Guest Blogger Kathy Waller – Three Ways of Looking at Austin Mystery Writers or, Why I go to Critique Group
Three Ways of Looking at Austin Mystery Writers or, Why I Go to Critique Group by Kathy Waller
#1 Yesterday Dominica felt faint, and Molly, my protagonist, steered her to a bench on the courthouse lawn and then dithered over what to do. She couldn’t leave Dominica there to topple off the bench, but asking a passerby for help sounded lame, and there weren’t any passersby to ask. So there was poor Molly, needing more help than I could give her, stuck any way you looked at it. She stayed that way all night.
Today, talking about treatments for migraines, one of my critique partners took a bottle of peppermint oil from her purse and passed it around. At the first whiff, I said, “Molly suffers from migraines! She carries peppermint oil in her purse! She can use that to revive Dominica.”
In one fell swoop, I both saddled Molly with migraines and solved a knotty problem.
That is why I go to critique group.
#2 I said to my critique partners this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s just nothing no hope.
They said, But it’s so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part and the last part are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle and what there is stinks and anyway the other 5,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And they said, But the middle could be revised edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And they said, NO you can fix it just keep going because we like Molly she’s so funny.
This is why I go to critique group.
#3 So I finally got things together with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and today my critique group said it was fine. But…
“Nobody died,” said Kaye.
“I know,” I said. “It’s li-ter-a-ry.”
“But it’s crime fiction,” said Gale. “Somebody has to die.”
Laura and Valerie, sitting on the other side of the table, nodded. In unison.
“I was going for subtlety,” I said. “It’s a death of the spirit.”
They stared at me. I stared back.
“Somebody has to die,” said Kaye.
Then all four said they didn’t understand the last line. I had written the entire story so I could use that line, and no one understood what it meant.
I kept staring and thought about words like philistines, peasants, and bourgeoisie.
Finally I spoke. I said, “Thank you.”
Then my friends began throwing out ideas for endings they liked, in each of which someone died. I sighed and said, Yeahhhh, and, Okayyyy, and, I guessss…
Gad, they were irritating, telling the truth like that. Especially the way they all kept agreeing. Especially since I’d known the ending was bad before I let them read it.
And then Kaye said, XXX—and I thought, YYY—and everything fell into place: I knew who would die, and how, and why, and what would happen next…
And I thought, Kaye has given me the perfect ending. All the suggestions are good, but hers works on multiple levels. It’s so right. Why didn’t I think of it myself?
And then I thought, Oh, who cares about why. What matters was that Kaye thought of it, and shared it, and that she and three other writers not only told the truth but grabbed me by the lapels and made me listen.
I rewrote the story, and it was published in Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology, Murder on Wheels.
And that is why I go to critique group.
Every. Blessed. Week.
Kathy Waller’s A Nice Set of Wheels and Hell on Wheels appear in Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology Murder on Wheels (Wildside Press, 2015). A former librarian, former teacher, former paralegal, and former pianist for a string of churches desperate for someone who could find middle C, Kathy was born and reared in a small (pop. 150) town in Central Texas, and as a result nearly everything she writes includes a river, a cow, or a group of old ladies playing dominoes on someone’s front porch.
A Perfect Place for Murder by Tracy Weber
I enjoy getting fresh air and exercise while scanning for wildlife, including turtles, squirrels, geese, raccoons, and blue herons.
In the summer, the area near the lake’s shore is smothered with lily pads; its surface, dotted by boats. The path around its circumference is crowded with thousands of locals who flock to it each day. What better place to plot murder!
When yoga teacher/sleuth Kate Davidson agrees to teach a Doga (yoga for dogs) class at Greenlake, she has no idea that the area will soon be the site of a murder. In the excerpt below, Kate witnesses an argument between two women hidden behind a stack of paddleboats.
Excerpt from Karma’s a Killer
Yoga instructor Kate Davidson is about to discover that when it comes to murder, there’s no place like om. When she agrees to teach doga—yoga for dogs—at a fundraiser for Dogma, a local animal rescue, Kate believes the only real damage will be to her reputation. But when an animal rights protest at the event leads to a suspicious fire and a drowning, a few downward-facing dogs will be the least of Kate’s problems…
Tracy Weber is the author of the award-winning Downward Dog Mysteries series. The first book in the series, Murder Strikes a Pose, won the Maxwell Award for Fiction and was nominated for the Agatha award for Best First Novel.
Writing a Mystery Series by Rabbi Ilene Schneider
I write a cozy mystery series. They feature an amateur sleuth, Rabbi Aviva Cohen. All the sex and gore are off the page. There is humor. There is a lot of back story. There is a happy ending. They differ from other cozies in that there are a few expletive-deleted words that haven’t been deleted; as I explained to my mother when she complained, “That’s how aging baby boomers talk.” And none of the language is gratuitous. If you woke up in a hospital, with no idea how you got there, and can’t find your glasses, would you say, “Gosh darn it”? Neither does Aviva.
I decided to write a series because I am basically lazy. The books have the same protagonist and major characters. I don’t have to think up new ones for each book.
I’m making it sound as though I’ve published dozens of books. So far, there are two in print, with another in the works: CHANUKAH GUILT and UNLEAVENED DEAD are published by Oak Tree Press; the third, currently being written is YOM KILLER. I have, in my head, broad outlines and titles for an additional three: HIGH HOLY DAZE, SABBATH WHINE, and MATZAH BAWL.
But even with two (plus a bit) books written, I’ve realized there are difficulties with a series. In writing a series, you need to be able to provide enough background information for those who haven’t read the previous book(s), while not making it boring for those who have. Earlier events can be referred to, but only vaguely, so as not to give away the plot. Never write, “Mehitabel used to be my best friend, but she killed herself after realizing her lies and schemes were about to be revealed.” Instead, write, “I still miss my best friend Mehitabel, whom I didn’t know as well as I thought I had.” It will send them to the earlier book to find out what happened.
There has to be character development, especially if there was a life-altering situation in the earlier books. If the long estranged mother, after a near-death experience, realizes how much she has missed in her life by not seeing her now adult children in book one, don’t have her still be uninterested in reestablishing a relationship in book two.
You have to be consistent. If the new book is taking place two years after the first, don’t have the protagonist be younger. Or taller. If her eye color changes, mention contact lenses. If her hair color does, mention she got tired of the old one. To keep the characters straight, I have a file on the computer that lists them by book, with their ages at the time of the book, relationship to the protagonist and to other characters. I use control-f to search the older manuscripts for physical descriptions.
Finally, know when the series has come to its natural conclusion. You’ll know when (or should know) it’s time to end the series when you keep writing the same book.
As for me, I’ll know the series has run its course when I run out of titles.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Award-winning author Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first six women rabbis ordained in the U.S., has finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up. She has retired from her day job as a hospice spiritual support counselor to devote full time to writing.
Rabbi Schneider is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries, published by Oak Tree Press: Chanukah Guilt, which was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2007, was one of My Shelf’s 2007 Top Ten Reads, and was a Midwest Book Review Reviewers Choice Book; and Unleavened Dead, which won First Place from the Public Safety Writers Association, and was nominated for the Deadly Ink David Award for Best Mystery of 2012. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine called Unleavened Dead “… a solid, funny mystery that provides an insider’s look at Jewish life.”
A resident of Marlton, NJ, near Philadelphia, she is working on the third book in the series, Yom Killer, and is also the author of the best-selling Talk Dirty Yiddish: Beyond Drek: The Curses, Slang, and Street Lingo You Need To Know When You Speak Yiddish, published by Adams Media. The Jewish Forward described Talk Dirty Yiddish as “Such a breezy, engaging book, I should be so lucky to write.”
THE STORY OF A STORY OF A STORY by Jim Cort
“Before I Wake” had its genesis in my desire to try a story entirely in dialog. A few experiments were enough to convince me that some compromise would have to be made, and I wound up producing a story composed of documents and letters and transcripts that I thought still gave the effect I was looking for.
The story languished for while. I finally shipped it off to a house looking for stories to adapt into audio plays on tape cassettes. I’m not going to give the name of the company, because I intend to say mean things about them shortly. There it found a home, and they offered me a chance to do the audio script myself.
My experience with the audio house was less than idyllic. A little background: “Before I Wake” is the story of a man who believes himself threatened by his own dreams. The threat can reach him only when he is asleep. He winds up causing a disturbance and being held in jail, where he tells his story to a police psychiatrist. The original story had an all-male cast. I thought a female voice would provide variety in the audio version.
When I received the recorded cassette, I ws horrified to find my psychiatrist showing up at the county lockup in a party dress, detoured from the country club cotillion. Her whole professional status was undermined. The whole script had been rewritten and had come out pedestrian, cliché-ridden, clumsy and predictable. I had foolishly sold all audio rights to the house from then until the end of time, so there was nothing I could do about it.
So “Before I Wake”, in its radio incarnation, remained a thorn in my side for a long time. However, the story in its original version took off on its own.
In 1989 saw a call for submissions for a new anthology to be called October Dreams, put together by Dave Kubicek and Jeff Mason. The reference to dreams in the title made me think of “Before I Wake”, so I sent it along. A month or so later, the familiar rejection letter arrived, but not so familiar, either. Unlike most rejections, I sensed in this one a genuine reluctance to pass this story by. They mentioned their disappointment with the ending. I was moved to do something I had never done before with any story
I phoned them up.
I called the office number on the letterhead. I can’t remember now if I spoke to Dave or Jeff. I pitched a new ending over the phone. I have no idea where it came from. It was as if the words came out of my mouth at exactly the same moment the ideas came into my head. In the end, Dave said (or maybe it was Jeff), “OK, write it up that way, and we’ll take another look.”
I did and they did and they said yes. We all signed the papers, and everybody was happy. But that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward 10 years to 1999.
I got a letter from a nice lady at Perfection Learning, a house that publishes educational material. They were putting together a middle school anthology to be called Flights of Fantasy. They had taken the trouble to track me down because they wanted to include “Before I Wake”. (Note to self: always be track-downable.) I was flattered. I must confess I did feel a little strange about becoming required reading. But I said yes and we all signed the papers and everybody was happy.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Fast forward 14 years to 2013.
I had been posting some of my old teaching materials on Teachers pay Teachers. (unsolicited testimonial: teacherspayteachers.org is a sort of clearinghouse where teachers, or former teachers like me, can share materials they’ve designed for their own classrooms and pick up a little money as well.) I came across a quiz on the story “Before I Wake” prepared by Marianne Todd of Sioux City Iowa (not her real name) for her Language Arts class. I got in touch with Ms. Todd. She was happy to hear from me, and told me that the story was a class favorite. I’m glad she didn’t ask me to take the quiz. I’m not at all sure I would have passed.
Deaf Dog Press has come out with a special edition of “Before I Wake” through Smashwords. It contains the original published story along with the original radio play. You can find it at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/527874.
Or, if you happen to be in Sioux City, Iowa, drop by Ms. Todd’s class. She might still have a copy.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jim Cort has been writing since the cows left home. He is curretly chief cook and bottle washer at Deaf Dog Press. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337106.
Because I write in two genres—traditional mystery and paranormal romance—I’ve been reading a LOT of genre fiction over the last few years and I see some scary trends.
One of them is what I call verbalization: Taking perfectly good nouns and turning them into not so good verbs. So many of these come from the jargon that various careers develop.
Two of the ones that make my jaw ache are exit and task.
“He exited…” No, he “left”, he “went out” he “walked away.” An exit is a freeway ramp…unless it’s a stage direction.
“She tasked me with…” No, “She gave me a task,” “I performed my task” “She told me (or asked me) to do…”
I know that English is a constantly evolving language, but let’s not slip into the trap of using these buzzwords. There are more than a million words in English today…don’t forget to use those good old Anglo-Saxon and Norman French words that gave birth to English as such a vibrant language.
And please, study up on verb tenses. The past tense of “sink” is not “sunk.” It’s “sank.” As in “She sank to her knees in grief.”
One popular writer will use this and it’s as though the dam bursts…inaccurate words escaping everywhere!
The other frightening trend is lack of basic research.
I read a book by a NYTimes best seller (romantic suspense) and the author talked about the “1859 Gold Rush.” The author supposedly lived in Northern California. How could s/he not know it was 1849?
I will not read any more books by this author since s/he was too lazy to look up one crucial fact.
Most recently, I read another romantic suspense where the author had one character in the epilogue say “well, the company is community property.”
The entire tension and plot of the book hinged on an inheritance of a company from a grandfather. This was sole and separate property and would not become community property simply because of a marriage.
I write fiction, but I care enough about my readers to make sure basic information is correct and accurate, to use as many action verbs as I can, to not write jargon because it’s fast and easy. I’m asking my readers to come into my made-up worlds and devote a few hours to my stories—I owe it to them not to use false facts.
Michele Drier was born in Santa Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both Southern and Northern California home. During her career in journalism—as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers—she won awards for producing investigative series.
SNAP: All That Jazz, Book Eight of The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, was awarded second place by the Paranormal Romance Guild’s reviewers for best paranormal vampire book of 2014. The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles also won for best series in 2014. The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles include SNAP: The World Unfolds, SNAP: New Talent, Plague: A Love Story, DANUBE: A Tale of Murder, SNAP: Love for Blood, SNAP: Happily Ever After?, SNAP: White Night and SNAP: All That Jazz. SNAP: I, Vampire, Book Nine in the Kandesky Vampire Chronicles is scheduled for publication early 2015.
She also writes the Amy Hobbes Newspaper mysteries, Edited for Death and Labeled for Death. A third book, Delta for Death, is coming in 2015.
Write what you know. A well know axiom for writers. But is it really a rule? Is it good advice? What the heck does it mean?
I can’t tell you how many times I have scratched my head thinking, okay, what do I know? I know about police work, having had a career in law enforcement. I know about horses, having loved and worked with them all my life. I apparently know about a few other things, as I give out a lot of advice. Or perhaps, as my mother often said, I just like to generalize without specific knowledge.
But try as I might, I can’t seem to want to write a book about those topics . . . not yet anyway. And maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think that write what you know means limiting your writing to topics or places or people you literally already know about. If it does, then a woman should never write from a man’s perspective; a person living in Alabama should never write about a setting in New York; and a fantasy writer should just stop.
I certainly did not know anything much about early religion or Turkey or Asperger’s when I got a bug to write a novel about Noah’s wife. I wanted to write the story, not as a religious retelling, but one that I, as a humanist, could belief might have really happened. It took four years to bring that story to life and almost as many for my newly released historical novel, ANGELS AT THE GATE (the story of Lot’s wife). The research involved did help me “know” about the land, the culture, and the archeological and geological evidence that existed in my time periods and locations. Even trips to Turkey and Israel, although enriching, can’t substitute for being there at the time and experiencing what my characters experienced. But then, of course, if I lived in the time of NOAH’S WIFE or ANGELS AT THE GATE, I would be several thousand years old. Not really practical.
I believe you should do whatever research is required to honor your pact as a writer with your reader and establish authority in your writing. Getting details “right” is important, but I don’t believe in limiting your imagination or subject matter. Actually, I think write what you know is about something else.
All writers are experts about one thing—what it is like from the inside to be a human being, specifically, to be you. Write what you know means drawing upon that experience. You may have never been raped or divorced or thrown over a cliff (and hopefully not), but you know fear, an aching heart, and the terror of falling. You know it. When your characters feel something or think something, you must draw from that well of knowledge inside you, dig for it if you need to. It is about opening yourself to yourself.
As a police officer I saw things and spoke to people who had been through terribly traumatic situations. I tried to empathize with them, but unless their pain connected in some way to a pain I could understand, I didn’t really feel it. When your characters cry, will it affect your readers? It will if they connect with the reader’s sorrow or pain in some remembered or imagined way. You don’t have to lose your mother to imagine that pain in a very personal way, and so that is almost a universal emotional connection (unless you hated your mother.) As a writer, you can remember or imagine what it was or would be like (for you) to experience something your characters experience. And that is when the magic happens, and you are writing what you know.
T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” When she retired as a captain, she took on Birmingham’s business improvement district (CAP) as the executive director. Both careers provide fodder for her writing, which has garnered several awards, including “Book of the Year for Historical Fiction” (ForeWord Reviews) for her debut novel Noah’s Wife. Her first non-fiction book, Last Chance for Justice, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. Her new historical novel about the story of Lot’s wife is Angels at the Gate. She loves traveling, especially to research her novels, and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.
5 Tips for Writing a Good Article or Blog Post by Lourdes Venard
With social media, blogs, author newsletters, online news sites, and more, there’s an overabundance of items to read. If you’re like me, you’re never able to read it all. Some days, I can barely keep up with my email!
So how do you make your item stand out? I’ve been in the newspaper business for 30 years, and I’m editor of First Draft, the newsletter for the Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter. Below are five tips I’ve learned through the years and which you can use, whether you are writing for a blog, a newsletter, or even a Facebook post.
1) Give a promise of advice. Did you notice the title for this article? I purposely picked five points I wanted to touch upon. Telling readers that you are giving them five pointers (or any specific number) is one way to grab the busy reader’s attention. I learned this technique from a marketing professional, but as I thought about it, it’s really a time-honored way of getting people to pay attention. Moses, after all, came down the mountain with 10 very specific commandments.
2) Grab them with your first sentence. This is a lesson from Journalism 101. Journalists call their first sentences the lede, and the idea is to either impart the most important information or have something that will hook the reader. A good lede is golden. One of my favorite crime reporters (who became a crime fiction author) is Edna Buchanan, who wrote for The Miami Herald. She was known for her offbeat ledes, such as the one that topped a story about a drunk ex-con who wanted his food immediately and got into a fight in a Church’s fried-chicken outlet while still at the counter. He was shot and killed by a security guard. Her lede: “Gary Robinson died hungry.”
3) Write with authority and write what you know. This is one of the first lessons that I learned as a young journalist. Obviously, you need to have all the facts to back up your authority. Once you do, convey to the reader that you know your stuff. Comb your article for “probably,” “maybe,” “supposedly,” and other milquetoast words. The “write what you know” part comes before the “authority.” A journalist does a lot of reporting, more than what goes into the final product. If you are writing about a new subject, research, research, and research. Don’t make assumptions, and get all your facts. Then write as you know your subject—which you should, at this point.
4) Keep it short. More is not necessarily better. As an editor, one of the things I do most often is trim. Remember, readers don’t have unlimited time. If you have a long article or blog post, they may never reach the end. Strunk and White’s The Element of Style exhorts writers to “omit needless words.” This book is one of the slimmest volumes ever written on grammar and good writing, yet it is a classic. The authors certainly took their own advice.
5) Be genuine. There’s a place for blatant self-promotion, but if that’s all you ever do on the Internet, people will notice—and you will get a reputation. Be yourself, share as much about yourself as you are comfortable, and be social—because that’s the idea behind social media, right? I admit, as an introvert, I sometimes struggle with social media. I like posting inspirational sayings on my business Facebook page, but find that people really connect with the personal—photos of my cat (very popular!), the deer in our yard, my family, and food I’ve cooked. People also like personal, self-effacing stories. When a writer whose books I read turns out to be funny, passionate, or offbeat online, I love her all the more—and she doesn’t need to tell me for the 20th time that her new book is out. Believe me, if I like her, I’ll make a point to seek out her newest books.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Lourdes Venard has worked at major American newspapers, including The Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Newsday. She is also a freelance book editor, editing both fiction and nonfiction. Her work as a freelance editor spurred her to write Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know, an e-book available at Amazon.com