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My Little Secret

September 12, 2018

Do you remember the cheesy games we used to have to play? Those ice breakers at camp, corporate retreats, training sessions? Those adult questions that were little more than “what I did on my summer vacation” but which were meant to share something most people wouldn’t know about you? Well, I have a secret most of you don’t know.

I LOVE SNAKES.

Always have. When I was five, I drifted away from Mom at the San Diego Zoo. The gibbons were over-gibboning. I didn’t like it. I wandered off. When Mom discovered I was missing, she knew where to find me. The snake house. Yup, there I was, staring at an emerald-green boa, the prettiest snake I’d ever seen.

So, when I began writing, I knew I’d have to write about snakes. I haven’t found a place for them in the Mad Max series, except to explain, in Max 3, why so many doctors and nurses at a New Mexico hospital carried guns. Rattlesnakes. The serial killer didn’t use deadly toxins. Couldn’t have a snake suddenly slither in. When I started writing about a family living on the high desert of Southern California, the setting was ripe for a rattler.

Here’s the setup. Toad is around ten or eleven; his younger brother, Cricket, is about seven. Killing a rattler is a rite of passage, one Toad had experienced but one that Cricket desperately wanted. He had to kill a snake to keep up with his brother.

“I gotta pee before I do anything else.” Cricket jumped off the platform and tripped on an untied shoelace. He landed hard. Momentarily winded, he rolled over in the sand before sitting up to check the damage he’d done to an elbow. He heard buzzing before he saw the snake.

“Toad! There’s a big rattler about six feet off the deck.”

“Don’t move.”

“I won’t.” Cricket froze, eyes on the rattler, which had coiled in warning. He didn’t blink for fear the snake would strike. Ranger ran down the three steps to the sand and barked. The snake raised its rattles, head following the dog’s movement, tongue tasting the air.

“Ranger! Sit!” Toad jumped down, machete in one hand, forked stick in the other. “Want me to kill it?”

“Uh-uh. I wanna do it.”

“Are you sure you remember what Pops said?”

“Yeah. Give me the stick.”

“I think I should do it.”

“It’s my snake. I have to kill it.”

While the boys were arguing, the snake left off sunning itself and rattled a final warning, before it uncoiled and slithered off.

“It’s getting away” Cricket shouted.

“Kill it.” Toad yelled.

Cricket pinned the snake with the fork right behind the triangular head, exactly like Pops had taught him. Toad handed him the machete. His brother swung the sharp knife and severed the head with a single chop. It flew a few feet away from the body, poison dripping from its fangs.

Ranger retreated to the safety of the platform and barked encouragement. Both boys watched the snake’s body whip back and forth before the convulsions slowed to a stop. Toad walked around Cricket and kicked the head aside.

Cricket ran toward the outhouse. “Now, I really gotta pee. Don’t you do anything with the snake. I get to cut the rattles off.” When he was back, he collected his trophy. The boys skinned the snake before burying it, head and all. They nailed the skin next to a dozen others on the back of Shorty’s run-in shed.

When the boys’ parents got home a couple of hours later, Cricket crowed about what he’d done.

“Daddy, I killed my first snake today. See. I have a rattle of my own.”

“Did you really kill the snake?” Dad looked skeptical. “Are you sure Toad didn’t kill it?”

“I did it myself.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Toad said.

And so Cricket takes one step toward adulthood. Not much of a step, but movement nonetheless. BTW, I killed my first rattler when I was little older than the fictional Cricket. I kept my rattles for decades in my treasure box. One day, it vanished. I don’t miss it, but if I saw another rattler, I’d have no problem dispatching it.

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.

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.

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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.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Life

How to Annoy a Stranger in Public

July 4, 2016

We’ve all had those moments when we wanted to escape the presence of a stranger who trapped us in a conversation.  As a keen observer of human behavior, I’ve experienced all of these in the past month. That led me to a list of things not to do if you want me to like you.

  1. Sit too close. Nothing is more uncomfortable than someone sitting on a bench right next to you when there’s plenty of space a few inches away.
  2. Lean in. Unless we’ve been introduced, I don’t want you leaning into me. Not that I think you have cooties or anything like that. More, it’s a matter of giving me a little space to breathe. And possibly not be overwhelmed by sour coffee breath.
  3. Spray spittle. Some people have moist mouths. If you are one, please recognize your spit zone and keep outside of it. I may need a bath, but I’ll choose the time, place and method for it.
  4. Talk incessantly. Want to turn me off? Say, “Hi. Let’s talk about me.” I’ll ask questions, but I don’t want a treatise for an answer.
  5. Ask me a question and then answer it. Yup. We’ve probably all done this. We’ve certainly had this done to us. See #4, because #5 is a variation on the theme.
  6. Ignore everything I say. See #4 and #5 above.
  7. Maintain a total focus on yourself. See #4, #5, and #6.
  8. Look around while your talking. I think you’re looking for someone more interesting than I am if you continually look over my shoulder for your next victim. Look at me when we are talking. You may move on in a few sentences. I’ll give you my total attention; please do the same.
  9. Check your Apple Watch or smart phone constantly. Nothing says I’m not important than you checking message on any smart device. I end up thinking I’m less interesting that your local weather report that just buzzed your wrist.
  10. Respect my time. If I’m sitting at my laptop in a library or coffee house and typing happily away, I’m working. When I look up or take a break, that’s a good time to chat. Same thing holds true for social media. You may think I’m active because certain apps open automatically when I boot up my laptop. I may be; I may not be. Ask.
  11. Floss. That’s right, floss. A woman sat down across from me in the library the other day and pulled out her floss. In mid-back-molar floss, she had to tell me something. The floss dangled while she spoke. Hard to look away from waving white string.
  12. Last, but not least, fart. Please step away. It’s impossible to ignore wafting abdominal gas.

These won’t make me many friends, but I will be your friend if you remember to mind the manners your momma taught you.

Peace out.

Featured, Research, Writing Habits, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life

Doing Research For a Book

June 13, 2016

You’re probably wondering why I have pictures of actors who’ve played police or sheriffs as the header here. Simple, really. I want to give a shout out to police who have recently taken time to help me get details right.

But first, a seque down memory lane. When I was a small child living in suburban Los Angeles, I was taught that policemen were my friends. If I needed anything, I could walk up to one and ask. That said, I realize growing up white in the ‘burbs, not a minority in an inner city or the ghetto or the ‘hood, have shaded belief in the police. Can’t help it. That’s the way I was raised.

Over the years, I have been arrested and tossed in the slammer more than once. But, that is the subject of another post. Maybe.

I’ve asked police for directions, turned in rapists, and stood up for human rights. I’ve protested and occupied buildings. I lay down in the middle of the freeway to stop traffic. I did all sorts of silly things, just short of breaking the law. Well, occupying Federal buildings was technically breaking the law. All we received were nights in the drunk tank and release with no charges. Trust me. I never want to be in the drunk tank again, but the memory gave me a powerful scene in a book. Alas, the scene met the Delete key when I changed points of view. Still…

When police officers began playing secondary roles in my books. I needed primary research. Sure, growing up with Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke or Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show or today’s Blue Bloods gave me a distorted view of what a policeman’s life is today. To those men and women I pestered in line at Starbucks, thank you for telling me how much your belt weighs. Thanks to the policeman directing traffic at Saratoga Race track for telling me how much is bullet-proof vest weighed and how hot it was in August. Thanks also to the Maryland State Deputy who let me hold his Taser. I’ll never reveal his name, and I’ll never forget how the weapon felt in my hand.

To the police information officers in rural Mississippi, you were an invaluable source of deep background on what life was like in post-Katrina Mississippi. And to the State Police public information officer who not only answered my questions about jurisdiction at the same time and place, but who invited me to call back with any more questions, I hope I have the facts right in Uncharted Territory. You gave me more information than I could use. I will never forget your kindness.

And to agents from the FBI, CDC, and DEA, as well as the Secret Service, for helping me understand jurisdictions once again, you have my sincere gratitude.

These men and women are my heroes. They do their jobs every day, most with no fanfare. So I’m whipping out my trumpet and blowing a salute to you.

Mom was right. If you need help, ask a cop.

Have you had positive interactions with police officers?

 

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Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and NoblePlease follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.

Book Promotion, Brand management, Featured, Marketing, Uncategorized, Writing Life

Bookselling

May 23, 2016

Many readers of this blog are also writers. And like my fellow writers, friends recommend books on how I can be a better writer, how I can write [fill in genre here], how to publish and how to sell books. You can imagine my skepticism when a respected friend recommended How To Sell A Crapload of Books. Yeah, I thought. I know how to sell a crapload of books. Write a book and give it a title of How To Sell A Crapload of Books.

To be polite, I accepted the book. I expected to scan the table of contents, skim a couple of chapters and thank my friend for his thoughtfulness. Instead I found a well-written book that, while not offering many new revelations on book selling/promotion/author branding, made cogent arguments for building an author brand, leveraging connections you didn’t know you had and creating an executable promotional plan.

Vandehey and Aryal use humor to lay down some principles: “the PR you can afford is probably useless.” Rather than name everything a debut writer can’t possibly do, they offer things that worked for other writers whose careers is where ours are. If you write mysteries, consider a book launch that is a scavenger hunt, especially if you can launch your book where the action takes place. Leverage where you live, because more people know you where you live than across the country in huge cities. They advise not getting your heart set about book reviews by the New York Times in favor of concentrating on wooing your local newspapers. The louder the local buzz, the more likely you can extend outward in concentric circles to broaden your audience.

Because so much of life takes place online today, Vandehey and Aryal demand a writer learn how to use social media. That means more than a Facebook page where you do nothing except flog your books. Hint: This doesn’t work and pisses off potential book buyers. Learn what each platform can do for you. Twitter is great for reaching more potential buyers than most other outlets. Facebook is great for building your brand. Know the difference. Don’t waste time on social media networks or social media applications if your readership doesn’t hang out there. I know most of my readers have no clue what Instagram or Snapchat do. I don’t hang out there, but I know I’ll engage in great conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and LinkedIn. Yes, even LinkedIn.

The authors share ten secrets for building an author platform. Rather like a 12-step program. the secrets walk a writer through suggestions they have tested and know work.

Regardless of whether you read this book, or one of the countless other books in print about book selling/promotion/author branding, first decide what your goals for writing and publishing your book really are. If you are a “friends and family” writer (i.e., most of your sales will be to friends and family and not to strangers), set you expectations accordingly. That decision will drive how much effort you want to put into building an author platform. If you want to rise beyond the friends and family level, determine how much time and effort you can devote to building that platform. Once the decision is in the bag, begin executing it. Consistently. Daily. Diligently.

What have your learned about bookselling that you can share with other writers?

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 Betsy Ashton is the author of Mad Max, Unintended Consequences, and Uncharted Territory, A Mad Max Mystery, now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Please follow me on my website, on TwitterFacebook and Goodreads.
Featured, Uncategorized, Writing a Series, Writing Inspiration, Writing Life, Writing Style

How I Found Mad Max

March 14, 2016

Perhaps the title should be “How Mad Max Found Me.” I’m often asked by book clubs how I come up with my ideas. That’s both an easy and difficult question, because inspiration can come from a shopping list dropped at Kroger’s or a single child’s clean sock lost in a gutter in Blowing Rock, NC. But Mad Max has a distinct path to her literary birth.

Originally,  Unintended Consequences was about a husband and wife who undergo horrible changes when the wife is hit by a car and suffers an traumatic brain injury. It completely changes her personality. Written from both his and her points of view, I though I was so clever in depicting the wife’s descent into drug addiction and psychosis, and the man’s as he became more and more troubled by his wife’s behavior. Yawn.

I struggled through multiple (try at least 10) revisions, but I was never satisfied with the way the story shaped up. I fought to keep the twin perspectives, even though they weren’t working. And then one morning about 3am, I woke to a voice shouting in my head: “This is MY story, damnit. Tell it my way.” Well, yes ma’am.

Max had a way of grabbing my attention. At the beginning, she was a minor character. As soon as I took her “advice” and began writing from her point of view, the story sprang to life. She gave me latitude to let her be snarky when necessary, soft and tender when necessary, vulnerable at times. No spoiler alert necessary for the next sentence, because it’s revealed on the back cover. When her daughter is murdered, she comes into her own, buries her grief to be a strong grandparent and help solve the crime.

Max took hold of me. By the time I began Uncharted Territory, or as I call it, Max 2, I knew her inside and out. She still hasn’t revealed her complete personality. She reveals only what is necessary for the current narrative.

I live with her every day. Beginning a new Mad Max book is like inviting a good friend in for coffee. She blows my mind by what she is willing to do to protect her family. I wish I were like her, but only a little bit of Betsy is in Mad Max. I think a lot of Mad Max has made her way into me.

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