Monday, July 28, 2008

Time to write

by Donna Andrews

Finding time to write is one of the toughest parts of the business. It’s especially hard for aspiring writers, who don’t have the useful pressure of contract deadlines to keep them on the straight and narrow, and who lack the validation of published books and royalty checks to justify to their family and friends—and sometimes to themselves—the time they spend on writing.

The terminology’s part of the problem. We’re writers right? We believe in the power of words, don’t we? So let’s delete "finding time to write" from our phrase book, and replace it with "making time to write."

Finding time to write implies that it’s there, somewhere, if only we could find it. That luck might have something to do with it ("Oooh! Look! I found a spare half hour!") That maybe someone else has the secret key that would help us locate it. That perhaps, alas, it just isn’t there to be found.

Making time to write, on the other hand, makes it clear that this is work—sometimes the hardest kind of work you have to do in your writing career. That it might require sacrifices. But that accomplishing it is ultimately up to each one of us—and within our power.

In the first few years of my life as an aspiring and then a published writer, people asked me how I found time to write while working full time. "I gave up cooking and cleaning," I replied. People would, inevitably, laugh, and assume I was kidding.

I still remember the time, in the middle of writing "Murder with Peacocks," when my parents’ plane got grounded at Dulles Airport and I had to rescue them and take them home for the night—to my apartment, where there were, quite literally, paths between the piles of stuff, and enough dust to choke a camel. I was mortified that they’d seen my apartment in that state—and remember these were the people who raised me, helped me form my packrat personality, and survived the sight of my wrecked teenage room.

But I didn’t die of the embarrassment. And I was getting my writing done. I finished "Peacocks" and submitted it to the St. Martins contest. And that year, finishing and submitting were my priorities.If you’re not finding time to write, you could try doing what I did: taking a look at your life to see what you can cut out to make the time. Giving up cooking and cleaning was easy for me, because I'd never been that keen on them anyway. But I also cut down on my computer game playing, my reading, my first run movie-going—things I loved, but things I could live without if the price of having them meant that I’d never finish my book. Or things that I learned to do a little less and to use as rewards for finishing my quota.

That’s the other thing I found was essential to my effort to make more time to write. If you cut out everything you enjoy and vow to spend every possible moment writing—that way lies burnout. A more sustainable plan is to figure out how you can carve out some time . . . experiment to see how many words you can reasonably expect to write in the time you can make available . . . and set goals and quotas for yourself.

If I want or need to finish a manuscript by a certain date, I calculate how many words I have to write and how many days I have to do it, and then I know how many words I have to write each day if I’m going to finish my project by the deadline. When I finish each day’s quota, I reward myself—with a book, an hour or two of playing a computer game, a chat with a friend, or maybe just a hot soaking bath. Making time day after day for something where the reward is a long way off gets old very soon. But if every day you have a small but real celebration to honor the fact that you made time for your writing and met your goal for the day, it will help sustain you for the long haul.

So what if you can only find a few hours to write on Sunday afternoon and can only produce, say, five pages a week in that time? Yes, it will take you longer to finish a book—maybe a year or two. But if you keep making that time every week, you will finish—and in the meantime, you’ll have had fifty or sixty or a hundred little victory celebrations to make the journey more enjoyable.

And now I’m going to follow my own advice, and reward myself for finishing this blog entry with a game of Sid Meier’s Pirates (Arg, matey!)

Donna Andrews is the Sisters In Crime Chapter Liaison.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blame It On Nancy Drew

by Marcia Talley

I come from a long line of frugal New Englanders, so it’s no surprise that I tend to drive my cars until they practically disintegrate in my driveway. Thus, it was a sad, sad day when I waved goodbye to my beloved 1994 Chrysler LeBaron – which was crying out for its third transmission in almost as many years – as it was hauled away on a flatbed truck by a nice guy from Purple Heart. To replace it, I did my research, reading Consumer Reports and doing comparisons on the Internet before turning up at a local VW dealership looking to test drive a VW Eos convertible. “I want it in blue,” I told the salesman, Keith, but there was no blue model on the lot. “The paprika red is hot,” Keith said. “You can drive that baby away today.” I shook my head. He tried again, “Candy white? Island gray?”

I was in the middle of telling Keith why color was a deal breaker – it was going to be blue or nothing – when it suddenly occurred to me why the color was important. Blame it on Nancy Drew. She drove a snappy blue roadster, and so, doggonit, would I.

How is it that a series of novels that debuted in 1930 – decades before I was born -- have such an influence on me as a young girl that I became not only a rabid reader of mysteries, but a mystery novelist as well? How to explain why I was sitting in a squeaky leather chair, pouting until I got to drive off in a car just like Nancy’s? Another famous Nancy said it far better than I in the preface to the facsimile edition of The Hidden Staircase, “I owe it all to Nancy Drew.”

Statistics indicate that our nation’s children are spending less time reading and more time watching television or playing video games. This is alarming for many reasons, not the least being this – if there is going to be an audience in future for the kind of books we write, we need to start cultivating that audience today. That’s why I rarely turn down the opportunity to speak to children and young adults, in schools and libraries, and for community groups like the Girl Scouts. The kids I’ve met may be spending a lot of time in front of a television or computer screen, but I’ve found that they’re endlessly fascinated by mysteries, too.

This spring I was giving a talk during “Career Day” to a group of seventy 5th graders, and I asked how many of them had seen the television program CSI. Papers on the librarian’s desk fluttered as nearly every hand shot up. At a high school in my husband’s home town the English and Science departments collaborated on a joint study unit, “Forensic Science in Literature.” I was the literature half of the program. And on a balmy autumn weekend in San Diego, I gave the keynote address for a brilliantly organized sleepover that included a hands-on CSI workshop -- crime scene, evidence specimens, microscopes, white lab coats and all – followed by a mystery-writing workshop.

In my opinion, no better example of reaching out to kids about the love of reading a mystery can be found than the post-Bouchercon 2007 Authors to the Schools program sponsored by the Alaska chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was greeted like a rock star in Seward, where over the course of two days, I spoke to classes in the elementary, middle and high schools as well as doing an evening presentation for adults at the Seward Public Library. You know what? The kids were just as fascinated by tales of mystery, adventure, intrigue, justice and revenge as the adults, perhaps more so.

On the Monday, I took my talk “The Mind of a Mystery Writer” (illustrated with Power Point slides) to an auditorium of bright and attentive teens at Seward High School, answered their questions and worked with them as they penned their own mysteries. The following day, I visited the middle school. The students were enthusiastic and extremely well prepared for my visit; no surprise, as one of their teachers, Laura Beck, had just been voted Alaska Teacher of the Year.

Finally, I visited Seward elementary school where I did presentations for both the 5th and 6th grades classes, ending with a lively discussion initiated by the 5th graders on murder mysteries I could set in Seward based on either the Jesse Lee Home, an orphanage ruined in the earthquake and rumored to be haunted; or, a woman murdered in a bathtub (was she stabbed? shot? strangled? the stories varied) at Seward’s Van Gilder hotel.
And I’m thinking, hmmm, why not?

Remember that line in the 1989 Kevin Costner flick, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come?” The same could be said about mysteries. J.K. Rowling turned millions of children on to reading with the adventures of Harry Potter, and if standing in line for hours in order to be the first kid on your block to read a book that’s more 700 pages long doesn’t prove that if you give kids good books, they will read them, I don’t know what does.
If we write them, they will come.

Do you need a gift for a youngster? Remember the solve-it-yourself mysteries featuring Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, the boy detective? For middle school children, how about Mary Stuart’s classic, The Moonspinners; or The Name of the Game was Murder by Joan Lowrey Nixon; or, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. And for the high school crowd, you couldn’t do better than to recommend Josephine Tey’s timeless classic, Daughter of Time; Margaret Maron’s Bootlegger’s Daughter; or, She Walk These Hills by Sharyn McCrumb. And Agatha Christie, too, of course.
My recent stint as an Edgar judge for the juvenile mystery category made it clear that authors are still turning out such masterpieces, tomorrow’s classics like the books on this year’s Edgar short list.

or those that were nominated for an Agatha in the same category.

The Night Tourist by Katherine Marsh is a real stunner.

So the next time someone asks you to speak to a group of school-age children or young adults, say ‘yes.’ It’s not as hard as you think. Just like their parents, kids want to know ‘where do you get your ideas?’ and are fascinated when you talk about the whole creative process, from the germ of an idea up through publication. At one presentation, a bright-eyed 4th grader examined the marked-up, copyedited manuscript I’d brought along in amazement. “You mean grownups don’t get it perfect the first time either?”

And soon, there may be another resource to help you. Sisters in Crime is in the process of gathering different curricula and determining the best format in which to present them. Once they’re ready, we'll have a place on-line for members to pick up super, tried-and-true teaching ideas.

While I still love to talk to libraries, private book groups, and women’s professional organizations, kids remain my favorite audience. As one 4th grader wrote, “Thank you for coming to our school, Mrs. Talley. I learned that you don’t have to be a grownup to write mysteries.”
Thank you, Brittany. I couldn’t have said it any better.

Marcia Talley's 7th Hannah Ives mystery, Dead Man Dancing, will be released in the fall. She is Secretary of Sisters in Crime National.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ah....Just Say It!

Margaret Coel

Big Author Event. Thirty-five miles from my house, and I had to dress up because this was black-tie fancy with an author speaking after dinner. I was looking forward to it because I really enjoy listening to other authors speak.

The problem? This guy could not speak. Why any publicist had let him loose on the reading public is a mystery that would stymie Agatha herself. As he droned on—and on and on—for more than an hour, there was the sound of chairs scraping and people scurrying away. My husband and I, unfortunately, were near the front, so we persevered.

Ah, author said. Ahhhh. Ahhhh. Ahhhh. And that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the rambling nature of the talk, the garbled build up, the swallowed punch lines, the mumbled phrases. Everywhere I looked, people were dozing off. My husband pulled out a small notepad and jotted down the next day’s errands.

When the author finally limped to a vapid close, people sprang from their seats and bolted for the door, right past the table piled with the author’s books that a bookstore had spent time and money making sure were in place. Think about it. What was the author supposed to do at this big event? Sell Books. And that, judging by the giant sucking noise of people rushing out, did not happen.

At some point in the trajectory from writing to publishing, someone should have pulled the author aside and said, You are about to become a public speaker. You will find yourself on the speaker’s list of book clubs, Rotaries, libraries, schools. You will go to book signings where people have taken time they might have devoted to something else to hear you talk about your book and your writing. This is your opportunity to sell books.

The truth is that, unless an author is a trained actor, or happens to have a job that requires public speaking, or has taken public speaking classes or belonged to a speaking club in recent memory, he or she is probably NOT a good speaker. In my case, I knew this to be an indisputable fact. Just because we may be good enough at writing to land a book contract does not mean we are good enough at speaking to keep an audience from falling into a collective coma.

Being a not-so-good to lousy speaker, however, is not a fatal condition. It is quite fixable. But first, we have to face the facts: more than likely, our public speaking skills need to be sharpened, and with a little bit of work, we can sharpen them.

Start when you sign the book contract, so that when your book appears you will be ready. Think about what you enjoy hearing other authors talk about. What I’ve found is that audiences love stories. They love stories about how you came to write your book, strange things that happened along the way, and how you came to be a writer at all. And nothing grabs and holds an audience like a funny story. And nothing will endear you to an audience more than giving them the chance to laugh a little.

What you will need is a generic speech appropriate for a variety of audiences, one that can be tweaked for specific occasions. Before you start mapping out the speech, decide whether you would be more comfortable reading or speaking from notes. If reading is your style, then write out the entire speech, making sure you have a strong beginning, a middle that propels the speech onward rather than bogging it down, and a helluva wind-up ending.

If you prefer the more informal approach, as I do, outline your speech with the same points in mind. Rather than speaking from my outline, however, I jot down key words in big, black letters on note cards arranged in the order of my outline. During the speech, the words cue me in on what I want to sat next.

Now you have either written or outlined a speech, but that’s what authors do. We’re pretty good at this first step. The next step? Practice. Practice. Practice. Ask your favorite someone to listen to your speech. Set the timer when you begin. Whether you are reading or relying on notes, practice delivering the speech. Look up frequently and make eye contact with your audience. Think in terms of rhythm and tempo. Insert inflections and pauses. Slow down for emphasis or to let the audience savor what you’re saying. Speed up with funny stories. Give the audience a second to laugh after you’ve delivered the punch line.

Ask for your someone’s honest response. Where did you lose him? What part had her on the edge of her chair? What part was too long? Where should you cut? What would she like to hear more about? Was the part you thought humorous really humorous? (If you hadn’t heard any laughter at the appropriate time, you’ll already have that answer.)

Check the timer. How long was your speech? Generally you should aim for about thirty minutes. You can always shorten or lengthen for specific audiences.

Another way to practice –always with a timer—is in front of a mirror. Deliver your speech out loud to yourself, watching your expressions and gestures, and do it enough times that you become very familiar with it and you know by instinct when to pause or speed up. It also helps to turn on a tape recorder, then listen to yourself. Maybe you won’t be shocked at the number of times you stumble and mumble and sink into ahhhhs, but I know I was. Practice will smooth out those tricky places.

Still better, ask someone to video tape you. You may see yourself relaxed, confident and engaged with the audience. Yeah! You are ready to go. Or you may appear like a potted plant, as I did on my first video. If that’s the case go back to practicing until the gestures and expressions that go with your speech are second nature.

Sound like a lot of time and effort? Think about how much time and effort you put into writing your book. Isn’t it worth investing a little more to prepare yourself to sell it?

If that doesn’t inspire you, then think about that giant sucking noise as an audience rushes out of the room. Right past your books.

Margaret Coel is an experienced public speaker who has spoken at events around the country and in Australia.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Is It All Bad News?

By Nancy Martin

Recent bulletins indicate that many newspapers are giving up printing book reviews. For the mystery author who desperately needs media attention to stay alive in the era of the long tail, are we supposed to give up, too?

No way. Turns out, there are a lot of publications—online and in print—that are still open to reviewing mystery novels. And they’re much better targeted to readers who are truly interested in buying or reading mysteries.

First up: The genre-specific magazines like Mystery Scene magazine. If your publisher doesn’t submit ARCs of your book to these magazines, why not? And if they don’t, what’s stopping you from sending preview copies? Such magazines are read by exactly the readers you want to reach, so mailing your book to them with an appropriately tantalizing cover letter is a no-brainer.

Last year’s Sisters in Crime review monitoring project revealed that the publication most friendly to women mystery writers is Romantic Times. This magazine devotes several pages to our genre. And after the reviews appear in the print magazine, they are soon available online for an even larger audience to access. Yes, RT a romance-oriented magazine, but they’re making a solid effort to encourage romance readers to cross the aisle to the mystery section. The only way they’re going to build their mystery fan base is through cooperation with writers, publishers, and readers. It’s in the best interest of all of us to continue supporting this growing entity. Check out the online magazine to study their community-building:

The mystery bookstores who publish their own reviews in newsletter format are your greatest friends in the biz. Stores like Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA, publishes a review-laden print newsletter (sent to a mailing list in the thousands!) and their online bookstore is chock full of information to help both local and distant readers choose the books they might most want to read. If you write mystery novels, independent stores that do great word-of-mouth selling are your best champions—especially when it comes to selling your backlist. Foster working relationships with as many of these stores as you can manage.

Your own publisher probably has a website that promotes your work in ways that readers may perceive as reviews. Check out St. Martin’s Press Read It First, for one example. And if your tech-phobic publisher doesn’t have a similar site, authors should be rattling someone’s chain to get one in place ASAP.

In most cases where book reviews appear in big-name publications with hundreds of thousands of copies sold every month, it’s generally the in-house publicist who successfully manages to land such valuable placement. Sarah Strohmeyer, for example, credits her Dutton publicist for getting her summer novel SWEET LOVE into People magazine. How can you help your publicist work such magic? A solid, friendly working relationship is no doubt the first step. Your publicist is your ally, not your enemy, so treat him with the respect of a teammate. Work together to create a list of the best places to send your ARCs. Help the publicist write the cover letter by giving him enough ammunition—fun facts about the book or some kind of marketing hook. (Before my Blackbird Sisters mystery CROSS YOUR HEART AND HOPE TO DIE was published, we sent promotional packets to newspaper feature writers that included information about the history of brassieres---trust me, the tie-in was legit—which resulted in a number of feature articles in small, regional newspapers.)

What about the proliferation of online review sites? How should an author choose where to send those previous few ARCs we’re allotted in the months before our books are released?

The first consideration is eyeballs. How many hits does a review site get on a daily basis? Clearly, it’s smarter to send your ARC to a site that gets 2000 or 20,000 hits every day instead of one that only attracts 20. Many sites won’t reveal that information, but the better ones should.—It’s the best way they’ll increase their traffic! Try to do some sniffing around to learn which sites are the most heavily trafficked. Look for sites that are generous about linking elsewhere. Hooking into the larger network is a sign of cooperative traffic-building.

Some low-traffic sites, however, benefit by having a “big mouth” in charge. (And “big mouth” is a compliment, in this case!) A reviewer who trumpets her news on listserves like DorothyL or among other large groups of readers is a better use of my ARC than one who takes the book, writes a 4-sentence review and makes no effort to generate traffic to her site or build her reputation among readers.

An often overlooked place for book reviews is radio. Check out your local NPR station. Or look for programs that might best fit the kind of book you write. Or take matters into your own hands. Popular romance novelist Cathy Maxwell has her own radio show on WZEZ in Richmond. On the first and last Monday of the month, she reviews and talks books. Her partnership with the Fountain Bookstore in Richmond helps listeners read the reviews of books she talks about on the air.

Have a bigger budget? There are a number of pay-as-you-go sites like Bookreporter that—for a price---will put together good advertising. Why not contact these sites for a price quote? Asking for more information doesn’t cost you a penny, but could lead you to some real bargains.

It goes without saying that in order to be reviewed, a book must first be a great read. An author’s first consideration is to write the best book possible. But once the book is written, seeking creative ways to get it reviewed is time well spent.

But meanwhile, if you want to lend your voice to the battle over newspapers discarding their book review pages, go here:,0,2431161.story

Nancy Martin is a SinC Member At Large.