Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barb Goffman. Show all posts

29 November 2022

Public-Speaking Tips for Authors

This is an updated version of a column I ran seven years ago with public-speaking tips for authors, though I think the advice could apply to most any public speaker.

Every autumn the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime runs two programs we call Mystery Author Extravaganzas. Chapter authors who've had new stories or novels published that year can tell the audience about them, and a local bookseller is on hand to sell the authors' works. In November we appear at a library in Ellicott City, Maryland. In December, we appear at a library in Reston, Virginia. These events are free and open to the public, and the libraries promote the heck out of them. They offer the audience a good opportunity to support local authors and a local indie bookstore at the same time. (After all, it is the holiday season, and books make great giftsfor others and yourself!)

For the past two years, the events have been held online, but this year, we're back to meeting in person. We started having our extravaganzas annually when I was chapter president fifteen years ago. And I've had the pleasure of organizing them nearly every year since. My experience has taught me a few things about how to succeed as a speaker, and since our December extravaganza will be this Saturday (keep reading to the end for more details), I figured this would be a good time to share some public-speaking tips:

  • Keep it snappyHit the high points without going into unnecessary detail. The authors who keep the audience's attention best are the ones who don't describe all their characters or drill down into a lot of the plot. They hit the high points, the exciting stuff, the information you'd find on the back of a book, and they leave the audience wanting more. For instance, here's the gist of what I'll say this weekend about my story "For Bailey" (from the anthology Low Down Dirty Vote Volume III): If you've ever cursed your neighbors for setting off fireworks, scaring your pets, you'll identify with teenager Jocelyn. Her town's about to vote on a proposed fireworks ban. Fearing it won't pass, she and two friends come up with an unconventional method to encourage one of the councilmembers to vote their way.
  • Don't be too briefThis is your chance to talk to readers who are interested in what you have to say, so make sure you go into enough detail to make them think, "Ooh, that sounds good. I want to read that." While you don't have to use all the time allotted to you, don't be so eager to get off the stage that you don't share what makes your story or book interesting.
  • Consider if you have interesting backstory to share, perhaps what prompted you to write your book or an interesting research tidbit. For instance, my story "Go Big or Go Home" (published this year in the Malice Domestic anthology Mystery Most Diabolical) was inspired by a lot of unsolicited advice I've received on Facebook. In the past I've heard from audience members who enjoyed learning the story behind the story.
  • Don't write a speech and read it. Public speaking can be scary, and writing down what you want to say may help you feel more comfortable. But I've seen too many authors read their speeches with their heads down, barely making eye contact. Don't do that. You want to connect with the audience. So practice at home. Get a feel for what you want to say. If it would be helpful to have notes, bring them, but they should address only the high points, so when you look down, you'll be reminded of what to talk about, and then you can look up and do it. For instance, if I were talking about my short story "Five Days to Fitness" (from the anthology Murder in the Mountains) my bullet-point notes might say:
    • Title and publication
    • Main character, her problem, her solution
    • The setting
    • It's a whodunit
  • If you're considering reading aloud from your book or story, practice doing so. Have someone you trustsomeone not afraid to tell you the truthlisten to you read so they can tell you if you're good at it. If you read in an animated fashion, looking up regularly and making eye contact with the audience (see the prior bullet point), great. If you read in a monotone voice without looking up at all, don't read. The last thing you want to do is put your potential readers to sleep.
  • Briefly hold up a copy of your book as a focal point. But don't leave it propped up there while you talk. That's distracting, and it might block someone's view of your face. (This applies to panels at conventions too.) The cover of this year's Bouchercon anthology (Land of 10,000 Thrills, which has my story "The Gift") is wonderfully eye-catching, but I wouldn't want the audience to be so distracted by the bloody axe on the cover that they don't listen to what I have to say. 
  • If you're a funny person, don't be afraid to be funny while you're speaking. But if you're not funny, don't force it. There's nothing worse than someone bombing because he felt the need to come up with a joke. You're there to sell your books and yourself. Do it in the way best suited to your personality.
  • Keep in mind how much time you have. If you think you'll fill your entire allotted time, practice at home so you can be ready to wrap up when the timer dings. You don't want to hear that ding and know you never got to talk about the third story you had published this year because you meandered talking about story number one.
And since I have your attention, I'll tell you briefly about my favorite of my stories published this year, "Beauty and the Beyotch," from issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.
It's a tale about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: the struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide? While you can buy the issue in paper and ebook formats from the usual online sources, I've put the story on my website for easy reading. Just click here.
Want to attend our extravaganza this Saturday (12/3)? It starts at 1 p.m. at the Reston, Virginia, library. 11925 Bowman Towne Drive. The 20 authors who'll be appearing are: Donna Andrews, Kathryn Prater Bomey, Maya Corrigan, Ellen Crosby, Barb Goffman (yep, that's me!), Sherry Harris, Smita Harish Jain, Maureen Klovers, Tara Laskowski, Con Lehane, Eileen Haavik McIntire, Kathryn O'Sullivan, Susan Reiss, Frances Schoonmaker, Mary Stojak, Lane Stone/Cordy Abbott, Shannon Taft, Art Taylor, Robin Templeton, and Cathy Wiley. You'll be able to buy books from Scrawl Books. No RSVP necessary to attend. Just put it on your calendar and come on by.

08 November 2022

Extra! Extra! Why I'm Tuning in for Alaska Daily

About twenty years ago, a new TV show aired with a big-name star (whose name, ironically, I can't recall) about a newspaper reporter. I was a former newspaper reporter—I'd loved being a reporter (mostly)—and had been eager to see the show. But I ended up watching only a couple of episodes because the show was ridiculously over-the-top. I remember complaining about it to a friend (another former reporter). Why, I said, can't there ever be TV shows about journalists that are realistic? And he said, "You want to watch a TV show about taking notes in meetings or interviewing people on the phone?" He had a point (and he hadn't even mentioned the third prong in the triumvirate of fascinating things reporters do: type up their articles). While the articles reporters write may be interesting, the news-gathering process? Not so much.

Yet the new show Alaska Daily is proving my old friend and me wrong. Airing at 10 p.m. ET Thursdays on ABC, and available for streaming on Hulu, Alaska Daily is my favorite new show of the season. I've read reviews complaining about the show, but I'm going to focus on what I like about it: it puts a spotlight on the importance of local journalism at a time when so many newspapers are going under, leaving many communities without a watchdog of their powers that be.

The show has what I'm assuming will be a season-long arc, in which series star Hilary Swank, playing a big-deal NY reporter who's pushed out of her job, moves to Anchorage, Alaska, to work at the city newspaper (the fictional Daily Alaskan) to investigate the crisis of missing Indigenous women. Swank's character is teamed up with an Indigenous reporter, played by Grace Dove, and in each episode they make some (sometimes significant) progress. This is an important story line based, sadly, on real life. 

Each episode also has a stand-alone story line. These have included:

  • A state official who misappropriated public funds
  • A radicalized local man who is stockpiling bomb-making materials. (The story stemmed from a reporter interviewing the winner of the largest cabbage at the state fair, and you can't get more local journalism than that.)
  • A beloved Anchorage restaurant owner selling out to a chain

Do I have issues with the show? Sure. For instance, the episode about the restaurant ended with the reporter writing a first-person article about the restaurant and why it was important to her and her family and why the owner had sold it. It was heart-stirring, but it blurred the line between news articles and opinion pieces—something that's already too blurry in too many people's minds. Nonetheless, I liked the episode. I've liked all the episodes, in fact, because they show reporters doing what reporters actually do: interviewing people, gathering facts, and making a difference in their community. (Wanting to make a difference, that's why everyone I knew who was a reporter went into the industry; it certainly wasn't for the money or for glamour.)

I like the reporters at the Daily Alaskan, even Swank's bristly character, who I assume will be toned down as the season progresses as she learns from her experiences and grows. I like the paper's newsroom, set in a strip mall because of financial issues (which is why they have a tiny staff, like so many real newspapers today that are struggling to survive). I like the paper's commitment to doing journalism right. 

So often these days, people see reporters as the bad guys. Alaska Daily puts its reporters in a positive light, and that's why I'm tuning in each week. I hope you'll check it out too.


While I have your attention, I'll be appearing this Saturday, Nov. 12th, at a Mystery Author Extravaganza at the Miller Library in Ellicott City, Maryland, along with fourteen other authors from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. We'll be talking about our new books and stories published this year. Books will be available for sale. Click on either link in the next paragraph to get the full list of participating authors.

The event is free and open to the public (no matter where you live). It starts at 1 p.m. Eastern Time. You also can watch over Zoom if you can't attend in person. To register to attend, click here for in-person or here for Zoom. (Walk-ins to the in-person event are welcome if you decide at the last minute to attend.) The library's address: 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City, MD 21042.

18 October 2022

I'm in the mood for stories that open with the weather

Elmore Leonard had ten famous rules for writing. The first one: "Never open a book with the weather." I've long agreed with this advice, with an exception: If the weather is pertinent to what's happening at the start--if it's part of the plot--use it. Still, even with that caveat, the times you'll need to use the weather at the start of a book or story are probably few.

If you're sitting there thinking, Barb, you've written about using the weather in stories, even starting with the weather, before. Come up with something new. Yeah, yeah. The column you're thinking about ran in 2016. I just reread it, and I think my advice is solid. You can read that post here:

Today, I'm going to come at this topic from a different angle. I belong to a Facebook group whose members post each Monday the first lines of books and stories they read the prior week. The intent is to showcase good or great first lines. Sometimes people share more than the first sentence of a story. Sometimes they share the first paragraph. (I've been guilty of this myself.) I enjoy reading more than a sentence because the additional words can help me to get a much better feel for the work at hand. And reading first lines and first paragraphs that don't grab me is also helpful. It helps me understand what works and what doesn't and why.

Here's where the weather comes in. To my surprise, the openings that catch my attention the most each week, the ones that make me eager to read a book or story, use the weather. I find this is especially true if I have the opportunity to read a first paragraph rather than just a first sentence. Those extra words can enable an author to truly set the scene--or more to the point, to set the mood. Mood, more than anything, is what pulls me into a story, and few things can truly set mood better than the weather.

Raymond Chandler famously made this point about weather and mood in the opening to his story "Red Wind":

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."

Maybe you'd want to read Chandler's story because of his exquisite way with words. Maybe he could have been talking about dog grooming and still draw you in. But he was talking about the weather--in this case, the wind--and how it affects people. And that's the point: the weather can affect people. Characters are people, but so are readers.

Here's another great example from Julia Spencer-Fleming, from her first book, In the Bleak Midwinter. (I also think this is one of the best first sentences ever.):

"It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. The cold pinched at Russ Van Alstyne's nose and made him jam his hands deep into his coat pockets, grateful that the Washington County hospital had a police parking spot just a few years from the ER doors."

Spencer-Fleming is another author who knows how to lure the reader in. Is it a coincidence that she used the weather to do it in her first book, which won a string of awards? I don't think so.

So, maybe Leonard's advice about openings and weather deserves a second caveat: 

Never open a book with the weather--except (1) if the weather is pertinent to the plot in that opening scene or (2) if you want to use the weather to set the mood. If either exception applies, shine that opening until it glistens like a desert highway on a brutal summer day and you're praying the sea of melted tar you're approaching is but a mirage.

27 September 2022

The Gift of Writing—and Reading—Fiction

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Ideally, what keeps them glued together is love. With love comes understanding and acceptance and an inclination to give your family members the benefit of the doubt.

At least, that's how it should work. But life isn't ideal, at least not always. Sometimes people are selfish. Or immature. They could be rigid and stubborn and damaged. When such people clash, conflicteven crimecan be inevitable. 

In real life, it's sad. But in fiction, examining such people can give readers not only an opportunity to feelmaybe satisfaction or anger, sadness or joybut it can prompt them to examine their own inclinations, to think about what they'd be willing to do for others, especially when what's wrong seems right. Maybe they'll even find a better way to live. The prompting of such self-examination might be a lofty goal, but I think it's what many authors want. To entertain, yes. But also to make a difference with our words. To affect people. To make them feel and think.

It's what I hope to do with my newest story, "The Gift." It appears in Land of 10,000 Thrills, this year's Bouchercon anthology, which was published earlier this month by Down & Out Books. In "The Gift," Debbie has always believed in setting a good example for her grandson and the kids at her high school, where she toils as principal. But sometimes the line between right and wrong blursespecially when family is involved.

I can't say more about the story without saying too much. So instead I'll tell you a little more about the book. It's edited by the wonderful Greg Herren, and the call for stories required they be set in Minnesota (where this year's Bouchercon was held) or an adjacent state or Canadian province. My story is set in Iowa.

Knowing the quality of the writing of many of the other authors in the book, I expect I'm in for a treat with all of them. You too. These other authors are: Eric Beckstrom, Eric Beetner, Mark Bergin, Susanna Calkins and Erica Ruth Neubauer (co-writers), L.A. Chandlar, Meredith Doench, Mary Dutta, John M. Floyd (a fellow SleuthSayer; yay, John!), Jim Fusilli, R. Franklin James, Jessica Laine, BV Lawson, Edith Maxwell, Mindy Mejia, Richie Narvaez, Bryon Quertermous, Marcie R. Rendon, Raquel V. Reyes, Bev Vincent, Tessa Wegert, Michael Wiley, and Sandra SG Wong.

Here's an abridged version of the anthology's back-cover copy:

For years, the Midwest has been used as a stand-in for "average America." The sweeping Great Plains, the heavy snows of winter, ice fishing and mighty rivers and frozen lakes. Midwesterners have a reputation for being the salt of the earth, friendly and kind and helpful and nice. But is "Midwestern nice" merely a cover for what really goes on in this part of the country? John Wayne Gacy, the bloody Benders, and Jeffrey Dahmer were all Midwesternersbut that doesn't mean every Midwesterner has bodies buried in their basement ... or does it? 

Editor Greg Herren is proud to present a series of tales that will shock and surprise youand maybe make you think twice about that ice-fishing trip or before taking a snowmobile out after the sun goes down. Featuring authors from all over the Midwest who know just how dark and lonesome it can get out there in the country at night, these crime stories will entertain you with their trip down the dark side of the "real America"where the twilight's last gleaming has an entirely different meaning and feel.

You can buy the anthology in trade paperback and ebook from all the usual sources. To get it right from the publisher, click here. For Amazon, click here. For Barnes and Noble, click here. To get it from an indie bookstore near you, click here.

Happy reading!

30 August 2022

Ready for Autumn? For Magic? For Murder? How About All Three?

It's the end of August, and to me that means the end of summer and the beginning not just of autumn but of ... SPOOKY SEASON! (Yes, yes, I know: autumn doesn't begin for another 23 days, but in my heart, September equals autumn, and September starts on Thursday. Close enough.)

What better way to celebrate the imminent start of SPOOKY SEASON (do you hear me announcing it, as if with trumpets and fanfare? I hope so) than with a brand-new anthology mixing magic and murder? There is no better way. And that's why it's perfect that today is the official publication date of Magic is Murder, the tenth volume in the Chesapeake Crimes series. Every prior volume in this short-story anthology series has had at least one story—one as many as four—that won or were nominated for major awards (the Agatha, Anthony, Derringer, Macavity, and/or Thriller). My fellow editors (Donna Andrews and Marcia Talley) and I are hopeful that the stories in this book will be as well received.

So, you're wondering, when I say magic, do I mean stories with witches and sorcerers? With more unusual fantasy elements? Or maybe a stage magician? Yes, yes, and yes. We have all of that—and more! (Is there a magician/stripper in the book? You'll have to find out for yourself.) As the book's description says, tales of fantasy worlds and stage illusion, of magic-users and magic-abusers, fill these pages with a heady, deadly mix. That word "deadly" is key, because this is, first and foremost, a crime anthologywith magic baked into each story.

We've had two reviews so far, one by Mystery Scene magazine and one by Lesa's Book Critiques. I'll be so bold as to share parts of both:

Mystery Scene called the book "a solid anthology" with some "excellent tales" and said of some of them: "Rosalie Spielman's 'What's a Little Murder Between Mammals' is a smile-inducing take on cats, shape-shifting, and murder. 'The Thirteenth House,' by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas, verges into urban fantasy with a disappearing house, secret passages, and (of course) murder. Stacy Woodson's 'The Midnight Show' is a melancholy take on family, loss, memory, and death. 'The Snow Globe,' by Greg Herren, is a dark and humorous Christmas tale'Santa, Dylan thought, certainly has a great six-pack'about loneliness, voodoo, and reconnecting with family."

In her review, Lesa Holstine said, "My favorite story was 'The Thirteenth House' by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas. [...]  I’d love to read an entire novel about this neighborhood. [...] Then, there’s one that’s fun for anyone who enjoys traditional mysteries with a touch of a ghost. Eleanor Cawood Jones' 'Whiskers McGruff and the Case of the Missing Clue' introduces the most recent owner of a combination bookstore and charm shop, along with the ghost of a cat who knows just what book readers will want. [...] There are so many excellent stories here that fans of short stories will undoubtedly find at least several they enjoy." You can read the entirety of this review here

I know you're eager to see the full list of authors and their stories in this book, so here they are, in order of appearance:

  • "What's a Little Murder Between Mammals" by Rosalie Spielman
  • "Courting Disaster" by Cathy Wiley
  • "The Thirteenth House" by Jaquelyn Lyman-Thomas
  • "The Midnight Show" by Stacy Woodson
  • "The Wig" by Tara Laskowski
  • "A Touch of Magic" by Shari Randall
  • "The Snow Globe" by Greg Herren
  • "Something Dark and Dangerous" by Donna Andrews
  • "A Charming Solution" by Smita Harish Jain
  • "What Goes Around" by Robin Templeton
  • "Everyday Magic" by Pam Clark
  • "Pyewackett" by K.M. Rockwood
  • "Behind the Magic 8-Ball" by Marcia Talley
  • "Whiskers McGruff and the Case of the Missing Clue" by Eleanor Cawood Jones
  • "Abracadaver" by Alan Orloff
  • "Mr. Filbert's Classroom" by Adam Meyer

These stories were chosen by judges extraordinaire Heather Blake, E.J. Copperman, and Douglas Greene. Our wonderful cover was designed by Stacey Logan. Eagle-eyed Sherri Mayer helped with proofreading. And the amazing Daniel Stashower wrote the introduction. We thank them all for their efforts.

I hope you're as excited for Spooky Season as I am and that Magic is Murder will fit perfectly into your reading routine on the coming cool nights, when the moon is bright and anything is possible—even a shapeshifting PI winging her way across the sky (literally) on the way to solve a murder.

In addition to Amazon, you can buy the trade paperback version of the book right now from one of my favorite indie bookstores, Mystery Loves Company of Oxford, Maryland, as well as directly from the publisher, Wildside Press. It should appear on Barnes and Noble's website as well as the sites of lots of other online bookstores any time now.

I wish you a magical day. 

16 August 2022

Finding the Sweet Spot Between Overexplaining and Underexplaining

I read two mysteries in the past week that I enjoyed very much. One was a cozy, the other sort of a historical (it involved time travel). The juxtaposition of reading them back-to-back brought a writing question to the fore: How do you find the balance between not wanting to spoon-feed the reader key facts and not wanting to leave them confused?

In one of these books, as the sleuth put the clues together and figured out whodunit, she laid out her thought process. Fact A led to fact B, which led to fact C. Consequently, the sleuth knew, Character X was the killer. I reread the section multiple times. I agreed about facts A, B, and C, but how--I wondered--had the sleuth jumped from fact C to knowing whodunit? While I had correctly guessed the killer, I hadn't been sure of why this character had committed murder, and reading this part of the book didn't enlighten me. Ultimately, I realized there was a key fact, D, which hadn't been mentioned while the sleuth was figuring things out. The author had left room for the reader to guess about fact D so the reader could draw her own connections between the facts and the killer's identity.

In the other book, the sleuth not only talked about facts A, B, and C. She talked about facts D, E, F, and G, drilling down, showcasing her thought process. By the time she realized who the killer was, there was no way the reader would have any question how she came to that conclusion. The author had left a roadmap that would have made Rand McNally proud.

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Which author's approach was the right one? Trick question! They both were right. Some authors simply like to give readers more room to draw their own conclusions than others do. There's nothing wrong with either way of doing things.

Of course, not all readers would agree, and that's the rub.

I've read reviews where readers complained about plot holes because the author, like in my first example above, didn't explain how the sleuth came to a certain conclusion. I've also read reviews where readers complained because they didn't like how the author spelled all the details out, as if the author didn't trust the readers to be smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

What's a poor author to do? Seems you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

The problem is that some readers are more literal than others. They need or want the facts to be spelled out because, without them, these readers won't see how the sleuth reached her conclusions and might think you have a plot hole. These readers don't want to have to work so hard while relaxing with a book.

Other readers are more intuitive and feel patronized if an author explains or (from these readers' perspective) overexplains things. For these readers, part of the fun of a puzzle mystery is being given the room to figure things out for themselves, and when that fun is denied them, they become aggravated.

This isn't to put readers in either group down. I can be pretty literal myself and often encourage clients to explain things a bit more, helping the reader to connect the dots. Yet there certainly are times when I read a book and think, we know, we know, get on with it. Every reader has their own tolerance for how much explanation they like and need. The challenge for authors is to satisfy readers who are more literal-minded while at the same time satisfying readers who enjoy making connections. Satisfy everyone, no matter where they fall on the reading spectrum!

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No problem, right? Just give readers enough breadcrumbs to lead them to the solution, but not so many that the pacing is negatively affected.

You're cursing at me under your breath, aren't you? I get it. It's easy to say, not so easy to do. But here's my suggestion for finding that sweet spot: First, figure out what your natural inclination is. Are you more literal-minded or more intuitive? Do you tend to overexplain or underexplain? Then, once you know which way you tend to lean, make sure you have a beta reader or critique partner or editor who leans the other way. 

An author whose natural inclination is to assume the reader will make logical jumps would be well served by a more literal-minded editor who can point out where there are gaps in the sleuth's thought process. In contrast, an author whose natural inclination is to spell out every little detail would probably benefit from a reader who is good at making connections and who can highlight where the author explained so much that the writing began to drag. Between the two of you, you hopefully will find a good middle ground so your literal-minded readers won't feel lost, yet your intuitive readers will still feel challenged.

Good luck!

26 July 2022

The Importance of Tenacity

Hi, everyone. I'm taking a mental-health break. Instead of writing a new column to run today, I'm rerunning one from New Year's Day 2019. Sorry about that, but to use that old NBC slogan, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you!

The Power of Tenacity

I planned to title this column the Power of Persistence and to write about writing goals. It seemed perfect for January 1st, when so many people make resolutions for the new year. And I do love alliteration. But then I thought, maybe "tenacity" would be a better word than "persistence." The Power of Tenacity might not have the same cadence as the Power of Persistence, but is it more on point? I had always treated the words as synonyms, but maybe, I began to think, they aren't. Maybe I should check. So I did, and it turns out there's an important difference between the two words. Persistence means trying repeatedly to reach a goal through the same method, figuring eventually you'll succeed. Tenacity means trying to reach a goal through varying methods, learning from each failure and trying different approaches. For anyone with goals for the new year, tenacity seems the better approach.

How does this apply to writing? First, let's talk about getting writing done. Everyone has their own method. Some people write every morning before daybreak. Others write at night. Some people say they will write for a set number of hours each day. Others say they'll write as long as it takes to meet a daily quota. Some people plot out what they're going to write. Others write by the seat of their pants. It doesn't matter what your approach is, as long as it works for you. So with the new year here, perhaps this is a good time to take stock of your approach. Is your approach working for you? Are you getting enough writing done? Enough revision done? Are you making the best use of your time?

I have a friend (and editing client) who used to be a pantser. But she found that after finishing every draft, she had so many loose ends to address and problems to fix, it took her much longer to revise than she'd like. So she started forcing herself to plot before she began writing each book. Not detailed outlines, but she figures out who kills whom, how, and why, what her subplot will be (again, just the basics), and what her theme is. These changes in her approach have enabled her to be so much more productive. She writes faster now, and she needs less time for revision. That's tenacity in action.

Moving on to a finished product, how do you react to rejection? If you have a rejected short story, for instance, after you finish cursing the universe, do you find another venue and send that story out immediately? Or do you re-read it and look for ways to improve it? And if a story has been rejected several times (there's no shame here; we've all been there), do you keep sending it out anyway or put it in a drawer to let it cool off for a few months or years until perhaps the market has changed or your skills have improved?

If sending a story out a few times without revising after each rejection usually results in a sale for you, great. Then your persistence works, and it means you have more time for other projects. But if it doesn't, if you find yourself sending a story out a dozen times without success, then perhaps you should consider a new approach. After a story is rejected, say, three times, maybe you should give it a hard look and see how it can be changed. Maybe you should let it sit in a drawer for a while first, so when you review it, you'll have a fresh take.

And if you're getting a lot of rejections, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate your markets or what you write. I know some writers who started their careers writing science fiction, but it turned out that they were much better suited to writing mysteries. Once they let their true selves out on the page, they started making sales. I know a writer who's been working on a novel for years, but she can't seem to finish it. Yet she's had a lot of success with short stories. If she were to decide to only write short stories and let the novel lie fallow, that wouldn't be a failure; it would be tenacity in action: finding what works for her.

I was about to write that the one thing you shouldn't do is give up, but there might be value in letting go. If your goal is to write a novel or short story, but you never seem to finish your project, and the mere thought of working on it feels like drudgery instead of joy, then maybe being a professional writer isn't for you. There's no shame in that. Not every person is suited to every task. When I was a kid I loved swimming, but I was never going to make a swim team. I wasn't fast enough. Maybe with a lot of practice and other changes I could have gotten there, but I didn't want to take those steps. And that's okay. I enjoyed swimming for the fun of it, and that was enough for me. Maybe writing for yourself, without the pressure of getting to write "The End," is what gives you joy. If so, more power to you. And maybe it turns out you don't want to finish that book or story you started writing. That's okay too, even if you did tell everyone that you were writing it. You're allowed to try things and stop if it turns out they aren't the right fit for you.

But if you believe writing is the right fit, yet your writing isn't as productive as you want it to be, or your sales aren't as good as you want them to be, then be tenacious. Evaluate your approaches to getting writing done, to editing your work, to seeking publication. Maybe you need to revise how you're doing things. Are you writing in the morning but are more alert in the evening? Change when you write. Is your work typically ready to be sent out into the world as soon as you finish? If you get a lot of rejections, maybe it's not. Maybe you need to force yourself to let your work sit for a while after you finish, so you can review it again with fresh eyes before you start submitting. Do you have a contract, but your books aren't selling as well as you'd like? Perhaps you should find someone you trust who can try to help you improve. No matter how successful you are, there's always something new to learn. The key is to figure out what works for you and keep doing it, and also figure out what isn't working for you and change it.

That, my fellow writers, is my advice for you. Be tenacious. Evaluate what you want, and evaluate your methods for getting there. If your methods aren't working, change them. And if in six months your new methods aren't working, change them again. Work hard. Work smart. And be sure to enjoy yourself along the way, because if you're not enjoying writing, why bother doing it?

05 July 2022

The Problem with Coincidences

Today I'm going to talk about one of the no-nos in mysteries. The C word. 

No, not that C word. Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about the other C word of mysteries: coincidence.

How many times have you heard that you can't have coincidences in your mysteries? Coincidences might occur in real life, the reasoning goes, but readers plunking down cold hard cash for good stories deserve ones created by authors who don't lazily rely on coincidence for their stories to work.  

I agreeto an extent.

A coincidence that occurs later in a book or short story, enabling the sleuth to figure out whodunit ... don't do it! Your sleuth should be smart enough to figure things out through investigation, without relying upon, essentially, divine providence. That's the kind of thing that makes readers roll their eyes and mutter, "Oh come on!" 

But a coincidence that occurs early in the book or storythat, as they say, is a horse of a different color. (Yeah, yeah, I know. That was another C word. A cliche. Those are no-nos too. But we're talking about coincidences today, not cliches, so lay off.)

A coincidence that happens early in a book or story is okay because usually it is the inciting incident that kicks things off. Take the movie My Cousin Vinny. Billy Gambini and Stanley Rothenstein were driving a 1964 metallic-mint-green Buick Skylark convertible from NY to Southern California by way of the back roads of Alabama. (I'd like to talk to whoever planned that direct route.) They stopped at a convenience store. A few minutes after they left the store, it was robbed and its clerk was murdered by two yoots ... excuse me, two youths ... who not only resembled Billy and Stanley but who were driving a similar-looking metallic-mint-green convertible. Coincidence? Big. Huge. (Sorry, that was a Pretty Woman reference. I'll try to focus.) Because of the similarities, Billy and Stanley found themselves pulled over and ultimately arrested for murder. But the coincidences not only weren't a problem, they were vital to the plot. Without them, Billy and Stanley wouldn't have been pulled over and there would have been no story, not involving them anyway. Mr. Tipton wouldn't have embarrassed himself claiming the laws of physics didn't apply in his kitchen. Vinny may never have won his first case. And Mona Lisa Vito's biological clock would still be tick tick ticking away. (I'm assuming they got married and had little Gambinis who like to argue over everything. I'm a sucker for a happy ending.)

So, you're reading this and thinking, That Barb makes a lot of sense. But crud, crap, criminy, I have a big freaking coincidence in my book and it's not the spark that incites the story. What do I do?

Here's what you do: you take your coincidence and make it purposeful. Instead of Suzie Sleuth coincidentally ending up sitting in a diner booth adjacent to that of the two killers, where she overhears them talking about how they killed Mr. He Deserved It, change things so Suzie realized Killer One seemed shady so she was investigating him. In the course of her sleuthing, she followed him, purposely getting seated in the next booth. That way, when she eavesdrops and hears all the juicy details, she's done it because she figured things out, not because she stumbled upon the solution thanks to an unbelievable coincidence.

(Disclaimer: That was an example. It was only an example. If it this were a real story and you had killers admit their plans in a restaurant where they could be overheard, readers would be wishing they'd had an actual emergency alert in advance, warning them off such a contrived event.)

Contrivances. That's another C word. A blog for another day.

14 June 2022

When Ignorance is Bliss

We've all heard the advice that authors should write what they know. (And before you roll your eyes, it doesn't mean write only about things you already know about. It means do your research before you write about something so you get the details right and your story is believable.) Along the same lines, editing what you know makes sense too. If I were to edit a police procedural novel, it sure would help if I knew about police procedure. Ditto for a legal thriller. Knowing what a summary judgment motion is and how it works would be important if I were to edit a novel with one of them in it.

But sometimes when I'm editing, I find that ignorance can truly be bliss. It can result in my asking questions an expert in a particular subject might not. Take, for instance, the topic of farming. I'm not a farmer. I've never lived on a farm. I don't even like to go outside. Twenty years ago, a woman in my writing group was writing a novel set on a farm. Each week we'd go over another chapter and I would ask questions that made her realize she'd incorrectly assumed certain things were common knowledge. When that book came out, she gave me a copy and inscribed, "Barb, your ignorance of farming was invaluable." It still makes me laugh.

It's not the only time my ignorance came in handy. Several years ago, a client used an acronym that I'd never heard of before, and I noted it when editing her manuscript. She was surprised. It was a common word in the military, she said. After polling a bunch of people she knew, she realized she either needed to explain the acronym or change it because enough non-military people didn't know the term, and its meaning wasn't obvious from her story's context. If I'd had a military background, it might not have occurred to me that many readers might not know that acronym. 

Ignorance can be bliss. So can pizza.

So, where does the line lie between when an author wants an editor who's a subject-matter expert or one who isn't? I'm no expert on answering this question (ha ha), but I think it depends on how much of an expert the author is on the subject at hand--or how much research the author is willing to do. 

If you're a homicide detective writing about a homicide detective, working with an editor who's never been a police officer might be useful. The editor could bring a helpful outsider's perspective, enabling you to see when you're making assumptions about what most readers will know. But if you've never been a police officer and you don't love doing research, then you'd be well served by working with an editor who knows enough about how police investigations work to tell you if you got something wrong or if you might've gotten something wrong so you should check. 

That said, sometimes you won't be able to find the exact expert you need. If I wanted to write a story about a gravedigger, I might be able to find a gravedigger who could answer my questions. It might be more difficult to find a gravedigger or former gravedigger who also edits mysteries.

So, if you can't find an expert to edit your manuscript, look for one who isn't afraid to question things, asking if you checked if certain things are correct. (It also wouldn't be a bad idea to find a subject-matter expert who will read your manuscript, not to edit it, but to tell you if you got the details right.)

Even as I type this, I can imagine someone reading this column and thinking, even a homicide detective could benefit from the expertise of another insider, someone who might have suggestions a lay editor wouldn't think of. And that is true too. It's why it's a good idea to know your strengths and weaknesses and know exactly what you want--and need--from an editor before hiring one. Sometimes someone with certain expertise is exactly what's right for you. But other times, the person who's right for you is an editor who's ignorant about your field--and who isn't afraid to show it.