Thursday, February 25, 2010

Book Covers by Joyce Lavene

Book Covers

Book covers are exciting or colorful or scary. Or something in between. They have a few seconds to catch a reader's attention before that person's eye moves to something else. Your poor little book can't jump off the shelf into a reader's hand. But a good book cover can make a reader pause, thumb through, and finally buy a book.

Berkley Prime Crime does an awesome job with their covers (which you can see from my book cover from A TIMELY VISION and Elizabeth Spann Craig (writing as Riley Adams) book cover from Delicious and Suspicious).

Readers have remarked many times about how beautiful the covers are for my Peggy Lee Garden Mysteries and that the covers of the Ren Faire Mysteries made them pick up the books because they looked like fun.

Writers don't have a lot to say about their covers. Editors ask what you think as the cover is being drawn up. They ask for suggestions about the art before the cover is started. After that, it's up to the artists who design and create the book covers. They are talented and fast workers. Like everyone else on the team that gets the book ready for stores, they're on a deadline and have to finish the product to keep up with production.

I think one thing that makes Berkley covers so good is that they tend to stay away from animals and people. I don't know why, but figures don't seem to translate well to this form. The people can be too big for their surroundings or their faces can be frightening. Animals are usually just plain weird looking.

People compliment me often on my book covers. I'm not sure what to say since I had nothing to do with it. I usually mutter politely and change the subject. I can only take credit for the writing inside.

So here's to Dan Craig (
and Lesley Worrell (
Ben Perini(

and all the other Berkley cover artists and designers. You guys rock! You make it easy for writers to get compliments they don't deserve and to sell our books!

Joyce Lavene
PS - Just for the record, I have nothing to do with the change in cover style between large print and mass market paperback either.
A Timely Vision (and another fine cover)
May 2010 from Berkley Prime Crime

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Leopard--late 19th century Nigeria My husband’s sister and her husband live in Africa where they work as translators. My sister-in-law speaks French fluently and perfectly accented. Her husband speaks 5 or 6 languages, including Swahili.

For years they lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Life there; apart from election violence over a year ago, living in a guarded housing compound, and occasional run-ins with police (who aren’t like our police); was pretty tame compared to life in their current home in Bunia, Congo. Congo hasn’t historically been the calmest place on the globe to live.

Their day to day life is an adventure: for fresh water, reliable utilities, and even a safe place to live. Their country is exotic…the plants and wildlife are different, the language and customs are different.

In many ways, it’s the perfect place to write. But they’re not writers.

In contrast, I look at my life in suburban America. My adventures are pretty tame in comparison. Will I find my daughter’s missing library book before it becomes overdue? Will I make my deadline? Why is the washing machine making that strange noise?

Some of us write fantasy and sci-fi and the appeal there is completely clear—it’s the escape from reality for readers.

But what about those of us who write using everyday settings about everyday people? What’s the appeal there?

I think it must be that our readers can imagine themselves in the same circumstances. That we’ve made a connection with the ordinary reader. That we’ve either 1) created people like themselves who are suddenly facing extraordinary circumstances (they’re accused of murder, won the lottery, gotten lost in a snowstorm), or 2) we’ve created extraordinary people that our readers wish they could be, but aren’t.

My two protagonists both fall under the first category, I think…ordinary people who have been put in extraordinary situations.

What about you? Do your characters fall into either category? Both? Or do you write a genre where the extraordinary part is the escape from reality?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Do you know what I mean? by Joyce Lavene

Maybe you've noticed those signs in front of churches. They're kind of like spiritual billboards trying to point the way to heaven in the two seconds you have to see them as you pass.

I saw one this morning that said 'The sky shall like up with fire'

hmm . . .

No one said the signs had to be correct but the editor in me always cries out for them to make sense. There's a big difference between writing what we write and writing what we mean to write.

I noticed another sign a few miles down the road (not a church sign): The Greenwood Golf Curse will be open starting May 1.

I almost went back and looked at this one again.

As writers, it isn't always easy to spot mistakes in what we write. We seem to be born with an innate skill for words and don't really notice if they need polishing or rethinking. We write what's in our heads but the words don't always make it to the paper (or sign, in this case).

And before you ask, Spellcheck can only do so much for you on this. In fact, my Spellcheck doesn't know the difference between it's and its. If I paid attention to it, I'd always be wrong.

You have to read what you've written to see these glaring mistakes. It may not be exciting but at least you'll be able to spot stupid things that shouldn't be there. Wanting it to be perfect, like saying exactly what you mean, are two different things.

It must have been the day for it, because on the way home, I saw another church sign that read: 'Are you passing threw life without God?'

There is so much wrong with that, I don't know where to start.

But I have a sign of my own that could be helpful: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO READ TO RIGHT!

Get it?

Joyce Lavene

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Slips of the Tongue—by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Blue Dress Paris--Jean Franck Baudoin-1870-1961 I was in—as usual—the grocery store on Saturday afternoon. As soon as I walked in the door, I was greeted with a big smile by a couple of men at a table. I did a mental groan—they wanted me to do something. Sure enough, it was time to update that plastic discount card the grocery store assigns us.

I was at the deli counter getting some ham and trying to put the little loyalty card on my keychain. One of the deli workers said, “So you got your card updated?”

And I said. “Mm-hmm. Last time I came in I just pretended I didn’t see them.” Then I’m sure I looked really cross because I don’t say things like that, I think things like that. Some evil sprite possessed me and made me say something rude.

The counter guy just laughed. “Yeah, you were probably ignoring me. Because I’ve been working that table until tonight.”

Which made me even more cross at myself.

It also made me think that frequently we’re our own worst enemies.

Writing cozy mysteries, I really like to do things on a small scale. Because of the nature of the books, I’m not doing any Hollywoodesque car crashes, explosions, or chase scenes.

I don’t have cataclysmic events in my books—no natural disasters, terrorism, or ghastly epidemics. Although I really enjoy reading books like these, they just don’t fit my genre.

A horrific day in my books? Someone’s slip of the tongue results in their murder. They knew too much.

Think of all the uses faux pas can have. Because we’ve all said things that came out wrong or that people took the wrong way.

A slip of the tongue could result in someone really getting furious with an in-law or other family member. Maybe it represented the last straw for the person—the one that made them decide to end a relationship.

Faux pas can end friendships. Maybe a friend blabbed about the protagonist’s secret. Maybe the slip is viewed as a betrayal by another character.

A slip of the tongue could result in someone getting fired. Maybe someone leaked something that their office wanted to keep strictly confidential.

Military men and women who accidentally disclose too much information involving location during a war, you’re actually endangering lives.

Think of all the politicians who end up saying, “I misspoke.” So many have said thoughtless things, or uttered racially insensitive statements when “misspeaking.”

There are so many different ways to plot around someone sticking their foot in their mouth. And the reader? They won’t think the results are unbelievable at all. Because we all make our little faux pas.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Some thoughts on the power of storytelling by Kathleen Delaney

The other day I picked up a copy of a volume of short stories by Sharon McCrumb. In the preface, she writes about growing up in a family of storytellers. Her father, her grandmother, everyone would gather around the porch, or table, and tell stories, about the family’s adventures in settling in the Blue Ridge mountains, about the funny things that happened, the struggles to carve out a life there, about the deaths and the births, and she talks about what an impression those stories made on her. She says that is where she got her love of stories, and it most likely is.

I know that’s where I got my love of them. My father also was a great storyteller, and oh how we loved to listen to him He grew up in Pipestone, Min. and moved to Lemon, SD when he was a young man, and he made those years alive for my brother and me. They had two ponies, Barney and Dick. Those horses pulled the carriage, took my father and his brother into town and to school, and helped my grandfather plow. The stories were so real, that although I never met those horses, I feel as if I had.

Other stories weren’t so happy. My heart still stands still when I think of how Dad lost his dog, Shep. They were making the move to SD, and Dad was to ride in a boxcar with some of the livestock. He’d broken his leg right before the move, and was on crutches. The dog jumped out of the car during a brief stop, and Dad couldn’t jump out after him. The train started to move and, although Dad frantically called to him out the open boxcar door, the dog couldn’t catch up. The last he ever saw of him, the dog was chasing the train, and loosing ground. They advertised all up and down the tracks, but the dog was never found. I heard that story over sixty years ago and it still brings tears to my eyes.

The stories we loved weren’t all family tales. The Saturday Evening Post came to our house, full of all kinds of stories, but not too many my brother and I were interested in, at least not when we were really young. But there was one series we loved, and reading those stories became a beloved ritual. I don’t remember who wrote them, maybe I never knew, and don’t remember even one title, but to us, they were the Babe and Joe stories. Babe and Little Joe were children about our ages who lived with their father and their Uncle Pete on a ranch somewhere in the mid-west, I think during the depression. Uncle Pete wasn’t very respectable, to be honest, he—drank.

Their mother had died and their father was having a hard time hanging onto his land, but they all somehow made it through each story. My brother and I loved them, and each week we searched the pages for a new Babe and Joe story. If one appeared, the ritual began. The magazine was carefully put on the table beside the chair where my father sat, for one of the best parts of the stories was Dad reading them aloud. We waited impatiently for him to get home from work, then attacked him with the joyful news.

Another Babe and Joe story had come and he needed to read it aloud to all of us, right now. But of course we had to wait. There were clothes to be changed, dinner to eat, and dishes to do. Those were probably the only nights my mother got help with the dishes with absolutely no fussing from us. When all was ready, my father would take his chair, my mother would settle in on the sofa, and my brother and I would sit cross-legged on the floor. Dad would pick up the Post, carefully find the page, and begin.
I’ve wondered if the stories were really that good, or if it was the ritual we made of the reading of them that made them so special. We don’t seem to do that anymore, have those kinds of family rituals. It’s hard to gather the family around the computer, and somehow even congregating around the TV doesn’t quite make those kinds of memories. And today, there is so much out there, we are bombarded with information, social networking, twittering, texting, all kinds of things.

But they’re not stories. Really good stories, about people we like and have learned to care for, will never be replaced with a tweet. At least, I don’t think so. Short blurbs on Facebook will never reduce you to tears, ones that you remember for years, and those blurbs will never make you rejoice for someone you’ve never met when they finally achieve the goal they have been striving for. I know, we’ve all seen the atrocities that are captured by cell phone cameras, and those impressions certainly last.

But stories take us all over the world, they take us back in time, and they take us into the lives of others, They let us experience adventures we might never otherwise have, and they make us care about people we would never otherwise have met. And by doing that, hopefully they give us greater insight into our own lives and relationships. But best of all, stories are about sharing. Whether its your father telling you about his growing up or Dick Francis taking you over fences in a steeplechase in England, you are sharing, experiences and emotions both.

So, get ye to the library, or to the bookstore, or just sit down and talk to your grandma, your elderly aunt, your mom or dad or your kids, and really listen. You just might learn something about one of them you never knew before, something about your family that makes you laugh. Or cry. And, you might even find yourself saying to someone you love—“let me tell you a story.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Editing out the Extras—Elizabeth Spann Craig

Hans the Younger Holbein--Eramus Desiderius of Rotterdam Alan Orloff at A Million Blogging Monkeys had a great post last week dealing with scene pacing. As he mentioned, it’s best to start a scene late in the action and end the scene early.

Otherwise, our characters start doing boring things.

My characters love doing boring things. I let them have their way with the manuscript on the first draft, but for the second? They’re not having pointless phone conversations anymore. They’re not walking to the front door, putting on their jacket, and strolling out to the car.

We don’t have to be with the character every step of the way in a book. We don’t have to sit with them through their meals, watch them do their dishes. We don’t have to be there when they go to bed at night or wake up in the morning.

Instead, we can start scenes in the middle of the action.

So instead of having my Memphis BBQ protagonist Lulu get dressed in a floral dress, eat a bowl of Fruit Loops, happily sing along with the radio, arrive at her Aunt Pat’s barbeque restaurant, and discover a body, I could do this instead:

Lulu unlocked the door to the restaurant, reached in, and fumbled for the lights, still humming that tune from South Pacific. Her keys hit the wooden floor with a clunk. There was a body in a pool of blood smack dab in the middle of the dining room.

The reader just assumes that Lulu got ready for her day. I don’t have to shadow Lulu while she decides which of her dozen floral dresses she’s going to put on for the day. The reader assumes that Lulu has gotten dressed. They know she didn’t just show up for work unclothed. And she probably had something to eat, too.

Okay, let’s say we’re spanning two days. We have one event that happens in the early evening (say Lulu finds a clue), then we have something that happens the next afternoon (a suspect is taken in for questioning.)

So Lulu has made a major discovery pertaining to the case. It’s a clue…or maybe a red herring, we don’t know yet. This is a very exciting development for the case. But I’m going to water down that exciting moment if I suddenly go into documentary mode and follow Lulu home, have Lulu turn in, have some time-filling stuff going on all the next morning, lunch, and early afternoon. I’ve just killed my exciting moment.

Instead, I’ll have Lulu’s world rocked. She’s discovered a clue—and it points to the guilt of someone close to her. Lulu’s stomach knots up. End of scene.

How do I transition to the next scene, nearly twenty-four hours later? Very simply: The next afternoon, Lulu was cleaning up after the lunch rush when two police officers strode into the restaurant.

That’s all there is to it. The reader doesn’t even really notice that time lapse…it’s as innocuous as using ‘said’ to tag conversation. Our brains just kind of register it and move on.

Right now, looking at my first draft, my characters are doing all kinds of monotonous stuff. I think, for me, it’s the writing equivalent of using ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in conversation. They’re just cleaning up, dressing, sleeping, and eating while I figure out what to do with them next.

But once I’m in second draft mode, their nonsense is all edited out. With 75,000 words, I don’t have time to waste.