Monday, January 31, 2011

Baggage Claim? I’ll Take It!

First off, many thanks to Bente Gallagher/Jennie Bentley for inviting me here on the eve of the release of my debut novel!

In querying Midnight Caller, I recall a particular agent rejection in which I was told that my characters had too much “baggage,” particularly my lead male character, an FBI agent who is heading up a serial murder investigation while also being forced to confront some pretty devastating secrets from his past. (Clearly, based on that comment I knew this wouldn’t have been the right agent for me. I’m all about the baggage.)

In fact, from a writing perspective, baggage is where I begin to build my character. What’s made that person who he or she is today? Have they suffered some physical or emotional trauma? Is it something recent and fresh, or something they’ve held onto (or repressed) for most of their lives?

Even more, have they managed to push their way through it (and become a stronger, tougher person in the process), or have they become mired in it and lost their way?

Answering such questions is almost always how I begin to develop what I hope will be a multi-faceted and compelling character. In real life, few of us are without some form of baggage. The luckier among us may be simply strolling around with the straps of overnight bags over our shoulders. The rest of us, however, have these giant suitcases on wheels, packed so tightly we have to sit on it to zip it closed. But that baggage is what makes us who we are and especially in fiction, more nuanced and interesting.

Once I know my characters’ baggage, the rest of the story spins off from there.

In writing, we have the ability to use that dreamed-up baggage for dramatic effect, to build empathy and to reveal our characters’ motivations in doing what they do. In Midnight Caller, members of the same family who all experienced a common tragedy have dealt with it in very different ways. Uncovering exactly what happened – and how it affected each of them – became as big a part of the story as the serial murder investigation itself.

As a reader and television viewer (and I admit, I think much of television is better than a lot of movies today), my favorite and most memorable characters are those who have their fair share of baggage. Consider the following:

• The X-Files’ Fox Mulder, who has spent his life chasing UFOs after the childhood abduction/disappearance of his younger sister. Fox is witty and a genius, but also a little mentally unraveled from the trauma of his missing sister and his relentless quest for the truth.

• Detective Archie Sheridan of Chelsea Cain’s marvelous Heartsick. Abducted, tortured and nearly killed by a serial killer, Archie’s dysfunctional relationship with his captor even after she is imprisoned, and his mental state following his trauma, is the foundation of this book. (BTW, if you haven’t read Heartsick, you should.)

• Dexter Morgan, the blood splatter analyst and serial killer with a mission to kill only other killers, who experienced the profound trauma of witnessing his mother’s murder as a small child.

These are the characters that come to mind for me when I think of what makes “good” emotional baggage in fiction. You may notice that all of them are in law enforcement, and that’s a topic for another blog, sometime.

I often read about writers who get to know their characters by developing profile sheets that cover everything from what they like to eat for breakfast to their first crush and pet peeves. If starting there works for you, then great! You’ll have a more detailed and better thought-out character for it. I’m usually too impatient (and on too much of a deadline) for that kind of thing. For me, figuring out the defining moments in a character’s life – be it something recent or from a long time ago – is my first and most direct step in development.

What emotionally driven characters have stayed with you and why?

Working Stiffs, thanks for having me!

Leslie Tentler
Midnight Caller/February 2011
MIRA Books

Friday, January 28, 2011

In The Shadow of Emotion

Note: My apologies to Cindy and all--I completely forgot I was supposed to post this while Cindy was on vacation!


by C.L. Phillips

In my current rewrite, I'm checking each scene for emotional content, making sure my characters are feeling, thinking and acting in a way that propels the story forward.  For some writers, I'm sure this is a natural talent.  For me, not so much.  In my quest to improve, I've been watching movies and documentaries, looking at the faces of the actors and asking  “What do I feel as I watch this scene?”, and “What does the speaker feel as he speaks?” , “Do I feel this too?”

I had my big ah-ha moment recently while watching the documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, a 2006 film about the men who journeyed to the moon.  Several astronauts, in their late seventies or early eighties at the time of the filming, spoke at length about their experiences in the Apollo program.  After forty years, these men finally revealed their feelings as well as their thoughts and actions.

Their recollections, stories, and words were as epic as their actions.  For me, it seemed that finally, at this point in their lives, they let their professonal mask slide away from their souls as they spoke the great truths each came to believe as they soared in space, so far away from the oasis called Earth.

Their economical use of words, coupled with the widening of their eyes, the directness of their gaze and the meter of their speech communicated deep emotion to me.  Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon spoke eloquently about vibrating masses of molecules, the odds of actually completing the mission.  Michael Collins, the sole remaining astronaut in the Command Model spoke of the acute awareness of being the only one on the dark side of the moon.  As he said, “Six billion over there, two down there, and one up here.”, referring to the mass of humanity on Earth, Aldrin and Armstrong on the lunar surface and himself.  The words might seem matter of fact.  But when coupled with his eyes, the measured meter of the words, I felt the enormity of isolation and the wonder of the accomplishment in a way I never did from reading other sources.

I came away from this documentary with a new respect for the power of words, tone, cadence, pause, and facial expression.  These men are not actors.  Their facial expressions compounded even the unspoken words.  “Houston, we have a problem”, took on a whole new meaning with the unvarnished honesty that comes with time. 

Imagine an entire nation working toward a single goal.  Now imagine the entire world watching the goal come to fruition.  And then, watch the men who made it happen share their feelings.  The emotions of the entire world transferred to these men.  In the Shadow of the Moon for me, is really, In the Shadow of Emotions.  Excitement.  Hope.  Fear.  Isolation.  Wonder.  Gratitude.  Peace. 

I wonder if the world will ever come together again in search of noble exploration, and when it does, how many sands of times will be needed to complete the story, to show the emotion of the moment? I came away with a deeper understanding of the power of a single word.  Each. Word. Matters.  That's what the astronauts taught me.

Close Encounter

by Wilfred Bereswill

Since nobody is posting today, I'll try to post the video that didn't show up last Monday.  It's a close encounter with a Humpback Whale.  I don't have access to YouTube, so I'm crossing my fingers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Knock Wood

Working Stiffs welcomes back the super-fabulous Kelli Stanley! 

Knock Wood
I’m absolutely thrilled to kick off my new release celebration with my favorite bunch of working stiffs! Thank you all for having me over, and I only wish I could have brought an actual hostess gift rather than the virtual cheese dip on the coffee table.

I thought I’d talk about a subject that most people don’t talk about often enough, mainly because, well, they’re afraid it’ll bring bad luck.

We’re talking superstition, here. You know, knock wood, jinxes, ladders, black cats, and the rest of it. It’s kind of thematic—my next “Roman noir”, THE CURSE-MAKER, releases on February 1st , and, as you might expect, it deals with curses (and ghosts and necromancy and other cool stuff).

I’ve always been interested in why we perform the rituals we do, and way back in yesteryear when I was still getting my Master’s in Classics, I loved diving into studies of ancient cults and magic and … cursing. No, not that kind, though I had plenty of practice as a student.

Curses are an ancient form of bribery/magic, and their basic purpose—just like our knocking wood—is to control the unknown. In this case, through bribing a god or goddess or spirit to arrange things for you—whether it’s the horse in the third race or the sexy handyman down the street (that’s a plug for Derek, Jennie’s handyman in her Avery series—very handy and very sexy!) —we’re calling on supernatural aid to give us what we most desire or avert what we most fear.

Curses were almost always illegal in most places … but not in Aquae Sulis (Bath) in Roman Britain. Here, these lead tablets—they were usually lead tablets folded up and/or stabbed through with a nail in order to “fix” the spell, hence the Latin name defixiones—were legal and apparently sanctioned by the temple of the leading goddess herself.  Sulis was the reigning queen of the magic waters of Aquae Sulis (i.e. “Waters of Sulis”) which reputedly had magical powers of healing. See, Bath—before Jane Austen—was still a snooty spa town.

Sulis was the local Celtic goddess all right, but the Romans identified her with Minerva, so she’s usually referred to as “Sulis-Minerva” … though we don’t really know what she called herself. We don’t even know for sure if she was a she, because the only surviving relief sculpture from her temple clearly shows a bearded figure.

Anyway—she, he, or bearded lady—presided over a sacred spring of this healing water (which you can still experience today, by the way). The hopeful and the desperate would throw curses into the spring, and most had something to do with theft, i.e. “May the person who stole my bath slippers, be he man or woman, slave or free, be unable to use the bathroom and feel like his bowels are on fire until the slippers are returned.”

In other words, the curses, in a very unique and bizarre way, were a sort of social police network. They made victims of theft feel better, and—possibly—they may have worked. I mean, if you stole someone’s bath slippers, and you knew about this curse, wouldn’t you return them?

One of the curse-makers in THE CURSE-MAKER explains how and why it all works to Arcturus, my protagonist, but please don’t try it at home … these spells persisted in cultures for thousands of years, and, well ... color me superstitious.

Arcturus is there on a honeymoon of sorts, and immediately gets drafted into a murder investigation. One of the curse-makers is found floating in the Sacred Spring, and he’s not taking a bath. The thing is … this curse-maker’s curses had a reputation.

They came true.

I’ll leave you with that, and one quick question: what’s your own favorite superstition? Rabbit’s foot? Ladders? Or Knock wood?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's Storytelling, Just Not As We Know It

Working Stiffs welcomes back guest blogger, Simon Wood! 

By Simon Wood

When is a book not a book?  When it’s Lowlifes.

Lowlifes is a collaboration between filmmaker, Robert Pratten, and me, where we tell a story from different character points of view using various media.  The book tells the story from point of view of the protagonist, a San Francisco Police Inspector.  The short film gives the viewpoint of a PI investigating the cop.  The fictional blog catalogs the thoughts and feelings of the cop’s estranged wife.  The trendy term for this new kind of storytelling is transmedia.

I jumped at the chance to take part because it meant telling a story in a different way than I’m used to doing with a novel.  I usually incorporate multiple viewpoints in my novels, but I’ve never tried to write a story using different mediums to illustrate the different viewpoints.  With Lowlifes, it was like trying to paint in oils, watercolors and sculpt all at the same time.  I should have walked away, but I signed up to take part, because I can't resist a challenge.  I knew I’d have to flex some different writing muscles.   And I think I pulled a muscle or two switching from straight narrative to the more visual-oriented script then to the more conversational tone of a blog.

The setup for the story was Robert's idea.  He gave me a brief outline of the characters in mind and the conflicts at the heart of the story.  I found it very easy to develop the storylines and characters around Robert’s original concept, because we share similar tastes in crime fiction and agree on what makes a good crime story.  We both like our stories dark with broken and damaged characters (I’m not sure what that says about us).  I think our shared outlook has been the reason that the collaboration has been such a seamless one.

Lowlifes centers on Larry Hayes, a San Francisco Detective.  He thinks his life has already hit rock bottom.  He's lost his family to divorce and he's clinging to his career by a thread.  All this stems from a painkiller addiction he can’t kick that he picked up from an on-the-job injury.  But there's another level for Hayes to fall as he finds out when he wakes up in an alley after a bad trip with no memory of the last four hours.  He thinks this is the wake-up call he needs to turn his life around, his problems intensify when he receives a call from a homicide inspector.  Hayes' informant, a homeless man named Noble Jon, lies dead two blocks away, beaten and stabbed.  The eerie pang of guilt seeps into Hayes.  During his lost four hours, he's been in a fight.  His knuckles are bruised and there's blood under his fingernails.  Is he Jon's killer?  The mounting evidence says so.  To add insult to injury, his wife has employed a PI to dig up dirt on him to ensure she gets sole custody of their daughter.  Hayes mounts an off-the-books investigation and disappears amongst the city’s homeless community to stay one step ahead of a murder charge.

One of the elements of this multi-dimensional story is that each medium isn't just a rehash of another.  This was something we were adamant about.  Having seen some other transmedia projects, while slick, the various elements didn’t add to the story.  We wanted to handle things differently.  The book is its own self-contained story.  People can read it and never bother to check out the movie or the blog and still walk away without feeling something was lacking.  The same is true of the movie and the blog.  But if people want to enjoy all the facets of a story as seen through the eyes of multiple characters, they can.  We’ve also experimented with other facets which include a spin-off short story encoded into the pages of the book and a puzzle element.  It’s been quite an undertaking and we’re both intrigued to see how people will receive it.

The hope is that if the demand is there and people like the characters, we’ll develop further adventures featuring these characters and keep pushing the idea of multi-layered storytelling.  We know we have the storylines to take these characters further.

Please can learn more about Lowlifes at

Yours on the cutting edge,
Simon Wood

BIO: Simon Wood is an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot and an occasional private investigator. Simon has had over 150 stories and articles published. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines anthologies and has garnered him an Anthony Award, a CWA Dagger Award nomination, as well as several readers’ choice awards. He's a frequent contributor to Writer's Digest. He's the author of WORKING STIFFS, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, PAYING THE PIPER, WE ALL FALL DOWN, TERMINATED and ASKING FOR TROUBLE. As Simon Janus, he’s the author of THE SCRUBS and ROAD RASH. Curious people can learn more at

Monday, January 24, 2011


by Gina Sestak

I want to step aside for a few moments from our usual posts that focus on marketing, writing, and related life experience to dig down to a deeper level.  We've probably all asked ourselves at one time or another, "Where do the stories come from?"  Most writers tend to credit chance encounters, random media reports, other people's writing, inspiration, etc.  I propose that stories come from deep within ourselves, from the same point of origin as dreams.  They bubble up through our unconscious, picking up bits and pieces of our unique world view, before we ever try to put them on a page.

This is the truth:  There's no such thing as writer's block.  Within each of us there is an inexhaustible supply of fiction waiting to come out.  The problem arises at the point of translating this material into writing that can see the light of day.

My present WIP is a screenplay I call The Spiral Path.  The title refers to a particular shamanic/mystical technique, but also to the journeys of the two main characters who spend the story moving toward their own authentic selves.

Authenticity is a loaded word, harking back to that most basic question:  Who am I?  Who am I really?

I've mentioned in past posts the Acting for the Camera class I took last term at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.  I start the follow-up class tonight, so authenticity is on my mind.  While it may seem like a contradiction in terms, acting on screen requires tapping into a level of authenticity most of us never need to show in daily life.  IMHO, so does writing.

So, how does one go about tapping into authenticity?

One of my favorite poems suggests the answer:

Seeker Of Truth by E. E. Cummings
seeker of truth

follow no path
all paths lead where

truth is here

What truth lives in the core of our being where the stories hide?

It's tempting to see the journey as a direct path:

In my experience, it's much more of a maze, not black and white but multi-colored overlapping paths, mostly dead-ends, much more complex than any two-dimensional (or even three-dimensional) image can show.

It can take a life time to find our way into the core.  The stories are our guides.

Friday, January 21, 2011

What Are You Working On?

by Pat Gulley

Next blog January 21, 2010

Are you working on something?

Silly question for a writer, Right? We always seem to be working on something, whether it is a novel, sequel to our novel, a new novel, short story, article, blog, and interview or just adding something to a network site. But what I’m referring to is something you are giving full concentration to and working at for completion.

I’m presently doing a bit of all of the above and feel like I’m floating around in the ether because I’m not really working on anything as though I have any kind of deadline, or that I feel I have some major new chapter that absolutely has to go in there. I’m basically piddling. Not good.

I have a sequel in the works for Downsized To Death with another travel agent as the main character and my protagonist from DTD as the secondary character. Well, Bea goes through a bad experience and all I’ve been able to write about her is the crying jags she’s having owing to the bad choices she’s made. Both Pru (DTD’s protagonist) and I are getting a bit disgusted even though we are very sympathetic. So, put her aside for awhile so she can gather her strength and fix her problem and solve the crime with Pru and her secondary ‘hoot of a coot’ Watson helping out.

Then I have a novella in the works about Vampires on Mars, and where I am in the story has my protagonist crying with terror at being chased across the dust. DOESN’T SHE KNOW SHE CAN DROWN IN HER HELMET IF SHE KEEPS THAT UP? Well, so much for that until I can get her backbone working.

Next is a ghost story set in the 60s (ala Mad Men) but also a time I worked at an airline in their reservations department, and all that is happening is these ghosts nagging her to find their killer which just brings her to tears.

Notice a pattern developing?

And finally, a Jane Austen-secondary-character story that will be a mystery. One of the Bennet sisters is still at home and it seems Mr. Bennet is running off suitors and just about brings her to …….. Well, you’ve got the drift by now.

What’s a writer to do when she can’t get out of a rut?

Put it aside and see what happens? How long can you keep doing that? It’s several months now for me.

So, do you have situations like this? If so, HELP!!!!!!! Any suggestions?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Because We Need More Laughter

by Paula Matter

Caution: Some are NSFW (not suitable for work)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

PSP Citizen's Police Academy: Field Trip

Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office

By Annette Dashofy

This was the week I’d been looking forward to since I first signed up for CPA. Maybe I’m a little weird, but touring the morgue has been on my want-to-do list for ages. The hazards of writing crime fiction, I guess.

As a side note, I have to share a little history regarding the morgue in Pittsburgh. Years ago, folks used to go there on dates. And you thought I was wacky for wanting to tour the place? Ha! My mom tells of going there on a date (not with my dad!) when she was a young girl. They went in and viewed the bodies. I suppose the idea for having the bodies available for viewing at any time was so folks could go in and identify a missing loved one. This was in the days before AFIS and CODIS. John Does were much more common place than they are now.

But back to the present.

My Citizen’s Police Academy class gathered in the lobby of the ME’s office on a bitterly cold December night to await our tour. Alas, these are the only photographs I have, since I was asked not to take pictures inside. Darn it.

Allegheny County’s ME’s office recently moved to its new location in the Strip District. Here, the ME’s office is on the lower level. Upstairs is the county’s crime lab.

Under Pennsylvania Coroner’s Law, there is no need for a warrant to search a victim’s residence. Forensic Investigators go in, looking for guns, drugs, suicide notes, etc.

In Allegheny County, the ME’s office deals with all hospice deaths, home deaths, traumatic deaths, and—surprisingly—all deaths at the ICU at one of the local teaching hospitals, because of the potential for issues arising with unsupervised residents. If you want to know which one, contact me privately.

They weed through all these deaths to determine if an autopsy is needed. If a body is brought into the morgue, it’s called, fittingly, a “morgue case.” Of the 8,300 deaths in Allegheny County last year, only about 2,000 were autopsied.

There is a difference between a forensic autopsy and a medical autopsy. A medical autopsy seeks out the cause of death. A forensic autopsy looks for the manner of death, of which there are five: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, and undetermined.

Only the coroner can sign an accidental death certificate.

Interesting (to me, at least) note: bodies coming in to autopsy are x-rayed to find out if there are any foreign objects inside. All old bullets are removed, as they could potentially connect to another crime.

At this point in the tour, we were ushered from the offices to the behind-the-scenes area, beginning with the garage. The Allegheny County Medical Examiner vans are plain, white vans with a little modification inside and lettering on the outside. The stretchers are stripped-down models compared to the kind used on an ambulance. No need to elevate the head of these patients! Our guide showed us a single-use body bag that looked like a blue tarp with a zipper. This would then go inside a black body bag and be covered with a shroud for transport.

One interesting note about the inside of the vans: There was a cargo net separating the back of the van from the driver compartment. No one, including our Forensic Investigator tour guide, could figure out what purpose it served. It wasn’t strong enough to hold back a body or a stretcher in case of an accident. And as our tour guide pointed out, it wasn’t strong enough to protect the live humans from zombies either.

I kid you not. She said that. Just one example of the sense of humor of a morgue worker.

In Allegheny County, ambulance crews cannot touch…other than to put on EKG leads…or transport a body. (I can vouch this isn’t the case everywhere, since I once transported a dead body when I worked on our local, small town ambulance crew.)

From the garage, we moved on to the coolers. There were three of them. One for incoming bodies, yet to be autopsied. One for bodies already autopsied and awaiting pickup from the funeral director. And one for decomposing bodies.

Unlike NCIS or CSI, bodies aren’t kept in drawers. They’re stored in large (very large) walk-in coolers. And we did get to walk in. Fans keep the “aroma” to a minimum. I was braced for the stench in the decomp cooler, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the occasional roadkill raccoon in front of my house in the summer. The stretcher holding the pieces and parts of a skeleton was interesting, though.

FYI: they don’t use toe tags. Instead, bodies are labeled with wrist straps, much like you get at a hospital. Their names are also printed on the body bags.

Then we moved into the morgue where the autopsies are performed.

During an autopsy, all the cutting into the body is done by an autopsy tech. Photographs are taken at every step of the process, from photographing the body dirty, then after it’s cleaned up, and at each point in the autopsy.

Several of our class members were stunned to learn that only a high school diploma or GED was required to be an autopsy tech. After all, they aren’t going to hurt the “patient.”

The forensic pathologist takes notes of findings. Organs are removed, weighed, and placed on a cutting board on a table where the pathologist goes through them and takes samples.

I wish I’d been able to photograph this room. It looked very much like pictures I’d seen. One thing you don’t usually read about or see on TV, though, is the bug zapper. Apparently almost every morgue has one. Those pesky maggots do hatch out into a lot of flies.


And there was an Autopsy Tip Jar. Presumably for those aforementioned zombies.

An autopsy can take anywhere from an hour to complete to two days (example: for a body with many, many stab wounds.)

Afterwards, the death certificate is signed, not by the pathologist, but by the coroner.

It was a fascinating evening. I picked up lots of fodder for my writing. And as for that tip jar? I’ll definitely be using that one in my current work in progress. You just can’t make this stuff up!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Phil! There's a tiger in the bathroom!

By Martha Reed

Even though the sun is shining I find myself feeling a little sorry for myself because I’m stuck inside because of the temperature. Truly, I am a lizard. If it’s less than thirty degrees outside then I am indoors, working. Reading Wilfred’s post didn’t help matters any (Hawaii?) and having one sister texting me from Florida asking me whether should she go sailing or get a massage is really icing my cake.

So, in my own defense I started thinking about my next vacation. I haven’t started to formulate any plans although the calendar rolled over and I have accrued some time off. I started thinking about what I did last year and of all the plans I made I have to say the most enjoyable vacation was the surprise one: a friend from work asked me to travel with her to Las Vegas to see the Beatles Cirque show and I said yes. The show was amazing; you really have to see those performers on their home base but the best part of the vacation was the Sunday morning we decided to stay in, be lazy, order room service (the best!) and watch a movie. The pay-per-view movie we picked was The Hangover:

Now I’m not advocating the excessive consumption of anything but this movie was hilarious. I think the best part of it was the writing because just as you thought you understood what was going on the carpet got pulled out from under you and there you were, scrambling again.

I bring this up because I’m trying to incorporate some of this into my new novel. Yesterday, as I turned what I think of as a corner, I added a couple of fat paragraphs that I’m hoping will wake the reader up. My concern is that after two hundred pages, readers may start to doze because they’ve memorized the fiction formula. I think this is one of the reasons The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series is doing so well; you never know what to expect.

Monday, January 17, 2011


By Wilfred Bereswill

Yes, you guessed it by the title.  I'm in Hawaii.

You're probably thinking, "That lucky Son Of A Gun!"

Well, you'd be wrong.  I'm here on business.  In fact, this portion of the blog is being written from my living room in St. Louis, where it's nearing 0 degrees tonight.  I've been using the analogy of taking a really fat man to a buffet line, handing him a plate and saying you can't have any utensils.  Yes I'm in Hawaii, but every day I'm here will be spent a mile or two from airports on every island.

As you read this I'll be...  Well with the time change, I'll be sound asleep due to the time change.  BUT, I'll be spending the day at OGG - Kahului Airport on Maui.  Tonight I leave for Honolulu.  Tuesday, the Big Island, Hilo Airport, then a drive to Kona Airport and then fly back to Honolulu.  Wednesday is Honolulu Airport and maybe a quick trip to Molokai, then back to Honolulu.  Thursday, Kauai, then back to Honolulu for wrap up meetings and I board a redeye at 6 PM to fly to Chicago, where I arrive at 5:30 AM Friday.  Then a quick trip to St. Louis and spend the rest of the day at the office.

So, for those of you who think traveling for a day job is sexy, well, it can be grueling.

Alright, so I have to confess one little detail.  I did leave on Saturday and I'll be spending Sunday whale watching and snorkeling.  Maybe I'll catch a few rays on the beach.  IF things work out and I have good internet access at the Makena Golf and Beach Resort, I'll post a video of the my whale watching or snorkeling.  I'm taking my Flip HD Video camera and waterproof case.

I plan on using Blue Water Rafting Adventures and take a morning Humpback Whale Watch trip and then an afternoon snorkeling trip to Molokini.  Blue Water Rafting uses 28 foot Zodiac type rigid inflatable rafts paired with about 500 HP of engines.  Imagine being at water level in a boat 1/2 the size of the whale that's less than 100 yards from you.  Here is a video from Blue Water's Website.

In 2009 my wife and I took a raft tour and had a bull male put himself right alongside our raft to protect the female he was guarding.  It was amazing having this huge mammal stare us down.

Hopefully I'll have videos posted below.  By the way, I will probably not be checking in on Monday as I'll have a full day of work.


This will be quick. I am staying at the Makena Golf & Beach Resort.  Don't be impressed, the place is nice, but it's on its last legs. Went on a whale watch and had a very close encounter.  If I can't post it here, it's on my Facebook Videos.

Also went snorkeling.  There is a southern swell and waves between 20 and 40 foot are hitting certain parts of the island.

The snorkeling trip was exciting.  Like being in a giant washing machine.  Sometimes the waves were so big, they would crash into the reef and create so many tiny bubbles, you felt like you were in an avalanche.  It felt weird to be pushed around by the water like that.


Friday, January 14, 2011

I Bought the Book, It’s Mine Now, So…

by Ramona DeFelice Long

Once, when preparing for a party, my mother asked me to check the recipe in a cookbook. I was surprised to discover that she had altered the ingredients, and more so that she’d written the changes in the cookbook.

When I questioned her, she said, “I bought the book, it’s mine now, I can do whatever I want with it. And that recipe called for way too much sugar.”

She was right, both about the book and about the sugar. I sometimes changed recipes, but if I went to the trouble to make a note of it, I used a Post-it. I’d also written in my college texts, or highlighted parts I needed to study, but those were textbooks. They weren’t book books. When I started writing and invested in how-to and professional workbooks, I wrote in those IF space was provided. I filled in a blank if a blank space was provided. That was all okay. It wasn’t like I was scribbling in books willy-nilly.

When I teach workshops, I like to quote from published novels, and I like to read from the book rather than print passages. But I also skip around when quoting, and sometimes the Post-its slip or fall out of place. I quoted one book often. Finally I broke down, bought a paperback copy and highlighted the sentences I wanted to read. But it wasn’t like I was defacing it. It wasn’t just blithely noting my thoughts, feelings and reactions in a published book.

But then, a couple of months ago, I agreed to read and review Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. In this fascinating, and long, book, the Pulitzer Prize winning author spends 280 pages discussing these thirteen ways, and another 289 pages examining 100 books. No way could I rely on my memory for the high spots, so I decided it was okay to highlight and make notes in the margin. Still acceptable. Review notes did not cross the line into wild and crazy scribbling.

But then, I reached the line. While reading a novel, I was impressed by how the author handled a character’s crisis point. She’d built up to the moment, foreshadowing so subtlety, I’d hardly noticed. When I reached the illuminating passage, the whole book came together. She’d build the foundation with such cleverness, it made me want to study how she had managed it.

I went back and highlighted the hints and the clues she’d dropped. Then I highlighted the passage I liked. I made some notes in the margin.

This was a hardback fiction novel, and I was writing all over it. As I did, I thought of my mother’s comment: I bought the book, it’s mine now, I can do whatever I want with it.

But I felt like I was being naughty. Aren’t we taught as children never to write in books? Books are precious, and they are to be respected, not doodled on or marked over like grocery lists.

The day I wrote this post, I went to lunch with a writer friend. This person has great respect for books, property and authors. I asked her thoughts on this topic. Her response was that she did it all the time. If something in a book strikes her, she said, she’ll mark it, or write a question in the margin. She was not talking about writing a review, or doing a workshop; she meant noting questions or compliments that came to her strictly as a reader.

I admit I was as surprised as when I found my mother’s changes to the recipe in the cookbook. But now I’m thinking, why not? Is there something wrong with writing in a book after you buy it?

So, what about you? Under what circumstances, if any, would you write in a book? If you have published a book, would it bother you if a reader scribbled their thoughts in the margin?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Rocky Road of Cover Art

By Nancy Martin   

Last year, I published the first book in a new mystery series starring Roxy Abruzzo, a streetwise tough girl from Pittsburgh who helps people who can’t go to the cops when the chips are down.
Let me be honest: The book didn’t sell as well as everyone hoped.

Why not? Lots of reasons, I think. We’re hitting the re-set button for Roxy in 2011 with a re-packaged paperback of the first book (re-titled, new cover, new blurbs) and a second book in the series in which I made some writerly changes, too. The main thing the publisher wanted to change was the cover art.

Here’s the first book, in its first incarnation, which you can see they tried to package as if it were a big novel by a brand name author:

Brand name authors are authors whose name alone sells the book. (When you browse bookshelves in airports, all you see are the author names. No cover art shows at all.) Who cares what a Robert B. Parker cover looked like? It was his name alone that sold his books. Although, I gotta say, I loved some of his simple, high concept cover art--a single image on a colorful background--such as this one:

Sixkill (Spenser Mystery)

And here’s the re-package of OUR LADY, in trade paperback. (And due in stores next Tuesday, January 18th.) As you can see, the publisher decided my name was nice enough, but maybe not sufficiently well-known to sell books the way our beloved Mr. Parker did:

Foxy Roxy (Royal Four)

What do you think? I like this cover because it’s clearly a book written for women, which it is. (Is a man going to pick up a pink book?) Plus I love the dog, and cute dogs sell, right? This cover also conveys a certain sense of humor without screaming; “We think this author is just like Janet Evanovich!” Which is a lovely sentiment, but not remotely true because there is only one Janet Evanovich. May she reign forever.

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, No. 1)

Covers are tricky territory for authors. We don’t usually have any input in cover art. (Not unless you’re working with a “small press” where cover approval is one asset that doesn’t cost the “publisher” any money at all and therefore is given—uh---freely.) At traditional houses, editors usually send you a pdf file with your cover along with an accompanying email that cheerily says, “We love this cover! We think you will, too!” Which, if you open the pdf file and groan with dismay, doesn’t give you much room to disagree. Besides, when you’re new at a particular publishing house, you don’t want to blast through the front door shouting, “This cover stinks!” You want to be a team player. You want to let the experts to what they do, and you hope for the best.

Over the summer, though, I did voice my dismay at some of the attempts at cover art for the second book in the series. Politely. But firmly. Making my case, being very specific about what didn’t work, not being insulting because, after all, I’m a writer, not an artist. (But because I’m a writer, I’m also a little obsessive.) My agent got involved. (The Rottweiler. She’s firm. Really firm. And maybe the savviest person I know in publishing. I’d trust her instincts anytime. And I do.) During the negotiations, my editor ran interference with the art department, the sales department, the publicity department, the paperback division, plus assorted executives—all of whom had opinions. She had a tough, tough assignment remaining friends with everybody and getting the job done. In the end, everyone was really pleased with the results.

Sticky Fingers (Roxy Abruzzo)
If the book fails a second time, the fault lies with one person: The author.

When I realized OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION (which is now called—for better or for worse—FOXY ROXY) wasn’t exactly a hit with readers, I immediately began tinkering with the second book, which we titled STICKY FINGERS.

The publisher made an honest effort to re-think what kind of brand they wanted Roxy to be and how to convey that with the cover. I did some re-thinking, too. Gone is the multiple POV in favor of (my preference) first person, which I believe makes a character much more intimate with the reader from page one. The second book isn’t as dark as the first. It has more situational comedy.

Gone also is the element that icked out most cozy readers—Roxy’s eagerness to take off her panties. (Am I revealing too much, do you think? Heck, we’re all writers, right?) No, she’s not a new character, but she did have a hell of a wake-up call in Book One, so her change is well-motivated. If her character is going to grow and change in a believable way—a trend among mystery protagonists that I prefer--this was one important place to start. Readers, I’m sure, will be very quick to let me know if you think I handled it in a way that works.

Meanwhile, what’s your opinion on covers? Have you chosen a book lately, by cover alone? I chose this book—by an author I didn’t know at the time—simply because of the cover:

Bueno en la cama (Books4pocket Narrativa) (Spanish Edition)

How about you?  Do you very buy because you like the cover? Tell, tell.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Very Real Cases of Writing Apprehension

By Tamara Girardi

Writing's scary, right? If you're nodding your head, I'm with you. If you've tilted your head to the side in confusion, I think you might be an alien.

It's interesting (not you being an alien) because I just started teaching college composition courses again this week. My semester at Westmoreland County Community College began Monday, and already my students are actively discussing their writing strengths and weaknesses and their goals for the semester.

So often, their writing weaknesses intersect with a lack of confidence. They're scared of writing, scared of getting it wrong. I have a tough lesson for them.

You always get it wrong. But in a way, you always get it right, too.

With writing, there are so many factors: content, audience, purpose, delivery. Of course, you can't control all of those things because the way people receive your writing will always vary just by human nature. Five hundred people read an essay. Five hundred people have different reactions. It's life. We interpret and perceive information uniquely.

Furthermore, there's that issue of words. A five hundred word essay includes five hundred opportunities for choosing a substandard word. Is there a better word? A better way to order that sentence? That paragraph?


But I'm also sure that some of those words were perfect. And so were some of those sentences and even those paragraphs.

That's the beauty of writing. One piece of writing is like a gorgeous puzzle the writer has created all on his or her own. Yes, there is some apprehension in that because we all want to be perfect. But the way I see it, it's not possible to be perfect with writing. (A concession: the greats have come close, but even they found flaws in their creations).

No the real lesson here is that once we realize we can't be perfect with writing, we can never be, the more liberating that is.

Then it's time to take chances and to enjoy the process. When it's over, I'm certain my students will be proud of their results. I look forward to those days because that's when we'll look back at these weaknesses and talk about how they've conquered them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Words and Resolutions

"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." 
                                                                                  ~ Rudyard Kipling
 By Pat Remick

Last weekend I joined six other women in an interesting activity designed to rid ourselves of negatives from 2010 and replace them with our wishes and hopes for 2011.

Not only was this a delightful new perspective on New Year's resolutions for me -- and also timely given Gina's thought-provoking blog entry yesterday -- it was another reminder of the power we give to words.

Energized by good food and wine, we each wrote our negatives from 2010 onto small pieces of colorful paper and individually them into a roaring fire. By writing down these feelings, incidents or names of people --- and then destroying them -- we were able to use words to symbolically bring closure to the past year so we could move freely into the new one.

As writers, we revere words -- and what we can make them convey, how they are able to inspire us, and the stories they can tell. But I had never considered that burning them might be an act of hope.

Next, we listed our wishes and desires for 2011 on lovely notepaper to be carried in "pretty little purses" throughout the year. My colorful Chinese brocade bag now holds 17 wishes for 2011 and yes, "finish my book" is one of them.

But I also wrote "live with joy," "imagine the possibilities," and "count my blessings." And I am hopeful that this act of cherishing my 2011 wishes and desires by recording them (and carrying them in a "pretty little purse") will help them come true.

I did some "Google" searching so I could share a few pithy quotes that were more literary than I am capable of producing about the importance of words in our lives. I liked this one by Charles Capps (as well as the Kipling one at the top of this blog entry):
"Words are the most powerful thing in the universe... Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind."
Do you believe in the power of words? Which ones would be on your list of wishes for 2011?  Do you believe that writing them down can help them become reality?

Monday, January 10, 2011


by Gina Sestak

OK, I admit it.  I'm a bit behind the times.  Ten days, to be exact.  That's no reason not to celebrate, though, is it?

I didn't go out on New Year's Eve - stayed home and drank pomegranate juice instead of champagne, getting high on antioxidents.

I don't have anything against drinking alcohol.  It just tends to make me sleepy, and I'm tired enough already that I don't need help from chemicals.

I started this year with no expectations.  I'm not anticipating finally getting a novel published.  I don't have any WIP I need to finish.  I'm crossing my fingers on those Steeltown Entertainment Project entries, but not holding my breath.  As for the two feature-length screenplays, I'm still doing everything I can to get them made into movies.  At this point, that's a money issue, best left to folks who know about that kind of thing, but believe me, if I hit the Powerball, I know what I'll be doing with my millions!

I haven't made any resolutions, but my plan for this year is to do things that are fun.  So here's my top five list of things I plan to do this year just for my own amusement:

1.   Watch movies.  I love movies in general, but I've developed an unquenchable addiction to Bollywood films in general and those starring Shah Rukh Khan in particular.   He's the world's greatest actor, and that's no lie.

2.   Dance.  Folk dancing is a long-time passion (maybe one reason I like Bollywood so much).  I'm clumsy by nature, but once I get into the flow, the music carries me.  And it's such a treat to be moving in unison with other people for a change, in contrast to my usual sense of being a square peg in a round world.

3.   Learn.  I bit the bullet and registered for two more courses at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.  As I've mentioned in past posts, Filmmakers' classes tend to be labor intensive, requiring many hours of outside work.  And the Acting for the Camera course I took last semester turned out to be one of the most terrifying things I've ever done, stripping down self image and exposing all the flaws, not only in surface appearance but in my very way of being in the world.  So I signed up for the follow up class, and for a short writing course on Screenplay Character Development.  I figure that can't hurt.

4.   Write.  The other day, when I mentioned the screenplays, etc. I've been working on, a friend said, "You have so much self-discipline!"  I had to correct her.  It would take more discipline than I possess to make myself stop writing.  I did more collaborative writing last year, on three of the screenplays, and that's a special kind of fun, even when nobody provides a special cake.  [See my December 20, 2010 post for details.]  Maybe that's one of the things I like about filmmaking - it takes a village to make a movie, and just being part of such a creative process is incredibly energizing.

5.   Try things I've never done before.  To that end, I'm pitching a class to a Pitt program on a subject near and dear to my heart - more on that later, once I find out if it flies or not.

I don't think these can count as resolutions.  Resolutions for me have always boiled down to: Stop being the way I am and start being the way I'm not.  These are different.  They're more along the line of:  Start being the way I really am.  Have fun.

How about you?  What are your plans for 2011?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Changing Worlds

by Jennie Bentley/Bente Gallagher

I bet you thought I was going to talk about my book today, didn't you?

Yes, DIY-4, Mortar and Murder, was released on Tuesday. Yes, I'm having signings and doing guest blogs and such. Yes, I'm excited. However, today - inspired by Martha's post on Monday - I want to talk about someone else's character instead of my own.

See, I'm not the only author with a new book. One of my favorite writers of all time has a new book out, too, in one of my favorite series, about one of my all-time favorite characters.

The writer's name is Lois McMaster Bujold, and if you haven't read her books, you should. The latest novel is called CryoBurn and is the last in a long line of semi-soft science fiction books known as the Vorkosigan Saga, set on the planet Barrayar in the year 3000-odd. The first few books in the series, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, are about Aral Vorkosigan and his wife Cordelia, and then in The Warrior’s Apprentice, their son Miles takes over. And I mean that in the most literal way.
Miles is one of those characters who do that. As a recent review for CryoBurn says – you can go on Amazon and read it yourself – “Like many a Miles novel before it, it’s a fast-paced adventure wherein Miles happens to people, and their lives (and worlds) are skewed in his wake.”

I read that, and it got me to thinking. Do my characters do that? Do I write the kinds of characters who happen to people, and who change lives and worlds as a result?

It’s not the first time I’ve heard that sentiment expressed as relates to Miles, by the way. A character in one of the books says much the same thing. “I’ve had many subordinates over the years, who’ve turned in impeccable careers. Perfection takes no risks with itself, you see. Miles was many things, but never perfect. It was a privilege and a terror to command him, and I’m thankful and amazed we both got out alive. Ultimately his career ran aground in disaster. But before it ended, he changed worlds.”
All in all, I’m not sure I accomplish the same thing. Oh, my characters are just fine. People seem to like them. They’re strong enough and interesting enough to carry their books. But they don’t change lives and worlds. They’re not iconic. They don’t jump off the page and hit you between the eyes. They don’t make you laugh and cry and think. At least I don’t think they do.

And that’s my fault, for not creating the kind of character who can do that. For taking the easy way out. For skimming the surface and not delving deep to where the real issues are.
We all want our characters to be ‘good,’ don’t we? We want them to come across as beautiful. Even when they have flaws, the flaws tend to be endearing. We do our best to create perfection. But as the quote above says, and rightly so, perfection takes no risks with itself. And compelling characters are all about risk.

Miles isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. Physically, he’s about as far from leading man material as you can get. Less than five feet tall, hunch-backed and bowlegged, he’s reviled by his fellow – ignorant – Barrayarans as a mutant. His own grandfather tried to cut his throat at birth. His mind is brilliant, but his body is crippled, and an obstacle to everything he wants to accomplish. So he tries harder, and overcompensates to the point of obnoxiousness. He’s driven, he’s manic, he’s sometimes suicidal. He screws up all the time. He makes mistakes – and aren’t we all loath to make our characters do that? We don’t want them to look bad. We love them, so we don’t want bad things to happen to them. We don’t want them to embarrass themselves, or look less than – here’s that word again – perfect.

We want people to like them. People who read our books, as well as other characters within our books. We don’t want our protagonists to be unlikeable. So we play it safe. We want their friends and family to love them. Not to try to cut their infant throats. Not to wish them to be other than they are because they’re just too damned embarrassing to be around.

In the end, as the quote above says, Miles's career ran aground in disaster. Shot down in flames very much of his own making. The story of that is in a book called Memory, and if you'd like to try a Vorkosigan book, it's not a bad place to start. It's a mystery, for one thing, and I know we all like those. It's also a transitional book: it's Miles coming to terms with who he is, with his mistakes, and learning to go on. Or, if you want to start smaller, you can go HERE and look for Lois McMaster Bujold under authors, and you should be able to download a short story called Mountains of Mourning, which should give you a pretty good introduction to Miles and to Barrayar. It makes me cry every damn time I read it. I hope it has the same effect on you.

So what about you? Do you have any favorite book characters who change worlds? Yours or someone else's? Do you manage to create the kinds of characters who change lives and worlds in your own writing?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Welcome, Blaize Clement!

Please join me in welcoming author Blaize Clement to Working Stiffs. I started reading Blaize's books after her first one, CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT SITTER was in a goody bag at some conference. I fell in love with her main character, and the whole premise of the novel. I highly recommend this series! 

Being the writer of a mystery series causes me to experience time as something slippery and stacked, like crumbling strata on the side of a mountain. There's the present real time, in which the current book is in the stores and I'm doing radio interviews and guest blogging and book signings. While that's going on, there's also the present real time in which I'm preparing the future next book.

This week, for example, is the official date for the release of CAT SITTER AMONG THE PIGEONS, the sixth book in my Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series. [Available now!]  I'm excited about that. I'm also excited that last month I wrote "the end" to the manuscript of the seventh book in the series, which will be published in 2012. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the present published book has a plot written in the past, and that the present manuscript has a plot to be published in the future, and not mix them up in my mind.

Then there's fictional time setting, which can create pesky boundaries. I've made an arbitrary decision to keep my series set in current time, so mention can be made of things like Katrina and the BP oil spill. But fictional time setting isn't the same as fictional aging. My books come out about a year apart, but I've opted to let my protagonist age only a few months between books. Dixie began as a thirty-two-year-old, and she's now, six years later, thirty-three. I suppose in another six years she'll be thirty-four. On the other hand, I've kept the pets in my series who are regulars, like Billy Elliot the former racing greyhound and Ella Fitzgerald the calico cat, pretty much the same age.

All this time business gets tricky! I have a desktop folder on my computer in which every year of importance is listed in Dixie's life along with her age at the time: when her father died saving somebody else's children, when her mother abandoned Dixie and her brother, Dixie's marriage, the birth of her child, her grandparents' deaths, her husband's and child's deaths. Six years ago, when the series began, Dixie's little girl would have been six years old if she had lived, now she would be seven.

When I find myself feeling like a circus juggler keeping a lot of balls of time up in the air, I take comfort from a secret known only to writers of serial fiction and evidenced by their book cover photos: Unlike people in the real present, series authors age in fictional real time. Since the series began six years ago, I have only aged one year. If the series continues for another twelve years, my fingers may be a lot stiffer, but I will have aged only two more years.

Author of the Dixie Hemingway Mystery Series, Blaize Clement has been a stay-at-home mom, dressmaker, caterer, family therapist, and writer, some of them all at the same time. Unlike her protagonist, she has never been a cop or pet sitter, but has shared her life with dogs, cats, birds, fish, and neurotic gerbils. No snakes. She has a thing about snakes. Blaize lives in Sarasota, Florida.