Friday, May 26, 2017

The Importance of the First Two Pages

A few years ago, I attended a conference session in which several authors met with two New York agents. Each author read the first two pages of a work in progress and the agents reacted. I read an early draft of two pages from Burnt Siena beginning with a loving description of Siena, Italy, and ending with my heroine’s discovery of a body. The criticisms were, “Well, obviously you want us to know you’ve lived in Italy…” and “I don’t like your protagonist.” Not very encouraging, but then those two agents didn't like anything they heard that day.  

In my writing process, I often write a first scene and junk it later, realizing that the real story starts later, or that the first draft sets the scene or introduces the plot too slowly.

So with Catacomb, I discarded a scary preface I really liked, deciding it belonged later in the book. Instead, I began the story in the middle of an interaction between Flora Garibaldi and her policeman boyfriend:

It was a fine day for an argument.
“You did what?” Flora yelped.
“I called your boss and got you some time off,” said Vittorio Bernini.
“Why on earth? And who are you to jeopardize my new job? Why, you interfering so-and-so!” She refrained from calling him a bastard as the blood in her veins heated up.
“Calm down, cara.” Vittorio stopped and put his hands on her shoulders, holding her steady in one place. “There’s a good explanation.”
Flora, normally susceptible to the warmth of his hazel eyes, fidgeted under his hands and glared at him. “So explain. And it had better be good.”
He took her arm. “We can’t talk here.” They were in the middle of a piazza in Trastevere, the old part of Rome “across the Tiber.” He steered her to a cafĂ© with spindly metal tables outside, choosing one at the back where other conversations would muffle their own. “Espresso for you?”

“Make it a macchiato.” She preferred strong Italian coffee with a little swirl of milk.
Flora Garibaldi drew out a chair and sat, looping her purse around one knee. The soft air of late April wafted around her, lowering her internal temperature. Maybe she wouldn’t boil over--yet. Vittorio had just done what he always accused her of doing, acting first and not thinking about other peoples’ reactions until it was too late. Now she was on the receiving end, and she didn’t like it.


Thus I introduce the two main characters and an ongoing conflict between them, namely Vittorio’s tendency to let the demands of his Carabinieri job override his personal relationships. Because these are my heroes and I want readers to empathize with both of them, I also mention one of Flora’s faults—her habit of rushing into things that has put her in danger in the past.

I can’t resist describing the luscious Italian setting—and I think most readers want to know where they are—so I insert a short paragraph while Flora waits for her drink:

As she waited for him to fetch their coffees, she decided that despite the occasional clashes of personality and inherited expectations, their first few months together as a couple had been quite satisfactory. They’d found a small but charming apartment, a third-floor walk-up with a tiny balcony, in Trastevere. Flora loved the area, with its cobbled streets and sunset colors on the painted stucco buildings: burnt orange, pale red, salmon, and gold. The non-existent grid plan of Rome no longer bothered her. Now, she reveled in the odd, triangular piazzas where she least expected them, the meandering streets, and the quiet, flower-filled corners of residential neighborhoods. She’d even adopted the Italian custom of putting out leftover dishes of pasta for the stray cats, some of the thousands of cats who weren’t living in the ruins of the Colosseum but stalked the unwary small rodents in every corner of Rome.

This sets the stage for the entire book, which takes place in modern Rome both above and below ground. The premise: Flora and her policeman boyfriend search for a cache of Nazi-looted art that the Monuments Men missed.

My next challenge is how to convey information about stolen art, Nazi hideaways, and the Monuments Men without doing an “information dump” and boring the reader.

I decide to parcel out some of the necessary facts in a brief conversation between the two protagonists while including a humanizing detail: Flora’s greed for sweets. Other information will be woven in later, in discussions between policemen and the international group of scholars and specialists convened by Vittorio and Flora to help with the search.

The key: weave the technical details into the plot while making the reader greedy for more information. Example: is a short story by Michigan and Chicago writer Barbara D’Amato. In “Of Course You Know Chocolate is a Vegetable,” the reader gobbles up information about the chemistry of chocolate, coffee, and a certain medication to solve the death of a particularly despicable literary critic. Highly recommended reading!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Enjoy the journey and keep good notes.

I always struggle to decide what to write to my fellow authors. I ask myself, what might be of interest? What kind of news or information would be pertinent? And here's where my thoughts went, I'll try not to ramble too much or too far.

There's a new movie out that I have not seen yet called "The Circle" based on the novel by David Eggers (2013-4). I finished the book a week or two ago and had mixed feelings. The story was timely. The plot intriguing. The characters a mix of interesting and frustrating. The story is about a company (The Circle) that mines information globally. The philosophy is transparency in all data. The result - nothing is private. NOTHING (except 3 min. for bathroom breaks). Social Media is around like now, but you are measured by your popularity ratings, how many friends and comments. It's all invasive, inclusive and makes me think of Big Brother in "1984." No one is exempt unless they are literally off the grid and that has its own set of consequences. Nothing is ever deleted. So, is the story newsworthy? Yes, it's a warning to all of us that information sharing can be allowed to go too far.

Let's segue into the 'here and now' and all of the faux media, social media, broadcast/electronic media and print media. Are these real stories or real information that helps us make informed decisions in our lives? It's hard to tell sometimes. Perhaps it is a warning to all writer's to watch what we say or do on-line and in front of the microphones or in print. It will be preserved and we know that bits of news/information taken out of context, as well as the misplaced comma, can change the message.

Eat, children or you will go hungry.
Eat children or you will go hungry.

This blog will be saved and in some years beyond my lifetime someone will stumble across it and wonder what was going on in not only my head but in the world at large. Personally, I hope that my books will be the items they read and enjoy. And if these blogs help give writers permission to express themselves then so be it.

Enjoy the journey and keep good notes.
 Amazon Author Page

Friday, May 12, 2017

Maggie Toussaint Guest Blogger on Author Expressions

Our special guest on Author Expressions today is mystery author Maggie Toussaint. Formerly a contract scientist for the U.S. Army and currently a freelance reporter, Southern author Maggie Toussaint has an impressive number of published books. Maggie lives in coastal Georgia, where secrets, heritage, and ancient oaks cast long shadows. Yoga, beachcombing, and music are a few of her favorite things. You can visit her at:

And now, here’s Maggie:

Don’t you love it when a book title pops into your head? That’s what happened with my latest novella, Turtle Tribbles. I knew I wanted to write about a local issue (I live on the Georgia coast), and a turtle egg thief had recently been in the news.

We’re so lucky to have loggerhead turtles frequent our beaches, but stealing eggs from a federally protected species is a big no-no. I figured out how to translate the story concept into cozy-speak, but the title “Turtle Tribbles” was a gift straight from the story ether.

Here’s the blurb:

In Book 2 of the Lindsey & Ike Novella Series, newspaper editor Lindsey McKay must decide if she’s ready to take the next step with her boyfriend, Sheriff Ike Harper. He’s anxious for her to move in, but she worries something is missing. Meanwhile, the Turtle Girl, a college intern named Selma Crowley, begs Lindsey to cover her turtle story. Someone is stealing federally protected loggerhead turtle eggs off a Georgia barrier island, and it has to stop.

The earnest young woman convinces Lindsey of the story’s potential, and the next day Lindsey ferries to the island to see the nests and take photos. Selma promises she’ll have tangible evidence of the theft on Friday, but the revelation doesn’t occur. Worse, Selma’s missing, and no one’s seen her since Wednesday evening. Because she demanded proof from Selma for the newspaper story, Lindsey blames herself for the intern’s disappearance.

When Selma’s body is discovered, Lindsey vows to get justice for Selma and her turtles. Selma’s tribbles are over, but the tribbles are just beginning for Lindsey and her trusty sidekick, Labrador retriever Bailey.

Read an Excerpt:

“I’ve got turtle tribbles,” an athletic young woman said.
“Come again?” I glanced up from the ad log I’d been wrestling with to see a visitor in my office doorway. I waved her in as I tried to remember her name. Selma Crowley, our Turtle Girl, a summer posting coveted by college interns. Each of the Georgia barrier islands had students who monitored the yearly loggerhead turtle migration to our shores and subsequent egg hatching.
She perched on the edge of a chair. Her bright blue eyes matched the skin tight tank she wore over running shorts. From her boyish haircut to the rings on both second toes, this gal set her own style.
Selma made a funny face. “Oh. Sorry, Miss McKay. I forget everyone wasn’t raised with geeky parents in suburbia. Mom and Dad are whacko about Star Trek everything. I grew up on a steady diet of the TV shows, movies, and Trekkie conventions. The episode about tribbles is my favorite.”
I closed my laptop and reached for a pad of paper. “Please, call me Lindsey, Selma. We’re not big on formalities here at the newspaper. What are tribbles, and what do they have to do with our endangered loggerheads?”
“Tribbles are adorable space creatures, but they multiply faster than rabbits. Just like the TV show, my tribbles are out of control. I desperately need your help.”
I sat in stunned silence. No way was she talking about space creatures on the island, was she? There would’ve been sightings of spacecraft. Unless they were sneaky and were just here for our turtles. Crazy possibilities spun through my head. Selma and her boss could’ve called the TV networks in Savannah or Jacksonville to break this story. Instead, they’d chosen our small weekly? The sceptic in me raised its ugly head.
I settled on what I hoped was a professional expression of interest. “You’ve got alien creatures in the turtle nests? Do you have photos?”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to alarm you. Substituting tribble for trouble is a bad habit I picked up ages ago. So far, I haven’t seen aliens, but we can’t rule them out either.” Selma shook her head, her expression glum. “I don’t exactly know who or what is causing the tribble, I mean trouble, but eggs are disappearing from the turtle nests. It happens every year, but this year’s been the worst ever.”
Disappointed, I absently rolled my pen in my fingers. “So we may or may not have aliens on the island, but we positively have fewer turtle eggs?”
“You got it.”
It wasn’t much of a story, except for an earnest young woman’s word that eggs were disappearing. “You sure it’s not natural processes?”
“Real sure. When raccoons, feral hogs, or fire ants invade a nest, they don’t cover everything back up. But, the nests with the missing eggs look undisturbed.”
“How do you know anything’s missing? Do you have a device like ground penetrating radar to detect the eggs?”
“All you have is a geeky kid’s word. I know when the turtles lay their eggs because of the crawl marks on the beach. I dig up each new nest to make sure it isn’t a false crawl, then cover up the eggs and mark the location. We’re still early in the nesting season, but more nests should’ve hatched already. I dug up two of the first nests I marked before I decided to come over here.” She passed me her hot pink cell phone and showed me the images of sandy holes. “Look at the photos. No eggs.”
All I saw was a sandy pit in each image. Was there a story here? If the egg theft didn’t pan out, I could slant this into a nature piece about turtle nesting. “I’d like copies of relevant images, including those of an egg hatch for the story, and your permission to use them.” She nodded eagerly. I hated to bust her bubble, but this question had to be asked.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but could you have missed the hatch?”
“Nope. I hit the beach first thing every morning and monitor the nests after dark each night. If turtle eggs hatched, I would see the signs. Eggshells would be cracked and left behind. The sand from the nest to the sea would be full of turtle tracks. The nests would look disturbed. I didn’t see any of that at those locations. It’s like the eggs got beamed into outer space.”
I leaned back in my chair and briefly contemplated the domed ceiling light. No way was I writing a headline about turtle-egg stealing aliens. I needed an angle for this story, or else I should encourage Selma Crowley to leave. Time was always in short supply now that I ran the Gazette.
Though it was technically my family’s newspaper, I was editor in chief. Daddy had retired last fall, and Mama lit out for seminary after their divorce. So the newspaper became mine, and I loved the work, loved telling people’s stories. Selma’s tribbles appealed to me, but I needed more from her. Sometimes it was a matter of asking the right questions.
“You mentioned this happened before,” I said, returning to the missing egg puzzle at hand. “Are there historical records of empty nests I can report?”
“The last two turtle girls made notes about nests that didn’t hatch, but only last year’s gal documented that eight of the no-hatch nests were positively empty. The previous year, several nest markers went missing, which dropped them out of the count, so the stats don’t reflect those occurrences.”
“Eight out of how many?”
“The number of nests on my island are usually a hundred or so. As you may know, turtles return to the same beach every time they lay eggs. I’ll scrounge up the data and email it to you.”
I sensed she was holding back. Time for me to tighten the screws. “I need concrete facts for the paper, Selma. I can’t report on feelings or impressions.” And I certainly couldn’t report on aliens with transporter machines. “Why would anyone steal turtle eggs?”
“Because there’s a black market for the eggs. Some claim they’re an aphrodisiac, while others say they’re a delicacy. With about a hundred and twenty eggs in each nest, a poacher can pocket several hundred dollars off the theft of one nest.”
Black market. Egg heist. I was starting to get an idea of where this story could go if it got legs. “Can you use a hidden camera to catch the thief in the act?”
“Too many nests to monitor. They’re along the entire length of the beach. That’s a couple of miles.”
Disappointed, I blurted out the first thought in my head, unfiltered. “Too bad we don’t have drones to keep watch or something.”
“Too bad we can’t afford armed drones to shoot poachers,” Selma said. “They have no right to do this.”
The cute little blonde had a bloodthirsty bent. Interesting. “What can be done about this issue? Who have you notified?”
“Only my co-workers, my boss, and a wildlife agency contact know about the thefts. We didn’t want the news getting out at first, but my boss gave me the go-ahead to contact you for an article. Dr. Jernigan said it would be cheaper to scare the thief away than it would be to prosecute him or her.”
Hmm. I didn’t like being used, but I was in the business of selling papers. A photo of this pretty girl on the beach would be eye-catching. Unless we had a deluge of homicides or other major news, there was no reason her picture couldn’t be above the fold on page one.
“Do you have a plan going forward?” I asked.
“Sure do. I’m in the process of removing the traditional markers from the nests. First, I have to record all of the nests’ GPS coordinates in my phone and in my spreadsheet. If that thief doesn’t already know where the nests are, he or she will have a lot of digging to do to find eggs.”
“What do the nest markers look like?”
She showed me an image on her phone of a small wooden stake. Not much of a thing, really, but if you knew what to look for, the stakes reveal the location of the nests.
“That should stop your thief all right. Anything else?”
“The wildlife folks have been monitoring ferry passengers for a few days. They’re especially interested in people who might suddenly carry a duffle bag or cooler on or off the island. According to apprehension reports elsewhere, stolen turtle eggs are usually transported in plastic bags inside a container. They’ve made a list of folks who carry these containers infrequently on our ferry. They have a way to detect the eggs, but I can’t talk about that yet.”
“Why not?”
“Until they catch the thief, I’m sworn to secrecy. They don’t want to tip anyone off. The goal is to get this poacher, not send him or her underground for a few weeks.”
A secret. All my journalistic instincts were firing as I scribbled down her words. This could be big. If I was this excited about the story, everyone else would be too. I flashed a bright smile her way. “I’d love to see the nests firsthand. Let’s set a time for me to catch the ferry over to the island this week. What’s a good day for you?”
Selma waved off my question, her lilac nails catching the light. “My schedule is flexible. You tell me when you want to come.”
Sooner was always better in my book. “Let’s plan for tomorrow. I’ll take the early ferry. Meanwhile, send me the stats from past years on turtle nests and counts. Oh, and I’d love a quote from your boss. Will you share her phone number with me?”
A few minutes later, I had Dr. Jen Jernigan’s number at the university, and Selma had my business card tucked in her hand.
Once she left, my office manager, Ellen Mattingly, joined me. “I heard most of that. You believe her?”
I shrugged. “What’s not to believe? She thinks aliens are stealing her turtle eggs to light up their nights.”
“I’d love it if someone lit up my nights,” Ellen said, “but mostly nighttime is about getting my three kids out of my bed. At least you have a boyfriend, though I haven’t heard an Ike report recently.”
Sheriff Ike Harper had swept me off my feet when I moved home last fall. I enjoyed his company and our extracurricular activities, but I valued my independence too. “He’s still pressuring me to move in with him and his son.”
“I don’t see why you’re resisting the idea. You’re at his place all the time, or else Alice Ann is staying with his son. Why not go all in on the Ike train?”
Indeed. Why couldn’t I move in with him? I’d pulled out a suitcase several times, but I’d never packed a thing. Something about our relationship wasn’t to my liking. Darn if I knew what it was.

Buy the Turtle Tribbles novella on Kindle:

Thanks so much for having me on Author Expressions!

Maggie Toussaint

Comments for Maggie welcome!

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Ideal Reader, by Susan Oleksiw

Recently a friend commented that she didn’t like eBooks because she couldn’t see what other people were reading when she rode the subway or stopped in a coffee shop. She was curious about who was reading what. I know how she feels.

We can no longer look at a stranger holding a book and be intrigued, surprised, or smugly satisfied at making the right guess about what the other person is reading. I once sat behind a woman on the subway reading a book I had ghost-written. Although I was dying to ask her what she thought of it, I held back. Reading in public is still a private act. Now, with the spread of e-Readers, books have become anonymous. It’s as if the entire world walked around with books in plain brown wrapping paper.

One of the reasons I like being able to see who is reading what is the way it challenges assumptions. Most of the people I see holding physical books are not the author’s “ideal reader” for that book. The title of choice at once expands the assumptions we make about someone else, about the man dressed like a banker reading a history of the Navajos, or the woman in sneakers half-watching her kids at the playground and half reading a biography of John J. Audubon.

The concept of the ideal reader has been around since the first storytellers looked around the campfire and directed their tale to the most eager member of the audience. According to Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of the website Literary Vocabulary, the ideal reader is the person who would, ideally,“understand every phrase, word, and allusion in a literary work, and who would completely understand the literary experience an author presents, and then responds emotionally as the writer wished.”

Stephen King has said his wife, Tabitha, is his ideal reader. He shows everything to her first. John Updike picked a location for the teenage boy he expected to be reading his stories. “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas,” he said in Writers at Work (edited by George Plimpton, 1976).

Some writers suggest the ideal reader should be specific, and one website ( offers a list of details to fill in, to create the person a writer imagines reading her work. The list includes such features as name, gender, age, education, occupation, marital and family status, and much more. The intention is to recognize that the ideal reader is a specific person, a character, which must be fleshed out in great detail. I confess to never having done anything so detailed, and I’m not sure I could pick my ideal reader out of a crowd.

For me, the ideal reader is someone who isn’t in a hurry, and settles down to read. She is female and reads widely. She is definitely not pretentious, but she is satisfied with herself and thoughtful. I can’t say where she lives because, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have found readers in the most unexpected places. That means that I’ve found readers outside New England.

Now I’m wondering about other writers’ ideal readers. Do you have an ideal reader? When did you come to know who this is? Did you create this person or make a discovery while you were writing?