Author Jennie Spallone Reflects on Opening Pages of Her Award-Winning First Mystery Novel

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*Reprinted from Guest Blog, January 2017

In the bible, it says God created the heaven and earth. What a humongous contracting job it must have been to fill this unformed void, even for the all-powerful Builder of the Universe!  Should the light of day and the stars of night come first, or should the waters be divided into land and sea? Decisions, decisions, decisions!

As a writer, I am plagued with those same types of questions every time I begin writing a new novel. While my doubts don’t compromise the world’s existence, the decisions I make do determine the fate of my characters in their own universe. Should the first sentence of my book open with the setting, action, or a character’s dilemma? How do I hook the reader into continuing to read the pages that follow?  For Deadly Choices, a police procedural, I chose “action”:

“Warning lights unlit, siren silent, Ambulance Number 60 careened down fog-drenched streets in the pre-dawn autumn darkness on its return to the firehouse.” I’d recently completed a 24-hour ride-a-long with two female paramedics as they responded to emergency dispatches throughout Chicago’s dicey West Side.  I attempted to paint a picture of what it felt like to return from a call.  However, my word choice of “careened” was an image I created to fit the character of my imaginary ambulance driver, who was high on cocaine. If I had wanted to accurately describe my ride-a-long, I would have used the word “streamed,” which has a smooth, controlled connotation, while “careened” has a swerve, out-of-control, feel to it.

“Some unseen radar directed the driver as she deftly maneuvered the ghost-like rig down West Madison Street through a maze of shattered liquor bottles and discarded syringes.”  Whoa! I just realized – and this is 10 years after the book has been in print – that the ambulance driver was “deftly maneuvering,” which would negate my connotation of “careening,” the word choice I used only one sentence ago! Evidently, nobody noticed!

In this second sentence, which also happens to be the entirety of the second paragraph, I added setting and provided a “feel” of the neighborhood, with its description of “shattered liquor bottles and discarded syringes.”

My “unseen radar” and “ghost-like rig” word choices elaborated on the description of “fog-drenched streets in the pre-dawn autumn darkness” that was used in the first paragraph.

“…Replenishing supplies in the back of the rig, paramedic trainee Beth Reilly stole a glance at the driver.  She grimaced as her paramedic officer pulled a sandwich bag from her jacket….”  Again, I inserted an eye-dropper full of information I learned by watching the paramedics on my drive-along, re: what does a paramedic do en route back to the firehouse?

We now have been introduced to paramedic trainee Beth Reilly, the main character, but the word choices of “stole” and “grimaced” clue the reader that she is frightened and distressed by her paramedic officer’s actions. And what could be in that hidden sandwich bag that would produce a grimace??

“After five years as a nurse in Vietnam, followed by twelve years as a paramedic the Chicago Fire Department, Angie Ropella seemed to delight in all forms of human trauma.” From the beginning of our fourth paragraph, we’ve introduced the paramedic officer is a hard ass, trauma-junkie.

“Knuckled in-between 24-hour stints of stabbings, multi-vehicle collisions, and assaults was an assembly line of little old ladies forgetting their insulin, yuppies jogging into cardiac arrest, and winos urinating in doorways.”  Wow! I didn’t realize how many hyphens I use in my writing! Did I mention I am ADHD and easily get distracted? To complete the fourth paragraph I needed to provide the reader with visual images of the varied traumas paramedics deal with on a daily basis. Rather than listing those traumas as a journalist would do, i.e. stabbings, collisions, Diabetic reaction, I supplemented each visual image with a rhythm, i.e. “old ladies forgetting their insulin,” “yuppies jogging into cardiac arrest,” and “winos urinating in doorways.”

“After one look at the mangled body, Beth vomited all over the back seat. Angie just grinned.

“You gonna be a medic, Reilly, you can’t keep having these little accidents. Clean it up. Then keep the kid company back here. I’ll drive.”  We’ve skipped to the bottom of Page 2, where I am theoretically supposed to stop.  Earlier in the day, the two paramedics had encountered the “limp body of a kid in a motorcycle helmet sprawled across the adjoin median strip, …his body broken.” The paramedic trainee experiences a violent physical reaction. But Angie, a seasoned Viet Nam nurse and paramedic, has hardened her heart to death, as evidenced by her dispassionate advice to Beth.

“…she expertly weaved the red and white rig through a maze of congested traffic. She zigzagged around buses that suddenly jutted out in front of her onto Halsted and Clark.  Cabdrivers leaned on their horns while joggers sprinted off to work and the unencumbered meandered home from all-night bars.”  We’re almost at the end of the chapter, only 2 ½ pages  long.  The above images were taken from my ride-along experience, as well as my imagination.

Once again, these word-choices enabled me to paint pictures in my readers’ minds, as well as hear and experience the frenzied activity going on, i.e. “maze of congested traffic,” “buses…jutted out,” “cabdrivers leaned on their horns.”

I hope these brief insights encourage you to visit your favorite independent bookstore and purchase a thesaurus, the writer’s best friend. Lots more synonyms in print than on-line! Enjoy!

Crazy Times at Barnes & Noble Book Signing!!

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In recent years, I’ve had lots of good experiences and sales when book signing at a Barnes & Noble — I say “recent years” because back in 2006 when Deadly Choices, my award-winning police procederal came out, the only two people who showed up at the Evanston B & N were the mom and granddad of CJ, my young son’s best friend!

Becky, the manager at the Greensboro B & N, is always fabulous to me. When Fatal Reaction came out in 2015, we had 27 mystery readers in the audience! Greensboro is quite a literary community, and they’re happy to explore a new author! This June, 12 devotees filled the chairs to hear me read from Psychobabble, my most recent psychological suspense novel. It’s all good.

But when I flew into Chicago to publicize Psychobabble, arriving fifteen minutes before my scheduled book signing, the floor manager said he knew nothing about my Event — this after I’d called three days in advance to confirm!

The manager with whom I’d confirmed, he confided, quit earlier in the day. Nothing was set up. No downstairs entrance sign announcing my Event. Upstairs, no chairs, tables, podium, or mic. The overhead music was blaring!

My heart pounded like a furnace turned full throttle as I spotted a handful of my friends and family members climbing the long staircase to the second floor.  ADHD people thrive on chaos; we can problem-solve almost any situation. But this time I felt lambasted. What to do??

Then I overheard a senior manager speaking to the younger man who’d blurted the bad news. “Breathe in, breathe out. Slow down. You’ve got this.”

Hearing the mantra I tell myself every single day, my heart softened with compassion. The young man looked up as I approached, his forehead creased. “You’ve got this,” I said.

Eight minutes, three rows of chairs, and one podium later, I formally welcomed the 30 fans who had graced this evening to be there for me. I was so touched, it took me a moment to find my voice — I thought it hightailed out of here with the manager who’d quit earlier in the day!

Five minutes into my unrehearsed presentation, I signalled my son to click off the video. Then I just began to speak from my heart. I sold 9 books that night. Everything worked out as it should. That nice young manager invited me back again, this time to an event well publicized in the store.

Yet another good Barnes & Noble experience….

 

 

 

 

How I Self-Published My Book Through Ingram Spark

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Yeah! Psychobabble, my fourth psychological thriller, is live on Kindle and Amazon! Equally as exciting, the paperback version will be available through Barnes & Noble and other book stores and libraries throughout the world! How did a self-published author get onto the bookshelves? Here’s the steps I took to make it happen:

  • Asked Barnes & Noble how I, a self-published author, could get my books on their book shelves. Ingram Spark was their answer: 855-997-7275, weekdays 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. or ingramsparksupport@ingramcontent.com
  • Viewed all (actually, just a few) of their videos, blogs, and templates, re: book size, book cover, retail price of book, wholesale discount to book store, geographical locations throughout the world to place book, etc.
  • Set up an account with Ingram Spark, and then sent my developmental editor, copy editor, and book cover editor (Yes, you must assemble this team first; will discuss how on next blog) a link to my account so they could see what I could see.
  • While my team worked on putting a publishable book together for me to upload to Ingram Spark, I hopped on Ingram’s website and completed the brief description, longer description, and other content required on my book.

DON’T DO WHAT I DID AND SCHEDULE A BOOK LAUNCH OR SIGNING BEFORE YOU ACTUALLY HAVE A HARD COPY OF YOUR BOOK IN HAND! Allow two to three months to get it all together, from developmental edit to publication date.

I didn’t understand that each time I made any type of change on Ingram Spark regarding my book, it pushed the publication date back at least a week. Then I had an eproof, and even ordered a paperback proof, before publishing.

JUST KNOW THAT YOU CAN DO THIS! I can’t tell you how many times I phoned and emailed Ingram Spark. Even though you might have to wait on the telephone for quite a while during the lunch or dinner times of day, they are super responsive and helpful. MAKE IT HAPPEN!

 

 

 

 

 

Self-Publishing Through Create Space

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Self-publishing your novel can prove scary, intimidating, and expensive, depending on which company you sign up with. But 7 years and 2 books later, I only have fond words for Create Space.

The price is so cheap — 0 — to be exact. Yes, you need to secure a copy editor, developmental editor, and book cover designer/editor, all at your own expense. We’re talking $600 to $1,200 total here. (We will discuss how to research these professionals in another post.)  But once you’ve got your book completed, your editor will upload it to Create Space for free!

Why Create Space? Besides uploading your trade paperback for zero cost, Create Space 

also puts you on Amazon, because they are a satellite company of the “Big A”!  You can then, for no additional cost except what your editor may charge, upload your book into

Kindle format through KDP.  You set your own retail price for both your paperback and your ebook. Hoiw much do you pay Create Space per print-on-demand book you order from them? Well, for my 262-page Window of Guilt, I pay them approximately $4.99 per book and charge my retail customers $15.00 plus tax. (Yes, the IRS requires you fill out an annual sales tax form.) Your cost-to-print per book depends on number of pages, and whether or not you have color pics inside the book — which I don’t.  The cost-per-book + tax + shipping is all you pay; I buy in quantity, re: the shipping discount.

I usually order ten to fifteen copies of Deadly Choices, Window of Guilt, and Fatal Reaction at a time so I can sell my books at temples and churches, book fairs, book signings, and arts & craft fairs.

But the real reason I luv Create Space is because when you have no clue about how this whole self-publishing thing works, there’s an actual phone number to call — you can find this number on their website. YOU LEAVE A MESSAGE FOR THEM AND THEY PHONE YOU BACK WITH FIVE SECONDS! Yes, I’m not kidding. And knowledgeable customer service and tech support people help you all along the publishing path FOR FREE!! If anything looks wrong on your e-proof, they fix it for free!

I hope you will experience the same peace of mind I have had in publishing with Create Space.

 

 

Self-Publishing Again!

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Yep, I’ve decided to once again self-publish — this time it’s mystery novel Number Four! Instead of sending out queries on Psychobabble to forty or fifty carefully selected literary agents as I’ve done in the past, I only reached out to half that number. When I failed to receive a bite, I did not flush my word marbles down the toilet. That’s because a psychic I trust told me my best chance to get my newest psychological suspense novel up and running was to go the self-publishing route.

This psychic was one year off about when my daughter would get pregnant, so you’d think I would have learned my lesson. But in my heart — as well as in my accumulated knowledge base — I know self-publishing is the correct choice for me.

I’ve already had a psychologist, a mystery author, and several Beta readers (mystery fans) read and critique my manuscript.  Although I was unable to hook CPD detectives to review my manuscript for accuracy, I still can hit up detectives I’ve met through the Sheriff’s Citizens Police Academy in North Carolina. (Notice I’ve said “met,” as in you gotta do the footwork and can’t just rely on the Internet and CSI.)

For the back cover, I plan to get book blurbs by the psychologist and mystery author. Writing a tantalizing couple of paragraphs that will hook the reader to read the book is more tricky and takes me days to accomplish. (I ask my book editor to critique those paragraphs before proceeding.)

Stay tuned for my next post on my further adventures in self-publishing! Be sure to send me your comments or questions, too!


 

 

Published Author’s Query for Autism Memoir

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Sounds great, right? Except I, as a published author, am not autistic! However, my 28-year-old Asperger’s client is! Together, we have written her memoir entitled Stumbling Through Asperger’s.  As with my three mystery novels, I paid to have this manuscript professionally edited.  Now comes the fun part of emailing query letters and the first few chapters of the manuscript to literary agents who represent memoirs!

It takes hours to research each literary agent, although Writer’s Digest, Literary Marketplace, and the Internet are veritable ways to start! Yet, a query must include an interest, hobby, geographic location, or another specific reason you chose to query that particular agent — and that’s just in the very first sentence! That first sentence is wherein the research lies!

The second sentence that also takes some real thought before sending out the query is the “hook.”  The hook is a short, direct, attention-grabber. Yeah, well this time around, I completely blasted that hook description with this:  Stumbling Through Asperger’s, a 57,000-word memoir, describes how my life-coaching client, Akira Frankel, diagnosed at age 4 with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, clawed her way out of  a destructive home environment perpetrated by a vindictive sister and a passive father.

Would my hook have been half as exciting had I written “Stumbling Through Aspergers is a memoir about a 28-year-old life-coaching student of mine who has autism” ? I think not, but that’s just my opinion. (No matter your decision, make sure to include your manuscript’s total word count in that first paragraph, along with its genre. My genre was memoir.)

In the second paragraph of my query, I indicated why my  student’s memoir should be published:  Over 1.6 million children — 1 in 45 — in the United States are diagnosed with autism. I added that my readership would provide hope to the millions of parents, educators, and therapists of children and young adults with autism.

In my third and final paragraph, I mentioned why my personal and professional background qualifies me to write this particular memoir:  Special education teacher, life-coach, former journalist, published author.

I made sure my email was divided into three single-spaced paragraphs, with a double space between each paragraph. Then I asked the agent to contact me if this was a project she/he was interested in undertaking.

Finally, I listed my website and contact information.  Then I had three of my family members, as well as my freelance editor, review my query letter. After everybody’s thumbs up, I sent my query out!

I will let you know what happens!

 

Obsessing Over Fatal Reaction!

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FatalReaction- White -hdrI am a perfectionist when self-publishing — okay, maybe not right now at 2:59 a.m. when I can’t sleep, but generally speaking! So before giving birth to my third mystery novel #Fatal Reaction on Valentines Day 2014, I edited and re-edited a hundred times over. Caution: Sleep deprivation causes me to exaggerate.

I drove my developmental/copy editor #Diane Piron-Gelman (wordnrd@earthlink.net) nuts with my formatting changes. And #Gin Kiser, graphic design artist for my book cover (wordsugardesigns@gmail.com) actually went into labor upon completing the final edit of several edits! No, Gin did not choose to go into labor as a less painful alternative!

My drive for perfection didn’t end with the book’s publication. I was going to be doing a speaking gig and planned to distribute post card-sized copies of the front and back book cover of #Fatal Reaction. Off to #Office Max I went! A week later, upon questioning veteran mystery author #Marilyn Meredith, I learned that an author can name the town, but not the authentic location, that a fictional crime took place. Thankfully, #Office Max changed two words on the back-side of the post card. My speaking gig had already come and gone. But when I speak/book sign at #Printers Row Literary Fest in Chicago on June 7, I’ll be distributing the new post card.

My point is that an author must be both diligent and vigilant in managing the final product that goes out into the book world. A self-published book should be written, formatted, and marketed as accurately as that of a big publisher — and sometimes better because the author’s professional reputation is at stake.

 

Love is Murder Writers Conference 2013

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Today was the second day of LIM’s three-day marathon of mystery author panels and seminars featuring everything from writing and producing TV detectives shows +Lee Goldberg  to New Normal: Paranormal! +Honora Finkelstein+Ted Krever, +Susan Smily, and A.J. Hartley.

Usually I can’t sit for more than an hour without getting fidgety, but the speakers at +Love is Murder are so fascinating, I’m sitting at the edge of my seat waiting to hear the next author’s words of wisdom. The Editors and agents I pitched to at the Conference: +Christine Witthohn from +Book Cents Literary Agency, +Marlene Stringer from +Stringer Literary Agency, +Marcia Markland from +St. Martins Press, +Emily Clark from +Allium Press of Chicago, +L.Sue Eggerton from +Weaving Dreams Publishing, and +Deni Dietz from +Fiver Star Mysteries, say Fatal Reaction, my third mystery, is soft-boiled or a cozy. Since this is the first time one of my novels has been described as such, I found the How Many Murders Tip the Scale; Keeping Amateurs Plausible panel with +Helen Osterman, +Maris Soule, +Kent Krueger, and +Judy Knauer to be most helpful.

And when we finally got to Ingredients for Success – a Touch of Humor, I was totally ready for +Abbey Sparkle+Allan Ansorge+Judy Cobb Dailey, et al to share their funniest lines! It was actually a joy to explore how humor could be infused into mysteries. With +Deadly Choices, my award-winning suspense thriller, +Jennie Spallone, I wrongly assumed suspense had to be all serious. Not!

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Query for Award-Winning Suspense Novel

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I’m chagrined to say I can’t locate my original query letter for my award-winning first suspense novel Deadly Choices. It has been six years since that manuscript was accepted for publication. That document must have inadvertently been deleted from an earlier computer’s memory card.
So here’s a reasonable facsimile of my query, to the best of my memory. Hope this helps!

Dear Ms. _____,
It was a delight meeting you at Love is Murder. At your request, I am submitting this query of my first suspense novel, Deadly Choices ((66,000 wds.), for your perusal and possible representation.

One foggy November morning on Chicago’s West Side, paramedic trainee Beth Reilly kidnaps the baby she’s just delivered and gives it to her best friend, a Born-Again Christian, to raise as her own. Friendship, trust, betrayal. (In retrospect, I would have inserted two or three sentences lifted from my two-page synopsis to flesh out the story plot, yet not include the evidence that would solve the mystery. That evidence, however, would be included in the synopsis should it later be requested.)

I was former president of Off-Campus Writer’s Workshop in Winnetka, Illinois; a 250-member group that invites published authors in various genres, as well as literary agents, to conduct weekly workshops for writers of all ability levels. For thirteen years, I worked as a freelance journalist for local and national publications partially including The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago-Sun Times, Chicago Parent Magazine, and Consumer’s Digest Magazine. I belong to Sisters in Crime.
Know that I am open to constructive criticism if it makes my manuscript more marketable. Sales and marketing comes naturally to me. I enjoy speaking in public and would be open to speaking at mystery conferences, bookstores, and libraries when my book gets published. (This was before on-line book tours, etc.)
If you would like to see the synopsis or the first three chapters of Deadly Choices (the agent would have listed in Writer’s Market what to send first, second, etc.), feel free to contact me at _phone number_____. (If I had a website at that point, I would have included it.) Your feedback is appreciated.

Sincerely,
Jennie Spallone