Just Killing Time – Julianne Holmes – Book review (and giveaway!)

It’s always a red letter day when one of our own gets published. Recently Julie Hennrikus had her first book in the Clock Shop Mystery series published (Just Killing Time – Julianne Holmes.)

killing timeI love Julie, she smart, funny, and overall just a brilliant woman. I thought that*before* I read her book.

I especially think that now. It’s not easy to write a story, and it’s extremely difficult to write the first story in a series. You have the challenge of introducing your main character, making us like her, providing a backstory, and then wrapping all of that into a current story that must move forward.

Confession – it’s sometimes difficult for me to read books. Oftentimes I’ll stop at a passage that reads “clunky” and I’ll try to figure out what’s wrong with it. Did the character change? Are the actions unbelievable? Does the passage advance the plot?

I found myself stopping several times with Julie’s book, not because the writing didn’t flow, but because Julie put in such incredible real life detail about her main character – Ruth Clagan, that I paused to go over the section to figure out exactly *how* she did that.

Take this example where Julie uses Ruth’s inner dialog:

Nancy interrupted us, bringing over mugs of coffee and a large plate of wondrous baked goods. A brioche roll. Blueberry muffins. A turnover that I hope was apple. I inhaled the aroma of the coffee and sipped. It tasted even better than it smelled. I picked up the turnover from the plate and took a bite. It was apple. The apples were still crisp, with a wonderful spice mixture that included the traditional cinnamon and nutmeg, and something more. Was that ginger? Yum.

You can tell from this passage that our girl Ruth is a bit on the ADD side, and while very smart, she’s not the type of person who can turn it off (much like the dog in “Up” – SQUIRREL!!!) Ruth is always on.

In that short passage Julie managed to convey to us that Ruth pays attention to detail. It’s a character trait that co-incidentally you want the detective of a mystery story to have. How much more effective is telling us she care about details by using this method instead of simply mentioning a degree from Detective School that hangs on the wall?

In a classic example of show, don’t tell – Julie tells us more about Ruth’s character with this brilliant passage:

I woke up early, too early, and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up and made some terrible coffee. I decided the coffeemaker was beyond hope. My coffee was never stellar, but this was ridiculous. I was afraid it was going to eat through the mug. Nonetheless, I finished my first cup of coffee and went back for a second.

That passage had me laughing because of how real it is. I can immediately recognize that character because in part that character is me. Don’t anyone get between me and my coffee – even a bad cup of coffee is a good cup of coffee. Ruth doesn’t let anything get in her way, she knows what she wants. I get it, I like Ruth.

I could go on and on. Just Killing Time is a delightful mystery with a real, smart, funny, feisty main character and a satisfying ending. It’s a wonderful start to what looks like will be an endearing series.

I suggest that you buy and read this book for the marvelous story. And then, when you’re done, go back and reread the story with a highlighter in your hand. You’ll recognize many examples of the techniques I’ve pointed out and in paying attention to how they are worked seamlessly into the book, you will learn a great deal about effective writing.

Well done, Julie. Well done.

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Update: Julie has just contacted me and she will be giving away a copy of her book to one lucky reader. Comment below and we use one of those random selection tools to pick a winner on Monday.  Good luck!

 

And the winner of the book is “Barbara”  from the comments below.  We’ll be getting a copy of the book out to you soon!

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

I Know Mystery Writers Are Regular People, too, but this still happens

Today is the day after my favorite 3-day conference for mystery writers, New England Crime Bake. It’s the day after I reconnected with far-away friends, and made new friends.

Like past years, and attending any writing workshops or conferences, my brain is bursting with new tips, tricks, and inspiration for getting words onto the page.

But my big takeaway is thoughts of the people and conversations.

So many of my friends are now published authors. On Friday night, we got to celebrate the ‘debut’ mystery novelists. It’s such a thrill and honor to be able to congratulate others on their accomplishments. (If they can do it, so can I, right?)

The celebration was called “Death, Desserts, and Debutants.” The only thing that died was our will power to resist chocolate – the desserts buffet was simply decadent.

I ended up at a table with a debut mystery novelist I hadn’t met before. She was a so funny. I recognized her name and thought she was a panelist or presenter. She wasn’t. I knew I’d never met her before, but there was something so familiar that I had to keep staring at her and talking to her. I couldn’t write it off as simply recognizing her name from the attendees roster.

And then it happened. She mentioned the name of her book. Idyll Threats. And I swear I became a teenager barely able to contain a Squee of excitement. Yes! Of course! Stephanie Gayle! I became all “OMG,” and “Stephanie, I loved your book,” and “Stephanie, when’s the next one coming out?” Such a star-struck fan. I laughed at my behavior, but couldn’t help myself.

My fan status started a few months back when Stephanie’s publicist contacted me about Stephanie and her novel. I ended up interviewing Stephanie and reviewing her novel on my blog, and then even interviewed her for a couple of hours at The Writer’s Chatroom one Sunday evening. I loved the book, loved the fresh writing, the protagonist, all of it. It was a treat to get to know more about the author behind the story.

On Friday night, it took a while for all the pieces to click into place. But then, there I was, with the author, and, wow, like everyone else I’ve met at this conference, she was a normal person. She even has a full-time day job and has to find/make time to write. (She’s 3rd from the left in the 2nd row in the pic).

DebutMysteryNovelists

2015 Debut Mystery Novelists at New England Crime Bake

Several ‘big names’ always attend the conference (this year’s guest of honor was Elizabeth George, others include Craig Johnson, Joe Finder, Lee Child, Charlaine Harris) and guess what? They are people too!

I love being part of the community of mystery writers. And I love this particular conference for the wonderful conversations and long-lasting friendships that develop.

Two of my fellow NHWN bloggers, Diane, and Julie (aka Julianne Holmes, debut mystery novelist – 3rd from left in last row in pic) were there, too, celebrating and meeting their fave authors, getting star-struck, and striking up conversations with new friends.

What author(s) turn you into a (giggly) star-struck fan?

Lisa_2015Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with manufacturing, software, and technology businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Using Candy Land to Write Your Memoir

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When you teach a writing class, you often get students who want to share their personal writing. I don’t mind a bit, in fact I encourage my students to share as much as they’d like to.

One of my students recently handed me a multi-chaptered piece that he was working on. It was a memoir of his life. Although there was a lot of good information, and even though he had a good voice in his writing, the piece was not going to go far without a major revision.

What memoir isn’t

First of all – a memoir is not a diary. It’s not about what you do on a day-to-day basis.

What a memoir is

A memoir is a story of how you got from here to there. In its rawest form it’s like a game of Candy Land.

“Here” is where a life changing event occurs. This life changing event can be a death or a journey, but like the acceptance of a task in the hero’s journey, it has to start you on your path to your “there.” Once that opening event has been established you can then go to a backstory that tells your readers how you got to your life changing event. But you need to begin at the beginning so that your reader can join you.

After your life changing event, or starting point has been decided, you’ll need to figure out where your ending will be. The end of your story is not “I got better and went off into the sunset”, it is more along the lines of “because of this episode in my life I have changed for the better and here’s how and what I did as a result.”

Think of the story of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It’s the story of a hiker whose arm got caught under a rock and who then had to cut his arm off in order to survive. The caught arm is the life changing event. How he ultimately dealt with that loss (which triggered healing from previous losses) and how he grew in self-confidence is the ending. The pages of the book tell of how he went from “here” to “there.”

When you know where you are starting and where you are ending, then like any kind of effective journey EVERY SINGLE scene in that memoir needs to help you on the path from here to there. If it doesn’t then it’s simply filler and you need to get rid of it.

Pretend your story is like a game of Candy Land. While you might spend some time along the way in places like the Peppermint Stick Forest or Lollypop Woods, your job as a writer will be to keep your journey moving forward until you reach your ending (which in this example is that lovely gingerbread house we all wanted to live in as children.)

Oh sure, you might slide into a back story (Rainbow Trail), or you might jump ahead in time (Mountain Pass) to make a point, but everything, absolutely everything you write should propel you forward and eventually lead your reader to your ending.

Piece of cake right? Or should I say peanut brittle?

If you’re a memoir writer, the next time you get lost in your story take a look at a Candy Land playing board to remind of you of where you’ve started and where it is you still need to go on your journey.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Fantastic Scary Books List

I *love* a good scary story. Having grown up on Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (Alvin Schwartz) and Alfred Hitchcock’s’ Mystery Magazine, I came to learn that stories with a twist at the end are the kind that really grab my attention. I tend to like psychological horror instead of blood and guts horror (you will never catch me at a Saw movie). I truly appreciate the books that turn a concept upside down and then put that idea in a corner of my brain to take root going forward.

scary picEvery October I put out feelers for scary stories (and no, the U.S. tax code does not belong on the list.) I’ll list a few of mine, but I also invite you to add your favorite scary stories in the comment section so that we can all enjoy.

Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trumbo – a young man is wounded in war. He loses all limbs, his sight and his ability to speak. The book takes place in a military hospital. This is one of those books that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Dracula – Bram Stoker – I can’t tell you how much I hate vampires, but this book transcends people who sparkle in sunlight. Well written, atmospheric. Not only a scary book, but a great lesson in pacing and building action.

Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane – the movie is great, the book is even better.

Any of the Hannibal Lecter series- Thomas Harris – unimaginable which makes it that much creepier when the author turns it into reality.

Unwind – Neal Shusterman – Chapter 13! Chapter 13! You will *never* stop thinking about this book.

We Need To talk About Kevin – Lorelei King – every mother’s worst nightmare comes true in this book. Riveting and emotionally exhausting.

Okay your turn, in honor of the spookiest month of the year, what are some of the scariest books you’ve ever read?

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Be Brave, Not Fearless

Last week I went to see Elizabeth Gilbert at a book event for her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Though the book is just out, I’ve been listening to a podcast she’s been doing, which has given me a head start. Now, I’m already a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert. I unapologetically loved Eat, Pray, Love. Her TED talks inspired me. (See them here and here.)

Seeing her speak was just terrific, and timely. I am days (DAYS!!) away from my long time dream of being published coming true. And you know what, dear readers? Fear is my co-pilot on this journey. I’ve been struggling with that—what is there to be afraid of? Surely I can meditate/visualize/breath through the fear and get rid of it. (Fear laughs hard at this, and moves back in, usually around 3 A.M.)

Elizabeth Gilbert said something that is resonating with me. Don’t be fearless, be brave. She said a lot more than that (a future blog post!), but for this week, that is enough. Don’t be fearless. Just be brave enough to act anyway. Let fear into the car, just don’t let it drive, use the GPS, change the radio station, or look at the maps. But fear gets a seat in the car. It would have taken one anyway.

Writing is a brave act. Getting published is related to writing, but it isn’t writing itself. The act of writing, which I’ve been doing forever, and actively doing for fifteen years with the hope of getting published, is brave. It is vulnerable, challenging, uncomfortable. And brave. Next week I celebrate getting published. But I’ve already won, because I’m a writer.

Launch Social Media FB postIn a bit of self promotion—if you live near the New England Mobile Book Fair, my launch party is next Tuesday, October 6, starting at 5:30. All are welcome. If you do come, please make sure and say hello, and that you know me from the blog.

In the meantime, let’s all work on being brave.

Nailing The Audience When Writing For Magazines

I have begun teaching my college level Professional Writing and Presentation Skills class. Anyone who has taken a writing class with me knows that for the first two classes I spend time working on analyzing the A.T.T.P (Audience, Tone, Topic, Purpose) of several documents. The first assignment I give is always to take a good look at 3 written pieces, analyze the A.T.T.P and give supporting evidence for your analysis.

IMG_20150910_085943957Nothing, I stress, absolutely nothing can be written if you don’t understand who you are writing for, what tone you’re going to use, what you are going to write about it, and why you are writing the piece.

For this class, the discussion ends with my students being able to look at a written piece and figuring out the A.T.T.P, but if this were a magazine article writing class, I’d take it a little further.

If you want to write articles for magazines, you need to *nail* the A.T.T.P. This is done by taking a careful look at the *entire* publication. Of course you need to read the articles and figure out what the tone of the magazine is (friendly, authoritative, etc) but another important way to figure out the audience is to look at the ads. You’ll find some valuable information there.

For example, at first glance, Prevention Magazine looks to be about health. The cover always has healthy food or healthy people being active on it. The cover also shouts to eh buyer that it is about health – “21 Best Age Erasures” “Stress Eater? 10 Snacks you’ll love” and “The Trendy Diet that Actually Heals.”

If you only looked at the cover and those articles, you might assume that the magazine is all about a healthy, holistic life, and while that may be true to some degree, a quick flip through the pages shows multi-page ad after ad for pharmaceutical medication.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with medication, (it could alleviate your symptoms so that you can participate in a healthy life style) those ads are important to the magazine because they bring in money. And because all publications rely on money, you’d be best to not suggest an article for this publication along the lines of “The tried and true method of getting off your arthritis medication forever.”

You can probably find a better suited magazine for that one

Let’s take one more example, one of my favorites – the Food Network Magazine. You’d think it’s all about food right? This one seems pretty obvious. If you read only the articles, you’d at least be on the right track. But take a look at the ads in this magazine. Sure there are a lot of food ads, but there are a lot of processed foods being touted. Fruit cups, frozen chicken bites, baking mixes. What does that tell us about the audience?

Well, they certainly like food, but they are very busy and often buy precooked foods. This audience doesn’t have the time to make all the recipes in the magazine, but they have the money to buy something close.

An article for a recipe that needs to take hours to sit before you can cook it is not going to fly with Food Network. They want recipes that look and taste good, that can require *some* pricey ingredients, and that don’t take a lot of time.

Again, you can probably find a better audience for your multi-step, complicated (yet no doubt delicious) recipe.

If you’re looking to write articles for the magazine industry, you need to do your research first. Look at a few issues of the publication, read the articles and then go back and take a close look at the ads. All of that information combined will help you figure out that critical A.T.T.P. which will ultimately give you a much better shot at being published.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.

Use your senses in your writing

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As a writer who has extensive tech writing experience, I admit that I sometimes have a difficult time with scene description.

I blame it on my Technical Writing training. Tech writing is all about “just the facts, ma’am.” It’s all about the who, what, when, where, and how of an action. And pretty much nothing else.

Creative (and I’m including memoir writing) is all about the facts and then some (ma’am.) When you write for entertainment you need to use the senses – the smell, visual, taste, hearing and sight information that you have literally at your fingertips. You also have to add thought and reason to any action.

As a tech writer, when I write directions, I’ll write something like:

  • Add one teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter.

Quick, efficient, absolute no doubt as to want I want the action to be.

But when I write creatively, constant directives like the one above can get pretty darn boring unless you surround them with that something extra. When we read for pleasure, we want to put ourselves into the scene. We want to know what motivates the character and we also want a reason to continue reading.

Here’s a creative writing approach to the above direction of adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to some batter.

Damn it, like always, she was running late. This cake had to be started, she still needed a shower, and even now, she wasn’t sure what she had that was clean enough to wear in public. While reaching for the jar of cinnamon, she tipped over a small bottle of opened vanilla. A tiny waft of warmed vanilla fragrance lifting on the breeze from the fan in the kitchen’s corner reached her. She closed her eyes and deeply inhaled. Suddenly she was no longer in her tiny New York apartment with the leaky shower and the cracked ceiling, but rather she was transported to her grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen where she used to spend her childhood summers.

“A pinch of this and a pinch of that,” her grandmother sang and danced as she added her special combination of spices to the cake batter in the ancient jadeite bowl. “Baking is a living art, never trust a book. You have to feel and smell the ingredients to know what’s right.”

Every cake her Grandmother had made had been perfect. A blend of spices and magic that seemed to capture the beauty of a cloudless sky, the roses near the front steps, a cool glass of tea on a hot day.

Pulled back to her apartment by a car’s shrill horn, she looked out her window, to the traffic, the grey, and the noise that defined New York City. Sighing, she picked up the silver measuring spoons and tipped the cinnamon into the correct spoon’s well . After leveling it off, she added the spice to the batter in the very same jadeite bowl that had been left to her in her grandmother’s will. She refocused on the recipes, one-half teaspoon of baking soda was still needed.

There was no time to feel or smell the ingredients, at least not today. She had to get this cake done for the faculty meeting if she hoped to have any chance of impressing the new department chair.

In the first example, I’ve put forward an action. Do this.

In the second example I’ve taken that action and put it into story form by adding sensory information. It is now: This is done because.

The word count for the direction is 8. The word count for the story is 316.

They both cover the same action.

The directions tell you what to do, the story asks you to put information together to come up with what you think is going to happen.

If you want to write stories then you’ll have to up your game by adding these types of details.

Think of this when you are writing (especially those who come from a technical or reporter background.) Infuse your writing with sensory details. Sprinkle memories. Plant the seed of a plot.

Give your reader a joyous reason to turn to the next page.

 

Update: In looking over this post, I clearly used the word “she” far too often in my example. I’m leaving it as is to show you that, *everyone* needs a good edit on their work.

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Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.