Cliffhangers — A Love Hate Relationship

By Sherry enjoying unusually nice summer days for August in Northern Virginia

Almost everyone my age will remember the summer of “Who Shot JR” from the TV show Dallas. JR (a nasty, manipulative man) is shot, but the audience doesn’t see the killer and had to wait until the fall to find the answer. I don’t even remember who the killer was, but I do remember all the speculation.

The first cliffhanger I remember in fiction was in a Janet Evanovich novel High Five. At the end of the book Stephanie Plum calls a man and asks him to come over. He shows up, but we don’t know if it’s Joe or Ranger. I remember getting to the end and having mixed emotions about having to wait a year to find out. You can bet I bought the next book in the series as soon as it was published.

Shows from Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead to Friends to Downton Abbey have ended seasons with cliffhangers. And authors such as Susan Collins (Hunger Games series), Stephan King (Dark Tower series — readers had to wait six years for the next book), and J.K. Rowling have all ended books at a suspenseful moment.

There is some disagreement about what a cliffhanger is. Some people think it’s any ending that leaves an unanswered question which means books like Gone with the Wind, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Gone Girl are books with cliffhanger endings. To me those endings seemed more ambiguous than cliffhanger. While researching cliffhangers I came across a Pub Crawl blog by Erin Bowman. You can read the full blog here. She makes a distinction between hooks and cliffhangers. It resonated with me.

One of the reasons cliffhangers are on my mind is because of how my fourth book, A Good Day to Buy, ends. The reaction to the ending has been interesting. People either enjoyed it or hated it – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. I wrapped up the crime, but I didn’t wrap up Sarah’s relationship woes. When I started writing the book it wasn’t with the idea of ending it with a hook big or small. It just came about naturally as I wrote the book. Sarah has a big life decision to make. I didn’t have room for another 20,000 words to resolve it. And I’m not sure seeing every little details of her though process/angst would make for interesting reading.

People are passionate about the topic. If you search “cliffhangers” you find lists of books and TV shows. One list on Goodreads is: Ending That Make You Want To Scream.

Novelist Charles Reade said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.”

Readers: How do you feel about cliffhangers or hooks at the end of a book? Have you ever used one in your writing? How did readers react?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Repurposing

By Sherry — how is it already July?

One of my favorite things to do is take something old that I’ve found at a garage sale or antique store and do something different with it. So it’s no surprise that Sarah Winston from my books does the same thing. It also made me think about repurposing life experiences for books — more on that in a bit. Here are some things that I’ve found a new purpose for:

I love old utensils with wooden handles, but only buy them if I can think of a way I would use them. I thought these dough blenders would be great for holding vintage postcards or photos. When I posted a picture of them on Facebook, Edith said they’d also be great for holding recipes.

I found a wooden trivet at a garage sale but thought it would look pretty on the wall.

When we lived in Monterey I found a little bookcase at an antique store in Santa Cruz. It first housed my collection of cobalt glass but now holds my collection of vintage tablecloths.

I found this old wooden box at a garage sale and fell in love with it. It might be from a library but I use it to store bookmarks and business cards.

This Victorian breakfast tray was at a show called The Big Flea. With the help of a couple of books it became a tiny end table.

I found a piece of vintage fabric at an antique store in Fort Walton Beach Florida. It wasn’t very big but my mom lined it and made it into valances for me.They hang in my office.

This old trunk was in my grandparent’s basement. My sister restored it and gave it to me. It now houses cds and albums.

I spotted this old cranberry scoop at an antique store in Annapolis. It now holds the newspaper.

It’s so much fun to do this and I realized I do that a lot in my writing too. One example is the opening and part of the plot from Tagged For Death the first book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I was sitting in an airport a few years ago and a guy was pacing around near where I was sitting while he talked on the phone. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation and thought some day I’m going to use that. I also used a crime that occurred when we were stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in the plot of The Longest Yard Sale. There are so many ways to draw from life experiences and repurpose them in writing.

Readers: What have your repurposed in your life?

 

Thinking about Thinking Scenes

By Sherry — I’m enjoying a cool day before the heat hits again

I confess my WIP (work in progress) is a bit of a mess. No, it is a mess. It’s due in to my freelance editor, Barb Goffman, on Sunday. Even scarier it’s due to my Kensington editor on August first. It’s the sixth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. I’ve been thinking (maybe overthinking) a lot about writing which may be part of the reason for the mess. I recently wrote about trying to improve my writing. You can find that blog post here.

Part of my problem is I had a deep emotional connection to A Good Day To Buy (number four in the series). Number five, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, felt a bit lighter to me. It has a lot of crazy, complex relationships that can occur in small towns where people sometimes know each other to well or think they do. And I love the subplots – I had so much fun writing them. Book five also answers some questions readers have been wondering about. But after A Good Day, it didn’t seem to have the same depth to me. Maybe I’m crazy saying all of this out loud. Maybe I’m tilting the reader pool to not like the book. So don’t get me wrong, I like the book, I just had a different emotional connection to it.

That brings me back to my WIP. I was having the same problem of connecting with the manuscript on an emotional level. Then combine that with some obsessive thinking about writing  and it wasn’t pretty. One of the things that’s been on my mind is black moments and I wrote a recent blog about that for Miss Demeanors. You can read it here.

I moved on from worrying about black moments to worrying about what I call “thinking scenes”. (I feel like these scenes are different than inner dialogue, although inner dialogue can be part of thinking scenes.) Then another thought struck me — aren’t thinking scenes the opposite of show don’t tell? Ugh. In a mystery it is almost unavoidable to not have the protagonist trying to put the pieces of a mystery together. So then I started pondering ways to do that.

A protagonist thinking…

One way is to have your character sitting on the couch, driving down the road, or walking some place thinking about what they know and what connections there might be.

Another, that I often see in mysteries, is having your character involved in some activity while they are trying to piece the puzzle of who dunnit together. For example Sarah could be refinishing a piece of furniture as she thinks about a murder.

Writing all this makes me realize why sidekicks are so popular. The sidekick allows the protagonist to talk it out. The sidekick can point out flaws in the protagonist’s logic or point something out that sends the protagonist in a new direction. They could also cause the protagonist to doubt themselves.

I’ve used all three in different ways in different books. There are probably a gazillion other ways to handle thinking scenes, but these three seem to be the most common. And maybe the best solution is to weave the clues together so well that the protagonist doesn’t have to have a thinking scene and only needs an “aha” moment.

Back to my messy WIP. The good news is two days ago I came up with a subplot that speaks to me on an emotional level. Now I’m working hard to weave it in as an intricate part of the story. Wish me luck!

Readers: Do you like scenes where the protagonist is putting the pieces together? Writers: Do you have a way you like to handle these kind of scenes?

 

 

Better

By Sherry — wishing you all a lovely day

I’m still thinking about the release of A Good Day To Buy which came out last week. With every book that comes out I think, “the next book has to be better.” Most writers (at least I hope it isn’t only me) have a tiny voice in their heads telling us we are frauds, fakes, and phonies. It’s the voice I have to shove aside or I’d never write another word. Every time a book comes out I’m afraid I’ll see a comment that says, “It wasn’t as good as the last one.” Or everyone will be thinking, “well she had a good run.” Yes, my head can be a very scary place to live some days.

To counteract those voices I’ve been reading two books on writing. The first one is Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall. Barbara Ross knew I was a Hall fan. She saw him speak in Key West, told him I was now published, and had him sign a copy for me.

Between 2000 and 2003 I lived in the panhandle of Florida. At the time Florida International University was running a fabulous writing conference there every fall. One year Hall (who writers thrillers) was one of the teachers and he was working on this book.

One of the things I’ve never forgotten was when he talked about what does make a book last through the years. He said people want to learn something and thought perhaps this might go back to our puritanical work ethic. Fast forward to the present and it’s made me wonder if that is one of the reason cozy mysteries are so popular. Not only do readers get to go an adventure and try to solve the mystery, but they learn something. It might be a new recipe, yard sale tip, knitting pattern, or craft – the variety is endless.

In Hit Lit, Hall says, “The fierce loyalty readers feel for a certain characters grows out of a shared connection with the character’s emotional journey.” That resonates with me, the books I love be they mysteries, thrillers, romances, or literary, are all about the characters. Everything else is icing on the cake.

The second book is The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass. Author Leslie Budewitz mentioned it on Facebook – thank you, Leslie! Maass says, “What shapes us and gives our lives meaning are not the things that happen to us but their significance.” Down a few paragraphs he says, “We are stories. Plot happens outside but story happens inside. Readers won’t get the true story, though, unless you put it on the page—both the big meaning of small events and the overlooked implications of large plot turns.”

I work with Barb Goffman who is an independent editor. After I’ve written the first draft I send it off to her. The first book we worked together on was The Longest Yard Sale – there were many notes in that one that said, “What is Sarah thinking?” or “Let us see how Sarah reacts.” I’ve had less of those comments as time has passed but it’s a valuable lesson in developing characters. It’s something I easily see in manuscripts when I edit but not always in my own.

It’s interesting that both Hall and Maass use some of the same authors as examples in their books like Stephen King and Harper Lee. I have hard copies of both books so I can mark them up, put in tabs, and refer back to passages. I’m only about a quarter of the way through each book, but I already know that they will make my writing better.

Readers: Is there an emotionally significant event in a book that has stuck with you? Please try to avoid spoilers — maybe mention a title or character that affected you. Writers: Do you have a favorite writing conference? I’d love to go to another great writing conference!

Dreams Do Come True — Thank You Kensington Publishing

Breaking news! Here are the winners of the books from yesterday’s drawing. It was such a great response that I drew a third winner! Keep an eye out for future giveaways! The winners are: Jill @Bonnjill, Sharon Forrest, and Stephanie Clark! Thanks to all of you who entered!

I’m so excited that my fourth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, A Good Day to Buy, releases today. One of the themes in A Good Day to Buy is about who is a hero and what makes one.

I still have to pinch myself when I think about being published — that I’m writing book six as you read this. It makes me reflect on how it all happened and why. That story starts with Kensington Publishing. Here’s a little about them from their website:

Founded in 1974, Kensington Publishing Corp. is located in New York City and is known as “America’s Independent Publisher.” It remains a multi-generational family business, with Steven Zacharius succeeding his father as President and CEO, and Adam Zacharius as General Manager. From the time its very first book (Appointment in Dallas by Hugh McDonald), became a bestseller, Kensington has been known as an astute and determined David-vs.-Goliath publisher of titles in the full spectrum of categories, from fiction and romance to health and nonfiction. You can read more about Kensington on their website.

Gary goofing off at Bouchercon New Orleans 2016

Some of you have heard this story, but here is my tale of how the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series came to be. Once upon a time a heroic editor, Gary Goldstein, from the land of Kensington, came up with the idea for a cozy series with a garage sale theme. At the time Gary only had thriller and western authors in his castle and yet he went out seeking adventure in the world of cozies. His quest led him to an agent (John of Talbot), the agent went to Lady Barbara of Ross, and Barbara thought, “Sherry loves garage sales.” So it came to pass that the fair maiden Sherry (too much?) okay, just plain old Sherry wrote a proclamation (it was only a proposal but all of this still seems very fairy tale like to me) and Gary of Kensington said yes. Trumpets sounded (in my head), people danced with joy (well I did) and to this very day Sherry is Gary of Kensington’s only cozy writer.

But an editor and a writer do not a book make. There are legions of people working behind the scenes at Kensington. The unsung heroes who make it all happen. I’ve only met a few of them and some only through email. Gary’s assistant Liz alerts me when my books are on sale or there are good reviews among many other things. Karen and Morgan in marketing send out ARCs, set up blog tours, get ads placed, set up events, and probably do a whole heck of a lot more that I don’t even know about.

I love the covers of my books. The Art Department took my idea of having an old fashioned looking tag on the cover and ran with it. They created something better than I could have imagined! There is always something on each cover that I wished I owned.

Someone writes the back cover copy and they are able to sum up my books in a few short words better than I ever could. Here’s the back cover copy of A Good Day To Buy:

HER BROTHER IS NO BARGAIN
When Sarah Winston’s estranged brother Luke shows up on her doorstep, asking her not to tell anyone he’s in town—especially her ex, the chief of police—the timing is strange, to say the least. Hours earlier, Sarah’s latest garage sale was taped off as a crime scene following the discovery of a murdered Vietnam vet and his gravely injured wife—her clients, the Spencers.
 
BUT IS HE A KILLER?
All Luke will tell Sarah is that he’s undercover, investigating a story. Before she can learn more, he vanishes as suddenly as he appeared. Rummaging through his things for a clue to his whereabouts, Sarah comes upon a list of veterans and realizes that to find her brother, she’ll have to figure out who killed Mr. Spencer. And all without telling her ex . . .

Then there are the copy editors who notice if Sarah hates broccoli on page 22 but is asking for a second helping on page 156. They push me to write a better book. There are typesetters, and people who send the proof pages – the last chance to find mistakes before the book is printed.

There are people in Sales and Sub Rights – there are probably departments I don’t even know about who all work hard to get my books out.

So thank you to everyone at Kensington – from top to bottom – who do your jobs, who helped make my dream come true.

To celebrate the release of A Good Day To Buy I’ll Give Away two books to someone who leaves a comment!

Readers: What dream has come true for you?

Oh, The Places I’ve Lived

By Sherry in Northern Virginia where it’s spring, summer, winter, summer, spring, winter depending on the day and/or hour

I’m looking forward to the release of A Good Day To Buy on April 25th! One of the subplots involves Stella Wild (Sarah’s opera singing landlady and friend) trying to rent out the apartment next to Sarah’s. It means Sarah and Stella run into some interesting characters and it reminded me of some of the places I’ve lived and the landlords I’ve had.

The first place I lived when I left home was a college dorm room at Truman State College in Kirksville, Missouri. Brewer Hall was old and now that I reflect set the tone for a lot of the places I’ve lived! The rooms were small and had old radiators that creaked, groaned, and banged at unexpected times. The saving grace was a bathroom between each two rooms. I never wanted to have to traipse down a hall to shower. And we had so much fun that it wiped out any negatives.

I lived a bunch of different places during my years in Kirksville. One was in the basement of a house owned by an 80 year old woman. Every time my roommate and I left the old woman would go down and poke around. We would pile stacks of sodas, paper towels, and other things against her entrance to try to keep her out. But we’d come home and the stuff would all be knocked over. We didn’t last long there.

One of my roommates

One summer a group of friends and I rented a house owned by a fraternity that was right next to their main house. We had a mushroom grow up through the tile in the bathroom one night. We kept track of who killed the most cockroaches and slugs. It was disgusting, but again a lot of fun.

I also rented a small three bedroom Craftsman style house with four friends. It had leaded glass windows and a window seat. The fact that it was two doors down from the fraternity house didn’t hurt either. But the basement flooded and it was full of things we didn’t have room for in our tiny rooms.

The first house I rented on my own was in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was an adorable little house owned by a guy in his thirties. It was heated by what he called a floor furnace which was a tiny little box of a thing. That didn’t concern me when I rented the house on a lovely summer day. The house was cute, in a neighborhood I loved called “The Avenues”, and close to work — although in Cheyenne no place was too far from work. But then winter hit. It was so cold in that house that the windows frosted over on the inside. I ended up hanging quilts over the windows to try to keep it warm.

Readers: Where was the first place you lived after leaving home? Have you ever lived any place memorable or had a landlord who drove you crazy?

 

 

What’s Next?

News Flash: The winner of Leslie Karst’s book is Sarah H – Sarah, please contact Leslie at ljkarst at gmail dot com. Congratulations!

By Sherry feeling rested in Northern Virginia

Monday afternoon around 4:30 I sent off I Know What You Bid Last Summer to my editor at Kensington. It is the fifth book in the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series. Usually this is cause for much celebration around the house, but this time I was just plain old tired. Barbara Ross generously had a margarita in celebration for me down in Key West (thanks for taking one for the team)! But I sat on the couch wondering what was next. This was the last book I was under contract for so Tuesday was going to be a blank page for me for the first time since 2013. I stayed up late – late enough to watch the late night shows and then read for a while.img_2704-1

I slept in Tuesday morning – until 9:22! I felt happy, excited even, when I woke up. I walked into the kitchen and found my daughter had gone to Starbucks and left me a cup of chai on the counter. A little bit later she made me breakfast too. Thank you, Elizabeth!

I started doing things I’d been putting off. I made a hair appointment, sorted the laundry, and tackled the piles in my office. It was so warm out I opened the window in my office. I decided to pull out the manuscript for the gemology mystery series I’d worked on for years (YEARS!) but hadn’t ever sold. I sent the first three chapters off to independent editor Barb Goffman. Why you ask? I’m so close to them – even after not looking at them for a long time — that I knew they needed another set of eyes. I started thinking about all the other book ideas swirling through my head and tried to figure out which one to tackle first.

My daughter and I watched part of the Patriot’s Super Bowl parade on TV. I walked our dog Lily. Maybe it was the warm weather or maybe it was the unknown ahead of me but everything seemed to kind of glow. Oh, heck maybe it was sleeping in after working intensely for the last few weeks. (Confession: I never did get any laundry done.)

img_2710Around three the phone rang. It was my agent, John Talbot. He had news! Good news! Kensington wants two more Sarah books. A couple of weeks ago I shared several ideas for the series with my editor. However, with the publishing industry in a bit of upheaval you just never know what will happen. After I finished dancing around and shrieking, my husband called on his way home from work. I told him we were going out to celebrate.

We stopped by Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton, Virginia and did a wine tasting.

 

Then we had dinner at an Italian restaurant which seemed appropriate given Sarah’s love for DiNapoli’s and Italian food. Today it’s back to plotting (good heavens did I just say the “p” word? Has the pantster in me been converted?)! I have a concept for the next book (one I love) but I have to figure out who dies and why. Oh, joy!

Readers: What do you do after you finish a big project?