Monday, April 30, 2007


I looked down. The ground was about a mile away. My best friend Bernie was perched on the branch next to me. We were both twelve years old and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, or bright-tailed and bushy-eyed.

“Betcha you don’t have the guts,” he said, and his fingers tightened fearfully on the trunk.

So much for being my best friend.

Still, though, he was right, I didn’t have the guts. I did have the stupidity, though, so I retorted, “Oh, yeah?” And jumped.

The nice thing about being young and stupid is that you are young and stupid. Young enough to heal quickly. And stupid enough not to realize that a twenty-foot jump out of an oak tree into a three foot pile of hastily assembled leaves could maim you for life, or worse, fill your tidy-whities with grubs, spiders and other nasty beasties who make their homes in leaf piles.

As a guy gets older, he loses the bravery that comes from cluelessness, so he begins to search out other sources of bravado. Or better, ways to reclaim the cluelessness that generally disappears with age and experience.

That’s where beer comes in. It gives you guts. And a gut.

Because if you accumulate enough beer, you accumulate something else called a belly. This belly demonstrates to the world that you possess the guts to do mind-numbingly stupid things like jumping off bridges, bungie jumping, seeing how many cookies you can stuff in your mouth at once, or telling your wife that her new pants make her butt look big.

It also helps turn your body from a lean, mean athletic machine to a bouncy, round mound, a cushioned shape far more suited to protecting vital innards from the results of “ISA,” or Incredible Stupid Acts.

I think that’s where the phrase “intestinal fortitude” comes from. After all, bravery doesn’t come from the act of eating, which is what the intestines are primarily in charge of. Rather, it comes from the beer that travels through six miles of intestines, never stopping for directions, because no self-respecting guy or beer would, then leaping bravely into the blood stream, to travel up to the brain and smother the frontal lobes with an anesthetic alcoholic phog that renders them incapable of protesting or preventing gallant acts of stupidity.

If you see a guy waddling around proudly with a tee-shirt that boasts “I’m with stupid” (with an arrow pointing up at his own face) stretched tightly over a huge taut belly, you know that you’re looking at a guy who’s willing to do anything on a dare, a whim or sheer capriciousness. Especially once prompted with enough ale to numb the senses and diminish brain activity, particularly in that part of the brain concerned with keeping the body alert and healthy.

So if you see a guy like this, hand him a beer and point at a nearby lake, tree, pool balcony, or hill, and say, “Betcha you don’t have the guts…”


The Adventures of Guy ... written by a guy (probably)
coming soon The Next Adventures of Guy ... more wackiness

Sunday, April 29, 2007

I’ve been called worse things than a Neanderthal -- by Larry D. Sweazy

If you’re over the hill at 50, I guess it means you’re still striving for the summit at 46. No, this post is not an adventure about a middle-age meltdown, or a look back at Coulda-Woulda-Shoulda Land, or even a fearful look to the future where bad knees, expensive medical care, and the curmudgeon that I was born to be, will be the topic of the day. Nope. This post is about being in touch with the caveman part of our brain, living in the moment. Right now. That perfect state that every animal and insect—besides us humans—on this earth live in.

Think about it. The hawk gliding in the sky is concerned about 3 things. Eating, procreating, and staying safe at night. A firefly, the same thing. A human? At 46? Paying off the mortgage. Saving for retirement. In these days, personal safety if you watch the news too much. And million, gazillion, other things. Careers. Kids. Parents surviving old age. Eating and procreating are passe for most of us, that part of our existence on cruise control. Living in the moment is difficult at best, almost impossible for our human brains to achieve. But we share that same primal drive to survive with brother hawk and sister firefly, and we rarely pay attention to it.

We should, though. Especially when we are creating characters.

Last week, I urged you to look in your character’s wallet to help define them. This week is a reminder not to forget their DNA, their primal instincts.

I don’t know how many first chapters I have read where the character has so many problems, alcoholism, ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), whatever the disease of the week is, that I’ve put down the book shaking my head. I can’t connect with these screwed up people because they go on and on and on, and I’m wondering how they pay the rent. Character’s have to have flaws, no question, that’s what makes them interesting. But sometimes it feels like the author is saying, “My flaw is bigger and more unique than your flaw.” And that’s a problem. At least for me. If I want to hang out with really screwed up people, I’ll go to my family reunion, thank you very much (Oops, I’m in trouble again, I’m sure).

The mantra is to make your character different—but the same. Give them a challenge to overcome. Make them unique. Give them a “hook”. I am certainly not arguing that this is wrong. I just think it is often overdone, the basic human experience sacrificed for something less universal. And that’s a good way to lose an audience, an editor, or me, the reader.

Rex Stout’s rotund hero, Nero Wolfe, was agoraphobic, but he was still worried about paying the rent. He was still worried about eating—and there is no question that Wolfe liked to eat. Underneath all of Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies, he was just like the rest of us, still battling to survive the daily elements, still trying to put food on the table and a roof over his head. The references to Wolfe’s daily struggles are minimal, but they’re up front, right next to his love of orchids. He left the thoughts of procreating to a younger Archie Goodwin (who obviously noticed a pretty woman when he saw one). But all of the elements of basic survival are in every one of the Nero Wolfe novels. To his credit, Rex Stout created a character who lived in the moment, a human being who did not stray too from the basics even though he lived a privileged existence.

The challenge to creating a compelling character is to make them universal. But how often do we forget to add a cup of primal instincts as part of the recipe? A bi-polar private investigator with a trust fund can still be interesting, can be fully universal. He may have all the money in the world, a guaranteed room over his head, but he still may be afraid of the dark.

Just like any story, when you begin to create a character, start at the beginning, start at the core of human existence—and then go to the Wardrobe Department and Disease Of The Week Department to round them out. Put your character into the moment, figure out how they are struggling to provide for themselves and the ones they love. Make them equal to a hawk or a firefly. Make them someone who has something in common with yourself in your every day life. Male or female, put them in touch with their inner-Neanderthal. Make their basic struggle to survive just as important as their disability, or challenge, or whatever you want to call their ADD or alcoholism. It will make your character real to reader, and to you, the writer…

And now it’s back to the cave for me where there’s a dinosaur steak roasting on the fire…

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A good cup of coffee and a warm sunny day

As I sipped my first cup of coffee this morning, the sun was shining and I thought about Paris, more specifically I thought about the Parisian cultural institution otherwise known as the cafe.

I have spent many hours in just such a place, relaxing, watching the world go by. I watched as total strangers played a game of chess, I listened as people discussed philosophy, the latest book they have read, or simply as they sat and enjoyed every delightful sip of a marvelous cup of coffee. They took time out.

Across the Atlantic, here in the Chicagoland area, we too have a relative newcomer, Starbucks. I often go for a cup of coffee, I am after all addicted to the brew, so I sit, watch and listen. I hear people furiously typing on their lap tops, or speaking on the phone conducting business, or the latest craze text messaging, but what I don't see, at least not often, is anyone taking time out and simply relaxing, enjoying the moment, totally unconnected, and joyfully doing absolutely nothing but observing, or day dream.

Need I mention the quick drive through for coffee, ala McDonalds, horrors...

I am not a luddite, (new word I just learned, someone that is anti technology) since I am after all sitting at a computer composing this piece of fluff.

My fresh cup of coffee and I are now going to go outside and enjoy this perfect day.

Till next week,


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sets, Props, and other Backdrops: What Sets Settings Apart in Fiction?

by Robert W. Walker (

Just how important is setting? In some novels the setting is the novel—Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, Gone with the Wind, The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, we’ve all read mysteries wherein the setting could have been any small town, any city or the “generic” setting as in any cemetery is every cemetery, that a modern day underground parking lot is every parking lot below ground. So yeah, the setting can be “generic” or “specific” depending upon what one’s story wants to do with its backdrops and props. Setting either informs the characters or it doesn’t. Setting is either a foil or it isn’t. What the author wants to do with it decides.

Either setting is or is not sifted through the main character(s) minds. If not sifted through the lead character(s), setting is rather too often set aside as in stopping all action to focus on the Thames or the city of New Orleans or the mountainside and sunset. In some hands, this can be done beautifully. However, setting can be as slippery and as tricky to work with as any other element in a story. Often if the decision is made from the outset—“Will I make setting a major character in the tale or a minor backdrop?” why then I can deal far easier with this element of the scene or chapter or novel. David Morrell and I agree that in every scene at least three of the five senses must come into play; I personally try for all five. Setting can provide much of this scene sense—as in backfill, background music, the sounds and smells of the wharf. However, in many a novel a city is a city, a courtroom is a courtroom, and it works. But there are times when a city becomes a character unto itself, and a courtroom becomes a singularly unique courtroom. It happens in John Grisham in Oxford, Miss., and it happens in Adicus Finch’s courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. Why? Because the author wanted these courtrooms to resonate with meaning and symbolism and they do because of an Adicus Finch’s love of justice. Yet look just how vastly different in character is Finch’s simple, bare courtroom and Grisham’s hugely ornate courtroom. Each of these two courtrooms does have its unique character.

The first time I became aware of setting becoming more important in my own work was when I dared attempt to set Primal Instinct in Hawaii. How was I going to convey terror in paradise? Setting had to be, from the outset, a foil to horror and intrigue and mayhem. But what’d I know of Hawaii? A ten day visit as a tourist certainly didn’t do the job, but the entire time I was on the islands, I continuously “sifted” my impressions and feelings about the place through my character—Dr. Jessica Coran, ME. Through her five senses, her intellect, her emotions. I kept asking myself, “How would Jessica respond to this? What would she see of the underbelly of modern Hawaii? What would she care to know of its past?” At one tourist stop, I said a bit too loud, “What a great place for a killing.” Folks nearby backed off. But it wasn’t me speaking but Jess. I knew then and there that I needed to load up on area maps, underground newspapers, local papers, a tourist guide, and any local books repeatedly showing up on racks.

There is nothing wrong with using a generic setting or simply stating the whereabouts, and some authors do the quick sketch of place brilliantly. We all paint with different size brush strokes. However, if you decide that setting will play a major role in the story, you must—aside from research—allow your characters to act and react within that setting—even to the point of holding a conversation either aloud or in thought with that soothing or menacing setting. Often the setting can change in the blink of an eye from pleasing to threatening. How New Orleans feels and IS to an individual is far more important than restating what you can find in a tourist guide. However, maps, local newspapers, underground “rags”, and tourist guides can be extremely helpful in recalling a place or writing of places you have not lived in or ever set foot in. I’ve set books in many locals that I’ve never set foot in—Chicago in her gaslight era for instance, London, Cuba, India for example.

It all comes down to sifting the place in and out of your main character(s) eyes, ears, nose, fingertips, taste buds. Imagine a world that has never existed—futuristic settings, or settings that no longer exist, as in an historical novel like my own Shadows in the White City. Chicago in 1893 and the Worlds Fair are major “characters” in the story, and each character interacts with the setting. Some find the boomtown admirable, others find it despicable, while others find it challenging. The ocean may be a beautiful lady to one seaman, a deadly killer to another, and perhaps both to a third character. Those combating poverty in 1893 might find any setting at odds with them. I work hard nowadays at setting and setting my characters up against it…or all for it…and sometimes they are challenged by their own preconceived or ingrained notions about their world which ultimately challenges their psyches.

Robert W. (Rob) Walker

Have I joined the circus? Or is this my life?

The Ringmaster steps into the spotlight and says, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have with us tonight an amazing artist. She's the daredevil of juggling. She writes while she drives, she drives while she writes. She judges contests while eating her supper, she edits her work while talking to her mother."

And the amazing artist whips out into Ring Number One and performs her act. Meanwhile the Ringmaster says, "Ladies and Gentlemen, in the Center Ring we have an Amazing Artist who has traveled from the far reaches of Illinois to be with us tonight. This special performance is a never been tried before act of being in two places at once!"

The frazzled artist zips toward Center Ring, still brushing her hair and clipping her ear ring in place. She's forgotten her pen but the Ringmaster magically produces one and the signing begins, while the phone ringing in her purse becomes the annoying disturbance it is.

Then the Ringmaster steps into Ring Number Three. "Ladies and Gentlemen, for your special entertainment tonight, we have the Amazing Artist coming in after work. She's running three programs and making a cake for the bazaar, but she'll be here as soon as she puts gas in her car."

Meanwhile, back in Ring Number One, her granddaughters arrive on the scene, ready to plant tulips and play on the swing. A Bookstore is calling from Center Ring wondering if she could travel to Mars for her next book signing? Then Ring Number Three needs more programs to be run and if she could, could she chair just one?

The Ringmaster steps out into the Center Ring and announces," Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight we have a special performance, an amazing artist asleep at her desk. Please keep your applause to the end, her nap won't take long, but her snoring is quite entertaining."

Til next time ~


Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Hi everyone,

I've been very busy the past week, since I was inspired to institute Book Place, a network for readers, authors, publishers, editors, reviewers, and all book industry professionals.

I wanted a network where everyone felt comfortable sharing and promoting all genres of books without worrying about stepping over the line. (Well, I do draw the line on porno and illegal books, but that's it)

Anyway, it's been fun figuring out how to get the main page together, inviting folks to join, welcoming members, doing all sorts of things to get Book Place going. The one thing I do regret is I didn't think of the name Book Place until after things got started and it was too late to change it. That's why the long url to access it is

To help remedy this, I also have a mini site set up at which is just a traffic direction site. In case people get mixed up and can't find the url on their computers with the long name, but just remember, they'll see a message there showing where all the action is.

I hope everyone who has already joined takes advantage of the great promo opportunities available, including downloading photos, videos, doing blogs, sending messages, listing events, recommending books, looking for answers, or just plain discussing what's on your mind.

If you're not a member, you have nothing to lose by coming onboard. You'll discover a diverse and friendly bunch of people. Best thing is it's free.

Morgan Mandel

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Something's Missing

You may have noticed that there wasn't a posting last Tuesday. It wasn't intentional - life just got in the way.

It was the tax filing deadline after all -- although I electronically filed the weekend before. I already have my state refund and what I owed the federal government has been deducted from my checking account. So, it really wasn't that.

It was the shooting at VA Tech. I, like so many others, was overwhelmed by the tragedy. I anxiously watched news reports trying to find out more information -- not to gawk or anything so crass but just desperately trying to understand why this happened in the first place.

I've done a fair share of research into the FBI profiling of serial killers, I am tragically fascinated by the Jack the Ripper case (mostly because it's like a puzzle), I've watched just about all the crime documentaries on TV and Cable and still this tragedy defies understanding. I cry inside everytime I see a picture of one of the victims. I can't help it. This shouldn't have happened.

I know the occurrence of crime comes with the existence of humans. I know that those of us who write mysteries routinely think about the topic, but still this shooting has left us numb. It doesn't make sense.

In the mid 1980's I was stationed as an army engineer just southwest of Seoul, South Korea. I was surprised and even a little devastated that the gunman turned out to be South Korean. Despite the atmosphere of a cease fire between the two Koreas and the brutal image of the N. Korea dictator, the South Koreans as a whole are very welcoming and friendly. Many speak English. I would often go to rural and non-touristy places in S. Korea with my infant daughter where we were often the only Caucasians and I never felt afraid.

Then I heard that the gunman had come here when he was 8 years old and I have to wonder - would he have done this had he grown up in S. Korea? Did something happen to him after his family migrated to the US that planted the seed towards this horrible tragedy? Did we as a society fail him or would he have done something this horrible no matter what happened to him during his childhood?

These are all valid questions and I'm not sure we will ever find all the answers. One thing I do know is that there will be much written on this case for years to come. Unfotunately, it won't stop it from happening again. The question is - what will?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Holy Ow!

It hurts! I hurt!

I can barely get upright, much less downleft. And not only that, but some self-proclaimed do-gooder named "Nurse Wife" refuses to let me move around. She bosses me around, telling me to lie, or is it lay? ... whatever... flat.

If we were meant to lie flat, we'd be a piece of panelboard, a book, or something else that only requires two dimensions instead of three.

And now I'm typing in pain, all bent up, just to bang out some words of knowledge (I lie, as opposed to lay ... you won't learn anything here).

My excuse, explanation as it were, is that my youngest critter and I went to the former Joliet Arsenal to do some community service (no, not jail related - I already served that time). A bunch of kids and adults all showed up to pull mustard grass, so of course we ended up pulling up heavy waterlogged railroad ties out of culverts, ditches and sometimes two feet of water.

Since I know I can overpower mustard grass I didn't bring my back brace... the railroad ties were a complete surprise ... so you can guess the rest. Yep, I hurt my head. Just kidding, my back. So Nurse Wife confined me to bed rest, and I'm bored!

Do you hear me!


No, not board, but they lie/lay flat, too.


Yes, I'm incredibly bored.

You can only lay down reading for awhile... then some TV... maybe a crossword puzzle ... AAARRGGHHHH!!!! I want to be OUTSIDE! I want to PLAY! Tennis, swim,... something... anything ... I'd gladly pull weeds.

I'd be content to sit outside feeding the fish. But no, not according to Nurse Wife. It's bed and that's it. Oh, and Naproxin. Did you know you can't have a glass of wine with Naproxin? So I can't even drink myself into a stupor and sleep through my recovery.

Oh, wait, Nurse Wife is coming... I have to go before she sees that I'm out of bed...


The Adventures of Guy ... written by a guy (probably)

and its upcoming sequel The Next Adventures of Guy ... more wackiness

Sunday, April 22, 2007

What's In Your Wallet? BY LARRY D. SWEAZY

Somebody asked me recently how I write a novel. It’s not something I think about a lot these days because I write every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a novel, a short story, or a blog post, I write. Writers write. An old adage, but one that is very true.

The conversation went kind of like this:

I answered the question by saying, “I Show up.”

“No, I mean do you start with an idea? Do you outline? Do you know the end before you start?”

“I usually start with a character,” I answered.

And I really hadn’t thought about that, either, but it’s also true. I usually have a face, a soul, in my mind, and they are aching to have their story told. I just follow after them…

“Characters are hard. I mean, do you write about somebody you know?” the person asked.

“I write about a lot of somebodys. My characters are composites. People I’ve met, family members, people I’ve seen crossing the street or stranger’s talking on their cell phone at the grocery store (which is annoying unless you hear a line like: “Don’t forget to get food for the lizard.)”

“So you decide if their eyes are blue, if they have blonde hair?”

“Or no hair at all.”


“Thanks, but that’s Norm’s department.”

“But you know all of this before you start?”

“Hum…No. I usually look in their wallet first.”

“You’re character’s wallet?”


And that’s absolutely true. I look in my character’s wallet. Beyond the physical creation of Joe Friday Super Detective, I want to know about the things my characters carry and why. I’ve always thought one of the great aspects of writing is that I get to be the director, the set designer, the makeup artist, etc. While writing is a community effort, for the most part it is not a collaborative effort. So when I create a character, I take a few pages from the acting manual, called “The Method” (think: James Dean, Brando, DeNiro). I borrow from Stanislavski, Stella Adler, and the rest of the gang at the Actor’s Studio. I want my characters to be real, to experience “sense memory”, to have a past, present, and future. I want to know their pain, their sorrow, and their joy. That doesn’t necessarily mean I give the reader all of this information. But I know it. And what we carry in our wallets tells us a lot about a person. So, I start there when I’m trying to get inside a character’s head and heart. Beyond the plastic credit and debit cards, there’s usually something of interest in a wallet, something personal, something hidden away from view, but always present on the character’s body. Aren’t these the kind of things we need to know create believable characters? The possibilities are endless:

· An emergency phone number, but that person has long since died.
· A cigarette butt.
· No pictures
· A picture of a dog and nothing else.
· A St. Christopher’s medal, even though the character is an avowed atheist.
· A matchbook.
· A toothpick.
· A fortune cookie fortune with a phone number on it.
· (And no—just in case you’re wondering—these items aren’t in my wallet)…

These talismans give me more than back story, they give me emotion. And if I have that emotion clear in my mind, I can give it to the reader…And that’s the best part of the exercise—clarity of a character’s emotion given to the reader.

So, the next time you’re struggling to create a character, stop for a second and ask: “What’s in your wallet?”

What you find may surprise you.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Magical World of the Website by Margot Justes

So, I finally got a contract for my manuscript, it is sold, I sighed with relief... It was but a brief moment of euphoria, the first words out of my publisher's mouth was 'you must get a website...immediately...I am all for keeping my publisher happy. Panic set in, I know people, creative people, who do marvelous work, but alas not for me.

It is not a secret I am to be published, since I blabbed to anyone and everyone who would listen. Little did I know I would get two of the most talented people I know to design my website. They simply volunteered to do something artistic for an 'author' - that's me...

They are simply known as Web Gal and Web Guy, their choice of moniker not mine, to me they masters of their craft. OK, so now I had the creators, and it was turned over to me for pictures, of me, to be specific. Web Gal took a slew of them, none may I add pleased me. 'Nope not that one, that one has a double chin, (mine of course)undoubtedly the fault of the photographer. Not that one either, too far, too close, I don't like that one...'

"Margot, you no longer have a choice" said my Web Gal "I will decide." And decide she did.

This was just the beginning, there were choices to be made, about Java Script, HTML, Opening and closing tabs, .jpg images, search engines, etc... Such words were being tossed around while my eyes glazed over. I didn't even pretend to look intelligent, fortunately for me my Web Gal and Guy understood all. I saw an alert and consuming interest in their eyes. I was in safe hands.

I owe a profound debt of gratitude to two wonderful, gifted individuals who donated their own time to help out a coworker. I have been given an elegant, artistic, easy to use website-easy to use-being the operative word for this author.

I will sing their praises forever.

Margot Justes
A Hotel In Paris
June 2008 Echelon Press (will be operational in about a week)

Friday, April 20, 2007

No Blowhards In Your Story, Please! BY ROBERT W. (ROB) WALKER

Recently on a chat the issue came up of having a character in a mystery do what we term an “information dump” go on for paragraphs, possibly pages as one character simply “unloads” and tells all. When this happens, and it is almost a given in a rough draft and so many people believe it HAS to happen as the ANSWERS to the mystery have to be disclosed by someone—whether it is a Sherlock Holmes or a Monk or an Obi Wan Kenobi character who has all the answers, or a confession pouring out of the bad guy. Two problems with this “device” is that it has become a cliché in and of itself, spoofed often as in the film Tootsie when Dustin Hoffman does it and by doing so ends the career of Dorothy…and second problem? One of our characters begins to speak, uninterrupted, for a page or two or in whole paragraphs. I fight this on the rewrite, and remember rewriting IS writing.
The answer to the info dump problem is simple. In natural speech, even when someone pleads to “let me get this off my chest before you interrupt” the listener will interrupt. Will ask questions. Will pace. Will shake their heads. Will plead for more information. Will ask why, how, when, where, and then why again. In short good dialogue practices can save your story from having what we call the “blowhard” character who goes on for pages or paragraphs uninterrupted. Read the dialogue below and imagine it in its first draft. In its origin, it was a first person narrative from the mouth of one speaker until I went in and asked after each sentence, what response would my listener have to that? How can I cut and paste what was the original speaker’s line and place it in as the listener’s line? Can I use facial expressions and actions to put an end to the speaker’s speech even if for only a moment. In short, how can I introduce a lot more paragraph indents, giving the second person on scene or a third person in the room reason to interrupt the info dump guy. The dialogue below was once one long, too long paragraph from one speaker but not anymore.

“No, I don’t mean it that way like I expected nothing.”
“Then what did you—ahhh…”
“H-had not a single thought in my head—certainly not consequences.”
“Blank, huh?”
“B-blank, zip.”
“What’d I have in my head? Is that what you wanna know?”
“Might help to know, yes, Stan.”
“Like a swimming pool fulluvit, fulla red, yeah.”
“ Just seeing red?”
“Just seein’ red, yeah.”
“Then it’s true what they say about seeing red, huh?”
“You oughta know, detective.”
Stanley must’ve hit a nerve as evidenced by the silence coming from the tape recorder. Apparently Castle did know about seeing red. Holden certainly did. He’d taken to calling it “the red out.”
“All that love and devotion and sincere concern you had for her,” began Castle’s voice anew, “and she pisses on it. Ruins it. You give over everything to Mary, and she spits in your face. Sure, I get it.”
“Alice, her name was Alice.”
“Mine was Mary.”

AND so it goes. No longer is all this information “dumped” on the reader. This lesson is among the most important a writer must learn. Readers will love you for it. So the next time you catch one of your characters trying to carry the entire info dump load, remember the watchword – Interrupts. Rewrite to include INTERRUPTIONS via dialogue, expressions, and actions taken. In reality put yourself into the story and ask, “Would I stand for some guy talking to me for twenty minutes without clearing my throat and interrupting?


Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Boy Scout Motto

My nephew Tylor became an Eagle Scout last week. He's thirteen, rather young to have accomplished such a milestone. He had the support of his parents and troop to see him through this challenge, and all his friends. Still, he did the brunt of the work to reach his goal.

As I sat in the audience observing this prestigious ceremony, I reflected back on my scouting days, recalling the scouts motto, "Be Prepared." I wonder what life could be like if we all adopted this philosophy. To be prepared ideally means not running late, not having to go looking for misplaced keys or shoes. No one would be rushing on the roads, fighting for possession of the next patch of asphalt. We wouldn't be driving through the drive-up window at some fast food because we didn't have time to eat a decent meal. We would have prepared our day and been better for it. Perhaps we would have more pleasant things to talk about than some jerk who cut us off at the intersection, or vent about the guy who wouldn't hold the elevator.

So much of our time is wasted due to lack of discipline and preparedness. If we learned to be prepared, maybe we would then have time to pursue other things. The Scouts of America have a long list of ideas. They include such things as being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind. Other tributes of a Scout are being obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and Reverent. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

The Scouts of America are busy molding young people into dependable and ethical characters. Their dream is to instill lifetime values that will make our community and country a better place to live. Eagle Scouts are the leaders of today and tomorrow. And I like knowing that. After all the wrongs that happen in our society, it's refreshing to know that communities all over America are still taking the time and the effort to instill good moral character to our youngsters.

And so as Tylor made his acceptance speech, I listened as he thanked his mom and dad, his sisters, troop leader and friends for helping him. He was humble, shy, and unbelievably proud to be an Eagle Scout. Happiness overflowed the sanctuary. His parents will wear their Eagle Scout parent pins for a long time, I'm sure. Tylor received many gifts, but the one he liked most was the sense of completion of a long task now done. But ... and his grin twisted a bit here, he said, "I'm really just beginning. I have agreed to the responsibility now."

The responsibility he spoke of, the same responsibility for every Eagle Scout is to be a good citizen, a strong leader, to help other people without expecting payment, to be mentally awake and morally straight.

That's a tall order for anyone, let alone a thirteen year old boy. But I like knowing Tylor is willing to try. Better yet, so are his many, many, many comrades.

Til next time ~


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Animals in Fiction

Hi folks,
I'm half asleep, but my dog, Rascal, is wide awake. She's 2 1/2 and still thinks she's a puppy. Not only that, despite my taking her to obedience classes (where she behaves like a model student), she shows little respect for me at home. She grabs my slippers, sometimes grabs my hat or gloves right from my hands, you get the picture. If she weren't so cute, I'd hate her.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Pets make great fodder for writing. They can add an extra dimension to your characters. If your main character seems a bit rough around the edges, but you want to show that your character is likeable, consider letting that person own a dog, climb up a tree to rescue a cat, or work at an animal shelter.

This can also work for the villain in your story. To show a human characteristic and make the villain more well rounded, you can make him or her soft for his German Shepherd, or even a gold fish. Maybe the pet is the only one the villain can relate to.

You can carry this a step further by making a pet the major character of your book, such as John Grogan did in Marley and Me.

Rascal, one of these days you may be a star.
Morgan Mandel

Monday, April 16, 2007

hummer ... er ... humerus .... ah.... humor

Today's blog is about humor... about writing for those readers who have a funny bone and aren't afraid to use it (I happen to have two, myself). And, though I can understand the confusion, never confuse your funny bone with your humerus, which has a different zip code on your body, though it still has a healthy sense of humor.

One good humor trick is using something unexpected to startle the senses with mundane things that don't necessarily belong together. For example, the sentence "I woke up and looked at the ghastly visage in the mirror" isn't as fun as "My reflection in the mirror looked like a startled gopher."

Two things work here, 1) Visualization: as you imagine how a startled gopher might look, 2) the fact that 'gopher' is a funny word, and 3) you wouldn't expect to see a gopher in your bathroom.

Now if you want to add another element, say 'fear', a simple tweak works, "I woke up, stared into the mirror and saw George Bush."

Didn't this give you goose bumps? No, scarier than that, ostrich bumps.

Anyway, incorporating humor in your writing is fun to do and can be fit into just about any kind of story. Also, tongue in cheek is a lot more fun than tongue in nose, and doesn't nearly tickle as much. Unless you're talking about the other kind of cheek, and I probably don't want to go there.

Take care and anything else you can get your hands on.


The Adventures of Guy ... written by a guy (probably)
and the upcoming The Next Adventures of Guy ... more wackiness

Sunday, April 15, 2007

My Puppy Snores Louder Than My Wife

I’m obviously going to get into deep doo-doo once my wife reads the title of this post. Trust me, after 23 years of marriage, I’ve been in trouble before. But here’s the thing, she’ll smack me on the shoulder or rub my head (which would partially explain my lack of hair), and get over it. Writer’s spouses have to put up with a lot—and there is no way I could be the writer I am without my wife.

When I first started writing, I thought the writer’s life would be a solitary experience. But I soon learned, like is often the case, that I was wrong. Writing is a community effort.

I may sit in my office on a cold rainy day and visit Tokyo or North Dakota in my imagination, or be a killer, a cop, or a hooker as I tell a story, but at the end of the day, at the dinner table, I am a husband and a writer. In the heat of a novel or a short story, my wife will ask, “How’s it going?” She doesn’t pry, she doesn’t prod–well, that’s not really true, she prods when I’m in a procrastination phase, and is happiest when I get back to writing—she just lets me know she’s interested, that she is waiting for the next story or chapter to be laid in her hands. She is my first reader. The first person I count on the most to be totally honest with me about what I’ve created. Sometimes, we argue about my characters as if they are real people. Does it really get any better than that?

Some people say never trust what your spouse says about your work because they hold back and will tell you it’s the greatest thing they’ve ever read. Not true here. My wife knows how important writing is to me. She understands that I cannot improve as a writer if she is concerned about my “feelings”. If I am going to achieve my goal of living my life as a writer, I can’t protect my ego as if it were made of rare, irreplaceable, crystal. I have to take the knocks, and she has to be willing to give them. That’s our agreement, our bond, forged over years of rejection slips, false starts, and happy days when an acceptance comes in the mail. I can’t imagine being in a relationship with someone who views writing as a hobby or a pipe dream. When I get thumped on the head, I know I’m a lucky guy.

Past my wife, I have a group of writers that I have known for a long time, and they are champions of my work and I am a champion of theirs. When I see them (on the rare occasion when I leave the house), they will always ask, “What are you working on?” or “How’s the novel coming along?”. A few of them are my second and third readers, practitioners of the craft who will catch things my wife might not. I’ve always found it interesting that there are writers in this world that are concerned about another writer’s development. But I’ve been lucky to encounter people who believe, “A rising tide lifts all ships.” I heard Harlan Coben once say that “His success doesn’t depend on someone else’s failure.” I couldn’t agree more, and I am grateful to have writers as my friends who believe the same thing.

Once I publish something, I am also lucky enough to have an independent bookseller who supports my work and schedules readings and signings, helps me with publicity, and is genuinely happy when I have something new for him to sell. And then there are the golden readers, strangers who have invested their time and money into my writing for a moment of entertainment or pleasure, who ask, “When’s the next story coming out?”

In between the time I sit down at the computer and write the first line until the time a reader asks me for more, my writing has been touched by, or touches, an editor, a cover designer, a mailman, a UPS man, a pilot on a FedEx plane, a printer, a paper manufacturer, a sales rep, a bookstore clerk, and on and on and on. Just because I decided to sit down and say, “Once upon a time…”

A solitary experience? I don’t think so.

So, you’re probably still wondering about the puppy…I have 2 dogs, both Rhodesian ridgebacks. One, Brodi, is 5 years old, and the puppy, Sunny, is 7 months old. (You can view their pictures on the dog page of my Web site: They are one of the most important cogs in the community writing wheel. I work at home, and the dogs force me to walk 3 miles a day. Rain, sleet, or snow, (which is just how the weather is today) we walk out into the world, where I fret over plot ideas, solve character deficiencies, come up with titles…and breathe. I wouldn’t walk without the dogs because I’m too lazy to do it for myself, but it’s hard to resist a 125 pound dog who comes into the office and nudges my wrist and growls until I get off my duff. Now there are two of them—one of my brighter ideas of late, because Brodi and I were both slowing down a bit.

After a walk, they lay down on their respective couches and take a nap. Yes, they snore. My wife snores (and no, she won’t deny it—I have a tape recording to prove it). I snore. We all snore together. As tiring and exciting as the writing life is, it’s a community effort.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

It's Saturday and one day closer to spring

The real thing, where trees are budding, daffodils and tulips are blooming, not peeking chilled through a layer of snow.

I can now cheerfully segway to the beginning of summer and the start of the outdoor art fairs in the Chicagoland area. No, I am not wishing my life away, since the anticipation is a unique delight in it's own right.

My protagonist is an artist. I have no such talents, but I do love and appreciate the effort and talent it takes to start with a blank canvas and create...Come to to think of it, it is not unlike a blank page that will be filled with words...hmmmm, I do see similarities.

If you see an art theme here, do not despair, next week I'll write about the creation of my website, but I digress, back to art.

If you find yourself in my neck of the woods this summer, I can recommend the Evanston, The Glen , Oak Brook and my all time favorite the Highland Park fair. If anyone is interested, I will post the dates of the events, once they are available.

I do tend to stay in the suburban area, since the Chicago fairs have become so crowded, it is difficult to really see anything, much less chat with the artist.

Take care,

Margot Justes
A Hotel in Paris
June 2008, Echelon Press

Thursday, April 12, 2007


On the light side, we need language symbols for tongue in cheek, saracasm, irony, just kidding, metaphore, simili, and such. It could help greatly when we are in a mood of whimsy and no one gets it. Recently on a chat line the question of why chapter and scene breaks are necessary, and as a traditional stylist, I do need and want breaks both as a reader and a writer.

Breaks do one or two things for the reader --
1) they signal a "break" in time, a "break" in space-geography-setting, or a "break" in point of view. Some vital thingies to keep us clear as to when, where, and why we are where we are in the story or novel.

Historically speaking, the novel was called an episodic tale...each episode in Moll Flanders was a chapter with scenes set. Each scene brings down a curtain and then when the curtain rises again you are (HERE) staring at a new set.

Shakespeare was good for this as was Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, an episodic novel. This is the historic shape of a major form. Nowadays many an experimental novel has played games with the shape of the novel, but traditional novels are often still episodic and most
mysteries are episodic. Often the last episode is displayed first and the shape is turned on its head, but the basic shape of beginning, middle, end is embedded, and episode as one clue leads to the next and the next.

What's most important to me is whenever I choose to stop one scene and begin another that I am careful as can be to extend my hand to the reader so's he or she will not be lost or at all confused when going from one set to another, from one point of view to another, or from one time period or another. A flashback may be useful and warranted, for instance, but if the reader is totally flummoxed or discombobulated(*sp?)and unable to "follow" the author or catch the curve ball he just threw because he didn't provide the signs, then there's a problem in clarity.

Episodes work for us in TV drama and even sitcoms...the episodic nature of most movies still works for us. As readers we are more sophisticated than ever and understand that a "spacer" on the page means something major is about to change--time period, setting, point of view. I've read some of the experimental authors who throw out all the traditions and "rules" and some are extremely successful but I personally regard chapter and scene breaks as sacred to my storytelling, and it is at these breaks that I am most aware that I must extend my hand out to my reader; most in tune with my reader's need to take my hand and follow me next to this point of view, to this time and place, this “switched on” new setting, and to make this happen I rely heavily on words that signal time shifts (there are quite a few such time words), or words that signal setting\geography shifts, or words that signal pov shifts, and sometimes to open a new scene or chapter it requires all three.

These opening and endings of scenes and chapters are like parking lots where most accidents happen; the author must take extreme care here if he uses say 3 scenes per chapter with a cap of twenty pages per chapter in an attempt to create a pleasing and clear episodic novel as I believe most mysteries are. In my own work, it's comfortably organic to have chapter two naturally flow from the source of the river, chapter one. Still, there are as many rivers to the
ocean as minds to create and recreate, and I respect anyone who can smartly and intelligently turn the form on its ear and do so well and with panache.

City for Ransom, Shadows in the White City, Psi Blue, FleshWar

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My turn?


It's not my turn, is it?


Oh... okay... see y'all Monday!



A funeral and a road trip!

I just returned from a two day road trip with my dad! My sister went too. The highlight was making my dad laugh so hard coffee spurted through his nose... :) ... and the heartbreak was watching him help put my Aunt Goldie to rest.

It's been years since I went on a road trip with my family. We set out in my new Dodge Charger, announcing the standard "if you get pulled over" speech ... "you pay the fine!" We blazed down the interstates and as the miles settled behind us and we grew closer to our destination, my dad's mind drifted back to earlier years when my aunt and him had been young. I never knew my aunt had worked in the Pentagon during World War II; I never knew her first husband divorced her because she couldn't have children. I remember a fun-loving aunt who loved to spoil her girls ~ meaning my sisters and me because she never had kids. I remember sitting in the backseat of her '57 Chevy, the windows down, the radio up and Aunt Goldie snapping her fingers to the jazzy blues she loved while we raced down the blacktop roads. I remember playing dress-up in Aunt Goldie's fancy clothes, wearing bright red lipstick from those itty bitty Avon tubes. I remember Aunt Goldie's dog Belle, more spoiled than any canine had a right to be. I also remember visiting her in a nursing home four hundred miles away from me and wondering how such a vibrant woman had ended up a stroke victim for over twenty years.

Yes, she's been in a nursing home for twenty-three years! I think that might be some kind of record. Not one I'd like to strive for either. At the age of sixty, my aunt, living on the bluffs of the Ohio River, had a stroke. My father and mother, being retired and of the vagabond nature, were able to stop by often. Me, I was raising kids, working and rarely found the time to visit her. And each time I did, even though she couldn't talk, I vowed I'd return sooner rather than later to see her again. My last visit was ten years ago.

I didn't keep my own promise and I can't really tell you why. She was an important part of my childhood, my family, but four hundred miles became too big a bridge for me to cross. And that, will be one of my regrets, one of those times when I'd like a do over.

What I don't regret is taking the two days off work to be with my father and sister! We laughed, we cried, and we met family at Aunt Goldie's funeral who haven't seen me since I was running around in pigtails! And was I the one who wrote the books? And what was my name again?

Yep, I ended up peddling my books at my aunt's funeral! Aunt Goldie would have said it was only proper the rest of the family finally got around to seeing what my books were all about! Of course, my sister will never let this lay quietly ... at the first opportunity she will be telling folks how I handed out business cards and apologized for not having more with me and how my husband took my box of books out of the trunk to make room for the suitcases ... oh yes, this road trip will live on for a good long while.

And I'm glad. My dad and my sister are two of my favorite people. Spending time with them is never dull. Our family will be having an Easter get-together in another week, and our trip will come up ... disputes of who we saw, what they said, where we went ... will be hot topics. Stories of Aunt Goldie will fill the conversations. All will be lively and funny ~ because she was! We'll all practice our southern drawls. But in our own way, we again will have the opportunity to celebrate a life so important to my family. My Aunt Goldie was well loved. As the minister said, "Goldie was a fine woman, beautiful and full of life." That should be said with a southern drawl, please!

So this week the Acme Authors Link has shared our family sorrows. Loss and death are a part of life. They bring us closer to our own mortality. But knowing that doesn't make them any easier to bear. And so I hope your memories of your loved ones bring you some comfort as mine have brought me.

Golda Belle McDowell Brooks' funeral is over; the road trip done ... but the memories ... all those little tidbits that add up to so much ... will bloom and grow. And for now that is enough.

God Bless ~

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


I hadn't planned to continue on the current thread of Doom and Gloom Week, but circumstances intervened.

This morning was pretty ordinary. My commuter train was on time, though the two before it had run late. While onboard, I had enough time to transfer photos from my camera card to my computer. Another project done.

With an extra 10 minutes to spare, I stopped off at Walgreen's to pick up some lip gloss, pink Soft Soap (my favorite and pretty scarce lately), plus some Benadryl for my dog whose Spring allergies have returned despite the cold weather.

Everything was on schedule. Everything was fine. I turned the corner and walked down the block and turned onto Monroe Street. In an instant, everything changed.

After years of working in Downtown Chicago, I'm familiar with the terrain. On weekdays, the sidewalks are packed with moving people, as are the crosswalks. People do not stand in bunches in the middle of the street.

I didn't want to look but couldn't help myself. A man lay crumpled. A woman bent over him. Another man sat dazed, holding a handkerchief to his head.

I heard the siren of a fire engine in the distance, trying to make its way through the rush hour jam. It finally pulled up with the aid of a pedestrian directing traffic.

With a sick feeling, I turned away from the disquieting scene. I had to get to work.

I don't know if the victims survived. I don't know who was at fault, although I heard a rumor a car had run a red light. All I could think of was these people started out as I had, living a normal day doing normal things. They had no idea of the tragedy awaiting them.

What were their goals and dreams? Would they live to realize them?

It's easy to get sidetracked. Before I know it, another day is over, another week, another month, another year, and I still haven't done everything I wanted to do.

I'm a writer. My work-in-progress is halfway through. I want it done, so I'll work on it everyday and get it finished. It will be my Breakout Book.

That is my dream and I'll do everything in my power to achieve it.

Morgan Mandel

Author of Two Wrongs by Morgan Mandel at,
by order at bookstores.

Death & Taxes

Okay, we're on a dark trajectory here but writers write about life. We see and observe and pull from our own experiences to communicate a story or information to our readers. Even when it's painful.

My heart goes out to those who have experienced a loss recently.

As I indicated in an earlier blog, I worked for a leading tax firm for more than a decade. One of the client returns that will always stay in my mind is the young couple who came into the office to have their return prepared and who's three-month old baby had died. I've actually prepared quite a few returns where someone - a spouse, a child, a sibling, a parent - has died and there are varying degrees of difficulty in handling these cases. On the one hand you can't always tell where the person(s) is at in the grieving process and on the other hand you have to conduct an objective interview to complete the tax return for the client. After dealing with a death the last thing I wanted to do was create a tax problem for them.

As it turns out for this couple their baby was born in the beginning of January and died before the tax deadline. I personally marveled that they were even dealing with the tax issue at that point. They even had the social security card for their now deceased baby. It was clear they were hurting but also that they were trying to move on with their lives.

One of their questions concerned whether or not they could even claim the child on their tax return and the answer was a definite yes. When clients had questions I routinely opened up the IRS publications and showed the client exactly what the IRS determination was on a particular topic. The IRS as you can imagine has to define many things and one of those issues is when someone can actually claim another person as a dependent on their tax return. The death of a child is specifically addressed.

Even if the child only lives for a moment (and of course the medical folks determine this) the child is considered to have lived long enough to be claimed as a dependent. The parent(s) still have to obtain a social security number to claim the now deceased child but can you imagine trying to hold it all together to do this?

A stillborn child cannot be claimed. I prepared a tax return for this situation as well. That was tougher in some ways because after all they had been through, the parents didn't even have validation from the government that the child had existed.

A kidnapped child can also be claimed but the parents or guardians have to meet three tests to claim the child one of which is proof from law enforcement that the child was kidnapped and by someone other than a family member.

So, life, death, taxes and even writing all have one thing in common - details are important.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Monday blues

Well, Larry provided an excellent segue to what I wanted to talk, er, write, er, blog about.

I wish. How is a humor writer supposed to follow this?

Emotion, loss, perseverence, all things I'm totally inadequate to speak about. I can't even imagine the pain that Larry, Rose and her family are going through. And you can tell by Larry's post that this is something that he is going to think about, learn from and use in his spiritual growth.

And for it to have happened that way ...

It put me in mind as to the death that most personally affected me. When I was twelve, my mother packed the kids up for a week at my mother's in Michigan. My father had to stay home and work. I remember the dark early morning we left our Maryland suburb. My father came out to see us off, and just before we left he leaned into the station wagon and kissed each of us goodbye. We were sleepy and grumpy but tolerated the kisses anyway.

If we would have known that this would be the last time we'd see him, we would have been far more cooperative.

While we were gone he had a major heart attack, and though we rushed back to Maryland, he was gone before any of the kids could see him a last time. So my last memory of him is that morning in the car. It was hard to believe that my bigger-than-life, playful father was really gone.

Maybe that's why I started having the dreams. I would dream that the front door would open with a rush, and there would be my father, overcoat swirling, back from a long undercover operation that he had done for the government. Never mind that he worked in the space program, not for the CIA or any other espionage organization. Our dreams aren't supposed to make sense anyway.

Anyway, these dreams came to a sudden end years later when my mother remarried. I guess that's when my subconscious finally accepted that he was gone.

I carry this memory with me every day, and this is why every single morning I go into my daughters' rooms and give them a kiss on the head to start my day.

It always bothered me that it ended this way for him, especially now with more efficient medical care available. What if my neighbor, who was there when he had the heart attack, had known and done CPR? What if the hospital had today's medical procedures? What if my father had taken an aspirin when the attack first started (something they claim is effective)? 'What ifs' abound.

If these thoughts engross me for an accidental death, I can't help but think of all of the 'what ifs' that happen in a murder. All of the questions, fears and doubts that come with an intentional death. Why? How? For innocent family members, this kind of loss rarely comes with the kind of closure that one has when a loved one dies from a sickness or accident. There's no culprit or trial in a sickness, so the loss remains fresh and renewed.

That's why the family needs support and encouragement. And that's why, for whatever it's worth, my prayers are with you and your family, Larry.

The Adventures of Guy ... written by a guy (probably)
Coming soon: The Next Adventures of Guy ... more wackiness

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Mystery of Murder--by Larry D. Sweazy

Thursday evening my wife and I had just sat down for dinner. We were revisiting each other’s day, eating spaghetti. My wife works in accounting for the school system and she was in the midst of a slight breather because of spring break. Like always, I had deadlines to meet. We were discussing plans for the weekend, plans for the landscaping project in the backyard. By all accounts, it was a normal day. And then the phone rang. It was my mother-in-law. She said she had some bad news. My wife’s cousin had been murdered.

There is nothing that prepares you for that phone call, no matter how distant or close. At this point, the story is still unfolding, and it is not my intention to recount the details here. But after the shock wore off, or wore down, continues to wear off, if it ever will, I had to consider that as a writer of murder mysteries, I visit the land of death and horrifying events in my imagination every day. Writing stories about murder is how I entertain people, how I practice my craft, my art.

And now I am questioning why.

I have three short stories posted on Amazon Shorts. In each story, the murders take place off stage. I also have two novels circulating in New York, and again, the murders take place off stage. I had not realized that fact until now. It is an unintentional pattern. This is the case with all of the stories that I have published: The violence, the murder, occurs off stage, out of sight.

(I just found out “See Also Murder” has been selected as a finalist for the 2007 Derringer Awards—so that is some good news to add to this post.)

My stories and novels almost always focus on the characters, the affect of violence on the lives of the victims, families, and those that champion them. The investigation comes second for me, the search for justice concluded in a moral, logical, manner. Violence is a detail, a hammer shattering the glass of a normal day.

I don’t want to see the murder or feel that emotion. Violence for the sake of violence has never been appealing to me. Somehow, my internal filter, my psyche, has dictated this as a rule not be broken. Maybe that is my downfall, why my novels are still sitting on a editor’s desk instead of on the bookshelf. Maybe not.

I write mysteries for the same reason people read them: We all seek comfort in order, in the hope that we will witness justice when a violent act is committed. In real life, that does not happen all of the time—we rarely get to see true justice served. But in mystery novels, we are always there at the end as a witness. Justice has to be served, morally or legally. Period. No question. So, murder mysteries can be comfort food for the mind, for the soul—for those that read them, and those that write them.

I write mysteries to find sanity in the insanity of a harsh world. And my guess is, I will continue to write stories where the violence occurs out of sight. That rule will be even harder to break now.

So, since this is my first blog post here, I’ll leave you with a couple of questions to consider: Why do you read mysteries? Why do you write mysteries? Is graphic violence really necessary in a good mystery?

Maybe you already know the answers, or maybe, you’ll take a little time to reconsider them.

With so much real violence in the world today, we all need as much sanity as we can find…

****My thoughts, my heart, go out to my wife’s family. May you find comfort in knowing that you are loved.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Let's talk About Paris

I love Paris in the spring, summer fall... you get the drift , I love Paris.

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Paris this year, by all means visit the obligatory sites, check out Montmartre and meet all the Toulouse-Lautrec wannabes, do visit the Louvre, the Orsay, the haute couture mainstays, do stroll along the Seine and Visit Notre Dame, do all the things that make Paris one of the most romantic cities in the World.

OK, I am prejudiced, but do not, I repeat do not, skip the Rodin Museum. It is intimate, it is magnificent and most assuredly adds to the passionate essence of the city.

Your eyes can feast on the treasures as you stroll in his garden, or visit his home and get lost in the beauty around you. His presence can still be felt. There is even a cafe in the garden, where you can sit and sip a delicious cup , and ponder as The Thinker has done over the years, or admire Balzac in all his glory.

Ah, to be in Paris any time of the year.

A bientot,
Margot Justes

Friday, April 6, 2007

Beware of Dictums, Commandments, And Rules - By Rob Walker

As a "rule" I understand where editors and even readers are coming from when they lay out Dictums, Ten Commandments, and Rules they want slavishly followed. Rules for Mystery Writing with a capital R, and I have been faced with them my entire writing career, spanning back to my college days in the early 70s. And "as a rule" I agree with them from top to bottom, but did you notice I dared begin a sentence with AND?

So yeah, as a writer I see every hard and fast and concrete rule as a challenge as well. Oft times a rule is a red flag to this author to break it or shake it up a bit, give it a new spin or twist, and oft times to break it in half! But to do so with some panache, you see. That is, break the rule or commandment in an effort to prove that no rule can chain down a good writer--or shouldn't put chains on your work.

In the hands of a real craftsman, any one of these so-called ironclad rules can be turned on itself and made to work positively ingeniously. Even a cliche can be tweaked to good use. I am speaking of breaking a rule in order to make the notion work both perfectly and artistically in favor of the story.

The novel form is an art form that can and does take many shapes,and if the author can say create a prologue -- nowadays said to be a definite No-No, a signal you are an amateur, etc. -- that is perfectly suited to the story, then by all means s/he should do so.

Changing the title heading to Chapter One may be advisable in today's climate but if it is a prologue, a prologue by any other name is still a prologue. Prevailing wisdom is also to write chapters a paragraph long. Careful of prevailing windsand windbags.

As for carrying over a criminal investigation to book number two as the case is NOT closed (kinda like life, ya know?) -- or not closed to the satisfaction of your reader, or your own creation--your character lead detective, as I've done with Inspector Alastair Ransom.
As has been done on Homicide, the great TV show among others. I've done broke dis rule and done did it successfully. So successfully for instance that Crimespree Magazine's Jon Jordan, having read book one and book two of my City Series absolutely loved it, even though it took approximately 70 pages of book two to conclude the case that is central to book one. Award winning author Ken Bruen had the same response and loved both books despite this "commandment" breaking I managed to pull off with great care.

In my Edge Series (just ripe for Jimmy Smits to play the part, anyone know him? know his people?) I broke the "Romance Rule #1" Thou Shalt Not get your two main characters in bed as it will "kill" the tension and end the story. I disagreed, believing the spark-ridden relationshipbetween the edgy Lucas and the police shrink Meredith must only become more of a "Moonlighting" tension, more interesting after they had sex, and it was tenfold. Yes, I dared do what Moonlighting dared not do. At the exact middle of the 4-book Edge series, I had them give into lust and passion. For two more books they had to deal with the aftermath of their "mistake" and in the end love bloomed along with the Aurora Borelis.

Such commandments as these and others, sage advice generally, such as no dialogue only scenes, or nodescript only scenes, no "blowhard" characters simply make me want to jump in and prove myself the exception to the rule.

I ask can it be done regardless? Can you make it work? Henry Bosch, the snitch in Alastair Ransom's world is a blowhard but he does most of his blowhardiing in a fascinating way; it's who he is as with all characters--what he says and does and thinks is who he is, and what others say and do around him and think of him supports who he is.

Dictums, Rules, and Commandments are worth paying closer attention to; you pay close enough attention, you can put them to work for you. If turned on their head, such rules can be a catalyst to orginality and nerve.

Couple of years ago I wrote PSIBlue...before Medium appeared on TV and was promptly given a commandment from my then agent in NYC that said, "No editor in NYC wants to see the two words detective and psychic put together ever again. Shelve the book and go on to another project. Two weeks later Medium appeared on TV and since then you see the proliferation of interest in the paranormal detective. Careful of absolute certainties.

Fortunately and smartly Echelon Press saw the value of PSI Blue, and I'd taken the advice to send it to no NY publishers. Karen Syed at Echelon saw the fresh twist on an old standard. So when someone tells you that no one wants another say Vampire novel or that Horror is dead, beware. Hard to keep those monsters down and if your vampire novel has a new, fresh premise or twist or both as in all the vampires are wearing white this season or if you are Orson Scott Card and you pen Lost Boys, all rules and all bets are off.

My most recent horror novel has been at #1 at\shorts serialized novels for a year. Why? It explains spontaneous human combustion, has a monster and apandemic, and an ineffectual man leading a nation into darkness. The setting is almost entirely East India although I was told no one wants to read about India. I am still being told no one wants to read about Cuba but that's just a red flag to me.

ROB WALKER - Shadows in the White City -- occupying a shelf near you now! Rush as the shelf life of a ppo is about 7 days.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Contests! A tool we can all use ...

The last several days I have been judging entries from two recent writing contests. I haven't judged anything in years and was surprised how much I enjoyed the privilege of seeing other writers work. At the same time I wonder how many will ever make it to publication. The publishing world is fickle and ruthless, and finding that perfect home for a book is so challenging that many give up when they should forge ahead.

And that's why I think contests are so important. Judges are encouraged to do no harm! But even more important is the words of encouragement they offer may be just what the writer needs to keep trying, discover how or where to edit the weak spots, and then push for that sale.

The first contest I ever entered was so long ago it probably doesn't exist anymore. Regardless I still have the placque that said I won! But it was a small victory because the judge who read my entry said if I wanted to know what I was doing wrong to give him a call. This is where I should tell you he never offered a phone number. He could just as easily have said ... find those passive verbs and destroy them... twist your sentences so they have more impact... anything would have been better than if you want to know what you're doing wrong ... his offer felt pompous and insincere.

We all want to know what we're doing wrong! We all want a pat on the back and a nod of approval. But this isn't sixth grade anymore, we have to find another way to get that feedback. Entering our manuscripts in contests is one of the easiest ways to get a real diagnosis of how our work stands up to others. Don't be afraid of the pompous judge ... I do believe they are all dead and gone now! So gear up your bravery and send out your manuscript to be judged.

Only a few win, true. But the knowledge learned from an objective reader is invaluable! I've read hundreds of books that never received an accolade, but that didn't stop me from enjoying them. And I bet you can say the same thing. Think of entering contests as a stepping stone to publication. Since judging these two contests, I have sent out a few to be judged too. Will I win? Who knows ... but I can't wait to hear what they thought of my characters, my plot. And I need to hear how I can improve my work.

So, where does one find contest entry information? If you have an internet access, then you can prowl the web in search of your specific genre. Magazines usually list upcoming contests ... good ones to look in are Writer's Digest, and Romance Writers Report. Many writing organizations post their upcoming contests on their home pages.

If you know of a great opportunity to enter a contest ~ post it here at Acme Authors Link and share it with everyone. I hope you take the time to enter a contest or two. Good Luck!

Til later ~


Here are a few contests to consider:

2007 Brighid's Fire Books/ (fiction)
fee: $25
deadline: April 30, 2007

2007 TARA Contest (formerly First Impressions)
sponsored by Tampa Area Romance Authors
Fee: $25
deadline: May 1, 2007

Emerald City Opener
sponsored by Greater Seattle Chapter RWA
fee: $12-15
deadline: June 15, 2007

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Blow'n in the Wind

The wind is howling, debris is flying. It looks and feels more like Fall than the beginning of Spring. Illinois weather is famous for being unpredictable.

So is writing. My work in progress is still half done. I keep telling myself this could be my Breakout Novel. I must finish it.

Circumstances keep getting in the way. My already completed novel, TWO WRONGS, was published by Hard Shell Word Factory last February and I don't want to skimp on its promotion. I need to get my brand out and let the world know I and my novel exist or we'll both get nowhere.

I've got two other completed novels to get into publication. I don't want to neglect them.

Plus, I've got a husband who works all day and deserves attention when I get home, and a dog who's all by herself all the day long while we're off at work. She makes sure I notice her by grabbing things from my pockets or nudging my arm and making the mouse go flying when I'm sitting at the computer.

So my work in progress often gets blow'n in the wind.

The good thing is, it's not always windy, especially when it's kind of late and the husband and the dog are sleeping or when I'm on the train commuting. That's when I utilized the peace and quiet and continue on with my new creation. I will finish it. That I promise myself.

My advice to other writers is to look for your own peaceful spots. They're out there. You just need to look around and find them.

Morgan Mandel

TWO WRONGS by Morgan Mandel is available at,, or by order at bookstores.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Continuing With the Tax Topic

I had to chuckle reading Norms posting about taxes - especially about the postage - well put. I personally electronically file and have for many years. I'm one of those individuals who's a big believer in electronically filing and electronically paying my balance due or receiving my refund. So is the IRS. A little known bit of information is that the first year that taxpayers were allowed to receive their refunds by direct deposit the IRS saved about $35 million in postage and this was about a decade ago - the US Postal service has been losing business from the IRS ever since. Congress has actually insisted that the IRS get at least 80% of taxpayers to electronically file in the next few years but the last time I read the statistics they weren't as close as they want to be. Electronic filing also saves the IRS from having to hire extra personnel to key in those paper returns that are mailed.

Okay back to taxes and writers:

For more than a decade I worked for a leading tax firm preparing individual and small business taxes. I now lecture and write on the topic of tax tips for writers, and I often point out that the word taxing has a very negative connotation. I think we've all accepted that taxes are a necessary event - some would even say evil - but I think most individuals who decide to write don't realize that as far as the IRS is concerned they fall into one of three categories:

1 - the individual who writes just to write and receives no income of any kind for his/her writing and/or does not deduct any expenses related to their writing endeavor,

2 - the individual who writes as a hobby (doesn't intend to make a profit), or

3 - the individual who writes to earn money with a clear intent to make a profit. Basically this individual is a small business and will typically file what is called a Schedule C that becomes an integral part of his/her individual tax return.

Many will take door number 3 without making sure that they actually qualify as a small business. Yes, I said qualify as a small business - not as a writer per se - but as a small business who's product is a work of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplay or other product of writing.

The IRS doesn't care if someone writes, however, the IRS does care (because Congress says it can) if someone earns money and doesn't properly report it or writes off expenses in a way that isn't according to the rules. And these are rules that are generated from the laws that Congress passes.

Now the IRS doesn't always get it right, after all the tax code is so long and so complicated that it's difficult for anyone to know everything about the tax code. Just like medical and other professionals, tax professionals are specializing more and more. So, if you take your taxes to someone else for preparation make sure they know something about not only small businesses but the types of income and expenses associated with a writing business.

For an eye-opening example of when the IRS got it part right/part wrong according to the US Tax Court go to and the ruling concerning the playwright of N. Joseph Calarco. Pay particular attention to the judges' rulings regarding reasonable and necessary business expenses vs. personal use AND what constitutes intent to make a profit.

So, the moral of this story is that writers aren't just writers - in many cases they are small businesses and as such need to be aware of more than just the next writing deadline.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Time to Vent

The way I look at it, the purposes of blogs vary somewhat. We have the 'educational' blog, the 'informational' blog, the 'entertainment' blog, the 'self-promotion' blog, the 'I-have-way-too-much-time-on-my-hands' blog and the 'venting' blog, among others.

Today, I shall use this as a 'venting' blog, so here goes:

Spring with it brings many things, the emergence of worms, robins following the frost line to gobble up said worms, budding flowers, runny noses from said budding flowers, rain, rain, and more rain.

But more than that, there are ... dun, dun, dun .... taxes.

Yup, April brings both showers and taxes, both of which leave you feeling soaked. And regardless of whether you are getting your own money back from the government (which they borrowed tax free), or whether you are going to contribute more to their coffins, er, coffers, you have to send a return to them. Or, if you like, to return a return to them.

I happen to be getting money back from them, thanks in part to the losses I sustained as a writer (why isn't my wife happy about these losses, then?), and just got my return back from my accountant.

So I was going to sign it and send it to the IRS when I noticed something.

On the envelope (that they furnished)...

...up in the right corner... says that I have to affix postage to it.

What's that all about!!!???

The way I figure it, the second I drop it in a mail box, which is owned by the Federal Government, I've done my job of putting it in their hands. After that, I figure it's their problem moving it from one hand to the other.'

They already have my money, and now I have to spend more money to get back the amount they shouldn't have taken in the first place!

Not only that, but even the stamp money goes into their hands!!!

Think about it.

I figure there are, what, 300 million Americans? And I don't know the exact statistics, but let's say a third of us pay taxes. So 100 million people sending a return at thirty nine cents each will have to 'affix,' ... get this ... $39 MILLION DOLLARS worth of stamps ...

... stamps bought from the Federal Government!!

... to mail a document to the Federal Government!!!

... to either send them more money!!!!

... or get back their own money interest-free!!!!!


I have to stop now. My '!" key is getting hot.

Norm Cowie
The Adventures of Guy ... written by a guy (probably)
and the upcoming The Next Adventures of Guy ... more wackiness

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Observing Spring

While walking the dog this morning, I couldn't help but notice all the signs of Spring, my favorite time of the year.

The birds are more plentiful, especially robins, and they make their presence known. I didn't realize how much I'd missed their cheery songs until I heard them again. The trees and shrubs are budding, the grass is greener, and the daffodils and crocuses are already adding color to the landscape. The air even smells fresher.

I'll have to keep these details in my memory bank and draw them out next time I write in the dead of Winter about a Spring day!

Morgan Mandel

Read TWO WRONGS by Morgan Mandel for fast past, poignant suspense.
Available at,, by order at bookstores.