Vivian's Mysteries

Mystery books, authors, tips, and writings

Sunday, March 15, 2009

5 Ways to Avoid Boring Mysteries

I tried to read three different books this past week, two of which were mysteries or sub-mystery genre. I couldn't force myself to plow through the words between the covers.

I'm a avid reader. When I can't find anything else, I may read the back of cereal boxes. But these books defied my attempts to force myself to read them. So, I decided to analyze the problem or problems as to why the reading was labored and uninteresting.

Using three books (but not identifying them to protect the poor authors) as examples, I can give several reasons that books can be unreadable, things that an author needs to avoid. However, this time I'll discuss five.

1.Too many subplots can become confusing. Confusing, and thus losing, readers isn't a good thing. That doesn't mean that having subplots is a bad thing, just that too many spoil the book. Too many subplots makes the overall plot too complex.

2. Making "make-believe" world unbelievable. Readers can suspend belief IF authors develop a world in writing that a reader can accept, can suspend belief enough to accept. However, a reader must be able to say, "Oh, yes, I can see how that might happen if such a world or circumstances did exist." Therefore, as Laura Whitcomb states (Writer's Digest, March/April 2009), "Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they're reading." An author cannot go too far with a plot point or not far enough as the reading audience is being prepared. The plot cannot become too far fetched, or readers will not be able to suspend belief enough to accept it.

3. Dialogue can't be just talking heads. Action needs to be involved as well as conversation, and conversation with action should move the plot along and reveals character.

4. An unsatisfactory conclusion should be avoided. A twist or surprising ending that has a good foundation laid in the story is good. An ending that does not "fit" is bad.

5. Forced emotion can destroy believability. Most people do not sit mulling over their inner most thoughts and emotions in the midst of action. Yet, I'm discovering many novels that have a character do just that. Not only does such needless and in depth thinking tell and not show, but it becomes monotonous.

There, five ways that cause mysteries to become targets for the waste basket, when avoided, can improve a story. Of course more ways exist, but those can be covered another time.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Mystery Writing Heroes

I've been fortune enough to meet several of my mystery/suspense/thriller writing heroes --

I heard that. So you don't think us old fogies should have or do have heroes, huh? Well, young whipper snapper let me tell you a thing or three: Just because we have lived long enough to be considered experts or leaders or even folks who have outlived everyone else, we still have people we admire and dream of being when we grow up.

Since I love reading mysteries, of course many of my writing heroes are mystery authors. Many of my favorites I'll never be able to meet, either because they're gone or because they live too far away and may never cross my path.

However, through my attending book festivals and conferences and going to local book signings, I've met several whose books are in my book shelves -- now some with autographs.

I attended the Red Dirt Book Festival in 2003, the first one held. The featured speaker was Tony Hillerman. I not only attended all of his sessions, I was able to visit with him outside of the structured events. What a delightful man. His mysteries fascinated me because he wove the suspense into his knowledge of the Navajo culture. He autographed two of his books, but the autograph in his autobiography was personal and touching. I'll miss Tony Hillerman; Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee can be found again in the books that Tony left behind.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Meet Medical Thriller Writer CJ Lyons

I first met CJ Lyons on two Yahoo email lists: Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Soon after I discovered that she would be one of the presenters at the OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. writing conference May 1-2, 2008.

Not only did I attend CJ's sessions and have her autograph my copy of her debut medical thriller LIFELINES, but she also joined me at my writing group's table at both banquets.

When I heard about her new novel being released this month, and which I have pre-ordered, I asked her if I could interview her. She agreed, and the following is the result.

Vivian: How did/does your history and home background affect your writing?

CJ: My mom was a voracious reader, so I grew up surrounded by books. I began reading at a very early age and skipped the whole "see Dick run" stage, going right to books like Agatha Christie.

And fairy tales—lots of fairy tales. But not the sanitized Disney version, my mom had lots of the "real" ones—Perraults, Grimm Brothers, etc. I think they helped me to learn the value of a good story, how the hero's journey works on a subliminal level, and also that no happy ending comes without paying a price.

Tell us something about your background that has made you a better, or more caring, writer.

CJ: Being a pediatrician definitely has given me insight into how real heroes are born. Watching children and their families respond to tragedy and triumph has both inspired and humbled me.

Since I spent a lot of my career working in urban trauma centers and as a victim's advocate, I also witnessed occasions of true evil—and saw how insidious it is, how easily it can hide in plain sight. And I saw how so many of us live our lives in a gray area between good and evil.

That's the reality of our world. In my fictional world, I try to address this cosmic ambiguity, with many of my characters doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons—or all the wrong things for all the right reasons. I love stories of redemption, of triumph over one's own self.

Vivian: Please fill us in on your hobbies, interests, or activities you participate in during your leisure time. *laugh* If you have any.

CJ: Great question — strange to say, but I used to have a lot more free time when I was practicing medicine! Now that I write full time, it seems that almost everything is tied to the writing. Either getting the current book done, researching the next, or marketing the one hitting the stores now.

But that's all good!. When you do something you love, it doesn't seem like work. And I've been able to expand my writing career to include a busy teaching schedule. Now I get to combine my love of travel with trips to give master classes, workshops and keynotes. This way I'm always meeting new people who share my love of storytelling!

Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I like to know that, also, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.

CJ: I've been telling stories all my life—took me a looooong time to figure out the difference between fiction and reality when I was a kid. This led to many hours in time out—which led to more stories fermenting in my imagination…..a vicious cycle.

I honestly don't think I could stop writing if I tried. It's an addiction for me. There are so many stories to tell and so little time.
Vivian: You have so many projects going all the time: working on books, traveling, etc.; how do you manage?

CJ: I'm a lousy housekeeper. Seriously, you should see my place—my Christmas gift to myself was investing in a Dirt Dog robot vacuum cleaner so at least the floors would get done. Now, if I could just teach it to dust and do the laundry….

Vivian: What is your most recent book, and what inspired you to write it?

CJ: WARNING SIGNS is due out on January 27th. It's a coming of age tale, featuring a medical student who is investigating a mysterious illness killing her patients. Then she begins to exhibit the same deadly symptoms herself….

I was inspired by my own experiences as a student. None of us were immune from "medicalstudentitis"—a form of hypochondriasis brought on by exposure to arcane knowledge about rare and mysterious ailments.

I swear at one point we all thought we had Leishmaniasis, Q-fever, Kawasaki's, and Sjorgens—simultaneously! Working 100+ hours a week, plus non-stop studying, poor diet, no sleep, no exercise all combined to produce in us symptoms that we were sure were deadly….only to be reassured by our patient clinical instructors that we would indeed live until tomorrow.

Of course things are never so easy in the fictional world of Angels of Mercy Medical Center and my medical student has something a lot more devastating to face.

Vivian: How did you manage to come up with the idea for your medical thrillers? What would you care to share about any of your books?

CJ: Most of my ideas come from things that frustrate me and that I want to change. Topics that I feel passionate about.

LIFELINES was inspired by a photo I once saw. In it, there was an old man wearing a VFW uniform with a lot of medals and decorations. He was holding a sign that read: Freedom includes the right to hate.

I was caught by the ambiguity—here was a man who had shed blood to protect me and my country, who had earned my respect, yet he was espousing an idea that I despised. That it was okay to "hate" someone because we live in a free society.

Then I read about the ACLU defending the KKK's right to protest during a rally. And I knew that I would use all of these conflicting ideas in a book someday. That book became LIFELINES.

As I said, my second book, WARNING SIGNS, was inspired by my days as a medical student as well as a lot of recent high profile medical stories including the melamine contamination. I kept wondering, how does anyone know if what they eat or drink, the air they breathe, the medicine they're prescribed, if any of it really is safe?

The manuscript I just finished, URGENT CARE, goes in a different direction than the first two books in the series. LIFELINES was more pure thriller, WARNING SIGNS more of a mystery.

But Book 3, URGENT CARE (due out in November) is psychological suspense. It's about facing the truth of your past, learning how to trust again. In it, Nora, the ER's charge nurse, deals with her past as a survivor of a sexual assault.

While writing it I was very cognizant of the fact that this is an uncomfortable subject for many. But I also wanted to be as honest as possible, to illuminate the courage I've seen in victims—and how an assault changes their lives. I can only hope that I did their stories justice and that URGENT CARE will help to inspire and empower readers.

Vivian: Do you have a particular writing process or technique that you use, if so, what?

CJ: Nope. After seventeen years of medicine, following a strict schedule, I totally wing-it now. I have my deadlines and they keep me in check, but I don't write every day or have a set word count or the like. I also don't write in chronological order—which drives my friends who outline and plot crazy.

My only rule is: No rules, just write!

Vivian: How do you feel when you complete a book?

CJ: When I finish the rough draft, first there's this sigh of relief, wow, I did get it done.

Immediately followed by a thrill of elation—Wow! I got it done!

Two seconds later that's followed by: Wow! I have a ton of work to do—this thing stinks!

But, when I finish the final draft (revisions from my editor, page proofs, etc) and it's gone to press and I can't do anything more with it, then I just kind of let it go….like releasing a baby bird and seeing if it will fly.

The readers will decide its fate—all I can do is get to work on the next book and try my best to make it better.

What are your writing achievements and goals?

CJ: Achievements? I won a few contests before I was published, LIFELINES has been graced with many wonderful reviews, including a Top Pick from Romantic Times, and good reviews in Publishers Weekly, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others.

But I consider my greatest achievement to be the fact that I had the courage to take the leap of faith to write full time. So far I'm supporting myself on my writing and hopefully will continue to do so!

As for goals—while hitting a list would be nice, writers really don't have a lot of control over that. My main goal is to continue to tell stories that readers love and to inspire, entertain, and empower. If I do that well enough, readers will spread the word and more readers will come…..

Vivian: How do any writing groups benefit you and your writing? Also, we might tie some information about your presentations at conferences with this.

As much as we love the idea of the lone poet scribbling in his garret, writing today is anything but an individual effort. Yes, it's your idea and your vision, how you make it come to life is unique.

But once you entertain the idea of publishing you're entering a whole new world—a very strange one, I may add, one that it is best not to navigate alone.

That's where the help of fellow writers is invaluable—the writers' groups I'm involved with have offered me invaluable support, motivation, inspiration, knowledge, and guidance. They include the Motivated Writers' Life, Sisters in Crime, PASIC (the published author chapter of RWA), and International Thriller Writers, among others.

I try to give back by offering my own knowledge and support—I have given keynote speeches and taught workshops for groups such as the Colorado Fiction Writers, Oklahoma Writers Federation, the University of South Carolina at Beaufort, RWA National, MWA's Sleuthfest, Lowcountry RWA's Master Class, Left Coast Crime, and PennWriters, among others.

Vivian: What advice would you have for a new author?

CJ: Follow the immortal words of Tim Allen (or Winston Churchill—always get the two confused, lol!): Never surrender, never give up.

I'm convinced that the three key ingredients to becoming a successful author are Vision (know what you write), Passion (know why you write), and Commitment (know who you're writing it for). If you have these three, you can make magic happen!

But always remember, you make your own road to travel—it's no good looking over your shoulder at how someone else is doing it.

And of course: don't forget to have fun along the way!

Thank you, CJ, for visiting with us.

About CJ:
As a pediatric ER doctor, CJ Lyons has lived the life she writes about in her cutting edge suspense novels. Her debut, LIFELINES (Berkley, March 2008), became a national bestseller and Publishers Weekly proclaimed it a "breathtakingly fast-paced medical thriller." The second in the series, WARNING SIGNS, is due out January, 2009. Contact her at

Lifelines by CJ Lyons
March 2008
ISBN: 978-0-425-22082-5

Warning Signs by CJ Lyons
Jove, Feb 2009, $7.99
ISBN: 9780515145830

Friday, January 2, 2009

Preditors & Editors nominations

My mystery novel and publishing company were nominated on Preditors and Editors.

Midnight Hours ended up listed in two categories, and could possibly be in the top ten IF people vote for it both places. Well, hopefully it will end up in the top 10 (hope, hope, hope) in at least one category.

Please vote for the following Preditors and Editors nominations if you will: -- 4RV Publishing and -- Midnight Hours

Several authors from 4RV Publishing ended up in one category or another, some in several. I'm not even sure I know what authors ended up in what categories, but maybe they will post a comment telling us.I know Lea Schizas is in several categories including the online writing conference and for Bubba & Giganto (published by 4RV).Brian L. Porter is there, too, even if nothing from 4RV, yet.

Also Holly Jahangiri and Jordan M. Vinyard can be found, too: Trockle Jordan
HollyI would be so pleased to be in the top ten, but winning ... well, I can dream, can't I? However, I won't be anywhere unless people vote.

Cross posted on Vivian's Site

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Make Mysteries Better

I take and read several writing magazines: The Writer, WRITERS' Journal, and Writer's Digest. All of them give me ideas and advice that helps me be a better writer. As I read some of the current issues, I realized that some of the articles included suggestions that definitely apply to writing mysteries, thrillers, crime, and/or suspense novels and/or stories.

In my reading, and from my experiences over the years, I found some writing tips that definitely apply to writing mysteries and sub-genres.

Some of the suggestions apply to any writing; some perhaps more to the mystery genres. However, all are usable to us. At the end of this article, I'll give the sources for the information I'm using, besides my own expertise. I highly recommend that everyone read all the articles.

Create believable and distinctive characters. Have you ever read more than one book where at least one character could be dropped into more than one story, even if the names aren't the same, and no one could notice? I mean other than in a series or a sequel that contains the same characters.

Ways to make characters believable and distinctive are several, but a few include 1) to have characters not be predictable, 2) to make them three-dimensional rather than stereotypical or all good or all bad, 3) to "show" their personalities and characters rather than "tell" the reader what kind of person they are. An antagonist shouldn't be a "flat" all bad, evil person. A protagonist shouldn't be all good without any faults or short comings.

Include the four elements. Every well-written novel or story needs to have 1) a strong hook at the beginning to grab the readers attention and keep it.

2) Conflict is necessary to have a plot, a story. Of course without conflict, we would have only a narrative, and we wouldn't have anything to interest a reader.

Conflict leads to a 3) struggle, according to Diane E. Robertson, both internal and external. The ups and downs of the struggle make the plot move forward to the 4) resolution, the end of the story. Authors need to be sure that that end is not a false finish. The end must make sense and satisfy the reader. A surprise ending should still be credible.

Make sure the plot is plausible to the reader. Often, coincidences are thrown in to surprise a reader, but if credibility is stretched too far, the reader won't accept it. Hallie Ephron states, "... never, ever, ever make a coincident integral to the solution."

Don't conceal clues from the reader. The reader should know all the clues as soon as the mystery solver or detective does.

I gave a few of the many tips found in three articles and a bit of my own knowledge mixed in. I'll add to the list later.

Sources, besides the information I've accumulated over the years:

The Writer, Hallie Ephron,October 2008 page 26-29; Paola Carso, December 2008 page 28-29.
WRITERS' Journal, Diane E. Robertson, January/February 2009 page 46-47.

I try to use these tips when I write mystery stories or novels, such as my mystery/suspense Midnight Hours from 4RV Publishing.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mystery of Giving

The Christmas season is one of giving, and as I look at the commercialization of the season, I wonder what happened to true generosity, giving, from the heart not just for show. I've written some posts for this blog concerning writing tips, but now I want to address the mystery of giving.

What causes some people to be "givers" and "takers"? Yes, mysteries come in all kinds of disguises, including personalities and character. When we write, we need to take much into consideration as we develop our characters. One character trait that makes characters believable is generosity.

If we look into the depths of our characters, we need to discover if he or she is a giver or a taker. Aren't most antagonists takers? They take lives, property, reputations -- whatever belongs to another person. However, to make the villains more than caricatures, we need to find a way for them to also be givers. Perhaps one murder loves a younger brother and "gives" him money, a home, an education, and/or attention.

In my novel Midnight Hours, the villain's twisted love resulted in some evil behavior, but in Midnight's own way, she "gave" to others. If I explained, I'd give away the plot. However, I know we can all find examples of antagonists giving to someone he or she loves.

Giving is almost always found in the "good guys." But, couldn't we make them more "human" if they sometimes are a bit selfish?

People are complex, and so should our characters be.

Merry Christmas Happy Holidays

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An interview with J.A. Jance

I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting author J.A. Jance, first through her books, through e-mails, and then in person at OWFI (Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc.) Conference in 2008. Not only is she a talented mystery writer, but she is a lovely person.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions, and I feel as if I’m sitting across a table from her drinking a mug of tea as we visit.

VZ: How did/does your history and home background affect your writing?

JAJ: An editor, a short-lived editor, once told me, “The problem with your books is that all your characters do things because of the way they were raised.” I kept waiting to hear what the problem was with that because it’s true for all of us. All of us, fictional characters or not, do what we do because of how we were raised. In some instances, we fight against it. In other instances we embrace it. I came from a loving family where reading was an important activity.

VZ: Tell us something about your educational background that has made you a better, or more caring, writer.

JAJ: When I was a sophomore in high school, my Latin teacher, Mr. Guerra, wrote on the top of an essay I wrote about Servius Tullius, one of the five kings of Rome, “A+, Research worthy of a college student.” That was the first time I had any inkling that maybe I was smart enough to go on to college, and it’s no accident that one of my books is dedicated to Richard Guerra.

VZ: Please fill us in on your hobbies, interests, or activities you participate in during your leisure time. *laugh* If you have any.

JAJ: I’m a bad but nonetheless enthusiastic golfer. Make that fair-weather golfer. And I still love to read.

VZ: Authors are often asked when they started writing or what triggered their interest in writing. I like to know that, also, but I would especially like to know what keeps you writing.

JAJ: I wanted to be a writer from the time I read the Wizard of Oz books in Mrs. Spangler’s second grade classroom in Bisbee, Arizona. A lot of people who “want” to be writers aren’t so much interested in doing the “work” of being a writer—of meeting deadlines; of going on book tours; of sending out 7000 notices in advance of a book coming out. Writing is WORK. But what keeps me writing is knowing I have fans all over the world who use my books as a way to have fun and as a way to get through tough times.

VZ: You have so many projects going all the time; how do you manage?

JAJ: I’m usually writing one book, editing another, and promoting a third. Those are three very different tasks and that I can do. I don’t try to write more than one book at a time. That would drive me nuts.

VZ: What is your most recent book, and what inspired you to write it?

JAJ: I think we all assume that what we do or say in the privacy of our computers is private. Just this week someone reached into my computer—without benefit of a download or permission and messed up my mail programs. Cruel Intent grows out of that same kind of thing. There are predators wandering around on the Internet, and they don’t have our best interests at heart.

VZ: How did you manage to come up with the ideas for your series, which now numbers three, correct? What would you care to share about any of your books? (By the way, I own almost every book you’ve written except the last two)

JAJ: Four actually. Ali Reynolds, J. P. Beaumont, Joanna Brady, and the Walker Family. I started with Beaumont. After writing 9 books about him, I was getting ready to knock him off. My editor suggested that I give him a rest instead. That’s when I wrote the first Walker book and also my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter. When I went back to write about Beau again, it was also fun again. Then they suggested I have another series. Up popped Joanna.

The Beaumont books are police procedurals written in the first person through the eyes of a middle-aged homicide cop. The Joanna books are third person, female point of view. The Beau books are set in the Pacific Northwest where I live now. Joanna lives and works in southeastern Arizona where I grew up. For Beau’s background I used what I learned during my first marriage to a man who ultimately died of chronic alcoholism. For Joanna I used what I learned being a woman in a “man’s job” (insurance sales) and also being a single mother.

The thrillers are set on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation where I taught school for a number of years. The Ali Reynolds books are about a middle-aged woman forced by circumstance to rethink her life and start over in a new direction. Been there, done that, too.

(Ooops, I forgot the Walker family, but I’ve read those books, too. *shiver* J.A. gets into her characters almost too well.)

VZ: Do you have a particular writing process or technique that you use, if so, what?

JAJ: I start at the beginning and write to the end. Because I write murder mysteries, I usually start with the murder. Then I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it and how come. I do NOT outline. I know lots of writers who do, but for me, personally, it doesn’t work. I count the words every day. My books are supposed to be around 100,000 words long. By counting the words, I know how many I’ve used and how many I have left before I need to finish telling the story—to me as much as to my readers.

(Knowing I’m not the only writer who does not outline makes me feel better.)

VZ: How do you feel when you complete a book?

JAJ: I feel GREAT!! Starting a book? Not so much.

VZ: What are your writing achievements and goals?

JAJ: My goal is to keep writing as long as I physically and mentally able. I want to be P.D. James when I grow up, and I hope, like her, I’m still writing at age 88.

VZ: Do you or have you participated in writing groups, and if so, what help have they been?

JAJ: I was a single mother when I started writing. A single mother with two kids, no child support, and a full time job selling life insurance. My writing time was between 4 AM and 7 AM when I got the kids up to get ready for school. There were no writers groups that met during those hours, so I didn’t participate in any. I have, however, participated in numerous writers’ conferences. As a college junior, I wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona because I was a “girl.” (It’s no accident that the crazed killer in my first thriller is a former professor of Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.) I participate in the conferences because they constitute a back door to the world of writing to many folks who had the front door of writing slammed shut in their faces.

VZ: Does writing help better you as a person? How?

JAJ: It’s a self-starting job. I’m more focused and more motivated by doing this job, one I love, than I would be if I were doing anything else.

VZ: What advice would you have for a new author?

JAJ: When I bought my first computer, the guy who installed my word processing program fixed it so that when I booted up, these were the words that flashed across the screen: A writer is someone who has written today. Those were encouraging words that kept me motivated when I was a beginning writer, and they do the same thing for me today. And today, by the way, I do qualify. Answering e-mail interviews is part of the “work” of being a writer.

Thank you, J.A., for answering my e-mail questions. I know that for you to take time to help another person, by answering questions you’ve probably answered dozens of times before, is a kindness.

J.A. Jance's newest book is Cruel Intent, a Ali Reynolds novel.

cross posted on Make Mine Mystery