Friday, October 2, 2009

Those Meddling Kids

Anyone with any cartoon knowledge knows it is coming. The mask is ripped away revealing that the spooky specter in the episode was…the caretaker… the fisherman… the diner owner?

But whoever the villain was in the Scooby Doo episode, he or she would always boast that they would have gotten away with it—if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

But why should they meddle? In the construction of a cozy mystery, the amateur protagonist needs a motive to take on the case—usually one that does not involve wolfing down Scooby Snacks. He also needs a reason not to just pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1. Generally, in real life, when crime happens, you call the police. You don’t dig out your fingerprint kit and go after the baddies yourself. So why should the cozy detective?

First, the amateur detective needs a reason to get involved. And this generally occurs when the crime touches her personally—but not too personally. Perhaps the protagonist had a passing acquaintance with the victim; perhaps he or she found the body. One word of caution though—if the victim is too close to the sleuth, genuine grief is difficult to write and emotionally draining to read—not necessarily something you desire in light mystery.

Or maybe the detective needs to get involved because he (or someone he cares about) is accused of the crime. If not taken downtown and booked—he is considered enough of a suspect to threaten his reputation, status, or income. In one of Joanne Fluke’s mysteries, Hannah Swensen was motivated to solve the crime that occurred in her cookie shop because the police closed her down when the victim was found there. Hannah needed a place to bake her cookies: sufficient motivation.

Of course, after the amateur has established some credible crime-solving skills, people might then be able to call her in for help, but until then, the author needs to knock off hapless victims in the protagonist’s periphery.

In a true cozy, the amateur sleuth also needs a reason not to leave the investigation solely to the police.

Perhaps the amateur is especially gifted or positioned to be able to solve the crime better than the police. She is in the right place or has exceptional access to the suspects. And then there’s the isolated location, snowstorm, or other natural disaster that keep the police from the scene of the crime.

Or perhaps the police don’t have the resources or experience to carry out an effective investigation. Jessica Fletcher often had to assist small-town sheriff Amos Tupper in “Murder, She Wrote.” But then again, the per capita homicide rate in Cabot Cove would justify a team of crack investigators, their own forensics lab, and martial law. If not incompetent, perhaps the police, or some government official is corrupt and hindering the official investigation. Be forewarned though, cops don’t like it when the police are betrayed as dolts and villains, and the blundering sheriff has become a bit of a cliché.

Or maybe the sleuth is a witness of some sort, but the police will not take her seriously. “I know you’re a nice lady, but there is no sign of a mutilated headless corpse there now. Perhaps you’ve been working too hard.”

Or maybe the death has already been dismissed as an accidental or suicide. Accidental deaths are a great cover for murder and the perfect excuse for an amateur to investigate unhindered by the police. One interesting, but slightly macabre plot-development tool is to scan the headlines for unusual accidental deaths, and then figure out how to murder someone to make it appear like that accident.

But once the amateur is fully involved in the investigation, he may work in tandem with or in opposition to the police. After all, we have a villain to unmask. I’ve got my money on the creepy caretaker.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Elements of Mystery Fiction: Character Call

While I plot and begin writing my second, I thought I'd revisit the basics of mystery writing.

First, the characters:

Protagonist--this is the detective, professional or amateur, who will solve the crime.

Villain--this is the person (or people) who committed the crime.

Victim--the person (or people) who is harmed (often killed) by the crime.

Now, you could have a mystery with only these people, but it would be a little too easy to solve. So lets add some more.

Red herrings--these are other people who might have had motive, means, or opportunity to kill the victim. This complicates the mystery.

A sidekick--a helper for the detective. A sidekick is also a help to the writer, since the detective and sidekick can discuss the case, revealing all kinds of information to the reader in dialogue.

Antagonist--this person may not have committed a crime, but makes life difficult for the protagonist. Which, in fiction, is a good thing.

Experts--especially if the detective is an amateur, he or she may need to draw on the input of experts. Cops, coroners, private detectives--these may figure in the story, often in conflict with the amateur detective.

Family, friends, and romantic interest--no man is an island. But the more family a detective has, the more people the author has to account for. But they do make for interesting subplots and interactions.

Community--general people the characters interact with. They may provide a number of service from yielding clues, making lunch, or just rounding out the picture.

And thanks, Shelly, for pointing out the typo.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

And now the wait begins

I like collecting advice from other writers. One thing that has stuck with me is to expect rejection. And now that I've emailed off my proposals, that's what I'm doing.

Now, don't get all Pollyanna on me and tell me I need to believe in my dreams. People who believe in dreams are most often delusional.

The standard answer to a query or a proposal is a "no." That is, if you even get an answer at all. To not know that is to set yourself up for disappointment and dejection from the beginning.

While there are an endless variety of attitudes aspiring writers can have, ranging from the Eyorian hack(It ain't never going to happen) to the Disneyesque pre-published (believe in yourself, and all your dreams will come true), I probably fall somewhere in the mucky middle of realism.

New authors get published all the time.


Most manuscripts are rejected.

Balancing these two is perhaps the healthiest medium for me.

Writing is a lot like a lottery in that, the odds are slim.

Writing is unlike the lottery in that, you can change the odds. Honing craft, and working and editing the manuscript take time, but also yield results. Preparing a professional query/pitch/proposal also ups the odds.

But even so, there are still so many factors the writer cannot control.

You cannot control the economy, and how many other books are competing for fewer slots the publisher is trying to fill.

You cannot control the market and which genres and trends are likely to sell.

You cannot control the subjective response of the reader. What one agent or editor might love, another might hate.

And you cannot control the competition. Even if you produce a great manuscript, you will always run the risk of someone popping in with an even better one.

So what is the aspiring writer to do? Keep plugging away. Don't think of being published as the only end to your writing. Consider it a bonus--a distinct, but distant possibility. Keep your feet grounded in reality, and work toward your dreams.

But never give up your day job.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Power of "Send"

Okay, one proposal sent, and I just need to spiffy up a cover letter and tweak a few things to personalized the second. Whew... That's a relief.

Or is it?

Pressing the send button on my email proposal had to be one of the most gut-wrenching, anxiety-producing aspects of writing so far.

Consider this analogy. Completing a manuscript is like having a baby. The gestation period may vary from months to years, but once complete, is a joy. You count its fingers and toes, and check to see if it has a beginning, middle, and end. It's all yours and it even looks like you.

Sending out a manuscript is like sending your child off to kindergarten--alone--in a rough neighborhood. You hope it will be ok, but there's nothing you can do about it now--only pray that it doesn't pick up a biker boyfriend and return home covered in tattoos.

Okay, I have metaphor issues.

But there is now one more manuscript out there trying to make its way in the cruel world of agents and publishers. Auditioning, in a sense, trying to break into a competitive field with little opportunity for financial reward.

Does it even make sense?

Only to writers. And now on to the second book.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writing Avoidance

My last post was titled, "Don't Wake Me Up." I considered naming this one "Okay, Go Ahead and Wake Me Up."

I've experienced another bout of 'writing avoidance.'

Now, I've heard of writing avoidance before. It is the tendency for writers to drag their feet on their latest project, perhaps as an attempt to shield themselves from failure. The project that is never completed can never be rejected. And at first, I really thought this was a stupid piece of psycho-babble.

Until I caught myself doing it three times.

I hit a patch of avoidance before I finished my draft, just before I finished my editing, and now again, as I'm preparing a proposal. It is not something you plan to do. It is something you catch yourself doing.

I don't know what the solution is. Maybe more self-discipline. Maybe a good swift kick.

Anybody willing to give me a good kick?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Don't Wake Me Up: Post-Conference Report

I think I dreamed I attended the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer's Conference (Write His Answer) last week. But I've been assured that the events I am about to relate to you actually happened. Even so, I don't have signed affidavits, so take this all with a grain of salt.

First of all, I have to say, I loved the conference. I got a lot out of the workshops and continuing sessions. I hope to attend again, and will probably become a regular.

I have to say, the thing that blew me away was the response to my "pitch."

Now I don't know that I have the whole "pitching" thing down. How much to share with each appointment has proven to be a challenge for me. I tried to vary the length based on how interested I thought the agent or editor might be, and found that to be a problem. I think I made one pitch overly short, and ended up making another editor glaze over.

But, out of my appointments, I did leave with two requests for proposals--one from an agent and one from a publisher. And I was ecstatic about that. Yes, it was more than I was expecting. The publisher's representative asked to read a portion and the synopsis during the appointment, and was highly enthusiastic about my manuscript, comparing it to several authors--um, best-selling authors (blush and squeal).

I also scheduled a paid critique, and was told that I had wasted my money--by the author doing the crit. "It is ready," she said. And then proceeded to tell me she read it aloud in the bookstore/registration area, and everybody was cracking up. (Yes, it is supposed to be funny.) I had wondered if she were exaggerating, but I have confirmation on that one. Unreal. Pinch me. No--let me keep dreaming.

I had one of those weeks where reality has surpassed not only my expectations, but my daydreams as well. Considering my original plans were to finish the manuscript, query it around (for experience sake) and the put it and the rejections into a drawer. So anything from here on is only icing on the cake. And I wasn't even expecting cake.

Well, now it is time to come back down to earth. Today is laundry day, and I'm going to start working on the proposal. Fortunately I took two workshops that touched on how to prepare one--and got insight on that from the agent, the publisher's representative, and the author that prepared my critique. Too bad their information included a few contradictions. I guess maybe I should have taken just one class.

More later this week on I try to figure them out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The One Sheet

While finishing editing my manuscript, I also started drafting some promotional material--a query letter, synopsis, and most recently, a one sheet.

Now, the specifications for a "one sheet" (a one-page document used to pitch to agents and editors personally) don't seem to be as rigid as those for preparing a manuscript. But most one sheets I've seen contain the following elements.

A tag line. One brief sentence attempting to get the agent's attention.

A brief synopsis or "hook." A few sentences introducing the plot of the book, much like one would include in a good, concise query letter.

A brief bio of the author and his or her writing history. This was hard for me. I'm not used to writing about myself.

A photograph. Even harder. I hate having pictures taken. I might need to get a professional portrait done.

Contact information. Double checking for typos.

Unlike manuscript preparation, some creativity is allowed--the use of a frame, layout, even a tiny splash of color.

Bad ideas? Colored paper, glitter, unusual fonts, too much clip art. In short, anything that says 'tacky' or 'unprofessional.'

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Nice and Nasty of Book Reviews

Those who have been following this blog for any length of time may have noticed I've been doing fewer book reviews. And there's a reason for that.

I used to think I knew how. Read a book. Tell what you think of it--good, bad, or indifferent.

But it seems there is more to it than that.

Lately I've come across the idea that writing a negative review, especially of Christian fiction, is a no-no for an aspiring writer. The community is small, they say, and you'd hate to damage your career before it gets off the ground.

And then there's the idea that we're all in this together; writers need to lift each other up. And I've heard book reviewers say words to the effect of, "I had a hard time finding something good to say about that book." And then you read their glowing review.

Authors and publishers are even paying others to write reviews of their books.

And then there's the flip side of that--aspiring writers who begin to get enamored with their own abilities and trash everybody's book, anywhere they can--their blogs, Amazon, the bathroom stalls at Walmart, etc, in an attempt to prove their superiority.

It is harder and harder to find an honest book review--one that examines the craft of writing and points out both bad and good. If that is the case, what value are reviews anyway?

What do you think? Have book reviews become so much a tool of promotion that they've lost validity? What should a good book review look like?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I've been writing just long enough to realize that the writing life is hard to balance. In writing, one needs to balance plot,character development, dialog, description, grammar, and a whole bunch of other things just to create one manuscript.

But that's not all. While writing, one must not forget to keep learning, to keep improving. So it is not enough to write, one must study writing and improve craft.

But that's not all. Writing is such a solitary occupation. To keep from being discouraged and isolated, the writer often needs to network with other writers. Welcome to the world of Facebook, twitter, writers groups and conferences.

But that's not all. If one should be so blessed/lucky/good to be published, the business side of writing can take over. And even before that, drafting queries, searching for an agent, learning about the business of publishing so you don't make stupid rookie mistakes--it all takes time.

But that's not all. One must have a life. Often another job. Family responsibilities.

All this is really an explanation as to why my blog entries have been a little sparse. What have I been up to lately? Editing my WIP whenever I get a chance, and working on my diet and exercise goals.

Here, have a lower fat recipe for meatloaf:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More Fun with Microsoft Grammar Check

Microsoft Word's grammar checker drives me batty. It is terrible for fiction writing. Not only does it gig me for every contraction, but it hates fragments--something necessary for authentic dialog.

But it finds some things--perhaps one good gig for every 10 idiotic suggestions, so I run it anyway. And rant about it later.

One good gig? "Shower head" should be "showerhead." Who knew? Obviously not Google, since it has a red squiggly line underneath it in this blog entry. Hmmm... Maybe that is not such a good gig.

MW also seems to have a problem with landlord. It wants me to change it to proprietor. Sorry, but I just can't hear my character complaining "the proprietor jacked up the rent."

But my favorite today? My protag remarks, "It must be a guy thing." MW wants me to change it to, "It must be a people thing." What? I've noticed it also doesn't like me talking about "ladies."

And why does it want to change every occurrence of "but" to "however" or "nevertheless." I mean, who actually says "nevertheless"?

Nevertheless, I'll continue to use "but."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Sneaky Writer

Last week, I was very sneaky. A friend and I planned a trip to surprise another friend. And we had a wild and crazy time. But with my friends, a wild time means absconding with the peanuts from the Texas Roadhouse and multiple games of Scrabble while watching Monk. Yes, it was a riot. I had a great time.

But planning the trip and keeping it a secret from my very bright friend was a challenge. And when she started asking me direct questions (and I won't lie) that job became even harder--trying to be evasive without appearing evasive.

Welcome to the world of fiction writing, where lying effectively is what the job is all about. And it is hard work.

Back when I taught school, one of the ways I could tell my kids were lying was when the stories got long. The truth, I discovered, is usually short. Lies, however, we seem to know instinctively, have to be encased in truthful details in order to achieve credibility. All I had to do was ask enough questions, and eventually they would contradict themselves, usually while trying to pull the answers out of the upper left corner of the classroom

The reader has the advantage in fiction. When we, the writers, develop characters, plots and settings, the reader can believe they are real. They get to know them, to see them, to emotionally engage with them. We, on the other hand, are like puppeteers. Creating the magic behind the curtain, we know the characters are only a bit of the fabric of our imaginations. And as we supply the truthful details to fortify our lies, we can never see the whole performance and can forget these telling details. And when we contradict ourselves, we break the magic and pull the reader out of the story too.

This is where discontinuity arises.

Our only defense to keep us from being caught in our lies, is to keep better track of them. Now, it would be great if we could do this mentally, but I have to admit, I've forgotten some of my fictional details. And the organizational materials I used when developing my draft--well, I'll let you know when I find them.

So I'm going to be developing a notebook for my world, if I can use that term even though I'm not writing sci-fi or fantasy. And as I learn how to effectively do that, I thought I'd share a little.

Ok, writers, how do you keep your fictional world(s) straight?

Monday, June 15, 2009


I have to admit, I'm a fan of incontinuity. Or is it incontinence? Eh, better stick with incontinuity.

I know that sounds like an odd statement. But I love finding errors in films and television shows. My favorite continuity issue in a film is the coffeepot that gets picked up twice in White Christmas, while the sisters are in their dressing room at the nightclub in Florida.

My favorite incontinuity in television is from Monk (of course) in the episode "Mr Monk Buys a House." Traylor Howard is sitting on the steps, and as the camera angles change, sometimes her legs are crossed, and sometimes they're not--in rapid succession. We joked that she must have some kind of odd superpower.

But continuity issues are mistakes, and they show up in books too. For example, the book I'm reading now, The Alpine Scandal, by Mary Daheim. So far, I'm enjoying it. However, there is a continuity issue. The protagonist, Emma Lord, walks into a fast food place, orders takeout lunch, and is about to leave with her bag when she encounters the sheriff. So they sit down at a table and eat together. When she's done, oddly enough, the restaurant has transformed to a full-service establishment, and a waitress named Bunny presents her with a bill.

Here's the thing: even if the restaurant has both full-service and a take-out counter (rare, but they might exist), then poor Emma has been double-billed, assuming she paid for the bag she was ready to leave with.

Now, this type of problem is rare in books. But I've seen it happen. Characters can change hair color or some other attribute. I've read one book where a son suddenly turned into a daughter (or was it the other way around.) I caught one in my work in progress when one of my characters went from being a health nut to a junk-food junkie. Oops.

Now continuity issues in film are caused when two separate scenes are spliced together. Continuity issues in books may be caused when the writer doesn't have a good handle on the details, or changes were made (maybe not even by the author), but were not carried through the entire work.

A system of organization, such as a character wall or notebook, and even descriptions, maps or drawings of main locations, might come in handy. And more on this as I develop a system to keep track of my WIP as I edit.

What about you? Seen any good continuity problems lately?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Passives Made Simple... by Me

A recent critique of my WIP yielded an interesting comment. Apparently I overuse passive voice. And the "apparently" in the previous sentence does indicate a bit of skepticism on my part, because the sentence the "critter" marked wasn't even in passive voice.

Here's the problem: somewhere along the line, some critter circled a sentence in passive voice, said, "Tsk, tsk," and then shoved the manuscript back at the writer. The writer, left to his own devices, realized that the sentence contained the verb "was" (or "were," "is," "are," or some other form of the verb "to be.") This writer then eliminated these verbs from his manuscript, in the process correcting the passive voice issue, and soon began to crit others, without ever understanding what he or she was talking about.

What exactly is passive voice? Well, without digging out my grammar books, passive voice is a sentence construction in which the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb. The subject is passive. He does not perform the action. The action is performed upon him. For example:

John Doe was shot and left for dead on a deserted highway.

Did John Doe shoot himself? No (unless CSI later determines suicide), he was shot by someone else.

The alleged killer was arrested four hours later.

He obviously didn't arrest himself. This action was performed upon him by the police.

Now, does that mean all passive voice is bad? No. There are many legitimate uses for passive voice. The key is to avoid the overuse of passive voice. The best guidelines I've seen recommend staying below 5%. Microsoft Word does check for this, and the samples of my writing that I've checked come in at around 3% passive. So I'm off the hook, right?


What the critter noticed was not passive voice, but an overuse of weak verbs. Now that doesn't mean you should never use forms of the verb "to be." Linking verbs can introduce predicate nouns (or nominatives) and predicate adjectives, and are frequently used in descriptive passages.

John Doe was the Assistant District Attorney. (Predicate noun, John=attorney)

His body was cold.
(Predicate adjective, cold describes body)

Neither of those sentences employ passive voice.

But consider the following sentences from my WIP. Notice how changing the weak verb "was" improves and/or tightens each sentence:

The baby was now asleep.

The baby opened one sleepy eye, then continued snoring.

I tried to unroll it (the car window), but it was missing a handle, so I opened the door instead.

I tried to unroll the driver’s side window, but ended up scratching my hand on the broken stub of the window crank. I opened the door instead.

I was the kind who wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

I wanted to know what I was agreeing to before I agreed to it.

Charlotte smiled. It was the first time I’d seen her smile all day. She was now missing a front tooth.

Charlotte smiled for the first time that day, her grin revealing a missing front tooth.

You can take a quiz here:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Odd Plurals

Way back three million years ago when I taught grammar, before I'd forgotten half of what I knew, students would argue with me about odd plurals.

Now, I'm not sure of the technical name. I probably knew it, and have since forgotten. But I'm talking about compound and hyphenated nouns that aren't just made plural by adding an 's.'

Like passerby. Plural? Passersby. Seem odd? To some, yes. But it is absolutely correct.

Attorney general? Attorneys general.

Lady-in-waiting? Ladies-in-waiting.

Mother-in-law? Mothers-in-law. (For the poor folk plagued with more than one.)

What is bringing this up? "Scenes-of-crime officers" in an older mystery I am reading. Technically correct, but I'm really glad we now have "crime scene investigators."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Whom Should Writers Follow on Twitter?

OK, so you get a twitter account, find a few friends already on, then what should you do? Who else should you follow? And how do you find those people?

How about other writers? Here is a great list, all organized by genre:

Or agents, publishers and publicists? Try this list:

There, that should keep you (and me) busy for a while!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I'll Admit It: I Tweet

But only occasionally. I'm not a die-hard Twitter enthusiast, at least not yet.

In preparation for this blog post, however, I've spent the last couple weeks increasing my Twitter footprint. If that is even a phrase. If it's not, it should be.

Twitter, for the newbie, is an application used in social networking, where users can send out "tweets," or short messages of 140 characters or fewer. These tweets are seen by people who "follow" you. And you can see the tweets of those whom you choose to follow. You don't have to follow anyone you don't want to, and you don't have to allow other people to follow you. You can make your tweets private (not recommended if you want to actually network with people), and you can block certain users.

You can also follow the twitter feeds of celebrities, notable people, businesses, news agencies, colleagues, and friends--whoever is on twitter that you would like to hear from. The time required to use twitter really varies based on how many people you follow, how often you tweet, and how closely you want to follow the tweets.

When I first started, I would access twitter occasionally though facebook. It was interesting, but I really wasn't sure what to do with it. I treated it more like an email account that I had to check every so often. I missed a lot of tweets. I used it a little more when I figured out how to get twitter to update my facebook status. (I'll cover that in the next post about interconnectivity.) And for a while, that was all I used it for.

And then, the epiphany... Tweetdeck. While I can't say that Tweetdeck changed my world, it did rapidly increase my twitter usage. Now I leave Tweetdeck open on my laptop. I've started following a few writers, agents, and others who tweet about writing. The effect is having a ticker of quotes and links about writing update regularly on my computer. It's giving me a feeling of being at a writers' conference--all the time.

Of course, the downside of this is that, yes, it has cut into my writing time a little. But it has also made the activity a little less solitary, and I have been sometimes educated and other time amused by the content coming across.

Do you tweet? Follow me here.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Newbie Facebook Networking

Once registered on facebook, the key to effective networking is finding and making "friends."

Now, I haven't done this as rabidly as others have. In fact, I think there is an advantage to building a facebook network slowly over time. How can you effectively interact with people if they are only a name? And I don't friend everyone who sends me a request either. 98% of the time I do, but I always look at their profile. If there is no info there, or a lot of objectionable content, or if they seem like just a spammer, I ignore their request.

How to find new friends on facebook.

Watch the friend suggestions facebook gives you. I don't friend everyone that is suggested. (For example, I'm not going to friend my friend's cousin. Or the person I went to school with, but have no recollection of.) But I have added a number of friends that way.

Join facebook groups. Read the message boards, and add friends who say things that interest you. I'm a member of the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) and I joined their facebook group as well. Immediately after joining, I got several friend requests, and have since sent more to other members of the group.

Steal friends. OK, I'm guilty of going though other people's friends list and friending their friends. Especially writers.

Look for links on message boards, blogs, and email signatures. If you interact with someone in some way online, why not interact on facebook too? And why not put a link (or at least mention you're on facebook) in your signatures?

Search. I tried this last week. I searched through the Buffalo network looking for writers, and ended up adding a few local authors I didn't know about.

Now, I've learned not to take it personally if people don't respond to a friend request. Some people simply don't want to network on facebook. They use it to link up with family and friends. Agents, for example, are unlikely to friend writers. And that is certainly understandable. And sometimes people clean out their friend's list, and I try not to take that personally either.

But once you do make friends, try to interact in meaningful ways. I usually send a private message or "write on the walls" of new friends. I often don't do this if the person I'm friending has 1000 or more friends. When their friend's list is that long, I worry about just being "one more thing they have to deal with."

Which is perhaps why the best networking is often accomplished among other aspiring writers: Make friends at the same level, and grow up together.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Facebook for Writers 101

All writers should be on facebook.

I always have trouble with universal statements like that. But I heard this one enough that I had to check out facebook for myself and draw my own conclusions. Are you ready?

I like facebook.

Why? Not entirely sure. Maybe it is the illusion that I have friends. Or perhaps it is the social interaction that makes writing a slightly less solitary occupation. Facebook has great potential for developing a network of advisers, colleagues, and a potential market--all those things I was promised going in.

But here is one thing that I haven't seen often enough: facebook is a social networking site, and NOT a professional networking site.

Why is that important?

Two reasons.

1. Writers going into facebook looking for professional contact may be perturbed by the social aspect of it.

People play odd games, take stupid quizzes, play Scrabble (I love Scrabble), tease, flirt, poke, adopt imaginary pets, and throw virtual pillows. Some applications I like, some I don't. But mostly it is fun.

I have, however, been really turned off by authors who, after "friending" lots of their fans, turned around and groused about people clogging up their home page with their status updates. Um...that's just stoopid.

For one thing, you don't have to friend everyone. You can always say no. Secondly, you don't have to see everything all your friends post. You can turn off the feed to certain friends and filter out certain applications if the content proves objectionable or the volume overwhelming. Thirdly, you can separate your friends into lists. I have one list for friends and relatives that I don't want to lose as the number of friends increases. I have another list for writers. Visiting that list reminds me of being at a writers' conference.

2. People going into facebook for the social interaction may be turned off by "professionals" zapping the fun out of it.

Facebook friends who use all their posts to promote and network professionally might be perceived as spammers--like that obnoxious person who came to the party and pigeon-holed them in the corner trying to sell them a timeshare.

So what is an aspiring writer to do?

Join facebook, but think of it as a party. Walk around. Meet people. Have fun. Make friends and contacts. Don't be obnoxious in marketing, and don't be annoyed by people having fun. Build a network slowly by being friendly. Post blog updates, but don't be pushy. And then when you have big news, like a new book, you'll have a network to announce it to. And if you never get a book published, you still have a network of friends and a place to play scrabble.

And friend me while you're there: Barbara Early on the Buffalo, NY network.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Learning to Write, revisited

Okie dokey. Just when I changed my blog title from "Learning to Write," I'm going to revisit the topic. And here's why: literary agent Rachelle Gardner's great post entitled "How Do You Learn to Write?" There's a checklist (I'm a sucker for a checklist), and I just have to see how I stack up.

Check out her post here:

→ You read books on writing, and books in the genre in which you write.

(Oh my, yes)

→ You are a member of writers' organizations and online forums.


→ You take workshops offered whenever and wherever you can find them.

(Not so many around here, but I'm working on it.)

→ You take creative writing classes, like at a local community college (although I've heard these can be a waste of time).

(Haven't seen too many offered locally.)

→ You have a critique group (this may or may not help, depending on the qualifications of your critique partners, as well as your own personality).

(Have several. Each helpful in different ways.)

→ You submit your project to agents and editors, hoping for scraps of feedback.

(Not ready for that yet. One piece of advice I've heard is not to rush this.)

→ You pitch your project at conferences, again hoping for feedback.

(Hope to do this soon.)

→ You enter your manuscripts in contests, hopefully getting feedback as part of the contest results.

(Yep, working through that feedback now, as a matter of fact)

→ You take advantage of the "paid critiques" offered at most writers conferences.

(I've only been to one conference so far, and have done that. Am planning on doing that again soon.)

→ You hire a professional editor to evaluate or edit your project

(May think about this in the future, although I really think it best to learn to self-edit properly)

→ You find someone to mentor you and walk alongside you for a time.

(Hmmm. Would love that. But I'd probably drive him or her crazy.)

→ You simply write and read and write and read and trust your instincts.

(LOL. I've been writing seriously less than one year. I'm still in the process of developing my instincts. I'm questioning everything lately.)

Overall, I think I'm on track. I just wish I knew where the track was leading!

Monday, May 18, 2009


When I was in high school, our math texts had a number of word problems involving a widget factory. We all joked with the students who were naive enough to think that there really was such a thing as a widget.

Well, now there is...

A widget is a little bit of pre-written code that you can add to your blog. Almost all the items on the right hand side of my blog are widgets.

What can you put there? There are many choices, and a lot of it depends on the focus of your blog. Some of the things I've chosen to include are:


When I first started reading blogs, I was a little shy about commenting and following other bloggers. But this is a great way to network and "meet" people online--people with similar interests. Following other bloggers and allowing others to follow you is really networking. And networking takes time.

About Me.

I have to admit, I haven't taken full advantage of this feature. The advice I've heard is to complete your profile exhaustively. People search the profiles, and use them to find other bloggers of similar interest. Mine is rather sparse, so that is my homework for tonight.

Twitter Updates.

I like this widget. This allows people who find your blog see what you're up to on twitter, and follow you on there as well. Nicely interconnected.

Links and Blog Updates.

I'll let you in on a little secret. I didn't add these widgets for anyone else. I added them for me. There are a lot of blogs that I read on a daily or every-so-often basis. And I used to have them all bookmarked. But these widgets are great because now every blog I read is listed, and I can also see when it has been updated and what the title of the post is. I love it. And visitors to my blog with interests similar to mine can access them too.

Some bloggers place links only based on reciprocity. I don't. If I find a blog helpful, and I'll read it again, I'll place it in the widget. I am the principle beneficiary. (Of course I'm always flattered when people link to my blog!)

The other widgets I added were a matter of personal preference. I like the word or the day and the verse of the day features.

How to add a widget through Blogger:

When you are signed into your blog, choose "Customize" on the blue navigation bar. On the "layout" tab, choose "page elements." Depending on which template you've chosen, you'll see "add a gadget" somewhere (mine is on the right hand side). When you click on that, you'll get a list of available gadgets or widgets. You can choose the ones that interest you, and then arrange them in an order that makes sense.

Third Party Widgets

Sitemeter is a third party program. It keeps track of blog visitors, and I can get a better handle on who is visiting my blog, how they are hearing about it, and where readers are. It is also encouraging to see that yes, people are visiting my blog, even when they choose not to comment. You can click on the little sitemeter graph (on the bottom right) to go to their site, and sign up there. There you will find the code, and instructions for placing it on your blog.

And the "Cutest Blog on the Block" background is also a third-party widget. There are many of them to choose from. And you can click on the upper left hand corner to go to their site and see what is available.

Now, this can take quite a while to set up, but you can build a blog a little at a time. And widgets are one way to add value to your blog--value that you benefit from and don't need to take time to create.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Just for Fun

Developing main characters for a mystery is a lot of work.

How about:

He's a sword-wielding chivalrous househusband on a mission from God. She's a warm-hearted hip-hop Valkyrie with the power to see death. They fight crime!


He's a one-legged dishevelled senator with a mysterious suitcase handcuffed to his arm. She's a psychotic out-of-work bounty hunter with a knack for trouble. They fight crime!

You can generate your own at this site:

Each visit gets you a different automated result. I'm hooked.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Branding and Blogging

One of the buzzwords I'm seeing everywhere is "branding." And in all honesty, it is still coming in a little fuzzy. While I go adjust the rabbit ears (yes, I'm giving away my age a little), there are a number of people who seem to know what they are talking about, so I'm going to defer to them.

I got a link to this blog this afternoon:

In the post, agent Wendy Lawton associates an author's reluctance to be branded with a lack of focus in writing. So perhaps before identifying some eye-catching theme or witty slogan that would summarize my brand, it might be a good idea to narrow the focus a little bit.

In my normal style of blundering along and doing everything wrong the first time, I originally named my blog "Learning to Write: On my way to that first dreadful novel." When I got some positive feedback, I crossed out the word dreadful. But while self-deprecating statements are a hallmark of my personality, is that really what I want to be known for? And "writing" is general. Now that I've covered many of the writing basics (does anyone ever really master them?), let's see if we can narrow the field.

Writing > fiction > mystery > cozy > inspirational cozy mystery.

I'm getting closer. I doubt I would write anything that was not a cozy mystery. Mystery is my passion, and can't see myself venturing away from the genre. I might write something that was not inspirational, as long as it was clean. So perhaps "cozy mystery" might be as narrow as I want to take that. I also read a number of secular cozies, and for the purpose of this blog anyway, perhaps it would be better to narrow the focus from "learning to write," to "crafting a cozy."

Why look at all this now? Because my brand and focus should be evident in the design of the blog. The blog should appeal to my target audience. The target audience of the book I'm writing should be the target audience of the blog. Right?

So while I work out how to give my blog a much needed face-life, let's talk about blog design.

There are a lot of different looks to blogs out there. And perhaps the first decision than needs to be made (after perhaps the title and focus of the blog) is what you want the thing to look like. Simple? Elaborate? Traditional? Modern? Professional? Whimsical? The simplest way to do this is to choose an appropriate template.

The template is a professional design for your blog. It includes a background and preset font types and colors. There are a number of them to choose from from Blogger, and even more available from third party providers. There are even some places that will custom-design a blog for you (for a fee), and online instructions on how you can make your own.

I think I might go with "scribe" for my redesign. It is very traditional, and seem appropriate for a writers' blog. There is something cozy about it.

After picking a template, it might be a good time to develop a header. The header at the top of a blog can be as simple as the text you type in, or can also be an uploaded picture. A third party program, such as photoshop, can be used to create and edit a header.

Next entry, we'll talk about pictures and widgets.

Question: What is your brand? And how have you reflected it in your blog? Or how do you plan to?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blogging 101

Once you do decide to blog, you immediately face two questions: Where should I set up a blog? And what should I blog about?

Where should I set up my blog?

While there are a number of places you can set up a blog, my decision to switch to blogger (blogspot) was pretty easy. I read many blogs on a regular basis, blogs by writers, agents, and publishers. They are listed in the widget (sidebar) on the right ==>

That "B" in the orange square said it all. The vast majority of the writing-related blogs I read were created on Blogger, so it made sense to me to move my blog here. There are others, yes. Wordpress, Typepad, and LiveJournal. And each has their pros and cons. While I was on LiveJournal I liked the feature where you could share a post with certain friends only. But I haven't regretted my decision. Blogger has some nice features that allow you to create and maintain an individual blog with its own style and flavor.

What should I blog about?

Here's where it gets tougher. There are a few different options you can choose as a writer. And a lot depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

Writers can obviously write about some aspect of writing. I blog about writing, and it is a great place to showcase what I am learning. I've found it helpful. The problem with blogs about writing is that you're only going to attract people who write to your blog.

Non-fiction writers might have an advantage here. They can surely blog about whatever topic they write about.

But for fiction writers? It might be a matter of branding.

I'm a little new to the concept of branding.

I found a good article here:

Now the article pertains mainly to people who want to earn money on the internet, but the concepts apply. And here's what I'm thinking. Perhaps it is time to rethink the blog title, narrow my content, and come up with a new concept. What exactly is my brand?

Which leads me to a question. What is your brand?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Social Networking for Newbies

Shortly after I began writing, I encountered the advice: If you're going to write you'd better blog, FaceBook, and twitter.

I started my first blog shortly after that, and proceeded to make almost every mistake in the book. So while going over the basics today with some writing friends of mine (who just returned from a conference where they were told that if they're going to write, they'd better blog, facebook, and twitter), I thought it might be a good idea to review what I have learned.

Where do you start? Perhaps the best place to start is with the blog. The most coherent description of how these things work together I found here:

To paraphrase, he said that your blog is your “homebase.” This is where you ultimately direct people. On the other hand, services like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. are “outposts.” The purpose of an outpost is to connect with people that otherwise wouldn’t find your homebase. (Michael Hyatt paraphrasing Chris Brogan)

Yes, blogging takes time. Yes, blogs need updating. But the primary advantage to a blog is that the constantly changing material is an attraction to people. I've learned so much reading blogs. It is information in bite-sized morsels that are easy for my mind to digest. Reading writers' blogs has helped to understand the process of writing. Reading agent blogs has begun to orient me to the business of writing.

And the advantages to writing a blog? I'd have to say the biggest one is that I tend to learn things best when explaining them to other people. All the topics that I've blogged on remain lodged in my memory. It is one of the best ways to learn. Secondly, blogging has brought me into contact with some new people I would have never otherwise met. There's a social aspect to it. And thirdly, a blog is writing. And every bit of writing you do makes you write even better. Words are never wasted.

So, how's that home base coming? Do you have a blog? What do you blog on?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

First Chapter Study: Summary

So, the analysis of first chapters ends at three. Why? I think I got it. I opened a few more cozy mysteries, skimmed them, and I'm beginning to see a pattern. So I abruptly stopped researching, and started rewriting my first chapter. But I think it might be a good idea to revisit what I've learned.

Recipe for a beginning a Cozy:

1. Start with character. Without exception, the cozies I surveyed began by introducing a character--a compelling, complex character who, although he/she doesn't know it yet, is about to have an adventure. Right out front, it seems important to engage the reader in the character's main goals, and obstacles to those goals. These may not have anything to do with the mystery that is to follow. This is not back story, although select elements of back story might be included. (Advice to other newbies: when sprinkling on back story, make sure you keep the top on the jar.) The character should be flawed, or at least struggling, in order to engage the audience.

2. Start before a change. The biggest challenge I had was knowing where to start. While it may seem intuitive to start a mystery at the scene of the crime, this might be counterproductive in a cozy. Once the reader knows that someone is missing or dead, taking the time to introduce your amateur sleuth will be perceived as taking them out of the story. Many of the cozies I surveyed had no hint of a crime in the first chapter. And those that did, popped the crime in unexpectedly at the end.

3. Add a cast of characters. Now is a great time to introduce a handful (don't go overboard) of the people that will feature in the rest of the book--relatives/friends, the sidekick (if there is one), an antagonist (there should be at least one), the victim, and a suspect or two. The introductions should be dynamic, not static: the protagonist and the supporting cast should be in motion and be interacting with each other in the cozy environment.

4. Generate tension from the conflict of the goals and motivations of the characters. This might be intuitive, or it might take some work. For me, it was like pulling teeth, but I hope it improves with practice. What helped me get a hold of this was developing a chart highlighting the handful of characters I had chosen, getting into their heads to determine what their goals were, and then brainstorming how these goals could cause them to clash. The result was a chart:

And while I didn't choose to develop all the potential conflicts I identified, I was able to pick out a few that seemed to add a little more interest.

5. Up the stakes. Oft-repeated sage advice is that it is not good enough to get your protagonist up a tree, you must throw rocks at him while he tries to figure out how to get down. Now, these can be rocks or pebbles, but the key is, they must matter to the character. It could be anything from a stab in the back to a snide comment to a broken nail. Now, the reader may glaze over if your character breaks a nail. But if she was about to visit her domineering, critical mother who badgered her for years about biting her nails, and she had spent the last six weeks breaking that habit, and had just returned from her first manicure... Now the broken nail is important. That's raising the stakes.

6. Sprinkle in details. Add enough sensory detail to aid the reader, but not too much, or you'll smother them. Balancing this will come from practice. I hope. But now is the time to start building the cozy environment, and the best way to do that is as the characters move through it.

Those are the challenges I've been working on. What are you struggling with in your writing?

Friday, May 1, 2009

First Chapter Study: The Quiche of Death

This is the third in a series of blog posts in which I'm studying how various successful cozy mystery writers structure their first chapters. The Quiche of Death, by M.C. Beaton, is the first book in her successful Agatha Raisin series. (3rd person)

You can read the first few pages here:

Summary: Agatha Raisin, owner of a successful PR firm, retires early and moves to a cottage in the Cotswolds. Finding the pace too slow, she revisits London only to find that she doesn't seem to belong in either place. She returns to the cottage, determines to enter a cooking contest to win local favor (she doesn't cook), and then steals her neighbor's cleaning woman.

This is a great character introduction of a very engaging character. She is a once likeable and unlikeable, sympathetic and ruthless, an odd combination that keeps you reading, wondering how it is going to turn out for her.

There is no hint of a crime yet, only that Agatha has made some enemies, and considering her personality, is likely to make more. Beaton creates tension by the contrast of a very assertive, and perhaps aggressive, personality in a quiet village setting, and by establishing an important goal, and then dashing it in pieces.

Agatha's goals, which are unclear to her at the beginning (she thinks she wants peace, tranquility, and security) become clearer, when she realizes that she's lonely and needs friendship and acceptance. This is almost universally identifiable. The obstacles to those goals are her own ruthless personality and the closed nature of the small community to outsiders, as evidence by her neighbor's inclusion in that category after living there for twenty years.

In-depth analysis:

First paragraph: Mrs. Agatha Raisin sat behind her newly cleared desk in her office in South Molton Street in London's Mayfair. From the outer office came the hum of voices and the clink of glasses as her staff prepared to say farewell to her.

A lot of information in this concise paragraph. We learn her name, first of all. She is given the title Mrs., so we know that she is, or has been married. And the formality shows that she is probably someone to whom respect is given. She is not just Agatha, she is Mrs. Agatha Raisin. The fact that she sat behind her "newly cleared desk" (and yes, sometimes I guess you need those pesky 'ly adverbs) shows that the desk is not generally cleared, that this something new and significant. A change is taking place. We are given the address, which would probably mean something more to those who are familiar with London, but London is enough for me to get the location. And the second sentence is a very showy way, appealing to the sense of hearing, to say that Agatha is leaving her position. Since the staff is hers, we can guess that she is some kind of manager, at least, in this office setting.


2: Backstory and introduction of goal. She is retiring, and her goal has always been to move to a quaint cottage in the Cotswolds. She is on the brink of achieving her goal. My interest just perked up here. Someone was just telling me to focus on goals and the obstacles to those goals as a way of building up tension in the first chapter.

3: Introduction of the cozy setting, and a strengthening of the goal. The Cotswolds represent "beauty, tranquility, and security" to Agatha. And she had wanted it since childhood. Beaton raises the stakes here. This move is very important to Agatha.

4: Agatha had purchased the cottage. And is already a little disappointed in the name of the village.

5: Physical and character description of Agatha.

6: Description of how Agatha was perceived by her staff--she is a character.

In this description, Agatha pops out of the page, larger than life, but often in the negative sense. She is described as having no charm, no friends, a work-a-holic, and somewhat ruthless in her business practices. It's an interesting contrast to the peace and tranquility that she has apparently dreamed of her entire life. Already you suspect that this retirement is not going to turn out as Agatha has hoped.

7: Agatha begins to doubt that everything is going to turn out as she has hoped.

8: She goes into the outer office to say goodbye.

9: Roy made punch.

10: Her staff gives her gifts, and she begins to doubt the move more.

11: Agatha addresses the staff, and there is a bit of explaining here too, of what she has agreed with the new owners of the firm. And a joke about crotchless panties: a big hint that she is no Miss Marple.

12: Roy explains his gift.

13: Agatha leaves the party.

14: She elbows someone and steals their cab. Hmmm. Interesting person. You have to wonder how it is going to work out when she elbows someone aside on her way to peace and tranquility. Brilliant.

15: Train ride. Everything is waiting for her at her cottage.

16: Agatha falls asleep.

17: Foreshadowy passage. Agatha ponders the use of the word "terminate" when it refers to train passage. She switches trains. The day is now cold and grey, and her euphoria from the punch is going away. Nice mood transition. This is really a great paragraph.

Page by page:

page 4: A lot of great wording as Agatha continues her slow train journey. Dismal words: "straggily," "gloomily," "jaundiced." "Rising wind whining over the bleak fields." This is like a portal for her--a portal to a different world.

page 5: Description of the town and the cottage. The description of both contains elements of the fairy-tale idealism of what Agatha thought she wanted--a charming, cozy setting, but is interspersed with some contrasts that hint that all will not be as she expected. Very nice.

page 6: Continued description of the decor, which she had left up to an interior decorator. Much is fake, and it doesn't seem like her. She goes into town in search of a store for cooking ingredients. She is heartened by the greetings of people in the town.

page 7: She buys a quick dinner to microwave and a book. She goes home, turns her TV on, then off again, reads her book and heats her dinner.

page 8: After a week, she has toured all the local sights, spent every evening home alone, and has learned the difference between a friendly greeting (which she always got) and friendship, which she had not found. She heartens herself by saying that she can always go back to visit London whenever she wants.

page 9: Agatha returns to London to visit her former PR firm, unsure of how to explain that she is nothing in the eyes of the villagers--only she finds nothing at her PR firm either. It is shut down. She goes to visit the man she sold it to.

page 10: Agatha confronts the new owner, who tells her that most of the staff took 'redundancy pay' and no longer work for him. She tells him off and runs into Roy, who is now dressed in a suit instead of his more unconventional clothing.

page 11: Agatha inquires after the rest of the staff, which has been scattered, and invites Roy down for the weekend. He declines. She can't get a cab, and the tube trains are idle due to a transport strike.

page 12: Agatha, no longer feeling at home in London, reflects on her life.

page 13: More reflection (backstory) on her marriage, as she returns to her cottage. She goes back to the store, buys a frozen dinner, and sees a sign for a quiche-making contest.

page 14: Agatha contemplates that winning the quiche contest might put her in the good graces of the community. While in her garden, Agatha greets the neighbor woman, who refuses to respond. Agatha finds the rudeness refreshing, and goes over to her front door for a visit.

page 15: Agatha asks the neighbor about acquiring a cleaning woman. The neighbor has one, but doubts she has time to work for Agatha. Armed with the name, Agatha goes to the tavern and gets the cleaning woman's address.

page 16: Agatha visits the cleaning woman, and offers a higher hourly amount to lure her from neighbor.

page 17: The cleaning woman agrees to work for Agatha, and Agatha goes home and greets her neighbor with a huge smile, feeling very happy with herself.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

First Chapter Study: Murder with Peacocks

This is the second on a series of blog posts analyzing the first chapters of cozy mystery novels. Murder with Peacocks is the first in the successful Meg Langslow series, written by Donna Andrews. This book won the Agatha Award for best first novel. (First person POV.)

Meg is awakened by multiple phone calls regarding three weddings she had agreed to be maid-of-honor for, each requiring her organizational ability. She packs up her iron-working studio, and takes off to concentrate on them.

There is no hint of a mystery, and no description of the setting (she's not even there yet)--just an introduction to the main character and a quick sketch of most of the major characters. But Meg is an vibrant, engaging character and quickly draws the reader in. There is also fair amount of conflict and a bit of tension developed--just not relating to a crime. But you know that Meg is not going to get through all these weddings easily. It's going to be uphill. In the snow. Both ways.

In-depth analysis:

First paragraph: I had become so used to hysterical dawn phone calls that I only muttered one halfhearted oath before answering.

"Peacocks," a voice said.

Okay, technically two paragraphs. But they're short.

You can read more here:

Okay, I have to admit, there's a bit of a hook there. An almost cloak-and-dagger type draw. Who is calling her hysterically? And what is this cryptic, almost code-like word: Peacocks? The unanswered question draws the reader forward, instantly engaged.

Paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of first three pages:

3-6: The time as 6AM It's Samantha, her brother Rob's fiance. She needs peacocks for the upcoming wedding. Meg believes Samantha thinks the whole world revolves around her wedding. Another draw--who hasn't been around a bride-to-be and heard them gush ad-naseum as they plan their 'perfect day'? Instantly identifiable.

7: Meg imagines what Samantha might want peacocks for.

8: Samantha explains

9: Meg writes down "Peacocks" in a notebook. But this is really a gem of a paragraph. The use of words is stellar, and Meg explodes off the page. She lets her future sister-in-law "rattle on." Rofl. I think my character lets her mother "rattle on" too. I think Joanne Fluke lets Hannah's mother "rattle on." It must be a trend. Andrews also uses the hyphenated phrase "notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe." Ok, you learn a lot from that. She is organized--a planner. And even more--personality. People with vibrant personalities make up their own words. Great voice. Make me want to read more.

10-13: Meg reins Samantha in, they decide to try to rent peacocks if possible.

14: More excellent word choices. Meg lets Samantha 'gush.' Interior monologue reveals that Meg might not be so happy about this upcoming union.

15: Mutters, showers, and goes into her iron working forge--a very concise paragraph.

16-25: Megs mother calls and starts a confused conversation about the color blue, before revealing that she's thinking about redoing the living room. This is a great 'showy' paragraph showing that the mother is a bit dotty, and that she also relies on Meg as an organizer.

26: Bit of backstory. Meg's parents are divorced (amicably) and her mother is planning on remarrying.

27: Meg considers the blue room, revealing that her father was well off, but she had no idea about her mother's fiance Jake. And she doesn't know him, or doesn't like him, because she referred to him as "what's-his-name." Again, a wonderful choice of words.

28-30: Meg agrees to ask "Eileen," get swatches, and they can talk about it in a few days.

31: Meg adds blue to her planner, picks up a hammer and the phone rings again. Nice comedic touch.

32-36: Eileen, Meg's friend and business partner calls. Meg is her maid of honor too, and she too has a problem with her wedding plans. Meg reasons with her.

Page 4

Meg gets one more phone call, shuts up her studio, and gets ready to leave to concentrate on all these wedding she is helping with.

First Chapter Study: Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder

The first in a series analyzing the starting chapters of popular cozy mysteries. This book by Joanne Fluke is the first of a highly successful series of cozies featuring cookie-shop owner Hannah Swensen. (3rd person POV)

Fluke takes her time building her cozy world, developing her characters, and giving their backstory. We meet multiple people from the town, with an extensive introduction to the protagonist's cat. (Cozy readers like cats.) We learn the name and geography of the town, a little about the family of the protag, and meet several other townspeople. There is no hint of anything amiss until near the end of the chapter, when they notice that their milk delivery is late. Checking on the truck, Hannah discovers that the driver is dead, shot.

What engages the reader? There is not much suspense, drama, or even conflict at the beginning to draw the reader in. Perhaps the thing that engages most (and this is subjective) is the identifiable nature of the protag. She feels inferior. She can't remember when she had a date, and her mother drives her up the wall. Her sister outshines her. The target audience is female for a cozy, and what woman can't identify with that?

The town is another factor--a lake with tourist cottages, a town with a main street. Even the business names-- Cookie Jar, Cozy Cow, Kiddie Korner-- evoke that small-town feel.

The strategy here seems to be to engage the reader in the characters and the setting before beginning the mystery plot. This is the main character moving about her normal world.

In depth analysis:

First paragraph: Hannah Swensen slipped into the old leather bomber jacket that she'd rescued from the Helping Hands thrift store and reached down to pick up the huge orange tomcat that was rubbing against her ankles. "Okay, Moishe. You can have one refill, but that's it until tonight."

Okay, first impressions--not a lot of tension there. The introduction to the character includes a hint that she is either thrifty, or not very well off financially. And there's a cat, a common fixture in cozies. But this cat is unlike the regal beasts used by other cozy writers. I can't say this is a hook, per se. She's starting with character introduction. Let's take a look at what she accomplishes in the rest of the chapter, which, for copyright purposes, I will not reproduce. But you can read the beginning of it here:


2nd: Backstory--how she got the cat, and an implication that Hannah doesn't get along with her mother.

3rd: Telly paragraph in which cat catches a mouse, and Hannah picks it up and throws it away. She also has a drooping African violet she forgets to water--reminding me of the withered herbs in my protags window. I like details like that, but again no 'tension.' Info--she lives in a condo.

4th: Says goodbye to the cat, gets ready to leave, and the phone rings.

5th: Establishes time, 6AM, and another hint that the character is thrifty or poor.

6th: Backstory--cat hates the mother.

7th: Dialogue: Can't talk now.

8th: Dialogue: No, didn't give Norman my number.

9th: Brief flashback: mother tried to fix her up with Norman, romance tease.

10th: An internal rant about her frustrations over her mother's matchmaking. Nicely introduces her age as almost 30.

11th: Rant continues: Hannah is the eldest daughter, and Norman is an older, balding dentist.

12th: Cat flips over his food dish.

13th: Hannah uses the overturned food as an excuse to get off the phone, spoils him rotten, and rushes out the door.

That takes me to the end of the third page....

page 4: Hannah climbs in her truck (backstory of the truck, and we learn she owns a cookie shop). She relays a message to her neighbor, Phil Plotnik. As she drives, we are introduced to the geography. The town is called Lake Eden, which is near Eden Lake. The state is Minnesota. The air is nippy, which allows her to establish the time as the third week of October.

page 5: The summer tourists are gone, and the town population is down to about 3000. A milkman, Ron Lasalle, is delivering milk. He looks like he is thinking about something. Hannah will ask him later when he comes into the shop, as usual.

page 6: Ron waves. Ron is cute. Ron was injured in a highschool footback game, ending his pro aspirations. Hannah drives slowly, so she doesn't get a ticket from Herb Beeseman.

page 7: She parks, and does not plug in her car to keep it warm--not needed yet. Claire Rodgers parks next to her. It is rumored that Claire is having an affair with the mayor. Claire just got in a new shipment of party dresses. She suggests that Hannah stop in and pick up something for the holidays.

page 8: Hannah can't figure out where she would wear a cocktail dress, and doesn't remember the last time she had a date. Hannah starts mixing dough. Lisa Herman will be in to help at 7:30.

page 9: Hannah makes coffee, and reflects that the Cookie Jar is a meeting place for the town. Lisa arrives and starts baking.

page 10: Lisa is 19, a full-time employee, and they now work as a team. Lisa's father has Alzheimers, and has forgotten he is Catholic. They open the shop.

page 11: Hannah's sister Andrea arrives, looking gorgeous. Hannah feels inadequate. Andrea is married to Bill Todd, a deputy sheriff. They have a four-year-old daughter, and Andrea works as a realtor. Hannah gets Tracey (the daughter) a glass of milk, and Andrea explains that she needs to run for a hair appointment. She is showing the old Peterson farm later.

page 12: Mr. Harris is interested in the farm as a hobby farmer, fixing it up and hiring others to do the work. Hannah thinks Andrea is a hobby wife and mother. Andrea asks Hannah to watch Tracey for an hour until daycare opens.

page 13: Hannah and Lisa give Tracey a cookie. Lisa worries that Ron hasn't come yet with the milk.

page 14: Tracey saw the truck drive past, and heard a bang--like a backfire. Hannah goes out into the alley to check.

page 15: Hannah sees Ron's truck at the end of the alley, and his legs are sticking out. She assumes he is working on it, and offers to call a tow truck.

page 16. Ron is dead (shot), holding a cookie in his hand.

First Chapters

Someone was asking me how my WIP was going, so let me give you a little status report. The draft is finished. And it is dreadful. But that's okay. It is supposed to be. I've been taught to get it on paper and fix it up later. And that's what I hope to do. And to that end, I got my first professional critique from a writer a week or so ago. One big comment: my first chapter lacks tension.

He's probably got a point. I think. But after attempting to fix it, which I presume will involve tightening it up and/or adding content that increases the tension, I have seven new versions of my story, none of which are any better. I also have a handful of hair, and several new bald spots. But if I comb it just right and spray it... You get the idea.

How much tension do I need in a cozy mystery anyway? (And yes, there is a little bit of a whine mixed in with the question.) Unlike their suspense, thriller, and even mainstream mystery cousins, cozy readers are looking for other things. They want a cozy environment that they can crawl into, and a character that engages them. Cozy readers are perhaps the most tolerant of lull in action, but only up to a point. Perhaps (and this is only a guess) what I need is not more tension, but more SOMETHING that will engage a reader, especially in the first chapter. Or perhaps there is something inherently wrong with my structure that causes the reader to feel he is being drawn away from the story. Maybe it's more than one of these things.

So rather than pull out any more hair and create more versions only to crumple them up later, I need to step back and take some lessons. It's time to go back to school. So, the next few blog entries will consist of the analysis of first chapters of the first books in successful cozy mystery series. How does the author engage the reader? What draws me into the story and makes me want to continue? And how does the writer spend those precious few first words for the maximum effect?

If you're reading this blog, feel free to do these exercises with me, or comment if you have insights that I've missed. Even if you don't have the books in question, most of the first chapters can be found for free on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Stay tuned...

Police Academy III...No, Still Not the Movie

Last post of pictures from my trip last week to the Mad Anthony Writers' Conference and Writers' Police Academy in Hamilton, OH. These are all from the second day, which included a number of courses on various aspects of police procedure, and included some hands-on show-and-tell sessions.

Assorted handcuffs and leg-irons. Quote of the day: "Yeah, you can try them on. Did anyone bring a key?" Note the three-hinge model on the left.

I was taking pictures of all the various objects in the show-and-tell session, most of which were being held by police officer and novelist Mike Black, who probably went home with spotted vision and a feeling of being stalked.

And it's Tazer time. Bright yellow to clearly show that it is not a gun, it is often holstered on the side opposite to the more lethal firearm. And yes, apparently cops have pulled their guns when they had meant to pull their Tazers. The firing mechanism has been removed for safety reasons. A tazer is a less-lethal weapon, but it is not non-lethal. People have died, but primarily people with other health reasons, especially drug users. A Tazer differs from a stun gun in that a tazer fires its electrodes from a distance, and a stun gun must make direct contact.

Another less-lethal weapon is the sock-round. I guess the term "non-lethal" is no longer used, since just about anything can kill or do serious damage if it hits the right place, or a person is just sensitive to it. These look like tiny little beanbags made out of a sock-like material. They seemed pretty innocuous sitting on the desk, but I can imagine they pack a quite a punch when projected at high speeds from a gun.

And these are definitely NOT non-lethal weapons, except for the orange one on the far right. Assorted revolvers and semi-automatics. One oft-repeated piece of info, "Revolvers do not eject cartridges." Police for many years carried revolvers, often with speed-loaders, so they could load all the chambers at once. But now most carry semi-automatics, with pre-loaded clips. These unloaded guns were available for us to handle after class. It made me wish I had not sat in front. The cops were great about only pointing weapons in safe directions. Some of the writer types, not so much. I don't care if it's been checked seventeen times and it's not loaded. Looking into the barrel of a gun is scary.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Police Academy II...No, Not the Movie

Of course, I mean the writers' police academy. I meant to post this yesterday, so for all those waiting with baited breath, try Altoids. ;)

But anyway, after departing the morgue, we headed off to the police station. Now if my choice of pictures seems odd, it is because I was trying to get pictures of things and places that I might have to describe, at some point. So oddly enough, there were some notable people of whom I have no pictures at all.

View from just outside the Hamilton police station. Some things not in the picture--to the right is a small garden/picnic area. To the left is a garage where they can house cars for further investigation--search and fingerprinting.

How to store that pesky evidence? There is a large shelf filled with vials and baggies and cardboard boxes for weapons, and a cheat sheet on how to do it all properly. Not shown here is an evidence drying room, should items come in wet.

In high school, I always had the locker I could never open. Well, there are instructions on these lockers on how to lock them, but not how to unlock them. Why? They are evidence lockers, and they only unlock from the other side, where a clerk receives the evidence and will properly store and preserve it.

People, on the other hand, are stored here. These are holding cells. Not sure if they were occupied at the time, or not. We weren't actually allowed in here. They were slightly more spacious than the evidence lockers, but not much.

I believe they called this the 'duty room,' although by this point, my brain was a bit overloaded, so don't quote me on that. My fellow attendees are looking around. At this point there was a swat call, so it was quiet around the station for a while.

And I'm stealing these handcuffs--well, not really. I have one scene were my protag, after being questioned by the police, sits down on a hard wood bench in the hall. I'm going back to that scene and adding the handcuffs. They caught my eye, and I think they'd add a nice touch.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Writers' Police Academy

I had a great time at the Mad Anthony Writers' Conference and the Writers' Police Academy. It was a long trip, and I was hoping it would be worth the expense and the time, and I think it was. I learned a lot and had a fantastic time.

Friday was spent in presentations and tours. This is the best picture I could get of the canine part of the canine unit. I have three other pictures of various stages of blur. Although the dog (for some odd reason) spent a good portion of his time in our general vicinity, he would not sit still. Which is good, since apparently that is what he does when he detects drugs.

And later we headed to the morgue. That is Butler County Coroner Richard P. Burkhardt who allowed us in for a tour--a very interesting experience. Leaning in the door is Verna Dreisbach, literary agent and former California Highway Patrol Officer, who contributed one of my favorite moments of the conference when she told a busload of us that she was really good at drunk driving.

This is the cold box. Yes, at the morgue. We did go inside, but I didn't take any pictures--it somehow didn't seem appropriate. I think I need one of these in my own house. And I'm trying to figure out how my menopausal protagonist might wander into one in the midst of a hot flash. Hmmmm.....

No, you don't
want to be there. What Dr. B is saying at this moment that if the customer on the table is Jewish, they put the plug in to preserve the blood for burial. But, if the poor departed is only a Christian...

And yes, what a beautiful pancreas!

Next we toured the police department. More pics tomorrow.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Spoonful of M.C. Beaton

Many of you already know that I read mysteries for two purposes: 1) I enjoy them. 2) I study them to help me write my own. For that reason, while these entries often have some aspects of a book review, I usually veer off at some point and talk about writing.

This book is a later addition to a series of which I have only read the first two books. I picked it up because it was the book of the month for a new book club I started attending--the Thursday Thrillers at the Barnes and Noble--which meets at the Niagara Fall Blvd location in Amherst on the second Thursday of every month. I very much enjoyed my first visit, and hope to learn much by what other mystery readers have to say about the books they read.

Agatha Raisin has changed a bit since the first two installments. Apparently the glimmer of romance that sparked my interest in the first two panned out, at least a little, because the 'dashing neighbor' I knew is now her ex-husband. Oh,well. Such is life, I guess. And Agatha has advanced from being an amateur to a pro. Detective, that is. She's now a private investigator.

Hopping into this one after not reading the middle installments was a bit rough. There are regular people in here that I do not know, and some story lines have advanced to the point that they were a bit tough to figure out. Not a fault of the book--just of the way I approached it. But I like when strands of the protag's personal life intermingle with the latest mystery. I think that is what keeps a series alive. The case is solved, but you wonder what is going to happen next to Agatha.

What Beaton does masterfully though, is create a heroine with interesting flaws--enough to get her into trouble and keep her in trouble through a whole series. Far from a Mary-Sue, Agatha is self-deceived, insecure, and downright selfish sometimes. Readers take turns liking her, pitying her, and hating her. But whatever they do, they are emotionally engaged with her character--so there is the master stroke.

But how can you bottle that? And how can I apply it to my fledgling character?

Here's where I feel my hands are a bit tied. My character is a preacher's wife. And while I have struggled with making her imperfect and have tried to give her some qualities that will get her in trouble, there are some who want to push her into a stereotype. They get very uncomfortable when she says and does things that they do not expect a pastor's wife to do. I tell them that is the point. If she always acted and reacted in the ways an ideal pastor's wife should, she wouldn't get into much trouble, would she? And she wouldn't be a realistic character either. Still, it has given me a very narrow playing field, and something to think about when developing future characters.