Showing posts with label readers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label readers. Show all posts

23 March 2020

Introducing Mr. Block


Jan Grape
My guest author today is Lawrence Block. Better known to most of us as Larry. I've known him for a number of years and spent many hours reading his fiction and his non-fiction. He's an author with so many books published that I am not sure he even knows the number.

He's a teacher of writing as well, with articles and books and essays and workshops on writing. In fact, if you've ever wanted to take a workshop with Larry, you are in for a treat, right here and right now.

A couple of weeks ago, Larry mentioned that he was going to pull the plug on his April workshop. I contacted him and he gave me permission to reprint this message and well, just continue reading.

— Jan Grape

by Larry Block:
  1. In an uncharacteristically prudent move, I've pulled the plug on A Time & A Place For Writing, the workshop I was scheduled to lead Tuesday & Thursday nights in April at @Center4Fiction in Brooklyn. Want to take it at home? For free? No problem.

  2. Thu April 2 @ 7pm—Turn off phone! Sit down with pen/pencil & legal pad set a kitchen timer, & do 15 minutes of free writing as explained in Write For Your Life. This is a warm-up exercise, nobody's going to read it, and as long as the pen is moving you're doing it perfectly.

  3. When the timer goes off, stop. If you're my age, go to the bathroom. If you're young, stay where you are. Boot up your computer. If you've got a work in progress, open the file. If not, open a new blank document. Set the kitchen timer for an hour. Take a deep breath.

  4. Start writing.

  5. When timer goes off at hour's end, stop immediately—or finish the sentence you're writing. Take a few deep breaths. Go to the bathroom. Pick up phone, put it down again w/o turning it on, & congratulate yourself for your resolve. Set timer for a half hour and resume writing.

  6. If you want, email me at lawbloc@gmail.com & say you want to participate. That'll get you an opening sentence each Tues & Thu for your free writing exercise, and may help foster the illusion that you're doing more than sitting home & writing on your own. #pandemicpandemonium

This evening, I went to Larry's Face Book page to look for a photo and title of his latest book or story and found that Mystery Reader's International Journal had a wonderful guest essay by Larry about his latest book. I spoke with Janet Rudolph, the journal's editor and since it's just out right now she sent me a link and photos. Please read. It's a wonderful article by a master author in our field.

LAWRENCE BLOCK:
DEAD GIRL BLUES
How My New Novel Came About and Why I’m Publishing It Myself

Sometime in the late fall of 2018 I started writing a short story. It began with a man picking up a woman in a lowdown roadhouse. A lot of stories, true and fictional, begin that way. Few of them end well.

This one didn’t end well for the woman. I’d have to finish writing it to find out how it would end for the man.

Lawrence Block


23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!


“Your first page sells the book.  Your last page sells the next book.” — Mickey Spillane

In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader.  As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’.  We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters.  Who will this story be about?  What genre?  Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others?  Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not.  We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.

As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers.  I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting.  In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy.  Not the same. 

As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above.  To do this, we need to know what the reader expects.  Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction.  (Note: there are always exceptions.)

ENDING EXPECTATIONS IN THE GENRES:

ROMANCE:  The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles. 

MYSTERY/Suspense:  In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer.  In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger.  All loose ends will be tied up.  Justice will be seen to be done in some manner.  (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied.  We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice.  In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)

FANTASY/Sci-Fi:  The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books.  You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their
victory.

WESTERN:  The good guy will win.  Simple as that.

ACTION-ADVENTURE:  The Bond-clone will survive and triumph.  Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.

HORROR:  Usually, the protagonist will survive.  If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key.  If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.

LITERARY:  Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story.  The protagonist will grow from the challenge.  He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made.  In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)

       “I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories.  Stories have endings.  Endings are contrived.  In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.  Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.”   Russell Smith

Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist.  Remember what fiction writers must provide:  The ending must satisfy the reader.

So:  Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life.  The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.

Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series.  Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.


On AMAZON



06 August 2018

Show Time!


About a month ago, I joined eighteen other writers from Sisters in Crime (two others were men, too--we've learned not to call ourselves "male members") at the University of Connecticut branch of Barnes & Noble.

I've been trying to crack Barnes & Noble's resistance to self-published authors for several years, so I would have joined this event in any case, but there were a few planning glitches, probably because this particular store is quite new and the staff probably hasn't done anything of this scale before.

Obviously, getting 19 writers from three states together demands a weekend slot, but with a perfect beach day and thousands of people protesting the current administration's immigration policy only blocks away, I'm not sure we saw a dozen patrons in the three hours we were there. The store wanted us to introduce ourselves and read from our works, taking fifteen minutes each. That's 45 minutes longer than the event was scheduled to run. We convinced the store that five minutes each was better, and I cut my own slot to three minutes by explaining where I got the idea for my newest book, reading the cover blurb, and sitting down. I sold two books that day, and I'm not sure anyone sold more than that.

Everyone either learned or confirmed something from the experience.

I participate in three types of author events.

The mass author bash like the one above is my least favorite. If you put a lot of genre writers together, they nullify each other and nobody sells much. The readers have trouble keeping the writers straight, too, so they don't really connect with anyone, and that's the whole reason I do any event: to make friends with my potential readers.

When the day turns into a carnival, it's hard to remember that you're selling yourself more than you're selling your books. If people like you, they're more apt to buy your books, so I chat with as many  as I can. I bring lots of flyers, bookmarks, and business cards to plug my editing and workshops and make sure my roller ball has a fresh blue cartridge for signing copies. Swag is advertising, the sales pitch I don't have to make out loud.

In two weeks, I'll join four other Connecticut writers on a panel, but we represent cozy, historical, PI, and suspense stories so we don't get in each others' way. The library is beautiful and the staff is worth their weight in uncut cocaine. Unless we get a cloudburst (which happened two years ago), we'll have an enthusiastic audience full of thoughtful questions. We may even sell a few books on the spot. We'll certainly sell some in the aftermath.

Next month, I'll do a local author fair as a fund-raiser for another local library, and they do it up big. They charge a solid admission fee so the people are already prepared to spend money. The evening event features catering from an excellent local restaurant so patrons (and authors) get fed. They also have a cash bar, which seems to stimulate sales (heh-heh-heh). Two years ago, I shared a table with a former student who had a self-help book for sale, and we traded war stories between chats with friends of the library. Best writer's fair I've attended.

The second type of event, which I like marginally more, is the single-author appearance. Sinclair Lewis said that audiences attend events like this to see if the author is funnier in person than he is to read. After 35 years of teaching and community theater, I can do stand-up, but no matter how clearly (or not) the venue promotes you, half the people are upset to discover that you don't write poetry, history, memoir, romance, or cook books, or whatever their favorite happens to be.

I don't like reading from my books either, brilliant as they are and scintillating as I am in person. I prepare passages of about five minutes each, cutting as much description and exposition as I can so they're heavy on action and dialogue, but reading puts the pages between you and your audience. I'd rather take lots of questions and turn the event into a big conversation. Naturally, I bring all the Fabulous Parting Gifts to these events, too.

Workshops rock. They satisfy my teaching jones, they give me money whether I sell books or not, and people tend to talk them up to their aspiring writer friends...and come back for more.

I used to conduct workshops in several libraries around central Connecticut, but library budgets have been slashed over the last few years, so now I do smaller venues that support writing groups. Instead of a flat fee, the venue charges an admission price to each participant and we split. The groups are smaller, but that means everyone gets a chance to ask questions.

Sure, there's some prep involved. I load my workshops with hand-outs and make sure the venue has an easel or dry marker board (I can bring one if necessary). I make a point of including an unsigned evaluation form in the handouts so the participants can turn it in to the venue. That way, I get recommendations and ideas for improvements...or even new programs.

I never sell books directly. I sell myself. If people like me, they're more apt to buy a book, and they're even more likely to buy if they receive something in return (writing instruction). Generally, I sell more books at workshops than at a panel or reading (the fund-raiser I mentioned above is an exception). It used to be that I'd sell a book for every six people at a reading or panel and one
for every three people at a workshop. Both those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, but I seem to sell more eBooks in the few weeks after an event than before.

How do you feel about events? Are your results different from mine?

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)


A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

19 June 2018

Yesterday and Today


Yesterday was Paul McCartney’s birthday and I was going to do a post related to the Beatles, writing and me. But when I found out that the next three days will be posts from the three editors at Dell Magazines,  Janet Hutchings, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow (in alphabetical order) I thought I’d do a little lead into that. I’ve met all three on various occasions and broken bread with them and they’re all terrific. So, I hope no one minds that I revisit our trip to NYC in April, 2017 where we got to hang with them.
Amy and I got to meet Janet and Linda at Bouchercons in Raleigh and Long Beach. And when we went to NYC last year we got to meet up with them again and also meet Jackie Sherbow in person. So, in honor of these editors’ posts coming up, I hope you don’t mind if I rerun my post from a little over a year ago. Hey, the TV networks do it. So here’s a revisit to that wonderful trip.

From L to R around the table: Janet Hutchings, me, Eve Allyn, Doug Allyn, Jackie Sherbow, Linda Landrigan

***

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Or is it the other way around? Amy (the wife) and I recently spent a week in New York City and I’m still not sure.  (Well, I am, but it plays better the other way.) And now the legally required disclaimer: I wrote about this trip for another blog a few weeks ago as my last slot for SleuthSayers was the family blog post that Amy did. So I didn’t have a chance to talk about our trip here. But it was writing-related and so great and so much fun I wanted to share a slightly revised version with SleuthSayers too.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building
The trip came up very unexpectedly when I got an e-mail from Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, telling me that my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill had won the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll and inviting us to come to the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards ceremony, as well as to be their guests at the Edgar Awards. I think I was in disbelief for several days, so we made no plans to head to New York…until the wonderful reality actually sunk in and we headed off to The Big Apple from The Big Sour, I mean, Big Orange.

We booked out on Jet Blue because we heard about their great on-time record. We got lucky—they were late both coming and going. I guess someone has to be the exception to the rule.

The week was a whirlwind of adventures and some sightseeing, much of it filled up with literary events. We arrived Monday night and since the hotel is next door to Grand Central Terminal we decided to check it out and have dinner at the famous Oyster Bar. Talk about a cool place. Then we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel late into the night.

On Tuesday we went to the Ellery Queen offices for tea with Janet and Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Jackie Sherbow, senior assistant editor for both EQMM and AHMM. Also there were Doug Allyn and his wife, Eve. Doug’s stories came in #2 and 3 in this year’s poll. But he’s been #1 11 times. I think it will be a long time before anyone can top that!

From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan,
Janet Hutchings, me

Everyone was very gracious. And it was good to talk with Janet again and Linda, who I’d met briefly before. And to meet Jackie for the first time in person, but who I’ve had a lot of correspondence with.
Me and Jackie Sherbow
After the afternoon tea, Jackie very graciously offered to be our guide on the subway, something I really wanted to do. So we subwayed to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a gathering of Edgar nominees, authors, publishers and more (I think we fell into the “more” category, though now that I think about it I guess I’m an author too). It was crowded, it was fun. It was great to see the famous bookstore. And to meet Otto Penzler himself. And to see some people I know, including Edgar nominee Jim Ziskin and many others. And Doug Allyn was kind enough to introduce me to several people.


In the subway: L to R me, Eve Allyn,
Doug Allyn and Amy

After the party at the Mysterious Bookshop, Jackie was once again our subway guide, taking us to a real New York pizza place that she likes. So she, Doug and Eve, and Amy and I, braved the rain to get to the subway and then the pizza place. And in a scene that could have been out of a Woody Allen movie, we stepped just inside a local market to get out of the rain for a few minutes. I was waiting for the “nasty” New Yorkers to kick us out, but nobody was nasty and nobody kicked us out. Eve grabbed some plastic bags from the produce section to cover our heads and we ventured back out into the rain. We still got soaked by the time we made it to the pizza place. But the pizza was good and it was all worth it. After dinner, Jackie headed home. Doug and Eve, Amy and I took a cab back to the hotel. And this was the one loquacious cabby we had the whole time we were in New York and he was a riot. When we were just about at the hotel he nudged through a crosswalk and some guy in the walk started yelling at him, challenging him to a fight. Now we felt like we were in New York.

Jackie guiding us through the subway.
Wednesday we had a free day, so we played tourists (which we were). Lots of other tourists all around us. We did a tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was right next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we were staying and where the Edgars would be held the following evening. (On the other side of the hotel was the Chrysler Building, which we had a view of from our window. Now that’s pretty cool to be sandwiched between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central. During our tour we had another “New York” experience when some jerk called the tour guide a “dirty scumbag” and neither she nor any of us on the tour could figure out why or what she’d done. But despite that, most everyone was really friendly and nice and we had no problems with anyone.


Grand Central Terminal
After our tour of Grand Central we followed Clint Eastwood’s “Speed Zoo” example from the movie True Crime, where he jams his kid through the zoo at the speed of sound, and did “Speed New York.” We bought tickets for the hop on-hop off buses—buses where you can get on at one location and off at the next, hang out, then get back on and go to the next location. This way we saw a lot of the city in one day. Everything from the Empire State Building to the Flat Iron and various neighborhoods. We also hopped onto the Staten Island Ferry. From there we could see the Statue of Liberty. We ended the day in Rockefeller Center and then Times Square and dinner in a pretty good Italian restaurant off Times Square. Our meal was served family style—and being only 2 people we ended up with enough left over to feed everyone in Times Square.

The next day was the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards, held at a specialized library not too far from the hotel. And it was a truly terrific experience. But the best part (besides picking up the award of course 😉) was being able to meet people in person that I know online but hadn’t met for one reason or another. Fellow SleuthSayer David Dean. Tom Savage. Dave Zeltserman, who published some of my stories early on in his HardLuck Stories magazine, and whose Small Crimes was just made into a movie on Netflix that released recently, so check it out. Besides hanging with Janet, Linda and Jackie, we also got to hang with Doug and Eve Allyn again, both of whom were great to hang with.
Me and Doug Allyn at the Ellery Queen cocktail party.

And, of course, it was more than a thrill to win the award!

Me receiving the Award.
And then it was off to the Edgars that evening. Very exciting. And all was going well, I even liked the food (and who likes the food at these things?), until the Master of Ceremonies, Jeffrey Deaver, stumbled and then fainted on the stage while doing some introductions. That was scary. Luckily he was okay, though whisked off to the hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. I believe tests showed that it wasn’t—hope so.

That’s the litany, now for the real deal: While we loved New York and all of the events, the best part of anything like this, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, etc., is the people. The community of mystery writers is a very warm, very supportive group. And, as I’ve mentioned, it was great to see old friends and also meet new people. We saw Jim Ziskin and Catriona McPherson, and had a nice chat with both of them. Met Otto Penzler. And it was good to meet Sam Reaves, Dave Zeltserman and too many others to name here. And great to spend time with Janet, Linda and Jackie.

Amy and Jackie at the Edgars.
New York has a bad rep in some ways and people who know me thought I’d hate it (as I haven’t been there in years…decades). I loved it. I loved the crowds. I loved the energy. I loved the writing community. I loved this whole unexpected trip. And I’m more than appreciative to Janet Hutchings for publishing Ghosts of Bunker Hill and taking a chance on my first story for Ellery Queen, Howling at the Moon (which, by the way, made it to #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll). And to Linda Landrigan for publishing my story Twelve Angry Days in the current (May/June 2017) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And to Jackie for everything she does to keep the wheels turning. And last but certainly not least to the people who voted for Ghosts of Bunker Hill and made it #1.

***



Look for Past is Prologue and Fade Out on Bunker Hill (a Howard Hamm story) in upcoming issues of AHMM and EQMM, respectively.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

And some good news: My story “Windward,” from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer & me) is nominated for a Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Our own Art Taylor’s story, “A Necessary Ingredient,” and Matt Coyle’s story, “The #2 Pencil,” also from Coast to Coast are also nominated. Congratulations Art and Matt! And I’m truly thrilled at how much recognition our little anthology is receiving. It’s very rewarding. And thanks to all who contributed and everyone who voted for these stories!




Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com

07 November 2017

Great Gifts for Readers and Writers


This is my last column before the madness that is the Christmas (and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and any other holiday I'm leaving out) shopping season begins on the day after we eat the bird. Yes, some of you may start your shopping on the very day we eat the bird, but I'm a traditionalist. No holiday shopping until the day after Thanksgiving--unless we're talking about books. Then you can shop any time. In bed. While you're at Grandma's. Take a quick run to Barnes and Noble while you're supposed to be grocery shopping. There's always room for more books. And more and more. Not that I have a problem or anything. Nope. Not me.
So, given that I don't have a problem, I thought this would be the perfect time to suggest gifts for readers and writers. You know, people like me (and you, I bet) who don't have a problem with coveting books or writing them, no matter how much they try to quit--wait. What? Quit? Who would want to quit? But I digress. These suggestions are not going to be books themselves. No, that would be silly. Of course the readers in your life want books. And the writers in your life want to write and sell them. You know that. But what you don't know is there are things that go along with books, things the readers and writers on your shopping list secretly want.

What are these wondrous items? Come on. I'll show you.

First we'll start with gifts for readers

Love Beacon

You think this is a book bag, right? It is, but it's so much more.

We'll start with its function as a bag. Every reader needs a book bag. Something to take with her to the library or when she's out and about. It shouldn't be too small because she might finish the book she's reading and need another one. She shouldn't be caught without options. So she'll need to carry several books with her wherever she goes. So make that bag sturdy.

But sturdiness is only one important quality of the bag. It should say something. Does your reader love sci fi? Make sure your bag shows it. Or does your reader coo at cozy mysteries? Let the bag share that with the world. Or, if your reader has eclectic taste, you can simply use the bag to proclaim that its owner loves books. But the bag should make a statement because a book bag can do more than carry books. A book bag can help readers find each other. So keep that in mind when shopping. With a book bag, you're not just giving a tote, you're giving a love beacon--a signal someone can send to the world that she is a reader. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will see the beacon and respond. What better thing to bond over than books?

Book Light

You might have bought a book light decades ago and realized they weren't made well. You might have even had a store clerk at a Waldenbooks discourage you from buying a book light back in the eighties because of their poor quality. (Nope. That wasn't me. No siree.) But today's book lights have come of age. Not only do they work well, but they're lightweight and pretty. Oh so pretty. Doesn't the reader on your list deserve a sturdy way to read in bed without the lamp on. (And to that point, doesn't the reader's mate deserve a way for the reader to read in bed without the lamp on?) So buy a book light. It's a gift for two, all in one.

Go for the Gold

Book bags and book lights are nice, you're thinking. But you want to show the reader in your life just how much you love her. Isn't there something nicer (read: pricier) you can buy? But of course. First, there's an e-reader. Yes, most people who would like a e-reader already have them, but I'd be remiss without mentioning them. When wrists get weak, e-readers can be easier to hold than books. And when eyes get tired, e-readers let you increase the type size, which can be nice too. And if you want a book and have an e-reader, you can click and have that book at your disposal in mere seconds, which is a pretty nifty thing indeed.

But, Barb, you're saying. I don't want to give an e-reader. I want to truly show the love of my life that I get her, right down to her introverted little toes. What can I buy that will show her I understand her completely? (Besides, of course, a vacation for her alone with her books.)

Well, okay. Get out your wallet. Besides a gift card for books, the best thing you can buy a reader is a ... bookshelf. Or two. Or two dozen. More and more and more. There are small bookshelves to go into niches in your bedroom. There are large bookshelves to cover walls in your study. And then, there's the granddaddy gift of them all.

Built-ins.

Nothing says love like a built-in bookshelf. Be still my page-turning heart.


 Gifts for Writers

 The Anti-Welcome Mat

We all know the standard ways people indicate they don't want others knocking on their doors. The Beware Dog sign. The doormat beseeching you to Go Away. The sock on the handle of a dorm room door, indicating that ... well, you know.

Writers need something like this too. All too often, a person toiling at home (especially someone who spends his days making up conversations for imaginary people) is viewed as interruptible.

"Mom, where are the cookies?"

"Have you checked the jar?"  Grumble, grumble.

"Dad, can you drive me to my friend's house?"

"What, your legs don't work?" Even more grumbling.

"Honey, the house is on fire."

"I swear, if I get interrupted one more time I--oh, wait. That's an interruption I'm okay with."

Let's hope that house fires are few and far between. For those other times, your writer needs a way to nicely tell the member of his family to Go Away. So here we have it, a simple sign the writer can hang on his office door. Interrupt thereafter at your peril.

Page Holder

Until you've tried to type in edits, hunching forward to look down at a page on your desk then looking back up to your screen, then hunching forward again to find your place, then straightening up to type the next edits in before hunching once more, over and over and over, you haven't typed in edits first done on paper. Yes, some authors might do all their editing on the computer, but many people edit and proofread the old-fashioned way. I'm one of them. Reading off screen enables me to spot errors I believe I'd otherwise miss. And that's great, until it's time to type in the changes.

That's where a Page Holder comes in. It allows you to have your pages standing upright, so you can sit in the same position, with your eyes on the pages and your fingers on the keys, typing away. And when you need to look to the screen, it's so much easier moments later to simply scan to the left to find your place again on the paper page. This may seem like something silly or unnecessary, but oh my goodness, the writer in your life needs it. Since I got mine a few months ago, typing in edits goes So Much Faster. And, even more exciting, I don't have to worry any more about actually becoming a hunchback, which might be good for fiction set at Notre Dame, but in real life, not so much.

An editor

Every writer needs an editor. You never know when you might be telling too much instead of showing, or writing stilted dialogue, or not recognizing a plot hole so big Big Foot could fit through it. That's why it's always good to get a second pair of eyes, especially someone who specializes in this type of work.

Some authors rely on critique groups, and they can be great. But sometimes an author needs a professional. A freelance editor. This can be especially true for authors trying to sell a first manuscript and authors planning to self-publish. But freelance editors can be pricey, so if you love an author, perhaps the best present you can give is the gift of an editor's time.
I know all about this--it's how I make my living. I can't tell you how rewarding it is to help an author reach his potential, to see a writer sell the story she toiled over, to witness a smile when an author's book lands on a bookstore shelf. So if you have a writer in the family, consider helping him or her splurge on an editor. But be sure to do it after you eat the bird. Holiday shopping can wait. We do have traditions to follow, after all.

So, do you have a great gift you can recommend for the reader or writer in your life? Please share in the comments. And happy early Thanksgiving!

23 August 2017

Bread and Circuses


This post is prompted in part by Barb Goffman's piece, from last week, about bearing witness to wrong-doing.

I'm not a fan of scoring political points in my stories. That doesn't mean I steer clear of political situations, or real-world issues. Of course, when they're safely in the past, that's a help. I've used the Viet Nam antiwar movement (and the FBI's counterintelligence programs) to what I think is good effect. And even in the present day, there's no reason to put stuff off-limits, unless it breaks the glass. 

There are easy ways to lose your reader's trust. You can make an obvious mistake, with geography, or firearms, or stamp collecting. Get one thing wrong they know about, and they won't believe it when you tell them things they don't know about. Ironclad rule. And the same is true of introducing your visceral dislike of Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump. You're going back on the deal you made. Not that we agreed to provide utterly mindless entertainment, but that we promised a convincing alternative reality, proxies of our common disquiet. I once reminded a friend of mine that most people are murdered by people in their own families, a wife by her husband, for example. She said, that was why she'd rather read about Hannibal Lecter. It was vicariously frightening, instead of familiar.

I get aggravated when Steve Hunter backhands Obama. It's gratuitous. In fairness, I'm equally annoyed if John LeCarre gets on his high horse about Thatcher and the Tory legacy. In either case, they're spoiling the illusion. Sometimes it's fun to see the man behind the curtain, what Orson Welles called showing you how the model train set works, but that's a different order of things. I don't frankly care what your personal political sympathies are. I don't want to hear them. I'm with Samuel Goldwyn, if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

Let's get it out front. It can't be any mystery that my own politics are somewhere Left of Steve Hunter, if maybe on the less radical side of LeCarre. I'm a social liberal, I don't have a problem using the tax system for income redistribution, and I'm pro-Choice. I also served in the military, and own guns. Are these inconsistencies? Men in this line of work are not all alike.

I don't think our politics affect how we tell a story. Allen Drury was by all reports a fair way to the Right of Genghis Khan, but Advise and Consent is a cracking good book all the same. I think, on the other hand, that our politics have a lot to do with the stories we choose to tell. As a for instance, both T. Jefferson Parker and I have written about the present-day border wars, drugs and human traffic coming north, money and guns going south, the so-called Iron River. What's going on is deeply corrupt. Jeff Parker and I agree Mexico is a failed state, and that the U.S. is complicit, but nothing we've written about this is prescriptive. We're not telling you how to vote.

Maybe it's a matter of degree, or emphasis. Wearing your heart on your sleeve. "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America." Casablanca is, in the one sense, overtly political, and on the other hand, it's intensely personal. Why, the captain asks, can't Rick go back to America? Well, for one thing, he fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side. Which makes him what used to be called a Premature Anti-Fascist. He's politically suspect. He might even be a Red. The picture takes place in late 1941, but it was made in '42, and we were already in the war by then. Rick's earlier sympathies can be forgiven. In any event, this is context. It's not what the picture's about. "Who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren't you the kind that tells?" That's what the picture's about.

We could say, then, that it comes down to story. Not a theme, or a setting, or the atmospherics of dread - be it Nazis, or Commies, or the surveillance state - but the through line. Who the characters understand themselves to be, and how they act (or choose not to act), and what the consequences are. I wouldn't call this a failure of nerve, I'd say it was knowing your lines and showing up on time. Political posturing isn't persuasive. Emotional investment is. The beating of your heart outguns the cannon fire.

The question Barb Goffman raised was about cowardice, and moral imperatives. Don't we have an obligation to speak out, at the least, against violence and hatred? And if we're silent, or indifferent, isn't that collusion? If you were a Jew in Hitler's Germany, would you fight, or hide? It's worth remembering that acts of conscience, in a lot of places, and even today, can cost you your life. We're not just talking about the Third World here, and primitive goons like Boko Haram. The First World has its own fatwas. We don't pretend we're doing it for God, or supposedly.

I don't have any prescriptive answer for this riddle, either. There are safe choices, and dangerous ones. We can all hope we'd rise to the occasion, if our courage were put to the test. But we don't really know whether we'd collaborate, to save ourselves or buy time. As for making our voices heard, I think we owe it to those other voices that are so deafeningly silenced. Just this week, a Turkish writer with German citizenship, Dogan Akhanli, was arrested in Spain on an Interpol warrant issued by the Erdogan government, requesting Akhanli's extradition. It's a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment. We forget in this country that speech isn't protected in much of the world. Dogan Akhanli has had the bad manners to write about the Armenian genocide, which in Turkey invites jail time for sedition.

Heroics aside - standing up against tyranny - we still don't seem to have decided the issue. What place do our politics have in our writing, mysteries or thrillers or any fiction at all? The key here, I guess, is the adjective 'our.' Lots of stories have a political dimension, and we could name any number of plot engines that do, from conflict diamonds to extraordinary rendition to black market transplant organs harvested from convicts. On the other hand, I'm not going to inflict my own politics on you. It's not hard to make that distinction. Don't tell people what to think. Stories are about movement. If something gets in the way of that forward motion, and makes the reader break eye contact, then it doesn't belong.



13 May 2017

When Murder Is a Family Business


  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifteenth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by B.K. Stevens

one of our bat mitzvah invitation covers
Like most parents, my husband and I wanted to create a close, loving family with our children. So we had long, chatty dinners around the kitchen table and made reading out loud at bedtime a nightly ritual. We went on lots of outings, too, from picnics in the park to a Beach Boys concert at the county fair, from frequent visits to the public library to trips to national monuments ranging from the Lincoln Memorial to Mount Rushmore. And we always made a big deal about birthday and holiday celebrations.

My husband, Dennis, and I cherished all those experiences, and I know our daughters did, too. When I think about the times that really made us into a close family, though, I think about times when we all worked on a project together. For example, when our older daughter, Sarah, had her bat mitzvah, we decided to do all the cooking and baking ourselves, and we also decorated homemade invitations, using a string-painting technique our younger daughter, Rachel, had learned in kindergarten. Everyone enjoyed working together so much that we did the cooking, baking, and invitation-making again for Rachel's bat mitzvah.

When I was volunteering as principal of the religious school, we all worked on costumes and props for the annual Purim plays. And, of course, we also plotted the occasional murder together.

my first published story
I didn't start writing mysteries until Sarah was about three, and at first I didn't take it seriously. One idea for a mystery plot had been gnawing away at me for a while, and I decided to play around with it for a few weeks before getting back to more serious pursuits such as grading freshman compositions and tracking down AWOL My Little Ponies. If Dennis had said one discouraging word to me during those early days, if he'd made one snide remark about mysteries or one comment about the amount of time I was wasting on a novel I'd never finish, I'm positive I would have given the whole thing up immediately, embarrassed I'd ever attempted something so out of character for me. But he didn't.

From the first moment, he was encouraging and enthusiastic. He had ideas about how to develop characters more fully, about how to add twists to the plot and depth to the themes. And every evening, he wanted to read what I'd written. I finished the novel. Naturally, nobody had any interest in publishing it, but by then I was hooked on writing mysteries, and I decided to give short stories a try. The first few went nowhere, but in 1987– the same year our younger daughter was born– Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted "True Detective."

Dennis continued, and still continues, to read everything I write– usually, several drafts of everything I write– and to make suggestions that always improve those drafts immeasurably. For a while, though, I didn't tell our daughters much about the stories I was writing. After all, they were so young, so innocent, so vulnerable– I wanted them to be daydreaming about rainbows and kittens, not arsenic and blunt instruments.

When Sarah was seven, Woman's World accepted a story I judged tame enough for her to read. It centered on a jewel theft, not a murder, with no trace of violence either described or implied. She liked the story and rewarded me with the lovely note you see here. (Of course, since this was a Woman's World story, it wasn't published under the title I'd given it. Woman's World chose to call it "Baby Talk"– why, I'll never know.)

As the years went on, I began letting the girls read more of my stories– first Sarah, then Rachel– and mysteries became a frequent topic of family discussions. When I ran into a plot snag or some other problem, I'd bring it up at the dinner table, and everyone would offer suggestions.

Once, when Rachel was nine, I needed to think of a place where a character could hide a small camera. Rachel said she could sew it up inside a stuffed animal. Good idea. Rachel was thrilled when the May, 1996 AHMM came out, and the illustration for the story showed an oversized stuffed bunny propped against a bed pillow. A couple of years later, Sarah mentioned an old Jewish folk custom she'd read about, and I thought it might make an interesting clue. That inspired the first story in my Leah Abrams series for AHMM. To acknowledge my daughters' contributions to that story and others, I gave Leah clever young daughters named Sarah and Rachel. When I wrote the second story in that series, I was stuck for a closing line. Rachel helped out by suggesting a witty, subtly snarky remark a character could make. Naturally, she assigned that remark to her namesake. It did sound like something Rachel would say, so I honored her choice. And both girls helped out eagerly when I wrote a story set at a high school, bringing it to life by supplying plenty of examples of disciplinary absurdities and letting me know when my slang was out of date.

Rachel
Even after the girls went to college, the consultations continued– they continue to this day. I e-mail drafts of every story to them, and they respond with criticisms, compliments, and suggestions. No one could ask for sharper, more perceptive beta readers. They've contributed story ideas, too, and sometimes told me about nasty people they've met, people who have ended up as victims or murderers. (People should think twice before being mean to one of my daughters.) And, as they've developed new areas of expertise, I've often consulted them for information.

If I had to pick one work that truly was a family project, it would have to be my first published novel, Interpretation of Murder (Black Opal Books, 2015). Sarah has always been fascinated by American Sign Language– while she was still a teenager, she took evening courses at the local community college and earned her state certification as an interpreter before graduating from high school. She continued her study of ASL during and after college and is now a nationally certified interpreter.

About eight years ago, she suggested I write a story about an interpreter working at a murder trial. She helped me develop the plot and devise clues related to sign language, and she gave me plenty of background information to make the story more realistic, everything from examples of ASL idioms to details about how interpreters dress. The story appeared in AHMM and won a Derringer. (Well, half a Derringer– it was a tie.) It's now also self-published as an Amazon single, under the title "Silent Witness." (Rachel took charge of the self-publishing process, since I lack the technical expertise to do it myself; she also handles the technical side of my blog, The First Two Pages. Anyway, I finally got to use the title I'd chosen for that first Woman's World story.)

I liked the protagonist of "Silent Witness," Jane Ciardi, so much that I began thinking of writing a novel about her. The project involved a number of challenges, but luckily I had family members who could help with every one of them. I wanted Jane's profession to be integral to the plot, not just a job she goes to from time to time while investigating crimes as an amateur sleuth. The whole family helped generate ideas, and Sarah recommended books I should read and provided helpful examples from her own experiences. Once I started writing, she scrutinized every page, checking to make sure the book provides readers with genuine insights into Deaf culture and ASL interpreting.

Other challenges involved setting. Our family was living in Cleveland when I wrote the AHMM story, so I set it there; I wanted to set the novel in Cleveland, too, but Dennis and I had moved to Virginia. Rachel was living in Cleveland, though– she went back there after graduating from college to spend a few years with old friends while studying interior design and working part-time. So Rachel became my consultant on all things Cleveland, checking out locations when my memory and Google came up short.

For example, I needed a semi-spooky setting for a tense confrontation between my protagonist and a volatile, sometimes violent suspect. Rachel suggested Squire's Castle, an abandoned shell of building that's now part of the city park system. It's supposed to be haunted, and that, of course, adds to its charm. Perfect. Also, Rachel's part-time job was at an upscale fitness center. When Dennis and I visited the center and listened to Rachel's stories about the people she met there, I decided a fictionalized version of it could play an important role in the novel, as a place some characters suspect to be a front for shady goings-on. Rachel helped me with the layout of my fictionalized center and supplied many details to make descriptions of it more realistic.

Squire's Castle
But I also had problems with my protagonist. In the AHMM story, Jane Ciardi is perceptive but passive. She's intelligent and observant enough to realize something is amiss at the trial, but when she has a chance to try to set things right, she loses her nerve, hoping the jury will reach the right verdict even if she does nothing. The story ends with her decision to stay silent. I thought that made Jane an interesting, believable character for a stand-alone story. But readers expect amateur sleuths in mystery novels to be made of sterner stuff. I had to toughen Jane up. So I made her into someone who's learned from her mistakes and resolved she'll never again let fear keep her from doing what's right. As a concrete way of underscoring the idea that Jane is now someone who fights back, I decided to make her a martial artist.

Dennis
Luckily, I had a resident expert to help me describe the martial arts class Jane is taking and her occasional run-ins with hostile sorts. Dennis is a fifth-degree black belt in sogu ryu bujutsu and has also studied over half a dozen other martial arts. He'd helped me with action scenes in several stories– for example, in the Iphigenia Woodhouse stories, Harriet Russo is a black belt who sometimes tosses a suspect aside– but this was by far our most ambitious project to date. We were determined to describe every class, every confrontation in realistic detail.

Since I'm not a martial artist– not by a long shot– we decided we had to act scenes out so I could understand them well enough to describe them. The process sometimes got uncomfortable. Dennis is the expert, so he always played the role of the person who twists arms and lands kicks, forcing the other person– that would be me– to the ground. He was always careful and never delivered full-force punches; even so, I received frequent reminders of why I'd long ago decided I never, ever wanted to study martial arts. We usually had to act moves out several times, pausing often so I could jot down notes about how to describe something.

my husband clobbering kid
It was a lot of work and not always a lot of fun, but we were pleased with the way the scenes turned out– so pleased I decided to write a novel in which martial arts would play an even more central role, a young adult mystery called Fighting Chance (Poisoned Pen Press, 2015). This time, the featured martial art was krav maga, the Israeli self-defense system Dennis was studying at the time.

Dennis beats up another little kid
Once again, he took charge of the choreography, and after the book was published, he visited middle schools and high schools with me to promote it. I talked about elements of characterization, and he demonstrated krav maga techniques.

Guess which part of the presentation students enjoyed more. I'm happy to say that when he demonstrated those techniques, Dennis used student volunteers as his victims, nor me.

Dennis also comes to conferences with me, to help force bookmarks on passersby and give me pep talks before panels. Our daughters have gotten involved with promotion, too.

Rachel and guests at the Agatha banquet
For example, when I gave an Authors' Alley presentation about Interpretation of Murder at Malice Domestic in 2015, Sarah came to Bethesda to do some on-the-spot interpreting and answer questions about sign language.

The next year, Fighting Chance was nominated for an Agatha, and so was an AHMM story, "A Joy Forever"– and the day before I planned to leave for this once-in-a-lifetime, double-nomination Malice Domestic, I had a bad fall, breaking my right arm and seriously injuring my right leg. The doctor declared surgery essential and travel insanely reckless, so Malice was out of the question. Dennis, of course, stayed with me to help me through. We called Rachel, and she stepped in to host our table at the Agatha banquet. (Like Sarah, Rachel lives in Maryland now, so we're all within a few hours of each other– we're close geographically, as well as in other ways.) Several guests wrote to me later to say what a charming hostess Rachel had been. She even got a list of names and addresses, so we could mail guests the table favors we'd planned to bring to Bethesda.

where it all began

So if you want to create a close family, here's my advice: Put your kids to work. Work alongside them, all striving to reach a common goal. Sadly, I'm not sure of how well this approach works if the goal is cleaning out the garage. But it works fine if the goal is something everyone will enjoy, such as string-painting invitations or plotting the murder of a rigid, unreasonable high-school principal. Seriously, though, I think writers who are parents often worry that their work will pull them away from their families, that their children will resent hours spent toiling at the word processor instead of playing in the park. If we find ways to involve our children in our work, though, I think that brings us closer. Playing together is important– we always need to find time for that. But working together may be an even more potent way of creating deep, lasting unity.



Midwestern Mysteries, the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, contains my article about the role Cleveland plays in Interpretation of Murder. I hope you get a chance to check out "Cleveland: Drownings, Ghosts, and Rock and Roll."

06 May 2017

Two out of Fifteen–So Far


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eight in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by John M. Floyd

I've enjoyed reading, over the past week, about the families of my fellow SleuthSayers, and especially about the talent (and love of) writing that exists among their family members.

As for my own crew, here's some background. Our immediate family has now grown to 15, not counting my mother, and it's a number that doesn't sound all that big until we all get together (usually every June for a summer outing and every Christmas for a one-to-two-week gathering at our home in Mississippi). Then it's quickly obvious how much larger and younger and louder our group has become.


For anyone who's interested, my wife Carolyn and I have three grown kids and seven blue-eyed grandchildren. Our son Michael is a chemical engineer with DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia; he and his wife Jennifer (also a chem. e. and currently a stay-at-home mom) have three children: Lily (11), Anna (9), and Gabriel (6). David, our second son, is a physician at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; he and his wife Jamie (also a doctor, and currently a stay-at-home mother and aerobics instructor) have two kids: Charlie (9) and Susannah (7). Karen, our youngest child, is also a stay-at-home mom, and a former music teacher at a local elementary school; she and her husband Collin Berger (a computer technician) live in Pearl, Mississippi, and have two kiddos: Richard (4) and Julia (1). My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that we have two of our three children and four of our seven grandkids living nearby and that we're able to have all fifteen of our family together at least twice a year. (We're also thankful for FaceTime--as we used to be for Skype.)

I'm always reminded, any time I think of family, of two old sayings. One is "The offspring done sprung higher than them they sprung off of" (which in my case is certainly true) and the other is "By the time the rich man has enough money to afford children, the fool has enough kids to support him." I especially like that second one. Now, if they'll only support me . . .

As for writers and writing--so far, although several of our brood have done some technical and professional writing, only one (besides me) has shown much interest in creating fiction. That's our granddaughter Susannah--on the left in the photo below, taken last Christmas--who'll be eight years old next month. She's an avid reader, especially of series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and likes to write fantasy stories and tales that involve animals of any kind. (Her people-doctor parents already suspect that they might be raising a veterinarian.) Currently Susannah is collaborating with a school friend, and together they've written several stories that I think have turned out really well. At that age I was probably still trying to learn how to tie my shoes.


So that's it, for the Floyds. One final point: although not many of us are writers, I'm very pleased to say that all of us--even my mom, who's 90--are readers.

That's the important thing. Right?

17 April 2017

God Bless the Beta Reader


You have to revise your work, probably several times. That means you're looking at structure, pace, and character development along with accuracy, voice, and grammar. Is your dialogue effective? Does your plot build? Do your characters deepen and grow? Does the whole thing even make sense?

One of the problems with revising is that the more you do it, the more you invest in what you see in front of you. The more you revise and polish, the harder it is to recognize what might be a big problem with pacing or logic because you've been looking at it so long that you begin to take it for granted without even realizing it.

That's why a good beta reader is so important. Someone who hasn't watched you grow and nurture your first several drafts isn't as connected to it and can question your ideas more easily. Distance is a great thing.



Not everyone can be a good beta reader. I know several former English teachers who are so used to correcting grammar and spelling that they can't focus on larger issues like plot or character arc. Dialogue using slang can distract them from the characterization. If they see "literature" as something removed from "genre" or popular" fiction (which many of them do), their bias can get in the way, too.

I've been in two writing groups, and neither of them did the job I would have liked for a number of reasons. The first was composed of people who wrote in all genres: poetry, "literary," memoir, nonfiction...and me. I was dismayed to learn that the rules of good writing don't carry over from form to form. Two people in the group wrote well and offered intelligent feedback, but the rest made me wonder why we'd outlawed flogging. I finally left the group when one woman announced, "This is in the style of Gabriel Garcia Marques," and I, with my usual tact, replied, "So why isn't it in Spanish?" Nobody laughed.

The second group was all genre writers. At one time, we had 23 members, but six or seven showed up at most meetings, four of us regularly and the others at random. One always came to complain that she hadn't had time to write and wanted us to commiserate. I was the only crime/mystery writer, and people complained that my characters kept getting into trouble. Fortunately, the organizer ran into family turmoil and the group dissolved before I had to resort to violence...which I would have called "research."

Both groups had problems with anyone pointing out weaknesses, such as illogical plot twists, 40 pages of description in a 50-page excerpt, or characters who changed speech patterns from meeting to meeting.

Ideally, a beta reader is familiar with the form you write, whether it's mystery, romance, science fiction, free verse or financial theory. They have to understand your work and appreciate it, but still not be impressed by it. Yes, it's a paradox, but it's vital. If people love your work, they'll be reluctant to point out problems, which is the whole reason to be your beta reader.

A good beta reader can spot inconsistencies and inaccuracies but still focus on the big stuff. I remember one reader who wondered if my scene might have more impact in a different point of view, and I realized as soon as he said it that he was right. I changed it.

Another good reader stage-managed several plays that I directed, and she understood my rhythms and my visual/aural sense. She grasped that I "heard" things better than I "saw" them on-stage and blocked scenes and beat changes as a form of punctuation.

When I drifted away from theater, I asked her to read one of my novels. We met a month later, and she pulled out the well-thumbed MA (she'd read the whole thing three times, bless her) and flipped to a page with a paper clip on it.

"Do you know there's a huge energy drop in this scene?" She'd even turned down the page where it started, and it showed me that the scene needed drastic cutting. A ten-page scene became five because I had included so much detail that added nothing to the story.

Both those readers have moved away and I don't have emails for either of them. Alas. I have two or three readers now, and they all have strengths, but they all have weaknesses, too. Fortunately, they complement each other. One is great for details and fact checking (you spelled this name with an "ie" here and with a "y" later) but doesn't get structure or pacing. We constantly argue about a turning point coming too soon (I think 90% of the book is fine, but she wants it in the last ten pages, even though I don't write whodunits). Another, who does physical training, has a sense of my pacing and comprehends my rhythms. Her standard comment is along the lines of "I thought this dragged until incident Z in Scene AA." That helps me enormously.

A good beta reader can tell you what bothers him or her without necessarily telling you how to fix it. Sometimes, a casual comment like "this seems to start more slowly than I expected" is all you need. Or, "was that supposed to be funny?"

A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in chocolate, so if you find one, cherish him or her. And DON'T give him stuff that isn't ready for another pair of eyes. I don't like to show anything until the fourth or fifth draft because by then I've fixed most of the typos and can mention specific concerns, such as shifting POV or a strained plot point.

Whatever your beta reader tells you, listen to it. You don't have to change everything but remember that this is a preview of how other people will respond to your book. Think of it as a first date that you want to go well. Otherwise, what's the point?