It’s easy to feel guilty about not writing over the holidays. We’re overwhelmed with festive meal preparations, gift shopping, out-of-town guests, and myriad social activities. Yet everything we do can be considered fodder for the imagination. Be observant, note the characters around you, and describe your surroundings in your head. One of these items might prick your story brain and inspire a scene later on.
As an example, I recently strolled through the Longwood Festival. Imagine my surprise when I happened upon Judy’s Dolls, a site I’d looked up online as research for Star Tangled Murder, #18 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, interviews a suspect at her boutique doll store. I modeled some of the descriptions on what I’d read online. It was delightful to step inside this Victorian house to see the actual shop and meet the proprietor. As Marla has a son, and I have a grandson, I’d wondered if they had gifts for boys. And yes, they did. I bought a couple of items and put them away for Hanukkah.
Next, we strolled the lanes of tents and admired the craft items for sale. I found a unique handmade trivet and bought one as I’m always needing them for dinner parties.
Then we came upon a hat vendor. Having seen one before at the Apopka festival, I was reminded of a scene just like this one in Star Tangled Murder. Marla attends a July Fourth town festival where she encounters a hat lady. The woman shares gossip about one of the murder suspects.
This is why as a writer, we should not discount our experiences even if it seems like we are not writing. Everything we do becomes potential research for our books.
The Florida Writers Conference 2022 took place on Oct. 28-30 at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs. It’s a great event for meeting other Florida writers from around the state and for exchanging writing and marketing tips.
Since this was a relatively pared down conference compared to previous years, I didn’t attend every session. The booming attendance this year hopefully will encourage conference planners to resume their multi-tract format from previous years. I admit to skipping certain topics in this case that didn’t interest me with no alternative sessions available.
The first thing I attended was the Friday evening cocktail party. This got quite a crowd and I met a lot of interesting people. It was fun to run into some familiar faces, including fellow FWMA members. The Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America has their own annual conference, SleuthFest, held in July in Deerfield Beach.
Here I am with my husband Richard, then Sarah N. Fisk, Marlene Stringer, Al Pessin, and Elaine Viets.
Saturday morning after a hot buffet breakfast, I went to a session on Screenwriting with speaker Jaimie Engle.
Here are some things I gleaned in summary. Any errors are my own:
Follow industry people on LinkedIn.
Enter screenwriting contests.
Action & Dialogue make up a screenplay. Story & Character are the focus of novels.
Specify isolated visual moments for action in a screenplay. Cut on an action and resume on an action. Go from Point A to Point B and let the viewer discern what happened in between. Story is told in between the shots.
Dialogue should have layered character nuances.
Have people say what they want to find out what they need.
Scene changes are location changes, and this costs money.
Start by figuring out:
Character needs or wish song
What’s the win?
Give it, take it away, then watch what happens.
What’s the win for the character if they get what they want? What happens if you take it away? Or if they get what they want, what else are they going to need next?
Workshop on Dialogue with Julie G. Murphy
Julie discussed how dialogue comes from the writer’s subconscious. It should be invisible, create tension and reveal character.
Royal Palm Literary Awards
The gala cocktail party and dinner took place on Saturday evening. My husband and I joined friends Al Pessin, Elaine Viets, and Daphne Nikolopoulos at a table. We had a delicious dinner while waiting for the ceremony to begin. Congratulations to Al, Elaine, and Daphne who all won awards. I am relegated to Finalist status for the third time in the mystery category.
Sunday morning’s agent panel included Arielle Haughee, Marilyn Allen, Marlene Stringer, Sarah N. Fisk, Jae Worthy Johnson, and Stephanie Katz. I liked their advice that they look for “The Hook, The Book, and the Cook.” The hook is obvious. The Book is about the story and the writing mechanics. And the Cook is about the author. Why are you qualified to write this book and how do you plan to market it? If it’s nonfiction, have a one-liner tagline and offer comp titles that are recent and get good ratings on Amazon. Make the proposal interesting to read. Submission guidelines are on their sites.
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Have you ever been blessed with a story dream? I consider myself fortunate when this happens and write it down first thing in the morning to preserve the memory. You’ll think you might remember it but the scenes fade as the day wears on.
I’ve been lucky to have dreams that have inspired some of my stories. That’s how Circle of Light, my first published book, began. The dream ended and it was too good to let go. I had to finish the story. Scenes for Silver Serenade came from a dream, also. I can’t say that this has happened for my mysteries, but perhaps this recent one will be the start.
I have recently moved to a small village and am exploring the environs. Nearby is a big city that I’m eager to visit. I walk around the urban center, gawking at the tall buildings as though I’m in Manhattan.
While there, I am inside a department store several stories high when I notice white smoke billowing from a window below. Fearful that I would get trapped if there was a fire, I hurry down the interior stairs praying the exit door wasn’t locked. I get out and overhear a conversation between two officials. There was no fire, but they believed it was an act by a subversive group to cause confusion.
I go home to my new house, glad for the peace and quiet. My daughter comes to visit and we decide to take a walk. I haven’t found any paved walking trails nearby, so we hitch a ride down the main avenue to a bustling flea market. We can walk and shop at the same time.
We dump our coats on a chair to shop unburdened. As I browse the colorful wares, I don’t see anything I want to buy. We’re at one booth when I get worried someone will steal my fur coat. I scurry back to the chairs where we left our outerwear and observe with relief that I had only brought a cheap cloth jacket. It doesn’t matter if I lose that one. I tell my daughter I’m going home and will take the coats. It’s warm and we don’t need them. I’ll return shortly.
At the village, I notice a dirt walking path I hadn’t seen before. It borders woods on one side and a field on the other. I walk a short distance down the trail and come upon a gunship on a landing. What is that weaponized transport doing here? I am not quick enough to take a photo with my cell phone before the engine revs up and it’s gone.
Remembering the conversation I’d overheard earlier, I wonder if this vessel belongs to insurgents in the area. I should tell someone but I have no evidence.
I go back to the flea market but my daughter isn’t there. I take the bus home and call her during the ride. To my great relief, she answers and is safe. And that’s when I woke up.
What do you think? Is there a germ of a story idea in here?
Sometimes it’s the emotions from a dream that can be useful in creating a scene. The fear of being trapped in a high building, losing touch with a loved one, or making an ominous discovery are feelings I can glean from this dream.
What part of this story would you want to see developed? Have you had any interesting dreams lately?
Revisions on your novel can get as intense as writing the book. You still need to get into the zone, live inside your character’s head, and breathe in the scene. But you also need to step back to view the pacing and structure objectively.
I’m involved in this process now for Styled for Murder, book #17 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries. All I want to do is sit here glued to my chair to work on my book, but life keeps intruding. It’s hard to remember what I wrote from one chapter to the next with so many disruptions.
Nonetheless, my critique partners were right when they said my sleuth repeats information. She tells various people about the murder case. It’s okay to have a periodic review of suspects with a sidekick or friend, but I’ve been repeating too much material. I’ve hit the delete key many times by now, and I’m only on Chapter Eight. There’s also the issue of suspects who reveal too much information. They should either question Marla’s interest or clam up on her. She has to work more to get answers.
It took me a whole week to get past Chapter Seven. Why was this? Marla, my hairstylist sleuth, can get brusque when interviewing potential suspects. My critique partners pointed this out to me. So in my first revision, I am smoothing out these scenes to make her more sympathetic. She must coax or cajole or flatter people into talking, not fire questions at them like the cops. This means nearly rewriting entire scenes. That’s okay. I expect my first draft to be rough. I’m writing down my stream of consciousness and telling the story as it comes.
I’m also cutting out the unnecessary repetitions. Instead of telling each person she knows all about the case, I’ll insert a line like this: Marla updated her friend on recent events.
Another problem is that I’ve forgotten certain aspects of Marla’s personal life. When she’s at home, she cares for her baby and has discussions with her husband. Oops. What happened to her teenage stepdaughter who lives with them and their two dogs? Each scene at home, I have to go back and make sure I’ve included these elements.
It’s a juggling act inside my head. By the time I get to the last chapter, I’ll forget again what I wrote. That’s when the revision process will start in for the second round. This goes on until I am satisfied that I caught everything and polished every sentence. The work will never be perfect, but it’s time for me to step away at this point and hand it off to someone else with a critical eye.
Editorial and beta reader comments lead to a new round of revisions. Each change can lead to other changes. And so on, until I’m nearly cross-eyed from looking at the pages. Then I call a halt and get set for publication. Thereafter, the book stands up to your scrutiny.
Without a doubt, there’s always something a fan will find that needs fixing. I am grateful for these tips, especially when the mistake is significant. Things do get past my multiple readings, the editor, and the beta readers. We’re only human.
Here is a sample from the first page of Chapter Eight (Spoiler Alert):
Old Chapter Eight
“We’re thinking of renovating our bathroom, and that’s how we met Lenny,” Marla explained, thinking she’d offer the same excuse to the granite guy that she’d given to the tile man. “We had considered Amaze Design Center, but I don’t want to deal with them if jobs are being delayed due to the foreman’s death.”
“That’s a wise decision.”
“What kind of problems did you have with him, if you don’t mind my asking? I’d like to know what to watch out for in the future. I heard customers got annoyed when he scheduled appointments and nobody showed up.”
George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun, making Marla wonder why he didn’t wear a hat if he was outdoors so often.
“My problems stem from the fact that the louse hadn’t paid me for the last two loads. I refused to extend them any further credit. Jack was upset and chewed me out in front of another contractor. He hollered that a customer blamed him for the delay in obtaining the granite to complete his job. This client wrote a nasty note to Brad.”
He snorted. “A lot of good that did. Brad would never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”
Oh yeah? Like what?
“You couldn’t have been happy about Jack taking out his frustration on you,” Marla said in a sympathetic tone.
“I could have punched him in the face. It wasn’t my fault that his company was behind in their payments.” George curled his fist for emphasis as his lips thinned and his eyes squinted.
New Chapter Eight
“I understand Jack riled lots of people,” Marla told the granite guy. “I’m not sure I want to do business with his company.”
George glowered at her. “What does it matter now that Jack is dead?”
“His death has shut things down, meaning projects will be delayed more than usual. If you don’t mind my asking, did your problems with Jack relate to his job?”
George lifted a hand to shade his face from the sun. “Their firm hadn’t paid me for the last two orders. I refused to extend them anymore credit. Jack burst in here one day and chewed me out in public. Apparently, a customer had blamed him for the delay in installing their granite countertops. This client wrote a nasty note to the company president.”
“I’ve met Brad. How did he respond?”
The granite dealer snorted. “Jack didn’t say, but I knew Brad wouldn’t care. He could never fire Jack. They knew too much about each other.”
“Is that right? Like what?”
“Things from the past,” George said, hunching his shoulders.
His stance indicated an unwillingness to elaborate, so Marla tried a more sympathetic approach. “It must have been upsetting when Jack came here and railed into you. He shouldn’t have blamed you for his aggravation. It’s understandable that you wouldn’t fill another order until the company’s debts were paid.”
“You said it. I could have punched him in the face for yelling at me in front of customers.” George curled his fists for emphasis.
Revisions are a never-ending process. But eventually the book is done, and it’s time to begin another work of creation. Personally, I’d rather fix what’s written than face the blank page. How about you? If you’re a reader, do you notify writers about typos or mistakes you discover?
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Some writers say they write when the muse strikes them. They might go days without filling a manuscript page and work feverishly when the mood hits. I don’t believe in waiting for inspiration this way. As a professional writer, you have a job, and you must show up for work each day.
However, I do believe there’s a certain spark about a story that serves as a creative faucet. It’s what caught your passion in the first place. Or maybe you’re struggling to find this elusive element. That’s where I am with my next Bad Hair Day mystery. Never mind the dozen other distractions demanding attention, such as reissuing my remaining backlist titles. So what’s wrong?
I know what the next Marla Vail story will be about in terms of the murder mystery. But I like to learn something new with each book. That’s what makes the story fun and special for me. In EASTER HAIR HUNT, it was learning about beekeeping, stamp collecting, honey production and Fabergé eggs. In TRIMMED TO DEATH, I researched Florida olive groves and olive oil scams. The range of topics I’ve covered in each of my books varies greatly, but each subject was something that interested me. I haven’t found this spark yet for book #17 in the series.
As an author, you don’t want to repeat yourself. I’ve done the historical angle, especially in FACIALS CAN BE FATAL when I used excerpts from my father’s 1935 travel journal. I should avoid mixing history and mystery for this next one. Science? Maybe, but this might not be a good idea when we’re all so paranoid about viruses. Food? Always an interest of mine, but I’ve already done olives, coffee, honey, and vanilla.
I’ve scanned through the news, hoping some esoteric topic will catch my fancy. Maybe I’m too distracted to really think hard on it. Likely it’ll be 2021 before I can sit down to write this book, because I have too much else to get done before then. However, I could work on the plot once I get involved in the research. Would you call this waiting for the muse? Or is it merely waiting until my mind is clear to focus on this story?
I know the moment will come when the notion hits me. Or I’ll get interested in diverse topics that I will have to fit into the mystery plot. This is similar to putting a puzzle together. I’d write the ideas onto mental index cards and then shuffle them around to see how they can be combined. This is a bit harder than an overall concept but it can be done. Either way, I’ll be excited when inspiration hits. How about you? Do you need that special spark to start your story?
What is homework for writers? It’s when you need to learn something new, and instead of going the easy route by asking writer friends for answers, you do the research yourself. It’s okay to ask for advice and input but don’t expect to learn everything there is to know.
Where Should You Start?
Listserves can be a great source of information. Join your professional writing organizations, set your posts for daily digests, and scan the topics. Any time something pops up that you might use one day, copy and paste the information into a file. Then when the time comes, you’ll have a rich source of data that you can mine.
Blogs, podcasts, and webinars are another great source. So are your group’s newsletters, writing workshops and conference classes. Collect all the data and file it for when you need it. I’ve done this with just about every marketing topic I’ve ever needed to address.
Launching a New Venture
So now you are ready to get started self-publishing or putting your indie book into print or applying for a BookBub deal or trying an Amazon ad. Scour through your information on the topic and eliminate any links or material that’s outdated. See what applies to your situation. Then organize your tasks step-by-step. This gives you control and is more manageable than facing the entire job, which can be overwhelming. Once you’re ready, you need to ignore the fear of failure that might be holding you back and take a leap into the unknown.
On the loops, I’ve been reading about authors who get wide distribution for their audiobooks via Findaway Voices. I have corresponded with a few of them regarding the switch from exclusive to non-exclusive on ACX. That’s the first step to do if you’ve paid up front. As instructed, I also downloaded the audio chapters for each of my four audiobooks.
Next, I went onto the Findaway site and wrote down their requirements. Figuring my books would work, I requested the change from ACX support and am waiting for this to go through. Then I’ll do the upload to Findaway. At that point, lots of new promotional opportunities will open. I have notes on these also. My goal is to gain new listeners and hopefully get into the library market with my audiobooks. It’s all a big gamble, but then, what isn’t in this business?
I am also approaching my first sale with trepidation. Now that all of my mystery backlist titles are on board, I can start doing price promotions. But the idea seems overwhelming. You have to set a date, book ads around that date, notify the vendors, create memes and ads. It’s a lot to do, not to mention social media blasts to get the word out.
The only way I can approach this adventure is to be supremely organized. Again, I’ve studied my files, reviewed blogs on the topic, asked other authors how they’ve done it, and then wrote a step-by-step guide on what to do. I rechecked links on ad sites that might have gone defunct since I started my files and picked the best places based on what other authors have mentioned.
And that’s how we take the next step forward. We listen. We research a topic. We verify links and search out new ones. And we move forward. There’s no magic bullet for what you want to do. You have to collect the data and organize it to suit your needs. It’s part of the business of being a writer. Do. Your. Homework.
It’s really difficult to change to a new software program when you’ve used the same one for years. I knew I would need to get Office 365 when I bought my husband a new computer and I went to use Word to bring up one of my Dropbox files. Oops, no Microsoft Office program came installed on his device. I’d been using Office 2010 on mine for a decade. But now the death knell sounded for this ancient but steadfast program.
I did my initial research to learn 365 Personal would suit my needs. But still I put off the dreaded day of upgrades. Would it mess with my Outlook inbox or my Word files?
And then the unthinkable happened. I got a message from Malwarebytes, one of my security programs, that it had fended off a bit of ransomware. I’d been getting a number of email spams lately too, making me wonder if my computer was compromised. Then all of a sudden, I couldn’t access Word anymore. I got an error message that said, “Your device can no longer support this App.” Huh?
I restarted the computer, scanned the system files with Malwarebytes and Norton, and Word still wouldn’t open. I could always try to reinstall Word 10 with my old disk. But why bother? I had to upgrade anyway, and updated programs are supposed to be more secure. So I took the plunge and subscribed for $69.99 per year.
Installation was easy, and all my prior files seem accessible. The same functionality exists although I may have to hunt for one or two items on the nav bar. Otherwise, the programs look similar to my old ones and yet different.
Outlook automatically signed in to my email server and changed to an IMAP account. My old one is a POP account and it’s still here. So now I have two Outlook accounts, which means duplication of all incoming posts. I’ll have to copy my folders from the POP to the IMAP account and then delete the older version. Let’s hope that goes well.
Upgrading can be difficult, but it’s more often the mindset that is the obstruction rather than the program itself. I hope this will be the case here. I’m also hoping I don’t have a lingering virus or malware that disrupted things initially. Time will tell. At least this new version of Word is up and running. Whew!
The lesson learned is that if you need to upgrade your software program (or your computer, for that matter), don’t delay. Do it sooner rather than later.
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New writers are always seeking feedback for their novels. Who can they get to read their book and give an honest criticism? They could hire a freelance editor who works with authors or enter a contest that offers judges’ comments. Or they can join a critique circle. It takes hard work and dedication to have a successful critique group for writers.
I met my critique partners through Florida Romance Writers. We’ve been meeting for years. We are friends as well as critique partners, and often we’ll celebrate life’s milestone events together.
The six of us meet every other week and rotate houses. While eating a sumptuous brunch, we discuss publishing news, share personal issues, and encourage each other to keep pushing forward. I could not have achieved my current status without my writing friends. In addition, I have to thank them for being taste testers for many of the recipes in A Bad Hair Day Cookbook due out in November.
After exchanging news, we get down to work. We read each other’s manuscripts silently for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, passing the pages around the table, until we’ve read everybody. Then we share our comments aloud, focusing on one person at a time. We discuss character development, emotional reactions, dialogue, plotting problems, consistency, and pacing. We may catch typos, point out clichés, and suggest ways to restructure for more impact.
How can you get started with a critique group? Here are ten tips on what to do:
1. Join a professional writers group and put a notice in their newsletter that you’re looking for critique partners in your geographical area.
2. Limit your group to six members or less.
3. Seek people with compatible personalities and similar, or more advanced, writing levels.
4. Determine what you will be looking for in your critiques. You’ll be examining content, not line editing. Consider holding a separate meeting on occasion for brainstorming plot ideas.
5. Decide on a procedure for your group that is agreeable to everyone. Some groups read aloud. Others, like mine, pass pages around the table and read silently. Still others may email chapters ahead of time. It’s up to you how you want to run your show.
6. Offer constructive criticism. If you see the need for change, make suggestions for improvements in a positive manner. Give praise where it’s due. We all like to hear what works as well as what doesn’t work in our stories.
7. Be sociable. Relax, chat about the industry, and enjoy refreshments. This personal time will draw you closer together and enable you to accept advice more readily.
8. Support each other on social media by retweeting and posting whenever a member has an announcement about their success. Learn from each other’s experiences. Recommend your published critique partners whenever a publicity opportunity arises.
9. Be committed. Try to schedule doctor appointments and other engagements on days other than critique group. Arrive on time and take your turn at hosting on a regular rotation basis. Critique will soon become the highlight of your week.
10. Even if you haven’t written anything new, show up at the meeting. Your other partners need your feedback on their work. Making critique a priority means you are serious about being a professional writer.
If you’re lucky enough to join a great critique group, it’s like discovering gold. Treasure your partnerships and make a commitment to attend each meeting. You’ll find the incentive to produce increases as your biweekly meeting approaches. Many thanks to my partners in writing—Alyssa Maxwell, Zelda Benjamin, Karen Kendall, Ellen Marsden, and Tara L. Ames. And to our former members who’ve moved away, Cynthia Thomason and Sharon Hartley.
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I have begun line editing Easter Hair Hunt. The problem is that I can’t get past the first page. I keep redoing the opening paragraphs of my manuscript. So I need your help. Let me know which rendition you think is best.
“I don’t see Blinky anywhere, do you?” Marla asked. She and her best friend stood on the rear terrace of Tremayne Manor, a historic mansion privately owned but open to the public for special events and guided tours.
“Blinky seems to have disappeared,” Tally replied. “Where were you supposed to meet after the Easter egg hunt?” She rocked the stroller holding her nineteen-month old son, Luke, who sat happily playing with a squeaky toy. Marla had figured the duo needed an outing, so she’d invited Tally to join her. After her husband’s death, Tally was struggling to raise Luke on her own.
“I don’t see Blinky anywhere, do you?” Marla asked. She stood on the rear terrace of Tremayne Manor along with her best friend. The historic mansion was privately owned but opened to the public for special events and guided tours.
“I don’t see Blinky anywhere, do you?” Marla asked. She stood alongside her best friend on the rear terrace of Tremayne Manor, a historic mansion privately owned but open to the public for special events and guided tours.
Should I add last names for Marla and Tally? This would speak to new readers, not fans of the series who are familiar with the characters.
Which choice do you like best? Any changes to the second paragraph? This is why line editing can take me so long. I get hung up on one section and can’t move past until it’s as perfect as I can make it.