Guest Post: Carolyn Haines, Southern Mystery Doyenne

Hey, y’all! I’m so excited to have writer Carolyn Haines visit with us. Decades ago, even before Carolyn started her mystery series featuring Sarah Booth Delaney, I saw several of her books shelved in a place of honor at a friend’s house. My friend told me that Carolyn was a wonderful writer, and as an unpublished newbie, I immediately got stars in my eyes knowing I was thatclose to a famous writer. Carolyn’s writing is truly wonderful, and these days, I’m proud to call her my own good friend.

(If you’re in the Houston area, dash over to the amazing MURDER BY THE BOOK for a signing event with Carolyn, plus Terry Shames, TONIGHT at 6:30 p.m.)

Carolyn is here to talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of having a successful, long-running series. Please give her a warm TKZ welcome!

LONG LIVE THE BONES

I’ve been writing about my amateur detective Sarah Booth Delaney for over 20 years—and I have 20 books documenting her mystery-solving skills. The latest, GAME OF BONES, was just released. But I have to tell you, it’s my time to whine. In the world of Zinnia, Mississippi, Sarah Booth Delaney seldom ages. In the twenty years I’ve been writing about her and the rest of the gang, Sarah Booth has aged less than two years. I, on the other hand, have stacked two decades onto my total orbits around the sun. This is not fair.

While Sarah Booth remains eternally young, still able to consider pregnancy (though she is pushing that really hard as her personal “haint” Jitty would tell her) and still able to perform the physical feats that make her a good detective (and also a bit like Lucille Ball), I am feeling the passage of the years in my bones. Sarah Booth has never met trouble she didn’t want to get down and wallow in. I have not been arrested in a while, so I’m a slacker.

I’ve read a lot of blogs from authors who talk about “when it’s time to end a series.” To be perfectly honest, when I wrote THEM BONES, I didn’t realize I was writing a series. The book sold at auction and the publisher who bought it wanted a 3-book deal. I was terrified. I’ve always read mysteries, but I never considered myself a skilled plotter. But there I was—with two additional mysteries to write, and then two more, and then two more, and then three, etc., etc.

Now, the characters are so much a part of my daily life that it’s hard to imagine NOT writing about them. They are family, and I love the work of bringing their adventures to the page.

Over the course of two decades, I’ve outlined the series arc. I know what the last book in the series will be, but since I just signed another three-book contract, it won’t be until after 2022. (There will be two books in 2021. One in May, my regular publication time, and a special Christmas book.)

Through the years, folks have pressured me to marry Sarah Booth off and let her have young-uns. I’ve resisted this pressure for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Sarah Booth doesn’t listen to me or to Jitty, her ancestral ghost who tries to boss her around for her own good. I tried to edge Sarah Booth toward more romance with one character, but she balked completely. She knows her own mind. As I said, she is like family and the Haines clan is known to be hard-headed. My guidance is often rejected. But again, that makes the stories interesting to write.

Aside from Sarah Booth’s recalcitrant behavior, there are other reasons. I’ve read a lot of series books and watched a lot of series television where the two leading characters finally give in to lust, love, or domesticity. That’s the point I lose interest in the characters. I realize not all people are like me, but as the writer, I refuse to spend time in a world that bores me. As it stands now, Sarah Booth has a love interest, but romance is always a dicey business with my feisty anti-belle. Sarah Booth breaks the rules of polite society and she disdains the expectations to marry.

Each book in the series is a complete, standalone mystery, but the characters do change. I’m really proud of the way that my characters have grown. While Sarah Booth and her friend and partner Tinkie have madcap adventures, they are serious about the life decisions they make and the values they buy into. The cases they tackle highlight some tough issues, but always with humor. Most of all, the characters and I want to make you laugh and have fun. “A lot of life’s hardships are soothed by laughter.”—that’s a Sarah Booth quote.

I just finished the last season of GAME OF THRONES, where a lot of characters die. Some I watched with relish and others I mourned. I don’t have any plans to kill off any characters in the Zinnia universe. Just remember, I don’t have total control of this world. Sarah Booth goes her own way and she’s been heard to say, when asked why there are so many homicides in her small town of Zinnia, Mississippi, “A lotta men just need killing.” I concur. Some people beg for a swift end. Sarah Booth would be happy to deliver on that. Patience is a virtue she doesn’t have.

When I listen to other writers talk about ending their series at 8 or 9 books, I understand. Writing a book is an intense relationship with the characters. When a writer is tired of a character, it’s time. Give the series a dignified ending. What I really hate is an abrupt end to a series with so many questions unanswered—and no way to find an answer. The pulling of the publishing or television plug is an unfortunate part of the business that upsets both readers and writers. I do have an exit strategy, but I am a long way from executing it.

I write other series, and I think that keeps me fresh to “document” Sarah Booth’s escapades. I love writing humorous books, but I am also a fan of gothic/horror and mystery/fantasy, so I explore those worlds in other series. I’ve published over 80 books. I love riding my horse, caring for my pets, pranking my family and friends—and telling stories.

Sarah Booth will tell me when it’s time to let go, but I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

Where to find Carolyn:

Carolyn’s Facebook Page

GAME OF BONES  links

Carolyn’s Newsletter Sign-up and Website

Carolyn Haines is the USA Today bestselling author of the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series and a number of other books in mystery and crime, including the Pluto’s Snitch paranormal-historical mystery series, and Trouble, the black cat detective romantic suspense books. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the Mississippi Writers Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a former journalist, bartender, photographer, farmhand, and college professor and lives on a farm where she works with rescue cats, dogs, and horses.

 

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Writer, Stretch Yourself (Like a Big Black Cat)

 

My own green-eyed black cat, Sylvie

I’m on summer vacation. No, I’m not taking any beach trips, darn it. I enjoyed a fun birthday/writing retreat in Nashville at the beginning of July, and spent the weekend of the 16th in Cincinnati with my parents for their 57th anniversary, instead of going to Thrillerfest. Mostly my vacation means I’m making only occasional excursions to social media, and I’ve given my daily blog a rest. Okay, the rest is really for me, not the blog. Oh, and I’ve been writing a novel.

Yes, that is what I do for work, too. But somehow writing this novel feels less like work and more like a summer enrichment project I might have worked on for fun when I was a kid. (One elementary summer I did a public television school math course where we had to order the workbook by mail, and I loved it. Geek much?)

For years I’ve wanted to write a cozy mystery. My existing novels are so far from being cozies that when I tell people of this desire, they give me looks that range from alarm to puzzlement. But for me, it’s just a matter of wanting to try something new. The novel I’m publishing with Mulholland Books next year, ONE LAST SECRET, is straight suspense, without any supernatural elements–and that is new for me. The cozy I’m working on is simply me trying another new thing.

Have you ever done a modeling writing exercise? I had a workshop teacher who often gave us exercises in which we would try to write in the style/voice of a famous writer: Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, Hemingway. Hemingway was my favorite. We wrote as less distinctive writers, too. It’s an excellent exercise for emerging writers because it’s rather like walking in the shoes of the greats. Those shoes never fit, of course, but it’s as fun as being a four-year-old in Mom’s high heels. It’s useful, too. Developing one’s singular writing style takes a long time, and the exercise puts you immediately into the head of an established voice.

While I’m not particularly mystical, I have a strong belief in Things Happening For A Reason. So when my good writer friend, Carolyn Haines–who has written around 850,000 books and stories in the past few decades–said she was in search of writers to be a part of her new black cat detective mystery series, Familiar Legacy, featuring Trouble, the black cat detective, I said I’m in! before I’d even heard the details.

I mean, why not? I’d never written a black cat detective mystery, but I sure wanted to try.

The Trouble books have a familiar formula that includes girl meets boy, and a mystery-loving critter. Trouble the cat is the son of cat-hero detective, Familiar, who was the star of of Carolyn’s long-running Harlequin Intrigue book series, Fear Familiar. She rereleased many of the Fear Familiar books this spring, and launched her first Trouble novel, Familiar Troubleon July 10th. The second in the new series, Trouble in Dixie by Rebecca Barrett, comes out in August.

My first job was to come up with a synopsis, and a title. The synopsis blossomed into a detailed outline. For me, it was a very detailed outline. I usually write skeletal outlines for my own books, but I rarely know how the book will end before I start writing. Then there’s that messy middle bit. For Small Town Trouble I pretty much know every turn, from beginning to end. There have been a few changes as I write, but nothing too substantive. And they’ve enhanced and deepened the story.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to imagine complete stories, but then told myself that since I knew the ending it would be boring to write it out. With this book, I’ve found the complete opposite is true. It’s a huge challenge for me to follow a story I’ve put together ahead of time–but it’s also a huge amount of fun. When I sit down to write, it’s a relief to take out my outline and note which scene I’m going to write, because I’ve already done the hardest part. It relieves me of those fearful blank moments, the ones in which I’m not sure what I’m about to write–if I can write anything–is going to move the story along.

The other big challenge is to keep the voice of Trouble consistent. The good news is that Carolyn is such a pro that the voice is clear and vibrant throughout her book, so I have an excellent model. That’s where my love of the modeling exercise comes in–it’s enjoyable to have the voice ready-made for me. I simply keep Familiar Trouble open on my desktop for reference. Carolyn has read my first chapter, and approved the voice, so I’m headed in the right direction. I’m only halfway through the writing, so let’s hope it sticks.

I’m loving this new challenge. I feel like I’m growing as a writer. Learning to write in a different style grows bran cells. I’m sure of it!

I’m anxious to finish writing Small Town Trouble to see how my first cozy experiment has gone. I could write more here about how writing this book is different from others I’ve written, but I’ll save that for another day, perhaps on my own blog, Notes From the Handbasket (you can go there even though I’m on sabbatical–I think I have 8 years’ worth of posts).

Do tell. What new projects have you taken on to encourage yourself to grow as a writer?

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How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

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