Why Go To A Conference?

Thursday I’ll be heading for Muncie, Indiana, for the Magna cum Murder conference.

Magna cum Murder
October 28-30, 2011

This conference is for fans as well as writers so there’s less emphasis on the  writing process (How to) and more on the creating process (Why? Where do you get your ideas?) The panel I’m on is called “Twist and Shout.” I think we’ll be discussing twists in our stories and authors whom we feel do a good job of adding a twist (or two or three) to a story. I’m not sure what the “shout” will be about.

I have been attending conferences ever since I started writing. I feel they’re a necessary part of the business, and I’m always surprised when writers (especially new writers) tell me they don’t believe in going to conferences.

Now with some writers it may be a matter of finances, and I can sympathize with that. Most conferences are pricey (but not all). But if a writer wants to be published, s/he must approach it as a business, and it often costs money to make money. That means, for writers who are on a limited budget, it’s important to pick a conference that offers the most for the buck, and that would depend on the writer’s needs at a particular time.

Just starting out? Conferences that offer “How to” sessions along with information about the publishing business might be the best choice. Have a manuscript ready to be published? Then conferences where there will be agents and/or editors taking
pitches would be good. Established writer with a book or books out? Then a conference such as the one I’m going to might be a good choice. There will be readers as well as writers at Magna cum Murder, and it’s readers I want to reach. I also want to hear what other writers are experiencing. Get a group of writers together and there will be talk about publishers who are looking for stories, publishers who are expanding or shrinking their lines, agents accepting new clients, agents to avoid, ways to promote a book, e-books, new technologies, etc.

Attending a writing conference energizes me. The scheduled sessions are always nice, but it’s usually the conversations in the lobby and bar that offer the most information. Sometimes I join in the conversation, other times I simply listen.

Conferences are also a time for me to get out of the house, to forget the need to go shopping, cook dinner, wash dishes, etc. I always bring my laptop with me, and I’m always amazed by how much I can write in an hour of solitude in a hotel room.

I know I’ll return home exhausted, but I’ll also return with new ideas, information, and enthusiasm. If you’re also at Magna cum Murder, stop me and say hi. If not, and it fits your needs and budget, consider it for next year. http://ww.magnacummurder.com

Mysteries and Romances

Saturday morning I’ll be in Grand Rapids giving a talk on writing the mystery. (If you’re at the Grand Rapids Region Writers Conference: I’ve Always Wanted to Write a Book do say hello.) Later that morning, award winning author Lisa Childs will be speaking on writing the romance. Two separate genres that, in my opinion, have much in common. (Which may be why I’ve written in both genres.)

Both mysteries and romances have many sub-genres, each defined by the emphasis of the story. That is, will the mystery be a thriller where the stakes are high; or a cozy where an amateur will solve the crime, perhaps with the help of her dog or cat or while baking or making something wonderful; or will it be a police procedural where the reader learns a bit more about law enforcement procedures? As for romances, you can find anything from an historical to a futurist time period; real-life situations to fantasy; inspirational to erotic.
In each case we have a protagonist (be it a he or a she) who has a goal and a good reason to reach that goal, but something (with a mystery it’s usually the villain) is keeping the main character from reaching that goal.

With both genres a successful story ends with a satisfying ending. In mysteries the bad guy is caught, the disaster is averted, or the crime has been solved (even if no one goes to jail). In romances the happy ending may or may not end in a proposal or marriage, but we know the main character has conquered whatever was holding her (or him) back from true happiness. (The HEA ending.)

Most mysteries actually include a romance, be it overt (as in romantic suspense) or merely a minor subplot. The romance, however, is rarely the driving force in a mystery. It’s there to add tension or help define the main protagonist. It may even be included to add conflict and diversion. It’s not the center of the story, but it may complicate the plot and make the protagonist’s life more difficult. With series mysteries, if there is a romance it may continue from book to book and be a relationship between the same two people, or maybe she’s trying to decide between two different men, or he’s going from one woman to another and another.

Whereas the characters and their emotional growth are the main focus in a romance, this is rarely true (again, except for romantic suspense) in a mystery. Some continuing characters don’t change at all or only slightly from book to book, and in many cases, once the relationship is consummated, the tension is gone and the series loses much of its appeal. TV examples of this would be Moonlighting and Remmington Steele. It will be
interesting to see what happens to the TV show Castle if Beckett and Castle do get together (and if you watch Castle on Monday nights and aren’t reading Lee Lofland’s blog review of the show on Tuesdays, you’re missing some good pointers on how TV can screw up the realities of law enforcement, along with his comments on the Beckett and Castle relationship.)

My two mysteries, The Crows and As the Crow Flies, include a romance between P.J. Benson (who’s never quite sure how she’s gotten involved in a mystery) and Homicide Detective Wade Kingsley, but the romance is not the driving force of the stories, and I
like it that way. Maybe it’s my age, but I’m having more fun having my characters dodge bullets and get into danger rather than crawl into bed.


Traveling to Promote My Book

Today I returned from an overnight trip to Manistee, Michigan. The trip came about from postcards I mailed to libraries last January announcing my second P.J. Benson mystery, AS THE CROW FLIES.  Soon after Five Star (which is part of Gale/Cengage Learning) released AS THE CROW FLIES, I was contacted by one of the librarians at the Manistee Public Library and asked if I’d be interested in doing a program for their Authors Series. Although the date for the program was months away, I said yes. And I’m so glad I did.

I was blessed with beautiful weather for the drive and a gorgeous view of Northern Michigan’s fall colors. After arriving in Manistee and checking into a Motel 8, I drove over to the library. The library is a two-story building on Maple Street with friendly librarians who welcomed me, showed me where I’d be speaking in a few hours, and told me the best place to park and to use the elevator to bring my materials to the room.

My talk was scheduled for 6:30 p.m., so I arrived a half-hour early and was greeted by Andrea, who’d set up the talk. By 6:30, roughly a dozen people had arrived, which considering the beautiful weather and the fact that I was competing against a make-or-break Tigers’ baseball game on TV, I figured was a good crowd. And best of all, once my talk was over, the library served refreshments, including a green-tomato-mince-meat pie that one of the patrons had made and brought. (I would love the recipe. It was delicious and a great way to use up those green tomatoes that are still on the vine in the fall.)

Those in attendance said they enjoyed my talk, and I sold a few copies of AS THE CROW FLIES (and my last hard copy of THE CROWS), but most of all, I had a wonderful time meeting people who love reading books.

Was the trip worth it? That’s one of those things I’ll probably never know for sure. The library did pay me a stipend that will cover my motel and gas costs, and after my talk, I went back to my motel room where I had complete solitude away from every-day-life demands, time that I used (both before I went to bed and then in the morning until I had to check out) to work on my new mystery. I also met some people at breakfast who wanted to know more about my books, and one man who said he belonged to a group that invited
writers to speak. (He asked for my business card.) So who knows. I know I certainly enjoyed the trip and the people I met.

My next jaunt will be to the Grand Rapids Regions’ conference “I Always Wanted to Write a Book” being held in Grand Rapids on October 22nd. I’ll be talking about writing the mystery. Hope to see some of you there. http://grandrapidsregionwritersgroup.blogspot.com/p/ive-always-wanted-to-write-book-hosted.html



Last month I signed up for a Continuing Education  class on the topic of Creativity. I was really looking forward to the class, but Monday I received a call that “Due to lack of enrollment” the  class had been canceled.

Now, in the past I’ve taught a class titled ”Tapping into Your Creativity” and conducted a session at a RWA  National Conference on the topic, but I’m always interested in learning more about the subject. I’ve always admired people who come up with new, innovative
ideas, and I’m always looking for ways to make my writing a little different  from what’s generally available.

If you’re like me, looking for ways to jump start  your creativity, I would suggest reading Julia Cameron’s book The Artists’ Way. I’ve never followed  all of the steps she recommends, but I really like Morning Pages.

Morning Pages are to be written (as suggested) in  the morning before you start working. The idea is to write three pages of
whatever comes into your mind. No worrying about spelling, grammar, or content. No editing. She recommends you write three pages, put them away, and don’t look  at them again. This is not journaling. You’re not putting down your impressions  of a scene or event or ideas for a story. You’re simply letting the words  tumble out.

For those three pages (or however long you write) you’re shutting off your internal editor and that in itself can be very  liberating.

I don’t always do “morning pages.” In  fact, I haven’t done them in a long time. What I discovered when I was doing  them was the experience stimulated my mind in a way that when I did start  working on my book the sentences I put down were richer. I was coming up with  better verbs and descriptive nouns. My story had more texture. I wasn’t padding
my writing, I was enriching it.

Many writers suggest writing the first draft (rough  draft or “shitty” first draft) as fast as you can without worrying  about spelling or grammar. Don’t worry if the story goes in a different direction  than you’d planned or what you just wrote is “crazy.” “The  faster you write,” they say, “the more creative you’ll be.”

Well, I’m sure they’re right, but I just can’t write that way. I get started and that internal editor pipes up with “That won’t  work” or “Wait, you misspelled that word.” Knowing what I should  do and doing it are two different creatures.

So I guess, since I’m not going to have a class to  stimulate my creativity, I’m going to have to go back to writing “morning  pages”. Anyone else out there doing them? How’s it working for you?

I’ll report on my progress next week.

Leave It!

Leave it is a command I give my dog when I want him  to ignore something. It might be another dog, something on the ground, or a tree  he’s sniffing.

Leave it is also something I tell myself when I  reach a point in my writing where I’m not quite sure where I’m headed or the  scene just isn’t developing quite right. That’s the time to walk away from the  computer or the page (if you prefer writing long hand). That’s when I do something different: wash the dishes, take a walk, a shower or bath. My house  is its cleanest when I’m having problems with a story. A mess if everything is
going well.

Why leave it?

Scientists have discovered our brains cycle within  different ranges and that brainwaves that cycle within the range of 8-12 Hz are  usually generated in the brain’s right hemisphere or in a synchronized pattern  between both right and left hemispheres and these are the most creative brainwaves.  They’re referred to as Alpha brain waves.

On the other hand, Beta brain waves, which cycle at 12-35  Hz, are usually generated in the left side of the brain, and kick in when  feeling stress, feeling tense, and when logically thinking. They are considered  normal thinking brain waves for adults. They’re good if you need to think  quickly, need to be goal oriented, social, positive, focused, and energetic.
They’re activated when writing and working on ways to promote your writing.

But if you’ve run into a problem with your writing,  you need those Alpha brain waves, and they kick in when our minds and bodies  are completely relaxed and free of stress. (By the way, children tend to have  higher levels of alpha brainwaves than adults and tend to be more creative.  As we grow older those Beta waves increase,  and we start worrying about what others think of our ideas. We let the editors’,  reviewers’, and our critique partners’ comments limit our creativity. We run  into WRITERS BLOCK.)

Ever notice how you come up with great ideas while  taking a bath or a shower, just before you fall asleep, or while you’re  exercising? That’s because the alpha brainwave is associated with a completely  relaxed body and mind. The  10 Hz alpha brainwave frequency is commonly referred to as a “peak performance”  state of mind or being “in the zone.” So, in addition to bathing, doing  housework, or taking walks, try meditation, visualization, yoga, deep  breathing, even watching TV.

Keep those Alpha brainwaves cycling. Which is why I  say, “Can’t come up with another creative idea, then leave it!” (Go  have some fun for a while.)

* * * *

As an update. Zuri came through the operation fine,  but on day 4 of recovery he managed to tear the stitches out. So far we’re  keeping the incision clean and infection free, but he has an open hole near his  elbow, and we’re not sure how it will look when healed. We’re also waiting for  the results of the biopsy.


My Rhodesian Ridgeback

Today I’m feeling sorry for and worried about my dog, Zuri.
Tomorrow morning he goes to vet’s for surgery. He’s had a growth on his right
elbow for about four months, and it has one area that occasionally breaks open
and bleeds. Not just a little, but a lot. Although he’s had calluses on his
elbows for years, this is different, and the vet wants to have it sent to the
lab for a biopsy.

Zuri is ten years and three months old. A Rhodesian
Ridgeback’s life span is between 10 and 14 years (although a few have lived  longer). Zuri is showing his age (aren’t we all), but he’s basically a healthy  Ridgeback, and we’re hoping we have 4 or more years with him. But they’re going  to have to put him under to do this surgery…and that always worries me.

Zuri is pet quality, and that’s what I wanted this time.
Back in the 70s my husband and I owned, bred, raised, and showed several
Rhodesian Ridgebacks and loved the experience, but this time around we simply
wanted a companion. Zuri has filled that requirement many times over.

Ridgebacks are very intelligent dogs. All of mine, over the
years, have been easy to train, though they aren’t like some breeds that rush
to obey. No, a Ridgeback will sometimes look at you as if to say, “Now, is
this in my best interest?” Zuri is oversized for the breed. (Remember, I
said he’s pet quality.) Whereas a male Ridgeback should be around 27 inches at
the shoulders and weigh around 80 pounds, Zuri is 31 inches at the shoulders
and comes in at 145 pounds. People are constantly saying, “That’s a big
dog.” (As if I hadn’t realized that.)

When he was a pup, I knew he was going to need to be well
trained if I was going to be able to handle him, so I started with the basics
the day we brought him home from the breeder, and I’ve never been sorry. Over
the years he’s been a wonderful ambassador for the breed, and for a time we
even visited a nursing home on a regular basis.

I love this breed, so when I decided to write my first
mystery suspense, I naturally gave my main protagonist (P.J. Benson) a Ridgeback  puppy…and named him after the first Ridgeback we whelped, raised, trained, and  showed to his Championship—Champion Roho’s Baraka. I hope, through my two Crow  books (The Crows and As the Crow Flies) I’ve helped readers  understand the Rhodesian Ridgeback a bit more. It’s not a breed for everyone,  but those who are owned by them, love them.

Please send good thoughts Zuri’s way.

Wanna Write? Read!

Over the years I’ve been amazed whenever I meet wannabe writers who proudly tell me: “Oh I don’t read.” Especially when they tell me they don’t read the type of book they
want to write. I simply don’t understand that sort of logic.

Some say they’re afraid they might “accidentally” plagiarize a story, think it was their own and not realize they had read it. I just don’t buy this excuse. Unless a person has a
photographic memory (and if he did, wouldn’t she remember reading the story?), even using a similar plot situation and characters would create a “new” story. The wonderful thing about writers is we each bring our own, individual personalities and life experiences to what we write. No two writers (unless intentionally) will take an idea and write about it in exactly the same way.

I never did catch on to how to diagram a sentence, but through reading (I don’t remember when I started reading, but I know by the age of twelve I was devouring books) I learned sentence structure, plot development, pacing, and all the elements of good writing. I know reading expanded my vocabulary, took me to foreign countries, taught me history, and gave me insight into other life styles. Reading also gave me the courage to write. I fully believe a writer should read the classics and books that are awarded for their excellence in writing, but I’ve found reading poorly executed books also helps. They’ve taught me what not to do. And, unprofessional as this may sound, they told me if that book could be published, then so could mine.

When I first started writing, I had an editor send me four books. “Read these,” she said. “They will give you an idea of what we’re looking for.” And I did read those four along with dozens more. In reading those books I learned what that publisher had liked in the past, the variety and/or similarities in the books, and if this was a publisher that was willing to accept new ideas or was married to a set formula.

Even if a writer wants to write something “new and different”, I say read what’s out there. Maybe the idea isn’t as new as you think. If not, then how is your book going to be different? Or if it is truly new and different, what publishing house would be willing to give it a try, or will you need to self-publish?

Readers don’t have to ask if a certain genre requires a dead body in the first chapter or a love scene by page fifty. Readers don’t have to ask if it’s all right to mix first and third
person pov in the same book, or write in present tense. Readers know if it’s been done before and if so, in what types of books and who published them.

As I said before, I think every writer should read some of the classics (I have one friend who read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. Wow!), you can learn a lot from those books, especially the ones that are still popular, but writers also must read what’s being published now. Reading habits have changed over the years. Most readers today, with their busy life-styles, don’t have the time to sit down and read long passages of description or internal thoughts. We’re used to sound bytes, lots of action, and dialog. So if you want to write, be published, and sell books, check out what’s being purchased today (either in paper form or as ebooks) and give some a read, especially those similar to what you are writing. Don’t imitate, emulate.

How to Pick a Best Seller

Every so often I’m asked to read and critique someone’s work. What most want to know is: Will this story sell to a publisher? And beyond that question is: Will this book be a best seller?

It would be nice if I or anyone could answer those questions. I know I can’t. I can point out spelling, grammar and formatting errors that will weaken a writer’s chances for success, and I can give my response to the material; that is, did it grab my attention, were the characters’ actions and motivations reasonable, and did the story have an interesting plot? But I can’t guarantee a book I like will be successful, or can I say it won’t be. Neither can agents, editors, nor reviewers.

I remember attending an RWA® session years ago where the panel was made up of agents and editors. These agents and editors worked with a variety of writers, not just romance writers, and they were discussing how they picked a story to publish and decide how much to pay the writer and how many copies to publish. One editor mentioned a book that they’d recently published. He said when he read it, he liked it and felt it would do fairly well. So he took the story to the marketing department, which, in turn, told him they felt the book would sell reasonably well and to offer the writer (a new, unknown writer at the time) an advance of fifteen thousand dollars.

We in the audience all laughed when the editor told us the name of the author and the title of the book. It was Robert James Waller who wrote Bridges of Madison County. 50 million copies were sold worldwide. The book definitely earned out its advance.

But who knew?

The list of books that have been rejected multiple times goes on and on: Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone; Gone with the Wind; Catch 22; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; M*A*S*H; Carrie; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Lord of the Flies; and… You get the idea.

If agents or editors knew what was going to be a best seller that’s all that would be published. But just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. (Obviously those editors who turned the books down didn’t like them.) So thank goodness there isn’t a magic formula or template to determine what will sell millions of copies and what won’t. And, for exactly that same reason, when I’m asked to critique a story, I always hedge my comments. I can tell the writer if the book appealed to me or not, but I can’t even begin to predict how others might react to a story. The writer really can’t even depend on a critique group. When you look at the number of rejections some of those best sellers received, it’s amazing the writers had the tenacity to keep sending the mss out.

But send them out they did. And why? Because the writers believed in their stories. Maybe they tweaked the plot or characters a bit after receiving a rejection (I don’t know), but they were persistent and didn’t give up. They wrote stories that meant something to them…and finally found an editor/publisher who shared their opinion.

So if you’ve received a rejection—even many rejections—don’t give up. If you truly believe you’ve written the best possible story, if that story means something to you, who knows…it may be the next best seller.

New Site

Today my blog will be short. As you can see, I have a new format. It’s one I still need to learn about, and this weekend my daughter (the computer guru) is coming over to show me all the bells and whistles that will make this site better than the one I had.

Last week I copied all of my old blogs. If you’ve heard about one I wrote in the past and wish you’d had a chance to read it, you’ll have to let me know about it, and I can send it to you in an email.

Meanwhile, this is where I start anew. If you have any topics you’d like me to blog about, let me know.

Have a great week.