Saturday, October 31, 2009

I Do Believe in Spooks...

copyright 2009, aaron paul lazar

Living in an antique home has its problems, especially when you’re not a handyman. My father taught me all sorts of wonderful things when he was alive, including passion for the arts, gardening, nature, gourmet cooking, and a good mystery. But he didn’t know much about mechanical, plumbing, electrical, or woodworking skills. Though I’ve tried to learn over the years with self-help books and advice from friends, I remain singularly unhandy, perpetually bowing with an unholy need to the whims of the local plumber and electrician.

Take, for example, the twenty-six windows that are crumbling as we speak. The six by nine inch panes are coming loose from their wooden mullions with alarming frequency. Or the floorboards in our bedroom, a lovely old yellow pine, that poke up like teepees when it’s hot and muggy. Yeah, they need to be treated with poly something-or-other, but for now, the moisture makes them swell. Consider the two wells that sometimes work in concert – except for the hundred times a year I have to run down to the cobwebbed cellar and reset the breakers or tap on the pump to make it work.

The disadvantages are many.

But, there are also benefits, such as the three working fireplaces. Or the soil that surrounds the property, rich and black, untouched by bulldozers. It’s not like the hard packed fill they put in new housing tracts. I don’t need to “amend” this soil. I just need to keep up with the produce and flowers.

Most intriguing of all, however, is the rich history.

Our house was built in 1811 by Dr. David Hunt. I admit, compared to many homes in Europe it’s just an infant. But in terms of our country and its young age, 1811 isn’t exactly contemporary. Think about it. This house was built and lived in over fifty years before the civil war!

Imagine the births, deaths, dramas, romances, and heartaches that occurred within these rooms. Did the inhabitants suffer from small pox? Starvation? Were they affluent? How many horses or cows did they own? And… how many ghosts linger in these plaster and lathe walls?

Let’s examine the past 100 years. We live on Hunts Corners, named for the original owner of our home. My daughter Allison and I have found his grave and that of his descendants in an ancient cemetery on a nearby hill.

According to an elderly neighbor, over seven people have died on Hunts Corners. Traffic accidents. Drivers not stopping for the all-way stop signs, or sliding on ice, or drunk drivers plowing right into the telephone pole. Sad to think about. Makes you wonder about their spirits. Did they ascend to Heaven? Or do a few guilty souls remain in the area, confused and wandering, seeking the path to redemption?

Recently, I began to ponder another death disclosed to me by a neighbor. We began to correspond after he read a few of my books. He’s a bright and entertaining young fellow who happens to be a voracious reader. We clicked. And we chat back and forth about books and life and sometimes… about the history of our area.

It seems Hunts Corners has a mystery all its own, stemming from the early 1900s. As the story goes, my young neighbor’s great grandmother noticed something odd one day. (I’ll invent names to protect the innocent… or guilty as the case may be.) While going about her daily chores, Mabel McAvey realized she hadn’t seen the young girl who lived next door in a long time. Anna no longer attended school, and rarely made an appearance outside the home. When she finally caught a glimpse of the girl, Mabel noticed a thickening in her middle, well-wrapped by heavy garments. She suspected the girl was with child. In that era, a pregnancy out of wedlock was unthinkable. Shameful. A sin. The family would endure public humiliation if news got out. So Anna was sequestered for nine long months as Mabel spied on her and watched the child grow in her belly.

When the time came for the baby to be born, there was no activity in the house. No child was seen. No doctor arrived. All was quiet.

Speculation grew. Was the child stillborn? Or worse, was she murdered by a family cloaked in shame? Rumors were that the little baby was buried behind Anna’s house.

Since then, there have been reports of children pointing behind the house, exclaiming about the “little girl in the weeds.” My neighbor’s six-year-old daughter “saw” her, with no prompting.

“Daddy? Who’s that little girl in the weeds? Can I play with her?”

My friend saw no one, and this happened many times. His daughter clearly saw someone out there.

So, although no adults have seen her, I think I might have, last winter.

I rose early to photograph our Christmas lights. They were unusually festive last year, better than all past years. We’d added a few light-up deer to graze in splendor on the snowy lawn, and I was bound and determined to capture the scene during the blackest of night.

It was a clear, chill morning. Five A.M. Not a breeze stirred. Most households were fast asleep. Few cars passed by.

I brought my trusty Canon Powershot outdoors and took dozens of photos. Later, when I viewed them on my PC, I saw the ghost. There she was – looking straight at me with wide open eyes. Filmy, transparent, but with a clear face and body. Only two shots revealed her, although I took dozens that morning.

These photos are untouched, straight from the camera card. And yes, I know there’s probably a scientific explanation. Maybe the light from the flash illuminated ice crystals in the air, causing a momentary illusion. Maybe it reflected off my frozen breath that puffed into the night. Maybe… who knows? She sure looked real. Can you see her? In the first photo, she has a long neck like ET and looks rather surprised. In the second, her Casper-like face is hovering over the car. See it?

Last night I woke to a tapping sound. Usually it’s Balto in his bed, scratching an itch and thumping up against the wall. I rose to check, but he lay still, mouth open, breathing evenly.

Could it be my grandson knocking on the door? I looked. No little boy stood silhouetted in the dark. All was quiet.

I tumbled back to bed, ready to snuggle in and resume the great dream I’d been having that took me away to exotic colorful locales and luscious meals.

The tapping resumed.

I rose up and stared outside. Headlights flashed by, briefly pouring cones of light into the darkness. Was that a flash of white? A face? Or simply a reflection on the rain-soaked street?

The tapping returned. Rhythmic. Evenly spaced. Over and over again.

Something was outside my window. On the second floor. Twenty feet above the ground.

Could it be the little girl, needing to connect with me and spill her story?

Icy fingers tap-danced down my spine. I burrowed beneath the covers and closed my eyes tight.

I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.



Mazurka, the fourth book in the LeGarde Mystery series is now available through the author, in special pre-release copies. Email him at for details.

Now available - the hardcover collector's set of Double Forte' and Upstaged! Only ten sets available. A value of $64.00 available now for $49.95 plus shipping.

Friday, October 30, 2009

eBooks: Resistance is Futile

copyright Deb Baker 2009

The future of book publishing. What does it hold? With Barnes and Noble unveiling its new Nook, can we really believe ebooks are a fading fad? Don’t think so. And can we coexist with the electronic version of our precious books, still hold the real thing in our hands in 2020?

The wave of the future, and I really believe this, is the ebook. That’s why I jumped on the electronic edition train, which if you haven’t noticed, is picking up speed. Not only did I go over to the dark side with ebook publishing, I also decided to self-publish. After seven mysteries in print through traditional publishers, I finally had the opportunity to experiment with doing my own thing. Here’s what happened:

My publisher decided to let my first book in the Gertie Johnson Backwoods Adventures go out-of-print right after the second one was released. I had a contract for three in the series and in case you don’t know this—readers like to start with the first one. Book three came out to great reviews. Still no reprint of book one.

According to my contract, MURDER PASSES THE BUCK had to be out-of-print for one year before I could have the rights back. I waited, plotted, and planned. The series was set in the Michigan Upper Peninsula and had regional appeal that I thought would continue. If Da Yooper Tourist Trap in Ishpeming, MI was still selling them, that had to be true, right? And ebooks sales were going up (according to Shelf Awareness ebook sales in August 2009 increased by 189%!).

One day there it was in the mailbox. A one-paragraph letter giving my rights back. All mine. Only I wasn’t allowed to use their cover art, something I hadn’t realized. No big deal. I didn’t particularly like the original design. I would do my own. Yeah, right. I discovered quickly that I had no design talent whatsoever and hired Patty G. Henderson ( to do her magic. And she did, making the cover of MURDER PASSES THE BUCK pop and sizzle.

The next step was putting it on Kindle ( The process was quick and painless. If I can follow Kindle set-up instructions, anybody can. Trust me. I’m usually clueless. Here’s how:

1. Sign up. If you have an Amazon account, you are set to go.
2. Enter product details – title, description, keywords, categories, etc.
3. Upload the cover image using one of several formats. I use Word, so I uploaded the book in .doc format. Easy!
4. Determine a price.
5. Preview.
6. Publish.

The hardest part was deciding how much to charge. A high price, I thought, would mean fewer sales and I wanted readers to purchase this one and go on to read MURDER GRINS AND BEARS IT and MURDER TALKS TURKEY, rights that still belong to my publisher, but not for long. I priced MURDER PASSES THE BUCK at $3.99 and hit the publish button. Note of interest: Amazon pays the author/publisher a straight 35% royalty on every sale.

My Kindle page even had a sales report, updated daily so I could watch sales. All I’m going to say about that is – I’m very happy with the results.

So thrilled in fact, I used Amazon’s Createspace to publish MURDER PASSES THE BUCK in trade paperback format.

But that’s a whole nother story.

Right now, I’m off to put my book on mobipocket and Sony and Smashwords and iTunes.

Like STAR TREK’s Borg would say, you WILL be assimilated. Resistance is futile. Take my hand. There’s another world to explore.

Deb Baker
Deb's Website
Deb's Blog

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Cover Art

Today’s book covers are more than just protective outer coverings for pages. They are a way to advertise and communicate information about what’s on the inside. Most people say that covers are second only to word of mouth in importance when it comes to interesting them to read a book, indeed even pick it from the shelf.

A cover will sometimes get the potential reader to look at the blurb and maybe thumb through some of the inside.

Artwork has come a long way, too. There are more beautiful covers today in the print and ebook market than ever before. If you have ever seen the old
cartoon-ish looking covers of yesteryear you know what I mean.

So, having said all that, I present to you my latest cover. Click on it to get a better view.

I think it keeps with the thought of advertising and communicating information about the inside, don’t you?

Does it make you want to read this book? Does it resemble my first book in the series so that there is continuity?

I am always very excited about my cover art. It’s the face for my writing that tells the world about my work. It never ceases to amaze me how the artist is always right on the money when “getting” the essence in a cover for me. So far, they have gotten it every time.

For those of you looking for the next Shannon Wallace mystery, you will be happy to know it is slated for a January release from Red Rose Publishing

The blurb says, “When Shannon and Dwayne are hired to videotape mysterious goings-on in the local cemetery in South Lake, Mississippi, they find more than just old tombstones, including a “plot” that has nothing to do with the dead!”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The War on Books?

Here's an interesting article from Entertainment Weekly.

It seems Amazon, WalMart and Target are offering the latest hardcover releases from "the crown jewels of the industry" - giants the likes of Stephen King and James Patterson - for a mere $9, on books with a retail cover price of $35.

Good for the consumers? Absolutely. Good for the publishing industry? Well, that's the part being hotly contested.

Publishers aren't taking a loss on these sales. Retailers are. It is Amazon, WalMart and Target who are losing money on these mega-cut price points. So does this hurt anyone?

There are those who say yes - it hurts smaller booksellers. And there are those who say smaller booksellers don't draw the majority of their business from the sale of mega-blockbuster novels. So who's right? Will these so-called price wars mean the death of book sales?

By the way ... publishing has been dying ever since the industry started. Every year there are new death knells for the publishing industry sounded across the land. Paperbacks were supposed to kill publishing. Mega-bestsellers were supposed to kill publishing. Ebooks were supposed to kill publishing. Now WalMart and Amazon are holding the shiny new executioner's axe. Any day now, it's going to fall.

Any day now. Just like every day for the last two hundred years.

What do YOU think?

Monday, October 26, 2009

What the Hell? The Secret Didn't Work!

© Mary Patrick Kavanaugh 2009 all rights reserved

I had an elaborate spectacle of a funeral last December. Not for a dead person, but for a dead dream that I would land a mainstream publishing contract for my novel, Family Plots: Love, Death and Tax Evasion. This fantasy book contract was supposed to launch my bestselling writing, teaching and speaking career. Instead, the book was rejected SIXTEEN times. I was in a state of shock. How could this happen when I had watched The Secret and did everything it advised me to do in order to realize my dream of commercial literary stardom?

For anyone who’s been living in a cave for the last year, The Secret is a book and DVD that was promoted by our good sister, Oprah, one of my favorite people on the planet. It teaches you to get anything you want in life by following three simple (but not easy) steps. (1) Know exactly what you want and ask the universe for it, (2) Feel, believe, and behave as if the object of your desire is on its way, and (3) Be open to receiving it.

I was all over that, baby. And just like they suggested, I even created a vision board filled with the pictures of my desires—including having the book featured on Oprah! I hung this board in my closet so I could stare at in morning and night—become one with the vision and believe it was mine to receive. (Another reason I suspect they called it The Secret was that some of us felt it necessary to keep this practice a secret from our friends who would only worry if they knew.) But to clarify: I didn’t just stare at my secret vision board, and then ask, believe, and prepare to receive. I worked single-mindedly to make this happen, well before I’d even watched the DVD. I wrote four versions of the manuscript, over four years time. Before even finding an agent, I’d hired three professional editors who helped me cut, trim, revise, and re-pace. I spent another year finding the agents, who took me through two more revisions to polish the prose, and get it into the shape necessary to make it appeal to the commercial publishing world. Once it was in my agents’ hands, I hung my vision board, asked, believed, and prepared to receive.

Imagine my horror and confusion when what I received were sixteen rejection letters.
After this, I was more than a little pissed at The Secret. During my season of rejection, I spent night after night cocooned in the soft blankets of my bed feeling completely destroyed—like the caterpillar who had dissolved into goo, having no idea it would ever re-emerge into the light. I mean, come on: I’d asked. I’d believed. I was ready to receive. What the hell happened?
One of those miserable nights I had a vague memory of a member of Oprah’s posse (possibly life coach Martha Beck?) saying that you really had to let go of your idea about how something was supposed to happen to give it a real chance to succeed.

Hey, I thought. Was I trying to dictate to the universe HOW I was supposed to become a bestselling novelist, teacher and speaker?

The answer that came to me was a clear, YES, dangit. There you have it. Bossiness is one of my most annoying personality traits. And it occurred to me I was being bossy, even in The Secret life of manifesting my dreams.

I had to let go and trust, I thought, feeling cheerful for the first time in months. And what better, more respectful, way to let go than to have a full-blown funeral for this book—this little labor of love? If I had to kill the idea of winning the literary lottery and getting Oprah’s attention for my novel. I could at least have a party by publicly putting it to rest. And I’d invite friends and family to bury any dead dreams, bad ideas, or old crap that was getting in their way too.

We all need to take a lesson from Mother Nature: Things have to be destroyed in order for exciting new life to emerge—and I’m ready to make room for the new.

Luckily for my mental health, Oprah shifted her attention away from The Secret and on to Ekhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth. It was there that I learned how to accept this hiccup in my plans for greatness. According to Ekhart, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.”

For self-help and spirituality, I like this Oprah pick better than The Secret. It makes the varying degrees of crap experiences—like pain, disappointment, and rejection—feel very important and necessary. With that wisdom, I can rest in peace with my book—which is currently being resurrected in a self-published form.

About the author:

Information about Mary Patrick Kavanaugh and her novel, Family Plots: Love, Death and Tax Evasion, is available at Or visit her blog,, where she offers ideas and inspiration to help people transform life’s crap into compost.

Attention! Mary (aka Cemetery Mary) is holding a funeral (December 31, 2009) and resurrection (January 2, 2010). These two events will allow others to bury dead dreams, dashed hopes, old habits and grudges in 2009 so they can come to the resurrection to begin again in 2010. Information about the live and webcast events will be posted at, so readers are invited to sign up for the mail list.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Your Preface: What is it; when to write it

Copyright 2009, Aaron Paul Lazar

According to the dictionary, a preface is “an introduction to a book which typically states its subject, scope, or aims.”

That's as opposed to a foreword, which is traditionally written by someone other than the author.

Naturally, if you want to address some of the plot elements without spoiling the story, you’d best write an “afterward.”

Have you ever written a preface? Do you remember any particular favorites from books or authors you love?

When I wrote my first two books back in the 2001 era, I didn’t consider a preface. In hindsight, I wish I had.

There’s so much behind each book that was documented only through interviews and columns appearing after the mysteries were released. I wish I’d had those facts tidily catalogued with the books themselves. But alas, I’ll have to wait until we re-release them in 2012.

For example, I wrote Double Forte’ as a tribute to my father, a music professor who had just died. I based Gus LeGarde largely on his character, and although Gus morphed and changed along the way, the novel was a testimony to my father that I should have documented. Of course, I dedicated the book to him and every loved one in my life, as well as to my dedicated team of editors and beta readers. That helps.

Upstaged came after haunting the back of the auditorium during my daughter Melanie’s thirteen musicals and plays in high school. All of the color, teenage angst, drama, and excitement had to be released from my brain and documented. I couldn’t keep it inside. And I wish I’d told readers a bit about that history.

With Tremolo: cry of the loon, I finally woke up. I felt the need to explain to my readers about the source of the story elements and people within the pages. I wanted them to know that Tremolo came from my childhood and family, and that Gus’s father and Oscar Stone were actually testimonies to my family as well.

Preface (Tremolo: cry of the loon)

If you’ve ever stayed at a lakeside camp, you’ll understand my fascination for the Belgrade Lakes of Maine, where I spent many childhood vacations. Tremolo whirls with nostalgic memories from that era, based on some of the happiest times of my youth.

The word "tremolo" describes the laughter of loons. It's a lovely yodel that cascades over the lake, rippling the waves with enchanted song. But the bewitching loon’s laugh is actually a distress call, often heard if humans come too close to their nests. Danger stalks young Gus and his friends in this novel; thus, Tremolo: cry of the loon seemed an appropriate title for this lakeside coming-of-age mystery.

Tremolo’s mysteries are founded in pure fantasy. Thank God. I wouldn't have enjoyed being chased through the woods by a drunken murderer at age eleven, or at any age. And wouldn’t my life be a rather fearsome thing, if all my fictional villains were based on reality?

There are some events, however, that jump right from my childhood–such as the "bat" scene. I'll always remember my dad running around the living room in his boxers with a butterfly net, chasing a trapped and confused bat while I cowered behind my bedroom door. Or the time he took me to see "To Kill a Mockingbird." I distinctly remember sitting in the dining room after the movie, when he turned his forearm in the sunlight and said how lovely it would be to have golden brown skin, like Tom Robinson.

Dad was like that. Passionate and liberated, he embraced all people and welcomed life’s full gamut of experiences. And guess what? He was quite a bit like the man Gus becomes in the LeGarde Mystery Series.

The lake, cabins, buildings, boats, loons, and the swing were real. The horses I knew as a child, but not in Maine. That's one of the attractions of writing fiction–to be able to summon sublime scenes from childhood, decorate them, combine them in any fashion, and populate one's books with them.

The words from Oscar Stone’s slide show in chapter thirty-nine are based on writings found in my maternal grandfather's papers, the man who inspired Oscar’s character. In addition to being a fine pianist and devoted husband, he was a gifted photographer.

I'll never forget those sun-drenched days in Maine. I still dream about them and summon the memories when life gets tough. Magic was there, and although the camp has long been torn down and replaced with condos, it remains alive and will forever endure in my mind.

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy this romp through Gus's childhood.

Aaron Paul Lazar, April 2007

When do you write a preface? Before you start?

Absolutely not!

You know how a book can transform during its creation. Twists and turns you never anticipated frequently arrive on your story’s doorstep to surprise and delight you. And sometimes that ending you imagined drops away and a whole new scene takes its place.

So, wait until your job is done. When the book is polished and almost ready to go, reflect on the process and content and if you wish, share some secrets with your dear readers.

When my recent release, Mazurka was almost ready to go, I decided it needed a few words of introduction, too. I wanted my readers to understand the originas of my passion for Europe, and why I had such a burning desire to beat up some Nazis.

Preface (Mazurka)

In 1986 I accepted an engineering assignment for Kodak in their Mülhausen manufacturing plant nestled in the Schwäbian Albs of West Germany. I settled with my wife, three baby daughters, and in-laws in the charming town of Denkendorf, near Stuttgart. We soon fell in love with the village and its people, and the affair changed our lives, fostering a passion for all things European.

Every other weekend my wife and I took road trips to Switzerland, France, Austria, or outlying areas of Germany while my in-laws babysat. We pioneered through cities in advance, creating maps of places to stay, dine, and tour. Then, on alternate weekends, I cared for my daughters while my wife treated her parents to the same trips wed completeda perfect arrangement.

I can still feel the mist from the waterfalls of the Schwarzwald, taste croissants in the Parisian cafés, and imagine frost on my breath while cross-country skiing at the base of the Eiger Mountain in Switzerland. Most vibrant is the memory of the glacial green water in the Plansee, an Austrian lake that still beckons. Life was good, and we were blessed with this exotic adventure before our world crumbled with numerous heartaches to follow.

My love for Chopin encouraged the historic link with the great master. Im mad about his mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes and more, admittedly influenced by my father and grandfathers passion for his work. And although theres no seed of truth in this fanciful story, I enjoyed studying his past and relating it to Guss travels in Europe.

When my daughter Melanie performed in The Diary of Anne Frank, my hatred for Nazis deepened. So, I threw in a few of the worst villains I could imagine. Its not surprising that they became neo-Nazis.

Since then, the visions, tastes, aromas, and tantalizing details of Europe branded in my brain have begged to be released. And although in this book Ive strayed only temporarily from East Goodland where the LeGarde family resides, I felt compelled to transport Gus, Camille, and Siegfried to Europefor at least one visit.

Thanks for supporting the LeGarde Mysteries and for your allegiance. I pray you enjoy this romp through Europe.

Auf Wiedersehen,

Aaron Paul Lazar, 2009

Sometimes it’s important to address topics you’ve incorporated with a little bit of fantastical twisting. For example, in the above preface, I wanted to explain in no uncertain terms that master Chopin did not have a steamy affair with Gus’s ancestors.

And in books to come, such as Firesong (August 2010), I need to explain that the links to the underground railroad in Gus’s hometown are loosely based on theories of possible routes of escape wending through Western New York. In my current WIP, I’ll need to clarify and possibly apologize for screwing with the history of Groveland, New York. When I go to great lengths to discover that the Tory ambush that happened just down the road from Gus’s house was actually a set-up, the local historians might get a wee bit flustered. So, explanations in advance can be a good thing. And save you from angry petitioners.

Just recently, I was working on the final polishes for Healey’s Cave: a green marble mystery, featuring Sam Moore (April, 2010). I realized I needed to “talk” to my readers to share the motivation for suddenly abandoning Gus LeGarde and his family to begin this new series. I explained that Gus will continue, and that I never anticipated a whole NEW series would arise from an off-hand comment my wife made.

Preface (Healey’s Cave)

I blame this book on my wife.

I was minding my own business, wrapping up the fifth novel in the LeGarde Mystery series, when she turned to me and said, “You need to write a book from the killer’s point of view.”

I laughed out loud. I’d always written in first person, from a man whose character was diametrically opposed to villains. He was a good man, a man I admired and wanted to share with the world. Sure, he had his faults, but how could I switch from that kind of mindset to the inner thoughts of a killer?

Dale reads Stephen King and James Patterson. She loves psychological thrillers and even a little horror. Not like me with my relatively wholesome mysteries that skirt around the gruesome details of murder.

I put aside the thought until shortly thereafter, while rototilling my garden, I unearthed a green marble, a cat’s eye. I held it in my hand and wondered about the little boy or girl who lost it. I imagined how neat it would be to hold the marble tight in my hand and have it whisk me back in time to the boy’s life. I’d be able to see what he saw, walk beside him, and maybe witness some horrible crime. And what if the villain were still alive today? What if he was my next-door neighbor?

That was all it took to dislodge me from the LeGarde Mysteries for a few months. With my wife’s urging, I gave into the desire to create a new world. I didn’t expect it to turn into another series. But it did.

This is book one in the green marble series, otherwise known as Moore Mysteries. And yes, I blame my wife for the whole thing.

Aaron Paul Lazar

Now that I’ve analyzed my own prefaces, I realize exactly what they are: a vehicle for me to take my reader’s hand, look into his or her eyes, and tell her what burning secrets I need to share about each particular “child” (er, book).

Think about the books you’ve written or plan to write. What will you want to tell your readers before they begin page one?

Or will you want your book to stand on its own, mysterious in its beginnings and influences? Will those secrets go to the grave with you?

In some cases, perhaps they should. ;o)


Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in 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 his upcoming release, HEALEY’S CAVE, coming in 2010.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Series – Creating Stories at the Fireside

© Kent Anderson 2009 all rights reserved

I’ve always enjoyed series – reading them, collecting them, pondering them and the anticipation they can create. I like watching authors take familiar characters and improvise with them against the constraints created by prior books and predicaments. I like searching for continuity, I like the accumulation of details, and I like the reinvention that series have to occasionally go through to survive.

But writing a series always seemed out of reach to me. Yes, the lone work, the standalone, the one-off – those I could do. But did I have enough storytelling in me to execute a series?

Writing comes easily to me. I like to dabble with ideas, and writing them out has always been a very effective way to understand what I’m thinking. I’ve used humor, prose, poetry, fiction, and drama to attempt to illustrate or explore some creative spark. But how do you go beyond the spark? How do you strike a flame? How do you create a cozy creative fireside from which you can tell numerous stories?

My series of stories started with a big idea that allowed me to see a pathway through literary concepts I could transform into fiction.

The idea emerged from research into the physiology of thought, and how humans reconcile external and internal phenomenon, objective and subjective reality, and cognitive and emotional realms by using metaphors.

A metaphor! It was a happy thought when I first encountered the research. I was an English major. I could feel this in my bones! This works for me!

Metaphors are useful to humans because they help us explain things we’re seeing for the first time or are finding hard to understand. They root the abstract or new into familiar reality. As a recent piece by Drake Barrett in the Boston Globe stated:

Metaphors aren’t just how we talk and write, they’re how we think. At some level, we actually do seem to understand temperament as a form of temperature, and we expect people’s personalities to behave accordingly. What’s more, without our body’s instinctive sense for temperature–or position, texture, size, shape, or weight–abstract concepts like kindness and power, difficulty and purpose, and intimacy and importance would simply not make any sense to us.

When I learned that researchers were using metaphors much in the way a detective might use them, I felt a surge of an idea – I could create a detective who used intuition and metaphors, much like Sherlock Holmes used deductive reasoning and physical evidence. It could be an elegant updating of the tradition, a way to leverage thought and language into the realm of the private detective.

And it could be fun. After all, wordplay, dialog, and mental exercises would be part of the drama.

But it couldn’t be too cerebral, or the fireside would soon be abandoned as readers grew bored and drifted away. It had to be riveting.

Yet I knew I had more than a spark of an idea. I had a steadily burning taper in my hand, a flame that wouldn’t extinguish easily. And since metaphors are abundant, I also could see that I had plenty of firewood for my storytelling sessions. Raw materials were suddenly everywhere.

I’ve written two novels so far using these ideas, and am working hard on the third. The detective’s name is Johnny Denovo. He’s world-famous, good-looking, and a combination of ex-neuroscientist and media creation. He’s pretty cool.

I chose the name “Denovo” since it comes from the Latin phrase for “of the new.” I wanted him to be a metaphor for the new detective, one that expands the bounds of how a detective might work. Also, since his backstory includes the fact that he shed his real identity in order to become this private detective, he was also new in another sense.

The first novel, SPAM & EGGS: A JOHNNY DENOVO MYSTERY, introduces the detective and his circle of friends and allies. It also was the first self-published book I’ve done. I work in publishing for a living, on the product development side, so I’d been watching print-on-demand and self-publishing for a while. When I found I had a book of my own, I decided it was only fitting that I give it a try.

Fortunately, the book has been very well received, getting better reviews than I could have ever imagined. But while I waited on pins and needles for the first reviews, I wrote and wrote and wrote, and soon a second book was completed, THE GREEN MONSTER: A JOHNNY DENOVO MYSTERY. It came out in September 2009.

Both books started with a conceptual metaphor. These are metaphors like over-under or inside-outside (any binary metaphor will do). The people who study this area believe these are fundamental to our understanding of the world as infants, and inform our understanding of the world overall. They are basic, almost primal.

My protagonist has to determine who is up to no good, which metaphors matter, and then he can turn these back on the perpetrators, anticipate their next moves, and even drive them over edge because he’s able to get under their metaphorical skin.

One clue he uses is to watch for metaphors. Often, people use them when they’re struggling to explain something, and it can signal deception. It’s the first sniff test.

There are plenty of other trappings for series. In fact, a highbrow concept is often the last thing you want as a reader, so I’ve buried the big concept in the more traditional things that make a series rewarding to read – great characters, witty dialog, fast action, interwoven social commentary or factual knowledge, and good plots that work both for each book and for longer dramatic arcs spanning several books.

For me, as an author, writing a series has been very rewarding. I really have to think through the characters, and since continuity is so tricky, I had to write a backstory for each. Also, I had to basically write the outline of the case in which my protagonist changed his identity and found himself thrust into the role of a world-famous private investigator. So there’s a more complete backdrop to the entire set of works, something I like and appreciate as a fan of series. I feel like I’m doing something I myself would like to read.

And, ultimately, that’s the test I keep holding myself to: Do I find it hard to put my own books down? Do I see it on the shelf across the room and remember it fondly? Do I see the two next to each other and think the combination is even stronger? Do I want to read them again? Do I want to write them again?

So far, all the answers have been “Yes.” And as long as I keep getting answers in the affirmative, Johnny Denovo will continue to snare high-stakes criminals by exploiting the metaphors of the mind.

About the author:

Kent Anderson is an author living in central Massachusetts, writing mysteries under the pen name Andrew Kent. He's been in publishing for more than 20 years as a writer, editor, designer, publisher, and product development expert.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Welcome to your new novel

Yesterday I received an email from the organizers of NanoWriMo that my 2009 novel beckons. For those of you still unfamiliar with Nano and what it is all about, click here and read up.

I have participated every year I could, not to finish and get the cool badge, but to get in a serious amount of word count. The first year I did it, I wrote the bulk of Avenging Angel, and the second year, I wrote the bulk of a historical/paranormal YA, that as of yet has not gone anywhere.

I think this sort of "get in that writing chair" sort of competition has a great following because we all want SOMETHING to poke us and make us write. At least it works for me!

I hope this will be the year I use all this hard effort to turn out a 50,000 word count that turns into the best book of my life. I hope if you participate it is the same for you.

So here's to Nano and to all the people who will turn the entire month into a great big writing event. If you have a team, or want to be my friend on the forums etc. at the Nano site, look me up. I will friend you back. Let's make this year, the best year ever!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What I Learned From Donald Maass

© Marta Stephens 2009 all rights reserved

It’s rare to see hundreds of familiar and not so familiar authors in one gathering, but this week, Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana, an hour’s drive from my home, was humming with a host of talent. This was the first time I attended Bouchercon, the largest mystery writers’ conference in the U.S. that ran from October 14 – October 18. I had a ball talking with old friends and meeting new ones. I especially enjoyed sitting in and listening to a few panel discussions led by Lee Childs, Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Thomas H. Cook, and Sara Paretsky to name only a few. A full list of the attendees is listed on this site

For me, the experience began on October 14, at the Sisters in Crime writing workshop presented by literary agent Donald Maass and author of, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, THE CAREER NOVELIST, and his latest, THE FIRE IN FICTION. This, without question, was where I needed to be at this particular point in my writing career. I expected him to be knowledgeable and full of the experience I needed to hear. I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. What I didn’t expect was to see how down to earth, humorous, and totally approachable the man is.

His four-hour presentation focused on the work in progress and how to turn a first draft into a breakout novel. Since I’d just finished the first draft of my next book, I was anxious and totally ready to soak in his wisdom. One of the things he honed in on were the main characters of a book; the protagonist and antagonist. To understand and turn these characters into 3-D personas, he suggested digging deep into our own personalities (or someone we admire) —likes and dislikes, positive and negatives, the contrary traits that makes a person interesting. What makes your blood boil or makes you laugh? We were instructed to write phrase that incorporates these contrasts and decided if it would fit into our book. The point of the exercise was to create internal tension. In essence, you can have all the thunder and lightening or action packed scenes you want, but the kind of tension that makes the reader turn a page is the internal struggles we give our characters.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from my first chapter (first draft) where I tried to apply this concept. See what you think. In this scene, Rhonie Lude is visiting an elderly lady who has been a friend for some years. When the friend asks about one of Rhonie’s past lovers, Rhonie replies:

Original paragraph:

“He’s gone, remember?” I didn’t want to spell out the gory details of Paul’s parting again. I was surprised that she didn’t remember—she’d struggled with it for days. How could she forget my disgust over her meddling? Our affair had been over longer than it lasted. I kept reminding myself that some things were best forgotten, but if I couldn’t convince myself, what made me think she’d believe me now. Gone was all she needed to know.

Revised paragraph:

“He’s gone, remember?” The sound of Paul’s name made me rush to my feet and take three steps in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to spell out the gory details of his parting again. After all, it’d been two of years—what good would it do to bring it up now? Today, the look in her eyes matched the innocent sweetness in her voice. How could I bring myself to argue the point? She was my friend, my mentor and I’d forgiven her much over the years, but Paul wasn't one of them. She'd played us like a couple of puppets—telling him things, putting words in my mouth. How could she forget my disgust over her meddling? Why dredge it up from that place where hurtful memories are conveniently stored, but never completely forgotten? I cleared my throat of the urge to cry and stared at the dreary blank wall across the room. No, some things were best left alone. For now, gone was all she needed to know.

One of the things Maass suggested doing was to read the pages of our manuscripts in random order—no, actually what he said was to take the manuscript out of the notebook and toss the pages in the air, let them land on the floor, and read one page at a time in random order. Then, find one place on each page were you can insert internal tension.

The key messages I walked away with from this workshop were:
  1. The internal struggle must be fundamentally personal.

  2. Raise the stakes for your character. Keep asking, if this is a bad situation, what would make it worse?

  3. You can't rush the writing. Making changes to the manuscript isn't easy. It could mean added 20-30 more pages. It could mean cutting out your favorite scene. The question is, what will get you there (published) sooner? Getting it done sooner or getting it done right?

I'm shooting for "right" so am reading every sentence, every paragraph in this book starting with chapter one and will find a way to push the tension button. By the way, I bought his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. Guess how he signed it? "Tension on every page!"

About the Author
Marta Stephens writes crime mystery/suspense. Her books are 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.

THE DEVIL CAN WAIT (2008) Bronze Medal Finalist, 2009 IPPY Awards Top Ten, 2008 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).
SILENCED CRY (2007) Honorable Mention, 2008 New York Book Festival
Top Ten, 2007 Preditors and Editors Reader Poll (mystery).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Hey, Everybody in the 212

I'm headed down to New York City tomorrow! This biannual trip is loads of fun for me - and very productive. I write on the way down, write on the way back, write in my hotel room, and in between I work with really awesome people and eat really awesome food! And I get paid for this ... yes, I do know how lucky I am. :-)

Here's some of our gang's favorite New York places:

The Hotel Pennsylvania

We work here, sleep here, and hang out in the lobby watching hundreds of people come in and out, listening to them speak a dozen different languages, and generally being amazed at all of it.

Niles Restaurant

Conveniently located three blocks from the hotel, this is an awesome restaurant and a Bradley Communications tradition for dinner at least one night. They have the absolute best crab cakes I've ever had. And the cheesecake! Mmmmm...

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar

Just amazing. Who would have thought a place that serves nothing but "dumplings" could have such a variety - and that they would all be sooooo good? My fave is the fried chicken and thai basil dumpling with peanut dipping sauce.

Okay, that's my second favorite menu item. My first love at Rickshaw is these:

Chocolate dumplings! Best. Dessert. EVER!

The Empire State Building

Even the inside of the place is beautiful (that's part of the floor up there). And once I got to the top last time out, all I could think was:

Holy crap, New York is really big!

Have a great week, everybody. I'll see you next week, when I'll be a good ten Rickshaw chocolate dumplings heavier. :-)