Ooooh, Shiny!

by Janis Patterson

I’ll admit it. I have a short attention span. I’m all too ready to be distracted by something new and different. Which, incidentally, is why I don’t particularly like series – either writing or reading. I want something new.

I never realized that this failing of mine extended to my own books. Several years ago I was fortunate enough to have two romantic/gothic/mysteries published by the incredible Vinspire Publishing. I was delighted to be with them, as both books are really rather special stories to me and Vinspire is indeed a gem among publishers. Although they are more than half mysteries, they were brought out under my Janis Susan May name instead of the Janis Patterson I now use for mysteries.

Both are set in the mid-to-late 1960s. DARK MUSIC is about a romance writers’ conference (yes, there were such things before RWA was begun in 1980) set in a Canadian resort hotel. Then there’s a freak blizzard trapping the conferees, including the heroine and her ex-husband; then someone starts to murder the romance writers one by one. It was a fun book.

The second book is ECHOES IN THE DARK, about a photographer with a broken leg who gets taken – reluctantly – by her ex-husband to an aged resort hotel in the Arkansas wilderness to join an archaeological dig he is spearheading. The heroine also has a head injury and is prone to hallucinations. When she sees a ghost that isn’t an hallucination, her troubles really start.

Before you ask, when I wrote these two books I was in the throes of a painful breakup of a long-time romance that had gone sour. Writing was cheaper than analysis, and sometimes killing people in pixels is excellent therapy!

These are both good books. I like them and enjoyed writing them. I didn’t realize how I had pretty much forgotten about them. Then Vinspire started bundling their books and asked what we were doing to PR them. I was ashamed to admit even to myself that I had done nothing in the longest time. I had put so much time and energy on writing new books (isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?) that these two little gems had simply faded into the background, a spot they really didn’t deserve.

So now I’m really doing a lot of publicity for them, but it’s making me think about how my – or anyone’s – career should be prioritized. I only have so much time. I have to write. I have to publish. I have a family and a life and other obligations.

What has to give?

What indeed.

 

Setting Chaos Right

by Janis Patterson

Admittedly, there is something strange about those who spend a great deal of their time in thinking up ways to do away with another of their fellow beings. Someone once wrote that a person who repeatedly tries to devise a way of killing another is either a psychopath or a mystery writer, and that sometimes the line between them blurs. I resent that. I spend a great deal of time finding ways to eradicate some poor soul, but I don’t feel like a psychopath. At least, not most of the time.

So why do I do it? Why do any of us do it?

Aside from the fact I’m much too afraid of getting caught to even think of trying anything for real, I believe we do it because as writers and as readers we fans of murder have a very strict sense of honor and decency and justice.

Whether we’re plotting the demise of a nosy next door neighbor or creating a scheme to eradicate the populace of a distant planet, we are creating mayhem and chaos. Murder is against the natural order of things – it is unnatural, and the unnatural is disturbing to us. However – if we create it ourselves as writers, we control it. We know from the beginning that however bad things get, we can set it right and good will triumph again.

Now I can hear some of you muttering that there are many books where the killer is not punished, that he walks away unscathed. Yes, of course there are, but in the traditional mystery framework (even if it is set on a distant planet many eons in the future or the past) we know that the bad will be punished and order restored. Even if the law is not served, justice will be, and the two are not always the same thing. Sometimes a murder can be a good thing, and to punish the killer would be unfair. As was written in Texas law until not too many years ago, there are some folks who just need killing!

By contrast, real life is messy. People are murdered and the perpetrator is never caught, and sometimes even if he is he isn’t convicted. There is no guaranteed happy/good/righteous ending, and sometimes the uncertainty of that ambiguity is unbearable. I think people turn to mysteries both as readers and as writers because they need the framework of justice guaranteed to be triumphant. I know I do.

In the worlds we create horrible things happen, yes, but in the end right and justice prevail. The murderer is going to be stopped some way. Our senses of balance and security and rightness are restored. All is well.

Would it could be that way in real life.

 

What Makes A Writer? Nature or Nurture?

by Janis Patterson

What makes a writer? Is it genetic? Or the way we are raised? Or something we choose that we feel we must follow? Or all of the above?

To begin with let me say I am the third generation of a wordsmith family. One grandfather was a small-town newspaper publisher in a time and place where that was a position of power. Both grandmothers were at one time teachers. My father was editor and/or publisher of several Texas newspapers, taught journalism at Texas A&M (he also separated the journalism department from the English department and made it a separate discipline) and, with my mother started and owned one of the top 300 advertising agencies in the US. My mother was an English teacher, a play producer and a magazine columnist. I started working in the family agency when I was nine – as a stripper, no less. (And no, it’s not what you’re thinking, but it is a great line to use at a cocktail party!) I graduated to writing copy when I was twelve.

Obviously I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of becoming anything else but some variety of wordsmith!

But was it nature or nurture? Yes, our house was full of books. It still is. The Husband and I live in a house with two dedicated libraries and a hobby room with five enormous bookshelves. For that matter, little drifts of books stacked on the floor and almost every flat surface seem to breed in our house. But not all readers become writers, so I ask again, is it nature or nurture?

I don’t know, but the question did strike me a couple of days ago. I was going through some papers of my late father’s and there, between two of the radio scripts he had written long ago, was a copy of my birth announcement.

It’s a simple thing, a plain white piece of paper with black print with a left-hand fold so it opens like a book. On the cover is the image of a book with the title “Janis Susan – Announcing a New Edition – Best Book of the Year.” There is also a picture of a rather startlingly disgruntled looking stork in a top hat and glasses. I always wondered why he had such a peculiar look on his face.

Open the ‘book’ and it says “The Author and Publisher proudly announce the issuance of their 19XX (no, I’m not going to tell you the year!) edition entitled Janis Susan May.”

Below that, it says “Author – Donald W. May – Publisher – Aletha B. May.”

Below that it says “Publication Date – (the date of my birth) – DeLuxe Edition, with pink and white binding weighs X pounds X ounces (I’m not going to tell you that  either, then or now!). Cover jacket – white, removable. Reprints and Second Editions not available this year.”

See? I was doomed from the beginning. Nature or nurture makes no difference, for when one’s beginning of life is announced as a book, one really has no choice but to become a writer.

In the for what it’s worth department, my father did the announcement himself. He had a telling wit and I personally think the concept hilarious. My sentimentalist mother loathed it and, once recovered from her ordeal, sent out very proper handwritten announcements herself, probably confusing a lot of people as to whether the Mays had had one child or two.

Sometimes, knowing the many dichotomies of my nature, I wonder that myself. But then, I am a writer.

The ‘M’ Word – Motivation

by Janis Patterson

Last month on the Make Mine Mystery blog I wrote about the plethora of book ideas that always seem to overcome and sometimes swamp me. ( https://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/2018/08/an-embarrassment-of-riches.html )

This resonated with a lot of my writer friends who seem to have the same dilemma, but a comment from my good friend, mystery writer Nancy J. Cohen, author of the fabulous Bad Hair Day mysteries, especially touched me. In part, she said “I agree that ideas are out there… My problem currently is lack of motivation to pursue these ideas.”

I could not have said it better. I sold my first novel in 1979 and have been writing ever since. Not constantly, as life has interfered much too often, but I always seemed to be writing something, if nothing but jotting down ideas. That’s a loooong time to be tangled up with words, with creating worlds and populations out of nothing but imagination and caffeine.

Lately I too have been suffering that same lack of motivation. As I have talked about here and there recently, I have been ‘slothing’ since a couple of surgeries at the end of last year – and enjoying it thoroughly. (I even changed my Spirit Animal to the sloth.) Eight months, however, is long enough to recuperate from surgery! But I haven’t. Oh, I’ve healed just fine. And I’ve fulfilled all my contracts, but it lacked the joyousness that writing always held for me.

My friends and readers have wished me well, assured me that this was temporary, and that the joy of writing would return. And it has – sort of. Instead of being a business, writing has become a self-indulgence, a pixilated form of daydreaming, and nothing connected with professionalism. It’s also very handy for avoiding housework! (Did I mention that I totally lack the housekeeping gene?)

All of which results in a cache of six manuscripts, all originally intended for self-publishing, most of which have been edited, and all sitting on my hard drive gathering metaphoric dust. I cannot seem to get the slightest bit interested in getting them out. Of course, if my sales were better I might be more enthusiastic, but unless things pick up soon I’ll have to start paying people not to read my books, and that is not an incentive to putting more out there!

Maybe this is just another step in my ‘healing’ process… I hope so, but I must tell you, right now I really don’t care. And that’s terrible. I’m working on it, I really am… and I’ll get right on getting those dormant manuscripts out… soon. Yeah, I promise. Soon.

Here We Go Again!

by Janis Patterson

It never ends. Writers are the sitting ducks of the universe, and it seems that someone is always trying to figure out a way to profit off our work without fairly compensating us for it.

Back when I was a talent agent for film, TV and commercials everyone wanted to be an actor. No, the word should be ‘star.’ Everyone wanted to be a star. I had people come to me and ask me how much we would charge them to be in a film or television commercial. The concept that acting was a profession and that actors were professional people who deserved to be compensated like any other professional was totally alien to them.

And there were companies who catered to those warped dreams – at a price, however, and usually with either ghastly results or no results at all. I remember a movie, a western I believe, where the ‘producers’ charged everyone a horrible fee (size of role commensurate to their investment) to be in it and so financed the film that way. None of the ‘actors’ were professional, and the resulting product was so bad that it had to go direct to video, and even then many video stores wouldn’t carry it. But the ‘stars’ could always say that they had been in a movie. They were lucky; at least they got something however horrible for their pricey investment.

The point I’m trying to make is that in certain ‘glamorous’ occupations – acting, writing, modeling, et al – there is always someone wanting to do it so badly they will pay (in some form) to do it. If a professional stands up for himself and says, I am worth XX amount of dollars to do that, the sleazy producer/publisher/whatever says, Next! There’s always someone waiting to step in who will do it for less.

There is a reason for this diatribe. Some of my writers’ eloops are burgeoning with yet a new wrinkle in the get-the-writer dialogue. We have always had vanity publishing, where you give the publisher the manuscript and a great deal of money and in return you get a book, which may or may not have been edited. In the old print-only days you usually got a certain amount of copies delivered to your garage and you were now free to market them on your own. Pretty much the same thing today, except that your book will be added to the major etailers, with or without a print setup on POD. The publicity and actual selling of the book is totally up to you – same as it is becoming now with most traditional publishers, who take nearly all the money and each year seem to give less and less value for it.

Work-for-hire has always been with us too – the publisher gives the writer a book bible, an outline and a sum of money, usually fairly small. The writer does the book and that’s it. The writer does not hold the copyright, keeps none of the subsidiary rights, gets no royalties and usually isn’t even credited as the author. I personally don’t care for this business model, but as long as everything is honestly stated up front, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s up to the writer to decide if this is a step they want to take, and a lot of writers do.

However, a new and most unsettling wrinkle is appearing in our business wherein the writer writes a book and submits it to the publisher, who accepts it with a usually very small advance. Sound good? Maybe not. You have to factor in that under this new model the writer sells the book, the characters, the world, all rights and the copyright – and agrees that there will be no royalties and their name will probably not appear on the book/movie/whatever the purchasers want to make of it. Other than the ‘advance’ fee the writer gets nothing else on a book he created from scratch.

This is not illegal – to my mind it’s just immoral. What these predatory (and I chose that word deliberately) publishers are doing is reducing a creator to the status of a ‘content provider’ – an interchangeable link in a chain, just as if we were manufacturing widgets. And from what I’ve heard the payment isn’t that good. If the book is made into a film, the original story creator gets no money and no credit – all that goes to the publisher/producer.

Now there are some who have done this happily and for whatever reasons are content with their decision. I say, joy go with them if they had all the information and made a fully informed decision and that’s what they want. What does disturb me is that this kind of sale is creeping into a lot of publishing contracts from a lot of publishing houses. Maybe some sad day it will be the norm. After all, if a writer is so ‘stupid and greedy’ (to quote one of these publishers) as to want real and proportionate compensation and (gasp) credit for their work, there are always lots of other wanna-bes out there who would be happy for the chance.

After all, who could think of a writer as a professional worthy of their hire? Especially when there are publishers and producers who want all that lovely money for themselves? (Sarcasm in full mode here) Why pay a commensurate wage when there’s always a bunch of writers waiting in line for the chance?

My personal opinion is that the time is long past due when writers and actors and other creative types are recognized for what they are – professional creators. I can see where the ‘writers as interchangeable widgets’ mentality will utterly destroy the quality of creation books and movies and most especially the readers deserve. We have already seen a foreshadowing of this in some of the ungrammatical, illogical and downright rubbishy books that have proliferated in the world of self-publishing. (I love self-publishing; I self-publish myself. There are many great and wonderful books that have been self-published – but there is also an incredible amount of utter garbage, too.)

These publishers with their draconian contracts don’t seem to realize that without us, the writers, they wouldn’t have an industry. Or maybe they do – that’s why they’re trying to exploit us. And perhaps saddest of all is that there will always be writers who, in their determination to be published, will go along.

To me it only seems fair that as long as a project is earning money the original creator should get a fair share of it, because without the original creator there wouldn’t be anything for others to build on.

The Research Monster – or – Down the Rabbit Hole

by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

Hello, my name is Janis Susan and I am a research geek.

I have always believed that historical accuracy in our fiction is of paramount importance – equal to that of a good story, in fact, and the further back in time we go the more important it becomes. Why? Because it is sad but true that a lot of readers get most of their knowledge of history through fiction and as writers we have the responsibility to make sure that the history in our books is as correct as we can make it. And by correct, I mean as it really was, warts, unpopular language and beliefs, politically incorrect (according to current standards) behavior and all. A lot of what happened in the past is unacceptable in today’s climate, but that doesn’t matter… it’s the past! As someone said, they do things differently there.

There are those who say that close adherence to history doesn’t matter, that only the story is important. I say that’s dishonest and lazy. It’s just as easy – as if writing anything were easy – to make a story historically accurate as it is to slap something together and call it historical. If an author is going to disregard history then he/she should at least be honest and call it alternative fiction.

I remember a mystery I read a couple of years ago that sent my blood pressure soaring. It wasn’t a bad story – the characters were fleshed out, the clues were there, the descriptions of physical objects and places were fairly good (if a little on the loose side, but hey – if they weren’t enough to set a history geek like me screaming, they were pretty much okay) and the mystery itself was involving and well-resolved. What sent me over the edge was that while the storyline was acceptable, the main characters dashed impossibly quickly back and forth over the Atlantic to Europe chasing clues. You see, the story was set in the mid-1920s, and transatlantic air passenger flights didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have zipped back and forth across the Atlantic – after all, Lindbergh didn’t make his history-making solo transatlantic flight until 1927.

The first sort-of-real transatlantic flight was indeed made in May, 1919, in a seaplane called the NC4. However, because it had no reliable navigation equipment, the plane would fly at night shooting their position from the stars. Then in the day, they would land on the water and sleep, and take off again when the stars came out. They were also followed by a Navy warship of some kind in case they crashed. As a side note, I have seen this plane in the Naval Aviation Museum (fascinating – do go if you can!) in Pensacola. It is huge! I mean, really really huge, so big you can’t get a picture of the entire thing in one shot. It is also so incredibly flimsy that I marvel any man would risk his life by flying in it.

Back to the discrepancies in this book – the first passenger transatlantic flights were Zeppelins, flying from Germany to New York, and they took four days. Commercial heavier-than-air transatlantic flight didn’t begin until 1938-1939 (again depending on the parameters of different research sites) so there is no way the characters in this book could have gone back and forth across the Atlantic in mere hours like they were on some modern jet.

See what I mean? Looking up one little fact like the date commercial transatlantic flights began and off I go down the rabbit hole of research.

Another example – some time ago I was judging a Regency romance contest. One of the entries was okay – fairly decent writing, good-ish story… nothing to rave about, but okay. Until the hero reached into the pocket of his Bath-cloth coat and pulled out a fountain pen to sign something. Wow! Talk about hitting a wall! FYI – fountain pens were not invented until 1827, when a very primitive one using a goose-quill nib was patented in France, or if you prefer, the modern steel-nibbed version which was patented in 1884. (See – I’ve spent the last 20 minutes or so reading about the history of fountain pens – never knew they could be so fascinating!) In either case, though, there is no way our Regency hero could have used one!

I gave the book the average scores it deserved on plot, writing, etc., but in the ‘anything else’ category I gave her a zero on period accuracy (I would have given her a minus score, but there was no way to do it) and explained why in a kindly tone. Wow! I got a letter back from her so hot that the flaming pixels almost burned through the screen, demanding to know why I had marked her down for ‘such a little thing.’ “After all,” she screeched, “it’s an old-fashioned pen – who will know the difference?” Ticked, I replied back “Anyone with a brain and the slightest knowledge of history.”

It is unfortunate that far too many readers learn about history from our books instead of academic sources and for that reason alone we need to be as accurate as possible. There are eras about which we have to extrapolate from scant knowledge – the Ice Age, for example, or third century sub-Saharan Africa – but in most historical ages (especially the popular ones like Ancient Egypt or Regency England or medieval Europe) there are lots of research materials to choose from and explore. It is part of our responsibility as writers to do so. Again, far too many readers get a great deal of their knowledge of history from fiction, and we can and should never forget that those who do not remember history – good, bad and indifferent – are condemned to repeat it.

Some Thoughts on Writing and Publishing

by Janis Patterson

It is the best of times to be a self-published author.

We can put our own books out without having to deal with the ‘writing by committee’ mentality that infects the world of traditional publishing. We can reach directly to the reader without having to bow to the whims, prejudices and rules of the traditional publishing gatekeepers. And, as an added benefit, the reader can choose from a vast array of books instead of being held down to the narrow pigeonholes of traditional publishing. Plus, as a self-published author, you get the largest slice of the monetary pie, as opposed to  the minuscule percentages offered by traditional publishing.

It is the worst of times to be a self-published author.

We not only have to handle the necessary quality controls of creating good books – great writing, good editing, great covers, proofing and printing standards – but we also have to deal with publicity, marketing techniques and legal issues. Some writers make enough money to hire all these things done – most don’t, and every minute spent on publishing/publicizing/whatever is a minute not spent on writing.

Moving beyond the personal, there is also the wider world of self-publishing that seems to become more surreal every day. There are always pirates who take books and them put them up for free on the internet without the author’s consent. Their rallying cries are “If it’s on the internet it should be free!” (Wrong!) and “Writers should just be happy that their words are being read!” (Even wronger! Try that twisted logic with your doctor or plumber or just about any professional…) Other pirates take your book and sell it, but without the author’s consent – and without ever sending the author any of the proceeds.

Then there are what I call the literary pirates – the singularly untalented ones who want to be thought of as an author so badly that they take someone else’s book, change the title, the main characters’ names, probably the name of the town and maybe even the occupations, and then publish it as an original book under their own name. Sadly, this criminality is hard to detect, as most of the retailers simply accept books and don’t run any sort of comparison software to make sure it is an original work. Most examples of it are never caught, and the few that have been were brought to the author’s attention by dedicated fans who saw the similarity to one of the author’s books.

Even worse, there is a growing corruption in the self-publishing world. Book stuffing is a big problem at the moment in Amazon’s KU. Some Book Stuffers have used book stuffing to game the system for fantastic amounts of money and driving legitimate authors off bestseller lists, all the while delivering little more than a badly written short story and lots of garbage. Lots of them also use clickfarms to up their pages read count into the realm of KU bonuses, which is what gets them most of the page reads – and the money. What’s sad is that Amazon doesn’t seem to care. They’re getting the money customers pay for these bloated nothings. Although – I have heard that they are meeting with some concerned authors and writers’ organizations – and I hope that is true – so maybe something positive and good for real writers is being done.

Another thing is that even if a book meets the criteria for a real book (actually written by the person claiming it, page count not inflated by rubbish and repeated short stories) it’s really just a bad book. The internet is simply swamped with ‘books’ that are terribly written, worse plotted and which have never seen either an editor or even spellcheck. Some people are so stupid – or who want to be ‘an author’ so badly – that that they think merely stringing X number of words together with a rough semblance of a storyline equates a book. They buy a cheap cover (I don’t care how much it costs, most of them are definitely cheap), stick up the resultant product and wait impatiently for fame and fortune to come flooding in.

Add to that that the market is waaaay down now. Sales are bad. My sales are so low at the moment that if they get any worse I’ll have to start paying people to not read my books!

So perhaps the pertinent question should be, under these conditions, why would anyone become a writer?

The answer is simple – because we can’t do anything else. If we never sell another book, we will still write. If the publishing world turns upside down, we will still write. No matter what happens, we will still write. We’re writers.