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Archive for the category “Writing”

A Heart, a Mole, and a Limerick

It’s been a sort of eventful (and yet not) couple of weeks. There have been a couple scares, some new side effects, a milestone, some experimentation, and a minor epiphany.

Tasting and Smelling

First, I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the nausea. It’s much worse this round, but as before, I’m not actually vomiting…I’m just nauseous all the time. Maybe weed would help, but I’m not willing to trade barfy for high at this point. If I were face-down in the toilet I’m sure that option would be more attractive.

Still, it’s very odd. It feels sort of like a mixture of pregnant and hungover. The constant low-level nausea is just there…ever-present like a tiny fetus in my gut. It’s accompanied by an excruciatingly sensitive nose. I can smell everything in exquisite detail and most of it makes me want to yak. And when I say I can smell everything I mean it. I can smell morning breath from across the room. I can smell YOU right now, reading this. I can detect whiffs of the soap you used this morning and the mint you ate after lunch.

Crime LabParadoxically, my sense of taste is completely whackadoo. One evening last week I got a sudden and very strong craving for pizza. Specifically, Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza. Thinking I was turning the corner on my nausea/chemical taste issues, I ordered one for delivery (sans sauce because tomatoes give me heartburn now). I opened wide and took what was meant to be a nearly orgasmic bite. And tasted…nothing. Nada. I haven’t been that disappointed since Santa failed to deliver Crime Lab back in 1970-whatever.

But then there are good surprises as well. Cantaloupe, for instance, which is one of my favorite things to put in my mouth. Cantaloupe has to be just right. The flavor is so subtle that if you have a slight cold you won’t be able to taste it. Or if it’s not quite ripe. I got some cantaloupe the other day with the thought that it probably wouldn’t taste good, but what the hell. I took the first bite and was overwhelmed with sweet flavor. It was the highlight of my day. It was THAT good.

can-dogs-eat-cantaloupe

Mole Hunt

Here’s something that wasn’t good. My youngest, Allison, is blonde. We’re not sure why or how, because everyone else in the family is dark. Some family members were blonde as very small children, but grew out of it. It remains to be seen if Allie will keep her yellow hair or not. My point is that I don’t know what to do with a blonde head and have always been super wary of the sun. Those corn silk locks don’t seem to offer any protection and so I’m hardcore about making her wear a hat in the summer. A couple of years ago I found a large-ish (relative to her four-year-old noggin) mole near her ear and have kept a close watch on it. Last Wednesday while washing her hair I saw what I’ve been dreading: the mole has changed. Where it was once uniform in color and perfectly round, it has suddenly shown all the signs of a potential melanoma.

IMG_1960Basically, my baby’s mole flunked the ABCDE test. Herewith:

  • A – Asymmetry (lopsided is bad)
  • B – Borders (blurry, uneven is bad)
  • C – Color (different shades are bad)
  • D – Diameter (larger than a pencil eraser is bad)
  • E – Evolving (change is bad)

So, Gunny and I resolved to take her to the pediatrician ASAP and put her to bed. Then I opened the freezer to get a popsicle and burst into tears. Those heaving, silent “Don’t mind me, I’m breaking down” sobs. Because cancer can take me, but it better not lay one turdy tendril on my child. Because I will burn this world down.

The pediatrician agreed the mole is “suspicious,” and has referred us to a dermatologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Once Tricare approves it, I’m hoping to make the appointment for a Tuesday. Just in case we run into Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on his weekly trip to visit sick kids. You gotta find the upside wherever you can.

Side Effects

In honor of some fun new side effects I have composed this limerick:

There once was a lady named Trix
Who found herself in quite a fix
Her gums were receding
Her ass, it was bleeding
And she still has four rounds left of six!

Also, my nose is running in what is lovingly called the “Herceptin drip.” Yaaaaaaaay.

My Heart

In my last post I mentioned that I’d been having some shortness of breath. The next day it concerned me enough to call Dr. Cap’s office. He had me come in and Gunny and I spent two hours there. First, I had two panic attacks before I even saw the doctor. I haven’t had one since, well, I guess since I met Gunny seven years ago, but I used to have them fairly often and once severe enough to land in the ER where the nurses nodded knowingly when I told them I worked at Microsoft. “Oh, we see Microsoft people all the time for this.” Anyway my heart rate was too high for Dr. Cap and he sent me to the lab for a blood draw to check my iron. My iron was fine but my postassium was low. He decided that we’d check on my heart a little sooner than planned so this Monday I had another echocardiogram which was absolutely fine. So my heart is in good shape and I don’t know what the shortness of breath was about and haven’t experienced it since.

My Hair

What about your bald head, Christa? Oh, I’m glad you asked. So here’s something I didn’t expect: my head gets a little bit stubbly every few days. But only in patches. So if I hadn’t shaved my head I would still have hair, but I would also have bald patches, which I think we can all agree would not look very cool.

IMG_1993

I’ve decided I like the idea of wigs more than I enjoy wearing them. So I’ve been going naked-headed most of the time inside the house and rocking some hats out and about. These are the two I like best:

IMG_1985 IMG_1995

And now for the good news. At long last, after more than three months, I’ve started working on my novel again! The second Mike Malick mystery You Go To My Head is back on track. I’m not promising a release date yet, but at least the wheels are back in motion. It feels really good to be creating something again.

An Epiphany

That’s sort of my takeaway from the whole cancer experience thus far: being grateful for the small things. The kindness of a friend. A sunny day. The flavor of ripe melon. I’ve discovered that Death doesn’t have to come very close at all to make Life taste very sweet.

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How to Write a Quick and Painless Book Review

I review nearly every book I read. But only because the Goodreads app on my phone makes it nearly impossible NOT to select a number of stars when I’m marking a book as complete. As far as a written review? I—probably like most people—only take the trouble when I either love or loathe a book. So, please don’t think I’m up on some high book review horse when I say this because I’m as guilty as everyone else.

Pinup reading

Reviews help readers find books to love and to avoid the stinkers

I’ve nixed dozens of books because someone had pointed out that it was a mess of grammatical and spelling errors and I feel like I dodged a bullet. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

But here’s the other thing: reviews help writers more than you know. The little guys, the big guys, the unknowns, and the darlings of the New York Times. Every writer wants, needs, and loves reviews. Yes, even Jo Rowling and Stephen King want and need your feedback. Because knowing how you feel about their work is what keeps them writing.

We indie authors are especially reliant on the review system. We don’t have a marketing machine to run ads or publicists to book us on talk shows.  The only way anyone is going to consider our work is if they hear about it from a friend or they happen across it in their Amazon browsing. And the more reviews a work has, the higher it will rank in searches.

Here’s the thing: two minutes of your time can make a world of difference in a writer’s life. That’s how long it will take you to review a book. Seriously.

I know, I know what you’re thinking.

But I’m not a good writer

Guess what? You hardly have to type these days. Look how easy Amazon.com makes it for you. Just click some buttons, poke a star and boom!

Super helpful

But I don’t remember everything that happened

So what? No one expects you to summarize the plot. In fact, that’s super annoying in a review.

But I didn’t really like the book

That’s totally okay. Authors appreciate you taking the time to review their book, even if it’s not a glowing endorsement.

But I don’t have a lot to say about the book

No problem, sparky. Your review could be one sentence–or a fragment!–and still let the world know how you feel. Here are some examples of perfectly worthwhile, super short book reviews:

“The detective character made me laugh out loud.”

“I felt like the ending was rushed.”

“Way too much sex.”

“I loved the part in Las Vegas.”

full review

But I can’t think of a headline

Yeah, I hear you on that. But guess what? You can skip it. Just leave it blank and hit “submit” and the world keeps turning. Cool, huh?

Click a few buttons, choose a star, and type a few words. Easy peasy, right?

Here are things to avoid

Personal attacks

“The author is a vengeful slut and couldn’t plot her way out of a paper bag.”

Remove “is a vengeful slut and” and you’ve got yourself a review, cowboy!

“The author’s support of anti-gay campaigns make him a piece of shit”

Be that as it may, that isn’t about the content of his book.

Genre attacks

“I’m not really a Sci-Fi person and all the space stuff and names without vowels really grated on my nerves. There’s no such thing as an anti-gravity grenade!”

“Dragons. What is the deal with dragons? And everyone just walks through the entire book. Hello? BORING?”

If you know you don’t like the genre, don’t rail against the tropes of the genre. It’s like complaining about the heaving bosoms in a Harlequin romance. Which I have totally done.

Spoilers

A customer review on Amazon.com spoiled the ending of Gone Girl for me and I nearly didn’t read it because of that. Don’t be that guy. Just don’t.

So, go ahead and make good on that promise you made to your writer friend (so, so many promises). Take a moment and write a couple pithy phrases about the book you read on the plane. Authors and readers alike will thank you.

My New Book Has Arrived!

Lexy4CoverSmallHip hip HOORAY, my new book is now available! It’s the fourth full-length Lexy Cooper mystery. You can pick up the eBook right now at Amazon, or you can wait for the paperback this summer. Any questions?

What if I don’t have a Kindle?

You’re in luck, cowboy. You don’t need the dedicated eReader to enjoy Kindle books. All you need is an electronic device with a screen. You can read Lexy books on your PC, your tablet, or your phone. Just download the free Kindle app for your weapon of choice.

I’m thinking about trying Lexy books, but where should I start?

Start at the beginning, grasshopper. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first page of Schooled. All books in which Lexy appears are in this order:

  1. Schooled 
  2. Pwned
  3. I Saw Lexy Kissing Santa (short story)
  4. Griefed
  5. Summer Wind (Mike Malick #1)
  6. Glitched

TriplethreatColorFinalsmall copyYou can actually pick up the first four of these in one package: Lexy Cooper Triple Threat. It’s available in eBook and paperback.

Well, crap, I thought I was up-to-date, but I haven’t read Summer Wind. Do I need to read it before starting Glitched?

Heck no! There are a couple of things that happen in Mike’s book that are referenced in Lexy’s book, but not knowing them will not prevent you from following or (hopefully) enjoying Glitched.

I’ve read all the books, but can’t keep track of what’s what and who’s who. Can you help?

Yes indeed, young Skywalker. My dear friend Wendy wrote this Lexy primer to help refresh your memory.

Glitched came out at midnight last night and I’m already finished. What’s next for Lexy?

Yikes. You, sir or madam, are hardcore. And I love that. Lexy will next appear in a short story called Hurricane Lexy that picks up immediately after the end of Glitched. Then she will make an appearance in the second Mike Malick book You Go to My Head this fall. The next full-length Lexy mystery novel a.k.a. “Lexy 5” will follow in the first half of 2016.

The Care and Feeding of Minor Characters

coal-miner

A miner, not a minor.

Let’s talk about minor characters.These are your protagonist’s family members, friends, and coworkers. Important enough to have a name, but definitely not an above-the-title name. They mainly exist to help move the plot along, often being on the receiving end of your protagonist’s witty dialog or exposition. “OMG Amber, let me tell you about what happened this summer at camp! You’re gonna freak out!”

They can also be plot devices: getting abducted, being diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses or accused of a crime, forbidding the protagonist to do what they want to do, or betraying them in some way. Nearly every cop’s wife in Western literature exists only to a) complain that the cop is never home or b) get threatened/abducted/killed.

Your protagonist lives in the world with other people, and how she interacts with them both humanizes her and gives your reader clues as to the kind of person she is. A hard-nosed business tycoon can show her secret tender side when she visits her grandmother in the nursing home. The nanny who is all sweetness and light with her charges may have a dark side that she explores in secret sex clubs.

Regardless of what purpose they serve, you should make sure your minor characters stick in your reader’s mind as people, not set-dressing. They don’t need to be as fully fleshed out as your main characters. In fact, to give them too much page space or backstory may indicate a higher importance to your reader than you’re going to deliver on. That’s not to say you can’t give a character more real estate than makes sense in one story because you’re setting him up for a larger role in the sequel. I had this conversation with my editor, Marti McKenna, while we worked on Griefed (Lexy Cooper #3).

Marti: I’m not quite sure why this Archie Wolfe guy is getting so much screen time. There’s not really a payoff…
Me: He’s important in Lexy #4.
Marti: Aha!

Let’s now make a distinction between the minor character and the “extra” or “walk-on.” These are characters that appear briefly to serve a specific purpose and then disappear. A taxi driver that gets your protagonist from point A to point B and maybe delivers one piece of news. A bartender confirming the alibi of a suspect. A beat cop who makes an arrest.

They are necessary to move the action along, but they don’t need backstory, motivation, or even a name. (Unless they do. If that bartender is supplying a false alibi because she’s sleeping with the suspect then she’s not a walk-on, she’s a minor character and she’s gonna need a name.)

Here’s an example of when not to name the baby. This happened during the editing of Glitched (Lexy #4)

Harper showed the letter to the only lawyer she knew—Xenon’s corporate bulldog—and she suggested that Harper zip her lip and try to move on…

Marti: I suggest giving the corporate bulldog a name to avoid pronoun confusion.

But, this bulldog will not be seen again until Lexy #6. I don’t want to commit to a name this far out, and more importantly, I don’t want to give readers the impression that this character needs to be loaded into memory yet. The problem was easily solved by the elimination of one letter. “She” became “he” and poof! No more pronoun trouble.

pronountrouble1

Don’t litter your book with a cast of thousands. Your reader can’t keep track of that many characters unless each and every character stands out. I bet if I name an obscure character in the Harry Potter series, fully half the world’s population will know who I’m talking about. Because Rowling paints a vivid—though sometimes brief—picture of every character and each serves a purpose.

For the rest of us? My best advice is to keep the cast lean. Only write characters that you need. And only give them names if you want your reader to recall who they are later in the book or series.

Billable Hours – A Writer’s Day

Okay, novelists don’t really have billable hours. I worked in a PR agency for a brief, miserable period and keeping track of how much time I spent on every little thing was a massive pain in my ass. That 15 minute chunk of time when I was staring out the window watching pigeons have sex on the neighboring roof? Which client can I bill that to?

Anyway, I got to thinking, now that I’m only working for me (and my readers), what if I had to account for every quarter-hour of time? So, today, I kept track. Submitted for your approval, my non-billable hours or

A Semi-Productive Day in the Life of a Novelist

8:30 – 8:45 Screw around on Facebook. Check email. Read over yesterday’s work. Post Instagram of Hiatus Project.
8:45 – 9:00 Select and post a snippet from Glitched on Lexy’s FB page

9:00 – 9:15 Source reference photos for Hiatus Project
9:15 – 9:30 Write Hiatus Project
9:30 – 9:45 Watch Magic Mike XXL trailer.
9:45 – 10:00 Tell reader via Instagram that Glitched will release March 31

Magic Mike XXL10:00 – 10:15 Send email to editor and proofreader about trying to hit March 31
10:15 – 10:30 Log into Lexy’s twitter account and follow-back new followers. Also, post Gronk photo.
10:30 – 10:45 Write Hiatus Project
10:45 – 11:00 Research makes and models of Mercedes-Benz sedans (for project, I swear!)

Gronk spike

11:00 – 11:15 Realize plot of Hiatus Project has similarities to popular 90s film. Text best friend to confess.
11:15 – 11:30 Curate appropriate playlist to inspire Hiatus Project writing. Fall down a “Stripper Anthem” rabbithole.
11:30 – 11:45 Fold laundry while pondering the temperature of imminent Hiatus Project sex scene
11:45 – 12:00 Write Hiatus Project

Gronk shirtless12:00 – 12:15 Realize this is an early release day for school. Panic.
12:15 – 12:30 Write Hiatus Project furiously until mind starts to wander…
12:30 – 12:45 Watch YouTube videos of Gronk spiking footballs
12:45 – 1:00 Rewrite chunk of chapter two of Hiatus Project so chapter nine won’t be fucked up.

IMG_09311:00 – 1:15 Google “Gronk shirtless”
1:15 – 1:30 Write Hiatus Project
1:30 – 1:45 Eat lunch while playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood
1:45 – 2:00 Write this blog post

2:00 – 2:15 Kindergartner arrives home. Work day is finished.

All in all, I did get some stuff done. I wrote 1,948 words on Hiatus Project, my editor says March 31 is good with her (still waiting to hear from my proofreader), and I totally Gronked out.

Arrive Gronk Leave

In the Beginning – Starting a New Novel

-it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night-pin-2120-pMy ninth book (Glitched) is with my editor right now and so, it’s time for me to start writing the next one. Book number ten will be the second in the Mike Malick series, and it’s unique in my experience for one reason. I don’t really know what it’s about.

Here’s what I’ve got:

A title: You Go To My Head (yes, another Sinatra song).

A pretty solid cast of characters.

A reference photo for the cover art.

Reference for the cover art. You Go To My Head...get it?

You Go To My Head…get it?

And a news story about a real crime that gave me the germ of an idea. I’m not linking to it, obviously.

Other than that…I got nothin’. Every other time I’ve actually sat down to start placing words one by one into a coherent story I’ve had a pretty fleshed-out plan in mind. Sometimes those plans change. But this is the first time I’ve sat down to a fairly rasa tabula.

So what now? I’ve got to turn this

In the beginning blog post

I do this bit right after finishing the prior book. The satisfaction comes from adding the newly-written one to the “Also by this author” list.

into a full novel that

  • Gives readers what they’ve come to expect in a Malick novel: snark, crime-solving, waitress-banging
  • Tells a compelling and complete story from the discovery of crime to the solution of whodunit
  • Touches on and advances the subplots and story arcs in the series
  • Feels familiar but not too similar to the first book Summer Wind

Where do I begin? I start with a victim. Right now I don’t know the name, gender, or method of murder. All I know is why the person was killed and who did it. But this dead body will put Malick and his partner Cricket Yi on the train that will carry them to the end of the story, some 300 pages away.

It’s unfamiliar and sort of scary but also a bit liberating. BRB, gotta go kill someone.

All About That Pace

keep-calm-and-pace-yourself-24Let’s talk about pacing, i.e. the action in your novel. Does it start slow and build to an action-packed climax? Do you hit on your main themes in a regular pattern? Do you sprinkle humor here and there?

I wasn’t sure how I did it. I’ve had readers comment that they like the pacing in my books, so I guess I was doing something right. But to be honest, I don’t consciously think about pacing much. Well, except for the first Lexy book in which I was convinced each chapter needed to be 5,000 words and I distinctly remember saying to myself, “Hmmm Lexy hasn’t gotten laid in a while. Better fix that.”

But I know that pacing is important and I was curious to see what exactly I’m doing and when I’m doing it. So, as I reviewed and revised my new book Glitched, I kept track of certain elements of the story and where they appear. This is what it looked like:

Glitched Pacing

There were quite a few pacing relationships I was particularly interested in. Sex vs Romance is one of them. Maybe they’re not different for you, but they are for Lexy. At least in Glitched.

Also, Sleuthing and Skills. This fourth Lexy mystery is different in that alternating chapters are not in Detective Malick’s POV. In fact, the murder isn’t even Mike’s case. This is the first time that Lexy is actively trying to solve a murder. Now, she hasn’t hung out a PI shingle, and she’s still working at Xenon full-time, but neither is she stumbling on evidence or just lending Malick a hand. In this book–and going forward–it’s important for Lexy to have agency. For her to do things on purpose with intent instead of have things happen to her. Ergo, sleuthing is when she’s investigating the case: talking to witnesses, doing research, staking out a location. Skills is when she’s purposely trying to improve her sleuthing. Mainly recalling something she’s learned from Malick about being observant or getting reluctant witnesses to talk.

stake out

Then there are the ongoing story arcs: her relationships with recurring characters. So, Romance hits on her interactions with a certain character (no spoilers) and Rivalry hits on her interactions with Agent 54.

When you’re writing a series there is also a fair amount of Backstory or references and reminders to what has happened in previous books, and Set-up, laying the groundwork for the next book: introducing characters and situations who will be important in Lexy 5.

A couple other things I tracked were Humor and Trouble. Humor’s pretty obvious, and there are funny (I hope) Lexyisms throughout, but these were situations I included solely for comic relief. Trouble refers to situations when Lexy purposely does something knowing it will get her in trouble or stir the pot. Just because she’s Lexy.

Chowder

Lexy’s new roommate?

I also tracked her use of drugs and alcohol, and her smoking. She’s always been a closet stress-smoker and when she’s upset she indulges. If you check the grid, you see that she smokes less as the story continues. Is it because I forgot to put a cigarette in her mouth? Nope, it was that she was busy chasing baddies and had other stuff on her mind.

Looking over this, it occurs to me that I did a pretty fair job pacing this without much planning. The question is, do I want to track as I go with the next book (potentially leading to “hmmm Malick hasn’t gotten laid in a while” thoughts) or do I just keep on keepin’ on?

Finishing touches: Getting your novel in top condition

This post isn’t about that final-final review when your manuscript has already gone through professional editing and proofreading. This is about getting your manuscript ready for the next step, whether that’s beta readers or your editor.

Getting to the end of the first draft and typing “The end” is a fantastic feeling and nothing should diminish that sense of accomplishment. But you’re not done yet. At least I’m not. Because I’m the kind of writer that appreciates momentum over all. If I’m writing a scene, I don’t like to stop and look up a fact, ponder a new character name, or go back through my story to verify a date or time. I type XXXXXXX and I move along.

So, once I’ve written my final scene, and after some celebration, I need to go back and fill in those blanks.

Filling in the blanks

Since I use the multiple X convention, all I have to do is search for it in my document and there’s a list of all my unfinished business. I can methodically go through and replace X’s with the good stuff. (Here are some tips on character names, btw).

Next up–and this is especially important in the mystery genre–is making sure all my dates and times match. Ensuring that the Time of Death pronounced by the medical examiner in the beginning of the book is the same window in which my suspects must account for their whereabouts. In short, if the victim was killed between midnight and four a.m., my sleuth doesn’t need to check alibis for noon to three p.m. To that end, I created two calenders: one shows all the action in the book by chapter and the second shows the details of the crime. What happened when, where each suspect was, and when evidence is revealed.

It's blurry by design. No spoilers!

It’s blurry by design. No spoilers!

Sometimes the facts that need checking are of the real world and not the fictional world I’ve built. For my upcoming book, Glitched, I’ve verified quotes from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Supertroopers, names of Pokemon characters, the color of Top Pot Doughnuts carry out boxes, tracks on Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours album, the number of city blocks between Pioneer Square and the Seattle Police Department headquarters and whether one says “on Maui” or “in Maui.”

And, of course, as I go through this process (printing out chapters, making edits in pencil, and then doing corrections in the Word doc), I find stuff that bugs me. Awkward phrasing, or unnecessary sentences. Other times I make additions that clarify the action or make it more powerful.

This is the part of the creative process that feels most like work, but in the end will make my book better. And may even save me money! The less time my editor has to spend checking my facts and cleaning up sloppy shit, the fewer hours she’s going to bill me.

The most important part of this phase is to stay focused. Here are my top three techniques for the finishing touches:

  1. Bite-sized chunks. I do three chapters and then take a break.
  2. Block out the real world. Noise cancelling headphones, isolation booth, hotel room.
  3. Be extra nice to your spouse/housemates/friends. When you’re not hunkered down, nose to the grindstone with music blaring in your private headspace you’re probably thinking about the book and not really engaging with your humans. You are kind of an asshole right now. Once you hand off to your editor, please cook your people a nice meal, take them to the movies or otherwise reward their patience and understanding.

Stop saying this shit in 2015!

speak-no-evil

“The feels” 
Example: “All the feels” [link to kitten video or other heart-string-tugging media]; “This got me right in the feels” What it means: “This provoked an emotional response. Emotions remind me of being a child, so I will use toddler-esque language to express myself.” Grow up!

“Nailing it/Killing it/Sedating it, cutting it up and burying it in a shallow grave”
A sloppy fallback that implies perfection when it’s not what the user means. Also, the world is pretty violent already. What say we go easy on the bloody imagery?

“Because ____.”
This sentence fragment needs to fuck off. Especially “Because reasons.” It’s tired. It doesn’t make sense. If you don’t know the answer then say so. If you do know the answer fill in the fucking blank with a complete thought instead of the equivalent of pointing and grunting.

“You’re doing it wrong.”
Hasn’t this died yet? Fuck you. I’ll do it how I do it.

Hyper-hyperbole
Examples: “The greatest video you will ever see in your life.” “This wins the Internet forever.” “This photo of Jennifer Lawrence is EVERYTHING.” Clickbait headlines are the main culprit, but I see it creeping into regular use. “I’m dead from the cute.” “The feels have ended me.”

This post just killed. It’s literally the last thing you’ll ever need to put in front of your eyes. If it doesn’t hit you in the feels you’re doing it wrong. Because reasons.

Series Fiction: What I wish I’d known at the start

long gameI’m in the final stretch of writing the fourth book in my Lexy Cooper mystery series. Now, I’m certainly nowhere near as prolific as many writers, but by the time you get to Book 4, you’ve built up a pretty substantial cast of characters, a history, and a world. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way and wish I’d known when I was writing the first one.

Consistency in World Building

Just because I write books set in modern times in the “real” world doesn’t mean I haven’t done some world building. It’s not Middle Earth, but Lexy Cooper’s fantasy world mapRedmond and Seattle are not exact replicas of the real thing and those subtle differences need to be consistent. Sometimes I run up against a perception I had while writing earlier books that cause me to hesitate and stumble writing later books. Take the Redmond Police Department headquarters, where Detective Malick does his murder-solving thing. When I wrote Schooled I had a very vague idea of what it looked like: a lobby where a desk sergeant sits, desks where cops do their work on battered government-issue desks, a conference room where the cops can gather to brainstorm, and an interrogation room for grilling suspects. That’s all I wrote about, because it was all I needed. Then in Pwned, I added another interrogation room and now there’s “Interview A” and “Interview B.” Each book has added new areas as the story requires them. By the time I wrote Summer Wind, in which Detective Malick gets his own series, the building is three stories high and has a computer lab, briefing room, Chief’s office, gym, and impound lot. The good news is I never said, in Book 1 that the station was small or one-story, or lacked any facilities. So looking back, is it better that I was vague in the beginning, or should I have mapped it out with a little more diligence from the get-go?  Vagueness has allowed me to get what I need from that location, but every time I send Malick up a flight of stairs that wasn’t in my head during the previous books, I feel a little bit guilty.

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The Trouble with Character Names

There are two male cops in my series: Mike Malick and Mark Rogers. In the first three books Rogers was always “Rogers” because he’s a young cop still in uniform and Mike is the star. But by Book 4, Rogers has a new job in a neighboring city and is a detective. Now equals–mostly–“Mike and Mark” are so close it sounds lame.

name gameWorse yet are rhyming names. Lexy’s brother is Kent and her cameraman is Trent. I never even noticed it until the two characters have a scene together in Book 4 and I had to write around putting their names next to each other. Meanwhile I cursed myself for my foolishness for not noticing in Book 1. Another example? Kenny Longworth and Kent Cooper don’t share a scene in the first four books, but that too, could be problematic in the future. And then I have to wonder: What’s with the “Ken” thing? Why did I choose those names? I don’t think I even know anyone named Ken.

Now I’m being much more careful in naming new characters. In book 4, Lexy’s friend Harper Cole (who appears in Pwned and Griefed) is a major player. When it came time for me to introduce a new character, I wanted to name her Hopper after Grace Hopper. But Hopper and Harper? That’s a no-go. So right now her name is Borg after Anita Borg, but I don’t think I can get past the Star Trek association on that one and it will most likely change again.

Now here are a couple of things I think I did right. And I did them right because I was slow and careful about what I was doing. I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as I can here, but if you haven’t read Lexy 1-3 and are super sensitive to vague hints about the plot, you may want to skip this bit.

The Long Game

If you’ve got the foresight to plan the major plot points of the books in your series, it’s very effective to lay the groundwork early for the biggest payoff. So there’s a bad guy in Book 3. Now I could have created a new character to do the bad things, but instead I played the long game. Knowing all along what I was going to write in Book 3 (at that time the end of a Lexy trilogy) I introduced the character very casually in Book 1. This character was so minor he or she may have mostly gone unnoticed. But then he or she became more important in Book 2. So by the time Book 3 rolls around and he or she does the bad thing it is a shock and betrayal to both Lexy and the reader.

See also: Foreshadowing. This character offers hints of what he/she is capable of in the first two books. What you’re going for is either a “I felt like there was something weird about that person!” or “Why didn’t I see that coming!?” So hopefully, a person who read Book 3 could go back to Book 2 and smack themselves for not realizing this character was trouble.

Another example: In Summer Wind (which is Malick #1 but also Book 3.5 in the Lexy series), I introduce a character who is not really going to be very important until Book 7. But when she becomes important she won’t have dropped out of a clear blue sky. She’s already been established in the cast and the world.

Incremental Change

It would have been easy to begin the series with Lexy Cooper–community manager by day, kick-ass vigilante detective by night, but let’s face it…that’s not really believable or relatable. Instead, Lexy learns new skills as the series progresses. Not because she has an end-goal of being some sort of Dirty Harriet, but because she has reactions to the things that happen in her life. Possible spoilers For instance: In the first book, something happens to Lexy that makes her interested in finally learning to handle a firearm. So in Book 2 she learns to shoot. In Book 2 and then again in Book 3, she is in a situation where she has to run to safety. And her speed and endurance fail her. In Book 4, running has become a priority for her. She’ll be ready for the next time. And at this point, she carries her Glock everywhere. By Book 4 or 5 readers will not be shocked–or skeptical–if Lexy outruns an assailant or uses her gun because these are skills she’s worked to acquire and not superpowers she’s granted when she suddenly needs them.

The Downside

The downside of the slow build and the long game is that readers can’t see inside your head and may get impatient as they wait for your heroine to “grow up.” I have had feedback about how Lexy often gets rescued in early books, or that she’s immature or didn’t have a big enough reaction to the tragic events at the end of Griefed. All I can say to that is: keep reading.

 

 

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