Monday, December 31, 2012

Book Review: Slain in the Spirit

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Personal rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to read Slain in the Spirit, by Walt Rosenfeld. The book is a near-future sci-fi mystery and the themes are extremely familiar in today's world: environmentalism, the ethics of medical advances, and combat PTSD.

The story is mostly told from the viewpoint of Bill, an ex-soldier who is currently leading what might generously be called a "screwed up life." When you first meet Bill, there is a temptation not to like him. In fact, the character himself almost dares you not to like him. He's reclusive, mean, lazy, and a stoner. His greatest joys in life seem to be playing virtual poker and smoking marijuana. He's spiteful to his cousin, Marvin (who happens to be gay). But the spite doesn't seem to stem from a disapproval of Marvin's lifestyle, Bill is just being a jerk. To be honest, I felt bad for Marvin.

This is something that is particularly tricky for an author - the unlikable protagonist. If your protagonist is a stoner jerk-off, there needs to be a reason and that reason needs to spark the sympathy of the reader. Because nobody wants to read about an unlikable jerk-off.

Fortunately, Rosenfeld handles this well. Eventually you learn Bill's backstory and discover his, sometimes severe, PTSD - which has cost him a lot: a career, his wife, his ability to live. Bit by bit, Bill's journey, via his investigation into the death of Marvin's lover (which he initially takes on just for the money and to get Marvin out of his house), brings Bill out of the darkness and back into life. He even manages to love again, and find some of the joy he once had. Perhaps the best visual of the book is the final image of Bill on his "fuel-burning" motorcycle, reveling in the joy of being alive and free.

Against this, the investigation of the murder is a little bit of a secondary thought, but it's kind of okay - because that doesn't seem to really be what the plot is about. So if it lacks the "pizzazz" of a gripping, twisting, uber-complicated murder mystery, that's why. This is the story about a man's journey from darkness to light, set against the "who killed the mayor?" story line.

The story started out a bit uneven for me, as the first chapter is actually from the Mayor's view. I understood what Rosenfeld was trying to do, but that chapter lacked the smoothness of Bill's narrative. In fact, there are several chapters from other character's POV's and most of the jarring notes came from those chapters (except the one from Marvin's view, which was rather funny).

Fortunately, Bill's narrative had me hooked pretty quickly. Who did kill the mayor, who is trying to kill Bill, and will this guy ever stop being a dick? Since I became invested in Bill's growth early, I was able to move past the awkwardness of the alternate character POV chapters pretty easily.

It was easy to pick out current themes (environmental change, medical ethics, PTSD of combat veterans) pretty easily and they were all very relatable - the more things change and all that. I found the near-future technology inventions intriguing. I mean really, who hasn't dreamed of a car that drives you to your location? Julie's questions about the ethics of "playing God" with genetic manipulation are also pretty direct and relevant to current debate around genetically-modified food, etc.

This is a first novel effort, and displays some of the roughness to be expected of a first book. However, the author shows a lot of promise and should only get better with future books.

Slain in the Spirit is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Guest Blogging

Yesterday, I was featured as a guest blogger by sci-fi author and freelance editor +Bryan Thomas Schmidt where I discussed world-building.

Check out the post here and please, leave a comment!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Numbers Game

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

My friend Amy has often talked about numbers. See, she's an endurance athlete. And they kinda pay attention to things like pace, laps, intervals - all stuff that revolves around numbers. As in "how fast" and "how many."

But Amy has often written about the dangers of paying too much attention to those numbers. How you can really give the gremlins in your head - the ones who say, "see, you suck, why are you even trying?" - free rein. And all that does is stifle your growth, because you can only hear "you suck" so many times before you starting thinking, "hey, maybe I do suck." Indeed, some of her best workouts are the ones where she's left her watch and Garmin behind and just run (or biked, or whatever).

As a taekwondo student and former sports journalist, I "got" her point. Life is about more than how fast you ran, or how many round kicks you can do in a row, or the points on the scoreboard. I got it - and I agreed with it.

Oh, but that was before I released a book. And now, now, well, I REALLY get it.

Before your book-child goes out into the world, you're insulated from all the "stuff." You write for you, you can pour yourself into the work, tell the story in your heart. And it's wonderful. When I get into the groove, it's my equivalent of a runner's high. I'm unstoppable, man. Look out!

But any writer who says, "Well, I don't really care about sales, I'm only writing for me," is not being entirely honest. Because what's the point of writing if you don't share it? And the minute you share it, well, there are scads of opportunities for feeling like you suck. Maybe someone will leave an unkind review, or you'll get umpteen letters of rejection from editors or agents.

Thanks to Amazon, writers don't have to deal with those rejection letters (although negative reviews are out there). But also thanks to Amazon, authors have their own numbers games: sales rank and author rank.

And let me tell you, those games suck.

You log in to Author Central, and you watch the lines going crazy. You get excited because they go up. But then the go down - and they keep going down. How do you get them up? Can you get them up? Why aren't they going up? Why, why, WHY????

It's insanity. And I'm taking a page from Amy's book. I'm leaving my Garmin behind (that is, ignoring the Amazon ranks) and writing the next book.

See, Amazon's ranking algorithms are kind of, well, unknown. The line may go up on a particular day, but you have no idea how many sales that is, or even what caused the spike. For all you know, it could be solar flares!

And really, it isn't a judgment on you. YOU WROTE A BOOK dammit! Not only that, you sent it out into the world! You rock! How many people think about that, but are too scared/intimidated to just do it? That person isn't you any more, because you did it.

A year ago, that was me. And thanks to some awesome people, now I can go to Amazon, query "Power Play: Hero's Sword" and see this.

So, Amazon, thanks for the opportunity. But I'm taking a stand, right here, right now. I refuse to play your numbers games. They do not define me. I wrote a book and it is for sale, and it's got a few good reviews.

And that, my friends, is awesome.

Image courtesy of Pink Sherbet; used under creative commons

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is a "Real" Book?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

It was a fine day, just like any other day, right up until I read this blog post from Nathan Bransford on the results of his (admittedly unscientific) poll on buying ebooks.

Bransford found that, for the first time, the percentage of people who said you'd have to pry paper books out of their "cold, dead hands" stayed the same. The percentage of people who professed to embrace ebooks also stayed the same.

Okay, so a pretty non-controversial post, right?

Then I made the mistake of reading the comments. And boy oh boy did I feel my blood pressure start to go up.

Again, you had the usual distribution of people who like ebooks and people who don't. Then I got to the comment of a gentleman who referred to RFBs - or real f*-in books. And that's where I lost it.

Okay, I get it - not everybody likes ebooks. And that's cool because hey, everybody's different and who am I to criticize someone's reading preference? It would be like criticizing genre preference. I understand. I'm a converted digital reading person myself because I never thought I'd like reading on a screen until I tried it.

But seriously, some snobs need to get off of their high horses.

Yes, you heard me right - I said "snobs." Because when you get down to it, that's what they are.

So a book isn't "real" unless it's printed on paper, huh? So, my recent ebook release of Power Play isn't a real book because it's digital only?

What about audio books? Are they real?

The three novellas and the novel I wrote aren't "real books" because they currently only exist in digital format on my computer?

The novel that my friend Amy wrote as part of NaNoWriMo, her first, isn't a "real book" because it doesn't exist on paper yet?

I call shenanigans.

News flash: the dead tree matter, leather and glue you hold in your hand is indeed a physical object, a noun, called a "book." But that's not the important part. The important part, the thing that reaches out, grabs you by the throat, and keeps you up at night long past your bedtime isn't the form factor. It's the story conveyed by the words on the page.

In other words, it's something as virtual as anything digital. It can't been seen, smelled, tasted, or touched. Not by your eyes, nose, tongue or skin. All those things are experienced in the depths of your mind.

And when you think of all of the people for whom digital books have made reading a joy again - because their eyesight has deteriorated to the point where they can't see the print, even with glasses, or their arthritis is so bad they can't even hold a trade paperback - are you going to tell those people that they haven't been reading "real" books?

It's time for this to stop. Books are books, whether physical or virtual.

To say they aren't is insulting to readers - and authors - everywhere.

All images used under Creative Commons. Photo of e-readers courtesy of  PiAir. Photo of stacked books courtesy of LollyKnit.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Book Release: Hero's Sword Vol 1

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

It's finally here! Volume 1 in the Hero's Sword series of ebooks, Power Play, is now available. Well, allowing for my delay in posting because of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday that is - the book hit Amazon and Barnes & Noble last Wednesday.

All Jaycee Hiller wants to do is survive eighth grade. Mostly that means hanging with her friend, Stu, avoiding the cheerleading squad, secretly
crushing on Nate Fletcher, and playing her favorite video game, Hero’s Sword.

When she receives a new video game controller, Jaycee finds herself magically transported into the Hero's Sword video game world. Survival takes on a whole new meaning. No longer battling with a plastic joystick, Jaycee picks up a real sword and bow & arrow and readies herself for battle.

Can she save Lady Starla's rule in Mallory, keep herself in one piece, and maybe even learn something about surviving middle school?

Download your copy for Kindle, Nook, or Sony's Kobo today! And please, help an author - leave a review!

PS: I keep checking, but haven't seen POWER PLAY in the Apple iBookstore yet. If you see it, please let me know via a comment.

Update: Apple finally released the book and it is here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Next Big Thing Blog Chain

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

So, a couple weeks ago, fellow Sister in Crime Nancy Adams tagged me in this blog chain project called "The Next Big Thing." Essentially, authors answer ten questions about their current work in progress, then tag someone else. I had a bit of a hard time deciding what to answer the questions on, but I think I'm going to use the ebook that is currently in production. So here goes:

What is the working title of your book?

Hero's Sword: Power Play

Hero's Sword is the name of the series, also the name of the video game that figures in the story. Power Play is the name of the first installment. Think political grab for power, not the hockey term.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This was one of those social media networking, "you never know what's going to happen," kind of things. I got a message via a long-time technical writing colleague that he had this friend who had an idea for an ebook and I should contact him. So I did, and pitched my credentials. His idea was for a "chapter book" series. If you think of the popular Magic Treehouse books, you'll get the idea. Except he was looking at the increasing numbers of kids in the 6-10 year old demographic using ereaders, so the series would be all digital. His idea surrounded a video game, but he was open to other ideas. I liked the concept, however, so I expanded on it - she is sucked into the game via a new game controller, where she has to become her game avatar, a "hero" of the land, and save the day. And while each book has it's own episode, there is a bigger story arc, since his vision was for a series of 10-12 books.

What genre does the book fall under?

It's a fantasy. I mean, what kid doesn't fantasize about being a hero or "living" the story of a video game?

What actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie?

Oh my gosh. For Jaycee/Lyla, I'd probably go with Jennifer Lawrence, who played Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. She's a little old, though as Jaycee is 13. But it's the same spunky female character. The other big character, Roger Woodbridge, is a father-style figure, so I'm not sure. Liam Neeson really appeals to me for that, although he too might be a tad old.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When she is magically transported into a video game, Jaycee Hiller must become her avatar, the hero Lyla Stormbringer, to save the lady of Mallory and learn a little about herself along the way.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It is going to be independently published. That is, my partner is handling the bulk of the publishing details, but it's not going through a traditional publishing house, I don't have an agent, and I get a lot of input on things like cover art.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The first draft took about three weeks. It was during the summer and I was unemployed so I had a lot of free time for writing.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The Magic Treehouse is probably the best comparison I know - both for length and genre. In both series, kids are magically transported to another place to solve a problem.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, I was unemployed, first of all. =) Second, I also see more kids reading ebooks these days, either on their own Kindles/iPads or using Mom and Dad's, so I thought the market was there. And I've never written for this grade level, so the challenge of doing so was appealing.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

Jaycee is a girl, but I think her problems - having a crush, being on the outs with the "popular" crowd in school - are typical of a lot of kids between 8-10. So I hope she is an inspiration for any kid, girl or boy, who doesn't quite "fit" and is searching for self identity in the face of the school bullies (physical or social). I deliberately tried to avoid the "girly" stuff so that boys would find Jaycee an engaging character. And she's not a "girly girl." I wasn't one myself in middle school, and there weren't a lot of literary characters I could related to in that way.

Well, this was fun! I'm still working on people to tag, so check back later to see how successful I was.
* * * * *
If you are interested in continuing the chain, here are the rules:
  • Use this format for your post.
  • Answer the ten questions (above) about your current WIP (work in progress).
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and link to them (be sure to line them up in advance).

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hero's Sword: Power Play - Excerpt 2

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I leave for a fun-filled writing weekend in a few hours, but I leave you with a second excerpt from the upcoming ebook, Power Play: Hero's Sword Volume 2. In this scene, Jaycee facts a test with the sword - a test that could make the difference in proving that she is indeed Lyla Stormbringer.

If you missed the first excerpt, read it here.


We walked back to the manor grounds, the crowd following. I could hear bits of conversation, people debating whether or not I was Lyla Stormbringer. I took this as progress. When I’d arrived no one had believed me. At least people were wondering now.

The practice ring was a circle approximately fifty feet in diameter with a raised border. Roger stepped into the ring and motioned for me to follow. “Lyla Stormbringer is a fearsome blade,” he said, making sure the entire crowd could hear. “It is only fitting, therefore, that she have a strong opponent, someone who can challenge her - me.” Roger unsheathed the sword on his hip and bowed.

I fought to keep my face expressionless. I had to fight Roger? On the one hand, this was good because I was sure he wouldn’t kill me. On the other hand, I was also sure he was a pretty good swordsman himself, so he wouldn’t give me a break either. I flexed my hands, drawing in deep breaths and trying to calm the butterflies in my stomach.

I drew my own blade. The leather-wrapped hilt felt good in my hand, like it belonged there. The sword was neither too light nor too heavy, and the sunlight shone off the blade. I rolled my wrist a couple times, drawing circles in the air. It felt natural. I smiled, swung my sword up in a salute, the way I saw in the movies, and bowed. Roger also smiled and we stepped into a ready position.

This might be fun. Then Roger attacked and I changed my mind. This might be deadly. Roger hadn’t been kidding, he was good and it took all that I had to block his flurry of attacks. There were a couple of times that I thought he’d get me, but he didn’t. I was sure I was working on reflex alone, because it wasn’t skill.

I had never swung a real sword. The closest I’d gotten was when I played Zelda on Stu’s Wii. Believe me, swinging a video game controller is not training for swinging a real sword. Roger chased me all over the ring, blows coming at my head, side and feet. I was managing, but barely. It was just a matter of time before he scored.

Once again, the muttering started. Whatever street cred I’d earned at the archery range was almost gone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy from the range elbow his neighbor and smirk. For some reason, that made my blood boil. A balloon rose in my chest and a ringing started in my ears. Enough was enough. Roger might beat me, but I wasn’t going to lose looking like a fool.

I went on the attack. The more I swung at him, the more Roger smiled. But I didn’t think it was the same kind of smile as the people watching. He looked pleased. I pressed him harder and sweat started to form on his brow, and the smile disappeared as he frowned in concentration.

I lost track of time, so I couldn’t tell you how long Roger and I stomped across that ring. He swung at my head and I ducked. I swung at his feet and he jumped. I blocked a wicked strike that would have carved a chunk out of my chest. I recovered quickly, faked a blow to Roger’s right and swung at his left side. He also reacted quickly and blocked my swing.

Sweat poured down my face, stinging my eyes and I could feel my shirt sticking to my back. I should have been terrified, but I’d never had so much fun. A fierce confidence that I’d never felt before burned in my chest. I still might lose, but I knew I was putting on a show.

After who knows how long, I saw my opening. I took a quick swing toward Roger’s head, but instead of swinging again when he blocked, I slid my blade down his and flicked my wrist in a circle. The move trapped Roger’s sword and twisted it out of his hands. It flew to the side and I held my sword inches from Roger’s throat. I was soaked with sweat and breathing like a sprinter after a race, but I smiled like I'd just been told I would be free of homework for the year.

Roger was also soaked, but his smile stretched across his face and his eyes twinkled. He nodded and I dropped my sword. He retrieved his own blade and we bowed to each other. I was breathing too hard to speak, but Roger held up my sword hand. “I declare this test passed,” he said, his voice ringing with something I could have sworn was pride. I bowed to the crowd.

“And now for the final test,” Roger said. “A test of wits.”

I was flying high. After the bow and the sword, I figured this would be cake. Boy, was I wrong.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bouchercon 2012

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Just when I thought the weekend couldn't get any better, I got to meet Mary Higgins Clark.

Laurie Stephens, Martha Reed, me, and Annette Dashofy
The Pittsburgh SinC crew (that's me, second from the right)
When I made my hotel reservations for Bouchercon 2012 last spring, I had no idea what I was getting into. As the conference rapidly approached, I got excited. And nervous. And sometimes flat-out petrified. I had chosen one of the biggest crime fiction conferences to make my "industry event" debut. What had I been smoking? Yes, Bouchercon is primarily a fan event (that is, there were no times set aside for pitching agents or learning craft), but there were going to be some big names there. I joked that while I hadn't yet started dreaming that I was attending a panel stark naked, I was getting jittery. My biggest fear was that I'd be talking to some published author and he (or she) would say, "Honey, give it up."

Hank Phillippi Ryan channels Richard Dawson
I needn't have worried. I'm sure other genre authors will say the same, but the crime fiction community is the best. I knew good things were in store when the first person I saw was Hank Phillippi Ryan. Some poor footwear choices and bad directions had put me in some serious pain - and fortunately my friend Annette swooped in (I mean really - you know you've got a real friend when she literally gives you the shoes off her feet).

I attended some great panels (Family Feud Jungle Red style, and a rip-roaring Sunday event on red herrings top my list). I spoke to great people, other writers and fans (shared a cab with a retired Cleveland Housing Authority officer who insisted on buying me a drink when she learned I was a writer), including a chance meeting with the lovely Rhys Bowen. I drank my first chocolate martini. And no, it won't be the last.

And did I mention that I met Mary Higgins Clark?

Not once did someone say, "Give it up." To the last, everyone was encouraging and friendly. Hallie Ephron (go get her books, now) recognized me from a chance meeting last spring. Hank (go get her books, now) recognized me from Twitter - and may I say she gives great hugs? The message was always, "Don't give up. Keep writing. Keep learning. You'll make it."

The lovely & elegant Rhys Bowen
And that's why I go to these things. I've written before that a writer's life can be lonely. We sit for hours, days, weeks, in front of a screen, pouring out our hearts and souls. Yeah, we can connect with others through email, or Facebook, or Twitter. But somehow, none of that quite compares to a hug, a smile, a conversation.

Nothing on social media compares to hashing out ideas over lunch with a friend. Virtual enthusiasm pales compared to the energy of like-minded others. Yeah, social media introduced me to a lot of people I wouldn't otherwise have met, but to meet them in person? Wow. I came away so energized, so enthusiastic, so ready to jump right back into writing and really make it work.

I'll get more of that this weekend when I attend the "Retreat to the Woods" writers' retreat with my local Sisters in Crime. But after Bouchercon, I really feel confident using the word "sib" to include authors such as Hank. Because the people I met this weekend are my sisters - and brothers - in this wild, wonderful, sometimes hair-pulling, adventure. I'm grateful for all of them and could not be happier I found them. As soon as those hotel accommodations are announced for next year in Albany, I'm there. More than ever, I feel like a writer. This is my community, my "family," my tribe.

And did I mention I met Mary Higgins Clark?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Brava, JK Rowling

By Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Note: I have not read A Casual Vacancy. I might not. What follows is not my opinion of the quality of that book, but my thoughts on JK Rowlings' decision to write it.

Even if you aren't a book person, chances are you've heard of JK Rowling and Harry Potter. If nothing else, the fantastically successful movie franchise has almost guaranteed that. And maybe you've even heard that Ms. Rowling recently (last week, in fact) released a book that is very much NOT for the Harry Potter demographic - A Casual Vacancy. You may or may not be aware of the book's pricing (a whopping $35 USD for the hardcover and $18 USD for the ebook), or the snafu surrounding the ebook formatting error from the publisher.

So, as an author, I've got to wonder: How did Ms. Rowling feel about this book?

She has flat-out said that she wrote it because she wanted to do so. Was she nervous? Most likely. Not in the nail-biting "Oh-my-god-I-need-this-money" kind of way. Her earnings from the Harry Potter franchise have made her an incredibly wealthy woman and she probably doesn't need to write another word in her life (speaking financially).

But any writer who says, "Oh, this is just for me and I don't care what others think" is probably lying to some degree. Every author wants people to like her work. I mean, why else bother publishing it? If it's truly only for you, you can enjoy it without trying to land a traditional publishing deal or forking over the cash to put out a quality indie-pubbed volume. So yeah, I don't have any problem believing that Ms. Rowling was a little nervous about how folks were going to receive A Casual Vacancy.

Some people liked it. Some didn't. That's okay, because that happens. And I bet Ms. Rowling is okay with that too. Not everybody loved Harry Potter (yes, hard to believe maybe, but true).

See, here's the thing. Until now, Ms. Rowling's brand, her "platform" to use the most popular jargon-speak, has been Harry. I won't diminish her success by calling it "overnight" (because it wasn't), but it was her debut work. And for debut work to become that wildly successful is not the industry standard.

And not every author of a popular series has left it behind to author another mega-hit. The Internet buzzed with stories of how many authors, including Judy Blume and Dr. Seuss, had tried to make the "childrens' book to adult book" leap and failed.

To me, it doesn't matter. I say "brava, Ms. Rowling" for one simple fact.

She did it.

Seriously, think about it. Here's the author of what is probably the most successful book series for kids of all time. What does she do? Rest on her laurels and redecorate her lovely home? Never put pen to paper again?

Hardly. She went out on a limb and tried to push herself as a writer. I've got to admire that. To not be content to relax, to try something different - that's part of being an artist. That means you're trying to grow. I read a blog post this morning from Susan Meier about how we all should be works in progress - always learning, never being content to stand in one spot.

Using that as the criteria, I think Ms. Rowling can count A Casual Vacancy a success. It is, by all reviews I've read, most definitely not Harry Potter. She's not doing the same thing to death. Undoubtedly, she could pen more Harry books. But would the reading public eventually feel about Harry the way the movie-viewing public feels about the unending Rocky films. That tired, weakly-done sequels have undermined the brilliance of the original?

Me, I think so. I applaud Ms. Rowling's original objective with Harry. She had a story arc. She wrote those books, a fantastic example of plotting over seven volumes and a decade of publishing. And when the story was done, she ended it. No, "wait, there's more!" gimmicks. No milking the cash cow with Harry Potter #27.

I hope I can do the same, someday. I hope I can have a wildly successful series. And I hope I have the good sense to end it before it gets tired.

And I hope I have the nerves to never stop trying something new.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hero's Sword: Power Play Excerpt

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

So if you've followed me on Twitter and Facebook, you know that production has begun on what will, most likely, be my first published work. Power Play:Hero's Sword Volum 1 is the first book in a series for middle-grade kids, age 8-10. A good comparison would be the wildly successful "Magic Treehouse" books. The books are approximately 20,000 words and divided into chapters.

The Hero's Sword series arc follows eighth-grader Jaycee Hiller. All Jayce wants to do is keep her head down, avoid the cheerleading squad, and survive school. But when she finds herself inside her favorite video game, "Hero's Sword," she must become her avatar, Lyla Stormbringer. "Survival" takes on a whole new meaning as she works to rescue the estate of Mallory from marauding highwaymen.

To celebrate, I offer an excerpt from POWER PLAY for your enjoyment. This is an early scene in the book, after Jaycee is transported into her game and she meets her mentor.

Read a second excerpt here.


I expected to come in contact with my floor, but instead something that felt very much like grass smashed against my cheek, and the smell of dirt and fresh air filled my nose. Really fresh air. I hadn’t smelled air this fresh since that camping trip my parents had forced me to go on in fifth grade.

As soon as my vision cleared, I stood up. My nose and skin hadn’t lied to me. Instead of standing in my bedroom, I was in the middle of a grassy clearing, surrounded by massive trees. The sky above me was a brilliant blue, clearer than I’d ever seen. There were no clouds. I brushed my hands off on my pants and froze.

I was not wearing my usual jeans and t-shirt. Instead, I wore a long-sleeve linen shirt and a close-fitting leather vest. My legs were in tight pants, not uncomfortably tight, but much tighter than I preferred. Instead of sneakers, I wore soft leather boots that came to my knee. There were leather cuffs around my wrists, embossed with some sort of logo, but it was upside down and I didn’t recognize it. The only thing that seemed to be the same was my hair, which was still in a ponytail. But when I pulled it forward, it was a different color, a much deeper brown than it was normally. A few strands stuck to my forehead.

I was about to look at the logos more closely, when a voice shouted behind me. “Stand fast! Who are you, trespassing here? Turn around and name yourself!”

I did what any normal thirteen year old would do. I held out my hands, and turned around. Okay, maybe most thirteen-year olds would have run. But as soon as I saw the owner of the voice, I was glad I hadn’t.

He was tall and muscular - and holding a sword like he knew how to use it. He also looked very familiar, from his dark hair to his boots. His skin was tanned, like he spent a lot of time outdoors. “Um, hi,” I said.

The stranger lowered his sword, but didn’t put it away. “Greetings,” he said. “Might I ask of your name?”

I looked around. “Before I tell you that, would you do me a favor?” The stranger furrowed his brow, but nodded. “Where exactly am I? Like, the name of the town?”

The man’s brow crinkled further. “You are in the estate of Mallory, lands of Lady Starla Caval,” he said. My stomach felt hollow. Mallory is the name of my estate in Hero's Sword. This was getting really weird.

“Uh, and who are you, exactly? I thought the lord of Mallory was Harald Caval.” I was afraid of the answer.

It wasn’t possible for his forehead to crease any further. “I am Roger Woodbridge, chief steward of Mallory,” he said. “Lord Harald is dead, Lady Starla is his daughter. “ The hollow feeling in my stomach increased. This was definitely weird.

I needed more information, right now. “So, Roger, what brings you to this clearing?” I said, trying to sound casual. Stu always tells me I’m horrible at that, but I tried anyway.

“I am on the lookout for a great hero of this land, the woman known as Lyla Stormbringer,” Roger said. “There is unrest in Mallory. Lady Starla’s reign is new and some of her people think she is unfit for her role. Bandits plague the highway and her ladyship cannot stop them. It is Lady Starla’s hope that Lyla Stormbringer can help bring peace to the estate and strengthen her rule.”

Okay, way, way too weird. This could not possibly be happening. The quest I had accepted was to hunt bandits on the main highway though Mallory. Had the Controllix brought me into the game? But that was impossible. I wouldn’t have believed it except for the fact that my pretend Mallory looked a lot like this place, there were characters named Roger Woodbridge and Lady Starla, and my avatar was definitely Lyla Stormbringer - and she dressed a lot like how I was dressed now. But somehow now seemed like a bad time to tell all this to Roger. Had I fallen asleep? I pinched myself, hard. It hurt. I looked around. Still in the clearing. Roger now looking at me in obvious concern. “Are you all right?” he said. “You seem dazed.”

I gazed at the trees again and the sky. I might as well go with it. I spread my hands. “I’m fine,” I said, even though I wasn’t feeling all that fine. “You said you were looking for Lyla Stormbringer. You found her. I’m Lyla.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bits and Bobs

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

So, I'm looking at the date of my last post, and it was 30 August. That's a few weeks ago. My only excuse is that I've started a new day job and that leaves me with less time for writing and it's associated tasks. Mea culpa. I'll try to be better, but no promises.

Blog Stats

I had a spike in viewers today. I have no idea why. But I am grateful. Especially since I'm still trying to figure out this stuff.

It seems like my most popular posts have been the ones I've done on Scrivener. I'm not really surprised on that. In fact, it seems like one of my posts (Scrivener Two Months Later) was linked to another blog on Scrivener. So way cool, so...

Scrivener Tip

In one of my very first posts on Scrivener, I talked about character and location sheets, and how cool they are. And I still think that. But what if you're writing a series of works (novels, short stories, whatever) using the same characters and settings. Do you have to write the sheet each time? Nope. Simply open both projects and drag the character/setting sheet from Project A to Project B. You might have to fuss with the window sizes to be able to do this and you might have to relocate the sheet once it's been dropped if you can't get it right to the correct location. But voila! you can reused sheets over and over (and if something changes in Project B, you can propagate that change by coping from Project B to future projects).

Cool News

I inch ever closer to publication. I think my first public work is going to be the first in my middle-grade fantasy e-book series. I got a cover candidate earlier this week that really knocked my socks off. So beautiful and I think it's really going to resonate with the target market. I cannot wait until I can share it with you - and when I can announce publication!

In the meantime, I have the first in my Laurel Highlands Mysteries series of novelettes out for submission. Unfortunately, I won't hear until October at the earliest - and I may even have to wait until December. It's my first real experience with how slowly the wheels of traditional publishing can turn. I knew it philosophically, but encountering it in real life is, um, different. My first submission responded much more quickly. It kind of cramps my plans for the second story, and perhaps the series in general, but so it goes.

However, more exciting news: my local Sisters in Crime chapter is publishing a short story anthology - and I'm going to be in it! As The Girl would say, "squee!" Publication is a ways off, but the acceptance means I can focus on helping/encouraging others and even more writing. And, frankly, this acceptance meant a lot to me - perhaps even more than acceptance in a magazine would because these are my peers and friends. To not have been included would have sucked.

Speaking of More Writing

I'm mulling over another short story idea, which was going to be a backup if my first anthology story wasn't accepted. This is a story with completely new characters and would be a standalone.

I've finished the second book in the MG fantasy series. I'm editing/revising a romance novella I submitted to a contest back in June (wow, the POV shifts are slapping me in the face in that one - sheesh). I have a second romance novella awaiting revising.

If only I had...

Time to Write

As I mentioned, I've got a day job. It's a good one, tech writing (which is something I'm very comfortable with) in a pretty flexible company. But it does cut into my fiction time significantly. No longer can I just pound out 2,000 words in a day. So I'm coming up with creative options. A lot of writing is getting done on the weekends.

Which begs the question: If you have a day job/kids/school/etc., how to do manage those demands with your writing time?

Clock image used under Creative Commons via Dalo_Pix2

Thursday, August 30, 2012

To Buy or Not to Buy (Reviews)?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

The big kerfuffle on the Internet and Twitter these days seems to be the news that multi-million ebook seller John Locke paid for reviews of his works.

You might be tempted to say "so what?" but let's stop a minute and think.

It's pretty standard in the publishing industry that publishers will send copies of books (advance reader's copy or ARC) to reviewers. They want the blurbs for the book jacket and for advertising. I'm not sure of whether publishers pay for this or not - but I also can't imagine Kirkus doing something for nothing, so who knows.

It's also pretty well-known that indie authors have a hard time getting reviews. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and others don't want to review self-published works.

So if an indie author wants reviews, what's the harm in paying for them?

For me the answer is "plenty."

Let's set aside the fact that buying reviews goes against Amazon's policies. Even if it didn't, I think it would be a no-no. No one in her right mind is going to pay for reviews unless they are good. So let's say indie writer Ima Author pays $500 for fifty reviews. She gets some good and some not-so-good. I'm fairly confident that Ima is going to weed out anything less than a glowing 4 or 5 star review. So the book looks phenomenal to prospective buyers. But is it?

To me a purchased review devalues honest reviews. Because once the reading public knows that you can purchase these things, they start to distrust them. So I go out and write an honest review. How does a prospective buyer know that my four-star review hasn't been paid for? He doesn't.

Going along with this is an article I read this morning on "sock puppet" social media accounts. These are fake accounts set up by an author (or author's rep) to create buzz around a book. To me it's just as deceitful as paid-for reviews. "Everyone does it," one author quoted in the article says. Uh, no, I don't think so. I know how much time I spend cultivating my community on Twitter. I can't imagine doing that for multiple accounts.

Oh, and by the way, what are you - too chicken to do your own promotion? To afraid of looking like a brazen self-promoter? Then I submit you are Doing It Wrong.

I've already written about the challenges of reviewing and how some authors bemoan anything below four or five stars. But paying someone isn't the answer.

Mr. Locke said he was "confident" about the quality of his story so reviews were to be honest. Really, Mr. Locke? If you were so confident, why not let the reviews fall where they may?

As an author, I think I've written some pretty good stories. I'll be willing to throw them up for review once they are published. I'm going to get people who really like them. I'll get people who like them, but aren't wowed. And I'll get people who don't like them, or who don't get the story and will give a bad review. And that's all part of publishing.

And if someone came to me and asked for a review, I'd gladly do it. I wouldn't ask for anything (okay, maybe I'd ask for a free copy of the book). But I'd also warn them that they'll get an honest review. If they don't like it and don't want to use it, that's their right.

But Mr. Locke has damaged the credibility of every review ever posted. And that's to bad, because with the explosion of self-publishing, the virtual "word of mouth" represented by reviews is the best way to get your book noticed.

Paying for reviews doesn't just damage the credibility of one author. It damages us all by casting doubt on our reviews.

Thanks, Mr. Locke. What a way to support indie authors.

Image courtesy of 401(k) 2012 and used under Creative Commons license

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Scrivener, Two Months Later

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Back in June, I published several posts on my experience with Scrivener (here, here, here, and here). At that time, I was still in my trial period phase with Scrivener and mostly I had imported a small project and done some tinkering.

Since then, I've purchased Scrivener and done several full-length projects, including some novellas, short stories, and novelettes. And I've come to a couple of conclusions.

1. Scrivener rocks.

2. How did I get along in Word for so long?

First, a clarification. I said in my Step 2 post that the trial goes by 30 days of actual use. That turned out to be incorrect. It uses actual calendar days. And you can't cheat it by simply leaving it open. It must check the system clock for the date.

I admit I got a little lazy. I was writing the second story using some of the same characters, and I thought "Oh, I know all about these folks." But somewhere along the way, I thought "Wait, does she have green eyes or blue?" Yep, I had forgotten the color of my own character's eyes. I thought I'd have to recreate all my character sheets, but figured I'd check to see if I can drag and drop. Turns out you can. Open both projects and drag from Project A to Project B. Sweet.

For me, the true beauty of Scrivener lies in the fact that it is designed to write scene by scene. In theory, you can do this in Word. But the problem for me in Word was always organization. If I wrote each scene in a separate file, how would I ever paginate and print the whole thing easily? Not to mention I'd end up with literally hundreds of files to store, organize, and name. Jumping between them? Forget it. It was only marginally better if I created a separate file for each chapter.

But writing scene by scene is exactly what Scrivener was designed to do. I create folders for each chapter. Then I can think, "What do I need to accomplish next?" and I write it. Since I recently took a course on scene writing, this is perfect. Instead of getting tempted to think way out in the future, I can concentrate on the scene in front of me. What kind of scene, what is the goal, how does it contribute to the story question?

Writing this way, scene by scene, also makes reorganizing so much easier. I got some edits back on a story that made me realize that not only was I going to have to write new scenes, I had to reorder some of the scenes I already had. In Word, this would have been a complete nightmare. Where did I put that scene? Find it (often by hit or miss method), cut, paste to new document, find the new location, paste.

With Scrivener, this is a snap. The scenes are named and if I've been smart (which I haven't always been), the synopsis tells me that yes, this is in fact the scene I was looking for. Then I just drag and drop it to it's new location. I don't have to worry about pagination. Scrivener does that in the compile process.

The first time I did it, I wanted to weep with tears of joy.

Speaking of the compile process, it rocks too. I submitted a manuscript to a magazine for publication. I hit compile and compared the output to the submission guidelines. I only had to make a few tweaks because the margins, font, and paragraph spacing, as well as the address block at the beginning, was already perfect (headers and footers were where I had to make most of my changes, but only on the second submission).

One small nitpick about compile and chapters: If you don't name your chapters (e.g., Chapter 1, Mary Goes to the Store), you'll have text you need to delete - either the placeholder text you used for your folders or "unnamed document." As I don't name my chapters (hell, I have a hard enough time coming up with a title for the entire story much less for every chapter) this is a little irritating, but minor. I would love it if Scrivener would be smart enough to drop that paragraph if the folder is not named.

Project targets are great if you have a target word count. For example, I recently wrote a short story that had to be 6,000 words or less. By setting the project target word count, I knew that if I'd reached the 5,000 word mark and was only 2/3 of the way through the story I was in trouble. Session targets are great if you are doing things like 1k1hr or have a target count for the day.

Some things I've learned:
  1. Don't shortcut and skip the character or location sheets. They will really make you think about everything you introduce in the story, including such important things as character conflict. They will also keep you from forgetting that the house is supposed to be white with blue trim, not blue with white trim. Because you will forget. Trust me.
  2. Don't import a Word document that is hundreds of pages and thousands of words. I tried. It was messy. Just don't.
  3. Scrivenings are your friend. Using those, I can read an entire chapter (or any other selection) end-to-end. And I can make any changes right there, I don't have to jump back to the individual document.
  4. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the Preference. Because it turns out yes, you can set the default font and spacing so you don't have to do it for every project. Every. Single. Document.
I know I have not completely used all the features. I've barely touched the cork board or made full use of individual scene statuses (although I have set them religiously). But I know one thing's for sure. Any other tool I may use is going to have a pretty high bar to meet. So worth the $45 USD.

And I don't think I'll ever use Word for authoring again.

Update: For more information on purchasing Scrivener, or downloading a trial version, go to the Literature and Latte web site. Scrivener is also available for purchase through the Mac App Store.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Writer by Any Other Name

By Mary Sutton / @marysutton_73

I've got names on the brain lately.

If you're a Shakespeare fan, you're familiar with Juliet's thoughts on the topic of names.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet;

I've written in multiple genres and I love them all: mystery (police procedural and traditional), romance (with and without sex), and middle-grade fantasy. I don't want to stop writing any of them. But I've worried about the whole name vs. pseudonym thing. I thought I had put it to rest when a published author I knew advised not to worry about it because maintaining multiple "brands" (an author's name is essentially her "brand") is difficult. If people can't read the genre on the cover, that's their problem.

But then I saw this post on The Naked Hero about following authors across brands. Now I'm second-guessing myself. And I'm really good at that.

To a certain extent, this is all putting the cart before the horse. I haven't been published yet. But chances are that middle grade fantasy will be the first thing to hit the virtual shelves. If I use my true name, am I going to have to come up with another name for everything else?

Argh. It's enough to give someone multiple personality disorder. And maybe that's how cross-genre authors feel.

So, dear readers, what do you think? Would you follow an author across genres if you really liked her writing?

Image courtesy of cellar_door_films used under Creative Commons

Monday, August 13, 2012

To Review or Not to Review?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I have a confession to make: For years, I never bothered to write book reviews.

It's not that I didn't want to, I just didn't have the time. Or I figured that no one cared what I thought about a book. And the people who did, well, they talked to me personally. So I didn't need to write reviews.

That was before I started writing in earnest. Before I stumbled across someone who said the best thing you can do for an author is leave a review, especially if you liked his or her work. Because by leaving a review on Amazon, or Goodreads, you might influence other buyers.

So I started trying to remember to leave reviews, especially for mid-list authors (you know, not the ones getting six figure advances from a Big Six publisher) or authors I'd connected with on social media. Then one day I ran across this article in the Huffington Post from Nina Badzin: why she doesn't trust online book reviews. And it got me thinking - am I leaving "fluff" reviews?

I have two degrees in English, a BA and an MA, both grounded in literature. So I had to learn how to write a review. When I said Moby Dick was one of the worst books I'd ever read (and it still is), I had to defend that. Likewise, when I said I thought Pride and Prejudice was one of the better classics (and I still do), I had to defend that. And those argument had to be better than "I enjoyed it" or "I didn't enjoy it."

So when I leave a review, I try to say what drew me in and where something fell short. I rarely give a five-star review (in fact, I'm not sure I ever have left a five-star review). To me, five stars means that is the best thing I've read and there is nothing I could have improved. And that just doesn't happen that often.

Wait, I rated the final "Harry Potter" book five stars - and that was more for the entire series than one book. But I digress.

Then the question came up in a writer's group, "If you haven't read the whole book, can you leave a review?" and "Should you ever leave a negative review?"

Here's my take. I recently left a 3-star review for a book. I enjoyed it. I'd buy another from that author. But there was something missing. And I said so, and why that something meant three stars. I don't consider that a "negative" review. That's honesty.

Would I leave one star? If I had to. Believe me, I'd not waste a single minute rating Moby Dick one star. But I'd say why.

As for not finishing a book, well, it's true that one can often realize a book is no good after a few poorly written chapters. But if your criticism is thematic, well, you can leave a review - but you run the risk of missing the development of the theme. Because theme takes more than five pages to develop.

This happened to a friend of mine recently. She got a one-star review from someone who admitted she'd stopped reading the book because of some slights against African-Americans. Okay, fine. Into every author's life a few one-star reviews must fall.

But the beautiful thing about most review sites, such as Amazon where this review had been left, is it allows for comments. And comment I did. And I pointed out, politely, that perhaps the reviewer had done herself a disservice and she should read the entire book.

I hope someday to be published, either traditionally or indie. And when I do, I hope my readers, who I assume are fellow story lovers, will do me the kindness of leaving a well written, thoughtful review. Do I hope most of those reviews are good ones? Absolutely. Do I want my friends to leave gushing reviews because they are my friends? No. I want the truth. If a story is lacking somehow, tell me. But tell me in a polite, constructive way so I can learn. Don't leave a "I just hate your genre so I'm giving it one star" review. That is neither helpful nor instructive.

So tell me, book lovers, do you leave reviews? If you're a writer, how do you deal with less-than-glowing reviews?

Image used under Creative Commons via clarism_4

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When the Muse Sings

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Sometimes, the must sings sweetly, leading us down the path of creativity. And sometimes she bellows, like a fierce wind at our backs.

Fellow writers, I'm sure you know what I mean.

So, I was on vacation last week. Despite the best of intentions (and we all know what those are used to pave), I got nothing written. Yesterday, I spent most of the day running errands and putting post-vacation life back in order. I did get 700+ words written, though. I was informed that equated to approximately three standard manuscript pages (always a good thing to know).

But it was a far cry from my pre-vacation output. Had I lost something? Had the specter of impending employment (yes, a "day job") scared away my muse?

Well, as of 3:53pm EDT, I have written over 2,000 words. Not including this blog post. That equates to ... a lot of pages.

So what happened?

Honestly, I'm not sure. Maybe I just found my groove again. Maybe it's because I reconnected with my story. Maybe it's because I don't feel like melting into a puddle of goo from high heat and humidity.

I don't know. And I don't care. All I know is my muse is singing. It's as captivating as Ella Fitzgerald singing the blues.

Sing, baby, sing.

Featured image courtesy of Whitfield-in-World. Use under creative commons license.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Squirrel Syndrome

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Or as one might call it "Ooo shiny object! Must go play!"

So here's the deal. The first middle grade book I wrote is off in search of cover art. I know that in the world of self-publishing (or even publishing in general), a key to success is having another book ready to go. So that's what I should be doing, BUT...

An idea for another romance is tugging at my mind and heart. That's where my writerly attention has been and I'm just getting into a good groove, laying down 1,500-2,000 words per day. BUT...

I just got feedback on the story I submitted to the Music City Romance Writers "Minuet of Love" contest last June (no, I didn't make the finals). And some of it is really good. Some I would have caught if I'd done (yet another) read through things I've learned and become aware of in the intervening time. So I want to go and fix it.

See where this is going?

I know I'm not the only writer who feels the distractions of the "shiny new object." But really, I know if I succumb to that feeling, I will never get anything done. And I have to get things done. I mean really now. I can't always rely on someone else's deadline to keep me on task.

So I make a resolution. I am going to finish the "crappy first draft" of my current work. Then I will write the "crappy first draft" of the next middle grade book. After that, we'll see what I do.

Why not make a "to do" list of six things? Well, life is unpredictable. Swim season is coming to a close, which means my kids will be around a lot more. And with school approaching, there's going to be shopping that needs to be done. With so much probably distraction, planning my next five things is most likely an exercise in futility. I learned as a project manager it is ususally a bad idea to have concrete plans more than a month or two in advance. Because stuff happens. Count on it.

So I have my goals. Finish this draft in the next two weeks (I'd say week, but I'm going on vacation next week and I know there will be lots of distractions there). Then finish the next draft and choose my next goal. This will work.

But -- ooo, shiny!


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Updates on My Doings

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

So, it's been a busy week.

I received feedback on the ebook I sent out a couple weeks ago - the one I continue to call Young Adult fantasy because I think that's the most accurate genre (what else would you call a book targeted to the 8-10 age range about a girl who gets transported into a video game? Okay, maybe children's fantasay.). The publisher was very positive and is looking for cover art. Look for updates here soon.

I'm still slowly importing my novel into Scrivener scene by scene, which is giving me a great opportunity to examine the story in a new light. I just completed a "How to Make a Scene" workshop, so the work is very topical.

I've also had an unexpected non-fiction opportunity. On a whim I sent in my resume for a blogger position for The Motley Fool - and they accepted me! I put up my first post today. So if you've got an interest in investment/finance news, check it out. I will probably post weekly or bi-weekly, depending on if I've got a good blog post idea.

And I'm chugging away on a new romance story. By the way, did you see the news about how educated women read romance? I've discovered that it is an unexpected pleasure for me. Perhaps what was lacking all those years ago was an actual story and not just sex on the page.

Finally, I'm trying to work out this newsletter thing. If you read this blog, would you subscribe to a newsletter?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Being Exclusive

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

There's a lot of pressure these days for authors to be on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, blogs - it can be overwhelming. A lot of people ask you to "like" their author pages, follow them, whatever. But I read something very interesting today (ironically via Twitter): 7 Neworking Tips for Authors.

I especially like #2 - Be Exclusive.

That's right - be exclusive on social media. Don't like everyone, don't follow everyone. Get with a few key people, the ones who can help you grow your career and your platform. As your circle expands, add a few more people. But be selective.

So I am. Starting right now. I'm paring back to what and who I think is really important. The people I've connected with, who know me, the ones in front of whom I don't have to pretend to be someone/something else and obsessively watch my p's and q's. That's not to say I'll be rude to people, but I don't have to dance around on eggshells, you know?

It feels - liberating.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Confusing the Wrapper with the Product

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

There was a peculiar confluence of events in my life today. First was the weekly Mysteristas chat, which I missed because I was working. But today's topic was "how do you find books," and the topic of being drawn to a cover came up.

Then, I saw this video on book design by Chip Kidd.

He says that he appreciates eBooks, but ends by holding up the book and saying, "To me, the story looks like this."

Now, is he talking about the cover art or the physical book? Maybe it's a combination of both. Some describe reading as a sensory experience. I agree, because a well-written book makes you see, smell, hear and feel the story.

But here's the thing: Never once was the primary sensation one of paper in my hand.

Before you get up in arms, let me tell you: I'm a book person. I've got three sets of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my den, filled with books. I've got four more full bookshelves in my living room, and two giant plastic storage containers full of paperbacks in my basement. I love seeing a row of leather-bound tomes, feeling the imprints of the covers.

But that's not the story. That's the wrapping.
I'll draw an analogy to chocolate. I love good chocolate: the smell, the way it melts in my mouth, the silky taste. I might be drawn to a bar of chocolate in the store by a cute wrapper. I might even buy it. But the product is not the wrapper. It's the chocolate inside. I'd buy a box of Lindor truffles if they were in shiny blue wrappers or plain paper. Why? Because it's damn good chocolate.

For me, it's the same with books. I wouldn't buy a copy of Moby Dick if it had the most beautiful cover in the world - because I don't like the story and no cover is going to convince me that it's a great book. But I'd buy a copy of Pride and Prejudice if it were wrapped in brown paper.

And yes, I'll admit it - if looking for a book I might pick up a book because of the cover. But I don't need the physical book. Authors tweet and share their cover art all the time. I bought a book because the author tweeted the cover art. I liked the art, so I learned more about the book and bought it.

There are challenges to cover art in a digital age, no doubt. The covers need to shrink to that small thumbnail picture. But it can be done. Digital is a way to reinvent the purpose of a cover, to define how a cover works for the author and reader in a digital age.

But don't ever confuse a beautiful cover with a beautiful story. There's a saying in technical writing that "content is king." You have to have good content first to have good documentation.

Fiction is no different. The story is king. The cover is just the guy with the big stick who introduces you to the room.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Your eReader is Watching You - Is That Bad?

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

I've been seeing some tweets about how e-Readers are "reading" us and how that is another sign that they are evil. The logic, as it goes, is this. An e-Reader can tell what you buy. It can tell what you buy next, and whether you purchase the next book in a series. It can tell if you stop reading after two chapters and delete it. And this all informs the publishing industry so that the only successful books will ever be published, therefore forcing authors to only write in popular genres.

Um, yeah.

What people don't seem to realize is that everybody is collecting data on you and every retailer in the world uses that data for marketing.

Do you have a grocery rewards card? Every time you swipe it, data on what you bought is sent to the retailer. Those coupons that are generated at check-out are based on things you've purchased (I'm still trying to recover from my brief love affair with Lean Cuisine).

Have a Barnes & Noble membership card? Yep, they use that to track your purchases. Amazon has your purchase history back to the first thing you ever bought with them. And when you view a product, or put it in your shopping cart, Amazon uses that to recommend other products - "people who bought X also bought Y."

And who can forget that infamous story of how Target knew a girl was pregnant, based on her buying history, before her parents even knew?

It's a digital age folks. Unless you want to become a hermit, never purchase anything from a major retailer, never use a rewards card, and never use a credit card - heck, never mind this whole Internet thing - you're activities are being tracked. That data is being used to market to you. It's being used to let stores know what products to stock and let manufacturers know what products should continue to be made.

The sooner we make our peace with that fact the better.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

I Is an Author Now!

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Today was an important milestone in my writing career.

I got my first rejection letter. I think I'm going to throw a party.

You might wonder at that reaction. A party? Really? For a rejection?

Yes, a party. I mean, I did submit to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I was aiming high. Yes, the form letter rejection was addressed to "Author" so I know they probably have to send a billion of these per issue. It's not like they crafted this loving, supportive personal letter to me.

But I'm going to celebrate. Why? Because this was the first time I ever did something like this. I'm pretty sure editors at Ellery Queen read my submission. My name is out there. Lots of people write something. Few ever bother to send it out. Fewer still are successful.

And this is not final. I have more stuff. And I will keep sending it out and looking for places to submit.

Publishing is not a sprint. It's a marathon.

And I'm just getting warmed up.

(PS: If you know of a great place to submit short fiction - meaning short stories or novelettes, anything under 15,000 words - let me know in the Comments.)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brands and Platforms, Oh My!

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

As a new writer, I hear a lot about establishing my "brand" and my "platform."

No, I am not building anything nor am I working with cattle.

Simply put, my "brand" is who I am, my "voice" as a writer. This blog is part of my brand. Every story I write - mystery, romance, young adult fantasy - is part of my brand. It just sort of happens. Of course, I'm a little confused as to what all of these multiple genres, all of which I've really enjoyed working in and want to continue, say about my brand, but let's let that one go.

So you might think, "well, establishing your brand should be easy." Maybe. See, that's why I've got to be so careful about what I post in places such as this blog, my personal reflection blog at, on Facebook, or Twitter. If I make a political or religious comment, that becomes part of my brand.

That's not necessarily bad - if that's what I want my brand to be. And maybe I don't want my political railings to be part of my brand as an author. So I really have to think twice before clicking "Comment," "Share," "Publish," or "Tweet." Do I want this to be what people think of when they hear my name? Really?

It's not that I can't be me online, I just need to be careful of how much "me" the public sees. Think of it as your boss seeing that picture of you shotgunning beer at a party. Now multiply the number of "bosses" by the number of people in the reading public.

I'm sure you see the problem.

Then there's platform. Honestly, I'm not sure what this one is. But I think the best explanation I've seen is this one by Jane Friedman. My platform is what makes me visible as an author. Publishing something would establish my platform, obviously. But there are other things too.

This blog for example. If I had 500 followers, that means I've got an audience. That's platform-building (for the record, exactly one person follows this blog, so if you're so inclined, add yourself as a follower). I've networked and "met" a fair number of people, including some in the publishing industry (writers and such), on Twitter. They know my name. That's building a platform. Connecting with people via my Facebook author page - platform building. My work with Sisters in Crime - platform building.

So I need to work on my brand, I need to build a platform - and oh, yeah, I need to continue to write so I can do that most important platform-building activity of all GET PUBLISHED.

You can see why some authors resent all this brand and platform stuff. It takes time away from creating.

But that's too bad, because that's what agents and publishers are looking for these days. So help a gal out, why don't you? Follow this blog or pop on over to "like" my author page.

I need all the building help I can get.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Scrivener Step 4: Importing & Compiling

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Note: I am using Scrivener for Mac. If you are using Windows, please allow for differences.

So here we are, the end of my Scrivener musings. I want to talk briefly about two remaining features: importing documents and compiling output.

First, importing. It's a breeze, seriously. Create your project. Choose File > Import and select the thing you are importing. Normally, this will be a file. Scrivener can handle .doc, docx, .rtf, .txt and maybe some others. If you are importing things with images or footnotes, you'll get a warning about those things. That's okay.

After the import, you wind up with one single Scrivener Text document. Here's the hard part. Well, not hard, but tedious. You have to break this into individual scenes using Document > Split. Okay, you don't have to do that. But to really get the full power of Scrivener, you really should.

I did this twice with two shorter works: a novelette and a short story. Both times I used the short story project template. I had offset my scenes in Word, so I just scanned my import for the "#" symbol and split the file there. Along the way, I found a couple of other places I wanted to split, so it was a helpful exercise.

Once you have all the scenes split, you can multi-select and set labels and status if you want. And that's importing. Pretty simple.

Once you're done, you can compile your manuscript. Again, pretty easy. Click the big "Compile" button on the toolbar, or choose File > Compile. Set all your options or accept the defaults. Those defaults will result in a standard manuscript submission template. One note: If the "Compile For" field says "Print" it means print - as in sending to your printer and results in a hard copy. If you want a file (say a .doc file for submission), change the Compile For field value. Scrivener does support the .docx format. You might get a message about certain characters being stripped. If you want to change your output format, you can do so.

I compiled for a submission and got a .doc file that was, almost without tweaking, in standard manuscript format: 1 inch margins all around, Courier 12pt, first page with title and address block, and header. I did have to make a few tweaks, but they were minor. Of course, I then noticed that you can change the front matter template, so I won't have to do it again.

And that's it. I'm sure there's more to Scrivener, and if I stumble across something I think is really valuable, I'll let you know. But these four steps are all you really need to be productive. Someone asked about learning curve. I think someone who is reasonably proficient with computers or Microsoft Word can be using Scrivener comfortably in a week or less. So yeah, not a big learning curve.

I already like Scrivener a lot. I think I'm going to love it. So what about you? Ready to take the plunge?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Scrivener Step 3: Starting to Write

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Note: I am using Scrivener for Mac. If you are using Windows, allow for differences.

I finished the tutorial. I created a project, and set up my character and location sheets. Now I'm ready to write.

At the heart of Scrivener, at least the fiction projects, are Chapters and Text documents. Chapter documents can contain text or just be a "holder" for Text documents, which are usually scenes. In this way, Scrivener forces you to write scene-by-scene.

At first I didn't think I was going to like this. After all, when I get in a groove, I don't want to stop. On second thought, and after using Scrivener to prepare sample scenes for a project, I like it.

The reason? Simple. The mantra in writing is that every scene needs to move the story forward. Every scene needs to contain some conflict, or tension. If you don't consciously write scene-by-scene, it's easy to lose sight of this. So now when I sit down, I can focus on one particular scene. For example, "here's the scene where she meets the man who is going to be her mentor." And all of my thoughts focus on that scene, instead of wandering off into something three chapters later.

This scene-by-scene structure will pay off later as well. I've often had to restructure works and had to hunt for the scenes. I'm sure you know the feeling. "I need to move that love scene in the hot tub. Now was that chapter 7 or chapter 9?" If you're writing by scene, you can zero in on that love scene and drag it to the new location.

This is probably why Scrivener recommends not using "Scene 1, Scene 2," etc. Give your scenes meaningful descriptions. I also used the Synopsis note functionality. That way I know "Love scene in the hot tub" is actually the scene I'm looking for - and that's pretty cool. The ability to drag a scene is also much easier than the old "cut big chunk of text, paste to second document, find new location, cut text again, paste to new location" work flow in Microsoft Word. I mean, that might not be bad for a 5,000 word short story, but for a 90,000 word novel it's exhausting.

The actual typing in Scrivener is rather like any word processing program, so there's not much to say. It's got a default font and single paragraph spacing. You can change that if you want because it'll all be standardized when you compile your project (that's the term Scrivener uses for creating the final manuscript).

Because people have asked about learning curve, I'll say that I think it's not very steep, especially if you are starting a new project (like I am). I'm sure there's more to learn if you import an existing project (written in Word or something else) and they'll be some to learn upon compilation. But I think anyone can get the basic content-creation work flow down in a few hours to a couple of days.

I'm going to get writing now. If I learn anything stupendous, I'll blog again, but expect my next Scrivener blog entry to be about compilation. That will take a few days.

Updated 6/16/12: I forgot about one really cool thing. You can assign a status to each scene: First Draft, To Do, Finished, etc. This way you can see how much needs to be done. Also, if you're further down the story, and you suddenly think, "Oh man, I need a love scene in the hot tub in Chapter 3," you can put the text document for the scene where you need it, leave it with a status of "To Do," and keep on motoring where you are, so you don't break the creative groove you're in. I like that - better than a post-it note. =)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Scrivener Step 2: Setting up a New Project

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

Note: I am using Scrivener for Mac. If you are using Windows, please allow for differences.

So having completed the tutorial, I set up a new project. I decided to use something completely new and not convert something existing (you can import Word documents into Scrivener, but I'll save that for later).

Note: Something really cool - the Scrivener trial goes by 30 days of actual use, so if you use it every day, it's 30 days. If you use it every other day, your trial will expire in 60 days. That's nice.

Creating a  new project is dead simple: File > New Project. Once you've done that, you get to pick the template you want to use. Here is where it gets really cool.

You can do a "blank" project where you have to create everything. However, say you're writing a novel. Under the "Fiction" category, there is a novel template. That template contains a predefined cover page and will automatically number your chapters when you compiled the project. So if you decide to move Chapter 20 to Chapter 13, you don't have to renumber everything.

The "Fiction" category also contains templates for Novel (with sections) and Short Story. Each contain a title page (which you need to fill in - the file is in the Front Matter folder in the Binder).

Also included in this template is predefined output for manuscript submission (1" margins all around and 12pt Courier/Times New Roman font). As I pointed out yesterday, this is cool because if you prefer to work online using a sans-serif font as I do (e.g, Arial - my eyes have trouble focusing on serif fonts on a screen for long periods of time), you don't have to worry about making sure you've replaced all your fonts correctly before you prepare your manuscript for submission. Scrivener will do that for you.

In the Front Matter folder for the Novel template, you'll also see Paperback Novel and eBook. Each of these have template pages to complete that are unique to that output. For example, Paperback Novel has a copyright page and a dedication. Yes, there is an output specifically for eBook output, should you need it.

There are many other categories of templates including, Non-fiction, Poetry,  and Scriptwriting. I didn't explore them because I'm not writing those things, but I would imagine they come with their own standard outputs and associate front matter.

So my main task yesterday was writing some book treatments. Scrivener is not really a free-form text writer, so I wrote in Word. But while I was doing so I used another feature of Scrivener that I can tell is going to be useful: Character Sheets and Location Sheets.

These things are not included in output. Think of them as crib notes for the places and people you create. As I was writing my treatment and creating characters, I created Character Sheets in Scrivener. This is where the characters back story lives. The sheets include name, role in the story, physical description, personality, unique habits - all the things that you may use in your story. The character sheets also include two extremely important areas: Internal Conflicts and External Conflicts. This is awesome. Because if you can't fill in these areas, your character has a problem and maybe you need to put more thought into him. Because if a character doesn't have some conflict, he's not going to be very interesting, is he?

You can get as detailed as you need to be with these sheets, but I recommend putting at least a couple of things in each area. If you think of something else, you can go back and edit it. I did not create character sheets for everyone (for example, the nameless stable boy, or the maid that only gets one scene), but I did for my primary and major secondary characters. And don't fret. This is not a one time deal, so if you create a character when you're halfway through the book, you can create a character sheet for him. But they really make you think about your characters, so I highly recommend their use.

The second thing I did was Location sheets. These describe the places in your story (duh). But again, it makes you think. What is this location's role in the story? What characters will use this location? Are there unique features? What I really like is there's a place to describe the sights, sounds, and smells of the location. These are the things that will help you really bring your setting alive. What does a middle school smell like? You can say "the walls were bright yellow" or you can say, "the lights reflected off of the industrial-painted walls and the smell of heavy antiseptic cleaner and stale gym clothes filled the air." I bet the second description makes the place more alive (or I hope it does).

Again, you can get really specific or general. I created Location sheets for my major settings. I'm sure my characters will do things like ride down a road, but I didn't create a Location sheet for the road. I could, but frankly I think that's overkill.

You do not have to use Character or Location sheets, but I liked them. They really made me focus on why I was going to use specific things and made the story coalesce in my brain.

So now that my project was complete and sheets filled out, I was ready to start writing.

Update: I forgot something. Some writers aren't a slave to word count and don't care. But some like to use a general word count target. For example, say you're writing a short story and you know the target word count for submission is 6,000 words. Go to Project > Show Project Targets and you can both set your targets and see your progress (that's for later).

Tomorrow: Day 3 - Writing My First Scene