Monday, May 31, 2010

Risk Management and Other Writerly Thoughts

by Annette Meyers

So, last year I had this intriguing, exciting first line of a book or maybe a short story in my head. I’d been playing with it for months while I was finishing what I hoped would be the final draft of my new novel, and while I was serving sporadically as an arbitrator on cases for FINRA.

I’ve always worked on the start of a book this way: The first line comes and I store it away in my brain and take it out and look at it and play with it, then put it back and keep doing it until I’m ready to sit down at the computer and begin writing.

But last spring I woke in the morning and called up my intriguing first line and it didn’t come. And it didn’t come during the day. And it didn’t come during my meditation. And it didn’t come when I planted the request in my thoughts before I went to sleep at night. I couldn’t believe it. I called a long time friend (writer) and asked if this had ever happened to her. She said it had. Sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t. But it didn’t make me feel any better.

And then I was watching Mad Men one night and one of the creative team, Paul, had stayed late into the night trying to work on copy for an ad and early in the morning he had it, the perfect line. He toasted himself and fell asleep at his desk and in the morning, the line was gone. When he met with Don Draper and Peggy Olson to talk about the copy, he said he’d had the perfect line and when he woke up it was gone. And Don and Peggy both said, oh, I hate when that happens.

What I decided to do was open a file called “Opening Lines” so it will never happen to me again. The file has grown to include titles, character descriptions, dialogue, ideas, whole paragraphs. It’s become my safety net.

But my intriguing, exciting first line has never come back. What has come to me is a new opening line for my novel SOMETHING DARKER, a police procedural, and taking no chances, I typed it onto the first page for me to rewrite. It’s a police procedural because when I was asked to do a story for SISTERS ON THE CASE, I wanted to try something different and since I’d never done a police procedural, I wrote “Not Just the Facts.” I decided that my next novel would be a police procedural, and that’s exactly what SOMETHING DARKER is.

I’ve always believed that I must keep coming through a different door, keep stretching, not grow stale writing the same characters over and over. To keep challenging myself as a writer, I went from contemporary Smith and Wetzon, third person through Wetzon’s eyes, to historical (fictional poet) Olivia Brown in first person, to Maan Meyers historicals with Marty, multiple points of view and omniscient author. I’ve written short stories in present tense. I like the immediacy of

But I did a really big stretch this winter. When I wrote Olivia Brown I reacquainted myself with various poetic forms so that I could feel comfortable writing Olivia’s poems. I came across the villanelle with its rhyming and pentameter restrictions and made a note on a post-it and stuck it to a photo on my desk. This winter I began to wonder if I could turn a vicious crime story I’d clipped from the newspapers several years ago into a villanelle. I wrote “The Villain’s Villanelle,” and EQMM just told me  "The Villain's Villanelle" will go on sale on June 22, in what they call the August issue.

It’s a magnificent obsession, this writing thing. Whenever I think, that’s it--especially considering the publishing climate these days and most of the editors I knew not around any--more--and I’m ready to put my feet up and read and do all the things I don’t do when I’m writing, an idea comes. But I’ve learned my lesson: This time it goes into my Opening Lines files.
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Annette Meyers is the author of eight Smith and Wetzon Wall Street mysteries, two Olivia Brown 1920s mysteries, and a standalone suspense novel: Repentances. As Maan Meyers, she and her husband Martin have written seven history mysteries and numerous short stories set in New York in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. One of Annette’s short stories was included in Best American Mystery Stories, 2002. She was the 10th president of Sister in Crime and serves on the board of the International Association of Crime Writers, NA. Website: http://www.meyersmysteries.com/

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What We Did At Malice Domestic

Click on this link below to find out all the wonderful things that happened at Malice Domestic--and Sisters In Crime was there!

Sisters in Crime

Monday, May 24, 2010

Let's Be Honest: Success Equals Fame and Big Bucks

By Guest Blogger Elizabeth Sims

Not long ago I spoke on a panel of authors, agents, and editors in a bookstore in Alaska. As we took our places in front of the audience, I wondered, "What are aspiring authors in Alaska like?"


My unasked question was answered by a man in the front row who raised his hand. "We all know we're supposed to just be glad that we write," he said. "We're supposed to not care whether we get a big contract or not. But let's be honest: we all want to make it big, we all want to write bestsellers, we all want to be famous, and we all want to be millionaires. Now my question to you people is: what's the main thing I have to do to get there?"

In other words, aspiring authors in Alaska are exactly like aspiring authors everywhere. I admired that man's honesty. Indeed, although I've reached the enviable level of midlist author, I'm just like him. I too want to make it big and all the rest. Especially the millions of dollars. Hell, yes!

Which provokes the question: how should an author define success?

Most amateur writers I talk to are shocked to learn that none—none—of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books were in print when he died. He was a has-been in his own time. That's happened to tons of tremendously talented authors. Worse still, any of us can point to some bestselling idiot who doesn't have a tenth of the talent we do.

The writing life ain't fair and that's that.

However, I have no patience for writing experts who tell aspiring authors things like, "Forget fame and fortune. Odds are against you ever achieving them with your writing." When somebody says that, I want to kill her. I want to hack off her head with a machete and kick it down a ravine.

Life is tough enough for authors without that bullshit. We know we've chosen a challenging path. We know, empirically and intuitively, that the odds are against us. Anybody attempting to do something extraordinary knows the odds are long. Win a marathon, develop a new cancer drug, find a lost civilization, be CEO before age 30, write a book, get a book published, have a big-time successful writing career.

The paradox is this: if you believe the odds are against you, you won't produce your best work. Why? Because you'll be too busy battling depression. It's damaging to listen to naysayers, especially ones disguised as helpers.

You've got to act as if the odds are in your favor. You've got to believe it in your heart or you're doomed.

You've got to believe that you'll achieve everything you can dream of: Glowing reviews, a thick stream of royalty checks, booksignings attended not only by your friends and relatives but by strangers who have actually read and loved your books. You've got to be able to visualize an ugly little statuette of a man's head with a painted-on mustache sitting in a place of prominence on your shelf. If you do that, you'll find yourself committed to developing your talent as far as it can go. You'll have a shot at the big time.

Believe. That's my answer to the man in Alaska.
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Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer mysteries (The Extra, The Actress, and the forthcoming On Location) as well as the Lambda Award-winning Lillian Byrd mysteries. She is also a Contributing Editor at Writer's Digest magazine, where she specializes in the art and craft of fiction. Her formative years were spent investigating the lives of Nancy Drew, Laura Ingalls, and Sherlock Holmes, as well as making gunpowder in the basement with her chemistry set. Now, as a published crime author, she's living proof that studying literature and misbehaving with reactive compounds can work out. She's a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Mensa International. www.elizabethsims.com.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WEDNESDAY'S BURNING QUESTION

Ellen Hart writes:

Discipline is a vital trait for a writer. I often point out to my classes that, although it may seem axiomatic and thus unnecessary to say, the person who gets published is the person who finishes the book. And that leads me to my question:

Do you write every day? Do you write a certain number of pages or words when you work, or do you sit in your chair and write for x-number of hours, no matter what you get done?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Crime Fiction—the Odd Cousin?

By Guest Blogger L.J. Sellers

“Does the crime writer sit in the same chair at the table of literature as a transvestite cousin at a family gathering?”

Say what?

That question came to me, via Facebook, from a researcher working on a PhD dissertation about the mystery/crime genre. The analogy both amused and disheartened me. Over the years, I’ve tried to accept that genre fiction isn’t counted in the same category as literary fiction. I’ve tried to ignore the occasions where a reviewer declared that a particular mystery or thriller “transcends the genre,” as if crime fiction had built-in limitations and readers had to approach it with low expectations.

But now that I’ve been compared to an "odd" cousin, I have to respond. What a load of nonsense.

From my perspective, crime fiction offers the best reading on nearly every level. The genre confronts the realities of life across various cultures more often and more honestly than mainstream/literary fiction does.

Crime novels are suited to exploring provocative social issues and showing how those hot-button subjects affect various people’s lives, often from diverse perspectives. Crime fiction can be surprisingly poignant and analytical about problems such as illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug use. These novels highlight deep-rooted cultural ills such as racism, sexism, bigotry, and the dangers of stereotypes. Sometimes a mystery will show a stereotype in all its glory, reminding us of why stereotypes exist and how we all fit into one … at least a little bit. The crime genre often forces us to see the world from perspectives that make us think outside our comfort zone.

As crime writers and readers, we get to make sense of things that would otherwise haunt us. We learn why the family next door disappeared one day or what’s really going on in the creepy warehouse across the street. Sometimes that knowledge helps us sleep better and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we learn one version of the truth.

Police procedurals and thrillers give us a medium through which we can experience the triumph of good over evil. For short while with each story, we get to be the good guy, the hero who rescues the kidnapped child or saves the president’s life. We get to drag the bad guys off to jail or shoot them dead if “they need killing”— fantasies we can’t act out in our everyday lives. The real-world events around us can be unjust and inexplicable. It’s important to our collective mental health to experience justice, order, and revelation through fiction.

Novels with well-written protagonists and antagonists bring us to terms with the duality within ourselves. Humans are all deeply flawed, with the capacity for great goodness as well as for deceit, jealousy, schadenfreude, addiction, selfishness, and often worse. When crime fiction heroes—detectives, FBI agents, and prosecutors—possess such flaws, we not only relate to those characters, we forgive ourselves for the same shortcomings. When a killer calls his mother or pets a stray dog, we hate him a little less and remember to look for good qualities in everyone.

Crime novels explore relationships in a way that few other genres can. What better mechanism to test a bond between husband and wife, parent and child, or lifelong friends than to embroil the relationship in a crime, either as victims, suspects, or perpetrators. Similar to natural disasters, the aftermath of a crime can bring out the best—or worst—in humans.

The genre is rich with possibilities for exploring the complexity of the human condition. Victims become predators; predators become victims. A person is guilty, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe. Most of all, crime fiction is full of surprises, and we readers love the unexpected. When was the last time a reviewer used the word twist when discussing a literary novel?

If the detective writer is the odd cousin at the literary family gathering, then perhaps the family is a bit dysfunctional to begin with.
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L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist, editor, and the author of the Detective Jackson mystery/suspense series. The first two books, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For, have been highly praised, and the third book, Thrilled to Death, will be released in August. Her next two novels, Passions of the Dead and The Baby Thief, will be published in 2011. When not plotting murders, L.J. enjoys performing standup comedy, cycling, social networking, attending mystery conferences, and editing fiction manuscripts.  Be sure to visit L.J.'s web site.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

WEDNESDAY'S BURNING QUESTION

Ellen Hart writes:

We all collect ideas. I’ve often thought of writers as cosmic vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything around them. When we need something, we look into the bag. Many of us write novels and short stories. Thus, today’s burning question is:

How do you know when you have a novel-length idea vs. a short story idea? Is there a difference? Is it all in the writing?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Finding A Way

By Carolyn Hart

I would love to say after publishing 44 books that I have captured the magic elixir and that I toss off books as easily as a conjuror pulls a rabbit from a top hat.

No.

Writing is hard. Always. Every book is a challenge. If I knew more about magic and top hats, very likely I would realize that producing a rabbit is always a challenge, too. Nothing worth doing is easy.

Every book is like climbing a new, taller, more dangerous mountain, a crevasse here, a slippery rock there, an unexpected overhang blocking the way. But when a writer reaches the top, that rarefied perch with the earth spread below, the writer has gained in skill. I don’t pretend to have many answers, much less all the answers, but I can share some techniques that I have learned over the years in writing classic puzzles.

Long ago as an aspiring writer I was informed that YOU MUST OUTLINE. That is not true for many writers. For some, for those whose minds can entertain the far flung needs of a story from the outset, an outline is essential and their way to begin. For as many authors, myself included, there will never be a formal outline.

Here is what I know when I begin: the protagonist(s), the victim, the identity of the murderer and the motive, the setting, and a working title. I am a "what if" writer. The story happens as I write. To me, that affords joy in writing. In Death of the Party, Annie and Max Darling go to a remote sea island to investigate a death which occurred a year earlier. Early in the book, Max decides to take a walk about the island. On a path in the woods, he hears someone approaching. As he comes around a bend, he meets a burly, muscular, middle-aged man. I had no idea what Max would find when he set out on the walk. I was as surprised as he at the unexpected encounter. The new character becomes very important in the book and I didn’t know he was coming.

I am suggesting that you can discover a book by letting your main character take a walk or pick up the phone or run after a taxi or climb a fire escape. What if . . .

Be particular about your characters’ names. I try to have each name begin with a different letter. I have so many recurring characters in the Death on Demand series that occasionally names will begin with the same letter, but it is rare. Make it easy for readers by using names that sound and look different.

Present clues fairly to the readers while hiding them in plain sight. I have a short passage in Deadly Valentine in which I describe an older man who is a murder victim. The reader will not be surprised because his unpleasant personality was described. The description also included the inference that he was impotent and that was a major clue. However, to the reader the emphasis was on his nasty disposition.

Readers are accustomed to attending movies and sorting out the hero and the villain by the action. You don’t have to tell readers. Let them see for themselves. Often when I write a scene, I summarize too much because I’m focused on the main point I want to achieve. I find that I’ve told the readers. I go back and rewrite and let the readers see and hear and feel what led up to the important action in the scene.

When I had written about 23 books, I had a Eureka moment. I don’t outline before I start, but I outline as I am writing. That way I have a breakdown of the action and can easily find a certain passage if I feel it needs changes. I write the outline by chapters in a yellow legal pad. In the left margin, I write the day and time and, if important, weather. I also write the ms. page numbers.

As I write, I make notes about what I want to add or subtract or modify and I have many, many scraps of paper floating around. It isn’t orderly, but it captures fleeting thoughts that can make a difference in the ms.

When writing a scene, I am always aware that the protagonist has a goal and I as author have a goal. Annie Darling in the opening pages of The Christie Caper is thinking about getting ready for a marvelous party to kick off her conference in honor of Agatha Christie. That is her goal. My goal is to introduce important characters to the reader.   

Treat editors with courtesy and respect. They are editors because they love books. On occasion an editor will not be helpful, but most editorial suggestions will be helpful. The editor can see the forest when the author is lost in the trees.

I have been blessed with extraordinarily good editors. Sometimes I decline to make a suggested change, but often I see that I can indeed improve the scene. In Deadly Valentine, the editor suggested that I introduce the main characters before Annie Darling encounters them at a Valentine Ball. I had Annie’s ditzy mother-in-law invite Annie down to the dock where Laurel casually inquires about the residences ringing the lagoon. As Annie describes her neighbors, the reader meets these characters before the crush of the ball. The editor made the suggestion that the characters be introduced. It was up to me as the author to figure out how to accomplish that task.

The challenge in writing is that it is always hard. The joy is that once the first draft is done, writing is fun. At that point, you have the book. Take that ms., mold and smooth and straighten and correct. When the work is done, be proud. You have created a story that no one else could have written.

God Bless.
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An accomplished master of mystery, Carolyn Hart is the author of over forty crime novels in three different series.  Her books have won multiple Agatha, Anthony and Macavity awards. Her latest release is Laughed 'Til He Died.  She lives in Oklahoma City, and is one of the founders of Sisters in Crime. Visit her website at:  www.carolynhart.com

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

WEDNESDAY'S BURNING QUESTION

Ellen Hart writes:

When I started writing the Jane Lawless novels, Jane was 37 and I was almost forty. Twenty years later, Jane is just about to turn 45 and I’ve just turned sixty. Clearly, Jane has aged better than I have. Here’s today’s question:

How do you handle the passage of time in your mystery series? Is it realistic? Since most of us do a book a year, is the story always one year later? Does your protagonist age in real time?

Monday, May 3, 2010

THE BUSINESS OF WRITING


by Margaret Maron

I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t want to quit her day job and write full time, but I’ve met lots of writers who don’t pay enough attention to the business aspects of writing and who wind up giving the IRS money they could have kept in their own pockets.

I am not a tax expert and I certainly don’t play one on television, but these are some of the things I’ve learned about the tax code along the way to becoming a fulltime writer. If you proceed with caution and don’t try to carry your fictional skills too far over onto your 1040 form, you should be okay with the IRS.

First off, is writing your hobby or is it your business? You’ve always loved to write and now you’ve sold some short stories for a few hundred dollars or you received a modest advance on your first book and then didn’t sell anything else for a couple of years. Are you a professional writer or not? If you aren’t sure, then go to the IRS website and search for “FS-2007-18, April 2007 - Business or Hobby?” The guidelines laid out there are fairly simple, especially the statement: “The IRS presumes that an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year.” That’s the key. Three out of the last five years. It doesn’t have to be a large profit, just enough that the IRS won’t audit you because you deducted your writing expenses as losses those other two years.

So what are business expenses? To quote FS-2007-18 again, “An ordinary expense is an expense that is common and accepted in the taxpayer’s trade or business. A necessary expense is one that is appropriate for the business.”

In other words, a plain-vanilla computer would be an ordinary expense. A high-end computer with all the bells and whistles could also be considered appropriate for a writer. So would a camera to document scenes for your book. A weekly manicure to keep your nails short for typing? Don’t bet on it. But a trip to England might be.

Most writers don’t earn as much as doctors or lawyers or bankers, but we get to deduct everything they can; and because our “work product” grows out of our imagination and experience, we get to deduct almost everything that feeds that imagination: magazines, newspapers, professional and trade journals for research, membership in professional organizations (Sisters in Crime, MWA, Authors Guild), registration fees for related conferences, writing classes, every penny you spend in a book store or office supply store, expenses related to your website, and trips to exotic locales where your books are set.

Repeat after me: All travel is research. Never mind that the kids are along or that you’re visiting your sick Aunt Minnie in Toledo. Hey, you might want to set a scene on a cruise ship or in Disney World or in Toledo. Who knows? You do not actually have to write a scene set on a cruise ship or in Disney World or Toledo as long as you take a few notes and keep a log. Most cities have book stores and libraries. If you arrange to go by and sign stock at the store or to speak at the library, then it’s automatically a business trip. A trip to Venice resulted in a short story that I sold to EQMM and my accountant thought that deducting 80% of my expenses for the whole trip was reasonable. I took notes along the way and I kept a log.

If you don’t have a log, please go out and get one right now—your mileage to get to the store and the cost of the log itself are both tax-deductible. Force yourself to use it. Yes, your favorite electronic gizmo can record data, too, but an old-fashioned paper log will never disappear into an electronic black hole. I use one of those week-at-a-glance calendar books and staple a flat plastic bag inside the back cover. Every trip into town to buy a ballpoint pen, an ink cartridge or a ream of paper is a business trip. I record the miles in red ink at the top of that day’s space along with the cost of the supplies, and put the receipts in the plastic bag. If you had lunch that day with your writing group, you can jot down a note or two about any writing or publishing tips that you might have picked up, along with the cost of your “business lunch.”

At the end of the year, I hand the log to whoever’s doing my taxes and all she has to do is add up the red figures. She doesn’t have to look at the receipts, but they are there should the IRS start asking questions. Again though, the IRS recognizes the validity of logs, especially when backed up by receipts or cancelled checks. You will be amazed at how quickly mileage and expenses will add up. At 50¢ a mile, I can document about 4500 business miles a year. That’s a deductible worth $2250.

Then there’s per diem, the amount you can claim over and above hotel and airfare for the various cities you visit to promote your books or do research.

For example, say you’re going to Bouchercon in San Francisco this fall. You can deduct all travel expenses: your mileage to and from the airport, your parking fees, your air fare, your transportation from airport to the hotel, your hotel room, the $2 you will leave on the bathroom counter for the maid every morning (you do tip the maid every day, don’t you?), the cab you’ll take to a restaurant to meet your editor or agent, etc.

Google “Per diem rates” and you’ll see that for the year 2010, the IRS will allow you to deduct $71 a day for your meals and incidental expenses in San Francisco. (In Toledo, it’s only $51. Sorry, Aunt Minnie!) Yes, you could list your meals and incidentals individually, but it’s simpler just to take the per diem rate rather than try to get a receipt for every hot dog, drink, or tube of toothpaste. Your accountant will appreciate it, too.

Speaking of which, the accountant’s fees are deductible as are payments to a research assistant, a web guru, or anyone hired to help you in your work as a writer.

If you rent an office, all expenses related to it are deductible. If you have an office in your home, you can deduct a percentage of your mortgage, taxes, insurance, utilities, and the new roof. The definition here is that your work space is that part of your home “used regularly and exclusively in your work.” This means you can’t claim the whole dining room if the family still eats dinner there every evening. But you can claim a corner of any room where you regularly work if those few square feet are maintained exclusively for your work.

Again though, let me state for the record that I am not a tax lawyer nor an accountant, so if in doubt, talk to an IRS agent. They can be very helpful and will sometimes suggests deductions you may not have thought of. (I’ll never forget the time an IRS agent told a friend’s husband, “She’s hired you to be her chauffeur and body guard? Then you can deduct your gym fees to stay in shape!”) For what it’s worth though, I’ve been following these modest practices for thirty years and have never been audited even though I claim several thousand in deductible expenses every year. Good citizens should gladly pay their honest share of taxes, but nothing says you have to pay more than that unless you’re too lazy to document your deductions.

Good luck and here’s hoping you’ll soon earn enough to think about becoming an S-Corp
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Margaret Maron is a founding member and former president of Sisters in Crime. Her current book is Sand Sharks.  The 16th in her Judge Deborah Knott series, Christmas Mourning, will be published November 2010.  Visit her web site:  http://www.margaretmaron.com/