September 10, 2016

Guest Post: The Problem with Writing Humor

He’s not only funny in his books, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an email from him that didn’t make me laugh. The man knows humor. If you doubt me, just look at the titles of his books. His most recent release, Murder by Massage, says it all. That funny little read came out yesterday. You’ll find links to it and Stuart’s first book in this series throughout this post. For now, sit back and learn from the master._MG_0556 - Version 2-1

For the writer and the reader. Out of all the genres I’ve written, humor’s probably the hardest. Don’t get me wrong, I have a blast writing my Zach and Zora comic mystery series, and I’m always proud of the outcome. The problem is I tend to write aiming at my funny bone. Not everyone shares it. Many readers found the first book in the series, Bad Day in a Banana Hammock, “hilarious.” But one reviewer suffered through four pages and declared it “total trash,” the equivalent of having a tomato lobbed at me if I was on-stage doing a stand-up routine. Tough crowd, tough crowd. Of course everyone’s entitled to their opinion. The world would be very dull if that wasn’t the case. But clearly the reviewer didn’t understand the book was a comedy. You can’t please everyone. Especially regarding humor. Readers are very protective of their humor, I’ve found, and everyone has a different threshold and variety of likes.

For instance, I’ve never laughed at an Adam Sandler movie. Honestly, a crackly Jerry Lewis voice and vulgar humor doesn’t do it for me. And, psst! I don’t even like the Three Stooges. Blasphemy amongst my male peers who would probably want me to hand in my “Guy Card.” It takes a strange mixture of low-brow and high-brow to amuse me.

Going into the Zach and Zora books, I knew I might be the only one amused–my laughter the only barometer. Mark Twain said, “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” While I don’t have such lofty ambitions as to be the Pope of humor, if I can make someone smile while reading my books, goal accomplished!

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The road to the first book, Bad Day in a Banana Hammock, was a sloppy one, pocked with potholes of doubt and riddled with speed-bumps of hesitation. I didn’t trust myself that anyone might find it amusing other than myself. Then something happened…badda-boom! Everything seemed to come together.

True origin time! The book almost didn’t happen. A writer friend of mine were gabbing one day, grousing about the same-ol’, same-ol’ books we’ve read. I said, “What if I come up with the dumbest lead character in history? How about…a really vain, vapid, stupid male stripper? Yeah!” She laughed, said, “I dare you!” I can’t turn down a dare, especially since it was a double-dog dare. Badda-bing!

So I started writing Hammock. One chapter in, though, I cheated. It became obvious Zach wasn’t strong enough to completely lead a book. So I created his super-competent, super-irritable, extremely pregnant sister, Zora (an ex security specialist), to bail Zach out of trouble when he wakes up with no memory or clothes next to a naked dead man. Hilarity ensues. (I hope). Did I mention Zora’s other three kids who have to tag along for the first part of the investigation?

The second book in the series, Murder by Massage, just released yesterday. When I accepted that challenge a while back, I had no idea the bet would turn into a series. And I’m having a ball with these characters and hope it shines through on the pages. (But what do I know?) I’ll be here all weekend, folks!

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Click to Order

Murder by Massage once again finds Zach up to his g-string in trouble when he stumbles onto another murder. Zora to the rescue! There’re ex-radical hippies, the cult of “Furries,” a g-string chase through the streets, a dance-off, smart aleck kids, bewigged pastors, a dancing and singing detective, secrets, more murder and mystery and I hope laughs. Lotsa, lotsa laughs. And despite Zach’s rather unsavory choice of profession (“male entertainment dancer,” NOT “stripper” as he protests), the comic cozy books are not explicit. Rather chaste actually. Except for a g-string here and there.

You’ve been a great audience ladies and gentlemen!

 

So what suggestions do you have for writing humor? Don’t miss this great series from a very funny guy!

Thanks, Stuart for joining us today and sharing your wit with our readers.

How Do You Treat Yourself?

The utmost luxury is to have a few hours alone with my book, my cat, and maybe a cup of tea or coffee. Once I’ve accomplished all my work goals, all my home goals ,and all my other self-imposed goals, I give myself this treat. Unfortunately since I work on my own–don’t have a 9-5 job–that time gets more and more infrequent. When I worked for someone else, I had time during the weekends to luxuriate with my book. No more. Weekends mean more work than ever!

Caught!

Caught!

Nonetheless, I do strive for the time to read. That’s my treat to myself. What about you? Do you treat yourself? Some people find gardening a treat. It’s that time for them to relax and get their hands dirty. For them digging in the yard for a couple of hours is the ultimate treat. Other people say going to a movie or out to dinner is the best treat. Some people go shopping. We all have different ideas of what the treat to ourselves is. My guess is we just don’t take those treats often enough. We respond to the demands of our bosses, our spouses, our kids, our pets and ourselves.

Give yourself a treat. It will re-juveninte your battery. You’ll be more productive at whatever else you do.

Rainy Days and Sundays–Learning the Discipline of Writing

Sleeping At WorkOn beautiful crisp days when the sun is shining, it’s often hard to pull out the computer and plug away at that masterpiece. Our friends are going out biking or hiking up a magnificent mountain. Rainy days are a much better alternative. But, if you only write when it rains, it’s going to take you a long time to finish that book. Discipline is one of the hardest tasks of the writing world. Writers by nature aren’t disciplined. They love to play and live in the moment. If you go to a writer’s conference and look around, you’ll see a lot of relaxed people with long hair, some with tats, and most in casual clothing. They don’t look too disciplined.

So, what’s a writer to do?

It’s like any other job. If writing were fun and games, more people would do it. More books would be written. Yeah, there are lots of unfinished manuscripts, but I’m talking finished books.

Sometimes writing means getting words on paper and then doing the hard work of editing. Yes, the muse comes, but for me it comes while I’m working. I can tune out the beautiful, beckoning world around me and keep going. But, I’ve got to get started and I need goals to do that. What are your goals? How do you hold yourself accountable to those goals?

Many writers have full-time jobs. Obligations that pull them away from writing throughout the week. We know what those obligations are. We must work around them and find time between the obligations.

I block those out. Often on the weekends. Sundays are great writing days. Even for those church-going writers, Sunday afternoons provide a good block of time. Other writers like to write early in the morning before the world awakens. The trick is finding the time, dedicating yourself to that time and then write.

Set clear goals. Don’t simply say, I’m gonna write today. Make clear goals either by word count or by time at your computer or by pages.

Be accountable to those goals. By that I mean, find a writing partner. Someone who will hold you to your goals. When I was thirteen, my sister and I went on a diet together. We both lost weight. How? No fad diets. We simply held each other accountable. We guarded the cookie cabinet. You need someone like that to help you keep your goals.

It takes discipline to write a book.

What tips have worked for you to help you be a more disciplined writer?

What Hooks You?

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Is it the characters? The plot? Unanswered questions? What kinds of things hook you and keep you reading? For me the characters are what keep me turning the pages. Some of the books I read have little plot, not much action, but I get attached to the character. Even in mysteries, I love knowing more about the primary detective or his/her side-kick. Martha Grimes created such an amazing detective with Richard Jury and his side-kick, Melrose Plant. Even though the plots were pretty formulaic, I read every book because I loved characters and how they interacted with one another.

Take this short quiz and see if you can nail that illusive thing that keeps you nailed to your book:

  1. Do you read ahead to see what is going to happen next. Even if it means skimming pages?
  2. Do you worry about the characters and what events will cause them trouble?
  3. Are you more interested in the main character’s life than the mystery at hand?
  4. Do you skim through the action in order to discover if the character will survive?
  5. Do you tire of reading about the main character’s problems and more interested in how the action will play out?

If you answered yes to questions 1 and 5, you tend to be a plot driven reader who gets hooked by the action and the mystery at hand. If you answered yes to numbers 2, 3, and 4, you are more character driven and tend to read even if the action is stale. If you have a mixture of answers, you read for both character and action. You could be hooked by either one, depending on the story.

So, how did you do? What hooks you?

Writers Helping Writers

bigstockphoto_African_And_Caucasian_Fingers__4307946Before I published my first novel, I contacted two previously published authors. One told me he never read another writer’s work. The other refused to help me in any way. I found these responses both disheartening and sad. Why is it writers refuse to help newbies? How are newbies ever going to break through without a helping hand?

I understand some reasoning behind the refusal. The seasoned writer doesn’t want to be inundated with manuscripts to read. And, of course there’s the worry or fear that someone might be accused of stealing someone else’s idea. That was actually expressed by one of the writers. But, it’s my contention that writers can help other writers and serve as mentors.

  • Do not ask a writer to speak on your behalf to their publisher or agent. If the writer wants to do that, they will volunteer doing so.
  • Do not ask a seasoned writer to read your entire manuscript. You could ask them to read a chapter and give you some feedback or to read your synopsis
  • Ask general questions regarding the publishing business. How did you find your agent? Is an agent necessary? What does your agent do for you?
  • Ask general submission questions. What do I send to the publisher? What format is commonly used? Do I send a query or do I send more?
  • Do ask about contests and conferences and ways to get your work noticed on the worldwide web. What contests should I enter? Is it worth it to pay a fee to enter a contest? How many people do I need to have a platform? How do I create a platform?
  • What about writer groups and Beta readers. Which ones do I join? How do I find Beta readers? What is your process of early reading and editing?
  • Ask them to tell you about their journey. How did they break into the business?
  • Ask how you can support the seasoned writer. If you have a platform, you can shout out the writer’s new book. Or, you could offer to read and review the helpful writer’s work.

Of course, I did all this when I approached the two writers mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, they turned their backs on me. This will happen. Recognize that some writers are not inclined to help others. Move on. Find another more helpful person.

I read a number of posts where writers share their experiences. The best ones I’ve found (besides mine!) is The Kill Zone–I read this one regularly and tweet it often. Several writers contribute. The other is Live Write Thrive. This one is more technical. But, again, writers share their experiences.

Maybe as time passes, more writers will help other writers. When they do, everyone benefits, particularly the readers.

What suggestions do you have to help writers be more forthcoming with newbies?

 

 

Tips for Coming Up with the Perfect Title

For some reason it’s not jumping off the page. But then again, now that I think about it, I’ve never had a book title jump off the page. I usually agonize over various versions before I settle on  that perfect title. Someone suggested I crowd source it and see what my network comes up with. That sounds fun. So, I’m going to give you some of the titles I’m toying with and see what you think.Share Your Story Flat Illustration

Meantime, here are some tips for coming up with the perfect title.

Nonfiction books have titles and subtitles. For example The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Isn’t that a great title? But, if you’re writing a thriller, you’d better not use so many words. Most thrillers have one or two words. Cozy mysteries have soft titles like, Murder at the Bookstore or the Cupcake Killer.

What is the theme? My WIP theme is betrayal. But, I’ve toyed with that word and it really doesn’t capture the essence of the book. What is the inciting incident? What starts the book rolling? That might be a better place to look. Again, a lot depends on your genre. If I was writing a thriller, my title Betrayal would be perfect. But, a glance on Amazon tells me there are a bunch of books with that name.

When I was trying to think of a title for e-Murderer, I wrote, Internet, Murder, e-Mail, Death, Campus. After a bit more brainstorming, I landed on e-Murderer which together captured the theme and inciting incident. That was one lucky title idea!

Or, share your title ideas with your early readers. Often they will tell you if the title rings true for the book. Recently I read a book titled And After the Fire. I read the entire book waiting for the fire. It never happened. As a reader, I felt betrayed. We can’t title a book with words we happen to like or we feel are catchy. The title must reflect the story.

Short and crisp is the name of the game. Even the happiness book I referenced earlier uses few words that capture a lot of information. Okay so there are lots of words, but they are well-chosen. Here’s a great title, MJ LaBeff’s Mind Games. That title not only is short but it also captures the storyline perfectly.

If you’re writing a steamy romance, you must use words like love or attraction in your title. Wasn’t Fatal Attraction a great title? If you’re writing a mystery, you have to use words like, Murder, Death, Killing, Blood.

What tips do you have for coming up with a great title?

Here are the title ideas for my WIP:

The Case of the Missing Painting

A Painting to Die For

The Art of Murder

Murder and the Masterpiece

Take a look at this book trailer. Does the title capture the suspense?

Tips to Deal with the Let-Down When Your Novel is Finished

Okay, so you might say, “I’m never finished.” I feel that way as well. It seems there’s always tweaking. But, once the novel is sent off, gone, out of your reach, how do you feel? Good? At a loss? Jumping up and down, celebrating? Tearful? bigstockphoto_Freedom_3207179

I recently finished the third installment in my mystery series. I sent it to my line editor. It’s no longer on my daily work plate. Gone. Out of my hair. I’m relieved to have it “finished.” At least to have gotten it this this far. But, now what? Do I start another project?

This is a question every writer faces. We struggle and work on a project for months, even years. Suddenly, one day there is no more to do with that particular work of art. Do we feel as if our child has left home?

My answer is yes, I do feel as if my child has left home. I feel a bit disjointed and not sure what to do with my time. So, here are some tips for dealing with the let-down between projects:

Tip #1: Enjoy the extra time you have. Allow yourself to free-think. Instead of always being in the minds of your characters (which is where you’ve been for the last several months), get in your own mind. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Tip #2: Don’t wait till the project ends before you think about what you are going to do next. Make a list of things you wish you had time to do while you’re working. The list might include: 1) Shop for a new refrigerator 2) Call my sister 3) Have lunch with my friend 4) Join a Book Club 5) Go to a movie.

Tip #3: Consult that list you made and begin working through it. Recognize that you’ll soon be into a new project which will consume your time and energy.

Tip #4: Do not immediately start a new project. Wait at least two weeks before you embark on the next novel. If you start too soon, you will not give yourself and your creative juices the time it needs to create. This tip reminds me of when I work crossword puzzles. I tend to struggle over them until I finally put it aside. When I go do something else, something totally unrelated, the answers fly at me like bees.

The Woes of Writing that First Chapter

In the old days, that was the case. Back when Trollop and Jane Austen were writing, they had at least two chapters before readers gave up on them. Many of today’s literary writers have the luxury of several chapters before readers give up on them. But, most of us must capture our readers in the first sentence! There is so much that has to be done in that initial chapter. Action, yes. But also some explanation of action.

They want to know why, but they don’t want a lot of exposition. Geez!

Typewriter closeup shot, concept of Chapter one

Here’s the rub. When I’m writing my book, putting those words on paper for the first time, I don’t have a full idea of what the story is about. My creative process evolves as the story and the characters evolve. I may start out with a story idea but it could change completely before the final chapter is written. Usually I have a good idea of where the story is going once I’m about half-way through it. But, when I’m writing that first chapter, I’m as clueless as my readers.

That means I must go back and re-work that first chapter over and over to capture the essence of the story and to hook the reader. The work involved in doing that is almost more strenuous than writing the 80,000+ novel.

Here are some things your first chapter must do:

Opening Hook–That all-important first sentence that tantalizes your readers. The hook needs not only to create questions in the reader’s minds, but also give them an idea of who is talking. Who is telling this story?

Starting the story in the middle of something. No story starts at the very beginning. If we are in the middle of something, then the reader wonders what went before and what went after.

A clue about setting. Some excellent writers begin with setting. Most of us need to simply sprinkle a little locale information in the first few pages to let the reader know where they are and in what time period. If you’re writing in the 19 Century, you can’t wait until Chapter 2 for the readers to find this out.

An inciting incident. This is the event or incident that starts the story rolling. What happened (in the middle of wherever you are) that incites the story?

The main character’s intentions and goals and dreams. We can’t go into a lot of backstory in the beginning. So, when we talk about intentions, we need to understand what the character plans to do (as a result of the inciting incident) and give small hints about why they are doing it (deeper desires). We don’t tell all here. If we do, why go on reading?

An element of mystery. Even if you’re not writing a mystery, you need to have something going on that keeps the reader reading. The element of mystery, not knowing all the answers to something, is what creates mystery.

All of these elements must be accomplished in the first chapter in a way that keeps our readers turning pages. We can’t give away too much information and yet we must share just enough. The crucial questions that all writers ask are how much is too much and how much is enough?

What are your experiences? How do you manage to tweak and perfect those first few sentences in order to hook your reader?

Take a peek at e-Murderer. Book 1 in the Jenna Scali mystery series.

What Are Beta Readers and How to Find Them?

Book WomanOkay, so you’ve finished your first draft. You’ve done everything you can with it. You’ve read it and re-read it to the point of total exhaustion. In fact you’ve gone over it so many times, that you’re not sure you’re reading the words on the page or if you have the pages memorized. What’s next?

These are people willing to read your manuscript and give you honest, constructive criticism. They are not people who will read your manuscript and say, “It’s wonderful,” without elaboration. Of course it’s wonderful. You’ve been working on it for months. You need to know more than a gut reaction to your story.

Betas are tests–trying out a test product, for example. The product is tested before going to market. Your book is no different. These are the things Beta readers can help you with:

  1. Does the story make sense. Is the plot clear? Or are you jumping around?
  2. What did you leave out? Maybe you forgot that you told a character you’d call him in an hour. Things happened and you forgot all about it. Your readers won’t. Beta readers catch these kinds of slip-ups.
  3. Does the reader feel in the place. In other words, have you created a believable setting?
  4. Are your characters acting “in character”? You haven’t had your shy character do something bold without good reason.
  5. Obvious typos that you’ve read over a million times.
  6. Timeframe. Could something happen within this time period. Did you mess up the timeframe? Maybe the story began on a Tuesday. How many days later did things happen? Is it still Tuesday?
  7. Are there too many characters? Have you introduced the people in your story well enough for your readers to keep them straight?
  8. Does the story grab the reader? If so, when? The first page, the second chapter?
  9. Is the ending satisfactory? Did you tie everything together?

They are reading to help you tweak and polish your story. Finding people willing to read a 300+ manuscript and answer all these kinds of questions isn’t easy. Here are some tips for finding Beta readers:

Tip #1: Other writers. We depend on each other. Each reads the other’s works. It’s a trade-off.

Tip #2: Find people who you trust will give you constructive criticism. They are not afraid of hurting your feelings. You want tough Beta readers.

Tip #3: Good editors make good Beta readers. If you know someone who edits other things, articles, nonfiction works, academic theses, these people often enjoy reading a novel as a change of pace and would welcome being one of your Beta readers.

Tip #4: Don’t rely on one reader. You need at least two and possibly three Beta readers. Too many will confuse you. Everyone has an opinion and often those opinions vary. But, if three readers tell you the same thing, that is something you should note.

Tip #5: If you don’t pay your Beta readers (there are some people who charge a small fee), then do something nice for them. Take them to coffee or out for a glass of wine to show your appreciation.

Tip #6: Acknowledge your Beta readers in your Acknowledgements in your final book. People love to see their name in print. Give them that bit of glory for all their hard work.

These are my tips for finding Beta readers. What are some of yours? Do you have Beta readers?

My newest book Murder on Moonshine Hill releases in one month. Check out the latest reviews here. I thanked my three Beta readers in the Acknowledgements. I couldn’t have written such a polished finished product without their help.

 

What About the Setting? Tips for Making Your Setting Real

Location, Location, Location written on a speechbubbleI love the “cold” mysteries. Those set in the cold regions–Sweden, Iceland, Norway. Why do I love those books? I love the settings. The characters are all excellent as well, but its the settings that keep me coming back time and again. In Henning Mankell’s series the setting, a small town in Sweden, plays as much a role as any character or plot point. The weather punctuates the setting–cold, dreary, wet.

My Jenna Scali mystery series is set in a university town in the South. Some of my readers recognize the town and love reading about places they know.

Setting is as much a work of art as the rest of your book. It takes research and due diligence. If you create a village in England and have never been there and get it all wrong, you readers will notice. When you misrepresent the weather conditions for a place, readers notice.

Here are some tips for making your setting as real as your characters:

Even though I live in the town where my mystery series is set, I still research particular streets. I don’t want one of my readers to come to me later and tell me I used an incorrect street name, and they would. Writers can make up places and in fantasy writing that’s often the case. But they must do it within reason. Good fantasy writers create a “world.” That world even though fictionalized, must ring true.

As writers we often get so hung up in our plots that we forget that action happens in a place. The reader needs to know more about that place to feel the action. New writers often present a lot of events, but they forget about describing the locale. That’s the beauty of the cold mysteries. The authors do an amazing job of putting the reader in the place. The cold wet, dampness seeps from the pages.

By weaving, I mean make it so natural that the reader doesn’t realize you’ve done it. The opposite approach is to describe in many paragraphs the setting and then move into the action. Remember the action happens within the setting. When you spend lots of time writing paragraph after paragraph describing the setting, most readers either go to sleep or forget the description when the action starts. A better approach is to piece setting in and make it part of the story.

Weather includes more than just announcing that it’s a clear crisp day. Weather means sudden downpours during a summer storm or chills running up a character’s arms as the wind picks up or the smell of old socks when a breeze blows in a certain direction. The weather component helps move the story along (or slows it down–depending on the author’s goals).

One of the things I loved about Jojo Moyes book, Me Before You, was the people in the small English town. Not simply the main characters, but the other people who live there. She created people who inhabit that village. The same is true of Ann Cleeves’s books. Her settings are amazing and the people who inhabit those settings equally delightful

For most pantser writers, the key is getting the words on paper. We must know what happens and the only way to do that is to complete the story. Once you’ve written “The End,” go back and fill in the blanks. Imagine the characters and where they are. Allow your mind to take you to that place and then describe what you see, hear, smell.

These are my tips for creating believable settings. What tips do you have? Share your thoughts or share one of your favorite settings in a book you’ve read.

Here’s a book set on a fictitious street in Decatur Georgia. The street isn’t real but everything else around it rings true. See what you think.