Who Shot, Stabbed, Beat or Blew Up John?

One of the unexpected delights of getting Outsourcing Murder out and publicized is the email we get from total strangers. (Thus far, and disappointingly for the one of us who is single, not one of the emails has contained an offer to sweep either of us off our feet, except for the unsolicited email from the local chimney sweep, which is not really that exciting unless you like getting ash on your shoes.)

On the one hand, we don’t want to conclude that everybody who has read the book loves it, despite our mother’s pride (and despite her shilling the book at her garden club meeting, to her hairdresser, and to total strangers she happens to meet at the shopping center – thanks, Mom!) On the other hand, those who read the book and hated it don’t appear to have disliked it enough to write to us to complain. So, we will, as Johnny Mercer would say, “ac-centuate the positive” and enjoy the unsolicited and favorable emails.

One of our buddettes just wrote to say she had finished the book and loved it, and that she could hear our voices in the character of Emma. She also remembered that at least one character’s name was drawn from grade school (though I don’t believe either of us actually whacked the kid whose name we swiped with a baseball bat. At least, nobody is admitting it). She was also relieved to find that a character she decided she liked wasn’t the murderer. (He was, we regret to say, a serial double parker, which in San Francisco’s narrow and congested streets should warrant the death penalty.) Our friend also asked about other characters – what was going to happen to them? In other words, where were we going in book 2 and book 3? (Book 2, Denial of Service, just got a significant edit from Diane and clocks in at longer than book 1. We are still shooting to get it out this summer.)

It’s a good time to note that we are not JK Rowling (she of the Harry Potter franchise) who, if it is to believed, plotted out her series in a fair amount of detail before embarking upon it. We’re not that organized, but are using the time honored literary technique known as “making it up as we go along.” But, we hope that people get as attached to some of our characters as both of us are to Ms. Rowling’s (Mary Ann is still in mourning that one of the Weasley twins met his demise in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).

Now, we aren’t making absolutely everything up as we go along because ours is a series, which generally means the same characters survive from book to book (unless you kill them off, though if you write sci-fi you can bring them back as vampires or zombies or really bad Chinese food). We are, in fact, actively working on continuing various themes and characters throughout the books. For example, we plan on continuing to develop the “critter characters”: Gorgon (Emma’s parents’ dog), Edson (her landlady’s cat) and Chesty Puller (her landlady’s excitable dachshund puppy, introduced in Book 2). There are other themes we want to keep progressing with as well (e.g., Keoni’s musical group gets their CD out, we think, though they are probably not going to be Nā Hoku Hanohano (Hawaiian music award) winners just yet).

We are also thinking about how Emma progresses not only as a young professional but in her love life. Does she make partner (does she care)? Does she end up with Huw, Keoni or a rich old coot who doesn’t have long to live but who kicks the bucket after 3 months or 30 pages and leaves Emma a rich widow? (Sorry, one of us confused her retirement plan with the plot of a future book.) We haven’t decided yet. Mary Ann has her preferences as to who Emma surfs happily ever after with. (Keoni, mostly because the surfing conditions in Hawai’i alone are reasons for Emma to end up with a nice Hawai’i boy. The surf in Northern Cal has been crappy for eons, the main reason Mary Ann is leaning towards Keoni, in a nice display of “not observing boundaries between author and character.”)

But we don’t totally control the plot. Once drawn, the characters dictate their own development. As authors, we provide their voices, but we can’t fundamentally change who they are or where they are going, unless we introduce a life-altering event, like seeing the ghost of Elvis, sprouting a third eye or tripping over a dead body. Oh wait, we did that. Never mind.

As we begin plotting out book three in earnest – it takes place in Hawai’i – we will “ponder all these things.” But we are also going to have a lot of fun on the journey, and Emma, Huw, Keoni and Stacey will, too.

By the way, for those in the vicinity of Ketchum, Idaho on March 6, we will be doing a lecture/reading and a book signing at the Ketchum Community Library (on account of one of us in a spectacular act of self promotion emailed the library director to ask if we could do it, to which she agreed: thank you, Colleen). So, y’all come. The combination of excellent skiing in Sun Valley and a “literary event” is hard to beat.

Happy New Year

Aw, Come On

Happy New Year! We hope all our devoted readers (we’re pretty sure we have at least a couple of them, even excluding each other and our mom) had a nice holiday and are enjoying a wonderful 2012.

One of the more gratifying aspects of the last few weeks has been getting enthusiastic feedback from friends who have bought the book. We appreciate the show of support and of course, we’d appreciate gushing reviews on either Barnes and Noble (www.bn.com) or Amazon (www.amazon.com) or – heck – both even more. (This has been a paid political announcement on behalf of the Mary Ann and Diane Davidson Retirement Fund.)

Both of us have a demented sense of humor – we hope that comes through in our writing – that extends to playing pranks on friends and family. One of our frequent victims has been known to look at Mary Ann and say, “You’re plotting something, aren’t you? NO PLOTTING!” (Would she think of putting a disgusting rubber insect in the sugar bowl to scare said victim? She would, indeed!) That is one kind of plotting we both enjoy, a tendency that some of our characters echo (Emma and her brother Virgil).

Another type of plotting (that, typically, does not involve rubber insects in unsuspecting places, darn it) is the basics of how you put a story together: who does what to whom, when, why and how.  Plotting is often more important, we think, in a mystery than in a regular old novel, otherwise nobody would bother to keep reading a mystery after the first couple of chapters. (Whereas a character in a Henry James novel can blather on for 19 pages about why someone hasn’t come into the room yet, one reason one of us wants to find out where Henry James is buried, then dig him up and then kick the &^%$#*? out of him for being such a bad writer.)

Developing a storyline is only half the work, though. It’s equally important to make the story plausible (unless you are really going for over-the-top humor, like Janet Evanovich, an author whom we both enjoy, whose main character, Stephanie Plum, seems to have a car or two explode in every book in the series. Ms. Evanovich makes that implausibility work, plausibly: not many writers could).

We recently came across a thorny plotting problem we needed to resolve. To start with, in a murder mystery, you usually need more than one suspect, unless you are planning on writing a short story. A really short story, if for no other reason than hardly anybody reads a mystery if it is beyond obvious WhoDunnit. So, a plot challenge becomes peppering your prose with plausible perps (extra points for alliteration). The story unfolds (at least for us) as our heroine figures out who had motive and opportunity to do the deed. She then whittles the list of possible perps down until, around the last 20 pages or so, you find out WhoReallyDunnit. That’s a mystery in a nutshell (albeit one filled with untraceable poison. This means the squirrel did it).

The thorny plotting problem we had involved one of the murder suspects (in our second book, due out this summer) ostensibly doing something bad at a company that “just happened” to be the same company where Emma, our heroine, is working on a consulting assignment. Now, the murder itself has nothing to do with Emma’s work or that company. The coincidence was developed to allow Emma to easily look into the suspect’s background and discover a motive for murder (that is, a motive for that PP (Potential Perp) to have offed that particular HICV (Had It Coming Victim). At the time one or the other or both of us wrote it, it didn’t seem like a problem.

Later, and upon reading the section, both of us decided that particular plot ploy was just too darn convenient to be plausible, not that “convenient” isn’t a lot easier, writing-wise (Is your protagonist being menaced by an evildoer in a dark alley? There’s a cleverly placed tire iron five feet away for her to defend herself with, thank heavens, or “thank the writer.” This when everybody knows tire irons are pretty darn scarce if you look more than five feet away from a car trunk.)

We then had to figure out how we could make the key “possible motive” of a character (being fired from work for an alleged Bad Deed) discoverable by Emma without resorting to an arm of coincidence so long, it reached not only the basket rim, but the upper bleachers.

How did we solve our dilemma?  Just by coincidence (really!) Mary Ann learned this week that a friend is a member of a Silicon Valley “finance professionals” organization. Even in a large metropolitan area, it is sometimes a very small professional world among people who do the same thing and who congregate regularly to a) listen to a boring speaker b) drink cheap wine and snarf soggy hors d’oeuvres c) complain about work…er….share best practices. So, we’ll allow Emma to exploit these professional associations to learn about the suspect’s background.  In other words, Emma has to dig for information, rather than have it drop in her lap in less than one paragraph.

While we were at it, we’ve given the suspect a richer backstory, that includes her writing potboilers on the side. (You know, the kind with heaving breasts on the cover and windswept hair, with bimbo-licious titles like Reckless Rancid Romance). We’re almost gleeful at the wretched potboiler titles and plots we can invent. (Hey, maybe one of us should do some market research – reading a potboiler is loads easier than struggling through a blow-by-blow of the battle of Cannae, as fascinating as the latter topic is. Potboilers also italicize all the good parts that is, the sections involving heavy breathing.  Hehehehe.)

Only time and book sales will tell if we came up with something plausible enough. But we do know from our own reading, if something is too good to be true, it’s probably just lazy writing. More to the point: if we don’t buy it, we can’t and won’t expect our readers to, either. Mostly because we weren’t shooting for the “bimbolicious market sector” where handsome, single pirates with raven hair and emerald eyes, who are really English lords with three castles, just happen upon a shipwreck where our heroine, Cassandra (or pick another overblown name) is the sole survivor, yet still looks ravishing and has a full wardrobe of 17th century clothes we can describe in boring, lacy detail. (And with that, we close, to go find an airplane bag to retch into.)

Technical Difficulties

We are experiencing technical difficulties. Namely, one of us had a computer blow up. Insert bad language here: %$^&#*@. We’re confident that our readers have had similar experiences and know exactly how we’re feeling. The good news: we didn’t lose any book material. The bad news: we did lose the latest version of the blog we were going to post today. So, our faithful readers will have to wait another day or two for us to once again revise the “almost perfect” blog. Ah, the anticipation!

Errata

We’re back! Yes, we took a couple weeks off from blog entries to enjoy the holidays and to celebrate the completion of the publication process of our first book. Sort of. While the book is out in paperback and eBook format, a few changes are still to come. Which means one of us is reading the book for the 58th time in pursuit of missing hyphens and open-but-not-shut quotation marks, the vermin of the print world.

Even though the book was professionally edited, and we both reviewed it numerous times, a few mistakes managed to slip into the 70,000+ words document as it was readied for publishing. Are there such things as publishing gremlins? Anyone who has written, rewritten and re-rewritten a document knows the feeling of discovering an error or typo even after endless proofing. At some point during the editing process, we cease to read what is on the page, and read what we think is there. Most of what we are finding is on the order of garden variety printing pests. However, in one mysterious case, an entire line seemed to have vanished into a book black hole. (Why can’t those eggnog latte-induced fat cells from holiday celebrating vanish into a mysterious black hole, too, enquiring minds and flabby thighs want to know…)

The phenomenon of “not seeing what is there” is one we are all familiar with. Such as the nutcracker you forgot to pack up after Christmas last year that hangs around until it’s a permanent part of the décor. The bag of old clothes in the front hall destined for Goodwill that just sits there for – days, weeks even – until you remember it’s not, technically, furniture and doesn’t belong there. The stuff in your junk drawer (and everybody has one) that never really gets cleaned out and assigned to the right place in your house and in your life. You’ve looked all this stuff so often that you don’t see that it isn’t in the right place. Just like review number 57 of a book. Though we suspect even the thorough review number 58 probably missed something, sigh.

So, what now? Fortunately, eBooks are easy to change: fix the word document, save as html, run it through a program to produce the .mobi and .epub files needed by Kindle and Nook, upload to appropriate site, change version number and you’re done. In fact, some authors have changitis, and are constantly revising their eBooks. You might buy a Kindle version every six months and get a different story each time! We are not planning on doing that; however, the ghost of English teachers past visited us over Christmas and convinced us to live a more grammatical life going forward. Ergo, re-read number 58 and a list – a final list, one hopes – of ISTNF (icky stuff that needs fixing). The print version is another matter. Changing it will require another investment of $, and as the book is still readable, we will leave it as is, for now.

So, it’s a disappointment that the product was not absolutely perfect (despite the fact one of the authors is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way”), and we promise we’ll do better on book two. We’ll start by changing editors; because of time constraints, we were unable to use our preferred editor who is a friend of Mary Ann’s in Ketchum. Secondly, we were rushed at the end of the publication process, because we wanted to get the book out before Christmas. There is no such deadline for book two, other than we’d like to publish it ‘sometime’ in the summer. Now, in Ketchum, summer is two weeks long (OK, technically, two months – it’s the dates between the last snowfall from one season and the next snowfall for the other, which has been June 15 and August 15 in recent years). But here in Northern Virginia, a few days of summer can pop up as late as November, so our self-imposed publishing window is quite long. (No, warm November days is not due to “climate change”: it’s all the hot air emanating from Capital Hill. Or the methane from some of the output from Capital Hill. Whatever.)

Thank you to those of you who have or intend to purchase the book. We’ve been pleased by the response from friends who have read it. (Aw c’mon, you can do better than that. I’m thrilled at the response. Like one friend posting a Do Not Enter sign on his office while he read the book, another one reading into the wee hours until forced to get some sleep – it was a workday the next day.) While we developed a high level marketing plan last summer, we’ve not pushed a marketing campaign to sell the books beyond our circle of friends. And, over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing just how much time and effort we want to spend marketing and selling, versus working on the second book. (Don’t forget about the third book, now under construction in Hawai’i. The setting is, anyway.) First-time authors who have decided to produce a series of books encounter the conundrum of dividing their time between writing the second book and marketing the first. When one has contracted with an agent and publishing house, marketing is a higher priority, as both the agent and publisher are invested with the author and deserve the author’s best efforts to sell the book. We have no such pressures as ours is a labor of love, not commerce. (Oooh, that sounds pious. Maybe we can use that in one of our books.) (Not that we’d object to more commerce.)

On that note, we’d like to thank you sincerely for your support of our writing. We’re thrilled that so many of you are enjoying the book. If we can give you a few laughs and a pleasant escape from real-world stress – and there is so much of it these days – then we’re happy. May you also have a Happy New Year!