Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Morality in Mysteries

I’m speaking on several panels at two upcoming conferences. One of the topics concerns morality in mysteries, and how fractured relationships might lead to the crime when the criminal gives in to his baser instincts. Hmm, this isn’t something I’ve thought about much up until now. I write my tales  to entertain. Might there be a morality lesson in there somewhere?

Certainly, the Bad Hair Day series as a whole has a moral or a theme, if you will. I see the two as one and the same. So here’s one moral you can take away from my books: You can move on from past mistakes. Redemption is the theme here. When the series starts, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—is still atoning for a tragedy that happened when she was nineteen. A toddler in her care when she was babysitting drowned in the backyard pool. Guilt drives her. It motivates her to solve the crime in Permed to Death. But when she meets handsome Detective Dalton Vail, this guilt prohibits her from progressing in their relationship. He has a teenage daughter, and she doesn’t ever want children. She has to forgive herself before the future can blossom for her.

So here’s another lesson she learns: You can still be a good person even if you’ve done wrong. The accident that happened in the past wasn’t really her fault, but she blames herself. Deep down, she knows she is a good person. She strives to be better and solving mysteries is one way she does this. She also volunteers for the Child Drowning Prevention Coalition.

As Marla and Dalton grow closer, Marla comes to care for his daughter, Brianna. Their relationship still has its bumps, because Dalton also has some past baggage to let go before he can move ahead. But finally, by Shear Murder, Marla has accepted that she’s stronger with Dalton and Brianna for a family. Wait! Another moral is coming: Finding love can strengthen you, not cause dependency.

But Marla is still nervous. As their nuptials approach, she buries herself in solving another case rather than face wedding details and bickering relatives. Finally, she finds the courage to accept her new family with enthusiasm and love. She sheds her fears and looks forward to a new tomorrow. So here we go again: No matter how glum today looks, tomorrow is a better day.
I guess you could say that the morals in my stories involve my sleuth and her character growth. The focus isn't on the criminal and how he evolved, or what effect the crime has on the victim’s family or on society in general. My cozy whodunits are centered around the sleuth and her life, not on the crime. That’s why I like reading cozies, too. They’re about someone like you or me who is a lot braver and who has the guts to chase down the bad guy. Along the way, we live vicariously in her world and see how her relationships grow and change.

How about you? Do you consciously determine the theme ahead of time, or does it emerge from your writing as you develop the story? Do your tales focus on the criminal's motivations and the repercussions of the crime, or more on the sleuth's life in general?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

BRAND MARKETING: Can You Live With Yourself?

By: Kathleen Pickering

Here I am, a mere mortal and I’m morphing. I am undergoing a change in identity without super powers, scientific experimentation or surgery.


Within the next few months I will be assuming a new identity through Brand Marketing. My mug will be little affected. My personality will most certainly root itself in the duo identity. I will change my website easily, but it might take me, Kathleen Pickering, a while to get used to the new moniker I will assume.

Now, as a romance writer for Harlequin, I will remain as my established self: Kathleen Pickering. However, for my paranormal and urban fantasy works that I will most probably self publish, I will morph into someone new, and hopefully, wonderful. This is so exciting!

Think about it. You get a chance to pick a new mystique, a new name. Revamp your whole look, should you choose. Who would you be?

famous authors

My brand specialist and I are tossing around author names for my new, self-publishing identity. Here are a few of the choices:

Erica Miles

Amanda Foster

Kate Mills

Kim Lucas

Nan Leonard

Believe me, the list goes on and on. My advisor insists I should choose a name that not only reflects my genre, but is a name I can live with for a long, long time. I don’t want to do this more than once.

How did I choose my list of names? I used a baby name book. Ran through the girls names I liked and made a list. Then ran through guy names I would use as last names. Then played with them to see what appeared. By the time I finished I had over 30 names. And, believe it or not, I could live with myself under any of those chosen names. Talk about multiple personalities!

One of the many reasons for the pen name? Liability. I have already self-pubbed under my legal name, but I’ve learned that if I plan to publish myself and be professional about it, it’s best if my real self stays at home.

Establishing a Limited Liability Corporation is a good idea, as well. Obtaining a post office box in the name of my LLC and/or my pen name is another step I shall take. These are points all self-pubbed authors should consider. Whether e-pubbing digitally or offering POD hard copies, authors should consider how exposed they want to be. Which brings me to another good reason for this new direction – Security! In this time of online hacking, credit card and banking security terrorism, working under a pen name and LLC help reduce risk to me and my family at little expense.

Now you say, but what about ME?? I like ME. I like my current name and who I am. I don’t want to change. What about my back lists? My works already on Amazon?

Well, ME is still fabulous but vanity is not worth the risk in which I can potentially place myself and my family. So, I humbly suggest that if you choose to take the self-publishing route, consult your attorney on the legalities behind the process and decide what works best for you.

researchAs for back lists, again, it’s personal choice. I made my first self-publishing efforts last year; not that long ago. One by one, I will pull the books already out, announce the changes through my social media channels and re-release the works under my new name.

I have already begun revamping Mythological Sam-The Call. The book is currently written in first person. I’m switching to third person and I love the new personality arising with the story. We’re creating a new cover as well. So, if you own the current version of Mythological Sam-The Call, it will become a collector’s item. Congratulations!

Why make so drastic a change? We all know plenty of successful, well-branded authors using their own names. Since I’m relatively new to the publishing scene, I’m choosing to switch before the momentum increases. The industry is morphing before our eyes. I will, too. 

This takes me to an additional reason for changing my name. I plan to brand a personality around my works that defines me as an Author and a Publisher —and if done properly, this personality will appeal across genres. Appealing to multiple genres is important to me.


Think of the YA’s that adults practically tear from their kids hands to read for themselves. (Twilight or Harry Potter, anyone?) Or the mysteries that appeal to romance readers because of the finely-honed heroes/ heroines. Or best of all, consider the books by authors like Patterson, Childs, Roberts and King. Even if folks haven’t read them, they know who those authors are. Why? Because these authors and their books are well branded. Look at the fabulous Dr. Seuss! Everyone knew his name. (God Rest His Soul.) Why? Branding. I can guarantee you these authors have, and had in Dr. Seuss’s case, no trouble living with themselves.

famous authors3

Bottom line: with this changing industry, I’m changing, as well. I am investing in my long- term future safety and repositioning my self-publishing line of business into a position that will handle my success safely and securely.

I will continue to give my agent and editor first dibs on everything I write. I still honor and seek brick and mortar publishing houses over self-publishing because they have the experience, the marketing savvy and influence in the business. However, if they do not express interest in my manuscripts, my alter-ego will take over and funnel the stories to my self-publishing line of business.

The best part? I have yet to meet this new author I am creating. Not unlike Frankenstein, she is still under my Brand Marketer’s tarp. Bwaaaaahaaaahaaa. I will let you know who she is after the lightning strikes!

writersforneworleans-2010Piks with authors Linda Conrad and Traci Hall (and their alter-egos) at one of Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans Workshops.

So, let me ask. If you were to develop an author alter ego who would he/she be, and after creating this being, could you live with yourself?

Happy writing!

xox Piks


Monday, February 27, 2012

JK Rowling's New Book Deal

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Apologies for the delay - for some reason this didn't post as scheduled!

The Guardian book blog's speculation on Friday that JK Rowling's recently announced adult book deal may be a crime novel created a flurry of comments, many of which were (to my surprise) extremely negative. Many of the responders were dismissive of Rowling's work and then there were those who said that they really couldn't give a toss what she was writing now. Really? One of the biggest bestselling authors inks a new deal and people couldn't care less? 

It started me thinking about attitudes towards successful authors which seem to range from:
1. I could have written that drivel (my answer to that is always, well, why didn't you then?!)
2. I'm above reading such 'populist crap'...
3. I would be a bestseller too if only I'd had... (insert appropriate response - opportunity, marketing behind me etc. etc.)

Now, of course the Guardian's opinion is pure speculation only - based on the fact that her editor at Little, Brown is well-known for his crime and thriller writers (the likes of which include Dennis Lehane and Val McDermid) and that Rowling apparently has a penchant for crime writing and Dorothy L. Sayers.  But if the Guardian's suspicions turn out to be true, it will be interesting to watch reactions to Rowling crossing the genre wall into mystery and thriller writing (and what critics and readers alike say about the novel once it comes out). 

If some of the comments on the Guardian book blog are any guide,  Rowling already faces a heady mixture of anticipation (from her fans) and derision (from the naysayers). 

So what would your reaction be if Rowling's first foray into adult fiction (and I mean that in the non-erotic sense) is as a crime writer? Do you share the ambivalence shown by many of the commentators? Given that Rowling has already said her new book will be very different to her Harry Potter series, it seems clear that 
the work is unlikely to be fantasy. Crossing genres is no mean feat - especially for the woman who created the world of Harry Potter - so what do you think of such a decision? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Aha! Moment

The other day I got a lovely email that began:

I want to send you a big, sincere 'thank you' for writing your book on plot and structure.

After trawling through many books on plotting and feeling more and more confused and anxious it was a relief to come across your book. Finally I began having 'aha!' moments - and I've only read three chapters!

You are so encouraging and the exercises are really useful - although now I find myself watching television and asking 'what if?' a great deal of the time...

If an ex-lawyer can still have working cockles in his heart, mine were warmed. I love hearing when a writer starts to get it. An "aha moment" is exactly what I strive to provide in my teaching. Because it was just such a moment that put me on the path to selling my work.

I know exactly when it was, too, because I was keeping a journal of my writing quest. On September 15, 1990, I wrote these words:


Light! A bulb! A flash! A revelation! My muse on fire!

I feel like I've suddenly "clicked into" how to write . . .  I mean, everything I've been reading and brooding about has finally locked. There is this tremendous rush of exhilaration. It just happened, and now I feel like everything I write will be at least GOOD, but can also be EXCELLENT.

I was writing screenplays at the time, and I'd written five or six over two years without success. But the next one I wrote was optioned and got me into a top agency. I optioned other properties, too, and did some assignment work (including a treatment for the late, great Whitney Houston). But when the projects didn't get pushed up the ladder (an old Hollywood story) I got frustrated and wrote a novel using the same revealed wisdom. The novel sold. Then I wrote a legal thriller and got a five book contract. My career as a novelist was launched.

And all of it I trace back to that epiphany. Here's the story.

I was a member of the Writer's Digest Book Club at the time. One of their offerings was Jack Bickham's Writing Novels That Sell. I'd been reading screenwriting books, like Syd Field's Screenplay and Linda Seger's Making a Good Script Great. I thought, well, there may be some cross-over here from the novel world, and I bought the book.

Bickham advised this was a book for people wanting to get serious about becoming professional writers. Not fluff, only what had worked for him and his writing students at the University of Oklahoma. He said it should be studied sequentially, as each chapter built upon the last.

So that's what I did, starting at page one and working my way through. And when I got to Chapter 8, covering "scene and sequel," that's when the bulbs started popping in my brain.

Up to that time I did not have a strategic approach to writing the next scene. I just sort of let it bubble up in my imagination (or had committed to it on an index card) and went for it. But my scripts weren't working. People told me so, but couldn't tell me why, which was frustrating beyond measure.

Now, suddenly, I knew why they weren't working. A superb writing instructor had nailed it and explained it to me.

In brief, a scene is a unit of action made up of a goal, conflict and disaster. There are of course nuances and variations, but all of them emanate from this basic understanding. The disaster doesn't always mean something huge, though it sometimes is. It is a setback of some sort, making the hero's situation worse.

I have the key paragraph highlighted in yellow, and underlined in red, in Bickham's book:

We make our story go forward by pushing our hero backward, farther and farther from his ultimate goal, through scene disasters. The reader reads excitedly, roots for the hero––then is crushed with him. The novel flies along, lifelike, dramatic, suspenseful, hard to put down, filled with twists, surprises and setbacks––and more and more tension as well as admiration for the battered hero who simply won't quit.

Bam. Boom. Bingo. This was my breakthrough, my foundation. And it's never let me down since.

So I wonder, have you ever had an "aha moment" in your writing? Maybe it came when you first realized something was (or wasn't) working for you on the page. Maybe it was while you were reading a novel and thought, "Oh, now I see!"

Or maybe you've had a series of these moments, perhaps not as dramatic as my own, but meaningful just the same.

Let's hear about them.

NOTE: I will be on the road teaching my two-day intensive "Next Level" seminar this year. The cities and dates have just been announced:

Austin, TX, June 16 & 17

Nashville, TN, August 11 & 12

Cincinnati, OH, September 15 & 16

For further information, testimonials and sign-up forms, go here

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Here Goes Miller and His Zombies Again.

John Ramsey Miller

Recently, as I’ve discussed here before, I binge-read a load of Zombie Apocalypse books just hoping to read something for entertainment and are they ever. I read several standalones and several series. In my quest I stumbled across an author by the name of Mark Tufo, who writes in the the Zombie Quadrant of the horror genre. His ZOMBIE FALLOUT series is to die …and reanimate for.

You don’t have to be a horror fan, much less a fan of Zombie books to enjoy the series. The books I read a while back were the first Zombie books I’ve ever read. Sure I’m a fan of George Romero movies, and those of other directors of Zombie films. But watching a film and committing to reading for a hours over the course of days is a different matter.

Zombie books are more of a Western story with zombies as Indians chasing a wagon train filled with settlers but who have to aim strictly for the heads of the attacking tribal warriors. I love westerns, even if they are cast with zombies. As I was going on about the books to friends, my wife decided to try one. I suggested the first of his Zombie Fallout series. Ten minutes in (on the kindle) I heard her laughing as she read. She read all four in a few days, just as I did. They are beautifully constructed, frightening and humorous. Tufo is a self-described blue collar guy, and he writes as well as most any author I know. Mark’s a Marine (there are no ex-Marines) and he has a natural gift for this writing thing. He gives great characters, action, descriptions, settings, knows survival strategies, and weapons.

And his Zombies are amazing. His Zombies stink to a degree that you generally smell them long before you see them. Just think thirty male skunks fighting while sealed inside of a septic tank filled with cat offal and rotting hamburger meat packed into two-day-old shrimp heads. His descriptions of them are gut-wrenching, easy to imagine, and often hilarious.

Tufo’s Zombies answer a lot of questions I have to ask about Zombies as portrayed in other books and films. MTz’s (Mark Tufo’s zombies) are not technically dead at all. If Zombies were dead they would decompose to immobility in very short order. Wait in a basement for a few weeks and it’s all over. His Zombies are infected by a virus, but their hearts are beating just very, very slowly. You blow up their heart and they will still go on for a long while. Since they eat, they move human flesh through their systems with the hygienic awareness of infants. In the winter they slow down and hibernate until a meal happens along. When they aren’t looking for food, they rest in piles so they won’t waste energy. TMz’s also have a leader who is a vampire who drank the blood of someone infected with the Zombiizer virus.

So anyway Mark Tufo was until recently completely self-published (this is his second series) and his books have accumulated quite a following. Although he has never published conventionally, a large well-established company that we are all familiar with is going to do audio releases of the Zombie Fallout series. A small publisher of horror books has published one his novellas, TIMOTHY, but he is holding on to his eBook rights because there is nothing a publisher can do in that area. His eBooks are selling very nicely, and 65% of the people who read his first installment of Zombie Fallout go on and read the rest. That is an impressive carry over rate for a series from an unknown author.

TIMOTHY is a novella written from a Zombie’s perspective. Timothy is an ex-football player who is dressed as a clown when he turns due to being bitten by an infected child at a birthday party. Timothy is aware of what is happening and is not driven insane by the invading entity (constantly screaming, "EAT!") as most of the turned are. In time, Timothy makes a deal with the invading entity so he is able to enjoy shared control of his powerful body, which is a win/win for both Timbo the entity. So he can think as usual, open doors, move fast and talk. By the way, Timothy was a sociopath and makes a perfect vessel.

WARNING: TIMOTHY one is not for the weak at heart, or those with a low threshold for acute grossness. Cozy fans would be well advised to stick with Agatha.

I sent him a laudatory email after reading his books. I have exchanged emails with him and had one telephone conversation with him about writing and publishing. I offered a blurb, which he accepted. I hope that helps him somehow. It never helped me having my name on my books. I am not writing this to sell Mark’s books. Plain fact is he makes more money than almost all of us do.

We all understand that there are more very talented authors in the world than published books would bear testament to.

Mark has completed the fifth, and, almost certainly, not the last Fallout book. He and his wife, Tracy, are getting it ready to set to selling it. Good, cause I can’t wait to get back to the fun.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What is it About Spy Novels?

Next week at SleuthFest in Orlando, Florida (where all the cool kids will be), I’ll be moderating a panel with Jeffery Deaver, Jamie Freveletti, Keith Thomson and Mike Cooper entitled "I Spy With My Little Eye."  The point of the panel will be to explore the present and future status of spy novels.

True to my essential, DNA-based laziness, I thought I would reach out to my Killzone family for help in structuring the session.  If you were in the audience and able to explore any angle of the espionage/spy/international intrigue novel, what would you want to know?

If you had the opportunity to launch a rant, what would the topic be?  What thrills you and disappoints you?

What would you like to see more of or less of in the genre?

There are no guarantees (panels are by nature dynamic and unpredictable), but I’ll try to get as many of your points out there as I can, and I’ll report back on the answers week after next.  Can't wait to hear what you have on your mind.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Splain It to me, Lucy!

By Jordan Dane

I’m teaching an online writing class from Feb 20 – Mar 2, hosted by YARWA, the online chapter for Young Adult Romance Writers of America. We’ve chatted about how to get over the hump and finish a book once you’ve stalled out for various reasons. Some people might call this writer’s block, but for me, I refuse to acknowledge anything like that exists. It’s too easy to blame an affliction we seemingly have no control over. I prefer to think my brain is secretly trying to tell me something that I’m not hearing, even though we are close neighbors.

When I can’t hear my brain SCREAMING at me to stop writing, apparently my body can hear that pesky 3-pounds of mush. My fingers boycott me and quit hitting the keyboard or I find many excuses to distract myself—even doing laundry, for cryin’ out loud. Now that’s desperate.

I’ve learned to listen to my body when this happens. It’s my interpreter when it comes to “brain speak.” One way to get me back on track is first understand and accept that my brain is trying to tell me something about the plot, character revelation/motivation, or certain scenes aren’t working and could be better. Usually this part only lasts hours or a day or two, or a good night’s sleep. I’ve found answers for my dilemma in commercials, the NOVA channel, and even have found the complete ending of a book from watching an old skateboard flick, starring Christian Slater, called “Gleaming the Cube.”

But when I can’t find the answer alone, I’ve found a tried and true method for me is cornering ANYONE to listen to me ‘splain it. Usually this poor person is my husband, John. We can chat over breakfast, spending quality time talking about how to kill people and get away with it, or he listens to my ramblings as we drive. (Your gas mileage may vary.) One thing amazes me about this process. It doesn’t seem to matter who I corner or how I ‘splain it, I invariably come up with the answer on my own as I talk it out. It seems the brain needs the mouth to communicate back to my brain. What a weird D├ętente!

If you haven’t tried this, do it. It will blow your mind. Literally! I’ve concluded that since I spend most of my day in my own head—without speaking—that when I finally DO speak, my brain is listening and finally sends messages that result in solutions. Things I wouldn’t have explored purely thinking about them. Apparently explaining things to someone outside my “brain trust”—whether they ultimately contribute to the process or not is irrelevant—forces me to work things out in a way I can’t do on my own. The act of being more thorough in my explanation seems to be a critical element to my process.

But given the old adage about a tree in the forest, does it take someone else listening to get results to my dilemma? Or is this the first stages of schizophrenia and my way of justifying it? I haven’t ranted to me, myself, and I on this yet. That day might come on its own—along with a nice helping of meds.

Please share with us:

1.) How do YOU jumpstart your writing process?

2.) What have been your strangest diversions when you should have been writing?

Below is a video on how the publishing industry works from author to store:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The five most disturbing homicides in fiction

One day when I was ten years old, I plucked one of my mother's books from a shelf. It was a shiny paperback with a knife dripping blood on the front--a "potboiler," she called books of that type.

That story (which technically I wasn't allowed to read) helped me graduate from Nancy Drew to the world of grisly homicide. I never developed my mother's taste for potboilers, but I quickly discovered Poe and later, Truman Capote.

Some of these murder stories remain standouts--over the years, I've never quite shaken their chill. Here's my list of the top five most disturbing homicides in fiction:

1. The Cask of Amontillado
I'll never forget my horror as I read the story of a chained Fortunato being sealed behind a brick wall. It was the cheerfulness of his murderer that most unnerved me. Never again would I put my full trust in a smiling face.

2. The Tell-Tale Heart
Another Poe classic, this story of guilt and obsession is also told from the the murderer's point of view. What sound could be louder than the victim's heart beating from beneath those floorboards?

3. The Silence of the Lambs
This story is the perfect intersection of creepiness and terror. It blends cannibalism with the skin-deep antics of a cross-dressing tailor.

4. The Godfather
This book counts the many, many ways one can eliminate the business competition. My favorite was being garroted by a wire from behind. 

5. Jaws
Technically, death by monster-shark isn't murder. But twenty years after reading this novel, I'm still won't put a toe in the ocean. Jaws killed my love of swimming. So I'm counting it.

So what tales of murder have most disturbed you over the years? Are blood and gore as disturbing to you as the psychological aspect of a crime?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Who are your characters?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Most writers at one time or other get asked "is your protagonist you?" - in the belief, maybe, that all of us secretly yearn to place ourselves in our work (hey, as a character, you get to have all the fun!). When I completed Consequences of Sin and handed it to my husband to read, his immediate reaction was "I know Ursula is you, but who is Lord Wrotham, because he sure as hell isn't me!" I of course vigororously denied that Ursula was in any sense, me, but, in many ways, she was a direct projection of who I would have liked to have been had I lived in Edwardian times.

It was only when my sister, Bridget, got upset that I had named the housemaid after her (completely unwittingly, I might add), that I realized how much family and friends were trying to see if they recognized anyone in my books. No one seemed to believe that I hadn't based any of my characters on anyone I actually knew in real life (well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it).

This question has got me thinking about other writers and whether they incorporate themselves or other people they know into their novels. I'm sure all of us has subconsciously done this to some extent - but how many of us have deliberately chosen to model a character on someone we know?

While I often use real historical figures to inform my writing, I have never deliberately based a character of anyone in particular. To me that seems to be crossing the line into non-fiction (and opening up a potential can of worms if any descendants get upset!)

What about you? Have you ever deliberately incorporated someone you know as a character (victim, hero or perpetrator!)?
Did you try and disguise them to ensure the person didn't realize the character was based on them?

If you have used a real person, did that person recognize themselves when they read it? If so, how did they react (...any lawsuits pending...?!)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Going Deeper With a Series Character

Today's post is brought to you by my new boxing story, "King Crush," now available for 99¢ exclusively for Kindle. And, as a special inducement, for a limited time the first story, "Iron Hands," is available FREE. 

Today I have a question: What do you like to see in a series character? The same "feel" over and over, or deepening and changing?

There are two schools of thought on this.

Lee Child once remarked that he loves Dom Perignon champagne and wants each bottle to be the same. He's not looking for a different taste each time out. So it is with his Jack Reacher novels. And millions of fans are tracking right along with him.

There are other enduring series where the character remains roughly static. Phillip Marlowe didn't change all that much until The Long Goodbye. James Bond? Not a whole lot of change going on inside 007.

At the other end of the spectrum are those characters who undergo significant transformation as the series moves along. The best contemporary example of this is, IMO, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. What he's done with Bosch from book to book is nothing short of astonishing.

Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder was traipsing along as a pretty standard PI until Block made a conscious decision to kick it up a notch. He did that with Eight Million Ways to Die, a book that knocked me out. Here we have Scudder not just on a new case, but also battling his alcoholism and the existential angst of life in New York City in the early 1980s. By going deeper Block created one of the classics of the genre.

In my Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law series (written as K. Bennett) I have a lead character who is a zombie hungering (you'll pardon the phrase) for change. She doesn't want to be what she is. The just released Book 2, The Year of Eating Dangerously, begins with Mallory in the hills looking down at a motorcycle gang and thinking, Lunch. And then reflecting on her damaged soul.

Book 3, due out later this year, begins with Mallory at a ZA meeting—Zombies Anonymous. She is trying to stay off human flesh (substituting calves' brains) but it's not easy. And I say without hesitation that I was inspired by the above mentioned Eight Million Ways to Die.

So here's my series about boxer Irish Jimmy Gallagher. These are short stories, and I'm going for "revealing" more of Jimmy in each one. "Iron Hands" was the intro, giving us Jimmy's world and basic personality. Now comes "King Crush."

The new story takes place in 1955 and revolves around an old carnival attraction they used to have in America, the carny fighter who would take on locals. If the locals stayed with him long enough, they might earn back their five bucks and some more besides. But these carny pugs knew all the dirty tricks, and it was usually the hayseeds who ended up on the canvas.

Jimmy just wants to have a good time at the carnival with his girl, Ruby, and his bulldog, Steve. He's not looking for trouble. But sometimes trouble finds Jimmy Gallagher.

I started writing these stories because there's something in me that wants to know Jimmy Gallagher, what makes him tick. And that's my preference as a writer and a reader of series. I want to go a little deeper each time.

So who is your favorite series character? Is this character basically the same from book to book? Or is there significant change going on?

If you're writing a series, do you have a plan for the development of your character over time? Or is it more a book-to-book thing?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Teach Your Children

I’m actually encouraged about the publishing business. I don’t know how the publishing industry, as it now exists, is going to do; my guess is that it will still be here when the dust settles and the smoke clears, though it’s probably going to be a somewhat leaner. But the publishing business will still be here, and still be strong: it will be because of the authors who are now writing books aimed at children and young adults.

Reading is something you learn to love when you are young. Either your parents read to you or you encounter a teacher who opens up the library to you but you get that jones while you are young. I have yet to meet anyone who turned 30 and suddenly decided that they had to start reading for pleasure. My mom read Rudy Kazootie books to me and my dad brought home a set of the hardbound “All About” books and that was that. I started reading comic books --- I got a Dick Tracy comic when I was four, somehow --- and that’s all she wrote. I saw a serial adaptation of a Hardy Boys’ book --- THE TOWER TREASURE --- on The Mickey Mouse Club and then discovered that there were twenty-odd books (at that point, which was 1959) in the series and read all of those, and went on to read Tom Swift, Rick Brant, and Tim Holt. In one summer. What next?

Well, a year or so later I discovered Shell Scott paperbacks but what really got me rolling were books by established authors of adult fiction who also wrote for the children and Young Adult markets. We’re talking Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and the like. There weren’t many, not like there are now, but there were some. I read them and then ventured into their adult work. I haven’t stopped reading for pleasure since. But it all started with children’s books and the Young Adult market, such as it was, way back when.

We can talk about changes in publishing and e-books and physical books all that we like but if we don’t have readers then writers will be relegated to the status of the appendix. And we won’t have readers unless we grow them early. Those authors who labor in the grammar mine of the Children and Young Adult markets, regardless of genre, are the most important link in the chain of which we are a part. I am not smart enough to understand the markets, but I know enough about it to understand that there are books that will interest anyone with who is fourteen and who has a pulse. Take them to a bookstore or put them on an online book site or yes, a library, and set them loose.

Just for curiosity’s sake: how old were you when you started reading? What was the book? And how did it influence your ultimate love of literature?

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I'd had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oh, Sweet Irony

by Michelle Gagnon

I suppose it was inevitable once Amazon started their own publishing wing. A company that was founded on the premise that you need never set foot in a bookstore again (which expanded to never setting foot in any store, for many) has started opening...wait for it...stores. They're sussing out their first bricks & mortar location in Seattle, where their corporate headquarters is located.
Mind you, this won't really be a bookstore; apparently the focus will be on pricier items such as tablet computers (and, I'm guessing, their rapidly expanding Kindle line).

It's an astonishing reversal for the company that insures there's a UPS driver coming down my street every day, sometimes even multiple times a day.

Mind you, I don't intend to launch a bout of Amazon bashing here--I'm as guilty as my neighbors when it comes to online ordering. I signed up to have kitty litter, toilet paper, and coconut water shipped to my door every month once I realized that it was cheaper than buying those items in the supermarket. I did the vast majority of my Christmas shopping online this year, a significant chunk of it while getting my hair cut, which is a far cry from past Decembers when I drove from store to store trying to cross everyone off my list. And most importantly for me as a writer, thanks to Amazon I consistently sell backlist copies of books that vanished from store shelves years ago.

So I'm definitely no Amazon hater. And once Barnes & Noble, Books a Million, and other stores issued statements declaring that they would (understandably) refuse to stock titles from Amazon's new publishing imprint, launching their own physical retail wing made sense.

Still, it is ironic, isn't it? When companies like Amazon first arrived on the scene in the heady days of the dotcom boom, they loftily promised that within a decade, no one would have to leave their house for anything (fantastic news for agoraphobes; maybe not so great for the rest of us). Websites would sell everything from beds to orange juice to mouthwash and deliver it to your front door, all for less than you'd pay in a store since the overhead of rent, utilities, and payroll would be largely removed from the equation.

And lo and behold, here we are a little more than a decade later, and they were largely right. Except that there no longer are a slew of websites providing the online equivalent of roaming from store to store: instead it's a one-stop shopping experience. Amazon has become a behemoth, the place where you can buy pretty much anything you desire and have it delivered to your front door, usually within two days. And now, after driving so many mom and pop stores out of existence, they're backtracking and opening a place where you can get the personal touch; one-on-one interaction with a sales staff.

I have very mixed feelings about all of this. For one thing, the tech boom has spawned a modern day equivalent of the types of monopolies that held the nation at their mercy around the turn of the last century, with Amazon and Microsoft replacing Standard Oil and U.S. Steel. In some regards, aren't Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg contemporary robber barons?

And now that so many stores that I loved have shuttered, it seems unseemly that the company that helped drive them out of existence is stepping in and taking over the shelf space they helped destroy. (For the record, I buy all of my physical books in bookstores, and I still buy as many as I did before I got my Kindle. I've actually found that having an eReader has increased my weekly book consumption).

But I'm also guilty of getting those deliveries every month, of using them to make my holiday shopping easier; and I've received the gains in sales that wouldn't have been possible if my books were only available in print. And I have many friends whose contracts weren't renewed, but managed to continue publishing their books independently thanks to Amazon, an outlet that wouldn't have been available to them otherwise.
So I'm curious; what do you all think about Amazon's latest move?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Here’s another promotional tool that will drive you crazy. I just learned about Pinterest, where you pin up pictures online that relate to your book, your characters, the locations in your story, your vacation in New Guinea, your restaurant meals, or your life in general. This acts as an online pinboard that other folks can view. If someone spots a photo on my board they like, they can share it. You tell what the picture means and people comment on it. At least, this is my understanding so far.


But who owns the rights to the photos you post? What happens, for example, if I imagine a character looking like Richard Dean Anderson in Stargate: SG1? Can I just copy his photo off the Web? According to one person I asked, yes I can, if Pinterest attributes the source. In some cases, though, I’ve cut out photos from magazines of celebrities or people on society pages and scanned them into my computer because they look like my characters. Can I use these photos? I doubt it, because I don’t have the people’s permission. It seems safer to provide your own pictures.

This promises to be another time consuming promotional activity. I'd have to learn how to use the site, determine a theme for each board, and upload the photos. Do we really need more work to do? Or is this a great promotional opportunity we might be missing if we let it go? There’s always the pressure to jump on the next cart that wheels along. But hop on too many wagons, and you might fall off.

Oh, and you have to request an invitation to join this site. Then you register using your Facebook or Twitter account. This is what the site says:

How Pinterest Works
After you have created an Account (defined below) to become a Member of Pinterest, you may use the Services to create, view and follow visual collections. In order to create a visual collection, you may (i) upload images from your computer by selecting the "Add a Pin" section of the Site, (ii) use the Application to take and upload images, or (iii) install and use our "Pin It" browser toolbar to upload images, by following the instructions provided on the "About" section of the Site. Please note that your visual collections will be publicly viewable by all visitors to the Site and Application. In order to follow the visual collections of other Members, you may search for other visual collections via the Site and Application and select the option to "Follow" such Members.

Here are some tips, kindly shared by another author on one of my listserves:

So do any of you already participate in Pinterest? Or would you do it now that you’re aware of this site?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Valentine for My Muse: Danger Ahead!

By: Kathleen Pickering

My muse returns to the spotlight for Valentine’s Day, not because I love writing more than I love my husband (please, let’s not go there) but because when I decided to join my husband in courting danger, I did so for my Muse—and only for my Muse.

volcano1It all started with this volcano in the resort village of Pucon in southern Chile. The approximate elevation of Volcan Villarica is 9,750 feet from sea level. Villarica is smoking. She is alive, well and dangerous. As a matter of fact, the photo above of Villarica with smoke billowing from her crater was taken from Pucon by my sister-in-law at the time we were approaching the top.

Now, in all fairness, Villarica has been smoking for a very long time. She belches now and again. Last lava flow was 1984. This photo shows its last path:


Our guide, David (shown in the picture) promised that there is seismic equipment to detect impending volcanic activity enough in advance that we were free from danger of an eruption. However, when they give you tools like hard hats, ice axes (which he said would be our best friend on the climb—and was right!), crampons for your boots, and cold weather gear for a five hour climb to the top, you sort of figure you’re not going on a picnic.


I tell you what. When my Muse and I rode the first leg up the mountain on a chair lift with no seat belt, I held on for dear life (I’m terrified of heights) while my flighty Muse started jumping around the chair lift, wanting to take off. You see, Sam Wilson in my Mythological Sam series will have a demon battle on a volcano at one point, so I took my girl up there to really test her wings. As I had expected, she started pulling in scenes from the moment I pulled on my first boot.

While I cavalierly mention the danger factor, I have to admit that when I agreed to make this climb, I hadn’t considered danger. I’ve hiked so many less grueling places before that the words volcano, toxic gas, rock slides and fissures in glaciers were terms relegated to National Geographic, not my physical well-being. Reality started to settle in when they gave us instructions on how to use the ice ax to keep from sliding off the glacier should we lose footing and fall. I mean really!

volcano2Here is a fissure in the glacier. Not a place to lose one’s footing!

volcano3 This photo shows Inside the crater with sulfur dioxide gas seeping through the surface.

volcano33Friend, Gustavo, is holding his breath on the crater rim here. (Crazy, I know! At least I knew enough to get off the edge.) The gas literally burns the inside of your nose. Can’t imagine the lung damage should one breath in those fumes for too long. The buzz word here is toxic. We were lucky there wasn’t a wind shift.

On the flip side of all this danger, when walking in a slow, steady rhythm in single file across the glaciers or up the rock faces, I found myself one-on-one with nature, once again, renewing my awe in her Presence. The captivating views sent my Muse soaring. In my mind, I was out there flying right beside her.


These spectacular vistas changed my point of view from ground level, for sure!


Once we came off the glacier and arrived at the rocky climb to the “false peak” just below the crater, the unexpected (in a good way) happened. The closer we traversed to the top the more colorful the black lava became. The photo below doesn’t do justice to the iridescent colors of the lava rocks littering the peak . . . glittering with blue, orange and gold colors like jewels in the sunlight. I couldn’t resist. I scooped them up by the handful. That mountain with it’s layers of lava flows, glacial formations and different rock types is a geologist’s dream.


So, when my heart finally stopped pounding, I was able to catch my breath. We actually reached the top without incident, except the gas had me scrambling back down to the glacier edge, toot sweet. What we didn’t see? Animals. Not a one. Except for a lone bird at the top—and that’s a story for another time.


For the return, the group was rewarded  with a two and a half hour slide down the glacier. No joke. Curving channels like toboggan runs were cut shoulder deep into the glaciers just wide enough to accommodate a person seated on a plastic disk with a handle attached at the waist. I wish I had a photo of one of us descending in those channels. It cut the descent time in half and the laughter made up for all the labor spent on the challenging climb up.

I’m thinking this trip covered all three rules for keeping Muses happy: love, feeding, and letting her fly.

Then why a Valentine’s gift, you may ask? Because I don’t usually put my tail in danger to prove my love for my Muse. This adventure was like a box of bon-bons on steroids, and given my fear of heights (which has lessened now, I must say) I took her higher than she’s ever flown before, at least with both feet still on the earth.

Since we just got home, I’m taking all of today to recover. My Muse is full and happy. Now, I just hope my husband will understand (and laugh out loud) when I hand draw him a Valentine’s Day card and order take-out—delivered. We’re staying in!

If you’d like to see more volcano pictures, please feel free to visit my Facebook album: Climbing Volcan Villarica. (You may have to sign in first for the link to work. Otherwise, visit:

Then afterwards, let me know what you are doing today for Valentine’s Day . . . is there any Muse involved?

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, and most importantly, Happy Writing!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Unpleasant Characters

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I'm currently reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian book that provoked quite a bit of controversy a couple of years ago, not surprisingly, as it centers around someone slapping another person's child at a backyard BBQ. Although I find the issues it raises about Australian culture and parenting interesting, I have nearly thrown the book in the bin (and seriously, I'm not sure I even want to bother reading the rest of the book) because of the repellent nature of the characters. 

What makes this strange, for me at least, is that it is the very unpleasantness of these characters that has made the story less rather than more compelling. This is in complete contrast to the previous two books I have read - The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (about shell shocked WW1 soldiers including the poet Wilfred Owen and a character, Billy Prior, who is unsympathetic for most of the book) and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin - which has a number of pretty unlikeable characters. 

So what makes an unsympathetic character nonetheless compelling? Why is it that in some books, you might dislike, even loathe, a character, but still find the book intriguing - while in others, that same visceral reaction makes you want to hurl the book at the nearest wall and be done with it? 

Although I am not the sort of writer who subscribes to the notion that you have to have a sympathetic main character, I do believe that there must be some redeeming feature, flaw or level of humour that ensures a reader isn't alienated by an unlikeable character. In the case of The Slap I've found some characters so distasteful that I simply don't want to spend any more time inside their heads. In the case of the other books (which are as unlike each other as it is possible - one, historical the other total fantasy) the world and the characters that inhabited it were flawed but intriguing. They hadn't crossed the line to become either dull or intolerable. 

But how, when you are writing a novel, do you avoid falling into this trap? None of us want to read books about one-dimensional goodies or baddies, but neither do we want to hang-out with boring or repellent three-dimensional characters either.

This got me thinking about how to write 'unpleasant' characters, knowing of course, that there are no rules - only pitfalls to avoid. For me, these include alienating a reader, failing to provide any redeeming feature for a character, or 'telling' the reader to such an extent that the reader does not believes the character to be realistic. For me (and I am in the minority as most reviewers loved The Slap) the characters themselves impeded the story. I didn't want to delve into their minds, not because it was an unpleasant place to be, but because it was unpleasant to the point of being dull. It turned me off what I might otherwise have been interested in reading. I had no sympathy. I had no compelling reason to find out what happened to them.

So how do you think writers should tackle the subject of unpleasant and unsympathetic characters? Who do you think does this successfully and why? 

In many ways, tone can be as important as characterization. In Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, the protagonist is likeable because of the humor brought to his predicament as well as the tone of the book. Perhaps in The Slap I simply didn't like the 'voice' brought to bear for the characters - too strident, too boorish, to misogynistic perhaps. That probably says as much about me as it does about the book...but still how do you feel about reading books about characters you find morally (or otherwise) repugnant?