Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Best Advice

by Cathy Pickens

What's the best writing advice I've ever gotten?  In many cases, it's the same as the worst advice I've ever gotten.  For starters:

Write what you know.

Now, that's good advice.  I know about the Southern Appalachian Mountains, about being a lawyer and a daughter and a sister and an aunt.  I know where to find good food to eat (but not much about cooking it).  And I know I like mysteries.

But when told to write what you know, it's tempting to think you don't know nearly enough.  So you wander off to research all kinds of stuff that you'd like to know ... and that you would like people to think you know.

That can waste a lot of time and can easily get in the way of your story.

So I'd modify that advice a bit:

Write what you know ... but don't get lost on the way to your story.

The other useful advice I've gotten?  Ruth Cavin, my legendary editor, told me:

Write the book that's in you.

That's really good advice.  It might not be the book anyone else wants, but at least you'll be happy with it.  And Ruth, in all her years as a reader and an editor, had figured out that any writer's best book would be the one the writer wanted to write, not the one someone suggested she write or that the market was looking for at the time.

That's the gift of a writer's editor.  I'm very grateful for that advice.  Ruth also gave me another valuable piece of advice:

Walk beside your characters and listen in.

All good fiction (and most good nonfiction) starts with interesting characters.  Those characters bring with them the conflict that keeps us turning the page (whether we're reading that page OR writing it!).  We have to know them well -- and trust that they know the story that needs to be told.  We need to stay out of their way and not try to save them from their troubles all the time.

At the Apartheid Museum in South Africa.
And lastly?

Use the BIC method.

The only real secret to writing is ... writing.  (And, of course, reading.)  The BIC method is my tried-and-true, patented and registered method: the Butt In Chair method, with pen in hand.  Every day, whether I feel like it or not.

Inspiration ain't gonna chase you down in order to strike you.  You better be waiting where it can find you.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Keeping in Touch with Readers

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I was reading a parenting blog the other day for someone
who’s highly-regarded in that field. This blogger had an offer for a free PDF if you signed up for her monthly emailed newsletter. Sounded good to me. Typical promo.

I got an email back fairly quickly with the PDF attached, my name on the email, and what sounded like a personal note from the writer. Politely, I emailed back and thanked them and said I was looking forward to reading their PDF.

Later, I was checking my emails and found one from Yahoo Automailer with the blogger’s name on it. The email was an auto-response to my email. It apologized for the blogger’s inability to personally respond to emails…because she was writing a book (!) She even named the book’s title in the auto-response…clearly, it was an attempt to do a little promo while basically stating she had no time to respond to emails.

As you can imagine, I was completely flabbergasted. Reading and responding to reader emails, even banal ones like the one I sent, is one thing we should make time for! Why lose the opportunity to make a connection that might mean more sales or a recommendation from a reader to a friend?

It reminded me that, as a published writer (or, in this blogger’s case, about to be published), our primary promo duty is to respond to readers and allow them to find and contact us. This wasn’t the case twenty years ago, for sure. But in 2012 we need to be accessible and responsive.

Ways to keep in touch with readers:

By responding to email: Although email shouldn’t rule our life…it’s got to be dealt with. On busy days, to keep myself from feeling too stressed, I reduce the times I check email to once or twice. I give huge priority to anything from a reader…answering their emails as soon as I see them in my inbox.
You can create an email account that’s separate from your family email through a free provider (Google Mail, Hotmail, Yahoo.) Try a professional-sounding address like Your Name That way readers aren’t trying to reach you at .

A personal website or a blog
that functions as your home base. I could be argued out of the notion that this is a basic…but I really do believe it is. Even one page that introduces you in a basic, professional way works fine. Both Blogger and WordPress can provide you with a blog that’s also a website (with different pages for visitors to navigate to.)

Basic info to include: how to contact you (email), your genre, and what you’re working on now is probably good enough. You can put up a friendly looking picture of yourself or an image related to your book and call yourself done. If you’ve got a book cover and buy links already, then put those up, too. It’s just a way for readers to get an overall picture of who you are and makes you seem more approachable. 


A newsletter: I don’t have a newsletter for my readers (shame on me), but I hear that newsletters are fantastic ways of connecting with readers and letting them know what new books you’re releasing. The newsletter recipients have to subscribe to the newsletter, themselves. I’ve heard of some writers who just add anyone in their email address book to their subscribers list…we can’t do that. But a subscribe button in the sidebar of our blog or website is the perfect way for readers to sign up.
As a reader, do you ever contact authors whose books you’ve read? As a writer, how do you make yourself accessible to current or future readers?

Elizabeth’s latest book, Hickory Smoked Homicide, released November 1. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/Obsidian, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers

Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Augusta Scattergood welcomes Celebrity Guest Blogger: LESLIE DAVIS GUCCIONE

I'm delighted my friend and writing mentor, Leslie Guccione has agreed to be a Guest Blogger today.  Here's a bit about her amazing career.

Leslie Davis Guccione has published thirty-one novels for adult, middle grade and teen readers, as well as articles on the craft of writing. Her work has been translated into eight languages.
She has been a finalist and judge for the Romance Writers of America RITA awards.
Six books for teen readers feature deaf protagonists; one, TELL ME HOW THE WIND SOUNDS, has been optioned for television. Her works for young readers have been book club and readers’ choice selections as well as classroom required reading.              
In 2000 she took a break from fiction to teach, write articles on the craft and establish WORDS @ WORK, her manuscript review service. She is currently mentor and adjunct faculty member for Seton Hill University’s masters program: Writing Popular Fiction.

Leslie's latest novel, THE CHICK PALACE, was just released as an eBook. She's here today to tell us about this newest venture, answer a few questions, and to offer a bit of advice.

What came to you first about this story? A memory? A quote? Is it based on anything that actually happened to you?

Setting came first. A small NJ lake I call “Lake Allamuchy” in the book has been part of my family for 6 generations.  I knew it would be the perfect place to explore a long lasting friendship between Johanna & Lilly, my 2 empty-nesters with divergent backgrounds. I did, indeed, go south to college as a Yankee, having never been farther than my native Delaware.

My writer buddy Barbara O’Connor has an abandoned tree house where she and her funny next door neighbor were meeting occasionally. 
Their husbands named it The Chick Palace. Voila

Alas, That was the easy part.

 I needed a plot! I had Lilly forced to share her cottage~~with the husband she has divorced twice ”Ex-ex,” and his paramour, a hot NYC graphic designer. Funny & full of potential but the draft still needed some je ne sais quoi. Then my mother died. Quite unexpectedly. Dad gave each of us children a small amount of her ashes. That was my ah ha  moment; I’d found my hook for Johanna. She can’t bring herself to scatter her mother’s ashes as she deals with family issues and stews over her new role as “Materfamilias.”

The story and plot points are complete fiction. As an aside, however, the book is sprinkled start to finish with real episodes.  To name a few:
·      My brother really did embellish my sister’s Ken & Barbie.
·      While grilling on the patio my husband inadvertently smoked a massive black snake out of the cottage roof rafters & down onto his head and shoulders.
·      Dad really blew TAPS out the window one midnight when I lingered too long in my boyfriend’s car in our driveway.
·      Cottage living?  Indeed we still share flushes.

Was there any part of it that ended up on the proverbial cutting floor? Something you fought to keep in, and lost?

Plenty got cut~~all of it my rambling yet beloved flashbacks to Johanna & Lilly in college c.30 years earlier. I teach writing the novel and should have known better. My critique partners pounced and I reluctantly agreed, c.70% had to go. They helped me see more clearly & thus keep only the flashbacks relevant to present day action. 
(A plug here for the importance of cold readers & critique partners!)

The only thing that didn’t pass my agent was the word “bling” for splintered sunlight on the lake surface. I mention this because it’s the kind of minutia all writers deal with all the time. In the end, my agent won.

What's been your experience once THE CHICK PALACE hit the market?

Joyful tears and vindication! It had been rejected on the grounds that  characters on the “far side of fifty” are too old for today’s market. I revised and added a more substantial younger-characters subplot based on graffiti & sneaky behavior of my protagonists’ kids. But in the end it was chosen by B&N because they did indeed want to target “the far side of fifty.”

 This is my 31st book and first in this brave new techie world. My agent placed it with Barnes & Noble’s “Nook First.”  It debuted the day after Christmas. Thanks to their promotion and word of mouth, it spent 2 weeks in the top ten and even shot to #1 on the eBook best seller list. Heady stuff looking at The Chick Palace snuggled up to James Patterson, Ann Patchett, The Help, Heaven is for Real… . That translates to c.30,000 copies sold in 3 weeks.

I received a wonderful e-mail from the B&N editor telling me my sales confirm their belief that women’s fiction and mid-life women readers are a driving force in today’s market. It’s also marked as a staff favorite. (I repeat: vindication.)

After the January exclusive with B&N, it’s now at Amazon/Kindle and more widely available.

What have you done to promote it?

B&N promoted it heavily all month and I added e-mails blasts, the book cover as my Facebook profile, and daily blogs offering snippets, photos and links.

It never gets easier and the publishing sands are shifting beneath our feet as I type. From kid lit to adult fiction, you have only to follow the blogs, twitters, public events, &/or classroom visits of pros like Claire Cook or Carla Neggers; Brian Lies & Barbara O’Connor; new YA voices Kimberly Marcus or Jessica Warman to see how well-oiled promotion engines remain part of the writing life.
What's your fabulous writing advice for somebody just starting out? For writers with lots of experience? For someone thinking of giving up?

For those starting out I reply as a teacher of novel writing at the master level & a freelance mss consultant:

·      Read everything in the genre you write. 20 -30 titles for starters, published within the past 5 years.

·      I cannot emphasize this enough: Beware of the glorified ease of bypassing the agent/publisher/editor route and self-publishing instead. Whether eBook or hard copy, every manuscript benefits from~~demands~~cold reading and thoughtful professional critique.

·      If you go it alone, it’s worth your time and investment in a writers’ group (close by or online), writing conferences, &/or freelance manuscript consultation.

For those who’ve been in the game awhile: I share your exhaustion, elation, depression, determination. I spent the first 10 years writing to the market: 30 books for multiple houses from Harlequin to Scholastic. I’ve written as work-for-hire (a packager), a handful under other writers’ names, a few for existing teen series, five as Kate Chester for my own series HEAR NO EVIL.  My steamy romances paid the mortgage & consistently hit genre fiction bestseller lists. My single title books for kids won awards and are still used in classrooms.

Then the dry spell… .

I lost my Scholastic editor and could never sell them another story. The romance treadmill lost its charm and burned me out. I spent the next 10 years fielding rejections for my manuscripts from the heart. My pit bull agents (Denise Marcil and Katie Kotchman, who had not made a dime off of me in lo those 10 years) shook more publishing bushes than I knew were planted. We struck pay dirt last summer.

And a final bit of free, fabulous advice for inspiration I give to my students:

·      Read Andrew Scott Berg’s Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), an expansion of his Princeton thesis and a glimpse of the industry we wish still existed.
·      Rent the DVD of Cross Creek (and watch the additional interviews), the somewhat fictionalized story of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
·      Get yourself to her preserved homestead Cross Creek, FL for that matter. (Or Hemingway’s in Cuba, they tell me.)

Lilly has such a ring of truth to her. How did you, a non-Southerner, create such an honest portrayal?

Ah, “voice”.

I try to stretch myself as a writer & The Chick Palace was my first foray into first person point of view. Writing as Boston bred/New Jersey resident Johanna was easy, even if she had the tougher plot line.

As for Lilly! As a Yankee at Queens College (now Queens University of Charlotte) I was an observer. So much was new & exotic that impressions of what set “all of y’all” apart have stayed with me. As well, some of my dearest friends are southern transplants. Those TX, SC, MS buddies who write were invaluable critique partners. (I realize I paint this with a very, very broad brush). I think I ran every bit of Lilly’s dialogue past one pro or another.

Any tips on how you make setting work so well?

I have a reputation for vivid settings which I attribute to being a visual learner. My degree’s in art. I think visually; I gravitate to books with a strong sense of place and atmosphere.

I also attribute it to churning out novels while raising three children. (My protagonists have always been folks around me I could pester: pediatricians during all those visits, cranberry growers, sailors, boatyard owners, cops, firefighters…) 
I set my stories under my feet, atmosphere I know intimately:  “Lake Allamuchy,” NJ, the cranberry bogs of Massachusetts; the harbors of coastal New England; rural Chadds Ford, PA.  During our four years in Pittsburgh, I wrote my Hear No Evil series for kids (as Kate Chester) and my last romance Borrowed Baby as tributes to the city. (A fabulous place for intrigue and romance, by the way.)

Where's your absolute favorite place to write? 

I’ve had 5 residences and until 2 years ago it was always a dedicated office, first with a ten-ton IBM Selectric, then one or another PCs. I switched to a MacBook and the laptop now lets me write most anywhere, from my sunroom to, um, the bed I’m sitting in right now. (Adjusts pillows)

 Thanks, Leslie! We loved having you here. Come back soon!

Keep up with Leslie's informative and fun blogposts via  

Even better, click on over to Barnes and Noble or Amazon and order THE CHICK PALACE. You are in for a real treat.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Best Writing Advice

Good morning, ladies and gents. As you read this, I'm winging my way to New York City and from there to Europe, so I'm not around to deal with this blog personally today. Instead, I give you Jaden Terrell, author of the Jared McKean mysteries, and - yes - definitely a Southern author, Middle Tennessee born and bred. She's the president of the Middle Tennessee chapter of Sisters in Crime, the executive director of the Killer Nashville crime writers conference, and the nicest person you'll ever meet.

Put your hands together, folks, for the best writing advice Jaden Terrell ever got:

I had written the first draft of my first mystery, a private detective novel in which former homicide detective Jared McKean is framed for murder. I was struggling with the first scene, which required Jared to sleep with a woman he’d just met in a bar. He just wouldn’t do it. Or rather, he would do it (since I’d given him no choice), but no matter how I wrote it, it didn’t ring true. I came at the scene from various angles.

This isn’t me, he’d say.

I’d scowl at him and say, It has to be.

I was still wrangling with the problem as I drove to Florida for the SleuthFest writer’s conference, but I promptly forgot my troubles when I saw Daniel Keyes on the program. Daniel . . . Freakin’ . . . Keyes. The man who wrote “Flowers for Algernon,” one of the most perfect short stories I have ever read. I’ve always said if I could only write one thing in my life, I’d die happy if it were as good as To Kill a Mockingbird or “Flowers for Algernon.”

Keyes spoke on character—or, more specifically, on being true to your character. “Never make a character do anything he wouldn’t do,” he said. “And if he has to do that thing, you have to figure out a motivation that is powerful enough to make him do it.”

They say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  I’d heard  the advice before, but it hadn’t resonated. Maybe I just hadn’t been ready to understand it before. Maybe it was because it was being said by a man I’d kept on a pedestal since I was a teenager. Whatever the reason, this time, it was like being struck by lightning.

I knew Jared wasn’t averse to having sex, or even to having sex with someone he hadn’t known that long, but he wasn’t one to pick up strangers in bars. So why did he do it this time? What would make him do it? His ex-wife was celebrating her first anniversary with another man, and Jared was lonely and grieving, but obviously that wasn’t enough. I asked myself, what’s his weakness? What would make him vulnerable to a stranger? Answer: his Galahad complex. His need to rescue others, be a hero. So if the stranger was in trouble . . . A jolt of excitement went through me. I was on the right track, but I wasn’t there yet. What kind of trouble is she in? A flat tire? How could she know he would be the first one to stop? What if . . . ? Then it hit me. What if she came in, all bruised and beaten up, and she asked him to protect her from an abusive boyfriend? It would push all his button and he’d be reeled in and tied off before he knew what was happening. Then she’d use her fear and her desire for comfort to seduce him. He’d be a sitting duck.

That was all it took to make that scene work.

Now whenever my plot stalls, I ask myself if it’s because I’m asking my characters to act against their natures. Sometimes it’s not; it’s a plot hole or a dead end, and I need to go back and fill in the gaps or go in a different direction. But often I realize that the plot calls for a character to do something that’s foreign to him—something he’d normally be opposed to or just not interested in. Then I either need to find an alternative, or I need to discover what would motivate that character to do what needs to be done.

That lecture has helped me through more plot problems than I can count.

Thank you, Daniel.