“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’s, All 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I’m working on a mystery novel—I’ve been working on it for years, but now I’m working on it—and am faced with dilemmas too numerous to whine about in only one post, so I’ll move along.
I will instead write about the one pleasure of the writing life: creating and naming characters.
My novel is set in a little town very like my own hometown. I don’t base my plot on real events, and I don’t use real people as characters—with one exception: Steve Dauchy.
Note: One of my readers, Cullen Dauchy, knows more about Steve than I do, especially about his early life, and I hope he’ll feel free to correct any errors.
Steve Dauchy was a career blood donor at Katy Veterinary Clinicin Katy, Texas. On retirement he moved to Fentress, where he lived with his veterinarian-owner’s parents, Joe and Norma Dauchy. Joe and Norma lived next door to me; in local terms, next door meant that my house was on one corner, then there was a half-acre “patch” of pecan and peach trees and grass and weeds, then a street, and then on the next corner, the Dauchy yard and their house. The point being that when Steve visited me, he didn’t just walk across a driveway.
Joe was my dad’s first cousin, so I guess that makes Steve and me second cousins. I have a lot of cousins on that side of the family, although most are human.
Steve is a family name, with a story behind it. As I understand it, back in the ’20s or ’30s, my great-uncle Cull (Joseph Cullen) Dauchy, Sr., enjoyed listening to a radio program about a Greek character who frequently spoke of “my cat Steve and her little cattens.” Uncle Cull was so amused by the phrase that he named a cat—probably one of the barn cats—Steve. And ever after, he always had a cat named Steve.
So when the clinic cat became part of the Uncle Cull’s son and daughter-in-law’s family, he became the latest in a long line of Steves.
How to describe Steve. He was a fine figure of a cat: a big tabby, deep orange, with an expression of perpetual boredom. His reaction to nearly everything translated as, “Meh.” I’ve heard that’s common among clinic cats.
Once when Steve was standing on my front porch, the neighbor’s Great Dane got loose and charged over. I was frantic, shouting at the dog, shouting at Steve. But when the dog hit the porch, Steve just looked up at him. Dog turned around and trotted home.
Some would say Steve was brave, and I’m sure he was. But I believe his grace under pressure had their roots elsewhere.
First, he had experience. He knew dogs. In his former employment, he’d observed the breed: big, little, yappy, whining, growling, howling, cringing, confined to carriers, restrained by leashes, sporting harnesses and rhinestone collars, hair wild and matted, sculpted ‘dos and toenails glistening pink from the OPI Neon Collection. He’d seen them all, and he was not impressed.
Facing down a Great Dane, however, took more than experience. There was something in Steve’s character, an inborn trait that marked him for greatness: his overarching sense of entitlement. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. My porch was his porch. The world was his sardine.
Except for the kitchen counter. Steve thought kitchen counters were for sleeping, and Joe and Norma’s maid didn’t. Consequently, he stayed outside a lot. He took ostracism in stride and used his freedom to range far and wide. Far and wide meant my yard.
At that time I had three indoor cats—Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. Toeclaws—and a raft of outdoor cats. The outdoor cats started as strays, but I made the mistake of naming them, which meant I had to feed them, which meant they were mine. Chief among them was Bunny, a black cat who had arrived as a teenager with his mother, Edith.
One day Bunny, Edith, and I were out picking up pecans when Steve wandered over to pay his respects, or, more likely, to allow us to pay our respects to him. Bunny perked up, put on his dangerous expression, and walked out to meet the interloper. It was like watching the opening face-off in Gunsmoke.
But instead of scrapping, they stopped and sat down, face to face, only inches apart. Each raised his right paw above his head and held it there a moment. Next, simultaneously, they bopped each other on the top of the head about ten times. Then they toppled over onto their sides, got up, and walked away.
That happened every time they met. Maybe it was just a cat thing, a neighborly greeting, something like a Masonic handshake. But I’ve wondered if it might have had religious significance. Bunny was a Presbyterian, and Steve was a Methodist, and both had strong Baptist roots, and although none of those denominations is big on ritual, who knows what a feline sect might entail?
Steve had a Macavity-like talent for making himself invisible. Occasionally when I opened my front door, he slipped past and hid in a chair at the dining room table, veiled by the tablecloth. When he was ready to leave, he would hunt me down—Surprise!—and lead me to the door. Once, during an extended stay, he used the litter box. Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. were not amused.
Invisibility could work against him, though. Backing out of the driveway one morning, I saw in the rearview mirror a flash streak across the yard. I got out and looked around but found nothing and so decided I’d imagined it. When I got home from work, I made a more thorough search and located Steve under the house, just out of reach. I called, coaxed, cajoled. He stared. It was clear: he’d been behind the car when I backed out, I’d hit him, and he was either too hurt to move or too disgusted to give me the time of day.
It took a long time and a can of sardines to get him out. I delivered him to the veterinarian in Lockhart; she advised leaving him for observation. A couple of days later, I picked him up. Everything was in working order, she said, cracked pelvis, nothing to do but let him get over it.
“Ordinarily,” said the vet, “I would have examined him and sent him home with you the first day. I could tell he was okay. But you told me his owner’s son is a vet, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong.”
Although an indoor-outdoor cat, Steve did plenty of indoor time at his own house, too, especially in winter, and when the maid wasn’t there. One cold day, the family smelled something burning. They found Steve snoozing atop the propane space heater in the kitchen. His tail hung down the side, in front of the vent. The burning smell was the hair on his tail singeing. They moved him to a safer location. I presume he woke up during the process.
At night, he had his own bedroom, a little garden shed in the back yard. He slept on the seat of the lawnmower, snuggled down on a cushion. Except when he didn’t.
Once extremely cold night, I was piled up in bed under an extra blanket and three cats. About two a.m., I woke up to turn over—sleeping under three cats requires you to wake up to turn over—and in the process, reached down and touched one of the cats. It was not my cat.
I cannot describe the wave of fear that swept over me. It sounds ridiculous now, but finding myself in the dark with an unidentified beast, and unable to jump and run without first extricating myself from bedding and forty pounds of cat—I lay there paralyzed.
Unnecessarily, of course. The extra cat was Steve. He’s sneaked in and, considering the weather forecast, decided sleeping with a human and three other cats in a bed would be superior to hunkering down on a lawnmower.
Steve’s full name was, of course, Steve Dauchy. In my book, he will be Steve MacCaskill. MacCaskill was the name of a family who lived next door to my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice. Their children were friends of my father and his brothers and their many cousins. They were a happy family.
“My family had to plan everything,” my dad’s cousin Lucyle Dauchy Meadows told me, “but the MacCaskills were spontaneous. If they decided they wanted to go to a movie, they just got into the car and went to a movie.” When Lucyle and the other girls helped their friend Mary Burns MacCaskill tidy her room before the Home Demonstration Agent came to examine it (I am so glad the Home Demonstration Agent didn’t examine rooms when I was a girl), one of the first things they did was to remove the alligator from the bathtub.
I heard so many delightful stories about the MacCaskill family that I decided they were too good to be true until my Aunt Bettie’s 100th birthday party, when my mother introduced me to Mary Burns MacCaskill, who had traveled from Ohio for the party.
So as an homage to that family, I’ve named my main character Molly MacCaskill. And when choosing a pet for Molly, I couldn’t choose a finer beast than Steve.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She has published short stories, as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. She is perpetually working on a novel.
There are a wide variety of fiction writers. Some are “pantsers”, who don’t write an outline and just write whatever pops into their heads. And others are “plotters”, who write outlines and make sure that the story follows a three-act structure or whatever structure they think is best. (I’m in between. I do a little of both but try to stay on track.) But I think that we all have something in common. I think that we use real life people as inspiration for our characters.
While writing my first novel, Gilt Ridden, I needed a character that was wise, experienced, and knew how to make bullets. Did I know anyone like that? There was no question. I based the character on my husband’s father’s cousin, Eldon Chandler, and named him accordingly. The Eldon in my story is a throwback to the era of cattle drives and skirmishes with native tribes. And like men of his day, he made his own bullets. The real Eldon was not much different. He grew up in West Texas when it wasn’t much different than the cattle drive days.
Eldon “Slim” Chandler was a living example of integrity and grit. He was born in 1926 just outside of Lubbock, and like most kids of that era, he was tough and resourceful. He grew up to be a big bear of a guy, with a barrel chest, and had a deep voice to match. He was over six feet tall and extremely strong. He told us a lot of stories about his life and one that sticks in my mind was when he drove a beer truck. Instead of using a dolly to carry the kegs, he’d put one under each arm and carry them inside the bar. He liked the surprised looks on people’s faces when they realized these were full, not empty, kegs of beer. He always laughed when he told us the story.
He was an excellent marksman and an award-winning trap shooter. Once when I was fishing with his son, Victor, Victor told me that they did trick shooting as a family for a while. The kids would practice twirling wooden guns while they watched Bugs Bunny cartoons. I love that image. That’s such a “Chandler” thing to do.
So, I guess it’s also no surprise that back when I married into the Chandler family and was living on a farm/ranch in the middle of rattlesnake country, Eldon gave me my gun that I’ve used to kill hundreds of rattlesnakes. It’s a .410 shotgun called a “Snake Charmer”. I remember when he was visiting and gave it to me. I liked how it handled. It’s a small shotgun and perfect size for me. He said, “Keep it. It’s for you.” No, it’s too much. “I got it for you. You’ll need it.” And he was right! I think of him every time I take it hunting. And to go along with all of those talents, he also became a craftsman at making homemade knives. He could take an old oxidized butcher knife and turn it into a work of art.
In 1945 Eldon had married Othella Owens, who was equally an incredible person. She was tall and artistic. I never saw a woman who wore so much turquoise. She’d wear large turquoise and silver rings, earrings, and necklaces, sometimes all at once. It would have looked ridiculous on someone else, but it was somehow flawless on her. She was amazing. She could paint anything or take a bunch of horseshoes and somehow turn them into art. They were a perfect pair.
And Eldon, like most Chandlers, took his family bond seriously. Like I said, Othella was an Owens. Well, back in 1927 her uncle, Jake Owens, had been a deputy sheriff. Sheriff Robert Smith and Deputy Owens had arrested two men for stealing a bale of cotton. They were decent lawmen and they took the suspects home to change clothes before transporting them to jail. But one of the suspects had gotten a gun and concealed it in his clothes. In route, he pulled out the gun and shot Sheriff Smith in the head, killing him. Deputy Owens jumped from the vehicle but was gunned down. The sheriff and Deputy Owens were buried side by side. The suspect was eventually sentenced to death and electrocuted at the Texas State Prison in Huntsville on October 17th, 1930. The second suspect was released 14 years later. Some time, I assume after Eldon married Othella in 1945, Eldon learned that the second suspect was working in a shop in Odessa. Eldon drove the long distance and paid him a visit at the shop. With his words and his presence, he told the guy that he needed to make himself scarce, he wasn’t welcome. The guy tried to act big. When he asked who Eldon thought he was to make such a proclamation, “My name is Eldon Chandler and I’m married to an Owens.” That was enough for the man. He never returned to the shop and hightailed it out of West Texas.
Thank you for letting me tell you about a wonderful man who leaves behind a legacy of faith, love, grit, humor, and art. My character only played a small part in my story, but since he was a larger than life person, I’m sure that I’ll use the real Eldon for inspiration in other stories. I also used his father, Price, briefly in my novel. I had forgotten at the time that Price was Eldon’s father. I just remember a lot of funny stories about him and wanted to use someone who was humorous yet wise.
I’ve had people ask me if I was ever bored in West Texas. No. And whenever I write a story, I try to capture the spirit of the place, both good and bad.
Using a planner when so many of our plans, events, schedules, travel and conferences have been completely upended or downright cancelled? Have you lost your mind?
Six months in quarantine can do things to a person, which is why writing in a planner has proven to be more valuable than ever before. With so much out of my control, the daily practice of putting things down on paper, from tiny tasks to long term projects, has been an important grounding habit that has helped me through the last several months of uncertainty.
A few friends enjoy teasing me about my affinity for the printed agenda (winking at Valerie), but I love a good planner. There’s something alluring about a small, portable book that promises to bring order to schedules, ideas, and projects, especially now. While I depend on Microsoft Outlook for work-related meetings, deadlines and reminders, for me, nothing replaces putting pen to paper and visually seeing my week. Even if my weeks now look completely different than they had at the beginning of the year. Writing things down brings a clarity that I just don’t get from tech.
I did change planners. Gone is the rigid and elaborate full year calendar. After hearing so much about the Bullet Journal, I have moved to that format and have found that this open design is much more flexible in handling a year that makes you doubt writing anything in ink. All I need is a dotted journal (I love the Leuchtturm 1917 A5), a ruler, and a pen. I can create my own layout for the week (this takes 5 minutes), and create sections for projects, notes and research. It’s more forgiving for those times when I start out with a weekly plan that dissolves by hump day. And no more blank abandoned pages with days that have gone off the rails.
When so much is out of our influence—when and if our kids will go back to school (I have twin seniors who will be doing online classes this fall), job requirements (if we’re lucky enough to keep our jobs), and all the small ways we could once connect as a community being put on hold—writing things down helps me focus on what I can control and gives me space to explore how I can be of service to others in my community now and in the future.
So, I’ll keep writing and planning, even if it feels as though I’m drawing in the sand and waiting for the tide to come in. Each day is a new opportunity to listen, learn and put my energy towards my priorities.
If we are fortunate enough to have our health and our jobs, we are grateful but still struggling to create a new normal for ourselves and our families. So many of us now have kids finishing their semesters through online school while we’re working full time. Many of our touchstones and daily routines have been upended. We are doing our best each day, although the definition of ‘our best’ also changes on the daily.
Andy Boyle is here to help.
You see, his book, BIG PROBLEMS, was released by Penguin on March 31st. He is one of many authors who has found himself promoting a new book in the middle of this pandemic. Today, Andy shares what he learned while writing BIG PROBLEMS and offers advice on how to keep moving towards our goals—and why taking a break is not only fine, but necessary.
LO: First off, congratulations on your new book! Can you share a bit about the life experiences that culminated in your writing BIG PROBLEMS?
AB: Thank you so much! I’ve been a journalist for about 15 years, and it’s impossible for me to look through things without that lens. So after my first book, Adulthood for Beginners, came out, I was trying to find a meaty subject to sick my teeth into, something that would allow me to use myself as the storytelling and thematic vehicle to explain a big topic. But also, in the end, hopefully help people, which is one of the reasons I became a journalist in the first place.
And the topic I chose is, well, at its heart a mystery. How come a person like me—allegedly well-educated—managed to get so fat, just like millions of others? And then, to add another mystery, how come I was able to lose so much weight (and keep it off), unlike most people?
That led to the pitch for BIG PROBLEMS: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter And What You Can Do To Fix It. My agent liked it, my publisher liked it, and voila. I would research the macro and micro levels that led to myself—and others—getting fat, told through that journalistic lens, while also including quite a bit of levity and humor throughout.
I rewrote the book multiple times to get it right. At one point, I went back and redid about 50,000 words, replacing entire portions of the book, adding in more research, doing more journalism. It was a lot of work. It was a lot of running and weight-lifting and sweating.
But, in the end, I’m quite proud of the end result. I even narrated the audiobook! And I even had a director for that. The entire time I kept complaining about how “the guy who wrote this should’ve done a better job with these sentences.” The joke never got old.
LO: Do you find the habits you learned are harder/easier to stick to in this particular time of being in a pandemic?
AB: I think everything is harder for everyone right now, and folks who are saying it isn’t are, uh, perhaps misstating the facts a little. So, everyone needs to first cut themselves an incredible amount of slack.
But for me, the same habits that led to me losing weight, staying productive, and pushing myself toward healthier decisions, are the same habits I’m using now, which were all focused on certain goals. (For me, objective goals work best. Write 1,000 words a day, eat 200 grams of protein a day, read 90 minutes a day, that sort of thing.)
The only difference is, with everything going on, I’ve changed my goals substantially. Before my book came out, my goal was to be able to bench press a certain amount (225 pounds) for 5 sets of 5 reps, and deadlift 405 pounds for 5 reps. That was what kept me going to the gym regularly, following my strength program, eating properly, everything. When the gym practically disappeared from my life (when I was 10 and 30 pounds from my two goals, respectively), I decided my goals needed to change. With nothing heavy to regularly lift up and down, how could I have that kind of objective goal?
Now it’s much more simple: Workout four days a week (that’s mostly consisted of running 3-5 miles, with the occasional body weight/cables-attached-to-my-door strength training), hit a certain caloric and protein goal and get a good amount of sleep.
I’ve got a full-time job at the Chicago Sun-Times, plus I’ve been promoting a book, plus trying to plot out a novel. So my artistic goals have changed quite substantially, too. I just try and set aside 30 minutes a day now for my non-work projects. That could be spending 30 minutes learning a card trick. Or 30 minutes outlining my novel. Or 30 minutes writing up a character sketch. For me, 30 minutes is quite achievable after my normal work day, and it often ends up being longer than that. If I were a full-time writer, I would definitely have bigger goals. (For instance, when I was drafting my book, my goal was 1,500 words a day, which usually involved the research/interviews/etc., which wasn’t exactly easy when I had a full-time job. But hey, I did it. Somehow.)
Another important point: I don’t beat myself up if I don’t hit my goals. The idea is to try to hit them. If I only exercise three days a week, I still exercised. If I only write 500 words a day, I still wrote. Having goals helps you push yourself toward whatever you’re trying to get done. (Making daily lists of TO DOs helps with this immensely, especially for my day job. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment after I check each one off, even if it’s as simple as “Answer Laura’s wonderful questions she emailed you.”)
LO: Many writers consider themselves introverts, so working in isolation may not be a huge adjustment, but what advice do you have for the more extroverted among us? How are you adapting?
AB: I can walk between both worlds, but if I had my choice, I would be a hermit who lived on a plot of land in my home state of Nebraska with beautiful prairie vistas. I value my private time, especially when I am being creative. But I am also quite adept at putting on “The Andy Show,” to quote a former girlfriend, when I am around other people, AKA being entertaining and fun and Mr. Life of The Party. So, my Nebraska home would need to be like a five-minute drive from a hangout spot at the very least.
As a writer, being around people is great because you sometimes hear random idioms and turns of phrases, which you can then squirrel away into your phone in the NOTE you have titled “COOL DIALOGUE.” It’s also great to be around others because it reminds you how people react to one another, how people dress, how they smile, how they laugh, how they move their hands when they’re nervous, so many things. Just like reading helps to make you a better writer, being around humans helps to make you understand humans better—and as writers, we mostly deal with humans. Win-win.
I have most definitely missed my occasional coffee get-togethers with my writer friends. I’ve been hopping on video chats with people, reaching out more via text. My writing group had a video get-together to critique a draft of a novel of mine, which was lovely. I also held a Zoom “book launch” event the day my book came out, and about 25 people came. It was lovely.
However folks are getting through right now, though, is the “right way” to get through it all, introverted or extroverted. But one thing I’ve learned in my life is, if you’re ever in doubt of whether or not you should email an old friend or text someone to just say hello, just do it. Those connections are important, especially as you get older.
LO: How do you get your mind into a creative space right now? Or is that an unrealistic expectation during this time?
AB: I do it by making the time for it. That sounds like such a cliched thing, but I’ve never been a person who writes because the muse has spoken to my soul. Or because I have been struck with fantastic inspiration and have the entire writing project fully realized in my head.
No, I write because I’ve made a goal of writing XXX words a day, or for XX minutes, or whatever. And then I will usually schedule the writing time in my calendar, and then I get the message that says “10 minutes until WRITE 1,500 WORDS appointment,” which is enough time to go oh shit oh shit I am hungry I need to clean my entire home oh my cat needs new toys oh I should text my girlfriend oh shit oh shit AND NOW I am writing.
It’s work. And just like you gotta show up to your job to do your job (or at least now, log into your computer while wearing sweatpants at home), you gotta show up to do your creative work. And you make time for the work and make an appointment with yourself that you’ll do the work.
I used to be (still am?) a musician. Went to music school for my first two years of college. Studied vocal music performance. (Maybe 18-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to make such decisions.) What that taught me about creativity is you gotta make time to sit down, practice scales, try work that stretches your brain and skills (also known as: is hard), and just do the work. You make time for it. Over time, you get better. But it’s still work, and it sometimes still sucks and you can’t tell that you’ve gotten any better.
Mozart and Beethoven didn’t just go “Huzzah, I am going to write a piece of music that shall change the world!” (Which probably would’ve been in German.) No, they created a habit: They will try and write something during certain periods of time, probably while cursing in German. (Das ist Scheiße!). Sometimes the work sucked. Sometimes it was Beethoven’s Ninth. Regardless, they followed their process and the work followed.
I’m currently outlining a novel, a method I’ve never really had much success with before. (And you may be wondering, Andy, how much success have you had with previous novels? As I’ve only gotten non-fiction published, that should tell you a lot about my fiction success.) But I sit there for an extended period of time, legal pad in hand, and I just jot down ideas. I make little timelines and draw when events could occur, which lead to some of those ideas I jotted down.
I have to show up by putting my butt in a chair. The creativity happens somewhere while you’re doing the work. And, when you’re actively working on a project, you’ll be out on a run or sitting watching TV and you’ll get a great idea—WHAT IF THE LOVE INTEREST FROM HIS PAST KILLED HIM???—and then you jot it down into your phone’s NOTES tab under COOL IDEAS.
But that’s for me. I always am in need of a project. If you’re juggling 900 things and just trying to keep your head above water right now, you may not have the mental bandwidth for any sort of creative outlet. And that is completely fine. Anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan trying to sell you something or make themselves seem amazing in comparison. Which means they suck.
Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is let your mind get bored through the drudgery of everyday existence.
Q: What is it like, having a book come out in the midst of a pandemic?
It is a weird time to be promoting a book, especially when folks can’t walk into bookstores, check out the “New Releases” table, pick things up, be sold because of the back cover copy or the front cover artwork. It seems like now, more than ever, word of mouth is one of the best ways to promote books.
That means you should be regularly telling your friends books that you’ve loved, in the hope that they will buy them. And then you should also give links to your friends of the independent bookstores they can order the books from.
And this is me, your new internet friend, telling you to pick up my book. And then to tell everyone about it. And then also get Laura’s book. And tell everyone about it. And then tell everyone about another book you’ve loved that they should read.
Andy Boyle is the author of Adulthood for Beginners and an award-winning journalist and technologist. His work has previously been featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Axios, Esquire, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune and on NBC News. His work was cited in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. He was also the runner-up in the 2019 Hugh Holton Award through the Mystery Writers of America’s Midwest chapter. A native of Nebraska, he lives in Chicago.
Laura Oles’ debut mystery, DAUGHTERS OF BAD MEN, was an Agatha nominee, a Claymore Award finalist and a Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice nominee. She is also a Writers’ League of Texas Award Finalist. Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies, including MURDER ON WHEELS, which won the Silver Falchion Award in 2016. Her most recent short story, “The Deed” was included DENIM, DIAMONDS AND DEATH: Bouchercon Anthology 2019.
Before turning to crime fiction, Laura spent two decades as a photo industry journalist covering technology trends for a variety of consumer and industry magazines. You can find her at https://lauraoles.com
Day after day, whether we
want to or not, we hear nothing but murder, mayhem, the politics of personal
destruction, and a new insistence on rigid lines of political correctness.
Somehow we put one foot in front of the other and march on – sometimes
wondering to what end. On November 16, I had an experience that washed all of
that away, even if just for a little while.
I attended a special concert by
the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Lake Travis Performing Arts Center. As
expected, Maestro Peter Bay and his orchestra were superb in their renditions
of Holst, Mozart, and Musorgsky. But Mr. Bay went beyond. To provide another
level of inspiration to young musicians in training, he reached out and
arranged for sixteen music students from Lake Travis High School to join the
orchestra, some even given the honor of sitting in the first chairs.
this brief moment, all the tensions of daily life melted away, and I felt a
surge of renewed hope for the future, for in the arts lies the unity of
humankind. At the concert, I cannot tell you if I saw people of color, blonds,
brunettes, or greying heads on the stage.
I only saw musicians making
sounds that swelled my soul and transcended the noise of our daily lives.
Artists in all disciplines must
reach for more, whether conceiving an architectural masterpiece, a painting, an
opera, a ballet, or a symphony. In their quest for excellence, their creations
help erase the boundaries that separate us as people. Those who create must
look beyond the narrow limits of mob-think; they must see in vivid colors, hear
in vivid sounds, and often take the roads less traveled. They may be reclusive
in the process of creating, but they do not function in isolation. Individuals
who dedicate themselves to artistic development have a strong sense of self,
driven to self-actualization. Their visions give to society while they draw
from their cultures and many academic disciplines.
Painters see in colors, form, and
proportions. Composers and musicians operate within mathematical formulas:
divisions of time; use of fractions to indicate the length of notes. Dancers
operate within the structures of Physical Science and the theories of motion
and gravity. Actors must empty themselves to absorb the characters they play on
stage – This requires looking beyond their own perceptions and truths.
The arts are vital to
humanity. They give flight to imagination and creativity and should be an
essential part of academic education. Albert Einstein, perhaps one of the most
highly self-actualized human beings, once said, “Creativity is
intelligence at play.”
The Austin Symphony Orchestra and
Lake Travis High School showed us a model for Einstein’s playful quote. We
watched and listened to the young, who are still fresh and full of hope, join
the seasoned professionals, and reach for excellence. They expanded their
horizons and brought a diverse audience together in admiration.
You may be thinking, lovely
sentiment, but how do we do it?
Many believe that the government
should become the primary support for everything – including the arts. That
road too quickly leads to a government having the power to define and control
creativity. Study the long list of artists who defected from
socialist/oppressive nations where the State defines what art is and how it’s
to be expressed. The government can, however, have a constructive place in
nurturing our children’s individual creative development.
Block grants to school districts,
earmarked explicitly for promoting artistic growth, might be of great value in
helping our young reach for their stars, and in the process, build bridges
between people and help elevate humanity to higher levels of well-being. That
requires recognition and respect for the fact that people are different, and
the differences go deeper than color or
The arts ensure that diverse
identities and cultures are recognized and given a voice in the world. The arts
of every culture reach back in time, relying on those who came before.
Present-day artists build on the past and expand their disciplines, reflecting
today’s world. Our art not only leaves a record of who we are, but also the
growth we’ve contributed to the future.
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—
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.
phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.
to life in the sandwich generation.
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.
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
so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the
supermarket we go!
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is
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
The original version of this, Supermarket Nightmare,
appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny
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?