Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Creating a Cover: Amateur Illustration as a Brand

While I was taking a break from the blog, I had some Kismet on artwork. The events transpired thusly:

1.) Cover illustration was on my mind partly because of my report on my slow progress with the eBook Experiment. A part of what I said there was that I wasn't sure a slick cover would help some of my books, because the books are kind of my own quirky thing.

2.) I've been thinking about "branding" for the oddball indie writer a lot lately too. In some ways it's like making a genre out of yourself. And, of course, cover art is a major part of genre and identity.

Thurber's illo from The Male Animal
3.) I've been on a Thurber kick, because Olbermann has continued reading Thurber short stories on his website every Friday. Thurber, of course, was a New Yorker cartoonist who illustrated many of his own stories in his own pudgey style. His drawings are so closely associated with his work, that when something Thurber-esque happens in my life, I don't remember it as it happened, but rather as a series of Thurber drawings. (Now that's branding!)

So with these on my mind, and my own desire to do more doodling, I had the final bit of kismet:

4.) I went to write at Taco Bell -- where I often go to get out of the house -- and found the place full of students. I mean full. The line wound back into the parking lot and all around. Like fifty people outside and who knows how many inside. I don't know what was going on at MSU, but clearly I wasn't going to get any writing done at Taco Bell, so I turned around and headed for MacDonald's... which took me past Staples.

And that was when it all kind of came together. I wanted to sketch. No, I had this urgent need to sketch. I HAD to sketch NOW. It was like a part of my brain was signaling to me: this is a part of what you do. I had nothing to sketch on, so I stopped in and bought some packs of 5 x 8 unlined cards.

I will never be the kind of illustrator who can paint such brilliant work as Samuel Nelson Abbott, or N. C. Wyeth. But I think it might be worth my while to see about putting my stamp on things visually.

A few weeks ago I blogged out the beat-by-beat process of writing the opening for a novelette, The Misplaced Hero. I will probably continue that series as I work through that story (though I may hold back on posting it until I can have spoilers under control).

Now, it happens that the art I worked on that day was a cover for... The Misplaced Hero. Another bit of Kismet? It seems like a good example to continue the "process" posts.

So for the next few weeks I will be blogging every Tuesday about creating that cover -- starting next week with with Part 2 - finding a concept and style to emulate.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Story Notes: How Pies Are Like Writing

Yesterday's story, "The Pie Maker," is based on a traditional folk tale I heard a very long time ago. There are many versions, from Christian apocrypha, to pagan folktale.

But the basic story is this: a beggar comes to the door of a greedy old woman and asks for some food. The woman has just taken a pie from the oven, and doesn't want to give it to him. She makes him a smaller pie out of scraps, and makes him wait. When the pie comes out, it's bigger than the first. Since the woman is stingy and greedy, she doesn't want to give that one to a beggar either, so she makes an even smaller pie, which comes out of the oven even bigger. At which point the beggar reveals he is a god or spirit in disguise and he turns her into a woodpecker for being so selfish.

That story has haunted me all my life. Not because of the selfish old-woman, or the woodpecker or the justice done or anything like that. It's the pie. You try to make it small, and it comes out big. You try to make it smaller, and it comes out even BIGGER!

This is just like writing.

Honestly, if you've been doing any kind of creative work for very long, you've probably had this feeling that there is some perverse force inside your word processor or something. Whatever you try to do, it comes out different. And you know there is a lesson in there somewhere.

The other thing that resonated with me, especially once I got older and more wise to the world, is the repetition. The old woman was given multiple chances to get it right.

And this brings me back to Great, my great grandmother. I'm not that bad a making a pie, but Great made more pies in a single day than I have made in a lifetime. My grandmother could literally just throw together a pie from feel, no measurements, no care. Always wonderful. Because she, like her mother, did it every day of her life, and multiple times a day. Neither one of them needed to go to culinary school.

I will never make a pie which compares to either of them.

I have tried to tell that story many times, in many forms, and it never comes out like I intend it to.

But if I keep it up, I will eventually make stories like they made pies.

Think about it.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The Pie Maker" - a fable for writers

For the Sunday Story this week, I give you "The Pie Maker," a new fable which I have been trying to write for ages, but it keeps coming out different from my expectations....


The Pie Maker
by Camille LaGuire

ANNETTE'S GREAT GRANDMOTHER had been the greatest pie maker in the county. And her daughter, Annette's grandmother, was the second greatest. Their pies were legend, not only for their quality and tastiness, but for the sheer quantity. They had baked for lumberjack camps, and in busy restaurants, and for church events and for charities. Pie after pie, beloved of all.

Annette herself, though, was the youngest of many in her generation, and she had been raised in a modern kitchen by an in-law mother who never baked. Her great grandmother had died when she was just a baby, and though grandma also baked great pies, bad luck and poor health took her too, and Annette was left with mostly stories, and a memory of the sharp and sweet taste and the tender flake of crust.

Every year there was a charity event back in grandma's home town. It included a pie contest which was in honor of Annette's great grandmother. They always invited Annette to join the festivities, and enter a pie. They even offered her the use of the church kitchen, because she was coming from so far out of town.

Up until now, Annette had refused in embarrassment that she couldn't bake a pie.

It wasn't that she hadn't tried. Frankly, Annette was determined to recapture the glory of the family honor. She took classes, and had all sorts of baking books. Every week, she worked very hard to bake a perfect pie. She generally failed to recapture the flavor and texture she remembered of grandma's pies, but she knew she was getting better.

Then one day, going through some old letters, she found her great grandmother's recipe for pie crust. Just amounts, no instructions. It called for so little water, Annette could hardly believe it would hold together. But there is was, THE original recipe. It was like magic. It even smelled a little of coffee and lard -- the predominant aroma of grandma's kitchen.

Here it was only one week until the competition, and now she had great grandma's recipe! That was kismet. She could reclaim the family honor!

The night before the contest, she gathered her groceries -- the finest apples, and good pastry flour and real lard -- and picked up the key to the church kitchen. She brought a scale and measured the flour to the gram, and did the same with the lard. She stuck the lard in the freezer to make sure it would be good and cold and prepared ice water for mixing.

When she cut the lard into the flour, and made sure she cut it to the exact size of peas. Then she spooned in the very cold water, a teaspoon at a time.... and found it was not enough to hold the dough together. With a sigh, she added a bit more, until it was just barely enough to hold together. It was still less water than she had ever used before.

The dough broke when she rolled it out, and crumbled when she assembled the pie. She was afraid to handle it too much, because that would make it tough. Still she managed to get the pie together, and she stuck it in the oven. She set to cleaning up while it baked, and suddenly realized someone else had come into the room.

An old woman stood near the door with a basket full of flowers. Annette jumped back. Did she forget to lock the door behind her when she came in?

The woman acted like she belonged there, though. She set the basket down on a bench and fussed at it a bit. She was wearing an old-fashioned flowered dress, which was worn and a bit stained, maybe from gardening.

"Oh, hello," said Annette, feeling awkward.

The old woman just looked over and said "Hmmmf." Now Annette was sure she did belong there. Church ladies can put so much disapproval into a little sound.

"I have permission to use the kitchen tonight," said Annette firmly. She meant to claim her right to be in the kitchen alone, but somehow she felt as if she were merely excusing herself. The old woman looked critically at the scraps of dough on the counter. "I'm just cleaning up!" said Annette.

She began to gather the scraps, and the old woman came over to look at what she was doing, as though speaking were an invitation.

"You're Mina's granddaughter, aren't you?"

"You knew my grandmother?"

"I knew her very well."

The old woman stood back and waited, looking sternly as though Annette were forgetting something important. Annette looked around and wiped her hands on her apron. The old woman sighed.

"You'd better check on that pie," she finally prompted.

"Oh, I just put it in. It's got at least a half...."

The timer on the oven rang. Annette realized she must have set it wrong. Oh, no. How long had it been? How much longer should she leave it in? She hated things to be inexact. Baking pastry was soo fussy. She'd get it wrong.... She peeked in the oven, and by golly the pie was already golden brown and done!

She pulled it out, and though it was a little lumpy and lopsided, it smelled wonderful. Annette set it on the rack and the old woman scowled at it.

"Well, looks aren't everything, and it smells good. May I have a piece?"

"What?" Annette couldn't believe the old woman's gall. "It's for the contest tomorrow."

"Really," said the old woman, looking at it doubtfully. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"Hmmm," said the old woman. "I'm hungry. I would like a piece, please."

Maybe this woman wasn't a church lady after all. Maybe she was just a bag lady who was good at pretending she belonged. Annette looked a little closer, and she noticed that the dress was faded, and had been neatly mended. Should she call someone? Or....

The old woman looked at her expectantly. And Annette recalled herself to the fact that it was a charity event. And her grandmother never would have turned away a hungry person. But she couldn't give away her good pie. Especially not to a woman who might be conning her.

"It's too big for one person," said Annette. "Why don't I make a smaller pie, just for you. I've got all this crust left, and some apples."

"All right," said the old woman, and she settled down to wait. on the bench by the kitchen door with her basket for flowers.

Annette found a slightly smaller pie tin and quickly rolled out the remaining crust and mixed up some apples and seasonings and popped the small pie in the oven. The old woman fiddled with her flowers and waited, and Annette started to clean up... and the timer on the oven went off. Almost instantly.

She peeked in, and the pie was golden. Was it a convection oven? She grabbed her pot holders and pulled out the pie.

When she set it on the rack, she paused to stare. It was bigger than the previous one. And it was nicer. She looked from one pie to the other, and blinked. The old woman got up and looked at the pie.

"Well, this one looks better," said the old woman, she she picked up a fork.

"No!" said Annette. "This is the pie for the contest. You can have the other. It's cool enough to eat by now anyway."

"I'm not eating that," said the old woman. "It's too big for me, you said."

"But this one's bigger."

"True," said the old woman. "I'd never be able to eat either of them. But I'm awfully hungry, so I guess I'll try."

She reached for the second pie, the nicer one, and Annette pulled it away.

"No, I've got a little more lard and more apples--"

"Good idea," said the old woman. "Why not make a little pie this time, rather than one fit for a lumberjack?"

"But I did make a little pie," Annette protested.

The old woman looked expectant, and so Annette sighed and grabbed her measuring cup and made a half batch of crust. She didn't weigh it this time, because she figured the old woman would get what she deserved for being so pushy. She just did a rough measure and cut it in fast and sloppy, and threw in enough water to hold it together. She rolled it out and threw in the filling and stuck it in the oven.

The timer bell rang almost instantly. The pie she pulled out of the oven was aromatic, golden... and bigger than either of the others.

"That's big enough for a pair of farmhands!" cried the old woman. "I thought you were going to make a small pie."

"I did!" said Annette. Something was very wrong with that oven. It was enchanted, or haunted. And the pie was beautiful. The old woman hovered over it with a fork, and Annette pulled it away. This one would definitely be better for the competition.

"I'll make you a pie for you!" she declared. And she wasn't going to be defeated by an enchanted oven either. She glared at the appliance and then threw together more crust. She found a stack of pot pie tins in the cupboard and made a pie as small as she could manage.

It came out bigger. So she tried again, and the next came out even bigger.

She kept trying until she came to the last of the pot pie tins, and that one came out huge. Enough to feed a football team.

"You'd better make another," said the old woman. "I can't possibly eat all that."

Annette let out a scream and this time she didn't even measure at all. She just scooped the lard into some flour and cut it together until it looked right, and sprinkled in the water. She pulled together the dough and rolled it out and put it in a tiny tart tin. She threw that in the oven and set the timer.

She leaned against the oven door and glared at the old woman, and as expected the timer went off quickly.

And this time she pulled out... a tart. The old woman got up and examined it.

"Now that looks tasty," she said. And she was right. The pie this time was well formed -- oh, not perfect like a pie press, but it was beautiful in an irregular hand-made way. The old woman picked it up, not waiting for it to cool. She glanced over her shoulder at the left-over crust on the counter. "You ought to make one more for the sale tomorrow. You've got all that crust."

Annette saw that she had just enough to make one more pie -- a regular sized one. There were just enough apples left in her bag, so she rolled out the crust and made yet one more pie. This time, she noticed that the pie rolled more easily, or maybe it was that she had been rolling out so much of it, that she was better at it. She found she wasn't afraid of handling it too much, either. She was used to the feel of the dough by now and she slipped the crust into the tin easily. Then she filled it, and laid on the top crust. As she fluted the edges her fingers did not fumble.

She put the pie in the oven and set the timer, and then sat down. She was so exhausted, she started to doze off.

And then the timer went off. She jumped up, not sure of how long it had been, and grabbed the oven mitts.

The pie in the oven was normal sized and beautiful. It was the best pie she'd ever seen. She pulled it out and turned to show the old woman, but the old woman was gone. She'd only left a small tart tin and a fork on the bench. Annette set the pie on the rack and looked around.

It wasn't a dream, at least not all of it. The kitchen was filled with pies, but they were all normal sized pies.

After a moment Annette heard some footsteps outside and she went to see if the old woman was there. It turned out to be three ladies from the event's organizing committee. They just stopped by to see how she was doing.

When they entered they looked around in amazement.

"Just like your grandmother!" said one.

"No, like her mother!" said another, the eldest of the three. "There must be a dozen pies here. These will auction off nicely. These are for the charity auction, aren't they?"

"Um, yes," said Annette. "I guess I got carried away making pies."

This eldest woman shook her head, and circled to look at the pies. She closed her eyes and sniffed the aroma.

"This is like the old days," she said. "You know, I used to help your great grandmother make pies for the fair. A very long time ago. But I can still see her in that old flowered work dress. Rolling and mixing and pinching that dough. Nobody ever made as many pies as she did. Seeing these here, well, it's like she's still haunting the place!"

You don't know how true that is, thought Annette.


I'll tell you more about the writing of this story tomorrow in the Monday Story Notes.

You can read more of my fantasy fiction in The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic at all Amazon Kindle Stores: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon DE. (If you hurry, you might still find it offered for free at Amazon -- though that should cange to 99 cents soon.) As well as at other ebook retailers: Smashwords, Barnes and Nobel, Apple iBookstore, Nook, and Sony.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Proof of Proofs! (My book is here!)

In the time honored tradition (which goes back at least six months or more) of Pets and Proof Copies.....

I present to you the very first paper copy of HAVE GUN, WILL PLAY! Yee ha!

Here is Max Sparkler and Mr. Duckie modeling it for me. I will be out of town, so I won't be able to finish any corrections and approve the final version until after I get back.

But it's SOOOO COOOOLLLLL. I wasn't thinking of print when I chose the colors and everything, but I guess all those years as a print operator have paid off, because it all came out really well.

Release date should be mid June (if all goes well). I'll announce when I get the darn thing checked over.

Update and Weekly Preview

I started to make some progress, but I overdid it and my shoulder is back to killing me after typing maybe 100 words at a time. So I'm back to reading and making notes and maybe rewriting a little.

So I am incredibly depressed and frustrated over the delay in finishing The Man Who Did Too Much. I did, however, make some great progress overall, as I realized that I needed to restore the middle sequence to my original vision. I call it "un-revision" and before I screwed up my shoulder again, I wrote a blog post about it, which you'll see Thursday.

But other than some editing I have yet to do on "The Pie Maker," the rest of this week's posts were done ahead.

I'm rearranging the weekly pattern for this summer. My schedule had changed, but I think it also may work better for the blog. Saturdays will now be update days. The character interview will be on Fridays.

And I'm introducing a new feature: "Creating a Cover" will be a once a week (Tuesdays) post which follows the development and creation of a cover for The Misplaced Hero. It will cover reasons, research and inspirations, as well as the nitty gritty of creating it in Photoshop.

Okay it took two sessions to type that, so let's get on with this week's posting schedule. (NOTE: I will be out of town much of next week. We can only hope that will be good for my shoulder.)

  • Sunday: "The Pie Maker" Another of my fables for writers.
  • Monday: Notes on "The Pie Maker" - and the irony of writing the story. (Everything is Meta these days.)
  • Tuesday: Creating a Cover, pt 1 - thinking about using my own art as a part of my brand.
  • Wednesday: Drawer Time - why it's not about the story, but about YOU.
  • Thursday: Un-Revision - Making a sequence work by realizing... Emotional State is Trajectory
  • Friday: Character Friday with Julia March. A very short but sweet interview about a secondary villain with a will of her own.

See you in the funny papers!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Character Wednesday: John Desjarlais

Today John Desjarlais is going to tell us about Selena De La Cruz, an insurance agent who attempts to help the disabled hero of his thriller BLEEDER.

Camille: What made you create Selena?

John: In BLEEDER, protagonist Reed Stubblefield is wounded in a school shooting and retreats to his bother's hunting cabin in rural Illinois to recover. My fictional small town is dealing with a large influx of Latino immigrants working in agricultural operations such as slaughterhouses and canneries. The locals are uneasy about this poor, uneducated population. To balance this, I wanted a positive portrayal of an educated middle-class Latin character and decided to create a female insurance agent who could handle Stubblefield's disability claims. When Selena De La Cruz walked on stage, as it were, in those cherry red high heels and black jeans, with that attitude, and driving that vintage muscle car, I knew she had a story of her own and that she would have a larger role in the novel than I'd anticipated.

Camille: What makes her special to you?

John: Selena is a second-generation Mexican-American woman, and like most Latinas she struggles with her bi-cultural identity, seeking ways to acculturate to New World realities while balancing Old World expectations and traditions. She's an independent Latina (a contradiction in terms for Latino men), a tomboy one minute and a taffeta-gowned princessa the next, tender and tough. I'm fascinated by her family and her culture.

Camille: Ah, does this mean there is some chemistry between Reed and Selena?

John: There were sparks from the get-go but not the good kind - she really couldn't help him with the disability claims and he was furious with her and the whole insurance business. By the end of the book, however, they are meeting to discuss his financial future, and there is a hint that they may get together. It won't be easy: He's all about safety (drives a Volvo), she's all about risk (races a kick-butt muscle car); he's pro-union Democrat, she's pro-business Republican; he can barely count on his fingers, she's a Loyola Finance major; he's uneasy with guns (he was wounded in a school shooting), she's handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol; he's Cubs, she's White Sox.

Camille: Aside from just being interesting, do you feel Selena's increased role added something extra to the novel overall? Did you worry about her overwhelming anything in the story?

John: Readers have told me that Selena, despite her limited role, is the most interesting and layered character in the book. She added another dimension to the "Mexican immigration" issue along with some sexual tension. I didn't worry about her 'running off with the story,' as some minor characters can do. But I knew that in the sequel she would either have to be of equal importance as Reed Stubblefield, or become the protagonist -- with Reed, this time, being a minor character. The premise of the story required the latter.

Camille: Then you have more planned for Selena?

John: Selena insisted. The sequel, VIPER, features her as the protagonist. It's due out this summer. Here's the tease:

On All Souls Day, Selena De La Cruz’s name is entered in her parish church's “Book of the Deceased.” The problem is, she's not dead. And someone thinks she should be. Is it "The Snake," a notorious drug dealer Selena helped to put in prison when she was a Special Agent with the DEA years ago? Or someone far, far more dangerous?

You can buy Bleeder at Amazon.com, in ebook or paperback form. You can read more about John Desjarlais at his website Investigate Higher Mysteries, or his blog, Johnny Dangerous.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


The bad shoulder is driving me absolutely batshit crazy. I can THINK, but I can't note down what I come up with very well.

However, over the weekend I did come up with what was missing from the evil Chapter 12. It is a transitional chapter. Sort of a bridge from one section to another. I would love to do a spoiler post on what the problems are with this chapter... and maybe I will. I just won't post it here. I can either give it privately to beta readers, or I can post it on my Spoilers blog after the book is published.

I not only realized the one thing that can make this chapter DO something (other than be a bridge) also moves some smaller aspects of a subplot along. In particular, George's maybe-girlfriend is a woman in transition. Even though we're learning a lot about her, and setting up for things to happen later... this turned out to be the place for a missing piece in her character arc too. Yee ha!

In the meantime: I overdid it with my shoulder today at work, and will probably have to do it a little more harm tomorrow. So I have to cut back on typing in general. AND I want to tweak my blog schedule (and move the updates to Saturdays, rather than Tuesdays) so this week will be a transitional week:

Wednesday: Interview With John Desjarlais for "Character Wednesday."

Thursday and Friday: no posting.

Saturday: the new schedule will begin with an update and preview of the week's posts. I'm shuffling a few things around, but I'll announce it then. Fun stuff coming up!

See you in the funny papers!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Story Notes - Scrumdiddle and A "Great" Cook

I said that I thought yesterday's story, "Scrumdiddle," was one of the first three I'd ever written. I'm now thinking that's not true. This might have been number four or five, written after Clarion, for a college class.

In college, of course, we weren't supposed to write science fiction or fantasy or mystery or romance. We were supposed to write real life. So I retold one of the many stories I'd heard about my great grandmother (who was known to everyone in my generation as "Great").

Great was a wonderful cook and baker, who ran restaurants at various times in her life (as did Gramma and my Uncle). She started her career as a cook at three years old, standing on a box washing dishes in a lumber camp. Her mother soon turned her cook tent into a boarding house, and cooking was the way to make a living for the family ever since.

Great once did have a problem with one of her competitors copying her specials every day, and she did put an end to it by making up the word "Scrumdiddle" and offering it as a special. According to family legend, that was an end to it.

It seemed like a ripe incident to learn how to expand into a full plot. After all, it was really only a beginning, wasn't it? A first foray in the battle. How did making up a special actually stymie the competition? Why didn't he just copy that too?

So that was my premise.

For the characters, I had to move away from reality. Great was a tiny, feisty woman with a wicked sense of humor, but I only know that from what people said about her. I never really knew her. I had nothing to capture except for shadows of wisps of stories -- Great once did this, or once did that. I was too young to interpret what I knew into something rounded.

So I simply used what I knew as a springboard, and wrote what was within my skills.

Great has influenced, both directly and indirectly, a lot of things I've written, if not everything I've written. She was the great storyteller of the family, which was handed down, a great cook, which was handed down, and had quite a sense of humor, which was not only handed down, but I suspect was something that came to this puritan family mainly from her.

This story is not what I would call a tribute to her, but she is definitely the most interesting thing about it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Scrumdiddle - a homey tale of competition

I'm sorry to say I had to change stories on you this week. I was going to post a new story called "The Pie Maker," but my shoulder RSI is still so bad, I have to keep typing and mouse work to a minimum.

So I went hunting back through some very very very old stories, all the way back to those three stories I wrote before I attended Clarion. There in the really early stuff, I found "Scrumdiddle." A story inspired by family tales about my great grandmother -- just like "The Pie Maker" was! Kismet!

NOTE: The characters and details here are made up of whole cloth, however.


by Camille LaGuire

"WHAT ARE WE putting on special today?" asked Ginny as she erased yesterday's special from the front window chalkboard.

"Ribs," said Honira sharply, brushing back the one loose strand of gray hair and crossing her arms. "Ribs. Potato salad. And Garden Fresh Peas. Pumpkin Pie."

"Yes, ma'm," said Ginny. She wrote the menu with a flourish learned in art class. "Three fifty?"


"Great Deal!" said Ginny, reading her own words off the board. She pulled back the curtain and put the board back in. Just then she saw a movement in the window across the street. The Racklin Coffee House. "Hey, Bet, he's doin' it again."

Bet, rotund and forty, stepped out of the kitchen, wiping the pancake batter off her hands. She craned to see over Ginny's head as Max Racklin, owner of the Racklin Coffee House, replaced the daily specials sign in his window.

"Delicious RIBS," it said. "With POTATO SALAD, garden fresh PEAS, and delectable PUMPKIN PIE: $3.25. Great Deal!"

"What are you gawking at?" said Honira.

"Max is copying your special again, ma'm," said Ginny. "Third time this week."

"And he's undercutting your price," added Bet.

"What?" said Honira. She brushed aside the other women and looked. "Hunh. Garden fresh peas, my eye. Freezer fresh, more like. He's been doing this all week?"

"Yes ma'm."

"Well, let's see him copy this." Honira took the sign out of the window, and rubbed it off with her towel. "Let's see."

While she thought, Ginny saw the curtain pull back on the coffee house. Honira, with a sudden flamboyant scrawl, wrote a single word on the board.


She wrote the price underneath--three fifty--and replaced it in the window. A moment later the board disappeared across the street, and reappeared.


"What's Scrumdiddle?" asked Ginny.

"Nothin'," said Honira. "I just made it up."

"What do you think he's serving for it?"

"Whatever it is, it'll give his customers indigestion."

"What'll we serve?"


* * *

It was still well before lunch, and most people were still having breakfast, or coffee and a snack. Between pouring cups and ringing up tabs, Ginny managed to sneak a peek out the window now and then. As often as not, she'd see Max Racklin standing outside his coffee house, arms crossed over his big white apron, glaring thoughtfully back at her.

"He doesn't know what to do," she whispered to Bet.

"Lemme see," said Bet. "Oh, he's mad. It's almost lunch, and he doesn't know what to serve."

"He'll probably just give 'em his goshawful goulash."

"Ladies!" came Honira's voice from the kitchen. "What are you gaping at?"

Before she hurried back to work, Ginny gave one last glance back at the window. It was only a glance, so she wasn't sure, but Max suddenly wasn't glaring anymore. He almost looked happy.

There weren't many people in the cafe. It was around eleven, and most of the late breakfast crowd had cleared out. Old Mr. Eaton was by the window writing poetry, as usual. It was pretty silly poetry, but it got published in the paper every Sunday. Ginny refilled his cup and helped him find a rhyme for the word "loquacious." ("Bodacious.") Then she gave the bill to the down-state couple at the counter, who were arguing civilly over whether they should stop in Empire, or go straight over to Traverse. They'd been arguing for long enough to do both, and it looked like it would be a while yet, so she refilled their cups and set to clearing tables.

The door opened with a jingle, and in walked Wally Hindren. He grinned and plopped himself down at the table Ginny was just wiping.

"Scrumdiddle?" he said. "I can't believe it. I haven't had Scrumdiddle since my Aunt Evy moved to Florida!"

Ginny chewed her lip and looked nervously back at the kitchen.

"You mean you want some?"

"Yes, indeed," he said, rubbing his hands together. "I'm starved."

"I'll see if it's ready yet."

Ginny ran to the kitchen in a panic.

"Honira! There really is such a dish as Scrumdiddle! What are we gonna do?"

"Calm down, Ginny," said Honira, stirring her barbeque sauce. Honira never got excited, not even back on that day the kitchen had caught fire.

"Wally Hindren's out front, and his Aunt Evy used to make it, and he's looking forward to it, and what am I gonna serve him, 'cause he's a friend of Max's and he'll sue us for false advertising if it isn't the right thing."

"He's a friend of Max, all right. They're as close as ivy to a brick wall, and don't you think that he has any idea what Scrumdiddle is. He's over here to find out for Max."

"But what are we going to serve him?"

Honira set down her spoon and wiped her hands on her apron, her eyes had that unfocused look that they get when she starts cooking creatively.

"Is there any of that chicken liver left?"

"Yes, ma'm. We were saving it for the cats."

"Well, the cats will just have to make do with mice. Get it for me."

When Ginny came back with the liver, she found Honira scrambling some eggs. On the counter beside her were an onion, pickle relish, soy sauce, and a bottle of maraschino cherries.

"Go tell Wally it'll be done in a minute."

Ginny hid the look of disgust on her face, and smiled as she went back to Wally.

"It'll be ready in a minute, Mr. Hindren," she said. "Now did you say you wanted that to go?"

"Uh, yeah," he said. "Yeah, I am in a hurry."

Of course he was in a hurry, Ginny thought. In a hurry to get his prize right back to Max. She wasn't sure whether she was more sorry to miss the look on his face when he got it, or more pleased to get that stuff Honira was whipping up out of the restaurant.

When she got back to the kitchen, Honira was ladling barbeque sauce over the goop on the grill.

"He wants it to go."

"Well, isn't that nice," said Honira, and she pulled out a styrofoam container and plopped the goop into it. "Now top it with some grated cheese, and put on a little sprig of parsley. There it is."

Wally already had three dollars and sixty four cents counted out on the counter. He didn't even look in the container; he just grabbed it and headed out the door. The women watched him through the window as he headed straight for Max's place.

They didn't hear anything for the rest of the day. As folks came in and asked about the special, Ginny told them it was a joke, and described the ribs. Most folks took the ribs.

* * *

The next morning Ginny yawned and rubbed off the previous day's special.

"What's the special today?"

"Fried chicken, coleslaw, fresh baked rolls, and strawberry pie."

As Ginny put the board in the window, she saw the curtain across the street move, and a sign appeared.

Scrumdiddle, $3.25. Great Deal!

"Bet, come look at this."

Bet looked out and shook her head.

"Hunh. I guess he's learned his lesson."

"Never compete with Honira," agreed Ginny. "Any goop she makes up is better than what he usually serves."

"That's for sure," said Bet with a chuckle.


Tomorrow I'll tell you the story behind the story, and of the woman known to is all as "Great," who did indeed once foil a copycat competitor by offering Scrumdiddle as the daily special.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Illustration Saturday: N. C. Wyeth and Moments of Tension

The most important thing I learned about book illustration, I learned on C-SPAN of all places.

They had a "book talk" show, in which a professor was talking about N. C. Wyeth -- the greatest illustrator of all time, IMHO. This professor showed a bunch of illustrations of Treasure Island from before Wyeth, and they all had something in common. They all showed what happened. That is, they showed the moment when all the tension was released.

Wyeth, on the other hand, had a different approach. When something exciting was going on, he showed the moment before it happened. The moment when the outcome was still in question, and when the tension was at its height.

This was one of the pictures he showed -- just before the moment of violence. Will Isreal Hands throw his knife? Will Jack Hawkins flinch, or will he shoot?

There were other illustrators who had this sense of drama, of course, but none like N. C. Wyeth. The pure visual beauty of his work is something to behold. The strong diagonals, the use of vivid detail and odd shadows and blur to create psychological effects. The scenes were huge and dramatic like the Romantic painters like David, the lighting, though, was more flat and modern, like the Realists, who tended more toward ordinary subjects. And that brings it right back into the immediacy and drama.

Which takes me back to the dramatic timing which made Wyeth brilliant. It's what turns an illustration from mere reporting to storytelling. It's also what changes a work of art from a landscape or portrait to an event.

Many of those illustrators which that professor used as examples most likely worked for newspapers in their day-to-day work. Until a century ago or less, newspapers relied more on drawings than photographs. "What happened?" was the question they generally worked with, more than "what will happen?" So it makes sense that the emphasis was on reporting rather than the storytelling - at least in those days.

Great photojournalists now, of course, understand the drama of tension. If you look at prize winning news shots, they are like a Wyeth illustration, full of action and drama. They are images which not only inform you of what happened, but make you want to know what happened next.

It used to be that most fiction was illustrated -- in magazines, in newspapers. Often multiple illustrations. These days, though, illustration has pretty much gone by the wayside (other than for children). Most of the time, all we have are the covers to tease and tantalize us.

And if all we have are covers, we have an extra problem in this modern age of ebooks. All you see is an itty bitty thumbnail, and even if you have a beautiful Wyeth-quality cover, the reader is unlikely to be swept up by the drama. They won't be able to see it that well.

However, I don't know if you ever noticed books from the old days, before they had a paper dust cover -- but even though it was the heyday of illustration, the cover itself might only have an impressed logo-like image. A crown or a ship. The really catchy dramatic illustration would be in the frontispiece inside the cover.

In this modern age, even as cover images shrink to postage stamps, and the books themselves are text-only, we can bring back the frontispiece: by putting it on a website.

We have new opportunities now to make illustration a part of the overall online brand or identity of a book or series. The web gives us a wonderful opportunity for supplementation. I hope that people in publishing will make use of it.

(Last minute addition: and golly I just noticed a few days ago that Steve Perry decided to sponsor an Art contest on his website. Exactly the sort of thing I was talking about!)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Genre and Soy Sauce -- Finding What You Want

On the Golden Age Mysteries group on Yahoo a week or two ago, people were talking about the definition of the cozy mystery. It has become a hard genre to define, because there are so many different expectations, and because the definition has definitely changed over the years.

I think a part of the problem is that it's a flavor, not a genre. That flavor can be in stories of any kind, even if it is most commonly used in certain ways these days. Defining the mystery and all it's sub-genres today seem to me a lot like defining food.

So I give you soy sauce:

I tend to buy a lot of different kinds of soy sauce. If I go to my local Meijer store, it will be shelved in one place: the foreign foods section. There I'll find the major American brands, and maybe one or two specialty versions. LaChoy or Kikkoman, light or dark. If I'm really lucky, they may carry something like "Golden Mountain" or a mushroom soy, but usually not. Sometimes, if they have some fancy organic healthy variety, it might be shelved in the health food section, but that's the only exception.

Frankly, if I want something other than Kikkoman (not a paid endorsement) I go to an Asian grocery. There are lots of little stores around town, like say, Kim's, which is a Korean grocery, and you'll find a couple of dozen varieties (including Kikkoman). They don't have an organic section, so if they were to carry some tree-hugging "green" brand of special organic soy, it would likely be in with the other soy sauce.

But if I'm feeling serious about my soy sauce, I skip Kim's and Thai Bihn, and I head over to Oriental Mart.

Oriental Mart is the Meijers of Asian food in our area. They have EVERYTHING. And finding soy sauce at Oriental Mart is an adventure. (But what an adventure!)

They don't have a soy sauce shelf. Their store is organized by nationality: They have a Japanese aisle, and a Korean aisle, and a Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian section, and Chinese, and Indian and even a tiny Caribbean section. You will find soy sauce in each of these sections, all different, no overlap between them. And each section will have dozens of varieties too. You will find multiple brands of specialty soys, like Kecap Manis -- the syrup-like sweet soy sauce from Southeast Asia.

Genres can be like condiments.

I wonder... is the coziness of a cozy mystery really it's defining thing - like soy sauce itself? Or is it like the nationality of a soy sauce? Sure, for the general public, you might shelve them altogether like Meijers does. But does the aficionado think of them more like Oriental Mart?

Some people feel that a cozy MUST have a g-rating, and be set in a small town, and reflect a certain old-fashioned small town values. At times, when I hear what such people exclude from the genre, I wonder if their cozies shouldn't be better shelved with the Christian fiction.

Some, on the other hand, consider the romantic angle to be most important, and when I see what they consider to be a "real cozy" I wonder if it belongs with romantic suspense.

Some consider the key element to be the humor. They see more hard-boiled crime comedies of Donald Westlake and Carl Hiassen, and big city thinking detectives like Nero Wolfe, as cozy.

Then there are the mysteries with a special interest hook -- cat mysteries, dog mysteries, cooking or knitting mysteries. It used to be that these hooks were just a quirk of the old fashioned "amateur sleuth" or even suspense story. But now they are beginning to feel like a genre in themselves.

The great thing about the internet is that we can put books on multiple shelves.

Even if a book doesn't really belong on the Romance shelves, for instance, it's still going to get mentioned in Romance circles if the book really does suit that audience. It's going to end up on Listopia lists, and mentioned on blogs. Christians will recommend suitable books to each other, no matter what the genre, or if the book is intentionally Christian or not.

My concern, though, is not really where we shelve it, but how do we deal with the fact that it means something so very different to different people?

For instance, as a non-conservative non-Christian writing clean fiction that takes place in an old-fashioned small town, I feel comfortable calling The Man Who Did Too Much a cozy. It really should suit everyone in the genre. And yet, in critique I have been firmly informed, when a dossier mentions that the heroine is a registered Democrat who has never missed a vote in 22 years (public record info which would be included), that it is highly inappropriate information for a cozy. Too controversial.

No, I have no intention of removing it, that would be silly and self-defeating. My heroine is the child of old hippies. She's a woman who recommends Pulp Fiction as the best movie to improve the moral character of teens. Seriously, being registered as a Democrat is NOT the most controversial thing in the story. But it disturbs me that it comes up as a genre consideration.

It also disturbs me that a little more than ten years ago, I stopped buying cozies myself. At that time the genre narrowed, and I was having a hard time finding the kind of story I was looking for. I have come across a lot of others who did the same. Most complain that the genre went cutesy. I'm not sure that's exactly it. I think that it just got hooked on hooks. The bookselling industry doesn't give enough time for a long series to develop a following any more, so you need a hook to get started, and that narrows the kinds of stories which get told.

And maybe that's why we have heavily romance, or heavily small town, or special interest mysteries leading the pack, as almost genres of their own. They're just easier to sell in the brick and mortar bookstores.

The other stuff is still kind of there. Sometimes it overlaps with one of the sub-groups, and sometimes it's just a hard to find small press offering. And with the advent of ebooks, those other areas have more of a shot. You no longer have such a short shelf life where you have to grab an existing audience and hook it hard.

And with indie publishing -- where a book doesn't have to support the infrastructure of a publishing company -- backlists and weird stuff can come back out of trunks and dawers, giving us even more choice. It isn't about what is available any more, it's about how your readers find you. Which brings me back to soy sauce.

At Oriental Mart, finding what you want can be a challenge, because you need to know the nationality of the product, yo may need to know the language too. But if you do know the right words, you can find it.

And that's how you find things in the modern internet world too. Google and Amazon's search algorithms use a lot of data, but it all comes down to words: genre, description, what we say about books on blogs and in reviews and in discussion. All that goes into the algorithms to help search engine customers find exactly what they want.

What we call our books, how we describe them when we talk about them out there on the interwebs, what other people call them, becomes a part of our branding and identity. It's how we are found. Which makes it important.

But unlike a grocery store, there isn't a manager making decisions. Items aren't going to be put on shelves because someone decided to put them there -- they're going to migrate there based on user behavior. Genre is going to evolve, and it may evolve rapidly. I have the feeling that the cozy is going to see a blossoming. It's going to once again be a robust genre full of variety -- but it may not be called by a single name.

Each element -- small town, romance, puzzle, cleverness, fun characters, light touch, clean language, no violence, etc -- those will each have a shelf, which will overlap with all the other shelves. You won't miss out because you went to the wrong one. You'll even find non-mysteries among them, because Amazon knows that mystery readers happen to also have a high affinity for this other story.

I'm looking forward to what is coming.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Brief Pause For a Yeeeooowch!

I have repetitive stress injury issues. It's my own fault. I don't think about doing strengthening exercises for various joints until they hurt, and then you have to rest them up and let them heal before you can start the exercises.

Everything I did to avoid a repeat of my hand problems of ten years ago, now appears to be bad for my shoulder. (How does my body come up with this stuff?) At least at work it does. And whatever I do at the end of a semester (still not sure what) kills my left shoulder. I am left handed.

And yesterday seems to have put me over the edge. I really can't reach forward for more than small tasks. My elbow has to stay right next to my waist or behind until this gets better. (I get to stand, elbows thrust back, like a fashion model, though. Lots of hip posturing.)

I can do limited typing if I am in my easy chair with my laptop stand, because that keeps my elbows back closer to my body.


The thing about an RSI, is if you are resting it, you have to stop whatever you are doing INSTANTLY when it starts to get fatigued.

Which is really bad for writing.

I am ambidextrous about some things, but not writing.

Not sure what to do.

Other than read.

Luckily tonight's post about Genre and Soy Sauce was already done and will autopost tonight in about a half hour. The next day's post about N.C. Wyeth is the same.

But after having a nice session of about 1700 words today, I realize I did too much for my arm. I may have to post a different story for Story Sunday, because I want to reserve my keyboard/editing time for the W.I.P. And I don't see myself doing as much as I need to on that.

I am bummed.

On Hatchlings and Neo-Pros -- When Is A Writer "Good Enough"?

Thirty years ago, I went to the Clarion Workshop, and the first week, Algis Budrys told me that I would have no trouble making a living in this business. (Boy, was he ever wrong, but he didn't realize I was unable to stick to a genre to save my life.)

In the last week at Clarion, Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm read my partial novel and told me in great detail how it was utter crap. It was hard to take, and I sat there, kind of shell-shocked and certain they were missing something. At some point I happened to mention that I had actually only ever written three short stories before (the third of which is what got me into Clarion). They looked at each other in surprise, and then burst out laughing. "Oh! Well that explains it! You're just out of the egg! You're doing fine. Keep going." (They did not, however, encourage me to finish or attempt to publish that novel.)

Looking back on it, I can see that all three of them were both wrong and right. Kate and Damon were holding up a mirror as to what editors see (which was a whole lot of immaturity) but they also didn't see beyond the surface immaturity and cliches to the story that was worth writing. They couldn't. I wasn't a good enough writer to tell that story yet.

But it wasn't just me. The story wasn't what you'd call a Kate and Damon kind of story. If I had been a better writer, I'm still not sure they could have seen what I was going for. They had a very different sensibility than I did. Luckily for me, someone else could: Orson Scott Card was also at that Clarion. He was the only one who saw that I was not writing science fiction humor, I was writing P.G. Wodehouse -- and for that I was not only relieved and gratified, but I have to cut him some slack for his recent obnoxiousness. He let me see that what I loved was valuable and not to be hidden.

In the meantime, there was another young author at that Clarion, named Dean Wesley Smith.

Dean has written over a hundred books, and is a very successful author with lots and lots of pen names, etc. He was already far more advanced than I was back in 1982, though he sometimes claims not. Oddly enough, his "you're just out of the egg" moment happened later -- after he had started publishing books. He told this story in the comments on his blog recently:

"I have a great friend who is a bookseller, and he called me a neo-pro for a long time. One day I asked him when I would stop being a neo-pro ... , how many novels would it take. (Honestly, my little ego was getting hurt by his attitude. I was selling books, damn it, I had a right to be called a professional writer.)

Without hesitation he said, 'Ten.' So I asked him why ten and he said 'Most writers don’t make it that far. You publish ten novels, I’ll call you a professional.'

And since I went by ten, he has ... and somewhere about twenty I started to understand what he had meant and why he had that policy."

So to sum up:

One young writer (me) hears from four masters: one told me I was ready to make a living, another saw I had a dream worth following, and two more saw I was immature as heck. It was like the blind men and the elephant. It has been thirty freaking years putting that fractured picture together and figuring out who I am. But none of them were really wrong.

Another young writer (Dean) was already having the success so many others are desperate for, and yet it wasn't enough to be taken seriously. He didn't understand it then, but he understands it now.

Why am I telling you these stories?

First, because newbies will always have this problem of being told by somebody that they aren't yet good enough, and it can help to know that it isn't just you, and it won't be just when you're a newbie either. And, horror or horrors... you're gonna say it to some newbie too someday. You may not think you will, but you will.

And second, with the advent of Indie publishing, I meet more and more writers who are thrust into the unforgiving world of publishing without any idea of what such criticism means. So often they seem to think it means, "Give up! You're no good!" or even crazier, "You should just wait your turn, because I did!" but that's not what it means at all.

Dean's story shows that no matter where you are in the process, you aren't at the end. You can write books, and you can get them published, you can make a living...and you still haven't impressed people who are old hands. Even when you reach the point to impress them, you still don't know why. It's only later on, when you've written ten more books, that the real meaning of work and talent and "good enough" hits you. And the cool thing is that after yet another ten books, you'll know even more -- stuff you never imagined.

My story tells you that even at a single moment in time -- one immature newbie with three stories and a quarter of a novel -- there are still many different perspectives and many different meanings to the advice you get. Each person can only offer you what his or her experiences have taught, and nothing more. Plus even though what they say is true, you may not be able to understand it until you get to where they are.

And worse yet, even if the criticism is true, it still may not be helpful.

It's like the old joke about the lost helicopter:

A helicopter is lost in the fog in Washington State. The GPS is out and the pilot and passenger are worried. Then a skyscraper looms out of the fog. They can see people in an office, looking out at them, so the pilot tells the passenger to write up a sign: "Where are we?"

They hold the sign up, and the people in the office scurry to get a marker and board, and they answer, "You're in a helicopter."

The passenger groans and slaps his face with his palm, but the pilot gives the office workers a thumbs up, and flies straight off to the nearest airport.

When they get to the ground the passenger looks at the pilot, and says, "How on earth did that answer tell you where we were?"

"Easy," said the pilot. "The answer they gave us was accurate but not helpful, so obviously that was the Microsoft tech support building in Redmond."


When you are new to this business (and probably to any business) you will get a LOT of answers which are accurate, but not helpful -- at least not until later when you have enough context to do something with it. And sometimes it's not helpful even then. It's easy to get frustrated and angry at this.

If you're an indie writer, and someone tells you that 99.999 percent of all indie writing is trash, you may feel you should do the equivalent of Get A Mac (as long as we're in the Microsoft motif). You're an indie! You can just reject the reality of the person giving you this info. Indie publishing is like being a Mac user -- you get to Think Different! Big brother cannot control your computing life!

Dude, I love Macs. I am one of the original Mac Evangelistas, but even I gotta say: a Mac ain't gonna fly your helicopter, and it ain't going to write your story.

So what if that other person doesn't "get" everything you're doing -- that doesn't mean they have nothing to offer. You still gotta crawl before you walk. And you've got to learn to walk before you can run up and throw that revolutionary sledge hammer through Big Brother's control screen. (Um... am I getting a little too Mac Evangelista here? Maybe you should watch the first Macintosh Ad from 1984 and see what I mean.... Seriously, it has a nice Indie Publishing feel to it. You'll like it.)

Okay, we're back: the point is that nothing worth doing is easy. Especially not revolution.

The people who went before you, like it or not, DO know something that you need to know. They may have prejudices that make their answers accurate but not helpful, and their advice may be out of date, and you have no duty to obey them.

But the wise person listens, figures it out, and adapts. And if you can't figure it out now, you can file it away and maybe figure it out later, like Dean did.

Which brings us back at last to whether you're good enough.

Good enough for what?

That's where the "accurate but not helpful" comes in: Good enough for publication? Even in the traditional publishing world we were all encouraged to TRY before we were ready. And Dean had already published several books and was not considered good enough to be a pro by his bookseller friend.

The fact is, on some magical scale of excellence, you're not good enough. You never will be good enough, because you can always be better. So being told you're not good enough is like being told "You're in a helicopter."

Just don't shrug it off -- you may need to look past that "you're in a helicopter" sign to see the information behind it. Because that information may be what you need to get where you want to go.

See you in the funny papers.

(And for those of you who are dealing with Writer Desperation, you might read the companion post "The Times That Try Writers' Souls."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Character Wednesday: J. Carson Black

There's nothing like a good antagonist to perk a whole story up. Sometimes it's a villain, sometimes just the opposing force -- but evil or not, the antagonist is the one who raises the challenge for the hero. An intelligent, experienced and even ethical bad guy can raise the standard for the hero's behavior as well.

Today, J. Carson Black, otherwise known as Maggy, is going to tell us about Cyril Landry, a complex and interesting hit man from her crime thriller, The Shop.

Camille: What made you create Landry?

Maggy: Since I started The Shop with a contracted hit on an actress and her entourage in Aspen, Colorado, I needed a professional killer to lead the team -- someone who would give instructions and they would follow them.

I had to plunge right in, and the first person the reader meets is that killer, Cyril Landry. Little did I know that he would be one of the most important characters I’ve ever written, and that he would eventually gain the trust of my main character, sheriff’s detective Jolie Burke.

Camille: That sounds promising. What was it that made him so important to you?

Maggy: First, I sure as heck didn’t know that when Landry killed the actress, Brienne Cross, it would change his life forever. In the moment before he kills her, she awakens, and there is a communion between them that drives him to find out why he had to kill her.

Then his personality took over. For instance, he was an assassin, but he was married and had a daughter. Further, he acquitted himself admirably as a Navy SEAL in Iraq and Afghanistan. He prided himself on clear thinking, on good grammar and good manners. He's a professional and has been taught to kill quickly and mercifully. He did it for his government and now he does it to support his family--it's a job. And, most important to me, Landry shared my love for horse racing. In fact, he grew up in the business---it’s important, even for a bad guy, that he LOVE something, feel a passion for something.

Camille: Do you have more planned for this character?

Maggy: I left it up in the air whether or not he survived in my thriller, The Shop, but I’m pretty sure he did, because I just put him in a short story called "The Bluelight Special." I guess he made my mind up for me.

J. Carson Black writes write crime fiction thrillers, including the Laura Cardinal series. Her new thriller, THE SHOP, spotlights corruption in the highest levels of government, pitting a small-town Florida sheriff’s detective against a cunning, powerful foe. New York Times Bestselling author Gayle Lynds says of THE SHOP is “an exciting, sweeping crime thriller that will linger in your mind for a long time.” And New York Times Bestselling author David Morrell says, “THE SHOP is a thriller to pay attention to.”

THE SHOP is on sale for a limited time for 99 cents.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tuesday Update and Preview

I think I still need another day or so for clearing the decks. The semester was busier than I thought, and it also dragged out longer. (Though it ended last week, we had the end of semester party...oh, and the planning for summer... oh, and the Board of Trustees meeting... oh and....)

And I have stacks of life stuff around me, and I would like to get to my "to be read" pile a little bit too. Still, I did manage to submit a story to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine this week.

So tonight and tomorrow are semi-day-off. I will be prepping some blog business, and I think folks will like some of the things I have lined up.

  • Wednesday: J. Carson Black talks about a helpful hitman in her secondary character interview.
  • Thursday: On Hatchlings and Neo-Pros -- When Is A Writer "Good Enough"?
  • Friday: A little discussion of Genre and Soy Sauce (What shelf does your book belong on? And is that answer as simple as you think?)
  • Saturday: A new weekly feature (at least for summer) - Artwork and Illustration. I'll be talking about one of the great illustrators of all time, N.C. Wyeth.
  • Sunday: We'll have another fable for writers -- this time about baking pies. (And Monday's story notes will explain why that is relevant.)

See you in the funny papers!

Story Notes: "Vote Early, Vote Often"

(This is about the flash story posted yesterday, "Vote Early, Vote Often." It includes spoilers. You may want to go back and read the story. It's short.)

This is another story I wrote in hopes of breaking in to Woman's World. Before they went to the current "you solve it" type puzzles, they used to print one 1000 word mystery every week. They liked things to be fluffy and upbeat, and the emphasis on the puzzle or problem. I never found a good place to submit some of the stories they rejected. Most mystery magazines want heavier irony, and other magazines wanted more drama.

Lily and Grace did not start with this story. They started with another story I have not finished, titled "The Perfect Hostess." In it, they are much less correct than they are here. They have to deal with an unwanted body, and since there is no one enforcing the rules, well, they don't follow them. But that story needs work. (And thanks to Elizabeth's comment yesterday, maybe even a little rethinking.)

But back to this story:

Lily and Grace are kind of fluffy, with their Chip and Dale sort of relationship, so even though they are more suited to getting into macabre trouble, it seemed like I ought to try a Woman's World story on them. The Florida recounts were going on right around this time, and so vote recount stories were on my mind. (I have a number of ironic ideas, but frankly the concept has just become less and less funny over time.)

This story is based on an old con game: One way to cheat an election is to stuff the ballot box, but that is risky because you don't know how many votes will be cast for each side, so you don't know how many to stuff. However, if you have a way to just fake the whole count -- replace all ballots with whatever results you want -- you must put at least one vote for the other side in the box, because anybody who voted for the other side will know it's a fake if their vote clearly isn't there. Several votes is a better idea, because then if people get together and talk they need to be able to believe both/all their votes were counted.

And that's where the villaness, Irene, was hoist by her own cleverness. She knew that the other ladies would abide by the rules and not discuss the vote, but that Lily and Grace might talk to each other, so she had to put in at least two votes for Lily.

But she also wanted to send a clear message to all that SHE was the one the other ladies preferred, hands down. Note that the lady who consoled Lily believed that all the other ladies had voted against her -- Irene has been cultivating that belief. She wanted to quash any competition, and make any ladies who voted against her feel alone and ashamed -- so she only put in the two.

That whole attitude was her downfall, really. When you force fake loyalty, you only HAVE fake loyalty, and so in the end, nobody had voted for her. So I guess you could say that this story, covertly, is about Irene.

In the meantime, I do have other election and politics ideas. The one that most interests me would be a Mick and Casey story.

I've read about how, during the settling of the west, towns would go to battle over who got to be the county seat. Supposedly, there were even times when one town would raid another and steal the public records so they could make the claim that they were already the seat of politics for the area.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find citations for these incidents, so I can't find more details on it. It just seems to me that this is exactly the sort of job Mick and Casey would be recruited to take part in -- either guarding or stealing the records. And since Mick and Casey are always in the process of inventing their ethical standards, this would be a great conundrum for them to figure out what side they should be on.

But for now I need to get on with the work-in-progress. I'll be back tomorrow with an update on that, and a posting schedule for the week.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Vote Early, Vote Often - a bit of flash fiction

For the Sunday Story this week, I give you a little flash story about Lily and Grace, a pair of continuing characters who usually get themselves into trouble. But this time, they have justice in mind....


by Camille LaGuire

Lily sat next to her best friend, Grace, and watched the other ladies of the Silverton Ladies Hostess Club munch the appetizers, and whisper among themselves.

"They've eaten all the crab puffs," whispered Grace. "And the curry triangles. They're certainly going to vote for you."

"I don't know," said Lily, biting her lip. She so wanted to be elected to host the winter party, but she was new to the club. Her only friend was Grace, who was only a member because Lily was. Grace was not a cook, although she assisted wonderfully on decorations.

The club president, Irene Tackert, rang the silver bell and called everyone to order in the meeting room next to the reception hall. The fourteen members filed in. Lily hung back, but Grace pushed her along after, and they took seats at the end of the table.

"Time to vote for hostess of our winter party, ladies," said Irene holding up a cloth bag and a small box. She handed the box to the woman to her right. "As most of you know, there are fourteen blue and fourteen silver marbles in the box. Take one of each color, and hold it up to show you don't cheat!"

"Cheat?" harrumphed Grace, under her breath. "She's one of the contestants, and she's running the vote!"

Lily kicked her under the table, then smiled and chose her marbles and held them up. Grace grumpily did the same.

"Now," said Irene, as the last woman put the box on the side table, "before we actually vote, I'd like to congratulate our new member, Lily Allen, for being nominated in her very first year of membership! It must be quite an honor for her to run against me!" Somehow the smile on Irene's face did not look genuine. She held up the bag. "If you vote for me, put the silver marble in the bag. The blue marbles are for Lily. Remember, this is a secret vote, so don't let anyone see which marble you drop in the bag."

She went around the room, and one at a time the ladies put the marbles into the bag. When Irene came to Lily she smirked again.

"And it's all right to vote for yourself, dear," she said.

"Of course," said Grace. "One should always vote for the best!"

Lily kicked her under the table again, and they placed their marbles in the bag. Irene moved on to gather the rest of the votes, and Lily leaned close to Grace.

"Don't antagonize her. I don't have a chance anyway."

"I don't like the way she smirks. It's like she knows who is going to win."

"She does know, because she knows all the other ladies like her."

"They liked your curry triangles."

It was true. The ladies had eaten every one of the fried treats, and they'd gobbled the crab puffs too. Lily allowed herself a moment of hope. But now the voting was done, and Irene poured the contents of the bag out into a plate where all could see.

A dozen silver marbles glimmered on the plate. Only two blue marbles rolled among them. Lily took a breath and held her disappointment. Only she and Grace. Not one other person voted for her. Not one.

"Well," she said. "I told you."

The entire room was quiet, as the other ladies seemed to sense her disappointment. One of them stopped and patted Lily on the arm.

"Well, you know, you're new," she said. "You'll have a better chance next year, when the rest of them are used to you."

"Yes, you'll do better, I'm sure," said another. "You have honor, and that counts for a lot here. You really could have voted for yourself, you know."

"Thank you," said Lily, and she got up to follow the other women to the side table and drop off the unused marbles. Grace jumped up and hurried after her.

"She acted like she thought you voted for Irene," said Grace. "Why would she think that?"

"I don't know...."

"I'll tell you why! Because she voted for you. Everybody knew I voted for you, and there were only two blue marbles, so she assumed you didn't vote for yourself."

"But I did vote for me, so she couldn't have."

"Unless Irene cheated."


"She switched the bags," said Grace, and she pushed past to catch the woman. "Excuse me. Did you vote for Lily?"

"I can't say," said the woman. "It's against the rules."

"The votes are private," said Irene sharply.

"Well, we'll tell you who we voted for," said Grace.

"No!" said a chorus of ladies. Then one explained: "If anyone tells, that puts pressure on everyone to tell, and then it will never be a private vote, and then it will no longer be a fair vote."

"It wasn't a fair vote!" said Grace. "I'll tell you...."

Oh dear, thought Lily. Grace will get us kicked out of the club. She cast about desperately, and he eyes fell on the box where the marbles were kept.

"I know!" said Lily. "We won't tell! We'll stick to our sacred honor."

"But Lily...."

"Now listen Grace. It really isn't necessary. We can prove whether the vote was fair without anyone telling who they voted for."


"By un-counting them!" Lily pointed to the box. "Everyone put their non-votes into that box. It should be exactly the opposite of the vote--twelve blue marbles and two silver ones."

"We can't do that!" said Irene.

"Why not? It's the same as counting the votes in the first place."

Grace picked up the box and dumped its contents onto the table. There were thirteen silver marbles and only one blue.

"You see?" crowed Grace. "I told you they liked the curry! Everyone voted for you but her!"


Tomorrow I'll tell you a little about the writing of this story.

In the meantime, if you would like to see more of my short mystery fiction (most of it longer, some of it much darker), you can check out my short ebook: Waiter, There's A Clue In My Soup! Five Mystery Stories.

It's available at most online retailers for 99 cents: Amazon's Kindle, Kindle UK, and Smashwords as well as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes and Noble's Nook store, Sony, Kobo and Diesel.

Back to Blogging: Deciding Which Story To Do What With

The semester is finally at an end. Our students had their Portfolio Day. Some very nice work, but I forgot to get business cards. And I am not as refreshed as I'd hoped, but I will have more free time for a couple of weeks. I think.

In the meantime, here I am looking for a story to put up for Story Sunday, and by golly I'm not sure what to publish. I do have a bunch of stories and excerpts I could publish, but I also have a bunch of other things to do with some of those stories.

For instance, since you can't submit a story which has already been published to a magazine, I have a few stories I'd like to reserve for a while yet. But I have already started that process:

Today I had a story on Karen Berner's fiction blog for her Flash Friday. "Learned in the Cradle" is another little fable, less than 500 words. She does a lot of flash fiction on her site, her own and others, so give it a look.

Some of the other stories I've got are really too long for a blog. I've got to decide how I want to handle those. Heck, I've got to decide what my actual limits are for length here.

As for the remaining stories, some aren't really finished, or I just don't like them.

But some I have other uses in mind, and that's where we see the lesson of this little exercise:

I have some good stories which are suitable for particular events and holidays. For instance, I've got a great hard-boiled comic Christmas story, and a children's story for New Years. And I had one story which was a fluffy little thing I wrote for Women's Day called "Vote Early, Vote Often." I thought I should save that for Election Day.

But it seemed like the best option among what I have ready at the moment. And I thought, okay, I could stall a little by putting up an excerpt of the W.I.P., and then make myself whip up another batch of stories. Except, of course, I need to be working on my W.I.P. ....

But then the lesson hit me.

"Vote Early, Vote Often" is only lightly Election Day-ish. Maybe, if I'm going to just whip up a story, I should be whipping up a story specifically FOR Election Day. Maybe several stories. Magazines and webzines and fiction blogs will be looking for seasonal material too. I need to keep going and write something more, something better for the purpose.

This is how you've got to think, as a writer. Empty your stores and refill anew.

So tomorrow you will meet Lily and Grace, two little old ladies who tend to get themselves into questionable situations. This time, though, they are entirely in the right, as they take on a corrupt system in the form of the Ladies Hospitality Club Hostess of the Year Election.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Curse of Scattershale Gulch is FREE too!

And now Amazon has decided to make The Curse of Scattershale Gulch free, too. They don't say for how long, so if you've been thinking about it, get it while it's hot. (Or, well, get it while it's free, anyway.)

It's too bad they did this late, as Wednesday's download frenzy is over, and nobody's looking to see if there are new books. But better late than never.

Find it free at Amazon's Kindle Store, Kindle UK and at Smashwords and their partner stores (including B&N, should be available soon at the Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony and others).

I'll be back to posting regularly tonight -- with an update and schedule of upcoming posts.

See ya in the funny papers.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Bellhound - At Last FREE on Amazon this week!

Amazon has just announced to a number of indie authors that they are putting their books on sale for free this week. My fantasy short story collection, The Bellhound, Four Tales of Modern Magic, was chosen, and I couldn't be more delighted.

(Well, I could be... since I don't currently have any other books out there that really fit in the same genre, I kinda wish they had chosen Scattershale Gulch or Waiter, There's a Clue in My Soup! -- both of which would have been great for my mystery novels. But we takes what we gets.)

The first story, "The Bellhound," is a tie in to a book I hope to publish at the end of summer. One of the secondary characters -- Sgt. Jasper Wardell -- is one of the main characters in my fantasy book Moon Child: Ready Or Not, a book which explains how he got to know the kind of things and people he knows. (The short story takes place after the novel.)

NOTE: I'm writing this before the price has actually gone live, but by the time you see this, the price should be set.

In the meantime, it's the last week of the semester, and I'm swamped, but I will have a little time to prep on Thursday, so I hope to relaunch my posting shedule on Saturday. And, of course, get the darn novel finished.

I'll see you soon!

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Call for Beta Readers

When you're almost done with a book, it's MUCH harder to put it aside if you know somebody is waiting for it.

So... I am trolling for a few pre-readers for The Man Who Did Too Much. I'm interested in writers or readers. I'm not looking for extensive feedback or hard work. (Not turning it down either.) If you want to know more about the book (and to download the first few chapters to see what you're getting yourself in for) you can visit The Man Who Did Too Much Info Page.

I hope to have this finished and ready for readers by the middle of June. People who like to read in chunks, or who have time now can read sections are they are ready now.

What I'm looking for:

*"Reader response" is most treasured kind of response at this point. You don't have to explain, analyze or critique (although those are welcome), you can just say "the ending was a let down" or "the part about the dog was my favorite bit" or "I hated the girlfriend to the point it made me hate everyone who didn't kill her."

*Feedback on cover or blurb -- you don't even have to respond to the story itself at all. It's great to just have people who have read the thing tell me whether the cover or blurb match the story, or if I'm playing up the right elements.

*Any other kind of response, at any level, is welcome. A quick read and a sentence on the one thing you hated/liked most, or a meticulous detailed critique of all 400,000 mistakes you found are both fine. Same with thoughts on marketing or genre.

*A variety of perspectives. I need to hear from people who read a lot of mysteries, but I also want to hear from people who never read mysteries, or are really into other genres (such as romance).

*If you won't have time to read the whole thing in June or July, I would also like to hear from people willing to read a chapter or so. (The first 30k -- approx 100 pages -- is ready now.) I expect the whole thing to be in the 80-90k range when it's done.

What I can give in return:

For readers:

*If you're just a reader and don't want me to critique a manuscript in return, I will give you an autographed copy of the print version when I release the book in the fall. (I may put a limit on the number after a certain number of responses, and I do request that if you want a book, you give me at least a page or so of feedback. It can be dishonest and lavish praise. I'd rather have honesty, but hey, I'm human.) I can also include a Smashwords coupon for a free ebook version too.

For writers:
Something equivalent in effort to what you give me -- here are the things I'm good at.

*Not proofreading. I'm slightly dyslexic. You really don't want me as your proofer anyway.

*Story analysis -- I used to be a freelance story analyst for scripts. I'll do a modified coverage report for you -- a quick synopsis, and a paragraph or so on Characters, Plot, Originality, Writing, Cinematic/Genre Qualities, and either a category of your choice or just a "additional notes" category.

*Reader reaction -- I can take my analyst/teacher hat off and just read and tell you whether I liked the bit about the dog and hated the girlfriend, and if I think it's too long or too short.

*Deep reader reaction -- If I have time I might be willing to do a more beat-by-beat reader reaction in return for the same. This is where I put notes in the story that says what I'm thinking as I read. "No! No! Don't go into the basement alone!" "Yeah, right. Shoot yourself in the foot while you're at it." "I bet that's a clue." "It IS a clue!" "Oh wait, it's a red herring." And the dreaded, "Yawn" or "I hope you're not going where I think you're going."

Note that I will not have time to start reading for others until June, and I'm not the fastest reader.

I'll post another request when the book is finished, but in the meantime, you can surreptitiously check out the first five chapters and see what you're getting into on the download page.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Two Very Short Flash Stories

Here are a couple of microfiction stories. They are VERY short - written to meet the 100 word limit on stories at Flashshot.

The first story was actually published at Flashshot, but it went up right around when my father died this past fall, and I completely missed it when it was on line.


by Camille LaGuire

THE BODY LAY beside the lectern, dead of three gunshot wounds. Overhead a banner proclaimed "No One's a Loser - Your Path to Success and Happiness."

"He called ME a loser," said his wife. "You should have heard him. The man who encouraged everyone else! He never had a single nice thing to say to me. Then he said he was leaving me for that bimbo."

She sniffed and looked into the detective's eyes.

"For the first time, he said something that really motivated me."


by Camille LaGuire

DETECTIVE WINSTON WAS gorgeous. The Coroner was completely smitten with her, but she was always all business. He could never think of anything to say. He'd get his nerve up, but then he'd just say, "Where's your corpse?"

She pointed him to the bag. He noted that the hands were bagged, the clothing preserved properly. Oh, and there such interesting bruising, and that wound on the forehead....

"I'd like you compliment you on your body," said the coroner. "I hope you will feel free to hold it against me."


Yeah, yeah. Bad jokes are all very suited to the ultra short microfiction. I won't be doing a Story Notes on this one, though.

Tomorrow, I'll post a call for beta readers for my work-in-progress. If you think you might be interested in reading The Man Who Did Too Much before publication, check out the info page (where the beginning is available for download -- 5 chapters, 15,000 words or about 40-50 pages).