Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bad Medicine is What I Need: Author Caroline Fardig Makes her Writing Dreams Come True

I am delighted to welcome Caroline Fardig to my blog to mark the release of her third book, Bad Medicine! Caroline and I swapped emails a few weeks ago to talk about her journey from self-published writer to author with an agent and a book coming out with Random House …
It’s been a whirlwind couple of years for you. The first Lizzie book came out in January 2013; the third is out this month and the first book in your Java Jive series will be released in November. What are your secrets for being so productive?
I work too much. Ask my husband. Writing is my full-time job, and when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my plotlines and typing emails to myself on my phone. I’m very focused, and when I get in a zone, I can pound out over 2000 words a day. Unfortunately, sometimes when I get in a zone, I forget to eat lunch.

What are some of the challenges in writing two series at the same time?
Keeping the voice separate in my head, and especially the tense. Lizzie is present tense and Juliet is past. And sometimes I’ll mix up minor characters between the two series.

What are some similarities and differences between your two heroines, Lizzie Hart and Juliet Langley?
Lizzie is much dingy-er than Juliet, and she overshares way too much. She has no filter. Juliet is more of a grown-up and has a much sharper tongue. They react differently to situations and definitely differently toward their men. As for similarities, they’re both smart, sassy, and fearless.

Lizzie lives in a small town, while Juliet’s story takes place in Nashville. What are the advantages and disadvantages for setting a story in two such different locales?
An advantage is appeal to readers. Some people like small town settings, and other people like a story in a larger city, especially one they’re familiar with, so my writing as a whole has a further reach. As for disadvantages, the hardest part for me with Juliet’s story is introducing new characters to her. She doesn’t know every person in town like Lizzie does, so she doesn’t have an established “history” with everyone.

Both series are funny murder mysteries. How do you maintain a consistent tone and manage to be funny and suspenseful at the same time?
I have to keep my head on straight and not get too personally involved in the story. When writing in first person and trying to convey the character’s emotions, you as the author end up reacting as well. And even though you can’t be insensitive about death, you also can’t get bogged down in mourning, and neither can your characters. There’s a fine line between comic relief and coming off callous.

What kind of research is involved in plotting ways for people to die?
A lot, actually. If someone looked at my web browser history, they’d probably arrest me on the spot. Even though the premise of my mysteries is a little far-fetched (when was the last time you saw an office worker or a barista out fighting crime?), I like for the rest of the story to be believable. I always try to make sure that my manner of death would indeed kill someone, not just maim them. I’ve also recently taken a forensics class at a local college, and I gained a wealth of information.

Your first Lizzie book was self-published, and did well enough to attract an agent’s attention. Java Jive is being published by Random House. Your story is certainly an indie author’s dream! Can you talk a little about the highs and lows of the process?
Some days it really does feel like a dream! The highs were definitely the call from my agent saying he wanted to take me on as a client, and then the email saying Random House was interested in me. The lows were of course all of those “no” responses to my query letters, as well as the passes from publishing houses on my Lizzie series. However, I have a great agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and I couldn’t ask for a better editor than Julia Maguire. She’s chronicled our progress on DEATH BEFORE DECAF in her blog.

You list an eclectic collection of jobs in your biography page. How has having such varied experiences helped and hindered you as a writer?
I think my unusual jobs have only helped me. In every profession, you deal with different types of people and experiences, and you have to handle them all differently. In insurance, I had to be both empathetic and skeptical when customers would submit claims. In the funeral business, the emotional side was difficult to deal with, and as a worker, you had to be able to bottle up your personal feelings in order to be clear-headed enough to help the families through their grief. As a teacher, I had to deal with teenage hormones and yet inspire my students enough to do their best. I had to be different “characters”, so to speak, in every profession. I think that helped me think differently and be able to write for different personality types.

Your writing has been compared to Janet Evanovich and Diane Mott Davidson. Are they two of your favorites? Who are some other authors you enjoy?
Janet Evanovich is definitely one of my favorites. I also enjoy Michael Connelly, Meg Cabot, Kristan Higgins, Wendy Roberts, Gemma Halliday, and the lovely Jami Deise! I’m still reeling from the big finish of THE TIES THAT BLEED.

Thanks so much, Caroline! And of course you can get TIES by clicking on this hyperlink!

Here’s more information about BAD MEDICINE, the third book in THE LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series.

What do a smokin’ hot detective, an evil chiropractor, and a couple of blind dates from hell have in common?
Lizzie has to wrangle them all in the third book of THE LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series!

Lizzie Hart is overjoyed that six whole months have passed without a single murder in the sleepy town of Liberty. It’s also been six months since Blake Morgan heartlessly dumped her, but she’s determined to get over him. She’s slimmed down, ready to party, and injury-free, except for a little nagging pain in her ankle. She’s also very single, but her friends are doing everything in their power to fix that—including setting her up on one disastrous blind date after another.

Lizzie’s reprieve is short-lived when an old friend of hers is found dead from an apparent drug overdose. She wants to write it off as bad behavior after having seen the guy cheating on his wife with the new chiropractor in town. However, when she sees that same chiropractor playing doctor with another man who ends up dead, she worries there could be murder afoot.

Doing her best to stay on the right side of the law this time, Lizzie decides to go straight to the police with her suspicions. Unfortunately, the only cop available to speak with her is the stern yet hot new detective who has already given her a traffic ticket and a reprimand for public intoxication. Not surprisingly, he brushes her off, leaving her no choice but to begin snooping on her own. Lizzie soon learns she’s going to need help to get to the bottom of this mystery, but her best partner in crime solving, Blake, has turned into her worst enemy.

Can Lizzie and Blake find a way to work together to catch the killer…or will they kill each other first?

BAD MEDICINE is up for grabs! Here’s the rafflecopter!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Amazon link for Bad Medicine: (It's Amazon exclusive for now.)

About the Author:
CAROLINE FARDIG is the author of the LIZZIE HART MYSTERIES series and the forthcoming DEATH BEFORE DECAF, available November 2015 through Random House. Her eclectic working career included occupations of schoolteacher, church organist, insurance agent, funeral parlor associate, and stay-at-home mom before she realized that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Born and raised in a small town in Indiana, Fardig still lives in that same town with an understanding husband, two sweet kids, two energetic dogs, and one malevolent cat.

How to find Caroline!
Mailing List:

Monday, July 20, 2015

Building a Mystery

I have a love/hate relationship with Agatha Christie. She was the first adult mystery writer I became hooked on, after going through the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series and the Trixie Belden series in elementary school (don’t even ask about Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Do. Not. Ask.) After I overcame the outrage and disgust of Roger Ackroyd, I became a huge Miss Marple fan. Then I read all the Hercule Poirot books. Then everything else. Where does the hate come in? Miss Christie had this annoying habit – in most of her books, anyway – of keeping clues very close to the chest. Poirot or Miss Marple would come to investigate something, or Miss Marple was invited to an estate party out in the country (and I loved those estate parties. Except for everyone getting killed off, they sounded great!). People would start dying. Then at the end of the book, the detective would announce all the info she had gathered on the guests, and who was the murderer. This info was generally not shared with Dear Reader, meaning Dear Reader did not have the same opportunity to solve the mystery that the detective did.

Somewhere down the line, someone realized that readers want an equal shot at figuring out Who Dunnit, so this formula was changed. Readers took their spot over the detective’s (and this includes amateur as well as professional) shoulder and were privy to everything the detective learned. This turned the act of reading into a game… could the reader figure out Who Dunnit before the detective?

I must prefer this style of mystery than the former. However, with nearly forty years of mystery reading behind me, I am getting pretty tough to fool. Generally there’s a line that the writer tries to slip in casually (in a recent book, it was something about a man thinking a teenage girl was older) that sets off alarm bells for me, and most of the time, I’m right. I was right about the husband gaslighting the wife (He had a strong, clear motive that the writer tried to casually drop in.). I was right about the ex-boyfriend (He had no motive but I could figure out what happened in the back story). I was right about the missing girl’s father (He was the one with the eye for very young girls). I was right about the man pretending to be his cousin (He was an already established creep, and the writer took pains at keeping two characters apart until the big reveal).

I like being right, but at the same time, it worries me as a writer. If I can unravel these clues so easily, are the readers of my mystery going to be able to do the same thing? What is the balance between being fair to the reader and giving her enough information to solve the mystery, and going overboard and basically giving away the store? What's the secret to fooling the reader?

If you’re a mystery reader and can recommend books that left you stumped, please do so in the comments!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: First Draft Frenzy

Today is the day many readers and historians have been looking forward to for months: The publication of Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman. The hype has been so overwhelming that advanced sales have approached Harry Potter-like levels.

Watchman has been a controversial project since it was announced. Mockingbird was famously Lee’s only book, although the world waited anxiously for years for her to produce another. Now 89 and living in an assisted living home in Alabama, Lee was in the news for the first time in several years in 2013 when she sued her agent for duping her into signing over the copyright to Mockingbird. A year later, it was announced that Watchman had been found in a safe deposit box and would be published. Then controversy arose over whether Lee really wanted this book – which was not a true sequel to Mockingbird, but a first draft of the story – to be published. Some say she was feeble in her old age and had been duped; other reports said she was eager for publication and angry about the earlier reports that she did not want it published.

Although Watchman has been referred to as a sequel to Mockingbird because the characters are older, it is not a true sequel. It was the first draft of Mockingbird, and Lee spent years – with the help of a strong editor, Tay Hohoff , who was intrigued by the glimpses of Jean Louise’s childhood and told Lee to set her novel during that time period – revising the novel from Watchman to Mockingbird.

A few days before Watchman’s official publication, the New York Times broke embargo rules and published a story saying that Watchman featured an old, bitter, racist Atticus Finch, who attended KKK meetings and spoke in favor of segregation. America was stunned at the clay feet of this literary hero. Hearts were broken. Many tried to make sense of the change. Al Sharpton said, “Finch reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harbored some personal different feelings.” Others talked about how it’s not uncommon for people who are liberal in their youth to become more conservative as they grow older.

Everyone seems to be missing the point: THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT.

After Mockingbird, Atticus did not become a bitter, racist old man. There is no after Mockingbird. Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. Nothing in Watchman is canon. Mockingbird is canon. Watchman is a discarded first draft.

Assuming the stories are true about Lee being excited for the first draft’s publication, they’re not surprising. Most writers have a soft spot for the first finished draft of a novel. Who knows how many years she labored over it before turning it to Hohoff? But I am shocked at how publications, public figures and fans are reacting, with hearts broken over Atticus’ feet of clay. Over years, Lee rewrote and rewrote this manuscript to develop Atticus into the hero he became. And he is still that hero. Watchman is nothing more than an early glimpse at the very beginnings of that character. A curiosity, definitely, but nowhere near the final word on what this man became.

A sequel to Mockingbird can still be written in the minds of its fans, who might see Finch becoming an advisor to LBJ on civil rights laws as Jean Louis works as a young federal attorney in Washington D.C.
To sum, I quote the USA Today review, which refuses to give into the hysteria: If you think of Watchman as a young writer's laboratory, however, it provides valuable insight into the generous, complex mind of one of America's most important authors.

And for this reason, and this reason alone, I think Watchman deserved to be published. But not as a sequel to Mockingbird, but as an early draft – a lesson for writers to compare and contrast the early and later drafts of one of American’s literary masterpieces. So as a writer eager to learn, I will be reading it. But as a fan of Mockingbird, I won't consider its plot points or characterizations to have any lasting meaning.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Evaluating a Manuscript: The Four Elements that Matter the Most

I’ve been a reader for a literary agent for over two years now, and a reviewer at Chick Lit Central for more than three. During this period, I’ve probably read close to 500 books and manuscripts for evaluation. At the same time, I’ve sent out queries on three books, which makes me think there’s some kind of firewall in my brain that allows me to evaluate other people’s work and suggest solutions to problems but won’t let me do that for my own.

Every book and manuscript has problems. Some are very minor; some are major. Even books with problems get well reviewed and recommended. So what’s the difference between a book that a reader bumps up the ladder, even though it needs changes, and a book that gets passed on? For me, I’ve narrowed it down to four major areas. If there’s enough good stuff in the most important areas, the problems in the others may seem fixable.

Those areas are:

Concept. The most obvious make-or-break point is right here. No matter how well written your query or pages are, if the agent doesn’t care for the concept, she’ll pass on reading the book. As a reader, I don’t get to choose which books to read. I assume if the agent has requested the manuscript, she’s already decided the concept is a marketable one. Still, everyone who reads books has specific types of stories she has a sweet spot for. For some, it’s as precise as “single girl devoted to dogs.” I am personally drawn to stories about women and children of any age. I also love stories with a mystery from the past that is solved in the present. If your concept is marketable and hits the agent’s sweet spot, that’s a huge mark in your favor.

Plot. While concept is the general story idea, plot is how that idea is executed. When I evaluate plot, I look at the standard beginning-middle-end structure. Is the pacing appropriate for the genre? Are the twists surprising, yet come directly from the conflict? Is there conflict? Does the writer seem to know what she’s doing with the structure? Plot doesn’t have to be perfect if other important elements are there. If there’s a sense that the writer has a handle on plot, it’s not a death sentence if one or two specific plot twists don’t work. That’s a problem that can be fixed. What can’t be fixed? A writer that drops plot to focus on things like back story (flashback after flashback that shed no light on present day action) or other tangents. A manuscript like that will receive a pass.

Character. There’s a huge debate in literary circles about the importance of a protagonist’s likeability, especially when it comes to female protagonists. Yet mega bestsellers have featured unlikeable female protagonists, most recently The Girl on the Train. What gives? Books like Train and Gone Girl are high-concept (their plots can be described in one sentence) with strong, twisty, mystery plots. While character is still important, it’s not quite as important as the execution and resolution of the mystery. I don’t have to want to have lunch with the protagonist, but I do need to find him intriguing and to want him to achieve his goal or learn his lesson, whichever is appropriate. If the character is unlikeable, stereotypical, stupid, lazy, or unappealing for any other reason, then the concept and plot have to be A+ to overcome that. And the other characters who populate the book have to have something going for them, too. I recently read and passed on a book with multiple characters, almost all of whom were awful people for specific and different reasons. I loved the narrative voice and descriptions, but with characters so terrible, it was too much to overcome.

Voice. I cannot overstate how important narrative voice is to the success of a manuscript. Voice is one of those things that is seen as immutable. If it doesn’t work, there’s little the writer can do but keeping writing and hope the next manuscript is better. Voice is so personal -- not just for the writer, but it’s in the reader’s head, telling the story. It has to fit the genre, and, for first person and third person limited points-of-view, the main character. Voice shows the writer’s command of language. It encompasses dialogue, scene work, description, and narration. Occasionally, a writer’s voice is inappropriate for the age group; sometimes I run across an adult story written in a voice more suitable for YA or even MG. Because voice is the glue holding everything else together, it’s hard to imagine a story where plot and character work, but voice does not. A manuscript with an awkward voice is not going to progress.

That’s why it’s so important that writers keep writing. Concepts may be weak; plots may have holes, but a writer’s voice only gets better the more time she spends getting the words down.

There’s nothing more important than a strong concept and compelling narrative voice. While plot issues can be fixed and character faults rewritten, concept and voice are immutable. If your writing is getting passed on over and over again, look in these two areas for the reasons why.