Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Friday, July 29, 2011

Guest Author: Julia March

Please welcome mystery writer Julia March! She's going to talk about my favorite subject, the mystery novel.
Why do people like mystery novels so much?

There are a lot of different kinds of mystery novels—the cozy mystery, the hard-boiled, the police procedural... Even though they’re different, each one of them delivers a similar enjoyment for the reader.

Mystery novels reassure us that the world makes sense, and that good will triumph. And that an ordinary person has the power to bring about justice.

Order from chaos. We like seeing order come out of chaos. From the raw, unorganized data, the protagonist—whether it's Sherlock Holmes or an amateur sleuth—constructs a coherent narrative.

In a way, we all do this all the time. We ask what strange experiences mean. What explains them? How can we solve the mystery of why things weren't the way we expected?

If the cashier at the garden centre called for a carryout guy for you even though you said you didn't need one, and even though you didn't have very much to carry—that makes sense to you once you notice the carryout guy is the cashier's age and cute.

In a mystery novel, the mystery is more complicated then that. It's often a murder. The clues and the reasoning have to be more complicated, too. But figuring things out is still a familiar activity for people, and a familiar pleasure.

Most kids like mystery novels. (Remember Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown?) Young people are always trying to construct coherent narratives to make sense of the world. A good mystery novel can teach about discovery and reasoning.

Brain exercise. Reasoning is fun. A lot of people like "thinking" puzzles. People do crosswords and sudoko. I used to enjoy those logic puzzle books, myself, especially when I was commuting on the train.

People get satisfaction when they answer an important question, like what's making the dog sick—not just because the dog stops being sick, but because they figured it out themselves.

That's why it's so important that the mystery be fair. You don't want the protagonist to say, suddenly, "But what about this?" and hold out a surprise eyewitness or a honking great physical clue that you, the reader, were never privy to.

In a mystery novel, there's often the reward of a revelatory climactic moment, where the sleuth explains all the clues, and how they led to this end.

The process of reasoning has to be revealed to the reader. And it also has to be something the reader could have done.

What the protagonist knows, the reader should know or be able to figure out. The explanation can't be something like "I had a bad feeling he was the murderer. I don't know why; there's just something about the way he looks."

If the only proof he's the murderer is the way he looks, he needs to be described very well. The reader needs to see the way he looks, too. (But you'd better hope there's better proof than that.)

Pleasure of revelation. We like it when things are revealed. Think of any genre of novel. Hidden things are revealed in it, and that's part of the enjoyment.

In a mystery, facts are revealed about the victim and criminal. In Murder in the Philosophy Department, it seems almost everyone is hiding some secret—including Liza, the sleuth.

What we want to learn is what caused the murderer to be driven so far as to kill someone. We know it's going to be a dramatic story—we've never been driven so far—and that makes us eager to read it.

Personally, I love a good mystery—and they're as much fun to write as they are to read.

Bio: I worked at a university as a philosophy professor for a period of time. Now I read novels, write novels, and play with my dogs.


Murder in the Philosophy Department

Who killed Niles Norman, the new head of the philosophy department?

When Norman is found murdered in his office, Liza Ryder, a professor of philosophy, offers the police her help. She's worried they won't take academic motives seriously. And she also investigates her colleagues herself.

Was the murderer the dotty old hippie? The vindictive former department head? The prodigiously incompetent administrative assistant?

Liza is horrified by how many motives she finds. Extortion. Deception. Secrets kept since grad school. Will anything be left of the philosophy department when the investigation is over?

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Thank you, Julia. I don't know about anyone else, but I think a perfectly good reason to kill a philosophy professor is because they're a professor. And they teach philosophy. I can think of many times when...oh, wait. No. I would never do something like that, or even think it!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Compels You To Read?

What attracts you to a book? Why do you read?
Those questions are fascinating to me, and there are almost as many answers as there are blades of grass in the world.

For me, reading is a chance to explore other "modes of life," other cultures, discover new things, new words, vicarious thrills, see how others solve problems, and most of all, explore what it is that makes a human being tick.

Unlike a lot of readers, I avoid the heart-warming, the tear-jerkers, the super-woman heroines who weigh 90 lbs but stand 5'8" tall in fancy high-heels and tailored suits. Or the fun-loving hippy-chick who lets her emotions rule her beautiful life. I seek out the books about the overweight, the irrascible, the bitter cynics, misfits, the sarcastic, geeky, uncool loners who never fit in and know they probably never will. Those who like to think logic drives them but are often surprised at how many times obscure, deep-seated needs made the decisions for them. And they weren't good decisions.

Could it be that I bond more strongly with those I perceive to be like me? (I shudder to think what that says about me.) Or those who are portrayed with qualities I'd like to emulate? Is that part of what drives a reader to select certain books, certain authors over others? It's an interesting question and may in part help us understand why certain authors reach mega-stardom and others, who may even be better writers in the same genre, simply don't find a wide audience. Are the truly popular able to tap into the psyche of the "fat middle of the bell curve" of humanity (instead of the skinny ends), creating characters and incorporating themes that speak to most people?

To a large part, that may be true. The authors who can tap into the zeitgeist will undoubtedly do well.
For me, there are definitely values, themes, and characters that draw me into their stories and cause me to buy every book I can find about them.

The Inspector Rutledge series by Charles Todd, for example. This series of mysteries is set in England, right after World War I. It's a period when a shell-shocked population saw their world change forever in fundamental ways. The war itself was traumatic, but layered on top of that were changes brought about by technology. Cars were replacing horses, for example. Civilization was shifting into high gear. It was the start of an era we would recognize as the roots of our modern times.

While the shift is undoubtedly fascinating, what really draws me is Rutledge. This is a man who I can truly respect. He's been through horrific events during the war and returned home, shell-shocked and scarred both physically and mentally. His fiancee leaves him and his life is in tatters. And yet...instead of laying about whining, he returns to the work, hoping the challenges will give him time to pull himself together and heal. He shows enormous integrity and courage, as well as the drive to work through adversity instead of just giving up. He typifies all the qualities I admire most. He is why we will forever call those men and women who lived through the first half of the 20th century, the Great Generation. No one from that period would even think of eliminating cursive writing from school because it's too difficult to teach. (Okay, I had to add that, sorry.)

In contrast, I also read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson every year, sometimes twice a year. WARNING: SPOILERS. The main character draws me in as strongly as Rutledge and in many ways, she is much like him. She is also damaged and that damage leads her inexorably to her fate. I love the understated, vicarious chills of this horror story. There is no blood, no unspeakable acts of torture. It is more subtle and in may ways more horrible because of that. It is filled with irony. Eleanor is a character we can sympathize with, and perhaps even admire. She has sacrificed her own happiness and independence by spending most of her adult life taking care of an invalid mother. Exhausted by years of coming to her mother's call, day and night, she accidentally sleeps through one, final call. The one call that turns out to be the one she should have answered, for her mother dies. Ironic. And Eleanor can never quite forgive herself for that.

Then at last, she has one opportunity to find happiness and show her independence by taking her first vacation ever. At Hill House. Where whatever forces await her recognize that buried guilt and prey upon her. Her first attempt to find happiness, to show independence, results in...well. Ironic.

In contrast to that, are the works of P. G. Wodehouse. Particularly his stories set at Blandings Castle. Blandings Castle is the seat of Lord Emsworth. I adore Lord Emsworth. Mostly because he loathes his children, his family and only wants to be left alone to fatten up his champion sow, the Empress of Blandings. He makes me wonder how many parents really feel about their children, particuarly after said children reach the ages of around 13-25. I suspect Lord Emsworth isn't the only one who'd like to see them locked away and forgotten during that period. I wouldn't have blamed my own parents one bit if they felt like that. In fact, I can't understand how they avoided doing just that when I was in my teens.

As for my own writing...I find that I can't even start a book unless I have some pretty good conflict going and can include at least one irrascible, possibly down-right mean, character and a bit of comic relief. That's why so many of my stories end up with those elements somewhere around the middle when the going gets tough and I need a laugh or two to keep going.

My themes vary, but many have elements of "being trapped" in them, like Eleanor is trapped by her noble quality, her ability to sacrifice her happiness for others, and her guilt at failing her mother at the most critical moment. In my latest mystery, A Rose Before Dying, many of the characters are trapped in a variety of ways, both internally and externally.

Sir Edward is trapped by his lameness and circumstances. Someone may be trying to implicate him in a series of murders. In his efforts to extricate himself, he traps his nephew, Charles Vance, into investigating.

Charles Vance is trapped in a murder investigation by duty, a deep sense of honor and his love for his uncle.

As a woman in the early years of the 19th century, Ariadne Wellfleet is trapped by Society and legal obligations. She's engaged to be married to a man she does not like and restricted in her abilities to alter her situation for the better. She has a rose hybridization business she loves, but if she breaks her engagement she may lose it all.

This theme of entrapment is something I enjoy exploring, so I seem to return to it time and time again.

I'll leave you with two things: a question to ponder and a brief blurb for A Rose Before Dying.

What themes and characters intrigue you--why do you read?

And now...a word about A Rose Before Dying.

Only Sir Edward had the motive, the opportunity, and a garden full of the identical roses sent to each victim before their death.

The first victim was Sir Edward’s ex-mistress, a woman who threw him over for a younger man. After receiving a mysterious rose, she dies while alone with Sir Edward. Then a second rose is delivered and a deadly game commences, where roses are the only clues to save the next victim.

However, Charles Vance, Earl of Castlemoor, refuses to believe his uncle, Sir Edward, could commit the murders, even when the renowned head of the Second Sons Inquiry Agency warns him there may be some truth behind the rumors. "The roses are Sir Edward’s attempt to cast suspicion elsewhere." "Misdirection." Or so the whispers say.

Convinced he can prove his uncle’s innocence, Vance enlists the aide of notable rosarian, Ariadne Wellfleet, little realizing his actions will involve the Wellfleet household in the killer’s game.

Before the week is out, another rose is delivered.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Guest Author: Jim Franz

Please welcome Jim Franz, a mystery writer with a fascinating angle! I'm pumped to have him on the blog because we are both intrigued by the human mind and "what makes us tick". For good or bad, we both had psychologists in the family, which means endless discussions about nature versus nurture, not to mention experimentation in the realm of parenting. My mother was an ardent follower of Skinner's behavior modification techniques, so the less said about that, the better. LOL

I'm a fan of mysteries where the hero or heroine faces the challenge of a psychological disorder. After all, it's what made Monk on television such a compelling character. But I won't babble on about why psychology interests me...

Here's Jim!
World Without Faces
Although the main character in World Without Faces is fictional, the disorder he has is very real. It's called prosopagnosia, and it's a neurological condition in which people can't recognize faces.

Imagine going to school or work and being unable to tell who anybody is. You'd never be able to recognize anyone at a supermarket or a high school sports event, nor meet up with friends at a restaurant.

Speaking of friends, how would you make them? If you have a good conversation with somebody at work, the gym, or at a school function, how would you know who they are if you ever wanted to spot them again? How would you maintain that relationship?

Maybe you're thinking we could always ask our husbands or our wives who people are; they cover for us now, anyway! But how would you meet your husband or wife? How would you date? Imagine meeting somebody at a wedding or a party, and you're attracted to them, and they're funny, and things are going well. Then they say they're going to get something to drink, or maybe you're supposed to get the drinks, or one of you has to go to the bathroom. The moment they're out of your sight, you can no longer tell who they are. Will you go up to random people, ask them if you've been hitting it off for the past twenty minutes?

A major problem that people with prosopagnosia face is that they're not blind. It doesn't seem to make sense, does it? How is not being blind a problem? The problem is that the condition is neurological, so other people have no idea about the disorder and will not make allowances for it. If you actually were blind, people would say, "Hey, it's Alex, I'm back." But if you're not blind and you don't acknowledge Alex in a special way, then Alex may feel blown off, and there goes the potential relationship.

Would you tell new people about it? How well do you think that conversation would go? Prosopagnosia is almost completely unknown outside of the medical community. Indeed, unless you're speaking to a neurologist or neuropsychologist, most doctors don't even know it exists. Would a new acquaintance think it makes you sound interesting or that it makes you sound like a freak?

There are tricks people with prosopagnosia can use, and they may not be what you think. Sometimes you can recognize a person's voice, but that only works when the person is talking to you and if their voice is somehow distinctive. Sometimes the person is wearing something unusual or extreme. (There's no research on the subject, but I have a feeling that even people with prosopagnosia can spot Lady Gaga in a crowd!)

In the example of finding somebody again at a party, you might describe the person to yourself by saying something like, "She's 30 years old, brunette with shoulder-length hair, and is wearing black slacks with a white top." If that description matches only one person in the room, then you'll find her. If you see somebody else matching that description, though, you're likely to make a fool out of yourself. If she put on a jacket while you were away, you're done for.

This is the world my main character lives in. Every student, every teacher, every potential friend and enemy are unidentifiable. Worse, he witnesses a murder that he feels compelled to solve. But even if you lived a normal life with prosopagnosia, hopefully without any murders, how would you function day-to-day?

If you'd like to read more about World Without Faces or are interested in psychology topics in general, please check out my website at .

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Thank you, Jim. I hope others find that as compelling as I have.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Guest Author: LJ DeLeon

I'd like to welcome LJ DeLeon today. She's a terrific writer of fantasy using the legend of the werewolf in some very unique ways.

Why Fantasy Requires Research

I know it sounds strange to say I researched to write fantasy. After all, it is fantasy. But I love history, and even more, I love myths, discovering the common themes between cultures, and how I can use or abuse them.

So why research? Because from childhood forward we have read books with Fae, were-animals, angels, gargoyles, and demons in them and have preconceived ideas of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

I combined Greek, Roman, Celtic, Gaelic, Norse, and Germanic myths, then turned them upside down. I also used a variety of religious beliefs. The Warriors for Light series uses a female deity for all non-humans.

Fantasy, like science fiction, has to be grounded in some kind of reality. When people say bad science makes bad science fiction, the same applies for fantasy. Bad world building makes bad fantasy, but your world must be grounded in a set of believable physics. If I want a character to defy gravity, there has to be gravity.

Here is an example within the Warriors for Light series. One of the problems with werewolves throughout fiction is what happens to their clothes when they change. Does their clothing rip to shreds or do they strip before changing? I chose to have my Weres able to shift— or phase—from one form to another without destroying their clothing or suffering pain. It happens in a twinkling of an eye.

My Weres are born, not made, and phasing is magical. Every Were I write will be able to phase this way. Therefore, I am always consistent within the Warriors for Light world. My readers can rely upon this consistency. How did I come to this decision? I researched a variety of shapeshifter myths and decided which ones worked best for my world.

As you read the Warriors for Light series, you will find that some traditional creatures fulfill different roles than you might expect. Their history will also be unique. That’s intentional. I wanted to keep the reader guessing about who is good and who is evil. It’s more fun to read when you aren’t quite sure about the characters and to have some surprises. Yet, in my world “Honor is the ultimate seduction.”

Peek into my world. Plan to be surprised, to laugh, to cry, and sigh.

To read the first chapter of Warrior’s Rise, Dragon Child, and Absolution at my website Click Books—Warriors for Light

I love to hear from readers. Feel free to send me an email or message.

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Thank you, LJ!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Amazon Publishing on the Kindle, Redux

Indie Publishing, Who'd Have Thunk It?
A quick blog, a few random thoughts on independent (indie) publishing, mostly centered on the Kindle...

I admit it, I never thought I'd give in to the lure of indie publishing. If nothing else, I'm a firm believer in the search for excellence and traditionally, excellence in publishing meant the whole agent/NY publishing thing.

Got a couple of agents, got a few books published, but they languished. I languished. I considered giving up, calling it quits, admitting that I was the one loser out of the group of six starry-eyed writers striving to be published who all went on to bigger and much better contracts.

But I'm stubborn, and I had all these books in my head dying to get out, and what the heck?

Then I started reading Konrath's blog. Things exploded in the indie world. Like an idiot, I realized that once again, I was behind the curve on something I should have been at least one step ahead of. I mean, I have a day job in the computer industry. I should have realized what was going on, much, much sooner.

Nonetheless, I finally took the plunge a few months ago. It has been a totally eye-opening experience in ways I really didn't expect.

Serendipity is alive and well and nesting in my Kindle.

What happened?

Well, I had a mystery (The Vital Principle) that I was talking to a publisher about, but the advance was small and I realized, well, if the book was good enough to be published, wasn't it good enough to be indie published? After more work, of course.

So I did.

A couple of months later, I'm doing...quite well. Not burning up the Internet, but nice, solid sales. In the meantime, I had another book I'd written and was almost ready to go. I got it ready and indie published that one (A Rose Before Dying). Again, nice solid sales. Enough so that I've now set into motion plans to retire early and write full time.


My trad books? They're starting to sell. With virtually no effort on my part (except, of course, I'm working on my next book which is a LOT of effort).

It's the reverse of what I had expected. I had expected traditionally published books to drive the sales of my indie books. What is happening is that my indie books are driving the sales of my trad books.

Is this some weird thing unique to me? No clue. No clue AT ALL.

But I will say this: writing the best book you can write is worth it. And the best advertising is your next book.

Finally, let me talk about a related subject that is near to my heart. Amazon rankings. If you're an author, you may be as addicted as I am to the rankings watch.

But what do they really mean?
It's all relative, my dear.

For a full and comprehensive discussion on Amazon rankings, I encourage you to look at the following link: Amazon Ranks Explained. In a nutshell, the rank is how well your book is selling that hour against all the other books on Amazon. It's calculated hourly.

While that link does a wonderful job of explaining the ranking system, the rank data is from 2008. I took my own data from 2011 and updated the table slightly to reflect the more recent information. Here's how the ranks roughly (and I mean ROUGHLY) break down as they relate to sales.

RANK                         Weekly Sales - 2011
    1,000                            210 copies (~30/day)
    5,000                            100 copies (~16/day)
  10,000                              70 copies (~10/day)
 100,000                             20 copies (~ 3/day)
 300,000                             15 copies (~ 2/day)
 500,000                               1 copy
1,000,000                             1 or 2 copies/month

Keep in mind a few things:
  1. This is relative to all the other books being sold, so if book sales are really slow across the board, the number of copies sold to earn a ranking will be less & vice versa.
  2. Huge jumps in rank within an hour, e.g. going from 114,000 to 44,000, doesn't mean you're selling between 3 and 10 copies that day or even that hour. It means that you may have sold one copy that hour, which was more than those above the 44,000 rank did, but less than those with lower ranks. For that specific hour.
  3. It's the average ranking for an entire week that may give you the best clue for your sales that week.
You really can't tell for sure what your sales are without getting the details, but if you're an author who has to wait for his or her publisher to release the figures, this at least gives you a swag number.

If you're an indie author, then of course you can check the daily numbers (like I do) from Amazon DTP. But it's still fun to look at rankings.

Best wishes for success!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Guest Author: Alyssa Lyons

We are extraordinarily lucky to have Alyssa Lyons with us. She's a fabulous writer and is the author of some of my favorite cozy mysteries.

Not Your Mother’s Cozy Mystery

Hi, all. I’m Alyssa Lyons and I want to introduce you to Chick Mystery. When most readers think of the amateur sleuth mystery, commonly called a “cozy,” images pop up of Miss Jane Marple or Jessica Fletcher.

Ta-ta, Miss Marple. Go back to Cabot Cove, Mrs. Fletcher. Welcome Jordan Ashley Davis, amateur sleuth extraordinaire. On the sunny side of thirty, instead of a sensible dress, she might be tooling around her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia in a red leather catsuit on a Triumph motorcycle. Forget a nice pot of chamomile tea, Jordan is more likely to quaff a venti soy chai latte from the Boonsboro Road Starbucks. No purring cat curled up around her legs, instead, she has a miniature schnauzer with his own helmet and leather motorcycle jacket, all the better to ride behind Jordan on her bike. Her day job is the unique funeral boutique, Last Wishes, where she plans and executes custom funerals and memorials for her clients. “You envision it, I make it happen.” This means skirting around a few laws and regulations—and running into murder.

Jordan doesn’t mind bending a few rules, but the same isn’t true of Judge Grayson Trent. Another Lynchburg native who escaped to San Francisco, is a little bit of a stick in the mud, but a gorgeous one. You can’t imagine Miss Marple as anything but a confirmed spinster and Jessica Fletcher lusting after Sheriff Amos Tupper—Heaven forfend. But when Jordan and Gray get together, sparks fly. Becca Morrison is Gray’s godmother and Jordan’s client and when Jordan discovers her death wasn’t from natural causes, it sets in motion a hunt for a serial killer trying to purify the town of its more unholy elements. And he’s added Jordan to his hit list.

You’ll meet Jordan, Gray, and a host of the type of characters you really only find in small Southern cities, because the city of Lynchburg is as much a character as any of the people, in Last Wishes.

In Clubbed to Death, Jordan and Gray must discover who killed the president of the Junior League and exonerate Jordan’s half-sister. In their search for the real killer, they run into a plot that introduces you to three terrific children who will change their lives.

And coming soon, Stabbed and Slabbed, where Jordan and Gray, on a Caribbean cruise, must discover who murdered the ship’s master of ceremonies when they are two the of prime suspects.

If you want to read excerpts, as well as see photos of Lynchburg, please go to my website, . If you like what you read, there are links to buy the books, which are available for all ebook devices. Last Wishes will also soon be available in paperback.

A hip chick solving crime Southern style. Definitely not your mother’s cozy mystery novel.

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Thank you so much, Alyssa!