BACK TO BASICS: WRITERS’ BOOT CAMP PART II

by Miko Johnston

In any story, the beginning sets up the problem that must be solved and the ending solves it. How that happens comprises the plot, which plays out in the middle chapters. A good plot is like a good EKG, with lines that zigzag up and down. When tension and stakes increase, the line climbs upward. You never want a flat line; in matters of the heart and story, it indicates death.

In my last post we reviewed the three basic ways to begin a story as well as some techniques to get those opening pages written. What if you’ve gotten that far but haven’t moved forward?

Many writers get stuck after writing the opening chapter. A common problem is trying to perfect that opening. As a bone fide Brooklynite, I can say fuhgeddaboudit.

Nothing will hang you up more than trying to go over and over that first chapter, endlessly fine-tuning it before moving on. You can’t. You shouldn’t. Put it aside and keep going. Finish your first draft. Once you know how the story unfolds, go back and figure out how to fix the beginning.

Do you have a beginning and an end in mind? Then build your story like a bridge – set down firm spans on both ends and connect them in the middle. I wrote my first novel that way, working the plot backward from the final chapters and forward from the earlier chapters. Mysteries often fall into this category; you know the crime (beginning) and whodunnit (the reveal at the end). Work your clues in both directions until they meet in the middle.

What if you don’t know where the story is going? Many writers prefer to wait for the muse to whisper in their ear rather than draft an outline. In that case, why not choose a path and follow it to its logical conclusion? Think of it like those maze puzzles – a path may lead to a dead end, but then you’ll know it’s a dead end and try another path, eventually finding the one that leads you in the right direction. Everything you write will help guide you to The End. Two caveats, though:

-If you have a beginning and only a vague idea of the end, you’ll want to have enough to get you well into the middle before you tackle a novel, otherwise you may never reach your destination. My second book took over four years to write; I meandered through two plots I ultimately discarded, then conceived a third one worth pursuing.

Some writers feel as soon as it’s on the page, it’s permanent. Not so. In my second novel I found a way to solve a plot problem with a birthday surprise for my heroine, but I’d already given her a different birth date in my first novel. How could I get away with that? It took a week to realize an easy solution: neither book had been published yet, so I could change the date in book one to fit my new development.

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Are you stuck in the middle?  Writing your middle chapters, but unsatisfied with them? Fortunately, sit-ups and planks aren’t required.

Ways to improve a weak middle:

1 – Always keep your genre and theme in mind.

Your genre can shape how your story unfolds. A humorous cozy should be light and fun. Noir should be steeped in atmosphere. Use your theme or log line as the foundation on which you build your plot, and a guide to move it along.

2 – Take advantage of the multiple uses of dialogue

It can move the story forward, briefly slow the pace, draw our focus to a plot point or clue like a camera close-up, inform us of character, or foreshadow a later development.  Dialogue tags like Jon said identify the speaker, but by using a bit of action – Jon tossed his keys on the table – you also add movement. Finally, consider how your characters speak and what they don’t say.

3 – Keep the plot, and your character, active.

Not enough action will bog down the pace, but action means more than shooting and fighting, or running after suspects. Action can be physical or mental. Action is your character DOING whatever it takes to reach her goal.

4 – Have at least one mid-point crisis.

A good story always launches with a crisis and climaxes with a bigger one. Crises generate tension, which keep the middle from sagging. Introduce sources of conflict, whether leads in the investigation that fall through, the death of a material witness or ally, or a setback in the hero’s goal. Just make sure the crisis fits the story’s momentum and doesn’t exceed your climax scene.

5 – Avoid dumping in too much backstory.

Whether you’re trying to bring your character to life or writing a sequel, you need some backstory, just not too much. What are you trying to accomplish with the information? Insight into the character’s past that would explain why she does what she does? A reminder in a sequel of an event in a previous book? Ask yourself three questions:

            Is this information necessary for this story?

            Does it help to define the character or support the plot?

            Does it move the story forward?

If no, leave it out. If yes, then keep it brief. I read a few series and find the best of them will remind readers of characters and events with a line rather than a paragraph.

6 – Watch out for repetition.

We all know best-selling authors of series who, after a dozen or more books, begin padding their sequels with repetition. Just like unnecessary detail will bog down your story, so will repeating events or dialogue over and over and over and….. If you’ve just written a scene where an action occurs, your character doesn’t have to repeat this information to another character in the following scene. She told him what happened or words to that effect will suffice. If we need a reminder of what transpired later in the story, keep it brief.

7 – Reward and surprise us.

What’s worse, a story that’s totally depressing or totally predictable? Trick question; it’s a tie. Even the most dystopic stories must have moments of lightness. Whatever your character’s goal is – trying to solve the murder, find true love, succeed in business or win the battle – mete out some successes along with the setbacks. Lace in enough twists and surprises to hint how the story might end without giving the ending away.

This is particularly true in mysteries. Setting up a good red herring can be tricky since readers expect them. They’re delicious when they surprise us, but like all fish, if they’re mishandled they stink. As much as I enjoyed Girl On A Train, it was obvious who the murderer was a hundred pages before the book’s conclusion. Nothing’s more disappointing than knowing without a doubt exactly how the book will end. You presume the detective will solve the murder, but still want the pleasure of discovering HOW it happens, especially if the manner is unexpected. Just make sure that the reward or surprise is rooted in the story. Don’t plop something in for convenience. Weave a subtle thread back to earlier chapters to set up the surprise properly, or base the reward on something she wants or needs, even if she doesn’t know it.

8 – Keep the dialogue and prose in proportion.

Do you have enough dialogue? Too much? What about sensory detail, setting, character descriptions? There’s no magic formula but we don’t always consider the balancing act. Rereading your story, looking for something you don’t always consider, gets you looking at your pages in a different way. You may catch something that’s not working, even trigger an idea or solution. 

9 – Keep the middle in proportion.

I am not partial to using formulas for writing books (and have the luxury of not having to rely on them). However, if you’ve written several chapters and are unsure how the story is progressing, consider the percentage of pages dedicated to the middle versus the beginning and end. Although not a precise measurement, the opening, from Once upon a time to the inciting incident that launches your story, should comprise about a quarter of the total number of pages. So should the final act, from the climax scene to The End. That means the middle should be roughly half of the story. If your opening chapters comprise sixty pages and you’re up to page 300 but nowhere near the climax, your middle is probably bloated. If your middle is proportionally light, flesh it out or shorten the rest.

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Still stuck? If you’re a visual person, try charting out your story, or as much of it as you know, on some kind of diagram. I’ve used line graphs, with peaks for crisis points and valleys for slower parts. I’ve used box charts, where I divide a sheet of paper into sixteen boxes – four for the beginning, eight for the middle and four for the end. In each box I briefly describe what’s happening at that point of the story. This shows me how the plot is developing as well as the balance between the acts. Since I write historical fiction, I also parallel historical events with my characters’ lives. If you write mysteries or thrillers, especially the cat and mouse variety, you can chart your hero’s progress against your villain’s actions.

If you’ve conceived some scenes but not an entire chapter, write it in chunks and assemble it later. If you prefer working with a hard copy, write the individual scenes, conversations or actions, leaving ample white space between them. Print them, cut them into sections and assemble them as you think works best. Move everything around until you have the order you want, and insert blank paper between the sections that need connecting. Pencil in notes about what you need to connect the passages. Use this to guide you through completing the chapter, or flesh out other chapters. It moves you forward. If you don’t like the direction, at least you’ll know another dead end to avoid. This can be done on the computer if you prefer working that way.   

Another technique that has proven helpful is to change ‘jobs’; instead of writing prose, think of yourself as a movie director. Can you visualize the scene you’re trying to create? How would you direct your characters? If there’s something missing in the scene, get input from the set dresser or wardrobe coordinator. As authors we tend to see our work from on high. Peering at it from a different angle gives us another perspective. Even closing your eyes and envisioning the words you’ve written (or listening to them being read) will make them pop and come alive, or hint at why they don’t.

Consider writing free-form dialogue, which I’ve described in this earlier post. This gives your characters an opportunity to speak for themselves. Sort of like the director asking the actors to ad lib their lines. If that doesn’t work, you may not know your characters well enough to ‘speak’ for them. In that case:

-Play the “who would I cast as…?” game – think of people, either famous or those you’ve known, and match them with your characters. Consider why you chose that person to help you flesh the character out.

-Try to describe your key characters in a word or brief phrase, then look for signs of commonality and discord between them.

-Define them with an image. For example, think of type fonts as a logo. If you were to assign a different font for each of your characters, which would represent them best?  

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Once you’ve written an attention-grabbing beginning and a turn-the-page middle, you need to reward the reader with a satisfying ending. In the final installment, we’ll explore what that means and how to achieve it.

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Miko Johnston, a founding member of The Writers In Residence, is the author of three novels in the historical saga A Petal In The Wind, as well as several short stories. She is currently completing the fourth book in the series. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

Keeping It Real: Developing Characters, Part II

by Miko Johnston

Frequent readers of this blog may recall me referring over time to the fourth novel in my A Petal In The Wind series, which I’ve been writing for more than a year. I got stuck. My plot points kept stalling out, but I had a breakthrough after my last post. Whew! Until then I worked on revising earlier chapters. In one I found something I not only rarely do, but scold other writers for doing – I repeated myself in consecutive scenes. The actual scene played out first, and on the next page my protagonist Lala told another character what happened.

Then it occurred to me – maybe I didn’t repeat myself; maybe instead, I wrote the scene in two different perspectives. I didn’t need both, but I could compare them and keep the better of the two. Out went the full scene; the gist from her dialog worked better. Lala had to have her say about the incident, and that clarified why I got stuck finishing the novel. Lala found my direction for her ‘wanting’. I realized I kept forcing the plot in a way that wasn’t true to the character, so I ‘asked’ Lala to explain, in a few sentences, what she sought for herself. That solved the mystery. I feel confident she – and my readers – will agree this new direction sounds like the Lala we’ve watched grow up.

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Our characters must be real to us, for if we can’t envision them, body and soul, no one else will. It’s why I always write: characters ‘who’, rather than ‘that’, and say they’re created, not invented. KEEPING IT REAL: PART I focused on writing series, where you have more time and pages for character development. When creating and developing characters for a short story or stand-alone novel, how do we keep them ‘real’?

  1. Give them a background

Begin with a basic police description of gender, age, and physical size: Asian male, mid- thirties, five foot ten, 170 pounds. Ask them what you’d ask any person you’ve just met – what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do? Delve further and observe. How are they groomed and dressed? What do they sound like? Are they eloquent, plain-spoken or inarticulate? Adventurous or timid, gregarious or shy? Many writers, including our own GB Pool, recommend writing biographies for your primary and secondary characters. It’s helpful in writing a short story but vital in a novel.

  1. Find inspiration in real life

Often we base characters on actual people we know. We observe strangers in public places, listen in to their conversations. We play-act, or fantasize about what a celebrity might be like.  That may make them real to us, but it doesn’t always translate onto paper. If you write fiction, you don’t have to recreate an exact duplicate. Instead, borrow traits from the person, like appearance, personality, or history. Use those elements as a foundation to write a unique character who reminds you of what you love, or hate, about their real counterpart.  I based one character on a dear departed friend who suffered more than she deserved, and gave her a better life. I’ve also created some who resemble people I know and have one trait in common – their taste in clothes, or their bluntness. The rest I fictionalize, but with qualities I’ve found in real people.

  1. Get to know them

We must become familiar enough with a character to understand what they will say and do. Talking to your characters, questioning or interrogating them will flesh out little details. Are they outgoing or shy, active or couch potatoes? Do they like to travel, or are they homebodies? Do they eat to live or live to eat? If they could change any aspect of their life, what would it be? What flaws does your hero possess, and in contrast, what are your villain’s fine points? The more you know the better you’ll know them. To grow interrelationships, try free-form dialog, where you write a conversation between two of your characters. Sit down and begin to write without pausing, without dialog tags or punctuation. Just write, and after a few minutes your logical left brain will switch over to your more creative right brain. Try this for at least ten minutes and see what your characters have to say about each other, and by insinuation, themselves.

  1. Go beyond words and actions to thoughts and motivations

To really understand someone, we need to know more than what they say or do, but why they say or do it. Your biography will help with this, but like the exception proves the rule, contradictions in characters prove their ‘realness’. Look for contradictory traits, for everyone has a touch of hypocrisy within them. Even if your characters don’t know why they say or do something, as often happens in real life, you – their creator – must know and present it in a way the reader can deduce it without being told.

  1. Set them apart

To create characters who are not cardboard cutouts, begin by avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Not everyone from Mexico is named José (or Maria) Gomez, and you can’t always tell by appearance or mannerisms if someone is gay. Real folks are a mixture of commonality and individuality. What we share in common makes us recognizable, but our uniqueness sets us apart. Think of anyone you know and list five traits that they share with many people. Then list two or three that are different. My five shared traits would include compassionate, sensible, impatient, analytical, and curious. What sets me apart? Despite being a mature adult, put me in an environment with animals and I turn into a giddy three-year-old, as I recently demonstrated in the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  1. Let them be

Once you’ve created your characters, allow them their voice. Let them tell you what they want and don’t want, and listen to them. It could save you hours, weeks, even months of writers block. You don’t always have to obey, but trust and respect them enough to hear them out. Also allow them some privacy. Instead of writing in every detail, give enough to flesh out the character and let readers have the pleasure of filling in the rest.

All this may seem like a lot to compact into a story or book, but the sum of big picture and little details about characters humanizes them. It also makes them vivid in our minds, which enriches the story, for even above plots, great stories revolve around the people who occupy them.

To find more writing on the subject throughout this blog – just put CHARACTERS in the search line. For an in-depth look at how to create villains, see my earlier post:  https://thewritersinresidence.com/2015/07/15/building-a-better-villian-by-miko-johnston/ If you have any advice you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

 

 

 

This article was posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

 

Starting a New Series

by Elise M. Stone

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a writer. I put that dream on hold for decades while I got married, had a family, and built a career. It was one of the many things on my “someday” list. Then 9/11 happened, and I realized that “someday” might never happen. If I wanted to write a novel, I’d better get started.

I’ve written nine cozy mysteries in two different series over the past few years. Cozies generally have a romantic subplot, and mine are no different. While writing the last book, I realized I was enjoying writing the romance more than the mystery. What if my next book was a romance novel instead of a mystery? An intriguing question, which I decided to answer.

I began 2019 by starting on a sweet historical western romance series for a change of pace. This has been coming for a long time. Years, in fact, although I didn’t realize it myself at the time.

I have trouble sleeping. In the quiet, my brain is like a hamster on one of those spinning wheels. It thinks of all kinds of things it should not be worrying about at midnight. I have to distract it in order to fall asleep.

OTRW-TotTROne of the things that helps is listening to a podcast of Old Time Radio Westerns. Before most of the classic western series of the 1950s and 1960s were on television, they were on radio. I grew up with those TV series, so the stories, while different, are very familiar. Now I fall asleep to the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke or the less-familiar Frontier Gentleman.

I’ve been absorbing these stories in my dreams for at least two years.

I find the time between the Civil War and the beginning of the twentieth century, when cowboys and outlaws and marshals were in their heyday, fascinating. The legends in themselves are romantic.

But I’d forgotten how hard it is to start a new series in a new genre. There are new characters in a new place in a new time.  The people are like cartoon outlines with indistinguishable features. They’re not even wearing any clothes. They’re white blobs like the Pillsbury Doughboy. This is quite a change from going back to my senior citizens in the fictional town of Rainbow Ranch, Arizona, characters I love who live in places I’ve visualized dozens of times.

Another stumbling block is the historical aspect of this series. I often find myself stopped with questions like when did the railroad arrive in Tucson? (1880, which means I can’t use it because my story takes place in 1872.) Or did Philadelphia have mass transit in 1872? (It did: a horse-drawn streetcar.) Or handling issues of diversity for today’s sensitive audience.

The biggest threat to the settling of southern Arizona was Apache raiders. The attitude of most back then was that the only way to solve the problem was to exterminate the Apache. This was the opinion of not only whites, but Mexicans and the Papago, an Indian tribe now known as the Tohono O’odham. In fact, these three groups banded together and massacred a group of over ninety Apaches, mostly women and children, in a peaceful settlement outside Camp Grant in 1871. But not all Apaches were peaceful, and they were a serious problem for the ranchers and miners and homesteaders in the late nineteenth century.

And then there’s the romance plot itself. I bought several books on how to write a romance novel because—ahem—I’d only read one or two of them prior to this year. Unlike cozy mysteries, where I’d read hundreds over the years before I tried to write one, I had no gut feel about how a romance needs to work. A lot of times, I feel like I’m stumbling in the dark.

I know, eventually, the whole story will start playing itself out in my head faster than I can type. I’m looking forward to that stage because that’s when the magic happens. In fact, it happened for a time his past week as I was writing a scene and the characters started interacting in a way I’d never thought they would. I love when that happens. So I’ll keep pushing forward, stumbles and all, because I’m addicted to that magic.

And I love a happily ever after.

 

 

Elise StoneBest Photo Reduced Size Lavender Background 2Brief Bio:

Elise M. Stone was born and raised in New York, went to college in Michigan, and lived in the Boston area for eight years. Ten years ago she moved to sunny Tucson, Arizona, where she doesn’t have to shovel snow. With a fondness for cowboys and westerns, Arizona is the perfect place for her to live.

Like the sleuth in her African Violet Club mysteries, she raises African violets, although not with as much success as Lilliana, who has been known to win the occasional prize ribbon. Elise likes a bit of romance with her mysteries. And mystery with her romance. Agatha and Spenser, her two cats, keep her company while she writes.

Elise StoneAVC Series Six Books
Elise M. Stone
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Elise M. Stone’s article was posted by The Writers In Residence member Jackie Houchin.

Those OTHER Blogs on Writing

signHow many blogs besides this one do YOU read regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)?  Yes, you can confess. We don’t mind. Reading them will help you become a better writer.

Of course there are thousands to choose from. Just Google a topic and you’ll see. Bloggers will give you tips on everything, from where to get ideas to how to publish and market your final product, be it a book, short story, poem or article.

Some writer magazines and blogs publish lists of the Top 50 or 100 from the previous year.  Here’s a link to the Top 50 Blogs in 2018

I have THREE blogs that I read daily and usually take notes on. Okay, sometimes I only peruse them, if the topic is not relative to my needs right then.

  1. Mia Botha’s Writers Writehttps://writerswrite.co.za/

Every day, Mia posts links to articles on a wide variety of subjects. Each article will offer other links to follow on related subjects in an Alice In Wonderland type trail that is positively addicting! And time consuming.  Watch out!

Her daily Writing Prompts will tickle your imagination and sometimes get a story going.

There are usually cute (or smarmy) writing cartoons to make you chuckle.

Finally, there is a list of “famous” authors whose birthday is that day. Each gives his/her advice on some aspect of the writing life.

Writers Write also hosts the “12 Short Stories Writing Challenge” each year beginning in January.  Using a monthly prompt that they supply, you write, finish and polish a 1500 word (exactly) story to submit. You comment on 4 other stories and receive feedback on your own piece. One a month for 12 months. Whew!

Writers Write also offers a variety of online classes which you need to pay for.

 

  1. Edie Melson’s The Write Conversationhttp://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/

Each day Edie, or one of 10 or so guest writers, presents short articles that inspire, encourage, inform, and teach you all facets of the art of writing and publishing. It is a Christian site, but usually only one in seven posts talks about the author’s beliefs in her writing process.

Here are some topics on recent posts: (You can click on these to go to the blog.)

YOU HAVE A GREAT SCENE, BUT WHAT TO DO WITH IT?

7 TIPS TO MAKE YOU A MORE OBSERVANT WRITER

WHEN AN AUTHOR SHOULD SEEK PERMISSION FOR QUOTES

QUOTATIONS—HOW WRITERS FIND THE ORIGINAL SOURCE

WRITING SO THEY CAN’T PUT IT DOWN

GET YOUR BLOG READY FOR 2019

Edie also uses a technique for readers to easily sharing her posts on Twitter. She types the title of the post or another phrase that describes the topic, and gives it a hyperlink. Readers can click on this and it takes them to their Twitter account. The title and ping-back to the blog posts are already there. They click on “Tweet” and voila’, they have effortless shared your message!

She calls them TWEETABLES.

I tried it in a blog post I wrote on The Writers In Residence about a year ago. It takes a little effort the first time you do it, but it’s a great tool!

 

  1. Tara Lazar’s Story Writing for Kids with January’s StoryStorm Challenge https://taralazar.com/storystorm/

What is StoryStorm? It’s an amazing, month-long, story idea brainstorming event. It’s designed for children’s books mostly, but can be useful for any genre. The weird and whimsical, and sometimes serious topics by a new author each day, are really wonderful!

The Challenge is to create 30 story ideas, one or more each day in 31 days. Maybe it will be a clever title idea, or a lovable character, or a skeleton of a plot. If you follow through, you’ll have a list of at least 30 new, fantastic ideas to flesh out at the beginning of February.

And…. if you read it each day and post a brief comment, you are eligible for a bunch of prizes and free services.

From the topic “Double Story Lines” …. I came up with “I know an old woman who lived in a shoe…store. She had so many shoes she couldn’t fit in any…more.

Enter Old Mother Hubbard who went to the display case to buy some soft slippers for her poor aching “dogs.” But she found nary a moccasin or “mule”.

Enter a Fairy God Mother who felt sorry for the old ladies and turned every shoe into a slipper.

Ms Hubbard bought all 365. The Old Woman sold her shoe store and moved to Tahiti, where NO ONE wears ANY kind of shoes at all!”

From the topic “Stop, Look, Listen” …. I came up with a tale of a musician who paid for an extra seat on an airplane to carry his very valuable and fragile guitar in its case.  But his seatmates complained – I can’t see over the top of it, it’s on my armrest, etc., and caused a near riot. Crew and pilot intervened so the plane could go up on schedule. Ends with the man strumming and all the cabin requesting songs and singing along.

StoryStorm is a really fun Challenge, one of many throughout the year on a colorful, kid-friendly, idea-stuffed blog.

 

And then there are blogs that are more like OUR blog – The Writers In Residence – where multiple member writers and the occasion guest, wax eloquent on some aspect of their writing life.

Here are a few examples, check them out:

Make Mine Mysteryhttp://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Ladies of Mystery https://ladiesofmystery.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Pens, Paws, and Claws http://penspawsandclaws.com/  – Animal loving ladies and gents writing about pets, mystery and other topics.

eat poto

 

I hope this post has whet your appetite for reading OTHER blogs besides ours.  If you already indulge in this “sweet” pastime, will you share some of your favorites with our readers?  Or… if you write one of your own, please share a link to it. Our readers might like to “read you” too!

 

PS: I’m adding a few “OTHER” blogs that I remembered after posting.

Creative Writing Nowhttps://www.creative-writing-now.com/  –  They offer Writing tips, Ideas, Courses (free and paid)

Penny Sansevieri’s  Author Marketing Expertshttps://www.amarketingexpert.com/book-promotion-blog/   –  Wonderful articles about promoting/marketing your book.  You can also sign up for a free weekly “5 Minute Book Marketing Tip” via email or more extensive and personal, direct coaching on selling your book (for a fee).

Backpacking With a Pitcher

Guest post by Heather Ames*

lemonade unbornWhoever coined the phrase “making lemonade out of lemons” must have had an acerbic wit. As a champion receiver of citrus, I’ve always tried to look at each situation as a challenge instead of a mountain of acidity, despite the after-taste.

51NyNyt9s8L._UY250_My most recent pitcher of lemonade appeared last year, when I finished Book 2 of the “Indelible” mystery/suspense series and contacted the publisher of Book 1 to find out how much of the completed manuscript they wanted to see. After two attempts, I was told to send “whatever you want.” I sent a partial and waited, then waited some more. Much more. Months.

I then emailed the editor-in-chief, who said she had just returned from an extended hiatus. She told me to send the entire manuscript immediately, which I did. The contract came. I signed it. The CEO signed it. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then the momentum, which had built to its normal level, ground to a halt as I waited for my editor to be assigned. And waited.

A sense of foreboding crept over me. Bushels of lemons rolled onto the horizon and waited, poised to roll into my lap. I tried to ignore them. After all, progress had slowed one time before. They were probably just running behind due to the EIC’s absence.

But then it came…an email from the publisher, returning my rights due to their poor quarterly returns for the second quarter in a row. I wasn’t their only author to receive that email, the EIC assured me. She said the staff was upset about the situation. I found little comfort in that knowledge.

There had been other signs that the publisher, despite its growth and a propensity to purchase smaller competitors, was itself in trouble. One huge misstep resulted in all titles from one of those buy-outs, including one of my own e-books, suddenly disappearing from Amazon. Apparently, when the old site was pinged without success, Amazon believed the publisher had closed, not that the titles were in the process of being moved to their new home. A year later, despite an email from the publisher that explained all the titles would be reloaded “in a lengthy process,” that still hasn’t happened. Perhaps they are busy making lemonade, too.

A Swift Brand Of justiceI couldn’t afford to sit around waiting for my two year contract on “Indelible” Book 1 to expire before offering both books in the series to another publisher. Readers had been asking when Book 2 would be available. Since it had already taken me close to 3 years to get Book 2 out of the starting blocks (including the 9 months wasted over that abortive contract,) I decided there was only one way out of my dilemma, and that was to self-publish “Indelible” Book 2, “A Swift Brand of Justice.”

Self-publishing has become more accepted during the last few years. Many popular authors have departed their small publishers, taken back their rights and chosen that route. Financially, it makes more sense for them. They already have a fan base, and their back-listed books have all been edited and formatted. All they need are new covers. They no longer have to share their profits with the small publishers, who find themselves, as a result of this exodus, left with newer and less well-known authors. Their piece of the pie has become much smaller, and their bottom line has suffered as a result. Many of them have folded and others are in financial trouble.

For those of us who find our books orphaned (and there are a growing number of us,) “DIY” has morphed into an acceptable solution. I know of several other writers who have had to move their series from the original publisher. I will be another. After I complete Book 3’s manuscript, I hope to find another home for my series. If I don’t, then I know I can continue self-publishing and growing my brand, instead of waiting months, even years for a contract.

Night ShadowsI just self-published a second book. This one is the stand-alone suspense, “Night Shadows,” I was working on when my rights were returned for “A Swift Brand of Justice.” In order to retain and grow my readership, I need to offer new material on a regular basis. That won’t happen if I’m marking time while I wait for responses to queries, partials and even full manuscripts, or unexpectedly have my rights returned again.

I would much prefer the support and expertise of a new publisher. But if that doesn’t happen, and I need to self-publish again, I know I can do it. I still need to build my support list. Finding reasonably-priced editors is one challenge I haven’t yet mastered. But I’m getting better at designing my own covers, and the learning curve isn’t as steep or as angled as it was before those lemons rolled into my lap.

I’m keeping the pitcher handy as I write the first draft of “Swift Retribution,” Book 3 of the “Indelible” series, but I’m not resigning myself to using it yet. Hope springs eternal, but this time it’s couched. The publishing industry as a whole is in a state of flux, and these days, writers need to be ready for anything. Even a fresh bushel of lemons.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

my big picHeather Ames knew she was a writer from the time she won first prize in a high school novel contest. An unconventional upbringing gave her opportunities to travel extensively, leading to nomadic ways and an insatiable desire to see the world. She has made her home in 5 countries and 7 states, learning a couple of languages along the way. She is currently pitching her tents in Portland, Oregon, and after a long career in healthcare, made her dream of writing full-time come true.

Heather is a current board member of the Harriet Vane Chapter of Sisters in Crime and a member of Toastmasters International. She moderates an online critique group and a local book club.

Visit her website at www.heatherames.com 

 

*Posted for Heather Ames by Jackie Houchin

DEAD MICE, An African Tale – Turning Experiences Into Stories

By Jackie Houchin

In last week’s Writers in Residence blog post, Gayle Bartos-Pool asked the question, “What do I bring to the party?”  She went on to tell of her extensive and varied experiences and personal contacts that have helped in research for her detective and spy novels. It got me to thinking about what I “bring to the party” of my story writing.

(1) I have a good knowledge of the Bible. (2) I’ve been on three short-term mission trips to Malawi, Africa. (3) I have 3 granddaughters who were once little and to whom I told and wrote many stories. (4)  I teach the 4th-6th grade Sunday School class at church and I occasionally help in the K-2nd grade Junior Church.

What a set up for writing children’s stories that take place in Africa and that have a Bible truth woven into them. Hey! That’s just what I am doing. I write the “Missionary Kids Stories” series (about a family serving in Malawi) and I send them out to about a dozen young kids (6-11) at church via email every 1-2 weeks. They are entertaining (according to  the kids) informative about Africa and mission life (occasionally gross as in the story that follows), “safe” (one mom’s comment), and have truths from the Bible as a take away.

Here is the first one I sent out, introducing the family and setting up the series. It is the shortest and simplest one. The stories vary in age level depending on the MK (Missionary Kid) who is telling the story. Stories five and six – told by a teenager – is one story in two parts with a cliff hanger at the end of five.

Dead Mice

Introduction

 These stories are about the (make-believe) Matthews Family, who went to Malawi, Africa about eight years ago to be missionaries.  This family has a dad and a mom, and seven children (three boys and four girls including a set of twins). As part of their names, each of them has the month that they were born in as a first or middle name, like Melody May or April Grace.  All of the stories are written to you as letters.  The first story starts like this: 

Hi kids!

My name is Melody May, and I have a twin sister whose name is Charity June. I also have three brothers and two more sisters. We all have the month we were born in as part of our names. It’s really cool I think, but some people think it’s weird.

My mom – her name is Mrs. Matthews – is really fun and creative. She picks out all our names. My dad – his name is Mr. Matthews – just smiles at her with love and agrees to the names.

People call me Melody, but they call my twin sister “June.” You may wonder how twins could be born in two different months. Can you guess how? It’s kind of tricky.

I’ll let my brothers and sisters tell you about themselves in other letters, but right now, let me tell you about what happened to my sister June and I a week ago.

We are MKs (Missionary Kids) who live in Malawi, Africa. Our dad is a college teacher at the African Bible College. We go to a school there too, but in a different building.

One day, an African boy in our class showed us a mouse… a really DEAD mouse. Then he dared us to do something with it. At first June and I refused, but then…..

Here’s how it happened.

The boy’s name is Kukana (Koo-KAH-nah). On that day, the first day of the new school year, he dared us to EAT a dead mouse! Ewww! Would YOU eat a mouse, especially a dead one? (I guess a live one would be worse!)

There are kids from America and Canada and Holland and South Africa in my class. There are many Malawian kids too. We have three grades in our classroom because, well, our teacher is very smart and can teach three grades at once! At least that’s what I think.

That day, when Kukana stood up in class with a closed box and told us he brought something for us to eat, we all smiled. We thought it might be some roasted peanuts, or those small super-sweet bananas they grown in Malawi. Yum.

Then he opened the box and reached in and held up this really stiff, black, hairy thing.  Some of the new girls screamed, but June and I didn’t. We almost did, but we grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed real tight.

“This is a mbewa,” he told us.

(You say mbewa like this – mmmmm-BEE-wah.)

“They are very tasty to eat,” Kukana said.

Then he held the mbewa up high by the stiff tail, tilted his head back, put the old dead mouse’s head into his mouth… and crunched it off!!!!!  He smiled big as he chewed it. The Malawian boys cheered and stomped their feet!

Our teacher frowned a little, but she didn’t say anything.

Kukana smiled again, real big, and there were little bits of black fur in his teeth!  He leaned very close to June and me and showed us his icky tongue, trying to scare us, I think.

Then he ate the rest of it….. even the tail. There were more hoots from the boys, and this time Mrs. Molenaar said, “Okay. That’s enough. Now tell the class about mbewa. Why did you bring it – and eat it?”

Mrs. Molenaar knew about mbewa – we could tell by her look – but she wanted Kukana to explain about this “famous Malawian snack food.”

“We eat mbewa because it’s good protein food,” began Kukana.

June and I looked at each other, our eyebrows raised way up and our eyes got big. OUR family eats  eggs, chicken, fish, and sometimes pork or beef for protein.

Kukana went on, “Village families here in Malawi are very poor. They raise goats and sometimes cows to SELL but not to EAT. They do this to have money for beans and maize to eat, and seeds to plant.”

I thought about what else OUR family eats. We like the beans, tomatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts that the villagers grow. We also eat yogurt and canned fruit and oatmeal. Sometimes Mom cooks nsima (nnnnnn-SEE-mah) which is made from white corn, called maize, and tastes like thick hot cereal without any salt. (Mom adds some for us.) Poor Malawians eat that every day. Sometimes that is all they HAVE to eat.

“There’s LOTS of mbewa around,” said Kukana. “You just have to catch them. We go to where old maize stalks or dead grass is piled up. We stand around the pile with sticks. Then someone lifts up the pile with a long pole and mice run out everywhere.  We have a lot of fun killing them with our sticks!”

Kukana laughed and all the boys laughed too.

“Then we put five or maybe ten of them on a long stick and roast them.”

Kukana looked right at June and me, opened his eyes really big and added, “….just… like… your… marshmallows!” Then he laughed in a mean way.

That made us feel mad and scared and icky, but we didn’t do anything. I think it was then, that I started to think….. maybe I WILL eat a dead mouse!

Mrs. Molenaar gave Kukana a stern look and he finished his talk like this. “Sometimes our fathers burn off the maize stubble (old stalks) in our fields. Then all the people stand around the edge of the field to catch the mice that run out.”

Mrs. Molenaar told the rest of it. “After the mice are roasted, which dries out the bodies but doesn’t burn off all the fur, they will keep for quite a while. Maybe you American children have tried jerky. It’s a bit like that.”

She turned to Kukana. “Did you want to share your mbewa with the class?”

He walked through the desks with the box down low. All the Malawian boys and girls took one out and started crunching and chewing. One American boy, named Benji took one too.

When the box came to June and me, my sister leaned way back, but I….. I reached in, grabbed a stiff hairy burned mouse and took it out.  Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned back, held the thing up, and crunched off its head!!!!!!

This time June DID scream. “Melody! Noooo!! You are going to get sick and die!! And Mom will be very mad!”

I didn’t look at her. I stared at Kukana as I chewed the prickly, scratchy thing. It tasted kind of like burnt peanut shells and grease to me. Finally I swallowed it and stuck out my black-specked tongue to prove I ate it.

Kukana was surprised. He smiled at me (nicely, this time) and gave a little nod.  After that, he didn’t tease June and me. He kind of respected me, and since I was usually with my sister, he didn’t dare tease her either. After a while we even became friends.

Let me tell you a secret now. I didn’t finish the dead mouse.  I passed it to the boy behind me who snatched it up and ate it.

And you know what else?  I didn’t get sick and die.

I just became a Malawian.

But Mom DID get mad at me and told me never to do that again. I promised her that I wouldn’t. I figured I would never HAVE to do it again.

Later in our Sunday School class at the International Bible Fellowship church where my Dad sometimes preaches, I learned what Paul wrote in one of his letters in the Bible. He was a missionary to MANY countries. I don’t know if he ever had to eat mice, but he did say in 1 Corinthians 9:22, that he wanted to “become all things to all men that he might save some” for Christ.

I hope Kukana will someday want to know Jesus too. Maybe he will listen to me now when I tell him the gospel story ….. BECAUSE I ate the mouse.

mk-mice-and-boy

mk-mice-1

~~ Facts ~~

          Malawians DO eat mice like this for protein. Sometimes you can see them along the road, selling mbewa still lined up in a row on the roasting sticks, or in piles on a piece of cloth they spread out on the ground. They also eat big grasshoppers for protein which they fry in oil and sprinkle with hot pepper. 

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

Jacqueline Vick is the author of over twenty published short stories, novelettes and mystery novels. Her April 2010 article for Fido Friendly Magazine, “Calling Canine Clairvoyants”, led to the first Frankie Chandler Pet Psychic mystery, Barking Mad About Murder. To find out more, visit her website.  

A Pet Psychic, A Gentleman, and an Exorcist Walk Into A Bar

It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. These are the characters who inhabit my head, along with a crime reporter, a mother and two daughters with a knack for stumbling into nefarious situations; and a few more who haven’t made it to print.

One of the difficulties with so many different characters is finding a common thread that runs through the various books that can be used to solidify an author brand. What is an author brand?

When you hear Joanna Fluke, you think mysteries and baking. And vise versa.

Is there a common thread among my characters? Well, Evan Miller is troubled, while Deanna Winder IS trouble. Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic, considers the supernatural an intrusion in her life, while Father Gerald McAllister, exorcist, relies on it. And most of them would be left off the guest list of a dinner thrown by Edward Harlow, author of the Aunt Civility etiquette books.

An author, when coming up with a brand, also needs to consider his or her target market. I’ve never mastered that one. Most mystery readers are women, so I should try to determine who would like my books by age group and other demographics. Let see an example of how well that works.

I took a screenwriting class in Chicago. I wrote a scene that took place in a small town post office, and  a confused, elderly lady at the front of the line was driving the impatient protagonist mad. The person who laughed the loudest was a young, black man. I would have picked the suburban-looking white women as my target audience, but her slight smile seemed reluctant. So much for stereotyping your audience.

Another trick to finding your brand is to brainstorm words that come to mind when describing your books or characters. Unintentionally funny due to the circumstances and  people they are surrounded by. In other words, you and me. That doesn’t narrow it down very much.

Could this be the next
Agatha Christie?

You can always compare your books to others out there, but that’s too intimidating. When I put fingers to keyboard, I always hope to be the next Agatha Christie or Rex Stout, but the results fall far short. As for comparisons to current authors, each one seems so unique to me that I wouldn’t dream of holding my novel up next to theirs. I would feel like the gal on late-night television offering knock-offs for those who don’t care for the real thing.

JA Konrath has said that if you want to sell books, write more books. That I can do. I’ve slowly built up 4 novels, a traditionally published novella, and 4 short stories. Oh, yeah. And a children’s book.  If my timetable holds out, I’ll have Civility Rules, my Harlow Brothers mystery, and the third pet psychic mystery out before the end of the year, and the Father McAllister mystery out at the beginning of 2016.

So what should I do about my brand? I’d solicit feedback from other people on what words they thought best represented my books and characters, but if anyone used the word sassy to describe Frankie Chandler or Roxanne Wilder, I’d throw myself out the window. (It doesn’t matter that I live in a one-story. It’s the intent that counts.)