About Nancy J. Cohen

Nancy J. Cohen writes the humorous Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Nancy is also the author of Writing the Cozy Mystery, a valuable instructional guide on how to write a winning whodunit. Her imaginative romances have proven popular with fans as well.

Farewell

Nancy J. Cohen

Dear Friends,

I regret to announce that I am leaving the Kill Zone. I’ve been blogging on this site for five years, and it’s gotten harder to think of things to say and to cover new ground. I have learned much from my illustrious comrades, and I’m grateful for the time spent in this writing community. To readers and my fellow authors, your feedback and responses have been highly gratifying and much appreciated. I wish you all the best and a Happy New Year. It’s been a blast.

Please note that you can still follow my posts at Nancy’s Notes from Florida. I’ll hope to see some of you there when I’m not popping in at the KZ to leave a comment. Blessings to you all.

Nancy

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Mystery Movies

As the holidays approach, we may be looking for gifts that appeal to writers. In my house, movies are always welcome. Besides the classics like Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, here are some of my favorites in the mystery genre or movies involving writers. A happy ending is a must for my taste. This list does not include TV series or the Hallmark Channel mystery movie collection.

movies

AMERICAN DREAMER with JoBeth Williams and Tom Conti.
One of my all-time favorites. A romance novelist wins a contest and a trip to Paris. En route to the awards luncheon, she’s in an accident and suffers a head injury. She wakes up believing herself to be the heroine in her favorite books. A spy caper follows that’s all too real, as she teams up with the author’s handsome son who thinks she’s a nutcase. That is, until someone tries to kill them.

DROWNING MONA with Danny DeVito and Bette Midler.
A funny whodunit in a small town with a wacky cast of characters.

GOSFORD PARK with Helen Mirren and Jeremy Northam.
An English drawing room mystery in the grand fashion that takes place at a country estate. Aristocrats and servants alike have secrets that slowly unravel during a hunting party weekend. Albeit a bit slow-paced, this film requires repeat viewings to catch the nuances.

HER ALIBI with Tom Selleck and Paulina Portzkova.
A hilarious escapade wherein mystery novelist Phillip Blackwood falls for a suspected murderess while searching for inspiration to unlock his writer’s block. Did the mysterious and beautiful foreigner have a hand in the victim’s death? If so, is he foolish to vouch for her alibi and bring her home? And are the accidents that ensue truly accidents, or is he next in line for her lethal highjinks?

MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY with Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
A Manhattan housewife thinks her next door neighbor is a murderer. She enlists her friends to search for clues. Probably my favorite Woody Allen film out of all of them.

MURDER 101 with Pierce Brosnan.
English professor Charles Lattimore assigns his class to plan the perfect murder as a literary exercise, but when he’s framed for a woman’s death, he has to find the killer before the detective on the case finds him. Will his students help him solve a real murder, or is one of them guilty?

MURDER BY THE BOOK with Robert Hays.
A mystery novelist thinks he’s hallucinating when his hero appears in front of him and talks back. He’s been thinking of changing to a new series and scrapping the sleuth, but now he needs the fellow’s help to solve a real murder.

THE BOY NEXT DOOR with Dina Meyer and Christopher Russell.
A romance writer goes on a retreat to a small town to seek inspiration for her next story. When her next door neighbor is found dead, the chief of police suspects her. Even when her place is ransacked and someone tries to run her off the road, he discounts her theories and refuses to look into the incidents. It’s up to our heroine to prove her innocence and uncover the killer before his next attack turns fatal.

FLOWER GIRL (Hallmark Channel Movie)
This is a classic romance with an element of mystery. The heroine has to choose between two suitors: a staid lawyer approved by her mother, and a writer who answers evasively whenever she asks about his work. Guess who she’ll pick? The revelation at the end is reminiscent of American Dreamer.

What are some of your favorite films involving murder mysteries or writers? Note: I am on a cruise and will not be able to respond, but you can make suggestions and I’ll check back later.

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Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here: https://www.facebook.com/NancyJCohenAuthor

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

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Value of Listserves

I just learned this tip from one of my listserves: Bowker is running a 20% off discount in honor of family history month. The code is Family20 that you apply at checkout. I don’t know how long this discount lasts, so I jumped on it. It’s Sunday morning. I saved $59.00. While on site, I also saw you could buy 10 ISBNs and get a deal to purchase another 10 with it for 50% off the second batch.

This tip came from the Fantasy, Futuristic, & Paranormal Romance loop that I belong to with my RWA membership. I’m not too active there now since I am working only on my Bad Hair Day mysteries at this time, but gems like this one make it worthwhile to keep my membership.

A post on the FRW (Florida Romance Writers) listserve is how I learned about TweetJukebox (http://www.tweetjukebox.com/ ). This site has saved me a considerable amount of time.

What is a listserve? (Note: The trademarked term is LISTSERV) It’s a group email list that you join, usually through yahoo groups. You can choose to receive individual emails or a Daily Digest. The latter allows you to scan the topics and jump to the ones that interest you by clicking on a link.

Much of what I’ve learned about self-publishing, promotion, and business of writing tips has come from the listserves where I belong. I mine them for jewels of information. When I see something relevant, even if it’s not info I need immediately, I copy and paste it into a file. Thus when I am ready to venture out—like into audio books through ACX—I have a complete file with tips and instructions I’ve gleaned from various listserves.

Some of these groups require you to be a member to join. Others are available to all writers. In my view, they might be time-consuming emails but they’re worth their weight in gold—or in this case, in dollars saved. It’s writers helping writers. or writers connecting with readers.

book club

So here are the listserves where I belong. I’ve included the link if it’s open to the public. DorothyL is the only one that is not a yahoo group.

Mystery
Cozy Armchair Group (Readers): cozyarmchairgroup@yahoogroups.com
Crime Scene Writer (Research Questions): crimescenewriter@yahoogroups.com
Dorothy L (Readers): Mystery Literature E-conference DOROTHYL@LISTSERV.KENT.EDU
International Thriller Writers (members only)
Murder Must Advertise (Writers on Marketing) MurderMustAdvertise@yahoogroups.com
Mystery Buffs (Writers & Readers) https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/mysterybuffs/info
Mystery Writers of America: (members only): EMWA, MWA-Breakout, MWA-Self-Publishing
Mystery Writers Promo (private group)
Sisters in Crime: (members only)
Sleuthmail: (Florida Chapter MWA members only)

Romance
Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal RWA chapter: (members only)
Florida Romance Writers: (members only)
Marketing for Romance Writers: MarketingForRomanceWriters@yahoogroups.com
Romance Writers of America: (members only) PAN, Tech, Industry, News
Southwest Florida Romance Writers: (members only)

Other
ELoop: Eloop@yahoogroups.com
Lifeboat Team: Private group – Booklover’s Bench writers
Novelists, Inc: (members only)
Self-Publish: selfpublish-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Publishers
Five Star: (FS authors only)
The Wild Rose Press: (WRP authors only)
The Wild Rose Press (readers) TheWildRosePress@yahoogroups.com

Do you have any other recommendations?

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Aftermath of a Writers Conference

Nancy J. Cohen

Recovering from a conference can take as much time or more as preparing for one. When you get home and unpack, you’ll likely have a collection of promo items from other authors to sort through. It’s good to keep some of these, as they can inspire ideas for your swag in the future. I keep swag from other authors in a small shopping bag designated for this purpose. It helps to have samples if you’re thinking of ordering a similar item.

What impressed me at Bouchercon this year? I always like Door Hangers. I did one myself for Hanging by a Hair. I liked the little bags of chocolate covered mints. I don’t remember the author’s name engraved on the M&M sized candies, but I do remember her book title as House of Homicide. One author gave out tape measures. My Bad Hair Day combs were popular, and every one that I put out got taken. As usual, the tables were a mess with print materials, but I picked up bookmarks for titles that interested me. And coasters are always useful. I keep them on my computer desk.

Swag

It helps to sort through the business cards we receive and add relevant contact info to our address books. I’d also suggest marking the date and place where you met the person for easy recall later. You might dash off a note to people you’d met or to booksellers who carried your titles. Uploading your photos and blogging about your experience will keep the memories fresh.

NanPanel1      DonConSandy

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I’m still recovering from Boucheron, held in Raleigh. Here you’ll meet fans as well as other authors, plus a conglomeration of industry personnel. I have piles of materials to sort out and notes from panels attended to write up. But since I’m on the road again for another book event, these tasks will have to wait. This means I won’t be around today to answer comments, but please leave any tips you’d like to share.

 

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Reader Question re Crime Scenes

Nancy J. Cohen

I will be on the road today en route to Bouchercon, so I won’t be able to respond. Here is a question for you to discuss amongst yourselves.

Do you prefer to read about clever crimes, ingenious crimes, heinous crimes, or funny crimes? Do you like these scenes to be offstage or on site?

dead woman

See examples of each below.

Clever crime: Stabbing victim with icicle that later melts, dissolving the murder weapon. Or using the victim’s own medications against him.

Ingenious crime: Getting a person who has a bee allergy in contact with an aggressive bee. Maybe multiple people get stung, disguising the true victim. This one takes more thought and planning than a mere clever crime.

Heinous crime: Abducting and murdering people then cutting up their body parts or dissolving them in acid.

Funny crime: Beating the victim with a frozen turkey and then cooking it up for the cops.

Which type do you prefer in the mysteries you read or write?

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First Page Critique -The Lunar Lifestyle

THE LUNAR LIFESTYLE

We booked the cheapest seats on the rocket, which meant that neither of us faced a window. If I craned my neck, I could see the other couples sitting in the expensive seats, ogling at space and Earth through their window views. I didn’t let it bother me. Once we got to the moon, everything would be free.

I turned to Matt and pointed out a leftover drop of puke drying on his chin. He wiped it away with his sleeve. He didn’t do so well with g-forces.

“Any regrets?” I asked him.

Matt shook his head. “We can always video chat my parents. Or your aunt. And we’ll make new friends up here.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Besides, Clara, it’s a fresh start. Think of it that way. A start for our family, you know?”
Matt yawned and thumbed through the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook as we waited to disembark. It occurred to me that there was no point in reading the Rocket Passenger Safety Handbook at the conclusion of a one-way trip. But he’d had a rough flight, so I didn’t say anything.

Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid, New York. Matt taught sixth grade math, and I’d taught seventh grade geography. Eventually, they had to close the school because parents were getting concerned with the levels of radiation in the lake, so we signed up to go to the moon.

Matt and I hadn’t met at school, actually. He tells everyone that he fell in love with me at first sight. I’d stood out to him, apparently, in my bright green sundress on a warm winter’s morning at the dentist’s office. I’ve never had the heart or the courage to tell him that I’d only worn it because I’d been too lazy to do my laundry, and it was the only thing I had left. I certainly hadn’t fallen for him as I waited to be de-plaqued. Matt had grown his bushy red hair out into a bushy red mustache back then. I considered it something of a public service when I made him shave.

Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base. There were six or seven other bases scattered around the moon-China had one, as did Russia and a few other European countries-but Matt and I would be part of the first group to settle the new American base.

My Critique by Nancy J. Cohen

Being a science fiction fan, I loved the opening. I surmise Matt and Clara are married and are about to embark on a new life on the moon. The point of view is clear, and I’m interested in these characters and their new adventure.

But then the story segues into a flashback that stops the forward motion cold. Starting with this paragraph— “Matt and I had lived in Lake Placid…” and ending at the next paragraph, “…when I made him shave”—it’s all background info that could have been woven into the story later or brought in via dialogue.

Then suddenly the rocket is docking. I would have liked to stay in the moment during their voyage to experience it with them. Their reactions would help the reader learn more about these characters via conversation and their gut responses to the trip. The voyage went too fast.

Also, you’re telling rather than showing. Instead of “Our rocket docked directly inside the lunar base,” let us share this trip through their sensory impressions as the rocket turns, descends, decelerates and docks. Does their pulse race? Their stomachs churn with anxiety as the ship tilts? Their hearts lurch as the vehicle thumps to a landing? I want to smell the rocket fuel. In other words, show—don’t tell. This could be an exciting trip told through the viewpoint of these newlyweds. But you lost me at “Matt and I…”

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Paid Book Reviews

Nancy J. Cohen

There’s a disturbing trend toward paid reviews. Indie authors may have a difficult time getting their books reviewed, so this is an option for them. But it’s an issue for any traditionally published author who wishes to get more critical reviews for their new release, aside from the places where their publisher has sent advance reading copies. Here are some sites I’ve heard of but am by no means recommending. Do the research on your own.

books2

Kirkus Indie Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/author-services/indie/ costs $425. You can submit 2 print copies or a digital submission.

Publishers Weekly: At a site called Book Life, you can register your title and decide what services you want, i.e. getting your book reviewed or help with marketing. http://booklife.com/ It appears to be free, but marketing services are available. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/diy/index.html

RT Book Reviews: This magazine offers a paid service for $425 through RT Review Source: http://www.rtreviewsource.com/

Net Galley: $399 for a six month title listing, or $599 for a listing along with a spot in their newsletter. https://netgalley.uservoice.com/knowledgebase/articles/105722-do-you-work-with-individual-authors . Here your book might attract the attention of librarians, booksellers, reviewers and bloggers.

Edelweiss: If you’re traditionally published, ask if your book is listed at Edelweiss. This is where booksellers and librarians go to browse and place orders. Reviewers can request digital ARCs there too. Publishers pay for listings. The pricing for the catalog is based on the number of titles the publisher plans to feature in a year. An administrative fee is also charged annually for this service. In addition, there’s a digital review service that publishers can participate in either separately or along with the catalog listing. http://edelweiss.abovethetreeline.com/HomePage.aspx

Choosy Bookworm: http://authors.choosybookworm.com/book-reviews/ . For $99, they hint you might get 30 interested readers who will post reviews but no guarantees.

Nerdy Girls Book Reviews: http://nerdygirlbookreviews.com/authors/ Their basic package is $49 for 30-35 reader reviews.

Chanticleer Book Reviews cost $325: http://www.chantireviews.com/book-reviews/

Of course, you have many other options. Go on a blog tour where the hosts offer reviews. Do giveaways on Goodreads and LibraryThing and hope that the winners post their consumer reviews. Or buy inexpensive ads where a review might be part of the package. It’s not easy to attract the big guns but you can still get bloggers on your side.

How do you feel about paid reviews?

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Bookus Interruptus

Nancy J. Cohen

You’ve all heard of another type of interruption in the middle of a certain act which I’d rather not mention here, yes? Consider this one similar, except we’re talking about interrupting your writing process when you’re in the frenzy of storytelling. How disconcerting when you’re working on book number 14 in your series, and you get an email announcing that edits for number 13 have arrived. You have to disrupt your train of thought and put aside the current WIP to go back to the previous book. Two weeks are gone to the winds while you answer your editor’s notes, polish each scene, and perfect each sentence for the umpteenth time. This book takes over, and you think of nothing else until the job is done. With a sense of relief, you send this version back across cyberspace, aware that you still have rereads of the copy edits and page proofs further down the line.

writing

Nudging at the edges of your mind is the reminder that you have blogs to write and interviews to do for your upcoming new release of book number 12. Have you ordered swag yet to promote this title? Designed your contests, newsletter, Facebook launch party, and other activities as the release date nears?

Book number 14 calls to you. It’s sitting front and center on your desk, and you yearn to get back to the story. But your mind tells you to get these other tasks done, and only then will you be free to resume the joy of storytelling. When you’re finally able to return to writing, you face the blank page with a blank look on your face. You’ve lost your train of thought and your place in the story. So how do you get your head back in the game?

Hopefully, you’ve made detailed notes on where you left off in your WIP and what comes next. Review these plot points when it’s time to resume the story. Line edit what you’ve already written. This will save you time later and reacquaint you with what’s come before in the story. Then set a date when you must begin your writing schedule again.

It’s hard when you have interruptions, whether for edits of other works or for conferences and events that you have to attend. Prepare for your departure as best you can by noting the next scene and any surprises you have planned along the way. It helps to have a synopsis. Then you can see where you left off and continue from that point onward. What technique do you use to get your mind back in the story?

Contest Alert!
Name a Character in my next Bad Hair Day Mystery! Or win one of two runner-up prizes: a signed paperback of Hanging by a Hair and a deck of Marco Island Playing Cards, or a signed paperback of Shear Murder and a deck of Tropical Drink Playing Cards. http://bit.ly/15SmIi0

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Sculpting That Manuscript

Terry Odell

When we first moved to Colorado, we rented a tiny studio apartment while looking for a permanent home. One evening, our landlords invited us up for a glass of wine and some conversation. She is a sculptor who works primarily in stone. She mentioned it was interesting we were both artists.

Frankly, I’d never considered myself an artist, but we discussed our creative processes. There’s an old saying that in order to carve a block of stone into an elephant, you simply chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. In writing, you keep adding until you get the elephant.

If writing were like sculpting, it would mean being able to change what comes next, but not what came before. Scary. Really scary. When the sculptor asked how I created a book, what my preparation process was, did I outline the plot, or develop the characters, I answered that I knew very little when I first started writing.

She said she worked the same way. She might have a very simple sketch—no more than a line drawing, when she started, and a vague idea of the finished product—but the actual sculpture was dictated by the stone. She starts working and lets the stone show her the way.

That sounds very much like my own writing style. I joked about how my characters were always surprising me, and that the discovery was as much fun as the final product. On that, we were in total agreement.

But imagine if you started writing your book and couldn’t go back to fix things. Once you chip away that piece of marble, it’s gone and you can’t reattach it to the sculpture. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘first draft’ for her. Some artists might make models first, using a different, “less valuable” kind of medium, but she likes to get right to it.

I remember going to a RWA chapter meeting, and as we shared where we were with our writing since the last meeting, one woman said, “I’m on Chapter 30 and have only 5 chapters left to go.” I was flabbergasted. How did she know what was going to go into each chapter, and that much in advance? How did she know her book was going to be 35 chapters long? A recent book ended up going on for about 4 chapters more after I thought I was writing the final chapter. And my editor asked me to expand even more. Glad I wasn’t a sculptor!

But when you do finally reach the end, if you’re like me, your book is full of “extra stuff”. It’s time to play sculptor and chisel away the words, paragraphs, scenes that aren’t helping your book look like the elephant it’s supposed to be. My first attempt at writing a novel came in at 143,000 words. The agents and editors I spoke with said 100,000 was the absolute top limit they’d even look at for a debut author.

Time to cut. You start with the jack hammer, removing any scenes that aren’t moving the story forward (even though they’re probably your favorites). “Does it advance the plot?” becomes your mantra. This is where you’re probably letting everyone know how much research you did. What constellations are visible in the night sky at 10 PM in Salem, Oregon? What’s the story behind Orion? What are the landmarks visible from the passenger seat while driving north on I-25 between Denver and Cripple Creek? What kind of cattle are grazing in the pastureland? How many coal trains chug by each day, carrying how much coal? Ask yourself two questions. 1: Does the reader need to know this. 2: Does the reader need to know this now? That 143,000 word book, Finding Sarah, was published at about 85K.

Finding Sarah

Another question to ask is “Does it come back?” In my book, Deadly Secrets, I had a scene where my heroine comes into her diner and tells the cop hero that she thinks someone’s in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There’s mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP. “Get behind the counter” is all that’s needed. Readers, especially mystery readers, don’t like a parade of red flags that have no place in the story.

Deadly Secrets

After you’ve tossed those big chunks of stone, you can get out the chisel and look at your narrative. Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it. Are you repeating yourself even when you’re showing?

Once you’ve got the story essentials, you can get out the little grinders and brushes to get rid of those sneaky crutch words—the ones that creep into your manuscript when you close your file. (A handy writer’s tool for this is Smart Edit, which will find overused words you never saw coming.) Check for ‘filler’ words. Just, really, well, very, some (and all its variations). When we speak, we use ‘filler words’ to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they’re not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Once you’ve got your elephant cleaned and polished, it’s time to get it out there on exhibit, whether to an agent, editor, or beta reader.

What’s your writing style? I’m an ‘edit as I go’ writer, but even then, I have to go back and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

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Thanks so much to Nancy for inviting me to be a guest at The Kill Zone. I’m thrilled to be here.
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TerryOdellFrom childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.

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