Friday, October 29, 2010

Monday is start of National Novel Writing Month

OKAY, ADMIT IT! You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Of course you have, who doesn’t think they have the Great American Novel inside them? Well, if you are one of the 90+ percent who think they have a book, next month is for you. It is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo, for short. Here is a short summary from the NaNoWriMo website to give you an idea about what this is all about:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children.

In 2009, we had over 165,000 participants. More than 30,000 of them crossed the 50K finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

So, to recap:

What: Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month's time.

Who: You! We can't do this unless we have some other people trying it as well. Let's write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together.

Why: The reasons are endless! To actively participate in one of our era's most enchanting art forms! To write without having to obsess over quality. To be able to make obscure references to passages from our novels at parties. To be able to mock real novelists who dawdle on and on, taking far longer than 30 days to produce their work.

When: You can sign up anytime to add your name to the roster and browse the forums. Writing begins November 1. To be added to the official list of winners, you must reach the 50,000-word mark by November 30 at midnight. Once your novel has been verified by our web-based team of robotic word counters, the partying begins.

Still confused? Just visit the How NaNoWriMo Works page!


So what are you waiting for? Me? Well, I’ve got a column due Friday and an 80,000 word mystery to finish. But then maybe this might be a good time to start that vampire novel…hummm? Let me know if you are taking part; and good luck to those who do!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mondays With Mike: The dying declaration and the hearsay rule

I CONTINUE TO read many otherwise well-written mysteries that contain a legal flaw or two. No one minds that authors stretch things a bit in the interest of writing a good story, but those stretches must at least be within the bounds of reality. Nothing is more important to a crime writer than proper research: your weapon caliber must do in real life what you say it does in your story; your legal procedure must be correct; you must have a working knowledge of poisons if you are using that as a cause of death.

A year or so ago I had the occasion to address some of the problems in the context of the “dying declaration.” Many writers use the declaration to do many things that it legally cannot do, so while I’m lining up some new author interviews, I thought you might like to take a peek at something you may have missed:


RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH is a mantra that writers hear all the time but sometimes ignore. I was at a conference the other day when one of the speakers was commenting on the pope’s environmental statement. At a papal Mass, Benedict gave a homily extolling the virtues of the environment. The reporter covering it noted that the pontiff so wanted to underscore his position that he even wore green vestments!

Well, as any Catholic would tell you, the color of the vestments worn at Mass are dictated by the liturgical season (Christmas, Lent, etc.) or the specific feast day, not the particular message the priest wants to give. Green is the most often used color which denotes “Ordinary Time,” in other words, nothing special that day on the Church calendar.

I’m also reminded of the film Kramer v. Kramer where Dustin Hoffman played the role of a father trying to win custody of his son. He was insistent that his son, Billy, not be involved in any of the court hearings. After the judge granted custody to the mother, dad wanted to appeal. The response by his lawyer was something to the effect that if he appeals it will be necessary to call Billy as a witness. Now as anyone who has taken business law knows, there are no witnesses in an appellate court, those courts rule on a written record and oral arguments by lawyers.

And, of course, we have all heard the stories of authors who get razzed by readers because they have a car traveling the wrong way on a one-way street, or is a four-door model when the company only produced a two-door.

So I am not surprised when I see writers missing the point concerning rules of evidence, especially that rule known as the “dying declaration.”

There is much confusion about what this means, so here is a small primer. The rule is actually one of the exceptions of the rule on hearsay. Hearsay, itself, is not well understood but suffice it to say that it is a statement made out of court that is being repeated in court to prove the content of the statement. Let me give you a quick example:

If a Bob says in court, “John called me and told me that Tom was coming over to beat me up,” that would be hearsay if it was offered to prove that Tom wanted to beat Bob up. On the other hand, it would not be hearsay if Bob was using it to explain why he threw the first punch at Tom; because then it would be offered, not to prove Tom’s intent, but to show what motivated Bob to act as he did. Got it? Well, it’s hard and I admit it.

The dying declaration then is a statement by a person dying – now dead – repeated in court to prove that what was being said was truthful, classic hearsay. However, the dying declaration is an exception to the hearsay rule (get out your books, it’s rule 804(b)(2) in the federal rules) but only a limited one. Under the rule it is only applicable to show what the dying person believed to have caused his impending death – nothing more. So it does not relate to property rights or any other matter. It is used primarily prosecutions for homicide or civil actions in which the liability for the death is at issue.

Some states may have slightly different versions of the rule, but if you are writing about it keep in mind what it is and what it is not. It will not dispose of the family farm, trip up a crooked accountant or expose fraud in the boardroom – not in court anyway. And if you have a question or two, there are a few good lawyers around who might answer your questions if you’ll name a character after them, perhaps a distinguished judge

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mondays With Mike: Suspense Author Alan Loots

THIS WEEK I’M visiting with a local author that I have almost continuing contact with: Alan Loots. In a city the size of Des Moines most authors tend to know one another – sort of – we meet at book shows and library events, but often don’t get to know each other as well as we’d like. So this week I’m taking the time to get to know one of my “traveling companions” a little bit better. Alan is the author of the suspense novel Storm Lake. And you can often find him the first Tuesday of the Month at the writers group at Beaverdale Books, and, as I understand it, he was a professional musician at age ten!

Mike: Thank you for taking the time today, Alan. Please give us a little background of your life.

Alan: I am a native Iowan, born in Carroll, and moved to Des Moines as a teenager. I am a graduate of Valley High School in West Des Moines and have a Journalism degree from Drake University. Along with writing, I am an advertising account executive with KCCI-TV here in Des Moines.

M: Your bio shows a variety of interests and endeavors throughout your life. Is there any thread that ties these together?

A: I guess I have always liked different aspects of the entertainment business, trying to communicate my ideas to others in an entertaining way. Whether it was making a student film in college, writing songs and peddling them in Nashville for a summer, being a guide at a large cave attraction in Colorado, taking photographs, writing screenplays or a novel, the thread would trying to tell or show an idea of mine.

M: Okay, tell me about how you became a professional musician at ten years old? I am right about that, aren't I?

A: After a year of lessons, I started playing drums in my father’s big band nearly every Saturday night. I did that for ten years, playing small venues to large ballrooms across the state. This was quite an eye opener for me, in many ways.

M: Does your novel, Storm Lake, contain any influences of your music career or of your other entertainment interests?

A: My love of music played a small role in the book. There is a short section in the novel that gives readers a view of what that experience was like. It’s of a different era, really.

M: Tell us about Storm Lake. I’ve heard you speak in public about it, and you have a revelation about the title, don’t you?

A: Storm Lake is not about Storm Lake, Iowa. That’s it. The novel is a thriller and about half of it is set in northwest Iowa. Readers will recognize locations in that area of the state, but my fictitious town of Rockwood is a composite of three small towns in Iowa and Minnesota. My editor had some reservation about the title, but, although it may be a little confusing to Iowa readers, it would not to those outside the state. Besides, it has provided a talking point when I do book signings and presentations. Actually, it has helped me get more engaged with my readers.

M: Tell us how Storm Lake came to be; and can you share a little of the story?

A: Storm Lake took quite a few years to complete. The beginning of the process actually started with a location, not a story idea. I was driving home from a vacation and I stumbled across a very unusual lake house in a small town. I became fascinated with it and knew that I had to create a story that included this house. With the image implanted in the mind, I slowly created a suspense story in my head for the next two years. I committed nothing to paper. Once I was satisfied with the complete storyline and all of the characters, I started to put in all down via my keyboard. It was wonderful to see the novel come to life on the screen. It took me several years to complete, working on it when I could…late night and weekends.

M: What is the storyline?

A: It is a contemporary suspense story about Michael Lund, a young college professor who gave up a dream years before, but is now given a chance to fulfill it, at least for a short while. His yearning was to be a special agent for one of the federal government’s security agencies. With his expertise in criminology and his research into cults and militias, he is unexpectedly recruited by the FBI for a freelance assignment. He accepts, and then…..

M: …and then?

A: As I said, it is suspense. Your readers will just have to find out when they read the book.

M: I would have said the same thing. How is Storm Lake doing?

A: I’m very pleased with things so far. The trade paper version been selling well, and has had some nice reviews, which I truly appreciate. It was also published as an e-book in all formats about four weeks ago. I am interested to see how this goes. I am hoping e-book editions adds readers to all books as opposed to replacing readers of print books. Time will tell.

M: Where can you purchase a copy?

A: Through any bookstore and all on the on-line bookstores like Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-A Million and Powell’s. The e-book version is available at Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble. Apple’s ibooks is supposed to have it soon.

M: Any advice for beginning writers?

A: Speaking of suspense novels, only, not much, since I have but just one novel out. Read many books in the genre you want to write. Come up with your own special storyline, but study how successful suspense writers put it all together. Also, get yourself a good editor.

M: Will there be a sequel of Storm Lake?

A: Not yet. I have had many people asking me when a sequel is coming out. I tell them I am not ready for that yet. I want the next episode to be as good as the first, if not better. In the meantime, I am writing another suspense novel called, The 27th Window. I am excited about it and having fun developing the story. I’m hoping this one will be out next year.

M: How can readers get in touch with you?

A: I have a Website, and they can also check out my Facebook page. I really like the correspondence from readers. Please, let me hear from you.

M: Anything else you would like to say?

A: Yes. Support your local bookstores and local authors. And thank you, Mike, for letting me be your guest. I think your blog is great.

M: Alan, thanks for being with me today, and good luck with Storm Lake and let me know when The 27th Window is ready.  As usual, readers are invited to make commens.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

We have a winner . . .

JACKIE VICK reports that her hubby pulled a name and the commenter who won a free copy of The Groom's Cake is Deanne Williams.  Congratualtions,Deanne...just contact Jackie at to make arrangements to get your copy.  Thanks to all who submitted comments.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mondays With Mike: Jackie Vick -- Mystery & Children's author

A FEW YEARS ago I had the pleasure to meet this week’s guest at the Love Is Murder mystery conference in Chicago. Jackie Vick was a transplanted Illini who was currently living in Los Angeles and working on getting her first mysteries published. Since then she has published a dozen short stories (including one in The Every Day Fiction, Two anthology), several articles, a children’s book, and three mystery novels.

Jackie has an interesting background: she once worked as a telemarketer at a funeral home, phoning people to offer free plots in exchange for a meeting with sales rep. But she finally realized that she was a mystery writer when it seemed perfectly natural to roll over in bed and ask her husband, “If I chopped your head off in your sleep, do you think it would stay on the pillow or roll onto the floor?” While she focuses on mystery novels, she also writes children's books, short stories, the occasional non-fiction piece, and screenplays. She’s even turned a short story into a play, Streetcar Named Death, which she secretly hopes to see produced by community theaters around the world.

Her mission, she says, is to bring you a good story, make you laugh, and leave you with increased endorphins and a warm fuzzy feeling and she writes as she reads--for enjoyment.  Don’t forget to check the end note at the end of the interview to find out how to win a copy of Jackie’s book.

Mike: Jackie, thank you for joining us today. For those who don’t know you, can you tell me a bit about your writing background.

Jackie: When I was much younger, I loved to write, but somewhere along the line I lost track of that joy and experimented with other things like music and…selling insurance. (Everybody has to make a living!) I followed my father’s footsteps and worked with Architects and Engineers--very interesting people. When I moved to Los Angeles, I played around with screenplays. Surprise! I’m still a reader for Scriptwriters Network (both TV and film) and I served on the committee for the Carl Sautter Memorial Competition. How I wound up writing mysteries is, well, a mystery.

M: Don’t you think questioning your husband about what would happen to his head might have given you a hint that writing about murder might be in your future?

J: Marriage doesn’t come with a manual. I thought it might be a normal phase.

M: How did he react to that question?

J: He steered me toward venting my murderous imagination on paper--a purely defensive move.

M: By the way, is he still with us?

J. Alive and kicking. Strange thing. When he gets home from work, the first thing he does is ask me if I’ve vented, er, written anything that day. When I say yes, he looks relieved. If I haven’t, he locks himself in the TV room and doesn’t come to bed until I’m sound asleep.

M: You’re ebook novella, The Groom’s Cake, was recently published. ( ). Mosts of the authors I visit with are published in paper. What’s it like working with ebook publishers?

J: Ebooks are wonderful. They provide an opportunity to release something unusual such as a novella. On the other hand, the finished product is difficult to market. One marketing suggestion I heard was to burn novella’s to a CD with a nice cover and label so you have something tangible to take to book fairs etc. I like that idea. I’ll be keeping track of my attempts on my blog, A Writer’s Jumble.

I have a children’s book. Logical Larry, and I plan to burn the ebook version to disc and include a free teacher’s guide. I’ll let you know how that works out.

The ebook publisher let me have input on the cover, and the edits went back and forth several times. They kept me involved in the process. You would know better than I, Mike, if this is how it is with traditional publishers.

M: Yes, it pretty much is. I remember my first editor wanted my main characters to…well, “get it on” as they say. But he did respect my vision and didn’t insist too much. Did your editors suggest anything more than normal editing changes or did they make suggestions on the plot or sub-plot?

J: They didn’t make any plot suggestions. I’m grateful, because when I looked at the other releases from Wicked Ink Press, they all had sexy covers. Mine is purely humorous. It’s like the Electric Company song says: “One of these books is not like the others.”

My love scenes might involve a kiss right before something funny happens, because my grandmother might read them. I met Charlaine Harris at that first Love is Murder convention. She’s a sweet lady. Then I read her sexy vampire series. The next time I meet her, I’m going to be mildly embarrassed.

I think if there is a scene where the characters are cavorting on the chandelier, readers are going to think the author must have experienced something similar. That’s too humiliating for me. Some thoughts should remain private.

M: How was Logical Larry published? Traditional or e-book?

J: Logical Larry is in paperback and ebook format. I also uploaded to Kindle, and I’m going to upload to the Nook.

If you sign with an ebook publisher (or any publisher) you should be aware of which rights they want. With my enovella, Keith Publications owns all the electronic rights. That means I can’t upload to Kindle. Since they aren’t going to either, I’m limited in where I can sell the product.

M: I noticed that you’ve done some school presentations with Logical Larry. What is the suggested age-range for the book and how do you use it when speaking to children?

J: The Reading Tub puts the level at 6.3. They recommend it as a read aloud for ages 7-10 and a read alone for ages 11-13. I’ve known advanced first graders to read it alone, so it all depends on the reading level of the child. One cool thing: I made the vocabulary section funny, so the kids seem to remember the definitions.

I would recommend that anyone writing children’s books put on a school presentation. It is a learning experience. I discovered that you have to warm the audience up with questions, you need to explain exactly what you want from the kids as far as their participation, and you need to include some do-alone exercises that they can read aloud when they’re done, because kids are used to getting assignments and are comfortable with it.

M: You also write mysteries. Who is your protagonist and what type of mysteries are they; ie. cozy, humorous, suspense? Are they novels, novellas or short stories?

J: My main focus is my mysteries. I thought I was writing cozies--no blood, limited environment, amateur sleuth--but my editor said they were humorous traditional. Think Janet Evanovich. (I wish.)

I have several protagonists. I figured I would write what I liked and then, if something took with an agent, I could focus on that series. That might be a mistake. If an agent does pick up a series, I have several manuscripts finished but with different protagonists! Family Matters, a Wilder Women mystery, was a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. (A great contest to enter. It’s free, and you get feedback from actual readers!) I also have The Body Guy, an Evan Miller crime reporter mystery; Civility Rules, a mystery with two British brothers, one who secretly writes the Aunt Civility column; and now a Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, mystery.

M: Psychic pet mystery? Why in the world did you jump from traditional humorous mysteries to paranormal pet psychic mysteries?

J: I have a mutt, Buster, who came to me with issues. I tried various training methods and none of them worked for his particular problems. He’s 80 lbs, so problems with his behavior means torn muscles for me. I heard from both a neighbor and another author that a pet psychic worked wonders for their animals. I tried two, and I got a tongue-in-cheek article out of it for Fido Friendly Magazine. Someone suggested a pet psychic as a sleuth. I thought, “What a dorky idea.” And then I thought, “Why not?” After all, look at what’s selling.

M: I have a dog named Buster, too. It must run in the name! You’ve had a bit of experience with short story writing. Do you think that short stories are a good way for a writer to start?

J: Unless short stories are your focus, they are sort of a necessary evil. I love reading shorts and know some brilliant short story writers--Gay Degani, Kate Thornton. Writing them is very good practice and it builds a resume and gets your name out there. But they take time away from the novels, especially marketing them.

I find that most writing involves time management choices. Short stories are worth it. My goofy mystery, The Membership Drive, is in The Every Day Fiction Two Anthology, an actual paperback book! That gets my name out there, and anything you can do to advertise your writing helps.

M: Do you have any other mysteries in the works?

J: I would like to write a sort of Father Brown mystery. My priest is a Desert Storm vet who gets into trouble while he’s acting as police chaplain (he’s a bit forceful with a criminal) and he winds up transferred to teach at an all-girl school. I know a lot of priests, and they are all wonderful men. I wanted to show that side of the Fathers and at the same time show that they are human enough to lose their tempers and vulnerable enough to be thrown off by a school filled with teenage girls. I was one, once. We can be pretty horrible--a trial for even a decorated war veteran.

M: Do you have any final advice to new writers?

J: Pay an editor to look at your manuscript. I thought Family Matters was great. After all, it was a semi-finalist in the ABNC, right? I heard about an editor, sent it to her, and learned what a mess it was. I’m pretty good at pitching, and at the last Love is Murder I attended, several publishers requested the manuscript. None wanted it. Now I know why!

Also, get involved in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime and Public Safety Writers Association, or whatever groups are out there for your genre. I’ve heard Romance Writers of America is a great group. You can’t be a hermit and have a successful career.

And hang in there. Success doesn’t happen overnight. You toil and submit and then, one day, the ball starts rolling. (But only if you’ve done the ground work and networked, set up a platform, and gotten your name out there!)

M: Jackie, thank you for taking the time to visit today.

J: Thanks for the opportunity to appear on your site, Mike!

M: Here are some of the links Jackie has suggested for aspiring writers. Check them out and leave a comment. They are looking for all sorts of manuscripts--from shorts to long novels. My web site, which includes a link to my blog, A Writer’s Jumble. That fabulous editor I mentioned.

Please Note: You can win a copy of Jackie's book!

Jacqueline Vick, my interviewee for today, learned the hard way (by selling funeral plots) that people love bribes, er, incentives. Comment on this blog the week of October 11th - 15th and your name will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of The Groom's Cake. Winner will be announced on Monday, October 18th.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mondays With Mike: Crafting plot and characters

FOR THE PAST several weeks I’ve been speaking at libraries and schools on the “craft” of writing. So I thought it would be a good time to re-print a column on crafting characters I did for another blog several months ago. This is reproduced from a guest column on the blog “Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers” the blog of Anastasia Pollack, craft editor and reluctant amateur sleuth. It appeared on Friday August 6, 2010:


Today’s guest author for Book Club Friday is Mike Manno. Mike is an attorney in Central Iowa where he also teaches law and political science at Upper Iowa University. He lives in West Des Moines with two dogs, a turtle, and a wife. Mike’s newest murder mystery, End of the Line, was just published by Five Star and is available through most book stores and online outlets. His first book, Murder Most Holy was published by Five Star in 2006 and was re-printed in paperback by WorldWide Mystery in 2008. -- AP

Thank you, Anastasia, for the invitation to visit with your fans.

The first thing I noted after accepting the invitation to write for Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers was that I am not a crafter. Now my wife, on the other hand, is a crafter. I need only to take a trip around the house to see her handiwork everywhere. When we met she was a florist, and although she has ventured into the business world of banking and mortgages, she likes to keep her artistic side in practice.

Thus we have needlepoint and plant arrangements throughout the house and in my office, and she often crafts her own gifts for birthdays, holidays and showers. I once saw one of her friends break down and cry when she opened one of Luanne’s gifts to find a miniature replica of her organization’s banner; and if that wasn’t enough, she also has volunteered to decorate our church each holiday.

All of this, of course, makes me feel inadequate to pen a column for a craft blog. Then she (the wiser of the two of us) suggested that I also do crafts: I craft people. And she is right; my craft is creating characters that serve a particular function, just as her decorative arrangements serve to brighten our household. And the more I thought about it, the more I could see the similarities between crafting things and crafting people.

Luanne always starts with a plan and an idea of how her finished project will look. A mystery writer is no different, I always start with a plan (plot) and an idea of how the story will end (whodunit). Now as any crafter knows, things don’t always go right; a color is off or a cut is too short. The crafter then has to either re-do or re-design; same with me. Crafters have patterns; I have an outline. Crafters make adjustments; writers develop new sub-plots. It’s all very similar.

But the most important part of the writers craft is the creation of characters. The best plot cannot overcome cardboard characters just as the best quilt structure pales without the proper accents.

So how do I (or any writer for that matter) go about creating characters that will fetch the attention of the average mystery reader? Simple, the same way crafters get ideas for new projects: we observe. It is almost as simple as that, we become people-watchers!

Fictional characters, like real people, are many facetted. Good people watchers know that. A villain, for example, cannot be all bad. There is no depth there. Even the most evil person needs a good side and your hero needs human foibles. The challenge for the writer is how to integrate the good with the bad and balance the conflicting nature within each character, much the same as a florist will accent her arrangement with baby’s breath, bows and greenery.

Then, just as the florist needs to balance the color and size of the flowers chosen, the writer needs to balance the personalities of the characters he or she creates. Does the florist want a bold arrangement designed as an attention-getter, or a simpler one that will complement the event d├ęcor? Does our character interact with other characters more or less like himself? It is in that relationship among the characters that will create a harmonious blending of personalities or a tension that titillates the reader. Either way, just as the florist sees the arrangement as part of the event, the writer must look at each character as part of a whole and develop it accordingly.

And the best way to develop the character is through action and words. What the character does and says is more important than anything the narrator can say about him. A good writer, then, will allow his character to reveal himself by his own words and deeds.

Deeds are fairly easy. Words are more difficult. Therefore it is important to allow your character to speak as real people speak which is usually not in complete sentences. If you notice the people around you, you will soon see that most speak in a kind of shorthand that conveys their point while remaining grammatically incorrect. Ask a lawyer friend someday how his witnesses sound when testifying in court. If his are like mine, they sound okay. Then ask how they “sound” from the written transcript of the trial. They’ll tell you that most, even the experts, will sound like uneducated boobs at times.

But that is the way people talk, and a writer must be able to capture that in a way that sounds realistic without adding so many “ohs” and “ahs” that the reader becomes confused. Thus, as many writers do, I spend a considerable amount of time on developing realistic, yet easy to follow, dialogue. Obviously, like anything else, dialogue can be overdone, but just like a good needlepoint, with the proper balance the correct effect can be achieved and your characters will become your readers’ new friends.

Then, if you put this all together correctly you will have a beautiful bouquet and not simply a bunch of flowers.

Happy crafting, from one crafter to another.

From the blog: