Amber Foxx on Image and Brand

I hate having my picture taken. Head shot, that is. I’m happy to pose for yoga pics. I feel normal in a yoga pose. Especially if I don’t have to look at the photographer. I feel really unnatural smiling at a camera, and it shows. I get such strange facial expressions, I hope I never actually look like that. I told my hairdresser about this while I was getting a haircut after the head shot session (I read that one should never get a new haircut before a picture session), and she said, “I know. Whenever I have my picture taken, I look like a drunken chipmunk. People ask me, what does a drunken chipmunk look like? I tell them: my picture.”

Now that I think of it, that’s what most of my pictures look like too. Torn between hiding from the camera and trying to convince my face to smile, I end up with one eye closed and the other wide open, and my smile half-cocked. I like the hiding-in-a-cherry tree picture I’ve use on this blog for years. Half my face is in the flowers. We started out using mysterious pictures, but gradually new bloggers joined and the remaining founding members updated their pics. Much as I like Kwanzan double-blossom cherry trees, that picture—though it expresses my personality—may not fit my image and brand.  But what does? If I’m posing for a yoga shot, I should look like someone you’d want to take a yoga class with. How do I look like someone whose book you want to read?

My series covers are designed to appeal to both visionary fiction and mystery readers, and their image and brand is closer to the visionary fiction genre. That’s intentional. The cover has to convey the mystical aspect of the mystery and the characters’ inner journeys. If my covers looked like cozies or like traditional murder mysteries, I’d be off target. Does hiding in a cherry tree make me look as if I write cozies? Many of my readers also enjoy cozies, but that’s not my genre.

I’ll spare you all the noise that ran through my head while planning for the head shot and keep to two main decisions. One: Maturity is a desirable characteristic in a writer, so I didn’t try to look younger. Two: I dressed the role of myself, if that makes sense, by wearing a turquoise necklace with citrine points made by a local artist. Because that’s my brand. New Mexico. Mystical. Crystals and healing and psychic visions. Is anyone going to analyze all that? I doubt it. But it’s like the right yoga pose for the yoga poster. Readers don’t expect authors to look like fashion models, but they may infer a lot from a picture without consciously thinking about it.

And I hope it’s not “That chipmunk had a few too many!”

*****

Book One in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling,  is free on all e-book retailers through Sept.23.

 

Harder than the whole book? Amber Foxx on the Battle of the Blurb

I know the title. I know the plot, finally, after pantsing my way through it twice. Now I’m cutting, cleaning, and clarifying. A lot of work, but manageable. I have possible cover images, all by Donna Catterick, the photographer whose work graces the covers of Death Omen and Small Awakenings. My cover artist will help me choose among them. (Your feedback is welcome, too.) I know I want Turtleback Mountain, because key scenes take place on the mountain and on the banks of the Rio Grande with a view of the The Turtle.

The hardest part now is the back cover or blurb. Or so it seems when the time comes to write it.

How do I get it to intrigue readers without giving away the plot?

I like this line:

An old flame, an old friend, and the ghost of an old enemy.

 All of the above are featured in the plot. The old flame and the old friend show up right away. But the ghost of an old enemy? Much as I love the sound of it, he doesn’t play a role until further into the book. (No one kills him, by the way, although his ghost claims otherwise. I haven’t changed my approach. Still no murder.) My protagonist’s confrontations with him are part of a major subplot that contributes to solving the mystery, but the main plot revolves around family secrets. Does a subplot have a place in the blurb?

The instigating event belongs in a blurb. (And series fans will want to know that the ongoing romantic story is integrated into the mystery. My readers get very involved in Mae Martin’s personal life.)  The lead character’s goal, an obstacle or conflict, and a hook are the other necessary ingredients. The formula is simple, but applying it isn’t easy.

This is my blurb draft.

Shadow Family

The Seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

Mae Martin goes into the holidays thinking the choice between two men presents the biggest challenge in her life. Reunite with Hubert, her steady, reliable ex-husband? Move forward with Jamie, her colorful, unpredictable not-quite-ex-boyfriend? Then, on Christmas Eve, two trespassers break into Hubert’s house to commit the stupidest crime in the history of Tylerton, North Carolina. On Christmas Day, a stranger shows up in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, looking for Mae’s stepdaughters, bringing the first news of their birth mother in seven years—news of her death.

Through psychic journeys, road trips, and risky decisions, Mae searches for the truth about the woman whose children she raised. The girls are finally ready to learn about her, but she was a mystery, not only to the husband and children she walked away from but also to friends in her new life, running from secrets that could come back to haunt them all—in the form of her brothers.

*****

My assessment of it? Meh.

What I like: I have material from chapter one, the instigating events. I indicate the main mystery plot and why it matters to Mae. I’m not sure about the strength of the hook, though. It feels weak. In needs more of a punch, more danger. And the middle is missing, the conflict. There’s so much—with Mae’ s ex, with her former in-laws, with her old  high school friend, Deputy Yolanda Cherry, and Yolanda’s cousin Malba, herbalist, seer, and trickster. Not to mention Mae’s old enemy, Joe Broadus, the gossip king of Tylerton, who still stirs up trouble after he dies. Conflict in Mae’s mind and heart. And with those shadowy, questionable brothers and even the stupid criminals who get the ball rolling.

I can’t fit all that into a blurb, though. Really, it’s easier to get back to work on the book.

At this moment in my life as a writer … by Amber Foxx

At this moment, nearing midnight, I’m stuck on a certain paragraph in chapter twenty-nine. It’s Act Three. The tension needs to be high. But I can’t skip my protagonist’s inner processes, either. She has to think, feel and plan. Is the paragraph too slow? I like the section before it and the section after it, but this transition is a clunker. What if I move the middle line to the end? How much can I cut and still make sense? Should I just skip it and move on? No. I’m revising. I’m not letting myself off the hook. There could be some error of logic, some failure to follow my character’s heart and mind, that will affect the validity of the subsequent part that I— so far—like. (How many times have I cut something I loved because it no longer worked after I fixed what came before it?)

I tried rearranging the lines. Not much better. Maybe I can cut the whole paragraph. Replace it with one tight sentence once I grasp what the scene needs as a transition.

I could say more about this battle with the paragraph, but I have to get back to it.  That’s what’s happening tonight in my life as a writer.

Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

A Compulsive Story Maker and the Mayor’s Grandpa Mug

I was in the thrift store looking for tolerably attractive coffee mugs. I kept very few when I downsized and moved, and I’m clumsy with crockery, so I needed to resupply. A friend who recently retired from running our local bookstore was also shopping. She told me she could never buy the mug I found especially pretty, because it had words on it promoting a business systems company, and she was a compulsive reader. “It would drive me crazy. If there are words in front of me, I read them. Even if I’ve read them before, I read them over and over.”

This doesn’t happen to me. I’ll read them once and then enjoy the elegant blue and gold stripes around them.

But then she picked up a mug with pictures and words. “Oh my goodness,” she said, “it’s Jim Smith.”* The mayor.

Happy Father’s Day. We love you, Grandpa Smith was inscribed above a picture of his three smiling grandchildren. On the other side of the mug was an image of the mayor, his son, and his dog. The men looked handsome and happy; the dog, slobbery and goofy. This was the mug that could drive me crazy. I’m not a compulsive reader, but a compulsive story maker.

“He’s such a lovely man,” my friend said with a touch of concern

“And a good mayor,” I added.

We acknowledged we were both thinking about stories that would emerge. Would the mayor appear inconsiderate of his grandkids’ feelings? People would speculate. Had he had a split with his son or grandchildren? Had a person in one of the pictures died or been kicked out of the family? It’s possible he had so many grandpa mugs he needed to clear out the excess, or he quit drinking coffee, or the unflattering shot of the dog bothered him. But the mug felt wrong there.

I bought it for a quarter along with the pretty mug with words on it, but I’m not drinking coffee out of the grandpa mug. I bought it so other compulsive story makers wouldn’t invent tales about the mayor.

And then I quietly disposed of it, so I wouldn’t keep thinking of stories. Someone else’s family pictures suggest so many, and I write about a psychic who can see past events connected to a person by holding an object imbued with their energy. I felt like I’d be drinking in the mayor’s energy if I drank coffee from his grandpa mug. There’s a possible story there, but I can write it later. Not every day at breakfast.

(*Not the mayor’s real name.)

Would the grandpa mug drive you crazy? Are you a compulsive story-maker?

*****

Shamans’ Blues, book two in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, is on sale for ninety-nine cents on all e-book retail sites.

The New Writer

“Excuse me—are you ladies writers?” asked the man at the next table in Passion Pie Café, Truth or Consequences. Clearly accustomed to the ways of T or C, he understood that it’s socially normal to listen, to introduce yourself, and to connect with strangers.

I was having lunch with a friend who did the cover photography for some of my books, and he’d overheard us discussing the plot challenges of my next book. She’s a thoughtful and insightful reader, a great person to brainstorm with, so he assumed we were both writers. The gentleman had pages of notes on his table, and he explained that he was an archaeologist and professor working on his first mystery, to be set at an archaeological site on a fictitious version of a well-known ranch in the area where he has done work for many years.

“May I pick your brains?” he asked.

This was the beginning of a great conversation, getting acquainted as new friends as well as sharing creative processes. When we ran out of time to finish it,  he invited us out for dinner the next day. In between those two meetings, I reflected on how much floundering I did years ago, trying to breathe life into a non-viable first draft, before I found the resources that helped me become a better writer.

These are some I recommended to him

  • Sisters in Crime (SinC). There are now misters as well as sisters in the group. The SinC Guppies group (a name that evolved from the Great Unpublished) is where I found my editor and my critique partners, where I arranged manuscript swaps, and got answers to all sorts of obscure questions for my research. The subgroups of the Guppies help with marketing, social media, brainstorming, and more. Local SinC chapters host workshops and speakers and provide networking and promotional opportunities. (Our  fellow blogger Patricia Smith Wood does great work with Albuquerque chapter.)
  • Editor and writing teacher Ramona DeFelice Long’s current blog project, 40 Days of Worksheets.
  • James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure and Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure. For me, these are the ultimate and irreplaceable guides to making a story work.
  • Feedback from other writers. I was impressed that he’s already getting it. As he debated using first or third person, he had people look at his first chapter, and everyone told him it was better in third person. The newbie author himself was the only one who liked it in first person. Off to a good start. He’s killed his first darling.

He knew he had a difficult project underway and genuinely wanted to learn.  He had insight into the weakness that’s slowing him down—editing fanatically on the first draft rather than pushing through and polishing later. (A weakness I understand all too well.)

I offered to critique the work in progress when it’s ready. We came up with a possible title and even a theme for titles in the series. He formed quite a bond with my photographer friend, and I’ll be curious to see if her work ever ends up on his book covers.

My prediction is that he’ll succeed. He loves mysteries, knows how to work hard, has a sense of humor, research skills, and an original idea. The romantic subplot of his mystery is a knock-out. And he doesn’t think he already knows everything. Meeting him reminded not only how much I’ve learned since I was in his situation—a professor writing a first draft in my free time—but also how much I have to learn and keep re-learning.

Image credit, Passion Pie Cafe exterior  by Donna Catterick https://alwaysbackroads.wordpress.com/2016/11/30/wobbly/wobbly/

Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.