Reviewers Wanted!

(Sorry for being a bit late this morning.) Today, I wanted to discuss the value – and importance – of reader reviews.  The publishing industry continues to evolve; there are more small presses popping up, many digital-only publishers, self-publishing has gotten much more popular, and so on. In order for authors to draw attention to their work, they are increasingly dependent on readers to share their (hopefully positive) opinions. Authors don’t all have access to huge marketing campaigns, big book tours, or other large budget opportunities to market, so we need to do our part as enthusiastic readers to help our favorite authors get the attention they deserve. For emerging and mid-list authors, this is particularly important.

Amazon, specifically, requires a minimum number of reader reviews in order for a book/author to be included in certain deals, such as price-drop deals. A higher number reviews can help an author access BookBub, and also to get into indie bookstores. Combined with pre-orders, reviews are critical to an author’s success!

My favorite source of free materials to review is NetGalley. Currently, I’m reading two books with the goal of providing reviews on NetGalley, as well as any other site I can: GoodReads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Twitter, and Facebook is my list. I’ve just finished Lucy Burdette’s Death on the Menu and I’ll be saying plenty of nice things about one of my favorite series.  Next on deck, A Scandal in Scarlet: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery by Vicki Delany. I haven’t finished this one yet, but I’m intrigued by the concept and enjoying the read so far.

Readers, do you take the time to review your reading material?

 

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Summer Reading

It may not be summer quite yet, and the weather in New England remains. . .quirky, let’s say, but I’m looking ahead to my summer reading plans. (The planned reading list may have grown a bit following a fantastic week of author interviews here on the blog.)

My plan for this summer is a bit more selective than in years past. We’ve been renovating a room in our house for about a year (there’s a lot of purging to do), and we’re turning it into a home library. While this is fun, I’ve realized I simply can’t keep ALL the books I own; there simply isn’t room, not only in that one space, but in the whole house. I’ve been slowly donating those books that I’m not likely to re-read or that simply haven’t aged well.

We have friends who suggest I go all digital. However, while I do have both Nook and Kindle apps, I’ve become somewhat concerned about what happens to those books when the apps go away. I recently read that I don’t really own the books, so my only option is to save them into another format and. . .well, it gets complicated. Plus, there’s just something special about turning the pages, flipping back and forth, and the smell of the paper and ink. Then there’s the whole neuroscience piece about how our brains process reading physical texts differently than reading online to consider, and, well – I like my actual, physical books. I do!

So, I’m trying to be more selective this summer. My approach has been that my favorite authors = physical book purchase. Authors or genres that are new to me = digital reads, unless I’m traveling, in which case I might buy a fave book in digital version to make my carry-on lighter. (This is a fantastic plan, right up until my critique group meets at Barnes & Noble, and I wander the store, get completely sucked in by all the beautiful, shiny, colorful covers, the discount table, the featured table, the – well, you can understand, right? If I come home with a few more books than planned? I mean, it’s not my fault that they design those stores to encourage purchasing books.  Right?!)

For this summer, I will begin my reading by catching up on the fab releases by Mysteristas! In addition, here are some other planned reads:

  • Lucy Burdette’s Death on the Menu – available in August!
  • Elizabeth Peters – I have a desire to re-read these, and I’m looking forward to it
  • Laurie R. King, Mary Russell Series – I recently realized I’m at least four novels behind, so I plan to catch up on these.
  • Ellery Adams, The Secret, Book & Scone Society – I love everything she writes, and I’ve been waiting to treat myself to this one.
  • Craig Johnson, Longmire series – I’m seriously behind on these, too.
  • Kellye Garrett, Hollywood Homicide – I’ve had this one sitting in my TBR pile, saving it for a good summer beach day.

Of course, that’s not the whole list, but it’s a start. Do you have a summer reading list ready to go? Share in the comments! I’d love to hear about it.

 

A Few of My Favorite Things

I’m a bit under the weather, so today I’m sharing a few of my favorite things – this month’s favorite mystery, thriller/suspense, and paranormal series NOT written by current or former Mysteristas. Tell me yours in the comments!

Favorite Series – Mystery

  1. J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) – In Death
  2. Agatha Christie – Miss Marple
  3. Jana Deleon – Miss Fortune Mysteries
  4. Carole Lawrence – Ian Hamilton Mysteries
  5. Leighann Dobbs – Lady Katherine Regency Mysteries
  6. Ellen Byron – Cajun Country Mysteries

Favorite Series – Thrillers/Suspense

  1. Catherine Coulter – FBI Thrillers
  2. Meg Gardiner – All of the them
  3. Allison Brennan – Lucy Kincaid Novels
  4. Kendra Elliot – Mercy Kilpatrick Series
  5. Laurie R. King – Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Series

Favorite Series – Paranormal Mystery/Romance

  1. Patricia Briggs – Mercy Thompson Novels
  2. Kristen Painter – Nocturne Falls
  3. Lily Harper Hart – Ivy Morgan Mysteries, Harper Harlow Mysteries
  4. Michelle M. Pillow/ Jana Deleon/ Kristen Painter/ Mandy M. Roth – Happily Everlasting Series
  5. Devon Monk – Ordinary Magic Series

A Writer’s Sketchbook

My favorite books are those that are part of a series. I adore the opportunity to get to know a character, following along as s/he grows and changes over the course of their adventures.  In any story, the main character (or each core character) needs to be a fully formed, multi-faceted being in order to fully engage the reader.  Readers are much more likely to invest in those characters that become almost real to them.

As they engage with the characters in the story, readers come to expect certain reactions, and may even become so bold (we hope) as to predict what the character might say or do or feel in response to a plot twist or challenge.  The reader becomes a kind of participant as the story unfolds. But how do those wonderful characters come to exist? How does an author create a multi-dimensional, realistic, believable character?

It’s tempting to begin writing a story with the confidence (arrogance?!) that we know our characters because we created them, and therefore we don’t need to put any effort into getting to know them. But, this isn’t the case. In fact, without a thorough knowledge and understanding of the character, the detailed history and circumstances that surround him/her, it’s pretty difficult to write a character with believable reactions. A consistent voice, attitude, approach – all stay out of the author’s reach. Writing believable characters requires so much more than knowing the character’s physical description, occupation, or hobby.

How do we do that? By developing a character sketch!  The character sketch captures in words as many of the facets of the character’s personality as possible, and allows the writer to maintain consistency of thought, behavior, and decision throughout the story.  The level of detail may depend on the story (short, novel, series) and the author’s preference, and there are many kinds of character sketches, too. Here are a few different approaches:

Interview:  The approach is simple – first, draft a list of questions that will elicit interesting information about the character(s). Next,  visualize a morning show host (TV or radio, depending on my mood), sitting down with the character and performing the interview. With a critique partner, one person can ask the questions while the other focuses on developing the responses. Sometimes, unexpected things happen!

Eye Witness: This approach can’t stand alone, but it can be great for focusing on the visual/aural aspects of a character. For this one,  imagine a law enforcement officer interviewing an eye-witness at the scene of an accident/incident/crime. Ask the witness the basic questions, such as eye/hair color, height/weight, clothing, voice, visual characteristics (such as tattoos, piercings, etc.), walking style, and so on.  Taking this further, perform a “background check” on the character, accessing information that would be available to LEOs. Perhaps you’ll learn about the make/model of the character’s car,  criminal and financial history, and so on. The good news is that you can bend the rules a lot in this imaginary setting! (No search warrant required.)

Biography: The approach here is a simple writing exercise; capture everything about your character, as though you’re writing a biography. Where did this character grow up? What’s the family make-up? Educational or work history? Influences on the character as a child, young person, adult? These can be as basic or as in-depth as you like.

When I’m working on a short story, my character sketches tend to be succinct, perhaps a page or less for the main character; I might not do one at all for the secondary characters. For a novel – especially if I’m considering a series – it’s helpful to invest more substantial effort in getting to know these characters. Some writers will write the equivalent of a short story for each of the core characters.

Regardless of length or approach, the goals are the same. Did you ever read a book, and you struggled to connect with the character or find him/her believable? It’s quite possible the writer simply didn’t know the character well enough to write the most complete, tightly woven, and engaging story that readers deserve. Writers want to know not only what their characters look and sound like, where they came from, and what they do, but how they think and feel. We want to know how this character is likely to react when we throw challenges their way.

By developing these details about our characters, we can write consistent, believable stories that draw the reader in and keep them engaged to the very last word.

Coaxing Out the Muses

Muses are rather like Great Pyrenees dogs: the more you try to bend them to your will, the more stubborn they become. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the missing muses. Great news! My muses are no longer missing. Instead, they’re being reticent. Or shy. Or. . .stubborn, and thus the comparison. The Great Pyrenees dog is bred to guard livestock. These dogs often live with their flocks or herds from puppy-hood onward, and they’re bred to think independently, to make decisions on how to protect their charges.  These are the kind of dogs that, if you throw a tennis ball, they will give you a look that clearly says, “Why on earth would you throw that ball? Now someone has to go get it! Foolish human.” They will then lie down and wait for someone – a human – to get the ball. (For those unfamiliar with the breed – they look a bit like polar bears – click here for more info.)

Likewise, the more I tried to force some new ideas to appear, the higher my stress levels and frustration became, and the less present my muses became. They were not going to be forced into delivering great ideas, simply because I wanted them to do so. Clearly, a new approach was needed. Instead of writing, I read. In fact, you could say I binge-read short stories for the two weeks.

I’d forgotten how much I love reading short stories.

After the first week of reading, I noticed something delightful – I not only wanted to write, but was excited to write. Off I went to the closest Barnes and Noble, where I spent two glorious hours away from home and work and chores; after re-reading the story I’d been working on, it was obvious that it was long past time to write the protagonists’ back story. Hurray! I had a writing purpose, idea, and inspiration!

After an hour, I had a lovely character sketch  drafted, and I’d learned some things about my character, Rachel. It was so much fun to dig into who she was and how she became the person I see.  I’m anxious to do an interview with her next, which is a technique that author Gerry Boyle taught at a lovely conference called Maine Crime Wave a few years ago. Fantastic technique, and I don’t use it nearly often enough. (NOTE: If you haven’t read Gerry’s books, go – right now – and purchase or borrow one. I’ll wait. His books are that good!) With Rachel’s sketch fresh in my mind, I’m ready to jump back into the story, and begin layering in all sorts of delicious details.

Later, I went home and read more short stories. Now, ideas are buzzing around me like  insects in a summer garden; whizzing and whirring and buzzing, my brain, like that garden, is full of wonderful energy again. The lesson, for me, is to remember that the writing comes from reading. If I don’t maintain a balance of reading great stories that inspire me as a writer, along with actual writing, I can get lost – and the Muses decide to play hide and seek. (My Great Pyrenees mix will watch, and wait for me to figure things out all over again.)

Lovely readers, where do you find inspiration – for writing or other creative pursuits?

 

The Case of the Missing Muses

Inspiration is an amazing thing. People will often attribute a great idea to this rather ambiguous, flexible concept. We attribute inspiration to a person, place, thing, or idea, and are content to leave it at that. The process is rather more complex and simple at the same time. We see or hear or feel something, and suddenly our synapses are firing and thoughts are tumbling and spinning, bumping into one another in some dark recess of the brain, and suddenly it happens: we are INSPIRED. Perhaps we throw our arms up in triumph, or perhaps we simply relax back in our chairs, grinning to ourselves; regardless, feeling inspired makes us feel successful, at least for a few moments.

But, when we are uninspired…things are not so pretty. Recently, I was joking with another Mysterista about how our muses had gone quiet. The silence deafening, the muses missing – and the writer (me) uninspired. This is different than writer’s block. While some will argue that there is no such thing, what we consider to be writer’s block is an inability to move from idea to text, or develop a solution to a problem (such as a plot hole), or to simply get started. It’s not usually a lack of ideas, but rather an inability or unwillingness to focus on the one thing that requires your attention. Writing is hard. Being critiqued is harder.

Lack of inspiration, however, is a different kettle of fish. I’ve been traveling lately, and away from home for three weekends in a row. My laundry is in baskets, my refrigerator is empty, and my mail is towering to a threatening height. As I sat down to write this blog last night (behind due to the aforementioned travel), I followed my usual process in my search for a great idea: re-read the past week’s entries and comments; skim Facebook writing-related pages; randomly Google search concepts and review the search results. The process has evolved over time, but I’ve found that following this process typically results in four or five ideas, and as I tinker, one of them begins to stand out as the topic that will become my blog post.

Not last night. Not this morning.

My muses are missing.

 

In both Greek, and later Roman, mythology, the Muses were nine goddesses who presided over the arts and literature (and the sciences, too). Daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, these women provided inspiration. They were water nymphs, which is just interesting all on its own. There are other legends and cultural beliefs that suggest there were only three muses, and of course there is much debate about the details. If we stick with our nine muses, one website expands: “There were nine Muses according to Hesiod, protecting a different art and being symbolised with a different item; Calliope (epic poetry – writing tablet), Clio (history – scroll), Euterpe (lyric poetry – aulos, a Greek flute), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry – comic mask), Melpomene (tragedy – tragic mask), Terpsichore (dance – lyre), Erato (love poetry – cithara, a Greek type of lyre), Polyhymnia (sacred poetry – veil), and Urania (astronomy – globe and compass). On the other hand, Varro mentions that only three Muses exist: Melete (practice), Mneme (memory) and Aoide (song).”

Perhaps I need to be closer to water, and the water nymphs will visit? Regardless, I remain uninspired. I suspect that my brain is trying to tell me that I’m tired, and that I need to stop thinking for a bit, but I could be wrong.

So, readers – how shall we solve the Case of the Missing Muses? Do you have a favorite source of inspiration, a never-fail approach? I’d love to hear about it!

Mickey Mouse Monday

If all has gone according to plan – which, if you only knew what I know, you’d know that this is unlikely – I’m currently exploring the wonders of Disney’s Animal Kingdom as you read this post. In theory, my family already has enjoyed the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, and we’re at the last of the three parks we’ll be visiting during this trip.

I’m cautiously optimistic.

You see, that lovely storm from Tuesday? Yeah – it caused cancelled  flights (for Wednesday), a mad dash of rescheduling flights, hotel, dinner reservations, fast passes, pet/house sitter, and…well, you get the idea. Mother Nature and I are not friends right now.

Anyway.

This will be the first time our family has visited Disney together, and my husband’s first time as an adult. While it’s not our typical vacation (we lean toward tropical locales with fantastic reefs for scuba diving and snorkeling, and lots of beach lounging and boat rides), we’re pretty excited. We’ve very deliberately limited our activities and time, in hopes of keeping the typical vacation stress to a minimum. The weather in Florida is looking sunny and warm, and what’s not to love about the Mouse?

In addition to the sights, sounds, shows, and crazy rides that magically combine (see what I did there? magic?) into a wonderful vacation experience, there are people. LOTS of people. And while I despise crowds (you’re wondering at my destination choice, right?), I also recognize that crowds, especially at a venue such as Disney, create a virtual smorgasbord of character potential.

People watching is one of my favorite hobbies, and where better to see the happy, sad, frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed, and joyous than an amusement park? Especially THE amusement park?  It will be hot, there are lines everywhere, lots of black asphalt and little shade or seating – it’s the opposite of those malls where they pipe in the scent of chocolate and the soothing lullaby of good classical music (or whatever music encourages spending). This is the perfect place to watch how folks behave when challenged by a variety of conditions. Which ones flush and sweat, and which ones look fresh? Who is snippy and rude, and who is kind to the children jostling in line? How does the overwhelmed parent with the cranky toddler fighting the stroller – and a nap – respond?

We all have our ideas on what responses to various situations look and sound like, but we imagine them through the filters of our own life experience. Opportunities like this force us to see without those filters, and perhaps see something new or different. While I’m excited to ride Space Mountain and explore the Haunted Mansion, I’m also eagerly anticipating the wealth of experiences and emotions I can capture as I observe my fellow park-goers.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish us luck!