Archive for the the writing life Category

Writing Software

There was long and passionate discussion on a list serv recently (Murder Must Advertise) about writing software. Many people posted about how much they hate Word, especially the 2008 version, and others talked about the alternatives they use. But of course, they all have to copy/paste into Word to send manuscripts to agents and editors—because that’s the industry standard. I’ve always used Word but in a limited way. (I use Quark or InDesign if I have desktop publishing needs.)

But I recently discovered the Notebook Layout View in Word, and I love it! It’s such a convenient way to keep several small idea files in one document without having to scroll. It’s part of how I keep organized while I’m writing.

Which is the subject of my guest blog today at a new site called Better Software to Write. Theresa de Valence is not a only a mystery reviewer, she’s a retired software programmer who’s developing new writing software. So if you have software needs that aren’t being met by your current program, this is your chance to tell somebody who actually plans to do something about it. Stop by and share your piece.

Better Software to Write/How I Write (and Stay Organized)

PS: This is my 100th blog post! Help me celebrate by following.

Reposting Blog Etiquette

A popular guy on Twitter recently asked: “Doesn’t it seem like poor etiquette to post a copy of a guest post you wrote on your own blog? You guest wrote it for someone else, right?”

Good question! I have done that, reposting here modified versions of guest blogs I wrote for other sites. But in all cases, it was at least six months after the blog had been originally posted somewhere else. And I noted at the top of the blog that it was a reposting, so if a reader had, by some chance, seen it they could skip it.

Do others bloggers repost material?

My thinking is that the traffic on the other blog site is likely to be different from the traffic I now have on my site. So if it’s fresh content to most of my readers, why not use it? Sometimes, it’s challenging to come up with new material twice a week! Reposting parallels like the practice of repurposing information gathered for an article your wrote for publication. As long as you modify the focus and/or arrangement, it’s acceptable (and common practice ) to pitch similar stories to other magazines with different audiences—using the same material.

What’s your take? Is it okay to repost guest blogs you’ve written?

Meet Karen Olson, Mystery Novelist


If you like mysteries with original flair, great dialogue, and sassy humor, let me introduce novelist Karen Olson. I recently read Shot Girl, featuring newspaper reporter Annie Seymour, and thoroughly enjoyed it. (And as I may have mentioned recently, I don’t finish many of the novels I start.) Shot Girl opens with Annie musing over the dead body of her ex-husband. Who can resist that? Then it gets rolling when the police, while fetching flip-flops from her car for her, find a gun that matches the shell casings by the body. This fast-paced delightful tale is the last installment in the series, but Karen is busy writing another set of mysteries starring a tattoo artist. Sounds like more good fun. Karen was also sporting enough to answer a few questions.

What is the elevator speech for the novel you’re writing now?
The book I’m working on right now is Pretty In Ink, the sequel to The Missing Ink, which will be out in July. Since I’m still not sure just what Pretty in Ink is about (I don’t outline and work by the seat of my pants), here’s my elevator speech for The Missing Ink.

Las Vegas tattooist Brett Kavanaugh gets mixed up in the disappearance of a woman who was last seen in Brett’s shop making an appointment for devotion ink to surprise her fiancé, whose name is not the name she wanted on the tattoo.

What is your best moment as a novelist?
While I’m writing and the story begins to build momentum and it takes on a life of its own.

What is your worst moment as a novelist?
Worrying about whether I’ll get another contract.

If you could get one
do-over in your career, what would it be?
I might not have given Annie as much of a potty mouth. I had no idea how people would react to that, and while it’s not gratuitous at all, I do know I’ve alienated some readers because of it. I do feel like I’ve got a second chance with The Missing Ink, though, and there is no cursing in that book at all. We’ll see if it makes a difference as far as readers are concerned.

What was the last book you read that made you think “I wish I’d written that”?
Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing.

Where can we find you on the web?
kareneolson.com and Wednesdays at First Offenders

Readers: Don’t you think Karen should let her tattoo artist swear just a little? Do you have a tattoo? Would you read a mystery about a tatooist?

How to Create a Character Database

I recently set up a character database in Excel, and when I posted about it on Twitter/Facebook several people contacted me and asked “What’s a character database?” Sensing that this subject might be interesting to others, I decided to share the details. First, let me say that I’m not an Excel whiz kid, so trust me when I say that this file set up is really straightforward.

This type of database is especially useful if you write a series, and I finally set it up because I got tired of having to look back to see how I had described a character in a previous novel or to search endlessly for the name of a street. I started the file in a Word document, but that was too messy and didn’t allow nifty sorting features.

First, I established the column headers across the top. I’m still tweaking as I go, but for now I have:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Category
  • Role/Function
  • Description
  • Car, address, phone
  • Other details
  • Book title 1 (The Sex Club)
  • Book title 2 (Secrets to Die For)
  • Book title 3 (Thrilled to Death)
  • Book title 4 (The Baby Thief)

Most of these headers are self-explanatory, but the Category column is where I assign the character’s level: 1=main character/recurring, 2=main character/specific to novel, 3=villain, 4=secondary character/recurring, 5=throwaway characters.

Next I listed the characters by row and inserted relevant information. I still have to go back into The Sex Club and find/input all the secondary characters, but with my new novel, I’m adding to the database every time I add important details to the manuscript. (For example, if my character dyes her hair, buys a speed boat, or adopts a pet monkey.)

What’s great about this file is that each column can be sorted individually. I separated out the first and last names so I could alphabetize/sort each list individually. So if I come up with the name Kirstin, I can quickly sort first names and check the middle of that column and see how many characters have first names that start with K. Yikes! Better come up with a different name.

The purpose of the book title columns is to be able to sort by title. I simply put an X in each column title that the character is present in. Then if I’m working in book 3, I can sort by that column and have all the book 3 characters come to the top of the spreadsheet, allowing me easy access to their information. And if I have one of those moments when I’m wondering, Was Officer Chang in my first story or just my second?— it’s easy to find out.

Important reminder: Even if you’re sorting by a single column, be sure to highlight all your data so the information for each row/character stays together. I hope you find this idea useful (and comprehensible). Feel free to ask questions and make suggestions. It’s not perfect by any means.

If you read my blog regularly, thank you. And, it would be great if signed on as a follower and/or linked to my blog from yours.

Why I Put Down a Novel

I start many novels; I finish few. After years of writing, editing, and evaluating works of fiction, I have reader ADD. I read mostly crime/mystery/suspense and some sci-fi, but here’s what makes me put down a book:

  • Slow start with too much day-in-the-life detail or too much backstory (I like it when a novel makes me think Oh shit in the first few pages)
  • Protagonists who do stupid things (especially before I start to like them)
  • Stories that jump back and forth in time for no good reason
  • Characters who have cutsie names or are obsessed with their pets (Sorry!)
  • Detailed gratuitous graphic violence
  • Detailed graphic sex scenes (They’re all gratuitous unless you write erotica)
  • Characters who bicker with their siblings or spouses (I’ve seen a lot of this lately!)
  • Too many characters introduced in the first few pages with no real explanation of who they are
  • Pages and pages with no dialogue
  • Protagonists who engage in immoral acts, like harming an innocent person (I need at least one person to root for)
  • Long, meandering side stories that take me out of the main plot
  • Serial killers (No offense if you write them, I’m just burnt out)

What makes you put down a book?

Goals for 2009—What's Really Important?

I must start by saying 2008 was the best year I’ve ever had! I wrote and sold a novel in the space of ten months. I garnered great reviews for my published novel. I established a significant online presence and attended a major mystery convention where I met and networked with others in the industry. Just to name some highlights. Some people would look back and say it was also the worst year we’ve ever had, with both of us unexpectedly laid off in March and our 401Ks devastated.

So at the beginning of 2009, I’m struggling with a weighty decision. I just found out that the health insurance I was counting on through my husband’s new job will cost $575 a month—and who the hell can afford that? So I have to rethink my strategy going forward. Is having health insurance important enough to make me change directions and get an outside job?

The thought breaks my heart. The best thing about 2008 was that I was able to focus on my novels—to put writing at the top of my to-do list for the first time in my life. Even the freelance work I did moved me closer to my goal of working exclusively in the fiction writing/editing industry. I believe a job, even a part-time one, will move me away from that goal. And looking for a job will be a major time suck.

So I’m vacillating. My mother wants me to get a job with insurance and security. My sons say to follow my dream—that I’m healthy and I’ll be fine. My husband is smart enough to stay out of it, accept as a good sounding board.

My thinking (at this moment) is to give myself more time and keep the momentum going. To finish the novel I’m writing (March is my goal), put it on the market, then reassess the situation at that point. I also plan to look into joining writers’ associations that offer insurance. (Does anyone have any experience with these policies and their cost?)

Meanwhile, here are my writing goals for 2009:

  • Write 1500 words a day, 5 days a week until my new novel is completed.
  • Outline the next (fourth!) Jackson novel between now and March.
  • Sign a publishing contract for this novel (the third in the Jackson series).
  • Sign a contract for my standalone thriller, The Baby Thief.
  • Write the fourth Jackson story before the end of the year.
  • Attend Bouchercon and possibly ThrillerFest (if my credit card mileage points allow).
  • Blog twice a week, write/develop a speaker’s presentation, and write three magazine articles (among other things).

Now that I’ve put that all down in writing, I realize that achieving those goals depends on having the freedom to write first, edit/clean later.

What are your goals? Any opinions on my dilemma?

One Crazy Day in the Life of a Novelist

As I looked back on this year, I found this guest blog, which sums up the highs, lows, and strange encounters a novelist can experience in one day.

9:42 am: As I write page 162, I realize that an entire investigative thread in my new novel is not quite logical. And there’s no way to massage it or spin it. So I go back to the beginning and try to pick out and rewrite every reference to this line of inquiry. Did I get them all? Or did I leave a little silver of foreign material that will pop up and irritate readers? Now I have doubts about other plot threads. So I decide to print out all 162 pages and read through them before continuing to write the story. How many trees have I killed in my career as a writer and editor?

12:29 am: Another writer posts on my Facebook page, “Congrats on the review in Mystery Scene. ‘A thrilling, eye-opening read.’” I am excited. I haven’t seen this review, and it will make a great blurb. I search Mystery Scene’s webpage, but I can’t find the review and I don’t have a copy of the magazine. So everyone in mystery world knows what this review says, except me. I worry that the one line I know about may be the only positive thing the reviewer said.

3:10 pm: After months of waiting, my beta reader sends an e-mail with her feedback on the first 50 pages of my new story, Secrets to Die For. After commenting, “This is a very worthy story, a page-turner with great potential,” she says, “Try to SHOW rather than TELL.” Aaaghhhhh! I like to think that I live by this ubiquitous writing rule. But now I wonder: Do I even know what I’m doing?

6:17 pm: After months of waiting, the book trailer for my recently published novel, The Sex Club, arrives via e-mail. I excitedly click open the file, ready to be thrilled and amazed. But no, the trailer is weird and confusing. The girl in the last scene is at least 20, dark-haired, and kind of heavy. She doesn’t even look dead. The victim in my novel is 14 and blond and thin and very dead. I show the trailer to my husband. He hates almost everything about it and cannot stop talking about how much he dislikes it. I am crushed. I spent the last of my promotional money on the trailer, and I counted on it selling a few books. Now I have to compose an e-mail that diplomatically says, “Start over.” It takes an hour that I don’t have. (New and improved trailer is viewable at the bottom of this page.)

9:05 pm: I receive an e-mail from a mystery book club leader named Ruth Greiner, who apparently does have a copy of the Mystery Scene review and says she’ll never read The Sex Club no matter how great all the reviews are. She does not say why, and she does not have to. Just seeing her name horrified me. The antagonist in The Sex Club is a very nasty woman and her name is Ruth Greiner. How was I to know? Now I have to write an e-mail that explains how I chose the name—Ruth is Biblical and strong, Greiner is the name of a street in my old neighborhood. I also try to carefully express my concern for her feelings, without admitting any liability. I offer to send her a free copy of my next novel, then feel lame about it.

10:16 pm: Yet another fun-filled e-mail arrives. This one is from a local author whom I met at a book fair and exchanged novels with. He says he’s quite sure he’ll find a publisher for his new novel and wants to know if I’ll read his book and write a blurb for the front cover. This is the first time anyone has asked me for a blurb, and I’d like to be excited. I’m flattered that he thinks I have any clout. But I didn’t get past the first page of his first novel (which started with a rectal search by a large German woman), and this one, he says, is much more sexually explicit. How do I get so lucky? Oh yeah, I wrote a novel called The Sex Club, so he must think I’m a sex fiend. (It’s a mystery/thriller, really!) I spend 20 minutes composing an e-mail, then delete it, thinking I’ll deal with it tomorrow.

Sex Sells—Or Does It?

Sex sells. That’s what marketers always say. And it seems to be true for tight-fitting jeans and toothpaste. But it is true in crime fiction? In my experience—not necessarily.

Some of the best reviews I received for my novel, The Sex Club, started out with a disclaimer like this: “I didn’t think I would like this book, but . . .” The readers/reviewers went on to say that the title (and sometimes the cover) had originally turned them away, but that they’d read it because another reader raved about it. They ended up loving the story, but still, their initial aversion concerned me. So I asked members of Dorothly L (a mystery discussion forum) what they thought about the title. Many said they would never pick up the novel in a bookstore or library because of the title.

So then I wondered: How many bookstores and libraries had decided not to stock my novel because of the title? From the comments of a few, I believe there might be many. After realizing this painful reality, I started adding this footnote to all my communications about the novel: “Despite the title, the story isn’t X-rated.”

It is not a good sign when you have to explain or make excuses for your title.

On the other hand, many writers on the CrimeSpace and Facebook networking sites have posted great comments about The Sex Club’s cover and title. One writer posted, “Judging by the title, that’s a book I HAVE to read RIGHT NOW.” Many others have simply said, “Love the cover!”

During a discussion with writers about the word sex in a crime fiction title, the reaction was also mixed. One writer said, “If sex is in the title, isn’t that a lot of emphasis, leading the buyer to think the book might be in the wrong section of the bookstore?” A quick search of Amazon brought up only one other mystery title with the word sex —Sex and Murder (A Paul Turner Mystery). But at least that author was smart enough to get the word murder in the title too.

My conclusions: 1) If I had it to do all over again, I’d change the name, 2) Bookstores and libraries are critical to sales, and authors can’t afford to alienate them or their patrons, 3) Mystery readers prefer dead bodies to warm ones.

What’s your reaction? Do you shy away from books with sex in the title? Do you mind a little sex in your mysteries or do prefer that the characters stay on task?

When to Ignore Good Advice

Advice for writers is everywhere. Rules for writing. Rules for querying. Rules for submitting. Like most writers, I also actively solicit advice from beta readers, successful novelists, and others in the publishing business. There have been times when I followed what seemed like good advice and ended up regretting it. Other times, I ignored perfectly good advice and was glad I did. How do you know up front when to ignore sound advice? Listen to your own instincts.

Long ago, an agent advised me to write a YA novel because she knew an editor who was looking for YA manuscripts that dealt with troubled teen scenarios and she thought I would be perfect for the series. My instinct said it wasn’t right for me, but I thought this agent had a solid connection that would get me published. Total waste of time! I am not a YA writer. (I’m not sure I was every really young. My mother swears I was born 40.)

One very successful agent who I was once signed with kept advising me to write a cozy mystery series because that’s what all the publishers wanted. I don’t read cozy mysteries, and I didn’t think I could pull it off. So I never tried. That was smart. See above. So my rule for myself is: Never write a novel I wouldn’t read. (Unless someone gives me a boatload of money upfront and and all the time in world to complete it.)

A beta reader once advised me to not make the murder victim’s mother a drug addict who had died of drug-related complications. She thought it was distracting and unnecessary. But it was the basis for the character’s personality! It was why she ended up in the situation she was in at the time of the murder. Wrong advice! Easy to ignore.

Everyone in the business says to never query an agent before you finish writing the story. I have routinely ignored this advice (when sending snail mail) and have never had an agent respond to a query before the manuscript was ready. Agents are notoriously slow (I once got a response three years and three months later), so why not eliminate that waiting gap with productive writing time? Sending queries early also motivates me to get it done.

A successful mystery writer and dear friend once advised me not approach an editor at a major publishing house directly. She felt strongly that I should get an agent—that the editor would never consider a manuscript submitted without one and that it might seem unprofessional. But this editor had read The Sex Club as a manuscript and loved it. She knew my name and my writing. I felt there was no harm in asking if she’d like to see the next installment in the Jackson series. So I queried her directly anyway (via e-mail). Then a few weeks later, I ran into her at Bouchercon and pitched the novel again. A month later, she e-mailed me and asked to see the manuscript. I’m still waiting to see how this turns out. But even if she passes on the series, I’m still glad I ignored that well-intended advice and made that direct connection.

I’ve learned to write only the stories I feel passionate about, regardless of what’s currently trendy; to trust my own instincts about what works best for those stories; and to never let fear get in the way of making connections.

Do you ignore standard industry advice? Does it usually work out for you?

And the Winners Are . . .

Thank you everyone for participating. I received so many good names, I may eventually use them all. But after conferring with my story consultant (aka “husband Steve”), we realized that three of our favorite names came from the same person! So, the big winner is Cigdem Aksoy, a Facebook friend, who currently lives in Turkey. (The postage will cost more than the book, but well worth it.) She submitted:

Seth Valder, who is now a sleazy strip club owner in Thrilled to Death
Eddy Lucas, who runs a “Dirty Jobs” business. I had already chosen “Eddie” for this character (who is really a bad guy-lite), and “Lucas” is the perfect last name for him.

She also submitted the winning name for the con man/misogynist, but I realize now that I can’t reveal it without ruining the mystery for those of you who plan to buy this story in 2010 when it comes out. (You are planning to buy this book, right? )

And in the spirit of giving, I’ll send books to these honorable mentions:
Zoran Mircovich (submitted by Scott Roche aka Spiritual Tramp) Liked this name so much, I’m going to create a part for him.
Stig Bloodcutter (submitted by Anthony Taylor) Made me laugh out loud!
Randy Cockrane (submitted by Gayle Carline for the strip club owner) Very clever!
(Winners, please e-mail me with your mailing adddress.)

Cigdem also provided links to places to find names, so I’ll share them here.

Seventh Sanctum
Villain Names
Mactyre
Stone Dragon Press

Thanks again for playing!

Five-Time Readers Favorite Award Winner!

LATEST REVIEWS

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The characters were compelling, the procedural work was dead-on, and the story was enthralling. Definitely recommended.”
~Michelle Gagnon, author of Boneyard
The author expertly intertwines multiple story lines, presents readers with fully realized characters that readers will feel they know, and keeps the action and suspense levels high. That’s a lot to expect from an author but L. J. Sellers delivers.” ~OverMyDeadBody
WP Like Button Plugin by Free WordPress Templates