Judging a Book by Its Cover

By K.P. Gresham

“Good cover design is not only about beauty… it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.”
― Eeva Lancaster, Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors

Of course, the opposite is capsulized in a familiar quote, “Don’t buy the book by its cover.” BUT, if an author wants to sell their book, they’d better face some marketing facts.

A book cover sells the book. At least it’s the first thing to catch the readers’ gaze as they wander through the shelves of a bookstore, library or click through bookseller websites. Yes, of course the blurb on the back is incredibly important, but it’s the cover the buyer sees first. It’s the cover that makes that buyer turn the book over and read the blurb.

Think about it. If the cover grabs you, you’ll pick up (or click on) the book. If it’s blah, chances are you’re going to move on to the next book.

Now what exactly in the cover image grabs you?  Does the cover tell you the genre? What to expect? Look professional? I’m a mystery writer, so I’m looking for a cover that not only says it’s a mystery, but what kind of mystery it is. Here are some examples.

Cozy Mysteries—The readers are looking for lightheartedness, as well as any of the tropes associated with cozies: animals, home-town-feel, food, maybe even a graphic image (cartoon) suggesting any of the above. They do NOT want to see brutality.  For example, here’s the cover for Arsenic and Adobe by Mia Manansala. Note the cartoon-like quality, the dog, the happy homemaker and the bottle of poison. All of these elements tell the reader this book is a mystery, homey, and involves cooking. (And don’t forget the dachshund on the shoulder!) Cozy readers love these signals. Yes, they’re going to turn the book over to learn more about it.

Horror Mysteries–Here the prospective buyer is looking for dark, scary elements. The cover should promise there will be blood and violence in the book. Body parts are great. The titles alone should give the reader the chills. The Mosquito Man by Jeremy Bates is a perfect example. Yikes!!!

Suspense Mysteries–Again, we start with the fact the reader wants to KNOW this is mystery. Suspense is a tricky cover. How does one put the feeling of suspense on a cover?  In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or the solution to a puzzle, particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy. How do you put that in an image? There are different ways to achieve this in a cover. Location. Lighting. Showing action or giving a subtle clue; having the feel that there’s something risky going on. For this example, I’m going with Louise Penny’sAll The Devils Are Here. Here, the silhouetted building against a dark sky evokes mystery, and the Van Gogh-like swirls in the night sky suggest to the reader that there’s more to this book than simply being set in Paris. It suggests depth of plot.

These are only 3 basic categories of mysteries. Consider how the covers are created that show the true crime category? The thriller category? The paranormal mysteries category? Then study your own reaction when you’re checking out the mystery sections in your favorite bookstore or online. The only thing I can think of on a cover that would hook you more than the lay-out or artwork is the author’s name. If you have a favorite author (and yes, that for me is still J.D. Robb), I’ll buy the book without even looking at the cover. But like I said, that’s the only thing I can think of that would sway a buyer more than the visual impact of the cover.

So authors, beware! Readers are judging books by their covers! To our beloved readers, take your batch of three seconds, go book-shopping and buy some books!!!

   K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, is a preacher’s kid who likes to tell stories, kill people (on paper, of course!) and root for the Chicago Cubs. Born in Chicago and a graduate of Illinois State University, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 35+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where she is the president of the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter and is active in the Writers League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers.

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by

K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Coming in 2021

Four Reasons to Die

And Over. And Over. And . . .

by Kathy Waller

I’m thinking it over.

— Jack Benny

A curse on this week’s post. I banged out nearly 2,000 words that should have been online yesterday, and the post just gets longer and longer, and there ain’t no way I’ll get it finished and revised and edited and polished today, or this week, or possibly by New Year’s Eve 2022. I know the problem. Too much thinking. But I can’t help that. So I’ve pulled up something I wrote for my personal blog in 2010. I’m reposting, with some changes. I’d like to say it’s outdated, but nothing much has changed. No matter what the last line says.

*

In one of my favorite scenes from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, assistant TV news producer Mary Richards suggests that writing a news story isn’t all that difficult. News writer Murray Slaughter disagrees.

Then a wire comes in, something big. The story must be written and rushed to anchorman Ted Baxter, who is on the verge of uttering his sign-off:  “Good night, and good news.”

Murray, smiling, bows to Mary.

Mary rolls a sheet of paper into her typewriter. She types several words. Then she stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops. She erases. She starts over. She stops . . . Everyone in the newsroom stands around her desk, watching . . . waiting . . .

Finally, at the last minute, Murray loads his typewriter and, fingers flying, writes the story, rips the paper from the machine, and hands it to producer Lou Grant, who runs for the anchor desk.

That’s why didn’t go in for journalism. I’m not Murray.

I’m Mary.

That, and because I knew that if I were a journalist, I would have to talk to people: call them on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I had no intention of talking to people I didn’t know.

But mainly, editors would expect me to write without thinking.

I look back and wonder how I got to that point. Not the distaste for talking to people I didn’t know—I’ve always had that—but the difficulty with writing.

When did I start letting my editor get in the way of my scribe?

Once upon a time, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to my grandfather and great-aunts and aunts and uncles and cousins. Once, I used a pencil with a point so soft, I doubt the recipients could read through the smears on the pages.

Another time, when I was on sick leave from school, enjoying the mumps, my mother let me use my father’s Schaeffer White Dot fountain pen, a source of even better smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe while my mother stayed in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained in Del Rio working, visited one weekend and brought me a present: a ream of legal-sized paper.

I don’t know what prompted the gift, and on a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve.

I wrote my own newspaper. Most articles covered weddings between various cats and dogs of my acquaintance. I discovered a talent for describing tuxedos and bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Miss Kitty and Pat Boone (my fox terrier). It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper.

But suddenly, it seemed, I did what my thesis adviser, years later, warned me not to do: I got tangled up in words. Writing was no longer fun. Confidentially, I think it had something to do with English class, essays, outlines, and needing to sound erudite. I hated it.

Why I thought should teach English, I do not know.

Well, I do. Professor Ken Macrorie said English majors think they’ll be paid to read books.

It was years before the English Teacher Establishment (Macrorie was part of the shift) said, “You can’t write an outline until you know what you’re going to say, and you can’t know what you’re going to say until you’ve written something.”

Novelist E. M. Forster had said it long before: “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” But education always lags behind.

Anyway, the word to both students and conflicted teachers (aka me) was—Write it and then fix it. And lighten up.

When I write blog posts, I don’t think so much. I lighten up. Words flow.

Unless I’m trying to be serious and sincere and profound and erudite. I’m not a profound writer. I think profound, but I write shallow. It’s in my nature.

And I still can’t imagine squeezing myself into the little journalism box. That’s pressure. And talking to people I don’t know. I’d rather make up the facts myself. Can’t do that in journalism. Journalism matters.

I don’t like talking to journalists, either. I always tell them to be sure to make me sound intelligent. A reporter told me she didn’t have to fix anything in my interview because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was an accident.

Now. It’s way past my deadline for putting up this post.

But that is not of paramount concern. Because I’m not trying to say anything worthwhile.

I have lightened up.

*

“I’m thinking it over.” Forty seconds of perfection. (If the video doesn’t play, google “jack benny i’m thinking it over”. That should work.)

*

Image of Mary Tyler Moore cast via Wikipedia. Public domain.

*

Kathy Waller has published stories in anthologies Murder on Wheels: 11 Tales of Crime on the Move; Lone Star Lawless: 14 Texas Tales of Crime; and Day of the Dark: Stories of Eclipse; and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

She is still amazed at how long it takes to write a blog post, even when she isn’t thinking.

Tipper: My Manager Extraordinaire

by K .P. Gresham

I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.

My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day. 

Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer. 

This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.

And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.

We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no.  He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.

I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.

At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.

I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.

Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…

Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.

Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!

Four Reasons to Die

The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

 When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.

 The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.

 Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?

***

Where to Find Me

Website: http://www.kpgresham.com/

Email: kp@kpgresham.com

Blogs: https://inkstainedwretches.home.blog/

https://austinmysterywriters.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kpgresham

Books by K.P. Gresham

Three Days at Wrigley Field

The Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series

The Preacher’s First Murder

Murder in the Second Pew

Murder on the Third Try

Shattering a Vase

 

it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter. 

Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or a family member, and they find fault or don’t mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, a novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices. It’s exquisite.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and had become obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

Chevalier doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft, and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

*****

Confession: I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.

*****
This post appeared on the Austin Mystery Writers blog on September 2, 2015.
Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

***
Image of Hamlet and his father’s ghost by Henry Fuseli via Wikipedia [Public domain]
Book covers via Amazon.com

***

M.K. Waller’s short stories appear in AMW’s crime fiction anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. She blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly.

THE WRITING LIFE – For the Sandwich Generation

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

By Francine Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning.  Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?”  I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation. 

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age.  She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.  

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats  she knows the 24 month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air. 

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge. 

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

 The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”  

###

The original version of this, Supermarket Nightmare, appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

On Podcasts and the Creative Process

By Laura Oles

As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. It’s not just me, is it?  As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break.  I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel. 

That’s where podcasts come in.  I’ve long been a fan of podcasts, and the quality of what’s currently available is a true treasure trove for those tuning in. There’s something for every interest, and almost any topic can be found by doing a simple search in your podcast app. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

Reply All:  This podcast explores how technology and culture collide, often in interesting or unexpected ways.  Want to learn how someone can steal your Instagram account? And why would they want it? Or maybe a profile about how a software designer turned his skills to building an illegal empire online?  The quality of the reporting and narration are top notch, and this is the one podcast I anxiously wait for each time a new episode drops.  

Murder Book with Michael Connelly:  This passion project created by powerhouse author Michael Connelly is a new release and one that quickly captured my attention.  Connelly explores an unsolved thirty-year-old homicide case that “tests the limits of the American criminal justice system.” 

Hidden Brain:  “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.”  Vedantam is a skilled narrator and the topics are fascinating, ranging from how to move past a life-altering injury to the psychology of surprise endings (an excellent episode for writers).  

This American Life:  Produced by NPR, this podcast never disappoints (me).  Each week involves a certain theme, and the reporting ties several stories to that theme.  The storytelling focuses on compelling people, difficult dynamics and big questions that don’t always have an answer.  Thought-provoking and beautifully produced, this one is worth a listen.

Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin: Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills.  This one surprised me in all the best ways.  He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan.  Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships.  The episode with Jerry Seinfeld is one of my favorites because he shares how to make time to write–and how he did it during the Seinfeld years. His answers may surprise you. For those curious about the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong. 

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me:  Sometimes, after a long writing session,  I need a good laugh. A quiz program with a rotating panel including  comedic talents Mo Rocca, Paula Poundstone, Alonzo Bodden and several others, this show blends current events with fake news stories in an effort to discern what’s true and what’s not.  Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction on this show.  

When compiling this list, I realized that most of my recommendations came from podcasts created by public radio.  Just one more reason to support your local public radio station!

Do you listen to podcasts?  If so, which ones are your favorites?

Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.

Browsing through the AMW blog, I came across the title, “Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.” And I thought, What a cute title. I wonder who the author is. A couple of clicks later I discovered the author was moi. I wrote it in 2014. Quelle surprise, as those of us who took one summer class in French just for fun say but can’t remember how to spell. (I looked it up.) I also found I kind of liked it,* and since it’s mine, I’m giving myself permission to re-post. 

***

Karleen Koen

The first day of last summer’s Writer’s League of Texas retreat, author-instructor Karleen Koen told students that every morning before class, we must do Morning Pages: Wake up, don’t speak, take pen and paper–not computer–and, while still drowsy, write “three pages of anything.” Don’t judge. Keep the pen moving. In her course notebook, Karleen listed the following:

Stream of consciousness, complain, whine, just move your hand across the page writing whatever crosses your mind until you get to the end of page three.

Karleen stressed that she didn’t invent Morning Pages. The technique, minus the name, came from the book Becoming a Writer by teacher Dorothea Brande, published in 1934 and reissued in 1981. Author John Gardner, in his foreword to the reprinted edition, states it was “astonishing” that the book had ever gone out of print.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Ms Brande advises aspiring writers to “rise half an hour, or a full hour, before you customarily rise.” She continues,

Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically. (Brande, p. 72)

Julia Cameron, in her bestselling The Artist’s Way, published in 1992, named the process Morning Pages and made them the cornerstone of her Artist’s Way program. Cameron considers them a form of meditation.

Why we do Morning Pages? To quiet the internal critic; to tap into the subconscious; to discover what you know; to remember and to capture the present; to build fluency, the ability to “write smoothly and easily when the unconscious is in the ascendant.” (Brande, p. 72) And, as Koen notes, to whine and complain.

When I do Morning Pages, I like to focus on whining and complaining. Words of discontent virtually flow from my pen when I follow Brande’s instruction to rise early. To wit:

The morning after Karleen assigned Morning Pages, my roommate and I woke to my cell phone alarm at seven rather than the previous day’s eight. (I think that was the morning the phone flew from the nightstand and landed on the concrete floor.) I propped myself up on a couple of pillows, gathered the pen and the notebook I’d placed on the nightstand before retiring the night before, and started to write.

While I wrote, my roommate sat on the side of her bed. Instead of picking up her notebook, she spoke. I reminded her we weren’t supposed to talk. She told me she didn’t care what we weren’t supposed to do. After violating the rules once or twice more, she started on her Morning Pages.

Roommate Gale Albright drinking tea and smiling

In my usual all-or-nothing fashion (a tiny bit of OCD), I wrote through hand cramp and shifting pillows. Halfway through, I fell asleep. When I woke about a half-hour later, I resumed scribbling.

My roommate had already finished her Pages. She had dressed. She had sat on the porch and drunk a cup of hot tea. She was smiling.

Sometimes it is better to bend the rules.

At break time, I quoted to Karleen the first sentence of my Morning Pages: I don’t like Karleen any more. (I said it in bold font.) She laughed and asked if I knew how funny I was. I didn’t tell her I was dead serious. I knew that before the end of the day I would like her again, and if I told the truth now, I would have to apologize later, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Since I’m confessing, I might as well admit that, while I was scribbling, I figured out a fool-proof way to make Morning Pages a positive experience: Use a notebook with little tiny pages. They fill up faster.

Looking back, I’m ashamed of the thought, but at the time it seemed a darned good idea. Sometimes it still does.

Anyway. Having griped about that miserable experience, I’ll also admit that Morning Pages work. I’ve done them off and on since 1998, when I heard Julia Cameron speak at the Austin Whole Life Festival. A small group of young men stood outside Palmer Auditorium holding placards and begging attendees to abandon chakras and crystals and choose reason instead, while inside, Cameron shared the most reasonable ideas on stimulating creativity.

So I read The Artist’s Way and, although a 17-cent spiral notebook would have sufficed, I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way Journal. (The Journal had enormous, narrow-ruled pages that took forever to cover, but having the proper tools is important to us obsessive types.)

Then I wrote. And whined. And complained. As I did, the garbage in my head oozed down my arm, through my hand, and onto the page. By the time I got to page three, my mood had lightened. When I turned to other writing, the garbage stayed trapped inside the Journal.

Once the brain has been cleared of debris, words can flow.

That’s my experience. Others have their own reasons for writing those three pages per day. But those who engage in the practice swear by it.

Adequate sleep

As I said, I’m not consistent. I’ve done Morning Pages for months at a time, then skipped one day and failed to resume the habit.** Nearly every time I’ve given up,  fatigue has been the cause. A long commute before and after an extra-long day makes early rising unpleasant if not impossible. The same thing goes for getting to bed too late. Morning Pages require adequate sleep. But so does good health. So does good writing of any kind.***

Before leaving the retreat, I bought a special notebook for my return to Morning Pages. The signature on the cover looked like Dickens but turned out to be Darwin. No matter. Darwin and I are friends, too, and I wanted the green one. I’ve not yet made peace with going to bed at a decent hour. I’m trying. But when I stay up into the wee hours working on a blog post, my morning edges toward afternoon.

Oh–I’ve just remembered: A situation unrelated to fatigue once interfered with Morning Pages. It involved the repaving of twenty miles of FM20, a wintry-cold house, and a new box of cat litter.

But that’s a story for another post.

###

Charles Darwin’s signature on elegant green notebook

* Re-reading old work and liking old work don’t always occur together.

** Morning Pages is about the only habit I’ve ever managed to break.

*** I’m not sure about sleep being necessary for good writing of all kinds. I suspect Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might have stayed up past bedtime. But I bet Willa Cather kept regular hours. And, as people with any discernment at all recognize, Cather is at the very top of the American novelist pecking order.

***

 

M. K. Waller

M. K. Waller (aka Kathy) blogs at  Telling the Truth, Mainly Write (http://kathywaller1.com) and at the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She has set aside her novel manuscript for a while to concentrate on writing short stories. She likes writing short stories so much, she may declare the novel officially defunct.

Her stories appear in Mysterical-E; AMW’s first crime fiction anthology, MURDER ON WHEELS;

DAY OF THE DARK (Wildside, July 2017)

and in the brand new DAY OF THE DARK: Stories of the Eclipse, edited by Kaye George and released by Wildside Press on July 21, 2017.

A second AMW anthology is with the publisher and will be out shortly.

Banishing Lazy Words by Terry Shames

This week we have a guest blogger, friend and fellow mystery writer, Terry Shames!

Terry grew up in Texas, and has an abiding affection for the people she grew up with and the landscape and culture of the town that is the model for Jarrett Creek. She graduated from the University of Texas and has an MA from San Francisco State University. Terry now lives in Northern California with her husband, two terriers and a regal cat.

Terry’s first Samuel Craddock novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, (July 2013) and was named one of the top five debut mystery novels of 2013 by MysteryPeople. The second in the series, The Last Death of Jack Harbin was named one of the top five mysteries of 2014 by the Library Association’s Library Journal. Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, the third in the Samuel Craddock series, came out in October of 2014, followed by A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge in April 2015 and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake in January 2016.

A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she serves on the boards of Northern California chapters of both.

Welcome, Terry! shamesTerry_1

Banishing Lazy Words

When I’m editing a book, I know that when I begin to get restless I’ve probably come across a nest of lazy words–words that are shorthand, or placeholders, for what I really want to say. Here are some lazy word indicators:

These, this, those, thing, stuff, some, about, just…and the dreaded “to be” verb (was, were…)

I often find when I come across several of these words on one page it means I was reluctant to dig deeper into the emotional content in the scene. When I buckle down and confront what I’m avoiding writing, digging deep to find the emotional core of the scene, I often end up writing a lot more words than I had before.

Here’s an example of a piece I was editing for someone else. I ran across several places on one page where two characters were talking about, “This thing we have going,” and “This thing we are trying.” The “thing” the writer was talking about was a difficult relationship between people of different ethnic backgrounds. By repeating the words “this thing,” she avoided addressing in depth the painful aspects of the relationship. The words fell flat on the page. Only when she changed it to say what she really meant, “Our risky experiment,” and “The way we are thumbing our nose at tradition,” did it begin to have the depth it deserved. Instead of a romance novel, it because more like Romeo and Juliet.

In first drafts, we often use shorthand for what we know is going to be a difficult description. But as writers we have to work hard to ferret out those lazy little words and phrases and say what we really mean. Not, “Amanda’s bedroom was a mess. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” or “I walked into Bill’s office. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” but instead, “Amanda’s clothes were strewn on the floor leading to the bed,” or “Judging from Bill’s office, he was a guy who dropped whatever he was reading onto any handy surface as soon as he was done with it.” Instead of saying, “there were several things he wanted to tell her,” it’s more interesting to read, “he stored up little criticisms that he could spring on her later.”

Contrast these two paragraphs:

“They dated for a few months, during which he told several lies. Some time later, she tried to remember which lies bothered her the most. There was the time he told her he was an accountant and lost his job when the economy went bad. And another time he said he looked around for a job for a long while before he could find another one. But the worst was when he said he’d buy her some jewelry, and never did.”

The fix:

“They dated for six month. After he disappeared, she found that he had hardly opened his mouth without lying. She bought into it when he told her he was an accountant, and lost his job when the economy went bust. She even believed that he pounded the pavement looking for a job for six months before he found one. But the lie that hurt most was that he promised to buy her a diamond ring, and he never did.”

The first paragraph is full of lazy words like “a few,” “several,” “some, “tried,” most,” “there was,” etc. The second one uses livelier, mores descriptive words.

When you read authors you admire, note that they pin down real time, real place, real emotion. It makes their prose richer and keeps readers engaged. It takes hard editing work, but it’s worth it. It’s the key element that will make your prose come alive.

You can find more information about Terry Shames at www.terryshames.com 

Thank you, Terry! That’s good concrete information that all writers can use. What do you think, reader? Any questions or comments?

 

Why I’m Not a Journalist

The Good Old Days.

Let’s face it: Were things really that good?

Yes, they were. Those ’70s television sit-coms were the best things ever.

I’m binge-watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977. It was funny then and it’s just funny now.

One episode isn’t quite as funny as the others, though, because it reflects an aspect of my life I find particularly painful.

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, L...

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, Leachman; (left bottom) MacLeod, Moore, Knight. Last season cast: (right top) Knight, MacLeod, Asner; (right bottom) White, Engel, Moore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By CBS Television Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the scene in which news writer Murray Slaughter rushes home to operate on an ailing water heater, leaving associate producer Mary Richards to cover for him. If a bulletin comes in over the wire–

No problem, she says. The news is almost over, she says. If a story comes across the wire, I’ll just take it off the teletype machine, type it up, and get it to the anchor desk. It’s easy, she says.

She rolls a piece of paper into her typewriter, just in case.

Then a story comes in: A fire is threatening a munitions plant on the outskirts of town.

Mary tears off the bulletin, sits down at her desk, thinks… and thinks… types a few words…  erases… brushes away the crumbs… thinks… and thinks….

Producer Lou Grant, who’s been leaning over her shoulder, bouncing up and down on his toes, finally grabs the paper, runs into his office, types–like the wind–then flies out just in time to meet anchorman Ted Baxter leaving the studio. The show’s over. He’s already signed off–“Good night, and good news”–and the competition’s 7:00 o’clock news will get the scoop.


Embed from Getty Images

That’s why I’m not a journalist. I’m not Lou. I’m not Murray. I’m Mary.

That, and because as a journalist, I would have to make cold calls: get people on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I’m not comfortable talking to people I don’t know.

But mainly, it’s because editors would expect me to write fast. I don’t do fast. I’m slower than Mary Richards is. Sometimes getting words on paper requires moaning and weeping and riving of hair.

Looking back I wonder how I got to this point. Not the distaste for talking to strangers–I’ve never liked doing that–but the difficulty with writing.

In the beginning, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to grandmothers and aunts and cousins. Once when I was home from school, enjoying ill health, I used my father’s fountain pen to write letter after letter. Another time, I used a pencil with a point so soft and dull I doubt the recipients could read through the smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with an aunt and uncle while my mother was in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained at home in Del Rio, brought me a present one weekend: a ream of legal-sized paper.


Embed from Getty Images

On a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve and used it to produce my own newspaper. Mostly I reported weddings in the cat and dog community. I described bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Kitty and my fox terrier, Pat Boone. It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper. That summer, I was a journalist.

Fairchild Mill Grindstone

Fairchild Mill Grindstone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But things changed. Writing stopped being easy. It stopped being fun. It became a millstone ’round my neck. It became nose-to-the-grindstone work. I turned into Mary Richards, thinking, typing, thinking, thinking, typing, erasing, thinking…

How did that happen? I suspect it had something to do with school and English classes, and writing pieces I didn’t want to write, on topics I knew nothing about. And having to outline before I wrote.

There’s nothing that strangles the free flow of words onto the page than having to organize your thought before you’ve had any.

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington I...

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington Italiano: Ritratto di E. M. Forster di Dora Carrington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lifetime later, I discovered novelist E. M. Forster’s remark on the relationship between writing and organizing: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

In other words, if you can write an outline, you’ve already written the piece in your head. 

But I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know it doesn’t have to be right the first time. I didn’t know I could just start writing and, that way, find out what I knew and what I thought before I tried to put those thoughts in order.

I didn’t know Nancy Peacock would one day write, “If I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love.”

I didn’t know all I had to do was lighten up.

Now I’ve lightened a bit, and so has the millstone. When I write for my personal blog, I’m fluent–unless I’m trying to be serious, weighty, and profound.

English: Original caption:"NASA Remembers...

English: Original caption:”NASA Remembers Walter Cronkite. Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks in February 2004 at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington honoring the fallen astronauts of the STS-107 Columbia mission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not do profound. I think profound, but I write shallow. I wish it were otherwise, but, to quote Walter Cronkite, that’s the way it is.

Some things haven’t changed, however. I will never fit in the little journalism box. I don’t write fast. I don’t want to strike up conversations with strangers. And the only facts I want to deal with are ones I make up myself.

So that’s why I’m not a journalist.

That’s why I write fiction.

Writers of fiction have deadlines. But they don’t have Lou Grant leaning over them, fidgeting while they think and delete and rewrite and delete and rewrite…

Writers of fiction–especially we pantsers, who write by the seat of our pants–can see what they say before they know what they think.

Sorry, Mary Richards, but that’s the way it is.

*

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Room 223”: Mary takes a journalism class
(Resolution isn’t great, but the show is.)

Other high points:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust: Chuckles the Clown goes to a parade dressed as a peanut, and an elephant… But it’s okay to laugh.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Lars Affair”: Sue Ann Nivens closes an oven door in a way formerly unknown to man.

I don’t understand the legalities of putting these programs on Youtube, but as long as they’re there, I’ll assume it’s okay to link to them. Enjoy.

*

P. S. I don’t like being interviewed either. I always tell reporters to be sure they make me sound intelligent. One young lady told me she didn’t have to fix anything because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was strictly accidental.

*

–Posted by Kathy Waller

 

The Keep Writing Sign

“One of the pleasant things those of us who write or paint do is to have the daily miracle. It does come.” Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag...

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag as backdrop (1935 January 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m having a hard time getting this post started. First I wrote a sentence about buying Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing but stopped half-way through. Then I began a sentence about the book’s title, finished it, and realized it had nothing to do with my topic. I’m still trying to get it right.

For most of us, the first sentence isn’t easy. Neither is the second. Often, the third is troublesome. Sometimes the process just goes on and on.

Okay, scratch that. There’s nothing new in it. I was trying to avoid using the first opening sentence I thought of, because it might be a little off-putting, and I didn’t want you to stop reading. But it’s only fair to warn you:

The section in italics is boring. 

It’s not necessary to read the whole thing, but at least skim a few paragraphs, because if you don’t, you’ll miss the point I intend to make.

Below is a draft I wrote for another group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors:

I’d planned to write about Shakespeare today, but a picture of a dress fellow Writing Wrangler Nancy Jardine shared stopped me in my tracks.

Copyright restrictions don’t allow me to display a photo here, and I could never describe it adequately, so I’ll post the link to Blonde and Wise and to a picture of the Bright Red and Yellow Trench Dress so you can see for yourself.

Now. Isn’t that absolutely track-stopping?

I confess I had to look up trench dress. I’d never heard the term. Imagine my surprise when I realized I’ve had trench dresses of my own. Although I love nice clothes, the technicalities have never interested me.

The feature of this particular dress that caught my eye was the plaid. It reminds me of my childhood. There was never a plaid my mother didn’t love and wouldn’t wrap me up in.

And that brought to mind the annual back-to-school treks to Comal Cottons in New Braunfels, Texas, where we bought patterns, fabric, and all the necessary notions to make back-to-school clothes. Friends from up the street and their mother came, too.

We made the trip in July, and started early, to get a jump on the summer heat. The outlet store, about thirty miles from where we lived, was filled with bolt after bolt of cloth. Mother walked slowly, running her hand across every bolt–it seemed to me she touched every bolt–and saying, “Isn’t that pretty,” or, “That color would look good on you,” or, “That would make a cute…” I followed along. My job was to chime about the colors and patterns I liked, but I trusted my mother to do the right thing, and I was bored stiff. I agreed with everything.

Next step, patterns: Opening long metal file drawers, pulling out packets of patterns… Simplicity and Butterick patterns were the best; but McCall’s instructions were confusing. Then, mentally matching styles with material we’d seen, taking patterns to fabrics to make sure, checking yardage and price, reconsidering… I was sure we re-examined every bolt.

By this time my feet were killing me. (I was born with feet designed for sitting). Comal Cottons had no chairs. Three bored tweens, one with aching feet, needed chairs. With chairs, girls can read books. Without chairs, girls stand around, one of them shuffling from foot to foot.

Then, decisions: making choices, stacking bolts on big tables, watching clerks cut material straight across, perfectly straight. and folded them. Despite its name, Comal Cottons also sold wool.

And then, the notions: buttons, thread, bias tape, zippers, lots more considering.

Clackson-tartan

Clackson-tartan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally we headed for the car, bearing loads of raw material that over the next six weeks would be made into our fall wardrobes. Which in my case would include a plethora plaids. My mother loved plaids.

By the time I reached high school, plaids had retreated from entire outfits to wool skirts worn with solid color sweaters, and trips to Comal Cottons had ended.

Now, like much else of my childhood, the store is a memory. Today it’s found on postcards.

Thank you, Nancy. With just one picture of a plaid dress, you brought back part of my childhood.

On and on and on. To quote my former high school students, BO-ring.

But as I wrote that last line, the daily miracle arrived: A treasured memory of a different piece of fabric surfaced. And then, another miracle:  I realized the story about the shopping trip was just a warm-up, an introduction, brain rubble that had to be expelled before higher quality thought could emerge.

Acting on the epiphany, I found my bit of fabric, snapped a photograph, and added three short paragraphs to what was already there. Finally, I deleted the boring prelude.

The final version–part of it, anyway–looked like this:

Fellow Writer and Wrangler Nancy Jardine recently shared a picture of a beautiful plaid dress that reminded me of  some fabric I’ve saved for more than fifty years. After residing all that time in my mother’s cedar chest, it’s wrinkled but intact.

The fall I turned eleven, my father’s father, whom we called Dad, gave Mother some money to buy me a birthday present. She purchased the wool shown in the photo and made me a pleated skirt. When I was sixteen, she remade it into an A-line skirt and a weskit.

DSCN1342

Note: That isn’t the end. There’s one more paragraph. Read it, please, at https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/a-scrap-of-plaid/ It’s important, too.

But back to the topic at hand.

To prevent further strike-throughs, I’ll get to the point promised in the Warning:

A boring (bad, terrible, appalling, disgusting, abhorrent, loathsome, etc.) first (second, third, etc.) draft is not a Stop Writing sign. It’s a Keep Writing sign, signaling that brain rubble is loosening up, that something better is in the offing–that the daily miracle will come. Because the only way to get rid of brain rubble is to write it out.

I wish I had more time to work on this. If I did, the daily miracle would arrive.

And this post might be on an entirely different topic. It would also contain less brain rubble.