The Best Opening Line Ever? Not Really. By Amber Foxx

I cut what I had thought was the best opening line ever written, making a major change in my work in progress, the eighth Mae Martin psychic mystery. A critique partner loved the line, too. It was fun, attention-grabbing, intense, and colorful. But the event had nothing to do with the mystery or with either of my lead characters’ goals. It was an external imposition that required a reaction, and I couldn’t make it work as a thread in the story. The advice to authors to “kill your darlings” is so wise. Cutting that line (and all the forced plot turns it required) was like pruning an overhanging branch that was blocking light on the real nature of the story.

Now I’m reconsidering an important question: where does the book really begin? Is the whole first chapter necessary? Maybe chapter three in the current draft should be chapter one. It was, before I got so attached to that opening line.

After a certain number of revisions, I reach a point where I question every scene in the book and every angle of the plot. I’ve saved three earlier versions in case they’re actually better than I thought. But as I reviewed my notes on the first version, I realized why I cut and changed so much of it. The odds are, what I decide to remove or alter now, I probably should. With several of my books, only the characters, the setting, and the basic nature of the mystery—a missing person, a family secret, art fraud, fakery in spiritual healing, and so on—stayed the same from first draft to final. The work in progress is set in a New Mexico ghost town. The mystery is about paranormal investigation and a woman who claims she’s being haunted. Everything else about the book may be different by the time I finish.

Free and Discounted Books

I’m sure a lot of us are reading on a tight budget and will be for a while. The first Mae Martin Psychic Mystery, The Calling, is still free. Prices have been lowered to $2.99 on the other books in the series. You can also read them through Scribd, an unlimited reading subscription for e-pub e-books, which is offering a free one-month introduction. If you’re not going out much, you can do quite a bit of reading in a month. Stay well.

 

The Same Only Different, by Amber Foxx

Every plot is the same. But they’re all different. If the story is written well, the reader is aware of the difference, not the sameness. The sameness is structure. No one looks at a dog and says, “How boring, it’s got four legs and a tail.” That’s the structure. What we notice is the difference. My friend Bob’s dog is golden brown and sort of dingo-ish. He says she looks like a kid’s drawing of a dog. She has a black spot in the middle of her tail and another one in the middle of her tongue. She loves all humans, dislikes other dogs, hates skateboards, and is scared of cats. It’s the differences that makes her interesting.

A trail I like to run is the same 1.5 mile loop every time. I go up the same hills, around the same curves, past the same desert shrubs, three times per run. It’s not boring. The plants change with the seasons. Wildlife varies from day to day—the creatures I see as well as the tracks others leave in the sand. In the winter, I encounter other people. In the summer, I only meet lizards and jackrabbits.

A freak snowstorm this month dumped five or six inches in one day. (I should add that all snowstorms are freaks in southern New Mexico. We can go years with only a few random flakes.) The same mountains I see every day looked entirely new, with snow on their contours and ridges outlining textures not normally visible. Turtleback Mountain’s Turtle seemed to be wearing pinstripes, a nice look on him.

Normal winter temperatures are in the fifties and sixties, and the next day went right back to normal. The remaining patches of snow from the day before changed not only my running pace on the trail but my perception. Most of the snow had melted, but I came across islands of it I had to detour around, going off the trail to avoid slipping. If thorny plants denied me that option, I had to slow down and walk through it for a couple of steps. The detours gave me the unexpected perception that certain features of the land were the trail, when they were actually smooth, flat, winding channels where water had run. Several times, I nearly followed one, then realized I was heading off into unmarked areas.

The second lap was faster with more snowmelt and fewer detours. Footprints became sun-warmed hollows of open sand. On the third lap, I only had to go through one stretch of snow with no way around it. The same only different.

And this, of course, is a metaphor for the craft of writing.

 *****

Images of Turtleback Mountain and of cactus in snow are by Donna Catterick, whose photography is on the covers of Death Omen and Shadow Family, books six and seven in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series.

Book one,The Calling is free now through April 23.

Obeying her mother’s warning, Mae Martin-Ridley has spent years hiding her gift of “the sight.” When concern for a missing hunter compels her to use it again, her peaceful life in a small Southern town begins to fall apart. New friends push her to explore her unusual talents, but as she does, she discovers the shadow side of her visions— access to secrets she could regret uncovering.

Gift or curse? When an extraordinary ability intrudes on an ordinary life, nothing can be the same again.

The Mae Martin Series

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

 

 

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?