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Friday, July 23, 2010

The World Belongs to the....

Just when I thought I was standing on my last nerve, when I thought I'd scream because right now I feel like I have no control over my life (and I'm a person who values control), a friend sent this.

And you know, it reminds me that the world belongs to the playful.

Okay, deep breath. I can do this.

It's going to be all right. I just need to follow the tail of the fellow in front of me...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

'This Isn't Personal'--Interview with Carolyn Haines

Note: Carolyn Haines will be one of the presenters at the Love is Murder Conference, Feb. 4-6 in Chicago.

By Joanna Campbell Slan

Sarah Booth and Jitty came to me in tandem, arguing just as they do in the books. When such fully developed characters visit a writer, it’s truly a gift.
--Carolyn Haines

JCS: Talk about hearing fully developed characters, please. Why and how do you think this happens? Can an author improve the chances of such visitations? Should an author ever ignore those voices and replace them? What if the fully realized characters don’t work with plot.

CH: Last question first. Most good plots come from character, so if you’ve got a mismatch, the book isn’t going to work. I do think most writers hit streaks when the characters are fully alive and in the moment with them. When I write, I almost have to get to that place—I have some subconscious control, but it seems as if I’m merely watching, not engaged in the action.

How to bring about this? I think it’s a matter of focus. Knowing your story, knowing your characters, and a real regard for language. Writing isn’t about slapping words together. It’s about thinking. And language is very delicate. We forget that sometimes. Word choice is vital to character development.

JCS: Your Swedish grandmother, and both your parents, were storytellers. What portion of writing is storytelling? How does someone go about becoming a better storyteller? Can that be done?

CH: Attention to structure can improve anyone’s storytelling skills. Oral telling is helpful, because you can watch the audience, see if they’re engaged, if they’re enjoying. If not, a teller can shift gears and up the pace, cut the descriptions or whatever is necessary to reconnect with the listener. Stories have to be told—or written—in an order that makes sense to the reader. This is structure. Cut away the dead wood. Every sentence must count. The process of editing is the way to become a better storyteller.

JCS: Carolyn, you create truly vivid, one-of-a-kind characters. What are some of the techniques you use? I notice that Jitty’s clothes are always a highlight, as are Sweetie Pie’s sunglasses and scarf. You seem to be able to vary the cadence of your characters’ speech. Dish!

CH: Well, thank you very much. I think clothing and accessories are one of the easiest ways to characterize. They can show a character’s humor or quirkiness or hint at the character’s motive (and sometimes this is a deliberate misdirection). I think what makes a unique character is what’s in his heart, his spirit. Is he greedy, selfish, mean, generous, afraid, desperate? What does he desire? Motive is what makes us do the things we do, and motive stems from our unique psychology. Why do some people feel they must have designer labels and others are confident in thrift shop finds? Why are some people happy in the country and others in cities? These are the questions at the heart of a character. It is often helpful for new writers to do intensive character studies. Write it down. Read it often and remember the moments in the past that have brought your character to this particular place and time where the story begins.

Since I clearly hear how my characters speak, I can write their dialogue most of the time without too much trouble. Long ago I was shy, and I listened a lot. It’s a good thing to do. In fact, I make it a habit of eavesdropping almost everywhere I go. Fascinating.

JCS: You are also the Queen of Cliffhangers within the story. A scene always closes with a hook. Is that conscious? Are you a planner or a seat-of-the-pants-er? Do you think through how to sprinkle your hooks throughout your book?

CH: Again, thank you. I do deliberately structure the scenes to try to push the reader to the next scene, but I don’t outline in any rigid way. I write a proposal for each book, and I know the direction and the culprit. I have an idea of key scenes to write toward, the turning points, and then I just cut loose and write. If the characters take the story in another direction, I go with them. I may have to toss away some pages, but the first draft is the joyful part for me. I give myself freedom to explore, knowing I may toss pages. The hard work is the editing.

Mystery writing demands a certain level of planning. It is my job to plant the red herrings and to sweep the reader along to a certain conclusion—and then twist it. I take that seriously and I work hard at plotting. I am not a natural plotter, so it is a lot of hard work.

JCS: Will you share how you develop structure? Do you use the 3-act play or the Hero’s Journey? Post-it notes or wipe board? Scene-by-scene or outline? Once you get your structure down, do you allow yourself to make changes? How do you decide if the pacing is off? Do you have any test you use on your manuscript?

CH: I mentioned the turning points above. This is a basic outline—an inciting event, first turning point, mid-turning point, third turning point, crisis or black moment and resolution. These are not rigid. And remember there are a multitude of plot points. A turning point is very distinct and actually turns the direction of the story—this is a change that sends the protagonist in a new direction. These are not hard and fast. And while this is a “natural” feeling structure, that isn’t to say it is the only way to tell a story. Think of “Babel” or “Crash” both movies that exemplify storytelling in a completely different way, where spokes of the story move out from the central idea like the spokes on a wagon wheel. The old saying about writing is true—you can do anything you want as long as you make it work.
Structure is determined by the intent of the author. In structures such as “Babel” and “Crash,” the intent is to explore and idea. This is very different from traditional storytelling. But the wonderful thing about writing and books is that there’s room for all approaches to story. And the smart writer lets the story tell him which way to tell it.

For many years I worked with a critique group. I teach now, and my time is limited, but I have a wonderful friend, Suzann Ellingsworth, who is good enough to read for me. And I have a terrific editor, Kelley Ragland. Editing employs the logical part of the brain, and a fresh pair of eyes is critical. I try to send Kelley the cleaning manuscript I can. A professional should never expect another professional to clean up a grammar mess or sloppiness. So I go over and over a manuscript before I send it to Suzann, and then on to Kelley.

JCS: What do you find yourself telling your students over and over? What is the one thing that you feel almost every one of your students could improve on right off the bat? (Think of something that makes you want to get a tattoo…or give one!)

CH: Every scene has to move the plot forward AND develop character. Pretty writing isn’t enough. Yes, language is vital, but it does not void the need for plot and characterization.

JCS: What do you think has changed for writers, given the unease in the publishing world? For example, do you think books need to start faster? Have more dialogue? Less description? Or is it the same as always, just more competitive, so there’s an increased need for authors to really be at the top of their game?

CH: What’s changed is that a book has only a few weeks to grab an audience. It’s almost as if the books, and the authors, are viewed as somewhat disposable. There’s also a tendency now for publishers to jump on a bandwagon and produce what everyone else is publishing. So many of the titles look alike and sound alike. And it is harder for writers—not necessarily to get published but to stay published.

An original voice, a solid story, a book with something to say that’s well said will always get an agent or editor’s attention. The trick then is to translate that into sales figures. There are a lot of problems in the publishing business, but one of them isn’t a lack of talented writers.

JCS: Please explain “plot confusion” and how to fix it.

CH: What I see a lot in new writers is that they keep shifting the focus of the story from one character to another. Not that multiple characters can’t have a point of view or a big part in a story. But it must be ONE character’s story. This is a hard, hard lesson to learn. My first book, a horror novel, was rewritten a number of times because I simply couldn’t grasp this. The turning points follow the protagonist. If a writer can keep this in mind, he or she will likely clear up a lot of plot confusion.

JCS: You are very generous to authors at the beginning of their careers. I know of one person who you mentored to publication. What might you say to someone who is mid-list? How does someone break out of the pack and kick it into high gear?

CH: Unfortunately, a lot of promotion has fallen on the heads of authors. So I say embrace it and learn to use it to your advantage. Meet your deadlines like a professional. Be savvy about the business. Listen to other writers and ask questions. Most writers are shy people but very willing to talk about writing, especially in a one-on-one situation.

And try to give back. A handful of people changed the course of my writing career at one time or another. A couple of them were virtual strangers. I do try to return the favor by helping others. I have this corny belief that we really can make a better world if we get over our fears and selfishness and make that small gesture to help others.

JCS: You write with gusto and humor. Do you think that humor is a necessary ingredient for books? Why or why not?

Humor isn’t necessary in a book, but it is essential in life. I write humorous, and I also write very dark. I read both. Some days I want to be chilled and creeped out, other days I want to laugh. Books fit all kinds of people and all kinds of moods.

CH: How do you personally handle rejection? Any advice?

Give yourself three days to get over the soreness. Go ahead and fantasize about beds of fire ants and other things. Then get over it. This is a business and it’s tough, but that’s true of every business right now.

Once the anger is gone, look at the letter. I’ve learned a lot from rejection letters. Editors and agents don’t often write lengthy rejections, but if they take the time to say anything specific, take note of it. Really take note of what is being said. If it’s “we loved your character but the book lost momentum” that’s something to fix. And if an editor says something like that, believe me, they saw something in your book. Take that nugget and work with it.

Remember, this isn’t personal. It’s a business. If you let rejection defeat you, you won’t have a writing career.

Carolyn Haines
is the editor of DELTA BLUES (May 2010 Tyrus Books) and author of BONE APPETIT (July 2010 St. Martin's Minotaur). Visit her at

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Are My Books In Your Local Bookstore?

They might be. Or they might not be.

And I can't tell you exactly why. Book's tricky, and confusing, and a big mystery. Trust me, even Sherlock Holmes could be baffled by the ins and outs of book distribution. My friend Emilie Richards does a wizard job of discussing this on her blog.

So, yes, I know that fans have found my books in chain booksellers around the country. But I also know that sometimes, they don't see my books.

If they've sold out of my books--and I've been told that Photo, Snap, Shot is flying off the shelves, thanks to the great reviews--please consider ordering a copy (or two or three!) from any chain bookseller. They'll have no problem getting copies for you.

I also know of many independent booksellers who do a wizard job of promoting my books. Hurrah for Indie Booksellers! Any local independent bookseller can order copies of my books. Just ask.

Many college bookstores are now carrying my books. If they don't have copies in stock, they too can order them.

There are scrapbook stores who carry my books, and of course, there is always Amazon. They are great at taking preorders. You can also buy my books directly through my publisher by clicking on Midnight Ink.

Meanwhile, here's some ordering information you can use:

1. Make, Take, Murder (Book #4) will be officially released May 1, 2011.
2. Ink, Red, Dead (Book #5) will be officially released April 1, 2012.

Ink, Red, Dead will debut a new character, one that my fans in St. Louis asked me to "invent." Her name will be Bridget Eichen, and trust me, you are going to love her! (Mega thanks to Ruth M. and all the book lovers at Barnes & Noble in Fenton.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Flip Flip Album

This is a really cute album (okay, I'm bragging, sorry!) that's easy to do. I made it from fun foam. First I cut the shape of the flip flop 3 times. Added the strap and flower to one shape. Glued a second flip flop to that first shape so that the ends of the strap were inside the "sandwich" or the middle. I added the foot. The toenails are packing tape over colored paper so they are really shiny! And last of all, I put on the flower and the lettering. (The third flip flop shape is the back cover, as you'll see.)

The left "page" is the back of the foam flip flop covered with patterned paper on the left side. On the right is an interior page. The interior is mainly 3" x 7 1/2" which gives you room for a 3" x 5" photo easily.

You can see here that the page on the left has a flap that folds down. It's actually a six inch circle glued to the 3" x 7" rectangular page. That gives me plenty of room for more photos. On the right is a page made from a cereal box. Just sand lightly the shiny side and use a great glue like Crafter's Pick by API. It's fabulous stuff and dries clear.

I love changing up the interior pages. The one on the right has a gatefold. So that part with the flower is a flap that opens to 12" wide. Note the scalloped edge along the top and right side. I slipped pieces of green ribbon under the flower embellishment to look like leaves.

On the right is a wooden embellishment I bought with two others for $1 at A.C. Moore. It adds a nice texture, I think. I colored it with marking pens.

On the left is another flap. Under the piece that says Summer Vacation is a journaling box.

This left hand page is a pocket. It's super for ticket stubs, etc.

The right hand page is corrugated cardboard. I painted it with acrylic paint. Heavy, but cool, and it adds another texture. The leaf under the flower was cut from leftover fun foam.

The right page is the back of the corrugated cardstock covered with patterned paper. The right is the 3rd foam flip flop.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Here's what Amy Alessio wrote for about Photo, Snap, Shot:

"The plot is intricate and fascinating. Real history is intertwined with fiction to make a layered, believable adventure. There is nothing cute about this cozy mystery...Instead, readers will find realistic characters and plenty of tension to keep pages turning right until the end. Award-nominated author Joanna Campbell Slan’s series continues to be strong."

Aw, I'm blushing!

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Capitol Fourth

Because we supplied the 9' Steinway grand piano for the nation's 30th celebration of the 4th of July, our family was invited to view the party from 12th row seats. Wow, what a great time we had!

Jimmy Smits was the master of ceremonies, and he did a fine job. His comment that his family came here as immigrants--and that America had been very good indeed to the Smits family--touched the hearts of the audience members. It was a timely reminder that most of us came here from another country, and that we owe a lot to this great country.

David Archuleta did a beautiful job with The Star Spangled Banner.

Then Gladys Knight led a rousing "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and got everyone rocking.
Of course, our family was particularly thrilled by Lang Lang, the young Chinese genius. David and I had heard him play the "Stars and Stripes Forever" before, but this time with the Washington Monument in the background, it was a special treat. His hands move so fast as he does the counterpoint of the Sousa melody. Did you know that every instrument has a melody line in a Sousa march? I loved how Lang Lang's fingers were reflected in the fall board of the piano. They took off the lid, and the shots of the inside of the piano with those fabulous strings was totally cool.

Reba McEntire was the last big name performer of the evening. Her voice was as glorious and uniquely American as her looks. I particularly enjoyed her gorgeous blue sequined dress.

The 1812 Overture never sounded better than when fireworks were bursting over the stately white Washington Monument. The obelisk looked like a giant sparkler lighting up the sky!

All in all, it was A Capitol Fourth!

How was your Fourth? Did you catch "A Capitol Fourth" on PBS?
PS Being a mystery writer, I couldn't help but wonder when they used an ice pick to chisel the ice that went into the water coolers. After all the security precautions, an ice pick? Yeow! Oh, and the huge hanging Jumbotron got me thinking, "What if a cable breaks?" I mean, the mind of a mystery author never rests.

For the Love of Rafferty

As many of you know, I "own" a three-legged rescue pup named Rafferty. You can read all about how Raffie became a member of our family, and how he inspires me daily at Coffee with a Canine.