Mystery Writing—Oh Dear!

Bored woman writing immensely long essay.

 

 

I’ve been doing something I’ve always wanted to do: writing a mystery.

Sounds easy, right? Especially if you’re an accomplished writer. Think of a premise and the book should practically write itself. Well not exactly.

If you’ve been a literary short story writer all your life, you might want to create something more than just a good plot.

So I’ve created these goals for myself:

First, add a main character who develops as the plot develops. Which is what I’ve tried to do. But this has turned out to be more challenging than I ever thought.

Second, create 200+ pages. This is definitely a challenge for me. I’ve never even written a novel. In fact, I think the longest story I ever wrote was only 20 pages. Now to write ten times that and make it engaging.

Still, I’m plunging ahead.

But I’m back to being a beginner again. I will admit as a beginning story writer, I once wrote a story from the point of view of a grape. Yes, a grape. You’d think it would have been all downhill after that. But apparently there was enough going for the story that I got encouragement to keep writing from an editor at the New Yorker.

Needless to say I continued. Through my marriage, through the raising of my kids, through going back to school for my master’s degree, and through various jobs. It was hard not to listen to the characters’ voices roaming in my mind, even with toddlers yelling in my ears. So I kept writing. But perfecting my craft took years.

Now I have a book of stories, still waiting to be published…. Should I give up on finding a publisher and self-publish? At what point should I consider this? At the point of despair? I’m nearing that point.

But I’m not giving up. Instead, I’ve switched genres and am now writing a whole book, not a single short story, or a series of stories. An entire book based on a mystery.

But writing a mystery book is totally different from writing a short story. It’s a whole new genre. A whole new beast. Like going from being a water creature to now having to acclimate yourself to living on land. And that’s where I’m at, still acclimating myself.

Except I don’t have thousands of years to adapt. I have to finish the book, fully acclimated or not. And along the way, I have had to ask myself: Is the book interesting? Is the pacing right? What about the narrator? Is she engaging? Do I have too many sentences that begin with “I”?

My writing group thinks it still needs more work, and so do I. So I’m going to keep at it. After all, isn’t an author just an amateur writer who perseveres?

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Sue Powers, aka.S. J. Powers, has received a Prose fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council and praise from her writing group. Her story, 13 Rules, won first place in the fine literary magazine, New Millennium Writings. She is now working on a mystery entitled She’s Not There.

 

Blog Your Book

Guest blog by The Oldest Living Middle-Aged Writer

Woman at desk thinking

Writers write to share their story with readers. That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, getting paid is nice, but don’t count on it. Getting your writing out in the universe is the objective.

Writing your book can take a really long time, sometimes years. And all this time you are likely floundering along, rewriting and editing, stuck in a bubble that lacks feedback or motivation. But finally, you deem the book done.

Now your choices are traditional publishing, self-publishing, or sticking your masterpiece in a drawer….

What about blogging your book?

  • Set up your blog.
  • Post short installments of your book weekly. This will build a following on Facebook or other social media sites.
  • Encourage constructive comments, the operative word “constructive” i.e. useful and insightful.

Maybe you’ve already established a following by blogging funny stories about your children or pets. Collect them and publish them in book form. You already have your audience.

If your genre is fiction:

  • Finish each post with a cliffhanger, and never miss an opportunity to market your book-in-progress everywhere you can.
  • Develop an enticing tagline.
  • Publish a weekly or monthly e-newsletter to your followers with side notes about your book.

Make it short, and make it frequent, the keys to effective blogging. When you finish your book, you will already have readers and feedback.

Postscript from Sue Powers:

Pat Childers, the Oldest Living Middle-Age Writer, is writing a mystery, working title You Name It, and I’m writing a mystery [as S.J. Powers] called Twist.

Stay tuned…..

In The Middle of the Night….

Compliments of The Oldest Living Middle-Aged Writer

Murray was in a dark, dank warehouse crouching at the end of an aisle in a sea of cardboard boxes. Upstairs, drugs were being bought and sold. Blocking the exit downstairs, 50 feet from Murray, was a tall, determined man with a large gun. The only thing on Murray’s side was the element of surprise.

It was middle of the night for Murray, but middle of the day for me. I had errands to do and his dilemma would have to wait to be resolved. So I left him there in the back of my mind while I sallied forth to the grocery store.

I envy the prolific writer whose typewriter spews page after page of witty dialogue and tension-filled action sequences. My process involves sticking my arm down my throat, grabbing my heart, and ripping it out of my chest. Then I type a few words on the page. Reread them. Cross a few out. Add a couple, and move on.

Meanwhile, poor Murray was still stuck in the warehouse and he had to get out before the upstairs drug guys finished their meeting and came downstairs. I decided he had true boxing skills that he honed weekly with his friend, Hugo.

But by then I had reached him and hit him with a straight right to his jaw. He was taller than me and my blow slipped slightly south, lacking the impact I’d planned. Robo squared up and I barely had time to block a hook to my gut.

I could see him digging for his gun. I switfly lowered my head, swung it up and left, and shattered his jaw. Robo went down like a big sack of sand.

Then, exhausted, I took a nap.

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boxinggirl

The Oldest Living Middle-Aged Writer lives in Midwestern flyover country with her dogs. There have been reported sightings of her husband. In between innings of the Cubs game she is working on her web site and can be contacted at pat@pjchilders.com.

Shopping the Book

woman_man_thruhoopsBeen jumping through hoops and knocking my head against the wall since the day I finished my book of stories and began the publisher hunt. They call this phase “shopping” your book. And frankly, it sucks. Here’s why:

Saturday, Day 1: Finish Book

9 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Finish going through manuscript proofed with track changes by my very good writing friend, Kevin, who is an awesome editor.

11:00 a.m. to Noon Figure how to save manuscript so track changes don’t appear anymore. Which involved a Google search, a couple of head knockings, etc.

Rest of the day/night: Go about having a life outside of the book, pretending not to think about it.

Sunday, Day 2:  Find Publishers

8:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Search through Poets & Writers extensive online database of small press publishers, stopping only for the necessities. Like bathroom breaks.

Why small press publishers, you may ask. Well, many are well-respected universities and presses, plus they’re best-suited for literary manuscripts. In fact, some of the best writers have been published by small press publishers. So, the reasoning goes, If they’re good enough for them, they’re good enough for me.

Monday – Friday, Days 3 – 7: Continue to find Publishers

8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Think about self-publishing while working the day job. Think about the cost, the self-marketing, the decision on which self-publisher to choose. Think maybe…..

6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. Home. Continue search through Poets & Writers extensive online database of small press publishers for appropriate publishers for my book.

My Criteria for Appropriate Book Publishers:

  • Publishers who publish short story collections.
  • Publishers with current submission reading dates.
  • Publishers whose submission guidelines you can meet.

Which brings more head-banging and hoop-jumping.

For one thing, finding an appropriate publisher is more challenging than you’d think.There’s a whole lot of small press publishers out there, but finding ones that don’t publish only poetry, or only novels, or only memoirs, or sci-fi, or mystery, or romance, or only want historical fiction.. well, as you can see, this subject deserves a whole other blog post.

For another, not all submission guidelines are alike. Each publisher has its own, very specific guidelines. Still, I’ve been through the submission process hundreds of times getting individual stories published, how hard could following a few book submission guidelines be? I soon found out.

Sample Book Submission Guidelines  (underlining mine)

Publisher X:

1.IN “SUBJECT” LINE please type: LAST NAME / FIRST NAME / FIRST 2 WORDS OF MANUSCRIPT TITLE {What if your book title is only one word?}

2. COVER LETTER should include your bio.  {Ok I have one of these.}

3. AESTHETICS STATEMENT must be attached to your email. This is NOT a synopsis or a summary of your plot, although you may include that. It’s a statement discussing your creative process and/or conceptual intent. It’s a description of why your manuscript is innovative, why you made the choices you made, how you expect the project to be read or viewed, what you were exploring, etc. REMEMBER: We’re interested in your creative process as much as (perhaps more than) the consumer product that results from it.   {Really? So your book can suck, but if your process doesn’t….}

4. CONVERT manuscript to PDF. If the PDF is larger than 8MG, please send email requesting submission instructions {Why not just say, DropBox?}

5.IMPORTANT: Our Publishing Contract requires that you have read, understood and agree with our Business Model. Please read it before submitting your manuscript. {They have a Business Model?}

Publisher Y:

Steps to Publishing With Us   
1. Prospective author is interviewed by publishing representative regarding his or her work, interview typically runs 30-45 minutes, and during the interview we ask a series of questions to ensure that your work is a good fit for our publishing model.  {Yikes, I thought my job hunting days were over.}

2. After the phone interview prospective author receives an e-mail to submit the work for review. {How nice of them not to say, “Or not.”}

Publisher Z:

1. We prefer to receive hard copies of submissions via snail mail. {Wait – you mean actual PAPER?} 

Well that’s just a sampling. I could give dozens upon dozens more, but will spare you.

If only I could spare myself. Writing is hard enough. Finishing your book takes months, even years, of rewriting, finding and getting feedback you can trust, more rewriting, lots of re-imagining, removing stories from your book, adding others you were saving for your next book. Lot of decisions, lots of second guessing yourself, lots and lots of hours spent on the book. Still, it’s your writing, and it’s something you love and don’t really consider work.

But this book shopping stuff? There are at least a thousand small press publishers in this database and I spent one week searching through a couple of hundred of them. Result? I found 3 that might consider my book.

So next week, it’s back to the database where, if I’m lucky, I might find 3 more.

Calling All Guest Bloggers

I could have been writing

I should have been shopping my book!

To blog or not to blog? This is the question I pose to you today: Guest blogging.

Yes, I’m looking to feature writers on my blog.

I started some Fridays ago with writers I know pretty well. But I don’t need to know you well at all, or know you at all. And you don’t need to have a blog. You just need to an idea in search of an audience.  J

Why?  For you – well, possible new readers of course, and a chance to plug your blog, if you have one (again, not a requirement).

For me – I need to work on shopping my book. Plain and simple. And since I can’t seem to do that and blog at the same time.

Here’s the deal:

1.     You choose any subject you want to write about. Pretty good deal, eh? Or if you need ideas, just ask.  I am happy to give writing prompts.

2.     Exception: I’m not accepting poetry. Sorry.  When it comes to poetry, I’m the first to admit I’m a poor judge.

3.     Humor most welcome.

4.     Word count – generally no more than 500 words (Ok, I might make an exception.)

5.     Submit to firegut1@gmail.com on Wednesday for my Friday afternoon post.

The post will be under your name, and of course, all rights belong to you. They always do anyway, just being reassuring that you know that I know….:)

Thanks! I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful writing/blogging relationship!

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Ps. Feel free to pass this message on to your friends, readers, bloggers and other writers.

A Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness

Stata in velvet

Probable book cover for Welcome to…(copyright my brother, Richard Shandross)

I awoke yesterday thinking about my book title. For ages I’ve thought about, dreamed about, knew I would call it “Welcome to the Sickhouse.” Then suddenly, I had another idea.

My story Welcome to the Sickhouse always seemed a natural title for the book. But naming your book after a story requires that the story be, if not the best, then close to it. Was it? Frankly, I’m not sure it is. Besides, the word “sick” suddenly started to make me feel, well, uh, kind of queasy. ☺

I think I have a bunch of good titles in my book, but again, were any among them the best? I’m too close to judge. And my writer friends all have their favorites – but none of them are the same story. What to do?

I decided to forget the titles and instead look inside the stories. One line. That’s all I needed. Just one line that would make a good book title.

I scanned story after story. Then, lying inside one story called Last Call, was a description of one of the main characters: a lesbian who the waitresses call JD because that is one of the two drinks she always orders. And “when she had too much to drink of either, a set of deeply recessed lines around her startling sea-green eyes, along with a surprising measure of subliminal sadness, rose abruptly to the surface.”

Reflected_sadness

Possible book cover for A Surprising Measure….

And there it was, my new title: “A Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness”

Would you be intrigued? Would you look inside?

I need feedback. I’ve asked these same writing friends (who all have different favorite stories in my book), but only one answered, as I think the others are simply too busy writing to look at their emails. ☺

So opinions please! Welcome to the Sickhouse, or A Surprising Measure of Subliminal Sadness? Would of either of these titles make you want to buy the book?

Week One of My Not Blogging Anymore

She's getting existential again

I recently decided I needed time and energy to work on my book of stories. So I decided not to blog for a while and posted a call for writers one and all to come be guest bloggers. Of course bloggers know what’s in it for them. But for me, well basically, with guests writing my blog, I could keep it alive while I do what I have to do to get my bloody book published. Selfish? Self-serving? Yes I think so too.

The thing is, it’s not my nature to be so selfishly motivated. In fact it’s a well-documented fact from studies taken at work that I am highly altruistic. Yes, we’ve had consultants in to study each of us, and that’s what I am. Caring, compassionate, ready and willing to help others. But not lately, apparently.

Lately, I’m only thinking about me and my unmet goals. Then today I woke up with a backache, and head full of “what am I doing all this for” angst.  Which if you think about it, is a really good question, which I’ve been asking myself all day.

By “all this” I mean:

  • Creating a website
  • Creating a blog
  • Thinking about my blog
  • Thinking about my book then thinking what to write next for my blog     
  • Thinking about the fact that I’m only writing blog posts
  • Thinking about my book of stories
  • Thinking about my book and how I haven’t done a thing towards getting it published
  • Thinking about the fact that I’m not writing fiction anymore or doing anything to get my book pubished – then sitting down and writing a blog post (instead). Sigh.

Have you ever thought about why you want to publish your blog, novel, play, art piece, book of stories?  For money? Readers? Fame? I don’t know about you, but when I wrote my stories, I didn’t think about who would read them, who would publish or buy them. I just wrote them because they asked to be written.

Isn’t the writing itself the point, the pleasure, the ache, the fulfillment?  Isn’t it a complete thing unto itself? Shouldn’t it be?  Or is this what we’ve been conditioned to think?

Ok, call this my dark side, my down side, or as blogger BitterBen would say, my bitter side. I don’t think so. I think I’m simply having an existential crisis. As in, thinking about ALL the arts, I can’t help but ask myself: why bother?

Sure it’s great to create, but then what? Why look for publishers, art exhibitions, theaters to produce your play?  Who’s reading? Who’s appraising? Who’s watching and what does it matter? Why do artists need others to care when it’s the making of the art that should matter?

So I woke up today thinking these thoughts that were in the back of  my mind all week, then I thought about me thinking these thoughts, and this went on and on throughout the day, until finally, hallelujah! night arrived and I could bury my thoughts in front of the TV.

I’ll snap out of this frame of mind, I’m sure. On the up side, the post by my humorous guest blogger, Pat Childers, was a smashing success. And there’s more coming by Pat, who has graciously agreed to help me. She doesn’t work with me anymore, so she hasn’t gone through the series of studies about our selves (preferred work styles, personality stuff, matches to our jobs, etc), but anyone who knows Pat knows her studies would reveal her to be Witty, Urbane, Humane.

Meanwhile, I continue to debate whether to publish my book or just post my stories on my website in case someone – anyone – wants to read them. Whatever.

So that’s it – week one of my not blogging anymore. Who knows what week two will bring. More angst, or perhaps a simple plague of locusts.

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My Success…What a Mess

I could have been writing

Blogger Fransi Weinstein (Three Hundred Sixty-Five) recently posted: “Yesterday’s Word Press Daily Prompt really caught my eye. The theme? “Success.” “Tell us about a time where everything you’d hoped would happen actually did.” And she did, quite eloquently.

So ok, let me begin by saying I know I’m lucky to have had success in my passion: writing short stories. Let me also say, unlike Fransi, my success has been sketchy, plus I have never made much money at it. In fact, just for fun, let’s do the math:

In-coming:

  • New Millennium Short-Story Story Contest: $1000
  • Illinois Arts Council Fellowship: $5000
  • Illinois Arts Council Grant: $500
  • Some literary mag, don’t remember which: $50 (I’m not counting the copies I received in lieu of payment, the typical literary mag ‘payment’)
  • Part-time teaching adult ed in creative writing: around $300 a semester – yes, 300 – not a typo. (I feel I need to count this, even though I am not a teacher at heart, nor a very good one, but it seemed to be part of my passion while I was doing it.)

Out-going:

  • B.A. (English & Psych) $$$$
  • M.A. (English) $$$$$$$$$$

The total, of course, is a total bust. But who’s counting?

I’m not. Honestly, who regrets getting an education? Especially when loans are finally paid off.  🙂

So, back to the subject at hand: my passion for writing short stories. Long story short, my love of short stories began with J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. One read, and I was hooked. Then when I was in college and majoring in Psychology, my love of literature drove me to accumulate hours in English. I just needed a few more hours and I’d have a double major.

Ah, but all that extra reading! Did I have energy and time for it? Then one day I discovered they offered a Creative Writing Workshop. Well, ever since I was a kid, stories seemed to pop into my head. I had written some stories, though none of them had really ‘gone’ anywhere. Still, why not? I thought. What did I have to lose but perhaps my pride? One or two semesters of this, and I’d have my double major.

Looking back, I see it was no accident that I ‘happened’ to choose a college that offered a writing course (in those days, college writing courses were few and far between). And there I met an amazing writing instructor, and ended up writing a story that was published in a fine literary magazine before I graduated.

And here’s where the tale twists. This first published story got a lot of praise. Success, right? Follow the momentum, follow the passion, keep on writing, right? Well before you can dedicate yourself to your passion, you have believe in it.

One part of me always knew I was a writer. Another part of me – well how to put it – was scattered. Not focused. Not sure what to do with this first success, which a large part of me did not really believe I could ever duplicate.

So I directed my energy elsewhere: raising my family, making money, etc. Oh sure, every once in a while, I couldn’t stop myself from writing a story. But despite my early success, these efforts rarely came to anything. And I guess I thought of these writing efforts as just a creative outlet, a pipe dream, or simply an anomaly.

So, that’s the short of it. Although I started making up stories from an early age, I allowed a lack of belief in myself to get in my way. In fact, I didn’t really start focusing on my passion until somewhere in my 40’s when, kids grown, husband removed from the scene, I remembered I had one.

But that’s another story…. 🙂

Ready, Set, Go…For the Jugular

Tell us your Secrets

For reasons unknown, I used to teach creative writing. The don’t-think/just-let-it-rip type of teaching, and depending on how willing/able people were to try it, I was mildly successful. I taught this way because it was the only way I knew – or know – how to write. Not suited to everyone, I found out.

But once, a student came back to class and said she let it rip for a half hour straight and apparently, she’d dug deep, pulled out something painful. Her eyes were huge, her voice shaky: “It scared the hell out of me!”

I was young, and as you might have guessed, not a great teacher.  Great teachers clarify, illuminate, impart useful information.  (What made me think I could do this???) So while I felt for her, I had no words to explain it.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I have those words.  I could have told her that yeah, writing can be scary. It can be painful. Because writing is a risky business. Because it’s about letting go and going for the jugular. Because fiction writers have to be prepared to go for their own jugular and dig up their darkest secrets — over and over again.  Agatha Christie put it succinctly: “writing is torture.”

While I’ve never been scared by what I’ve written, I can say, letting the story go where it’s wanted to go, I’ve been surprised by where it’s gone and what it’s revealed.

I’ve read that writer Doris Betts – who writes both novels and short stories – once said that the novel is prose growth, and the short story is prose revelation. This explains a lot to me! It explains why, when my short stories work well, they give me the chills. (I have one particular story that still gives me the chills!)

In any case, if I were ever to go back to teaching (not!), I‘d still use the let-it-rip type of teaching. It’s what I believe in, it’s worked for me and it’s worked for thousands of other writers.

So here’s what I know: I know what works for me, and I know teaching is not for me,  But I very much like certain writing prompts. So how about this one: Write a piece of fiction that reveals something you have never told anyone before.  Don’t think, don’t judge. Just go….

If you get something that scares you – or gives you a little chill – awesome! 

🙂

 

Shopping (Tiny Fiction #2)

Shopping, A Microfiction

Shopping

The woman stood in front of her at the checkout counter, needing three receipts for several small items. A few items she paid with food stamps, a few were markdowns from the bargain bin, the last few more markdowns that she paid for with Visa. Loudly, she made much of not having her name spoken aloud by the cashier, a pony-tailed man whom it became apparent she knew. In all, the woman had possibly ten items – this woman in a business suit and smart flats – who needed these three separate receipts and her name not said out loud, as if some one were following her. Or perhaps some one might recognize her, if not by sight, then surely by name.

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Copyright S. J. Powers 2013