Friday, August 23, 2013

"What Makes Favorite Authors Stand Out"

My title is a quote from "The ABC's of Historical Fiction" found on Mary K. Todd summarized a survey she did in 2012. She interviewed the top 40 favorite authors gleaned from 800 different names mentioned by readers taking part in the survey. Based on Todd's analysis and her own reading she compiled a list of ingredients which make these authors stand out.

I found that the bold topics in this list could apply to most genres we choose to write in so I quote them (slightly abridged) below for your individual interpretation. They should make you think about your own books in terms of the qualities the surveyed authors possesed.
  • Superb writing: This covers prose, pacing, emotional resonance, plot twists and entainment value.
  • Dramatic arc of historical events: In essence, real authors are masters in selecting what H. Mantel calls 'the dramatic shape in real events'.
  • Characters both Heroic and Human: Readers want to experience believable characters complete with doubts and flaws.....
  • Immersed In Time and Place: Activating all senses, authors transport readers to another era from the very first paragraph
  • Corridors of Power: ......Best selling novels expose the structure, corruption and machinations of monarchy, military,religion, law.....
  • Authentic and educational: Readers love to learn. the hallmark of a top Historical fiction author is meticulous research followed by carefully chosen information to create a seamless blend
  • Ageless themes: Favorite historical fiction dramatizes thought-provoking theories as important today as they were long ago
  • High Stakes: Life, kingdoms, epic battles, fortunes, marriage, family. Characters risk on a grand style
  • Sex and Love: Men and women from long ago rarely chose their partners. Women were pawns. Favorite authors incorporate conflict in their stories
  • Dysfunctional families: Kings beheading queens, brothers killing brothers, rivalry between father and son, wives banished away, these are merely a few examples of dysfunctional family life that are subjects of successful historical fiction
Until next time may all of our words, written and spoken, touch and inspire readers of all genres.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The value of a writer's environment.

My favorite place to write is the cafe in a bookstore where the whirl of the cappuccino machine blocks everything else out. Crazy, huh? I love the smell of coffee, books, and the shuffle of chairs on the tile floor. It feels right for a writer to write surrounded by books.

Everyone has their own traditions and rituals around their craft. I used to light candles and play soft music, when I was at home and had a few minutes to write. But those times were few and far between. I made a lot of progress in the university commons and fast food places during lunch and between classes, however, so noise and the smell of coffee became my writing zone.

I carved out a nice little office at home, where I'd pay bills when I wasn't writing or researching. BUT, that was before our global corporation closed our physical offices in this small city and allowed us all to go "virtual." Sounds like a dream, right? Work from home in your pajamas? It was fun at first, but the only place to set up my day job office was - my writing space. Funny how when you spend 8-10 hours in one place you can't wait to escape it at the end of the day. It's really quiet so I'm an extremely productive worker, but...

So, I moved over to Border's Cafe & Books to do my writing on the weekends and a couple evenings a week. Which was fabulous! We all know how this ends, though. A few years ago Border's went away and I lost my favorite place to write. I tried the library, we have a fabulous branch near my house, but guess's too quiet! The surroundings were great, all those books, so other than the absence of coffee the smell and ambiance was great. But I missed the bustle.

Since then I've written in sandwich shops, coffee houses, and other local bookstores - trying to capture that perfect ambiance. I spent this past Saturday in Watermark Books & Cafe and it was great, but I spent an hour in drive time. <sigh> I got a lot done, honest. It smelled right, it felt right, I was inspired. But oddly enough, I was just as productive at home Friday evening with the TV going downstairs and the door to my office open. Go figure.

Maybe the environment isn't as critical as I thought. Perhaps, (this is a tough one to admit) it is my state of mind instead. Ouch.
Writing isn't always easy or fun. You dig deep inside your dark places to pull out all the emotions and experiences that make the words on the pages real. You open a vein and your blood trickles onto the page. At least that's what it feels like, especially when you write something that you think is really good. I guess I just needed to figure out for myself that where I write doesn't matter as much as where the words come from. Me.

A lesson learned.

Friday, August 16, 2013

J.K. Rowling and Mystery Fiction by Jacqueline Seewald

Question: When is a rose not a rose? Answer: When J.K. Rowling says it’s not.
Rowling has reinvented herself as a mystery writer. Having myself created a heroine, Kim Reynolds, who sees the need for reinvention, I do not fault Rowling.
Rowling has done something that writers often do. Choosing to write in a new genre, she decided to use a nom de plume, a pseudonym. Clearly, she did not want to be pigeon-holed as a writer of young adult fiction or even literary fiction. Imagine her surprise when the publishing world did not instantly fall all over itself to turn THE CUCKOO’S CALLING into a bestseller. As a novel by “Robert Galbraith” the book sold modestly. When someone mysteriously leaked the real identity of the author  to the TIMES of London, and Rowling verified the story, the book shot up to number one on the bestseller list.
I believe this demonstrates that selling books, particularly fiction in hardcover, has become increasingly difficult. If readers are going to spend good money on mystery fiction, for instance, they want name recognition, a “brand” as it were. Fame still brings fortune in the book publishing industry. Even great reviews which are often rare as rubies do not necessarily guarantee successful publication.
The publishing industry is in a state of uncertainty. Will print go the way of the dinosaur as some predict? Will hardcover, trade and paperbacks be almost completely replaced by ebooks? Selfishly, I hope not. I hate the idea of print becoming obsolete.
But writers must be open to change and diversity. Even famous writers like Rowling are willing to work in a variety of genres. I believe Rowling is correct, that writers should publish in more than one form of media. With this in mind, for instance, a collection of my short stories, BEYOND THE BO TREE, has been made available on Kindle:

In September, my co-authored mystery novel THE THIRD EYE will be published by Five Star/Gale in hardcover:
 Also in September, Harlequin Worldwide Mystery brings out a paperback reprint, the third of my novels they have republished this year, DEATH LEGACY, a spy thriller:;jsessionid=1393C3C686B0F8B9EDEDD9B62B0A54F8?authorid=2189
            So what can writers learn from Rowling’s latest effort as an author? Perhaps that we should not be afraid to venture into new territory and try something different, and that we should never become complacent.
.           As readers and writers where do you feel the future of publishing is headed? What would you like to see happen?
To celebrate the forthcoming publication of THE THIRD EYE, at least one responder will be selected at random to receive a signed Advance Review Copy—just include an email address.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Writing a Novel by June Shaw

Welcome to Author Expressions. Our guest blogger today is well-published author June Shaw. She is going to discuss how and why she became a writer.

“What made you decide to become a writer?” is a question I’m often asked during talks about writing or when I’m signing my books. My answer—“A splinter.”

I wasn’t fortunate enough to have anyone ever teach me creative writing, but while I was in ninth grade, my English teacher said he was sending me to a literary rally for English I. I’d take a test that was mainly grammar and also need to write a paragraph in case there was a tie. To practice writing, he told me to write a paragraph about a splinter.

His topic assured me that he was a boring man. I described a splinter using perfect grammar and brought it to his desk. “This is boring,” he said. “Yes, but you told me to write it.” And then he wrote a magic word: “Ouch!” He told me to take it from the splinter’s point of view. Somebody just sat on it. Wow, I thought. A writer can do that? She can make up any thing or person and make it say or do anything she wants? One day I’m going to do that. Be a writer.

No matter that it wasn’t until I had five children who’d begun giving me grandchildren, and my aging mother had moved in with me that I finally sold a novel. I did it! What happened was I’d kept the desire after I won: ) that literary rally. I was busy throughout school, married young, had five children, and became widowed when they were small. Often I’d recall that splinter and know I wanted to be a writer, but life intervened. I finished college, started teaching, and finally discovered time to write and sell a few small pieces. Much more time passed before I found time to read and write and rewrite novels—and now I have nine of them published!  

Now I proudly represent Louisiana on the board of Mystery Writers of America’s Southwest Chapter and am the Published Author Liaison of Romance Writers of America’s South Louisiana Chapter. My children, grandchildren, and squeeze Bob are really proud of me, and I am content.

ABOUT MY BOOKS: I sold my series of humorous mysteries to Five Star, which produced them in hardcover. To my surprise, the first one, RELATIVE DANGER, was nominated for a David award for Best Mystery of the Year and garnered excellent reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and many others. The next books, KILLER COUSINS and DEADLY REUNION, were also well received. The series features a spunky widow who “thinks” she wants to avoid her hunky lover so she can rediscover herself. But he opens Cajun restaurants wherever she travels—and she is so bad at avoiding tempting dishes and men.

RELATIVE DANGER was just released as an e-book. KILLER COUSINS and DEADLY REUNION will soon follow. In November Harlequin will reprint DEADLY REUNION in paperback, which they’d done with others.

RED SKIES revolves around three generations in a story of secrets, lies, lust, love, and redemption. Everyone asked me to, so I wrote a book about my mom. Many readers tell me NORA 102 ½: A Lesson on Aging Well is the most inspirational book they’ve read in a long, long time. And then my youngest granddaughter asked me to write a book with her. We’ve sold many copies of HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR PET GHOST, and now an editor has a YA that both her young teen sisters and I wrote and hope she’ll accept. I’ve written other books, too—and loved every minute with each of them!

I appreciate your interest in reading about my writing journey and thank Jacqueline for inviting me here. I do hope you’ll check out my books and see my mom dancing and me holding an alligator….and I love to hear from readers!

Comments or questions for June are welcome!

Friday, August 2, 2013

If you're going to give advice . . .

Everyone who writes at some point has the same experience. I finish a short story or a novel, go over it for the tenth or twentieth time, and print out a clean copy to give a friend to read. Perhaps I’ve been reading chapters to the members of my writing group as I go along, or perhaps I am a solitary writer with no group and a strong reluctance to share my work till I think it’s finished. But at some point it will be finished enough to share, and I will have to show it to someone. What I get in return can be significant.

A recent discussion on a chat list for writers touched on the problem of getting nothing but negative feedback from a first reader. The reader even went so far as to tell the writer to stop writing. The reaction of the other writers, including me, was that this negativity is not useful. It’s destructive and there’s no point in destroying a new writer’s dreams and determination. The discussion and comments reminded me of two things—first, how kind some of my first readers had been, and, second, a story I was asked to read by someone who thought he was destined to write the great American novel. In my opinion he couldn't write a grocery list. I learned from both experiences how to make useful comments without judgment. (And I have always been grateful to the editors who were kind. When I look back at my early work . . .)

First, I ask the writer to describe the “aboutness” of the story. What is the story about? Tell me in one or two sentences. Don’t give me a plot summary—that’s different. Tell me what this story is for me as a reader. Some writers will never have thought about this, and it helps any writer focus on the story and what is or is not relevant in the telling of it. A first reader asked me this once after I'd finished a novel, and I couldn't tell her. Her question and my reaction forced me to rethink the story and what I wanted to do with it.

Second, I ask about the opening line (and sometimes about the closing line). Where did it come from? What is it supposed to achieve? Is the writer satisfied with it? I’m almost never satisfied with my opening lines, but I sometimes am very happy with the closing lines. Are there alternatives that were discarded? Why?

Third, I try to find a sentence with an interesting or unusual word usage and ask about that. Why did he or she choose this word? What is the writer trying to achieve?

Fourth, if the story is a mystery or paranormal or science fiction, I try to ask relevant questions on structure and formula (I’m limited to mystery fiction mostly), and how the writer understands the formula. With this question I hope to learn something about how others see the formula.

Fifth, I might ask about characters’ names if there is anything unusual about them, or if too many characters are named Joe or Mary. I might also point out that the ethnic identities of the characters do or do not match the setting or story line.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing in any of my comments that is a judgment or an evaluation. Each comment is meant to take the reader and the writer deeper into understanding the story and the writer’s goals. This can be edifying for both writer and reader because getting another writer to articulate a way of viewing the world and trying to present it means that I will learn something.

In addition, if I read something I think is awful and have to discuss it, I am forced to dig deeper, to reach beyond my prejudices and blinders. I have to listen to another writer’s reasons for doing something I probably wouldn’t have done. And I have to read with possibility in mind, with the idea that the writer is reaching for something. She may not have achieved it, but she has reached, and I should be willing to view the story within that frame. All of this makes me think harder.

Being asked to read someone else’s work is a compliment as well as a responsibility. Anyone who agrees to do so, therefore, is obligated to provide something useful and productive to the writer. Offering up a visceral reaction isn’t enough, and that doesn’t count as any kind of thoughtful reading. There is nothing to be gained by telling a struggling writer that he can’t write. I am well aware that the one person whom I think can’t write a phone message may turn out to be the next Scott Turow.