Writer, reviewer, and book blogger Judy Nickles featured an interview with me on her blog yesterday. Check out an excerpt here:
If you’ve written more than one book, what have you learned between the first one and the new release? I’ve learned to greet critiques from my beta readers with wide open arms. The prospect of doing major rewrites (or even minor ones!) can be daunting, but it’s a necessary part of improving the final product. I owe it to my readers to put polished, entertaining work out there for them. Odds are high that anyone’s first draft is going to suck. The more comprehensive the feedback you receive and incorporate, the more you diminish those odds in subsequent drafts!
I’ve also learned that there’s a reason most writers don’t achieve success at a young age. Writing well, for me, involves a deepening of wisdom, a broadening of life experience, a honing of the skills of observation and concision, and a hell of a lot of practice. A few very gifted, very lucky individuals write fantastic first books at an early age, but obviously those people are freaks of nature who should be isolated from society to keep the rest of us from looking bad.
C. A. (Carol Ann) Newsome writes the Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries, a series of funny, romantic suspense/mystery novels which are inspired by and centered around her mornings at the Mount Airy Dog Park with her trio of rescue dogs. She is also an artist with an M.F.A. from the University of Cincinnati, and you’ll see portraits of some of her favorite four-footed friends on the covers of her books. Her other interests include astrology, raw food, and all forms of psychic phenomena. She likes to sing to her dogs. The dogs are the only ones who like to listen.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): There’s an old showbiz adage, “Never work with children or animals,” and yet you’ve chosen to base much of your writing career on dogs, namely your Lia Anderson Dog Park Mysteries. Any regrets? I suppose the clean up and care of imaginary dogs is probably easier…
C.A. Newsome (CAN): I owe my writing career (and more) to my dogs and my dog park friends, so no regrets. The nice thing about writing about animals is that they never complain about the way you portray them in books. When I was an artist, I always painted from real life or photographs. I’m like that in my writing as well. My plots are extrapolations inspired by the people, places, and dogs I encounter in daily life.
Another bonus, I think it’s easier to gain a foothold in the market if you publish in a niche category. There just aren’t that many dog mysteries out there, so dog lovers are more likely to take a chance on an indie author.
It’s a double-edged sword, though. My current concern is not getting ghetto-ised as a “dog author.” There’s a lot in the books to appeal to people beyond the furred ones.
MFM: My own second novel, A Death in Duck, features a Doberman. I tried to make him as realistically “dog like” as possible, because I have a serious aversion to anthropomorphic pets solving crimes (although I do make an exception for Scooby Doo, obviously). Where do you stand on this divisive, hot button issue–the cozy mystery equivalent of the Israel-Palestine conflict?
CAN: I loved Spencer Quinn’s Dog On It Mysteries, but I have no desire to write the internal life of a dog. Not that I don’t think animals are smart enough. My experiences with animal communicators has convinced me that dogs are more aware than we give them credit for. But they use their brains to attend to doggie priorities. They sniff out dog treats and dead animals, not murderers.
My fictional dogs act like real dogs. They eat dirt. They steal remotes. They shed. They eat your pizza when you aren’t looking.
MFM: Several of your reviews use words like “easy read” and “light mystery” to describe your books. How do you feel about your books being described that way? Author Julie Anne Lindsey suggested that those of us who write funny cozies should band together under the hashtag #TeamFluff…
CAN: Call me light, call me easy, Just don’t call me silly.
I want my books to be easy to read. I want people to forget they’re reading and get lost in my stories. That, to me, is the sign of good writing. And I think we need to take what we do seriously. What we do has proven therapeutic value. We give people a break from their daily grind. We help them shift their mood and their attitude. We make them laugh at the foibles of life. We leave them refreshed and in a positive frame of mind.
MFM: You made the decision to “permafree” the first book in your series, A Shot in the Bark on Amazon, which means that even though it’s been downloaded eleventy gajillion times (exact total as of today), you get zero dollars in royalties from it. How did you decide that the permafree risk was worth taking?
CAN: I’m blessed in my online writer friends. We share our experiences across all phases of our work, from writer’s block to marketing. I was able to see pre and post perma-free sales of other book series, so I didn’t feel like I was taking a risk. Perma-free for first in a series works as one part of a marketing strategy, IF the book is engaging enough to make readers want more.
One of my author associates is Russell Blake (who co-authored the latest Clive Cussler). He’s very open about everything he does to create his success. His blog is http://russellblake.com It’s a great resource for indies.
MFM: I’ve read a lot of blogs with writing advice, including my own(!), but your blog advice for writers is genuinely one of my favorites. I’ll just pick out a couple stellar quotes:
“Most people can knock out 500 words in the time they waste watching a Star Trek rerun.”
“Somebody had to invent Jane Austen with Zombies.”
“While Barbie might be a paleontologist one day and Supergirl the next, your characters may not.”
One thing I think you’re missing, though, is the importance of getting honest feedback from talented writers and/or insightful readers. Now that the Holy Grail of becoming a published author is more attainable than ever before, getting somebody other than your mom to read your stuff is essential for knowing if your stuff is awesome or if it sucks like a medieval leech doctor. Unless your mom is my mom, and then you’ll get PLENTY of “constructive criticism” and “feedback” on everything you endeavor to do. Hmm… I realize that this has become more of a therapy session for me than a question for you, so, I’ll just prompt you in the style of Mike Myers’s Linda Richman character from SNL: The importance of honest feedback for newbie writers. Discuss…
CAN: Thank you for the lovely compliment! I didn’t mention feedback in that particular post because I wrote it for someone who was scribbling and aspiring, but not at the point where feedback would be beneficial. If you dig further into my archives, you’ll find How to be a Better Beta Reader: http://canewsome.com/2013/10/05/how-to-be-a-better-beta-reader/
I absolutely believe in getting feedback for two reasons. 1) If you plan to publish, you are developing a product as much as you are expressing yourself, and you damn well better have an idea how people are responding to your stuff. 2) Reading a book is usually a one time experience. You cannot experience your own book the way a first time reader does unless you ditch your manuscript and run across it ten years later. Which I don’t advise.
However, for feedback to be useful, you must first be grounded in your own vision.
I learned in art school that when another artist critiques your work, they are most likely going to tell you how they would do it. So we would have some hot-shot visiting artist come in, and they would tell me what they liked about my work and thought I should do, and it would be the exact opposite of what another hot-shot artist told me the week before. If you don’t want your work to wind up looking like a copy of your favorite teacher, you need to start by pleasing yourself.
You don’t look at your significant other and ask, “Is this how I like my hamburger?” You just know that it tastes good to you and hopefully you don’t care what anyone else thinks about the sardines and marshmallows you put on it.
When I taught drawing, one of my mantras was “Being an artist means having an opinion.” You have to be able to tap into your gut when you look at your work and decide what you want and how you want it.
So I’d get a talented kid who was looking to me to tell them whether something was good, or if they were going about it the right way, and I’d say, “What do you think?” And since they were used to doing what their teacher said and earning gold stars, that would drive them crazy. But the arts are the one place where you can do exactly what your teacher says and end up with an epic fail.
You also need to get feedback from people who like the sort of thing you’re writing. One of my first betas loves John Grisham, and kept suggesting his books to me. I finally picked one up and discovered that the bits she loved, bored me to death. We are both relieved that she no longer reads for me.
Right now, I’m preparing to send my fourth novel, Sneak Thief, out to more than a dozen beta readers solicited through my mailing list. In this installment of Lia and Peter’s story, Lia meets a new BFF, Desiree, who is being stalked by an anonymous admirer. When Desiree turns up dead, Lia is convinced the detectives assigned to the case are on the wrong track and starts snooping. Sneak Thief refers to Desiree’s beagle, Julia, who creates havoc with her larceny.
Bestselling mystery writer Allison Janda, author of the food and photography-themed Marian Moyer cozies, debates the existence of writers block, talks about sexy food photography, and confesses to her blogging addiction.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): I love your protagonist’s profession–food and crime scene photographer–partly because it’s plausible that she would actually have access to information about murders. It drives me nuts when, say, a glassblower or a pastry chef or a friggin’ housecat ends up stumbling across piles of dead bodies everywhere she goes! How important is it to you that your stories are realistic?
Allison Janda (AJ): Originally, Marian was just going to be owner and photographer for Food Porn, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. As you said, it just wasn’t realistic for her to start suddenly getting wrapped up in these crazy crime dramas as the head of a magazine. My leading lady needed to be intelligent and savvy when solving crimes, but she needed room to grow as a character, and room to make mistakes.
That’s when my idea for a late 20-something crime scene photographer came about. I felt the age and profession would give Marian some basic insights to her work, but with room to come into her own as she continued to get better and climb the ladder.
MFM: Your heroine has often been compared to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum character. Is that a fair comparison?
AJ: First of all, that’s just a flattering statement because Janet Evanovich is a ridiculously talented writer. That being said, if readers think Marian Moyer is funny, quirky and bad-ass in a similar way as Stephanie Plum, well, that’s pretty flattering, too.
MFM: You are a blogger extraordinaire. Has that been an effective way for you to connect with readers? Or is it more of a creative outlet? Or are you just some kind of out-of-control blogaholic in need of a 12-step intervention?
AJ: My name is Allison, and I am a blogaholic. I didn’t start out that way – I had one blog, Journey Versus Destination, for personal whimsy and motivational posts and all of that. It was my way to connect with other bloggers. Then, I got the idea for a 365 project, but to involve the story element, I needed a platform where I could keep tabs on my ideas for future stories. So was born 365 With A Twist. THEN I realized that over the past few months, I’d been doling out requested advice that has worked for me when battling my writer’s block and I figured – why not just post it for everyone to see and use? Out of that brilliant brain child came Writer’s Block is Real. Don’t ask me to pick a favorite blog – I can’t. They’re like children.
AJ: Ha! With my luck, I’d trip halfway up/down the bleachers and you’d win by default.
In your blog, you’d said “You may or may not have a natural talent, but either way, if you don’t put in the work, you’re gonna end up with nothing or with junk.” True. However, consider this: I believe my writing ability is a natural talent. The only one I have, by the way, so please don’t ask me to dance, swim or climb things (like bleachers or rocks).
I make sure to write daily. To improve. To try new ways of going about my words. But I can’t tell you how many times a week my words just totally fail me. It’s not even that they’re crummy – they just aren’t there. I write junk all the time. But for me, writing junk and not being able to form words into words at all, are different scenarios. The later is writer’s block as far as I’m concerned. I’m not anxious or worried or skipping my daily practice – I just don’t have anything.
Plus, I think you’ll find, many exercises in that blog are for practice. I too believe that honing your talent is part of the process – sometimes we just need a little help figuring out how to do so. What someone may think is “writer’s block” could be nothing more than “I have no idea what I’m doing.” That’s cool. The blog is for anyone who just needs a little insight into a new way to write. The title is just to stir the pot a bit.
MFM: As a best-selling author, can you share your number one, super secret, oh-so-effective marketing tip for newbie writers? I promise I won’t tell anyone (who doesn’t have the internet or speak English).
AJ: Oh my gosh. There’s a secret?! I wish someone had told me so that I didn’t have to work so hard! But seriously, the secret is to just keep working. Nope, work harder than that.
Also, build relationships. I don’t know if that’s much of a secret, but the bottom line is, people don’t have to read my stuff. If someone chooses my book – be it through a free giveaway or if they pay $2.99 on Amazon – that’s just humbling.
Readers deserve to know you appreciate that out of all the books in all the world, they took time out of their busy day to read yours. Thank them. If they e-mail you, even to say something disheartening, respond quickly and kindly. Simple, courteous stuff.
MFM: How did you make the decision to self-publish? Feel free to make up some crazy story about how you were pressganged by a Burmese drug syndicate who chained you up Princess Leia-style and forced you to churn out cozy mysteries. Or you can tell the truth.
AJ: In actuality, I WAS p- wait, can they see this?
Here’s the thing: I’d submitted my manuscript multiple times and just never heard back. That’s so disheartening. Ultimately, there was a lot of time and work and money put into creating a product I was proud of. Rather than be Cinderella waiting for my prince, hoping my luck would change, I decided to simply take charge. My SO knew quite a bit about self-publishing and with his help and the help of an amazing graphic designer, a real book was born. If you’d like a fuller explanation, you can read my blog about this very topic.
MFM: If you could go back and give your former self a bit of advice when you were just starting your first novel, what would it be?
Stop doubting yourself because fear is a yawn-fest. Just write. Love the process. Enjoy the product. Publish it. Rip it up. Stuff it in a drawer. Who cares? It’s art, not brain surgery. Quit worrying about it so much – and write.
ALLISON JANDA BIO
Writer, creative and owner of Curly Q Media, Allison Janda has dreams of writing a New York Times Bestseller and believes that most life challenges should be faced while one is holding a glass of wine and a Reese’s. She began writing in third grade and simply never stopped.
After attending Marquette University, Allison made a few pit stops on her way to becoming a full-time writer but never lost sight of the dream. She began a project entitled 365 With A Twist wherein she would write short stories along with a photograph she’d taken that day. When Allison couldn’t get one of the shorts out of her head, she just knew that this was to be her first novel. The short turned into book one of the Marian Moyer Series: Sex, Murder and Killer Cupcakes.
Julie Anne Lindsay, author of the fabulous Patience Price mystery series, muses on feminism, the importance of community and why writing is fun (in a never-ending torture kind of way). She also explains why she won’t be stabbing you with a shrimp fork any time soon.
Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM):One of my favorite writers, Ann Patchett, recently said that all of her books, which have very different plots, are fundamentally about groups of strangers being thrown together. Do your books have an overarching (or underlying) theme? Feel free to make up some fancy-sounding literary mumbo jumbo about how your island setting represents the existential isolation of man or how your villain typifies a Kafkaesque archetype of bureaucratic modernity. Or, you know, just tell the truth.
Julie Anne Lindsey (JAL): I like to think my books are laden with feminism. Not the kind that hate men and burn bras, (I mean, do you KNOW what bras cost these days???) I want to write strong, smart women unhindered by an imagined limitation.
Feminism aside, I try to make readers smile and highlight the wonders of community. Friends and family are what life’s all about. We can’t take anything with us when we die and we’re all going to die, so what matters while we’re here is how we live. The relationships we create, how we impact, encourage and change one another is the beautiful part of life. Patience may live on an island, but she’s not one. She’s part of a community who, no matter how different and often times at odds they might be, love her.
MFM: Your Patience Price mysteries feature a quirky young FBI administrator-turned-counselor-turned-amateur sleuth. She’s funny, nosy and unlucky in love–a bit Bridget Jones-esque. In what I read, what I watch, and what I write, I find that I’m I’m drawn to that kind of character, too. What do you think makes characters like Patience so appealing?
JAL: I *LOVE* these characters. I think you and represent a new and upcoming group, though. My mysteries were rejected by all the major publishing houses before Carina Press found and loved Patience. (Who has gone on to hit #1 on Amazon, B&N and Kobo in cozy mystery this year).
The target cozy demographic is something like 35-65 years old women and the guidelines for traditional cozy writing are stringent. Well, the incoming group of 35-year-old readers are different people than the last group. We’re looking for more upbeat sassy women to lead our stories because we can relate to them. We are them in many ways (too many ways LOL). We want a dash of romance. We want cute shoes and hot boys and friends who behave badly so we can live vicariously through them while maintaining the reputation we’ve worked for (or trying to leave a bad one behind). We prefer funny humor over dry wit and we want to see another young lady struggle with her waist line and say the things we long to say like, “Yes. I’ll have the double bacon cheeseburger, fries and a malt.”
Short recap of my super-way-too-long answer: I hope more readers like us will demand more books like ours and publishers will find room on the shelves this new generation of cozy.
MFM: Your books are often described as “cute.” Is that a fair description or does it make you want to poke people in the eye with a shrimp fork?
I think “cute” is a totally fair description. I write cozy as a means of escape for readers. A quick retreat. A reprieve from their troubles. I want the dialogue to be snappy and light, the setting to be gorgeous and the plot to unfold in fast forward. I try to create characters I’d want in my life. Quirky. Lovable. Worthy and fun. Hopefully, quite they’re all quite cute as well.
MFM: You’re an incredibly prolific writer. I’ve previously written that the trick to writing a novel is to think of it like digging a very long ditch. Do you agree with that assessment? And if you disagree, are you prepared to challenge me to a duel to settle the question? If so, I’ll need a bit of notice because I have to get my dueling pistols out of storage.
JAL: Can we do rock, paper scissors? I’m fairly good at that game, so long as you only answer scissors. The pressure to make split second decisions again and again seems to freeze my hand into the rock. Also, I still want shrimp after reading your last question, so I’m leaving for lunch as soon as I finish this interview. You should come with. Bring your fork.
To answer your question (I tend to bunnytrail) I think the ditch is a pretty good analogy. I compare writing to climbing a sand dune. That goes for the writer life in general, too. We climb a while, make some progress toward our goal, then the sand gives way beneath us and we slide back a few feet, only to begin again. And again. Sometimes we have to start fresh from the bottom. Also, there’s the relentless desert sun of every-single-other author’s amazing success beating down on us while we toil fruitlessly. Writing is not for the weak or tender hearted. It’s grueling and occasionally mean. If you ever make it to the top of the dune, there will be another, taller one waiting, harder one climb and with tougher critics.
What a glamorous picture we make! I don’t know why everyone doesn’t stop what they’re doing right now and write a novel. Come on, everyone, join us on the chain gang!
MFM: You and I have both written books set on islands. For me, part of the appeal was being able to take a mini vacation to the Outer Banks every time I sat down to write my second novel, A Death in Duck. Is Chincoteague Island a place you like to mentally vacation?
JAL: Oh, definitely! In fact, I visited Chincoteague years before I had a clue I’d ever write anything longer than a grocery list. The place stayed with me. I tell people I brought part of it home in my soul. My mind wanders there daily and when it came time to write a mystery, there was no place else I wanted to set it. Chincoteague is my idea of perfection. I’d gladly uproot the family and move if someone would help me buy the house. Offers? Anyone? No realtors. That wasn’t what I meant by help.
MFM: Funny books are sometimes thought of as fluffy, and yet it’s commonly acknowledged among writers that “funny” is way harder to achieve than “creepy,” “steamy” or “exciting.” Do you find it easy to weave humor into your books? Do you take issue with the idea that funny books are light reading? And if you do take issue, maybe together we can beat up those people who say that. I’ll just need a couple of days to prepare because my bowstaff is also in storage.
JAL: You have a lot of weaponry. I’m impressed and a little intimidated by you right now. My arsenal includes: scream and run. Also hide, but I’m not that great at hide. My run isn’t awesome either, but my scream? A masterpiece. I think I could do the scream for horror movies. My fear of mostly everything has developed the scream over the years.
I’m bunnytrailing. Let me reread the question…..
Yes. I like smiling. Writing the light stuff is much easier or more natural for me than the dark stuff. I think I was born half silly and that helps. It didn’t help in school or my dating years, but definitely now.
Are my stories fluff? **Insert nerd rage here!!!** Kidding. Maybe. I guess it depends on your perspective. My goal as an author is to make people smile, so if that goal isn’t lofty enough for those trying to change the world with global awareness while I’m trying to change it with laughter, then, I guess I write fluff.
I like to think that the woman who has cried out all her tears and picks up one of my books for an escape … if she gets lost in my words and finds a smile on her face, then how can fluff be bad? Where’s the negative side to “fluff” that can do that?
I’m proud of my fluff. #TeamFluff
If anyone’s still reading this blog post and thinking they need more fluff in their lives, I hope you’ll consider one of my Patience Price Mysteries. The third installment is a new release and you don’t need to have read the others to fall into the story. Here’s a bit about it:
Murder in Real Time With the chaos of summer tourists and fall birders out of town, counselor Patience Price is looking forward to the quiet life she remembers. She longs for some peace. And an apple fritter. But the calm is cut short when a reality show sets up camp to film a special about ghosts on her little island. Now fans, reporters and crew have flocked to sleepy Chincoteague. Who knew ghost hunters had an entourage?
When two cast members are killed in a room at the local B&B—a room usually occupied by Patience’s FBI agent boyfriend, Sebastian—she finds herself on the case. Sebastian doesn’t want Patience ruffling any feathers but, as always, she can’t help herself.
Patience promises to let Sebastian handle the investigation—he is FBI, after all—but after a drive-by shooting, her wicked curiosity gets the best of her. And with the TV show forging ahead with filming, the list of suspects (and the line of food trucks) only grows. But has the shooter already flown the coop? And how do you find a killer when you don’t know who the target is?
About Julie: Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world.
Murder in Real Time is the conclusion to The Patience Price Mysteries series, from Carina Press.
I was tempted to make this a one-word post. That word? Nope.
But on further consideration, that nope might need a little bit of explanation. Writer’s block is, after all, so enmeshed in the popular imagination that even my 7-year-old has claimed to suffer from it. I have never believed in it myself. Sure, there are days when almost every word that appears on my screen is utter garbage. Sure, there are times when I’ve painted myself into a plot corner so tight that only a major rewrite can get me free. And of course, there are days when the prospect of writing seems so utterly horrifying or painful that I’d rather be doing almost anything than sitting down to write.
Fundamentally, though, I agree with the great Ann Patchett, who thinks that writer’s block is a form of procrastination. Patchett recently published a wonderful collection of short stories titled, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. My favorite is “The Getaway Car”, in which she describes how she came to be a writer. In it, Patchett describes people’s incredulity when she says that she never suffers from writer’s block, as well as their extreme defensiveness when she says that she thinks it’s a myth.
Her secret is similar to the wisdom of the late Tom Clancy. When he was asked how to go about writing a novel, he would famously advise, “Just write the damn book.” You will encounter roadblocks, set backs, whole chapters that need to be scrapped. Your first draft will probably suck. Your second will probably suck, too. But fundamentally, the only way to get a book written is to sit down and write it.
There are those who would take issue with my argument; they would say that writer’s block is a very real, diagnosed form of anxiety. There are those, like Samuel Coleridge, who wait for the muse of inspiration to alight on their pen (or keyboard), and claim that once the muse departs, they are rendered incapable.
I have great sympathy for these positions. However, I’ve always thought of writing like anything else. You may or may not have a natural talent, but either way, if you don’t put in the work, you’re gonna end up with nothing, or with junk. Did Martin Luther King start off delivering world-changing oratory? Probably not. Bill Gates probably spent a lot of time tinkering before he built his first computer. Did Dominique Dawes spring from her mother’s womb doing triple flips? For her mother’s sake, I certainly hope not.
Anyway, you get the idea. You want to be a writer? Do the work. Even if it’s hard. Even if the first draft makes your eyeballs throw up. Just find a way to put words onto paper.
Enough procrastinating for me! If you need me, I’ll be back at the grindstone, writing my damn book.