Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Christmas Sale

Paperback copies of my three Community of Faith mysteries are now only $9.95!

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Going Forward

A little more on what I started talking about last week.

Recently, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a blog post entitled Some Days. In it, he said this:
Kris and I sort of have four basic messages to writers.
— We tell writers to write what they love.
— We tell writers to have fun with their writing.
— We tell writers that learning this business and craft takes time.
— We tell writers to not put all their eggs in one basket, let all readers find their work.
This might seem familiar because it says a lot of what I wrote about last week, and, yes, this was one of the posts I read that made me come to a decision about how to approach 2016.

My focus in 2015 was all about the money.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why Am I Writing?

First the good news:

The book isn’t done, but I can finish the first draft at a more leisurely pace during December.

Like most people who participate in NaNoWriMo, by the end of November the constant push-push-push to reach 50,000 new words written in a month has made me exhausted. If you remember, NaNo for me started in October, when I was focused on creating an outline for this book so I wouldn’t run out of scenes to write too early in the month. Or the word count.

In reality, I’d been thinking about the plot of this book long before that. I know that’s true because as I was taking the James Patterson class, I stopped reading his sample outline of Honeymoon because it sounded too much like the plot I had in mind. (As it turned out, my story was nothing like Patterson’s, but I didn’t know that because I hadn’t developed it yet.)

While I was focused on writing, a number of other things happened. I was too tired to think about promoting my novels, and sales became almost non-existent. There is some cause and effect there, but many authors have been reporting that book sales have faded as the holidays approach. Pages read for Kindle Unlimited also decreased. As did the payout per page read.

Amazon announced that because the KU subscription rate for India was so much lower than everywhere else (due to competition), they will be changing the payout rate on an individual country basis. I assure you it will not be higher in India than in the United States.

Sales of books have become dependent on the book being on sale. Or free. With paid advertising. Facebook began throttling author book promotion posts, even to groups that exist solely for authors to promote books. As a matter of fact, several authors have been prohibited from posting anything for two weeks because Facebook thought they were doing too much promotion. They will, however, let you pay them for the privilege of advertising your books to a targeted audience.

Amazon cracked down on reviews, removing those written by “friends” or by paid reviewers. They even sued 1000 reviewers who wrote reviews for payment. Back to those friends: no one is quite sure how Amazon defines a friend, but it appears as if Facebook “friends” are in that category. Since authors have been encouraged to friend readers on Facebook for years, most of us have reviews by “friends” if they’re defined that way.

Traditional publishing has discovered indie tactics, including discounting and promoting on mailing lists like BookBub and EReader News Today. Not only does that leave fewer slots for indie authors, the law of supply and demand has caused the price of advertising to rise for these venues. A thousand dollars for an ad is nothing to a major publisher. It’s impossible for most indies.

Of course, that means less money for the author.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said this on my blog or not, but my intention when I retired early was to supplement my retirement income with money from book sales. Based on history, it didn’t seem impossible to earn an extra thousand dollars a month as an indie author. Not right away, maybe, but certainly in three or four years. Many indie authors were doing this and more.

In 2012. Or, possibly, 2013. The gold rush year appears to have been 2011. The Kindle was new then and new owners wanted more content. Indie authors who could write fast or traditionally published authors who had gotten their rights back on backlist titles could put them up on Amazon and pretty much be guaranteed good sales and a good income.

My problem was I made my plans in 2012, and started my indie publishing career in 2013. The gold rush was over. By the time I published my third book a couple of months ago, the supposedly magic number where an author started to have enough visibility and a fan base to start earning money, all of that stuff I wrote about before this paragraph happened.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past three years, it’s that indies have to be nimble to be successful. They have to be creative about new ways of doing things as the old ways no longer work. They have to be willing to work long hours and take risks. Most have to write quickly and publish often. The life of an independent author is a never-ending NaNoWriMo.

And you know what? I don’t want to live that way. I missed seeing two movies I wanted to see in November because I didn’t want to take time away from my writing. There were a couple of ancillary activities around this new series that I wanted to do, but I had to make my daily word count first. Afterwards, I had no creative energy left to do those things. I haven’t been getting enough exercise and I miss my daily walks. And I’m nowhere near that thousand dollars a month.

I’ve been reading a number of blog posts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith lately. Dean in particular has written about a whole different perspective on writing as a career. One of his blogs was titled “What’s the Point?” As you might guess, it was the discouragement felt by writers who aren’t earning enough money, who haven’t made a bestseller list, who haven’t gotten the recognition they think they should. He admitted to having felt that way himself at one point in his career. He quit writing because of it.

I’ve also been thinking “What’s the point?” I had a day job before. I don’t want that kind of job again. But I’m not going to quit writing. I’ve tried to quit before, but I’m addicted to it. I need my writing fix every few days or I start to go crazy.

But I’m going to approach writing in 2016 in a different way. I’m going to do it for the fun of it, not because I have to get another book in a series written or I’ll lose my audience. I’m going to break the rules again. I’m going to design my own covers rather than paying for them, even though “everybody knows” you need a professional cover now to sell books. Dean Wesley Smith and Hugh Howey both did all their own covers at the beginning of their indie careers. Hugh even admits his were pretty terrible. But they managed to sell books. And they didn’t go broke doing it.

I’m also going to take time to do those other things. I’m going to draw a fantasy map of my fictional town of Rainbow Ranch. I’m going to write a text adventure game to go along with “A Game of Murder.” I’m going to start working on the historical research for that time travel romantic adventure book I want to write. I’m not going to worry about my book sales or my Amazon ranking. I’m going to have fun writing stories.

In other words, I’m going to stop worrying about being a professional and call myself a hobbyist. I’m going to write for me. For fun. Because crafting good stories is fun. Worrying about sales isn’t.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

NaNoWriMo Week Three

Just a quick update this morning.

I've learned I can NOT write in a group. I'm always open to meeting other writers, so last Sunday I went to a NaNo write in at the library. The group was small, and they weren't very noisy. But just the presence of other people, not to mention the whispered conversations of two of them who were collaborating on a novel, was enough disruption to keep me from being immersed in my own story. I'm probably going to have to trash--or at least seriously rewrite--every single word I typed there.

I also learned that writing more equals writing better. Of course, I've learned that before, but it's easy to forget. With writing regularly, exercising my writer brain if you will, I go from writing flat words to having poetic little phrases just pop into my head. I love when this happens.

I've learned there's a limit to how many words I can write in a day. For me, this lies somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 words. Writing is very hard work for an activity that consists primarily of sitting in a chair and typing, with brief periods of staring out the window. It's as if my brain has a reservoir of words and once I empty that reservoir in a writing session, it needs a day (or, most likely, a night) to recharge. As a result, when there are interruptions to my writing schedule--and there are always interruptions!--I struggle to catch up.

However, I am happy to report that I am on target to meet 50,000 words by the end of November.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Prayers for Paris

I am so saddened by the attacks in Paris last night. I have no words.

NaNoWriMo Week Two

I know, I know. I was supposed to post more frequently during NaNoWriMo and keep you updated on my progress. I got off to a slow start. It was the same as I start my walks around the neighborhood, only with my brain instead of my muscles. I felt sluggish. It was hard getting in gear. I thought I’d lost my NaNo mojo.

And, just like my muscles loosen up once I get a few blocks from home, my writing muscle has loosened up in Week 2. When I sit down to write (setting a timer first), I pick up where I left off and just type. I’m not worrying about whether this story is any good or that the words aren’t beautiful or that there are bits missing. I’m just typing the story as it comes.

As usual, I’ve got lots of dialogue and little description. Yesterday I was writing a scene that takes place on the Fourth of July. My characters were having a conversation and I was just listening and typing the words they said. Then I remembered, Fourth of July. Right. There must be fireworks. So I typed in some descriptions of what kind of fireworks they were watching while they were talking.

I always add descriptive stuff on the second pass. That’s when I use Margie Lawson’s EDITS system to highlight my first draft with colors designating which kind of writing each of the words is. I use up a lot of blue marker (for dialogue) doing that. And yellow marker (for narrative). I can go a few pages without using green (description) and whole chapters without using pink (emotion). But it’s all good. By the time I’m done, there’s a better balance.

But that’s for later, probably April or May for this novel. Right now I don’t care if the whole thing is blue. I’m on target for winning on November 30th.

How is everyone else doing?

Sunday, November 01, 2015

NaNoWriMo 2015

Let the insanity begin!

I am a big fan of National Novel Writing Month. If I had not discovered NaNo back in 2004, I never would have completed a novel. I would never have published a novel. I would never have retired with the goal of writing novels full time.

I’m a perfectionist. I aimed for straight As in school. When I was taking music lessons, I had to play a piece perfectly. (Not easy, since I wasn’t motivated to practice.) When I was writing computer code for a living, my programs had to be error free. Not only that, I expected users to think they were the best computer programs they’d ever used.

So when I decided it was time to write a novel, I expected it to be perfect from the get-go. The only writer I knew who had written about writing was Isaac Asimov. He famously said that writing wasn’t work because all he had to do was type very fast. I thought books came out perfect just by typing very fast.

But when I typed my stories, they’d start out okay, but it didn’t take very long for me to get frustrated because they weren’t perfect. My deathless prose was deader than a doornail. I’d get thirty or forty pages in and, because what I was writing was such dreck, I’d quit.

During National Novel Writing Month, you’re supposed to write dreck. You have one goal: write 50,000 words in thirty days. Ideally, word number 49,999 should be “The” and word number 50,000 should be “End,” but it doesn’t have to be.

All you have to do is write 1667 words for each of the thirty days in November and you’ll “win.” Now, if you don’t write on a regular basis, writing 1667 words a day is daunting. It takes hours. If you have a day job, you’ll be getting up early or staying up late to have enough time to type them. If you fall behind, you start to panic, because now you’ll have to write 2,000 or 3,000 words a day for some of those days.

You watch your word count progress and that of other participants on a thermometer bar under your name in the forums (like the one on the left side of this post), and don’t want yours to be shorter than everyone else’s.

Toward the end of the month, you may resort to desperate measures. Word wars and sprints where you type as many words as you can in short bursts along with other participants. Random elements thrown out by municipal leaders at group write-ins that have nothing to do with your story, but which you have to somehow make a part of it. Going down rabbit trails with a visit to the zoo or Mount Olympus or anything that will give you more words.

And a magical thing happens somewhere along the way. Because you’re totally focused on quantity rather than quality, because you’ve locked your inner editor in a closet for the duration, your muse takes over and starts giving you ideas that your editor would never let you think about, much less use, under normal circumstances. Your writing takes on a life of its own.

There’s nothing better than being able to upload your “masterpiece” at the end of the month and get that “Winner” badge. Okay, maybe publishing and actually having someone other than your mother read your novel is better, but that comes later.

NaNoWriMo took away all my frustration at never being able to complete a novel. I may not have written a great novel, but I’d done the impossible by finishing one. I can’t tell you how much that confidence meant to me.

So here I am, eleven years later, maybe more, ready to start another novel for NaNoWriMo. In 2013, worn out by writing my “real” novels, I decided NaNo and a fun novel, a nonsense novel, a novel that didn’t need to be perfect, was just what I needed. My muse surprised me again. What I got was something new and wonderful.

But, in order to be a successful indie author, I needed to write more books in my existing series first. So, after NaNo, I went back to my Christian mystery series.

In 2014, I again gave myself a month off and wrote a sequel to the 2013 mystery. It’s not quite as good as the first one, but it’s only a first draft. I know now I can fix those.

This year, I’ll be writing book three in this series. I spent October setting up a new Scrivener project, developing some new characters, and adding index cards for the scenes in it. I experimented with creating book covers and gathering photos on Pinterest. For the past three days, I’ve been champing at the bit to start writing. Finally, it’s November 1st!

I’m going to try to keep my word count updated so you can watch that thermometer bar grow longer. I’ll also try to make briefer posts more often on my progress. Most of all, I’m going to have fun!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My New Look

Before I talk about NaNoWriMo, I suppose I should comment on my website's new look. A couple of years ago--heck, it might have been three or four years ago--I decided I wanted a more "mysterious" look here. Something darker, edgier, something in line with the kind of mysteries I was writing. In looking through the Blogger templates (yes, this is a Blogger site), I found the one that I'd used up until this week: dark red with light text. At the time, the red "popped" at me compared to all the other sites I'd been looking at.

Recently, I'd been thinking the website needed some clean-up. Over the years, I'd added more widgets, many of the links to blogs I follow pointed to now-dormant sites, and I'm changing the focus of the mysteries I write from edgy Christian fiction to... something else. And, ironically, I've always hated light text on a dark background. It's hard to read and somehow my posts were all in a small font, making reading even more difficult.

I've spent a lot of hours over the past couple of months reviewing my options. Everyone said a self-hosted Wordpress site was the way to go. There are reasons for this, most of which I won't go into. Since my experience with Wordpress was minimal, I looked at tutorials and books and YouTube videos trying to learn what I needed to learn to change over. I posted questions in writers' groups. I mocked up a free Wordpress site and fiddled with changing themes and customizing them until my brain hurt.

Fortunately, I set myself a deadline to finish the redesign of my website. I knew I wanted it done before NaNoWriMo started. Once NaNo starts, my writing day is pretty much filled up. So two days ago, I looked at what hosting would cost me. It's not a ton of money, but it is an additional expense. In my fiddling, I discovered that, while some customization of Wordpress themes is possible, to do a lot of it, including getting the colors to be something I didn't hate, requires paying more money for Premium.

So I came back to Blogger and started looking at theme alternatives. I picked a few that I thought would work and tried them out. I discovered that Blogger offered me more options--for free--to customize the look of a theme. Besides, I already know my way around Blogger quite well. I weighed the supposed advantages of Wordpress--most of which I am not ready to use--against the cost in both time and money to convert my site and decided to stick with Blogger.

I've gotten rid of the dead wood, picked lighter colors and black text on a white background, and updated my fiction page to multiple pages. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 6

As I said last week, the final week of this class isn’t exactly about writing.

In the lesson titled Marketing the Patterson Way, Patterson talks about branding, which he defines as a relationship between a product and customers. Authors usually aren’t very good at branding themselves. Most get that deer-in-the-headlights look if you ask them about their brand.

One author who has focused on branding is Brandilyn Collins, who even trademarked “Seatbelt Suspense,” her brand. With branding like that, readers know immediately what to expect from one of her books.

Patterson’s brand is “The pages turn themselves.” You’ll notice that, while Collins tells you up front she writes suspense, Patterson doesn’t have as narrow a definition of his brand. This allows him to write in different genres; except I’m pretty sure readers generally expect to find a thriller when they pick up a Patterson book.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 5

We have now, for the most part, moved past the lessons on writing. In this week’s lessons, it sounds as if even Patterson has gotten tired of the class. There’s no enthusiasm, which he did have in the beginning lessons. Fortunately, there’s only one more week after this.

The first lesson is Editing, which, for Patterson, appears to consist mostly of cutting words out. Since his genre is thriller and his primary goal is to keep a high level of action and the pages turning quickly, this works for him. I write traditional mysteries, which are more character based than thrillers as a rule. I also tend to write rather spare drafts, perfect to do during NaNoWriMo. For me, editing is both taking words out and putting words in.

Some of my scenes are mostly dialogue in the first draft, with maybe a little bit of emotional reaction or body language. But they could take place in an empty white room. So I have to add in the ambience, the sights, sounds, and smells of the location, so the reader experiences being there with the characters. And, while I know what my characters look like, I have to make sure my readers do, so I’ll add in little details about their clothing or hair or mention they have to put sunscreen on their fair skin before going out.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 4

As I was listening to the first lesson for this week—Dialogue—I realized another problem with the way these lessons are presented. I mentioned in my blog on the first week of this class that each lesson was obviously put together from several separate interviews.

Except they’re not interviews. It’s really Patterson chatting informally about writing, a mix of advice, his own process, how he learned something, etc. And it’s presented in a talking-head style. That’s why I said “listening” in the first sentence. I found myself clicking on other tabs in my browser as he spoke because the video wasn’t visually interesting.

So, on to the lesson itself. A character’s dialogue reveals who they are. I have no argument with that. After a few examples, we cut to a different interview where Patterson starts talking about an author (I only know the guy is an author because I Googled the name) and a scene which Patterson believes has great dialogue. But he never states that this is the name of an author or gives us the name of the book it comes from. That part must have been left on the cutting room floor. He then proceeds to quote the dialogue and ends by saying it’s wonderful. He also says it’s comedic, but his delivery was so dry I didn’t laugh once.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 3

I’m starting to see why my friend didn’t continue with the lessons. When I started—and I suppose this was true of my friend as well—I was eager to get to the “good stuff.” I figured all the introductory material would soon be expanded with details and pithy secrets and methodology. With Week 3 completed, it’s becoming obvious that there aren’t going to be any details or secrets revealed.

The first Week 3 lesson is Writer’s Block. According to Robert B. Parker, it was Elmore Leonard who said, “Writer’s block is just another word for lazy.” I heard him say this at a book signing in Massachusetts and, having heard it and the explanation, I’ve thoroughly believed it to be true ever since.

I’ve hung out with writers for a long time, and I’ve heard several complain about having writer’s block as if it was mononucleosis or some other physical disease that takes a long time to recover from. One person told me they’d had writer’s block for three years. And they were serious. They were looking for sympathy. My thought (which I didn’t say out loud) was if they hadn’t written anything in three years, they weren’t a writer. They were a wannabe.

Because writers write.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 2

The second week starts with a lesson on Research. Again, nothing terribly new in this video. One part is about interviewing people for their expertise in an area. He doesn’t talk about how to locate these people or approach them, probably because all he has to do is send off an email or pick up the phone—or, more likely at this point, have his assistant do this.

The second topic is locations. He recommends actually walking the locations you’ll use in your books, making notes about what strikes you. I concur, if at all possible. Years ago, a writer friend asked me if I could answer questions about Tucson for her because she couldn’t come here to see it herself. Of course I said yes. I was relatively new to the area, so I had to ask other people I knew for help. After I read one of her books, I realized the limitation of this technique. You don’t know what you don’t know, so you don’t ask about it. She had a glaring inaccuracy, describing something as if it were like the area where she lives. She assumed it would be like that, so didn’t know she should verify her assumption.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

James Patterson MasterClass Week 1

I’m the first to admit that I’m a writing book junkie. I have two shelves of craft books, ranging from Lawrence Block’s “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” to McKee’s “Story” to the Writers Digest “Elements of Fiction” series. I have another shelf of more technical references where I put my dictionaries and grammar books and thesauri. I’m not even going to count the half shelf of crime reference books or the assorted “this sounds interesting, I wonder if I could work it into a novel someday” books I’ve collected.

I’m also a writing class junkie. I’ve attended multiple classes on how to plot. I’ve taken three of Margie Lawson’s classes on emotion and editing. I’ve taken two of Holly Lisle’s Big Classes.

Last year, when I noticed my expenditures for books and classes far outpaced my income from actual writing, I declared a moratorium on buying any more books or taking any more classes. I realized that I had reached the point where I already knew what was going to be in them, even if the author or teacher had some new, clever term for the basics of how to write. I told myself that I didn’t need more classes or more books. I needed to write more.

And then this ad popped up on Facebook.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Play Time!

I’m sure I’ve talked about how severely left-brained I am, but in case you didn’t read those posts, or have forgotten what I said, I’ll do a short recap here. The left side of the brain is primarily responsible for thinking and logic; the right side is the creative side, the part of the brain where dreams come from. I was employed as a computer programmer before I retired. A very left-brained occupation. Writing requires using more of the right brain.

My left brain has been very happy for the past two months as I edited and formatted and set up “A Game of Murder” on Amazon. I’ve created Facebook posts and tweeted and participated in a Facebook event to promote this latest book. Even as I did this, my right brain was crying, “What about me?”

So, throughout this process, I promised my right brain that once I was done with launching the book, I’d give her a new toy.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cover Reveal!

The third in my Community of Faith mysteries now has a cover! And a description! And is live on Amazon!

For the third time in less than six months, Faith Andersen, self-professed computer nerd and skeptical Christian, must solve a murder.

Mira Levinson dared to challenge the local gamer club’s male brotherhood of geekdom. She wrote a game about feelings. A good game. For that she had to die.

The police are focused on the wrong suspect. The police are focused on one of Faith’s friends.

The future of more than one of her friends is in jeopardy. Driven by her desire for justice, Faith must find out who killed Mira. Without dying in the process.

Or losing the love of her life.

If you like traditional mysteries with a touch of romance, you are sure to love A Game of Murder.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Excitement is Building!

Very soon now, “A Game of Murder,” the third in my Community of Faith mystery series, will be available for sale. I should get edits back from my editor any day now, my cover designer is working on another fantastic cover, and I’ve started setting the book up on Amazon.

You wouldn’t want to miss the publication announcement, would you?

To make sure you know when you can buy “A Game of Murder,” all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter. It’s not hard to do. Just look at the sidebar to the right of this post. Fill in your name and email address, and you’re in!

Just for signing up, you’ll receive a collection of stories that will tell you how it all began. How my four core characters came together to form the Community of Faith.

But wait. There’s more! (Yes, I am channeling late night infomercials.) Everyone who is on my mailing list by August 31, 2015 will be eligible to win a gift box of Arizona treasures. (Sorry, U.S. Residents only. Because of the weight of the items, foreign shipping would be prohibitive.)

As you can see, this includes my first two novels, a box of Cheri’s Mesquite Apple Muffin Mix, Cheri’s Prickly Pear Jelly, a mug portraying the iconic saguaro cactus (from Mostly Books), and a cactus pin.

Don’t miss out! Sign up today!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Oh Dear!

I think I should have been more consistent about posting about my project plants. For the past month, I have been buried in my soon-to-be-released third book in the Community of Faith mystery series. (More on that in my next post.) My existing African violets are all in Oyama pots or double pots made of clay and are well-established, so they can tolerate a few days of neglect.

Not the project plants. Since it takes time for new plants to adapt to a new environment, I left the project plants in their original plastic pots. I added a plastic “saucer” underneath and started out by using the bottom watering technique. Sometimes, when I stuck my finger in the soil, it felt dry, despite water remaining in the saucer. Then I added water from the top.

One plant seemed to do okay. The second one, not so much. I put it under a plastic baggie, trying to create a mini-greenhouse where it might be happier. I kept thinking I should have done that earlier.

The plants continued to deteriorate. I couldn’t decide whether they had too little water or too much, so one day I’d give them water when they probably didn’t need it, another I’d let them go longer and possibly dried them out.

Panic set in.

Before I knew anything about letting plants adapt or tenting them in plastic, I’d take newly arrived plants and repot them immediately. They all did fine. So I decided I should try repotting the project plants, my last ditch effort to have them survive.

I did that this past weekend, putting them into small Oyama pots. I discovered that the soil, although dry around the edges, was wet around the roots. So I was probably over-watering them, not under-watering. The soil was much denser than I use. Another problem. African violets need air around the roots to breathe. I doubt my project plants were getting any air.

I am hoping for a miracle. While one plant has at least one semi-healthy leaf left, you have to look very carefully to see the two tiny leaves remaining on the other. I think I waited too long for my intervention.

At least I know it’s not totally my fault. At the last meeting of the Tucson chapter of the African Violet Society, I was talking to an experienced grower, a woman who has grown hundreds of plants. She told me she didn’t even take the project plants this year because minis and semi-minis are so hard to grow.

Just because I don’t want you to think I’m totally inept, I’m including a picture of my trailer. If nothing else, seeing all the flowers cheers me up.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

The Silly Season

According to Merriam-Webster, the silly season is:

1:  a period (as late summer) when the mass media often focus on trivial or frivolous matters for lack of major news stories
2:  a period marked by frivolous, outlandish, or illogical activity or behavior

It also refers to the period leading up to an election. Alas, here we are almost a year and a half before the next presidential election, and the Silly Season is in full swing. As of today, there are 16 Republican candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring. On the Democrat side, in addition to Hillary and Bernie Sanders, three others have announced their intention to run for the office. (Source: NY Times.) You can't turn on the news without hearing a story about what one or the other of these candidates has said or done today. Usually that's followed by a group of talking heads--all with a political agenda of their own--discussing the item ad naseum. They don't add any new facts. They merely reinforce their own political bias.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

How's the Book Coming?

I knew you'd be asking!

Okay, maybe you weren't. "A Game of Murder," the third in my Community of Faith Mysteries, is getting closer to publication. I'd hoped to be able to offer it for sale a month ago, but it's taking longer than I thought to revise. It always takes longer than I think it will.

An author and her book go through stages in their relationship. With me, out of the bleakness of the I'll-never-be-able-to-write-another-book-again phase, I'll read a newspaper article or see a television show or overhear a snippet of conversation and get an idea. I'm sure it is the best idea ever!

For a few days or weeks or months (it all depends on what else is going on in my life, where I'm at with the current or last book, etc.), other pieces come to me. At this stage, I start writing things down, either in a new notebook or a new section of one I've already started for the series. I poke around the Internet, doing "research." I bookmark web pages, save photos of people who look like they could be my characters, follow lots of rabbit trails from interesting things I find. It's forming a mental, physical, and electronic collage of what this new story might be. I'm in love with the story.

As I get closer to writing, I set up a Scrivener project, start creating virtual index cards for each scene, move the research into the project. The index cards form my outline for the story. I'll usually sit down with my story notebook and interview my main characters, write sketches that reveal to me what makes them tick.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Project Plant Update

I almost forgot to do this today since I've been so busy with critiques for my critique group meeting tonight. Not much change so far, but it takes time for new plants to acclimate themselves. I am a little concerned about one having some browning along the edges of a couple of leaves. I'm not sure whether this is too much or too little water.

This one has the browning leaves:

And, just because it's so pretty, here's Cajun's Code Blue, a plant I bought from another member at the spring sale. It's just so lovely. I think it's thriving because, unlike the project plants, it was grown locally, so has already adapted to Tucson's dry, hot climate.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Project Plants

If you’re a member of a local branch of the African Violet Society of America, chances are you’ve grow a project plant. Every member of the club gets a starter plant of the same cultivar (variety) during the summer and raises it at home. At the spring show and sale, members bring the plants they’ve raised and put them all in a display.

The idea is to show the public (and other members) how different growing conditions and methods can result in different looking plants. Each plant is accompanied by a sheet of paper on which the grower indicates the kind of lighting, the way the plant was watered, and what kind of fertilizer (if any) was used. Even if your plant dies, you’re supposed to bring in the empty pot. I suppose this is either to demonstrate what not to do or, alternatively, to divulge that even those who grow lots of African violets for a hobby sometimes kill plants.

I thought it would be fun this year to track my progress with the two varieties of project plants my club is raising. I’m hoping this will be an incentive to pay attention to them, unlike last year when I put my poor project plant into “quarantine” in a place where I promptly forgot about it. Needless to say, it died.

The two project plants this year are two miniatures. One is Mickey Mouse, that should have a lovely purple flower. The other is Orchard’s Bumble Magnet, a pink. These are photos of what they should look like:

Mickey Mouse

Orchard’s Bumble Magnet

Here are what mine look like, one day after I brought them home:

Mickey Mouse

Orchard's Bumble Magnet

They are now sitting in quarantine, away from my other plants, just in case they’ve brought any “guests” with them. It’s not uncommon for growers to have insect pests and, while these look clean, it’s better to wait a while before putting them too close to my other plants.

I’ll try to post my progress with these project plants every other Wednesday so you can follow along with how I’m doing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Murder Isn't Funny

Over the past decade, the definition of a cozy mystery has narrowed significantly. Wikipedia defines them as:
“Cozy mysteries, also referred to simply as "cozies", are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community.”
See, there’s that word: humorously.

This wasn’t a requirement in early cozy mysteries, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories or even the Nancy Drew mysteries I devoured as a child. But it has become one today. If you don’t have “quirky characters” in your mystery today, readers of cozies are disappointed. I’m not such a curmudgeon that I don’t believe there’s room for humorous mysteries, but I’m dismayed by the number of them and the fact that they’ve squeezed out non-humorous stories from the category.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Winning and Losing

A few months ago, the Big 5 Publishers won. At least they think they did.

After the Department of Justice found them guilty of collusion in setting prices, the agency pricing contracts they had in place were determined to be illegal and they were forced into other terms for a period of time.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll give a short explanation. There are two ways a manufacturer’s goods get into your favorite retail store. The model most of us are familiar with is that Joe’s Widget Factory sells a box of widgets to Big Box Retail Store for fifty cents a widget. Big Box Retail Store figures out how much profit it needs to make on each widget to cover not only the cost of the widget, but salaries, lighting in the store, etc. The retailer prices each widget at 99 cents and puts it on the shelf. Sometimes, in order to get more business, Big Box Retail Store runs a sale and prices the widgets at 89 cents. Humongous Retail Store down the block, seeing all their customers leaving to go buy at the cheaper price, lowers its price to 88 cents. That’s called competition.

This is the way print books have always been sold.

In agency pricing, Joe’s Widget Factory decides that the price of its widgets in the stores should be 99 cents. When a widget is sold, Big Box Retail Store keeps a percentage, say 30 percent, of the selling price and Joe’s Widget Factory gets 70 percent. Big Box Retail Store can’t run a sale on widgets unless the manufacturer decides there should be one.

This is the way ebooks were being sold.

Now, there’s nothing inherently illegal in agency pricing. It’s the model indie authors have in place with all the major book retailers. What was illegal was that the Big 5 Publishers sat down with Apple and decided that they would make all retailers sell widgets — er, ebooks — at the same price for the same percentage split. It appears that this tactic was specifically aimed at Amazon, which had been wildly successful in selling ebooks, which the publishers thought was cutting into sales of print books, and helping Apple, which was launching its nascent iBooks store. What was illegal was the collusion.

 The DOJ pretty much voided the agency agreements and forced the publishers to sell ebooks like print books for a period of time. That time period expired last year and the publishers entered into a negotiating period for new contracts with Amazon. You may have heard something about this when the stalled Hachette negotiations made the news.

To make a long story short, each of the publishers eventually negotiated back to agency pricing with Amazon. This wasn’t illegal because there was no collusion. They handled the negotiations individually. As far as which pricing model they’d operate under, they won.

Or did they?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Twitter is My News Channel

For the past year I’ve found myself regularly missing newscasts on television as I find other things to do. This gets particularly common this time of year, when the broadcast of Red Sox games, usually from the East Coast, overlaps the broadcast of local and national news on the networks.

I used to be a news junkie, back in the day when reporters became anchormen (and they were all men). They started out in newspapers and radio and, as television grew to be the most-consumed medium, field reporters. Names like Huntley and Brinkley and Mike Wallace and John Cameron Swayze and Douglas Edwards graced our television screens at six o’clock. At one time, Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.

In the early days of cable news, I thrilled to Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Baghdad on CNN during the Gulf War. If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you could tune into CNN 24/7 and find out.

But, over time, the reporters were replaced with pretty faces who were visually appealing, had pleasant voices, and couldn’t pronounce words of more than two syllables correctly. Instead of reports on what is going on in the world, we now have who was eliminated as a contestant on the network’s most popular “reality” show. CNN and FoxNews spend hours with “talking heads” blathering and speculating on what the news might mean rather than giving us more news.
And then I started seeing regular segments on breaking news stories that started out with “Here is what we’re seeing on Twitter” or “His Facebook page tells us…”. Huh? Since when did social media become a reliable news source?

I’m sure half of you looked up at the headline for this post to verify you remembered what I was going to write about correctly. You did. Because I discovered that most of what was being reported as “breaking news” on television, I’d already read on Twitter.

This started when I discovered @WhatsUpTucson, a local guy who regularly tweets traffic accidents, police activity, and fires, along with lost and found dogs and such. Since people in town know he shares information, they tweet him with what’s going on in their neighborhood, often with pictures, which he retweets. Most of this stuff never makes the local news, although I find it of interest.

I often look at Twitter during commercial breaks—which have become so numerous and so long that there are times I can’t watch the shows I tuned in for—and noticed comments about events happening around the world. Again, this hadn’t been on television news and often wasn’t on CNN which, in the evenings, has switched to canned programs, just like the Weather Channel doesn’t do live weather at night (except for when there’s a major weather event affecting the United States). Many times it’s hours or even days before stories from around the world make our network news.

So I started following Reuters and Agence-France Presse and the BBC on Twitter. We live in a global village. No longer can we be isolationist and just be concerned about what happens in Washington or New York or Tucson, Arizona. What happens in China or Africa or South America affects us. Climate change is a global problem. And the foreign news agencies cover these stories a lot more often and in a lot more depth than our news-as-entertainment channels in America.

I follow NASA and the US Navy and Discover Magazine and the Hubble Telescope and Universe Today because science news isn’t covered at all.

So I’m skipping the evening news more and more often, even when there isn’t a conflicting Red Sox game. Because I get my news on Twitter.

Picture Credits:
Twitter Logo from https://about.twitter.com/press/brand-assets
Walter Cronkite By NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, April 11, 2015


I recently finished reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It's one of those books that comes up often when writers discuss their favorite craft books, but one which I never got around to reading before. It's in the vein of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. These books don't teach you about grammar or plot structure or how to write believable characters.

What these books teach is that the struggles you go through on the path to becoming a writer are not unique to you; all writers face them. Indeed, all creative people face blocks to fulfilling their dreams. Success is pressing on in spite of the blocks.

A good part of this small book focuses on resistance, that thing which keeps you from doing the very thing you were born to do. Writers talk about this all the time. Usually it takes the form of "Why is it that every time I sit down to write, suddenly cleaning the toilet becomes preferable?"

Writers can come up with all kinds of excuses to not write. Research is always a good one. When you're doing research, you can pretend that you're working on your book because there are certain facts you must know before you submit the book to an agent or publish it yourself. Of course, you don't need to know them at that exact minute. And you certainly don't need to know all that other stuff you found on the web while researching a fairly simple question.

Talking to other writers, whether in person or online, is another excellent excuse. We call that "networking." Writers need other writers as critique partners, as sources of information, as someone to blurb your next book. You have to make time to network. Unfortunately, too often these conversations turn into excuses to socialize, to have an old-fashioned kaffeeklatsch, gossiping and whining to one another about anything and everything, including why they're not writing.

The puzzle is why we continue to do this when the only result is not accomplishing anything. You wind up feeling like a failure. But Resistance is strong.

This really hit home with me. I began the year with good intentions, as always. I was going to develop a writing schedule and stick to it. I was going to be more productive. There was no reason why I couldn't be. I'm retired after over thirty years of having to go to a day job that often required more than forty hours a week.

But then I made sure I did exactly the opposite by volunteering for more responsibilities and scheduling appointments early in the day "so I could have the rest of the day free to write" and starting my day with Facebook and email "just to see what was going on and if there was anything I should be aware of."

And then, while I was at yet another one of those meetings being told that part of what I needed to do as a member of that group was to give it more time, I said the magic words: "I have a full time job, even if it doesn't pay very much."

A lightbulb went on for me.

I had told myself writing was a full time job, but I'd been tracking the hours I spent on it and reality was that I hadn't even made it a decent part time job. Resistance had sneaked in and gotten me to fill up lots of hours with things that weren't writing, leaving little time and energy for what I said I wanted to do. Until I read The War of Art, I hadn't realized what was going on. I was purposely sabotaging my calling.

Because, as Pressfield says, that's what writing is: my calling. If you don't fulfill your calling,

I'm not being selfish when I give writing a priority, which is what I feel every time I decline a commitment. I'm doing what God gave me to do.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sacred Spaces

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Northwest Tucson, a facility founded by Catholics—at least in modern times. Before the Catholics came, the Hohokam people dwelt and prayed here.

You can see the evidence in the rugged mound of rocks beside a nearby wash. Etched into the stones are pictures of animals and people and even astronomical representations. It is thought that before a hunt, the symbol makers would carve these images and pray for a successful hunt.

It is a sacred place.

It reminded me of another sacred place I’ve visited: Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts. Built in 1681, it was founded as a Puritan meeting house. Currently it is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. On the rear walls are plaques commemorating the ministers who served there, stretching back in time and history. In 1930, the original box pews were discovered and restored, replacing more ornate standard pews installed during Victorian times.

Worshiping at Old Ship, I could feel there was something different about this place. It’s hard to describe, but I had the sense that this was holy ground.

There are other places that must be holy ground. Mountains seem to be a place where it’s easier to connect to God. You probably know that Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Ten Commandments from Yahweh. But the Tohono O’odham, descendants of the Hohokam, know Baboquivari Peak is sacred. It is a place of spiritual power.

 I think Jerusalem must be holy ground. Why else would three major religions contest its ownership so bitterly?

And then there are stone circles, like Stonehenge. While most populous in the British Isles, there are others in other parts of the world. What would cause people to build these constructions, often requiring monumental tasks like transporting the stones hundreds of miles, other than something special about the places they were built?

I’m not sure what makes a place sacred. I can only imagine that it’s a place where the barrier between the physical and spiritual is thinner than in most of the world. I do believe in the spiritual. I also believe in science. Science is easier to prove. It has repeatable results. But it doesn’t explain all of existence. There is something else, something mystical, something sacred to which humans have been trying to connect throughout history. So they make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and gather at Stonehenge on the equinox, making that connection in sacred spaces.

Photos all taken by me at Picture Rocks.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rabbit Trails

Writers often talk about rabbit trails. In case you’re not familiar with them, rabbit trails tend to go off in random directions, like this sign, leading nowhere in particular even though they often provide entertaining tangents. Seat-of-the-pants writers, also known as “pantsers”, are more prone to do this than “plotters”, who plan out a story in advance, but plotters like myself aren’t immune. Even though I’ve got a clear outline of the basic structure of a novel before I start writing it, as I’m typing unexpected things are bound to happen. I’ll be describing a visit to a museum where a specific event is supposed to happen, when my character decides to pause to look at a painting. All of a sudden, the painting assumes much greater importance than I ever intended, and I’m off on exploring how the artist decided to paint that subject, what the circumstances were when he painted it, how it came to be hung on this wall, etc. If you’re having trouble visualizing how this goes, think of the painting in Titanic.

Now, sometimes these rabbit trails are pure gold. They take the story in wonderful new directions that are inspired. More often, they’re pleasant detours that never make it into the final version of the novel. They’re cut from the manuscript and, if the writer is smart, pasted into a new document as fodder for a future story where they’re no longer a diversion, but a key element in that story.

I’ve been experiencing rabbit trails of a different kind as I’m writing the third book in my Community of Faith mystery series. These rabbit trails writers call “research.”

In this novel, tentatively called Kill Them All, the victim is a contestant in a computer game contest. Obviously, the primary suspects are the other competitors. Faith, my amateur sleuth, is a web designer and self-confessed computer geek, so solving this particular crime is a natural for her.

The games in this contest are Interactive Fiction (IF) or, as they’re sometimes called, text adventures. This style of game is one of the oldest ever played on computers. The first game of this genre, usually called just “Adventure”, was written by Will Crowther in the 1970s. Versions were ported to almost every computer as soon as the computer became available. Programmers do that for fun. At the end of the decade, some MIT students founded Infocom to market a game called Zork, which was very similar to the original Adventure. Infocom developed over thirty of these games and was one of the most successful gaming companies of the time.

A variant of this idea are the Choose Your Own Adventure books that are popular with children. More recently, we have enhanced ebooks, which can have the same kind of interaction.

(If you need another example of rabbit trails, reread the previous two paragraphs.)

As it turns out, I became a programmer at the same time Interactive Fiction was the most popular type of computer game. I loved the Infocom games, even though the puzzles could be frustrating. Even after graphical adventures became more popular, IF still had a devoted following, especially among programmers. Several development systems were created to make programming the games easier. In the 1990s, I learned the basics of one of these systems, Inform, and tried creating my own games.

A long time has passed since I actually played a text adventure, and I knew I had to refresh my memory on how they worked. I own most of the Infocom games, which are transportable between systems because they’re basically text files, so all I needed to do was find an interpreter, which reads the game files and translates them into something you can play. I’ve switched from a PC to Mac, which meant that the interpreters I’d used in the past wouldn’t work. I found Gargoyle, figured out how to install it, then fired up Zork. At this point, I cheated. I remembered how difficult the puzzles could be, the mapping with pencil and graph paper to be able to retrace your steps, the number of saves and restores, and the hours it takes to solve one of the Infocom games without dying. So I also downloaded a walkthrough, a list of all the steps necessary to solve the game and win, rather than figuring it out for myself. I am supposed to be writing a novel, not playing games, you know!

Next step was creating a rudimentary game.

It’s been a over a decade since I last created a work of IF, so I knew there had to be changes. Which led me to the second research rabbit trail: game development systems. I learned there was a new kid on the block, Twine, and that Inform now was up to version 7, with a totally new interface and natural language syntax. If I was going to write scenes about programmers creating games in these systems, I had to download them and know enough about how they worked to make the scenes believable.

Which led to finding the documentation and tutorials on the web, printing out The Inform 7 Handbook, going through a PowerPoint presentation on Twine. In two hours, I was able to create a very simple Twine game. A game in Inform will take a bit longer, since it’s a richer and more complicated language. While I was able to do what I wanted in Twine on the fly, I knew that I’d need to have a plan before creating a game in Inform.

I think we’re up to rabbit trail number four: puzzles.

As I alluded to earlier in this post, winning an IF game largely consists of solving puzzles. A mystery is also a puzzle, or multiple puzzles. I like puzzles. I used to do the crossword puzzle in the newspaper on a daily basis. I’ve done Sudoku puzzles. I enjoy Will Shortz on NPR on Sunday mornings. But designing puzzles is tricky.

However, packrat that I am, in 2000, when I was still interested in creating IF, I collected a series of articles and blog posts on what makes a puzzle. Fortunately, I printed these out and put them in a looseleaf, because some of the web sites on which they originated no longer exist. And this week I pulled that looseleaf off the shelf and started reading as preparation for planning the game that Faith will create in the novel.

Of course, that led to looking up more current information on the web, finding books on Amazon (most of which are textbooks and too expensive, even in Kindle format, for me to buy), and wondering how I’m ever going to finish this novel if I keep having to learn new things.

Naturally, ninety percent or more of what I learn won’t be in the book. The story isn’t about how to create a computer game, but about the characters and their motives to murder the victim. Pages full of Faith writing the game would be as interesting as me describing myself writing this blog.

But I love writing programs, which is what creating games is. I do miss it since I retired. It's fun and I'm having a grand old time poking into this stuff. I think I might be part rabbit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

It's Finally Here!

I'm excited about this year's Tucson Festival of Books. For the first time in a long time, I'll be attending as a reader, a visitor, able to go to many of the presentations by my favorite authors instead of being tied to a booth for most of the day. Don't get me wrong; I love the Tucson chapter of Sisters in Crime. We have great members and great programs and I enjoy every month's meeting. But, for the past couple of years, I've been in charge of setting up our booth, making sure it's staffed at all times, and resolving problems as they arise.

It's meant missing most of the presentations, particularly those of famous authors, because I wasn't able to get in line early enough to get into them. And "load-in" times, the time you have to pull a vehicle onto the mall of the University of Arizona in order to unload all the materials for your booth, start very early. Much earlier than the time I'm usually getting out of bed. So I've taken a break this year to enjoy all that the festival has to offer.

And that's a lot. In addition to the authors and presentations, there are booths all along the mall for various organizations that are book-related. There's music, and activities for children, and the marvelous Science City, featuring science presentations from the U of A. And food. Food is very popular, so popular that they've set up two food courts instead of one this year.

Oh, and I will be at the Tucson Sisters in Crime booth for at least one hour. I'll be doing a

Book Signing, Saturday, March 14 from 4:00 PM to 5:00 PM, Booth 231

If you're around, stop by and say hello!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sometimes You Need a Tiara

A while back I was talking to my friend Robin. It was annual review day and where she works not only do you get reviewed by your supervisor, you also are reviewed by your peers. We all know now stressful it is to be reviewed. It affects not only your salary for the next year, but the evaluation of your performance affects how you feel about yourself, your job, and your boss. If you’ve ever been a manager or worked at a company that does peer reviews, you know it’s just as stressful on the other side of the process. So the day had been a double whammy for her, even though her review was good.

“It’s a good thing I had my tiara,” Robin said.

My blank look spoke volumes.

“When I have a bad day, I put on my tiara and remind myself that I’m a pretty, pretty princess,” Robin explained.

Now both of us are far from young, far from the days when we dressed up in our mothers’ long dresses and made ourselves crowns out of construction paper and pretended to be princesses—or even queens. When you’re five or six or nine, you believe in fairy tales to the point that you pretend to live in one. You rule your subjects with a beneficent hand and dream of the day when Prince Charming will ride up, and you will fall in love and live happily ever after.

Somewhere along the way, some of us discover there is no Prince Charming for us. And I am not missing the irony that this post is going up on Valentine’s Day. I’m not going to get all gloomy about that.

We get too old to believe in fairy tales. Instead we enter that middle period of our lives when we’re caught up in careers and children and marriages gone wrong. We’re too adult to pretend to be princesses any more.

Until we’re not.

Writers have their own share of disappointments. There are days when we think we’ll never be able to write a novel again. After Agatha Christie finished each book, she told her husband she’d forgotten how to write a novel. Over time he learned to ignore her because somehow she always managed to write the next book. There are lots of days when we’re sure what we’ve put on the page is crap, trite, unoriginal, and something no one will ever want to read.

There are days when we look at our dashboard and see no sales, or look at the pages for our books and see their ever-declining rank and feel like we’re total failures.

And the reviews. We can be sailing along on a high because we sold a book, even many books because of a promotion, and then one of our new readers posts a one or two-star review and our hearts sink. It’s silly. Every author gets bad reviews. Even Agatha Christie. Even Stephen King. Online writers groups spend a lot of time telling one another not to read reviews. If you have to read them, don’t pay attention to them. It’s laughable because we can’t not pay attention to them. Writers are sensitive people. It’s part of what makes them able to write stories that touch other people. But the corollary of that is we tend to have emotional ups and downs. The ups are okay. It’s the downs that are a problem.

I thought about what Robin said and those silly mood swings over nothing terribly serious and decided that I, too, needed a tiara. So I went to Amazon and searched for “tiara” and was amazed at how many there were and how inexpensive it would be to buy one. Which I did.

So now, when I get a bad review or don’t sell any books, I put on my tiara and remind myself that I’m a pretty, pretty princess. It’s amazing how uplifting wearing a tiara can be.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Decision Fatigue

I joined a new critique group this month which meets at a local restaurant for a light dinner and discussion every two weeks. Although I knew two of the members from a writing group I belong to, I was going to meet two new people in a new place and, as people usually do, thought about the first impression I’d make as I was getting ready. It was then I realized that I almost always wear the same clothes. Not literally, but I have multiple similar pairs of jeans and shirts—short-sleeved tee shirts for summer and long-sleeved sweatshirts for winter. I have variant “dress-up” versions of the shirts, meaning they have collars on them, for when I leave the house, but there’s not much variety in what I wear: jeans, a shirt, sneakers with white, ankle-high socks.

I have a few outfits I wear to church on Sunday, casual slacks instead of jeans, a blouse instead of a shirt, and shoes instead of sneakers. It doesn’t take me long to decide what I’m going to put on on any particular day as long as I stick to my routines.

So it surprised me how much angst I was having over deciding what to wear that night. I pushed hangers along the rod, examining every shirt, blouse, vest, and sweater I owned, evaluating whether it would give the proper first impression. I took a fresh look at the pants I had worn on Sunday, wondering whether they were too old and faded to wear to dinner that night. And I got frustrated at how much time and energy this simple decision was taking.

Coincidentally, I ran across an article on decision fatigue soon after. The term is self-explanatory. It turns out the more choices you have to make, the more tired you get. People unconsciously realize this, so they have a tendency to eliminate decisions in their lives to leave energy for the things that really need deciding. My boring wardrobe is nothing compared to Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs always wearing black. I at least give myself the challenge of what color shirt to wear on any particular day.

There are other things you do to minimize the number of decisions you have to make. You drive the same way to work every day. You don’t decide which route to take unless your normal way is blocked by a major accident or a jackknifed tractor-trailer or road construction. You run errands on the same days. You sit in the same pew at church every week and the same seat in class every day and you’re grumpy if someone sits where you expected to.

Decision fatigue also explains brand loyalty. I buy Progresso soup, Thomas’s English muffins, Bumblebee tuna. When I get to the shelves with all those cans of tuna on them, I don’t have to decide; I reach for the green can of Bumblebee and move on. Menus get routine: roast on Sunday, pizza Friday night, hamburgers and beans on Saturday.

Routines make for efficiency as well as eliminating decision fatigue. I’ve noticed this when starting a new diet. Most plans—Weight Watchers, Spark People—require planning menus in advance so you can shop and have the components on hand. You’re given sample menus, but you still have to decide which ones to use, which have foods you like versus foods you don’t like, which you can make with ingredients on your shelf rather than buying, which will satisfy you. Because many foods are new, you have to decide which brand and size to buy. All this deciding takes time and energy. This factor is probably why plans like Nutrisystem and Jenny Craig work—they not only do the menu planning for you, they ship you the meals. Phew!

As I was mulling this over off and on for the next week, it dawned on me that decision fatigue explained why planning a novel was so exhausting. Not only do you have to make countless decisions, you also have to come up with the choices! Which means more decisions.

For me, a novel starts with a concept, generally a fairly vague concept. For “Faith, Hope, and Murder,” it was “the border problem.” Not much to go on, right?

Then I start thinking about the characters. The sleuth: Male or female? What does (s)he look like? Fat, thin, medium; short, tall, average; long hair, short hair, bald; blue, brown, green, hazel, or violet eyes; what’s his or her job? The victim: how does (s)he die? Poison—which one? Knife or gun—what kind? The killer: What’s his or her motive: greed, jealousy, revenge, fear? Why? What happened to give him or her that particular reason to kill the victim? Suspects: They have to have motives, too. And all of these characters need physical descriptions, likes/dislikes, homes, jobs, friends, enemies, families, hobbies, cars, pets, etc. You don’t have to come up with everything for every character, but even which characteristics you need requires making a decision. Does it matter whether the killer has a pet or not? Does it matter whether it’s a dog or a cat or an iguana?

You have to think about where and how the crime is committed. What time of day it is. What season it is and does that matter. Who could have witnessed it. Did the victim make noise? What kind? Would that matter?

In one scene, your characters go to a restaurant. What kind of food? What’s the decor, the color scheme? Is it crowded or empty? Is it downtown or at a country club outside city limits? Is the waiter pleasant or surly? Is it a waiter or a waitress? Do they wear a uniform?

In the process, a writer has to make as many of the decisions easy as they can so as not to get bogged down by the choices. For that restaurant, you pick a restaurant you’ve been to, picture it in your mind, then use those descriptions because the details aren’t usually important to the story—it’s just a location for your characters to have a discussion or meet a suspect or an expert witness. Unless it is important—a character gets food poisoning or the restaurant has a common rear entrance with the crime scene location.

Orson Scott Card cautions about making these decisions too prematurely. If you go with your first idea, it’s most likely a cliché, something that’s been used so often as to present no surprise to the reader. They’ll get bored. So you ask a lot of questions to give yourself several ideas to use, then decide which is the best one for this story.

No wonder the first draft seems easy compared to the prep work! Unless I’ve decided not to do so much planning ahead of time, to write it in “pantser” mode. Writing by the seat of your pants doesn’t eliminate the decisions—you just have to make them as you’re writing instead of ahead of time. Sometimes that’s fun. You never know what your muse is going to come up with when you don’t think about decisions until you need to make them. Other times it’s a disaster. Some decisions make it impossible to construct a coherent story. You wind up throwing out whole scenes and writing new ones because they just don’t work. Or you abandon the story altogether. So, as I’m deep into that decision time as I’m planning my third Community of Faith book, I try to remind myself that I might be getting exhausted by making all these decisions now, but, hopefully, writing itself will be a lot more enjoyable—and a lot less tiring!

Picture Credits:
Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Truth and Illusion and the Movies

I saw The Imitation Game this week which was, as promised, fabulous. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightley give outstanding performances, as does the rest of the cast. I laughed and cried. I even thought about some of the issues the movie raised.

Since the Golden Globes are tonight, I decided to see if the movie actually had a chance of winning Best Drama or Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Actor. I’d like to see them win. I haven’t seen the other contenders, though, so wanted to see how the competition was rated. Which led me to reading the user reviews of The Imitation Game.

Several of the reviewers didn’t seem to understand this was a drama, not a documentary. They downgraded the movie based on issues such as the Poles not being credited for their part in decoding Enigma, the team not being given enough credit, and Turing’s openness about his homosexuality being downplayed. There is also a faction that believes he didn’t commit suicide, but hints at nefarious plots to kill him. They didn’t evaluate the film as a movie, a story that gets at the essence of what happened, if not the literal truth.

Movies and books and other forms of art often do this in order to tell the story. There’s even a term for it: dramatic or poetic license. It’s understood that the true facts may be shaded in order to make a better story. I’m pretty sure if the film had been made as a documentary, it would be seen by far fewer people. It would never be talked about the way this film has been and, although it might have been nominated for a Golden Globe or Academy Award, it would have been in an obscure documentary category.

It’s not as if every other biopic made adheres to the literal truth. (That’s sarcasm, in case you missed it.) Most biopics eliminate unsavory aspects of the subject’s life, unless they’re capitalizing on those, in which case they omit the other side. I’ve seen biopics that omit mention of a second (or first) wife or children. It’s inevitable. A movie is only two hours long, hardly long enough to capture every detail accurately. As an example, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” the book on which The Imitation Game was based, is 792 pages long. If you want the details or the literal truth, read the book. Even I am hesitating at buying it, much as I like long books, because I already have two very long ones on my current To Read list.

I loved Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp, which was the story of J.M. Barrie. Kind of. While hunting for a biography of the creator of Peter Pan to read, I discovered that Finding Neverland adhered to the truth of J.M. Barrie’s life even less than The Imitation Game does to Turing’s. Which still does not diminish my enjoyment of the story told in the movie.

Novels are similar. I put a disclaimer at the end of Shadow of Death because there’s one scene that could not have happened exactly as I portrayed it. I knew it couldn’t, but, after contemplating the issue over several weeks, decided writing a scene with what literally would have happened would have bored the reader to tears, and they probably would have closed the book at that point. So I salved my conscience by putting in the disclaimer.

Law enforcement officials generally hate crime shows and novels because they don’t portray reality. Don’t ask anyone in law enforcement about the CSI shows unless you want an earful of angry invective. Writers get details about guns and investigative procedures wrong all the time. Lee Lofland, a retired police officer, has written a book to help them get the facts right and writes a blog on police topics for writers. He does a weekly review of each episode of Castle as well.

The people who watch these shows and read these books, for the most part, don’t care about technical accuracy. They’re looking for a good story. And, even if the writer is well aware that a CSI would not be questioning witnesses or when a warrant is or isn’t required, the writer may decide, for the sake of the story, to include that “inaccuracy.” Because the truth they’re telling isn’t about procedure or history or a specific event, but what it means to people.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

The Pez Factory

For the first time in a number of years, I spent the Christmas holidays away from home. I have a nephew who decided to get married on December 27th in Connecticut and, in order to allow for weather or equipment or other delays, my family decided to fly on Christmas Day. Fortunately the weather held off and the delays, although annoying, were minimal.

One of the advantages of being flexible in your travel plans is discovering things you never knew were there. Since we arrived with a full day available to use as we saw fit, we decided to follow the sign off the highway that led to the Pez Visitors Center in Orange, Connecticut. I remembered Pez from my childhood, but hadn’t heard much about it and assumed it was one of those brands that had disappeared over time to be replaced with more modern candies. It turned out I was wrong.

The novelty of Pez is not the flavor of the candies, but the dispensers. It’s not just a candy, but also a toy. When I was young (a long time ago), the dispensers were plain plastic columns. You press on the back of the top, which lifts it and allows a single rectangular candy to rise up and protrude from the stack. It’s a simple spring-driven machine, but there’s something addictive about pushing the top and pulling out the candy to pop it in your mouth.

Over the years, the dispensers have evolved. They have Barbie dispensers and sports dispensers and superhero dispensers and Star Trek dispensers. I had no idea the variety of dispensers that have been made. Needless to say, there are avid collectors of all the varieties.

The factory itself was closed when we visited, but there are clear walls where you can look in and see the machinery. The process isn’t very complicated. The candy itself is basically sugar and flavor which is mixed and then put under 3,000 pounds of pressure to create the tablets. While the factory in Connecticut makes fruit flavors, sours, and even chocolate Pez candies, the original peppermint is only made in Austria. I don’t think there was any explanation as to why.

It takes under an hour to go through the whole exhibit. If you’re in the area, you might want to stop by and see it. It’s a nostalgic walk down memory lane.