Sunday, August 31, 2008

Writing Columns: Spreading the Word

copyright 2008, Aaron Paul Lazar

Award winning writer, editor, writing coach, and academic consultant, Noelle Sterne holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University in English and Comparative Literature. She has published fiction, essays, poems, and writer’s craft articles in many magazines and online resources, including Absolute Write, ByLine, Children’s Book Insider, Writer’s Digest special issues, Writers’ Journal, The Writer, and, most recently, the 2008 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. Her bio goes on and on, and is incredibly impressive.
In June, she interviewed me about the value of writing columns. This will be part of a larger piece that Noelle is writing, but I thought I'd share my answers here with you.

Noelle: Why do you feel a column is valuable for a writer?

Aaron: Columns provide multiple avenues to “spread the word.” Not only are they ideal opportunities for building name recognition and growing ones circle of readers, but they also provide connections with real live people, especially if they’re online and feature a “comments” section.

There’s nothing more satisfying than posting an article on writing advice, or even general “life lessons,” and receiving voluminous responses ranging from “thanks for sharing,” to “you made my day!” I love connecting with readers on every level, whether they are LeGarde Mystery fans or just plain humans with common passions or angst.

Of course, if readers enjoy your columns, they may well enjoy your books. So it’s a natural progression for column readers to ask questions about and then devour the series, one book at a time.

Noelle: What drawbacks, if any, do you see in a writer having a column?

Aaron: Okay, here’s the rub. Being asked to write a regular column is a coup, right? It’s a validation that a magazine editor or literary journal host believes in your work and thinks readers would come back to you, week after week, or month after month. What an honor! But there is a down side. The pressure can be tough to produce something fresh and new on a regular basis. And of course, it takes away from your pure writing time if you’re a book author.

I write “Seedlings,” a monthly column that started life at Bob Burdick’s “The Back Room,” literary journal, then moved into the Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and the Voice in the Dark Literary journal at I also host the (a social network) “Writing Essentials” group on Saturday mornings. The latter involves reading and approving/declining writing submissions for the day, depending on their quality and consistency within established guidelines. I also post an article each week, addressing group members. Sometimes I appeal to their “writerly” sides, with articles filled with writing advice or even book reviews. At other times I write about my life, or grandchildren, or dog. ;o) But I try to consistently show up (with the exception of vacations, severe illness or catastrophes) and touch base with the group on Saturday mornings. Of course, my weekends are packed with chores – so I have to rise extra early to prepare for this. It’s a big commitment, and one I don’t take lightly.

Noelle: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to pitch a column?

Aaron: I’m embarrassed to admit that I never had to pitch a column. They sort of "came" to me. LOL. That said, if I were trying to snag such a job from scratch, I would create my own “column” by branding it with a name, photo, and logo, and posting regularly on social or writers sites, such as or Murder By 4, a new blog that I host with three wonderful writers that appeals to both writers and readers. Murder by 4 just started in March, but we’ve seen amazing growth and the readership is soaring. Becoming a regular contributor to such sites will increase your name recognition and may result in someone else asking you to join their journal or newsletter.

Let me share what I mean by branding. For “Seedlings,” I chose a beautiful photo I’d taken of my tangerine Siberian Wallflowers. (see above)

Full of color, it epitomized my passion for life, gardens, and all things beautiful. It symbolized “me,” in that I am always either out in my gardens, or dragging my characters around their gardens, or picking bountiful baskets of vegetables and fruit from my gardens. While up to my elbows in soft earth, I’m always happy. You get the idea.

Next, I needed a header or blurb that represented what in the world it is I write about. I chose this, and also use it for my blog header.

The talented artist, Ardy Scott, at Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine designed this logo for me for their site.

While you’re creating your lovely stable of columns, by creating these bits and pieces that go with it – you are branding yourself.

And as long as your host(s) don’t mind you republishing your work, there’s no reason why one can’t post in multiple sites – social networks, writers groups, your own blog, simultaneously. It can get complicated, though. I have to keep a massive spreadsheet of all my reviews and columns to keep track of what posted where and when!

Be sure to have a collection of pieces you can draw on – if you are pitching a column, you need to “have” a column with multiple articles that you use to showcase your talents. Shoot for somewhere between 800 and 2000 words to start, but naturally you must comply with your host’s submission requirements in all cases.

Noelle: How did you get your column?

Aaron: I started corresponding with Bob Burdick (aka RC Burdick) after reading his wonderful mystery, The Margaret Ellen. (that’s another great topic, how reviews help increase credibility and internet presence) and falling in love with his characters and writing style. We struck up a friendship, and one day he asked me to write a piece about “The Writer’s Life.” I did, and thus was born the “Seedlings” columns. Prior to that I’d thrust all my writing energy into my novels. But it didn’t take long for this form – a bit more casual and folksier than my mysteries – to become addictive. Once established at Bob’s site, I also posted on my blog and other locations. Soon I was asked to do Seedlings for FMAM, and it grew from there.

Noelle: Any other comments? They are most welcome.

Aaron: If your ultimate goal is to promote your books through networking – a worthy endeavor – columns are a wonderful way to enhance the process. But don’t stop there. Be sure to join writers’ groups, read extensively and post reviews, keep your website fresh and exciting, and participate in as many library and book events as possible. I love reading aloud to my fans – and that has brought in new opportunities on radio and live events. Just be careful to balance these efforts so that you still have time to write!


Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries savors the countryside in the Genesee Valley of upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at and and watch for newest release, Mazurka, coming in January 2009 and Healey's Cave, March 2009.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

It's Official ~ You're Invited

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved
Homicide Detective, Sam Harper and I went out for drinks the other night. He ordered his usual Walker Red--I sipped on my Bloody Mary--heavy on the Mary.

Was it business or pleasure, you ask? It was both. We talked about the success of his first book, "Silenced Cry" and our plans for the next in the Harper series. He's usually contrary, but he seemed to be keen about the promotional ideas I have in mind for his current case, "The Devil Can Wait."

He assures me the case will be solved by November 2008. At that time, you'll have full access to the complete case file and will have a chance to see for yourself how he worked the clues. For now though, all you need to know is that he's doing his best to capture the guilty before any more bodies land in the morgue.

I've known Harper for several years and if there's one thing he's good at, it's his ability to read people. Said he's been making a study of you, by the way. Thinks you, his fans, will want to read the story behind the story. You know, all those classified notes that might not get into the books. After a few more drinks and batting more options around, he insisted on having his own fan club group in Facebook. Can you believe it? What can I say? Harper can be difficult at times so won't you please humor him?

Stop by, join the group and ask him some questions. Trust me, satisfying his little whims will make my life as his author/publicist SO much easier! Hope to see you there!

* * *

Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. SILENCED CRY is available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival
Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)

Look for THE DEVIL CAN WAIT in November 2008.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mysteries Are Like Chocolate ~ The Darker the Better

© Molly MacRae 2008 all rights reserved

A breakfast table discussion and unscientific taste test ~ Try these at home ~ they’re safe! Plus, an exciting bonus feature for chocolate lovers!

Are mysteries, like chocolate, the darker the better? Medical and nutritional studies in recent years convince me of dark chocolate’s health benefits (see below for links to study reports.) But how many people actually prefer dark chocolate? And what about mysteries of the noir persuasion? Are readers more captivated by stories digging into a character’s psyche than the cozy world of knit one, perl two, and the daily grind of cat-loving baristas? Curious, I set out for the wilds of Indiana, in October last year, to find out.

Location, date, and time: Muncie, Indiana, Saturday October 27, 2007, 7:00 a.m.

Cover: acting as one of nine table hosts for Magna cum Murder’s Breakfast Resolution session.

Bait: four samples of quality chocolate, containing increasing percentages of cocoa, tantalizingly arrayed on a white linen tablecloth.

Strategy: sit quietly and wait for the unsuspecting. And wait. And wait. . .

Do you know how hard it is to get people to eat chocolate at seven a.m.? Eventually, six people did join me, possibly because I looked lonely or harmless.

Of the seven now sitting at the table, three demurred but four (including Marta Stephens of Murder by 4) acquiesced and ate the chocolate. The samples ranged from a namby-pamby 40% cocoa content (basic milk chocolate) to an invigorating 85% cocoa. To prevent bias, the samples were unlabeled. After tasting all four, subjects voted on their preferences, though one cheated and voted twice (that was me.) The following graph shows the results:

Even accounting for the cheater, who voted for both 71% and 85% cocoa, three out of four people preferred dark over milk chocolate in this blind and completely reliable taste test – a resounding endorsement. But what of dark mysteries? Are they also so clearly preferred?

Having gained the trust of my tablemates by speaking softly and using only non-threatening gestures, not to mention plying them with chocolate, I next asked them to define “dark mystery” and encouraged them to share their feelings about the genre. The gist of that exchange can be summarized in four bullet points. (Opinions stated are not necessarily those of this researcher.)

´ Dark mysteries troll the baser instincts.
´ Dark mysteries are more authentic and morally complex than cozies.
´ They are not necessarily graphic, but are harsher, grittier, and have a strong sense of violence.
´ Humor and a happy or satisfying ending are possible, though cynicism abounds.

The discussion was interesting and friendly. Participants variously sipped coffee, tea, or juice and enjoyed warm muffins and bagels from the breakfast buffet. Though opinions differed, no one resorted to harsh or gritty language. No one pulled a machete or gun. Cautiously, so as not to disrupt this cozy atmosphere, I asked for a show of hands. How many preferred dark mysteries? The results are seen in the following pie chart.
I had two final questions for the group before letting them dash off to the first panel sessions of the day. How dark is dark enough? And how dark is too dark? With very little further discussion they decided mysteries can be as dark as you want, as long as there is redemption at the end, but for either mysteries or chocolate, when they are too dark they become unpalatable.

So, there are the results of my study, not earth shaking by any measure, but as satisfying to me as a square of Ghirardelli’s new Intense Dark® Midnight Reverie® 86% cacao chocolate. And, speaking of Ghirardelli’s, at the beginning of this piece I promised an exciting bonus feature for chocolate lovers. Here it is – your chance to win a luxury trip for two to the Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival in San Francisco! Click here to enter their Chocolate Pleasures Sweetstakes®

And for those of you interested in conducting your own tiny, unscientific study, come to Magna cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana, October 24-27 this year. Devise your own catchy phrase and you, too, can play host at a Breakfast Resolution table. Who knows what you might discover?

Links to medical and reports on medical and nutritional studies of dark chocolate:

MSNBC report of a study by the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center recently published in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION (

Web MD report of study results published in THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION and NATURE. (

* * * *
My own taste in mysteries ranges far. I find room on my shelf for Ellie Haskell and V.I. Warshawski, and Sukie Stackhouse, and room in my heart for D.I. John Rebus, P.C. Hamish Macbeth, and Old Red Amlingmeyer. My own writing tends toward the cozy slash traditional with my series characters Margaret and Bitsy, who have appeared in seven stories in ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE and my novel WILDER RUMORS. But I have also strayed down the noir path with “A WALK IN THE PARK” and more recently with “COOKIES,” in the June 2008 issue of HITCHCOCK.

Vacation and Ideas

I am on vacation at the moment and enjoying a lot of free time, sleep, and too many meals that my poor body doesn't need. That's what it's all about though, right?

I am also working on edits for myself, and others, and contemplating my newest next book. The writing has been sort of coming slowly so I drew up a list to help myself and you(haha!)to get motivated and ready to write.

Do you ever need to test some ideas, or come up with a solution for a plot problem? Here are some suggestions. Choose a few and use them in your writing life.

1. Decide what a successful plot is, and that will guide your efforts. In fact, reading many varieties of fiction should illuminate what has worked as a successful plot in another book. There are only so many plots in the world, so try to define what yours is.

2. Get critiques of what you have written. Others can tell you whether your idea will take you to the end of an entire book. I have found it helps to talk it out aloud. Sometimes when I do that, I discover the idea is not fully developed yet and have to go back and rethink.

3. Research. Look up or Google everything, as Marta says. What you don’t know is easily learned. Sometimes with careful observation and research you can work out whatever the kink is in the idea development.

4. Are you trying to write the wrong story? Sometimes we think we want to write a paranormal techno-thriller until we actually set to the task. It would be much easier to write the entire thing in an outline and discover the trouble we have ahead than get fifty pages in and say, uh oh.

5. Change perspectives. Get out and look at the world with different eyes. What would the story look like if you were rich, poor, or from another city. Einstein imagined riding on a beam of light, which led to his theory of relativity, so this technique has been known to work.

6. Write the story while you sleep. Leave a tape recorder or pen and paper next to the bed for those middle-of-the-night ideas. Ideas come to us in the shower and when we are almost asleep because we are relaxed or the stresses of the day are not pounding us yet.

7. Write all of your ideas down, and then find a different way to tell the story. Write down all situations and ideas that come to mind. Later you can pick the meatballs out of the spaghetti.

8. Try "random generators." This is a fun one. Random generators give you a situation and character names or even an object or two. When you are totally void of ideas, you can start out with a person place or thing and usually find yourself off and running again.

9. Take a class or workshop. Look at what others have done. Writers love to talk about craft and usually have answers to any problem in the writing life. Find out how to get through your situation by asking what others have done in similar situations.

10. Be innovative. Don’t be afraid to try new things. No one knows what the market will be looking for next.

You can be sure it will be interesting and different though!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Think You Want to Write?

© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved

You’ve written an amazingly brilliant novel. Your tension is excellent, the suspense is fantastic, your subplots are beautifully woven together--every word, every phrase is sheer perfection.

In the begin, the reaction from your friends and family to your writing may range from curious amusement to mild enthusiasm. Months pass, your family begins referring to you in past tense. You friends call less frequently -- eventually they quit, your kids stop setting your place at the table, and dog you’ve raised as a pup begins to bark and growl every time you shuffle your feet from your desk into the kitchen for another cup of coffee. The only television you “watch” are the infomercials at two in the morning only because you’re so wound up from working out complex plots that you can’t go to sleep. But that’s okay, because this is your goal, right? You’ve raised the bar a notch higher and now you have to roll with the punches. You have no choice but to push yourself to the brink of exhaustion and push you will!

So the fateful day comes when you give your manuscript one last read, say a prayer, and send it off to a publisher. He will, of course, immediately accept it and will pass it on to the next available editor. That editor will drop whatever she is doing to read your book because...after all, she knows from that opening paragraph that it's going to be an amazingly “brilliant book.” Within a day or so, the editor who stayed up all night because she found it impossible to put down your manuscript will return the book to you with only a few minor recommendations because she cannot improve “perfection.”

You correct the errors, make some more changes, and send it back. This process will continue any number of times until you and your editor are in complete agreement that the manuscript is just as it should be.

The next in line to receive the manuscript is the publisher. He will shove everything off the desk, unplug the phone, and call in an order for take out so he too can concentrate on the next NY best seller. The publisher reads your manuscript, makes a few more recommendations, dances a jig, and shoots it back to you for another round of proofreading--every page from beginning to end.

Now comes the tedious part. Proofreading the PDF version of the book you've committed to memory. You can recite every line of dialogue and narrative. You understand each character’s motives and the subtleties that makes them unique. The trick is to catch the typos your eyes no longer see because your brain “fixes” those pesky words and tells you the “of” or “the” are there when they aren’t. You overlook the “where” when it should be “were” because you’ve read this a million times and your brain is conditioned to “read it right” and thus, you don’t see the error. But this is no time for trickery. You need to catch everything that jumps off the page like: misspellings, typos, repeated words, passive phrases, unnecessary/or excessive tags, excessive use of pronouns, pronouns and more pronouns. Check for inconsistencies (If your character has blue eyes, in chapter one, she better have blue eyes in chapter 50). Other stuff includes, punctuation, run on sentences, and did I mention repeated words? What about facts? Have you done your research? If your story includes a scene where someone is heating up a sandwich in a microwave, your story can't take place prior to the 1970's. Sure the microwave was accidently discovered during WWII, but it wasn't marketed for domestic use until the late 1960s. It would be another ten years before prices would start to drop and another several more years before they became a household "must" item.

If you’ve gotten this far in the process, you’ve probably had no less than 8-10 set of eyes read, critique, and edit your manuscript a number of times each. Still, it’s up to you to scan every one of your 100,000 plus words and start making a page by page, line by line inventory of errors that need to be corrected, deleted, added, or tweaked. You proofread your proofreader's notes and go over the whole thing once more before you shoot it back into cyberspace straight to the publisher’s desk for his final seal of approval. And now you’re done, right?


Don’t even think of propping your feet up. If you’re lucky, you’ll only need to proofread the darn thing once more. Next comes the advanced review copies (ARCs). They’re printed and sent to a group of reviewers who have been waiting months for the privilege to review your masterpiece. While they’re busy doing that, you might be asked to proofread the manuscript again—just to be sure. THIS is by far the most nerve-wracking phase of all--the literal road of no return. No “Get Out of Jail Card” for you if you haven’t caught every mistakes by now.

You hold your breath and wait for the reviews to trickle in. Will they love the cover? Will the plot pull them in? Will the characters WOW them? Who knows? All you can do is wait and hope you've done your part to near perfection because the fate of your book is now in the hands of your readers.

Okay, so maybe I’ve exaggerated a thing or two, but in essence, this is what an author can expect after he/she has written “The End.” What every aspiring writer needs to understand though is that novels don’t materialize over night. It takes time—often years of dedication, research, and a massive amount of hard work to turn that “great idea” into a polished page-turning story. You’ll spend months in solitary confinement. You’ll write several versions (if you don’t, you should) before it’s ever ready for a critique. Oh, yes, before I forget, make sure to slip on the thick skin because no manuscript is perfect, brilliant, or totally unique. Readers will chew it up and spit out into a million unrecognizable bits and pieces -- better be prepared for the comments. Study the craft, learn about plot, characterization, point of view, imagery and the many other aspects of fiction writing. While you’re at it, brush up on your grammar and for crying out loud, learn how to research—Google everything.

From beginning to end, the quality of the story, depends on you. The truth of the matter is, there are no magic wands, no shortcuts, or easy answers. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a few selfless souls who will guide you along the way, but in the end, the fine line between success and failure is totally up to you -- just as it should be.

Now, about your marketing ...

* * *

Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. SILENCED CRY is available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

SILENCED CRY (2007)Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book FestivalTop Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)Look for THE DEVIL CAN WAIT in November 2008.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sex and Violence

© Cody McFadyen 2008 all rights reserved

Let’s talk about sex and violence.

For example, let’s talk about the immediate reactions various people had upon reading that. Some probably perked up, immediately interested. Some have probably already moved on (goodbye!) and some have sighed or crinkled their noses, continuing to read in the hopes that something tasteless and unnecessary isn’t about to follow.

Tasteless and unnecessary, are, of course, the watchwords by which sex and violence in books are judged. Many purport to know exactly where those lines should be drawn. They know it with 100% certainty, no doubt allowed. But for every person who thinks one way, someone else thinks another.

I write a tiny bit of sex in my books, but quite a bit of violence. I figure I’m writing about serial killers, and I’m not writing dark comedies, so some violence is due. In the real world, people are hunted down by the kinds of men (and women) I write about. They die horribly and violently, and the reality is far, far, far worse than anything I’ve ever written.

Even so, opinion is always polarized. I’ve gotten hate mail about the violence in my books. I had a woman, one time, come up to me and tell me she knew (knew!) I was personally getting off writing in the first person about a female protagonist who’d been assaulted. These are always going to be passionate subjects for people.

So where does that leave us as writers?

Well, I guess every writer has to answer that question for themselves, and I imagine it’s a mutable answer.

First and foremost, the work should stand on its own, irrespective of who wrote it. There’s the old debate about men vs. women when it comes to writing violence, which I think should be a null issue. David Herbert Lawrence said “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” When I write a book, I’m not running for office. I’m not an actor. Who I am or how I look isn’t relevant to the work. The book is the book. So, in my opinion, don’t ever start down the road of thinking: ‘I wonder what they’ll think about my writing this, being that I’m a man… or a woman…’ It either belongs in the book or it doesn’t, end of story.

Next, I’m of the opinion that you let it all hang out in your first draft. You can always carve off the fat. Some of the violence I’ve written in first drafts will (thankfully) never see the light of day. If it did, there would probably be people building bonfires with those books. Writing is a visceral act for me, and your first instinct is usually your most honest. So put it down there, uncensored, horrific and all, in that first draft. Then, go back, and get rid of what doesn’t belong. You’ll likely be left with something powerful.

Next, trust your editor. I guess there’s bad editing out there, but I’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced it. We all develop blind spots, or fall in love with things in our books that need to be cut away, and it’s the editor that helps us to see what those are. Editors are like… you know how you sometimes wish you had four arms, or eyes in the back of your head? That’s what editors are for a book. More eyes and arms. Remember, you’ve lived with the book, and that uber-violent scene that makes you yawn now is going to be new to them. If they say ‘dear God, that has to go or no one will ever read another book you write’, well, I’m not saying you have to take the advice, but you should probably consider it.

As for sex, well, if you never want controversy about sex, then never write about it. That’s the only sure way. Because the moment the clothes come off, someone somewhere isn’t going to like it, guaranteed.

In the final analysis, though, I’m afraid it all comes down to you. No one else’s name is going to end up on that novel. I’ve found that the hardest part of writing isn’t writing, but writing after being published. Going from a bell jar to a madding crowd of opinions. People telling you they love it, people telling you they hate it, people telling you ‘if you just tweak that’ or ‘a little less of this’… you’re going to have to learn how to create the bell jar again, and in the end, write what you know is right. For the book, I mean. We’ll leave the morality up to the priests and politicians and our private lives.

Because that’s the real bottom line, isn’t it? I mean, I have definite views on right and wrong, and to some degree those views will inform my books. But I’m not writing philosophical treatises. I’m writing thrillers. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life – I just want to entertain you.

* * *

Cody Mcfadyen was born in Texas in 1968. He designed websites before selling his first novel, Shadow Man, in 2005. He has since had a second book – The Face of Death – published. Both were international best sellers. He lives in Southern California with his two black labs, often referred to as ‘The Black Forces of Destruction.’ He drinks coffee (copiously), plays guitar (badly), and reads (voraciously). He abhors adverbs in writing, except when used in short bios like this one.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Hook

Hello, friends and writers.

I'm back from my trip to Massachussetts where I delivered my dear daughter, Melanie, to Cambridge for her masters program in Music Therapy. She's already come and gone to a camp in New Hampshire for her orientation class, and is back in town getting everything situated for the coming school year.

Her place is cute - just off Mt. Auburn by the river and walking trails. Nice hardwood floors, lots of light. Small, but it's perfect for her. It's a safe, quiet neighborhood, and is only about a 5 minute walk from Harvard Square.

We had a rough day Friday. Oh, the drive out was easy, a nice straight shot from Rochester, about 412 miles. It was when we got to the city that things fell apart. I probably can chalk it up to not having driven much in Cambridge as a youth. It's been 27 years and I almost always took Mass. Ave from the southeast expressway, then parked and walked to the love-ins on Cambridge Commons. I'll always remember the bands that played there for free in the good old days - Alice Cooper, Chicago, and great local bands like Eden's Children. Anyway, we circled around for over an hour trying to locate and then access her street. Part of the problem was that street signs were missing, we didn't have a good Cambridge map in the beginning, and Mapquest's directions were less than ideal. We were challenged by one-way streets and the inability to get off Memorial Drive or take left turns when needed. You get the picture. My ancient knowledge of the city used to be based around my college (NU), and even when I had a car, I'd hop on the T to get downtown.

So, although I recognized some street names and of course the Harvard Square area, I was just as lost as any wide-eyed country boy in the big bad city. It took us about an hour and a half to find her place after arriving in town and we missed catching her roommate (she had to go to work), but she hid the key for us so we were able to get inside. Where there was a nice bathroom. Thank God.
We unloaded the van and fortunately there was a "prohibited" parking space we were allowed to occupy with a special permit that her roomate left out for us. We set up her bed and unpacked almost everything, but discovered there was no light in Melanie's room. Plus Toby's (her dog) retractable leash broke the minute we arrived. And she needed food - there wasn't much in the fridge!
So, with no one to guide us and a horrible lack of knowledge the area, I stopped folks on the street to ask about a local food market or a Walmart.

The first fellow I asked had just arrived from Rochester, NY. Can you believe it?
His daughter lives a few houses down from Melanie. Well, we found the Star Market (0.8 miles away) and then went on the adventure to find (in the dark and rain) Target at a nearby mall. We finally found it after a gazillion wrong turns and after stopping for the third time at a gas station. Ladies - don't believe the rumor that all men won't stop for directions. I couldn't WAIT to find someone to ask!
We grabbed a bite to eat, then went back to her place, which we couldn't approach the same way as before because of the no-left-turns and one-way streets, but at that point we had a street map and we found a "back way." By the way, you can't buy a street map of Cambridge in Rochester, NY, so we were relying on Mapquest maps to get us around initially. Big mistake!

We unloaded all the stuff we bought - and then I kissed my dear daughter goodbye and headed down around 9 o'clock to my mom's in Lakeville in the WORST thunder/rainstorm I've ever experienced. I couldn't see anything - and that was on top of not being familiar with the exits/new names/highways etc. Things are so different since 1981. After gripping the wheel so tightly I could barely feel my fingers, I made it to Lakeville, where I went through a HUGE lake in the middle of the road (couldn't see it, but how appropriate, driving through a lake in Lakeville!), but the engine didn't stall - and although I could barely see the road, I finally found her place.
I collapsed when I got there at 10:30. But, we had a wonderful four days with family after that - walks, gardens, cooking together, laughs, memories - a great time. I also got to work on FIRESONG: AN UNHOLY GRAVE, one of the my older books that will be coming out after MAZURKA is released this fall. More about that later.
So now that I've caught you up on the news, let's talk about writing. The following is a piece that deals with the "hook," or opening page from your novel. Let's work on these like we did the synopses, shall we? And don't forget, you can still submit synopses to that article for us to help you with.


The Hook

How many times have you picked up a novel in the bookstore, read an intriguing blurb on the back cover, and gone to that final step before purchasing - the quick read of page one?

That's how I always do it, whether it's for a review request or if I'm buying for pleasure reading. If the first page has any awkward phrases, flat dialogue, or bores me silly, I put it back on the shelf. Why would I want to do that to myself? Literary torture. Not exactly something we should aim for, right?

Now, I'm not saying the words have to be beautifully crafted sentences that sing so loud you have to cover your ears. There's a place for that, like in Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series (they are inserted like little gems throughout his works.) Just plain old good writing is fine with me. And if I "notice" the writing, that's usually the first clue that it might not be a good book. Sometimes folks try a bit too hard, and when they insert extra fancy words that don't need to be there, my brain stumbles a little. What I really want is simple. I need to be entertained with a good story, loveable characters, and seamless flow. I'm sure you know what I mean.

As I was working on FIRESONG during my vacation, I kept beating myself up.

"This stinks," was frequently uttered in the wee hours of the morning.

I wrote this book seven years ago and just recently realized how long it had been. No wonder it stunk. Well, maybe it didn't outright reek, but there were sections that were mildly odiferous.
Stepping out of your usual surroundings is a good thing. It brings a new perspective. When I read the same opening passage in chapter one that I'd tweaked and tweaked a thousand times, I suddenly realized it wasn't as good a "hook" as I wanted. At least I think so. Maybe you can help me decide.

I'm going to share this with you, but be kind, okay? (grin).

FIRESONG, one of the many "original" opening passages:

Chapter One

Reverend Nahum Hardina paused for breath and frowned at the ceiling. Hail clattered overhead in a devilish attempt to disrupt Sunday services in the East Goodland Methodist Church, one of the oldest establishments in upstate NY. He shrugged and smiled, smoothing his wispy gray hair. After only three minutes of preaching it was already tousled, signifying a powerful sermon.

I glanced up, wondering if the roof shingles would hold. Pine branches slapped hard against stained glass and the wind howled like a mournful coyote.

My grandson squirmed beside me. I shot him a warning glance. He blew his forelock in boredom, then pushed his nose into a pig snout, snorting so loud that everyone turned to stare.

"Johnny!" I said. "Shush."

He squealed and snorted again. I cringed and smiled an apology to our neighbors, but before I could catch him, he flung his arms over the pew and gawked at Dorothy Mason. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. This was the third time Johnny had turned to stare at her cornflower blue hair.
Pitching one leg over the backrest, he nearly toppled onto Dorothy. Sweating now, I locked my arms around him and dragged him back.

I stared intently into his mischievous eyes. "Johnny. Sit!" My words hissed over the congregation, bounced off the big crucifix in front, and returned with a sacrilegious sizzle.
He plopped onto the seat with shoulders slumped and eyes down.

Reverend Hardina shot me a glance of empathy, raising his voice over the wail of the wind.

"And now, let us turn to the quiet temple deep in our hearts. Prepare to worship the Lord from this region of inner peace. May the radiance of the Lord flow into your hearts and minds as our acolyte comes forward to light the candles."


Okay, that's the beginning of chapter one - last week's version. A tornado is about to hit, but I didn't want to make this article too long.

After being at my mother's to rest and relax a bit, this next version is what I came up with. Is it better? Am I fooling myself? My brain is never satisfied, so forgive my constant pursuit of perfection - a quest that is never fulfilled.

Chapter One

If I'd known what surprises Mother Nature had in store for us that summer, I might have been more prepared. As it was, the Boy Scouts would have turned their heads in shame. I was ambushed by the same force of nature that soothed me with her spicy-scented Asiatic lilies, the soft hoot of the mourning dove, and the tangy sweetness of Shiro plums. Who would expect such violence from Mother Nature, especially in upstate New York, during Sunday morning church services?

Nevertheless, pine branches tapped a tango against the antique stained glass windows of our church, as rhythmic as a frenzied woman beating a rug. I glanced up from my hymnal, wondering if the old glass would hold under the assault. The storm had kicked up in the last few minutes, and the unsuspecting farmers in the parish were hopeful-praying for rain after an uncommonly dry spring. At the end of June, the prospects for good cash crops were drying up as fast as the parched and shriveled corn withering in the rolling fields of the Genesee Valley.

Dirt devils skittered across the East Goodland Methodist Church parking lot, swirling sand and gravel in mini-cyclones of dirt and debris. The wind howled like a mournful coyote, hurling pellets of hail against the old wooden clapboards.

Behind the pulpit, Reverend Nahum Hardina paused for breath and frowned at the ceiling, as if the hail clattered in a devilish attempt to disrupt his service. He shrugged and smiled, smoothing his wispy gray hair. After only three minutes of preaching it was already tousled, a sure sign of the compelling sermon to come.

My three-year-old grandson squirmed beside me. I shot him a warning glance. He blew his forelock in boredom, then pushed his nose into a pig snout, snorting so loud that everyone turned to stare.

"Johnny!" I said. "Shush."

He squealed and snorted again. I cringed and smiled an apology to our neighbors, but before I could catch him, he flung his arms over the pew and gawked at Dorothy Mason. A gentle sigh escaped her lips. This was the third time Johnny had turned to stare at her cornflower blue hair.
When I turned my head for a second, my grandson pitched one leg over the backrest and nearly toppled onto Dorothy. Sweating now, I stood and locked my arms around him to drag him back to his seat.

His brown eyes glinted with hints of mischievous deeds to come. I lowered my head to his level and stared intently at him.

"Johnny. Sit!" My words hissed over the congregation, bounced off the big crucifix in front, and returned with a sacrilegious sizzle.

He plopped onto the pew with shoulders slumped and eyes down.

Reverend Hardina shot me a glance of empathy, raising his voice over the wail of the wind.

"And now, let us turn to the quiet temple deep in our hearts. Prepare to worship the Lord from this region of inner peace. May the radiance of the Lord flow into your hearts and minds as our acolyte comes forward to light the candles."


Okay - that's it. Let me know what you think, and if you have a novel or short story you'd like us to take a look at - copy and paste the first page into the comment section, below. We can offer (kindly) and unbiased opinions that might help add zing to it, or perhaps inspire you to write an even better hook.


If you'd like to read any of Aaron's books, stop over to his website(s) at:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fleeing Miss Horace

Story © Copyright 2008 by the author, Lad Moore. All rights reserved.

Solomon was the hardest working man I ever knew
or even heard about.
Sometimes he tilled the fields with a hoe in one hand
and a pick in the other.
His arms were like Popeye’s – big as watermelons.
His tales were about the same size.

* * *

Old Solomon was the handyman on Grandpa’s farm in western Arkansas. He was the first black man I ever got close enough to touch. I wondered why the palms of his hands were white like mine, and his gums and tongue were pink like mine too. When he took off those heavy boots that were covered with duck tape patches, I saw that the soles of his feet were white as well. I wanted to ask him about it but felt uneasy; so in five-year-old innocence I figured it out all by myself. It was simple. Every place on his skin that got rubbed a lot turned white. My theory also explained why the hoe and shovel handles were so dark – the black wore off on them. I never wondered about it again.
Solomon worked in Grandpa’s orchards almost non-stop when we got close to harvest. I followed him around, keeping a safe distance so I wouldn’t ‘get underfoot’, as he put it. He told me endless stories, mostly from the Bible. Most of them seemed like they needed footnotes to understand. He told me that Methuselah lived 900 years with the same set of teeth, but Granny Stell said that your teeth would fall out if you ate candy. Did that mean Methuselah went 900 years without a Hershey bar? The prospect of that was inconceivable.
Solomon also told me about Jonah living in a fish belly for a time. I wondered if he came out all pruny, like when I stayed in the bubblebath too long. There was also his story about somebody being turned into a pillar of salt. That one made sense. I remember how Granny Stell used to fuss at Grandpa about using too much table salt. “Hardens your arteries,” she said.
I had the freedom to roam the acres of peach orchards until Grandpa and Solomon fenced it with barbed wire five feet high. The fence was to keep animals out, but at first it kept me out too. Then I learned how to climb the stiles – wooden ladders shaped like an A-frame that straddled the fence.
I asked Solomon about the stiles. “Why can’t cows and pigs climb like I do to get to the peaches? It’d be real easy, they could just lift one hoof above another and go over the fence.”
“As a rule, cows and pigs stay off ladders,” he said. “They just sit around biding their time until they grow their wings.” Wow! The prospect of cows and pigs with wings was more exciting than the tale about the 900-year-old teeth. Until my last year of grade school I checked the herd religiously for signs of feathers.

When I was seventeen, I fell in love with Miss Horace, who was our neighbor Clyde Oberman’s semi-beautiful daughter. It was a feisty courtship, and Mr Oberman threw bricks at me the last time I came to call on her. Miss Horace and I decided to elope – our only hope of being together.
Midnight came on the night of the plan. I slipped Grandpa’s tallest orchard ladder under her bedroom window at the exact prescribed time. Miss Horace tossed out an overstuffed duffel bag, then stepped out onto the ladder. It creaked and groaned from her substantial size. My flashlight illuminated the scene above me, bathing her in a bright light as she made her descent.
One time I read in Granny Stell’s manners book that the groom is not supposed to see the bride before the wedding. But as I steadied the ladder, I saw everything. With the gusty wind underneath, her skirt puffed out like a topsail in a tempest. She had big bulges of skin that were disguised by starched white ruffles, thick rubber bands on both legs above her knees, and something pink that hooked together in the front with what looked like shoelaces. The sight of all that peculiar paraphernalia under her skirt terrified me.
Suddenly my face flushed red as Old Solomon’s words poured over me like hot molasses: “As a rule, cows and pigs stay off ladders.”
I’m the one that grew wings. I was still running at sunup.

Lad Moore enjoys hundreds of writing credits in print and on the web, and has earned several awards including a nomination to the Texas Institute of Letters. His work has appeared in Virginia Adversaria, Pittsburgh Quarterly, Paumanok Review, Carolina Country, and Amarillo Bay, among others. Mr. Moore is a five-volume contributor to the Adams Media anthologies, and is featured in an edition of "Chicken Soup for the Soul." Two collections of his short stories, "Odie Dodie," and "Tailwind," have been published by BeWrite-Jacobsen Books. The author resides in Jefferson, Texas.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My Don't List

As I sat down to contemplate what I wanted to write about this week, I realized that there are so many facets to the writing life, we may never scratch the surface of them all, so why not go a different way? So today, for my regularly scheduled blog post, I am going to talk about something that behooves me.

I am not an editor, nor an agent, but I do critique people and so I think that gives me a bit of a right to mutter when I see writers trying to get out there and be published, but they just won’t do what is asked of them.

For some reason, some writers are elitists.

They think that because they have taken up the pen, the world has given them inalienable rights to the world of publishing. Well, I am here to tell you it ain’t so. The following deserves a disclaimer: these are my opinions, yours may vary.

Here is a short list of the “please don’t’s” I keep thinking as I read other people’s work.

1. Don’t over use the word “that”. If you will try hard, and read the work out loud, you will find most of the time the word “that” does not have to be there. For example, I didn’t just write “If you will try hard and read that work out loud, you will find that most of the time that word does not have to be there.” See the difference?

2. Don’t keep pounding me over the head with information. I would rather you slid it in real quick-like, and quietly too, please. I would rather know that Sarah is a pixie-cute kinda gal, who is a deadly law enforcement officer and takes no stuff from no one. This works this way, but it is not as effective as some others:

Sarah Jones said, “Don’t give me that crap, mister. My hair’s shorter than yours, my height is lower than yours, but my attitude is much worse than yours, so turn around, put your hands behind your back, and shut up before I lose my temper.”

But even better: Sarah Jones knew this one would be trouble. He was twice her size. “Glad I got my hair cut off,” she said as they struggled. “Get your hands behind you, right now.”

Or best, Sarah Jones ran her hand through her spiky short hair and sized this one up. One hundred pounds against three. Not good odds, but she’d handled them before. She pulled her cuffs out and smiled a smile only a hardened criminal would dare breach.

3. And the worst offender of all time, using the word “of” when saying things like, I could of gone to the fair. That is just wrong, y’all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fun Waste of Time

One strange quirk of human nature is the tendency to feel better about failure when viewing or hearing about failures worse than yours.

Lately I've been spending more time than I should here:

Fail Blog

Strangely, I don't feel like less of a failure, but at least I'm mildly entertained. Don't miss this extremely entertaining video (one of the better ones where no one actually gets hurt):

Look at That Horse!

(Note: it's on Fail Blog somewhere, but I couldn't find the post - the link leads to YouTube.)

Have a fail-free day. :-)

Monday, August 18, 2008


© Lisa Jackson 2008 all rights reserved

So, other than, going for a walk, taking a shower, driving around and talking to yourself, or heading straight for the Bailey's Irish Cream to add to my cup of coffee, how do I handle writer's block?

People are always asking me if I ever suffer from the malady. Well, yes, I think every author does, but I haven't gone around the bend, at least not in the same manner that Jack did in The Shining. So far I haven't taken a hatchet to anyone.

Aside from the year when I was going through a ton of personal trauma (divorce, surgeries, death of an agent) I've been able to write pretty steadily. That one "really bad" year, complete with antidepressants which worked GREAT for the depression and absolutely killed my ambition, was a killer. Fortunately my editors understood and after about three months, I tossed the pills and found my need and my ability to write again. Now, some people write just fine with all kinds of medication--not me. But, hey, I could really clean a mean bath tub. Fortunately, I'm usually not plagued by writer's block.

That said, there are points in each book where I just can't go on. I try to write the scene over and over and oops, it just doesn't work. It's very frustrating and invariably hits just before the middle of the book, around page 138 to 153 of the manuscript. I know, I know, that's pretty specific, but it's true. There's a sound reason for this. At that point in the tale I really get to know my characters and the plot is coming together. Or not. All of a sudden I hit the wall. I can't move the book forward and I'm not one who skips ahead. Just can't do it.

Most of the time this stumbling block means I start over and find the damn problem, because I know there is going to be one. Probably something major that I just didn't see coming. Now, I never want to return to the beginning as I polish and edit as I go, but I have to.

I write from a pre-approved synopsis and it's long, usually fifty to seventy double-spaced pages. I always try to have the book really set in the synopsis, but I can't plan for everything and it always catches up to me. Usually when I start over, from page one, the problem gets ironed out. I find the snag (which is always hidden) and move forward.

Other times a scene just won't work, but it's a necessary point in the book. If I can't rewrite it to my satisfaction from one character's point of view, I turn it around and try the same scene from another person's point of view (which obviously can only be done when you write in third person). Once in a while I have to interject a new scene before the one that's giving me fits. This works like a charm for me. Of course, if you write in first person, you're flat out of luck with this trick.

If if these ideas don't work for you, there's always Baileys.

* * *
Lisa Jackson has been killing people everywhere from Savannah and New Orleans to San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest—and it’s been worth it. Her readers come back again and again, and her novels are fixtures on national bestseller lists.

Lisa began writing at the urging of her sister, novelist Nancy Bush. Inspired by the success of authors she admired and the burgeoning market for romance fiction at the time, Nancy was convinced they could work together and succeed. They sat down, determined to write and to be published. Initially they wrote together. Later, they moved in different directions. Lisa brought more and more suspense to her work and began writing much darker stories. For Lisa, the killing continues as this mother, daughter, workaholic and amazing writer continues her habit of making the hair stand up on the back of readers’ necks, and landing her books on The New York Times, the USA Today, and the Publishers Weekly national bestseller lists.

Lisa’s novels include the upcoming LOST SOULS and the best sellers Absolute Fear, which will be published in paperback for the first time in March, Hot Blooded, Cold Blooded, The Night Before, The Morning After, Deep Freeze, Fatal Burn, and Almost Dead. Last year, Most Likely to Die was written by Lisa, Beverly Barton and Wendy Corsi Staub was published and became a number three New York Times paperback bestseller. She is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and the Romance Writers of America.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Interview with Aaron Lazar by Kodak

Author Aaron Lazar with grandson, Julian

I'm off in Boston this week, moving my daughter into her new apartment so she can start grad school for her degree in Music Therapy. Time is short, so I've chosen another interview to share with you.

This one was conducted by Kodak. When they asked me to be their "Print Ambassador," we conducted an interview after shooting footage all over the Genesee Valley. By the way, my "day job," as an electrophotographic engineer, involves research and development on massive digital presses. That's what we're discussing, below.
Take care, and if you love to write, remember to write like the wind!
- Aaron
Kodak: Are there ways in which designing presses helps you write mysteries, and vice versa?
Aaron: At first thought, you might imagine that there could be NO connection between engineering and writing. After all, electrophotographic engineering involves the science behind the digital presses we design and manufacture at NexPress, the physics behind the toner, developer, imaging cylinders, and the hardware that work together to deliver prints. One might be hard put to understand how such work - data, science, formulas, and hardware - could be even remotely related to writing.
But when I'm on a project, whether it's the development of a new toner to meet incredibly stringent standards, or solving a complex system problem, there's always a mystery that needs to be solved. It's that challenge, that incredibly exciting contest, that gets my blood pumping. And its a similar excitement that courses through my veins when I'm reading or writing a mystery, trying to solve it, absorbing or creating clues, and imagining "whodunnit."
Of course, no matter what one's profession, there's always human drama in real life to stimulate a writer's emotions and imagination. My colleagues have experienced appalling trials, and these traumas spark fears. What would I do if I lost either of my baby grandsons? How would I deal with the sudden death of my wife? What if I experienced a life changing heart attack? How would I handle it if one of my daughters was being abused, or was in danger? Those are the fibers that make up the cloth of every day life. As in news stories, they generate a germ of an idea that may blossom and grow into a storyline or an entire book. Most of the themes I've used had come from my own life, but the influences of those around me cannot be denied.
Kodak: Why do you write mysteries as opposed some other genre?
Aaron: It's common wisdom that you should "write what you read." I've always been a fan of mysteries, and used to devour them as a child. My parents would bring home boxes of books from auctions, and I'd be happily lost for weeks in series like The Hardy Boys. I graduated to books by Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and Helen McInnes in the years that followed. As time went on, I progressed to my current favorite novelists, including John D. MacDonald, James Patterson, Dick Francis, Clive Cussler, Laurie R. King, Lillian Jackson Braun, Peter Mayle, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Tony Hillerman.
Kodak: What's the feeling when you think of people actually holding a book in their hands which you've written, sitting with it, holding it, turning the pages, reading the printed words?
Aaron: The feeling is rather humbling and most phenomenal. To think of someone sitting in their living room, inhaling the sights and sounds and emotions I've painted on the printed page, fills me with an indescribable sense of joy and... a little bit of nervousness, too. My readers could be in Australia, or Iceland. Africa or Dallas. On a boat or in a plane. In bed or by the fireplace. Anywhere. Any time. Reading my words. My words... my characters, in the hands of folks I've never met. It gives me goose bumps. My parallel universe is suddenly out there, exposed, being absorbed by someone else. It's a little bit scary, but it can also be validating when they ask for more. That's the best part!
Kodak: Ebooks haven't really caught on. Do you think it's because of that whole tactile experience - holding the book, turning the pages?
Aaron: Ebooks are a great value that open up a world of publishing to thousands of authors whose work might not be available through other means, and some folks just love them.
However, the majority of my readers have told me they want print books. They want to hold the book in their hands, turn the pages, feel the accompanying sense of "progress" that comes with it, and be able to put the book on their shelf when they're done. They want to save it for their children, and know it's going to be there in a hundred years. I feel the same way. I like to carry a book in my back pocket or briefcase, sit out in the sun without worrying about the sun glaring off a screen, or having to tote around a heavy laptop or ebook reader. I especially love the feeling of holding the book in my hands when I finish a great read. It feels like a more personal connection with the author, without electronic ads popping up in the background. I turn the book around in my hands and "savor" the look and feel of it when I'm done. It becomes like an old friend, and the experience is only completed after I place it on my favorite bookshelf. Plus I especially love it when I can get the author to sign the flyleaf.
Kodak: Print has obviously played a big part in your life. Could you expand on that?
Print has opened up the whole world to me, allowing me to connect with my readers in a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise. That's what it's all about - the connections. The people I've met at book signings or through email have been astounding. And oftentimes, there are moments that just floor me.
Take for example the case of Jamie, a very successful young entrepreneur, who contacted me after reading Double Forté. He told me Gus LeGarde had "shown him that cooking a pot of stew, reading a stack of books and watching the Bambi movie with the ‘little ones' in our lives is more important that studying statements, proformus, and packing for the next business trip." He said, "I feel as though Gus, through your words, is actually slowing me down a little bit. Tonight, because of your book, I spent a little extra time while tucking them in. reading an extra bedtime story, and rocking the little one in her bedroom for ten minutes or so." His feedback warmed my heart.
Even though I write mysteries, Gus is a diehard family man, and the books are filled with warm moments between him and his grandson, for example. If just one of my books causes just one of my readers to spend more time with their children...that's more than enough for me.
Kodak: What do you think it means to be an ambassador for print? And how do you think that role, for you or anyone, will continue to drive the future of print?
Aaron: Being an ambassador for print means to engage, motivate, and inspire readers. By creating a mystery series that grabs readers who want to learn more about the characters, to delve into their past and future, to dig deeper into the mysteries and come back for more - that seems to inspire them to read more, and that means more printing. And if my humble words can influence one single reader, like Jamie, then that is the most satisfying and validating part of the whole process. Let's face it, print is here to stay. And along with all the other authors on this planet, I'm honored to be a small part of that process.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Character and Conflict

© Mary Burton 2008 all rights reserved
My goal as a writer is to pull you out of your world. To keep you up past your bedtime. To make you forget the pot is boiling on the stove. To make you wish you had five more minutes before you have to leave for your next appointment.

I’ve come to understand that to make this happen, I’ve got to make my reader feel some powerful emotions. The desire to feel emotion is why they’ve picked up one of my books. They want to be scared. They want to cry, to laugh, or feel loved.

Sounds simple enough. But I’ve found that’s easier said than done sometimes. Pulling emotion out of a story and hooking my reader can be a real dilemma. And it has been known to keep me up late at night.

Over the years I’ve come to understand that character and conflict are two sides of the same coin and both are necessary for great emotion. They must work hand in hand. One won’t be as effective without the other.

There are no hard and fast rules about whether writers should begin with character or conflict first. There are lots of theories floating around out there. Each writer is going to approach it differently.

For me, character comes first. I can’t really design a plot until I’ve met the characters. I’ve got to know who I’m working with before I can do anything with the story’s structure.

So how do you get to know these make believe people who just exist in your mind? After years of writing conferences, seminars and tapes on plotting and craft, I’ve assembled a set of questions I now run through when I’m getting to know my characters.

What is the character’s back-story? Where do they come from? Family, education, travels, ex-spouses, lost loves, siblings. What is their story?

What is their personality type? I’m a big fan of enneagrams, which are nine basic personality types. Not only can you read about each type but also you can dig into their strengths and weakness.

Archetypes are another way to look at a character. These are stock personality types that have been in literature for thousands of years. Some of my favorites include the Warrior, Chief, Queen, Princess, Thief, Caregiver, and the Magician. Each type has good and bad qualities. And to make it more interesting, beyond the primary archetype each character also has traits of the Child, Victim, Saboteur and Prostitute.

How does the world see your character? What image is your character projecting?

What kind of emotional scares is my character carrying? All my characters have a wound inside them that they’ve suppressed. How does the wound affect your character’s outlook on life and what they believe?

What is my character’s darkest fear? What is the worst thing that could happen to them?

What is my character’s greatest need? What is missing from their life? What would they love to have but are too afraid to ask for?


When I’ve figured out what makes my character’s tick then I sit down to design a plot that will really dig into their emotional weakness. There are some great books out there about plotting and structure. Some of my favorites include: Michael Hauge, WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL; Christopher Volger, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY; Robert McKee, STORY; and Laura Bakers and Robin Perni’s

The number one thing I keep in mind when I’m plotting is: what kind of emotion is this scene creating. Even if a scene is beautifully written, if it falls flat emotionally take a good hard look at it and ask yourself if you need it or how you can change it to punch it up.

Plotting I’M WATCHING YOU started with understanding my heroine, Lindsay O’Neil, a woman who prides herself on hiding her dark past and controlling her emotions. She wants the world to believe she is bullet proof, but she’s so controlled she’s unwilling to open up emotionally even to save her marriage.

Knowing Lindsay as I did at this point, I got to thinking, what could I do to make Lindsay loose her grip on control, ultimately help heal her wounds and find happiness? Lets see…how about a serial killer that is obsessed with her? What if I tossed in a reporter that is determined to dig up all the dirt from her past? And what if the lead homicide detective is her estranged husband?

Perfect. I was off and running.
* * *

MARY BURTON’s southern family has always enjoyed tall tales and a good yarns. Early on, Mary realized that Story had tremendous power to inspire strong responses such fear, laughter, love and even sorrow. This appreciation of story motivated her to earn an English degree from Virginia’s Hollins University. She sold her first manuscript to Harlequin Historicals. Since that initial sale, Mary had written twelve historical romances for Harlequin Historicals, four short romantic suspenses for Silhouette Romantic Suspense and a non-fiction book The Insider’s Guide to Direct Marketing. Her latest is her first single title romantic suspense for Zebra titled I’m Watching You.

In 2005, The Unexpected Wife was a finalist Romance Writers of America’s RITA contest and Wise Moves was 2006 nominee for the Romantic Times’ Critics Choice Award. I’m Watching You received critical acclaim from New York Times Best Selling author Carla Neggers who said, “Taut, compelling and emotional, I’m Watching You is romantic suspense at its most riveting. Mary Burton delivers a page-turner.”

Mary resides in Virginia where she enjoys yoga, cooking, hiking and the occasional triathlon. You can visit her website at to find out more about this talented author and her book!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Break the block

Recently, I had a small breakdown in my writing life. I think they call it "writer's block". Now before I hear from all the ones who do not believe in such things, let me say, I am talking about my own personal stuff here. I feel like it was a block, of a sort, no matter what name you put to it.

Out of this experience, I discovered a few things to do that aided in my attempt to overcome the lack of writing inspiration. For truly, a block is seriously that, a dry, arid land where there are no words. No inspirations.

So, here is a short list of what I have done. I hope it helps you.

1. Get into a setting that needs to be written about.
I went to my local park, and took a nature walk. I took photographs, and then, I sat down and wrote everything I could remember about the visit. Everything from how the light hit the trees at mid-morning to how the water sluiced when the geese and ducks floated over it.

2. Description of mundane items
I would free-write about silly stuff. For instance, the pen I am holding is a black Bic with a cap that comes off, and from that went into a long passage about pens. This free-writing stuff works, y'all. I discovered a lot more about that pen than even I wanted to know.

3. Experience is a great teacher
I pulled out a journal not quite filled, and wrote about my first teacher, my first horror movie, my first encounter with loss. You will be amazed at what you will remember when you try. This is a good exercise to build emotion into your writing. For how can you write about loss for your character if you do not know how to write it from your own experience?

This is just a short list, but one that if you try it, will get you going into the writing chair and keep you there for some time.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My Wednesday Thing on Book Signings

© Marta Stephens, 2008 all rights reserved

August 13, can you believe it? The weeks are flying by and it seems there're never enough hours in a day to do everything I need to do. I'm pleased to say though that production on the next in the Harper series, THE DEVIL CAN WAIT, is churning nicely along and the marketing is heating up with lots of freebies to share with readers in the coming weeks. More on this later.

Last Saturday I was one of several Hoosier authors at the Indiana State Fair who were selling and signing books. For me, the event was a success. I sold a few books, introduced a lot of unsuspecting people to Sam Harper and SILENCED CRY and made some very excellent contacts for future signing events. After a tw0-hour signing, my husband, son and I went out to eat. Not a bad day at all.

Some of the other authors felt discouraged because they didn't think enough was done to promote the authors' showcase. But, if our cup's half full, we have to be thankful for the chance of getting our foot in the blasted door. Besides, the success of book signings are all up to us, the authors. Personal appearances require the author to roll up his/her sleeves and do what I call the 3-P's: Plan, Promo & Prep.


1) Consider what can you do to make your book signing different. What do you have to offer a bookstore manager that no other local author can offer? During my initial conversation with the manager at our local B&N, he warned me not to be disappointed if I only sold 3 or 4 books. He said on average, if an authors sells that numer the event is considered a success. He was thrilled when I sold 25 in 2-hours. He jumped at the chance to set me up with another signing. What did I offer him to assure my event would be a success? The B&N is on our campus, I've worked on campus for 29 years and the focus of my promotion was to target co-workers who were anxious to get their hands on SILENCED CRY.

2) Contact bookstores, libraries, and author groups in your area. Get the name of the key person responsible for setting up speaking engagements/book signings. If your publisher doesn't offer a return on the books and shops are reluctant to buy them, offer to bring them with you. Offer them the standard 40% discount. If your signing goes well, they may reconsider and ask you back.


Two weeks before the event, start advertising--this is entirely up to you.

1) Print flyers that include the date, time, and place of your signing, your picture, book cover, brief blurb, one or two quotes from reviews, your bio, website link, and ISBN. Give the bookstore 100 copies.

2) Post your event on your website, blog, and author forums. By now you should also have a mailing list of potential readers. Send e-mail notices announcing the signing. Even if they have bought your book, this is a chance for them to get your autograph.

3) If you're not familiar with Book Tour, set up an account and start listing your events. You'll find my upcoming events there.

4) Send a media release to your local newspaper/radio station. If your city's newspaper is on line and has a calendar of events, post your event(s) there.


Call the bookstore a day or two ahead of time to confirm the event. Arrive at least 15-2o minutes early to set up.

Things you'll want to have at the signing:

  1. Bookmarks that include the book cover, your website, a blurb, and a review quote. You'd be amazed at how much you can fit into a bookmark.

  2. 2-3 pens.

  3. A guest book. Ask buyers to sign their name and give you an e-mail and/or snail mail address. This is one great way to develop a database of readers so you can e-mail them about future events.

  4. Props. What's your book about? Bring things that will make an attractive display and draw customers to your table.

  5. Flyers similar to those that you sent to the bookstore.

  6. A large poster (2'x3' is adequate) displaying your book cover with the words: "Author Event Today" written along the top or bottom.

  7. A camera.

  8. A bowl of mints or candy.
Customers may have that "other" book on their mind, you're wearing your salesperson hat on now, don't be afraid to look people in the eye, introduce yourself, and start a conversation. Some customers, however, may not be interested and won't want to chat. Don't press it, just move on to the next person. Hand them a bookmark, a flyer, or better yet one of your books. Let them hold it and read the blurb. If they've made it this far, chances are they're thinking about a buy.

At this point, they'll start asking questions like, how long have you been writing? Is this your first book? What they're really asking is, "Why should I buy this book?" Plan your answers ahead of time and be prepared to give the best pitch you can manage.

When you make a sale, show your genuine appreciation. An honest "thank you" and a smile goes a long way to making a long-lasting impression.

When your signing is over, make sure you personally thank the bookstore manager and staff. Leave some of your bookmarks with them and offer to supply them with more when they run out. Check with the manager or the peson in charge of scheduling the signings to set up a future date--perhaps he shop has plans for a big sale and an author signing might draw a bigger crowd.

Stay positive! Book signings can be a lot of fun, but regardless of how many books you sell, they give you a fantastic opportunity to meet new people and introduce your books to a host of potential readers.
* * *

Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. SILENCED CRY is available online at familiar shops such as all the Amazons, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-a-Million, and Powells. Other locations include, but are not limited to those listed on her website.

SILENCED CRY (2007)Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival
Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery)
Look for THE DEVIL CAN WAIT in November 2008.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Better Late Than Next Week

Sooo... I'm a bit late posting today. I was supposed to work from 9:30 this morning until 6 tonight, but ended up having to stay until 7 because... well, there's always some because. Some work that needs doing, some shift that needs covering, something that is broken, or missing, or urgent. When you're a low-level newbie manager in a fast food joint, there's always something - but at least there's overtime, too.

In addition to working 45+ hours a week, sometimes I write. And sometimes I take on extra jobs editing for a small publisher (because, let's face it, there ain't a lot of money to be had in fast food - even with overtime). And sometimes my agent wants more chapters for a project I wasn't even planning to work on (can't blame her for that; more chapters = good) because now is the time to take advantage of an unusual situation that has befallen me, and I definitely want the advantage.

And sometimes it's two weeks until my son's birthday, three weeks until my sister's wedding, and four weeks until school starts again.

That sometime is now. Ergo, I am late! :-)

I hope you'll forgive me. Shall I tell you a story? You can click here to read something of a background sketch on a few characters featured in my novel Broken Angel, if you'd like.

I promise to be more elaborate next week. After all, I have all this week to get everything I've mentioned above finished. No problem.

*where did I put those NoDoz? I'll just wash them down with this coffee...*