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?

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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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The 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Without readers a writer has no career.
There are other reasons people write, of course. For therapy. For fun. For their family. Out of boredom. In prison.
But most writers write to share their stories with the hope of some financial return.
When asked what kind of writing made the most money, Elmore Leonard replied, “Ransom notes.”
Outside of that particular genre, professional writers swim in the free enterprise system, which usually involves two parties: seller and buyer.
The writer is the seller, the reader is the buyer. The product is a book. Or a story.
And in order for this exchange to work, the buyer must like the product.
In order for this exchange to become a lucrative career, the buyer must love the product.
Which brings me to the 5 Laws of the Fiction Reader:
1. The reader wants to be transported into a dream
Fiction writers often hear from agents and editors that a reader wants an “emotional experience” from a novel. Or to be “entertained.”
True, but I don’t think those go far enough. What a reader really and truly longs for is to be entranced. I mean that quite literally. The best reading and movie-going experiences you’ve ever had have been those where you forgot you were reading or watching, and were just so caught up in the story it was like you were in a dream.
It’s like one of my favorite shows as a kid, Gumby. Remember Gumby and Pokey? (If you want to keep your age a secret, don’t raise your hand).
My favorite part of any episode was when Gumby and his horse jumped into a book, got sucked inside, and became part of the story world. I wanted to do that with the Hardy Boys. Jump in and help Frank and Joe solve the mystery.
The point is, when you read, you want to feel like Gumby, like you’re inside the story, experiencing it directly.
Hard to do, writer friend, but who said great writing was easy? Maybe a vanity press or two, but that’s it.
When I teach workshops I often use the metaphor of speed bumps. You drive along on a beautiful stretch of road, looking at the lovely scenery, and you “forget” that you’re driving. But if you hit a speed bump, you’re taken out of that experience for a moment. Too many of those moments and your drive becomes unpleasant.
One reason we study the craft is to learn to eliminate speed bumps, so the readers can forget they’re driving and just enjoy the ride.
2. The reader is always looking for the best entertainment bang for the buck
In this, readers are like any other consumer. If they are going to lay out discretionary funds on something, they want a good return on that investment. Their judgment is based on expectations and experience. If they have experienced a writer giving them wonderful reading over and over, they will pay a higher price for their next book.
If, on the other hand, a writer is new and untested, the reader wants a sampling at a low price, or free. Even then, however, they desire to be just as entertained as if they shelled out ten or twenty bucks for a Harlan Coben or a Debbie Macomber.
That’s a challenge all right, and should be. But here’s the good news. If a reader gets something on the cheap and it enraptures them, you are on your way to a career, because of #3, below.
3. If you surpass reader expectations, they will reward you by becoming fans
Fans are the best thing to have. Fans generate word of mouth. Fans stay with you.
So your goal needs to be not just to meet reader expectations, but surpass them.
How?
By doing everything you can to get better, write better. To do what Red Smith (and NOT Ernest Hemingway) said. You just sit down at the keyboard, open a vein, and bleed.
That’s not just romanticized jargon. It’s what the best writers do, over and over again.
So what if you don’t reach that high standard with your book? No matter. You book will be better for the trying, and you’ll be a better writer, and you next book will be better yet.
Jump on that train, and stay on it.
4. Readers want to feel a connection with authors they love
Which in the “old days” meant maybe sending a fan letter and getting a note in return; or going to a book signing and getting a hardcover signed and saying a few words to the author.
Now we have tweets, and Facebooking, and blogs, and email. Different ways for readers to feel connected to their favorite writers.
Which is really what social media is about. It’s social, not marketing, media. Do it well and you build up a community and when you have something to offer, you will have earned the right to do so.
5. Readers need stories, so supply their needs
In fact, we all need stories. Stories are what keep a culture alive, as opposed to being on life support. Stories shape us, the best ones for the good, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Long Goodbye. The former is literary, the latter is genre, but it’s elevated genre, it has something to say that’s deep, and in this era of 50 shades of dreck and dross, there’s a crying need for books that elevate the soul, which can be done in any genre, even horror (just ask Koontz or King).
Obey the law! And readers will thank you with a fair exchange of funds.

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The Kindness of Strangers

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


For any of you who are on Facebook with me, you will know that last week I had a great deal to be thankful for, especially as a result of the kindness of strangers. 

The drama occurred last Wednesday when one of my neighbors (1st stranger really, as I don’t know him very well) knocked at my door around 7:30 in the morning to tell me that he had just seen our beloved collie, Hamish (as shown in photo above), being lured up the road by two coyotes. I rushed outside (very glamorous in my PJs and dressing gown) to see the most surreal scene –  two coyotes nearly at the end of our street cunningly leading my dog along to what I have no doubt would have been a nasty end. I never truly believed all the stories about coyotes working together to lure large dogs away to be attacked by the pack – but I do now. 

In a panic I called out after Hamish, who initially looked back at me with a face that said “are you kidding me, I’m having way too much fun!”. By this time my neighbor was running to his car, ready to help – because we both could see that Hamish was way too far away for me to get to him. It took me four attempts (and a lot of willpower not to scream at my dog) before Hamish turned reluctantly to come back to me. That was when the next stranger came in – running down her driveway to help coax Hamish and grab his collar. I’d never met her before, and although it was a little weird meeting in the circumstances (both in our PJs – saving my dog from coyotes!) I was touched by her concern. She was already on the phone to animal control telling them to send a patrol – having not only seen the amazing sight of two coyotes ‘playing’ with a collie but also making the decision to actively come outside and help rescue him.

So as you can see I have a lot to thank two relative strangers and this got me thinking, especially as this is Thanksgiving week, about the difference strangers can make. In my writing career I have been amazed how people who I’ve often never met, have gone out of their way to help me – be it booksellers, readers, conference organizers, blogger or reviewers. Although I’ve always tried to thank each person individually, I would also like to take this time to acknowledge how much we, as writers, rely on the kindness of strangers. I don’t mean that in a ‘taking pity’ kind of way – I mean those active, ‘go out of your way’ actions that can often make all the difference to a writing career. All too often we have no way to repay these acts of kindness, except (I hope) by following their example and helping other writers in our midst.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, which ‘stranger’ would you thank if you could? Have you ever experienced a moment such as mine, where the kindness of strangers really made all the difference (and there is no doubt in my mind that without them Hamish would have been lost forever)? Well, now is the time, to acknowledge those moments. We should also aspire to be these sort of strangers – the ones who don’t stand idly by – but who rush in to help when help is needed. 

Oh, and as a side note, this morning we received a ‘coyote’ calling card in the form of someone’s dead chicken disemboweled on our lawn. I swear I feel like I’m suddenly in some kind of ‘coyote godfather’ movie…thank goodness we have strangers looking out for us!

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14 Questions People Ask Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

As a writer, you might encounter the following questions during the course of your career. Preparing answers ahead of time will prevent you from becoming tongue-tied when hit with one of these verbal arrows. If you feel left out, don’t worry. Once you get published, these people will jump out of the woodwork.

1. At Thanksgiving dinner, your cousin comes up to you, leans forward and speaks in a conspiratorial tone. “I have this great idea for a story. Would you be interested in working with me on it?” Before he launches into a lengthy and convoluted plotline, give this response: “I have more ideas than I can write, thank you, but I know another author who acts as a ghostwriter. He charges $10,000 per book. Shall I put him in touch with you?”

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2. “I have a friend who’s written a book, and she needs someone to edit it. She’s desperate for help. Can I give her your phone number?” Let this person know that your services, if available, are not free. You would require a fee, a contract, and a waiver of liability. Or suggest she gain feedback by joining a critique group or entering a writing contest with score sheets. Another alternative is for her to hire a professional freelance editor, but you still have to make clear it’s a long road ahead. See Question Number 8.

3. You are in the doctor’s office, and he asks your line of work. “Really?” the doctor says after you reply that you’re a writer. “What do you write?”
“I write mystery novels.”
“Are they, you know, published?”
“Yes, I’ve written over twenty books. You can buy them online.”
“That’s impressive. I’ve been thinking about writing a book. How do you get published?”
“You join a professional writing organization, attend meetings and workshops, go to writing conferences, and learn the business aspects of the career along with the craft. I’d love to talk more about it. How about if we exchange an hour of my time for an hour of yours?”

4. “How are your books doing?” is another question you might get from friends and family. Here’s your answer: “They’re doing great, thank you. Have you bought a copy yet?”
Another writer once told me she’d like to say her books had failed, she had entered bankruptcy proceedings, and did anyone want to help her out with some cash?

5. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question at book talks. Well, I pull them out of thin air, don’t you? You’d think this one would be a no-brainer, but it’s a question that genuinely baffles people. Ideas are all around. It’s having time to write these stories that’s difficult.

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6. “Are you making money at it?” I’d really like to reply, “No, I’m starving, and I need a loan.” Many people think published authors are rich and famous. “I guess you earn a good living, right?” is another variation. Some folks will come right out and say, “So how much do you get for each book?” That’s like asking your doctor, “So how much do you make on each patient?” I have a standard response: “I write because I love to tell stories. My advice to new writers: Don’t quit your day job.”

7. “I want to write a book, but I don’t have time to learn the ropes. Can I pay you to write it for me?” See answer to Number One. Add a bit on the publishing biz and how writers are expected to spend time promoting their novel. Even if someone else writes the book for them and it sells, are they willing to put the time into marketing?

8. “Can you recommend a book doctor?” My answer: “If you’re serious about becoming a writer, you’ll learn how to edit your own work. All careers require practice and training, and writing books is no different. The only magic bullet is persistence. But you can hire a freelance editor to help you in the right direction. This still won’t guarantee a sale. Plus, publishers expect more books than one work. You’ll need to start on book number two right away, and be prepared to do your own marketing.”

9. “Can I find your book in the library?” Librarians order books, so we want patrons to request them. But this question could be a good opportunity to launch into an explanation about the sources of distribution and the different formats for books today. You could counter with, “Do you like to read your books in print or on ebook?” And even if the person gets your book at the library, encourage him to write an online customer review.

10. “Where can I find an agent?” Hello, anyone hear of the Guide to Literary Agents? The AAR site online? Attending professional conferences? Entering writing contests? Let this person know about local writers organizations, classes, and seminars. They need to do their homework. And no, I am not going to introduce them to my agent.

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11. “Is your book on the bestseller list?” This one is easy to answer: “Not yet, but if you buy a copy and tell all your friends about it, that will help me get there.”

12. “Have you been on any talk shows?” The line is blurred here between the concept of an Author and a Celebrity. Becoming a published author may take years of learning, rejections, submissions, and rewrites. Celebrity equates to stardom. Serious writers work at the craft because they love to write. They know it is not an easy road to follow, and they’re willing to put in the effort, suffer the indignities, and keep going regardless of whether fame or fortune come their way.Your answer: Repeat the one from Number 11.

13. “I’ve never heard of you. Are your books in the bookstore?” Again, this is a good opportunity to mention the various platforms for distribution.

14. “Any chance of getting your book made into a movie?” Realistic answer: “Unfortunately, it’s not up to the author. The publisher may [or may not, depending on your circumstances] own the film rights. An agent might be approached by a studio or interested party who pays a fee to option the book. But even then, that might go nowhere. So the chances are slim for most authors.”

Many of your answers will be individual based on your preferences. Consider every encounter an opportunity to educate the public about the publishing industry and what they, as readers, can do to help authors.

What we write comes from the heart. It’s our personal expression, not ideas we pluck from someone else’s consciousness or can teach in a quick lesson. Each person’s journey is his own. We get where we are through hard work, grit, a thick skin, and persistence.Yes, we can offer tips and point wannabe writers in the right direction, but they have to be prepared to do the work. And they have to love telling stories.

So how would you answer some of these questions above?

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The First Conundrum

Nancy J. Cohen

Often people will start reading a series with book number one. “You can begin with any story,” I’ll tell folks interested in reading my Bad Hair Day series. But they insist on starting at the beginning. “That’s fine,” I’ll say, but is it really?

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I am thinking how that first book is not the best example of my writing skills today. How long ago was it published? In 1999. And the book had probably been in production for a year before. So that means I wrote it sixteen or more years ago. Don’t you think my writing has improved since then? Yet here is this potential fan evaluating my entire series based on that one book. You’d hope she would cut me some slack.

At least I got the rights back to my early futuristics. I revised those stories before making them available in ebook formats. No problems there.

I do not have the same opportunity with my mysteries. But even if I did, would it be a good use of my time to revise all of my earlier stories? Or is it best to leave them in their pristine state, an example of my earlier writing style? If so, let’s hope that the readers out there coming to my series for the first time will approve and understand.

Sometimes the opposite is true. A writer’s early works are his best efforts, before he gets rushed to meet deadlines or to quicken production. In such cases, the later writing might suffer. I’ve seen this happen with some favorite authors.

So what do you think? If you want to read a new series, do you begin with book one or with the latest title?
 
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Now for some BSP. My new book, Warrior Lord (Drift Lords Series #3) is being released on Friday, August 1.
http://www.wildrosepublishing.com/maincatalog_v151/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=831
August 1, Friday, Book Launch Party for Warrior Lord, 10 am – 4 pm EDT. Join the fun. Giveaways all day! https://www.facebook.com/NewReleaseParty
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Rereading the Same Book

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently, I’ve returned to reading The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I like his other stories as well: A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden. These historical novels have tropes that appeal to me, and I could read them many times over. But who wants to reread something you’ve already perused when you have a wealth of new books on your shelves and on your ebook reader?

Bookshelf

I feel guilty rereading a volume when I “should” be reading a friend’s work to give a review, a book I’ve obtained at a conference, a freebie on my Kindle, or the books sitting on my shelves for years begging for attention. How about the newest books by my favorite authors? Shouldn’t they get priority? Why am I wasting time reading something I’ve already enjoyed when authors who are alive and well clamor for my reading hours?

I don’t even reread my own books, although I’d like to return to my original Light-Years trilogy and immerse myself in that world again. At least I had the chance to do so when I revised these titles for their digital editions.

How about you? Do you ever go back and pick a book off your dusty shelves or buy the digital version of a book you’ve already read? Does it make you feel guilty that you’re not sitting with a current novel whose author can use your customer review?

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Do you have a system to prioritize the books you read? For newer books, I’ll read the next installment by a favorite author or a book by a friend before titles by an unknown writer. The beauty of the digital age is that when you discover a writer you like, you can order the next book in a series right away on your Kindle or Nook. So the historical novel I bought at SleuthFest and am reading now, by an author previously unknown to me, is number one in a series. I’m not even halfway through it, and I know I’ll want the next two books.

This points out two issues about our current age that are both troublesome and exciting. The next books in a series are literally at your fingertips. Push a few buttons, and they are yours. That’s the good thing.

However, I discovered this book as it lay out for display at the on-site conference bookstore. Discoverability is the hot issue today. Most of us with small press or who are indie published do not see our books in bookstores, thus browsing readers will never discover us that way. If I hadn’t spotted this intriguing cover, I’d never have known about this writer. And that’s sad. We have to turn to free books online or book group recommendations to discover new authors whose series we might decide to follow.

Is there room for the older volumes sitting on your shelves, for those books you’d love to read again if only you had the time?

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Readers at Sea

I just came from the Florida Romance Writers cruise conference aboard the Liberty of the Seas. For a full report and photos, check my personal blog later in the week: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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What I want to talk about here are the readers onboard. In this era of electronic games, apps, and programs, it’s heartening to see people lying on lounge chairs and reading books. Some perused print editions and others had iPads or Kindles or other devices. No matter the method of delivery—what counts was the proliferation of readers out there.

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When people do have leisure time, many folks still choose to pick up a book. That makes me, a writer, feel good about the world. Despite the doomsday predictions and the bookstore closings, people are still interested in storytelling. The method of delivery may be evolving, but the love of fiction remains.

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This observation was reinforced during a booksigning event we had on board. It was held with ten authors in a dining room and was advertised in the daily newsletter. As a result of the notice, readers flocked into our venue and left with stacks of books. I’d only brought 12 copies of Killer Knots, my cruise ship mystery, and I sold out. Imagine! I did better here than at most other conferences. And had I brought along a few of my romances, I bet I’d have sold those too.

NanRoz

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Charlaine

The picture above shows our charming keynote speaker, Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that are the basis for the True Blood TV series.

I’m hoping that this enthusiastic passenger response will prompt RCCL to welcome such an event again. Their gift shop personnel sold the books and the cruise line took a percentage, so it’s to their benefit to repeat the experience. The readers are out there, it’s just a matter of connecting with them.

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When you’re on vacation, do you check out the pool area to see what people are reading? Have you ever seen someone reading YOUR book?

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Reading Fiction in Schools

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently I heard that the new core curriculum in schools is going to require 70% of reading assignments be based on non-fiction. I don’t know if this is true or not, as a quick search didn’t provide me with any further information. Nor do I know the grade level for which this would apply. However, it’s a scary thought.

Schools have already stopped requiring students from learning cursive writing. Now they are discarding literature as well?

I’ve always felt education should include popular fiction, in addition to the classics. Let kids choose fun and entertaining books to read, and you might create long-term fans. After all, the commercial fiction of today could become the classics of tomorrow. And look what Harry Potter did for kids’ reading habits. Thanks to that series, a whole generation might have been hooked on reading novels. We need more successes like this one if we are to inspire children to read.

Rather than a wordy tome or dry biography, give them a ghost story or vampire tale or a mystery. Engage their senses with wonder like we were engaged reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Otherwise, where’s the fun? And if an activity isn’t fun for kids, then it’s competing with online sites, games, movies and TV shows that provide easier entertainment.

Having children read a work of fiction and then analyze its components can encourage creative and analytic thinking. Without this benefit, will human imagination still range to other stars, to lands far away, and to adventures beyond the mundane? Or will these same imaginations be stifled because works of fiction were denied them, and they were forced to read boring texts that killed their interest in reading?

So is this true, and if so, how do you feel about it?

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Making Readers One at a Time


The other day I strapped my AlphaSmart on my back and rode my bike to Starbucks to do a little writing. I set up at a table, got my brew, started tapping away. The place was crowded, all the other tables were taken.
Presently, a gray-haired woman appeared and said, “Mind if I share your table?”
 “Only if you behave yourself,” I said.
She smiled (a good sign for a wiseacre such as myself). I motioned for her to sit. She had a coffee and an e-reader.
“So is that a Nook or a Kindle?” I asked.
“Kindle,” she said.
“You like it?”
“Love it. I’ve been reading some indie books lately.”
This surprised me. The word “indie” is rather specialized nomenclature. She knew what was going on in the self-publishing world.
Ever the opportunist, I said, “I like that. I’m also publishing my own books.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m getting very annoyed at the bad editing I’m seeing.”
Boom! Not, “Oh really? You’re a writer? I’d love to read one of your books!”
No, I was getting the boom on behalf of sloppily edited books everywhere. I had a little work to do.
I asked her what sorts of things annoyed her, and she talked about not just typos, but the misuse of words. The basic mangling of the English language. At one point she said, “Dude, open the dictionary or thesaurus.”
I started liking her then. A gray-haired lady who uses the word Dude can’t be all bad. I decided to interview her as a resource on what readers are thinking. She was a fountain of information. Here are some of the things she told me:
She doesn’t like too much info on “tertiary characters” because “I don’t want to get invested in characters that don’t do more in the novel. I get disappointed if you don’t follow through with them. Frustrating. Or they show up again in the last few pages and I think, ‘Dude, where the hell have you been for the last 300 pages?’”
Regarding reviews: “One star reviews are usually trolls.” But also: “Very few authors come up to a five-star review. I never read five-star reviews, especially with exclamation points. You see five exclamation points and I think, Please!”She looks at reviewer history and what other books they liked and reviewed, before making a purchase.
I asked her how she found books. She said:
1. Amazon mailings
           
2. Looks at the “customers also bought” books Amazon suggests on a book page
3. Sampling. “I love the free sampling.”            
4 “If I find an author I like, I read everything he’s ever written.”
That last, BTW, is in line with other surveys. The two biggest ways readers find fiction are 1) word-of-mouth from trusted sources; and 2) looking for more from a favorite author.
On opening pages:
“The first couple of chapters need to set out the story arc. Not too much slam bang boom.Where is it set? Still need the gotcha, gee whiz, but I need a sense of the larger story arc, too.”
“I like wit. I mean say something intelligent, say things that grab my attention. In that first chapter if all they’re doing is grunting and shooting each other, nothing is telling me if any of those characters has anything upstairs worth reading about.”
On style:
“Style does matter. I just read a book with a good plot, good characters, great dialogue, but the narrative portions were just subject-verb, subject-verb. Boring. Hasn’t he heard of any other parts of the language? After awhile I was dragged out of the story, almost like he wrote two books.”
She asked me about my books, and I gave her a card. As we chatted she was thumbing her Kindle, and about a minute later was ready to order one. She asked which one she should start with, and I suggested Watch Your Back.
“Done,” she said.
“You bought it?”
“How could I not?”
It was a pleasant twenty minutes, and I’d made a sale. Now I can only hope that I’ve made a reader, the kind who puts me on that favored list of authors she has discovered and wants to read everything by.
And then keep working on the one thing I can control, the actual writing, making it the best I can do each time out.
Because that’s the only way you build a writing career, Dude. 

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