Life of a Cop

I interviewed Sergeant Kathy Flynn who supervises the violent crimes detectives in the Eugene Police department. The first interview was interrupted by a homicide scene. (Scroll down for that story!) But I went back later and heard some interesting stories, so I thought  I would share.

Eugene only averages two or three homicides a year, but that doesn’t make the job of the police any less dangerous. Read more

I've Moved

Thanks for following me to WordPress, home of my new blog and website combination. I’m excited to finally make this happen. I still have a little (okay, a lot) of work to do, but I’m slowly learning this program  and building pages.

The point of doing this was simplification and branding. Pulling readers to one website instead of two made sense to me. As for branding, I only have one label: L.J. Sellers, mystery/suspense novelist. I don’t use any nicknames online anywhere. Every time you see my presence, you see L.J. Sellers. I believe it’s the only way to get known. Nicknames are fun, but … Read more

Scene of a Homicide

I was on my way to an interview yesterday with a homicide detective, and she called to cancel because she was at a homicide scene. Of course I responded, “Can I come down there? Please!”

So I ended up at a riverside park with the whole homicide team, asking questions and feeling giddy with excitement. I know, I know. A person was dead, and that’s a tragedy. But I couldn’t help it. It made me think about the show and character Castle, and how excited he gets when he’s called out to a homicide. How silly it seemed for him. Hah! I felt like a teenager at a party with the cool kids.

Of course, they didn’t let me anywhere near the body (dang!), but still, the afternoon was very educational. I learned about a cool gadget called “total station” that’s used to create computerized maps of the area. And I learned that a big guy in a black undertaker-like suit driving a mini van comes to pick up the body. I’m still checking it out, but I think he’s a contractor for the county who simply picks up dead bodies when called out and takes them to the autopsy room at the hospital. A mini van! It’s not how I visualized it.

Mostly what I realized is that you can strive for realism when you write these scenes, but you can’t replicate reality or you’ll bore your readers to death. Everything happens very slowly—unless the killer is still on the scene. Otherwise, there’s lots of standing around. When I showed up, the detectives were all eating pizza out of box flopped open on the hood of a cruiser. It seemed so odd, I almost laughed out loud. Nobody eats pizza at the homicide scenes I write, and no one ever will.

Other things I learned about the sergeant who invited me to the scene:

  • She supervises a team of eight male detectives and gets no flack about her gender.
  • She remembers the name of every homicide victim she and her team have investigated.
  • She’s still going to sit down with me for a formal interview next week, so I can ask about her career and write a profile about her for the paper.

Is Your Day Job Good for Your Writing?

I read a blog post recently that claimed having a day job is good for your writing career and it made me wonder. She supported the claim with several points, the first being that having a steady income is a good thing. No argument there. If your novels are not paying the mortgage, something has to. But putting aside the money/necessity issue, I’m not sure most day jobs are good for a fiction writing career. In fact, I’d bet most novelists would give up their day jobs in a heartbeat if they didn’t need the money. (The exception being doctors and lawyers.)

The blogger’s second point—that it “gives you the urgency to write when you do have time”— may be true if you’re a receptionist in a chiropractor’s office who spends most of the day reading magazines. But if your day job is, say, editorial project coordinator for an educational publisher, and you spend your day writing copy, editing galleys, generating ideas, tracking documents, planning and attending meetings, etc., then it’s very likely your brain power will be spent by the end of the day and no matter how much you want to work on your novel after dinner, it probably won’t happen. Or you’ll try and get very little done. On the other hand, a job that leaves you physically exhausted but requires no real brain energy (pulling green chain) might allow you to be more creatively productive in your free time. Having done both jobs, I speak from experience. (The chiropractor receptionist job I just made up. )

Another supporting point was that it “provides material for your writing.” Again, it depends on the job. The green chain job offers little in the way of stimulus for characters or scenarios, but it will give you that “urgency” to write. That sense of “I must finish this novel and get it published so I can quit this hellish job before I go insane.” Then of course, some writers get whole novels out of their day jobs (The Devil Wears Prada). Most jobs fall some where in the middle of the continuum as far being a source.

My own situation is that I work three days a week for a newspaper, which provides a steady paycheck. But on those days, after writing copy all day, I don’t write novels when I get home. I also do freelance editing and manuscript evaluations. But I do those projects on nights and weekends after I work on my novel. So most days, my personal writing gets the biggest surge of my creative juices. And this is why I’ve been able to write two novels in the last fourteen months. Not because I have more free time, but because I have more focus.

What do you think? Is your day job good for your writing career? Would you give it up if money wasn’t an issue?

Hope for All Writers

Screenwriter William Goldman is famous for saying “nobody knows anything” about the people running Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Recent book discussion chatter about one of the Edgar winners leads me to think this is true of the publishing industry as well. (I’ve had my suspicions for a while.)

China Lake by Meg Gardiner won the Edgar for best paperback original. I have not read this book and, considering what my listmates at 4 Mystery Addicts and Dorothy L have to say about it, I probably never will. But based on dozens of comments, I have to wonder how it beat out every other paperback published that year.
Here’s just a sampling:

  • “I felt the protagonist, who had the maturity level of a 10-year-old, spent most of her time being too stupid to live, the police were portrayed as complete idiots—from the very beginning. From the structure of the chapters, to some of the worst metaphors I’ve ever read, to terrible dialogue, there were times I felt as though English were the author’s second language.”
  • “The only thing that kept me from throwing China Lake against the wall was I was reading it in e-book form and couldn’t throw the computer that far.”
  • “Our mystery readers’ group read China Lake and the highest rating it received was ‘okay,’ otherwise it was rated ‘not recommended’ or ‘did not finish.’”
  • Hated the Gardiner and DNF’d it. (meaning Did Not Finish)

If you’ve read the book, please share what you think.

The point here is not to criticize this author. We’ve all had negative reactions to our work. What I mean to say is that the publishing industry (and the awards process) isn’t logical. There is no scientific way to measure the quality of a story. Strangely enough, the contradiction inherent in this novel winning an award gives me hope for every talented writer who has yet to be widely recognized. If a book this criticized can win an Edgar, then your book can win over an agent, find a publisher, and be loved by readers and reviewers.

Do not ever give up because one agent said you couldn’t write or five publishers said no thanks. I’ve had publishers tell me they loved my novel, then say no thanks anyway. The lesson here is to try not to make too much sense of it. It will drive you crazy. Just keep writing and improving. There’s hope for everyone.

How Many POVs Do You Need?

As a fiction editor and evaluator, the most common problem I encounter is with point of view. The advice I constantly give writers is: Stick with one POV for chunks of text, then signal the change if you need to tell part of the story from another character’s point of view.

Chester Campbell—career journalist and author of two mystery series featuring private investigators—takes the subject further and discusses the pros and cons of different POV approaches.

In my Greg McKenzie mystery series, the stories are all written first person from Greg’s point of view. This has become sort of standard for private investigators. I did vary it in the first two books with third person prologues. That gave me the ability to provide the reader with background information on the books that Greg was not aware of until later in his investigation.

The first person viewpoint gives a feeling of immediacy, allowing the reader to follow along with the detective, picking up the clues as he does. But it also means neither he nor the reader gets to see what else is going on nearby, out of sight or earshot, as they say. Greg’s wife, Jill, who becomes a partner in McKenzie Investigations, appears only as Greg sees her, or as she reveals herself through her dialogue.

When I decided to write a new series with a different protagonist, I switched to third person so I could use multiple points of view. That permitted the reader to learn what was going on in different areas than just where the main protagonist was involved. I was aware, however, that switching too often and involving too many different viewpoint characters could become confusing to the reader.

I gave my main character, Sid Chance, an unusual sidekick to share the viewpoint, sometimes with separate scenes in the same chapter, occasionally through separate chapters. She’s a successful businesswoman, board chair of a chain of truck stops founded by her father. But she comes with an intriguing past. Early in life she was kicked out of the family by her aristocratic mother for wandering into such unsophisticated circles as Air Force Security Police and championship professional boxing. She was a Metro Nashville policewoman before returning to her father’s good graces after her mother died.

Jaz LeMieux gets her first shot at the viewpoint in Chapter 5, after learning that her housekeeper’s grandson has disappeared. What has happened to the grandson becomes a crucial subplot and provides most of Jaz’s opportunity to take the spotlight. This subplot is woven in throughout the book, right up to the end.

Using the old technique of the thriller, I also tossed in a few brief POV shifts to update things from the bad guys’ viewpoint. It was designed to ramp up the tension. One thing I’ve avoided is shifting viewpoints within a scene. Most critics highly recommend against that technique, although I have seen it done effectively.

From my observation, it seems that the objections to changes in points of view are becoming more moderate. I’ve read several comments lately from authors who feel it isn’t as troublesome as previously thought. I suspect most readers, outside the sophisticated folks found in places like the DorothyL listserv, have little familiarity with the technicalities of point of view. Their only concern is that the story reads smoothly and they don’t have to re-read parts to find out who is talking or whose thoughts they are listening to.

If we achieve that goal, our multiple POV manuscripts should be successful. With readers, that is. With editors, that’s another matter.

Readers: How do you feel about multiple points of views?
Writers: Have you struggled with this issue or had editors request POV changes?

This is next to the last stop on Chester’s blog book tour for The Surest Poison. Leave a comment and you will be eligible to win some of his books. The final drawing tomorrow night will be for an autographed copy of The Surest Poison and the grand prize, a copy of all five of his books, including four in the Greg McKenzie series.

Chester Campbell has written four Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. The Surest Poison is the first book in the Sid Chance series. Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. He’s also the secretary of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Kindle Readers Aren't Snobs

“It’s really expensive,” she [Sara Nelson, ex-editor of Publishers Weekly] said of the Kindle 2, which Amazon sells for $359. “If you’re going to pay that, you’re giving a statement to the world that you like to read – and you’re probably not using it to read a mass market paperback.”

What? Kindle readers are too high-minded for mass market paperbacks? Hah! Do Kindle readers have a type? If I had to guess, I’d say they have two shared characteristics: they love to read and they’re not afraid of new technology.

What is Nelson saying anyway? Because the Kindle is expensive, you shouldn’t read genre fiction on it? You mean like drinking Budweiser out of a champaign flute? As though there’s something low-class about mass market paperbacks!

The article went to say when people read on Kindles, you can’t see their book titles, so you can’t make judgments about what they’re reading. It’s about time. That’s why I sell more copies of The Sex Club on Kindle than anywhere else. People don’t have to ask out loud for it or let anyone see their purchase, which readers have admitted was embarrassing for them.

Meanwhile, here’s the top 10 selling books on Kindle last week. If they’re not mass market paperbacks now, most of them will be in a few months.

  1. Long Lost by Harlan Coben
  2. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  3. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  4. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  6. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  7. Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto by Mark R. Levin
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. Just Take My Heart: A Novel by Mary Higgins Clark
  10. Handle with Care: A Novel by Jodi Picoult

Do you own a Kindle? Do you download books for the masses every once in a while?

A Publisher, an Agent, and a New Novel

I recently completed my third Jackson story—working title, Thrilled to Death. Most of my early readers think it’s the best Jackson story yet. We’ll see. The first person I sent it to was an editor at Berkley who asked to see in January while I was still writing it. She read the first two stories, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, and loved both. But she didn’t think she could sell the edgy, controversial themes to her sales reps. So she reluctantly passed, but said, “Please send me the next Jackson story and anything else you write.”

It feels pretty amazing and exciting to have this direct connection to a publisher. But I keep hearing that I still need an agent. The more I think about it, the more sense it makes. I need someone to read, understand, and represent my entire body of work, including my standalone thriller, The Baby Thief, which features Jackson as a minor character. I also would love to sell my work in other countries. (Wouldn’t we all?)

So I wrote a query and e-mailed it to an agent in the Trident Media Group. She responded the next day, asking to see all three Jackson manuscripts. I like her already, because she’s interested in the series from the beginning and wants to see the body of work. She also has extensive foreign rights experience. This could be great.

But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve signed with great agents and had one call me and say, “I’ll have an offer for you next week,” then have it fall though. I’m not counting on Berkley either. She’s turned me down twice. So the queries will keep going out.

I feel like I have a new momentum though that’s different this time. Once the next book comes out in September, I’ll feel like I actually have a little street cred too. I can’t wait for that. Come on Echelon Press!

So now I’m working on a fourth Jackson story, Passions of the Dead: The outline is complete, and I have a thousand words on the page. I’m trying a slightly new structure, and I’m excited to write this story.

Here’s the first paragraph:
Jolie’s first hint that today would be worse than most was missing the homeless vet on the corner of 7th and Washington. She always handed a dollar out the window to the old guy with no teeth as she approached the intersection on her way to work. Sometimes when the light was green, it was tricky, because the person behind her got impatient and honked. But Jolie didn’t care. Giving away the dollar had become a talisman that she hoped would keep more shitty things from happening to her.

Does it make you want to keep reading?