Friday, October 13, 2017

Going Indie by Nancy J. Cohen

It is our great pleasure to welcome Nancy J. Cohen as our guest blogger today. Nancy writes the Bad Hair Day Mysteries featuring South Florida hairstylist Marla Vail. Titles in this series have made the IMBA bestseller list, been selected by Suspense Magazine as best cozy mystery, and won third place in the Arizona Literary Awards. Nancy has also written the instructional guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery. Her imaginative romances, including the Drift Lords series, have proven popular with fans as well. Her first book in this genre won the HOLT Medallion Award. A featured speaker at libraries, conferences, and community events, she is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who's Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets. When not busy writing, Nancy enjoys fine dining, cruising, visiting Disney World, and shopping.

It’s a frightful step to go indie after you’ve been traditionally published. You’re used to the publisher making decisions regarding cover art and interior layout. They send review copies to the major reviewers. They may even run BookBub ads or sales that boost your readership. But they also control pricing, distribution, and subrights.

When you go it alone, you face major decisions. Should you start your own imprint? Do you need to buy your own ISBNs? Where do you find reliable people for your production team?

Once you start the process, you may wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. You have full input on the cover design. You can determine the pricing for your print and ebook editions. You can choose to go direct to the vendors or use a third-party aggregate. You can bundle your books together in a box set or contribute a title to a multi-author package. You can enroll in ACX and do audiobook editions, or sell mass market or large print rights. Some agents offer a subsidiary rights deal for indie authors.

You’ll still have to do the same amount of marketing. It might take extra effort to find reviewers and bloggers willing to read your indie book, unless you’ve established a following. Getting these initial reviews can be hard. Another way to gain recognition is through writing contests that accept indie authors for published books. Search and you shall find.

Regarding print editions, do you use Createspace, IngramSpark, or another choice like Nook Press? You’ll have to make these decisions and more, like do you want a laminated hardcover edition for libraries? What size trade paperback? How can you order print arcs?

For sure, it’s a steep learning curve for each step along the way. Hopefully, you’ll earn enough income to offset production expenses. At least going indie now isn’t the quagmire it used to be in the past, assuming you hire editors and produce a professional product. Indie authors have lots of support out there in the writing community.

If you’re unsure about taking this step, try self-publishing a novella in your series first. Figure out the legalities and develop your production team. This will give you a head start if you decide to break off on your own with a full-length novel. Learn marketing strategies and attend conferences that have workshops for indie authors. Meet the reps from the various vendor sites. And have faith in yourself.

As for me, I’ve been indie publishing revised backlist Author’s Editions of my mystery titles. I’d indie published Writing the Cozy Mystery and Haunted Hair Nights. And I’m about to step off the cliff with Hair Brained, my first indie-published original full-length novel. This comes after having twenty-one books plus a novella traditionally published. It’s a risk, but I’m excited about the possibilities. I hope I’ll have your support.


When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?” than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. But then, who would want Tally—or Ken in the car with her—out of the way? As Marla digs deeper into her friends’ lives, she realizes she didn’t know them as well as she’d thought. Nonetheless, it’s her duty as their son’s guardian to ensure his safety, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Can she protect the baby and find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?


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Friday, October 6, 2017

The Final Read-through, by Susan Oleksiw

When I begin writing a new novel or short story I feel a suppressed excitement, anticipating the pleasure of watching the story and characters unfold on the page. This sensation soon fades because I’m lost in writing scene after scene, struggling over the right expression, and discovering aspects of the characters I hadn’t expected.

After the first draft is done, I begin rewriting and editing. This is the real work—sometimes a slash and burn experience, and sometimes a line by line redo of something I thought was almost half way finished. I do five or six, sometimes more, drafts. I compose on the computer, but I print out each draft, working on hard copy. Yes, that’s a lot of paper. But I see on paper things I don’t see on the screen. And then comes the final read-through.

I know I’ve reached the last stage when my rewriting of a draft means more tinkering than improving. I don’t discover a missing scene, find two characters who should be combined into one, or change my mind about the villain—or the victim. But this does not mean all is well. Sometimes I find that after focusing intently on each brick and door frame and window pane I’ve messed up the design of the total structure. Perhaps this can be easily fixed, perhaps not. But whatever the state, it means more work. This is not the final read-through.

The final read-through is challenging in a different way. During this last step I am looking for problems but I should not find any. This is when I change a word or two—as a matter of personal preference rather than correcting an error—ponder the occasional comma I might remove or add, and check to make sure I haven’t changed a character’s name or eye color halfway through. I expect the manuscript to be polished and the reading to be fluid and consistent.

This sounds like a wonderful stage to reach, and it is. But there is a danger, and that is that by not finding anything to slow me down, I will begin to read faster and faster, too fast to pick up on little slips—to for too, effect for affect, a misspelling of a character’s last name, and the like. This stage is not copyediting—that should have been done in the previous reading.

It’s hard to read slowly when most of us have been trained to read rapidly, perhaps even to speed read. But some years ago, when I was a free-lance editor, I learned a trick that has served me well. We do not read each letter in every word. Instead, we read by the shapes of words, and the faster we read, the more likely we are to read by the shape of the top of the line of letters and then words. Indeed, if you block out the lower half of the letters on a line, most of us can read the line just as clearly.

When I feel my eyes lifting from the line and skimming across the tops of words, I stop reading and turn back a page. Awareness follows action, so I make the safe assumption that I began reading by the shape of words earlier than when I first noticed it. This practice ensures I’ll read slowly enough to stay centered in the story, aware of the entire sentence, and catch any goofs or errors so obvious that my mind wants to correct them automatically.

I do the same with short fiction, but I also read short stories aloud. If I’m unsure of a particular chapter in a novel, I’ll read that aloud also. In some cases I’ve read all the individual chapters of a novel aloud but not necessarily in sequence or all at one sitting.

As proofreaders know, you can’t hurry a careful, attentive reading without missing something. The goal is to make the manuscript as error-free as possible. The natural rate of error for human endeavors is 2 percent (a librarian told me that). That would be 1,640 errors (typos, usually, but also spacing and the like) in an 82,000 word manuscript. Almost every writer I know would be appalled at that figure. Which tells me that most of us have figured out how to see what the brain doesn’t want to see, and fix more than is expected of us as human beings. Perhaps that’s why we’re writers.

To find Susan’s books, go to:

To learn more, go to

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Can Libraries Be More Than Just Books? By Jacqueline Seewald

Your thoughts and opinions welcome.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Turning Book Research into a Slide Show by Sarah Wisseman

Recently I was asked to speak at a local Pecha Kucha, a Japanese-inspired public forum for artists and writers. Each speaker talks about her passion for exactly 6 minutes, 40 seconds, with slides advancing every 20 seconds. You have to plan carefully; once the slides start, there’s no pausing or going back.

My topic is “Toxic Brews in 1920s Illinois,” or a seriously condensed version of the research I did several years ago for my local mystery, The Bootlegger’s Nephew. In this mystery, my physician protagonist can’t figure out whether his friend was poisoned deliberately or just consumed a mixture of bad booze, prescription medicine, and homemade tonics.

His flapper daughter, Anna, helps him investigate, and together they trap a murderer and shut down a local gang of bootleggers. This story was supposed to be about 1920s archaeology, when it was a still a just a gentleman’s hobby. But the fascinating story of Prohibition took over.

The novel has several themes: the dangers of consuming liquor made from toxic substances (industrial-grade alcohol, kerosene, or embalming fluid) or heating corn mash in lead-lined radiators; the difficulties of practicing medicine before the advent of antibiotics; and the enhanced freedoms of young women during Prohibition.

The research was fascinating. Not only were there multiple ways to make and transport illegal booze, there were all kinds of “concealed carry.” Women fashioned deep pockets in their slinky dresses and long coats for flasks of illicit booze.

Our local newspaper, then called the Champaign Daily, reported on a raid in my hometown: “There were bottles of liquor hidden inside boxing gloves and stuffed inside a phonograph. There was wood alcohol, Jamaican ginger, liquor made from kerosene and furniture polish, booze that would make a rabbit expectorate in a bulldog’s face, squirrel whiskey that would make a man climb a tree.”

I stole another tidbit from a true account of Prohibition in Cincinnati: There was an enterprising family who ran a speak-easy in their home. Their under-age son dispensed liquor through tubes from the second floor. When there was a raid, he just threw a rug over the floor tubes and spread out his homework.

Revisiting this fascinating research led me to publish a short story that features the flapper daughter, Anna Junker, and her boyfriend Ben:

The result of all this activity made me appreciate east central Illinois in a whole new way. Now, when I travel around downtown, I notice the older buildings that erected before my stories took place. And I remember that one local establishment, once the store where I purchased my son’s soccer shoes, had a speakeasy on the second floor in the 1920s. It boasted a hidden stairway down to the street so patrons could escape quickly when federal agents showed up. On the same block, there was an underground steam tunnel used to exit a bootlegger’s distillery during raids. I asked around town if I could visit this tunnel—alas, it was closed down years ago.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Falling down the Rabbit hole?

As an author do you sometimes feel like Alice in Wonderland? 

Have you fallen down the Rabbit hole of your story? 

Is your manuscript taking you on a ride that makes no sense with characters that confuse you? 

If so, welcome to the club. Many authors work from an outline and use it to guide the story. I am not one of them. Story ideas come to me, characters appear and I just follow them along for awhile to see what happens next. The story doesn't always follow the path I thought it would and that is not always a bad thing.

If you truly allow the main characters in your story to guide you, the story can evolve in surprising and unusal ways. I'm not saying we should all try writing truly fantastic characters in a wonderland world, but you can if you're compelled to do so.

I've found with all of my books that once I truly knew my character inside and out, they showed me what happens next. I've been pleasantly surprised, shocked, and even happy to see a scene develop in my minds eye. What a magical experience it can be.

What I'd like to share with all you authors out there is this:
  • It's okay to write nonsense - sometimes that's what it takes to get to the heart of the scene.  
  • It's okay to write weird characters - humans are all unique in their own strange way. 
  • It's okay to let the story grow organically - sometimes the best things happen when you allow it to just tumble down the direction it wants to go.
  • It's okay to be surprised where the story leads - it is usually a wonderful gift.
You can always edit out the parts that don't fit, but keep them in a "rambling thoughts & ideas" folder - you might need them for the next story.

Enjoy the writing journey, it can be quite a ride.
Author of the "feisty family series" and a nove of romantic suspense: "Your Every Move."

Friday, September 8, 2017

What Happens to Creativity as We Age? By Jacqueline Seewald

Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths are professors of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who wrote an interesting opinion piece for The New York Times. In the article they discuss how “young children’s creativity seems to outstrip that of even the most imaginative adults.” The authors explain their experiments to better understand this.

So why does creativity tend to decline as we age? The authors observe as we grow older, we know more. This is both good and bad. Bad because it may lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts what we already think. In other words, we may become too set in our ways to change.
The authors observe that there is “a tension between two kinds of thinking: what computer scientists call exploration and exploitation.” When we face a new problem, adults tend to exploit acquired knowledge. Exploration — trying something new — may lead to something different, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it can also mean wasting time considering absurd possibilities, something both preschoolers and teenagers do on occasion.
Not long ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of spending time with two of our grandchildren, taking them to one of the swimming pools in our complex. Leah, who is nine, energetically swam around like a fish. I told her that I would nickname her Ariel for the Disney mermaid since she too has long red hair. Leah was also protective of her younger brother and worked tirelessly with him on throwing a basketball in the hoop in the pool until he succeeded. Her energy and high spirits are all the more remarkable because she suffers from serious allergy problems yet manages to take them in stride. I myself felt energized by spending time with her.
It occurs to me that we adults can learn as much from children as they can from us. Time spent with children encourages our creativity. A child’s outlook on the world is filled with possibilities. Perhaps we adults should cultivate that in ourselves, the marriage of experience, knowledge and childlike wonder.
For writers, I think it means we should never throw out our past writing, even those pieces of works that failed to gain recognition. Possibly we can reread and improve upon them or try a new venue. Why not develop a short story into a play or poem? Why not take characters from a novel and develop a short story or play for them?
My soon to be published novella THE BURNING is based on an award-winning play I wrote some years ago. I took a play and adapted it into a novella--but more about that at another time.
Do children ever inspire you to write original work? Can you cultivate your inner child to think in a unique way? Your thoughts and opinions valued here.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Narrative Hook by Susan Oleksiw

Every writer learns the importance of the “narrative hook” as soon as she begins writing. “You can’t begin a story without a strong first line,” is the standard advice. I’ve heard writers say that until they have the opening line, they can’t write the story or essay. The narrative hook is what opens the door to whatever is supposed to come next, and nothing flows without it. I feel that way sometimes too.

A 1940s guide to creative writing described the narrative hook as “anything that would, on a public highway, cause a crowd to gather.” The sentence had been underlined in pencil, and the pages forgotten, until recently unearthed in an abandoned box of papers. I haven’t heard the opening line described in such terms, and I wouldn’t use that sentence today. Nor am I convinced that starting with a bang, as crime novels often do today, is the only way to write the opening. Lately I’ve read a number of excellent opening lines on First Line Monday, a FB page where readers post the first lines of the books or stories they’re reading. You’re guaranteed to find variety here.

The best first lines, in my view, are those that pull us into the character and his or her world. This can be simple, quiet, but nevertheless compelling. I collected a number of first lines from different genres to illustrate what I think is the key to a solid opening line, a dip into another person’s life that holds us.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opens A Study in Scarlet (1887) with this famous line: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.” The narrator has a tone of confidence but also lack of pretention, and the reader trusts him.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman opens “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) with this: “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” The narrator’s contrast with herself as ordinary and their summer residence as an ancestral hall hints at the conflict to come and the risk to herself.

The short story “Araby” by James Joyce (1914) begins with “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.” At once we hear the quiet shattered by dozens of boys running and screaming into the street, free of constrictions of the Catholic school.

Edith Wharton gives us a classic opening in “Roman Fever” (1936). “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” The vanity of class is captured perfectly as the two American women acknowledge their complicity in their attitudes as they look down on the scene below.

“Did You Ever Dream Lucky” by Ralph Ellison (1954) opens with a vivid scene: “After the hurried good-bys the door had closed and they sat at the table with the tragic wreck of the Thanksgiving turkey before them, their heads turned regretfully toward the young folks’ laughter in the hall.” Ellison’s scene isn’t merely the aftermath of a traditional holiday dinner; we are in the midst of a tragic wreck and the folks remaining are regretful. Now we have to know what has happened, and what comes after.

Joyce Carol Oates captures the vulnerable teenager in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (1970). “Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” Oates takes the normal teenage vanity and turns it into deep insecurity and foreboding.

In my most recent Mellingham mystery, Come About for Murder (2016), I open with this. “In his last will and testament, Commodore Charles Jeremiah Winslow, one of the greatest yachting enthusiasts in the history of Mellingham Yacht Club, asked to be wrapped in a mainsail and cremated, with his ashes left to sink into Mellingham Bay.” With this opening, the reader finds herself inside the rarefied world of people who can obsess about sailing and other sports, and the high cost of that life.

Each opening works because the lines are spare entrances into the life of another person. There is no bombast, no crash, no physical violence, only the promise of knowing intimately another world and its residents.

To read some of my opening lines, go here: