June 26, 2017

Wanna Win Prizes for Your Work? You’ve Gotta Submit

My very first story won second place in a national competition which drew the attention of Reader’s Digest. When I submitted the story, I didn’t expect to win, but I did expect to write the best story I could. Indeed the final version of that winning story changed once the Reader’s Digest editors got hold of it. But, I learned the value of submitting my work.

After that experience, I submitted a nonfiction book proposal to a writer’s conference contest. It wasn’t as prestigious as the Reader’s Digest competition, but it still carried significant weight. Again, I didn’t expect to win, but I wanted a deadline for getting the proposal written. That contest gave me a deadline. I wrote the best proposal I could write and guess what, I won first place. A few months later I landed the book deal and published my first book.

From that point on, I do not hesitate to enter my work into contests. Of course, just like with anything else, we must do our due diligence. Here are a few tips for submitting to contests:

  • Look at previous winners. Are they all from the same state or region? Do you notice nepotism? This is a problem with many writing organizations. People award the prizes to their friends. Don’t waste your time or money on these groups.
  • Be weary of contests that cost more than $80 to enter. If the price is too high, it’s not worth entering. Many contests cost $25 or less.
  • Make sure your submission meets the requirements. Some contests require new releases–those published in the current year. Others require a certain genre. Don’t submit your mystery to a romance contest. Be careful to obey all the submission requirements. Often, they ask to have the book emailed to them in a particular format with particular information in the subject line. Obey all the rules or don’t submit.
  • If the contest includes a critique or a narrative as to why your submission didn’t win, that’s a bonus. Most do not. If you hold out for contests that include this service, you might limit yourself.

Once you submit the work, put it out of your mind. It takes months before the final decision is made. One day, months away, you’ll open your email to a Congratulations! You Won! 

Indeed if you don’t submit, you’ll never win.

Take a look at this video where I share my experiences with contests along with more tips.

Tips to Avoid Cliches–That Dreaded Word

I understand what that means, and I work hard to avoid those ‘trite’ expressions that haunt every writer. But, I do know one thing. People talk in cliches. Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I’m colder than my mom’s house in the winter”? That’s a great way to say, “I’m freezing to death.” The first is not a cliche but the second is. When writing descriptions or back story or internal dialogue, avoiding cliches is easy. But when writing dialogue it’s hard because it’s hard not to make the dialogue sound stilted.

Let’s look at the definition of cliche:

A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought:

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms: platitude · hackneyed phrase · commonplace · banality · a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person:

“each building is a mishmash of tired clichés”

Indeed, good writing is original thought. A turn of phrase that surprises the reader with its originality. Of course, unless you’re a poet, every word of phrase can’t be original. Cliches creep into our writing because it creeps into our thinking and our natural vernacular.

Nonetheless there are ways to avoid cliches. Here are some tips you might try:

  • Imagine the feeling you’re trying to express. Put yourself in that character’s skin before he or she speaks. Then express how that feeling affects that particular character. If you can make the feeling relevant to the character’s history as the example above, that’s the best. Perhaps the feeling, however, relates to the events around the character or the setting. Here’s an example: When I stepped onto the pavement, my feet sizzled (cliche: as if walking on hot coals) like the steaks my dad threw on the grill every Saturday night.
  • Dialogue is the hardest place to eliminate cliches. As I said before, we talk in cliches. But, here’s an example that Fredrik Backman employed with Britt-Marie. (He used this type of dialogue with Ove as well). When asked what she thought about the neighborhood drug pusher, she responded, “He has a very neat cutlery drawer.” That was a perfect response from this character’s point of view. It said everything.
  • Trick you mind to think outside the box. That in and of itself is a cliche. But it states what must be done. Go beyond and stretch. Ask yourself to come up with a description that doesn’t sound like all the other’s you’ve heard. Here’s an example: Cliche: Bugs danced around the light like moths to a flame. Non-cliche: Bugs danced around the like like happy partygoers.
  • When writing your first draft, don’t worry about cliches. You can capture them in the editing process. For the time being, you need to get the words on the page.

These are a few of my suggestions for ways to avoid cliches. What suggestions do you have?


How do Writers Choose Character Names? Some Tips

When we write a book, a fully grown person pops up. They have a history and a life that we know nothing about. Who are these people? What is their history and what in the world do we call them? Naming newborns is hard enough. Some parents spend months trying to come up with the perfect name. And these little people have no history yet.

People with history have characteristics that help name them. For example, if you have a character from a Latin American Country, you would want to name him Boris. That might be an easy and extreme example. But, how about a strong protagonist who tends to be hard-headed. Would you name her Celeste? Or Megan? If you have an extremely beautiful character, you might name her Kimberly rather than Jane.

I’ve learned that characters tend to name themselves as I go through the development of the story. Sometimes that means I have to change the name. That is hard because I’ve often gotten attached to that name. I recall years ago my husband and I had a friend whose name was Jack. I met him as Jack and he went through the first sixty years of his life as Jack. But, his actual name was Roland. At age 60 he asked all his friends to call him Roland. He demanded we do so. It took me a long time to accustom myself to Roland, but I finally did. Some of his friends never could and still referred to him as Jack.

Last names are equally hard. A last name connotes a heritage. My main character in the mystery series is Jenna Scali. I named her Scali because her dad was Italian. Quentin Pearson, her trusty side-kick, was named Pearson because he’s from the UK. The name Quentin took me many renditions. I wanted a particularly British name but one that was a little unusual. When I lit on Quentin, it seemed perfect for his character. He’s a bit quirky.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about naming characters:

  • It’s okay to make up names. Many people have make-up names. But, if you make one up, be sure it’s easy to say if said out loud.
  • Be sure your character’s names are distinguishable. Don’t name one character Bob and another Bill and another Bert. You readers won’t be able to tell them apart. Was Bob Lisa’s husband or brother? Or was that Bert? Don’t make you readers go back and check.
  • Personally I don’t like lettered names, like V.A. or B.W. Those kinds of names make punctuation hard.
  • It’s fun in a mystery to put some mystery around a name as Colin Dexter did with his famous detective, Morse. The readers never learned his first name until much later in the series. That gave the character a certain mysterious texture.
  • If a name doesn’t work–for example if your Beta readers agree the name is weak or not reflective of the character–change it. Find and Replace is a great function in Word!
  • Maybe you don’t need to name a character. I loved that in Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman didn’t actually name a couple of the characters. He called one Somebody for the entire story. That reflected the thoughts of the main character. Another he called The Girl in the Employment office. We never knew either name but it didn’t matter and it added to the quirkiness of the book.

How do you like my characters’ names, Jenna, Quentin, Marlene, Starr, Ralph? Thoughts?

Check out my characters in this book trailer for e-Murderer. 

Grammar Conundrums or is it Conundrum?

My head aches with grammar conundrums. Actually I thought conundrum was both singular and plural. But apparently the plural is okay. What about genre? That’s another one that causes my head to throb. Putting an ‘s’ on genre screams WRONG!

My most recent book: A Painting to Die for comes out in the fall. When we were editing that book, one of my more attentive Beta readers asked, “Is it I could care less or I couldn’t care less?” Lord only knew? Believe me I had no idea. Being a Southerner who speaks Southern, we tend to leave off excess syllables. My reader was from the mid-West and enunciated much better than I did (or than my characters do). So, I Googled it and guess what the answer was? Maybe you already know. I couldn’t care less. Trust me, that’s not what many people say!

As for my current work-in-progress, another one of those little colloquial expressions cropped up. Again it came from a Southern speaking character. This time my Beta reader asked, “Is it cut and dry or cut and dried?” Good grief! Again sweating bullets, I had no idea what the answer was. My characters tended to use that expression frequently. Mr. Google helped out again. What in the world did we do before Google? Anyway, do you know the answer? Would you have caught it in my manuscript if you were an early reader? The answer according to Google is “cut and dried.” Again, my lazy Southern characters always said, cut and dry.

Finally today I had a friend ask me a question. Friends do this because I’m a writer and they think I know everything. Anyway, she said she was completely inflexible or is it unflexible? Do you think I had the answer on the tip of my tongue? (or is it tips of my tongue?). This time Mr. Google copped out. Here’s the answer:

Unflexible is a synonym of inflexible. As adjectives the difference between unflexible and inflexible is that unflexible is not flexible while inflexible is not flexible; not capable of bending or being bent; stiff; rigid; firm; unyielding.

Can you figure that one out? My computer keeps auto correcting unflexible to inflexible. So… maybe the computer knows.


What’s a Great Book to Take to the Pool?

With summer right here and the pool beaconing me, I wonder which book I want to take to distract me from the screaming kids and the hot sun. Even though I love reading nonfiction, I prefer something lighter in the summer. A great mystery or a white knuckle thriller. You might even find me with a romance. Some of my friends enjoy fantasy and sci-fi for their summer reads. Summertime reading goes way back for me. When I was a pre-teen, I remember spending long hours draped across a lounge chair on our back porch, engrossed in a book. It’s hard to say how long I spent there before I got called away to do chores, but my memory of those lazy summer days is never without a book. My love of reading began during those days on the porch. For me reading signals a time to relax, put your feet up, and escape into another world.

Later during trips to the beach, my husband and I spent hours reading under an umbrella and listening to the sound of the ocean. I must’ve read every Robert Ludlum book there was. Once we picked our lazy bodies up and meandered back to our hotel room or beach house, we continued to read until dinner. Those were wonderful times. Reading made trips to the beach special even on rainy days.

So, many years later, I’m still a summer reader. That doesn’t mean I don’t read during the other seasons, it just means my reading choices change during the summer and those choices reflect the long, lazy days from my past.

and why they make such great summer reading entertainment:

  • Ann Cleeves’s mysteries, including Raven Black, White Nights and Blue Lightning. Each of these star a very charming detective who works in a remote place in England–Shetland Island. The weather plays as big a role in the story as the murder, particularly in Raven Black. Once you start on these books, you’ll want to devour all of them.
  • Amor Towles new book, A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s not exactly a mystery, but there’s enough suspense to keep you reading on that summer shore. And, the characters are incredible. You’ll want to read more about them once the book ends.
  • Unseen Motives by Joan Hall.  This is the first book in a series. It’s a very nice little mystery from a new author. The protagonist is delightful. Furthermore, there is a bit of romance to give your summer choice a bit of sizzle.
  • How can I compile a list without Fredrik Backman? A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here are delightfully light but full of meaning. While reading I both laughed out loud and cried. It you like sentiment, these books should be on your summer reading list.
  • I would be remiss if I didn’t include my own books. The Clock Strikes Midnight will keep you on that beach reading long after the sun goes down. And e-Murderer and Murder on Moonshine Hill offer fun diversions from life’s little struggles.

What Questions Would You Love to Ask Your Favorite #Writer?

I have so many writers whom I love. A lot of times I’ll tweet my review of their books and many will hit a like button or say thank you. But, I’d love to be able to interact with them. To ask certain questions. Either about the book I just read or their other books. Wouldn’t you? Don’t you wonder why they chose to write from a female or male protagonist point of view? Or maybe why they decided to write from multiple points of view. Or why the character decided to go back home after a period of absence.
Questions galore!

Here are a few of my favorite questions.

What are some of the questions you might ask your favorite authors?

I’d love to hear from you!

Take a look at this book trailer and see if it entices you to read the e-Murderer.

Crafting the Perfect Words that Describe Your Book–Blurbs!

Inkripples is a toss into the pond. Take a look at the ripples… Add your own… Mary Waibel’s World at Katie Carroll Observation Desk and at Kai Strand’s blog.

For those of you not aware, blurbs are the few paragraphs about a book that appear on the back cover or in today’s world, on online book seller pages. Those words are the first thing the potential reader sees about your book. If they clearly describe and entice, the reader will hit the purchase button. I can’t emphasize enough how important the blurbs are and how hard they are to write.

Taking my 80,000 word book and distilling it into a few paragraphs–a few enticing, enchanting paragraphs–is one of the hardest tasks I have as a writer. Perhaps if I was a more structured writer, it would be easier. That is, if I had a clear theme and outline going into the project. But, being a pantser writer–or one who moves with the flow of the book–it’s quite difficult. Often I begin a book with a theme or idea and it totally changes as the book moves forward. This makes blurb-writing a huge headache!

Here are a few things I’ve done to get through that arduous task:

  • Read other blurbs. I search for books similar to my book. I look for what captured my attention about that book and how the writer managed to entice me to buy it.
  • As you focus on the big picture, also think about your characters. Your characters drive your story and if they are compelling, they need to be front and center in your blurb. Who are the people in your story and what incited them to act?
  • Once you get the words on paper and you’ve streamlined them as much as you can, give the blurb to your Beta readers. Let them help you crystallize your thoughts.

Even with all these tips and ideas, I still struggle over my blurb. Does it really capture the reader? Does it showcase my book in the way it deserves?

I remember one of my dearest friends saying she didn’t enjoy the book All the Light We Cannot See because she said the back cover was deceiving. I did enjoy that book, but I understand her response. The back cover and the one-liner for that book talked about how a German boy helped a blind girl during World War II. If you read that book, you know that the two did not meet till close to the end of the book and then for only a few pages. The majority of the book was about something totally different. My friend was correct. The blurb and the one-liner tricked readers into buying. I liked the book anyway because it was a good book, but I’m sure there were readers like my friend who felt betrayed.

Tricking your readers into buying is not a good plan. Many readers feel betrayed and they will say so in your reviews. You might not be as lucky as Anthony Doerr was and win a Pulitzer!

I’m struggling over a blurb for my Work In Progress. I’d love your comments. Would you pick up this book? Is it compelling enough? Where does it hit and where does it miss?

Detective Sargent John Melani is losing sleep over the Langley case. All his instincts tell him it’s a simple story of depression and suicide, but something deep inside gnaws at him. Questions fill his head. He can’t let this one go.

Four women sit in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Meredith imagines stories about the others, too insecure to learn their truths. Kat sits like a mannequin, hoping to get in and out without notice. Paige compulsively turns the pages of a magazine without seeing any of the photos. Dillon scolds her son but never stops him from coloring the office walls with crayons. Lois enters and suddenly everything goes from quiet to noisy, from dark to light.

Was it a suicide or murder? And who was Lois Langley? Detective Sargent John Melani begins probing and what he uncovers shatters everyone’s world to the point that he wishes he’d written suicide on the final report when it first graced his desk.

Deception is a story about one woman’s power to deceive, which ultimately leads to her destruction. It’s a story that probes the inner mind and taunts us with the question how well can we really know one another?



#MyBookReview–Britt-Marie Was Here 5 Stars!

Reading the reviews of his latest works, I selected Britt-Marie Was Here with trepidation. Some of the reviewers complained that it didn’t match Ove; Others liked it even more. Being a savvy buyer, I decided to take the risk and I’m glad I did.

He puts you in the mind of his quirky characters, and he doesn’t leave. You might think of one response in your head, but he character does or says something entirely different. And what he or she says and does makes you laugh out loud because it is so genuine.

Click to order on Amazon

She spent the majority of her life living for her husband, washing his shirts, fixing his meals, cleaning his house, raising his (not hers) children. I was reminded of a robot, something without feelings or emotions that carried out the duties of life without complaint. Until the day of her husband’s betrayal. On that day, she walks out without a word, and her life begins for the first time. She’s sixty-three years old and about the bravest person you’ll ever meet.

Britt-Marie ends up in a very sad, depressed community. She brings something new and fresh into that community without really meaning to. Everyone touches her and she them. Changes start. Slowly and gradually. Not to give too much away, I’ll just say that she finds that life can be fulfilling and her final decision to finally live, captures our hearts. As a reader, I felt satisfied at the end. At the end of Ove, I felt sad. Nonetheless, both ended as they should have, as Britt-Marie would want it to end and as Ove might have predicted.

Here are some examples of the talent of Fredrik Backman. And, by the way, he says he loves getting feedback from readers, even negative feedback. I can only say in the negative light, that some parts dragged a bit longer than I would have liked, but after all, he was dealing with Britt-Marie and years to overcome. It had to be realistic.

A few years turned into more years, and more years turned into all years. Years have a habit of behaving like that.

The man smiles jeeringly at the men in the corner, and they look back at him as if hoping that by doing so they’ll eventually set him on fire.

She looks at him as if she just bought a new bag and he vomited in it.

She has never met a gangster with a correctly organized cutlery drawer.

Sami gives a deep breath, which is not at all a sigh.

Sven’s neck doesn’t seem capable of holding up all his thoughts any longer.

These are just examples of the amazing writing you’ll encounter in this remarkable book. Enjoy it!

For those of you who like to read print books, my latest releases, e-Murderer and Murder on Moonshine Hill are now in paper! Get your copy today at all online outlets.


Writers Tips for Showing Feelings

The word, “feel,” connotes telling. When you say Jake felt anger, you are telling.

This becomes a major conundrum in the world of creative writing. We want our characters to have feelings, strong emotions, but how do we convey those emotions in different ways to our readers?

Here are some tips I’ve found useful:

  • Show the emotion through nonverbal cues. Jake lifted the chair and threw it across the room. That action shows the reader how Jake felt. A tear rolled down Mary’s cheek. We know Mary felt sadness. Let’s say Mary’s situation was different. Something really funny happens and Mary gets tearful from laughing. If you simply say a tear rolled down Mary’s cheek, the action seems inconsistent with the situation. You’ll need to show more. For example, Mary chokes back the laughter that bubbled inside her. But unable to do so a moment longer, she howled with mirth till tears ran down her cheeks.
  • Use another character to describe someone’s emotion. Your point-of-view character may be in a better position than you are to share how characters feel. Here’s an example: Mark watched the color change in Louise’s cheeks. Her face went from pink to crimson in the span of a few seconds. Clearly, he’d hit a nerve. Again, Mark is showing us Louise’s reaction to the situation.
  • Fredrik Backman is a masterful writer. He’s the author of A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here among others. One thing I love about his writing is the quiet way he shows emotion. He does it within the context of the character. I’m going to share some of my favorite examples from Britt-Marie Was Here

She looks at him as if she just bought a new bag and he vomited in it. Think about that description. Yes, it’s telling, but wow, it tells so much. We know exactly what she thinks about this person she just looked at. I’d say total disgust, wouldn’t you?

She says the word “team” in much the same way as Britt-Marie says “cup” when she’s got a plastic mug in her hand. Here the author describes the feeling by using that character’s quirks. Britt-Marie hates plastic mugs. In fact, she considers anyone who drinks from one rather uncouth. Again, we sense the feeling without the author telling us what that feeling is.

…looking at them as you might look at a stranger on the underground who just sneezed in your face. Backman is so creative with his words to describe feelings that I found myself marveling page after page. Again, in this example, just image how you’d look at someone who just sneezed in your face?

The reason we want to show the reader feelings rather than simply tell them is it challenges the reader. It makes the reading more enjoyable. If I simply say, “Ted felt sad when he looked at his wife’s dresses hanging in the closet,” I’m leaving nothing to the readers’ imaginations. When I use some of the techniques above, I allow the reader to imagine the feeling. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to show and then tell. By this I mean, Imagine if Backman had written, “She looks at him as if she just bought a new bag and he vomited in it. She felt disgust.” Had Backman done this, I probably would have thrown the book across the room and never read another word of it. (What feeling might that have expressed?).

Here are some more tips from my writing desk.

A Time to Work and a Time to Rest

If we want people to come up with new ideas or create exciting stories for books and films, we must allow them time to rest and sleep as well as work. Perhaps we’ve always known this truth. Often people ask writers about their writing day. How many hours a day do you write? That’s what they are really interested in. A surge of guilt runs through us when we realize our writing time might not be the prescribed eight hours a day. In fact, many of us write four hours or less.

Recently I read an article (the Week Magazine 5/12/17 A Better Way to Work) where researchers have discovered that people indeed perform better when they spread their work out and take frequent breaks. The article discussed how many of history’s most creative people rested versus labored. Charles Darwin, for example, began work at 8am for about an hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the mail and write letters (our equivalent to answering emails) He resumed work for another hour until he ate lunch. After lunch, he’d answer more mail and then work another hour before taking a nap and later taking a long walk. He worked after the walk until dinner at 5:30. Notice all the breaks and the hour to hour and a half stints of work. This schedule enabled him to write 19 books.

As for me, my writing schedule varies from day to day. But, when I am in the middle of a work-in-progress, I usually spend about two hours writing after I’ve done some form of exercise. Later in the day, I do social media or write blog posts. That two-hour period of writing must be uninterrupted. Sometimes I work longer, depending on my mood and how the project is going. When I’m editing a work, I do more work in the afternoon. Clearly, I take a lot of down time when my mind can roam about. That’s often where I get my best ideas. I can imagine Darwin on his long walk, observing creatures and coming up new theories that he later expanded into a book.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, the Outliers, he discussed how successful people spend 10,000 hours a year practicing their craft. But that 10,000 hours is not continuous. Instead, the most successful people spend no more than 4 hours a day on their work. The rest of the time, they are resting their minds and bodies. In fact, the authors of this article point out quite rightly, that these people spend 10,000 hours a year in deliberate practice, 12,500 hours in deliberate rest and 30,000 hours of sleep. How about that!

So, no more guilt for the time you spend, walking, exercising, making lists, answering mail, or resting. All these activities will prepare you for your deliberate practice of writing.