Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Next Big Thing

Today I'm participating in a blog tour called The Next Big Thing. The Internet is full of blog tours but this one looked like fun when I learned I could "tag" some of my friends and give them some well-deserved publicity--all three are terrific writers, and I've learned lots from all of them.  I've given their links below.

My thanks for inviting me to participate go to June Shaw, whose work you can find at Many people who read mysteries already know her blog, and for those who don't you'll be glad of the introduction.

The purpose behind this tour is to give writers a chance to talk about our  "Next Big Thing." And to keep us all on track, we have a list of questions to answer. (Some things in life really are easy and fun.)

What is your working title of your book?

My current book is the sixth book in the Chief Joe Silva/Mellingham series. I chose the title Last Call for Justice because Joe's father, now a very old man, he wants to settle a crime from almost forty years ago. Joe's father has little time left and is determined to see this through.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Some years ago at a conference a reader asked me about Joe's family. She was quite concerned that I never introduced his family in any of the Mellingham books. I hadn't thought about it because I wanted Joe to be the quintessential outsider in a small town, someone who could concentrate on the crime and the citizens; I didn't want the story to be about him. The reader said, "So what's the story about Joe's family." She was so certain there was a story that I started thinking about all the little things I'd said about Joe's family scattered throughout the books. The story grew gradually until the day came when I knew I had to write it.

What genre does your book fall under?

This is a traditional mystery. It's not really a cozy, though not far from it, because it's not as light as most cozies are.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That kind of question stumps me. Joe is tall and handsome--Portuguese with dark hair and dark eyes. Gwen is Irish American and looks it. She's not beautiful, but she's good looking and her character and personality shape people's reaction to her. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Joe's father brings together all his children in order to settle the question of an old crime only to find that a family reunion is fertile ground for a new crime.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I offered this book to Five Star just when I was starting the Anita Ray series, and the editor wanted me to focus on one series or the other. I held back the Mellingham book and focused on Anita's adventures. But the story about Joe's family kept coming back to me, so I decided to publish it myself--this is my first self-publishing effort.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

A first draft usually takes me three to six months. I write about 1500 words a day but I then do a lot of editing before I feel I have anything that is strong enough to consider a "first draft." And then the real editing begins. I usually do at least 6 or 7 drafts after that.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My books are like some of the traditional British mysteries and perhaps some of Margaret Maron's work.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In addition to the reader who was insistent on knowing about Joe's family, Joe himself pushed me to write this book. I wanted to know more about him and his family, about how he grew up and what his siblings were like. I kept notes on some of the comments I'd made about him and his family throughout the five other books, and there were enough loose ends there to suggest I had ideas I could easily develop. The inspiration, I think, really came from writing about Joe for so many years. (When I first wrote this last sentence, I wrote, "came from working with Joe." I guess that's how I feel about it. He's my co-writer in all of this.)

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

When ethnic groups come to the United States they are safe to be who they are, to preserve the parts of their culture that matter most to them. In some cases the traditional culture is better preserved in the United States than in the home countries. But when people within an ethnic group begin to move outside, their choices tend to be consistent across their own culture. That was something I wanted to explore. I also wanted to look at how different relatives handle the same loss over time.

One of the comments I made about Joe at a talk drew a very strong response from the audience, and if I'd had a thousand copies of the book I could have sold every one of them in a nanosecond. I described Joe as a chief of police and a very decent guy. When I began writing I didn't feel I had to make him the typical protagonist who is forever struggling with alcohol, depression, a conveniently flexible interpretation of the law, and the rest of the flaws writers have given their characters. I felt he could be a good cop and a good protagonist and a good man. Part of this was because I was bored with the predictable cops and detectives I came across in crime fiction, and I wanted something different. I wanted a sense of realism in my stories. And I do think Joe is realistic. In my other life working in a social service agency I have encountered several police chiefs and police officers who are like Joe--decent people doing a difficult job with kindness and firmness and without all the literary flaws.

The best part of doing something like this blog tour is the unexpected turns in the process. Until I came across the last question I'd forgotten about the way people responded to my casual remark that I wanted to write about a policeman who was a decent guy and not an alcoholic or anything else. It reminds me of how much I enjoyed writing about Joe even when I was struggling to get something in the story to work.

And the other best part is finding out how my fellow writers will answer the same questions. Next week you can follow Skye Alexander, Rae Francoeur, and Kathleen Valentine.

Skye Alexander is the author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books.

Rae Padilla Francoeur's memoir Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair was published by Seal Press in 2010. She's working on a new memoir, "Partial Recall," while operating her arts and nonprofit creative marketing business New Arts Collaborative and publishing weekly book reviews.

Kathleen Valentine is the author of over ten books including fiction, knitting, and a cookbook/memoir about growing up Pennsylvania Dutch. Her fiction has been number 1 in Amazon's Horror category.

Kathleen is also the designer of my cover for Last Call for Justice.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guest Post: Edith Maxwell, on Learning to Write

Today my guest is Edith Maxwell. I've known Edith the early 1990s when she joined a writers' group in my home. I loved learning about her varied interests, and now I get to read about some of them in her novels. Her first book appeared this year, and brings together several of her interests.


I’m so pleased to be a guest on Susan’s blog today.

I just spent three days alone on Cape Cod on a solo writing retreat, and am extremely happy to report that I cranked out more than 15,000 words on my work-in-progress, the second book in my Local Foods Mystery series. This is the fourth book of mystery fiction I have written. It’s getting easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. But I do like to think that my writing gets better with each book, and I wanted to share the story of when I started writing book-length fiction.

Almost twenty years ago my younger son went off to kindergarten. I was home with my boys at the time, running a small organic farm, teaching independent prepared childbirth classes, and doing some free-lance editing. For the first time since my older son was born, I had every morning to myself.

I loved reading traditional mysteries and spent many happy hours with Sue Grafton, Susan Wittig Albert, Katherine Hall Page, Sara Paretsky, and more. So I decided to see if I could write one myself. I knew the world of farming very well by then and created a geek -turned-organic farmer named Cameron Flaherty. She found a body in her hoophouse and we went from there.

Let me clarify right now that I had never studied creative writing. I’d been writing since I was a child but had NO formal instruction in writing fiction. I didn’t know anything about point of view, avoiding adverbs, writing suspense, bringing setting and environment in as an intimate part of the story. Nothing, even though I had a PhD in linguistics and had written news stories, academic articles, fun essays.

After a few months, my neighbor across the street, also a budding writer, suggested in casual conversation that I might benefit from attending a writing class that several of her friends were part of. This was the group that Susan still conducts in her home all these years later.

I contacted Susan and submitted a couple of creative non-fiction essays I had written for a local paper. I guess they were good enough for me to make the cut. I started riding down to Beverly with others in the group every Wednesday evening to read scenes to the class.

Man, did I learn fast how much I had to learn! I basically rewrote everything I had written up to that point, which was about 70 pages. And then I went from there. We followed each others’ progress and offered critiques. I learned not only how to write better, bit by bit, but also how to offer constructive criticism. And I especially looked forward to those moments when Susan would say, “Now that’s very nice.” Those comments weren’t thrown out with abandon—you had to earn them.

I didn’t quite finish the book before the farming season started up again. Since that time I have resumed a regular day job, gotten divorced, discovered Sisters in Crime, had several short stories published, and taken my share of writing workshops. I have one book out (Speaking of Murder, under the pen name Tace Baker) and a three-book contract for that very same organic farming story I started so long ago, although I rerewrote it all from scratch, retaining only the world I had created and adding a Locavore Club.

I owe so much to Susan and her expert and gentle teaching. I’m really pleased to see the success of her Anita Ray series as well as the publication of another Joe Silva book, a series I still think is one of the best I have read. Thanks, Susan!

Tace Baker, the pen name of author Edith Maxwell, is the author of Speaking of Murder (Barking Rain Press) featuring Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau. Edith holds a PhD in linguistics and is a member of Amesbury Monthly Meeting of Friends. 

Edith also writes the Local Foods Mysteries.  A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die introduces organic farmer Cam Flaherty and a Locavore Club (Kensington Publishing, May 2013). 

A mother and technical writer, Edith is a fourth-generation Californian but lives north of Boston in an antique house with her beau and three cats.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Quantum Leap

On Saturday afternoon, yesterday, I moderated a panel on self-publishing. This is no longer quite the novel topic it once was. About five or six years ago I moderated a panel on publishing that morphed into one about self-publishing because one of the writers had done both commercial and self-publishing. We had about ten people in the audience. Two and a half years ago we put together a panel on self-publishing and drew about fifteen people. Those in the audience asked a lot of questions and the discussion was mild and easy going. Fast forward to yesterday.

Yesterday six writers showed up for their panel, and we waited for everyone to get settled. By the time we began--I was moderating--over 40 people were in the audience. That number grew to over 60 people. What happened in the last two and a half years? The word  about self-publishing spread and people began to understand what was possible. So many companies have jumped into this world with various levels of service that it would be hard for anyone not to find a resource for publishing their own work--in paper, in audio, in eBook format.

The writers on the panel had a wide range of experiences and were willing to share generously. They talked about their first efforts, and the high costs of not knowing the "system," and then talked about their most recent efforts and the almost nonexistent costs after learning how to do much by themselves. Another talked about the doors that opened to advocate for important causes, and another talked about the opportunity to put a personal experience into print. One writer wowed the audience with her own success--30,000 copies of one title sold in the last year (and her new car, paid for with cash). Another talked about her several books that reflected a life of both tragedy and triumph in working for justice for others. The last panelist described a new profession that allows him to work at home on others' writing projects while creating his own books. The panelists were varied and interesting and enthusiastic and generous.

There were so many questions from the audience that I, as moderator, could not keep up. Every time one question was answered, another ten hands went up. We could have stayed there for another four hours answering questions. People came with lists of questions about the process in general and their own works in particular; some came with their own self-published books and suggestions about what companies to work with. Most people were clear about learning quickly from any missteps and moving on to the next project.

When asked about the advantages, every writer--on the panel or in the audience--echoed the idea of control and time. Writers wanted to control their own work and they didn't want to wait months and years to see a book make it into print.

No one said he or she wouldn't do it again, and no one discouraged anyone else from giving it a try. We talked about the challenges in publishing something without assistance such as proofreading, publishing color drawings with text, copyright, business choices such as iUniverse or CreateSpace, POD and eBook formats. It was one of the most stimulating and hands-on panels I have ever participated in.

The big question for some of us was, how did so many people who were interested in this new world of publishing find out about the panel? The panelists did their job before Saturday. Every one of them posted the announcement somewhere--Facebook, a local website (Good Morning Gloucester), blogs; and it was twice in our local newspaper.

Yes, it is indeed a new world. And, to my surprise, I'm not the last one to enter it. Last month (which was only last week) I posted my new Mellinghan/Joe Silva mystery for Kindle. Last Call for Justice is on sale now.

The panelists are a group of Cape Ann writers and I hope you'll take the time to look at their work. You have lots of good reading ahead of you if you do.

Margery Leach
E.J. Lefavour
Thomas Hauck
David Simmons
Kathleen Valentine
Susan Wadia-Ellis