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Discussion Questions for Reading Groups

Today I received an email from Cynthia Provenzano of the Pikes Peak Library District, asking if I had discussion questions for reading groups. What a good idea! I asked if she had any tips, and she did. First, she suggested that I not have more than 10 or 12 questions per book. Second, she gave me the websites of two authors she felt provided excellent questions: Sandra Dallas and Carol Goodman. And finally, she said not to ask what actors would play the characters in a movie. (D’oh! That’s an author’s favorite game, but apparently we’re the only ones who care.)

With this information under my belt, I wrote discussion questions for both Chihuahua of the Baskervilles and The Portrait of Doreene Gray (available July 3, 2012). They are, of course, chock full o’ spoilers, so don’t read them unless you have already read the books. Or if you have no intention of ever reading them – that works, too.

Thanks, Cynthia!

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Random Morning Thoughts #1

I’m always chatty in the morning, but Angel Joe goes to work immediately, the cat just wants out, and the puppy, while freakin’ adorable, is basically limited to sign language. So far, hers consists of “let me out of this pen,” “I love you, please love me,” and “throw this.” So here I am, talking to the interwebs.

The boss man from the kitchen cabinet company is coming today to check out these last two cabinets that don’t have the right hinges. Seems like no matter how many photos Joe takes of the doors with their hinges, without, partially open, etc., they can’t figure it out. We’re hoping this gets the job done. Angel Joe is not usually a complainer, but he was really bitchin’ about taking the hinges off for photo purposes and then having to put still-wrong ones back on. It irks him to expend effort on brokenness.

One of the things I’m working on today is getting author endorsement quotes for The Portrait of Doreene Gray (July 3), and also hunting up review sites to send advance review copies to. If you have any sweet, sweet knowledge, please lay it on me. Word.

The bathroom counter guys came on Monday. Turned out both sink cut outs were off center. One can be fixed by moving the cabinet under it, the other one needs to be redone, which Atlas Flooring is doing for free. The benefits of working with a reputable local company are significant. The medicine cabinets come tomorrow. Aren’t they pretty? They’re recessed into the wall.

That’s supposed to be “antique silver.” The bathrooms will be a bit of a mish-mash, with notes of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and contemporary, but the kitchen is like that, and it works.

Josie O gets her last round of shots tomorrow, and then I can take her on actual walks! Part of the reason for getting a dog was to get me out of the house twice a day, so I’m pretty excited. Today Colorado’s big wind, the Chinook, is howling and banging around the house, so I wouldn’t want to go out anyway.

Time to get to work.

.99 Two-Day Sale: Jokers & Fools

Two publishing contracts ago, this book, originally titled Telling Lies, won the Mainstream category of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers contest. Jennifer Unter, my agent, took me on as a result of it. Publishers read it and loved it, but didn’t know how to sell it unless they labeled it Chick Lit, which was considered dead at the time. So we got a lot of rejection letters like this one,

Dear Jennifer:

TELLING LIES was utterly clever and fun and often startling truthful. And you’ve really got a wild ride of a writer on your hands.  But I think this is just a bit too far on the other side of chick lit for me—the voice wasn’t exactly hitting my chords and I think the tone, overall, falls outside of Harcourt’s best range.

Thanks, though, for the read—which was completely unforgettable.

and this one,

Dear Jennifer:

Thanks so much for sending me TELLING LIES. I had great fun reading it.

This is a really charming novel and I think Esri is a promising talent. I especially enjoyed Julio because my neighborhood is full of Chihuahuas with attitude, so he made me laugh. I’m afraid my gut sense was that this isn’t a big commercial hardcover, so it’s not right for me. If I were still buying paperback, it might be a different scenario. I do think that you’ll find a publisher for this, though, and I wish you the best of luck with it. It was by far the most entertaining novel I’ve read all week!

Finally Kensington/Zebra asked if I had any other books for sale. I did, and we left this book behind. And that’s why, six years later, I can offer you what is possibly the best book I’ve ever written – for a buck. At least, for two days it’ll be a buck. After that, it’ll be three bucks.

I believe that with the vast audience of the internet, books can be sold inexpensively. That’s why I’ve turned down a second hardback contract with St. Martin’s and plan on self-publishing my books in ebook and print-on-demand from now on. Here’s your chance to validate that decision. Buy it. Read it. If you like it, review it and recommend it.

I’m working on making Jokers & Fools available on Smashwords and also in print form, through CreateSpace. For now, it’s on Kindle, but you don’t actually need a Kindle to read it. There are free Kindle apps you can download to your PC, Mac, phone or whathaveyou. Here’s a link for those.

The number one requirement of a book title

Yesterday I spent at least an hour on the phone with my parents, working on a replacement title for what used to be called Telling Lies, a book I’m going to self-publish real soon now. This book has had that title for probably 7 years, but in the middle of last year, someone came out with a mystery of the same name. I was about to say, “Eh, screw it,” and use that title anyway (they’re not copyrightable) when I got an email from the author (whom I’ve never met) asking me to nominate her book for an Agatha. It was just too much, you know? The hunt was on.

What makes a good book title?

It makes people buy the book. That is the number one requirement of a book title. Do not get this aspect confused with how well a title fits a book after it’s read. I don’t care how much someone appreciates your clever wordplay when they’re done with the book. “See, not only was she telling lies, but the lies she told were telling – about her!” Great, but remember, the book is already paid for at that point. P.S. My dad says that if a title really doesn’t fit a book, he might find that annoying enough to shun a second book by the author, even if he really enjoyed her writing. But Daddy fits no one’s idea of the average person, so let’s move on.

How does a title sell a book?

1) The title has tension, asks a question the reader wants answered, or piques the reader’s interest so much that he buys the book. Everyone knows that telling lies is bad, but it’s also sometimes necessary. One word can convey tension, which is why there are about a million romances with reckless in them. If you don’t mind a long title, you can create a whole scenario with tension. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sometimes tension comes from words that seem to war with each other. The Accidental Tourist. How is that possible? (Oh, look, it asks a question, too.) Try piquing their interest: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. WTF?

2) The title tells the reader the tone of the book. This works particularly well with books of a specific flavor, especially one that isn’t widely available but has hardcore fans. Southern lit used to be rare enough that putting Sweet Potato Queens in the title was enough to make the right reader snatch it off the shelf. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Speculative fic readers LOVE that title, and for good reason. It’s frickin’ brilliant on so many levels. (In case you don’t know, that book became Bladerunner.) How ’bout The Da Vinci Code? Sounds kind of like an art-themed thriller, doesn’t it? (Btw, Da Vinci Code would also make a great self-help book title, a la The Seven Habits of Highly Lengthy Titles.)

3) No one else has used the title, at least not recently, or famously, or in a book that’s really similar. Yes, Telling Lies was a great title. I’m trying to get over it, okay?

Let’s talk about stuff to avoid.

1) Clichés. My book deals with a reluctant Tarot reader, so all kinds of card-related sayings suggested themselves. Wild Card. Full Deck. In the Cards. Meh. Clichés pass through the mind with barely a trace. You want a title that rattles around in the ear canal like a moth with fangs. 

2) Insulting potential readers. We briefly considered Mystic Lies, then realized that title would piss off every Tarot reader out there, and they might be expected to buy the book because there isn’t much fiction with Tarot in it. (Note to Tarot readers: This book is not anti-Tarot. You can safely buy it.)

3) Titles that make no damn sense. There may have been books with nonsensical titles that made it big, but I’m pretty sure they became famous because they had a publicity machine behind them. Case in point – I can’t remember any of them.

All right, so what title did we come up with? I’m not going to claim it’s great. I did use some card imagery, although I think I dodged the cliché bullet. I think it has tension. It works well with the cover art I picked, and also with the blurb. Here’s my very preliminary mock-up of the cover. Because it requires some photo manipulation (putting the card in the model’s hand), Angel Joe is going to clean it up this weekend. It will change in other ways.

And here’s the blurb.

LeeLee Moldovar’s mother is dead, leaving her debts, her angry Chihuahua, and her abandoned Tarot clients. After losing her job, LeeLee decides to read Tarot for a living. Her first client is a very attractive man, and there’s definite chemistry. The cards say Adrian should dump his newest girlfriend – or is that what LeeLee wants? It’s only after Adrian leaves that LeeLee discovers he’s dating her best friend. When the next client arrives, she’s afraid to say anything and risk another Tarot disaster. But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. To silence this unwanted voice and regain her sanity, LeeLee must discover her true self, despite attractive men, best friends, and the specter of her mother’s loving wishes for her.

Oh, look, I’ve already changed the cover.

Comments? Suggestions? Lay ’em on me.

Do I really love Chihuahuas, or am I just using them?

I’ve been quoted in newspapers and on TV as saying that including Chihuahuas in my mystery series was a cold-blooded marketing decision, and I meant it – but not in the way you might think.

The internet is how we find things these days. Anyone can sell things on it, and almost everyone does. As an author, success depends on getting your writing into the hands of people who will enjoy it. You have to cut through the clutter of things clamoring for their attention and say, “Look at me. I’m what you want.” One of the easiest ways to do that is to find a place where your ideal readers are clumped together, and show them you can fill one of their unmet needs. “Excuse me, but is anyone writing fiction about this thing you love? No? Allow me to introduce myself.”

Ideally, an author’s hook should be lively and engaging, something that will add to the books’ tone. It’s even better if it doesn’t bore the general public. And wouldn’t it be great if it had authentic emotional content? It shouldn’t be done to death, or that whole “cutting through the clutter” benefit is lost. Most importantly, it needs to be something the author will enjoy writing about over the long haul. So I took a look at the various things I love: singing, playing guitar, cats, writing, Chihuahuas…hold on a minute. Only one of those things met all my criteria and then some. As a considerable side benefit, the characteristics of Chis, and the character of their owners, matches my writing style rather neatly – funny, mischievious, and very into people.

So yes, the decision to include a marketing hook in my books was cold-blooded, but Chihuahuas were there to be chosen because I am crazy about them. As a benefit, I get to own these dogs in my imagination, when my cat won’t let me in real life. Actually, she will, but she becomes a ghost in her own home. (I’ve tried  and may try again.) When Musette dies, clearing my sinuses but breaking my heart, I’ll get a Chihuahua.

——–

P.S. Years ago, before I knew what a marketing hook was, and just as I was getting into Chihuahuas, I wrote a book with one. It got me my agent and my first publisher, but has never been published. The problem, as all the complimentary rejection letters said, was that publishers didn’t know how to sell it. Well, I do, and as soon as I fix the ending and find a new title (the one I had was recently used for another book), I’ll publish it myself. Stay tuned.

P.P.S. You can experience my Chihuahua enthusiasm for free with the short story, ‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas. Am I giving away a Christmas story for marketing reasons? Of course. Did I love writing it and want everyone to read it regardless of whether they buy my books? Also yes.

UPDATE: I finally succumbed to my obsession and got a Chihuahua. And by golly, she’s kind of a ringer for the Chi at the top of this page!

Musical Chihuahuas

Finished the lyrics for The Twelve Chis of Christmas, also figured out the guitar chords. Now I gotta get good enough playing it to record a vid and mp3. (So you can have me warbling a highly derivative carol on your phone!)

Also need to finish up and polish ‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas short story and make it available (for FREE!) and then I’ll go back to doing…well, much less fun things, frankly.

What from the Black Lagoon? What?!

I had two radio interviews today, one with Cathie Martin of WGRT-FM, serving Michigan’s towns of Port Huron and Sarnia (the latter is accessible by going out the back door of a sandwich shop [that joke is for the Brits]), and a second interview with Maggie Linton of SiriusXM satellite radio’s show, Book Radio. Way fun gals, both of them, and I was on my game. For early morning interviews, I get up at least an hour beforehand so I can eat, drink some tea or coffee, and be able to string two sentences together. “Yes, I am a writer! Thank you for talking with me today! Here is my website!” That’s three, but you get the idea. I’m actually a little more suave than that.

I forgot fellow writer Lynda Hilburn had rescheduled her visit today, so the house is clean, which is a nice bonus for the weekend.

I need to write two blog posts — one for Mystery Fanfare (one of my fave crime-fiction blogs) and one for Lois Winston, author of the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries.

And I’m still trying to find the perfect riff on Creature from the Black Lagoon for the third book in my Tripping Magazine mystery series. I’m willing to settle on Critter from the Black Lagoon, but I wish it were better.

I did find a more flexible online rhyming dictionary, Rhymer.com, and it suggested a few words that made me chuckle, although they have nothing to do with giant prehistoric pigs, which is what this book is about. Still, plug the following words into ” ____ from the Black Lagoon,” and see if you get a giggle.

Bachelor
Gesture
Moocher
Squelcher
Denture
Fixture
Cheaper

…and my current unusable favorite, which I came up with all on my own, Nietzche from the Black Lagoon. Is that unusable? I’m not sure. For all I know, giant prehistoric pigs are all over “will to power” and perspectivism. Has anyone asked?

 

 

 

Mystery Writer joke

It occurred to me that I’ve never heard a mystery-writer joke, so I made this one up.

_______________

During a publishing conference, a mystery writer, a romance author, and a thriller writer get to talking and decide to have a drink together at the hotel bar.

The romance writer orders a Sex on the Beach.

The thriller writer asks for a Bloody Mary.

The bartender makes those drinks and then asks the mystery writer what she wants.

The mystery writer looks the bartender in the eye and says, “Muddle a slice each of lime, lemon and orange with one clove. Add a shot of British gin, a dash of French absinthe, and crushed ice. Shake well, and strain everything into a martini glass. Stab a cherry with a toothpick and plop that on top.”

The romance writer makes a face. “That doesn’t sound very tasty. What do you call it?”

I’ll tell you what,” the mystery writer says, smiling. “If either of you can guess the name of this cocktail before the bartender finishes making it, I’ll buy all your drinks tonight.”

“We can do this,” the thriller writer says confidently.

So they try to guess the name of the bizarre drink while watching the bartender make it.

“It has British gin and French absinthe,” the romance writer says. “I’d call it the International Lover.”

“Nope,” says the mystery writer.

“Think about how she described it,” the thriller writer says. “Crushed ice, a stabbed cherry… It’s probably something like Death in the Glass or Murder by Booze.”

“Wrong track entirely,” says the mystery writer. “Keep guessing.”

So they keep throwing out names until the drink is finished and the bartender drops in the stabbed cherry.

The thriller writer shakes his head. “I give up. What’s it called?” He turns to find that the mystery writer has vanished.

The romance writer looks at the bartender, “Hey, where’d she go?”

The bartender puts the weird cocktail on the bar. “I don’t know, but she finished both your drinks while you were guessing, and somebody owes me twenty-five bucks.”

Editing ‘Portrait of Doreene Gray.’

I’m on page 92 of 346 in my first real pass through the first draft of P of DG. It’s been so long since I wrote this part, it’s almost like reading someone else’s work (which is what you want).

Favorite line today, from Michael: “Why would skeletons scatter gastropods across the carpet?”

Now forget you ever heard that.

Yakking away on other people’s sites.

Don’t the Cozy Chicks have a wonderful blog header? I’m over there today, talking about how there has never been a better time to be a writer. Seriously, there hasn’t.

And if you’re in the mood for an article on the craft of writing, canter on over to Bridle Path Press, where I talk about Plot Holes on the Writing Road. How to spot ’em, how to fix ’em with the least amount of hacking to your manuscript.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go turn the hose on the birds in our cherry tree. I can hear them squawking away, only slightly muffled by beaks full of fruit.