Friday, July 30, 2010

Familiarity Breeds Content

"This first of an intended series is a satisfying whodunit that could make even a couch potato want to hit the slopes."
**Booklist on DOUBLE BLACK by Wendy Clinch

HANK: What does your significant other do? (Mine's a lawyer, and it's lovely to have in house counsel, both in my job as reporter and mystery author.) But when Jonathan's working on a closing argument, usually at the kitchen table, I stay out of the room.

I type my manuscripts in the study. When Jonathan comes into the room--I stop. I wait until I take care of whatever it is he needs. (What's for dinner? Where's the dry cleaning? Where did I put my book? Is it going to rain? Do we have any tape?) He leaves, I go back to my chapter. If he's in the room, no way I can work. Even if he's just reading. I know he's there.

My mother tells the story about when she and my dad were married--before he joined the foreign service, he was a musician/composer/music critic. Story goes, when Mom was around, he was so distracted, wanting to talk with her, that he couldn't work. (Or so I'm told.)

But there are some couples who thrive on togetherness. And are obviously very successful at working togther. Very. Very. Successful. Nick and Nora. Tracy and Hepburn. Burns and Allen.

Wendy and Jon.

All In The Family

WENDY CLINCH: I grew up with a family business. My dad had a clothing store on the Jersey shore that his father started back in the ‘20’s. He retired and moved to Florida years ago, but the store is still in the family. My brother runs it these days, although I think it’ll probably end with him.

Some things never change.

I’m still in a family business, but it isn’t retail. My husband, Jon Clinch, and I are both novelists. Jon is the author of “Finn” and the recently released “Kings of the Earth” (Random House). My first book, “Double Black: A Ski Diva Mystery” (Minotaur), came out in January. The sequel, “Fade To White,” will arrive next winter.

((HANK: Okay, okay, I can't resist. FINN! KINGS OF THE EARTH! If we're allowed to say it out loud, we're crossing our fingers for a Pulitzer. And of DOUBLE BLACK, Booklist says "...a brisk prose style, convincing dialogue, and a sure touch in describing the social strata of a resort town and the rush of a downhill descent." Now, Wendy, back to you. And yes, that's Wendy skiing at the top of the page.)

WENDY: To tell the whole story, this is the second time we’ve worked together. Jon and I had a small ad agency in the Philadelphia area for many years, so we’re used to doing things shoulder-to-shoulder.

Call it habit, call it affection, call it the comfort that comes from doing things in the familiar way: we still work together in one room. It just works out that way. Whichever one of us gets started first—me at the kitchen table, or Jon at the desk in the library—the other one just kind of gravitates there too.

Sure, we have our differences: Jon seems to mutter to himself a lot more than I do. We have different tastes in background music: I gravitate toward Motown and James Taylor, Jon toward Tom Waits and John Hartford. And I don’t write during the winter: I ski most days and only write during the off season. He writes year ‘round, only taking an occasional day off here and there.

But even though he writes literary fiction and I write light-hearted mysteries, being in the same business does have its advantages. It’s nice to have a spouse who understands the work that goes into putting together a good piece of fiction. We often bounce ideas off one another to get that all-important second opinion. And it’s convenient to have someone you trust sitting right next to you when the time comes to decide if something needs reworking. Our many years together in advertising definitely thickened our skins when it comes to that kind of thing.

Working side by side, we’re struck more by the similarities in what we do than by the differences. In fiction, people tend to draw hard lines between genres. Literary fiction should sound one way, a mystery another. But as far as we're concerned, those boundaries really don't matter much. Jon's books and mine both feature murders—yet only mine are categorized as mysteries. Each of us struggles to make every page, every paragraph, every sentence, and every word as perfect as we can—yet out there where folks decide what book fits on what shelf, that's the kind of thing that conventional wisdom says belongs on the literary side of things. The bottom line is that good writing—a story that engages, with characters who come to life, told in language that's right on the money—is always paramount. And it knows no boundaries.

Like my family’s store, our own little family business will more than likely end with the current generation. Our daughter is a science teacher, and hasn’t yet shown any interest in writing fiction. This could change -- she’s only in her twenties, and we didn’t begin writing till we were a few decades older. If she decides to follow in our footsteps, there’s plenty of room in either the kitchen or the library.

And if not, that’s okay, too. After all, I didn’t go into retail.

HANK: So, Wendy? What's the secret of working together? Jonathan reads my pages, of course. And I do admit, I edit his opening statements and closing arguments. But we're separate first. Everything else, yes, together. Grocery shopping, car to the mechanic, going to the movies. People laugh at us about it. But working--no.

How do the rest of you handle spousal appearances? Is here such a thing as too much togetherness? Or, like Wendy and Jon, have you worked out a system?

Wendy Clinch is the author of the Ski Diva mystery series, featuring amateur sleuth Stacey Curtis, and set in Vermont’s ski country. Her first book, Double Black, debuted in January, 2010, and her second, Fade to White, will be released in winter, 2011. Wendy is the founder of, the premier internet community for women skiers. A former advertising copywriter, Wendy spent more than 25 years in the field, most recently as a partner in her own agency in suburban Philadelphia. She now lives in Vermont with her husband, Jon Clinch, author of Finn: A Novel and Kings of the Earth.

DOUBLE BLACK: A SKI DIVA MYSTERY (Minotaur, January, 2010)
FADE TO WHITE: A SKI DIVA MYSTERY (Minotaur, Winter, 2011)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Got a Match?

HANK: So, you've got this great manuscript. Or actually, you've got his manuscript that MIGHT be great. But you don't want to send it to some big New York agent just yet--in case it's not that great. How do you know? And how do you make it better?

Betsy Bitner (and the Guppies) to the rescue. Betsy is the manuscript matchmaker. The wizard of works in progress. The critique group guru. The finder of feedback. The...well, you get the picture.

So we at JRW wondered--how does the manuscript magic happen?

HANK: How did you get involved? What’s your role?

BETSY: I'd belonged to Guppies for a year or two, but was pretty much just a lurker. I felt guilty about all the people who donate their time to the Guppies in so many ways to make it a valuable organization. So when the call went out for a new Critique Group Coordinator, I raised my hand (fin?) - at least virtually. I figured this was something I could do to help out. I'm still a lurker, but I like bringing writers together so they can get constructive feedback on their writing. It's a volunteer gig and it's a free service to members, but hopefully it's a case of people getting more than what they paid for!

HANK:. And how does it work?

BETSY: For a swap, interested Guppies send me short paragraphs about their WIP, including title, setting, subgenre of mystery (if any) and a couple of sentences describing the book to entice other Guppies to want to read and critique it. I post these blurbs regularly on the Guppy list.

Guppies then contact me if a manuscript catches their eye. I check with both Guppies to make sure they're both interested in each other's work before putting them in touch with each other directly (up to this point, everything has been anonymous).

HANK: How do you make a match?
BETSY: I try to make sure that both writers are at the same point with their manuscripts. I wouldn't match someone who just typed "The End" on their first draft with someone who has a polished manuscript and wants a read through before sending out queries. It also helps if the author lets me know if there's strong language, graphic violence or sex in their manuscript because that's not everyone's cup of tea.

HANK: What's going on this very minute?

BETSY: Last week I formed two new critique groups: The Mayhem Gang and Cookies and Crime, each with four Guppies. I will start a new critique group when I get four or five Guppies interested in the small group format.

HANK: Do you ride herd over the writer/critiquer? Or are they on their own once you make the match?

BETSY: With a swap, the critiquers are pretty much on their own once there's been a match. I may have to give a nudge or two to someone to return a critique, but that doesn't happen very often. I ask Guppies doing a swap to touch base with me when they're done to let me know how it went, and the feedback I've received has been overwhelmingly positive.

I do monitor the small groups to make sure things are running smoothly, but I really just skim their posts looking for any problems. I don't have time to read any of their writing.

HANK: You get sent a paragraph about each person’s manuscript. Is it fun to read those?

BETSY: Absolutely. I'm always amazed at the variety of colorful characters, settings and situations that Guppies dream up. Not to mention some clever titles. It's like spending time in a book store and reading the back covers of a lot of mysteries. Except that I don't actually get to read the book! Although I have no doubt that many of these manuscripts will end up on book store shelves someday.

HANK: Have you learned anything from those paragraphs?

BETSY: That the paragraph describing your manuscript for the Guppies is essentially the same as a pitch you would give an agent. The paragraph is the first impression a reader gets of your book.

I used to do some editing of people's paragraphs, but then I stopped. If there are typos or awkward wording, it can give an indication of what the manuscript is like. It's easy to spot manuscripts coming from more experienced Guppies who have polished and refined their paragraphs/pitches. They get snapped up by other interested Guppies right away.

HANK: Are there Guppy rules for critiquing?

BETSY: I send everyone who participates in one of the critique opportunities a copy of the Guppy Critiquing Guidelines. They cover everything from how to use text editing, to things to look for when doing a critique to appropriate tone and attitude.

HANK: Do you ever get complaints?

BETSY: Complaints??? With me in charge??? Okay, yeah. A few. The one I get most often is when manuscripts are swapped and one person doesn't put the same time and effort into the critique as the other. Although this complaint has diminished since I began each swap with a gentle reminder (read: lecture) that critiquing is a two-way street and they should put as much effort into their critique as they would like to receive on their own manuscript.

With the groups, occasionally there will be a member whose personality/style doesn't quite jibe with the rest of the group and there are hurt feelings. Although this is an extremely rare occurrence given the supportive nature of the Guppies, a gentle reminder to follow the Guppy critiquing guidelines usually does the trick.

If my kids are reading this right now, they're probably thinking, "What's with all the gentle reminders? You're always yelling at us."

HANK: Can we see some of the pitch paragraphs?

BETSY: Sure. Here are some paragraphs that generated a lot of Guppy interest:

*****DESIGNER DIRTY LAUNDRY is a soft-boiled mystery set in the world of high-fashion.
Samantha Kidd, ex-buyer turned trend specialist, designed her future with couture precision, but finding the new boss's corpse on Day One leaves her hanging by a thread. When the killer fabricates evidence that put the cops on her heels, her new life begins to unravel. The cops think they have the case sewn up -- with Samantha as the killer! She trades high fashion for dirty laundry and reveals a cast of designers out for blood. Now this flatfoot in high heels must keep pace with a diabolical designer before she gets marked down for murder.

***AURORA NORTH AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE is a witty and fast-paced whodunit, along the lines of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, set in the thriving city of Manchester, England. Life is a regular breeze of disproving ghostly hauntings, werewolf attacks and vampire vandals for Aurora North, an experienced reporter with the subscription newspaper The Universe and its Secrets, until her editor assigns her a haunted house story with a twist and an over enthusiastic trainee, Jake.
The house in question has been peacefully empty for twenty years but has suddenly come alive with supernatural occurrences. At least it has according to its neighbours, two eccentric older women who seem to have their own agenda for getting Aurora and Jake involved. The ghostly waters become even more muddied when Aurora and Jake’s investigation turns them away from supernatural explanations and point towards an older, but no less intriguing, mystery.
Despite the inconvenient, and always unexpected, presence of an irritating detective, the reappearance of Aurora’s childhood crush and the ghostly episodes she always seems to miss, nothing can shake Aurora from uncovering the truth behind supposed haunting and getting her story.

*****PRESCHOOL IS MURDER is a contemporary, PD James-style mystery set in the world of Manhattan’s private preschools—where toddlers embrace entitlement and over-privileged parents act like toddlers.
At Foundations preschool in Greenwich Village, pretty, charismatic teacher Karen Lennart secretly plays favorites with her students, blackmails their parents and sells influence over kindergarten admissions. When Karen is killed, African-American homicide cop Linda Brewer, whose brilliant daughter attends an elite Uptown prep school on scholarship, gets an education of her own.
Linda’s investigation exposes a headmaster with a taste for young teens, one mom’s shoplifting, another’s kinky affair, and maniacally competitive administrators. Despite her scorn for the foibles of the rich and famous, Linda must learn to navigate the rarefied social circles at her daughter's prep school, which overlap with those of her preschool suspects, in order to unravel the intrigues at the prestigious preschool and solve the murder.

HANK: Oh, those sound great! So--Are you all in critique groups? Did they help you?

And who's a Guppy out there? Have you been in one of these groups? How'd it go?

A former criminal defense attorney and professionally trained chef, Betsy Bitner decided to turn to writing mysteries for the job security and big bucks. She has written several short stories and is working on a novel at a pace that would inspire confidence in a snail. When she's not critiquing her husband and children, Betsy gets her kicks critiquing other writers in her face-to-face critique group through the Mavens of Mayhem, a SinC chapter in Albany, NY.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

No Matter How You Slice It!

HANK: The secret to her success? Cheese. More on that in a minute. But she's always got a smile and a warm welcome. She's the hardest workin' woman in show biz. (She was one of my first pals in mystery world--we started out as new Guppies together. Know what that means? If not, read on.) And she's a true friend of Jungle Red. We are button-burstingly proud of new national best-seller Avery Aames.

Avery is an overnight success! It just took about...two decades of perseverance and guts and dedication. And--along the way--some criticism. Yikes. Some pretty tough criticism.

Don’t Let Criticism Crush You!
AVERY: Criticism. What you do with it might speak worlds about who you are and where you are in your life.

My parents always thought I was talented. They praised me. They critiqued me, as well, but always with love. According to them, I could do anything if I set my mind to it. I happened to be an overachiever, so they didn’t have to praise too hard. I carried a mental whip in my head at all times. Do better, do it faster.

I had always loved to write. Around the age of eleven, I’d tried my hand at a number of Nancy Drew chapters. When I hit the impressionable age of twelve, I encountered an English teacher who advised me I shouldn’t consider writing my future vocation. In fact, I remember a comment on a paper from him saying that I had no talent.
Can you imagine writing that to an impressionable twelve-year-old? No talent? Whatsoever?
Because I respected the teacher, the comment speared an arrow through my creative soul. For the rest of the year, I tried to put the comment from my mind, and I concentrated on the thing in which I “was” talented…math.
And yet I liked the creative arts: writing, dancing, acting. So in eighth grade--when I was feeling pretty cocky and assured--I put aside the teacher’s words and tried my hand at writing a play. It was a snarky turn on The Night Before Christmas. It earned rave “peer” reviews. Laughs were good, silliness even better. I didn’t lord my success over my former teacher. I had moved on. [At least I had convinced myself that I had.]

Then I entered high school, and somehow I was “blessed” with another teacher who wanted to thwart me. As I studied Shakespeare, all of my former teacher’s negativity roiled through my mind. My hand froze when it came to putting pen to paper. I didn’t believe I could write anything worthwhile. Oh, I could write a thesis paper. I had the talent to argue a case. But could I write something creative? Not a chance. All trial chapters of my first mystery fell into the waste basket. All my poetry was shredded into confetti. Snarky plays? A thing of the past. I sought solace on the stage (with scripts or plays written by “masters). And I focused on math.

I moved on to college, and I chose as my major…math. That lasted about a semester. I truly understood algebra and geometry, but trig and calc and beyond? Oh, my, no. English continued to woo me like a siren. I wanted to read. I wanted to create. I returned to studying the written word by convincing myself that if I couldn’t “do,” then I could teach.

I would have been a good teacher, but life took a turn in my senior year. I was offered an opportunity that led me to Los Angeles, and I made a living as an actress for a number of years. I acted in “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Hart to Hart” and “Matlock.” I sold Wonder Bread and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Diet Pepsi. I danced and sang on stages around the country.

Along the way, I decided to try my hand at writing a screenplay.

What happened? You guessed it. All those little snipes from my teachers came back to haunt me. I stunk. I wasn’t any good whatsoever. But I was determined to become good, to erase the “tapes” in my head that said I couldn’t be. I took classes. I wrote a number of scripts. I won awards. But every time an agent rejected me, every time a fellow author would read my material and make a comment, I would crumble. Their words would splice through the scar tissue that had built up over the years--scar tissue knitted together with the words: You stink, you can’t do it, you might as well give up.

Luckily, I joined a Sisters in Crime Internet group called the Guppies. I had left Los Angeles (for my husband’s career) and I didn’t know where to turn locally for a writing group, but I wanted to write. I needed to write. I’d started writing my first mystery. It stunk. (I didn’t need my seventh grade English teacher to tell me.) I needed to learn about story arc, and developing character. I needed a critique group, and to learn everything I could about the business. I needed to learn how to handle rejection and how to persevere. (You’ve probably heard the phrase, “This is a hard business.” It is.) The group got me through the dark times, through the criticism, through the rejection. They still do.

I’m paid to write now (yeah!), but I will continue to get criticism. From my agent, from my editor, from those lovely reviewers (professional and non) who will that I stink and I should give up.

But I will persevere, because writing is what I love to do. Need to do. It is a journey. How I handle the criticism will tell eons about who I am.

Believe you can.

HANK: GO Guppies! And such a good segue for Avery to bring it up--because tomorrow we're featuring the Guppies--and the very clever and helpful way they--I mean we!--we handle crit groups. And how you can get in on the fun! (Wait til you see some of the manuscripts that are ready to go...amazing! And thanks for letting me snag the Guppy logo.)
But for now...what's the meanest thing anyone's ever said about your work? Did you have a teacher or professor who gave you nightmares? Or did you have one that changed your life in a good way?
(I keep remembering that review someone got on Amazon, I forget who. But the review said: "Your book was so bad, I wish I could unread it.")

HANK: I found that snazzy photo of actress "Daryl Wood" on IMDb....hmm..doesn't she look..familiar?
Avery Aames is the author of The Long Quiche Goodbye, the first in A Cheese Shop Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. The Long Quiche Goodbye debuted July 6 and has already hit national bestseller mass market paperback lists -- #7 for Barnes and Noble and #13 for Bookscan. Avery likes to read, cook, garden, and do amateur photography.
She blogs at Mystery Lovers Kitchen, a blog for foodies who love mysteries,
as well as at Killer Characters, a blog overtaken by cozy authors’ characters,
You can purchase The Long Quiche Goodbye at Avery’s bookseller page:
And look for a sneak preview of Lost and Fondue, book two in the series, which may be found at the end of The Long Quiche Goodbye.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

"I have no judgement about this piece anymore, nor any control over it."
Johannes Brahms, 1857, about his 1st Piano Concerto

HANK: Can you take it? Continuing our chat about handling criticism...If you have never been critiqued, you may not be completely prepared for the kind of feedback another writer can give you. But Becky Levine, knower of all knowledge about critiquing, knows sometimes critiques really hurt. And sometimes make you wonder whether you should be writing. At all. But Becky—should a critique ever make you think—forget about it? I’m stopping?

BECKY: No. Definitely not. If you are working with a critique partner who consistently delivers critiques so harsh they make you feel this way, you need to talk with them, let them know how you’re feeling, and see if they can change their critique style.

HANK: But a good critique can be so helpful! Especially from someone who really knows what they’re doing. (Check out Becky's amazing schedule of how-to seminars! But if you're not in Northern Calif, Jungle Red is now the place to be.)

BECKY: Yes. The whole point of a good critique is that it should help us see things we haven’t noticed yet, to look at our writing in new ways. When you receive a critique, you are hopefully getting a thorough, detailed set of feedback. Take time to think about the comments you’re getting, to really look at them “next to” your story, and see which comments are going to help you transform your story.

HANK: But you look at the pages and see all those red marks

BECKY: This may be where that fear of red ink comes from! Even if, logically, you know all those comments are there to help you, you may still feel overwhelmed. Sometimes very overwhelmed.

Try to remember a few things.

You are not the only person to ever have their work marked up this way. It happens to most writers. It happens to me all the time! You are allowed to start slowly.

Take it a chapter at a time, work with the small changes you can say “yes” or “no” to, and let the other, bigger comments simmer in your brain as you work.

You don’t have to make all the changes at once. When I’m revising from a critique, I find it most helpful to pick one or two big things to work through in one revision, following the thread of changes through each scene, and watching how my story grows and improves as I work.

HANK: There’s a real skill, though, in being able to make it clear what the suggestions mean. And to understand what the reader is really saying It may be that something just doesn’t ring true for them. But the way the reader suggests to change the ms.—isn’t the only way to do it.

BECKY: That’s very true. It is hard to, first, understand what isn’t working for you and, second, explain it to the author. That doesn’t mean, though, that a reader is wrong that something isn’t right. If you get a comment that doesn’t make sense to you, or a suggestion that doesn’t mesh with your vision of the project, still go back and read the passage your critique partner called out. Between their comments, your understanding of your story, and the re-read, you’re probably going to see things a lot more clearly and be a big step closer to revising this section.

HANK: What if you think the suggested changes are just--wrong?

BECKY: You are the author of this manuscript. You can always decide against putting in any of the suggested changes that you’re not happy with. Just be open to the possibility that your first negative reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to and think about the comment. We have a lot of fear about whether or not we can change our stories, anxieties about not being able to make the changes someone suggests. If the critiquer make a big point about something multiple times through the pages, do take a second look at those comments before deciding against them.

HANK: But the point is—empowerment, right? And if you’re writing a book, someones going to read it, eventually, right? It’s got to happen sometime, right?

BECKY: Right. You can do this! We send our words out with high expectations, and higher hopes. We know, in general terms, that we have more work to do, but—often—we don’t know or recognize, how much work that will be. Take your time. Be patient with yourself, and allow yourself to grow your writing along with your project. Every revision you do of your manuscript will bring it that much closer to being the book you want it to be.

HANK: Is it okay to go back and ask for clarification?

BECKY: Oh, yeah. Your critique partner is not (usually!) going to disappear after they send you the critique. They’re available for questions—don’t hesitate to email them if you don’t understand something they’ve written, or if you’re feeling confused about where to go with the critique. They’re in your group because they want to help—ask for that help when you need it. And be ready to give it in return,when someone in the group comes back to you.

HANK: Are you in a writing group? Do you have a critique partner? (And if you don't and want one--come back Thursday. I'm just saying.) Have you learned anything BIG from someone else reading your stuff? Ever regrettted it?

I also learn from reading other people's work! And that's a rarely-discussed but wonderful benefit to critiquing!
(Tomorrow: It's Wednesday, so we'll have a special guest. Clue: say cheese! Oh, a
photographer? Nope.)

Becky, a stalwart FOJRW, is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions. The Survival Guide was published by Writer’s Digest in January, 2010.
Through her ten years as a freelance editor and her more than fifteen years participating in critique groups, Becky has learned firsthand the support and motivation that writers can give to each other on their writing paths. She is a passionate advocate of the benefits of critique groups and the value in working to build a strong, productive group. She is available to speak at conferences, writing clubs, and your critique group. Check out her website!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Can You Take The Heat?

"They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a notice- 'Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.'”
**Oscar Wilde

HANK: Yes, it's hot. Outside. Amazingly so. But the heat I'm getting at is when it's hot off the presses. When you finish--or at least, kind of finish--a 'more than a first draft.' And then the first real person reads it. And then someone--a critique partner, or pal, or independent editor, decides to tell you what's wrong with it. (Or, what's right! :-) )

How do you handle cricitism? And do you think we learn that from childhood?

I had a pal once, years ago, who thought she was just wonderful She was so confident! Whatever she did, she felt, was just the BEST.(emphasis hers :-)) But in reality, she was just--mediocre. I mean, fine, but no great shakes. Still, you couldn't tell HER that! She'd never believe it. If anyone criticized her, or suggested she do something differently, she'd just smile and say, how interesting! and go on her merry way.

I had to wonder about this shining shield she seem to have. So I asked her, once, how her parents treated her as a kid.

Did they praise you every day? I asked.

Oh, yes, she said. They always told me I was wonderful.

Mine didn't. Really, rarely. If ever. There was ALWAYS ALWAYS something I could have done better. And I think that's had a huge effect on me.

ANd now, I'm used to hearing "criticism" every day as news director types look at my scripts. Over the years, I've learned that smart, savvy, intelligent "criticism" is the best thing that can happen.

ROBERTA: How interesting Hank:)--no I mean it. I think my urge to improve my writing is stronger than my dislike of criticism--and I hope it stays that way for a long time. I'm not saying I LIKE all the feedback, but I've gotten much better at two things. First, not arguing immediately:). Think it over, figure out what may be true and even if it isn't, what is the reader stumbling over? Second, choosing who I ask to read my stuff. I want readers who are truly honest, but in a kind way. No matter how many books we have published, our little writer egos are so fragile...

As to the childhood question, my parents were not the shining shield kind. They thought we kids were terrific bottom line, but by no means perfect, so I guess that fits pretty well with how I turned out. I think kids might need unconditional love, but not unconditional praise. Encouragement for trying, but help them evaluate realistically how their efforts worked out.

ROSEMARY: Doesn't everyone's mother think they're wonderful? Mine certainly did. I don't know that she armed me with a shining shield, but she did make me think I could do anything - and I still think I can do most things if I work hard (although pitching for the Yankees and dancing with Baryshnikov have recently fallen off the list.)

Sticking to writing..I have no critique partners and no early readers. Sometimes I wish I did, but I can't see myself critiquing someone else's writing so that probably wouldn't work. It's all so subjective. For good or ill I haven't gotten much pre-publication feedback on my first three books. I just go into my little girl-cave and write. Then I send it off.

My last editor made very few suggestions, but she was right about almost all of them. I have a brand spanking new editor for my next book and we'll see what kind of comments I get on this manuscript.

JAN: I think the more professional you become at something, the more you want constructive criticism, and the better you get at balancing criticism with your own mission statement. We had a woman in our writers group a long time ago who wouldn't just accept criticism, she'd gallop off with it. Constantly changing direction, depending on whoever gave her the criticism. That's just as bad as not listening to any of it.

My mother was pretty much equal parts child adoration and criticism, and I'm talking high levels of both. But I actually don't think that has anything to do with how I handle criticism. I think accepting criticism is basically about having confidence, some of which is learned a long the way and much of which is inborn.. It's a nature vs nuture thing. And until I had two children myself, I thought confidence had to do with nurture. Now, seeing one child born confident and the other born sensitive, I'm firmly in the nature camp. The package is there at birth.

HALLIE: What an interesting discussion. My parents thought we all walked on water but they also had a way of rubbing our noses in our OTHER sisters’ accomplishments. Which is one reason why I went off and did my own thing for a long time before trying to do theirs.

I can’t write without readers. I need other people’s perspectives to save me from myself.

Hey, Ro, I also have a new editor. She's wonderful. I just finished going through her comments and revising the manuscript (“Come and Find Me” 4/11 Wm. Morrow).

She suggested edits in almost every paragraph, and gave me 15 pages (!) of substantive comments, numbered 1 to 287.
Sample: "Let’s see a beat here where Diana realizes she should back off."
Sample: "I’d make this more personal; does she have a flash of regret?"
Sample: "Let's make this active."

HANK: Oh, Hallie, that sounds wonderful!

HALLIE: I've never had an editor give me this level of critique, but I'm thrilled. I don’t make every change, but virtually everything gets dealt with, one way or another. And it’s so great to have someone else really engaged in the manuscript. Going through her comments MAKES me really look at the manuscript, line by line, scene by scene, plot point by plot point--which is very hard at this point in the writing process when I can practically recite it word for word.

RHYS: I can't say I love criticism, but I do appreciate good editing. I think that a manuscript needs to be examined by fresh eyes, because often we're blind to our own shortcomings--do I use this word too often? Have I used this device before?Do I make this character sound petty or shallow? My books are read by three people before they go to the publisher and they all contribute something to the fine tuning.

My editors also make good suggestions, but the important thing for me is that they are enthusiastic about my work. Actually I'm still insecure about my writing. You'd think after so many books that I'd have gotten the hang of it by now, but I still don't really believe it's okay until someone else tells me. I keep expecting someone to say, "well the other books might have been fine, but this one falls short." So I hold my breath until the editor tells me she loves it.

HANK: Me, too. Rhys. I just asked someone to read something, and as I told Jonathan: She could tell me it's the bst thing she ever read. Or she could tell me it stinks. And I will believe either one.

So--can you take it? And how do you handle it?

And be sure to come back all this week for more--tomorrow, advice from a pros. Wednesday, an author with a cheesy debut. Thursday, how to get your ms. critiqued! And Friday--of course, something completely different.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On making noises...

HALLIE: One reason I love reading comics is for the sounds. In just one day's comics, I found:
  • Sounds of a rubber band flying off a pony tail: DING PWANG TWING
  • Sounds of energetic application to a task: GAH BOOM! AGK AGK!
  • Sounds of frustration: MMPH! RPH!
  • The sound of vomit landing on a keyboard: SPLAT
Ah, the art of onomatopoeia! I love that sound words require just the change of a single letter to completely alter meaning. Consider: DONG... DOING... BOING... BONG... BING... BANG.

My daughter Molly is particular good at sound words. The word I heard her use first for the sound of a polite fart: poot. Speaking of which, Garrison Keillor once did an entire monologue about their range and variation...from the silent but deadly to the bassoon solo.

I put my own sound words in my novels, only to have them often expunged by an editor.

Do you make up words for sounds? Can you use them in a novel?

HANK: Nope, nope, don't use them. And when they're in books I'm reading, they snag me, and stop me, and I always wonder--couldn't the author do better than this?

I mean--I might have someone say--"I told her, one more word, and pow, right
in the kisser."

But I would not say: POW! The gun went off with a bang. (Or anything like that.)

JAN: So Hallie, I now know where your ACK! ACK! ACK! in your emails comes from. The COMICS!

I love putting sounds in novels, probably because I'm way more geared to sound than I am to visuals, but I don't try to mimic them completely or write new words to describe them. I agree with Hank, especially if capitalized, they call too much attention to themselves.

But I do love when I find the exact right word for the exact right sound or mood I want. And I am fond of thwack, thump, and scrape. As well as whistling and hissing sounds.

RHYS: I definitely love involving all five senses when I read, and I do use sound words : I remember writing "the only sound was the deep TOCK TOCK of the grandfather clock. I'm not sure if I've ever needed the sound of vomit hitting a keyboard, but I'll remember it for future reference. I'm actually much more influenced by smells--evoking place through the smells there.

HALLIE: TOCK TOCK does sound like a very big clock. But "tick tick" is a watch. and "Tick, Tick" is a stop watch, and "TICK, TICK, TICK..." is a bomb about to go off. Punctuation matters.

Rhys, how DO you write smells? Sounds (ahem) like another blog topic.

ROBERTA: Yes, I'm happy to know about that keyboard thing too. And Jan, Hallie's also big on ICK! Obviously I haven't given one thought to all of this because I'm coming up blank...ACK! ACK!

HALLIE: ACK and ICK have their uses. But...for the record...the sound of pulling your foot out of something icky that made you say "ACK!" would be splooge.

To amuse ourselves on this Friday, I’ thought I’d offer up a little challenge... what are your sound words for these variations of BANG:
Sound of a shotgun being fired
Sound of a popgun being fired
Sound of a silenced pistol being fired
Sound of a high caliber weapon being fired
Sound of a distant gunfire

To the person who makes up the best sound words will go a copy of either "Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel" or a copy of my new book, "The Everything Guide to Writing a Novel" (to be sent as soon as copies are available!), winner's choice.

The winner will be announced as a comment to this post on Saturday - please check back!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On "Girls Like Us" The Music

HALLIE: Almost exactly a year ago Jungle Red hosted Sheila Weller, author of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- and the Journey of a Generation. It's the inside stories of the three singer/songwriters who shaped and shaded a generation of women and beyond.

Now we get this update from Sheila:

SHEILA: A lovely thing has happened: Jodie Wright, who was formerly Carly's manager and is currently her archivist, took it upon herself (!) to painstakingly create this amazing website, GIRLS LIKE US THE MUSIC. No, no, it's not what you think -- it goes beyond the music these iconic artists created and gets at (and digs up, and lets you listen to) all the music that actually affected and influenced them, in their childhoods, on their journeys...and on ours. She did it because...she's terrific and generous...and also is perfecting her already-ample website-building chops. Mainly the former reason. Take a look and see how cool it is:

HALLIE: I just spent some time grazing the site. It's still a work in progress, but such fun. Did you know Joni Mitchell's favorite song from high school (and for decades to come) was the Shirelles hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow. (This song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.) Or that The Anderson family (Joni Mitchell's real last name) entertained itself by listening to the Andrews Sisters' and the McGuire Sisters' mellifluous close-harmonies piped through the console radio in the mid-40's. (The site has the clips of the Andrews Sisters singing "Sleepy Serenade" and "Begin the Beguine" and more.)

What a great way to take a break and take walk back through memory lane...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On starting Pam Novotny

HALLIE: One of the great pleasures of teaching at writing conferences has been getting to meet and read the work of (as yet) unpublished mystery writers. Sometimes I read someone’s WIP and feel that little frisson: this person can really write! And I think, “One day, I’ll be able to tell people that I knew her when...” Pam Novotny is one of those writers. (That's her, taking a selfie in the mirror.)

I met Pam at Aspen Writers. She's a former freelance journalist for the papers like the Denver Post and Chicago Tribune and the author of numerous nonfiction books, including the classic, “Joy of Twins,” which was based on her own experiences. Now she's writing her first mystery novel set on an archaeological site on Crete. Pam is still working on the novel, but it looks like it's going to be terrific.

Today I’m welcoming her to Jungle Red.

Pam, you’ve been a prolific, well published nonfiction writer. What were the challenges of switching to writing fiction?

PAM: The first thing is that it takes longer than you ever imagine, and you start out not knowing how much you don’t know.

HALLIE: You can say that again! Anything else?

PAM: I didn’t know how to write in scenes--which I think is the single most important thing for writing this kind of fiction. The other thing was plotting. Putting together a story that had the kind of surprises that we all want to find in a mystery was harder than I thought it would be. But learning to write in scenes helped me do that because I could see the story’s bones better once I got scenes and their use, and that helped me plot.

HALLIE: When I was writing what would be my first published novel, I stuck a Post-It to my computer that said, "WRITE SCENES!" What experiences and interests were you drawing on for your story?

PAM: I’ve been in the south coast of Crete, so I drew on that. And of course as I write my main character, as I look at her life, I see reflections of mine and the people around me. I also drew on my knowledge of the ancient world and archaeology to find that story. Finally I have a reason to read about all those esoteric things.

HALLIE: Esoterica? Cool. Like what?

PAM: Like bioarchaeology - the study of human bones in an archaeological context -- studying the way we treat the dead.

Sometimes if you don’t understand, the culture it seems horrific. In rural Greece they still bury their dead for 5 to 7 years and then dig them up again and take their bones and put them in an ossuary -- a container for bones--and keep them there. That way the grave can be used again. Some of it is about making space in a rocky country. Some of it is a way of revering the dead--they keep the bones, wash them.

In our culture we distance ourselves from the dead. We find it frightening and strange and don’t want to be around human remains.

HALLIE: I’m hooked. Below are few snippets from the book -- followers of Jungle Red can say that they read Pam's work here first!

**Excerpt from Pam Novotny’s work in progress:

As they brushed at an ulna thinner than her thumb, Attie noticed a pattern of dark lines on the bone, crazing of the type that happens to old china, but far more prophetic. It was the pattern that appeared when bones were burned with living flesh still on them. Attie felt a chill, thinking of it, and leaned in for a closer look, hoping she was mistaken.
“What do you see?” Magda was leaning in, too, peering at the tiny bones.
Attie blew out a long breath and sat back on her heels. “Not sure.” She wasn’t about to speculate out loud; no sense in spooking her students with stories of babies burned alive. Attie gave her head a shake. No sense in spooking herself either, with her nightmare imagination.
She began to talk, naming the tiny human bones as she touched them. They seemed to have been set into the pot atop some kind of burned material, but she couldn’t tell what it was without lab analysis. After a moment, Attie realized that Erik had gone quiet – no wisecracks, no goofy antics. Attie looked over at him and his face was drawn, serious.
He pressed his lips tight before speaking in a low voice, thick with emotion. “Another baby, isn’t it.”
Attie had seen that he was squeamish, but she hadn’t expected this show of feeling, especially from Erik who so far, had hidden everything behind laughter. In any case, it spoke well of him that he would be moved by the deaths of infants.
“Two babies, all alone? I thought this was going to be like, a family tomb or something.
“I don’t know why they’re here yet, Erik, but we’ll find out,” she assured him. “That’s why we’re here: to learn their stories.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Publicity Tips from Susan Schwartzman

HALLIE: Independent publicist Susan Schwartzman's has helped authors go after the kind of publicity that turns a book into a best seller.

As someone who has tried just about everything, I asked her: What works?

SUSAN: I was at a book party at Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop after ThrillerFest last year when an author asked New York Times bestselling author Lee Child what publicity works the best. He replied, “Everything works.”

And he’s right. Everything you do to promote your book gets the word out there, whether you are creating a buzz by blogging about your book, doing a media tour or radio interview, signing books at your local bookstore, getting profile coverage in your hometown newspaper or alumni newsletter, or getting your readers to blog about your book by sponsoring a contest as Kyra Davis did for her novel, LUST, LOATHING AND A LITTLE LIP GLOSS (Mira).

Very few authors get on Oprah or the national morning shows, but there is a lot you can do to generate a buzz and build momentum. Word-of-mouth spreads quickly in the book world and has created bestsellers whose authors never saw the light of a national TV studio camera.

HALLIE: So give us your tips. Please!

  • TIP #1: Be proactive:
    Design a website, create an online presence through Facebook and other social media, let your friends know about your book, and if you hire a publicist, give her every contact you have. It is especially important to target market your book as Craig Reed did. Craig is a former U.S. Navy diver and author of RED NOVEMBER: Inside the Secret U.S. Soviet-Submarine War (William Morrow). Craig set up booksigning events at Navy bases throughout the country, and I complemented his efforts with a media campaign in those cities.
  • Tip #2: If you have an interesting back-story, use it:
    If you are a novelist with an interesting back-story, you are more likely to get great media coverage than if you simply plug your book. Kyra Davis was in the midst of a messy divorce and bankruptcy when she wrote SEX, MURDER AND A DOUBLE LATTE, the first book in her Sophie Katz mystery series which led to a three-book deal. Reporters and producers loved her inspirational success story.

  • Tip # 3: Consider media tours, especially if you are a first time author
    Media tours are a great way to get on local TV, which means thousands of people will hear about your book. And you are more apt to get print coverage as well. Steven Raichlen, author of the bestselling THE BARBECUE! BIBLE (Workman) and many other grilling books, does 20-city media tours for all of his books, even after getting on Oprah, The View, The Today Show, Good Morning America and The Early Show and is currently on the road traveling cross country promoting his latest book, PLANET BARBECUE (Workman).
  • Tip #4: Radio phoner campaigns are a cost-effective way to maximize media coverage.
If you have a limited budget, a radio phoner campaign will reach thousands, if not millions, of readers across the country and you don’t have to leave your home or office. Many people listen to their favorite radio programs or channel-surf on their way to and from work and throughout the day.
  • Tip #5: Don’t wait until the last minute to hire a book publicist
    Unfortunately, many authors query me after their book comes out which reduces their chances of getting reviews on websites and magazines which have a three-month lead time. Media tours generally take six weeks to book. You want to maximize media coverage when your book is just published, not six months after pub date, when bookstores may have already returned your book to the publisher and it’s no longer current. Have your publicist in place not less than 3 months before pub date.
  • Tip #6: Blog, blog, blog
    At the New England Crime Bake, a mystery book conference where I spoke, an author said, “I wasn’t born to blog.” But the reality is, even if you have a long-established fan base as this author does, you have to establish an online presence in today’s world. Many readers are getting their content exclusively on the web, and blogging is an easy way to build a fan base.
Remember, the more media outlets you hit, the more readers you will reach. The person on the way to work who is reading the newspaper on the train is not the same person who is listening to the radio while driving to work. There are stay-at-home moms and dads who are watching their favorite morning show, those who are listening to the radio during their lunch break, or a former classmate who is reading his or her alumni newsletter and notices that you have published a book, and e-mails your alumni.

So in the words of Lee Child, “Everything works.”

HALLIE: Everything? It makes me exhausted just thinking about it. I guess my own experience is a variant of that "You never know what's going to do everything."

Thanks, Susan, for stopping by! Susan will be checking in to answer questions and comments all day today...

Monday, July 19, 2010

On Food Angst...

HALLIE: My mother-in-law wouldn't eat chicken skin. Something about salmonella, or maybe it was the fat. She visited us in Boston every few months, and in between she sent cautionary clippings. One was about the perils of eating undercooked chopped meat; another time it was an article warning against cancer-causing hydrocarbons in grilled foods. I'd read each one with a patronizing chuckle. We ate our hamburger pink, not raw, and surely the four or five barbecues we had each summer weren't going to kill us.

Those were the good old days when I felt pretty
smug about how I fed my family--a balanced diet, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and very little packaged food.

Now I'm not so sure. Fish is always on my list, tasty and touted as it is for heart health. It's old news that swordfish and tuna are loaded with mercury; turns out farm-raised salmon are riddled with PCBs, dioxins, and insecticides.

Chicken is an old standby now that we've cut back on red meat. Then I read chicken has three to four times more arsenic than other poultry or meat.

If I give up chicken and meat and fish, I might as well go vegetarian. Sprouts and tofu? Hold on. Raw seed sprouts provide an ideal breeding environment for salmonella bovismorbificans. Apparently, this nasty bug causes diarrhea, vomiting, and can even spread to the blood and cause arthritis and heart problems. And many of the soy products on the market today are made from genetically-engineered soy beans. Frankenfood or perfectly safe? Remember, it took them more than forty years to admit the flaws in all that rosy research touting the health benefits of hormone repl
acement therapy.

And don't they irradiate strawberries?

Does paranoia take root in midlife, or has food shopping really turned into a stroll through a minefield?

JAN: When I was a health reporter for the Providence Journal, we used to get together for meetings on the next section and ask: OKAY, how can we scare people?? We were joking of course, but we knew the stuff we were writing always put a damper on everything.

When I was in my brother's kitchen and told him to wash the cantaloupe before cutting it because of all the bacteria that could be on the skin, he turned to me and said: "That's it. It's time for you to quit that job."

And I did.

You've got to be sensible, but really, fear of everything is a worse problem than a little salmonella poisoning. .

HANK: Oh, Jannie, but you're so right about the cantaloupe. I do that, too. But I've done SO MANY stories
about food poisoning, restaurant inspections, food safety, cafeteria inspections--and all all all the inspectors talk about--is temperature. They take the temp of everything. There's a range of temp that's not-hot-not-cold where bacteria love to grow. And they say, that's what'll get you. So I'm constantly putting things in the refrigerator and worrying about food temps.

And I would never store raw chicken above anything in the fridge. And I'm scrupulous about raw chicken and cutting boards.

But I eat rare steak and hamburger. And grill out. I have a pal who works in risk assessment at a lo
cal school of public health...he says, the MOST ordinary-dangerous thing people do to harm their health is: NOT wash their hands.

ROBERTA: I agree, washing a cantaloupe is still a good idea Jan! I get my food scares from my sister, who's always ahead of me in that department. She advises washing fruit in vinegar and water to get off the pesticides. Especially things like strawberries.

Last week I was down in Florida visiting my father. We took half a day road trip to go scalloping in the gulf. There was a sign up by the boat launch saying t
here was a bacteria advisory. Did we turn around? No we did not. And by the way, if anything would turn me into a vegetarian, it might be swimming around scooping up those gorgeous creatures with a rim of sparkling blue eyes. And then having to scrape the guts out of each one--hours and hours of disgusting work! I couldn't face eating them for dinner when we got home so we ordered a pizza:).

ROSEMARY: Which is why we should eat chocolate.

According to you guys, I should be dead by now. I don't think I've ever washed a cantaloupe in my life. But I wash my hands more than Lady Macbeth, never touch the handrail on an escalator if I can help it, use my foot to flush a public toilet, etc. - have I told you more than you needed to know?

My particular food bugaboo has to do with the age of leftovers. After one day I have to be really hungry (and lazy.)

RHYS: Ro--you sound just like my husband John. Hand washing, not touching toilet doors etc. Obsessive about rinsing chicken, soaking in salt water, patting dry etc. I'm also pretty strict on chicken--not using same cutting board for chicken and veg. I do worry about fish because I LOVE it and I will only buy fish caught around US, Canada or countries where they don't pour pollutants into the ocean. I love going to the local farmer's market and buying organic everything and I keep promising that I will spend more and buy only organic beef from happy, grass fed cows. I'm in England at the moment and I have to say the food tastes better--eggs from local chickens, beef from cows in fields, and veggies picked that morning.

I am fantasizing about living in a village and going to buy eggs and veg every morning. But I'll probably go back to the convenience of Safeway.

HALLIE: I was once writing a piece about food and went on a shopping expedition with a nutritionist and food safety expert. A few pieces of advice have stuck with me. Eat whole grains. Less salt and fat, more calcium. And wash the cantaloupe before cutting into it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

May I introduce....?

I'm not much of a fan girl. Maybe it was growing up in New York where it was not that unusual to see the odd celebrity on the street, in a restaurant or at a basketball game. Native New Yorkers either are - or pretend to be - too cool to make a fuss over someone famous.
"Oh yes, that's Robert DeNiro having a drink with Mike Tyson. No biggie. Harrison? Uma? He's taller, she's thinner. That's nice."
But this blog isn't about name-dropping. Not exactly.
I recently drove from DC to Connecticut with two large boxes of CDs on the passenger seat. I can drive anywhere with a few cans of diet Red Bull and good music. The CD I kept going back to was a compilation of John Barry's greatest hits. Not familiar with the name? He's responsible for some of the best movie music of the past 30-40 years. From Born Free and Out of Africa to James Bond films, to Walkabout and Midnight Cowboy, Body Heat and Dances With Wolves. I can't imagine anyone being brilliant enough to create original music and I found myself thinking it would be really cool to meet him. I know - I'm a New Yorker. We're not supposed to gush over celebs, but there I was. Gushing. (As much as you can gush in a car by yourself.)
Excluding other authors - no sucking up allowed - who would you really like to meet?

HALLIE: I've always wanted to meet Lynn Johnston (10 points to anyone who knows who that is). She draws/writes the comic strip "For Better or For Worse." Like probably a gazillion other women of a certain age, I've always felt Lynne (I feel we are on a first-name basis) was spying on my life. The (2 older) kids in the strip are my kids' ages, and I so recognized the situations. Her main characters aged (like me, surprise surprise) in real time...until she dialed it back 30. I hope she has real kids and a goofy husband like her character Elly (and if she doesn't, then I'll just keep on pretending that she does).

HANK: I love that comic strip! That said, I'd like to chat with oh, what's his name, who draws Calvin and Hobbes. Bill...Watters?. (Watterson...)

Do you suppose he's as clever and aadorable as that comic strip? Stephen Sondheim. Although I'd be tongue-tied. I have a very good pal who is very good pals with Hilary Clinton. It would be fun to see what she's reallly like. I mean RO, it would be just as fascinating to be a fly on the wall in those people's lives, wouldn't it? (Can flies hear?) I saw James Taylor in the Gap once--I left him alone, but it was all I could do not to gush. I was going to say---I couldn't have made it through college without you. But I decided to let him buy his jeans in peace.

ROBERTA: Meryl Streep, because I so admire her work. And she keeps producing amazing characters and looking amazing as she gets older.
ROSEMARY: Who else would we like to meet?? Who would you like to meet?