Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Carolyn Wilkins - Guest Author

Please join me in welcoming Carolyn Marie Wilkins as today’s guest author. In addition to being a member with me in the Guppy Chapter of the Sisters in Crime, she describes herself as unpretentious, openhearted, insightful, multi-talented and warm. Her writing is fun, addicting, entertaining, eye-opening and engaging. Here are her eight choice optional questions:

You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

Maya Angelou, Barbara Neely, Agatha Christie and I are sitting in Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles.  Quite naturally, we are having soul food.  It’s Agatha’s first time for this cuisine, and she is pleasantly surprised to discover she’s partial to waffles topped with fried chicken gizzards and smothered in red-eye gravy. The four of us are having a deep conversation about the importance of storytellers in modern society.  In the presence of these storytelling giants, I am too awestruck to say very much.  

Each of these women has had a profound influence on me, not only as a writer, but as a human being: 

Maya Angelou was a true Renaissance woman whose career has been a major inspiration for me.  At different times during her life she earned her living as a vocalist, a dancer, a poet, a memoirist, an educator and a children’s author.  In addition she was a lifelong activist who made a profound impact on the civil rights movement. Pretty amazing! When I was in college back in the 1970s, I was told I needed to pick one area and specialize in it exclusively.  But thanks to Maya’s example, I ignored the accepted wisdom of the time and pursued multiple careers as an educator, a vocalist, a pianist, a memoirist and a mystery writer. 

Barbara Neely’s book Blanche On The Lam was groundbreaking for me!  Until I read Neely’s novels, I had never encountered a cozy mystery that had an African American protagonist.  All the Blanche books are warm, witty and socially aware.  After reading them, I felt for the first time that perhaps I could write similar books.

And of course, Agatha Christie had to be at the table!  I grew up reading the English cozies – Roger Ackroyd; The Mysterious Affair at Styles; And Then There Were None.  I love the quirky characters and revel in trying to stay one step ahead of the plot.  It was a game in my family to see how early into a book we could guess the murderer.  In many ways, Christie’s Miss Marple was the model for my amateur sleuth Bertie Bigelow.  Just picture Miss Marple as a newly widowed, 40-something black woman living on the South Side of Chicago!

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

When my daughter moved out and got her own apartment, I took over her bedroom.  It’s small but it is quiet. Most importantly, it has a door.  Once my door is closed, I know I will not be disturbed.  Just to make sure, I keep my cell phone downstairs on the kitchen table while I’m writing.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

I am a morning person.  In an ideal world, I would get up at five in the morning and write until I got tired.  Given that I also have a pretty intense day job teaching at Berklee College of Music, I am not always able to spend my mornings writing.  But when I am seriously at work on a writing project, I put in a couple of hours in the early morning before work at least four days a week.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

For those that do not know the work of Barbara Neely, I recommend her books highly.  They are cozy mysteries, but written from an African American perspective.  Her protagonist, Blanche White, works as a maid.  But don’t let her low social status fool you.  When murder is involved, she can be depended upon to bring the killer to justice, outfox both the police and her social “betters.”

Valerie Wilson Wesley has also written some excellent YA novels.  But I love her mysteries. They feature Tamara Hayle, a black former cop who struggles to support herself and her two kids by working as a private investigator in Newark, New Jersey. The characters in Wesley’s books run the gamut from drug dealers to society matrons, and her plots are full of satisfying twists and turns.

The third author I would recommend is Eleanor Taylor Bland.  Her novels are set in a fictional town just north of Chicago that sounds a lot like Waukegan, IL to me. These are not definitely not cozy stories!  In addition to the bad guys, Detective Marti McAllister must battle departmental politics, race and gender bias, and sometimes even her own relatives.  While Bland is not afraid to take on complex social issues, her work is always suspenseful and super fun to read.  Wonderful stuff!

What motivates you to write?

I started writing because no one else was writing the kind of story I wanted to tell. There are lots of cozy mysteries set in small towns, and even a few in the city.  But hardly any of these stories feature African American characters.   And, although my characters are black, the story I had to tell was not the stereotypical “urban novel.”  The story I wanted to tell would be light on gore and long on humor, filled with the kind of colorful characters I met growing up in a middle class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The only way I was going to be able to read this story was to write it myself.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

The idea for my Bertie Bigelow series came from my mother.  Mom worked as a choir director at a Chicago community college for many years.  She is a longtime South Side resident with a colorful social network that includes gamblers, musicians and other shady characters as well as preachers, teachers, doctors and lawyers.  When I decided I wanted to write a murder mystery, I did not have to look far from home to find great material!

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

I am a musician so I have a pretty good ear for dialog.  I am always tuning to what people say and their unique way of saying it.  But sometimes it’s hard for me to describe settings and people without resorting to clichés.   To improve in this area, I study the work of writers who know how to evoke a clear image with just the perfect phrase.  At the moment, I am reading The Light of the World, a beautiful memoir by Elizabeth Alexander.  Alexander is best known as a poet. My hope is that by paying close attention to the spare yet lyrical language she uses to capture the essence of things, I will be able to improve my own writing.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

I believe it was Mark Twain who, when being complemented on a letter he had written, said: “If I’d had more time, I’d have made it shorter.”  To be able to express oneself clearly and concisely without repetition is a real skill.  As Shakespeare said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

As a mystery author, I am looking to draw people in and carry them with me on a nonstop ride to the end of the book.  The goal is no wasted words – nothing that will impede the flow of my story!


For more information about Carolyn and her books, email her at cwilkins@berklee.edu, check out her website at www.carolynwilkins.com, visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolynauthor or Tweet her @carolynauthor.  She loves to hear from her readers!

Here’s the blurb for Melody for Murder: A Bertie Bigelow Mystery

When recently widowed college choir director Bertie Bigelow accepts a date with Judge Theophilous Green, she never imagines the civil rights pioneer and inveterate snob will be found shot to death the next morning. She’s even more surprised when her favorite student is arrested for the crime.

Bertie suspects that someone else in her tight-knit social circle is really the killer.

Is it hot-tempered Patrice Soule, voluptuous diva and recent winner of the Illinois Idol contest?

Is it Charley Howard, the Hot Sauce King, a self-made millionaire with Mafia connections?

Is it the mysterious Dr. Momolu Taylor? Newly arrived from Africa, he's invented a new sex drug that’s got some powerful politicians feeling frisky.

Could it be Alderman “Steady Freddy” Clark, corrupt South Side ward boss and would-be patron of the arts?

Bertie Bigelow will certainly need to keep her wits about her to avoid becoming the killer's next victim.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Whither eBook Subscription Services

Last week marked the announcement that the eBook subscription service Oyster will be shutting down in early 2016. This summer, Entitle—one of the original three eBook subscription services—quietly closed its doors. Scribd, the third of the group, had to backpedal from its promise of “unlimited” books per month to throttle the usage of its romance readers. Since the original three commenced operations, Amazon entered the market with its Kindle Unlimited. Google has hired the folks from Oyster and so is presumably considering a subscription service as part of its Google Play.

So the field is changing and Amazon plays a big role. But, are subscription eBook services sustainable?

The Economics of a Subscription service

The basic business equation still holds: Revenues – Expenses = Profit

Revenue

In a standalone subscription service, revenue comes primarily from the monthly fees users pay to enjoy the service. Kindle Unlimited charges $9.99 a month. Oyster charges $9.95 and Scribd charges $8.99. Multiply the monthly fee by the number of subscribers and you have revenue. Unless you can sell ads along the way, or sell your subscription list, or monetize something else, that’s your revenue. To keep things simple, we’ll assume revenues consist solely of subscriber fees.

Expenses:

To operate, the business has to have a website designed to collect memberships, present a searchable catalog, record and deliver selections. While there are some variable costs involved in a subscription service, most of these operating expenses are fixed costs. One subscriber or a million they will occur, so it is important to grow your subscriber base quickly so the expenses decline as a percentage of revenue.

The second major expense are the acquisition costs. Publishers (and authors) want to be paid if someone reads their book.

Subscription services must negotiate with publishers, distributors and, in Amazon’s case, indie authors, concerning their compensation. Oyster and Scribd generally paid publishers something very close to what the publisher would earn by selling the book through an online retailer.

Under the Oyster/Scribd model these are variable costs. The more books lent out, the larger the expense. The more expensive book lent out, the larger the expense. We’ll discuss Amazon’s model in a bit.

Who would buy an eBook subscription?

For a reader the equation to calculate savings from a subscription service is:

Subscription Fee – [(Number of Books I think I’ll read in a month) X (average cost of book)]

Let’s say the average cost of eBooks purchased without the subscription is $2.99. The reader is a winner at 4 books a month (3 Scribd), loser at three (2 Scribd) or fewer. If the average cost drops to $1.99, then it takes six (five Scribd) eBooks to “win.” At $5.00 it only takes two books to be ahead.

Strategies Suggested by the Profit Equation

(1) Feature less expensive books. Free are best. $0.99 are very good. $1.99 good, $2.99 okay and anything more is pricey.

Look at the subscription catalogues and you’ll find they are crammed with “classics” that happen to be out of copyright (and therefore virtually free to the service)

You will see a very limited number of current, higher-priced books from the Big 5 Publishers. They are simply too expensive. I suspect those that are in their catalog provide the publisher with much lower royalty rates—the eBook equivalent to mass-marketing to Walmart or Costco.

(2) Pray people do not read too much.

Consider the profit formula and how it applies to fitness center memberships. In January in the flush of New Years’ promises, lots of people make the basic calculation that they will win by purchasing a yearly membership. And then by the end of January many stop going. These are gravy memberships. Revenue exists, but no variable expenses. That overestimating consumption phenomena may happen for book readers as well, but unlike the gym membership, they probably will not give up reading books entirely. Even if they have an off month or two, the only bar preventing them from restarting to read a lot again is finding time. For a gym membership there’s a psychological barrier of anticipating the physical pain necessary to get back in shape and the physical barrier once the individual actually restarts.

Subscription services try to limit reading by not providing all the books the subscriber would normally like to read. New best sellers are rarely offered because they will cost the subscription service too much. If people spend time reading those in paper form instead, it saves the service money and cuts down on the total books read on the subscription.

When people read a lot, the subscription service loses money. Scribd found itself in that situation this summer regarding their romance readers. Since they could not limit the number of books selected by romance readers, and they were not willing to increase the subscription price, they cut the number of romance novels available in the service. Drastically cut. They kept the freebies and eliminated the expensive books. Some of those in between remained. Smashwords estimates Scribd cut 80-90% of Smashwords romance titles.

(3) Pay publishers and authors smaller fees. With limited exceptions, Kindle Unlimited (KU) does not offer Big 5 Publisher books. Its offering is largely populated by its own imprints and indie author publications.

For indie authors, Amazon creates a pool of money—it determines the size—and allocates that pool to authors based on the number of pages read. Their previous practice had been to allocate the pool based on number of “downloads.” They found this encouraged gaming of the system whereby authors would split a book into four parts, so a 200-page book becomes four 50-page books, earning four times the income for the author.

Note that Amazon determines the pool size, which from an author’s perspective means Amazon determines the per page revenue. The indie author’s choice is to join the program or not. For the first month of this new payment system’s operation, July 2015, KU paid $0.005779 per page. For a 300-page novel that means $1.73. For August the payment per page dropped 11% to $0.00514, and the same fully read 300-page book would earn the author only $1.54.

Notice that if that 300-page book were priced at the low end of Amazon’s preferred range of $2.99 to $9.99, the royalty for a book purchased would be about $2.09.

Amazon has structured a model where the author subsidizes the subscription service. I’m sure Amazon will argue that the author will make it up in volume, but how can you know, and what is to prevent Amazon from settling on a much lower rate in the future, say $0.001 per page so our 300-page book now earns the author a paltry $0.30?

Alternatives

The Scribd model as currently constructed does not hold economic water. It is too easy for subscribers to determine if they are saving money or not on the service. There will be a small percentage of subscribers who are losing money by participating and are insufficiently motivated to stop their subscription, but they can’t make up for the costs of heavy users.

Amazon can control its costs by defining how much it reimburses indie authors, a large percentage of the KU offerings.

But consider Amazon’s approach to the Audible subscription service. It has a fixed monthly fee, but for that price you get one “free” audio book. The rest of the catalog is discounted. As long as the consumer was going to purchase at least one audio book a month, the customer is “ahead.” Amazon’s costs for additional downloads are offset by additional revenues. Although the audio books are discounted, I’m betting those lowered costs cover the royalty payments plus profit.

Scribd could move to a similar model for books. Say, you get four a month for free. The rest you can have for a discounted fee.

If Google Play (or Apple for that matter) decides to enter the business, they will bring deep pockets. They don’t yet have the indie author network as Amazon does. But what would happen if they offered better royalties than Amazon? It could prove interesting, yes indeed.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kelly Cochran - Guest Author

Please welcome fellow member of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime Kelly Cochran to this week’s edition of 10 Q & As. Kelly describes herself as conscientious, resourceful, suspicious, witty and blondish. Her writing is humorous, approachable, twisty, thoughtful and fun.

Kelly’s short story “Blinded by Murder” appeared in the most recent Guppy Anthology, Fish or Cut Bait. In addition to her other attributes, she is also generous. She is offering to provide one lucky commenter with a copy of Fish or Cut Bait and a second commenter with a copy of her novel, Buying Time.

Without further ado, here are her other eight questions and answers.

You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead, or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

First, I want to thank you Jim for getting me a table at the 21 Club in Manhattan for my birthday. Yes, today is my birthday. Though the table inside the private dining room in the wine cellar seats more than four it is the perfect place for an intimate party. If the food and the wine cellar aren’t enough to draw you in to the former speakeasy, the history should be. The floors have been walked on and chairs sat on by the likes of Earnest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Alfred Hitchcock among others.

I’ve invited Brené Brown because of her inspirational views on vulnerability. Being a writer is a very vulnerable thing. Fiction writers create fiction, but in reality, the truth of who they are is there within their words for the world to see.

My second guest is Paula Poundstone. As a standup comedian, another vulnerable occupation, she has the gift of making people laugh. She is naturally funny, which in my view is the best kind of funny. She has also battled her own demons in the public eye and survived.

Lastly, I’ve invited my husband to my party because somebody has to pay! All kidding aside, he’s at my party because he is truly my best friend and who doesn’t want their best friend at their birthday party?

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found my most productive writing venue. This is evidenced by the fact that my second book, Borrowed Time, isn’t currently on anyone’s nightstand. But I can imagine it. The window looking out over the ocean, the chair custom made to fit my derriere, lots of wood furniture, plants, and a masseuse on standby. The serene environment is what I dream about. My mind is always cluttered, so I need an uncluttered surrounding to provide balance. Until such time as I win the lottery and create my perfect writing venue I am happy at my cubicle-like, utilitarian desk.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

I find I am most productive early in the morning or late at night. I definitely need caffeine in the morning, but only one or two cups (a Coke if I’m feeling thirsty). Late at night though, no caffeine for me otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep and I’d find my late night turning into my early morning!

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

Lately I’ve ventured into reading books I might not normally pick up, books outside my wheelhouse. The first is P. A . De Voe. Her expertise in ancient China amazes me. She educates and entertains at the same time. Her short story “Lotus Shoes” explores young Mei-hua and the cultural expectations of foot binding.

Next would be Kaye George and her Death in the Time of Ice. Her writing makes you care about her characters and their future.

And my final recommendation is better known, but she’s my favorite author - Anne Tyler. She is a master of the slightly different, average character. It amazes me how she brings the reader into the mind of her characters and the lilt of her writing leaves me wanting more and sad that the story has come to an end.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

In the early 1980’s I signed up for a writing course with Writer’s Digest. I was lucky enough to have my life touched by author H. Paul Jeffers. In corresponding with him, I told him how afraid I was of not succeeding. His words to me were encouraging and I will never forget him telling me that if I do not write I am guaranteed not to succeed. Though it took me over a quarter of a century to publish my first book, it was his words I remembered when I first saw my words in print.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

Do I have to pick just one? I have many challenging areas. The most challenging I would say is time management. I’m an Indie author and I always say the best thing about being and Indie author is you can set your own deadlines and the worst thing about being and Indie author is you can set your own deadlines. I know if I had a publisher deadline hanging over my head I would go without sleep to meet it. But as an Indie, my television addiction seems to get in the way. Two things I am doing to address the issue is setting up a “writing time” and transitioning from a pantser to an outliner.

What motivates you to write?

Apparently nothing. I really have been procrastinating and there is no excuse especially because the most incredible feeling of accomplishment comes when I see my words in print.

What motivates your protagonist? What influenced who they are today?

My protagonist Aspen Moore, like me, also suffers a little when it comes to motivation. But, also like me, when the nth hour is upon her she rallies. And when she does it is generally those people around her that she cares about who keep her going. As a member of the Witness Security Program (WitSec), the struggle between Aspen’s past and her present greatly influences who she is becoming. She struggles with connecting to the people around her when she can’t be her true self and as a result her life is quite the circus.

Check out Kelly’s books and find out more about her at www.kellycochran.com, visit her on Facebook and she’d be delighted if you followed her on twitter.

Here’s a teaser for Buying Time:

In Buying Time, Aspen Moore starts a new life as a personal concierge, selling her time to those who don’t have enough. The best perk is getting to focus on other people’s lives instead of facing the demons in her own.

When her most loyal customer dies and his suicide looks eerily like murder, she anonymously tips off the police so she won’t expose a secret she desperately needs to keep. But a string of crimes long enough to make a real detective sweat threatens her livelihood and ultimately her life. Her only hope is to untangle the mess before there’s permanent damage. Pursuing the truth means solving a decade-old land deal while juggling a quirky DJ and his dog, an eccentric paraplegic, a curious set of twins, and a flirtatious neighbor with spy gadgets.

With each passing hour the danger increases and for Aspen, buying time isn’t an option.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Allure of a Mystery Series

Panel at 2015 Left Coast Crime

One of my great pleasures of mystery fan conferences such as Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime is the opportunity to talk with a wide variety of readers. When I get to chatting with a reader I usually ask about favorite authors to compare notes. After a while I’ll ask about how they approach series.

Writers and publishers like series because of the long-tail effect: if someone reads one book in the series and enjoys it, chances are good they’ll read another in the series, and another and another. Each new addition to the series not only has the potential to sell to fans, but bring in new readers who will ultimately want to read the entire series.

A couple of years ago my better half, Jan, and I were attending Malice Domestic. We wanted to read all of the books nominated for Best Contemporary Novel. Jan discovered that Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Through the Evil Days was part of a series. Rather than just read that book, Jan wanted to read the entire eight books in order. So she blitz read her way through the series in about two months’ time (while reading the other new-to-her books as well).

It turns out Jan is not alone. A significant percentage of people I’ve talked are like her. (I wish I had kept an accurate account so I could tell you the exact percentage.) They strongly prefer to read series novels in order—some so much so that they will not read a series out-of-order! Can you imagine how long it would take a reader new to Sue Grafton to catch up on Kinsey Milhone and the now twenty-four alphabet books starting with A is for Alibi and ending currently ending with X? Not going to happen, right?

Well consider these Kindle Book rankings for Grafton’s series (early morning 9/4/15):

X -- #19
W is for Wasted -- #1,603
V is for Vengeance -- #4,603
U is for Undertow -- #8,886
T is for Trespass -- #9,164
C is for Corpse – #7,685
B is for Burglar -- #6,760
A is for Alibi -- #3,137

Not only does Grafton have a top twenty hit two and a half weeks after its release, she has seven other books in the top 10,000 Kindle sellers: the previous three and the first three. People are catching up if they’ve missed a few books, and people are starting at the beginning. This long tail is why publishers like successful series.

To allow that piling on effect, publishing contracts were (and often still are) for three books.

And the three-book contracts are, I suspect, why I have found another phenomena amongst many mystery readers. They won’t start reading a series unless there are a sufficient number of books published. The oft-stated reason goes something like “I don’t want to fall in love with an author and then have to wait a year for the next book.”

When presented with the Catch 22 situation that if no one buys the first books in a series, there won’t be more books, the next response is something like, “I want to make sure the series will be there.” Particularly with small presses and self-publishing they don’t want to invest in a character for only one or two books. From my sampling of folks, those with this attitude often require a minimum of three books, and preferably four or five in a series, before they will become interested.


So, two questions for you, dear readers:

(1) Do you prefer reading series in order? If so, must you start at the beginning, or do you read the most recent and then if you enjoyed it go back and start from the beginning?

(2) Do you have a required minimum number of published books before you’ll start reading a series, and if so how many?

For those of you who want at least three, my Seamus McCree novels are now eligible for your consideration. You can read them in order: Ant Farm, Bad Policy, and Cabin Fever. (Notice I subtly stole the alphabet idea from Sue Grafton?) For those who want at least four, I promise Doubtful Relations will be published in 2016.


~ Jim

The article originally appeared as a guest post on Debra H. Goldstein's Blog

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Erik Therme - Guest Author

Please welcome Thomas & Mercer author Erik Therme. He describes himself as pensive, focused, tenacious, independent, and wry. His writing is dark, brisk, suspenseful, tense, and flawed. (Although he may be picking on himself with that last adjective -- check out the blurb for Mortom at the end.)

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

I’m fortunate enough to have a ‘man cave’ in my basement (complete with mini fridge) that doubles as an office. I love my family, but I require complete solitude to be productive. That, and a giant bulletin board for character sheets and timelines. Seriously. The thing is huge.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

I tend to be most prolific during late evenings and weekends, and Mountain Dew is always a necessity. Inspiration is also always welcome, but not always present.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I usually have two books going at a time, but I’m a slow reader, so I only get through 2-3 a month. I’m not very picky about genre, but I definitely gravitate toward darker stories. I recently finished Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and I still catch myself thinking about it from time to time.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

Rob Cline (Murder by the Slice) is a new favorite. He has a wonderful, quirky voice, and his writing is always fresh and sharp. Rachel Aukes (Deadland Saga) continues to impress me with new and unique twists on the zombie genre, and Jeff Menapace (Bad Games series) is always good for a wicked ‘not-for-the-faint-of-heart’ read.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Family is always a strong theme in my work. I’m endlessly fascinated by how supportive—or destructive—siblings and parents can be toward one another when it comes to family politics. I also love having characters out of their element, whether it be a strange town, abandoned building, or even a deserted road. In the real world I’m not much of a traveler, so it’s probably no surprise that I enjoy experiencing places vicariously. It’s a great way to save money on food and gas.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

I struggle with writing action. One of the golden rules of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, but every time I put action on the page it feels like forced description. It’s not uncommon for me to spend hours on a single paragraph, trying to get the words right. At some point you just have to say ‘enough is enough’ and move on, otherwise it can drive you insane.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I have two teenage daughters, and I wanted to write something they’d enjoy. Resthaven (spring 2016) is about a group of kids who decide to have a scavenger hunt in an abandoned nursing home  . . . only to discover they’re not alone. If I say any more, I might ruin the fun.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

“Raise the stakes and continue to build them.” If you don’t put your characters in peril, why should your readers care what happens to them?

To learn more about Erik and his writing, check out his website www.eriktherme.com

And here's a quick teaser for Mortom:

After his estranged cousin dies, Andy travels to Mortom to survey the estate. When he finds a dead rat with a key in its mouth, he thinks it’s some sort of joke . . . until he discovers a letter left by his cousin, detailing the rules of “the game.”

All I can say is Oh Oh!  Check it out here.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Beta Testing Your Novel

Doubtful Relations Title Page
Last month I sent my current work in process, DOUBTFUL RELATIONS, out to five volunteer readers. I have received feedback from three of them; the other two sets of comments are scheduled back this coming week.

I call this process beta testing and the volunteers beta readers. These terms are used in different manners, so I need to define my terms.

For a few years during my career, I managed a group of software developers. In that environment, alpha testing encompassed the work the group did internally to make sure the software (new program or update) was doing what it was supposed to be doing. When we were reasonably comfortable it was, we performed the second level of testing, beta testing, named after the second letter in the Greek alphabet.

In beta testing, we put the software in the hands of real users in a real environment. We knew the program was not perfect. We were still fixing a list of known bugs (and periodically adding to the list). However, the product was sufficiently close and stable that we needed to expand testing past our myopic vision and turn it over to our users to point out flaws and issues we were too close to the program to see.

For example, let’s say you create a new way of cooking omelets that utilizes the energy from your morning workout. You develop a recipe that includes a list of ingredients and tasks, but fail to include the step in which you remove eggs from their shells. That step is obvious to you, because you always do that. The cook might not realize that your new technology still requires the separation of egg from shell and ruins the omelet. Your directions are not clear.

The combination of plot development and character motivations in a novel take the place of directions in a recipe. I ask beta readers to let me know of plot bumps or holes and of characters who do something that seemingly does not make sense. I will have already addressed any problems I discovered on my own as well as those indicated by my alpha reader, who has read the manuscript at a much earlier stage. [Some writers use critique groups as their alpha readers, others use a trusted writing partner or friend. I rely on my life partner, Jan Rubens.]

I know flaws remain in the manuscript. I have not yet polished the language, and because I have made changes to a draft of the manuscript immediately before releasing the beta version, I may have introduced new typos and included a sentence or two that might make one wonder if I had flunked English as a second language. Readers can ignore those kinds of problems, as long as they are not too frequent, and instead concentrate on the main issues of plot and character.

Unlike software beta testing where, as flaws are corrected, updated versions are periodically released to the users, I now typically have two discrete passes for beta readers. What I have so far described is the first pass. Once I have the manuscript in “final” form—perhaps ready to submit to agent or publisher or for self-publication—I will ask a different set of folks to read the manuscript looking for anything wrong. This is beta testing in the sense it is a real product placed in real users hands in order to receive feedback prior to publication. However, by that point I am in the final steps of my quality control process and readers should not be finding any major problems. I hope they will find the stubborn typo or homonym error, as well as any formatting issues. Perhaps because these tasks are so different from the first beta readers’, I should refer to this group as my gamma readers?

Today’s status:

Are you curious what feedback the first three beta readers have provided me? I have not read their detailed comments because I am waiting for all five readers to respond before returning to work on that manuscript. Based on the cover emails I received, two of the readers enjoyed the story, but had specific suggestions on how I can make it stronger. A couple of their cover comments confirmed concerns I had and other comments shed light on issues I had missed. Great stuff!

The third volunteer was so disgusted with a major character that she stopped reading the manuscript with 60% still to go. Since the character in question acts in ways real people act, I need to look beneath the reported problem. (Tom Wolfe writes best sellers about people I don’t like and don’t much care about, so the issue is probably more than that the character is not emotionally attractive.) When considering this one reaction along with other beta reader observations, I must determine if I have not sufficiently defined that character’s motivations so her actions make sense. Or perhaps I have insufficiently defined other characters’ motivations so their reactions to the unlikeable character are understandable. Either way, this reader’s reaction to stop reading will have done me a great service.

Unlike a piece of software, there are no absolutes in the writing business. What one person sees as a flaw, other readers may love. When I review all the comments, I must do so with the filter of my own understanding of the story and remain true to my writing style and voice. I know the comments include excellent suggestions that I look forward to implementing. I know they will contain hints of problems that will require me to ferret out their underlying causes to solve. There will be individual reader preferences that I will need to ignore to stay true to myself (and sane, since some comments invariably contradict other comments).

I can’t wait to dive into the next draft.

~ Jim
http://jamesmjackson.com

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Catherine Dilts - Guest Author

Please join me in welcoming Catherine Dilts today. She used some unique(to these guest blogs) descriptors about herself. She is a writer, a gardener, a Coloradan; she’s environmental and tech. Her writing is clean, and she writes murder mystery with an amateur sleuth. Her second Rock Shop Mystery, Stone Cold Case will be released in a week’s time. Now let’s see which questions Catherine chose:

What makes a great short story?

In my opinion, three elements combine to make a great short story. First, meeting the challenge of creating a compelling tale using as few words as possible. Second, well-developed characters. I have enjoyed many stories with twist endings, but a well-drawn, complex protagonist is what really keeps me reading. Third, the short story is wildly adaptable to a variety of styles, and so can be more experimental. A reader will go along with something written in second person, or from an insane person’s point of view, whereas the reader might not commit to something like that in novel length.

As a writer, I’ll take risks in short fiction I might hesitate to take in a novel. I am an avid reader of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and am honored to have a story appearing in the December 2015 issue, which goes on sale in October.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

The sun rises, the birds start singing, and I have to get up. Morning is my most productive writing time. I work a day job as an environmental tech, so I try to wake around five am and write for an hour before heading to work. I enjoy an extra large mug of coffee first thing in the morning. I’m not a coffee connoisseur, and dose it liberally with non-dairy creamer. After lunchtime, I have to cut back on caffeine, unless I’m facing a deadline, external or self-imposed. I thrive on those super long days, dosed to the gills on caffeine, writing until I drop. Love it. But I can only do that on an as-needed basis before my body insists it is time for regular sleep cycles.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

According to Goodreads, I read 36 books last year, so three books a month. That doesn’t count individual short stories. I do read in my genre while I’m writing, which doesn’t seem to throw me off. I read a smattering of non-fiction, and other genres. I enjoyed the non-fiction book Finding Zero by Amir Aczel, a mathematician hunting for the earliest image of a zero. I had somehow never read William Kent Krueger. This spring I read Ordinary Grace, and I’m hooked. I can see why Mr. Krueger is winning awards. 

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

I met Cathy Ace at Malice Domestic 2014, and became a fan of her amateur sleuth mysteries. Her protagonist is a middle-aged Welsh-Canadian woman with an idetic memory. Great fun, and great settings. I met Ovidia Yu at Bouchercon 2014. I read the second Auntie Lee novel, and became an instant fan of these amateur sleuth mysteries set in Singapore with a protagonist that reminds me a little bit of Mrs. Pollifax. I read Blood, Ash, and Bone by Tina Whittle, and very much enjoyed this action-packed novel about a female gun shop owner.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

I like my characters, and I hate to make them suffer. However, that suffering is what makes a compelling story. I write a rough draft that is often lukewarm, then during rewrites and edits, I create more obstacles, tension, and pain. I write amateur sleuth fiction, which reliably comes to a positive conclusion.

Someone once accused me of writing yet another good conquers evil story. I gladly accept that criticism. I believe people read mysteries because real life all too often fails to deliver a satisfactory conclusion, or a comeuppance for the bad guys and gals. To really be satisfying, the fictional characters need to go through the wringer first. I have to remind myself that my protagonists will survive their ordeals, and then really dog-pile the travails on them. 

What motivates you to write?

I am incredibly grateful to people I meet who say “I’m only a reader.” Only? Never say those words! Readers are the people who make my writing meaningful. And don’t forget – all writers are readers, too! As for why I write, I can’t imagine not writing fiction. Why would you not choose to create your own worlds, and populate them with people telling the story you invented? Writing fiction is my way of making sense of this crazy life.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

On a multi-family camping trip in the mountains, the adventurous young people discovered a dilapidated hunting blind. Branches had been placed across a narrow gully, and a blue plastic tarp hung over the entrance. Age and weather had worn it down, giving it an air of creepy decay. The kids had great fun dropping through the “roof” and sliding down the gully full of rotting leaves.

I had a “what if” moment. My imagination dreamed up a body buried under the leaves. That image stuck with me for a couple years before it worked into a story. I first tried writing a short story, but it wouldn’t gel. The idea bloomed for Stone Cold Case, the second novel in my Rock Shop Mystery series. The body is not found in a hunting blind exactly, but the blue tarp and the body became vital to the story.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

Laura DiSilverio told me to read ten mysteries of the type I was attempting to write. I was to treat it like a college literature class, examining key points about each novel. I kept a notebook, jotting down the setting, on which page the first body appeared, the characters, murder weapon, and all manner of details in an attempt to dissect what worked and what didn’t. The exercise was time consuming, at times tedious, and a little painful. By the end, I had learned my genre inside and out. I also learned a lot about that elusive quality of voice, and how word choice, pacing, sentence length, and character develop unique voices.

For more information about Catherine’s short stories and novels, check out her website at http://www.catherinedilts.com/

And here’s a little blurb for Stone Cold Case:

Rock shop owner Morgan Iverson’s discovery of human remains reopens a sixteen-year-old cold case and unhealed wounds in a Colorado mountain town, while her find of a rare gemstone sparks a dangerous treasure hunt. A Sasquatch look-alike may hold the key to both a prom queen’s death and the location of the gemstone. As she begins to uncover the past, Morgan becomes the target of someone determined to keep the truth buried. In book two of the Rock Shop Mystery series, amateur sleuth Morgan Iverson digs into gemstone prospecting to solve a Stone Cold Case.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Joanne Guidoccio - Guest Author

Please welcome Joanne Guidoccio as today’s guest author. Joanne is a fellow member of the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. She describes herself as organized, flexible, focused, optimistic, and determined. Her writing covers the gamut from cozy mysteries, to paranormal romance to inspirational work. The following are her choices of questions and her answers.

A lucky commenter will receive a Kindle eBook of A Season for Killing Blondes.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

I cannot write amid clutter, chaos and confusion. I also need spaciousness for my creativity to flourish. I’ve set up in a corner of my living area, conveniently located near the kitchen and balcony.

What makes a great short story?

A great short story has a compelling hook and well-developed characters. I’m most impressed by writers who can skillfully create a strong sense of place (with a minimum of back story) in the first paragraph.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

I’m at my creative best in midmorning. After a leisurely breakfast, I take my cup of Chatty Matty coffee over to the computer and spend thirty minutes on Social Media. By 9:30, I’m ready to write and set myself a goal of 1,000 words a day. Two more cups of coffee follow and, on “good” days, I reach my goal by early afternoon.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I read between eight and ten books a month. I have eclectic tastes and enjoy contemporary women’s fiction, cozy mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, self-help, and memoirs. I’ve just finished reading and highly recommend Circling the Sun (fictionalized memoir of Beryl Markham’s life) by Paula McClain.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Reinvention is a recurring theme in my books. The protagonists are boomer women determined to launch spectacular second acts.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

While undergoing cancer treatments, I gravitated toward cozy mysteries. After devouring over fifty books in that genre, I imagined the following scenarios: What if a brunette lottery winner moves back to her hometown and finds herself involved in a murder investigation? And what if all the victims are blondes? Since I had plotted the story during the most challenging season of my life, I decided to use A Season for Killing Blondes as the title.

What motivates you to write?

Seven years ago, I retired and decided to resurrect a writing dream concocted during my high school years. I am determined to make up for lost time.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

“It’s okay to fall out of love with your manuscript.” I received this advice from Brian Henry, a creative writing instructor at Ryerson University. During one of his workshops, he recommended putting manuscripts aside before starting the editing process. He didn’t specify a timeline but stressed that we can’t improve our work until we fall out of love with it. Whenever I’m tempted to rush and/or send a half-baked manuscript, I recall these words of wisdom.

Jim, thanks for hosting me today. For more information about me and my books, check out my website at http://joanneguidoccio.com . Catch me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/authorjoanneguidoccio or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/joanneguidoccio

Here's a quick blurb for A Season for Killing Blondes:

Hours before the opening of her career counseling practice, Gilda Greco discovers the dead body of golden girl Carrie Ann Godfrey, neatly arranged in the dumpster outside her office. Gilda’s life and budding career are stalled as Detective Carlo Fantin, her former high school crush, conducts the investigation.

When three more dead blondes turn up all brutally strangled and deposited near Gilda’s favorite haunts, she is pegged as a prime suspect for the murders. Frustrated by Carlo’s chilly detective persona and the mean girl antics of Carrie Ann’s meddling relatives, Gilda decides to launch her own investigation. She discovers a gaggle of suspects, among them a yoga instructor in need of anger management training, a lecherous photographer, and fourteen ex-boyfriends.

As the puzzle pieces fall into place, shocking revelations emerge, forcing Gilda to confront the envy and deceit she has long overlooked.