Friday, May 31, 2013

Write the Murder: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte

It's awfully quiet around here. The last "Write the Murder" post sparked an awesome little burst of creativity from Murder Lab Members, so I think it's time for another. Mine is below.
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte, by Georges Seurat
Veronique nonchalantly twirled her parasol as she surveyed the picnickers before her. They were all there. The Smith family, with their snotty, rude little boy, was just a few yards to her left. To her right were the Blot sisters, gossiping, no doubt.

"Sweetheart, there's my friend Marie," she said. "Would you mind watching the dogs for a moment while I go say hello?"

Beneath the chafing wire of her hoop skirt, the bomb was heavy, its weight pulling the lace of the corset that affixed it to Veronique's body. She handed the leashes to her husband and smiled at him gratefully before stepping away, glancing around her, looking for the perfect grassy spot to sit down.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Escape From Paris, by Carolyn Hart - A Review

Romantic suspense amid the chaos of a world at war. The year is 1940. As England braces for invasion and the German army overruns Europe, two American sisters in Paris risk their lives to save a downed British airman from Nazi arrest. Linda Rossiter and Eleanor Masson soon realize the price they may pay when they read this ominous public notice: "All persons harbouring English soldiers must deliver same to the nearest Kommandantur not later than 20 October 1940. Those persons who continue to harbour Englishmen after this date without having notified the authorities will be shot." On Christmas Eve, the Gestapo sets a trap, and death is only a step behind the two American women.

I received an ARC of Carolyn Hart's Escape From Paris from Seventh Street Books in exchange for my honest review. Admittedly, I was initially intrigued by the setting but was slightly turned off by the "romantic suspense" reference (just a personal matter of taste; I'm not a huge romance fan.) Having now read the novel, I can't say whether fans of romantic suspense would be disappointed. But I can say with confidence that I was more than a little pleasantly surprised.

The romantic aspect is certainly there, but in my opinion, it is a background element. In the foreground is the precarious position of two American women in Nazi-Occupied Paris. Through Linda Rossiter and Eleanor Masson, Hart brings to life the faces of World War II that rarely receive the same attention as those of persecuted Jews. Instead, we see the plights of the French, English and American non-Jews who are caught in the middle of the Nazi agenda. Unlike their Jewish friends and neighbors, these Parisians are given the choice to simply abide by the laws and restrictions imposed upon them by the Nazis and wait for a resolution to the conflict. This would certainly be their safest option, but their personal outrages and senses of moral obligation are powerful enough to overrule their fears. As the sisters increasingly entangle themselves into the Resistance movement against the Nazi regime, they find their own lives in even greater danger than those the Nazis are fighting to snuff out.

In addition to a collection of well-rounded characters, Hart reveals a Paris that sharply contrasts with the romantic City of Lights. The Paris of 1940 is a chilling landscape of ubiquitous swastikas and goose-stepping soldiers. Her citizens are poverty-stricken, oppressed and terrified. As Hart weaves the tale of the American sisters, she effectively incorporates very specific historical examples to bring this frightning alternate city to life.

Escape From Paris was originally released as a much shorter novel. In order to publish this work, Hart was required to cut out 40,000 words. With its re-release in June, we will see it for the first time as it was originally intended. As a lucky ARC reader in advance of publication, I can't imagine this novel so truncated, and am glad that the extended version was my first introduction to Carolyn Hart. Every single one of those 40,000 words, as well as the other 55,000, contributed to building the tension. I literally had knots in my stomach. This novel has made me a Carolyn Hart fan.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Revising Your Novel's First Draft

You've just typed, "The End." Your first draft is completed. Perhaps you've been creating this masterpiece for several years, one scene at a time in between your day job and family obligations. Or perhaps you've just banged out this entire novel during the month of November. Now what? Here I offer a few helpful tips for revising your first draft into something more polished.

1. Create Your Roadmap

If you did not create your first draft from an outline, now is the time. Your outline is a roadmap that will keep you on the right track as you move through the book. This is particularly important for mysteries and thrillers, which tend to have plots that are complicated enough to confuse even the author.

Write an outline of the entire book, chapter by chapter, as it is currently written (even if you intend to change everything.) You should be able to summarize each chapter in a single sentence or bullet point. You should also be able to detail each chapter in a single paragraph. If you're unable to do this for some of your chapters, you might have too much going on in those chapters. In a novel, there is plenty of time for each subplot to develop, so don't throw too much at the reader at one time, leaving him/her confused. You also don't want to give away too much at the beginning. Let themes have time to develop.

2. Plot Your Plots

If your outline above looks more like a mangled spider web than a roadmap, you might need to take a step back. Make a list of your subplots. Summarize each subplot as its own little mini-story in three paragraphs or less. There should not be more than about four or five main subplots in a novel. Most novels in the mystery and thriller genres have two or three.

Now go back to your outline. Flag places in the story where each subplot can be introduced and developed. Also flag places where subplots share a common theme. These are the places where they can potentially be woven together. A common pitfall of newer or less experienced authors is to create different subplots that never quite mesh. Make sure from the beginning that your subplots will eventually interweave.

3. Hone Your Acting Skills

Once you have established your subplots and outlined how to develop them, it is time to define and refine your characters. First, make a list of all of your major characters (including historical figures, ghosts, villains whose identity has yet to be discovered, etc.) Find spots in your outline to introduce and develop each of them. Try to introduce all of your major characters in the first third of the book. If you have more than about ten main characters, you might have too many and readers might have trouble keeping track of them. Ask yourself if all of them are necessary or if roles can be merged. On the other hand, if you have fewer than about five major characters, your story might be a bit thin and adding a subplot or two might be in order. Also make a list of minor characters. Decide who needs a name and who can simply be "the concierge" or "the limo driver." Decide if any of these minor characters will come up again.

For each character you decide to keep, make a short list of physical traits and personality traits. Does the character have an accent? A limp? What are his go-to words in dialog? As you develop scenes, keep these character traits consistent. If your character's mood changes halfway through a scene, something has to have triggered that change. If her English is poor in her first scene, she can't develop a sudden eloquence later.

4. Wrap it Up

In summarizing each of your subplots, you should have developed an understanding of how it will end.  You also need to decide where each of your characters will be at the end of the novel. If you are writing a mystery or thriller, some of your characters might wind up dead. Others might land in jail, find fame and fortune, or simply return to the mundane life they had before this whole thing began. When planning your first revision, it can be helpful to consider what will happen to each character before the end of the story and how each of their fates can play into the final scenes of the novel.

5. Revise and Repeat

You should now have an outline of your first draft story that is annotated with the places where each subplot and each character will be created, developed and interwoven. You should also have a firm understanding of how the story as a whole will reach a resolution in the end, and what will happen to each of your main characters. Are there "extra" parts in your outline at this point? They might not fit into the story. Consider cutting them now, rather than potentially following a tangent that leads away from your main plots. If you think an unaccounted for piece is just too good to cut, then reconsider the subplots you have established and decide if any of those should be replaced or refined.

Now comes the fun part. Go back to your first draft with your outline beside you and use the cut/paste functions on your computer ad nauseum until you have placed each chunk of your novel where it belongs. Fill in the missing components. Then re-read your whole masterpiece and revise again.

Do you tend to write from an outline, or just wing it?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cover Reveal: The Vesuvius Isotope

Cover art: Damonza's Awesome Book Covers

In the ruins of Herculaneum lies the Villa dei Papiri, a sprawling palace once owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. In the 79CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the villa and its extensive library were buried and perfectly preserved. Today, they have been partially excavated. The thousands of documents within the library are still legible.

A document unearthed from within the Villa dei Papiri has just been translated. The document describes an ancient remedy for metastatic cancer in women. It was authored by Julius Caesar's last lover, Queen Cleopatra VII. It is, in fact, the only written text that has ever been attributed to the highly educated, multilingual and scientifically-minded last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt.

The two-thousand-year-old remedy described in the document is the only hope for thousands today.

When her Nobel Laureate husband is murdered, drug discovery biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search leads first to another woman, and then to the two-thousand-year-old document. As Katrina races to solve her husband's murder, she is led from ancient Italy and Egypt into the modern-day conflict that her husband was killed for. And she learns that his death was only the beginning.

The temple on the front cover of The Vesuvius Isotope is the Temple of Isis at Aswan, Egypt. On the right hand side of the image is a relief of the goddess Isis herself. This goddess, the ancient Egyptian goddess of medicine, was adopted by Cleopatra when the queen publicly deemed herself "the New Isis" during her reign over Egypt.

The coin on the front cover is a typical, modern depiction of Cleopatra. But the coin on the back cover is the actual image of her. It is this coin that Cleopatra minted during her reign. It is this image that she chose to project for posterity.

Far from the sexy seductress of Hollywood, the queen was not, in fact, considered the least bit attractive by her own peers. How, then, did she so cleverly manipulate the two most powerful Romans in the world - first Julius Caesar, and then Mark Antony? The answer to this question lies in The Vesuvius Isotope.

Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope in print 

Purchase The Vesuvius Isotope for Kindle

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Does Your Novel Put You in Danger?

I have just submitted The Vesuvius Isotope for formatting. While the novel is now officially in the hands of those who will put it into print, its actual publication has been beyond the point of no return for quite some time. Quite some time ago, when I pushed the novel across the line to that point of no return, I also pushed a thought into the back of my brain, where I feebly hoped it would remain.

Now, as The Vesuvius Isotope teeters on the brink of no-longer-private, that thought comes back to the surface. I am all too aware that this novel, and the one that will follow it, both have a very real potential to piss off some very real people pretty badly.

On the one hand, this is great. Controversy sells, right? But on the other hand, as the release date for The Vesuvius Isotope approaches, I realize I am also setting myself up for a possibility of life imitating art.

As this realization forced its way from the back of my brain toward the front, I found myself thinking that this is probably not an uncommon concern for authors of thrillers. We incorporate a great deal of realism into our stories, even bringing to light modern-day controversies that are very much ongoing. We write of terrorist organizations, government cover-ups and the mafia. We sometimes change names to protect the "innocent," but most of the time, we don't. Most of the time, we point an unapologetic finger directly at the real-life individual or organization that inspired the novel. And not everyone wants those controversies brought to light.

I tell myself that perhaps I am just being paranoid. Perhaps we authors of mysteries and thrillers harbor a particularly keen attraction to the "what ifs." Perhaps it is that attraction that leads us to write what we write in the first place. Perhaps there really is no threat to a novelist, after all. I tell myself this, and then to ease my own concerns, I quickly Google "author murdered." And I retrieve a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Whoops!

Here I pose the question: Does your novel put you in danger? Do you think that exposing a clandestine war, a secret society or a person's dark side ultimately exposes YOU, as the whistle-blower, to the wrath of the ones you exposed? Or do you think that once the cat is out of the bag, the threat is neutralized?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Fear of Beauty, by Susan Froetschel - a Review

In her latest novel, Fear of Beauty, Susan Froetschel juxtaposes the plight of an illiterate Afghani housewife trying to solve her son's murder with the mission of a nearby Army outpost to bolster the Afghanistan farming economy. The story is told from two very different perspectives, each weaving an independent subplot into the story. The first perspective is from Sofi, the uniquely curious mother of five who believes literacy will be the key to understanding what happened to her oldest son, Ali. The second comes from Joey, the Army Ranger in charge of security detail at the outpost.

Froetschel's layering of these two perspectives offers a rich insight into each of these characters and into the conflict that each of them becomes enmeshed in. Following Ali's murder, tensions are naturally high between the small Afghani village of Laashekoh and the American outpost. Confounding these tensions are a narcissistic agricultural specialist and the village's ubiquitous, heavy-handed "visitors" - a nomadic Taliban faction with a vested interest in Laashekoh's economy and people.

The character I became most enthralled with was Sofi, a woman torn between her expected role as an Afghani woman and her intractable desire to challenge the status quo. As she secretly struggles to understand the written word, Sofi soon learns that the conflict enveloping Laashekoh is much larger than Ali's death. Her circle of trust becomes smaller and smaller until Sofi has only her own intelligence to rely upon.

The significance of the novel's title is gradually revealed over the course of the story. It becomes most clear in the form of a powerful metaphor, developed through some of the book's most poignant scenes. The novel's weaknesses included a few credibility issues and a few minor editorial glitches. There were also several characters, some of whom were critical to the plot, whom I would have liked to have seen developed a bit better. Overall, the story was a well-paced, captivating mystery that offered very readable insight into some of the issues of modern Afghanistan. I would recommend this novel to any reader of murder mysteries as well as to anyone interested in women's rights, literacy and religion in the Middle East.

To read an interview with Susan Froetschel, click here.

To purchase a copy of Fear of Beauty, click here.

For additional titles by Seventh Street Books, visit the publisher's website.

Friday, May 3, 2013

How to Start an Author/Publisher Business in San Diego

It's official: I'm self-publishing. The Vesuvius Isotope will be published by my brand new sole proprietorship, Murder Lab Press, and the publishers who have shown interest in the manuscript have been notified. Since I have just gone through the trials of tribulations of starting this business, I want to share the ins and outs with my readers who might be considering a similar endeavor. This post is specific to San Diego, because that's where I live, but many of the steps I list here apply universally.

Step 1: Develop a Business Plan

This step is huge, and I expect to cover it in a different post or, more likely, multiple posts. So here, I will just say: it's in your interest not to go off half-cocked. Do your research and know your market. Then decide how best to utilize it. If you ever apply for a business loan, you will need to have a written plan.

Step 2: Choose Your Business Structure

A business exists as one of several entities. It can be a corporation, a limited liability company (LLC,) a limited partnership (LP,) a general partnership (GP,) a limited liability partnership (LLP,) or a sole proprietorship. Almost all author or self-publisher businesses will start as a sole proprietorship. This means that the business is owned and operated by a single individual who is fully responsible for all business transactions, taxes, and liabilities, and who is the sole recipient of business profits. If you start a business as a sole proprietorship and decide later to hire help, you can roll your existing business into a larger structure. For more information, click here.

Step 3: Establish Your Business Address(es)

First, you need a mailing address. I suggest setting this up before anything else, because the FBN and Seller's Permit (below) require this information. Many people just use their home addresses, even adding a suite number to make it look more official. Others are concerned about creepy stalkers and/or identity theft, and prefer to open a post office box. I opened a P.O. box with the U.S. postal service. The branch location I am using also allows me to use their physical address as part of their service. This is important, because many, many businesses and services do not accept P.O. boxes (FBN and Seller's Permit included.)

Step 4: Claim Your Name

If you are doing business as yourself, using your legal name, then you can skip some steps here. But you still might want to Google yourself and see if there is a good niche on the web for your name to represent YOU and not someone else with your name.

For example, I found several other people also named Kristen Elise. There is a model, a jewelry designer, and ... another author. To separate myself from these others, I kept the Ph.D. attached to my name on my official website: Evidently, I'm the only Kristen Elise with a Ph.D. If you Google, "Kristen Elise", you get a ton of people. But if you Google, "Kristen Elise Ph.D.," you get only me for several pages. So there's my niche.

If your name is John Smith, I imagine you'll have more trouble with this. And this is where DBA comes in handy. DBA, or "doing business as", is what they call it when you create a business named anything other than your own legal name.

If your business will be DBA, you need to file a Fictitious Business Name (FBN). "John Smith's Pizza" and "Jane Doe's Windshield Repair" do not require a FBN, because the legal last name of the sole owner is in the name of the business. "Murder Lab Press" and "John Smith and Sons" do require a FBN because in one case, the owner's name is omitted, and in the other, there are additional people listed in the name as part of the business. For more information on FBN filing, click here. You can also search the site at the link provided to see if your chosen business name is available.

Once you have selected a Fictitious Business Name, you need to register it. This can be done in person at any of San Diego's office locations, or by mail. This costs $42 in San Diego. As soon as you file the FBN, it must be published. The county has very specific requirements for this and will give you a list of approved newspapers it can be published in. It is critical that you publish it immediately, because it must be published once every week for four weeks and all four publications must be completed within 30 days of filing the FBN. So don't wait. The newspaper you choose will publish all four weeks, and then they will send a notice of the publication back to the county office.

Step 5: Get A Business Tax Certificate (License)

This can be done online through the City Treasurer. It costs $35 per year in San Diego and can be done here. Certain unincorporated areas of San Diego County are exempt. Future posts in this series will detail tax laws for authors, but to get your business initiated, getting a business tax certificate is sufficient.

Step 6: Get a Seller's Permit

Assuming you actually intend to sell some books, you need to obtain a seller's permit. This can also be done online, here. It's pretty straightforward, but should be a last step after everything above is completed.

So now that your business is set up, you're ready to sell your books. Stay tuned for a post detailing how to sell your books in person, online, and through your own website.