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Monday, August 23, 2010

How Much Bitch is Too Much Bitch?

If I'm completely honest and immodest, I can be hysterically funny when I let my inner bitch out of her cage for a stroll. At least, my sister thinks I'm funny. And my dear friend, Mary.

I often wonder why I don't let her loose in a book, but then I remember a promise I made to myself. I would valiently try to avoid hurting people, even if it's really, really funny.

The first version of this blog is in the trash because it crossed that self-imposed line. (Many, many times over.) But there is a way to do that kind of humor without being a jerk. I know there is. I've read examples.

I just finished a hysterical book, "The Alto Wore Tweed" by Mark Schweizer. In it, he manages to scewer just about every Christian religion out there. (His protagonist, aside from being a detective, is the church chior leader and organist.)

When I asked the author how he managed to poke fun at so many organizations without being mean, his response was "Ah, you've got to love them."

I took this to mean that gentle ridicule comes from a place of understanding and actual fondness for the subject.  But what if you want to take a poke at something you can't stand?

Right now, I'm struggling to find that balance in my own protagonist. Pet Psychic Frankie Chandler doesn't like people. I want to show it in a way that is funny, but never mean. Face it. The last time you read something really mean, didn't it turn you off?

Another book that does nasty well without crossing the line is L.C. Tyler's Elsie and Ethelred series, including "Ten Little Herrings". Ethelred Tressidor is a mystery writer who has lost interest in his career. His literary agent, Elsie Thirkettle, is a kick. She's also abrasive and blunt (she refers to her own parents as a couple of tossers), but you never think she's a shrew. How does he do that?? So I asked Mr. Len Tyler, and here is his response:

"Abrasive leading characters are relatively rare in cosy crime - Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion are all very polite. The attraction of an abrasive narrator however (for the reader and the author) is that they can say all of the things you don't quite dare to say in real life. As somebody at a conference once said to me: "your writing is clearly very therapeutic!" There is a risk though of the abrasiveness getting a little off-putting. In Elsie's case I guess she gets away with it because the reader sees that she also has a softer side - she may frequently remind Ethelred that he is (at the best) only a second rate author, but she does genuinely care about him. And she has weaknesses - chocolate especially - that hopefully make her easy to identify with. Finally I think there is usually a self-awareness in what Elsie says - she knows that many of her criticisms of other people also apply to her - even if she'd rather not admit it to Ethelred."

If you think chocolate sounds like a silly weakness, you should find out what hysterically horrible situations Elsie winds up in because of her cravings.

These authors make it sound so simple, and they do it so well, but I assure you that it's a precise art form to write snarky characters that don't turn the reader off.

I highly recommend both series, and you can learn more about Mark Schweizer's Liturgical Mysteies and L.C. Tyler's humorous novels by clicking on the links.

What cranky characters have you read that manage to keep from crossing the line into offensive? How do you think the author accomplished this? How do you accomplish this? I'd love to know.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Giving Publishers the Same Courtesy I Give the Car Wash Guy

I suffered deep humiliation when I took my car in for free wash--something I got after having my oil changed. Since free means the the absolute basic wash, I expected to drive my car through one of those mechanisms that frightens pets and small children. Instead, I had to hand over my keys to a waiting employee. OK, I thought. Probably some insurance requirement that they drive the cars through themselves.

Let me describe the interior of my car. Back Seat. A few empty collapsible water dishes, reusable grocery bags tossed in the corner until I put them in the trunk where they belong, and lots and lots of dog hair. It looks like I have a blanket over my back seat. The window on one side is smother in nose smears and drool from Buster.

Front Seat. Receipts that I need to go through dating back to January, discarded water bottles that roll on the floor, and lots of straw wrappers and crumpled napkins. These I stuffed into a bag to get them out of the way before handing over my keys.

Half an hour later, my car sparkled--inside and out.  I expected a quick dry courtesy of automated blowers. Instead, a guy equipped with bucket and towels cleaned my entire car by hand. Yes, he went inside and saw my embarrassing mess.

I actually apologized to him as I handed over a five dollar bill--all the cash I had on me. Yet I don't always have the same pride about my manuscripts. Is it because the car wash guy could see my face?

How many writers pick up before the cleaning lady arrives, yet hand over sloppy pages to agents and publishers?

It's not intentional neglect. I've submitted work and then realized that it was the second-to-last version I attached and not the final, proof read version. I've made corrections only to find out that they didn't "take". How simple to close and save the document and then reopen just to make sure everything is as it should be.

Yesterday, I opened a Teacher's Guide I'm working on. I had made all sorts of changes, yet when I opened it up, they were gone. It turned out that when I saved the document the day before, there was a simple slip of keys in typing the name of the document--a 1 for an l. Can you tell at a glance that the first is a one and the second an L? Me neither. Anyway, if I had sent in the properly named document (the previous save) without checking it first, I would have been mortified. The client's thoughts about my professionalism may have been even darker.

After spending anywhere from hours to days to months on a project, why is it so difficult to take the time to review? Excitement? Relief? Boredom? None are good reasons.

Maybe, when writers discuss the writing process, there should be an additional step that falls after the final edit and hitting the send button. The Cover Your Butt Step.

P.S. I almost published this without hitting the spellcheck. Sigh.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Would a Pet Psychic Do?

Some of you know that I've tried my hand at a Pet Psychic mystery. Why, you ask? (Other than the popularity of pets and the paranormal in mysteries.)

About two years ago, I rescued a beautiful dog we call Buster. He is a giant hunk of intimidating-looking love. Every doggie daycare I've taken him to adores him. He is gentle with the small dogs (except when he tries to tip them over for his own amusement), and even a teacup Chihuahua pushed him around.

On the leash, he's not great with other dogs. When you rescue a dog, often you have no idea what he's been through--what quirks and fears have been instilled in him by previous owners, whether intentionally or through neglect and ignorance.  Buster has some possession aggression issues which means that greeting strange dogs takes some effort and care.

And I work diligently with him to get over these issues because...some people are dull-witted coat hangers. Yesterday, he was super excited to be in class because he worships the trainer. While we stood on the wooden floor of the training center, Buster's feet did that Scooby-doo running in place thing because he really wanted to say hello. He was out of his mind with joy.

A woman, one of the people I have to protect him from, dropped her dog's leash so he could run over and say "howdy". This is rude, for a start. As I struggled to hold onto Buster with both hands (I was trying him out on a flat collar instead of his trusty pinch) our eyes met--mine wide with "you've got to be kidding" and hers emitting a dull, vacuous stare.

She picked up the leash and continued to walk her dog over. "He just wants to say hello."

Pop Quiz. If you saw an 80 pound pit bull-looking dog doing a pretty good imitation of a Viking Berzerker, would you throw your dog into the mix?

Through gritted teeth, I said in my best "happy voice for the impaired", "He's not in the right frame of mind for greeting."

Then there was the man with the penile prosthetic--in his case, two aggressive Malinois (Belgian Shepherds sometimes used as police dogs because of high prey drives and an unwillingness to let go once they've got a grip.) He got off on trying to rile Buster.

So all Buster's training is for his protection, the kind of training Lenny in "Of Mice and Men" could have used.

Last year, two people recommended I ask a pet psychic to talk to Buster and see what was going on in his furry head. Unable to resist the unusual, I booked appointments with two separate psychics. (Full article in Fido Friendly Magazine, April 2010 issue.)

The first medium read him over the phone. She concluded that forest green was his favorite color, and that I should buy him a kerchief in said color to wear around. It would instill confidence. I thought that dogs were color blind.

Then I watched an animal communicator perform at a doggie event. While I wasn't able to read her mind, it was evident to me that she used cold reading skills to say what the audience wanted to hear and lead the conversation to a suitable conclusion--like a mind reader at a magic show.

It made me wonder, what if there was a medium who actually could see into animal's minds? And what if those animals were witnesses to crimes, or parts of crimes? They wouldn't communicate with words. "Mr. X just killed Ms. Y in the bathroom with a mega-watt hair dryer."

The detective would have to pick through the bits of information communicated by the animal and follow the clues to the murderer. Since animals don't interpret things in the same broad spectrum that people do, the meaning of the clues wouldn't always be clear.

And just for fun, why not make her a charlatan who's only just discovering that she actually possesses these powers? She's succeeded in her business so far with a combination of animal behavior knowledge and cold reading skills she learned from an aunt who reads Taro Cards for a living. The first witness, a desperate dog, breaks through to the genuine psychic within because his message is urgent.

I gave her a rescue dog named Chauncey who's based on my sweet giant Buster. She'll have her hands full figuring him out.

Sound good?

Now if only my character could learn to project images to wake up sleepwalking owners, life would be so much simpler.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doggie Dilemas!

I'm going away overnight, and I wanted to leave Buster home and use a pet sitter, thinking he might be less stressed in a familiar environment than he would be at a kennel.

Buster is a big boy. He's 80 pounds, has a thick, powerful neck and shoulders, and still shoots up to the over excitement level of a puppy. Because I'm around him all day, I don't think about it.

When the dog walker came yesterday to meet with me and get Buster used to her, he did his crazy dance and jumped all over her. I think he smelled her dog, who he knows. It was a last minute appointment, so I hadn't yet put his collar on, which made it difficult to grab hold of him.

When she shouted him off, he completely ignored her. For some reason, I expected the dog walker to have better control over my puppy than I have. He barked at her twice during her visit, something I've never heard him do before. By the time she left, I didn't have confidence that she could control him. She has her own 100 pound dog and she's a trainer, so I just assumed...

I know that I worry at the first opportunity. It's like crack with me. Evil, stressed-filled crack (not that the other kind of crack is a good thing). Will he behave better if I'm not around?

Then she pointed out that if emergency personnel had to get into the house for a fire or something, they would take one look at his pit bull-like face and put him down in order to gain access. If he saw large men in unwieldy uniforms trying to enter the house, he would freak. I wouldn't expect a fireman to tell the difference between fear and aggression. Those guys have enough on their minds.

So maybe leaving him home isn't a good idea. Growing up, I wouldn't have thought twice about leaving the dog alone and letting someone come in and take care of him. Most of my neighbors are afraid of dogs, so they aren't options, and I don't have relatives living close by.

I certainly wish I had the talent of my latest protagonist, a pet psychic. I could see what thoughts are in his big head and be comforted or confirmed in my suspicions.

What would you do?

In a Quandry Over Amazon Associates Program

I was updating my pathetically neglected bio in Amazon's Author Central when my greedy little eyes were drawn to the Amazon Associates Program. I had just heard another writer talk about making money because readers "clicked through" to make a purchase from his web site.

I interview authors and include links to buy their books, and many times it's the link to Amazon because that's the easiest to get and probably the most user friendly for readers.

As dizzy thoughts of all those nickles and dimes passed through my head, I came up short in their Terms and Conditions.

Without using the lingo, the wording basically said, "IF YOU DISPLAY ANY INFORMATION ABOUT A COMPETITOR, WE WILL STRIKE YOU DOWN."

I'm rather fond of Independant Booksellers. There. I said it out loud.

Oops! There's the link! How did that happen?

I do understand from a business point that Amazon would want to be the only game in town, but the thing that I love about capitalism is it's all about free choice and competition. You have to be the BETTER business to win my precious dollars. Not the ONLY business.

It saddens me to watch all those pennies roll away from my wallet and into the gutter. And I will still probably add Amazon as a choice for the convenience of readers. After all, a sale for the author is better than no sale. Or maybe I won't. It's not as if readers don't know the address if they want it bad enough.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Better Love That Web Site Address

When I started my first website--a children's site--I went with the inexpensive option through Homestead. It was a nice little site that served my purposes.

When I decided to go pro, I had the web master transfer the content from the children's web site and make it a separate page on jacquelinevick.com. Then I cancelled the Homestead account.

This wouldn't be a problem, except my book, Logical Larry, refers readers to logicallarry.homestead.com, a place that no longer exists. I also have a thousand bookmarks that reference the same web site. Ouch!

When I called Homestead, I learned that I couldn't buy a homestead domain name without a homestead web site. That means the cost of the domain name plus $4.95 per month. $4.95 times 12 rounded off is $60--all to keep the bookmarks I ordered with a bad domain name, if I can get rid of them in one year. But why would I do that? I would just be circulating bad information.

As authors, we hope for long term careers. That means long-term thinking before we act, which is difficult for impulsive people like me.

My current web site is jacquelinevick.com. I don't see my name changing any time soon, so I think I'm safe with that. If I had it to do over again, I would start with the broadest web address I could think of, one without domain names like Homestead included, one with my name. A lesson learned.

Anyone want a pristine, never-been-used bookmark?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hooking the Audience, or Competing with a Gynecological Appointment

It hit me as Judy Garland played in the background while I wrote. The difficulties in coming up with a story and characters that will hook the reader is the difference between You Made Me Love You and You Make Me Want to "Grunt", which is followed by humping noises, courtesy of Ashley Simpson.

Letting it all hang out is...crude. Today, it seems youth and celebrities and even some old folks revel in it (except for the glamorous ones). When I grew up, you kept your personal information, well, private.  Only close relatives were subjected to the details of your recent "troubles", whether they be financial, physical, or mental. Unlike now.

I recently had to choose between browsing the magazines at Barnes & Noble or listening to a play by play of a third party's gynecological appointment being reenacted over a cell phone. It sounded as if the woman on the other end of the line didn't even know the unlucky subject, so why would she care? (Most likely, she was desperately planning her own medical emergency in order to escape the monologue.)

Most of the time, if you thought about what you were being told, you would laugh. I refer to an article I recently read where the woman described her daughter as having a disability because she "couldn't help saying NO to me". It was called something ingenious like "Saying No Disorder". 

I bet a little thinking on her part would have put the apple back on the cart. The woman was going through a divorce--traumatic on any child. The daughter acted out by saying "No!" Now she has a disorder, and instead of learning self-control or working through her anxieties with a qualified family therapist, she gets to run around shouting "No!" all day and reaping the rewards--attention and sympathy.

When I acted out as a teen (and, women, we know that teenage girls are all bitches, and I feel I can use that word because my aunt, daughter of a Baptist minister, used it to describe her own teenager) my mother had a more practical approach. She came home from shopping and threw a t-shirt at me. Inscribed on the front were my favorite words. "Yes, I know." Mom said, "Save your breath." I did, because having her make fun of it took the joy out of acting up. (Mom's a smart woman.) And I didn't require psychotherapy to help me recover from T-shirt Humiliatous.

I do have a point. As a writer, how am I supposed to compete with a play-by-play gynecological appointment? If disorders are as common as head colds and something to be proud of, do I have to write a healthy protagonist in order to surprise my readers?

When Agatha Christie's character called someone a "bitch", you sat up and took notice because it was a rare page that contained swearing. Now F-bombs fall from the sky like Washington rains. The hubby is working on an alleged comedy. They are filming scenes twice to capture two different ratings. Do the swear words make the dialogue funnier? I'm guessing...no.

The English understand the humor in restraint. It;s difficult to mimic British humor. It takes an intelligent, clever mind, and I admit that's one reason my mysteries aren't placed in England.

I have to get back to my own writing now. Perhaps I can include a scene from my appointment with--no. I just can't share those kinds of details.I guess I'll head back to Barnes & Noble and hope that someone feels like discussing their colonoscopy with friends.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ebook Marketing Part Deux

Whew!  If any of you looked at Pam Ripling's list of what she's done over the past few weeks to promote her books (see the last blog), you're probably as ashamed as I am. I feel like the matchstick girl hanging around outside of a high-end cigar store.

One suggestion that came in was to make up something tangible such as bookmarks to hand out to promote your ebook. JA Konrath encloses promotional items in every piece of correspondence he sends out, because you never know if the person opening it is a potential reader.

My God! That would mean going back to writing checks for bills and posting them with stamps. What's a stamp worth nowadays? 44 cents? I have a drawer filled with a variety of postage that goes back to 32 cent stamps. I even had some without a denomination listed that I had to take into the post office for identification--little stamp corpses being presented to the forensic department so they, too, could have a meaningful toe tag.

Another suggestion I read was to donate your book to charity giveaways. I suppose one could print off the ebook and do the cover in heavier stock or use one of those clear binders they sell at office supply stores, but the binder would probably cost more than the book ($1.50). As bad as I am at math, I can tell that's a losing proposition. Then again, isn't the point to get your name out in front of readers? To build up a fan base? To become everyone's favorite answer to the Rorschach test?

It's a fine balance between doing what must be done and pouring money into a bottomless promotion pit.  That's not to say you won't wind up spending money on promotion, but you need to make every penny count. The Frugal Book Promoter is a good book to have. So is The Shy Writer.

Sisters in Crime Los Angeles just had speaker Kris Neri, author and owner of The Well Red Coyote Bookstore, and she gave some great tips about how to approach an inde bookstore with your wares. She said that workshops are the way to go. Many people won't rush in to see an unknown writer, but many will show up to learn how to write a short story, mystery etc. Again, you'll have to print off those ebooks and package them up, but I bet the attendees wouldn't mind paying $1.50 for your book.

If anyone has suggestions for making an ebook look pretty without breaking the bank, share them here! Meanwhile, I'll ask on my yahoo lists and see what comes back.

Happy Writing!