February 5, 2012

Guest Post: Lev Raphael

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:49 pm

Rosedale In Love

I believe that the lure of crime fiction for many readers is that it orders a disordered universe, providing justice where none might otherwise exist. You might think that a mystery author would be well-equipped to find a solution when a real life mystery presents itself…but when Lev Raphael came upon the mystery at the core of his mother’s life, he learned that things aren’t as orderly outside of the fictional universe. Sometimes the answers aren’t the ones you might want. And sometimes answers don’t exist at all. So why try to solve a real life mystery? Because in the quest lies a testimony to love.

Lev Raphael

When Mystery Comes Home

I got my love of crime fiction from my mother, who was a huge fan of Agatha Christie, John Creasey, and the team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read almost all the mystery library books she brought home; they were always better than the books assigned in school! On my own, I discovered the comic mysteries of Phoebe Atwood Taylor. My mother enjoyed a good joke and had an Imogene Coca kind of laugh, but those books weren’t to her taste.

It wasn’t until after she died in 1999 that I discovered profound and unsettling mysteries in her own life that I’m still trying to unravel. My mother was a Holocaust survivor. She lost her family, her home, her freedom–and would have lost her life if the war had lasted any longer than it did. She spoke about those war years sparingly, and when she did, I was too young or too overwhelmed to ask the right questions that would have yielded more information.

Going through her things before the funeral, I found something shocking in her clothes closet. My mother had kept the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when she was liberated by the Americans in April 1945. You’ve probably seen “dresses” like these in movies and documentaries: thin, crudely sewn, it was gray with purplish stripes (though the colors may have changed over the decades). My father told me she’d washed it after the war, but he couldn’t say why she had kept this reminder of her horrible brutalization and the nightmare of seeing her world ground to dust.

I knew the names of the camps my mother had been in and contacted one via email, but nobody could find records for her. This was troubling, since I knew that despite bombings and German attempts to destroy files, records existed for many camps. And then I tried again, this time using the number on her uniform.

A world of mysteries opened up to me. For at least part of the war, my mother Helena Klaczko was listed in several Nazi records as Lidja Garbel. How do I know this Garbel and my mother are the same woman? Because the insanely detailed prisoner card for my mother at Buchenwald has her parents’ name, her street address in Poland, her education, and her birth date. All the information matches what I know to be fact. The woman with that number on her uniform was the woman listed on the card and indisputably my mother.

But why did she have another name? Even more mysterious, in a transport from one camp to another, there was a woman whose number was right before hers whose last name was also Garbel. So somehow, for some reason, my mother took this other woman’s last name as hers. But why? And why Lidja? Was it possible there had been an actual Lidja Garbel whose name my mother had assumed for some reason? The sister of this Frida Garbel?

My father had no idea what the answers were or what any of it could mean. And when I told him that this same Buchenwald prisoner card said my mother was married to a Mikhail Garbel, whereabouts “unknown,” he scoffed. “People said all kinds of things during the war.”

I had written a handful of Nick Hoffman mysteries by this point, and even been reviewed in the New York Times my mother revered. Sadly, my mother never got to read any of them because she was so sick when they started coming. But nothing in any of them matched these real-life mysteries whose solutions I have pursued in many directions, without answer.

Sometimes I wonder if there really was a Mikhail Garbel or even a Lidja Garbel, or if both were made up. Sometimes I think, what if my mother was married before she met my father? Sometimes I think, “There is a book in this, if only I can find it.” And I also wonder if my mother read mysteries not just as a fan, but as someone who had turned her own life into something mysterious.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Lev Raphael is a pioneer in writing fiction about America’s Second Generation, publishing his first short story about children of survivors in 1978. Many of his early stories on this theme were collected in his award-winning book, Dancing on Tisha B’Av.

Born and raised in New York City, he received his MFA in Creative Writing and English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he won the Harvey Swados Fiction Prize, for a Holocaust-themed story later published in Redbook. Winner of the Reed Smith Fiction Prize and International Quarterly’s Prize for Innovative Prose, Raphael holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University. Raphael taught at the university level for 13 years and the first course he designed was a multi-disciplinary study of the Holocaust. He left teaching in 1988 to write and review full-time.

January 24, 2012

What Happened After My Book Sold

Filed under: Frontstory,The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:13 pm

Before my novel finally sold, after 11 long years of trying, I wrote a backstory column on this blog. It contains lots of posts about what brought me to this point, what my struggles were, what worked, what didn’t, how to get an agent, how to lose an agent, and the like.

It’s hard for me to look over that column. There were hard times along the way. Times I despaired, although something kept me at it, and at it again, till my head bled. You know, from the banging against brick walls.

I didn’t have it rough by many writers’ standards, and I’m grateful for that. For 8 years of my journey-to-get-published, I was able mostly to stay home, take care of my kids, and squeeze writing in around that. But there were certainly the nights when, hoping to hear some pearl from an author, something that might illuminate whatever I wasn’t doing or was doing wrong, I drove through snowstorms  in the dark, lost, and crying because I was missing out on another night with my family for this pointless pursuit. Who cared if it was a dream?

Then my book sold, and I figured that backstory column ended with a bang. (If you look at the pic, it did in fact end with a bang.) But then something nice happened. I started getting emails asking what was going on. When was my book coming out? And when I named a date, How come it took so long?

I realized that possibly always, but especially in these changing times in publishing, what goes on behind the scenes at a publishing house is pretty opaque. Mysterious. (And when my book finally does come out, you’ll see there’s little I like better than figuring out a mystery). Thanks to the kind interest from readers, it started me thinking that maybe people would like one bird’s eye view of this process.

I can’t say what debuting in traditional publishing circa 2011-2013 is like for everybody, of course. But I can share details about how it’s going for me. I hope they interest you. As always, if you have any questions or thoughts, just email me. This new column–let’s call it frontstory–is a conversation between us. It’s a journal I’m writing about this momentous journey.

And I thank you for sharing it with me.

I’ll start with where I was when I finally got the news from my agent that there was an offer, just because it speaks to how life sometimes pairs the most elevated with the most mundane.

I was Swiffing my living room floor. My agent actually apologized for calling me twice–apparently she’d left a message a little earlier and I’d missed it. I hope I wasn’t doing something even lesser at the time, like scrubbing the tile grout.

“I have some good news,” my agent said, in her dignified, understated way. (When my agent promises something big is about to happen, oh boy, do I listen. This is not a woman who embellishes. A welcome trait in today’s marketing-laden world.)

After she told me that BE (Brilliant Editor) had made an offer, I squealed at her: “And you were apologizing for calling me back??”

Then we laughed together.

My husband and I picked up my son at preschool, and drove to my daughter, who was in first grade at the time.

“Where are we going?” my son asked.

“You’ll see,” said my husband. “Just wait. We can’t tell you yet.”

We called my daughter out of class. We told both kids in the lobby of the school. They hugged me for long enough that I could almost–almost hold onto that moment. These are the kids that held a parade around the house, carrying posters which said, Gat publisht. To whom I had to apologize when the words took me away from them for too long. They knew what this meant.

After that I had to do something even more mundane than Swiffing or scrubbing grout–one of those annual medical tests women and men have to endure (though they’re different ones usually). It was from the waiting room that I called DWF (Dear Writing Friend) to share the news.

Things got a lot less mundane than housecleaning and checkups a few weeks later. A few moments stand out. And, since every mystery has a cliffhanger, I’ll tell you about them in the next frontstory post.

Guest Post: Stephen Brayton

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 9:23 am


Stephen Brayton is one of the funniest guys I’ve met. One of the things I find so cool about the internet is that it introduces you to people in far flung locations who go on to become good friends. Dear friends. Sometimes people who feel like family. When you get to know people that well, you learn things about them that aren’t necessarily a part of their author persona. I love that, too–how we can accept and respect each other not for the slick sides, but even for the warty bumps. In this case, however, humor is definitely a part of Stephen, as author and general good guy. Read on and he’ll tell you the role he sees comedy playing in mysteries…and life.

Stephen Brayton

Lighten Up Already

Unless you’re the prude of your generation, everybody likes a humorous story. Some light-hearted anecdote to bring a smile or a gentle chuckle.

Many authors will insert humor into their stories, even if the subject matter is serious or the tone is dramatic. Humor gives the reader a rest, a small break before diving back into the deep end. My favorite example comes from the Hitchcock movie “Topaz”. The entire movie concerns spies. However, the one small moment comes near the middle when Hitchcock makes his appearance, as he did in all his movies. It’s an airport scene and Al is being pushed in a wheelchair through the terminal. Suddenly, he stops, stands and walks off camera. It’s one of those scenes where you stop for just a second and think, “What just happened?” The scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but it’s mildly funny because of its ironic inclusion.

Of course, many books are purposely humor based. I cite Evanovitch’s Plum novels and Barry’s “Big Trouble”. They’re written to be cynical or slapstick and designed to show the corny side of life.

Many private detectives (and those non-detectives who end up being one anyway) have a lighter side. Many are cynical, ironic, or sarcastic. How many detective novels have you read where the hero mouths off to the bad guy even in a life threatening situation?

When I set out to write stories featuring my private investigator/martial artist, Mallory Petersen, I wanted to add a humorous side to her. I didn’t want her to be a hard-boiled, world weary, life’s-a-drag kind of person.

Mallory is tall and blonde and beautiful. She’s an exceptional martial artist who cares about her students and her clients. She puts her all into making sure her taekwondo school offers the best training and again while investigating her cases.

I didn’t want Mallory to handle only the serious cases. She has to have fun. So, I made the majority of her clients and crooks come from the nuttier side of life. In “Beta” she sets up surveillance equipment to find out who is stealing snacks from a local bakery and finds the thief doing some outrageous things. Her tailing of a high school girl’s boyfriend has her discovering his less than stellar intelligence. When she spies upon a philandering husband and his mistress, she snaps pictures of an interesting dichotomy between the parties in question.

Many of the bad guys and minor characters Mallory encounters throughout the book are not the typical thug with a weapon and a bad attitude. The gang banger has an unusual handle. The armed robber dresses in drag. The hygienically challenged informant she cons using her feminine wiles. The flustered receptionist. Even in her taekwondo she finds a stray bit of humor. Her instructors are trying to discover which child is urinating in the locker room’s waste can.

I purposely set out to include humor in “Beta” to temper the subject matter of the serious case. I’m not giving away spoilers by mentioning the kidnapped girl in the story is subjected to the hell of child pornography. This is a heinous crime and I hope I’ve given enough details without causing too much revulsion. I want the reader to become emotional about this child and about Mallory’s feelings and frustrations during her search for her. But I give the reader a rest by putting Mallory in a few humorous scenes.

Humor can be difficult. There is a temptation to steal from comedians. I couldn’t resist using an old joke regarding the philandering husband. However, the urinating taekwondo student and the ditzy receptionist are based on actual incidents.

When you’re writing humor, look around you. You don’t necessarily have to make up a joke or grab lines from professional funny people. Life brings us humor nearly every day. From the politicians to klutz in the part to Aunt Mary getting beaned by a water balloon.

By utilizing humor, you may find your story stepping up to the next level, and hopefully your readers’ enjoyment will too.

Stephen Brayton is a Fifth Degree Black Belt instructor in the American Taekwondo Association. He started martial arts training in 1991, earned his black belt in 1993, and gained his instructor certification in 1995.

Stephen has been employed in various fields: radio broadcaster and sales, printing, warehouse/trucking, and hospitality. He’s a reader; a writer; an instructor; a graphic designer; a lover of books, movies, wine, women, music, fine food, good humor, sunny summer days spent hiking or fishing; and a catnip drug dealer to his thirteen pound cat, Thomas.

January 16, 2012

There’s More Than One Way to Edit a Cat

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 2:33 pm

As I crawled out of my editing cave a while ago–literally: I completed my second round of edits for my new editor in the dim recesses of my childhood basement–and finally got to reconnect with friends on the internet, students, and writers who’d emailed me, I became aware of a confusion.

Not just me, muddle-headed, and blinky-eyed from the stuporous effects of intense editing. But something that may be confusing to many of us as we go about this process of perfecting our writing.

I got emails from writers talking about the need to upload clean copy, ridding their manuscripts of the kinds of typos and grammatical mistakes that can plague even the most experienced author’s early drafts, depending upon how feverishly that draft emerges. Some of them asked me how much time should be spent on this process.

Correcting copy is a necessary step. These mistakes can jump out at the reader. If the book is traditionally published, readers tend to be aghast that any errors slip in. And if the book is independently-published, then the standard might be even higher, since people will be looking for red flags suggesting that the book belongs in what’s come to be called the ghetto of prematurely slapped together volumes.

It’s a necessary step of the process, yes. But it’s also the last step.

You know how there’s more than one way to skin a cat? It applies to your novel as well.

This how the trajectory works for me personally. Perhaps it will change as I get more experience–in some ways I hope so. (Oh, please save me from drafts that number twenty-one, save me from that basement again). But I suspect that all three of the below apply to all serious writers always.

  • Developmental editing: You turn your baby over to trusty readers who find issues, which no matter how good a self-editor you are, inevitably slip in. You might be heck at structure and logic, story-tagging every one of your sixty scenes, but your dialog reads a little woodenly, or your characters are stock. You might write exquisite prose–sometimes too exquisite. It’s objective eyes that will tell you when a description of a violet sunrise becomes just…purple. Or that you really can’t start off with thirty people dying in an explosion, unless you want to fulfill the demand of rising stakes by killing 30,000 at the climax. In whichever case, this is the stage when the meat of your story comes under examination. In some way, shape, or form you will have to go back and spend weeks if not months reshaping and revising. Then you hand it out to completely new readers–and get to do this step all over again. They will find stuff. People will always find stuff. Knowing when to stop is the subject of another blog post.
  • Line editing: Here is where those clunky or awkward sentences get smoothed out. Maybe you can spot them, but I’d still recommend a good pair (or two or three) of objective eyes on your work. The book works in terms of the major craft areas: plot, structure, character, dialog, scene, arc. But there’s still stylistic work to be done to make sure you’ve mined every area for its greatest impact, to make sure the story reads well. After all, that’s what’s coming before too long. Real readers reading.
  • Polishing: Only here do you finally address typos and the kinds of slips you can read a hundred times before someone points out that you spelled “the woman” with an e: “the women”. The missed words, the clauses that dangle, the me’s for an I or vice versa. This is painstaking work, but it is relatively easy, and if you’ve completed stages one and two with rigor, then it won’t take very long. Before you know it, you will have a thoroughly edited, submission- or publication-ready book.

Here the two roads, traditionally and independently published, divide. On the traditional one, what I found at least–what drove me to that dastardly basement (kidding, I love the basement)–was that even though I was sure all three stages had been completed and completed again, my editor had a vision. And she was right. There was more to do in step 1, and if I could do it successfully, I would have a better book than I had written the first eighteen times. Professional, industry eyes on your work in addition to your trusty or beta readers is something I think all novels benefit from. It’s not always possible to get that, and when it’s not, the solution might be an even higher number of trustys so that you get a truly wide range of responses.

It’s a lot of work. It’s a crazy amount of work. Work we can only do in the bottom of a basement, figurative or physical. We have to descend to great depths to claw that one, shining thing out of us that ultimately becomes our best book.

And if we do it right, what happens? Then we get to do it again, with our next book, and our next.

Time to open up the basement door and go in.

January 11, 2012

Guest Post: Lois Winston

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 8:21 am

Contest Update: Congratulations to reader Lynn Demsky who won an e copy of DEATH BY KILLER MOP DOLL! Thanks to all of you for entering, and here’s to many more giveaways to come!

Death By Killer Mop Doll

Today’s guest post (please welcome back to the blog the incomparable Lois Winston) reminds me of a Billy Joel song I frequently find myself humming:

But if I go cold
I won’t get sold
I’ll get put in the back
In the discount rack
Like another can of beans.

Have a listen, and then read on below to see what Lois says about the gig she and all authors must play when their books come out. Is this role at odds with being a writer? Does it work for some authors and not others? Or is the act of writing a book, to paraphrase Stephen King, an unclosed circle and all the readings and signings and tweeting and blogging a way of reaching the only people who can close it–readers like the good folks who stop by here? Please weigh in on Lois’ lively discussion topic!

Lois Winston

National Book Blitz Month
by Lois Winston

Did you know that January is National Book Blitz Month? I didn’t. But apparently the month-long observance was created by a public relations executive “to encourage authors to promote their own books” and “focus attention on improving the relationships between authors and the media in order to create a best-selling book.”

Huh? As I sit here scratching my head, I have to wonder how much that public relations executive knows about the world of publishing. Or maybe the observance was first established many years ago, back in the golden years of publishing when all an author had to do was write great books and her publisher took care of everything else. A Google search turned up very little information on the subject of National Book Blitz Month, and there doesn’t seem to be a National Book Blitz Month website.

In today’s publishing reality, authors are expected to pound the pavement both literally and cyberly, promoting their books. Unless you’re a bestselling author (and sometimes not even then), your publisher will devote very little effort and dollars to tell the world about you and your book. It’s mostly up to you.

So we authors, the majority of us who are shy by nature and prefer to hole up in our writer caves, are forced to take a deep breath, pull up our big girl pants, and become a sales force of one. We book talks and signings and jump on the social network bandwagon. Whether we want to or not. We have no idea if any of it will help sell our books, but if we don’t get the word out about those books, there’s a good chance we won’t sell many of them. And if we don’t sell many books, chances are, we won’t be offered another contract to write more books.

All I want to do is write!I don’t know an author who hasn’t uttered that lament from time to time. But the truth is, we have to do a lot more than just write. And that’s why I’m visiting Suspense Your Disbelief today (thanks for inviting me, Jenny!) In celebration of National Book Blitz Month and the release of Death By Killer Mop Doll, the second book in my Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, I’m on a month-long blog tour.

So whether you’re a reader or a writer, tell me how you feel about author promotion. Post a comment, and you could win one of 5 signed copies of Death By Killer Mop DollI’m giving away as part of my blog tour this month. The full tour schedule can be found at my website, http://www.loiswinston.com, and the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog, http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com. In addition, I’m giving away 3 copies of Death By Killer Mop Doll on Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/15173-death-by-killer-mop-doll.

Also, for anyone attending The American Library Association’s Mid-Winter conference January 20-24 in Dallas, Midnight Ink will be raffling off the hand-crafted mop doll shown in the photo during the opening reception Friday evening. Register for the drawing at the Midnight Ink booth #1459.

Lois Winston is the author of the critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries published by Midnight Ink. Assault With a Deadly Glue Gun, the first book in the series, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The new year brings with it the release of Death By Killer Mop Doll, the second book in the series. Read an excerpt here. Visit Lois at her website and Anastasia at the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers blog. You can also follow Lois and Anastasia on Twitter @anasleuth.

December 24, 2011

Guest Post: Michael Pilla

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:04 pm

For all the wonderful readers of Suspense Your Disbelief! Whichever holiday you celebrate–or if you celebrate no holiday at all–please accept this laugh out loud funny take on a classic poem by the talented Michael Pilla as my gift at year’s end to you all. I am so grateful for each and every reader who stops by the blog, those who comment and contribute to some of the amazing conversations that have gone on, and of course, every author, writer, and reader who has graced us with a guest post. I hope that 2012 brings many wonderful things into all of your lives, and many more wonderful days on the blog. Happy New Year!

Michael Pilla

Twas the Tweet before Christmas

And all through the ‘net, there were last minute specials,

And shopping time yet!

Photos were sent to the cloud with great care

So family and friends would be able to share.

The usual gadgets, some small and some large

Were all neatly plugged in for their overnight charge.

And Mom on her iPad and me on my Mac

Were Skype-ing our friends while having a snack.

When then our connection was lost to the router,

I yanked off my earbuds to see what was the matter.

A tingling I felt, from my head to my toes

Spying a red mini cooper — festooned with logos!

Flying faster than video on 1080p

The driver called out his sponsors, as clear as can be…

Now ebay, now Apple, now Am’zon and Zappos

On Google, on Priceline, on Fedex and Fios.

I knew in a moment, without any pause

It was the new and improved Santa —”Cyber Clause”.

Struck speechless was I, much like a mime

But I had to go greet him and grab some face time.

His clothes were Armani, to give him his due

He looked healthy and rested, and much slimmer too.

No more with the sleigh, or toys in the sack

That was old Clause, with the bad back.

“I’m the Mayor of Christmas,” he chortled with glee,

As he checked in with FourSquare, before speaking to me

“With gadgets, and cards”, he briefly explained

“My job’s become easier, no need to strain

I’ve streamlined my workshop, there’s much less to do

Put a factory in China, reindeers in a zoo.

I layed off some elves, I now work part time —

Since I developed an app to keep kiddies in line.

No more written lists of those naughty and nice,

I get real time updates, don’t have to check twice.”

He dropped off some gifts that were both pretty and small

And sucked down the Red Bull I left in the hall.

Then quick as a wink he dashed out to his car,

It started right up, and was bright as star.

He texted my Droid as he drove out of sight —

“Like me on Facebook” and have a good night!

As a creative director, internet marketer, graphic designer, illustrator and entrepreneur, Michael Pilla has built his career achieving business objectives through the targeted use of art and technology for clients in the arts, entertainment. real estate, professional services and small business.

Michael has served as an Associate Creative Director for the Sponsorship Group at the iVillage.com, where he created interactive advertising for Fortune 100 companies including Clinique, CompUSA, Ford, Fuji Film, and PNC Bank. He next brought his talents to ModemMedia, working on IBM, GE, and the development of IBOL (Investment Bankers Online) portal for USB Warburg.

A sought-after speaker on the power of Internet marketing, Michael has spoken at events for the Westchester Business Council, Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, the Arts and Business Council of New York and Yonkers Partners in Education. He has also taught internet and design courses at Pratt Institute, Pace University and Mercy College.

December 20, 2011

On Butter and Horse & Buggies: An Ode to Reading

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 12:53 pm

Let me say right at the outset that I am thrilled when I hear that more people are reading in 2011 than in 2009, thanks in large part to e readers. Or that other folks are avoiding shin splints by not having to lug bagfuls of books on the plane. Or even that person X just finds reading on her device a better experience than flipping pages ever was.

If you’re reading, that’s great, and let’s talk story–not medium.

I am a live and let live kind of person. I believe that there are shades of gray and nuance to most things, and that wisdom is seldom found at the poles. It does take all kinds, and I’m so glad for all the kinds there are.

Ahem. All that said.

I love books. And bookstores as most of you know. I believe there are unique pleasures to be found with both of these things. A world without print books and bookstores would for me be a tiny apocalypse.

Maybe a not so tiny one.

I’m happy if people love their Kindles, but I’m less happy when they refer to the alternative as DTBs (I happen to think the jury is still out on whether cutting down trees/fossil fuel-heavy distribution is less green than making ever updateable battery-dependent electronic devices) or when people make the claim that 30 years from now books will be to e readers as horse & buggies were to cars in 1930.

Maybe that will turn out to be so [shrieking as I glimpse the apocalypse]. I don’t claim to have any great predictive powers.

But maybe alongside the convenience, cost-saving, and instantaneous benefits of e readers, people will rediscover a deep and abiding love for the medium of page turning and paper-sniffing and the eye-bending and tactile experience that a truly gorgeous cover can deliver.

Is the horse and buggy the right analogy?

Let me present another one.

In the 1950s we were moving into a whole new era of food. Better living through chemistry. (As a tangent, remember ChemLawn? Can you imagine a world where the pairing of those two words made the customer say, I want to pour me some of that on my lawn?) People, propelled in no small part by the margarine council or the transfats council or whatever it was, started proponing the health benefits of margarine over butter.

Flash forward half a century and we’re just beginning to understand that cholesterol actually doesn’t get lower when we eat saturated soybean oil–and even that cholesterol as we measure it today is only arguably responsible for heart disease. (Give it 10 more years. You’ll see).

But I’m not suggesting people will figure out that e readers actually cause cancer. Remember? I’m happy to have both, or some future, as yet unknown alternative.

What I’m trying to say is that even when margarine appeared to be coming in strong, people still ate butter. We didn’t have to kill all the cows. The butter could be churned and sold to those who wanted it, and when the slow food movement began, we could be offered even more varietals of butter than we once ever conceived of.

Maybe there will be a slow reading movement one day.

Or maybe we can all just figure out that there’s room for both camps and what we find in either is a great love of story.

I take that horse and buggy analogy and raise it…one pat of butter.

December 14, 2011

On Editors & Editing: a Call to Arms for Indie Authors

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:57 pm

This is how my Thanksgiving holiday was spent.


Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had turkey. And all the fixings, thanks to my giving and devoted mother, who was willing to do almost all of the cooking, while I hunkered down in the basement of my childhood home and…edited.

For about twelve hours a day through the holiday and for another two weeks after that.

Let me say at the outset that although this was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done on anything fiction, I was grateful for every second of bleeding, hair-pulling work. Grateful to have a book coming out. Grateful to have the time to make it better. Grateful to have an editor smart enough to know that the book needed more editing.

I’m one of those writers who feels insanely lucky to get to be doing this all day, not quite for a living yet, but hey, my book isn’t even out. I liken writing to the combined joy of summer vacation/Christmas morning/falling in love/finding out you’re having a baby (when you want to be). I flipping love it.

I did not love this. Steam poured from my ears, blood seeped from my pores. But my editor has on her list–I’ve been trying to count–maybe 7 NYT-bestselling and award-winning authors? The woman is brilliant. If she says my book needs work, then my book needs work.

During those times when I was staggering around, pulling out my hair, I started thinking.

I started thinking about good friends of mine, like indie political thriller author Steve Piacente, who has recently raised on his blog the issue of traditional media not reviewing self-published manuscripts.

I started thinking about an author on a FB group I’m part of who cautioned indie authors from uploading their early drafts.

And I thought about screenwriting guru Richard Walter, who said that the #1 mistake he sees writers making is submitting their work too soon.

I came to some tough realizations about myself. For one thing, I realized that if I didn’t have an editor of this caliber telling me my book needed more work, then I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s too hard. The closer a book comes to good, the harder it is to go back and pick it apart. (One editor/writer friend likened it to un-weaving cashmere. Or solving the Rubik’s Cube when you’re only one square away). Whichever simile you prefer, I know I would’ve called my book satisfactory at draft 19. Or 10.

I have many indie author friends, and I know how spectacular their books can be. Many write books whose level I aspire to. I want these books to attract the attention they deserve.

One thing I believe is holding that attention back is the flood of books which aren’t at the same level. Books that didn’t get revised twenty times–or even twice. And I think what is called for is a system to separate the wheat from the chaff, the serious indie writers who labor over their work–as Rick Murcer, Karen McQuestion, or Thomas Knight did, as I did in that basement on Thanksgiving–from those who have uploaded a volume in a weekend.

I don’t know what such a system would entail. An independent rating schematic? Reviews by a governing body that oversees independent authors? Some kind of algorithm, a Good Housekeeping-type seal of Approval? Reader opinions, averaged out over a massive group, such as the Amazon Vine?

The challenge will be to avoid replacing one form of gatekeeper with another–to retain what is precious in the indie world, which is democratic access to publication.

But books need to go through many drafts, and they need hard eyes upon them, eyes that will not blink before the final i is dotted. I know that now. And so does every author who’s sweating–and bleeding–out there to make sure her work is the best it can be.

Books like that deserve reviews and recognition and attention.

What kind of system can be put in place to ensure that the best of the best get that attention–no matter how they come to be in readers’ hands?

December 6, 2011

Guest Post: Terry Odell

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 12:07 am

Finding Sarah

I’m very happy to welcome author Terry ODell back to the blog. Terry also wrote one of the first Made It Moments. Today she writes about the genre boxes that the publishing world tends to think in terms of–and her liberating experience with indie publishing.

Terry Odell

When I decided to move from fan fiction to see if I could write a totally original novel (although there’s really no such thing, is there?), I began a story in my preferred genre, mystery. However, my daughters pointed out that it was a romance. Since I’d never read a romance, I didn’t understand why they thought I was writing one.

A simple sentence triggered their reaction – and this was in chapter 1, so it’s not like they’d had a lot on which to base their decision. “She looked up into those deep brown eyes again, glimpsing flecks of hazel this time.”

So, apparently I was writing a romance. I knew virtually nothing about the genre and its reader expectations (I refuse to use the terms ‘rules’ or ‘formula’ because they make things sound restrictive.) Aren’t all genres basically following rules and formulas to meet what readers want? The detective solves the crime, the hero and heroine get their HEA, or someone fixes the hole in the space-time continuum and saves the universe.

At any rate, since I had no box to fit my genre-expectations in, I wrote what resonated with me when I read any book. The characters. And that’s really what the book was about. A cop, always following the law. An independent woman determined to make her business succeed on her own.

To me, that was my box. I approached it from those basic conflicts. How could I push the cop to consider crossing his self-imposed line? How could I push the heroine into accepting help from anyone? FINDING SARAH became a story about a cop who met a woman when he responded to a crime. And about a woman who learned to understand that accepting help from someone didn’t violate her own rules of independence.

The world of publishing created a box called “Romantic Suspense” which includes every possible sub-genre of mystery, from cozy to thriller, as long as it has a romance at its heart. But that term “suspense” creates its own set of reader expectations. I’ve never thought of my books as romantic suspense. Rather, I think of them as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Because that’s what I like to read.

Although my box was a story of a relationship, publishers had even more little boxes. Was it a crime? Where was the dead body? Was it a romance? How dare I have another man show up BEFORE the hero? Was it suspense? Where was the villain’s point of view? Was it a mystery? Why was it easy to figure out who the bad guy was?

Because my box wasn’t their box. The story, to me, wasn’t about who the bad guy was. That was easy enough to see. It wasn’t even about solving the crime, which ended up being secondary. The story was having a by-the-book cop have a darn good idea who the bad guy was, but NOT be able to do anything because to do so would have meant crossing a legal line. And, of course, I needed to push him across from the white into the gray, and maybe edge into the black just a smidge. (Since it WAS a romance, he had to keep some of those reader expectations for a hero, after all).

I did find a publisher who looked outside of the usual boxes. The book met with good reviews, and was a finalist in several contests. But it didn’t sell particularly well, because marketing departments only work within the restrictions of their own boxes.

Now, with the surge in indie publishing, I’ve regained the rights, updated and polished the book, and republished it myself. Because readers don’t really care about boxes if they like the story and the characters.

(And, because I never did get into that “you can’t do that” box, I wrote an actual sequel to the book, HIDDEN FIRE, featuring the same hero and heroine, which almost never happens in romance novels. I regained the rights and published that one myself, too.)

I did manage to write a straight mystery novel. Again, publishers were confused as to whether it was a police procedural, because the main protagonist was a cop, or a cozy, because the other two main characters aren’t cops but are still trying to solve the mystery. They said the writing was strong, but they wouldn’t know how to market it. I opted to indie publish this one as well. Look for DEADLY SECRETS on my website.

Terry Odell was born in Los Angeles and after living over 3 decades in Florida, now makes her home in Colorado. An avid reader (her parents tell everyone they had to move from their first home because she finished the local library), she always wanted to “fix” stories so the characters did what she wanted.  She is an active member of the Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America.

For readers of this blog, Terry is offering a special promotion. Email Terry at terry (at) terryodell (dot) com with the words ‘Blog Offer’ in the subject line for details.

December 3, 2011

Best. TYCBD. Ever.

Filed under: Kids and Life,The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:13 pm

StoryOK, I know it was only the second one. But when I stood at the back of my hometown Watchung booksellers, and saw the children’s room packed wall-to-wall, I felt like I was part of something…magic. The enthusiasm of the storyteller who was reading winter-themed stories was magnetic. “All around the country, kids are going into bookstores today!” she said. “And I’m so happy you all came here to be with us.”

I was, too.

At last count, over 255 bookstores participated in Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day today. They’re from all 50 states and four Canadian provinces. Plus England and Australia. And 7000 people (!) visited the website. A comment on a blog asked if Malaysia should get involved. Please do! Wow–what if the Day could be a global phenomenon??

Most of you probably know that I am a big-time print book lover. In fact, it wouldn’t be offensive to call me a Luddite, so non-gadget-y am I. I don’t have a cell phone. The other day I actually went into a store and bought floppy disks for the non-internet-enabled machine I write novels on. (That’s right. No USB port either. )

But I certainly don’t begrudge any e reader lover his device. If you love yours, that’s great–variety is the spice of life. And cutting down on printed textbooks, say, which require new editions before the ink is hardly dry on the first, is certainly a great application of the technology. I even hear there are some folks who prefer a Nook to lugging fifty pounds of books on an airplane. Go figure.

But from the groundswell behind TYCBD it seems that we haven’t heard as much from the people who cherish bookstores and want to pass on to kids a place that brings back fond recollections and current pleasures. That as technology continues to surge forward, there’s a hefty slice of people who like tactile, olfactory pages, human interaction, and the variety inherent in every bookstore across this great country of ours. That’s what TYCBD is all about.

And I have another goal for next year’s Day.

Gingerbread BabyI would like to be able to offer small grants to children, or possibly classes, who cannot experience the joy of a bookstore for financial or logistical reasons. The grants would include a gift card from a participating bookstore, transportation to that store, and lunch out. I think that this kind of Day could make a pivotal difference in a child’s life–something that says, You are special, and here’s a special place to find out more about yourself, and put yourself back into.

If anyone is interested in getting involved with this next chapter of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, please come find me on FB or email me or leave a comment right here. And I do hope your Day today included a treasure or two!

Thank you, everybody, who has made this holiday what it is. Happy Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day!

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