Sunday, March 31, 2013

Some Mystery Questions Answered

In keeping my promise to answer some of the questions posed in comments over the last few weeks, tonight I'll focus on a couple of the Mystery Questions.

Q) How are you able to come up with a mystery different from all the rest for each book?

A) This is actually the hardest part of developing the story for me. In part that's because I don't want to repeat myself, but in a broader sense it's because I don't want to repeat something another author's done. Not that I've fully succeeded there, but I do strive to make the motive unique, even if the mystery (like, say, who kidnapped the dog) has been done before. I also like the mystery (or, rather, the motive) to be thought-provoking. And relevant to my readers. And edgy! I have no interest in retooling the ol' Where-Did-Sparky-Go? mystery, where Sparky is really Sparkie and is off having baby bunnies (or kitties, or puppies, or hamsters, or alien zombie snails). Everyone knows what Sparky's up to by the end of Chapter 1. Please.)

Sammy Keyes and the Runaway Elf is probably the closest I've come to writing a cliched mystery, but I thought exploring the motive (and theme) of forgiveness served to keep it from going too far into Cliche Land. Plus that furball dog got buzzed (which is not standard for a missing dog story) and when Sammy opens the box of fuzz (pg 101) and tells the evil owner, "Yup. She's bald," well, I laughed for days. Knocking on the door of Cliche Land is worth it if you can make yourself laugh for days.

So, yeah. Thinking of a unique mystery is very important to me and I very much appreciate the question because it implies that I've been successful. To better answer the question I would add that sometimes I get my ideas from things I've read about -- usually from a  news source or a magazine. Night of Skulls was that way. So was Cold Hard Cash -- the root of the mystery came from articles I read. Not the story itself, just the idea. Reading is a very good thing for writers to do!

Q) (Paraphrasing here...) How do you decide where to plant clues?

A) Another biggie! My goal is to have the mystery unfold in a fair and steady manner. My readers are smart and I know it so I want to make solving the mystery challenging, but not unfair. I hate mysteries where I think I know on page 10 whodunit, and then read another 300 pages to discover that, yup, that's whodunit. I also hate mysteries where I'm really invested in figuring out who the culprit is and suddenly the author brings back a dead character who (miraculously and inexplicably) didn't really die. No clues. No foreshadowing. Just poof, they reappear.


I don't need to be the cleverest person in the room. I don't think there's anything great about being tricky. I want to play by the rules and respect the trust a reader places in an author. I like to feel like we're all in it with Sammy so, ideally, I want my readers to figure out whodunit slightly before Sammy does, To me that's the perfectly executed mystery--one that makes everyone feel smart.

The problem with writing a mystery is that the author can't not know who the culprit is. (Okay, there are those authors who say they don't know whodunit until the sleuth does, and you know what I say to them? You're CHEATERS! You cannot write a fair mystery--drop fair clues and set up a satisfactory unveiling--if you don't know whodunit.)

The other problem is that if you ask someone to read your mystery while you're in the developmental stages, they then know who the culprit is and are not able to reread your mystery with objectivity. You get one shot with them and then they know whodunit. This is why Nancy (my editor) doesn't read a Sammy in the developmental stages. She doesn't get much from me until I'm done. She's a mystery buff and her first read is crucial to finding out if I gave too many clues, gave them too early, or concealed them too well. My question to her is always, "When did you know?" And her answer determines what I do and change. Sometimes it's as small as removing a single word.

That's probably enough for this week. Next week I'll try to address the broader questions posed--about the unfolding story lines within the series and how (and maybe why) those happened. Meanwhile, I'll look forward to seeing you in the comments!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Blessings in Disguise

This week I'm back to answering questions posed in the comment section two weeks ago.  I'll start with one "RowAn" posed: The question posed was: How did the [Sammy Keyes] series begin to take on a life of its own (if you think it did)?

The answer is: I definitely think it did, and it really kind of snuck up on me.

When I started Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief, I was not planning or plotting a series. Sammy was the first to take on a life of her own, and she did that early in Hotel Thief when she punched Heather in the nose. I was like, Whoa! Ouch! YES!

And then, of course, I came to my adult senses and realized Sammy had to pay some consequences.

And the way she paid her consequences made me like her even more.

So Sammy found her way into my heart pretty early on, but it wasn't until I was done with Hotel Thief that I realized I didn't want to leave Sammy in the place where the book ended. After all, she was still living in the Senior Highrise! Her mother was still gone! She didn't know who her dad was!

There was more to find out.

And then came the idea for Skeleton Man, which was based on a spooky house down the street from me and the rumors that the kids in my classroom had whispered about.

So I sent Hotel Thief out to editors and agents and immediately got to work on Skeleton Man. And when Sammy was issued 20 hours of detention due to her use (and abuse) of the school's PA system at the end of that book (again, consequences to pay!) I got the notion that it would be a riot to see her serving her detention with nuns and immediately started on Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy as soon as Skeleton Man was done. Then, once done with Sisters, I started on Runaway Elf. By the time I was done with Elf, I knew I was in trouble -- it had finally dawned on me that I'd been following Sammy through junior high school and we were only four months into her survival of that!

I say in trouble because I may have written 4 books in a series but no publishers were biting.

As many of you already know, I was rejected by publishers for years. But it only takes one yes to annihilate all the no's, and when my yes finally did come I had the wonderful benefit of having written the first four books in the series, which gave me the ability to go back and rewrite like crazy. After four books you have a much better picture of the world you've created, and the characters who inhabit it.  You also have a much better picture of what you're doing and where you're going.

So I began with no plan, but with four books behind me I could see where I was going and could develop a plan and put it in place before Hotel Thief was an actual book.

I very much like having a plan. So although the series did take on a life of its own, it became my job to lead it toward the final book, the final scene. If you have a destination in mind, the whole process becomes easier. I have one in mind for each title, and I've also had a destination in mind for the series as a whole. That doesn't mean that each book hasn't (at times, anyway) taken on a life of its own, because each most certainly has!

After all, these books feature someone we know (and love) as Sidetrack Sammy!

But the destination is still the end goal, and it's my job to get Sammy to it, sidetracks and all.

Like probably every writer out there, I wanted things to happen now. I wanted Hotel Thief snatched up and published the minute I'd finished the first draft! I was very frustrated over the years it took. But sometimes what seems like a curse ends up being a blessing in disguise. I don't think the series would have been as cohesive if Hotel Thief╦ć had been picked up right away. In the end I'm thankful for the rejections and delay. Funny how things turn out.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Justice Jack and Billy Pratt Come Alive

I know there are a lot of Sammy Keyes fans who visit this blog, so I have to share some photos from last week's visit to a middle school in Oklahoma.

The school's theme this year was "superheroes", and the whole student body and staff read Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack as a school-wide read.

That right there is amazing enough (and enough to make any author wildly happy), but these pictures will show you how over-the-top this school went and will say more than I could ever explain.

First up, the principal, dressed as Justice Jack (in the Golden Gloves of Justice!).

Suffice it to say I never had a principal like this! (And the VP was "the Duce"!) Together they MC'd part of the festivities during my visit. (Earlier in the year I was told that they made a big-splash (or crash?) entrance together during a school assembly on a tandem bike--their version of The Highroller).

Another "book excerpt" skit was done by a teacher (who played Elvis) and a student (who played Sammy). They did the scene from Justice Jack where Sammy goes into Maynard's Market and the Elvis impersonator (who only speaks in Elvis song titles) is working the register. (Some of you will recall this exact excerpt from the ARC giveaway contest we had last year.) (It's also the beginning of Chapter 24, in case none of this is bell-ringing in your brain.)

Anyway, this teacher-turned-Elvis had memorized the three pages of Elvis lines from the opening "Hey, little mama!" to the closing "Always stop, look, and listen!".  Incredible!

The kitchen crew also got into the act. They came out and did a crazy rap, with metal whisks banging against pots and pans. The guy in the middle was awesome-crazy! No dreaded "lunch ladies" at this school!

And I know some of you will love this next one (even though it's not the greatest image). It's Sammy and friends led by Casey through the graveyard on Halloween in Sammy Keyes & the Night of Skulls. The part where he's telling the Wild West tale...that just so happens to take place in Oklahoma. (There were tombstones and a whole graveyard set up, which doesn't show, but was way cool!)

In addition to the skits, the school's hallways were covered with Sammy Keyes art. I'm talking from floor to ceiling! It was crazy!  

They also had book cover place mats in the cafeteria...

...and a huge "standee" (made of plywood) of Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City. 

And for the students who participated in the skits and entertainment, the library hosted a luncheon where dessert was cupcake cakes in the shape of Sammy signature items--a skateboard and high-top!

I wish you could have all been there. I know you would have loved it too!

Sunday, March 10, 2013


Last week's comments made me realize that my cast of readers has evolved. I guess that should be expected and obvious, but I like to think that the people who used to comment are still checking in, even if they're too busy to comment.

Like "Steffuny" -- it was great to see last week's comment--it's been a long time! (And the "Heather is know, in a terrible way," was awesome!)

Then there was "RowAn" who was a first-time commenter last week...with a lot to say! (And ask!)

There were a lot of good questions in the comments and I've made notes from them about things to get to in the next few posts. Some of them I feel like I've already written about...but that might be years ago and some of you are new, so unless you went back to all the old posts, you wouldn't know. I'll have to investigate my own blog and figure out what I've already discussed and then link to it so I don't repeat myself to those of you who have been following for years.

What I think I'll do this week is answer my own 3 questions from last week (which, it turns out, will answer parts of several comment questions):

1) What I want me to blog about :-) : Basically, I don't want to toot my horn. I don't want these posts to feel like I promoting anything (except maybe the pursuit of your own dreams). I want to blog about things of interest to people who show up here week after week. My favorite posts are the ones I write about some little obscure thing that has nothing to do with my books, or even writing, but have something to do with life. I don't have a "dandelion moment" every week -- but those are my favorite sorts of posts. The ones that are about some small thing that means something much bigger to me.

1b) I've said before that I'm a reluctant blogger, and I am. I started blogging because of Exercise the Right to Read, and then when that initial year of the program wound down and I'd run the NYC marathon, I kinda quit blogging. And then there was a gap in the Sammy Keyes books (because it took me a long time to research and write The Running Dream), and I discovered that people on-line were wondering Is Wendelin dead? Is Sammy Keyes over? And I realized that I'd kind of dropped the ball and that frustrated readers were writing lots of fan-fic trying to bridge gaps. I remember the first time I saw the word "Cammy" online and I'm like, Who's that? Have I really been away so long that I don't know my own characters? And then, of course, it hit me that it was a hybrid of Casey and Sammy. Anyway, I recommitted to the blog so that people would know what was going on with the series (and that I wasn't dead). It also made me recommit to completing the series. I decided that I would not get "sidetracked" by a stand-alone story until I'd finished...and that's exactly what I've done.

2) Favorite Character? Who asked this ridiculous question? Okay, okay. I do love Billy, and that he's complex, despite the simplistic facade he presents. I love Holly, and think that in some ways she's better suited to be Sammy's best friend than Marissa. I always say I want to "be" Hudson when I get old. And I'm with Mikey in thinking that Justice Jack (the persona, not, necessarily, the man behind the mask) is awesome. But he's not a regular, so I shouldn't even list him.

3) Favorite Book. Okay, now you've gone to far, asking this question! It would be like me asking your mom who her favorite child is, okay? (Please don't tell me you're an only child...) But I do have favorite parts and a few of those include...The "fireball" description (and Madame Nashira in general) in Hotel Thief... when Sammy shows Heather her earrings in Skeleton Man...when Sammy crashes the motorhome in Sisters of Mercy...the graveyard scene in Runaway Elf...Lucinda and her pig in Moustache Mary...the awesome creepiness of  the end of Hollywood Mummy...the cement scene :-) in Snake Eyes (maybe my all time favorite 'capture'!)... Casey in Art of Deception...Sammy in the wrestling ring and, later, having a smack down with Heather in Psycho Kitty Queen...the dancing in Dead Giveaway...the whole canyon camp-out in Wild Things...the hilarity of Sammy scaring a man to death in Cold Hard Cash (okay--I thought it was funny...)... the "Cinderella" moment in Wedding Crasher...rescuing Dusty Mike in Night of Skulls (and everything Billy-related)..the three-page Elvis-title conversation in Justice Jack (and Billy becoming the Deuce)...the last scene (and the concept of Heather and Sammy together) in Sin City.

And that's all for this week. Know I appreciate you checking in, whether this is your first visit or if you've been following since I came back from the grave :-)

See you in the comments!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On The Road Again...

It's a travel day for me, so I won't have time to do a "real post" today. But if you have time to leave me a comment, I would love to know any or all of the following:

A) What you wish I'd /would like me to write a post about
B) Who your favorite Sammy Keyes World character is (aside from Sammy)
C) Which book in the series is your favorite to date. (Why would be interesting, but is optional. Sometimes we just have a favorite.)

Looking forward to what you have to say (and to returning home!).

See you in the comments!