Monday, August 30, 2010

Stieg Larsson: Death and Discovery

Stieg Larsson: Death and Discovery

by Jacqueline Seewald

Readers romanticize writers and artists who have died,
especially those who die tragically while still young. Witness the value we now place on the art of Vincent Van Gogh who could barely sell a painting while alive and eventually committed suicide. Then there is the story of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, who in despair over lack of success as a novelist committed suicide at the age of thirty-two, only to be “discovered” as a great writer thanks to the persistence of his mother and the generosity of Walker Percy.

Stieg Larsson died of a massive coronary at the age of fifty in 2004, a short time after delivering his three Millennium novels to his Swedish publisher. No one including his publisher had any idea that these novels would become international blockbuster bestsellers. Although Larsson co-published two SF magazines with Eva Gabrielsson, his life partner/common law wife, he was mainly known as a left-wing journalist, a journalist who was editor-in-chief of the magazine Expo and campaigned against right-wing extremism in Sweden. He was outspoken against Neo-Nazism and often in fear from death threats made against his life.

There is no question that he both read and admired mystery fiction. Two of the writers that his journalist hero Mikael Blomkvist reads in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are Sara Paretsky, who also has a social agenda and strong political and social convictions, and Elizabeth George, who writes dark, complex mystery fiction as well.

There is an even greater tragedy and irony to Larsson’s story. Larsson, although an advocate and defender of women’s rights, as can be witnessed in the character of Lisbeth Salander, did not leave a will. Therefore, Eva Gabrielsson, his wife in every way that mattered except legally, inherited none of the millions his novels have now earned. Sweden does not recognize common law marriage. He failed in effect to protect the rights of his own life partner.

As both a reader and a writer of mystery and romance fiction, I have quite naturally read Larsson’s work and appreciate it. But a questions remains: Would Stieg Larsson’s novels have been such amazing bestsellers had he not tragically died before publication? What is your opinion as a reader and/or writer? Please join the discussion and leave a comment.

Jacqueline Seewald
TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, Five Star/Gale, September 2010
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Barbara Fleming

Ever since I was a young girl reading Little Women and identifying with Jo in the garret, I have wanted to be a writer. I imagined myself the author of novels that would be read by thousands. My words, my stories, would touch their lives.

Of course, as an adult I woke up to reality – the reality that wives and mothers face every day: I had higher priorities than becoming a famous novelist. My dream would have to be postponed awhile, until I had raised my family, gotten my college degree, and achieved a degree of maturity.

Once my family was grown, my working life took over. As a teacher, I found I had little time or energy to put into being creative. Yet the desire to write – the need to write – nagged at me.

As a journalist, I had scratched my writing itch for awhile before I taught. Even after I became a teacher, I occasionally found time to write. Not that anything ever came of those endeavors, and the novel still awaited me.

When I retired, I knew that the time had come. Life is short; you can only defer a dream so long before it dies. So I began in earnest to write, write, write. I found a writing partner, joined a critique group, and wrote as often as I could. (I found, to my surprise, that the myth of retired people rocking on the front porch is baloney; your time and talents get sucked up very, very fast.) But I found time to write, because I had to. I resurrected an old novel, one I had begun years before and never finished. It did not work well, so I set it aside again and started another one, based on my experiences at a newspaper in the 1970s. Much as I wanted to tell that story, it was not the one that emerged.

In writing that novel (which I am now re-crafting), I found out something about myself as a writer. I suppose most writers set out with a plot in mind, with somewhere to go, then create and develop the characters who will get them there. That’s what I envisioned myself doing.


The story took over; the characters appeared; I became the navigator to see them through the process and was often surprised at what they said and did and what happened. The result was a piece of writing that astonished me. That was not at all the story I had set out to tell!

The same thing happened when I started to write Journeying, published by Five Star/Cengage in 2009. I had two ideas in mind – to recreate in fiction some of the colorful history of my hometown, Fort Collins, Colorado, and to honor frontier women, who were so amazingly strong, brave and indomitable. That’s how I began. Then the story and characters took on a life of their own; I was merely the conduit. It was a fascinating phenomenon.

I don’t know how other writers work; I have discovered how I do. I’m still not famous, read by thousands, but I am a published novelist. The dream is still alive.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Feeding the Muse

On any given day online, there are hundreds of posts, tweets and blogs about the art of marketing your writing. And it seems to me they all reach one conclusion: No one knows what, or even if,anything works.

So if all the hours of promotion have questionable results, what's a writer to do? I beleive that the only thing we can do is to capitalize on the core of success: writing a wonderful story. If that's correct, then the building of a writer's creativity becomes critical.
And yes, I believe creativity can be nurtured.
Below are my suggestions. Some I've tried, some are still on my writer's bucket list.

* Take one session of acting classes a year. It'll teach you the basics of that art and give you insight into your own character portrayal.
* Take one session of visual art classes a year, i.e.: painting, drawing, sculpting etc. Concentrate on the act of creating and how it transfers to writing.
* If you can afford it, pay a counselor or therapist for a series of six sessions, once a month for six months. Your goal is to get help in accessing your buried uniqueness that is uninfluenced by media and curltural expectations.
* Pledge to yourself to have a weekly art date, time alone to experience something new and different. (This is from Julia Cameron) Use your insights for writing.
* One week a year, do your own writer's retreat. Not a conference with networking and seminars. And not a week long get-away where you finish up that novel that's on a tight deadline. What I mean is to retreat from the world and renew. Go to someplace where you are ALONE and you actually use the time to let your mind to explore and foster your creativity. (Did you know there are monasteries that offer this for a very reasonable price? Search online to find one in your area.)
* Learn to meditate and practice it daily. Yoga teaches meditation techniques. Transcendental meditation is good. That quiet time is like letting the well fill from a silent, underground stream.
Who knows what masterpiece will emerge?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dust Devils

Have you ever seen a dust devil? They're rather amusing to watch as you're driving across Texas. says that a dust devil is a "strong miniature whirlwind that whips up dust, litter, leaves, etc into the air." I've seen quite a few of those in the last few weeks. We point and slow down and talk about it until the thing is out of sight.

Occasionally I feel like a little dust devil. I move very fast, and I stay quite busy, but I'm not sure that I'm doing much more than stirring up dust, litter and leaves. Whether my passion is writing or knitting scarves for shut-ins, I'd like to think I can be more productive than that. So what measure can we use to determine if we're making progress? After attending the RWA conference last month, where many of the best and brightest and MOST SUCCESSFUL in the industry were gathered, I came home and re-assessed. This is the list I came up with.

1) Is what I'm doing resulting in more sales? As artists, we often avoid this direct question, but I think it's a valid one. At RWA Nationals, I went to many workshops by where industry leaders challenged me to think like a business person. If I'm spending a lot of time and energy on things that don't really produce, then I need to re-assess.

2) Am I using my time effectively? I like to think that I have unlimited time, but of course I don't. I have the same amount of hours in my day as Nora Roberts. If I waste 90 minutes of mine on Facebook, that would be my mistake. Facebook is no doubt a great marketing tool, but I need to set a timer, and limit my minutes there.

3) Am I refining my craft? I went to a workshop by Deb Dixon and was astounded. I've taught writing at the college level for 12 years. I didn't really think I had anything to learn about point-of-view, but I'd heard so much about Deb that I stopped by anyway. My goodness was I surprised, and I have pages of notes to prove it. I saw quite a few bestselling authors in the audience as well, and I have no doubt that's part of the reason why they're bestselling authors.

My list is longer than this, and some of it is specific to me, but I want to challenge you to look at your passion and determine what you can do to move yourself forward. Success is defined in different ways for all of us, and I wish you the very best of success in whatever you choose to do.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Romantic Suspense

Some time back, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop given by best-selling author Brenda Novak. The topic was Romantic Suspense, and since that's what I like to read and write, I figured I could pick up some good tips from one of the masters of the genre. Here's what I learned:

A romantic suspense must be ONE story, not a romance and a suspense. They have to be dependent on each other, and the outside tensions have to be equal for both the suspense and the romance. One cannot exist without the other. Things that affect the suspense plot will also impact the relationship.

In a suspense, the timeline is usually short. Building the relationship over a short time has to feel plausible.

There's usually a lot of research involved, and you have to do enough to write with confidence about your subject. However (and this point was reiterated in the FBI workshop I took later), she said it's better to go with a widely held belief rather than confuse readers even though you're "right." This is problematic, because so many readers watch the CSI type shows and believe what happens there is the truth. They'll assume you're wrong, even if you're right.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interview With Author Pamela Nowak

Interview with Award-Winning Author Pamela Nowak

by Jacqueline Seewald

I’m very pleased to welcome Pamela Nowak here today. Pam was recently named Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers writer of the year.

Pam’s awards for her first Five Star/Gale novel CHANCES are as follows:

Winner of 2009 HOLT Medallion for Best First BookRecipient of 2009 WILLA Finalist Award for Historical Fiction

Named as One of Booklist's Top Ten Romance Books of 2008

CHANCES received a rare starred review from BOOKLIST which is quite an honor.
Pam’s second novel, CHOICES, has also won critical praise and received a starred review from BOOKLIST. Both novels are currently available in hardcover, large print and Kindle editions.

Hi, Pam, thanks so much for joining us today at the Author Expressions blog.

Question: First, congratulations on your excellent Booklist reviews and all the honors you have been awarded. Could you tell us a little bit about Choices which received a 2010 HOLT Award of Merit for Historical Romance. I believe it’s a Western romance. Where is it set? Who are the main characters?

Answer: Thanks, Jacquie. Chances is a western romance, but it’s not your typical cowboy/ranch story. It’s set in Denver in 1876 and involves a spunky female telegraph operator and a straight-laced undertaker who unexpectedly find themselves on the same side of local politics. As they work together to battle violence and charges of prostitution, they discover passion and a love worth chancing everything on. I like to think of it as an “American Historical”.

Question: Are Chances and Choices part of a romantic series or do each of the novels stand alone? Are there many similarities between the two novels in plot, characters and settings? How are they different?

Answer: The novels stand alone but have related characters in that the heroines attended boarding school together. Both take place in 1876/77 and will be joined by a third related-character book, hopefully in 2012. Choices features a rebellious officer’s daughter who falls in love with an enlisted man and rejects the suitor favored by her hostile mother.

While the books are set in different places and have different characters, both settings represent places that existed as portrayed and are rich in historical detail. Chances includes a number of secondary characters based on real people. Choices uses real historical events. Characters in each deal with issues that we often don’t associate with the 19th century: professional jealousy, gender bias, substance abuse, and domestic violence.

Question: What inspired these novels? How did they come about?

Answer: Choices was actually written first and was inspired by the Fort Randall Archaeological Project. My late husband, an archaeologist, served as project manager for the dig and I went with him to the National Archives during the research phase. While there, I became intrigued by daily life at the fort and the relationships among officers’ families, enlisted men, and laundresses.

Chances grew out of a small biography of a female telegrapher that I found in a used-book store. I was smitten with the idea of a strong heroine. It seemed natural that a telegrapher might favor suffrage and that a conservative undertaker would be a perfect foil. Since I love Denver and its history, it was a perfect match, especially since Colorado held a suffrage referendum in early 1877.

Question: Have you written other things? Can you tell us about some of your other work? What are you currently working on?

Answer: I have completed a manuscript called Changes, the third in my related-character series. It centers on a part-Sioux librarian in Omaha in 1879 who is passing as white. When she is asked to help with research for the “Trial of Standing Bear”, she falls in love with the opposing attorney. She faces the realities of discrimination and he is forced to accept that true justice is not always defined by law.

I’ve also started a new series, set around the turn of the 20th century. The first book takes place in 1905 Denver at one of the city’s early amusement parks, Elitch’s Gardens.

Question: What made you start writing?

Answer: I think I’ve always written. I was crafting stories in elementary school and started writing Judy Blume-influenced young-adult novels in high school (which I never finished) but was always drawn to history. In 1983, while working at the Wyoming State Pen, an inmate told me he had signed with an agent to get a western published. I thought, “I can do that,” and sat down to write a story of my own. Then, I spent years learning to master the craft of writing.

Question: As a successful author, what advice would you offer to those who
have novels they would like to submit for consideration?

Answer: Take the time to learn. How-to books are a great starting place but one must write in order to learn the craft of writing. Join a writers’ organization and a critique group so you can learn the craft by having others read your work and teach you “hands on.” Go to conferences and workshops. Know that it often takes years to learn to write and that becoming published almost never ever happens instantly.

Question: Excellent advice. Finally, could you tell us where to order your novels?

Answer: Both books can be ordered from local bookstores or purchased on-line at and Kindle versions are also available. Or, visit my website at and follow the links.

Pam, thanks so much for being our guest today. Those of you who have comments, please know that they are very welcome here. So feel free to join the conversation!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

100 Questions

I'm reading How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Seven Steps to Genius Every Day by Michael J Gelb. It was recommended on one of the forums I frequent. It's a book about living from the inside out.
One of the exercises the author suggests is to write one hundred questions that are important to you and do it in one sitting. They can be about anything. How can I make more money? Why doesn't my significant other understand when I talk about a particular subject? How did my mother survive what she survived? What is the meaning of my existence? From the banal to the profound, write them down.
The author says that the first twenty or so will be "off the top of your head." But in the remainder, themes start to emerge. And in the latter part of the list, you might discover some pretty interesting stuff.
It took me a surprisingly short period of time to complete the exercise, maybe thirty or forty minutes. The author predicted I'd repeat myself: same questions worded differently, several times in the session. That happened, but I didn't realize it until I went to the final step.
There are a couple of other steps that the author leads you through, but you end up finding your themes. I feel like I know myself well, but I was fascinated to complete the exercise. The issues that trouble me in the lonely hours of sleepless nights were as plain as the ink on the page. I just hadn't taken the time to put them into words. I found five questions, that I turned into five statements, about my life.
1. I want to interact with others in an authentic and genuine way.
2. I want to bring joy and meaning to my life in every activity I do.
3. I want my own opinion of myself to be more important to me than the opinions of others.
4. I want to recognize and minimize when fear is playing a role in my life. This is fear of anything: getting published again, other's opinions, being lonely, aging.
5. I want to be aware of when my own emotional intensity is skewing my judgment and correct for that.
I felt good about doing the exercise this week. And I've referred back to my insights when I've felt myself getting fearful, angry or flippant.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Charlaine Harris and the Secret to Writing Success

Charlaine Harris and the Secret to Writing Success

by Jacqueline Seewald

As an author, I read a variety of publications for writers with avid interest. The July/August issue of Writer’s Digest published an insightful interview with Charlaine Harris. I recommend reading it. Ms. Harris talks about how she reached her stellar position at the top of the bestseller list.

She started out by taking a creative writing course after finishing college—something other successful writers like Sara Paretsky have done. Ms. Harris’s several mystery novel series were successful and reached mid-list status. But pushing fifty, Ms. Harris wasn’t satisfied with this. She wanted to write a book that was unique, the kind of book that only she could write. So she tossed aside the usual rules of mystery writing and simply wrote what she really wanted to create. And this is the secret to her superstar success. Charlaine Harris wasn’t afraid to be different in style and subject and actually have fun with her writing. She enjoys her work and it shows.

What does this say to the rest of us? Well, there’s an old cliché: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, for a writer merely slavishly imitating others, no matter how successful they might be, is a form of intellectual suicide. We shouldn’t strive to merely copy the so-called successful formulas for romance, mystery writing or any other genre. We should want to make our writing do head stands. What Charlaine Harris can teach us is that we should write our own story our own way. Of course that can only happen once we’ve mastered the basic fundamentals of writing. (You do have to walk before you can run.)

Don’t be afraid to be unique, individual and different. Charlaine Harris obviously isn’t, and look where it’s gotten her!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

From an Agent's Perspective

At the RWA National conference in Orlando, I heard Ethan Ellenberg speak. He talked about Book Marketing from an Agent’s Perspective. Since my historical novel, The Tapestry Shop, comes out this fall, I was especially interested in what he said about sales and how they affect your career. He packed a lot of information into that one hour.

I pass this along, for those whose goal it is to be on the NY Times best-seller list. He said that the initial sales number is most important, and that when books sold before the release date, it had a negative impact on the numbers, because the sales, for rating purposes, go week by week. Thus, if a bookstore sells a book before the release date, it will minimize the sales the week of the release. By way of explanation, he said best-sellers might be number 4 one week, and number 257 the next, so if an author’s sales are dispersed over a period of weeks, his rating will stay down. Before this, I never quite understood the ratings.

Mr. Ellenberg, contrary to what we all hear, said he believes an author should spend 90 percent of their time writing, and 10 percent on marketing. That may be fine for Palin or King, but most publishers have cut their budgets and an author is expected to take an active part in marketing. In fact, most of the burden has now shifted to the author.

Someone from the audience asked how much of the print run needed to be sold in order to be deemed successful. He said that 50 percent of the print run was the usual dividing line. Less than 50 percent sales is considered unsatisfactory. Fifty percent is “okay”. If your book sells above the 50 percent mark it’s doing well.

Print runs are frequently between three and six thousand, with big houses printing fifteen to thirty thousand.

As for the demise of printed books, he believes there will always be physical books and readers to buy them. They make beautiful gifts, they stay on your shelves, and don’t get read and deleted. He emphasized that our goals as authors should be a presence in all markets: audio, print, and digital. Like TV and radio, the industry will evolve and thrive.