I have to go back and forwards and add in the interesting part about the habit. If I don't take care of it at the time, things get all mixed up. I often tell people that my books don't get longer, they get fatter.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Different Voices

At one of our meetings, the members of my writers group pointed out that my two main characters, Louise and Erleen, spoke in the same voice and I should do something to distinguish them. Excellent comment, but how? They were of a similar age, both widows, both antiques dealers, both had lived in Minnesota for most of their lives. I didn't have the writing experience to make them have different (enough) voices, so I tried what I felt at the time was a cheap cop-out. I decided Erleen had been born and raised in the South and had moved to Minnesota right after college when she was married. I left her with a Minnesota speech style, but a habit of throwing in Southern colloquialisms as a sort of flirtatious device that had become a habit. I think it worked well. Later, when the book was finished, a reader told me that Erleen was the most delightful character in the book because of the way she talked. Isn't that just finer than frog hair?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lengthy Character Descriptions

Many writing advisors caution against lengthy character descriptions, and when I started to write, I heeded them. As I introduced my characters in "Nice Girls Don't Bite," I tried to keep their descriptions to a brief simile. "She looked like a bright-eyed inquisitive kitten." The ladies in my writers group protested. "What is she wearing?" I heard repeatedly. I gave in a little. "She was dressed in the height of fashion." That wasn't good enough. "What is she wearing?" they repeated. Pointing out that the readership for cozies is primarily women, they insisted that clothing descriptions were necessary. Okay, I finally gave in, but I used the surrender as a springboard for characterization. My high fashion character was Erleen, so every time she changed clothes I made an item of apparel useful in other places. For example, fifteen thin silver bracelets on one wrist that quivered and clinked with her indignation in a police interview. Boots with Lucite heels that prevented her from running as far as Louise suggested in a panicky situation. I tried not to get too carried away with clothing description, but I have to admit that what Erleen wore became an interesting and sometimes funny aspect of the novel. (I hope.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where Are We?

I have small colored sticky notes taped around my computer screen that I try to read often as I compose. One of them says, "What time is it? What day is it? Where are we?" I have discovered that getting that information into each new chapter smoothly is sometimes easy, sometimes almost impossible, depending on the situation. Some day it might be fun to sponsor a contest to see who could write the best first sentence of a chapter that has time, day, and location in it. "It was a dark and stormy night," is, of course, already taken.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Snowbird--Wrong and Right

Snowbird came back from her southern island and re-entered the critique circle, which I was quite cozy with by then. She looked at the first sentence of my week's output and said, "Cross this phrase out, you don't need it." "Get rid of this 'was' and the word 'never.'" "In the second sentence, why are you saying 'in the house?' Everyone knows it's in the house, delete that phrase." "Tighten this third sentence up by..." Sentence by sentence, word by word, she was re-writing my chapter. I was furious. Had the woman no sense of how to give constructive criticism? I gave her a glare that would have stopped a rhino. The next time she opened her mouth to re-write what I had written, I glared fiercely at her. Eventually, she got the message and quit re-writing. That was a year-and-a-half ago, and I have now matured enough in my writing to realize her corrections were exactly what I needed to do. I wish, though, she had said, "You're over-writing and it looks amateurish. You need to go back and pare this down to nice tight sentences that flow smoothly." Now THAT I would have understood. And now that I'm writing less amateurishly, I look forward to her return north. It is hoped that she will have fewer edits, and no doubt she hopes that I will quit glaring at her.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Bear in a Bar

One very minor drawback to my writers group was that the others were writing literary fiction and I was writing commercial fiction. "So what," you say, "good writing is good writing, yes?" Yeeeeess, but... I like to explain the difference this way: Imagine you're writing a joke book. You go to a meeting of my writers group, and say, "Here's my first joke. A bear went into a bar and said to the bartender---" You'd get that far before a barrage of questions came at you. "What kind of a bear is it?" "How old is the bear?" "Is the bear married?" "Does the bear regularly come into this bar?" "Are the bear and the bartender friends?" "Is the bear an alcoholic?" "You need a lot more back story before you go much farther." To the joke reader, "A bear went into a bar..." is all the back story you need. To a mystery writer, moving things along is frequently more important than back story. (You no doubt notice that I use the past tense quite a bit. That's because I'm going back to the beginning of when I started writing. Eventually I'll catch up and we'll be in the present.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Finding a Writers Group

I found a small group of writers willing to accept me into their circle. With me added, there were four-and-a-half of us (one was a snowbird with us only six months of every year). We met once a week at a coffeehouse and emailed our pieces a few days ahead of time. Cee-Cee was an exquisite writer. Everything she wrote was concise, every word a gem. She was writing a novel about a cancer survivor who goes to the World Poker Tournament. She gave my writing a flattering amount of attention, and a truly helpful amount of criticism. Dee-Dee wrote nostalgia pieces about young love. She was quiet, not offering many detailed comments, but when she did speak up, she made a thematic suggestion that instantly took root in my mind, grew like kudzu, and became almost a whole new exciting chapter. Mimi was an attractive young model who was writing a novel, short stories, and a play. Her special talent was portraying dysfunctional (air-headed?) young women. Most of her comments didn't speak to what I was trying to do and I tended not to pay all that much attention, except... Once in a while she would say, "You know, you have a habit of..." And, shazam! she would put her pretty finger right smack on a sneaky/lazy writing trick that I thought I was getting away with. I looked forward to every meeting because the group was doing me so much good. The exceptions were the Snowbird and the Bear. More about them to come.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My First Writers Festival

I attended my first writers festival. Talk about mixed reactions! Most of them not good. The one thing worth the entire price was a seminar conducted by a Mama Cass look-alike with a no-nonsense, almost brusque, demeanor. She explained what a platform was, how important it could be, how to make one, and where to make contacts. She handed out lists of specific web sites, companies, blogs, and tricks of the trade. Other seminars, however, were disappointing in that the presenters were not organized, expecting, I guess, that if they simply stood up and talked, we would be entranced. I was not entranced. Most offensively disappointing was a seminar titled something like "How To Write Compelling Narrative." The presenter was a very well-known, often-published writer of mystery books with fascinating ethnic venues. I'd read his books; they were excellent. He started the seminar by saying, "Let's play a game. A woman enters a candy store, and...." He pointed to a gray-haired woman in his audience, "What happens next?" The woman said, "No one is there." He pointed to someone else. "And?" "She decided to look in the back room." Another point. "And?" That business continued for quite some time until he ended it by saying, "You have just created narrative." Next he pulled out a sheaf of papers and read a paragraph to us. "That's excellent narrative," he said. He read a different paragraph. "That's great narrative," he said. We finished his session that way. The final session of the festival was a panel discussion chaired by five published authors. The moderator had them go one-by-one and tell how they became writers. That killed the time. No one discussed anything. Thank goodness for the one seminar with substantive content.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Don't Murder Your Mystery

As I got started again, this time knowing where my book was going because I had an outline for a GPS, I bought Chris Roerden's "Don't Murder Your Mystery." If you're writing mysteries, I believe it is the most helpful book you can ever read. Every page is full of valuable and practical information. Ms Roerden goes beyond explaining what's good and what's not-so-good, she gives examples every! single! time! I recommend the book highly. The only precaution I might make is you may want to fill it with dog ears or sticky notes or a trail of crumbs when you go through it the first time, because the Table of Contents is expressed in highly creative terms, and I had difficulty looking up what I wanted to re-read.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Following Stephen King's Advice

It was at this time that The Man I Married heard a radio interview with Stephen King and repeated to me what Mr. King had said. What TMIM understood Mr. King to say was not to organize, outline, or solidify your novel ahead of time. Just start telling the story and let your characters take you where they will. As I considered Mr. King to be a genius and myself to be a former English teacher cursed with a pedantic style, I welcomed this advice. Yes! I would just start writing, and maybe what I wrote would sound natural and not heavily pedantic. About 12 chapters into "Nice Girls Don't Bite," I ground to a halt, impossibly snarled in what I had written, without a clue as to where to go next. I went to my best thinking place, the shower, and puzzled over my problem until the hot water ran out. I saw the light. Mr. King, still a genius, was talking about mainstream novels. I, still a pedantic doofus, was writing a commercial novel. Organization and plotting are the bedrock of mysteries. The author absolutely must plan ahead of time who the murderer is, how he committed the crime, where the clues have to show up, how many red herrings to plant, what order the detective follows, and a lot of other good stuff. I went back to the beginning, wrote a 12-page outline, and started the novel all over.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Finding A Hot Title

I decided to name my humorous vampire cozy "Ladies Of The Night." I felt rather clever about it. Ladies of the night is a term that could be construed to mean prostitutes, and so there was a jokey double meaning there. Both working girls and vampires tend to come out at night, doncha know. Shortly thereafter I had occasion to read various magazine articles and blogs, all of which said you had to have a "hot" title, otherwise agents, publishers, and the reading public would refuse to recognize your existence. At the same time, other various articles and blogs told me not to worry about my title, because the publisher's hot-shots would change it anyway. Pfffttt. Well, anyway, after thinking about it, I decided "Ladies Of The Night," was sorta blah--didn't have an active voice. While searching for something better, I emailed my daughter, describing what the book would be, and my need for a hot title. She sent back, "Nice Girls Don't Bite." Yessss! I loved it. I had my hot title.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Writing A Cozy

I knew a cozy mystery meant an amateur sleuth, usually a small town, and more often than not, humorous. We have all read time and again, that one should write about what one knows. I was just folding a career buying and selling antiques and the columns I write are humorous, so there was my backdrop. At the time, vampires were all the rage, glutting the market. I decided to write a cozy mystery about two widowed antiques dealers, Louise and Erleen, who unknowingly get made into vampires on a vacation trip to Romania. The twist in my book is that they are horrified and refuse to behave like vampires. They're from Minnesota, drat it. They may be undead, but they're going to be nice about it. I thought it was a great twist and something new--vampires who were going to fight it. There is a lot of advice written about starting a book in the right place. I decided to jump over all of the how-did-it-happen stuff and start with my main characters back in Minnesota, waking up with what they think is jet lag, and unable to see themselves in mirrors. I started with a funny, downright campy, opening chapter.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When I Began

I began writing novels about three years ago when I decided I wasn't getting any younger. If I was ever going to write book-length material, now was the time. In the past I had written a handful of plays, a number of newsletters, a ton of advertising copy, news stories, and several series of humor columns, one of which was seven years old and still going strong. I also had a mystery novel written 20 years before which was deep in the trunk on a diskette that probably couldn't be read any more. With all that experience, I assumed I had the discipline and talent to write anything exceptionally well. I decided to write a cozy mystery because that was my favorite reading niche. Right there is where my career as a novelist started. I have yet to write a novel that any agent likes, but I have learned so many things about the craft of writing that my experiences are, I believe, interesting and valuable. I hope my readers will profit from them.