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

An Interview with Morgan St. James

Today, we are pleased to have with us author Morgan St. James. Morgan and her sister, Phyllice Bradner, write the Silver Sisters Mysteries. Their first book, A Corpse in the Soup, is a hilarious cook’s tour through the world of celebrity TV chefs as the two sisters search for a killer. Morgan writes short stories, magazine articles and other books on her own.

Morgan, tell us a little bit about the plot of your most recent book, “Seven Deadly Samovars”.

It starts with Goldie in a state of total frustration because some Russian samovars she ordered haven’t shown up at her antique store in Juneau, Alaska. The ladies at the Russian Orthodox Church want to give one to their beloved priest who is retiring. When the fancy Russian teapots finally arrive, Godiva has come to Juneau with her boyfriend, TV Chef Caesar Romano to attend a birthday party. The samovars arrive the evening of the party, and Goldie quickly realizes she’s gotten the wrong shipment. These are far more beautiful and valuable than the ones she ordered. But Goldie can’t reach the exporter in Vladivostok. When she sells them, people who have the fancy teapots start to die. What makes them worth killing for? The Silver Sister twins and their eighty year old mother and uncle, former vaudeville magicians, have a merry chase trailing the bumbling Russian killers, the Dumkovsky brothers, from Juneau to Seattle to Los Angeles. It’s murder and mayhem all along the way!

Your sleuths are two very different sisters. Goldie Silver is an aging hippie, and Godiva Olivia DuBois writes an advice column called “Ask G.O.D.”. Do these sisters represent you and your co-author and sister, Phyllice Bradner? And which character are you?

We intentionally modeled Goldie and Godiva loosely after ourselves, so we would know how they thought and what they would do. Phyllice actually was just past the hippie stage when she moved to Alaska at age twenty, did dress in vintage clothes and did own an antique shop at one time. Oh yeah, she is also the “salt of the earth” like our character Goldie. She would give someone the shirt off her back as the saying goes, and then ask if she could get them a coat from Goodwill.

That means I’m the model for Godiva…a very loosely drawn model, I must say. The similarities are that I’m more or less a “fashionista,” have lived in Beverly Hills (although not on a fancy estate like Godiva) and, oh yes, I admit to being manipulative. But, I’m not as selfish as Godiva, my wonderful husband will attest that I’m not a widow, and I don’t write an advice column, although Phyllice and I have talked about launching one in conjunction with our novels.

You’re writing partner lives in Oregon. Can you tell us about how this process works? How do you keep the flow? Do you each write different characters or alternating chapters? Also, are there added difficulties writing with a partner?

Besides being writing partners, Phyllice and I are real life sisters. Since we’ve been writing the Silver Sisters Mysteries, when we’re together, we’re often asked if we’re twins. In reality, we are five-and-a-half years apart. She lived in Alaska when we first started writing together, and in place of difficulties that other writing partners might have, our collaboration has brought us very close together as sisters. Before we started the Silver Sisters, we barely knew each other, because she moved to Alaska when she was only twenty. We have become best friends through our writing.

We decided early on that if one of us didn’t feel strongly about something, and the other did, the one with the passion ruled. If we both have differing opinions, we talk it out and make the decision that’s best for the story…not us personally. We also discovered our strengths early on. I am a very fast, prolific writer and she is the consummate editor. We work out the plot and timeline together. Then I draft the chapters and send them to her to edit and add her special comedic touches. If I agree, it’s on to the next chapter. If not, we e-mail back and forth until we’re both satisfied. We also have marathon editing sessions on the phone. Sometimes as long as four hours. And, we try to meet for retreats once or twice a year.

What do you come up with first: a fantastic crime, a brilliant solution, or the wicked bad guy that readers will love to hate?

Since we are both pretty zany, like our characters, I guess we come up with the story line first. Sometimes we have a fantastic character in mind, so we make sure that character has a role. The twists and turns are part of the way we write. In each of the published books, “A Corpse in the Soup,” and “Seven Deadly Samovars,” we thought we knew exactly where we were going—until some great twists occurred to us after the manuscript was finished. We will make changes, if warranted, right up to the last minute. And we make absolutely certain to drop clues along the way. Sometimes they’re very subtle, but they are always there. We think we have the entire plot of our next book nailed, but only time will tell.

You have several Amazon Shorts—short stories available on Amazon.com. Do you write shorts as a release from the novel writing? And are there other types of writing that you enjoy?

You’ve got that one right. I’m a fast track person, and novels take time. I love writing short stories for the instant gratification. Sometimes they’re fiction, like “Saying Goodbye to Miss Molly,” in the anthology, “The World Outside the Window,” and sometimes they are true or based upon truth. Two of my favorites are a story about my mother, “Shopping for Dancing Shoes,” the first story in Chicken Soup for the Shopper’s Soul, and my Amazon Short, “The Second Time Around.” How much stranger than fiction can it be when your mother-in-law remarries her first husband after not seeing him for over thirty years, and it all takes place in a pouring rainstorm at a Mexican wedding storefront chapel called the Casa de Novios? To add to the bizarre situation, my then-husband had been told his father was dead from the time he was a tot. After reconnecting with her first love, one day without warning, his mother handed him a telephone and said, “Say hello to your father.” It was a funny story that begged to be told.

You also co-edit “On the Prowl”, the Nevada Sisters in Crime newsletter, and you pen a column with Mike Dennis, “You Don’t Say”, which tackles misused words. What’s the most common mistake you run into?

People using the wrong spelling of a word, and when that happens it completely changes the meaning of the sentence. We play around with mistakes like that, redundancies, oxymorons, nonsense phrases and more. We have actually just completed a proposal for a full length book of the same title. We think “You Don’t Say” could be to murdering the English language what “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is to felonious punctuation. Keep your fingers crossed that we get a publisher.

What’s next for the Silver Sisters?

Fun, fun, fun! We are about sixty percent finished with the first draft of “Vanishing Act in Vegas.” What secret is Mara the Magnificent, the beautiful headliner magician at the Glitz Palace on the Las Vegas Strip, who happens to be Godiva’s son Torch’s new girlfriend, hiding? Be prepared to laugh your way through our trademark twists and turns to a very surprising ending.

Thank you for taking the time to be our guest. You can order Morgan’s books on Amazon and can visit her at her website .