The Trouble With Muses

A fellow author shared an in-depth look at her writing process on her blog. It was so methodical and logical. I was overwhelmed with envy. All of you writers who can plot and outline and plan—you don’t know how lucky you are. I’ve tried to do those things, but I’m always thwarted by my muse.

My muse doesn’t care for plotting and all that boring stuff. She prefers to follow her instincts. Because of the hundreds of books I/she has read over the years, my muse figures she knows how stories work and can create them without all that plotting crap.

Most of the time, I can’t really argue with her. I’ve published sixteen books and finished drafts of several more. So obviously, her way works…sort of. But there are times I get frustrated with her and can’t help wondering: If my writing process was more organized and structured, would I not be only more productive, but also more successful?

Because not only am I at the mercy of my muse in terms of the creative process, but also when it comes to what book I write at any given time. If not for her, I’m certain it would be easier for me to write the books that would advance my career. Instead of bouncing around from sub-genre to sub-genre, I could keep going in the same one, or write the books in a series one after another instead of having gaps of years between them.

Even though she’s made me what I am as a writer, my muse can be aggravatingly arrogant. Not to mention capricious, moody and stubborn. And she’s getting worse as she gets older. It used to be a lot easier to control her. In the past I sometimes insisted she get to work on a certain story. Forced her to help me write books that weren’t really what she was interested in at the time. Now, granted, those were not my most successful or best-reviewed books. But at least I had the illusion of being disciplined and responsible in terms of my career. Now if I tried to make her work on a book she had no interest in she would just laugh at me, or go off and sulk.

And the truth is, without her, I can’t create. I can write blog posts and letters and even blurbs. But I can’t write fiction. No short stories or novels. For that I need her. And she knows that. Knows I’m at her mercy and without her, I’m someone who’s literate and can put words together but who lacks the creative spark to tell stories and make them come to life.

My muse doesn’t ever seem to get older or mature. She remains a stubborn, bratty child. Because that’s what she is, my childish self. Before I grew up and learned to pay attention in school and do what I was told. She is the daydreaming, fanciful child inside me. The one who spent hours in imaginary play, alone, outside in the Midwestern countryside, spinning stories in my head and sometimes telling them to myself out loud, with no one to listen but the birds and butterflies and caterpillars and the flowers and the trees.

I grow older, and hopefully, wiser. But my muse doesn’t. She remains frozen in time. With all the gifts of her childish outlook and all the flaws. I can’t tame her or make her mind me. I’ve learned not to try. And so I coax and nudge. I coddle and indulge her. Anything to keep her by my side. Without her, there’s no magic. No creativity. I’m just a boring, ordinary…adult.

TO SERIALIZE OR NOT TO SERIALIZE

The Cereal AisleSERIALIZE (sîr′ē-ə-līz′) verb 1. to transform cookies, donuts, waffles, french toast, crunch berries, etc. into miniature candy-like form to be dredged in milk and consumed for breakfast. 2. to broadcast or publish (something, such as a story) in separate parts over a period of time.

No sooner was my latest thriller Presence of Malice released than readers began asking if there was to be a sequel or series following it. To be honest, when writing Malice I never envisioned it as a series. It was always to be a stand-alone thriller, one of many other non-related thrillers I plan to release. I already have two ongoing series, taking on a third is, frankly, daunting.

On one hand, Malice is by far the best received book I've ever released, and not to capitalize on it's popularity by releasing a sequel or series feels like leaving money on the table. On the other hand, my writing muse has never been very motivated by monetary concerns, but mostly on whether or not I have a worthy story to tell.

On the other hand (I know, that's three hands) you always want to please your readers, and to have them clamoring for more of something you've written is not only awfully flattering, it also makes you want to do it, if for no other reason than to please them. JK Rowling can't seem to leave the Harry Potter franchise alone - even though she promised after the release of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows that there would be no new Harry Potter books, she has repeatedly tweeted or blogged new information about the wizarding world she created in those books, then released The Tales of Beedle the Bard, then the movie Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them followed by a book of the same name, then the stage play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child...

The point is, it's hard to walk away from something you so enjoyed writing and that readers so enjoy reading. So while it never started that way, Presence of Malice will most likely become a third ongoing series, if perhaps more episodic than serialized. In the end, while you may have other stories teaming around in your head demanding to be written, it's also irresistible to go back a revisit old friends and favorite villains.

Ah, had I but world enough and time!

The Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour … by Shannon Baker and Jess Lourey

2016_Shannon BakerHi Guys! (waving from sunny Tucson)

Being here today feels so much like coming home. I’ve been a member of RMFW for over 20 years and if I’ve gained any knowledge of business and craft (and let’s hope some of it stuck) I owe it all to RMFW. So even if I’m soaking up the desert instead of the Rockies (and you don’t know how much I miss them) I always feel like RMFW is my writer home.

So imagine how excited I am to bring Jess Lourey home with me. She’s not a stranger to a lot of you. Jess is the author of the Murder by the Month series from Midnight Ink. If you haven’t read them, you must. They are a ton o’ fun. She taught at RMFW’s one-day May workshop in 2013 and if you were there, you know how lucky we were to have her. Today, she’s here to talk about her upcoming thriller, Salem’s Cipher, featuring agoraphobic cryptanalyst Salem Wiley, who finds herself both target and detective in a modern day witch hunt. This is one smart book, full of twists and turns, and such cool stuff you will hold your breath the whole time. (Not literally, ‘cause then, you know, you’d die.)

2016_Baker_Stripped BareAnd I’m here to talk about my new book, Stripped Bare. It’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife and is about a woman sheriff in the Nebraska Sandhills. Both books release on September 6 and are available for pre-order. Salem’s Cipher. Stripped Bare. This is our first stop on the month-long, pre-launch—cue angelic chorus—Lourey/Baker Double Booked Tour, and I got to pick the topic so I decided both of us will give a tip about marketing and promotion.

I don’t know about you, but for me, marketing is hard. Planning, researching, angsting, peopleing. (Writing books is hard, too, with much of the same hardness topics, but stick with us on the—angels singingLourey/Baker Double Booked Tour, and we’ll give tips and clues on dealing with much of it.) Most of us have a hard time saying, “Read my book. Read my book,” but in the sea full of books, we have to do something to alert the fishermen hungering for ours where to cast their line. Good marketing is a service to readers, really. And those who do it correctly are saints—a little more angels’ song.

Didn’t your mother ever tell you that many hands make light the work? No? Well, mine didn’t either, but she should have. And, a road trip is ever-more fun with a buddy. Jess and I discovered we both have books launching on the same day. Jess is one of my favorite people to hang out with. She always makes me laugh or think deeply about life (which makes me squirm but is good for my personal character development).

But even more important than my good time, if we want to perform the selfless service of informing people about our books, we should do it with some humor, something interesting, and add some value for readers. So, ta da, welcome to the—you knowLourey/Baker Double Booked Tour.

My marketing tip of the day is have fun, or as much as you can, because if it’s fun for you, hopefully, your efforts will be less like “Buy my book” and more like a public service announcement with some value added.

Jess, when I got my contract with Midnight Ink, you were one of the first people I contacted about how to market. You told me a lot of methods you’d tried. Now, after 13 books, can you tell us what you’ve learned? (Not everything you’ve learned obviously, because you’re really smart and know a lot.)

2016_Jess LoureyCripes, Shannon (Jess here), everything I’ve learned fits on a one-sheet handout. Seriously. Especially when it comes to marketing, where there is only one surefire method: make a sex tape. But for those of us from Minnesota (where the women are pale, the men quiet, and the sex is done rarely and in the dark), we must look to riskier routes. Obviously, you begin by writing the best book you can, and then…forget the book trailers, for sure forget the swag (postcards, bookmarks, and pens do not a book sell), and give yourself a time budget for marketing.

For example, I spend 5 hours a week on marketing in the three months leading up to a book release. That doubles to 10 hours a week the month of release. I treat marketing like a job during those allotted hours, and I do my best not to think about it outside of that time. There’s always one more thing I could do, and I refuse to make myself crazy by chasing that.

2016_Lourey_Salem'sMy favorite marketing avenues during my allotted marketing time: guest blogging (because it’s like having grandkids in that you get all the fun and don’t have to change any diapers); reaching out to reviewers to offer the NetGalley link to my latest; setting up signings at bookstores that handsell; posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest following the social media rule of thirds: a third are personal posts, a third are blatant self-promotion, and a third are useful posts (writing tips, for example); and setting up writing workshops.

I choose those routes because I enjoy them (more or less), which brings us full circle to Shannon’s advice, with which I’m about to craft an open-faced advice sandwich with my advice as the single slice of bread: choose marketing efforts that sound fun to you, and put yourself on a strict time budget because if you don’t, you’ll always feel there was one more thing you could have done. Then, get back to the writing, because after all, isn’t that why we’re here?

Jess is giving away a Salem’s Cipher and I’m giving away a Stripped Bare. Tell us your marketing advice or leave a comment for a chance to win. Comment before midnight MT, Saturday, August 6th.

But wait, there’s more!

If you order Salem's Cipher before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to salemscipher@gmail.com to receive a Salem short story and to be automatically entered in a drawing to win a 50-book gift basket mailed to the winner's home!

If you order Stripped Bare before September 6, 2016, you are invited to forward your receipt to katefoxstrippedbare@gmail.com to receive a Kate Fox short story and be entered for a book gift basket mailed to your home.

Pop on over to Pat Stoltey’s Blog tomorrow as we continue the—angels singingLourey/Baker Double Booked Tour. We’re going to sit back with a glass of wine and talk about all kinds of stuff.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jessica (Jess) Lourey is best known for her critically-acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's 2014 Excellence in Teaching fellowship, and leads interactive writing workshops all over the world. Salem’s Cipher, the first in her thrilling Witch Hunt Series, hits stores September 2016. Visit Jess at http://jessicalourey.com/

Shannon Baker is the author of the Nora Abbott mystery series from Midnight Ink, a fast-paced mix of Hopi Indian mysticism, environmental issues, and murder set in western landscapes of Flagstaff, AZ, Boulder, CO, and Moab, UT. Seconds before quitting writing forever and taking up competitive drinking, Shannon was nominated for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2014 Writer of the Year. Buoyed with that confidence, she acquired an agent who secured a multi-book contract with Tor/Forge. The first in the Kate Fox Mystery Series, Stripped Bare is set in the isolated cattle country of the Nebraska Sandhills, it’s been called Longmire meets The Good Wife. Visit Shannon at www.Shannon-Baker.com.

Your Character’s Umvelt

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverWhat is your character’s umwelt?

Yes, umwelt.

Pronounced OOM-velt.

I came across this concept while reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

(If you have a dog, like dogs, are curious about dogs and dog behavior, it’s a fascinating book.)

Anyway, the idea of the umwelt came from an early 20th Century German biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.

To quote Horowitz: “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

As illustration, consider the lowly deer tick.

Von Uexküll tried to imagine life from the tick’s point of view.

A tick will climb to a high perch, like a tall blade of grass.

The tick is waiting for one particular smell.

Sight is no good; the tick is blind.

Sounds are irrelevant.

The tick is waiting for a whiff of butyric acid, “a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures.”

(We humans smell butyric acid as sweat.)

When the tick smells what it needs to smell, it drops from its perch.

Its hope during freefall, at that moment in time, is to land on an animal, get its teeth into some skin, and drink blood.

If all goes well, the tick will feed once, drop off, lay eggs.

And die.

That’s the tick’s self-world.

Its umvelt.

Its purpose, wants, needs, desires.

The tick, after all, much like your protagonist and your villain (both), are heroes of their own lives.

Doing a bit more research on the umvelt, I found this article from a website called The Edge and a terrific additional way of thinking about it, that the umvelt is the animal’s “entire objective reality.”

It works for people, too.

Your characters.

“Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” the article asked. “In the movie ‘The Truman Show,’ the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, ‘Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?’ The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.”

For instance, we humans accept those things we can and cannot smell with our noses. Any ordinary dog would laugh at our feeble powers with smell.

But we accept them.

What is your character’s umvelt?

What reality have they accepted? What bigger reality are they oblivious to? What senses or abilities are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How were they put together—for what purpose? What will they consider success? Or failure?

Get to know your character's umvelt might help sharpen your character in a distinctive, new way.

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ALSO: I was blown away by all the kind emails, messages, tweets, Facebook posts and texts after being named Writer of the Year.

Thank you all so much!

RMFW, quite simply, rocks.

Hope to see you all at Colorado Gold so I can thank you in person.

Go ahead and laugh at me…

So, as many of you know, I’ve been going to comic cons across the country, from Seattle, Washington to Hartford, Connecticut, to sell my books and to chat with people. Thank you, WordFire Press!

I found myself sitting on a panel discussing the various benefits and drawbacks of Indie versus traditional when someone said, “Above all, if you Indie publish, don’t make a fool of yourself.”

I immediately screamed to the heavens, “MAKE A FOOL OF YOURSELF! BE AWFUL! HAVE PEOPLE LAUGH AT YOU! DON’T WAIT FOR PERFECT!”

The other authors on the panel shushed me (I get that a lot) and the discussion continued. I should’ve screamed louder. I should’ve thrown chairs. I should’ve lit my guitar on fire and knelt before it’s burning remains.

Instead I shut up. Because I’ve been making a fool of myself for at least four years in the publishing industry and I figured I didn’t need to fight with my fellow authors.

But the truth? What I believe is the truth? No book is ever ready, talent doesn’t mean much, and you can keep yourself trapped in “working on your craft” for decades or more. Do all that, and you can avoid the fear of making a fool of yourself. Congratulations.

This is the big secret about the writing industry. It’s not about who knows the most about the writing craft, or the one who has the most talent. Nope, the person who wins at the writing game is the person who DOES it.

Lots of people talk about writing books, few people do it.

Lots of people finish writing books, fewer publish them.

So this game is for people who conquer the fear and do it, and who do it over and over.

Am I a better writer than when I started thirty years ago? Maybe. I’m older, and I think that helps. But what about the ten years of critique groups, ten years of reading writing craft books, ten years of writers conferences. Haven’t those made me a better writer and someone who knows craft?

Maybe. Probably. But in the end, it comes down to the fact that I did it. Over and over again, I took action. I wrote books, I edited books, I published books. Over and over. That’s the important thing.

Am I glad I didn’t publish the first thirteen novels I wrote? Even the bad ones? Sometimes I am. But I don’t think it would’ve mattered. I think if I had Indie published my bad novels along the way, it wouldn’t have mattered. Some people would’ve loved them, and some people would’ve hated them. That’s just the nature of the game.

I spent twenty years writing thirteen books no one will probably ever read, and I would rather have people read my not-so-perfect-books than not read them all. I wish I would've had the courage to risk people laughing at me sooner. But I was too afraid.

Rushing a book into publication might not be the smartest thing ever, but it's better than not publishing a book at all. And hmmm, I wonder how many New York Times Bestsellers were rushed into print? Makes me think of the Looney Tunes writers and animators. They were rushed and what they did was genius.

I don't rush books out the door, but I'm getting more courageous. Books need to be edited. To a point. But I can edit a book for years just because I'm too afraid to show it to other people because I'm too afraid of what they'll say.

But maybe I’m totally wrong on this. I don’t have an agent and I don’t have a big traditional publisher and I get some good reviews, but I don’t sell millions of copies.

I know some people are looking askance at me, wondering why I still try so hard every day, and I know some people have tried to read my books and couldn’t. For whatever reason.

So in that sense, yeah, I have mad a fool of myself.

But who cares?

Let ‘em laugh.

I will keep writing and publishing books, and they can laugh all they want. I would rather publish books that people laugh at than be trapped in my own fear.

This game isn’t for people who talk about it. It’s for people who do it.

So let’s all go DO IT!

And damn those haters who love to laugh.

Writer’s Stew and the Snake

I might be the only writer suffering from information overload, but I doubt it. I subscribe to several writer’s blogs, as well as RMFW, RWA, etc. I read a ton of great information on writing every week including mechanics, marketing, story structure—you name it. I go to as many workshops as I can, glomming on to handouts and PowerPoints, because it’s such fabulous information from seriously experienced writers. I know I have issues with my writing that need to be fixed and I’m getting amazing How-Tos for it.overload

But all this information causes its own problem. Here I am, trying to figure out how to write the best possible novel, and I’m assailed by things I know I need to consider in order to make sure MY novel is head and shoulders above YOURS (sorry, but that’s real life, man). It leaves me thinking I’ll never be able to absorb, let alone remember, it all.

And then I think, maybe I don’t have to. There is this really cool secret technology I know about. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it so I’m going to give it to you right now. You’ll thank me forever. It’s called a “save” command. You use it to save those words of wisdom on your computer (or you can “print” – it works for hard copy if you roll that way). You can even sort & index the articles by topic.

I know, right?

If this “Great Computer Secret” isn’t enough to cure your info overload, there’s always the fact that YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ALL IN THE FIRST DRAFT. You can refer back to that wisdom when you’re at the end of the story and want to make sure you used that serial comma correctly, have Mother capitalized in the right places and not capitalized in the wrong places, can review your story arc, or see if you used the full range of senses.

Wow. Who’d a thunk it?

I know there are those truly remarkable authors who write from beginning to end, write THE END, and send it off to their editor/agent who can’t find more than a comma or missing quote to complain about. But I’m not one of those, and odds are, you aren’t either.

I have a file on my computer I call “writing tools.” I have it sort-of indexed, enough so I can skim through the articles and pick up pertinent items that struck me as weaknesses in my writing when I first read the article. I read through these when I’m in the “stewing” mode—when I’ve gotten to the end of the story and am letting it stew for a week or two before starting to edit with fresh eyes. I’m sure (at least I hope) that over time, because I’ve recognized them, I’ll overcome most of my weaknesses. But until I do I need to be reminded of them. BEFORE I hit SEND and have that cringe-worthy moment when I re-read my submission and just notice that I just have that issue with using the words “that” and “just,” or wrote “sit down” or “stand up” when you can’t really do it any other way, or all the other simple but ingrained ooopsies we each have.

Crystal skull snakeI’m not going to stop reading those blogs or going to those workshops because I know I have a lot to learn about writing. But I’m going to strategically use the tips I glean, and apply them if/when I need to, instead of letting that overload suck me into a quagmire of information. In case you have the same problem, I’m throwing you a snake (hopefully, you watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and get that I’m doing you a favor here and, by the way, you’re welcome). Now, get going and Write On!

BrownCoats, Scooby Gangs, & Muggles Unite

Do you wonder what happened after your favorite character’s happily or not so happily ever after? If you’re like me, which I hope you aren’t because two of us in this world would be dangerous, this question keeps you awake at night.

What happened to Inara and Mal? Did they ever…bow, chicka, waaaa, waaaa. Will I ever find out what happened to Zoe after Wash’s death? And River, what happens to River? What was their next adventure, and why the hell did FOX ruin everything by cancelling the show into the first season? I will forever hold a grudge.

Yes, I’m obsessed with Firefly. I recently rewatched it, taking careful notes of things the story didn’t answer. Now you’re probably asking yourself, what do I care about Julie’s madness? That or, what’s the meaning of life? (I’d give you the answer, but I’d have to kill you right after).

So here’s why you, as a writer, should care about my crazy. My obsession is a great example of leaving your readers wanting more versus giving the reader what they crave, as in answers. So are you a Tale Tease? (I call dibs on the copyright). Do you leave your readers wanting more? Or do you resolve any lingering questions?

I’m not sure there is a right or wrong way. For me, as a reader, I want to know it all. As an author, I like the mystery element. Though one must make sure to resolve the main plot points.

What say you?

The Secret is Out!

After years of writing and months of revisions, my latest "baby" made her debut into the world on July 15th--Crimson Secret, Book 4 in my Coin Forest historical romance series.

It features medieval battles during the War of the Roses, the forgotten charm of "living bridges," and forbidden love. Master bridge builder Lord Penry is a known traitor, committed to destroying Joya's beloved Queen Margaret so the Duke of York can rule. Like her family, Joya is deeply devoted to Margaret. They're both right, both wrong, both lost in the heat of an unbridled passion that threatens their families' holdings, and their lives.

Okay, end of blurb. Thanks for reading.

That expression, "It Takes a Village," comes to mind. What would I do without my critique partners? My plot buddies? My RMFW friends?3DCrimsonSecret300x354

A hearty "Thank you!" to everyone who read, helped and supported me as I worked through the chapters, revisions and marketing.

It’s such a thing of beauty, this book. It’s my first print book since 2008, and I can’t stop looking at it, feeling the smooth matte finish, flipping through the pages. Ahhh.

It’s true love. (Sigh)

And yes, I still love eBooks. The novel is available in both formats. What I especially love is that the revisions can stop, LOL.

Seriously, as I did with my previous books, I’ve given this novel my all. I’ve sent out the notices. I’ve done my mailings. I’ve blogged and Facebooked and Tweeted and advertised and submitted and received good reviews, and it feels like my birthday. All I need is a hot fudge sundae (check!) and, scheduled for tonight, a stem of Cakebread chardonnay, and I’ll be certain I’ve sneaked into heaven without having to pay admission.

Love, love, love, love, love. Who but a fellow writer would understand this bliss?

As if all that isn’t enough, new ideas are floating around in my mind, ripe for the picking, for the next book in the series. I’ve ordered two research books, and can’t wait to plunge into the next story.

I can’t stand it. Did I complain recently about writer nightmares? Poof! They’ve vanished from my memory, and I’m bathing in the warm summer sunshine.

This is it. This is why we struggle to find the right words, agonize over plot points, slog through saggy middles and the daunting demands of the market. I created beautiful new characters, and they have suffered through misfortunes and teeth-gnashing angst, experienced awesome adventures, worn fabulous fashions, enjoyed heart-melting romance, and have been launched into their happily-ever-after futures. All is right with the world.

Like any good plot, this reverie won’t last. We need Conflict! Challenge! Change! Still, trust me when I say I’m going to savor every marvelous moment of this.

If you like historical romance, please give Crimson Secret a try. It's available in eBook now, and in three days, it will be available in paperback, as well.

I'm so happy, my face hurts from smiling. I'm wishing you similar moments of bliss with your writing!

A Study in Clues: The Layered Story

As a mystery writer, I’m intrigued by the notion of clues.  The old “list of stuff in a scene” or, “what the butler saw” are clue-types I still enjoy. But to be honest, I often miss clues in mysteries, relying on my “gut feeling” to decide who the culprit of the crime is. To me, under the clues, deductive reasoning, observances and other detecting tools of the trade, is the story. And the story is what brings the reader along, even if I know that the person who seems the nicest is likely to be the killer.

M.C. Escher's Three Worlds from WikiArt.org
M.C. Escher's Three Worlds
from WikiArt.org

So, last week I dove into the classic mystery by Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White.” I hadn’t read it before, and wasn’t expecting much.  After all, it was written in 1859 in the midst of the Victorian era. The sentences are long, the characters seldom get right to the point, and the niceties of the times could make the pace of the story seem beyond quaint, to nerve-wracking slow.  I thought I’d have no problem discovering “who done it” by chapter two. Was I in for an education.

Collins’ language, though typical of the time, engaged me completely.  He breaks all sorts of story rules by today’s standards, yet in doing so, enriches the reading experience completely.

The table of contents gives us seldom used concepts, like Epoch (a period in a person’s life marked by notable events), and a story started by one character and continued by another, based on the events. No mish-mash of multiple witnesses to the same event as we write today, but a continuous story told from the perspective of the best witness for that event. But every witness has a mystery of his or her own to resolve. Each was written in first person, but the personalities and their personal worries were so varied it was easy to keep them straight.

In the first paragraph of the tale, we are engaged with a question put forth in the form of a melodramatic statement: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.”  Okay, I’ll bite.

There is no dead body in the first chapter. Or the second. In fact, no one dies for quite a while in this tale. Yet time and again, I was caught up in the tension of what might happen. And when, at last, we get to the death, it seems almost inconsequential to the tale.  This isn’t much for detecting writers of today to pull from.

In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the tale, that I understood a seldom used, but completely effective form of clue-setting—layering.  With multiple perspectives, we have multiple stories pulled along not just by a theme, but by subplots, each with mysteries of their own.  Why did Sir Percival insist on marrying Laura when she made it plain her heart rested elsewhere?  Who is this enormous Fosco, and how does he maintain that Svengali hold over so many people? Who is this woman in white, and why does she look so much like Laura?

Every page seemed to introduce a new mystery, even as it revealed new evidence of evil intent.  I’m reminded of the old Heinz ketchup commercial: anticipation. Layering.

And, I was truly grateful that not every mystery in the story was closed in the final pages of the book.  Some mysteries were solved early and others late.  The more you read the more you were rewarded in the puzzles and solutions before you.

In a way, The Woman in White reminds me of M.C. Escher’s lithograph of The Three Worlds. When you look at this picture of a pond with a fish in it, you’re tempted to walk by and say “so what?” But then Escher invites you in with the title of his work and you can see so much more because of the subtlety of laying he’s done with the fish in one world, the leaves in another, and the trees in a third world. Woman in White gives us at least that many layers.

So what’s the clue here? How do you plant it in your next story?  Learning to layer here.

How to Spot (& Avoid) “Pay to Play” Publishing Contracts

In recent months, I’ve seen a resurgence of some terrible publishing “offers” that business-savvy authors need to recognize . . . and avoid.

Although these “deals” are legal if an author signs them, every time I see one of these contracts, I'm reminded of my law school contracts professor’s favorite saying: “You can make as good a deal, or AS BAD A DEAL, as you are able.”

And authors who accept these contract offers are making a very bad deal indeed.

Let's take a closer look:

BAD CONTRACT #1: “WE PUBLISH, YOU PAY”

This contract requires the author pay for some or all of the publisher's costs to produce the book. Often, the costs are not listed in detail up front, leaving the author on the hook for undisclosed (and often enormous) sums. When costs are listed, they often exceed the amount the author would have to pay to self-publish the work - meaning the author could hire a professional cover designer, developmental editor and copy editor . . . and still not pay as much these contracts require.

The publisher, not the author, should be responsible for all the publishing costs in a traditional publishing deal.

There are some legitimate "hybrid presses" that share the publishing costs with the author (and generally pay MUCH higher royalties--at least 50% of gross income--to offset those shared expenses). However, the legitimate ones are vastly outnumbered by the ones who simply want to make a buck off an unsuspecting author's dreams--so always have a hybrid-style contract reviewed by a publishing lawyer who works for YOU before you sign.

Beware: sometimes “pay to play” terms also lurk in the royalty language. A contract which pays royalties on “net receipts” and defines “net” as “amounts received by the publisher less the costs of editing and publishing the Work or less the Publisher’s actual costs to publish and sell the Work” is requiring the author to pay for the publisher’s costs. This doesn’t require payment out of pocket, but it’s still an inappropriate "pay to play" arrangement. 

Any time a "traditional" publisher tries to shift the costs of publishing the Work to the author—either up front or in the royalty share—the publisher is altering the traditional model and asking the author to take on an unfair share of the risk.

Legitimate hybrid publishers are always up front about the nature of the arrangement and the fact that the author isn’t being offered a “traditional deal.” Anyone who tries to tell you that the “author pays” model is a “typical New York contract” or a “traditional publishing opportunity” is trying to take advantage of your ignorance.

BAD CONTRACT #2: “WE PUBLISH, YOU BUY”

A publishing contract should never require the author to purchase copies of the finished book. Most publishing contracts permit the author to purchase finished copies, usually at a significant discount from the cover price. Some contracts restrict what the author can do with those discount copies (for example, some contracts prohibit their re-sale). However, traditional publishing contracts don’t ever require the author to purchase books from the publisher at any price.

One publishing “offer” I see a lot requires the author to purchase several thousand copies of the book and to pay the publisher for them in advance. The author must pay the publisher tens of thousands of dollars up front, but give the publisher full control over cover art, editing, and the content of the finished work. Don't do this. Ever.

Do the math: if the author buys five thousand copies of the finished work from the publisher at $16.95 apiece, how many copies does the publisher have to sell someone else to make a profit? The answer, of course, is NONE—and these publishers often make no effort to sell their books to anyone other than the authors.

NEVER sign a contract which requires a mandatory purchase of the work. Legitimate publishers just don’t work that way.

BAD CONTRACT #3: MANDATORY PAID MARKETING & "AUTHOR TRAINING" 

A few publishers offer unsuspecting authors a “traditional publishing deal” – where the publisher pays publishing costs and industry-standard royalties on sales – paired with a “mandatory marketing and author training contract” that requires the author to pay the publisher (or an affiliated marketing agency) thousands of dollars for marketing and "author training" services.

This is not a traditional publishing deal, and it’s not a good deal, either.

Once again, the author pays thousands of dollars out of pocket in return for unspecified "marketing" and "training." Even if services are specified, they usually include only things the publisher (or its “marketing arm”) can do in-house, like writing press releases, promotional Facebook posts, and other things authors can easily do themselves. Here, too, the publisher doesn’t need to sell any books to make a profit, and authors usually end up paying far more than the value of what they receive. 

Fortunately, authors can avoid bad contracts like these by following a few simple guidelines:

1.  Never sign a "traditional" contract that requires you to pay the publisher money (for publishing costs or royalties). 

2.  Never sign a contract that lets the publisher recoup its publishing costs before calculating your royalty share.

3. Never sign any contract without having it reviewed by an agent or a publishing attorney.

4. If you suspect your publishing deal isn't fair, or if something seems "not right"--be willing to walk away. 

Save your money and your work--because having no publishing deal at all is always better than having a deal you regret.