Happy Holidays from WinR!

With the Holidays in full swing, we at Writers in Residence wish you all Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa,  and a wonderful New Year!

Just because it’s hectic this time of year doesn’t mean you have to abandon your mysteries. Au contraire! Here are a few options that will fit into your holiday schedule.

By Carolyn Hart
Harper Collins, 2009

Carolyn Hart opens her second Bailey Ruth mystery in Heaven, but readers get only a brief glimpse of its celestial delights. The inquisitive, impatient, and often rash “dearly departed” Bailey Ruth is a novice emissary for the Department of Good Intentions, and that special band of “otherworldly” (never ghostly) beings return to their hometowns on earth to help people in trouble.

After her first visit (GHOST AT WORK) there were doubts about Bailey Ruth going back. Having broken nearly all the “Precepts for Heavenly Visitations,” she is definitely on probation. But Station Agent Wiggins has a soft spot for the lively redhead and cautiously assigns her to another “adven-mission.” Her special qualification: she’s “always loved Christmas.”

But even as the earth-bound Rescue Express approaches, the task she’s been given escalates from a “calm overseeing” of an orphan’s future, to “impending danger,” to Wiggin’s last shouted words as she races for the train, “Protect that dear boy!”

Bailey Ruth’s real talent goes beyond that of a Guardian Angel however, and she’s soon assisting the police in not one, but two murder investigations.

It begins a few days before Christmas with the unexpected arrival of four-year-old Keith Flynn to the doorstep of the largest mansion in Adelaide, Oklahoma. Bailey Ruth is there to comfort the abandoned boy (kids can see Heavenly Agents) and to observe what happens.

The boy’s ailing grandmother, Susan Flynn, is overjoyed to learn that her wayward son had a child before being killed in Iraq. She immediately decides to change her will in favor of the boy. The previous beneficiaries, none of whom are blood relatives, panic when they see their inheritance slipping away. One of them takes steps to prevent it.

Since Bailey Ruth rearranges a few things at the crime scene (for the best of reasons), she feels obligated to help Police Chief Cobb with the investigation. Writing in his notebook and on his office chalkboard are her usual methods, although she occasionally speaks aloud and even swirls into sight briefly. This unlikely pair – each breaking their own sets of “precepts” – set a trap for the killer.

I hesitate to call MERRY, MERRY GHOST a paranormal mystery, for Bailey Ruth is no spooky specter. Rather, she’s a flashy, fun-loving and clever sleuth who just happens to have unusual abilities. And she’s good hearted to a fault…but why wouldn’t she be, considering where she lives?

Hart’s reputation for writing fast-paced, well-plotted cozies with delightful characters and “heavenly” endings remains secure with this book. And, as in her Death on Demand series, she’s the ultimate book title and author namedropper. (Look for them!) A perfect book for a rainy day and a cup of tea.

But what if you don’t have time to finish a novel before the in-laws show up for dinner? There are many great short story anthologies that revolve around the holidays. Let us recommend one from the 2008 Top Ten Best Seller Softcover List, an anthology that benefits Toys for Tots, and, as a special benefit, includes our own WinR, Gayle Bartos-Pool!

Dying in a Winter Wonderland
Wolfmont Press, 2008
There’s something in this anthology for every type of mystery reader. Since I prefer traditionals and cozies, let me start out with “The Alternate Plan” by Allan Ansorge. When two fake Christmas Santas discover that they aren’t the only crooks in town, they have a change of plans and hearts. 
 “In the Nick of Time”, by Gayle Bartos-Pool,  two misfit criminals rob a corpse and…well, I can’t say more or I’ll give away the twist ending.
And speaking of twist endings, Tony Burton’s “Taking Her Medicine” will make you think three times about the consequences of drinking and driving.
For those who prefer a hard-boiled edge, Austin S. Comacho presents “A Mother for Christmas” featuring his regular character, Hannibal. A little girl wants her mom home for Christmas and only Hannibal and his brand of investigation can make it happen.
Christmas isn’t the only holiday of the season, as we see in “On the Sixth Night of Hanukah” by Helen Schwartz. A local police officer helping out at a temple open to the homeless, investigates a case of vandalism with surprising results.
There are more stories by talented authors–thirteen in all. You may just set aside the baking sheets and read a few!
But what if your holiday fantasy involves putting your feet up and drinking a glass of eggnog? Why not rent a Midsomer Murder made especially for the season?

Ghosts of Christmas Past
Midsomer Murders, Season Seven
Acorn Media @2007, Approx 100 minutes
It’s immediately apparent that all is not well at the Villier family home. Nine years ago, brother Ferdy committed suicide, something they don’t talk about though the subject hangs heavy in the air. Tension also arises from discussions about selling the house, a financial albatross that’s falling apart. When a Christmas cracker reveals a sinister threat, at first the family dismisses it as a practical joke. But then people begin to die.
Inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham, the Midsomer Murders series falls under that delightful umbrella,  British cozy. John Nettles is fabulous as Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, and it would be a surprise if you guessed the murderer, though the clues are all there.

Whatever your choice, enjoy the holidays and have a Healthy, Happy and Prosperous New Year! See you in 2010!

An Interview with Heather Ames

Heather Ames has two published e-books to her credit, along with numerous short fiction pieces and non-fiction articles. She has also produced, written, directed and edited two documentaries that aired on cable access on the East Coast. Along with her writing, she works with clients as a writing coach as well as keeping her day job in healthcare. A native of England, Heather lived in France, Spain and Italy before emigrating to the U.S. She recently settled in Portland, Oregon, where she’s working on her thriller series. Set in Miami,  Indelible and its sequels, Swift Justice and Maine Issues, feature a Miami-Dade homicide detective and a feisty, atypical socialite.  Welcome Heather!

There are many ways to e-publish today. Which method did you choose for your books, and what factors led you to choose them?

After researching the e-publishers, I picked one who was open to submissions and was actively looking for new writers with out-of-the-box romances. Unfortunately, although the editor liked my writing, she didn’t like the plot line or the characters in the book I submitted.

The second publisher on my list, Romance At Heart Publications, was a new publisher. I figured I stood a better chance with them, since their inventory had to be low. I submitted to them in late spring and waited, then waited some more. I even tried emailing them during the summer to find out if they were still considering The Sweetest Song. Suddenly, the week of Thanksgiving, I received a “Congrats, we want to publish your book” right out of the blue, accompanied by a contract and an explanation that they had been through some editorial changes since my manuscript reached them.

My fellow writer and friend, Vikk Simmons, kindly gave me an intro to AweStruck. She told me they were accepting manuscripts after being closed to submissions for a while, and gave me permission to use her name in my query letter. She’d had two young adult novels published by AweStruck and really liked both the editor and publisher. By the time I got everything pulled together for All That Glitters, I really squeezed under the wire by sending my partial right before midnight on the day the submission period closed again. Thankfully, Vikk didn’t have to find out she had recommended a dud, because I received another “Congrats” and a contract in a much shorter timeframe than with RAHPubs.

What are some of the pluses and minuses to e-publishing? What should writers consider when they’re contemplating the e-publishing route?

For me, there have been a lot of pluses: I got answers from all 3 publishers within months, versus manuscripts hanging out more than a year on average with the print pubs. I received a lot of very positive feedback, my editors were terrific (knowledgeable, supportive and very perceptive) and everything was accomplished online. The pub dates for my novels were also a lot earlier than they would have been with any print pub, so I had two publishing credits to my name within a relatively short period of time.

The biggest minus is the pay. Yes, I get a bigger slice of the pie with the e-publishers, but because their distribution isn’t via book stores, I have to do a whole lot of marketing. I also have to get potential buyers over the “Can’t I just get it in book form?” by explaining that they can either read the novels on their computer screens or download and print them. It’s surprising how many people balk at printing up the necessary amount of pages, when they’re spending a lot less on the actual download than they would if they bought a physical book at a bookstore.

Nowadays, of course, there are also the readers, such as the Kindle and the Sony. They are changing a lot of minds when avid readers figure out that they can have access to a large number of books at any time without having to drag around an extra suitcase when they travel or agonize over which books to recycle when their available space fills up at home.

Your e-novels tend toward the romance genre, with a bit of suspense and mystery in the mix. Your current book, Indelible, is a thriller with elements of romance and murder/mystery. Any tips on how to successfully balance multiple elements within a novel?

It’s more of a juggling act than a balance. I try not to overwhelm the plot with the romance or the romance by the plot. I tried submitting to Harlequin Intrigue and Harlequin American while agented, but despite being asked to send a couple of entire manuscripts after the partials had been submitted, they were rejected because my themes were too graphic or scary for romance readers, or the editors felt the plot overwhelmed the romance. I learned a lot from those submissions, including the fact that what I write won’t easily fit into genre fiction.

Based on the feedback I received, I completely reworked Indelible’s original plot line and I’m much happier with the result. I stopped trying to fit myself into a genre box and instead ended up with a novel that allowed me to explore the complexities of human relationships, including what happens when two people come together during a crisis and discover there’s more between them than self-preservation.

There’s no easy formula to my writing. Sometimes I get elements of a relationship, other times part of the plot. I try to place myself in my characters’ shoes and react as they would instead of how I would. Somewhere in the middle of the first draft, they tend to take over and tell me what they’re going to do, anyway. They just take me along for the ride, and hopefully, take my readers, too.

You’ve done a huge amount of research on the Miami scene, as well as on police procedures and firearms. Can you tell us a bit about your research process?

My first order of business in research is to make sure I familiarize myself thoroughly with the backdrop. Fortunately for me, I have friends all over the U.S., and they don’t mind accompanying me on scouting trips for locations, including everything from scenery to restaurants and in the case of Indelible, the local marinas.

For my next series, friends in Seattle took me to underground teen clubs, where I met with a manager and got his take on the runaways who frequent his establishments. I’ve also dragged Vikk Simmons down alleyways in Chicago and toured the Blue Ridge Parkway and the affluent areas around Asheville with another friend for settings I used in The Sweetest Song. Working in a county hospital system and an emergency room have given me frequent opportunities to weave less-than-desirable characters into my novels, but they have also allowed me to gain insight that I might never have obtained from any other source.

As far as the firearms are concerned, my son took me to a shooting range and I got to use a Glock, my detective’s weapon of choice. I actually learned how to reload it faster than my son could, and I was able to authentically channel my female protagonist’s feelings when she had to handle the gun in a crisis. GB Pool was also more than generous with her critiquing of the action sequences in Indelible. I’m always on a learning curve with firearms, as well as police procedures.

I watch a lot of TV shows, such as Forensic Files, Snapped and The First 48. I got my hands on a used copy of What Cops Know by Connie Fletcher (Pocket Books,) which tells stories from the streets in the words of the police officers themselves. I was fortunate enough, during the time I worked in the ER, to have frequent contact with the detectives working homicide cases. They gave us the backgrounds behind the killings and even updated us when the cases were solved. I saw some really gruesome sights, but I also learned what happened when bodies that were burned beyond recognition or were too decomposed needed to be identified. So often, it was the little things that made the difference, even in the years before forensics changed the entire playing field.

I bought the entire Writers Digest Books series to study procedures, firearms, etc. Now, of course, they are all out of date. It’s difficult to keep current these days. Everything changes so rapidly. I try not to go into too much detail, because I’m a lay person. I’ll leave the police procedurals to those in the know. I prefer to deal more with the emotional aspects of the cases I send my protagonists out to solve. I also tend to make them solve the cases with less fire-power and more brain-power.

You’ve also done work as a writing coach. What are some of the big issues that come up when trying to critique another writer’s work? What advice do you give a novice writer?

When I work with a fellow writer, I always make sure I’m not substituting my voice for theirs when I critique. The editing part is the easiest, although I have gone three rounds with people over sometimes the smallest details. It’s funny how they don’t object to having entire paragraphs reworked or even deleted, but they’ll quibble over a sentence or the placement of a certain small paragraph. It just shows how close we get to our work and how difficult it is to remove ourselves to a position of objectivity.

The first thing I do with clients is to work out a deadline for project completion. It can be dynamic, but it has to be there. As soon as that date is set, the project gets off the ground. The same applies to any novice writer–set a goal–whether it’s for completing a chapter, a section of a novel or the entire manuscript. For non-fiction writers, getting the first draft finished, the interview/s set up or even done, with the notes, etc. transcribed.

Having an outline is like having a game plan for the majority of people. I work with an outline on non-fiction projects as well as documentaries, but the only time I used an outline for a novel, by the time I finished the outline, I was done with the novel. I never wrote it past the first three chapters, because all the excitement of the project was over for me. We all have to figure out how we work best.

Novice writers need to take writing classes, attend seminars, workshops, and any other opportunities they can find to interact with other writers. They need to learn how to plot, how to structure, how to get inside their characters’ skins if they’re writing fiction, and how to cut their non-fiction pieces by a third or even a half. They need to know how to write a query letter, how to polish a partial, and how to pitch if and when they get the opportunity to sell themselves to an agent or an editor.

Lastly, they need to understand that they are not the next best thing that has ever happened to the publishing community, unless they are some sort of phenomena, in which case there will be no stopping them, and they won’t need my advice. And they also should understand that although writing is a solitary profession, it doesn’t need to be a lonely one. There’s a big community of fellow writers out there, and the majority of those writers are nurturing, supportive and completely understanding when it comes to burned dinners, forgotten hours in front of the computer screen, loss of sleep and dehydration.

The Sweetest Song, Heather’s first published e-book, is available through Romance at Heart Publications  and All That Glitters can be found at Awe-Struck Publishing . Visit Heather on her web site .

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 5

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 5 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.


You can’t judge a book by its cover. You judge it by its words. The same is true for dialogue. You learn a lot about characters by what they say. And while sometimes a character will say one thing and do another, that discrepancy, and the reasons behind it, tells us a lot about that character as well.

If you write great dialogue, consider yourself lucky. Many writers cite it as the most difficult part of a novel to get right. However, there are ways to improve it.
Tips for writing dialogue:

First let’s understand the function of dialogue in a novel. It’s a way to break up exposition, convey information, hear the characters’ voices, and communicate more directly with non-POV characters. Speech patterns, mannerisms, and vocabulary can inform us of a character’s heritage, education, values, and personality, or they can be used to mislead us.

Good dialogue sounds natural; authentic, but not realistic. Actual speech patterns can be too wordy, too vague, or just boring. For inspiration, listen to people talking in airports, restaurants, shopping malls, and parties for speech patterns, key words and phrases that are different, or go beyond what you’re used to hearing.

When writing dialogue, it’s important to hear it spoken out loud. You can do this yourself, but if you can get someone (even a computer) to read it to you, that’s even better. If the reader stumbles over your dialogue, it usually indicates the writing is awkward or doesn’t mean what you intended. Listen not only for how it sounds, but also the meaning behind the words.

What can dialogue do?

• Slow down a scene without slowing the pace, like a zoom lens that brings you right into the moment.

• Give readers a close-up of moments of passion, conflict, or danger

• Show purpose or define a scene; focus the story

• Inform us of the connection between characters – using shorthand or brevity shows intimacy or awareness in a relationship. (Use M dashes when a speaker is interrupted and ellipses when a speaker’s thoughts fade out.)

Recognizing bad dialogue is easier than figuring out why it’s bad or how it can be reworked. If you’re not happy with your dialogue, try this exercise:


Writing free-form dialogue releases you from linear thinking by using the right brain instead of the left. (The left brain is the logical, organized half, perfect for plotting or editing.) Select a scene from your first chapter that includes conversation. You can start the dialogue from scratch, or continue the existing one. Then write as quickly as you can; don’t bother with punctuation, tags, or details. Keep writing until you’ve relinquished your control over your characters and let them take over – continue until they’ve had their say. Then review and add tags; identify speakers, place, etc. Add your sensory details.

When you’re done, revise, revise, and revise! It’s like peeling an onion. You have to get past what’s always been said (the surface) to reach deeper levels of understanding.

I have found that this writing exercise is very helpful if you’re stuck in other ways. We tend to fall back on left-brain logic to solve problems in our writing when what we need is the emotional punch that comes from right-brain thinking. If any part of your story isn’t working despite outlines, index cards, or editing, try free-form writing a conversation between your characters, whether they appear in the scene or not. Chances are you’ll garner at least a nugget, if not more.

If the exercise doesn’t work for you the first time, try again. Use a different mix of characters, or put them in a different setting if necessary. For example, lets say your scene involves two characters arguing in a restaurant and free-form writing their dialogue isn’t helping. Try using two background characters, like a couple sitting at an adjacent table, or the waiter and busboy, and let them chat about your characters’ behavior or conversation. Or, take your arguing characters out of the restaurant and put them on an airplane, in line at a taxi stand on a stormy night, or at a party.


The purpose of this series is to help polish your first chapter. Once that has been done, don’t stop. Work on each subsequent chapter until it shines. Good luck.

Interview with Mr. Mike

We are excited to have author and illustrator Mr. Mike with us to talk about writing for children. Mr. Mike is the author of ’Swimming in Chocolate’, ’Lemon Drop Rain’, ’Over the Top’, and ’New Pet’.

Thank you for joining us a WinR. How did you get into writing for children?

I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kid. Starting in about the 5th grade, I was writing short one-page stories, like lots of kids do. By the time I was about thirteen years old I started writing poetry. Flash forward to adulthood when I worked at an elementary school. Often the kids would ask me if I was ever going to write a book and I always said, ‘no.’ But after a while, teachers and parents chimed in… so I finally realized that maybe I should take a whack at it. The kids called me ‘Mr. Mike’ so, I figured that’d be a good pen name. They helped me pick out the poems for my first book and I titled it ‘Swimming in Chocolate’ after a memory of a visit to a chocolate factory. It was really just for fun and I never thought seriously about ‘becoming an author’ or getting into publishing. Fun – that was the point. I was pretty easy to please too. When we printed the first run of about 4000 books, I told myself that I’d be happy if only one kid liked it. They were all gone within a few months.

You write both poetry and fiction. Do you find that children respond more enthusiastically to one or the other?
Well, I haven’t published my fiction yet. I’m working on several projects at the same time right now including a spooky chapter book series, a mystery story that might evolve into a short series as well as constantly writing new poetry that will emerge as individual books like New Pet or an additional compilation. Eventually, one project will dominate over the others and that will be the next thing to be published. I have found that children respond to all my writing with enthusiasm. How people respond to one’s writing really depends not only on the writing, but how it’s presented and the impression the reader has of the writer. I hope that children will be as excited about what I write in the years to come as they have been in the past – ‘cause I sure am!

As your own illustrator, do you think about illustrations while you write, or do you come up with illustrations first and write the poetry or fiction around the images?

I always write first. It can take years before I have a clear idea of how I want an illustration or character to look. For example, I finished writing a story called ‘Big Day’ several years ago, but I still haven’t nailed the look of the main character yet… so that means – no book yet! I ended up putting together another 150 or so poems on 180+ pages with as many illustrations in ‘Over the Top’ instead! Who would’ve thought! While writing though, I do make little sketches to remind myself of the image I have in my mind at the time. So, it’s not like I don’t think about the illustrations at all. I just don’t seriously get into the drawing aspect until the writing is done. It takes about 1 month for my brain to rest from writing and transition into illustrating mode. I can do them both – just not at the same time.
You market extensively through school assemblies. How did you get into making presentations to schools, and do you find that teachers and administrators are enthusiastic about having an author speak to their students?

Teachers and administrators are VERY enthusiastic about having an author visit their school. In fact, many of the schools I visit have either never had an author visit before or haven’t had one in many years. It’s a big deal. My presentations are not only lots of fun, but also educational. Part of the goal is to give them such a good experience that they’ll invite more authors to their school! There are also many schools that try to have and author visit every year and some schools even participate in district-wide author’s days. These schools are very familiar with hosting authors and often have solid writing programs to go along with it.
I first started making presentations to schools after ‘Swimming in Chocolate’ came out over ten years ago. Someone from a local school saw the write up in the newspaper and called to see if I’d do a classroom visit. When I got home, there was a message on my machine asking me to come back to do an event for the whole school! Things just kind of mushroomed after that and haven’t slowed down since! I visit about 50 schools each year and I have a blast doing it!
Beetlebugbooks.com contains a lot of information about how your assemblies work, but your target market may not know about your website. How do you get the word out that you’re available as a speaker?
We do a direct mailing once each year and the schedule is usually fully booked within a month or two. A lot of requests come in via word-of-mouth as well. I have had the luxury of not having to aggressively promote and over-market in order to be successful at what I do. My focus is on writing… slow but sure… I will not allow myself to be a flash in the pan and I don’t mind my popularity growing at a reasonable rate over the course of many years. So, I’m in no rush to try to maintain a constant presence everywhere. We may look at getting onto a few of the sites that showcase authors and illustrators as speakers, but there hasn’t really been any big rush to do that since I stay so busy as it is.
I had a teacher say that she didn’t like “marketing “to the kids, which is how she saw sending them home with a book order form. Do you run into this attitude a lot? And what would you tell this teacher?
I’d gently remind the teacher that when an author visits her school, she should expect to have a book sale since that’s what any author will expect. Schools usually send home fliers since that’s their standard method of getting information home. A good majority of my visits to public schools are free and book sales are always part of the event. I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ever done an appearance without doing a book sale – that what authors do – it would be strange not to.
We really don’t run into this attitude at all since we make it very clear up front that when Mr. Mike visits a school, he’ll be signing books. Most schools can make a distinction between inviting the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee to do a ‘presentation’ and a children’s author promoting literacy.
When I first started doing school visits over ten years ago, we didn’t’ have things as organized as we do now. I was so new to being ‘an author’. Teachers would come up to me saying, “Don’t you have a flier or something we can use to order books?” and “You should really do a presale because the kids love your books and we always do a book sale.” It became very obvious very quickly that folks want to buy books and they already had expectations for how to it. They use fliers, their website and other means to promote the event. This is perfectly appropriate and what any author and school should expect when planning a visit. And the students love it. Most of them have never had a book signed by an author. I never did when I was kid. So, that’s pretty cool.

You self-publish your books through Beetle Bug Books. Why did you choose this route, and what advantages have you found?
I chose this route because I knew three people who all had book deals during the time I finished ‘Swimming in Chocolate’. They were all having trouble with their publishers. I remember thinking to myself, “This isn’t what I signed up for. I just want to publish my book the way I envision it.” I wasn’t ready to have a publisher tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I decided I’d rather take the energy that might have been spent going ‘round and ‘round with a publisher and put it into starting my own publishing company. I’d take responsibility for what works and what doesn’t work and have fun while doing it! I’ve never regretted it. The advantages are that I can do what I want when I want. I can take an idea out of thin air and see it all the way through to the real world without any interruption from someone who had something other than my vision in mind. I don’t have to say, “Oh, the cover looks like that because my publisher…” or “I don’t really like the artwork, but my publisher wouldn’t even look at the art I had in mind.” Any writer or illustrator out there knows exactly what I’m talking about. As time rolls on though, I have become so busy that I might have to find a publisher for some of my other projects. If I do, my experience with Beetle Bug Books will be an asset.
Your web site includes great information for children about the writing and illustrating processes. Is this the goal of your presentations? To teach kids about the writing process?
Yes, it’s part of it. My goal is not only to bring the writing and illustrating to life, but also bring the writer and illustrator to life. It’s not unusual for a school library to have around 14,000 books. I think it’s important for kids to know that real people are behind every single one of them. I never met an author when I was a kid so it took me longer to realize that being an author and/or illustrator is actually something someone can do for a living! The other big part of this is to reinforce what’s going on in the school. You’ve got lots of teachers out there teaching their students to look over their work, make corrections and write it again. I’m the professional writer who comes in and says, “Yeah, what your teacher is teaching you is right! Take a look at all my rewrites… see how long this took!” All the students write poems prior to my visit. We call it the ‘Mr. Mike Poetry Challenge’. After having just been through the writing process themselves my presentation is even more relevant and meaningful because we’re on the same level – we’re all writers!
Mr. Mike is on twitter! Do you find that your target audience—elementary aged children—are tweeting in large numbers? Or do you tweet mainly to parents and teachers?
Oh, gosh – I really hope they’re NOT Tweeting in large numbers! You know, I’m really on the fence about Twitter and all those social networking kinds of things. We have a few pages in the works for most of the sites, but haven’t gone live due to my reservations. My biggest issue with all this is that one, it only encourages people to spend more time sitting in front of the computer or staring at their little gadget and two, it’s too interconnected and way too easy to be hop scotching into areas and connecting with people you don’t know. I’m sure elementary aged children are up to a lot more than I’m aware of judging by all the phones and gadgets I see them carrying around – and sometimes looking at while I’m doing a reading! Real people in front of you are (supposed to be) a lot more interesting than looking at a little screen.
I just got on Twitter a few days ago and don’t plan to be reporting on every detail of my life. In fact, I’ll probably ‘tweet’ rather infrequently – we’ll see. Honestly, it hardly occurs to me at any point during the day to ‘tweet’ since I’m so busy writing and doing other more important things. I heard an interview of the CEO of Twitter not too long ago. He said something like, “People can tweet as much or as little as they want. Some people tweet 150 times a day,,, and others only 50 times a day.” Wow. That blew me away. My limited presence on Twitter is not intended to be specifically for elementary aged children, however the minimal content will always be appropriate for all ages. I’m not really interested in collecting any kind of massive following and if it turns out to not be too interesting – I’ll ditch it.
I understand that you are currently working on the retelling of a fairy tale. Can you tell us anything about this book?
Yes, it’s a retelling of Jack and Beanstalk. The writing is done. I’m in the process of story boarding general sketches of the illustrations, which are not done yet. It’s a new way of working for me, but I want this book to have a different feel. So, basically if you could see it right now, it would look like a bunch of papers with very crudely done sketches that mostly emphasize the reader’s visual perspective… kind of like laying out the specific camera shots in a movie, for example. I’m almost to the point where I can mentally visualize the finished book in my hands. When I can ‘feel’ the book in my hands, I know I’m kind of ‘over the hump’ in its development.
Thank you, Mr. Mike, for a great interview.
You can reach Mr. Mike through his web site at Beetle Bug Books where you can order his books, book him for a school visit, or simply explore an informative, fun site. You can also order his books on Amazon.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 4

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 4 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.


This aspect of writing is difficult to explain because it’s so subjective. We know it must be done; but where, when, and especially how to do it is the challenge.

Sol Stein, author of “How To Grow A Novel”, points out that from the time we’re very young, we become accustomed to hearing stories, whether it’s our parents reading to us, schoolmates repeating tales, or gossips in the workplace. The ones we enjoy the most are the ones we can best envision.

Our desire to “see” stories also comes from watching visual media such as television and films. We all know how engaging they can be even if the content is hollow. As our culture becomes more accustomed to watching stories, writers must follow suit, making our novels even more visual. That’s why so many contemporary books are written in a “filmic” style, where the plot and action are laid out like scenes in a movie. It’s also why the descriptive style of novels from earlier centuries is no longer in favor.

The “show, don’t tell” complaint is often attributed to writing that is:

o Too passive – is, was, were; he said/she said

o Too vague – it lacks sufficient or crucial detail

o Too secretive – it’s important but the writer holds back

o Too detailed – it’s unimportant but the writer goes on at length

o Too repetitive – often stated many times, or in different ways.

o Too informational – a fact dump that reads like a manual

o Too one-dimensional – we hear it but we don’t see it (dialogue)

When we begin to write, we tend to focus on laying out the plot and introducing our characters. However, people want to read stories, not reports or a catalog of events. Once you’ve completed your first draft, go over it, starting with your first chapter, and look for places to illustrate your story with words.


• Close your eyes and imagine the situation you’re describing. Then write what you “see”.

• Think of yourself as the director or actor in the scene. What would you tell the character to do, or what would you do, feel, or experience in that scene? Think body language, emotions, external factors (cold, bright, musty?).

• Imagine you’re a set dresser, lighting person, or costume designer. What would the setting look like? How would the character be dressed, and what statement would it make about him? Pick two details that would symbolize the look or atmosphere you want to create in the scene.

• Examine how you’ve introduced your protagonist and any other characters that appear in your first chapter. How should your readers feel about them at this point and will those feelings change in the course of the story? Do your words generate that impression?

• Don’t flesh out minor characters. Describe them in a sentence or phrase, or if their “title” is enough for us to visualize them, one word. What characteristic would be most telling about them, relating to their role in the story?

• Look for those passive dialogue tags – he said, she uttered, Jane asked, Bob queried – and think about how you could substitute a small bit of action instead. This can help us visualize the character at that moment, move the story forward, or do both.

Here’s a chance to use that passive description. Sum up your main character in one declarative sentence:

o Barry wants respect, not pity

o Lisa has low self-esteem

o Jack’s tough exterior hides an emotional Achilles heel

o Edmund’s weak social skills prevent acknowledgment of his scientific genius

Next, create a scenario that would illustrate this trait:

o Barry would rather search through dumpsters than beg

o Lisa accomplishes 98 percent of her project and berates herself for not doing better

o Jack snaps at everyone but shows extraordinary sensitivity when interviewing a child abuse victim

o Edmund tries to explain his breakthrough to top management, but they ignore him and direct questions to his lab partner

Now expand that scenario. “Show, don’t tell” involves more than just seeing the action. Go beyond the visuals to include other senses – smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile feelings. Demonstrate emotional responses with physical actions, especially when they relate to the characters’ external and internal goals. Whatever keeps them from the one thing they want most should elicit the most powerful descriptions, for this conflict is the core of your story.

Compare the results of this exercise to what you currently have written in your first chapter.


There are times when passive descriptions are appropriate in fiction:

• A simple statement of fact: It was June 12; my teacher’s name is Mrs. Lopez, George Washington was our first President

• Situations where list-like descriptions are called for, like a police interrogation (“He was short, stocky, about 150 pounds, with red hair….”).

• Dialogue that suits the character (a character who speaks passively will come off as a boring, colorless individual, which is great if the character is boring and colorless – just don’t make him a primary character!)

• When a report is preferable to poetry. There will be times when you’ll want to describe the blazing sun beating down on his already reddened face, sending rivulets of sweat streaming from his brow. Then there will be times when you’ll want to say it was hot.

• When it’s preferable to using substitute words – uttered instead of said, or queried instead of asked. ‘He said’ may be passive, but many writers consider it less obtrusive than other alternatives.

In our final installment, we’ll give our left brain a rest when we channel our creative side to write DIALOGUE

An Interview with Sue Ann Jaffarian

We are pleased to have with us author and paralegal Sue Ann Jaffarian. Sue Ann is the author of two series–the Odelia Grey mysteries and Granny Apples mysteries. She is also a motivational speaker and has performed as a professional stand-up comic.

Welcome Sue Ann!

With four Odelia Grey mysteries under your belt, you’ve turned to writing a new sub-genre—paranormal mysteries.

In the first book, “Ghost a la Mode”, Granny Apples convinces her three-times great granddaughter, Emma Whitecastle, to solve an old murder—Granny’s. Will Granny Apples figure as prominently in the future books? And who would you consider the main character, Granny Apples or Emma Whitecastle?

Granny will be in all of the future books. After all, it is her series, even if the main protagonist really is Emma. But they are definitely a team.

Was it difficult to make an otherworldly figure like Granny Apples believable?

It was my goal from the outset to make Granny Apples and all the ghosts in the books as believable as possible. That is one of the reasons why Emma is the main sleuth. I thought it would be more realistic if the living part of the team actually did the investigation, aided by the ghost. Basically, I write the ghosts as if they are still alive, but with modifications to allow for the fact that they are not. They don’t have superpowers and retain the personalities they had when alive.

With two different series on your plate (not to mention a full time job), how do you keep up the pace? Do you work on both series at the same time, or finish one book and then “change hats”?

I’m able to keep up by sticking to a writing schedule. That’s the key – making a schedule and sticking to it. I write almost everyday, mostly in the mornings. I often work on two projects at a time, but one is always the main focus and usually that’s the book with the upcoming deadline. I like to carve out some time in the week to work on the other project, like one designated evening. That way, it continues to move along even though my main focus is on a different manuscript. When the main book is done and off to my publisher, I’m not starting from scratch on the next book when it becomes the main project. So far, that has worked well for me and it’s surprising how much I get done on that one designated evening.

Many mystery heroines include descriptions such as petite, bountiful red hair, and leggy. It’s obvious from the Odelia Grey series’ success that your heroine appeals to readers, but was a plus-sized paralegal a hard sell to publishers?

Yes, in some ways it was. My agent and I received quite a few rejections before Midnight Ink picked it up. Publishers often felt it wouldn’t appeal to enough readers, and one said they’d already had a plus size series and it didn’t do well. Midnight, though, was willing to take a chance on Odelia and it has paid off for both of us.

You self-published your first Odelia Grey and then marketed the heck out of it, catching the eye of publishers. Would you recommend this route to other writers?

No, I would not. It was a very difficult road to take and the climate towards self-published novels has definitely taken a turn in a more negative direction. And it almost did not work for me. In fact, it nearly tanked my series. Several publishers were not interested in my Odelia Grey series because it had been previously self-published. Who knows, they might have bought it had it not been.

Marketing seems to be your middle name, an advantage as publisher’s publicity budgets shrink. Would you offer other authors advice on how to get their books out to the buying public?

Wow, there are so many ways to reach readers these days, but the most cost effective seems to be having an internet presence. That was how I marketed my self-published books. Social networks like Facebook are invaluable for directing people to your personal blog and books, but there’s a fine line between good promotion and being obnoxious about it. There are so many authors, mostly first timers, on these networks who need to take a course is networking courtesy. Bombarding people with your books is a sure fire way to alienate readers, not gain them. These networks should be used to help people get to know you and your work, not be hit over the head with constant sales pitches.

Another great way to market a book, which also worked for me, is to find a special niche and contact groups dedicated to that niche. For example, I do a lot of public speaking to paralegals, legal secretaries, etc. Odelia and I are both paralegals, so that is a natural group for me to contact. It has been very successful.

Odelia is married by the fourth book in the series. I remember how the television series “Moonlighting” went downhill once Dave and Maddie got together. Did you worry that tying Odelia to one man would disappoint readers looking for sexual tension and romance?

In Odelia’s case, no. Most of my readers love that Odelia married Greg. At first, I thought about dragging the sexual tension and love triangle out for several books, but I don’t always enjoy that in other series I’ve read, so didn’t want to follow that usual pattern. It can seem forced and unnatural if taken too far. When Odelia started dating Greg Stevens, she was in her late forties. In real life, a woman of that age would not normally play the field and juggle a couple of suitors, and Odelia wasn’t the sort to bed hop. A few books into the series she would have to make a decision, Greg or Dev or neither.

Will the Granny Apples series appeal to readers who are already fans of the Odelia Grey mysteries?

I believe so and it seems they have already embraced Granny and Emma. Some think it’s better than the Odelia books and others think the Odelia books are better, but most seem to be enjoying both series, which pleases me a great deal. Also, there are now many paranormal mystery readers who are discovering Odelia and enjoying her adventures. I enjoy giving my readers a variety without tampering with the first series. And it allows me to stretch my wings a bit.

What’s next for Sue Ann Jaffarian?

More stretching of my wings. I have been developing a vampire mystery series and have been offered a 3-book deal on it. Negotiations are currently underway and, if all goes well, I will be releasing a vampire mystery series in the fall of 2011.

I never thought in a million years that I’d write a vampire series. I mean, so many others already do it so well. But I had an idea for a different spin on the genre and ran it past my agent and a few others. They absolutely loved my idea, so I developed a proposal and several sample chapters and it sparked a lot of interest.

Thank you so much for having me on your blog!

You can order Ghost a la Mode or preorder Corpse on the Cob from Amazon.com. You can also visit Sue Ann at her website.

Reviews of "Ghost a la Mode" and "Booby Trap"

GHOST A LA MODE, A Ghost of Granny Apples Mystery

by Sue Ann Jaffarian
Midnight Ink, September 2009, $14.95
Review by Jackie Houchin
With four successful Odelia Grey mysteries on the shelves, Sue Ann Jaffarian has turned from the paralegal to the paranormal mystery in her new Ghost of Granny Apples series. And while her characters are fresh and unusual, they are every bit as fascinating and likable.

With her divorce nearly final and her daughter about to leave for college, forty-something Emma Whitecastle is at loose ends. So when an old girlfriend begs Emma to join her at a séance, as part of a research project, she accepts.

At the séance, Clairvoyant Milo Ravenscroft tells Emma that a ghost from her family’s past needs her help – a woman who was hanged for murder. At first Emma laughs at the idea, wondering what kind of scam the man is running.

But when she suddenly starts craving apple pie and her father admits that her three-times-great grandmother – executed for killing her husband – once lived in the apple-growing town of Julian, Emma is unnerved.

But it’s a visit from Granny Apples’ ghost – insisting that she’s innocent – that convinces Emma to investigate the murder. What she discovers as she digs into Julian’s history stirs up a hornet’s nest of ghosts and villains who want Emma dead and gone.

Jaffarian’s talent for writing intriguing plots and cliffhanger chapters excels in the new series, and her vivid scenes of ghostly appearances and conversations are imaginative and often hilarious. There’s even a touch of romance. Granny Apples is just what the doctor ordered.


BOOBY TRAP, by Sue Ann Jaffarian, Midnight Ink, 2009

–Jackie Houchin

Plus-sized paralegal and part-time sleuth, Odelia Grey has married the love of her life and settled down to domestic docility. Ha! Those familiar with the series know that Odelia can’t stay out of trouble, and that before chapter one ends, she’ll be knee deep in another murder mystery.

In Booby Trap, a serial killer – dubbed the “Blond Bomber” because he prefers his victims blond and beautiful – is terrorizing L.A. A famous plastic surgeon who specializes in breast enhancement is a suspect. At least his mother – who has a few naughty habits of her own – suspects him. She begs Odelia to disprove her suspicions before the police catch on.

Odelia promised her new hubby she wouldn’t get involved in another dangerous situation, but proving someone is NOT the killer is safe, right?

Jaffarian starts the book with a bang, throws in clues and red herrings galore, amps the suspense with multiple plot twists, then delivers a double high-five conclusion and a denouement that will leave readers eager for book five.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 3

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 3 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.


We want our writing to be expressive, to come alive with imagery and detail. But how much is enough and how much is too much?

Many novice writers tend to overuse adjectives and adverbs. We think if a verb or noun is descriptive, attaching modifiers will make the words more precise and visual. However, using too many weakens rather than strengthens your writing.

o Using multiple modifiers distracts the reader; by the time you get through all those words, your point is lost

o Attaching one modifier to each noun or verb can create a sing-song rhythm to the sentence, like a nursery rhyme.

o Filling in all the blanks can be boring because it leaves little to the reader’s imagination.

o Familiar pairing of adjectives and nouns (or adverbs and verbs) is often cliché.

o It can be lazy; you couldn’t find the exact word so you settled for a multi-part series.

o All those extra words, descriptions, and phrases, and the associated punctuation they require, such as commas, apostrophes, and hyphens, tend to create long-winded, awkward sentences which do not engage the reader, and which in fact will often distract from the pace, the plot and the characters, and only serve to slow down the story. Get the point?

Noah Lukeman, author of “The First Five Pages”, suggests removing every adjective and adverb from your first page and then reading it aloud. Does it read as well or better than before? Has it lost any of its meaning?

Go back and read your first chapter with an eye on your modifiers. Highlight every adjective in one color and every adverb in another. How colorful are your pages now?


• Eliminate as many modifiers as possible. If you must use one, decide which is most important, and use the word that best conveys that point. For example, if your character has beautiful, long, lustrous, platinum blond hair, which adjective would be most useful in describing her?

• If you need an adjective, try substituting something unusual rather than the standard word – Duracell (copper topped) instead of redhead; driftwood hair instead of mousy brown.

• Eliminate modifiers by strengthening your verbs and nouns whenever possible.

• Substitute an analogy or comparison (instead of ‘she had beautiful long lustrous platinum blond hair’; try ‘she looked like a walking Pantene ad’).

• Change the description altogether. Perhaps the hair was a way to convey her character; is she someone who we’d expect to have hair like that, or is it atypical for her?

• Many celebrated authors ignored this advice, if you want to emulate them, read their pages again and evaluate how they made it work.

Next week, we’ll examine the meaning of SHOW, DON’T TELL

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