Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Favorite First Lines by Pat Browning

Pat Browning was born and raised in Oklahoma. A longtime resident of California's San Joaquin Valley before moving back to Oklahoma in 2005, her professional writing credits go back to the 1960s, when she was a stringer for The Fresno Bee while working full time in a Hanford law office.

Her globetrotting in the 1970s led her into the travel business, first as a travel agent, then as a correspondent for TravelAge West, a trade journal published in San Francisco. In the 1990s, she signed on fulltime as a newspaper reporter and columnist, first at The Selma Enterprise and then at The Hanford Sentinel.

Pat's first mystery, Full Circle, was set in a fictional version of Hanford, and published through iUniverse in 2001. It was revised and reissued as Absinthe of Malice by Krill Press in 2008. An extensive excerpt can be read at Google Books:

Welcome to my snowy mountaintop, Pat,  on this 6th day of our holiday virtual tour. Grab a cuppa chai tea to warm yourself before you tell us what attracts you to books.

The first question I have is always: What is this book about? You can’t depend on cover blurbs to tell you. Often they’re so much gush. I’m not impressed when some famous author says the book in question is the best book ever written. How do I know the famous author even read it?

For me, the easiest way to find out what a book’s about is to check online at If a book has been published it will be listed there with some kind of story line or summary. Yet even when I know what a book’s about, I like to hold it in my hand. I like to riffle through the pages to get a feeling for writing style, characters, dialogue.

I always open a book to the first page. A funny first line gets my attention. Other than that I can’t really say why the first few lines pull me into a book or turn me off, but here are some opening lines that I love, for whatever reason.

My favorite first line of all time:

“He loved to watch fat women dance.” -- From Goodnight, Irene by Jan Burke:

Some others I like:

"I was a nice Jewish boy who had gone astray." -- Tropic of Murder by Lev Raphael.

"My mind was on Steinbeck; my foot was on a hand." --Till the End of Tom by Gillian Roberts.

"Afterwards, Sarah could never be quite sure whether it was the moonlight or that soft, furtive sound that had awakened her." -- Death in  Kashmir by M.M. Kaye.

"Through the slit in the closed drapes, a thin bar of afternoon sunlight fell across the soldier's chest, highlighting the small, dark bullet hole." – Some Welcome Home by Sharon Wildwind.

”My back’s broken,” I said. “I’m too old to sit in a cotton field in the middle of the night.” Absinthe of Malice by Pat Browning.

Not a complete list, but it’s a start. Writers take note: The first line is the hardest but it may sell your book.

Metaphor for Murder is my work in progress. Log line: Small town reporter Penny Mackenzie tracks an offbeat Christmas story and finds herself in the middle of a murder and the mysterious desecration of an old Chinese cemetery. Stay tuned …

Praise for Absinthe of Malice: “Browning's obvious knowledge of the small town newspaper business is a perfect background for the savvy Penny Mackenzie, who by the end of the book has not only solved the mystery of several deaths and disappearances, righted an ancient wrong or two, but also has her personal life set on a most interesting track.” – Donna Fletcher Crow, author of The Shadow of Reality, Book 1 of The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries, and A Midsummer Eve's Nightmare, Book 2 in the series.

ABSINTHE OF MALICE can be ordered through any bookstore or online from and Barnes & Noble.
Barnes and Noble, print and Nook
Amazon, print and Kindle

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Falling in Love With Wordsmithing by Jackie King

Jackie King loves books, words, and writing tall tales. She especially enjoys murdering the people she dislikes on paper. She's a full time writer who sometimes teaches writing at Tulsa Community College. Her latest novel, The Inconveninet Corpse, is a traditional mystery. She's  also written five novellas as co-author of the Foxy Hens Series. Warm Love on Cold Streets is her latest novella and is included in the anthology The Foxy Hens Meet an Adventurer. Her nonfiction book is Devoted to Cooking. She's a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Oklahoma Writers Federation, and Tulsa Night Writers.

Jackie, it's great to have you join us here on this first day of the "Mystery We Write Holiday Book Tour." We've been planning the tour for months and it's finally arrived.

Jean, what a delight to visit your mountaintop. A cyber-hug to you and to each writer and reader who stops by. (Yes, I’m one of those ‘huggers,’ so grit your teeth, close your eyes and endure a quick trespass into your private cyberspace.)

Today I’d like to share an anecdote from my writing past. I was 22 and visiting my mother in the tiny town of Tipton, Oklahoma, when on a bright summer day, I learned the importance of revision. (Warning to authors and would-be authors: I started writing early in my life and then allowed other things to interfere with my love for the craft of storytelling. Don’t let this happen to you.) I’ll call my little story:

Falling in Love with Wordsmithing

Do you love or hate revision? When I first started writing I hated what seemed to me a tedious and mostly unnecessary exercise. What could need correcting except perhaps, punctuation and spelling? I had stories to tell and a passion to write these tales from the depth of my heart. I did a fair job of it, too, I thought. I even managed to sell a couple of short stories. (This was some time ago and the short story market was good.)

My mother, an English teacher, also wrote and hung around with folks having the same inclination. One of her more successful writer friends, a local journalist named Vera Holding, dropped by with a draft she’d just banged out on her typewriter. (Those were the clickety-clackety, non-electrical machines that writers, businesses and students used for letters, manuscripts and such back in the dark ages.)

“Would you listen to my story and give me so me feedback?” Vera asked, and we agreed, so she began to read aloud. I had seen this woman’s published work and expected smooth and polished prose, but that didn’t happen. Her story was so bad I couldn’t think of anything to suggest that might help. Her work was unsalable in my opinion. So I decided to be kind and lie. “That’s just fine,” I said, and smiled.

Mother, who knew the woman and her work much better than I did, made some suggestions to strengthen the plot, but nothing could save that story. Or so I thought. Her work had no plot; her characters were shallow and her writing seemed lifeless. But bless her heart, I thought, she’d not learn that from me.

The next day Vera came back and asked to read her revised story aloud. I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes, disappointed that I had to listen to that drivel a second time. But I was raised to be polite, so I folded my hands in my lap, crossed my ankles, and pasted a smile on my lips.

When Vera began to read something magical happened. The day before I’d been bored and even a little embarrassed by her writing. Now I was transfixed. Somehow this author had breathed life into her characters, their dialogue and the narration. The plot was still weak, but the protagonist was so compelling that I knew the story would sell. And it did.

That day I became a devotee to the power of revision. I also learned the difference between a wanna-be writer and a professional writer. Learning and applying good writing technique takes time and many, many hours of writing. But anyone who is willing to make the effort and to revise their work until its right, can master this skill.

Years have passed and wordsmithing is my favorite part of writing.

Thanks, Jackie. Great story.

Jean, thanks a million for inviting me to visit. I hope each person who visits your site will leave a comment!

My pleasure.

You can learn more about Jackie by visiting her website:

Her blogsite: Cozy Mysteries and Other Madness:

Her novel, Inconvenient Corpse : (including Kindle for $2.99)

Barnes & Noble (including Nook for $2.99)

Jackie would like to have readers ‘friend’ her on Facebook where she's listed as Jacqueline King.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Mystery We Write" Holiday Virtual Book Tour Begins Friday!

The virtual tour kicks off Friday with 15 mystery writers taking part--and a 60 plus novel giveaway. Blog visitors who leave comments at the individual sites are eligible to win mystery novels from writers: Marilyn Meredith, Earl Staggs, Tim Hallinan, J. Michael Orenduff, Anne K. Albert, Beth Anderson, Alice Duncan, John Daniel, M.M. Gornell, Wendy Gager, Jackie King, Jinx Schwartz, Pat Browning, Ron Benrey and me.

I’m giving away 14 Kindle or Nook books—one at each blog site--as well as three print copies at the conclusion of the tour. I would love to be eligible to win some of the great books offered by my fellow tour writers.
A lot of good writing advice and interviews are going to be featured, including book excerpts and photos of the writers’ latest books and work spaces. You can win one or more mystery novels by leaving a comment and email address at as many host sites as you have time to visit during the next two weeks. The tour ends on December 8.
My tour schedule is listed at: "Mystery We Write" Holiday Tour along with links to all the other blog sites. There's also a slideshow of all our books on the site, created by our tour coordinator Anne K. Albert.

I’m appearing at Marilyn Meredith’s blog site Friday to talk about the importance of novel settings, and Jackie King is featured on my blog site to tell us why she fell in love with “wordsmithing.”

I’m also signing books Friday at the Blue Heron bookstore in downtown Casper, Wyoming, from 1-3 p.m., so if you’re in the area, please stop in to say hello (if you can find a parking space on Black Friday).

We wish you the happiest of holidays and hope to see you along the tour.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to Impress an Agent (or an Editor)

I was going through a stack of writer magazines, trying to decide whether to toss or keep them when I discovered an article written by agent Lori Perkins. Her essay on impressing an agent made me laugh because the tips are obvious. But I’ve been writing a long time and maybe there’s someone reading this article who doesn’t know the basics.

The most important thing you can do to impress an agent is to submit a cleanly typed and professional query. And never longer than one page because editors are very busy people who read a lot of queries and successful agents receive a thousand or more a month. Make sure your letter of inquiry is on white paper—colored stationery doesn’t impress an agent or grab the right kind of attention. Use 8.5 by 11 inch 20 bond paper. Absolutely nothing lighter.

Perkins said, “A dirty, tattered, handwritten letter” just doesn’t impress," no matter how good your manuscript happens to be. Because she represents a number of horror writers, Perkins receives some strange queries. Some have been written on black paper with white ink or red ink to represent blood. She’s also received computer-generated stationery with vampire bats, skulls and coffin decorations, which wind up buried in the trash.

Use 10 or 12-point type and Times New Roman or Courier typefaces. The agent said not to type chapter heads as they appear in a book. And don’t try to bribe the agent with booze, Cuban cigars, coffee mugs or a box of Vidalia onions. (I’m not making this up.) Your work has to stand on its own merit. Never tell the agent that you have ten completed manuscripts in your closet that you’re willing to share. And wait six to eight weeks to call after you’ve submitted three chapters for her approval. Another NEVER is to tell the agent you’ve tried to sell the book yourself or have been rejected by every editor listed in Writer’s Market. Sounds silly but some would-be writers have done just that.

For heaven sake, don’t lie to impress the agent. There’s a well-told story about a writer who made up a quote from a bestselling novelist, which helped his agent sell the book for a six-figure book deal. When the bestseller heard about it and called The New York Times to repute the quote, the publisher dropped the writer before the ink was dry on his contract.

Perkins also said too much personal information call kill the deal. Wait until an agent-writer relationship has been established before you talk about your ex-spouse or that your car's been repossessed. If it doesn’t pertain to your book, don’t talk about it.

Don’t make assumptions about your book before you’ve even signed the contract. And don’t ask the agent about whether a movie deal will be in the works or how large an advance a publishing company is willing to pay. Start work on your next book and let the agent do her work. Give her your phone number, email address and enclose an S.A.S. E. (self-addressed envelope). And get those three chapters in the mail as soon as possible after they’ve been requested. Or an email attachment, if the agent accepts them. If there’s some kind of delay, be sure to let the agent know.

Don’t forget to briefly list your literary credits. Perkins said, “Don’t be afraid to blow your own horn,” but do it as briefly as possible.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Creativity Exercises

Not so long ago, if someone said you were creative, they meant you were different, or what author Nancy Slonim Aronie called “tapped by the goddess of artistic sensibilities.”

 We’re all born with innate talents that are creative in their own way. Florists are creative in their arrangements as are plumbers who create unusual designs that hopefully don’t leak. And I’ve always admired the creative talents of wedding cake designers and chefs who garnish their gourmet dishes with sprigs of parsley and mounds of berries and whipped cream.

Aronie says, “Creativity is your soul expressing itself. Creativity is a continuing process. And process and souls expressing themselves have nothing do with selling or reviews or results or commercial success. They have everything to do with taking chances, being honest, letting us experiment with what feels right, letting ourselves make—as Annie Lamott puts it in Bird by Bird—'[lousy] first drafts.' This brainstorming of the gut will nourish your innards.”

Aronie’s creativity exercise is an interesting one. She basically says to allow yourself 30 minutes to decide which ordinary thing you’ll turn into something extraordinary. Then write about it. “What was the experience like for you? How will you remember it? How will you change the channel from ‘what a drag’ to ‘what a joy?’”

Some of the exercises she suggests are:
 ~Clean the hydrator in the refrigerator.
~Match all the socks in the sock drawer.
~Throw out all the stretched–out underwear that you never wear.
~Organize your videotapes.
~Rip pages from a magazine and make a collage that says ‘I’m creative’.
~Add a plant to your work area.
~Make an exotic mushroom sandwich on toasted country French bread. Serve it on your nicest plate with yellow and orange nasturtium.
~Put a love note under someone’s pillow.

Most of these things fall under the dreaded category of “housework,” and I can think of better things to do with the little time I have to be creative, although I have to admit that her suggestions are challenging.

Aronie has taught a workshop, telling students that “creativity is maintaining the balance between the heart and the mind, the dedication to the moment and the ability to stand by and surrender and let the stuff flow through.”

Not a bad idea.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One of My Characters Tells Me Off!

Sarah Cafferty is one of two amateur sleuths in my Logan and Cafferty mystery series. She's not her usual self in Murder on the Interstate and I want to know why.

Author: Sarah, why are you so cranky? You’ve shown good humor in the previous two books and you're  too old for PMS.

Sarah: Cranky? What do you expect? You send a killer to stalk us and cause Dana to crash our motorhome to escape. Then we're nearly swept away in a flash flood. The downpour scared me so badly that I irrigated my underwear.

Author: I’m sorry, Sarah. I know it was traumatic, but you have to admit that it was suspenseful.

Sarah: Where were you while we were nearly drowned? Sitting in your comfortable chair thinking up ways to get us in deeper trouble?

Author: That’s my job.Would you rather I replaced you with a younger sleuth?

Sarah: Dana and I are only 60. Not some elderly widows with walkers. We can do everything that younger sleuths can do.

Author: Well—

Sarah: With the possible exception of skateboarding and scaling tall buildings.

Author: I was thinking of having you bungee jump in the next novel.

Sarah: Unless you’re joking, Dana and I are taking a hiatus from your mystery series.

Author: What about our readers? You don’t want to disappoint them, do you?

Sarah: Haven’t we done enough? In The Village Shatered you send a serial killer after us, in Diary of Murder a vicious drug gang. In Murder on the Inteerstate you have a homegrown terrorist group kidnap us while they’re planning to take down the entire country. How can you possibly top that?

Author: I’ve got some ideas that will knock your socks off.

Sarah: That settles it! You can email us in Brazil. That’s where we’re going on vacation. If we don’t answer, you’ll know that some other novelist has decided to adopt us and treat us fairly.

Author: You’ll be bored within a week and out of a job in a month. Novelists that are nice to their protagonists don’t last long in the publishing business. Readers want suspense as well as mystery.

Sarah: I’ve got a great idea. You take my place and I’ll write you into some mysterious and suspenseful situations. You’ll love bungee jumping over a crocodile pit or waking up with rattlesnakes. I can think of lots of exciting situations to place you in.

Author:  Point taken, Sarah. From now on we’ll concentrate on mystery and go easy on the suspense.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Forget About Perfect Grammar

It’s often difficult for novices to break the writing habits they've learned in school. Perfect grammar, especially when writing dialogue, is one of the worst mistakes a writer can make. I was in an online critique group a dozen years ago, comprised mainly of unpublished writers. I’ll never forget a critique that said, “You need to clean up your characters’ grammar.” The characters were uneducated farmers.

Author William Noble once said, “The grammar rules we learned in eighth grade should never be followed absolutely. At best they are one choice among several, and at worst, they will dampen our creative instincts.”

The use of clichés is another fledgling blunder. The rule of thumb is: if it sounds familiar, don’t use it. If you can’t come up with something original and your muse is tugging you on, type in a row of Xs and write it later during the second draft. But if you must use a cliché, add the word proverbial as in "as profitable as the proverbial golden goose."

Of course there are rules that must be followed, such as adding commas for clarity and periods at the end of sentences. Some writers have felt that innovative sentence structure signals creativity, but the practice is only acceptable now in poetry. In Ulysses, for example, James Joyce’s last chapter begins with:

Yes, because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs. Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for the masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever...

Joyce’s stream of conscience continues for forty pages without a single period. I wonder how many people actually read it to the end. Creative and innovative? In my opinion, anything that slows the reader for even a few words may cause him to abandon the book.

On the opposite end of the sentence spectrum, Hemingway taught novices to write declarative sentences: “The day had been hot.” “The rifle was long and cold and strange.” “She wore black shoes, a red cape and a white tunic. . .” However, short, choppy sentences must be interspersed with longer ones to make them read well. A good practice for beginning writers is to read one’s work aloud to avoid clumsy phrasing. If words don’t flow well together and your reader stumbles over them, you’ve lost her.

Reading the classics doesn't prepare anyone well to write for today’s market. I’ve judged writing contest entries that contain the most formal language I’ve read since reading War and Peace. Some fledglings avoid contractions entirely, even when writing dialogue. The result is stilted language.

Studying the bestsellers for style, content, description and characterization helps the beginner gain a handhold in the current market. Some writing teachers advise copying your favorite author’s work, as artists have done with the masters—as long as it’s only practice and doesn't result in plagiarism.

I learned to write fiction by studying the work of Dean Koontz and others. Whose writing have you studied and did it teach you the language of fiction?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Psychic Mysteries

A ouija board introduced me to the realm of mystery. As a young teen, my cousins and I also discovered table tapping. Sitting around a small table with our hands lightly resting on its top, we asked the table questions. The room was dark with the exception of a burning candle.

After the question was asked, the table would lift high enough to tap two legs on the floor, once for yes, twice for no. Each of us swore we weren't causing the table to move, but tap the floor it did, causing some of us to run from the room screaming. But that didn't stop us from repeating our spooky game every chance we could.

The ouija board was supposed to predict the future, but my cousin Mary didn't marry Sam Gufstason, the name spelled out on the board more than once. It was during this period that I discovered my psychic ability. One night before spending the night at Mary's house, I dreamed she would be waiting to scare me in a dark, L-shaped hallway.

The following night, after leaving the bathroom to return to bed, I knew that she was there in the hall, although I couldn't see her. From then on, I had premonitions of things to come. Once, unbeknown to me, my sister-in-law gave birth to a premature baby. When the phone rang, I grasped the receiver, saying, "It's a boy." When I put the phone to my ear, I heard my brother-in-law say exactly the same thing. I always seemed know who was on the phone years before caller I.D. was available. I have to admit it was a bit unnerving.

A news reporter during the Vietnam War, my beat was the nation's largest Naval Air Station in Lemoore, California. I instintively knew which pilots would never return home. I didn't want to know and did my best to block out any psychic revelations that came my way. Eventually, I was successful. Now, I welcome them and the premonitions are beginning to return. I also found that I could accurately read palms and people appeared at my door asking for readings. I obliged them and probably could have made a career of it, but foretelling unfortunte events really takes its toll.

I haven't read a palm since visiting my brother at his coast guard station years ago. One night at the base in Neah Bay, I did an impromptu reading at the NCO club. A young man asked if I knew when he had been born. When I told him, he backed away, yelling, "You're a witch." Another reason I blocked my psychic power. I don't look good in tall, black, pointed hats.

I now realize that I was probably responsible for the table taping as a teen, and years later I actually met Sam Gufstason, who was married to a woman named Mary.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Do Trailers Really Sell Books?

The jury’s still out on whether trailers actually sell books. Regardless, they showcase your work if you place them on YouTube and promote them on Blazing Trailers, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

The videos range in price from less than a hundred dollars to several thousand, or you can produce them youself. My first book trailer for my historical novel, Escape, was created by a student who did a credible job for $60, but I wasn’t impressed with the music or photo quality. So I hired a professional to produce my second trailer, for $475, which carved a nice chunk from my royalties. A Village Shattered video earned four and a half points out of a possible five from a video judging site, First Turning Point. The only nit mentioned was punctuation within the video, but it wasn't produced by a writer.

My self produced video, Diary of Murder, only earned three points from the same site. Among the nits, the judge said the music was too recognizable. The bottom line is that both books have sold equally well, so the expensive trailer was probably a waste of hard earned royalties. But you can judge for yourself. I haven't produced a trailer for my latest releases and have noticed a difference in sales figures, so I conclude, in my own case, that trailers do help sales. And new software has been developed since my own efforts, which produce much better videos, including Windows Movie Maker and  iMovie which comes packaged in a bundle called iLife for iMac users. A good description of how to produce your own free video: at the Jungle Red Writers blog site.

Whichever route you decide to take, book trailers are worth the investment if you have the time and energy to promote them.

Note: I've since changed Diary of Murder's cover and the books are no longer available on Fictionwise because my publisher died and orphaned the books. They are, however, now available on Kindle, Nook and print editions.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Publishing Etiquette

Assuming that you’ve done your homework, selected the right publisher and submitted a near perfect manuscript, there are guidelines to follow in order to maintain a good working relationship.

~ Be positive in your dealings with a potential editor or publisher. When the decision is made to acquire your manuscript, an editor is committed to working with you for as long as a year or more. So, you need to present yourself as a willing and passionate partner, according to New York Editor Nicole Diamond Austin. She advises writers to be prepared to answer questions about the manuscript and most important, to be flexible, especially if the editor gives critical feedback.

~ Be willing to share your career vision, especially if it’s your first novel. Share your expertise and how you want to be known. Compare your work realistically to other authors and explain how you plan to promote your books.

~ Explain your “platform”—anything that uniquely qualifies you to write your book or provides you with a ready audience of readers. For example, if you’re a doctor, your medical thriller will be more readily accepted than if it were written by a pet store owner.

~ Honesty will win the publisher over. Don’t claim to be Lawrence Block’s friend when you only met him once at a writer’s convention. It’s tempting to try to impress a publisher but it will come back to haunt you later, as some novelists have learned. Feel free to briefly talk about your writing accomplishments but make sure you're accurate. Publishing is a close knit industry.

~ Respect an editor’s time and realize that you’re only one of many writers in his stable. And be patient if your calls are not immediately answered. Make sure you have a good reason to call because publishers, editors and publicists are very busy people.

~ Don’t get pegged as a difficult writer to work with. You may not like your book cover or the way the publicist is handling your PR campaign but you need to trust that they have your best interests at heart. Make sure that whatever is bothering you is worth potentially damaging your relationship.

~ Always be nice to the publishing assistants. Remember their names and ask how they’re doing when you call or email. Writers are often surprised at what an assistant can accomplish and the speed with which they get back to you.

~ Keep your editor informed, both before and after publication. If you’re a guest speaker, write a magazine article about your book or appear on a convention panel, make sure he or she knows about it ahead of time. The event may serve as a good reason to reorder additional copies of your book. But don’t overwhelm your editor with details.

~ Give your publisher a list of names of people who are willing to endorse your book and make sure your memo isn't longer than three pages. Again, those who work in a publishing company are very busy, so, don’t overload them with too much information.

And, finally, always thank your editor, publicist and publisher for the opportunity they’ve afforded you as well as the hard work they’ve given your manuscript. Thank them personally as well as in your book’s acknowledgements. A little appreciation goes a long way. . .