Wednesday, August 29, 2012


After some forty years of subscribing to Time Magazine I’m thinking of cancelling. Why? Maybe I’m alone in this, but I hate the fact they’re now printing a lot of their articles in red ink, or worse, light blue. Have they not heard that people are getting older--especially people who are likely to still subscribe to magazines--and their eyesight isn’t what it used to be? Sure, the magazine pages are varied and colorful--sometimes they put a square of orange under an article, but I want to read the content, not admire the d... thing.

I’ve always believed in the saying, “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” Cloning people comes to mind, but that’s a different topic.


I love my e-mail but now people are sending me messages in color, especially that light blue. Blue letters against the off-white background are very hard to read, especially if they use a ten-point font. Studies have shown that black on white is the easiest print to read. Except for black on yellow. Why do you think STOP and other street signs are black on yellow?

Have you ever seen Closed Captioning on your TV set? Have you noticed they use white letters on a black background? That’s because the contrast is better. In fact, you may not know it, but you can get white printing on a black background on your computer screen and when you click on it, it says, “high contrast.”

Back in the computer dark ages, 1980 or so, computer screens--like the original Ford cars--came in only one color, black. However, you could get colored printing, white, amber or green. We bought our first PC before IBM even had one and I chose white on black. And still do. All my novels and letters to friends are written that way. And then my computer prints them in black on white. And, don’t send a book to a publisher on colored paper.


Another study has told us that. among fonts, italics is harder to read. Yet, in the past few years, romance novels make increasing use of italics, usually in a character’s thought, also known as “interior monologue.”

I was taught that italics were used only for the following:
1. To emphasize a word. Example, “You talking to me?”
2. For foreign words. Example: Mon Dieu
3. For Titles of books, magazines, films or TV shows
4. To reproduce a letter within a story or novel.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online Edition lists twenty-one uses for italics and none of them are, “for thoughts.”

At one of my very first writers conferences, at least thirty years ago, a best-selling author and teacher (I think it was Dwight Swain) said, substantially, “A long time ago, writers put thoughts in quotation marks. Then they put them in italics. But today, we just write them. If you’re in the character’s viewpoint, whatever you write is obviously his thought.”

So spare your readers and skip the unnecessary italics.

I’d follow the rules here, but Blogger doesn’t print in italics.

Time Magazine
Chicago Manual of Style
Dwight Swain

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


One of the many blogs and writing groups I follow mentioned a book with the intriguing title of SAVE THE CAT, which is actually a how-to for screenwriters. The person who recommended it was right--it contains valuable information for novel writers, especially those writing thrillers, mystery or romantic suspense. Because successful movies can teach writers how to build tension.

The short version of the “Rule” is, “Put your protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him.” That is, give the hero lots of problems to solve and terrible scrapes to get out of. Stories like that keep the reader turning pages because she wants to know how the hero manages to overcome them all and survive.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

John Grisham’s first successful book, THE FIRM--his actual first was reissued later--was an example of that kind of story-telling. On one hand the hero is faced with being killed by his law firm boss, and at the same time he’s wanted by the F.B.I. Some readers complained that the actual writing wasn’t good, but the suspense of watching the hero succeed in that situation was compelling.

SAVE THE CAT also reminded me of the advice I got at a writers’ conference many years ago from a best-selling author. He said--and I‘m paraphrasing here--“Movies have been around for a hundred years, television for fifty. Readers and viewers are accustomed to stories that start immediately with action. You can write like Charles Dickens if you want to, and spend four pages on long descriptions, but the audience for that kind of book is DEAD.”

My first chapters are often rewritten dozens of times because I try to follow that advice and hook the reader with something compelling right up front.

Two years ago I sold a romance novel that had been submitted to publishers nineteen times, three of them to the same publisher. What made them finally buy the book? I’m not sure, but just before I sent the manuscript out the last time, I added a scene in which the hero sabotaged the heroine’s attempt to sell the yacht she’d inherited and couldn’t afford to keep. That gave her one more reason to hate him (before they fell in love). In effect, she was up a tree, and I threw another rock at her.

That book, SOUTHERN STAR, originally written with my friend, Carolann Camillo, was only available in hardcover, but--inasmuch as Amazon has bought Avalon Books--will eventually go digital.

John Grisham
Kurt Vonnegut
Carolann Camillo

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


What do those three things have in common? They came together last week. Author Jenna Bennett reported that her book, A CUTTHROAT BUSINESS, had received an unkind one-star review. The reviewer called it “racist” because the author used the word “darkie.”

However, not only did the book receive many four- and five-star reviews, it’s clear the “shocked” reviewer had not read much of the book and didn’t understand what she did read. The story--a cozy mystery--takes place in the South and a minor character in the book uses the term. What foolishness. Like people who want to take the word “nigger” out of Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN. The author admitted she’d had a hard time selling the book to a publisher, because many editors feared alienating their southern readers. Political Correctness, anyone?

Which is where Bridge comes in. I’m having a hard time selling my own cozy mystery because my amateur sleuth teaches Bridge. I have one chapter--out of 31--where she plays a hand brilliantly and wins a lot of money she didn’t expect. Young editors--and aren’t they all these days, fresh out of college English courses--said “Nobody plays Bridge anymore.” Obviously they don’t know Bill Gates is an avid player, there are tournaments all over the world, books like BRIDGE FOR DUMMIES, Bridge columns in every newspaper, software programs and daily Internet playing.

Just last week I sent off the manuscript to yet another editor and doing so reminded me of my college days. I lived close enough to commute, and when I’d return to the sorority house on Saturday night after a date, I had to sleep in the third-floor “dorm.” It turned out that four girls would show up, steal blankets from unused beds to keep warm, smoke cigarettes and play Bridge. After a few Saturday nights of that, I found a solution. I arrived early and “borrowed” all the lightbulbs. Naturally I hated Bridge then, but later my parents forced me to learn--in order to have a fourth--and now I love it. True Bridge players are often addicts.

In my cover letter, I volunteered to remove the one chapter, but is that “selling out” and should I insist it’s important in my character’s life? Well, maybe. I really, really want to sell that book and start my own mystery series. Like someone said, “Writing is murder.”

P.S. The Olympics are over, but please read my account of the 1984 L.A. Summer Closing Ceremonies under “Beyond Writing” on my website. I guarantee a “good read.”

Jenna Bennett
Mark Twain
Summer Olympics

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Traditional publishers are the subject of lots of news reports and blog posts these days. Other writers have explored those topics more eloquently, but--having added my two cents last week on a similar subject--I’ll add a few more words to these threads.

A respected publisher of non-fiction, fiction of all types and children’s books for more than seventy years, Penguin recently announced the purchase of Author Solutions for $116 million. It’s no secret to professional, or even many (maybe especially) newbie writers, but they are the parent company of the vanity presses Author House, iUniverse, Trafford, and Xlibris. For exhorbitant amounts of money, any of these companies will provide publishing services to writers. What they seldom do, however, is sell books. Two-thirds of their income is from fees paid by the clients.

The average client--Author Solutions has a total of 150,000 writers on its lists--pays $5000 for their services and sells fewer than 150 books. Writer Beware has seen thousands of complaints and warns writers to avoid them.

As author David Gaughran wrote in a July article, Penguin has seemingly bought a company which milks writers. In his example he points out that Author House charges the “bargain price” of $1,199 for a press release and that the author could get more promotional value if he simply set fire to the money on YouTube.

So why did Penguin do it? To give them the benefit of the doubt, I don’t believe they intend to exploit writers. In my opinion, they plan to use Author Solutions’ lists of wannabe authors to find the next Amanda Hocking or E.L. James before they become household names. Penguin may hope to find gold in the slush pile, publish it and then keep 78% of the profits themselves.

But I could be wrong.

I hardly need to point out--especially to my fellow RWA members, they’re the largest romance publisher in the world. As I see it, the class action suit brought by three writers last month boils down to Harlequin failing to live up to its contracts. Instead of paying authors a promised 50% of e-book royalties, they paid 3%. If, for example, an e-book sold for $4.00, the author should get $2. Harlequin, by licensing the book to another entity--which, guess what? they own--the author gets 32 cents. Ouch.

I‘m not a Harlequin author, but the case intrigues me. What will happen to Harlequin? Will they go bankrupt? Will their authors flee to other publishers or Amazon which already has its own romance imprint? Amazon has already purchased Avalon Books (who published my novel Southern Star) and is buying Dorchester. The outcome of this won’t be known for some time, and my guess is eventually Harlequin will settle for somewhere in the millions of dollars, especially if guilty and a judge adds Punitive Damages.

As I’ve said before, this is an interesting time to be a writer. What do you think? Would you query Penguin or Harlequin today?

Southern Star
Barnes & Noble
 Marilee Shaw's inheritance, the yacht Southern Star, is in default to the bank. To save it from the auction block, she decides to honor a Caribbean cruise planned for two couples. But with no captain available, she's forced to approach Gary Pritchard, a man she once loved but refused to marry. He agrees to skipper the cruise, but only if she comes along as crew. In addition to the danger of succumbing again to Gary's charm and good looks, she has other problems. Trying to sell the yacht, the discovery that her customers are not what they seem, and the appearance of an unexpected visitor make the excursion anything but seaworthy. Will the romantic but rocky voyage rekindle their love or scuttle it forever?

David Gaughran
Writer Beware
Amanda Hocking
E.L. James
Southern Star

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Although British author Ewan Morrison’s article in the Globe and Mail drew 248 comments, and the excerpt on The Passive Voice blog garnered another 54, I’m adding my two-cents’ worth in response to one part of Morrison’s discourse.

I read all the comments on The Passive Voice, and many of the 248 on the original article, and I can assure you those opinions were right on. The article was another rant by a traditionally published author who can’t accept that publishing has changed and insists that because of the “digital masses,” there will soon be “no more professional writers.”

Not only are we self-published writers “professional,” that is, being paid, but we’re obviously growing in number. Morrison also shows his arrogance by saying, “I have been making culture professionally for twenty years.” Making culture? He’s not going to wait for history to define his place in the literary world?

Scott Turow (president of the Writers Guild) is quoted as saying, “It (indie publishing) doesn’t allow young writers to flourish.” Is he kidding? Traditional publishers have always favored best selling writers and closed its gates to newcomers. To say, as Morrison does, that the fact Amanda Hocking and E.L. James are now signed with big publishers proves that “all sign a ‘proper publishing deal’ as soon as they are able,” means he conveniently forgets the best-selling authors who turned down million-dollar offers to stay Indie.

I am still a small fish in this big pond, but have been published by traditional publishers as well as digitally. I have no quarrel with either camp. I just resent being told I’m the death of good books and bookstores.

Several years ago, I wrote a memoir, The Green Bough, based on the experiences of my husband’s aunt, who was a schoolteacher in a logging camp in Oregon in 1913. The book won several contests and was praised for “great writing” and “intriguing characters and incidents.” However, after being turned down numerous times because it didn’t fit a publisher’s “current requirements,” or “wasn’t marketable,” I gave up. Finally I self-published because I wanted Aunt Gladys’s relatives to know of her accomplishments. I sold three e-books of that title last week, and--when I attend the two Book Fairs every year--it’s always one of my top sellers in trade paper. In addition, readers come back and tell me how much they enjoyed it and even sent it to their aunts or cousins.

I’m proud to be a member of the “digital masses,” and Mr. Morrison can go whine somewhere else. Do you agree?

The Green Bough

Barnes & Noble


Ewan Morrison
The Passive Voice
Amanda Hocking
E.L. James
The Green Bough