Sunday, April 25, 2010
What led you to write mysteries?
Well, the dark version is on my website under bio, but I grew up under the rule of a woman who read every mystery ever written. I remember looking at my mom's collection of Agatha Christie's and thinking "How boring!" Since I was a teenager, I probably added a "Duh!"
I've become much wiser in my older age. My favorites are Golden Age and British. You cannot top British humor in my book. Robert Barnard's "Death by Sheer Torture" remains one of my favorites, as is anything by Christie, James, Sayers, Mortimer etc. (I share Agatha Christie's birthdate!) I'm also discovering "new" authors such as Delano Ames.
A year or so ago, I decided that, since I'm never going to capture the voice of those oldies but goodies, I should actually start reading some of the comtemporaries. I'd tried a few authors and really didn't get into them, so I wasn't enthusiastic. Thank goodness I didn't crawl back into my cave, because I've discovered some fantastic authors since.
Do you find conventions and writers groups useful?
Love is Murder in Chicago. I met so many fantastic authors; kind, supportive people no matter what level of success they were on. I didn't know a lot of authors at that time, and I sat next to Charlaine Harris and humiliated myself by asking her if she wrote full time. She was so humble and nice. She said, "Well, yes, honey, I do." Then she got up to give the keynote speech and they congratulated her on her series making it to television. I guess I should have read the program. Lesson learned: Know the authors in your field.
Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America are both great places to meet other writers and exchange ideas. Both offer programs with speakers that have helped my writing. I've just joined the Public Safety Writers Association which promises to be informative and fun. And my critique group (you know them as the WinRs) are intelligent, generous writers who aren't afraid to slap me upside the head when my writing stinks. (And yet they do it so nicely that I thank them every time!)
How do you balance writing mysteries, children's fiction, and whatever else?
I don't. I should be in therapy. I'll sometimes have five projects going at once and I have to step back and ask, "Would I like to do any of them well?" That usually keeps me down to two projects for a short while.
I don't understand when people say they don't have enough ideas. I have three different protagonists so far, I'm writing a pet psychic mystery, I have a Young Adult book outlines, a children's mystery series in mind, a picture book waiting for an artist, the Logical Larry series, a non-fiction book promoting local businesses in Santa Clarita, a rambo-style Father Brown series I'd like to write.... (OK. Maybe not Rambo, but he is a police chaplain and former marine who get's transferred to teach at a girls school. Talk about being unprepared. Of course a parent is murdered and things go from there.)
What else do you do to keep on top of your writing?
I am a voracious reader. On average, I read three books a week--sometimes more, sometimes less. Besides enjoying the books, I'll watch how the author handles everything from dialogue tags to description. I've even outlined the plot of books I think work especially well just to see I'll have a revelation.
Is there an essential ingredient in any fiction you read?
Humor. There are enough humorless people walking around that I'm not going to immerse myself in their company while I'm reading. One of my favorite books is "Blue Heaven" by Joe Keenan. I've read it several times and it still makes me laugh out loud. "Lamb" by Christopher Moore is genius. P.G. Wodehouse is another favorite, as are Carl Hiaasen and Neil Gaimon.
I like humor that makes fun of the human condition in a gentle way. Humor that comes from a place of superiority is only funny when the joke is on the lofty character. Otherwise, it's just a lecture. An example is how Christie makes fun of Hasting's arrogance through his inner dialogue about Poirot. He's feeling sorry for the detective, thinks the old guy is losing his abilities, but it's Hastings who can't see the forest for the trees.
What's next for you?
I'll have my books at a fundraiser at the end of May. I'm working with the SinC/LA Speaker's Bureau, putting together panels for the Burbank Library. I want to finish the pet psychic mystery, go back over my last mystery for rewrites, and write the next Logical Larry. I really need to prioritize.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
What inspired you to become a writer? If you’re anything like me, your love of writing has its roots in a love of reading. Some of my most treasured childhood memories are of weekend mornings curled up on the sofa with my mom while she read to me. We started with the L.A. Times comic section: Brenda Starr, Little Lulu, Nancy and Sluggo. Before long, we moved into books.
I yearned for the day I could read on my own, and once I learned to make sense of all those letters on the page, I never lost my love of reading. From Black Beauty and Jane Eyre, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and . . . well, you get the idea.
Over the years, my taste in fiction narrowed, and I realized I was limiting myself to a couple of categories: women’s fiction, because that’s mainly what I write, and mysteries/thrillers because they’re so darn interesting and fun to read. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but a writer-reader really should diversify.
Writers need to read, not just the kind of writing they do or want to do, but all kinds of writing. Reading the work of other writers broadens your horizons and makes you think. It expands your perceptions. It feeds the muse and keeps her interested in you.
But how to choose what to read from the endless choices of good books out there? Publishers Weekly tempts me every week, and friends are always recommending their own favorites and often foisting them on me.
And that’s where the book club comes in. When I had a chance to join a local reading group, I jumped in and have not regretted it for a moment.
The “Brown Bag Book Club” (so named because it meets mid-day) is sponsored by Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, a delightful independent bookstore in La Canada, California. We’ve read current bestsellers and lesser-known novels, and without exception they’ve been wonderful reads. Most have been books I would never have chosen on my own but am ever so glad the book club selected them. I’ve entered worlds I never imagined and discovered the work of some amazing novelists. The experience has only strengthened my commitment to my craft and left me in awe of the writing; it’s made me want to write even more, and to do it better.
It sure doesn’t hurt that Sandy Willardson, one of our book club moderators, is a fantastic cook who brings a delectable dessert to each meeting. We’ve sampled a pumpkin mousse, gingerbread, a chocolate truffle tart topped with strawberry soufflé. . . yikes, this is making me hungry. Not all book clubs are blessed with this little extra, but it sure helps break the ice!
An important side benefit of belonging to a book club: when we meet to discuss the month’s selection, and I hear the other members’ reactions, it gives me priceless insight into what they found compelling in the book, and what turned them off. It makes me think about my own values, and what I consider a successful novel. Does my writing measure up to my own standards? Probably not as much as it could, but the book club discussions are a significant wake-up call.
We live in a hectic world, and it’s usually hard to find time to work on our own projects, to write our stories and novels and to study our craft. It’s easy to forget that big old world of fiction out there, and belonging to a book club is a wonderful way of reminding oneself that writers need to be readers.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
With mega-bookstores struggling for market share these days, independent bookstores have an even tougher time – and we’ve recently lost some of our favorites. Despite competition from chain stores, discounters, and e-tailers, however, some indies have managed to hang on and even thrive.
We asked two staff members at the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse for some inside information on what it takes to run a successful independent bookstore. Catherine Linka is the store’s Children's Book Buyer. Sandy Willardson is in charge of Marketing, Advertising, and Author-related events.
Catherine Linka is pictured below, left; Sandy Willardson is pictured below, right
What are the rewards and challenges of running an independent bookstore?
Sandy: The rewards: The direction you want to follow isn't dictated by a corporation. You can become much more 'intimate' with your customers - you can anticipate books they might like, events they might enjoy. And, you can take on a much larger role in the community/schools.
The challenges? Getting information out that you exist, without access to the kinds of promotional materials the chain stores have (posters, signage, etc.) You have smaller budgets to work with. You also want to make sure that your books are relevant to the community you serve.
Catherine: The best part of my job is when a parent comes in and says, "My child loved the book you helped us pick out." Connecting readers with books is a joy.
How do you compete with the behemoths like Amazon and Barnes & Noble? What do you offer readers that the mega-stores can’t?
Sandy: Our strength is in our service .... we call it “hand selling” .... we come out from behind the counter and help you find the book that suits your needs. If we don't have the book in stock, we make every effort to get it for the customer within one or two days.
Catherine: Independents can't compete on price. We don't get the same deals from publishers that the big boys do. I'm not even sure the big boys can compete on price. Borders is a mess right now.
What independents offer is a personal relationship. A living human being will help you navigate, throw out ideas for a gift, connect you to an author you would otherwise never know about. Great independents become part of the community.
This month I took a new author to meet fifth and sixth graders at Crestview Elementary, put on a Mother Daughter Book Party where the partygoers met seven authors, brought a picture book writer to an evening storytime at Paradise Canyon School, brought together book club members to hear about favorite book picks from the sales rep for Norton, led 25 elementary school children in our Junior Advisory Board and 25 teens in our Teen Advisory Board, sold Roald Dahl books at the Willy Wonka fundraiser at La Canada Preparatory, and oversaw the judging of over 200 entries in our Imagination Contest.
Independents also have a point of view. We get to choose books that interest us, not just the books that a central office got a good deal on or ones it thinks will be a blockbuster. We'll try a couple copies of something new.
What impact on your business do you foresee from e-books?
Sandy: We don't think that e-books will have a huge impact. The impact will be minimal because (1) people don't want to stare at a little screen, or for that matter a computer, for long periods of time; and (2) it's hard to snuggle up by a fire or climb in bed with an e-book. They are just not warm and cozy!
Catherine: E-books are an interesting question. We heard a lot of different opinions about them at the ABA Winter Institute last month. There's no doubt that e-books will capture a segment of the market, but most likely the segment that consists of people who read 12+ books a year. But even these readers show "hybrid usage" --they read some things on a reader, but others in what they refer to as p-books (printed books).
One thing that publishers acknowledge is that bookstores offer browsing and preview in a way that e-books don't. People do judge books by their covers and people do respond to the physical qualities of a book. The most interesting research is the stuff that says that we respond differently at a neurological level to reading on a screen--we don't go as deeply into the dream/trance; instead we skim the way we do as we read text on a computer.
How do you decide what books to carry? Do certain categories sell best? What other criteria do you use? Do local writers ever get special consideration?
Sandy: Catherine has done a fabulous job working with the schools to ensure that we carry the core books that are needed for the La Cañada Unified School District – not an easy task. We have a good give-back program and have already given the LCUSD over $5000.
Naturally, you carry all of the best sellers, you carry books that have been requested by different book groups, you carry all of the classics, you also try to carry books that pertain to your community - not just the histories of your community but also their interests: travel, art, architecture, history, and of course my favorite - cookbooks, etc. Catherine has also put together an incredible children's and young adult section. The children's section probably is the biggest earner in the store.
We really enjoy helping local authors .... we'll carry their books (if they're good!), host their signings and encourage people to read them.
Catherine: Deciding what books to carry is part science, part art. I look at daily sales reports to see what has and has not sold. Every category is reviewed semiannually to see if it is worth having. It's always a balancing act, because you need to have a variety of books for all different kinds of readers...not just the top ten best-sellers. Fiction that ranges from romance to mystery to thriller to fine literature is key. New non-fiction, especially memoir or books about human behavior and quirks, do very well. Cookbooks sell all year round.
Local writers get special consideration in that we often plan events to help promote their books if we feel the title will do well in our town. We're so lucky in having so many amazing writers in L.A.
Are you able to generate revenue beyond book sales – i.e., does the publisher/author typically provide an incentive to carry their books?
Sandy: Publishers will do what is called “co-op” where they will give you a credit if you showcase some of their books - they would like you to high-light them on your website/newsletter, have displays and have their titles “face out” so that they’re more recognizable.
Lots of bookstores make additional money selling what are called “side-lines” - toys, stationery, jewelry, journals, etc. We're working on that ... it takes time to develop the market.
Catherine: Publishers sometimes provide incentives in the form of discounts or co-op money. Bookstores struggle to be profitable, because it is a labor-intensive business and because having all that inventory is expensive. Selling gift items can really benefit the bottom line. No matter how big an independent is, I promise you the store is looking at alternative sources of income, whether it's operating a coffeebar or offering classes or selling art on consignment.
How did you get in the book business?
Sandy: I've been doing events/marketing for the last 20 years. I was in an in-between spot when this opportunity presented itself to help market the store/books/events. It was a natural for me, and I've enjoyed the challenge of taking an unknown quantity and helping build it into a successful business. For me, I find the mix of interesting authors, fabulous books and planning events a terrific spot to be in!
Catherine: I had a background in marketing, but I'd just finished an MFA in Writing for Children. I was driving down the street and saw the "Help Wanted" sign. I'd never worked in a bookstore, but I must have shown Peter and Lenora [the store’s owners] I knew how to sell, because they hired me to set up the children's area.
And last, is there anything you wish we’d asked that we didn’t, anything else you’d like readers to know about you and/or Flintridge Books?
Sandy: The big thing on the horizon is the new store, which will have 1000 more square feet and an Espresso Book Machine - that's big! .... it will print a book of 300 pages in about 4 minutes and put a cover on it! It will be great for print on demand. The future is looking good! [Note: the new store will be constructed right down the block, on the southeast corner of Foothill Blvd. and Angeles Crest Highway]
Catherine: I just want to add that independents are the best friend of a debut author. Independents can choose what they want to carry. We love to discover a new author and give them a chance. Indies have their own bestseller list that differs from the NYTimes and we get an email update weekly. A debut author can get attention from indies when the big boys are obsessed with what's going to sell 150,000 copies+.
Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse is located at 964 Foothill Blvd. in La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011. Phone: (818) 790-0717
Visit their web site for more information and event schedules.
Friday, April 16, 2010
Two-thirds of Writers in Residence met last Wednesday to try something new – a brainstorming session to help one of us clarify plot points in a new novel. The one was me. I’d been struggling with the outline for the sequel to my first novel, A Petal In The Wind. I knew where to start and end the book, but I had too many ideas and not enough clarity to get me there.
Since it was the first time we tried to brainstorm, we free-formed the meeting. I’d been to brainstorming groups that had limited effectiveness, but the Wednesday session was extremely helpful to me. When I returned home, I thought about how it progressed, what worked and what didn’t, and why this was more successful than past efforts. I’ll share my thoughts with you.
I don’t believe brainstorming is the most effective way to stretch a germ of an idea into a full blown story. It can work, but when you ask people to take aim at a problem, it’s much easier to hit a specific target than scatter shots at the sky and hope something falls to earth. If a writer has the basic story fleshed out but is having trouble with some aspect of it – weak ending, sagging middle, critical scene – the chances of success are more likely than if the writer is vague about the premise or the problem.
Open the discussion with a free exchange of ideas. Anything goes. Sometimes you have to get past the obvious, trite and just plain bad to get the creative juices running. The writer should listen and take notes; but shouldn’t interrupt the flow if she hears something she doesn’t like unless that thread is picked up by the others. Then she can simply say, “I don’t want to take my story in that direction”. That will alert the others to drop the idea and move on.
Once she’s decided, focus the brainstorming along that narrow path. Let her direct the conversation so she can get what she needs. If anyone has ideas outside the box, no matter how brilliant, hold them until the end or email them to her later.
If the writer can’t determine a direction by now, the session wasn’t successful. It could be that she wasn’t clear about what she wanted or needed, either in her own mind or in expressing it to the group. You might be able to salvage the session by having her explain why she rejected all of the suggestions, or if there were any ideas that might hold promise with further exploration.
Ultimately the key to successful brainstorming lies in the writer. She has to have some idea of a direction. Otherwise the best suggestions won’t help. It’s one thing to ask someone to dig up a potato from your garden. It’s another to plant a seed and expect others to grow it for you.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Could you give us some background on what an editor does and if there are differences in editing for newspapers versus magazines?
For both newspapers and magazines, editors work with reporters or writers to craft articles for publication. The story can be assigned by the editor or result from a suggestion by the writer. Often times, the idea for the story is brainstormed by the reporter and the editor together. But that's pretty much where the similarities between newspaper and magazine writing end. Traditonal American newspaper writing, even when considering larger, more expansive examples of feature writing, is usually much tighter and more heavily structured than magazine writing. Magazine editors and writers typically have much more flexibility when it come to deciding the best way to tell a story. They also can do more in terms of weaving color, descriptive detail and background into the story. I had a lot more fun editing a magazine than I did editing for newspapers.
As a magazine editor, what did you look for in writers?
Three things: Creativity. Creativity. And more creativity. I always encouraged writers to come up with new and interesting ways to engage readers. I wanted reading my magazine to be a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying experience, not a challenge to get through it. I wanted reading it to be thought-provoking, friendly, funny, and, most of all, interesting.
We first met at Love is Murder a few years ago. (Has it been that long?) You had decided to take the plunge into mystery writing. What lead you to write fiction?
Several things, really. First off, I grew up reading great fiction, but never had the chance to practice it as a journalist (making shit up for newspaper articles is generally frowned upon). As I got older, I developed an affinity for mysteries, so I started reading everything I could get my hands on. Some of it was not very good, and, as I walked away from bad books, I started telling myself that I could write better than what I'd just put down. Soon, it became a personal challenge: Craft a good novel and make the story work and flow from beginning to end. I soon found out that it was not nearly as easy as I had envisioned. Then it became even more of a challenge.
Did the writing conference help you in your transition, and if so, how?
The LIM conferences, and other writing workshops I have attended, have been great for two reasons. Learning and encouragement. If you attend as many conference sessions as you can fit into the day's schedule, you can't help but learn from experienced, dedicated writers. The ideas and tips and trial-and-error stories about writing are terrific. Novices are encouraged at every turn. In some ways, conferences are kind of like pep rallies. You walk away ready to tackle the world. You also find that writers are willing to share everything, including their bar bills.
I read an early draft of your book, and it’s got the key elements of a fantastic read—deliciously sinister plot, flawed hero, a touch of romance, and a wonderful sense of humor. Is it too early to share what your first book is about?
No. Maybe talking about it will be the spark I need to finish it. My story is about an aging, drunken newspaper reporter being kicked to the curb by 20-somethings in the office. But his experience and instincts help him discover and solve the health-care mystery surrounding a plot to kill three prominent educators in a mid-sized Midwest city. In the end, he saves a life, pulls his career and reputation out of the gutter, and gets the girl while thumbing his nose at the 20-somethings. I had a blast writing the first two drafts of the story, but the final re-write - trying to make it just right - has been painstaking, with lots of stops and starts. Did I tell too much? Gosh, I hope not.
Why start a second novel before your first one is finished?
I knew you were going to ask that. Good question, and the best way I can answer it is this way. The idea for it just came to me and I had to start writing it while it was percolating. That's also thrown me off track a bit with finishing the first novel, but I did not want to suppress the new story idea.. I think it's going to be really good, maybe better than my first attempt. We'll see.
I noticed that you put together a writing critique group. What did you look for from members and how did you reach out to them?
What did I look for in members? I wanted people who could sit up straight in their chairs without drooling while they snored through the readings and critique sessions. Just kidding.
An author friend of mine, Dennis Collins (who is also an LIM alum and has published two novels), kept bringing up the idea of starting a writers group. The more we talked about it, the more interest we found among others in our rural, small-town area of Michigan. Finally, I suggested that we see if the folks running the local district library would host our group. They embraced us enthusiastically. I wrote news releases about Dennis and I forming the group. The releases were published by local newspapers and aired on local radio. About 15 people showed up for our first meeting, and the group continues to grow.
We recently wrote 1,000-word pieces of fiction from a prompt similar to the ones used in Writers Digest. The stories turned out to be much better than we'd ever envisioned. Now, we're talking about creating a blog or Web site to publish the best of our offerings online. We're also talking about traveling together across the Bluewater Bridge to a writers conference in Canada. We bring in authors to talk about writing and getting published. Plenty of other ideas in the works. I had no idea forming a writers group would turn out this well, but it's been a lot of fun.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with your fellow scribes?
The same thing I used to tell my journalism students. If you want to become a better writer, then practice your craft as often as you possibly can. Read and write something every day that you breathe. And don't give up. If you've got a story to tell, find a way write it, re-write it, and then re-write it again.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Every “How to Write” book has a chapter on “Editing and Rewriting.” Whatever you write can always be improved by a careful edit, and thoughtful look-over, and a final rewrite to tweak those areas that don’t sound right. You could spend the rest of your life rewriting if you aren’t careful. Hopefully you have a friend who tells you to stop before you rewrite the life out of your work.
Over-writing is a problem we can all have when we are looking for the perfect word or phrase. Maybe you should try looking for the best word, and not worry about perfection. Perfection is stuffy. Walk away from your work, literally, go into another room, and think about what you want to say in that section. The words that come into your head, off the cuff, will be truer than the ones you agonized over. Spontaneity is always fresher. Write it down and then leave it alone.
As for basic editing like grammar, spelling, and punctuation, have someone else do it for you. Just like parents who never see flaws in their children, even the two-headed ones or the ones who wind up in jail, you will miss errors in your own work.
Join a writers’ group, ask a teacher, or pay a professional to go over your work. Even if your Aunt Mabel is a professional editor, too often a friend or relative will be too kind. (They will overlook the two-headed kid, too.) An agent or publisher won’t be kind. They will toss your error-laden manuscript in the trash and remember you the next time as the person who can’t submit a professional piece of work.
So you rewrite, edit, polish and submit. And an agent likes your work. Hoorah! Your characters are memorable. The plot is appealing. The agent handles that genre. They know a few publishers in that genre. Everything is wonderful…but…
It’s the “but” that will have you asking yourself, “How much of my story will I change to get it published?” If the change doesn’t amount to much, I’d rewrite it in a heartbeat.
But what if your agent loves everything except one of the key points in the story around which everything revolves. Should you tell her she should really read the entire book to see how it fits together, or do you try to adjust the part she doesn’t like to suit her?
A screenwriter will tell you once you submit your script, a thousand hands will rework it, reshape it, and in the end you won’t recognize anything but the title…if they keep the title. Screenplays aren’t novels.
How much of your book are you willing to change for someone else? Granted the agent has the contacts, the clout, the name recognition that could get you published. But what will you be giving up? Your name goes on the cover. You are the one who will be explaining why the plot missed the mark…for eternity. You have to make that decision.
My advice: First, find a way to explain to the agent/publisher exactly why you can’t change that major plot point. Thank them for pointing out the fact you didn’t write that part clear enough and say that you will tweak that section. If that doesn’t work, ask yourself: What do I value most?
And remember: Your agent might be wrong.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Born and raised in what was then called South Central Los Angeles, he's been a community organizer, union rep, and headed a nonprofit to better race relations begun after the '92 riots. Besides his many mystery novels and shorts, he's written a coming-of-age graphic novel called South Central Rhapsody as well as a graphic novel about a gangster called High Rollers, and has a prose novel about African Americans and World War II called Freedom's Fight.
You can find out more about Gary at his web site.
The beauty and freedom of writing a stand alone is you can do anything you want. Blow up the world, go ahead. Have mutant alligators crawl out of the sewers…sweet. Your main character loses their mind midway in the book and runs around in his birthday suit shouting ‘I am the Master of the Universe,’ no problemo. Too, in this publishing environment as we’ve discussed, it seems it’s easier to sell a standalone. If you have a series, and that series hasn’t broken the house record in sales, then publishers are dang reluctant to take a chance on another book with those same characters. Whereas a one off is often seen as new and fresh and may get an editor excited at a house and want to champion your book.
Is it the job of the writer to leave the reader with a message? If so, what do you hope your readers take away from your books?