Friday, January 30, 2009

ON Queries about Queries

Yeah, it's one of the things you don't find out til later.

You've written a wonderful book, a marvelous book, and you're getting ready to write the cool acknowledgment page and sign up for an author photo.

Waaaait a minit. First you've got to get an agent. THAT you know. And to snag your perfect agent, you suddenly find out need to write a query letter. A--sales pitch. That perfectly (but briefly) describes you and your book so irresisitibly that you'll have agent offers filling your email and mailbox.

The query letter. In the annals of writing, it goes down with the dreaded synopsis as the scourge.

But hey--we've snagged Wendy Burt Thomas. She has a new book that'll answer it all for us. It's called: The Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters.
(And its not just for novels--it's got info on non-fiction, and short stories, and magazines.)

And we're getting a sneak peek.

HANK: Query letters. We all cringe. How make-or-break is a query letter to an aspiring author's career?

WENDY: Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious "in" of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor.

Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they'll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don't like your query letter, you've got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query.

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you've blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript.

It could be the next bestseller, but they'll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it's not fabulous, don't send it until it is.

HANK: You know, my first query letter, which I loved, got no no no no from every agent I sent it to. It focused on the main character. The second one--which was about exactly the same book--focused on the plot hook. I think I only changed the first paragraph. And everyone said yes. It was the same book! How do you know you've got it right?

WENDY: That's a tough one. There are a few things that will help your chances of landing an agent. First, make sure your book idea is a match for the agencies you're pitching. Research some of the most recent books the agency represented.

Were they action-oriented (e.g. plot-driven) or character-driven? Your query will need to whet the agent's appetite based on his/her taste - and what they think your book will be about. If your book is plot-driven but your query focuses on sketching out the character, they'll likely get the wrong idea.

Second, learn from the feedback you get. Even rejections can be helpful - and get you closer to an acceptance. If all the agents are saying they like the character but not the fact that you set it in the 1980s, you might need to change that in your query - and manuscript. If they all simply say, "no thanks" without any feedback, it's probably a sign that you need to revise your query (and/or manuscript).

Thirdly, if you get a lot of positive responses ("Great concept - just not a fit for our agency") then don't give up. I think my co-author and I queried 30 or 40 agencies before we got an offer of representation on our first book. I see too many authors give up after trying only 10 or 12 agents.

HANK: What's the biggest lesson you've learned as a full-time writer?

WENDY: Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, "Wow. You have the best luck!" I thought, "Luck has nothing to do with it! I've worked hard to get where I am."

Later that week I read this great quote: "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity." It's absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you're prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you'll be successful.

HANK: Okay, who wrote the bad letters? Do tell.

WENDY: I did! And that was such fun. I've read - and written! - so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

HANK: But--there are all these rules.One page. Your own voice. Big hook. Your platform. And then the final rule is--be natural. Ahhhhh...what should writers know?

WENDY: I want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don't bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

HANK: Full disclosure--my query letter is in this book! And it was really fun to see it. (I didn't let Wendy get her hands on the one that tanked.)

Wendy graciously says she'll come chat and answer your questions! So maybe she can give you some guidance.

And Jungle Red is giving away two copies of TWDGTQL to commenters we'll choose at random.

So ask away--and maybe you'll win answers to ALL your questions!

And how does your query letter start? Published authors--we'd love to know! Yet-to-be-published--have you figured that out yet?

(Thanks to Epicurienne for the typewriter photo!)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Charlie's Angels--On Steroids

Rarely does an author make such an impact in such a short span of time."
~Romantic Times Magazine

HANK: Charlie's Angels on steroids.

Can't you instantly picture it? And now you can read all about them in Jordan Dane's brand new book in her brand new SWEET JUSTICE series--EVIL WITHOUT A FACE.

You all know the scoop on Jordan: her three "No One" debut suspense novels came out back to back in 2008. They're suspenseful, gritty, intriguing--and darkly humorous. If you like Allison Brennan, and Carla Neggers, and Lisa Gardner (and who doesn't...?), Dane's books are right up your(dark and dangerous) alley.

But for all of her wild success, Jordan's ascent to bestsellerdom was not quick. Not easy. And she still seems a little--amazed by it all. Which is part of her charm.

She doesn't make a plot outline. She used to work in the oil and gas field. (Ask her what her motto was.) She and I both adore the very generous Sharon Sala. Jordan wrote her first book in--well, you won't believe how long it took her.

***And here are the magic words: Three winners! Jordan has graciously offered to give away three copies of EVIL WITHOUT A FACE to be chosen at random from those who leave a comment! Thanks, Jordan.

HANK: So, Jordan. Can you believe it?

JD: Hell, no. I feel like that kid who crawled under the tent at the circus to get in. Someone is going to find me and kick me out. This whole thing has been surreal like it’s happening to someone else. There were so many roads not taken too. I had turned down the first agent offer because it didn’t “feel” right. And I also turned down the first book offer that would have split up my first debut series. Very strange how things happen. That’s why I feel it’s so important for an author to follow their gut and believe in their voice.

HANK: Your books are so fast-paced, such page-turners, so tension-filled and exciting. I picture you at your desk, typing as fast as humanly possible, the stories and dialogue pouring out. Is that how it happens?

JD: Yes, that’s exactly how it happens. NOT! In reality I’m a nit picky editor of my own work (some might say compulsive) and I painstakingly choose each word as if my life depended on it. And with each new book I learn more about craft and about myself. Some parts of any book seem to flow easily while others are like giving birth to a bowling ball. Ouch! I wrote my debut book – NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM – in six weeks while I was on medical leave after major surgery.

During my medical leave from my work in the energy industry, I was whizzing through three fully edited chapters a week, but I had time to think through the story and knew where I wanted to go, even though there were two complex plots woven into this story. (Since I don’t plot, this was a challenge, but I like challenges. Bring it on, sista!) I now write full time and retired early from my energy job, but the writing process doesn’t get any easier. I find that my mind never shuts off. I’m always working.

HANK: When people say wow, overnight success! Do you howl with laughter? Or just howl?

JD: I’m prone to howling in general, but yes.
The phrase—overnight success—usually induces a chuckle or two. I first got the idea to write a book in 2003 after being an avid reader for years. Writing had been a passion since I was a kid too. And for three and a half years—until I sold in June 2006—I wrote every night for three hours and longer on weekends, doing two jobs at one time. (My debut book was actually only the second suspense book I had written and my fourth manuscript.)

I joined writers’ groups, both online and local. And I attended writers’ conferences, submitted proposals to agents and publishing houses, and I entered national writing contests. I worked my writing like a business, a very serious endeavor.

I had gotten to the point of telling myself that if I never sold, I would still write because I had to. It had become a part of who I was and improved my quality of life so much. I had tapped into a creative side of my life that I had forgotten, but now didn’t want to let go. I wrote because I had to. Thank God Avon made an honest woman out of me.

HANK: So--tell all about the Sweet Justice series!

JD: I abso-friggin-lutely love this new thriller series – Sweet Justice. The initial idea came from my fascination with the way criminals have gotten smarter in how they perpetrate crimes. They’ve taken to online criminal acts and gone more anonymous and thus have become harder to prosecute when their crimes overlap law enforcement jurisdictions. I thought I could empower the reader to wield sweet justice through the lives of the three women in my new thriller series.

And the idea behind these three women came from a conversation I had with my editor who mentioned Charlie’s Angels. I told her I couldn’t see me doing Charlie’s Angels unless I did it my way. Charlie’s Angels on STEROIDS! I also liked the idea of writing a series about three very different women.

Jessie Beckett is my bounty hunter who operates a little outside the law. Her childhood friend and voice of conscience is Sam Cooper who is an ambitious vice cop. And Alexa Marlowe is my international operative with a mysterious past who lives life on the edge. Alexa will eventually tempt Jessie with the idea of wielding justice her own way, by utilizing the vast resources of her employer, the Sentinels. Their covert organization is comprised of wealthy and powerful vigilantes who aren’t restricted by international borders or by the law. Jessie, Sam, and Alexa will give Lady Justice a whole new reason to wear blinders. And their brand of justice will be anything but sweet.

HANK: I can just hear the announcer saying that! Thanks, Jordan.

Now: Jordan takes the Jungle Red Quiz:

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
I’d take Miss Marple for shots of tequila and see if she’d jump on the bar and put the ugly back in Coyote.

Sex or violence?Always sex. Except for Dirty Harry, who would pick violence?

Pizza or chocolate?
Although these are both food groups for me, I’d have to go with chocolate because you don’t have to wait 30 minutes or less.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?You’re killing me here. Pierce for his humor and the wicked twinkle in his eye, but Daniel for his speedo.

Facebook or MySpace?
Oh, man. People are going to kill me here. I’d choose Facebook for fun. Myspace has all my crazy fringe dwellers there, but the code is complicated sometimes.

Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Katharine, definitely.

Your favorite non-mystery book?
Stephen King’s Gunslinger series, his earlier books that he wrote in college.

Favorite book as a kid?I was thinking about this just the other day. I can’t remember the name but it was a fantasy with a flying horse. I was really into westerns too. Anything with a horse in it.

Making dinner or making reservations?Reservations, definitely. I would have reservations about cooking. Are you kidding me?

And now, the Jungle Red Big Lie. Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess which one is false!

I rode in a school bus onto the frozen Bering Sea, above the Arctic Circle.
I was a volleyball coach for a Junior Olympics team in California during the 80s.
I have a tattoo.
I have the complete video collection for Adrian Paul’s Highlander TV series.

Don't forget to say hello (or guess the quiz Big Lie answer)for **your chance at a free book!
Thanks, Jordan!
(And anyone remember the book wth the flying horse?)

Friday: queries about query letters? Wendy Burt-Thomas explains it all to us. And will answer your questions!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the Worst Songs Ever

I crave Lunch. Publisher's Lunch. Not only for it's daily email newsletter on the latest industry scoop, of course, but for the book sale deals.

I know it's, what, masochistic? Not because I begrudge anyone the fabulous deals they made--oh no way! If books are getting purchased and publishers are humming along, I'm all for it.

No--what's masochistic is the constantly recurring thought that I am unable to suppress. And that is: oh--I should have thought of that.

Or worse: Oh, I COULD have thought of that.

We won't even discuss "I DID think of that, years and years ago, but didn't do anything about it" because that way lies true madness. (Two little words: Animal Planet.)

So I can only hope to express my deep depression when I read this on PL:

Colin Bowles's FLUSHED FROM THE BATHROOM OF YOUR HEART: The 100 Worst Songs Ever, a highly personal, deeply offensive, politically incorrect and humorous catalog of pretentious lyrics, bad rhymes and syrupy pap, including classics we love to hate such as 'Achy Breaky Heart,' 'Sometimes When We Touch,' and of course 'Ice Ice Baby' by the singular Vanilla Ice, .... for publication in 2010 ...

What a great idea! Colin, I bow to your hilarity, prescience, and connection with all of us.

I should have thought of it.

(Yes, I know the incomparable Dave Barry did an essay about it a few years ago--we almost couldn't air my TV interview with him because I was laughing so hard. What set me over the edge was Dave's response to the classic by the band America.

Dave said--with this air of incredulity and disbelief: "Name the horse! Why not name the horse? They have plenty of time out there in the desert!")

So because Colin is now under deep deadline pressure, and hey, what if he's only come up with maybe 50 of the top 100 in case the book didn't sell and he'd never need to figure out the rest--what do you think are the worst songs ever?

My votes? Even though I have a huge crush on the genius Paul Simon and he's my favorite, I'm not a fan of Homeward Bound. I think it's whiny. I mean, they're a famous band on tour. Who wouldn't want to do that? Why gripe? And then sing it on their tour?

Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey"--a tour of the home of a dead person? "See the tree how big it's grown, but friend, it hasn't been so long it wasn't big."

'Careless Whisper' in which George Michael declares: "I'm never gonna dance again; Guilty feet have got no rhythm." (Innocent feet do?)

I'm not counting meant-to-be-silly ditties like the Macarena. And its just not worth mentioning how silly it is that Jennifer Lopez sings that she's Just Jenny from the Block.

But Morning Train by Sheena Easton? "My baby takes the morning train, at night he takes it home again.." That's riveting. Having My Baby by Paul Anka."What a lovely way to say you love me.." That's embarrassing.

So this rant about good ideas turned out to be about bad ideas. (Ain't that just how it often happens.) But what songs do you think should be included in Colin's list?

ROBERTA: Oh Hank, this is hysterical. That "Honey" song has to be one of the all-time worsts. And by the way, I canceled my subscription to Publishers' Lunch because I couldn't stand the pressure. I do have a few possible contributions for Colin's book: How about "I think the worst is over now, yes, it's going to be all right, the morning sun is shining like a Red Rubber Ball.." That gem is by Cyrkle, for those not old enough to remember.

HANK: Oh, thanks Roberta. "Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea..." that song continues. And it's now stuck in my head.

ROBERTA: And here's another one from the Archies: "Sugah, sugah, oh honey, honey, you are my candy girl, and you've got me wanting you!"

Is he going to list Jungle Red Writers in the acknowledgments???

HALLIE: I'm with Roberta on Publishers' Lunch. How to make yourself crazy...every day.

Hands down, my vote goes to that song "I...will It comes on and I start swaying and caterwauling along. I like my songs, like my prose, seasoned with vinegar.

HANK: But it was a good song when Dolly Parton sang it. Didn't she write it?
RO: She did...I love that song!

JAN: See, Publishers Lunch is one of the few publications that doesn't make me crazy - except when they announce multi-million celebrity book deals - but in general it reminds me that good ideas can still get attention.

On song lyrics. I play guitar and sing, and have a stash of lyrics and guitar tabs from the Internet. Let me tell you, there is nothing like practicing the same song 150 times to make you start to question the lyrics.

Neil Young, for example. Great music and from a guitar standpoint, pretty easy to play. The lyrics SOUND meaningful, but when you break them down...

"When you see me fly away without you, shadow on the things that come, feathers fall around you and show you the way to go. It's over....

I'm sorry, but if you sing these lyrics enough times, you start to wonder...did the bird (ex-lover departing) get shot by a hunter on his flight out?? Is that why feathers are flying around you??? And are they like breadcrumbs, showing you the trail???
Also, there's an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros that makes beautiful, haunting, somewhat eno music. They recently started to sing in a completely made up language, so the audience would find their own meaning in the lyrics. I find this incredibly amusing since generally sing in Icelandic. How many people understand Icelandic?

RHYS: That's so funny. How many people speak Icelandic? When I was a student traveling around Europe with a backpack my friend Ruth and I used to pretend we were Finnish when creepy guys tried to pick us up. We were language students and we knew that Finnish is a language pocket--i.e. not related to any other language. So we spoke this made-up Finnish and got pretty darned good at it.So maybe I'll now try made-up Icelandic.

And I no longer read Publisher's Lunch. All those good deals, nice deals--how about "and in a really crappy pathetic deal...."But--I do check my Amazon ranking way too often. Then I check Jackie Winspear, Anne Perry etc to see if they are higher. Then I'm depressed usually.How we torment ourselves.

HANK: Oh. Digression. Rhys, you never cease to amaze me. I always picture you--happy and satisfied, glowing and secure. If you check your colleagues to see how everyone's doing, I feel much better. Thanks, sistah.

Do you read PL? Well, of course you do. But how do you feel afterwards?

Do you have PL remorse?
RO: See, I never check any of that stuff, either I'm extremely confident or extremely clueless. There are people higher and people lower..what else do I need to know? Lest you think that I've obtained some higher state, I check my mailing lists stats every week - I LOVE it when someone signs up for my mailing list and I'm inordinately upset if someone unsubscribes!
Okay, my worst song ever...Band of Gold by Freda Payne. Some woman signing about, um..."last night on our honeymoon, we stayed in separate rooms. ...come back here and love me like you tried before?" Who bought this? And someone actually remade it.

HANK: Be sure to tell us your worst song ever!
Wednesday--Jordan Dane tells all!
Abd Friday--queries about queries? The guru of query letters answers is all for us!

Friday, January 23, 2009

On Presidential Trivia

All right, by now we know that Obama was born in Hawaii and Michele's one-shouldered white number was by an upcoming designer named Jason Wu..but did you know...

EIGHT PRESIDENTS were born British subjects: Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, J. Q. Adams, Jackson, and W. Harrison.

NINE PRESIDENTS never attended college: Washington, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, Fillmore, Lincoln, A. Johnson, Cleveland, and Truman. The college that has the most presidents as alumni (six in total) is Harvard: J. Adams, J. Q. Adams, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Kennedy, G. W. Bush (business school), and Barack Obama (law school). Yale is a close second, with five presidents as alumni: Taft, Ford (law school), G.H.W. Bush, Clinton (law school), and G. W. Bush.

THE MOST COMMON religious affiliation among presidents has been Episcopalian, followed by Presbyterian.

THE ANCESTRY of 43 presidents is limited to the following seven heritages, or some combination thereof: Dutch, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, or German.

THE OLDEST elected president was Reagan (age 69); the youngest was Kennedy (age 43). Theodore Roosevelt, however, was the youngest man to become president—he was 42 when he succeeded McKinley, who had been assassinated. THE OLDEST LIVING former president was Gerald Ford, who was born on July 14, 1913, and died on Dec.27, 2006, at age 93. The second oldest was Ronald Reagan, who also lived to be 93 years.

THE TALLEST president was Lincoln at 6'4"; at 5'4", Madison was the shortest.There have been seven left-handed presidents: James A. Garfield, Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama is also a southpaw.

FOURTEEN PRESIDENTS served as vice presidents: J. Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, Tyler, Fillmore, A. Johnson, Arthur, T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Nixon, L. Johnson, Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

FOR TWO YEARS the nation was run by a president and a vice president who were not elected by the people. After Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned in 1973, President Nixon appointed Gerald Ford as vice president. Nixon resigned the following year, which left Ford as president, and Ford's appointed vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, as second in line.

FOUR PRESIDENTS won the popular vote but lost the presidency: Andrew Jackson won the popular vote but lost the election to John Quincy Adams (1824); Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes (1876); Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the election to Benjamin Harrison (1888); Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush (2000).

JAMES BUCHANAN was the only president never to marry. Five presidents remarried after the death of their first wives—two of whom, Tyler and Wilson, remarried while in the White House. Reagan was the only divorced president. Six presidents had no children. Tyler—father of fifteen—had the most.

PRESIDENTS LINCOLN, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy were assassinated in office.

ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS were made on the lives of Jackson, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Truman, Ford, and Reagan.

EIGHT PRESIDENTS died in office: W. Harrison (after having served only one month. His inauguration speech was so long, he caught pneumonia standing on those steps for so long. ), Taylor, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, F. Roosevelt, and Kennedy.PRESIDENTS ADAMS, Jefferson, and Monroe all died on the 4th of July; Coolidge was born on that day.

KENNEDY AND TAFT are the only presidents buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

You guys are so smart, you probably did know...

HANK: I love this. Love. But can you name the presdents in order? My husband and I got on a big kick to learn this a few months ago, after we realized one night at dinner that we couldn't do it, and we were embarrassed. Try it. Can you do it?

RO: In order, are you kidding? I did memorize the Gettysburg Address a couple of years ago...I was obsessed with it...and I used to have a boyfriend that knew all of the kings and queens of England in order...

HANK: 1 through 5 is easy. 16 no problem of course. Which makes 15 and 17 easy. But there are places it gets a bit complicated. Can you picture it? We're sitting in a restaurant. I say: 19! Jonathan says: Well?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

On the St. Martin's Malice Domestic Contest

Meet Meredith Cole

JRW: Today's JR guest is Meredith Cole. Meredith has done what so many of us hope and try to do - she won a major writing contest - the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Best Traditional First Mystery Competition. We know lots of people who'd like to be in her shoes so we asked her to tell us what it's been like.

MC: St. Martin’s Minotaur has several wonderful contests that allow unagented writers to send in their manuscripts directly to the publisher. They choose the one they like and give the winner an advance and a publishing contract. Sounds pretty incredible, huh? It is, and, amazing enough, it happened to me.

Before I became a novelist, I was a filmmaker and screenwriter. I directed two feature films (“Floating” and “Achilles’ Love”), and found the process of trying to cajole 20-50 other creative people to do what I wanted not always satisfying. I wanted more control over the storytelling process. I started writing screenplays exclusively, and then realized how few screenplays are ever made into films. I was a finalist for the Chesterfield, and won a New York Foundation for the Arts grant in screenwriting, but my scripts stayed in a drawer. And then I got pregnant, and I knew that there was no way I was going to be back on the set anytime soon.
I’ve always loved to read, and mysteries have been some of my favorite books. So I used some of my downtime during my pregnancy to write a mystery with a setting that was dear to my heart—my artist neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I made my sleuth, Lydia McKenzie, a photographer since I’ve done enough photography to know my way around a camera, and crafted a plot I thought was downright entertaining. The trouble was I spent pages and pages giving the backstory of my characters before all the entertaining stuff kicked in. Needless to say, no one was particularly interested in my first novel.

But I loved my characters, and, since I’m incredibly persistent and stubborn, I came up with another book idea for them that was even more closely tied to my characters. This time Lydia is having a gallery show of her murder recreation photographs, and she finds out that someone is killing her models just like her photos in POSED FOR MURDER. I began to shop the book around and I also entered it into the St. Martin’s/Malice Domestic competition in October 2006.

While I was waiting to hear back from the competition, Lydia still wouldn’t get out of my head. So I wrote a couple of short stories featuring her and her neighbors and friends. One called “Out in the Cold” ended up in the anthology MURDER NEW YORK STYLE, and the other, “Exercise is Murder,” was in Ellery Queen Magazine’s Department of First Stories in June 2008.
In February 2007, I found out from my judge that I was a finalist. I was incredibly excited but I was also knew I had to be realistic. Only one book out of all the hundreds written and entered could win. So no one was more shocked than I when I got a call from Ruth Cavin, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, telling me that I had won…

JRW: A legendary editor, we might add...

MC: At Malice Domestic, where I was officially announced as the winner, I began to learn what a big deal the competition really was. Many writers have started their careers with the contest, and I was so pleased to meet Julia Spencer-Fleming and Donna Andrews at the conference. St. Martin’s Minotaur not only published their first books, but has continued to nurture their very successful careers. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps, and very excited to have my first book, POSED FOR MURDER, come out at last on February 17, 2009.

If you want to find out about the competition I won, or any of St. Martin’s other competitions, check out their website:

JRW: Meredith Cole's winning book, POSED FOR MURDER, hits store shelves February 17, 2009. She is a member of the MWA NY board, and she blogs at If you're in the neighborhood, stop by Partners & Crime, 44 Greenwich St, NYC. Tuesday, February 17th, from 7-9pm for Meredith's launch party! It's going to be great!

Visit Meredith at

On Murder at the Library

RO: I met Jane Murphy, JR's guest blogger today at Malice Domestic last year, as it happens I was putting out seed packets for Pushing Up Daisies and she asked if I was the author becaause she'd been hoping to meet me! As if that wasn't enough to make me love her, she's a librarian at he Westport, CT Public Library and one of the founders of Murder 203, a new crime fiction event to be held in Easton and Westport, CT on April 18-19, 2009.
Late breaking News..Murder 203's just confirmed Guest of Honor is NYTimes Bestselling author Linda Fairstein.

JR: Hi Jane - lots of our readers are also writers. Tell us a little bit about how you choose titles for your library.
JM: Hello, Jungle Red readers!
Every author’s fondest wish is to find her book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Assuming you do not expect this to happen for you in the foreseeable future, where else can you expect librarians to find out about your book? Besides the NYTBR, most libraries rely heavily on the reviews in Publishers Weekly, a general trade publication, along with Booklist, Library Journal and Kirkus which are read mainly by librarians. Many libraries distribute free copies of a monthly called BookPage and I always look there for new titles as well. I do the mystery ordering for my library, so I also check Mystery Scene and Mystery News. I understand from talking to authors over the years that the review slots are hard to come by, but I urge you to check with your sources (SinC, writing support groups, how-to books) about how to submit your book to these key media.
You know, sometimes even a not-so-good review might have just the right punch words to grab my attention. Librarians pride themselves on what are called subject strengths, and, for example, if your book is set anywhere in the state of Connecticut I will buy it because this is a key strength of my collection. I also buy a lot of international mysteries because there is a big demand for them in my community. Each library is different and you never know who will be looking for just what you have to offer. This brings me to another point. When you provide a summary or book description to any source make sure to be as specific as you can about where the book is set and exactly what genre you feel it belongs to. You do not want the reviewer to decide the latter for you, nor do you want to confuse or mislead the book buyer. Let’s have no disappointed readers.
I often find out about books from promo items when I attend mystery conferences such as Malice Domestic and CrimeBake. I regularly check for bookmarks and flyers on the display tables and often come away with titles that I would have missed otherwise. In fact, that is how I found out about Roberta’s Advice Column series.
I get many e-mails from enthusiastic new authors offering to come speak at my library or offering their title for discussion by my Usual Suspects reading group. The competition for the meeting rooms at my library, as with many others, is fierce, and we generally book high profile authors to keep our attendance numbers high. And I don’t think my reading group is unique in their desire to read mostly classics and first titles of long-lived series. That’s just the way it is. (However, I once had a fledgling author show up at one of my book discussions and introduce himself to the group and I have since become one of his most ardent fans. You could try that.)
Also, I generally will add any books that are sent to me, although not all libraries accept donations. You could clarify that with a simple phone call or e-mail.
By the way, even librarians judge a book by its cover, but that’s another story for another day.
Jane Murphy is a librarian at the Westport Public Library in Connecticut, where she has her own readers’ advisory blog. Jane has been working with the librarians at nearby Easton Public Library (with some invaluable assistance from Rosemary Harris) to launch Murder 203: Connecticut’s Mystery Festival scheduled for April 18th and 19th. Attendees will enjoy panel discussions, book signings, writing tips from the professionals, and a unique opportunity to mingle with authors and fellow crime fiction enthusiasts at the "Cocktails and Crime" reception on Saturday evening.
Linda Fairstein will be the Guest of Honor for our inaugural event. Visit our official website for details or e-mail

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Libraries

" My library was dukedom enough " The Tempest

Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza

RO: Anyone who knows me, knows how bullish I am on libraries. Perhaps it was all those days spent in the children's section at the Clarendon Branch of the Brooklyn Public library, before I graduated to the temple of knowledge at the library's Grand Army Plaza branch.
When I was in the first grade, I was a transfer student from a Catholic school in my former neighborhood (two months and I still have the scars..but that's another blog.) My name was put at the very bottom of a large chart in my classroom. Stickers were put next to our names for every book we read that year. Maybe there was a prize, I don't remember, but for me it was the honor - and I had some catching up to do. I wanted to have the most little stickies and be known as the best..even though I was the new kid. ('s that for competitive?)
I haunted the library and the librarian kept them coming..biographies, horse books, dog books, children's classics. I did eventually have the most stickies and more importantly, a love for reading that continues today.
This weekend I'll be in Denver for the MidWinter meeting of the American Library Association; I'll be spending one day at the St. Martin's booth and the other helping out at the Bouchercon booth.(If you're there, stop by,say hello, pick of an ARC of The Big Dirt Nap and some snazzy Jungle Red bookmarks.)
Librarians today can be a mystery writer's best friends. They don't care how big your marketing budget is, or how many days it's been since your pub. date. All they care about is that you've written a good book and are willing to visit their libraries. I've visited dozens in the last year and didn't do one event at a Barnes & Noble (not that I wouldn't, if you're out there..;-)
Anyway, on Wednesday Jane Murphy from the Westport, CT Public Library will be guestblogging here. She's one of the organizers of a new mystery event being held in Connecticut this April, Murder203, Come back to see what Jane has to say, and in the meantime, how about telling us some of your best library experiences?
JAN: I loved bringing my kids to the library when they were little. The Westwood Library had (has) a terrific children's room and in the summer used to award the kids leaves to put on the tree mural for every book they read. My kids developed a love of reading that endured.
But most of all the library is what gives me the strongest sense of community. It's sort of like the Cheers bar -- where everyone knows your name.
ROBERTA: I spent a ton of time at my hometown library in Berkeley Heights NJ when I was a kid. We all hauled home stacks of books and then disappeared into our rooms to read. Last month, I was elected to the library board in my current home town. (My husband was the chair for eight years so I believe this could be a case of political nepotism...) On election night, we had a huge disappointment when the bond for major renovations was voted down by a slim margin. Some people--not many but enough--think we don't need libraries these days because we have the Internet. That sounds crazy to me!
RO: That's because the internet is so reliable and 100% accurate, right? (I'm joking, of course...)
RHYS: The public library was my first big adventure. It was the first place I was allowed to go alone in the evenings in my teens. And the first time I was allowed to prowl the adult section, unsupervised (yes, I did take a peek at Lady Chatterly and similar items, I guess, but I also discovered Dorothy Sayers, and all those wonderful Golden Age mystery writers). I spent so long there that my father was convinced I went there to meet a boy--he was very protective. At that stage in my life, twelve or thirteen, the books were more enticing than any boy.
Since being a writer I have done library events all over the country and love connecting with readers and librarians.
HALLIE: I remember getting my first library card, and reading a gazillion biographies (Clara Barton, George Gershwin, Marie Curie...) and all the Betsy, Tacy and Tib books. They didn't ALLOW children in the adult section back then, and what I remember is the momentous day when I reached whatever age it was that I could go upstairs and breathe the rarified air up there. I still don't know why they had that rule. Maybe to keep the noise down upstairs, or maybe to protect our fragile minds from the muck of Faulkner and Lawrence.
A little silver lining of the downturn in the book business has been a boom in library use. I love mine. YAY MILTON LIBRARY. And they're about to reopen a brand new library in a few months.
HANK: Yay NEWTON LIBRARY! It's beautiful, welcoming, relaxed, and the folks there are infinitely knowledgeable. And of course the Boston Public Library is the elegant lady of the city. Gorgeous, full of riches and full of wonderful secrets. I adore it.
RO: I just found out that I'll be doing an event there this March...I'm so honored to have been asked.
HANK: When I was growing up, waaaay in the exurbs, the nearest library was in my school. I treasured my library card, and somehow it made me feel like a part of something. I read the encylclopedia, volume by volume, sitting in that library. All those blue biographies when I was like, eight: Clara Barton, Girl Nurse? Or Dorothea Dix, Girl of the Streets? Something like that? ('Girl of the streets' doesnt sound exactly right...but you know what I mean.) On the school bus, I would lug home the limit, ten books. And not let my sisters touch them.
And you had to be really really really quiet. Scary quiet. Now, chatting with librarians, I know they're trying to change their image from stern disciplinarians into being wonderful guides through a fantastic new world. Maybe they need--superhero uniforms?
RO: Yes..all those biographies...Booker T. Washington and Luther Burbank were two that I remember reading when I was little...and something about someone who took care of lepers! (I was a serious kid..) Wonder what bios kids are reading today? Anybody know?

Friday, January 16, 2009

Put Me In, Coach!

ROBERTA: Today Jungle Red Writers is delighted to welcome special guest Jill Crossland who comes to us from Alberta, Canada. Jill is a life and business coach with a particular interest in the issues of women over forty. (She is also a fellow Australian shepherd lover!) We thought Jill would have interesting insights and suggestions for writers in this publishing climate--and nonwriters too! Welcome Jill!

Before we launch into questions, please tell us a little about life coaching--what you actually do, how you're trained, and what kinds of folks seek your help.

JILL: Thank you, Roberta for inviting me to be a part of your blog. By the way I love the name.

To answer your question, coaching is about helping people with a situation that is taking place in the here and now. Coaches help their clients to be motivated, think through strategies and find solutions. The women that come to me are usually looking for guidance as they move to the next level in their life or business. My decision to become a Life Coach evolved from my own midlife transition. I trained through Coachville and am a member of the IAC (International association of Coaches). A coach also brings her résumé to the table. I have a well rounded professional and volunteer history behind me.

ROBERTA: As I'm sure you're well aware, getting and staying published in this market is difficult and stressful. How might you approach helping a writer who is feeling overwhelmed and discouraged?

JILL: First, make sure that your work space is conducive to the creative process. If your desk is cluttered with household bills and a couple of rejection letters this is going to compound those negative feelings. Your office should be all about you and the book, nothing else. Then create a team, if a weekly house cleaner or baby sitter gives you the time that you need to write then they are worth the money. Stay away from the naysayers; make sure that all the people that you connect with are supportive. You may love your best friend but if she is saying “maybe you should go back to work” keep your distance until your confidence is back. Also seek out other writers, as they understand what you are going through.

ROBERTA: Let's talk a little about writers block and procrastination. How might you go about helping a writer who's stuck?

JILL: I think that there is a tendency to retreat when one is stuck, when in fact taking a break from the typewriter or laptop and going out into the world is probably the better direction. Stimulate ‘those little grey cells’ by sitting in a busy cafe, doing something else creative, take a drive or go see a movie. If you do prefer to stay in your office, find a way to re-connect with the subject matter or characters – perhaps by re-reading your original outline. Remember where you where when the first seed of the book started to grow, how you felt and more importantly why you wanted to write this particular book. Then don’t censure yourself; just let words pour out unedited or perhaps stimulate your thought process by using a different writing method such as pen and pad or tape recorder.

Procrastination often stems from fear and that fear is rooted in the big picture of the end product. “What if I cannot find a publisher” or “Maybe no one will read my book”. Realistically those issues will be dealt with at the right time. For now stay in the present; set daily goals to help overcome those thoughts. Go into your office with a specific intention; “Today I want to have Harry tell Veronica the truth about………….” or “I will finish working on the research I need for chapter 10”. These things are doable and will keep the work flowing.

For self-motivation it is important to create a realistic schedule with your needs written in. Even if some days are exceptionally busy, giving yourself one hour to write is better than nothing.

ROBERTA: I noticed that you called your midlife a transition not a crisis; could you talk a little about the special challenges and opportunities that women in midlife face?

JILL: I think that the word crisis has such a negative connotation and while midlife can be a difficult time, women inevitably come through it stronger and more defined. We not only overcome the physical changes but mental and even spiritual ones. For many women one of the biggest challenges is the loss or redefining of their roles and subsequently getting to know ourselves again. Luckily though as this is not our mother’s midlife; there are many opportunities to transcend ourselves through travel, starting a business or following a passion, such as writing!

ROBERTA: What would you say to a new writer?

JILL: Dream big but think realistically; it is normal and healthy to visualize your name & book title on a best seller list but keep your feet on the ground.

When one has created something there is always an emotional attachment and I think new writers need to remember that there is going to be a practical business side to getting published. They will have to make some tough decisions. Be pro-active from day one. Start by asking yourself “Who is my reader?” Think about reaching them through the virtual world. Create a blog or website to give you and your book a presence, look for virtual book clubs, submitted excerpts to relevant online publications, meet groups through Skype and tele-conferencing, there are limitless ways to gain publicity. Lastly don’t overlook where you live for networking opportunities. It is not the same as being signed by Random House but it is a start.

Roberta: Thanks for stopping in to JRW, Jill. I'm going to start today on that "stay in the present" thing!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Roxanne

JUNGLE RED: Today JRW is thrilled to feature one of our regular contributors, Laura Benedict, who is just launching her new book CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS (Ballantine.) We're talking SO new, none of us has had the chance to read it yet. But Publisher's Weekly called it a "spellbinding" second novel (after Isabella Moon) and said this "sad, erotically charged update of a classic horror theme offers a cautionary moral: pacts with the devil seldom result in happiness."

We welcome Laura here to talk about the inspiration for her new book!

LAURA: When I was a preteen, we lived in a rather anonymous sort of townhouse complex surrounded by middle-class homes. At the time I didn’t understand that living in the townhouses meant we were a social rung down from the people in the houses, but even the 1974 suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky had their class rules. Then there was the other apartment complex across the street….My parents thought that the apartment complex was, well, risky.

The apartments were filled with unmarried people. My friends from “over there” lived with their single parents. The swimming pool lifeguards blared the Top 40 radio station over the sound system, and there were wine-sodden parties in the clubhouse every weekend. The guy who dressed up as our local Ronald McDonald lived there. It was a fabulous place and you know I spent as much time as I could there—especially with my friend, Roxanne.

Roxanne fancied herself a witch. Actually, she said it was her sister who was really the witch—she was just in training. Roxanne was the first person I did the Ouija board with, and, underneath her bed, she kept a headstone that she said her sister had stolen from a graveyard. It was old and you couldn’t read what it said anymore, just the word “died” in lowercase letters. She had books on Satan worship and bags full of roots and things. Roxanne was Goth before Goth was Goth. Roxanne was cool. But she cried a lot. And her sister never came to visit her. And in the year that I knew her, I never met her mother, who lived in the same apartment.

My own mother would’ve had a heart attack if she knew I was practicing spells to—well, who knows what we were trying to do. Get boyfriends? Better grades? Mostly we giggled a lot and tried to levitate one another at sleepovers. There was a darkness behind it all, though. A terrifying darkness that at once attracted and repelled me.

The Roxanne in my novel CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS has much in common with my childhood friend: they both tried to use a kind of witchcraft to get attention and transform their lives, they both had great hair, they both lived with a single parent, they were both artists. I tried, but no other name worked for the character in the novel.

Both Roxannes are very different from me: I visit the dark places in myself, in my imagination, in the news, and in films and literature. But I don’t hang around there long. I’ve always been kind of a chicken when it comes to that stuff. I think that even way back then, I knew it was just an experiment and that I could go back to my cozy townhouse with my June Cleaver mother, annoying younger sisters, hardworking dad. I could go to sleep at night knowing I would wake up and nothing would have changed. I could eat my hot breakfast and go to school and come home and do it all again.

I’m like that now. I live a very quiet, middle-class life. If I ever catch one of my kids using a Ouija board, I’ll turn him or her over my knee and give them a good spanking because some things shouldn’t be messed with. (Note: It would be the second or third spanking they ever got. I’m more a yeller than a spanker. But I’m that serious about it.) I spend my days exploring the darkness in the pages of my manuscripts, and surface in time to make tuna noodle and hug my kids when they get home from school. I cry mostly when I’m hormonal or I get a really bad review. I feel very blessed in that things have worked out this way.

I wonder if you’ve had a Roxanne in your life? Or were you perhaps someone else's Roxanne?

Jungle Red: Let's hear from the gang!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Jungle Red Writers Inauguration Ball

ROBERTA: I read an article in the New York Times a week or so ago about how eagerly the Obamas are being sought as dinner and event guests in Washington. And we've all been reading about the expected crush of people attending the inauguration festivities. The Obamas are expected to be quite cagey about what they attend, as their presence will be interpreted in all kinds of ways they may not intend. says this:

The "official" balls are organized and hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies in honor of the newly-elected President. In the past, these have included the Commander-in-Chief Ball, the Constitution Ball, the Freedom Ball, the Democracy Ball, the Independence Ball, the Liberty Ball, the Patriot Ball, and the Stars and Stripes Ball.

"Unofficial" balls and galas are hosted by any number of different organizations, including state societies, private industry, non-profit organizations and other special interest groups. Many of these events are invitation or member only, with tickets for these balls not necessarily open to the public.

The competition would be stiff, but I got to thinking we ought to throw a Jungle Red inaugural ball. What should we eat? What about our dress code? And how the heck do we draw the Obamas in? Maybe the "JRW salutes the writer in you inaugural ball"? For one thing, I'd like to plan it on the early side. I'm just no good at staying up late these days.

HANK: New shoes? Can we get new shoes? (Not the $700 ones, since Jan objects.)
And hey, my husband and I got an invitation, all parchment and embossed gold letters, to the Obama inauguration. Cool. But I fear it's somewhat like being invited to the, say, lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller center. Um, or to the grocery. I mean it's open to the public, right?

Two things: I admit to be intrigued by what Michelle Obama will wear. Call me shallow. Someone said on some TV show that inaugurations bring out the dowdiness in first ladies. I suppose it's because the dress will be in the Smithsonian exhibit. Which would be a bit daunting.

Also, I do have some standing here to discuss White House events, because as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, I covered Susan Ford's prom.

Anyway, I vote the decorations for the JR ball have to come from yard sales. And we have to dress as our favorite author. Wait, that's Halloween. We get the Obamas to come because we tell them: we're mystery authors and readers, and we know how to find the bad guys. And there are a lot of bad guys to get. Then we all have champagne.
ROBERTA: Hank, love the yard sale decorations! Maybe you could loan Michelle your black wedding dress? that was definitely worthy of the Smithsonian! Are you going to the ball? You can be our reporter on the scene...

RHYS: I am so envious that Hank got the official invitation! Just because I was getting the weekly updates from Obama's transition team AND he was following me on Twitter, I thought I was well and truly IN. Obviously not.
Why don't we have one of those murder mystery balls, with victim sprawling on floor, and everyone else trying to solve whodunnit? And you know what? We could invite sundry politicians and the CEOs of Wall Street and we could bump them off and nobody would ever find us out. Whaaa haaa haa. Rhys has changed from that writer who always gets reviews describing her work as "delightful" to an evil, scheming villainess. AND I'd wear red. I never wear red.

JAN: I just want to make clear Hank, I'm only outlawing $700 shoes for teenagers and those of us with large feet. Anyone who can actually afford $700 shoes or has to appear on television for whatever reason can spend as much money as they want on shoes.
And a superspecial exemption for inaugural balls and, oh heck, Emmy award ceremonies. But even though the rest of the media will skewer Michelle if she dresses down or makes the slightest fashion faux pas, I would be proud of her if she resisted the temptation to wear Monolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos.

ROBERTA: Okay, so new shoes, red dresses, champagne, a murder mystery (though I'm a little concerned about all those secret service), and I definitely want dancing and great food. Suggestions and requests anyone? (And thanks for the Obama photo to Englino, for the crime tape photo to Daniel Y. Go, and for the dance photo to Patrick Q.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Yard sale madness and inspiration...

HALLIE: One of the (many) things I hate about New England winters is that there are no yard sales. And then, come the first warm days of spring, signs sprout on street corners and beckon with their siren song.

I've picked up all my favorite platters at yard sales. The silver clip-on earrings I wear everywhere. Each spring I restock my supply of fancy soaps (why don't people appreciate good soap?) And of course, the idea for "Never Tell a Lie" which I didn't even have to pay for.

My husband is a yard sale maniac. Every Saturday he suits up and leaves the house early-early, stakes out the yard most likely to have his kind of stuff, and waits for the homeowner to take pity on him. Our basement is crammed with his finds -- scores of vintage small appliances (fans, radios, hotplates, curling irons...) that peer out at me from dark shelves whenever I lug down the laundry. Upstairs our shelves are crammed with old books. Hey, it could be bedroom sets that he's dragging home. I blame my husband's obsession with yard sales on his mother--she traumatized him by throwing out his baseball cards.

Do you yard sail? What have been your finest finds?

HANK: Does he think he's going to find the cards? Oh, that's heartbreaking.

ROBERTA: You have to be so patient with yard sales. I guess I've gotten more impatient as I've gotten older. And tag sales in Connecticut don't seem to have the great stuff they did when I lived in Florida. Years ago, my sister scored a swan-neck rocking chair--that's an upholstered overstuffed rocking chair with carved wooden arms, the head of a swan on each. She had it re-covered and it was gorgeous. I searched all over for one like it. (This was before craig's list and ebay.) Finally I had the idea of putting a wanted ad in the local paper. A woman two towns over called and sold me two for fifty bucks--I have one in the den and one upstairs. Love those chairs!

RHYS: I used to love yard sales but it seems recently that people have become greedy and the quality of the stuff has gone down. When we were first married and had used our last pennies to buy our first home, we furnished it almost entirely from yard and garage sales. My best finds? An ivory chess set from China, all the figures are Chinese warriors. We got it for $5 because there was a piece missing. When I got it home, I found the lining of the box was torn and the missing piece was inside!

I think you East Coasters do much better than we in the West. Most people couldn't bring too much stuff with them when they made the transcontinental trek so it's less likely that anyone finds treasure in their attic, or good antiques at garage sales. But I still look hopefully for that overlooked painting that will be the star of the Antiques Roadshow! I think we still carry that hunter/gatherer gene, don't you?

HALLIE: True, Rhys, there's nothing like feeling you got something for nothing... or a song. I once bought an old radio at a friend's yard sale, googled it and discovered the thing was worth over a thousand dollars. The next day I gave it back. Now, if that person had been a complete stranger, I'd have been cackling with glee instead. Moral: Better not to buy from friends.

Ro: Whenever my husband and I are driving and we see one of those handwritten signs on dayglo oaktag(sp?) we look at each other and his hands tense on the steering wheel. Do we stay the course or is the game afoot?

I never met a tag sale or church sale I didn't like. It's just not the same thing finding an item on ebay..although I've done that a few times.

I won't bore you with a complete list of the things I haul home..just a smattering...vintage lamps from the 30's-60's - panther tv lamps to sputnik balls to torchieres - anything barkcloth, adirondack frames, herringbone and iris glass, old gardening books and tools, sheet music, bakelite radios, bird and plant prints, ceramic deer vases, vintage handbags, flowered china, exercise equipment - I now have a gym that most small high schools would be proud of...I'd better stop.

Unlike a woman I know, I've never bought a desk and discovered that it was an actual Stickley (not repro)..but all of it makes me smile, so that's enough for me.

JAN: You have to get to a yard sale early Saturday morning to get the good stuff. I'm still having coffee and reading the paper. Plus, I'm not a patient or particularly discerning shopper. I did, however, find a really great tapestry for over my couch once -- it wasn't cheap though. That's another thing, I hate haggling. I even hate feeling that I should haggle. So yard sales aren't for me.

HALLIE: I hear you, husband actually sallies forth twice each spring/summer Saturday. Once at about 7:30 and I wave groggily. Then he stops home mid-sail an hour or two later and I often join the fray.

And Ro, we DID once get a Stickley bookcase (with hammered copper pulls) for $25.

So, are you a yard sale maven or would you rather sit them out?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Mystery Sisters

HALLIE: First, one kind of mystery sisterhood--Jan and I launched our books last night at Red Bones in Cambridge. Hank was on-hand. Kate's Mystery Books in Cambridge has signed copies of TEASER and of NEVER TELL A LIE. I'm posting photos in the "Gallery" on my web site later today. Future events are posted on each of our web sites.

Another kind of sisterhood--I grew up in a family of four girls. If a novelist had created my family, there would have been fewer sisters. Four is just too many to write about and keep them all distinct. Three is my upper limit. (I've often wondered if Alcott didn't bump off Beth because four were so hard to write.)

But Lauren Baratz-Logsted blows off the roof writing eight sisters. in her Sisters Eight mystery series for kids. Octuplets. With eight cats, no less.

Welcome to Jungle Red Writers, Lauren...

We have to ask if you come from a family of girls, and if not where did you come up with the idea of a mystery series with eight sisters?

LBL: Thank you so much for having me here - it's an honor! I have just one sibling, a brother who's two years older, so it didn't come from there. It actually came from Jackie. Short version: we were stranded in Colorado by a blizzard and, needing fresh entertainment and since I'd always wanted to write a book Jackie could read, I asked what she'd like. Being an only child, he
said a book about sisters. I asked how many and she said eight. So there you have it - creativity at work!

JRW: The sisters feel like a profusion of Pippi Longstockings… so independent and spunky. Did you have a literary model in the back of your mind when you created the sisters Huit (love that their last name is the French word for “eight”)?

LBL: Well, Jackie used F. Scott Fitzgerald as her source material, while Greg... No, seriously, we were just trying to create something fun to amuse ourselves and, before we knew it, things got away from us! If we had any other books in mind at all, I'd say we were thinking "Lemony Snicket" (whom we all love) but for a slightly younger set and with a strong emphasis on Girl Power...and cats."

Any tips on how to write with eight main characters? How do you keep them each so distinct and vibrant?

LBL: I tell you, it's been the challenge of my career! The key has been to create characters so strong in certain personality traits that readers can tell who's speaking even if there are no dialogue tags. For example, I've been reading the books to Jackie's third grade class and if I ask them which character would say, "Oh no! It is raining so hard, we will need to build an ark!" they will all answer "Petal." You can even have a personality profile done by taking a quiz at to see "Which Eight Are You?" I must say, though, it's disturbing to see how many people turn out to be Rebecca.

JRW: Can you share with us a little how you collaborate with your husband and your daughter?

Basically, I'm "the pen." This means that after brainstorming the general idea for each book, I write all day, then read the day's output to Greg and Jackie, who then tell me what's right/wrong and what needs to be done in the next chapter. And sometimes we go out for editorial lunches. A good portion of the final five books in the series exist only thus far on napkins.

JRW: A lot of excellent mystery writers have turned their hands to writing YA books. Did you start writing for adults?

LBL: Oh yes. Something like my first six were published for adults, only one of which - VERTIGO - would fit into the mystery/thriller category, before I started writing for both.

JRW: Can you give our writer-readers some insight into what’s hot right now in the YA mystery market?

LBL: Lisa McMann's WAKE, which I'd categorize more as a suspense novel, is amazing; and the followup, FADE, is soon to be released. There's also a great recent book for slightly younger readers, MASTERPIECE, by Elise Broach, that's about an 11-year-old boy and a talented beetle who become involved in solving the mystery behind an art heist. Truthfully, though, given the wonderful variety of books currently being published as YA, there's a sad shortage of get writing, JRWers!

JRW: And would you share inside scoop on how you sold your series to Houghton Miflin?

LBL: All sales should be this easy! Just like Curious George, I sat down and started to write. When I finished the first book in the projected nine-book series, I really felt that we might have something here that might amuse more people than just the three of us. So I sent it off to my favorite editor in the world, Julia Richardson at Houghton Mifflin, and she saw something
worthwhile there too, enough to buy the first four books in the series and publish the first two as twin lead titles.

JRW: Would you be willing to check back today and answer our readers questions about your books or writing mysteries for kids?

LBL: Absolutely!

JRW: Question for Lauren? Please, pile on!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Facing our darkest fears

HALLIE: At last, "Never Tell a Lie" is published. I labored over that sucker for nearly three years, so now when people tell me "I couldn't put it down! I finished it in three hours!!" I have distinctly mixed feelings.

The idea for the book came to me, innocuously enough, at a yard sale. Just like the yard sale that opens the novel, it was at a big Victorian house around the corner from me. New owners had painted the outside mauve and purple. I was dying to know what they'd done to the interior, so I peppered the poor woman throwing the yard sale with a million questions.

Finally, probably as much to get rid of me as anything else, she said, "Would you like to go inside and look around?" She pointed the side door. "Let yourself in."

I did. Inside, there was a brand new kitchen. Upstairs, the bedrooms were straight out of House Beautiful. As I started up to the third floor, the mystery writer in me kicked in and I thought: What if a woman goes to a yard sale and somehow she manages to talk her way into the house? She goes inside. . . and she never comes out.

Thoroughly spooked, I bolted down three flights and out the door.

Have you ever been spooked by a thought that turned an everyday situation sinister?

HANK: OH. Constantly. Daily. It's a sickness. Even that, you know? I'll cough, and then think--what if this is the beginnning of the plague, and I have it and... And suddenly, I'm in The Stand.

Jonathan goes out to get the paper. It's just at the end of the driveway. "Be careful!" I always tell him. "Of WHAT?" he says. It's potentially dangerous, in my mind. In his, it isn't. What if the people handing out free food samples at the mall are really terrorists, and the food is poisoned? (Actually, I may use that in a book so forget you read it.) And I completely got PTSD after seeing the movie "The Dark Knight." I was clutching Jonathan all the way to the car, terrifed someone/something was going to leap out of the darkness.

I may have seen too much TV news.

HALLIE: LOL. That's gotta be it.

Not sure why but that reminds me of once when I was walking with my daughter and we were playing "what's that thing" (pick up a small scrap of trash from the street and try to guess what it was part of)...and I picked up a red plastic tab that said "DO NOT REMOVE." Where's CSI when you need 'em.

HANK: I still have a little red ticket from a sweepstakes drawing that says "Keep this ticket." So hey, I kept it. Because what terrible thing might happen if I don't?

RHYS: Congrats on the new book, Hallie. As you say, this is one of the pitfalls of being a mystery writer. The brain switches so easily to "what if?" And we have trained ourselves to act on that what if. A snippet of overheard conversation becomes sinister, a stranger lurking on the corner becomes a potential ax murderer... And I've always been afraid of the dark. I grew up in a big spooky house that I was sure was haunted. The wind used to make the rug outside my bedroom door flap up and down and sometimes windows opened on their own. When I talked about this to my brother, years later, he replied, "of course it was haunted." So I'd never go up three flights of stairs in a purple-painted house.

RO: Oooh, as a diehard yard sale fan, I'll never be able to go to one again and walk up those stairs to where I've been assured "the good stuff" is. Even if the house isn't purple. That's my idea of something really scary, the everyday thing that turns into a nightmare. I mean, who's going to be fooled by a drooling 7-ft stranger with tattoos and an eyepatch? Just story.

My sort-of-scary moments occur whenever I'm on a driving trip and I have to use the facilities - or buy a can of diet red bull- at a gas station. It's not the toilet that scares me (Dr. hear that?)Ever see The Vanishing or Breakdown? Yikes. It crosses my mind every time I stop in one of those remote service stations.

HANK: Oh. The Vanishing (the Dutch one) is the scariest movie I've ever seen. Ever. I almost wish I hadn't see it.

ROBERTA: Ro, I'm not worried about the toilet, I'm worried about the diet Red Bull!:) Hallie, big congratulations! So excited to see your book on the shelves! And what I've learned from the tag sale story is to never, ever, let a stranger into the house, even if she SEEMS like a nice, nosy middle-aged lady. Maybe especially that. I too see danger and plot twists everywhere. It's kind of exhausting, isn't it?

HALLIE: What about never ever GO INTO a house, no matter how hunky the man is who invites you in to "have a look around."

JAN: Wow, was it really three years, Hallie? It seemed like that book flew off your computer!! Congratulations on its release and the many terrific reviews.

When I was still dealing with my plane phobia (now conquered!!) I once had a cognitive behavioral therapist tell me that my problem was I had too much imagination and I applied it to EVERYTHING. That probably applies to all of us!

For me, it really was the toilet.... but not the germs. It all started as a small child, when I convinced myself there was a monster in it. I used to open the door, flush the toilet and run like hell. Sometimes when I go to lock the garage door at night, I'll let in the thought... what if someone was in the garage just waiting.... and I get that full body fear thrill people go to the movies for. But I've spent a lot of energy trying to NOT let those thoughts in my head, and I think it's net gain.

HALLIE: My daughter used to be afraid of squirrels, so I'd send her out with a can of Lysol (AKA magic squirrel repellant) to protect her on her Hot Wheels.

So, is your monster in the toilet? Or in your attic? Or up a tree and hopefully staying where it belongs? (Hopefully not in your bookstore where I hope you are ALL headed.)

Please join the conversation. We're dying to know.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Cockeyed Optimist

Rhys on Friday...thinking ahead to the new year and deciding that I must actually be an optimist. I realized that when I took down the tree today (it was bone dry--think artificial next year) and checked carefully to make sure there wasn't a small present tucked away among the branches that we had overlooked. I do this every year. I've never found one yet, but I keep looking.In the same way I always count my money at the ATM, hopeful that for once the machine has made a mistake a slipped in an extra twenty. My husband always counts to make sure the machine hasn't cheated him. Difference between optimist and pessimist, I guess.

Anyway, on this optimistic note, these are some of the things I hope will happen this year:

Someone does something about health care. Why not make medical school free for the brightest students, who in return have to work for four years at a reasonable salary at a community clinic. That way there would be free basic health care for everyone. And also let the government set a sensible price for all drugs by buying in huge bulk from the drug companies, so my unemployed daughter wouldn't have to pay $200 for eight pills of her migraine medicine.

Impose a "pay it forward" tax on all celebrities and CEOs who make millions a year. A baseball star might have to pay a million to a fund to keep sports programs in the schools. A CEO would pay his million to keep small businesses afloat, or provide literacy programs.

And on a more personal note: in case you haven't noticed, waaaay too many books are published each year. This recession may make publishers cut back their lists, which would be a good thing, providing we at JRR are the writers they keep!

So I start out the year looking forward to publishing two new books, In a Gilded Cage and later Royal Flush. I look forward to being Guest of Honor at Left Coast Crime in Hawaii. I look forward to the presidency of Obama and a renewed spirit of optimism in the country. I look forward to the end of war in the world, the greening of the planet and brotherly love among all factions.I guess I'm just a cockeyed optimist!

HANK: I saw an article in the paper today about hopes for the New Year. "World peace" was number 7.I'm with ya, Rhys. Lots of soldiers should be coming home. Right now.
I hope for the demise of greed, the source of most of the mess. I hope for little Molly (4) and Georgia (2) who live next door--their reality is emerging as incredibly different. For worse, sometimes, but also for much better.People are smiling at each other again, even in this adversity.
I hope that all of that "hope" that seems to be floating around out there turns into joy and reality.

JAN: I hope that the economic downturn helps more people focus on what really matters. I hope this is the end of artificial waterfalls installed in people's back yards,$15,000 sweet sixteen parties, and $700 high heels.I hope that the country gives Obama the time and support he's going to need. I hope for once, people take a break from speculative criticism and that both right wing radio shows and far left liberals LAY OFF.I'm writing a screenplay about the 1976 murder of a Harvard Football player in Boston, which I consider an incredibly important story in the history of the city. I hope and pray that I can do it justice.

RHYS: Jan, my next door neighbor has been having his front yard terraced and a waterfall created for the past six months. It has to have run up to at least $100,000 by now and is nowhere near finished. I think this sort of desire for status and material possessions is why I enjoyed a Christmas market cruise in Austria a couple of years ago. The Christmas markets had simple wooden toys, gingerbread goodies, mulled wine. I got the feeling that this was how Christmas should be.