Author Interview, Family, Featured, First Paragraph, Growing Up, Lifestyle, Memories, Writing, Writing Style

Getting Started

August 13, 2018

As a writer, I’m often asked where do I find my ideas? How do I get started?

I start with two words: What if. I find this works with everything I write, whether it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel.

Take my Mad Max series as a starter. In Max 1, Unintended Consequences, the what if question was: what would happen if a mother decided she no longer want to take care of her children? When Max’s daughter emerges from a coma after a terrible car accident, she is diagnosed with having a traumatic brain injury. Her entire personality changes, and not for the better. This leads Max to have to decide what role she will play in raising her two grandchildren.

Max 2, Uncharted Territory, raises the bar with what would happen if the family were suddenly thrust into an alien environment? That environment is post-Katrina Mississippi, a food desert, a land washed clean by the tidal surge, a land where locals were suspicious of any outsider. Max has to figure out how to keep a growing, extended family clothed and fed, all the while keeping her eyes open for new perils.

And in Max 3, Unsafe Haven,  the what if question is what would happen if you took your grandson to a hospital to set a broken leg and all hell broke loose? How would Max cope with fears of losing both her grandson and her boyfriend at the same time?

You see where I’m going with this. The right what if question sets the stage for everything to come. So when I began working on my latest, Out Of the Desert, my what if question was personal, very close to home. When I was twelve, my favorite cousin died. He was a year older. I’ve always wondered what he might have become, as any parent who has lost a child wonders. My cousin wouldn’t leave me alone.

He emerged in a short story named “Toad,” which I was lucky enough to have accepted in the VWC Centennial Anthology. Toad was a dreamer. My cousin was a dreamer. Therein lay one comparison. I thought the short story would be the end of writing about Toad. Now, 80K words into the second major rewrite, I’m drawing to a close on the story of what might have happened. Toad grows up. He experiences love and loss, success and sorrow. He wonders if Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Could he go home again? And that, dear friends, is the impetus for the novel in stories. What if he did go home again? What would Toad the man find? Would he find Toad the Dreamer alive inside him after four decades?

I’m not one for spoilers. I’ll have to see how the ending plays out. But, what if I hadn’t listened to my cousin’s voice? What if I hadn’t cared enough to imagine a life beyond age thirteen?

What are your what if triumphs?

Book Covers, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Drumroll: New Cover Revealed

July 30, 2018

My last post talked about how misleading the first cover for Eyes Without A Face was. My book isn’t about the Unabomber, Jihadi John, or Trayvon Martin. It is about a female serial killer. And that was what wasn’t clear with the first cover.

I needed a completely different look. I couldn’t go back to my original designer. He and I loved the face in the hoodie. He wouldn’t be able to kill his darling and come up with a new image.

I asked a host of friends for recommendations. Some had students who were looking for a credit, but who had never designed a book cover before. Others offered names of their cover designers. Unfortunately, many were booked solid for months. I reached out to a writer whose covers I loved. Turned out she and her husband have a design firm…

The rest is history. We discussed how to make the central image female. There could be no mistaking the sex of the killer this time. There could be no mistaking that this woman worked in the medical community. We wanted a female, Dexter-like creepy vibe, but not so creepy that readers would be turned off by the cover.

There could be no mistaking the fact that laws were broken, crimes committed. Kristen came back with something completely unexpected. And spot on.

I’ll be rolling out the re-release of Eyes over the next few weeks. Let’s hope sales explode all over the place. Let’s hope readers get the point of the book. Let’s hope they continue to root for the serial killer. Yes, most readers find their guilty pleasure when they like her.

Beta Readers, Book Covers, Early Readers, Featured, Writing, Writing Style

Judging a Book…

July 15, 2018

It is not true that readers don’t judge a book by its cover. We do. Sometimes we buy a book because the cover is intriguing, exciting, mysterious. I have often bought a book because I liked the front cover and the back blurb. And as a writer, I know how hard it is to write the blurb to attract readers and not mislead them.

So, we are about to go to school on my psychological suspense novel, Eyes Without a Face.  I worked with a boutique publisher who has a cast of professionals on speed dial. I’m one of his editors, so I work with some of his authors to polish manuscripts.

I selected one of his cover designers to help give Eyes a spooky look and feel. We came up with this. I think we achieved spooky. The dark brown color wash added a hint of danger without being overt. We chose the hoodie because the killer often wears one when she kills. We went with yellow on brown in keeping with that color palette. So far, so good.

We needed a face in the hoodie. After adding a host of different images using PhotoShop, we came up with nothing that worked. Last summer, my DIL, who is a photographer, suggested we take a pic of her husband, black out the face, and drop in a set of creepy female eyes we’d found in open source photo galleries.

We thought we had a winner. The book came out to solid reviews. All but one. That one focused on the cover. The reader would have given me 5 stars had the cover been different. About the same time, I did a series of book signings and talks. I sent out 100 postcards with the eyes themselves on the front. Sales were good but not great.

Three events in a row taught me that the cover was wildly misleading. Not only did the cover not reinforce the salient fact that the main character, who is also the first person narrator, is a bloody female. Pun intended. She’s a serial killer. She tells the story her way. She’s unreliable. She lies. And the cover lies as well.

People asked what the book was about. I did a bit of research to see what readers thought. They gave me three different ideas about the connotation of the image.

OMG! No, the book is not about the Unabomber. No, the book is not about Jihadi John, the Brit who became the public executioner for ISIS. And no, the book is not about Trayvon Martin. I don’t feel qualified to write about any of these three, particularly not Trayvon, whose tragic death touched me deeply.

Oh, what to do? Hire a different cover designer, of course. And, true to wanting a build up for the reveal, you’ll have to wait until my next post. Yup, teaser that I am, you’ll have to curb your inquiring mind for another few days. Giggle. I hope you like it.

Family, Featured, Memories, Writing, Writing Style

The Keepers of the Box

July 1, 2018

Every family has a keeper of the box. It’s often the eldest child, or the only girl, or the one interested in genealogy. The box can be literal or figurative, but there is always a box.

My husband and I are both only children. The boxes handed down to us from our mothers have no other home. My mother-in-law didn’t believe in keeping what she called “old stuff,” things like family documents, photos, etc. She kept a few, but not enough to reconstruct the history of his family.

My mother kept tons on documents, photos, report cards. I found information on land I didn’t know the family owned, land lost to unpaid taxes. Photo albums with lots of pictures of people who have gone ahead and have not left their names behind. Legal papers. Ticket stubs. She kept so much of my childhood that I haven’t taken time to unpack it.

As writers, we are all keeps of our characters’ boxes. To create a complete character, we need to know ever so much more that we will ever use. We need to know what each character, main and minor, looks like. That means small details like the shape of ears, small scars and other marks. We should know what a female carries in her handbag, a man in his pockets. Where do they put their keys? Do they empty handbags or pockets every night? What is on their dressers, in their medicine cabinets? Do they floss?

You’ll never use these details, because in real life they are both automatic and boring. But, if you know these things, you know your characters. And then you can throw these minutiae away and get on with the story.

At times, however, one or more of these details demands to be unpacked and imagined. When did the item, if it is literal, enter the character’s life? What’s its importance to the plot? Can you avoid writing about it, or will you miss an opportunity to enrich the story with just the right detail at just the right moment.

Take for example, a concert ticket stub. Did the character attend the concert alone? With a best friend? With a long-lost love? What emotions go through the character’s mind when she holds that stub in her hand? How can you exploit the moment to illustrate something bigger?

Yes, families are the keepers of the box. Writers are as well, because our characters constitute our other families. What boxes do you have packed away? And how many of them have you unpacked?

 

Featured, Lifestyle, Memories

An Open Letter To My Father After Father’s Day

June 18, 2018

Let me start by saying I never celebrated Father’s Day. I never bought a card, picked out a terrible tie or a pair of socks, or visited the man who was my father. Why? Because I never knew him.

My father was married to my mother for about two years, during which time I was sired and born. And while my mother was carrying me, he had another girlfriend who became pregnant about the time I was born. Needless to say, my parents separated before I was nine months old, before my half-sister arrived. You left my mother to raise me by herself with no child support, although the courts ordered it. She did a damned fine job.

My father contacted me twice, once for half a day when I was 13, again for half a day when I was 17. A card or two followed the visits, plus a weird invitation to come and live with him, his wife, and my half-sister. Why would I leave my mother, who had been my sole caregiver, for a man I didn’t know? NOT!

My mother was annoyed at first when I started referring to the old man as my sperm donor. To me, that was what he was. Nothing more. I knew later how much that phrase demeaned their relationship. I’m forever sorry about it.

So, now that both my dear mother and the sperm donor are gone, I have some words for SD.

I hope you were a better father to your second daughter than you were to your first.

I hope you taught her how to play catch, played hide and seek, and did all the great dad things, like eating ice cream in a snow storm.

I hope you taught her a sense of right and wrong, gave her a strong ethical foundation, and were there for her when she needed you.

I’m sorry you were estranged from your own parents. I wasn’t, because my mother kept in touch with your mother and father until I was old enough to write. I know she did. Grandfather sent me a box of her letters, cards, and photos of me. She kept me alive in their thoughts until both passed.

I’m sorry you never got to see how I turned out, but then, you would have had to keep in touch. Once Grandfather died, there was no touchstone with your side of the family until a couple of years ago when your brother’s older daughter reached out. We’ve established a long-distance relationship, one I once wished I’d had with you.

For this Father’s Day, I don’t send good wishes. I don’t send bad wishes. I send the same type of wishes you sent me all these years. None.

 

P.S. Thanks, Mom, for being the best father a girl could have. Happy Father’s Day.

 

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Mad Max, Mad Max Mysteries, Serial Killer, Writing, Writing Style

World Building Or Worldview

June 4, 2018

Hi, my name is Betsy, and I suck at world building. I can no more create a mysterious land, populate it with rare and wondrous beings, draw on human mythology, than I can fly. I enjoy reading fantasy. I really do, but to try and write it. Save your keystrokes, Ashton. You cannot do it. I admit defeat.

But, creating a character’s worldview? That’s a whole different situation. When I get out of my characters’ ways, I can see their worldview. I might not like it, but I can see it. Take, for example, my Mad Max character. She’s worldly, rich, and sexy. She enjoys a life of service on various cultural boards. She runs her deceased husband’s engineering firm. She has a life.

After Max’s daughter is seriously injured in an auto accident, she is forced to make a decision. Traumatic brain injury changes her daughter’s behavior from being a wonderful soccer mom to not giving a damn about her kids. Max has to decide how much of a day-to-day role she’ll play as they grow up.

Along the way, she runs into racism in the second book. It’s more the “us versus them” racism, where locals dislike Hispanics who they think are stealing their jobs. Max must learn how to survive in the alien landscape of post-Katrina Mississippi. True, it’s rather like a strange land, except it’s populated with human beings with normal names. Every time she runs into something she’s never experienced before, it’s a challenge to her worldview. Over the course of three books, she grows and comes to appreciate what is truly important.

And then there is that pesky serial killer. I let her live in my creative brain for nearly two years while she took shape and emerged with her own moral code. It is NOT my moral code. I don’t look at people and see someone who should be killed. True, she preys on people who victimize the weak–battered women, children, etc. Her worldview makes many readers uncomfortable, but in the end they are even more uncomfortable when they realize they’ve been rooting for her all along. I’m not sure what the killer says about me. Little, I hope, but she sure says a lot about herself.

I’m working on a series of stories that are a complete departure from what I’ve been writing. Not a single serial killer. No massive crime sprees. Mostly, ordinary moments in life that thrill or change us. Sometimes the change is for the better; other times, it’s merely change. We as readers are left to work the change into our own worldview.

I think I’ll stick to the internal worldview exploration. I don’t need any fanciful names, even though occasionally I need to understand mental illness. When a character takes me down that path, I relish in researching new topics to write about.

Join me in the Mad Max series. I double dog dare you to read Eyes Without A Face. You might end up rooting for the killer, too.

Beta Readers, Early Readers, Editing, Empty Words, Featured, First Paragraph, Writing, Writing Challenge, Writing Habits, Writing Life, Writing Style

If Writing Is An Art,

May 21, 2018

then editing is a craft. For me, writing the initial draft of any work brings me a freedom to put anything, and I do mean anything, down on paper. I love getting out of my characters’ way and let them have free rein. That first draft may be full of purple prose, misnamed characters, characters whose physical features change from sentence to sentence. I don’t worry.

Once I’ve finished the first draft, I sit back and think about the characters first. What do they look like? How do they speak? What do they carry in their pockets or purses? I make a list of all these things, so that when I begin crafting a story, I have a reference point. Notice I do this AFTER I’ve written the first draft. Nothing can restrain the initial gush of story.

I then return to each chapter. Is it necessary? Does it move the story along? Does it have or need conflict? What happens in it? If I can’t see the chapter moving the story forward, I cut it out of the longer manuscript and copy it into a file called [Working Book Title] Parking Lot. I may need it again. I may not, but at least it’s not lost.

That done, the fun begins. I mean it. Editing is fun, painful at times, but fun, because that’s when I shape the story. Think of a potter at her wheel. She slaps a blob of wet clay in the center and begins spinning the wheel. Gradually, through a deft touch and no small amount of luck, she shapes the clay into a vase or bowl or whatever the clay wants to become. Words are like clay. Story is like the wheel. My hands are merely a means to revealing a story, much like the hands of the potter pulling a shape from the blob.

Editing is plain hard work. Early drafts are, for me, broad brush strokes to see where the story falls apart. It will, because it hasn’t been finessed at all. Secondary drafts are where I look at every word in every sentence. Is it the right word to convey what I want? Is it a cliche that has to die a rapid death by Delete key? Is it trite, original, fresh, stale? Sometimes, it takes several drafts before I can set a chapter aside. After a few weeks, after I’ve finished all the other chapters, I sit back and reread from page one to “the end.”

Oh what was I thinking? What drivel? No one will ever want to read this. It sucks. Oh, wait, what? That chapter is really pretty good. So is the next one. I think about what makes each chapter sing. I try to replicate it.

And then I ask my loyal beta readers to dive in. Usually, this leads to more revelations about what needs to be fixed. Some are such good readers they can suggest what they expected to read. After a few more edits, I’m finally ready. I put the book out into the world. I cross my fingers in hopes people like it. I read reviews, even the one-star reviews. I engage with readers on social media or old school by phone, in person, or email. Each interaction, each engagement, helps me become a better writer.

I’m in the midst of the secondary draft stage of a book called Out of the Desert, a novel in stories. So far, one chapter of fourteen sings on key. The others are still slightly off key. More work to be done. Bye for now.

Featured, Lifestyle, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Psychopathy, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Writing, Writing Style

Loving Our Bad Boys

May 7, 2018

Why is it that we fall in love with our bad boys? I don’t mean in real life, although that was true once for me when I fell in love with a budding rock star, until he became a star and lost his way in the drug scene.

I mean, why do we like our bad boys in our books? I ask that because I have never written a story about a bad boy. My Mad Max series has strong male figures, but Max’s boyfriend can’t be confused with a bad boy. Johnny Medina is a decent guy who loves Max. Period.

My serial killer is the closest to a bad ass dude as I’ve written, yet she is a female bad ass dude. I didn’t fall in love with her, but I became entranced by her story. After all, she has a “storied” career of what she sees as righteous kills. Her fans find themselves rooting for her, even as she struggles with her own psychological mysteries. She doesn’t know how she would be defined in the DSM and frankly doesn’t care.

So, why do I want to write about a bad boy? Because they look so deliciously entertaining. Years ago, I wrote a romance which I never sent out. It doesn’t fit the genre model. The characters are both around forty. One is married; one wears a wedding band, but her marital status is unclear. When they fall in love, the conflict intensifies along with the heat. He’s married; she might be. Is he a bad boy for being married and loving a potentially married woman? So far, he’s the baddest dude I’ve tried to write.

I read about bad boys all the time. I love thrillers and suspense stories. My fictional heroes range from Jack Reacher to Mitch Rapp to Jack Bauer to Mr. Reese in the old Person of Interest television show. They kill. They’re good at it. Very good. They are sexy in a dangerous sort of way. They kill people who need killing. They hide in plain sight.

Oh, hell. That Thing in Eyes Without A Face is a female version of all them with a dash of Dexter. I guess I can write about a bad ass. Bad ass dudettes need equal billing.

What do you think?

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max Mystery series. Her stand-alone serial killer novel, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, is a departure from her normal fare.

Editing, Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Psychopathy, Serial Killer, Sociopathy, Unsafe Haven, Writing, Writing a Series, Writing Life, Writing Style

Getting Inside Your Character’s Heads

April 23, 2018

Any of you who have read my work know I love writing in the first person singular. Why? Because I can get deeply inside a character and gaze out through her eyes. I can say “her,” because so far all of my first-person works have had female main characters. I really like the narrowed lens of a singular point of view. I don’t want to know more about what’s going on beyond what my character sees, feels, smells, etc.

I’ve stayed with one character for a three-book series, the Mad Max Mystery series. Max is a grandmother, a youngish grandmother. She’s smart, rich, sexy, and snarky when she needs to be. She’s strong minded and strong willed, a force of nature not to be messed with, particularly when it comes to her family, extended and nuclear. She can go from mild-mannered to tiger mom in 3.5 seconds flat.

Max is as familiar to me as my own husband. I know what she thinks (not that I ever really know what my husband is thinking). I know what she carries in her Jimmy Choo handbag. I know what she keeps on her bedside table, on her bureau, in her medicine cabinet. I know what caliber of gun she carries.

Writing Max is as comfortable as sliding into a favorite bathrobe and pair of bunny slippers, until she does something that surprises me. As I said, writing from inside her head leads me places I hadn’t anticipated. I can put her in a situation and get out of her way. Readers seem to like her, so I continue.

On a challenge, actually a dog-dog dare, I decided to leave the Max comfort zone and delve into the dark realities of a psychopath. At least, I think That Thing is a psychopath. She’s not sure, and since she tells her own story in EYES WITHOUT A FACE, who am I to argue.

I had to do a ton of research into various personality disorders. She could have been a sociopath or a psychopath, except she denies she’s either. She is a narcissist, because she thinks only she can get revenge for people who are victimized and can’t stand up for themselves. She hates people who prey on the weak, women, children, the elderly. A compendium of our society. She thinks she’s the only one who can get rid of the perpetrators, because justice is too slow for her liking. She might be a vigilante. She might not.

That Thing doesn’t want you to put her in any kind of box, with or without bars. She refuses categorization. She acts with conviction and with a range of poisons, knives, and ice picks. She doesn’t use guns. Too noisy. Harder to kill up close and personal. No exploding heads, either. Her kills are tidier.

How hard was it to write Mad Max and That Thing concurrently? Damned hard. One was easier. I took a break from dark personality disorders, until Max had to deal with a demented, delusional villain in UNSAFE HAVEN. Then, the personalities merged.

I’ve heard from readers of both books. They say I scared them with That Thing. Good. That means they got into the story and into her rationale. What they didn’t like was rooting for the “bad guy.” Actually rooted for That Thing.

Thank you. You got the book.

###

Betsy Ashton is the author of the Mad Max Mystery series. Her stand-alone serial killer novel, EYES WITHOUT A FACE, is a departure from her normal fare.

Active shooter, Drop-and-cover, Fear, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Thinking About Schools

April 9, 2018

Schools have been on my mind lately. Part nostalgia, part not. I clearly remember the first school I attended. I think it was kindergarten through third grade. London Avenue School had beautiful Spanish mission lines with terra cotta tile roofs. No, I don’t remember them. I’ve seen pictures. Mom was a delightful pack rat who kept a lot of my younger photos.

My grandmother walked me to school. One mile each way. Uphill. Barefoot. In the snow. Actually, not. Flat suburban landscape with sidewalks and no snow. Ever. I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Peete. She encouraged my reading, although I already knew how to read when I started in kindergarten, the gift of a school marm grandmother and a mother who binge read books, often aloud. Mrs. Peete was also the one who had to lead us through earthquake drills. Hide under your desks and cover your heads with your hands. She led us through drop-and-cover drills in case of nuclear attack. Same regimen for us, hide under our desks, except we had to turn them away from the windows. As if turning away from the windows would keep us safe from nuclear war.

I went to nine more schools before my last one, East High in Pueblo, Colorado. I remember Mrs. Spiess, who taught me Latin and English, Sam Genova, who taught biology, creepy Mr. Gadow who was afraid on the dark and dogs (yes, we tested his fear. He was right.) By this time we were no longer doing drop-and-cover, because we knew nothing would keep us safe if a bomb fell. And with no earthquakes in Colorado, we didn’t need anything beyond the regular fire drills.

I have no idea why I can’t remember the nine schools I attended between London Avenue and East High.

It pains me to think that other schools have knocked the schools I attended out of my memory. Schools whose names are forever imprinted in the national psyche. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Stoneman Douglas High. These students have never known a time in school when they didn’t practice for active shooter attacks. These are no more real than our drop-and-cover drills, but are more frightening because the odds of having an active shooter in your school far outweighed the possibility of the USSR nuking the United States.

The point is I can’t remember a time when children didn’t have to fear something in school. Not the evil algebra teacher in high school, but a fellow student with a dark side who wreaks havoc on what should be a safe place. I don’t want to turn this into a political diatribe or a hand-wringing fear-mongering essay. I just can’t stop thinking about students, then and now.

I think I’ll hide under my desk for the rest of the day.

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