Monday, March 24, 2014

What Makes a Character Interesting?

Is it any surprise that I actually do more reading than writing?

It shouldn't be.  Writers are, first and foremost, readers.  It's the best place to learn the craft of writing.

What I love about reading is the characters I meet... even more than the stories about those characters.  I see the characters as people that I meet.  It doesn't really matter to me what the people I meet do or what happens to them--I'm interested in the person, the character.

Let me clarify.  My favorite book of all time is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith.  It tells the story of Francie Nolan, a poor girl living in Brooklyn in 1912.  Nothing much really happens to Francie, if we're going to compare her life to that of, say, Ian Fleming's James Bond, or J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo. But Francie is interesting to me because she is a girl who has dreams, who has pride, who has a fierce determination to get ahead.  These are characteristics that appeal to me in a person, one who does not let the events in life define who she is, though they might affect her actions and reactions.

I have read many books, mostly in the mystery genre, but there are certain characters that stick in my mind.  What makes them interesting, to me, is that there is nothing "extraordinary" about them... they are fairly average people, going about their daily business (be it police officer, nun, or even reclusive heiress!) who find themselves in the middle of a problem that may, or may not, be any of their business, but they begin working to solve it, whether enthusiastically or half-heartedly.  Things may happen to them, but they don't just sit back and wait to see how it all pans out; they dive in head-first and join in the action!

I've read many books which I've been asked to review for other authors.  Sometimes I don't actually write the review (or even finish the book!) because, quite frankly, the characters bore me!  Nothing is worse than a character who just sits there and lets things happen and simply comments on them.  None of the events in the book, whether directly affecting the character or not, evoke any kind of action or change on the character.  In short, the characters seem more like news reporters and you begin to wonder why they are in the story to begin with!

A good character, regardless of the genre of the story, makes you care about them or identify with them.  A good character evokes some kind of feeling (sometimes good, sometimes bad) and is not just a part of the scenery.  A good character will leave you wondering what happened to them after the author has written "The End" and, if it's a series, leave you with eager anticipation for the next book, when you can visit that character once again and catch up on all that's been going on since you last got together.

Just like the people in our lives whom we care about, regardless of how exciting (or not) their life is at any given moment, good characters are the ones whom you are happy to encounter and leave an impression.
And now, back to the characters in Bonney County....

Monday, March 17, 2014

What I Learned at My First Major Book Event

The great thing about being a newly-published author is that you're too naïve to be scared.

A few months back (it might have even been last year) when fellow Oak Tree Press author, Janet (J.L.) Greger, asked me to join her at her booth at the Tucson Festival of Books this past weekend, I said "Sure!" without any hesitation.  Tucson's only about five hours away and we were going to be presenting for two hours on Sunday and the cost wasn't prohibitive... it sounded like an ideal weekend getaway for Paul and me and a lot of fun!

Then I discovered that Tucson Festival of Books isn't just like Alamogordo's Cottonwood Festival... for one thing, the Tucson festival takes place conveniently when the University of Arizona is on spring break.  That's because the festival takes up most of the space on the "mall" of the university and the parking garages are needed for festival attendees.  And the campus of the University of Arizona is only slightly smaller than the entire city of Alamogordo!  The space is needed because there are typically 100,000 people attending the Tucson Festival of Books.  That's not counting the vendors, volunteers, and authors attending the festival!

Furthermore, for a fledgling author, being at the same event at which Anne Perry, R. L. Stine, J. A. Jance, Lois Lowry, Spencer Quinn, Benjamin Alire Saenz, along with several dozen, if not over a hundred authors, are also present is rather a humbling experience.  After all, they are there to sell books, too, and they have the advantage of being a lot better known than a first time author!

Still, it was an enlightening experience for me and I learned a lot.  Here are a few things that I will keep in mind the next time (yes, there will be a next time!) I attend a book festival--ANY book festival!

1)  Comfortable shoes, clothes, hat, and sunscreen.  Yes, it's March and yes, many parts of the country are still digging out of snow drifts, but this is Tucson, Arizona and the temperatures were in the upper 70s.  Depending on the location, take into account what you need to stay comfortable, especially if you're going to be on your feet or hiking long distances from parking areas to your presenting areas!

2)  Of course you need to bring lots of books, more than you think you'll sell, but bring lots of promotional items as well.  I brought flyers to hand out, but I should have had bookmarks, business cards, pens, or even candy with my book logo and website on them (yes, lots of authors had candy dishes on their tables... draw the kids in and parents with money follow!)  And the one thing I will definitely consider... bags to carry the books in!

3)  The usual set up is a tent with tables set in a large square and a chair for the author to sit in.  Everyone else at our tent (there were approximately 10-12 authors presenting at our tent) with the exception of Janet and I, were sitting behind their tables with their books in front of them.  The first thing Janet and I did was get rid of the chair. We stood behind and beside our table and "hawked" our books: "Hi, there!  Do you like to read mysteries?  We've got some great ones that are set in New Mexico!"  Yes, we got some odd looks from the other authors, but we reeled 'em in! (It also helped that I sent Paul out with a handful of flyers to work the crowd and direct them our way... pride and self-dignity get in the way of book sales!)

4)  A sign or banner with your book cover or series title in eye-catching colors and graphics is always helpful.  And it needs to be professionally done.  Unless you're an artist, a hand-drawn poster board marks you as an amateur.  And large blocks of text are the kiss of death as far as I'm concerned.  Not many people are drawn to having to read small print off a sign board. 

5)  Come up with a 30-second pitch.  Car dealers or restaurants or any business that spends money on a 30-second TV or radio commercial knows that you can't tell everything about a product or service in that time span so you have to pick out the best, the most intriguing aspects of it and tell it in 30 seconds.  I learned this from another author who was presenting at a different booth and now I want to buy his book!

6)  Be enthusiastic.  If you want people to buy your book, you have to show them that it's worth buying.  Even if  you don't like crowds, or self-promotion (and what author does?), you have to behave as if you are having the time of your life.  Buyers don't respond well to negativity.  And books by first-time authors don't sell themselves; sometimes, the author has to sell themselves before they can sell the book.  In short, have fun... even if you're not having fun!

Above all, realize that it's part of the job.  No job is without it's least appealing aspects, but if you learn that making those aspects work for you to keep you doing the parts of the job you love, it makes it so much easier to get the job done. 

Now back to the writing....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Teamwork--In Writing and Life

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of teamwork lately.  Mainly because of the recent passing of a friend of mine who was an author who co-wrote many books with her husband of 43 years.

Paul and I have been married--been a "team"--since 1988.  That's over 25 years of being, essentially, on the same side.  That doesn't necessarily mean we always agree on everything.  I can't think of a single team that operated with every member in complete agreement with everyone else.  That would be a team made up of robots or clones... not real people.

The way a team works best is when all the members are individuals who are working toward a common goal, whether it's building something, playing a game, or writing a book.  Paul and I are working toward building a loving, happy life together.  And writing a book?  No, it's not a solo endeavor... Paul's on the team with me on that as well!

He doesn't claim any creative input, but I think he sells himself short on that.  For certain, he's valuable in ways that are not only useful but necessary when it comes to writing for publication.  He's very detail-oriented, which means that he can pick out awkward phrases that I usually miss, notice typos that my "trained" eyes skip over because I KNOW what the text is supposed to say, and catches the inconsistencies that make me want to face plant on my keyboard ("Hey, Babe, how many times is this character going to get out of the hospital already?")

He's not generally a voracious reader so when I have his attention engaged, I know I've written something good.  If he finds himself confused or bored, I know I have to see where I went wrong... if the person who knows me best and loves me most is confused and bored, how will perfect strangers feel reading my work??

And he's the best PR person (no offense to Jeana, the PR person at Oak Tree Press!) I could have asked for.  No one who knows Paul would believe how shy he used to be.  And to a certain extent, he's still shy when it comes to drawing attention to himself.  But when it comes to me and the promotion of my books, he certainly outshines me.  Ask any author; self-promotion is only second to having cranial surgery while fully awake in terms of discomfort.  Paul takes that on for me and--this is important--encourages me to do it on my own!

He also has a sense of adventure.  That is, whenever I get a hare-brained idea (I'm mostly talking about books and storylines here!), he's willing to explore it with me.  Sometimes that means we have to get in the car and go somewhere and learn something new.  Sometimes it means "Honey, I just signed up for a book conference and I have no idea what to do!" and he'll say, "Well, I'll drive you there and we'll see what it's all about!"  But I've never gotten a "What the French-fry were you thinking???" response.

The most important component of a team is the ability to be each other's strength.  We all have weaknesses.  A good team mate will use their strengths to shore up the other's weaknesses.  And this doesn't work just in writing... it works in love and marriage as well as business.  I think that's what Paul and I have discovered: that despite our differences we're still and always will be on the same side, the same team.

I wouldn't want anyone else on my team and couldn't imagine a better team mate!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In Loving Memory of a Friend and Inspiration

By now you've heard, at least on my facebook page, of the passing of a dear friend and writer, Aimee Thurlo.  To say I am saddened is the understatement of the century.

If you're not familiar with Aimee and her work, here is a thumbnail sketch: Aimée and David Thurlo, authors of the Ella Clah mysteries optioned by CBS; the Willa Cather Award winning Sister Agatha series; the Lee Nez vampire series, optioned by Red Nation Films; winner of the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Romantic Suspense; and New Mexico Book Award winner.  Her books have been translated worldwide in more than 18 countries and she has sold over a million Harlequin novels.  But those facts don't do her justice, even in her professional realm. 

Her other collaborator, Gabriel, her "Velcro dog", because he was always stuck to her!

Aimee was passionate about her work.  She cared about her characters and she cared about her readers and what struck me the most about her is that she wasn't willing to compromise her characters to make a buck.  I attended one of her last book events in Albuquerque back in December when she was promoting her last Ella Clah novel, "Ghost Medicine".  It was the 17th book in the series and she confided that her publisher was wondering if Ella, the main character and a special investigator with the Navajo tribal police, wasn't--at the age of 40-something--getting "too old" to be chasing down criminals.  So she was wondering: should she go back and write a "prequel" to the series, taking her characters back before Ella was a special investigator, back when she was with the FBI in Los Angeles, even back before her father was murdered (which was the catalyst for the entire series), thus introducing us to a completely different Ella?  Should she continue the series, but shift the point of view to another major character, namely Ella's cousin, Justine Goodluck, who was also her partner in the department, and keep Ella in the periphery?  Continue the series with Ella as a private investigator?  Or should she just end the series, leaving the characters as her fans had come to know and love them intact?

She had ended the book with Ella leaving the department with the arrival of a new police chief, but with the possibilities of any of the above scenarios playing out in any subsequent books.  Now we know that the series has ended, but she faced the same dilemma with another series, the one that introduced me to Aimee and David and made me a life-long fan: the Sister Agatha series.

The Sister Agatha character, to me, has to be one of the most unique and endearing protagonists ever introduced in fiction--an extern nun in a cloistered monastery near Bernalillo, who happens to be reverent and devout though she solves crimes while riding a Harley (when the monastery's old unreliable car, referred to as "the anti-Chrysler", isn't running) with a retired police dog named Pax riding in the sidecar.  If you knew my family, you'd understand that this doesn't really seem as far-fetched as it sounds! 

The series ended after six books, although she had quite a following, because the publisher wanted her to make some changes... like not so much praying (Huh? Uh...the main character is a NUN!) and perhaps introducing a romantic interest for the main character (repeat above parenthetical phrase!)  Needless to say, Aimee refused to compromise her character, even if it meant ending the series.

The other thing I admired most about Aimee and David (because it really is Aimee and David; I can't think of them any other way) is how they personified "teamwork".  They were a team in every sense of the word.  They were married three weeks after they met and when David came home one day from teaching middle school and found Aimee writing a novel in longhand on a legal pad, he started looking over her shoulder and thus was born one of the greatest collaborations in fiction writing.  They could write in one voice and one's weakness was the other's strength.  And so it was throughout their marriage, their life, and their writing career, until the very end.

I had the privilege of meeting them a couple of times (no small feat considering the busy lives they lead!) and it was an honor to me, an unknown author, to have the friendship and encouragement of a couple of "big league" authors, though within seconds after meeting, you'd think we had been friends for years.  Aimee encouraged me and cheered me on, even prodding me to consider writing for Harlequin's Heartwarming line of romances (I regret I didn't take this step while she was still here to mentor me, but in her honor I will go for it!)

Also in her honor I will be dedicating the second book in the Black Horse Campground series, "No Lifeguard on Duty", in her memory and to David.  They showed me what the real dream I wanted to live was all about: not literary and financial success, but being able to do what you love with the one you love beside you, working with you toward a common goal, and staying true to yourselves.

Requiescat in pace, my dear friend.  You will be missed by many.