Borderline Illiterate

I went to the writers’ conference Magna cum Murder last weekend.  It’s a small, intimate feeling conference housed in the Columbia Club on the circle in Indianapolis.  The building’s old with that faded glamour of yesteryears that I love.  I didn’t learn any of the things I went for.  The panels were designed mostly for readers, so no panels on publicity or marketing.  I was hoping to hear how other writers and their publishers handled those challenges.  BUT, the conference was small enough to make it easy to meet fellow conference goers.  And the readers who attended read a LOT.

Some of them had attended the conference every year for 17 years.  They’d heard the majority of the international guests of honor and domestic guests of honor.  And the lists were impressive.  This year, they were Reavis Z. Wortham and Peter Lovesey, who sat at our table for the final lunch.  Previous guests were M.C. Beaton, Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, and Mary Higgins Clark, among many others.  Most attendees could claim 10 years or more.  Only a handful of us were new.

One of the women I met there had recently retired and joined SIX mystery book clubs, 1 nonfiction book club, and 1 fiction club.  I asked how she kept track of everything she was supposed to read, and she said she stacked her books in the order of her meetings.  I was so impressed!  This year, I’ve been making a real effort to read one book a week, if I possibly can.  One lady I talked to zipped through one book A DAY.  And these people were well read.  They didn’t just read one sub-genre, though they had favorites.  They read thrillers, suspense, cozies, and PIs.  And they read outside of the mystery genre.

By the second day, I was beginning to feel borderline illiterate.  But then one of the attendees generously told me, “You’re spending your time writing instead of reading.”  What a kind woman!  Many people I met encouraged me to come back next year.  I sure enjoyed myself, but things have been so busy in my life for the last two years, I don’t feel confident making plans that far ahead.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed, though.  I wouldn’t mind spending another October at Magna cum Murder.

 

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Conference weekend

When you read this, I’ll be in Indianapolis at a mystery conference, Magna cum Murder.  It’s been a LONG time since I’ve attended a conference, so I’m looking forward to it.  And I’m a little nervous.  I’ll be on two panels, and I haven’t done that for a long time either.  The last time I did a workshop was here in Fort Wayne with my writer friends M. L. Rigdon (Julia Donner), Les Edgerton, and Kyra Jacobs.  It’s always fun to talk writing with them.  Heck, it’s always fun to do anything with local authors I know.

I hope to learn a lot and come home energized with all kinds of new ideas swimming in my head.  Swimming is the right word.  After listening to panels for three days, my mind’s so full, it turns to mush for a while.  A few authors from Kensington whom I’ve never met will be there, too, one even has the same editor I have–the wonderful John Scognamiglio.

When I first got serious about writing, I tried to attend one writers’ conference a year.  Published authors pushed me to look at writing from a business angle.  They talked marketing and trends, things I didn’t think about that much when I first decided to try my hand at novels.  I’m constantly surprised by how generous other authors are with their hard-won experience and advice.  Eventually, though, after enough conferences, authors don’t go to learn new things.  They go to promote themselves and their books.  So I’m hoping to get better at that part of writing, too.

Even when I only sold short stories, though, I learned how wonderful readers are.  The very first time I was ever on a panel, readers came up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the stories I had in WomenSleuth anthologies and Alfred Hitchcock magazines.  It’s hard to beat the joy of having readers like what you’ve written.

My first mystery for Kensington, THE BODY IN THE ATTIC, doesn’t come out until November 27, so I’m not expecting many people have read it yet.  Some have from NetGalley and the giveaway on Goodreads, but I doubt many of them will be at Magna cum Murder, so I’ll be pretty much an unknown quantity.  I had postcards made for my book with the cover on one side and an excerpt on the other.  That’s about all I could do this time.  But it’s exciting to get back into the mystery buzz again.

I should be having a good time when you read this.  Hope you have a wonderful weekend, too, and happy writing!

P.S.  I’m starting to post new chapters from a YA novel I wrote and never did anything with on my webpage.  It has a little paranormal element in it, but back then, I’d decided I’d rather write urban fantasy, so tossed it in a drawer.  If you go to my webpage to take a look at it, I hope you like it!

He didn’t!

I went to writers’ group last Wednesday and listened to three of our members, all topnotch authors who volunteered to read.  Les Bock is writing a crime thriller, and some of the scenes he comes up with blow my mind.  I don’t see the twist coming, and it’s usually something I’d never expect from him.  Kathy Palm is working on a middle grade horror book, and she’s read enough, I know that she can go to creepy places that make me squirm.  Ruth Baker, a playwrite, usually visits serious subjects but she read something fun and whimsical.  My point is, if you talked to any of those three people, you’d never guess what they are capable of imagining.  It reminded me of a time a visitor came to Scribes and I read an unusual piece, and she looked at me and said, “But you seem like such a nice person.”

I AM a nice person, but I don’t always WRITE about nice people.  If everyone in a novel was nice, there wouldn’t be a story, no tension, no conflict.  Now an antagonist doesn’t always have to be a bad person.  Two good people can be coming at the same thing from different points of view, for different reasons, and clash.  But a strong antagonist sure makes an already good story even better, whether he’s on the page or behind the scenes.  And a bad antagonist can make readers chew their fingernails.

In Julia Donner’s Western historical AVENUE TO HEAVEN, Annie Corday’s ex-husband made me cringe with fear every time his shadow fell across a page.  When he finally decides to return to Chicago, he has a wooden coffin delivered to her front door to let her know his intentions.  And honestly, after reading about some of the things he’d done, a quick death would probably be better than most of his other options.  He was so obscenely bipolar, smiling and proclaiming his love while he beat her senseless, that he made me queasy.  Villains like that make a reader turn the pages.  They stay with you. (https://www.amazon.com/Avenue-Heaven-Westward-Bound-Book-ebook/dp/B076HVGS98/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1539399302&sr=8-11&keywords=julia+donner+kindle)

If you’ve read any of the posts in the Q & A blogs that I posted from Ilona Andrews, one of the questions reminded me of myself when I was young and first starting to write.  The person asked how she could make her characters distinct, because hers all ended up being a lot the same.  Ilona Andrews’s answer made me smile.  She replied,

I suspect that your ethics keep getting in the way.  You have a strong sense of right and wrong, and when confronting a problem, you, and your characters, are thinking about the best way to resolve it according to your set of values.  Try to look at it from their point of view. 

And that’s the trick, isn’t it?  Each person in a story has his own code of morals and ethics, his own rules that he might bend, his own way to rationalize why he did what he did, whether good or bad.  The trick is for the author to get inside his character’s head when that character walks into a room, to see the world through his eyes, shaped by his experiences, needs, and wants.  And that character might do things we’d never condone, things that horrify or shame us, but our job is to make him and his actions believable.

Julia Donner was an actress and singer at one time.   She performed in many plays and tells me that when she writes, her characters come to her wholly formed, because she studied characters and their motivations for so long on the stage.  It took me a long time to write unlikeable characters, because I could always imagine what my mother would say if she read my story.  And a sex scene?  Heaven forbid!  Then a wonderful, wise woman who edited many of my early stories told me, “Blindfold your mother and gag your old Sunday School teachers. Listen to your characters and write them the way they are and say what they’d say.”  And she was right.  I stopped thinking about my audience and started thinking about my characters, living in their skins.  And then they did all kinds of things that I’d never expected, because I’d freed them to be themselves.

So whatever you’re working on at the moment, I hope your characters are distinct and real.  That doesn’t mean they get to decide where the story will go, because it’s YOUR story.  But it means that when they walk into a scene, they make it come to life, because they’re very much alive in your imagination.  Happy Writing!

 

Sharing

Ilona Andrews has been answering writing questions on her blog recently.  This is the second post she’s done about how to write strong characters.  I thought it was worth sharing:  http://www.ilona-andrews.com/characters-part-2/

BTW, if anyone has any questions they’d like me to answer, just let me know and I’d be happy to give it a try.

That Inner Voice

No, I’m not talking about my conscience.  Neither am I talking about that “good” angel that sits on my shoulder and says, “No, don’t eat the potato chips AND the sandwich–too many carbs.”  Those righteous voices never give it up, but that’s probably a good thing.  Okay, it IS a good thing, but every once in a while, they get a little over zealous.  A piece of chocolate?  I mean, come on.  The Thou Shalt Nots are a lot easier to deal with than the “Thou Could Have Done Betters.”  The same thing goes for writing.  The voice I’m talking about is the one that nags us and says “That’s not the perfect word for that sentence” or even worse, “Something’s not quite working here, and you should fix it.”

You know what they say–Everyone’s a critic.  But it’s EASY to find fault.  It’s a lot harder to fix it.  You’d think a Muse might help.  You know, send inspiration to make every scene perfect, every verb strong and active, no word repetition, sizzling similes, magnificent metaphors, and dialogue that rings true.  But not so.  Muses just tease us.  They send us an idea that kicks our imaginations into overdrive and then say “You’re welcome” and pat themselves on the back and leave us to it.  Bringing that idea to life is our job.  And sometimes, it’s a real pain in the you know what.

I can’t dive in and go with the flow when I get an idea.  Been there, tried that, and I run out of steam somewhere and it shows.  Talk about soggy middles.  I need some kind of framework to hang my words on.  But even then, even when I know the story’s going in the right direction, I can still end up with scenes that mock me and refuse to come out the way I envision them in my head.

When I was younger and more carefree, I stuck a few patches on those scenes, blew kisses at them, and hoped for the best.  But do you know what?  When I got my pages back from my beta readers, those were the pages that always swam in red ink.  So now, I listen to the inner voice that says “Nope, not there yet.  Try again.”

I don’t always know how to fix those spots.  But it almost always means I didn’t get something right earlier and I don’t have my dominoes in place for that scene to work.  Now, instead of beating that scene to death with better words, sharper dialogue, I take a step back and look at the scenes that led up to the moment in question.  Because, unfortunately, that inner voice is always right.

I’m a person who deals very well with shades of gray.  Things don’t always have to be black or white, right or wrong for me.  I’m not a perfectionist who will always find fault with myself.  But I distinguish whether a scene is good or just sort of good.  And there are so many talented writers out there, sort of good just isn’t good enough.  So when my inner writer alarm goes off, I mark that scene and come back to it.  And I make myself fix it.  And if I can’t, I give my critique partners the pages and admit that I’m not happy with the way it turned out and hope they can give me ideas to make it work.

I hope your inner voice is steering you in the right direction, and happy writing!

October writing

In case anyone here was following my mystery, A Baker’s Dozen, written chapter by chapter on my webpage, I put up the last chapter today.

Next week, I want to start writing an experimental story a week to put up.  I like to read C. S. Boyack’s blog, and he’s posting a story once a week for October on his blog.  He’s a darned good writer.  So you might want to check them out.    https://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/macabre-macaroni/

Teri Polen is doing a special October blog, too, Bad Moon Rising, interviewing authors about the supernatural and paranormal.   And yes, ouija boards scare me.  https://teripolen.com/2018/10/03/badmoonrising-cusp-of-night-by-mae-clair-supernatural-suspense/   If you scroll down, you’ll see more authors’ answers, including Staci Troilo’s.

But a while ago, Craig (C. S. Boyack) wrote a blog for Story Empire about writing out of your comfort zone, and he asked what authors would write if they decided to let their fingers wander out of their usual writing zone.  https://coldhandboyack.wordpress.com/2018/08/31/friday-group-post-questing-beasts/

I put down short stories I’d like to try:  an alternate history, magic realism (if I can ever nail what I really think it is–but I have an idea), something creepy, and the genre I almost ALWAYS fail at–horror.  I’d like to write the scariest, baddest short story I’ve ever written.  Which might still be too upbeat, knowing me.  Aargh!

Anyway, I hope you have a perfectly wonderful time writing this month.  And if black cats and witches wander onto your pages, so much the better:)

 

For Love of Family

It’s my birthday this weekend.  I’ve been in the hospital twice in the last few years–once when I fell off my rocking chair and broke my leg.  (Never use a rocking chair as a stepladder).  And once, in early April, to have my gall bladder out.  My two daughters and two grandsons have suddently decided I’m mortal, even though my younger grandson–when I was on pain meds right after I broke my leg–came in the emergency room, shaking his finger at me and told me that I’m not allowed to die.  I’m pretty sure I can’t make a promise like that, but I’d like to put it off for quite a while yet.  But just in case, everyone decided this was the year that we should celebrate my birthday properly.

My older daughter and grandson live in Indianapolis, and they’re driving up to stay with us for the weekend.  Tyler’s bringing his serious girlfriend.  She’s a sweetie–a real keeper.  My younger daughter is flying up from Florida.  Her husband can’t make it–he’s buried at work.  And my younger grandson wanted to come, but he’s a marine and couldn’t get leave time.  My HH’s (handsome hubby) brother came from Oakland last week for his high school reunion and is staying to celebrate with us this weekend, too.  We’re going to have a house full.  Air mattresses are coming out.  But we’re all looking forward to it.

My daughters and I always said if we got together, we wanted to spend the day in the kitchen and  make bouillabaisse, so this is the year we’re going to do it.  On Sunday, we’re going the manly meat route, and we’re filling the smoker with a brisket, two whole chickens, and three slabs of ribs.  Then we’re inviting my sisters and cousin over, so we’ll add in all the sides–potatoes au gratin, succotash, apple crisp or slab apple pie (haven’t decided yet), and salads.  Then on Monday, everyone has to fly home.  But it will be one heck of a birthday!

In my new mystery series, I wanted Jazzi to have a family like mine.  We might squabble here and there, but we all like each other.  So, I have her hosting her family every week for their Sunday meal.  She cooks lots of food, and they sit around her table and catch up with each other and gab about whatever’s happening in their lives.  Of course, since it’s a mystery, they often talk about clues and suspects.

I know plenty of people who aren’t as lucky as I am, who don’t get along with their family and try to stay away from them.  I wanted to show that with Jazzi’s romantic interest, Ansel.  His family owns a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and they kicked him out the day after he graduated from high school so that the two older sons would make enough money to stay home and help milk the cows.  Ansel has no use for his family and would be happy to put them behind him.  But you know how family is.  Blood is thicker than water, whether you claim your kin or not.

Anyway, I won’t be getting any writing done for a few days–starting when I finish this post.  I’m writing it today and scheduling it for Saturday, so that I’m not even tempted to lose myself in front of my computer for an hour or two.  Hope whatever you’re working on is percolating away, and happy writing!

Oh, those Alpha Males

I’m near the end of reading Ilona Andrews’s MAGIC TRIUMPHS.  Her heroine, Kate Daniels, is so strong with so many sword skills and so much magic that her love interest, Curran Lennart–whom she marries and has a child with later in the series–has to be exceptional, too, to be her equal.  So, in the beginning books of the series, he’s a shapeshifter who is the Beast Lord of the entire Atlanta pack–a shifter who becomes a giant lion who can kill and maim every bit as well as Kate.  She’s a female with an attitude, and he’s a male with enough ego and confidence to stand up to her.  He’s strong and sexy, but let’s face it.  That’s not enough.  He also has to respect Kate and be there for her.  He has to have a tender side when he deals with her.

I have to admit, I can take or leave most alpha males as heroes.  I’m just as into witty or clever heroes–men who are masculine without swagger and macho.  I don’t write alphas because that’s not my first inclination when I think of a hero.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading about them–especially if there’s a great cover with abs that ripple and biceps that bulge.  You know the ones.  The ones that snag your attention when you scroll down twitter or Amazon covers.

I happen to think Julia Donner writes some of the best male characters around, but for me, Ilona Andrews writes some of the best alphas.  I love “Mad” Rogan in her HIdden Legacy series, and I fell hard for Hugh D’Ambray when he switched from villain to hero in IRON AND MAGIC.  I’ve only read the fourth and final book in Staci Troilo’s Protectorate series, TORTURED SOUL, but that fourth Brother was an alpha to remember.  Another to add to my list–and he might be an all-time favorite–was Keir in WARPRIZE by Elizabeth Vaughan.  All of these men were efficient killers who worked hard to do the right thing against impossible odds and to care for the women they loved.

How about you?  Do you have a thing for alpha males?  What’s your favorite type of male protagonist?  Do you have some favorites?

Whatever you’re working on now, I hope your characters come alive for you and happy writing!

 

Funerals and Laughter

My daughter from Florida flew home for a whirlwind three-day visit.  My other daughter and my grandson who both live in Indy drove up to stay with us, too.  Not for a happy occasion.  One of the nighborhood boys they’d grown up with died unexpectedly.  The kids from around here are still close.  They still see each other whenever they can work it in, so my grandson knows them all, too.  Now that he’s grown, he goes deer hunting with them once a year.  So it was a shock when we heard about losing one of them.  (I’ll call him NK for Neighborhood Kid).

We all went to the funeral on Thursday, and there were flowers and pictures everywhere.  People visited and caught up with each other during the showing.  One of the perks of a funeral.  Everyone came together in one place and really enjoyed seeing each other.  And then the service started.  The minister didn’t know NK, and that saved me.  He couldn’t give warm memories or anecdotes, so he gave a good, old-fashioned Bible thumping homily.  Probably safer for me, since if I heard stories about NK, I’d have a soggy Kleenex.  But when the service ended, NK’s mother stood and faced the audience. “I want to hear happy memories about my boy.”

That’s when the celebration of a life we all loved began.  Funny stories from camping trips, their cabin in the UP, and deer hunting camp   They made people laugh and nod, saying, “Yup, that sounds like NK.”  And yes, we’re all going to miss him.  There’ll be grief and tears, but there will also be laughter and wonderful memories.

It made me think about how writers create characters.  Every life has moments that stand out.  It has ups and downs.  If I had to stand up at a funeral for one of my characters, what would I say about him or her?  Do I show that on the pages he walks on?

Many happy moments to all of you, and happy writing!