New Release from Amber Foxx—Which May or May Not Be a Holiday Mystery

When I was working on Shadow Family, I didn’t think of it as holiday book, even though it starts on Christmas Eve and includes an unconventional New Year’s Eve celebration in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the Turtle Ascension. (We don’t drop a ball; we raise a turtle in Healing Waters Plaza.) The season is part of the story, and the book came out in December, so maybe it is, in a no-tinsel-no-snowmen way, a holiday mystery. Or maybe not. I’ll let readers decide.

Happy New Year, and here’s my new book.

 

Shadow Family

The Seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

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

 As the holidays approach, Mae Martin thinks the only challenge in her life is the choice between two men. Should she reunite with Hubert, her steady, reliable ex-husband? Or move forward with Jamie, her unpredictable not-quite-ex boyfriend? But then, two trespassers break into Hubert’s house on Christmas Eve to commit the oddest crime in the history of Tylerton, North Carolina.

Hubert needs to go home to Tylerton and asks Mae to go with him, though it’s the last place she wants to be. Reluctantly, she agrees, but before they can leave, a stranger shows up at her house in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico looking for her stepdaughters, bringing the first news of their birth mother in seven years—news of her death.

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 the friends in her new life. Now her past throws its shadow on them all. Through psychic journeys, unplanned road trips, and risky decisions, Mae searches for the truth about the woman whose children she raised, determined to protect them from the dark side of their family.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Amazon   Barnes and Noble   Apple   Kobo

Changing Pace by Amber Foxx

I sent Shadow Family, the seventh Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, to my editor at 3:30 a.m. Monday September 16th. I lived with this book for seventeen months from first draft to hitting send. I was immersed in it for weeks nonstop as my deadline approached, hardly getting out except for running or teaching yoga, while I worked through feedback from multiple beta readers and critique partners. After that round of cuts and revisions, I read the whole book aloud, acting it out as if recording an audiobook in order to make the final adjustments. For a few days after I hit send, I had to remind myself not to read a finished scene aloud as I worked on the next book. It’s useful later in the process, but it slows me down when I should be letting my imagination fly. And I’m still reminding myself not to perfect every line. After all, I may end up cutting it.

I’m experiencing something like the disoriented state of mind that used to hit at the end of a college semester when I’d turned in final grades and had no more faculty meetings to attend, no deadlines, and practically no schedule. Open space in my life and in my head. Having time to catch up on my neglected social life feels wonderful. I’m also free to explore and experiment with the new work in progress, discovering its themes and its depths, surprising myself as I go. After the perfectionism of the previous weeks, it’s liberating. I’m free to mess up!

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.

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?

 

Book Club Discussion Questions

 

I recently created a set of reading group discussion questions for the first book in my series, The Calling. An unconventional mystery with a coming of age element, set in rural Northeastern North Carolina, I’ve always thought it had “book club” qualities.

As I wrote the questions, I visualized the revision grid I used while I worked on the book, with the themes and plot elements mapped out, and it struck me that imagining a book club discussion could serve as a revision tool or even a plotting tool (for those who actually plot) for a work in progress.

I was in a book club for many years in Virginia. We read fiction of varied genres as well as a good selection of nonfiction, and we had some great discussions about style, structure, themes, and characters, often disagreeing and enjoying our varied points of view. These are the questions I came up with for The Calling and added to its page on my web site.

How did you respond to the book’s mixed genre? It’s been reviewed as mystery, women’s fiction, paranormal, coming of age, and literary fiction. Did you want it to fit a genre more neatly?

 Mystery can mean an enigma, a puzzle, a secret, or something impossible to explain, as well as a novel about solving a crime. Without a crime to solve, what were the mysteries?

 Were there any characters you had especially strong feelings about? What was it about them that affected you?

 Is there a villain in The Calling? If you think there is, who is it and why do you see this person in that role? If you think there isn’t, explain why not.

 Themes in the story include power, professional ethics, personal fulfillment, and privacy. The questions that follow explore those themes.

  • If you had the gift of the Sight, with the same limits and abilities that Mae has, how would you use it? Would you be tempted to use it in ways that might cause you some ethical misgivings?
  • The nature of Mae’s gift provokes concern about privacy in the course of the plot. Are there ever considerations that take priority over privacy?
  • How does each of these characters—Charlie, Randi, Malba, Deborah, and Mae—approach his or her professional ethics?
  • How did you see the issue of power play out in the story, in both personal and professional relationships?
  • The story takes place before the #MeToo movement. What might be different if it was set in 2018?
  • Mae’s desire for personal fulfillment is a driving force in the storyline. Did you identify with any of the obstacles and conflicts she faces?
  • Religion and spirituality—Christianity, Buddhism, indigenous shamanic religions, New Age beliefs, and more—are important to many of the characters and to the development of the plot. Where did you see religion misused, and where did you see it supporting a character spiritually?

 Now I need to write discussion questions for the other five books that follow. Even if book clubs don’t use them—though I hope they will—I can use them to analyze my protagonist’s character arc and the themes I’ve explored throughout the series. This will lay a foundation for a thoughtful revision of the work in progress, focused on the layers of depth and meaning behind the plot as well as the events that structure it.

*****

The Calling is free on all e-book retail sites through September 30th.

 

 

Getting Unstuck

 

Last weekend, I ran into a fellow writer and asked him how his new book was going. He said it was hard. Very hard. I said mine was too, and he replied, “If they’re good, they’re all hard. Can you imagine what you’d have if you could say, ‘It was easy, I just wrote it?’ ”

When it’s hard, here are some things I’ve found that help me move through the muck:

Trying the scene in a different point of view. (Of course, this only works  if you write in the third person.) Figuring out who has the most at stake in the scene and shifting to their POV can give a scene more energy and drive.

Cutting the last few lines or even paragraphs of a scene or chapter. How often have I said this to critique partners, and how often have they said this to me? “The scene really ends here.”

Revisiting the protagonist’s character arc. What will challenge her to go where she needs to go next psychologically?

Revisiting the protagonist’s story goal. Is the main plot sufficiently  driven by what she wants and what’s getting in the way of it, or have I gotten sidetracked? The fertility of my garden of subplots is astounding, and some of the things that sprout in it are weeds.

Examining the protagonist/antagonist relationships.  I usually have multiple oppositional characters in the way of my main character’s goal, presenting conflicts that push her to change and mature. As with subplots, I have to examine these characters and make sure I haven’t cast  too many.

Doing  an intense writing workout. For example, cranking out a 2,000 word short story in a single sitting. I’d already plotted it while running. I knew the instigating event, the protagonist, the antagonist, the secondary characters who complicate things, the settings, the themes, the ending, and the twists. Was it a brilliant story? No. But it shot me clean through a plot and made me review skills for structuring and tightening a story. I knew intuitively what to skip such as the transitions that were easily implied and the descriptions that a reader would have already imagined. And I have the satisfaction of having finished something. Now, back to the book in progress.

*****

I haven’t been totally stuck, by the way. I have two new releases this month: Small Awakenings, a book of reflective essays, and a boxed set of the first three Mae Martin  psychic mysteries. The boxed set is on sale for $2.99 through the weekend.