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Monday, May 31, 2010

My secrets, revealed...

It's my day to blog over at The Ladykillers, so I hope you'll hop over there and see how I responded to the current theme:  Lists. 

I was feeling frivolous, but I also felt compelled to be useful, so I made two lists, a list of writing tips and a list of the movie stars I would most like to...hmm...engage in meaningful dinner table conversation.  Check it out:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Tale of Titles, Part Tres

After I finished Relics, my agent said casually, "Why don't you write some synopses for the next few books in the series? Maybe five or six.  In case I need to wave them in front of an editor or movie scout sometime.  And while you're at it, send me some titles you might use later in the series."

Think about what she just asked me to do.  She wanted me to come up with plot ideas, flesh them out, then boil them down to a few paragraphs each...for five or six books.  I just stuttered a moment and avoided speaking the words that popped into my mind:  "Easy for you to say."

I actually pulled it off, and it was an interesting exercise. Effigies is the only one of those plots that has actually become a book, but I still have the list.  It serves as a security blanket and a writer's block fender-offer.  The list includes a story based in New York City that I very likely will do fairly soon.

I googled up an archaeological dictionary to make that list of titles, and the only ones I have used so far are Effigies and Findings, but both of those titles spawned the main plots of those books.  I enjoyed exploring the aspects of effigies--effigy mounds, effigy beads, and the simple definition of an effigy, a physical symbol representing something else, usually a living thing.  I liked the multiple meanings of "finding."  The artifacts unearthed by an archaeologist are "findings."  And another definition of "finding," the tiny metal metal piece that fits a jewel into a piece of jewelry, spawned the fabulous emerald that glitters on the cover of Findings and which rests at the heart of the story.

The lists of plots and titles I made all those years ago fits right into the new topic we're discussing at The LadyKillers blog this week:  Lists.  I just wrote tomorrow's LadyKiller post, in which I made a list of valuable writers' tips.  As a bonus, I also included a list of movie stars for whom I pine.  This is a big problem for me, because most of these men represent a passion that only a time machine could solve.  My post goes up there tomorrow and, yes, I'll remind you about it tomorrow:
Happy reading!

Mary Anna

Friday, May 28, 2010

Want to write a novel? A secret way to make yours better...

My stated goal here at "It's like making sausage..." is to tell those publishing stories that you might not ordinarily hear.  Stories of stupid covers that almost made it into print.  Weird questions I've been asked on the radio.  Goofy research trips that took me deep into the Mississippi woods where only a great blue heron would know if I fell and broke an ankle.  If I don't tell you these things, then how will you know?

A friend of mine told me yesterday that she's heard a Pulitzer Prize-winner speak about his blog.  He says that he always deletes the first two paragraphs before he hits "Publish."  He says those two paragraphs were "just throat-clearing."

Well, yeah.  But I submit to you that people read blogs to see how the blogger thinks, not necessarily to read an essay written in the spare and unadorned style of Pulitzer-winning essays.  That's my excuse, anyway.  I am a brutal editor of my fiction.  When my agent saw my first manuscript, she said, "This is the cleanest copy I have ever seen."  (This was back when I was afraid of her, so that praise will stick with me forever.)  When I write fiction, every word has to give me a reason to be there, or it doesn't get to stay.  When I blog, I like to just sit down and talk to you people.

It occurred to me to ask my friend to get the Pulitzer dude to cut those two paragraphs every day...and send them to me.  I'll post them here, then we can all read them, deconstruct them, and decide whether they're Pulitzer-worthy.  What do you think?

Okay that was four paragraphs of throat-clearing, but I'm from Mississippi, so I have a genetic gift for meaningless small talk.  And eventually, I do get to the point.

When I heard the Pulitzer dude say he always cut the first two paragraphs, I thought it was glib advice.  Sometimes those paragraphs are good.  And sometimes you need to cut five.  Better advice would be to scrutinize the first paragraphs extra hard, because they are often weak in early drafts. 

But don't stop with the first two paragraphs.  (Here's the secret I promised you up top, and it's a writing tip I've never seen elsewhere.)  Look at your novel's first chapter.  Many times, it's backstory that turns out to be unnecessary.  If you spend a chapter telling the reader your character's life history, then eventually refer to that history later, as part of the real action, then cut out the repetitive info in Chapter One.

With my first two books, I found that I'd written first chapters that dragged, but I'd progressed enough in my craft that they weren't completely extraneous.  It was just that Chapter 2 was better.  After scrutinizing them for a moment I realized that they worked better in reverse.  The material in Chapter 2 made a slam-bang beginning.  Then, after the dust from all that action settled, the material in the original Chapter 1 made a nice quiet flashback to other things the reader needed to know. 

I haven't used this technique since, but I always look Chapter 1 over hard.  If you do that, you may find that a chapter switcheroo will wake up your story and grab the attention of an editor from Word One.

Mary Anna

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Tale of Titles, Part Duae

My Latin scholar tells me she is so proud that I used the feminine form to count in for this series of post.  Not because I'm a girl.  And not because she's a girl.  But because "part" is a feminine noun and it requires me to count like a girl.  Who knew?  Well, she did.  But I didn't.

Okay.  The second book was Relics.  I thought it sounded great with Artifacts.  I liked the one-word plural archaeological noun theme I had going.  I figured titles were now the last thing I needed to worry about.  I had titles licked.  Pride goes before a fall.  I should remember that more often.

My agent thought I should save the title for later, to go with a book about religious relics and really old dead sacred bodies.  I saw her point, but I liked it for this book.  Because, not only is Faye digging up actual relics, she is working with an ethnic group that is a relic population left over from an earlier time, the Sujosa. 

I made the word Sujosa up, and I modeled my fictional ethnic group after some actual relic populations in North America, but they're very real to me.  I can't tell you how ridiculously proud it makes me when somebody tells me they wanted to know more about the Sujosa, so they googled them and came up with nothing but me.  So it seems appropriate for the title of the book to reflect the importance of my relic population.

I had a moment of panic when I saw the first dustjacket, because Relics was in a very Gothic font and, combined with the flaming cover image, it looked like a horror novel.  They toned down the flames and the font, which was a huge relief.  It just never occurred to me that Relics sounded like a vampire novel or something.  To refresh your memory, here are the more subdued flames:

Relics (Faye Longchamp Mysteries, No. 2)

One last story before I remember my resolution to write shorter.  My son was 19 when Relics came out, and still a less-than-respectful teenager.  He said to me, "Mom.  So you named the first one Artifacts and the second one Relics.  What are you going to name the third one...Trash?

Remind me to write him out of my will.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Tale of Titles, Part Una

I'm counting in a new language!  I picked Latin today, because my daughter just won her school's award for Latin 2.  Little did I know that you can't just count in Latin.  You have to pick a gender.  I picked the feminine gender, because I'm a girl.  If I sound extra ladylike today, this is why.

I keep choosing topics that require me to blog a book's worth of prose every day.  I think this topic, titles, will be different.  But what do I know?  Let's see if I have any capability whatsoever to write short.  Shorter.

When I wrote Artifacts, I was very naive about the mystery world.  I had a story in mind that involved a murder and the search for justice, so I called it a mystery and eventually sold it to a mystery publisher.  My editor, Barbara Peters, told me at this point, "We're going to take a good book that is nominally a mystery and we're going to make it a very good book that is a mystery."  And we did.  And I learned a lot.  One thing we didn't do, however, is change the title.

I liked the way the single word "artifacts," speaks of my theme, archaeology, loud and clear.  And as a word person, I liked the fact that it means "made by human hands."  I also liked the sense I had that artifacts are clues that real-life archaeologist use to solve the mysteries of the past. People think of artifacts as simply archaeological finds, but even the beautiful house at the center of Artifacts  (and on the cover) is made by human slaves.  In its way, it is an artifact, and an important one. 

Artifacts (Faye Longchamp Mysteries, No. 1)

Since I knew very little about the mystery market when I wrote it, I didn't really plan a series.  I just didn't know that series were so common in the mystery world.  But the one-word title of Artifacts has led me to give all my books similar titles, and I like them.  They're memorable.  They say what they mean, then quit. And that's what I'm going to do right now.

Mary Anna

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Trees, cows, birds, and a mystery author...oh my...

I think I'm finishing up my series on getting a good author photo.  It is a sign that I am a novelist that I've already written two long posts on this subject, and this one will probably be longer than I intend, when really all I needed to say was, "Hire a professional to take your photo.  You'll be glad you did."

Okay, Artifacts came out in 2003.  I just couldn't bring myself to keep using the old publicity photo.  Now, people still recognize me from it, so I don't think I used it too long.  But I didn't want to see the day come when I arrived at a signing and the organizer greeted me with, "Who's that old broad?"

I know people who have been using the same photo for forty years.  Seriously.  And you have to have a little sympathy in your heart for us, because how many professions force you to watch yourself deteriorate over time?  But getting a new photo is the only alternative to the inverse Dorien Gray effect, wherein your photo is simply gorgeous and you look like the portrait of Dorien Gray.

I'm not stupid, so I called Randy.  We drove around to scout locations, and found some glorious spots on a prairie ringed with ancient live oaks.  Then we went back for the shoot, with his assistant Lindsay planning to meet us shortly.  Except we found ourselves in a cow pasture behind a locked gate, with Randy frantically calling friends far and wide because somebody had changed the combination.  We worked assistant-free for a while, then Lindsay sneaked through the gate by tailgating someone who knew the combination.  We got these shots.  (Among others.  I'm not stupid enough to show you the bad ones.)

Don't you just love how he used the background?  I'm tellin' ya.  Hire the best. 

Next, we needed to move to the other location.  But remember how Lindsay had to sneak through the gate?  This means that we still don't know the we can't get out of the cow pasture.  So we park by the gate.  Randy gets back on the phone.  We wait for someone to drive up who knows the combination.  And the sun sinks...

We decide to use the time by taking some photos right where we are.  We took these shots with no special background at all, just some trees, some nice light, and an artful photographer's knowledge of how to use fuzziness to advantage.  Imagine cows mooing peacefully in the background.

Finally, finally, we got out of the pasture and reached the last location, one of those humongous trees that make north Florida so glorious.  The light was fading, and we three artists shifted into get-er-done mode.  I leaned on the tree branches.  I crawled around in the tree in shoes that were not meant for such things.  The camera went snap, snap, snap, while Randy's did his photographer thing to keep me going.  "You're doing great, Beautiful!"

Then, as it was really getting dark, he told me to lean against the tree and hold real still.  His assistant held some kind of reflective thingie up to catch the last ray of light and reflect it on my face.  He explained that even a flicker of movement in my eyes would screw up this very, very long exposure.  Then he said, "Cross your arms.  Now...   Don't.  Move."  Apparently, I didn't.  In the background, as the sun set, I could hear the prehistoric rattling cries of sandhill cranes settling in for the evening.

That last shot was the one I chose for my website and the one I'll use most.  To prove this part of my story, I'm posting the uncropped, unretouched proof.  (In fact, that's what all of the photos on this post are.)  Look on the right hand side, and you'll see the blurred image of Lindsay's reflective thingie, capturing those last rays of sunlight.

Until tomorrow,
Mary Anna

Monday, May 24, 2010

And another thing about photos...

Let's see, where were we?  Oh, yeah, I was blathering on about how you should plunk down your hard-earned money for a professional publicity photo want to look like a professional.

I have a few picture-taking stories to tell about my new publicity photo, and they involve cows and large migratory birds, but I'm going to let them wait until tomorrow, because I remembered something interesting about the old photo.  I think it achieved the primary publicity goal of being memorable, because even people who hated it remembered it.  I met a fellow writer for the first time at a mystery conference and she spent a good part of our first conversation telling me I should get a new photo.  This was back when that photo was new, so I wasn't inclined to go spend more money unnecessarily, unless that one was career suicide.  Apparently, she thought it was.

"People need to feel like they can approach you.  That picture makes you look scary!  And you have such a nice smile.  Why do you hide it?"  (There was also a little bit of an Italian mother twist to the conversation.)

Well, in mystery circles, there can be an unfortunately tendency to presume a woman's books might be a little lighter and frothier than the gritty realism written by men.  (Yes.  Even in 2010.  Good Lord.  And tell me how realistic is a book about a middle-aged mini-van driving man who finds himself being chased by bad guys from one exotic locale to the next, while in the company of a sexy young thing who persists in taking off her clothes?)

My work has its dark side, so I think a serious facial expression is appropriate when my books are being marketed.  And perhaps my perception of the need to be taken seriously is colored by my own experiences.  I started engineering school in 1979. I was the only woman in my Electric Circuit Theory class.  Also in Fluidized Bed Heat Transfer, and probably a few others.  I worked offshore during the summer of 1981. 

On my first day of my first job out of graduate school, a community college teaching position, I entered my FORTRAN class to find that I was teaching 25 male college freshman.  I was 22, and I looked 17.  (I know this, because I was carded in New Orleans about that time.  Come to think of it, the drinking age in New Orleans back then was 17, so I guess I looked 16.  And I really don't think folks in New Orleans care if you drink when you're underage.  None of the other twenty-somethings in my party were carded.  They abandoned me while I fumbled for my ID.  You know, I may be the only person who was ever carded in The Big Easy.) 

The only way to prosper as a woman in a man's world--and I did--is to cultivate a persona that says, "Take me seriously."  I'm southern, so my persona is more like, "I'm polite and friendly and warm and feminine but, at the end of the day, you'd be well-advised to take me seriously."  Some people are a little obtuse, so they don't get the subtlety of it all, but that is a topic for another day.  Anyway, I kept the serious mug shot, and I think it did its job.

And there's one funny thing I want to tell you, and then I'll shut up.  As I said, people remember the photo, but they don't always remember it well.  I can't tell you how many people mention it and call it, "that black-and-white shot."  A friend of mine who had worked as a model and had a head shot of his own even called it that.  Now another benefit of hiring professionals is that they know how to take a photo that looks good in both formats.  See--here it is in black-and-white:

The photo that's used more is definitely in color, but I'm sorta black-and-white.  (In my twenties, I learned that friends who were trying to describe me to people who'd met me once or twice but didn't know me would say, "You know...Snow White."  LOL.  I guess I did have a penchant for blood-red lipstick in those days.)  Here's the other one, one more time, so you can see that it's in color, even if I'm not.

Until tomorrow--
Mary Anna

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Advice for writers--hire the best photographer you can get

As a public service to my sausage-making readership, let me share one of the first pieces of advice I offer to writers who have just had that most heady of experience--they've signed a book contract.

Soon enough, and in my case, on Day One, the publisher will ask for a publicity photo.  Please, please, if you are ever in this position, do not lean up against a wall and ask your husband to snap your photo.  We are all sensitive about our looks.  Most people who sell a book have been writing for many years, so the sensitivity ramps up with every wrinkle.  People let this fear keep them from showing their face to someone who knows how to take a picture.  DO NOT DO THIS. 

Readers do not care if you are beautiful.  They care if you are interesting.  Hire a portrait photographer who can take a picture that tells a story, and that story needs to be, "I am fascinating and you will love my books.  Rush out right now and plunk down enough cash to buy everything I've ever written." 

A good photographer is expensive, yes, but that money will come back to you in publicity.  A professional photo will get you newspaper coverage.  It has gotten me (small-circulation) magazine covers and local TV coverage.  Oddly enough, a good photo will get you radio coverage, although I can't imagine why.

I had the surreal experience of being asked on Wednesday if I could provide a photo by Friday, because the catalog was going to print.  I begged off until Monday, but that still ain't much time.  Fortunately, I have a friend who is truly a genius at portrait photography, Randy Batista.  If you don't believe me look at his website here.

I called Randy in a white-hot panic and he worked me into his schedule.  I called my hairdresser Irene in a white-hot panic and she worked me in.  I found a walk-in nail salon and I walked in, just in case my hands showed in the portrait.  (They did, so it was money well-spent.)

Randy asked me what I was going to wear and I said, "A suit?"  And he asked me where I wanted the photo taken and I said, "In the studio?"  Randy said, "  Tell me about the book."

So I told him it was a mystery about a woman desperate to save her ancestral home, and he said, "I know the place.  And we want you to look approachable, so wear jeans and a simple top.  Maybe black, but gray would be better."

I take directions well, so I bought a gray sweater and showed up at the location shoot.  Randy had chosen a dilapidated Victorian house as the backdrop.  I liked it.  Nevertheless, he asked me, "What's wrong?" and I said, "I'm forty years old and you're going to be pointing that thing at me."  He grinned and said, with just a touch of a Cuban accent, "Don't you worry 'bout a thing."

The experience was exactly like the modeling footage you see on TV.  "Lean into the light.  Turn your pretty face toward me.  More, more.  No.  Stop.  There.  Hold it!  You're GORGEOUS!!!"  I'm here to tell you that every woman should get this kind of treatment at least once in her life.

I'll show you the photo in a second, but be aware that we were going for a mysterious look for a mystery author, so I'm wearing what someone has called my "Take your best shot, buddy" face.  People have said that it doesn't look like me, because I'm a smiley sort, but my older daughter said, "Yes.  It does.  It looks like her when she's mad at me."  LOL.

It is also possible that I look stern because this house was not in the nicest part of town.  Periodically, a homeless man would pedal past slowly, calling out, "Aaaaayyyy...Bay-beeee!"

I've recently retired this shot because I figured five books per photo (and seven years) was probably enough.  Using the photo past that point would have been just dishonest.  I'll tell you about the new one (which I believe is somewhere on this page, so it's not like I'm buiding any suspense here) tomorrow, but just look what Randy did with a forty-year-old mother of three:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Where on Earth Do You Get Your Ideas?--Part Nueve

I've had a day to cool off after the piracy scare of yesterday.  The upshot is that it's not obvioius yet whether my work has actually been pirated or whether someone in the Ukraine is just trying to get a cut of the sales by funneling customers to Amazon in exchange for a kickback.  And that cut would be obtained legally (I think) and it would not come out of my pocket, both of which I consider positive developments.  My publisher is checking into it, so all will be made clear.  In the meantime, let's talk about...

Yes, pirates.  How timely, considering yesterday's potential piracy!

When I was planning to set the upcoming book in the Keys, I did a lot of reading about pirates, and I'm finding that this knowledge is transferring well to the new setting, south Louisiana, which has had its share of pirates over the years.  Slave traders, too.  And sometimes those were the same people...

Since I like to have dual storylines in my Faye books, one in the past and one in the present, the notion of piracy past and present appeals.  Not sure what I'm going to do with that, but it's early days yet.  I'll figure out some way to get my 16-year-old guest character entangled with a pirate or two.

Considering this discussion through the lens of the sausage-maker, maybe it would be interesting to my readers to look at the publishing timeline as it relates to my schedule.  It is May 2010, and I am beginning to write a book intended for publication in October or November 2011.  (And yes, I'm behind.  I'll finish on time, but I'm pushing my luck.) 

I am beginning to do publicity for Strangers, which will be published in October 2010.  At the moment, I'm getting review copies to reviewers and setting up appearances for October and November.  It's early to be booking gigs, but I'm trying to make the most of the Columbus Day tie-in with this conquistador-themed book, and it's working.  So far, I've got five gigs in five days during the release week, and most of them pay an honorarium, so I get publicity, book sales, and some cash, too.  Score!

Personal appearances to promote the current book, Floodgates, are infrequent at this point in the book production cycle, but I have a few scheduled this summer.  I will also be politely reminding attendees at these events about my newest paperback, FindingsAnd my backlist sells well, so I'll flog all of them, actually.  Which means that I may be asked to answer a question about a book I wrote in 2001, while my head is six books into the future.  It's enough to give a girl vertigo.

Returning to the book of the moment, I really need to name the thing.  There's some rationale for naming it after the Gulf oil spill.  DeepwaterSlicksDrillsRigsPlatforms

No?  I didn't think so.

I could do something Mississippi River-related--Pilots?  Gamblers?  Riverboats?  Paddlewheels?--but none of those sound like mystery titles.

I'm leaning toward that pirate theme again, so the frontrunners are PiratesBuccaneers, Plunder, Privateers, Brigands, and Brigantines.

Do any of you have any opinions or suggestions?

Mary Anna

Friday, May 21, 2010

The new technology giveth and the new technology taketh away...

Today, we're really going to look at the part of the publishing industry that's reminiscent of sausage-making.  How does one go about making money from intellectual property?

This is on my mind today, because I learned this morning that someone has uploaded one of my stories and one of my books to a site called  Which is an interesting name, since I understand the site is pulling in $65,000 a day in subscriptions (a rumor I cannot substantiate), but no one is sharing any of that with me.

I was not surprised to see the story Mouse House there.  I recently published it as an ebook.  I believe I included that mysterious DRM copy-protection technology in the upload, but I could have made an error.  Or some enterprising criminal has found a way to hack it.  Or some enterprising criminal in a country where labor is cheap has employed people to take screenshots of each individual page.

I am surprised to see Floodgates offered for free to people who have bought a subscription to this den of iniquity.  It's my latest book.  It's not even out in paperback.  I do not believe that electronic copies are flying around the internet from any source I know about.  Judging from the published profiles of the people who "shared" my work, these are not enthusiastic kids anxious to share a book they loved while remaining totally ignorant of copyright law.  My guess is that someone in the aforementioned cheap labor countries is standing over a scanner, stealing books page-by-page.

For those of you hoping for a publishing career, or for those of you who are just curious, know that when you write anything, even a term paper, the copyright is yours as soon as the words leave your brain.  (I'm not a lawyer, so I'm paraphrasing and interpreting.  Don't make business decisions based on the opinions of any amateur, including me, please.)  With the exception of situations like work-for-hire, a publishing house does not buy your copyright.  It buys specific rights to use your work.  For example, my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has the right to print my books in English and distribute them in the US, the UK, Canada, and the Philippines.  I have also granted them permission to publish them as ebooks and audiobooks and large-print editions, which they have done and I love them for it. 

Like any other business contract, there are responsibilities on both sides, and one of their responsibilities is to keep track of how many they sell and then pay me an agreed-upon percentage of the cover price.  The more books they sell, the higher my percentage becomes.  Yay!  There are also provisions in the contract that specify how the relationship can be severed, after which I'm free to sell those rights elsewhere...because they belong to me.

Prior to the invention of the Internet and scanners and even photocopiers, it was harder for people like me to participate actively in the marketing of their work.  But it also would have been much more difficult to infringe on their rights.  (Which is not to say that it didn't happen regularly, I'm sure.)

I am certain that people who pay for a membership in feel like they're paying for the books they're reading.  I'm sure they're unaware that their money is going to people who did nothing but build a website that makes it easy to steal from people who are already are not making much profit from their intellectual property. 

Most people think that piles of money magically appear in your bank account when you sell your book, but no.  I had several surreal encounters with a nurse at my doctor's office who kept demanding that I bring in a book so they could all read it.  I'm too nice to say, "Even I have to pay for my books.  I can't afford to give them away.  And I don't notice any free medical services being offered," so I just kept demurring until she quit.  The truth is that it is very, very hard to get people to pay for intellectual property, and they tend to pay slowly.  There can be a delay of a year between the time a happy reader buys my book and the time that a small fraction of that money gets to me.  It is not okay for someone to decide that they're going to give it away online without paying me for the privilege.

I've sent emails to the people who uploaded my work, requesting that they take it down.  And I've filed complaints with the website.  I received a form letter from them asking me to provide information that I'd already provided and which smelled something like a stonewall.  In my second email, I mentioned that I was prepared to hire a lawyer.  We'll see what happens.

It's like making sausage.  Sometimes you really don't want to know the details of how the publishing business works...

Frustratedly yours,
Mary Anna

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Where on Earth Do You Get Your Ideas?--Part Ocho

Part Ocho of my book ideas series brings me right up to the current release,Floodgates.  And I can't actually remember what I've told you people about Floodgates.  Hmmm...I've looked back and I can't see that I've told this story yet.  If I have, I apologize deeply and plead senility.  Or overwork.  Or overworked senility.  Onward...

I decided early on that I wanted to set a book in New Orleans, so I started the process of getting the benevolent approval of my editor, Barbara.  Imagine my consternation when she said she didn't want me to write about New Orleans, because it has "been done." 

I must confess now that I used to be afraid of Barbara.  I know now that she is a warm and completely wonderful person, but she's also an extremely competent woman who doesn't brook any nonsense.  This is cool.  I respect that.  I'd like to tolerate less of it myself, so she's a role model.  Anyway, I don't argue with her just for the heck of it, so I respectfully said I thought there was a story or two left in the Crescent City.

She suggested Baton Rouge.  Now don't get me wrong.  I've spent a lot of great time in Baton Rouge, because my sister lived there for years.  Love the people.  Love the food.  But Baton Rouge inspires me to write an archaeological mystery about as much as a government city ringed by oil refineries does...because that's what it is.  (I can absolutely see myself writing a legal thriller or an environmental suspense novel in Baton Rouge, but Faye tells me she doesn't want to go there.)

Sensing my reluctance--even through the internet, since we were working by email--Barbara suggested Vicksburg.  Again, my response was, "Great town.  Maybe for another book."  Hearing my desire to deal with the aftermath of Katrina, she suggested the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  (Also a possible future book.  I grew up an hour away and am heartsick at its slow recovery from Katrina.  But it still was not the story I wanted to tell.)   

I pointed out to her that New Orleans handed me American history on a silver platter--Andrew Jackson, Jean Lafitte, the Mississippi River, Native Americans, African-Americans, the Spanish, the English, the French, the Americans...  And I pointed out to her that New Orleans' suffering since Katrina was different than anything else our country had seen.  It suffered a flood, a total deluge, which is not the same thing as a hurricane.  An archaeologist digging in New Orleans will, forever more, go through a layer of history that was laid down in 2005.  Just because we remember it doesn't mean that it's not history.

Barbara liked this.  She was listening.  I could tell, even through the buffer of the Internet.  So I continued to push my luck.  I told her that New Orleans might have "been done," but I didn't believe it had been done by someone with family in the area and a personal history there and a work history there.  And I was reasonably sure that what I was proposing had not been done by a licensed engineer who just might have something to say about the levee failures.

Success!  She liked it.  She hated the title, but I figured I could come up with a better one later.  I asked what she wanted by way of a proposal--outline, synopsis, sample chapters?  She said, "Oh, what you wrote in your last email was fine.  Just send me a hundred pages when you have them."

Score!  I'd just sold a book with less text than I've crammed into this blog post.

Later, I sent her the hundred pages, and she said, "I see where you going with this.  I like the title now."

See how wonderful it is to work with someone smart and competent and logical who doesn't brook any nonsense?

Mary Anna

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Off on a tangent...

How many of the people who use the phrase "off on a tangent" actually know what a tangent is? (I hear you thinking, "I don't know and I don't care," but humor me here for a moment.)

I'm deep into work on the book I'm co-writing with Dr. Faith Wallace--Mathematical Literacy in the Middle and Secondary Grades. Soon, I will be able to tell you scuttlebutt about the nonfiction and educational publishing world. Oh, the opportunities for making sausage simply abound...

At the moment, we're working on a chapter that looks at the interface between mathematics and language. If you've ever worked a word problem--"Johnny has 7 apples, but Suzie took one away. Sam gave him three more. It takes six apples to make a pie. Does Johnny have enough?"--then you've walked that math/language boundary.

The words "took" and "gave" really don't sound like math words, but in that context, they tell you to subtract or add in order to solve the problem. Most people, including lifelong math-haters, can solve Johnny's apple problem in their heads. What Faith and I are hoping to do in this chapter is help teachers recognize regular old words that can signal to a reader that a little math is coming their way...painlessly.

The cool thing about this project is that Faith is an academic and a trained teacher. I just play with words all day, then I send them out for people to enjoy. Because my education is in math and science, there are a whole lot of those painless math words buried in my work. Right now, I have assembled a list of words that appear in the prologue and first chapter of Artifacts, and I'm writing a chapter that takes teachers on a tour through those words.

"More" and "less" tell you something about quantity. Even the simplest word in the language, "a," tells you that you're dealing with just one thing. Prepositions are all about geometry--"over," "under," "around," "through," "by"--they all give you information about an object's location. That's geometry.

And so is "tangent," which to mathematicians is a line that touches a curve but doesn't cross it. That's not such a hard thing to imagine. Think of an upside-down bowl. Now imagine balancing a pencil on top of it. Voila! A tangent.

And you thought we were only going to talk about literary mysteries. No, here at "It's Like Making Sausage...", we will occasionally tackle the mysteries of the universe. Only the best for you, my readers...

Mary Anna

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Joe Wolf Mantooth, the eternally surprising character...

I promised yesterday that I'd talk more about Joe.  Some of you are very happy.  (You know who you are.)  Most of you are women, but not all.  Joe's a man's man, and my male fans like him, too.  Or, as I like to say, women want to marry Joe.  Men want to be Joe.

Joe travels a tremendous story arc in the books, because he has so much to do and learn and be when we first meet him in Artifacts.  He is only 25, after all.  He shows up on Faye's island, homeless, with nothing to his name but a ratty johnboat and some camping gear and his clothes.  A lack of money or possessions isn't really a problem for Joe, as long as he has a place to lay his head.  He's got the equivalent of a Ph.D. in ancient weapons, just because flintknapping settles his mind.  When he left home, he went out searching for someone to teach him how to do flintknap well, and he truly does.  Joe can tell the weather by the stirrings of the animals in the bushes.  He can catch fish when they're not biting.  When Joe plants cucumbers, you'd better to be ready to make a bunch of pickles.  Once he's settled on Faye's property, he pays her very well in food he's shot or caught or grown.

His parents weren't really into their Creek heritage, so they didn't teach it to Joe.  They loved him dearly and taught him to fish and hunt, but they mistook learning disabilities the size of boulders for mental slowness, so they didn't teach him much else.  He has a mystical soul, so he sought out people who could teach him the old ways, and he's cobbled together his own approach to the spiritual side of life that works for him.  When Faye is rumpled in her mind because she can't force the world to spin as she wishes, Joe knows how to explain things to her.  He knows that the world will spin and the hurricane will howl, whether we like it or not.  So we might as well get on with living.

I created Joe to be an absolutely inappropriate romantic partner for Faye.  I wanted her to have one true friend.  She had to have a friend, because she lives alone on her island, and I can't write books about someone wandering through the palm trees talking to herself.  He's nine years younger.  He's uneducated and unemployed and, until she finds tutors for him that understand learning disabilities, barely literate.

Two hundred years ago, Joe would have been a man among men, but in the 21st century, he can't quite master the workings of an ATM.   Faye saves Joe from a world he doesn't understand.  What she doesn't understand, and what I didn't understand when I created them, is that, in the end, Joe saves her, too.

Mary Anna

Monday, May 17, 2010

Briefly changing the subject because I want to talk about Joe...

I'm blogging over at The LadyKillers today:

We have a new topic, starting today.  By the luck of the draw, I am the new-topic-kicker-offer which has something in common with being Spiderman.  I have both power and responsibility.  :) 

This fortnight, we are talking about sidekicks.  I think this is fabulous, because my character Joe is the best sidekick known to man.  He looks good.  He cooks good.  He can drop a rabbit from fifty paces with an arrow he made himself.  (Maybe a hundred paces.  I'm not an archer.  But I'm a woman, and I'm here to tell you that Joe is some kind of man.)  Women want to marry Joe.  Men want to be Joe. 

People ask, "Why doesn't Faye notice the obvious and grab onto Joe with both hands?"   Well, maybe she will.  Or maybe she has.  I'm not talking.

So run on over to The LadyKillers, where I am talking about sidekicks, then come back here tomorrow, because I think I'm not finished talking about Joe.  He is an apparently inexhaustible subject. 

While you're at The LadyKillers, check out our contest.  Answer thirteen simple little questions correctly, and win fabulous prizes.  (And for those of you who joined us within the past two weeks, you can find the answer to one of those questions right here at It's Like Making Sausage, because I always take care of my loyal readers.)

Mary Anna

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Just had one of those happy writer days...

I've been flailing away at the plot for the next book, but it hasn't been going too well.  I did my usual stint of reading for a living and learned a lot about the Florida Keys, then the Deepwater Horizon blew and I decided I needed to write about that.  For a while, I thought I'd need to wait till the mess came ashore to pick a setting, but I've settled on extreme south Louisiana  near the mouth of the river. 

This was progress, and I tried to give myself a pat on the back for it, but I'm really happier when I see the pages stack up.  I've learned that the key to meeting deadlines is constant progress, even if it's small.  Last year, two of my children got married and my mother had near-constant serious health issues.  I asked my publisher to tell me the absolutely last, I-really-mean-it deadline, and they gave it to me, because I always make my deadlines.  It's a personality trait, but it also comes from years as an environmental consultant.  Your report is your only product.  It had better be on time, and it had better be perfect.

(After maybe ten years, I'm still preening over my agent's comment when she saw my first completed manuscript:  "This is the cleanest copy I have ever seen.")

So even with last year's constant turmoil, I sat at my computer every chance I got and wrote, even if I only produced a page or two.  When that "I-really-mean-it" deadline arrived, I had a book, a good book, and I still can't believe that it's the longest one I've ever written.  So, for those among you who are aspiring writers, the takeaway lesson here is you do have time, and you must write whenever you can.  Waiting for inspiration to strike  =  unpublished.  In my very humble opinion...

So here I am again, still trying to squeeze my work into the crannies of time my family responsibilities leave me.  I've spent a lot of time staring at my computer screen, typing a sentence or two, crawling over the web looking for those cool facts that spiff up a story, then typing another sentence or two.  I've spent time on the phone with my agent, and we came up with a new character who I love, a 16-year-old named Amande who reminds Faye of herself.  And as we adults know, sometimes we don't want such a clear-eyed look at ourselves, warts and all.

I still need to go back to south Louisiana, because it's been nearly thirty years since I was more than a half-hour south of New Orleans.  (Oh, boy...I'm gonna get to eat po-boys and creme brulee and beignets...)  But as of Friday, I have a functional outline for this thing and my agent likes it.  So that was a happy writer day.  She'll tell me Monday whether I need to twiddle with anything, or whether it's ready to send on to my editor.  And then the process will begin again...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where on Earth Do You Get Your Ideas?--Part Siete

Okay, I'm back to my regularly scheduled sausage-making:  Where do I get my book ideas? I think I'll talk about Findings today.

Findings (Faye Longchamp)

(Wow.  Still love that cover...)

When I finished Artifacts, I started talking about setting the next book in a new location, off Joyeuse Island.  My editor wasn't so sure.  She said that readers really liked Faye's ancestral home.  I conceded that point, then asked, "Exactly how many dead bodies is she going to dig up on that little island?"

Also, I've never wanted to write the same book over and over, and I wanted to give my characters a chance to grow and change.  In Artifacts, I put Faye through all manner of heck, but she was on her home turf.  For the next two books, I took her out of her comfort zone.  In Relics, particularly, I took her just a few hours' drive from her home, but to a place where it gets cold in the wintertime and the mountainous terrain is, frankly, a bit frightening to flatlander Faye.  Dirt is an important thing to an archaeologist, and she had to deal with dirt that wasn't mostly beach sand.  Most importantly, she's doing her first stint as a manager, she has a recalcitrant crew, and the people in the community don't want her there.

By the fourth book, I decided it was time to take Faye home, so Findings is set on Joyeuse.  All the original characters (who survived) are back, and the old house is in mid-restoration.  All is well...until she digs up a fabulous emerald in her back yard, and the last person she saw holding it, an old friend of hers, is found murdered.  I will save the genesis of the emerald subplot for my upcoming series on how I get my titles.  (There is just no end to the sausage-making possibilities that my career can provide.)  But the historical subplot in Findings is special to me.

I like to explore the nooks and crannies of history that others don't pay much attention to, so I turned my attention to the Confederate government.  Many books have been written about the Civil War and its soldiers and the people who suffered at home, but not so much has been said about a social experiment that was doomed from the outset.  I knew that a prominent man, Duncan Kenner, had urged Jefferson Davis (who I am reputedly related to, but that's beside the point) to free the slaves and remove the last excuse England had for not joining the war on the side of their southern trading partners.  (Davis ignored him, obviously.)  Kenner was part of a delegation that went to Europe to discuss these possibilities.  I created a character, Jedediah Bachelder, who wasn't much of a diplomat, but who was chosen to be part of the delegation because he had, at the urging of his wife, already freed his own slaves. 

Love letters between Jedediah and his wife Viola punctuate Faye's own story.  And perhaps this part of making books is less like making sausage--I came to love Jedediah and Viola, and I came to understand that they made this book so much more than I'd intended.  As I wrote the end to their story and to the book, I realized that my other books, like most mysteries, had been about justice.  In fact, I call crime fiction "the literature of justice" in the way that many people call science fiction "the literature of ideas." 

But Findings is not about justice.  Or, rather, it's not only about justice.  Findings is about love.  There is no character in this book who is not touched, for good or ill, by romantic love.  For that reason, I have a soft spot in my heart for this book.

Which is why I'm so glad that it has a cool cover.  :-)

Mary Anna

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I'm letting someone famous guest blog for me today...

Today is going to be a hectic day, and I was just going to skip the blog.  But then I stumbled across this piece while researching the as-yet-unnamed new book to be set in south Louisiana, aka Ground Zero for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

Rachel Maddow, who is always an insightful commentator, has hit the nail on the head in her observations about the situation in south Louisiana, not just now and not just during Katrina, but for a long, long time.  Our country has needed its port at the mouth of the Mississippi for...well, for always.  So there are people living there for a darn good reason.  We have needed to maintain our shipping artery up through the middle of our country for a long, long time, too, but our imperfect technology means that this is killing that fragile ecosystem.  We've deprived it of the silty floodwaters that keep it above sea level, and we've replaced that silt with fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides.  God played a little joke on us by putting oil down there, so we've chopped the place up and poisoned it further, so that we could get at that oil.

Well, okay.  Maybe that's what we needed to do.  Maybe we can do better now.  But in the meantime, we need to do the best we can for the people who are holding the bag for us.  The people who, coincidentally, have been catching a goodly portion of the seafood we enjoy.

I've copied Rachel Maddow's editorial on this situation below.  (And I know I may be tippy-toeing on copyright issues here, but I hope she'd want her opinion to be heard.)  I really resonate with her central point:  Is Louisiana part of our country, or isn't it?

A transcript of the closing of the May 3 Rachel Maddow Show:
So, here we are again on America's Gulf Coast, the Louisiana shoreline reporting on an environmental, economic and human catastrophe. This fragile stretch of our country being ripped apart again just as the wounds of the last disaster were beginning to heal here -- that of course was hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the barrier islands off the coast here and leveled much of Venice, Louisiana, where I'm sitting tonight. That was 2005. Here we are again in 2010.

If there's a unifying truth in this state, in this region, it is that the wetlands are the only means of survival. Nobody argues this point. Republicans, Democrats, nobody argues this point.

The wetlands are to the Gulf Coast what bumpers and crumple zones are to cars. It's a buffer against the impact, an absorber of destructive energy, a giant protector against disasters. Wetlands slow and weaken hurricanes before they reach places like New Orleans. They support wildlife. They support human economy. They are incredibly, incredibly fragile, and they have to be preserved if they are going to preserve us. The marshes were built by nature over thousands of years, built by the Mississippi River's floods which left settlement in fresh water. That pushed the edge of the continent out into the Gulf of Mexico by as much as 100 miles.

But since, the 1950s, the pursuit of profit has forced 8,000 miles of marshes to yield to manmade canals -- essentially, to make oil exploration and shipping easier. It's estimated that the state of Louisiana loses 25 square miles of wetlands every year. If we were losing that much land to another country, we would be at war.

America has a choice to make about the State of Louisiana. Is Louisiana part of our country or isn't it? Because if Louisiana is part of America, then the American people and the American government have to begin to defend Louisiana against American greed, and multinational greed. Because yes, legally it's the job of BP, the oil company, to clean up this disaster that looms over this wetlands behind me right now.

But who among us believes that any company really wants to defend America, as much as we as a nation want to defend us? The gain sucked out of the sea bed here is private, it's profit, it supersedes to these pesky little regulatory bodies called countries, but the risk here, again, the risk here as always isn't private. It's public, it's national, it's American. It's borne by Louisiana again, literally borne by the land here and by the people here. The incentives all line up neatly for the companies who profit up a natural resources here to take what they can and damn the consequences.

For us as a country, if we believe in Louisiana, somebody's got to stand up against those companies on behalf of the public, the land, the people, the country.
--Rachel Maddow, MSNBC

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where on Earth Do You Get Your Ideas?--Part Seis

Part, I'm already seven entries into another list of publishing minutiae.  The stories just abound.  The links of sausage never end.  Okay.  Enough of that.  Onward...

My third book, Effigies, is set in my home state, Mississippi.  Why did it take me three books to go home?  Because I was afraid that, afterward, I'd never be able to go home again...

Seriously, though, I've been thrilled with how well Mississippians have taken to my books.  My heroine, Faye, is multiracial, and there is that possibility that lingering problems related to the civil rights era could make people less receptive to stories that deal with racial friction and history.  My mother is an avid supporter of my work.  (If there is anyone in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who does not know about my books, it is not my mother's fault.)  Think about it.  Her friends include people in their 80s, people who were adults in the 1960s and remember that troubled period well.  And think about this--because Faye is multiracial, she can't have a date that isn't interracial, and these people remember when that was illegal.

It warms my heart and restores my faith in mankind to be able to tell you that I've not had the first discouraging word about the stories I choose to write.  I have been warmly embraced by people of all ages and races, all over the state.  Effigies(which I will eventually getting around to telling you about) got a full-page feature in Mississippi Magazine, and I got a cover story in Today's Mississippi Woman.

So what's the book about and where did I get the idea?  Well, I decided I wanted to do Mississippi, and I didn't want to do my hometown, because university towns are much the same, wherever you go.  So I started my "reading for a living" process, crawling all over the internet for facts and fables and tenuous ideas.

I kept finding myself reading about Neshoba County.  It is the home of the Neshoba County Fair, an extravaganza so unique that it is difficult to communicate the scope of it.  The population of Neshoba County mutates upward by about 25,000 people for a week in July.  It is a residential fair, in that a community of cabins that are occupied only during that week exists on the fairgrounds.  These not-too-palatial dwellings have changed hands for huge sums of money, because everybody who is anybody in Neshoba County sleeps on the fairgrounds during the fair.  Families have split over who got Grandma's cabin. 

There is something for everybody at the fair.  Rides and fair food and livestock, yes.  But also horse racing.  The Miss Neshoba County Pageant.  And good Lord, there are political speeches.  Everybody who aspires to public office in Mississippi goes to the fair.  The fair's timing is consulted before primaries are scheduled.  Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for the presidency there.  It is a big hairy deal.

Neshoba County is also the ancestral home of the Choctaw Nation, the first Native American tribe to be removed to the Indian Territory.  Some refused to go, and that remnant remains here, where they built Nanih Waiya, the Mother Mound of the Choctaw, some 2000 years ago.  In the 1960s, the Choctaws were called by Time Magazine "the poorest pocket in the poorest state in the union."  Since then, they elected progressive tribal leadership who brought in any company that promised a job.  They make greeting cards.  They make little wire harnesses that go somewhere in the engines of GM cars.  And, eventually, they built a casino.  And another casino.  And a golf resort for people who don't like to gamble.  And a water park where kids can play while their parents gamble.  The Choctaws are now among the top employers in the state of Mississippi.  What a story...

And many people remember that Neshoba County was the home of one of the most notorious hate crimes of the 1960s, the murder of three civil rights workers whose bodies were later found buried in a dam.

I looked at all this information and I thought, "If I can't get a story out of all this, then I am not a writer."

I am a writer, and Effigies went on to win a bronze medal from the Florida Book Awards, among other nice recognitions.  But my proudest moment came when I learned that the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians had bought a copy for every student in their high school, and that they wanted me to come speak to their teachers about how to use it in the classroom.

That was a career highlight.  You can't anticipate moments like that...but sometimes they come to you.  I'm grateful.

Mary Anna