Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Guest author Melodie Campbell: Mess With Me, Darlin'? Watch Me Kill You With Words

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and has won 9 awards for short fiction. Her fifth novel, a mob caper, is entitled The Goddaughter's Revenge (Orca Books). Melodie was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer, and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. She is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Catch Melodie's humour column for The Sage, Canada's magazine of satire and opinion.

Here’s some news for all you sociopaths out there, and just plain nasties: Don’t mess with a crime writer. We know at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught.

On paper, of course <insert nervous laughter>. We’re talking about fictional kills here.

Or are we?

My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comic mob capers for a living. And for the loving. So I know a bit about the mob. Like espresso and cannoli, you might say they come with my Sicilian background.

This should make people nervous. (Hell, it makes ME nervous.)

But I digress. To recap:  the question offered here was:

Do you ever take out real life rage on fictional murder victims? Are any of your victims based on people who pissed you off in real life?

Oh sweetie, don’t I ever.

One of the joys of being a writer is playing out scenarios in your fiction that you dream about at night.  One of these is murder.  (The other is sex, but that would be my other series, the Rowena fantasy one.)

Back to grievous bodily harm. Like in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, I have my little list.

To the covert colleague who made out to be friends and then bad-mouthed me to the board at a previous job.  Yes, you got caught red-handed. I called your bluff.  But better than that, I made your mealy-mouthed sorry hide a star of The Goddaughter's Revenge.  Good bye, Carmine the rat.  You live forever in fictional history.

He never will be missed.

To the sociopathic boss who undermined an entire department and got a kick out of making my sweet younger colleagues cry: may you age like a hag and end up alone.  Oh wait – you did. And not just in A Purse To Die For.

She never will be missed.

Oh, the joy of creating bad guys and gals from real-life creeps!  The crafty thing is, when you design a villain based on people you have met in person and experienced in technicolor, they sound real. Colourful.  Their motivations are believable, because they actually exist. No cardboard characters here!

Of course, I may fudge a few details to keep out of jail. Names and professions change. Males can morph into females.

But fictional murder can be very satisfying. (Definitely more satisfying than fictional sex.)  Revenge is sweet, when coupled with royalties.

You can ignore that crack about fictional kills only. Of course we’re only talking books; in my case, light-hearted murder mysteries, and mob crime capers.

That’s right: mob capers. Like I said: never mess with a Sicilian Goddaughter.

Melodie Campbell achieved a personal best this year when Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Her fifth novel, The Goddughter's Revenge, has just been released by Orca Books.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

The New Guy in my Life

I'm a messy writer.

I make notes everywhere, backs of envelopes, receipts, box tops. If pen or pencil will make an impression on it I will write on it. If I don't lose the notes, I transcribe the notes or scan them for later use. When I research for a book I make notes, bookmark web pages, scan whole pages of books and I try to keep everything in one folder on my computer, but sometimes I still can't find everything. I also like to keep my chapters separate, which can cause all sorts of other problems with keeping facts straight and combining them all when the book is near completion. I often have several windows of Word open at a time. And then there are the multiple versions of each chapter. It all makes for a rather circus-like situation.

A friend of mine (who, by the way has never seen my method, never been near my computer or my office, so I have to guess that my madness is apparent in my conversations and my writing) recently introduced me to a wonderful writing tool that is helping me to transform my confusion into sanity. Scrivener by Literature & Latte is an award winning tool for novelists. It's not new and I wouldn't be surprised if everyone on this blog has tried it, I'm often behind the curve, but if you haven't heard of it before, do give it a look.

Scrivener is many things, but essentially it is a management system for documents, images, and everything else you might be using to create your novel. It allows you to break up your document as you wish, write synopses of each section of the document, associate images with sections of your document, and look at multiple sections at a time while maintaining your place in each section. You can take a snapshot of your document before a major change. Although the document may be fragmented, Scrivener will search the entire document for a key word. And you can work on multiple sections of the document as if they were one. For example, if you have separated paragraphs one and two, you can work still look at them as if they were one document while maintaining the separation. At the end of all your hard work, Scrivener can combine your selected fragments into one document.

Scrivener stores research documents and images, character descriptions and so on, all within easy reach.

Scrivener is not free, I paid $40 on Amazon, but I consider it a worthy investment for someone who works the way I work. It won't help me retrieve the ideas I jotted on the top of the credit card application form right before I shredded it, but it has been great with organizing the notes I manage to keep and generally allowing me to work on the  novel in chunks without worrying about losing my way.

Literature and Latte actually provide links to other applications that are useful to authors for whom Scrivener may not be the answer. You can view those links here.

I'm new to Scrivener, so I would love to hear if you have tried it and what your experience has been like.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Guest author Velda Brotherton: Put your reader in your story

Velda Brotherton
Variety is the spice of Velda Brotherton's writing life. Since 1988 she has been published in newspapers and magazines, and her books include nonfiction, western historical romances, mysteries, paranormal, and women's fiction. The author lives and works in the Ozarks and sees more wild critters than she does humans during her working day. This great-grandmother continues to go strong. She spent 19 years as a feature writer and city editor for newspapers, has mentored young authors, co-chaired a large critique group and held workshops and speaking engagements. She is currently working on a mystery, and just finished a western historical romance and another women's fiction novel. She feels like there are more books in her head than she will ever be able to write.

Ever wonder what makes some books instantly popular while others drag along behind and never quite make the grade? When you read a book what is there about it that makes you keep reading? 

I'd be willing to bet that it's that you are relating to the characters. You like them and therefore care what happens to them. It is a given that we must first create unforgettable characters. However, if you put those characters in boring situations where nothing excites the reader, the best characters in the world won't save a book.

What you want to do is take your reader by the hand and lead her into your story and keep her there. So you must become the character and put yourself in the scene. Pay attention to your surroundings. Not only what you see, but what you smell, feel, hear and taste. What goes on around you in a particular location. Make it real, keep it real.

Let's create a scene where a man and a woman go out to a restaurant to eat. On the busy city street you hear horns honk, someone shouts. Inside the restaurant what are you hit with first? I'd bet it's the delicious aroma of cooking food. But wait, over there a waiter drops something, at a table a child cries out, a couple at another table laugh. No long descriptions of walls, tables, waiters, etc. are necessary unless something is going to happen that will involve what you describe.

There are huge windows across the front. Make sure they let in the sunlight or a view of the street at night. Don't waste anything; use it to put your reader in the scene.

Out of the corner of your character's eye watch a man at the next table reach out and touch the woman's hand. Connect that to the way your character feels about the woman he's with. Maybe he wishes he had the nerve to do the same. Why doesn't he? No long drawn out sentences; make a few words suffice.

The aroma of Italian food cooking may remind him of the last time he ate Italian food, who he was with, what that has to do with who he is with tonight. An old love? Someone he can't forget, but wishes he could because this woman he's with is so attractive, so smart and so worth loving.

Don't waste any chance to hook things together. Fiction happens tighter than the truth, and everything has a purpose to your story. To your character's emotions, to his hopes and dreams. There isn't space for stuff that has nothing to do with your story. It's all connected. Fiction is life with all the boring parts left out.

Everything that is happening affects the character. Most important to any scene is the character and how he feels, so I call emotion the sixth sense. Connect emotions, sensual feelings, the five senses. Smell is the sense that brings back memories quicker than any other. Let it happen, but make sure the memory will have an effect on the character in the present. Don't just lay it out there and let it drop. Again, be brief.

Integrate description with the action and keep it to a minimum. Internalization, narration, exposition and dialogue should all play a part in each scene.

If you're not sure you have succeeded in creating a good scene, take a paperback book that you thought was good and colored markers. Pick a scene and mark internalization with blue, dialogue with green, description with red, the use of the senses with yellow. This will give you an idea how this writer balances a good scene.

This should help you if you're having trouble with creating sense of place. Look over your scenes. If they could be taking place in New York or Texas or Australia or the moon, then you need to work on your sense of place.

Giveaway! An e-book copy of The Purloined Skull, #1 in A Twist of Poe Series to a comment chosen at random.

Find Velda:
Amazon Author Page:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Baby it's cold outside

Just coming off the Christmas, I can’t tell you how many times I heard the song, “Baby It’s cold outside”.  While Christmas wasn’t very cold in my neck of the woods, right now it is.  It’s not the “Polar Vortex” that we experienced two weeks ago, but the temperatures are pretty near there.  This morning when I woke up the thermometer read 5 degrees Fahrenheit, tonight it read 12.  Brrrrr!  And of course to top it off, it snowed on Tuesday and that snow is not melting.  So of course schools close (they do that for even a dusting) and I’m stuck at home with a bunch of restless kids.

What to do, what to do?  Playing in the snow has lost all appeal.  If it was around 32 degrees without the wind chill I’d consider it.  Preparing for the spring semester (which I have to do) is next to impossible because of the distraction.  So when I realized for the second day in a row we would be stuck at home, I tried to plan things to do outside of the house.  But when I opened the door and that cold wind struck me and all I could think of was that song “Baby it’s cold outside.”  Of course any plan of leaving the house was quickly discarded.

So we did a little homeschooling.  I first let them do some exercising with me, got them nice and tired.  Then I gave them school work which took up quite a bit of time.  And what did I do during that little downtime?  I wrote.  Ain’t nothing like a cold day to get some writing done.   Yes, I hunkered down with my hot chocolate and blanket draped around me and I tapped away at the computer because “Baby it’s cold outside.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Special guest Melodie Campbell: Bad Girl: Selling Out to Hollywood

Melodie Campbell is Canada’s undisputed Queen of Comedy.” (review of The Goddaughter). In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories, and has won 9 awards for short fiction. Her fifth novel, a mob caper, is entitled The Goddaughter's Revenge (Orca Books). Melodie was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer, and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards. By day, she is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Catch Melodie's humour column for The Sage, Canada's magazine of satire and opinion.

I read one of those self-help books the other day, and I’m beginning to realize why I’m not getting very rich.  (For one thing, I’m not writing self-help books.)  It is patently obvious that nobody is going to get wealthy writing humor for newspapers unless they roll up the paper and whack somebody over the head with it during the course of a bank robbery.

So I’ve decided to switch media here and become a screenwriter.  I’m a natural.  I can sit in those funny collapsible canvas chairs just as well as the next guy, and besides, I know hundreds of unbelievable plots: I follow Toronto politics.

So here goes: for my first screamplay <sic> I’m going to do something made for TV; specifically one of those romance-suspense-action-thriller-northern-southern-civil war epic-type things, maybe a miniseries.  It would have everything – sex, violence, sex, betrayal, sex, revenge, sex - and maybe even some dialogue.  It would star a ravishing but thoroughly spoiled female lead, maybe called Sapphire.  Here’s a preview:

Sapphire flings herself up the sweeping staircase, catching bottom of skirt on knob of banister.
Sapphire (yanking at fabric):  Go away, Rot!  Just go away!
Rot:  I’m going, I’m going.  But one last thing, Sapphire honey, I’ve got to know.  How do you manage to go to the bathroom with that bloody hoola- hoop attached to your skirt?
Sapphire (rolling downstairs on her side):  Don’t go, Rot!  Please don’t go.
Rot (doffing hat):  Frankly Sapphire, I don’t give a hoot.
(From outside, several barn owls hoot.)

I predict a blockbuster.  But just in case, I have a second one planned.  It’s a 1960s historical spy flick, based on the true-to-life adventures of very bad people who might possibly be Russian.

First Spy (possibly named Boris):  Gee comrade, do you theenk perhaps we are raising peeples suspicions speeeking English with Russian accent?
Second Spy (also named Boris):  Especially seence it is very BAD Russian accent, comrade?

Okay, so it needs a bit of work, and maybe some more sex.  I’m thinking of calling it Czech-mate. And if we bring it forward to modern times, the possibilities are endless.  What about a ‘Spy of the Month’ reality series?  Boris could live in an LA frat house with nine other comrades named Boris, and the survivor…

Or I could go back to writing for newspapers.

You can reach Melodie through her website at Or better still, buy her comedy novels in Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Walmart or Amazon.



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Backup Everything. Yes, Even That.

Stop what you’re doing and go back up your computer. Do it now. I’ll wait.

Done? Cool. Moving on.

It’s happened to most if not all of us at one time or another. Life is hitting you from multiple directions, you’re cranking on your latest writing project while simultaneously dealing with other work and/or family matters. You start to let little, seemingly innocuous things slide or at least take a lower position in the Hierarchy of Importance with respect to your To Do List. You probably even think to yourself, “I’ll get everything back on track once I get past ______.”

And then, technology betrays you.

Such was the case this past Saturday. I’d been working on the current novel project pretty steadily over the previous few days, all while dealing with the usual early-month demands of my day job, family activities and commitments, and the added stress of trying to sell our house while searching for a new place to call home. Friday was a particularly crazy day, with several of those demands all converging to make things even more “interesting” for me, but I still managed to crank out some words for the novel. However, with everything else going on, I forgot to do One. Simple. Thing.

I didn’t make my daily backup of the work in progress. You know what happens next, right? For those of you who rigorously, unfailingly back up your data every day, this is the part of the post where you smile, shake your heads, and mutter, “Hmph. Kids these days.”

Saturday: My laptop dies. The hard drive is corrupted, and there was no saving it. Everything I had on there? Gone.

The good news? My full-blown monthly backup of my entire hard drive and my daily backups of things in-progress saw to it that I’d only lost whatever work I’d accomplished on Friday. The progress I’d made on the novel could be recreated without too much fuss, but it cost me valuable forward momentum. Still, my deadline for manuscript delivery is such that I can make up the lost time, somewhere. Just about everything else either was stored on a network drive, or else I’d already sent it to someone else, and so could retrieve a copy that way.

I was more irritated with the loss of time than anything else, not just with having to rewrite those bits of the novel I’d lost but now the time I’d spend re-imaging and restoring my laptop’s hard drive. The latter likely was unavoidable, but the former could have been further mitigated if not eliminated if I’d just held to carrying out my one simple rule when it comes to in-process files: Back them up. Every day.

My backup imperative came about because of a much more devastating loss of data that occurred several years ago. On that occasion, I ended up losing weeks of work on multiple projects, one of which was another novel with a looming deadline. I’d been doing frequent though not daily backups then, but with time crunches and everything else, I’d gotten complacent about “the little things” and paid a heavy price for that attitude. I learned my lesson, and with that came the Daily Backup Rule.

Saturday showed me that the lesson needed refreshing.

So, if you do back ups but maybe not every day, or perhaps once or twice a week, here’s a suggestion to reevaluate your process. Some people like to use external hard disc drives, or stacks of CDs or DVDs. Newer remote alternatives include Google Drive and iCloud, where you can upload your files and other content to a hosted space. To be honest, those approaches leave me a bit leery, as I have a hard time trusting third parties when it comes to storing anything I might consider “sensitive material,” such as the manuscript for a project where I’ve signed non-disclosure or other confidentiality agreements. For day-to-day archiving, my personal preference is to use flash drives. They’re small, and usually able to hold everything pertaining to a work in-progress. In my case, I have my manuscript, notes, and soft copies of any pertinent reference materials, all in my pocket.

All right, then: Somebody out there has to have their own backup horror stories to share. Give ‘em up!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Twenty Stages of Being a Writer

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a fun-filled book called “On Death and Dying.” In it she describes the seven stages people go through when they face death: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, guilt, depression and acceptance.

Writers also have a lifetime of stages to go through. It starts at infancy and continues past retirement (although sometimes writing starts with retirement). Here are the 20 stages of a writer's life:

Stage One: “Oh, this floppy thing has pictures in it. Nice!”

Stage Two: “A-B-C-D-E. . .E. . .E?”

Stage Three: “Letters make words!”

Stage Four: “Words make sentences. See Spot run.”

Stage Five: “Cursive? What the???? Why can't I just keep printing?”

Stage Six: “Where are the pictures in this book?”

Stage Seven: “I want to write my own book.”

Stage Eight: “Do I really need to study English to write a novel? Naw.”

Stage Nine: “REJECTED? You can't be serious.”

Stage Ten: “Okay, I'll get serious. I'll learn grammar and punctuation.”

Stage Eleven: “Note to self: Drinking doesn't improve writing.”

Stage Twelve: “I have no friends.”

Stage Thirteen: “I found a critique group!”

Stage Fourteen: “The critique group doesn't 'get' my writing.”

Stage Fifteen: “Agents and editors are idiots.”

Stage Sixteen: “I reject 'Big Publishing.' I can do this myself.

Stage Seventeen: “Okay, self-publishing is tougher than I thought.”

Stage Eighteen: “I've got a contract with a small publishing house!”

Stage Nineteen: “IT'S A BOOK!”

Stage Twenty: “I wasn't in it for the money anyway.”

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Keeping Me Honest

Happy New Year!

I know it is a little late, but the year still feels fresh although January is almost halfway gone.

On New Year's Day a friend asked me what were my resolutions for 2014. I sensed a bit of disappointment when I admitted that I didn't have any, so I quickly clarified that I have plans for my life, they are just not restricted by the calendar.

2013 started very quietly for me but ended with a bang with the completion of three books for the year, my nomination for the Astrid Lindgren Prize and the adoption of my books for use in the Primary School exit examination.

I am very hopeful for the next few months. Among other things, I hope to complete a new series of books, and complete at least two middle grade novels. I plan to do more editing, book reviewing, and I hope to start or become a part of something big in promoting literacy in the Caribbean. I've already made some strides towards this last goal, by participating in the 2014 Wadadli Pen Challenge and joining the Board of the Children of the Caribbean Foundation.

Why am I telling you all this? Saying these plans out loud in a public forum may increase the likelihood that I make the mammoth push that will be needed to accomplish these goals. I promise to check in at the end of the year to fill you in on how I did.

What are your plans for the near future?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Writing in an unwritten language

My author bio mentions I love writing short stories and poems in the Kittitian language.  Well the problem is there is no written Kittitian language.  It is simply a dialect of English with a few words derived from other languages of our ancestors and many who influenced the history of the island.  For most of my life I spoke and was totally surrounded by that “language” or variations thereof.   Thus when I wrote in the Kittitian dialect, I just had to write the way I talked.  I never quite considered syntax or format or that there were even rules to that language.  I just wrote how it sounded phonetically. 

Fast forward to today.  I have migrated to another country.  I am married to another Caribbean resident who speaks a French based dialect rather than an English based dialect.  I am not hearing or using the Kittitian language as often as when I was at home, and even my accent has been neutralized for clarity.  Worst yet, it’s been a while since I’ve written one of my short stories or poems in my native tongue. 

Since my daughter learned to talk she has been harassing me to teach her to talk Kittitian.  And I kept saying, you can’t teach it because there are no rules to speaking it.  You just have to hear it and pick it up.  A few weeks ago, after a visit to my family my daughter was trying to speak Kittitian.  In a very awkward, abrasive sounding accent that is totally unrecognizable to me, she said, “Me a winnin’ man.”  

Automatically I corrected her, “Me a win, not me a winning.”

“Why?” she asked.

I thought for a moment.  Then it hit me.  There were rules for our unwritten language.  “A” placed between the subject and the verb is actually the present continuous tense.  So “me a win” is literally translated “I am winning” in English.

I realized then that writing in the Kittitian dialect, even though it is an unwritten language, is more than just dropping the ends of words and replacing them with an apostrophe.  It is bound by rules that for me just “sound” right.  That’s the reason you say, “A gon’ go cook” instead of “a gon’ go cooking.”  “A gon’ go cook” is the future tense.

When it hit me I wanted to do a little jig, because now my unwritten language could actually be written in a consistent fashion and I can actually teach it to someone else, if I can figure out the rules.

What’s the take home message?  Even unwritten languages with all their dynamic changes and rhythms have their rules and when you break those rules it does not sound right.  So whether it’s Ebonics, Southern, Cajun or Klingon, or some made up language of your characters, there are rules to writing it. 

I guess that’s my New Year’s Epiphany.  What’s yours?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Cannibals of Madison County

2014 - January - the days are already passing me by and I haven't gotten much writing done.  In some ways, 2013 was a frustrating year as far as writing goes.  I didn't get as much done as I had hoped, but then I never really do.

A bright note - nice reviews are coming in for my mysteries Grave Passage and Mediterranean Grave.  There are a few clunkers in there, but for the most part, they're positive.

I had planned to be finished with Aleutian Grave by now, but I'm not quite happy with it yet so I have to think on it longer.  I am pleased to have broken ground on my novella 'The Cannibals of Madison County' which I've been thinking about for a long time.  I'll leave you with chapter one:

It Starts Like This
There are stories about people, and there are stories about eating.  But there aren’t a lot of stories about eating people.  And there should be.  This is one of those stories.
I was staring out my office window when the call came in.  It’s a big window, glass, and through it I could just make out the ridge where Leland Sutter first discovered silver back in 1859.  They had moved me up to the second floor of the Sacramento Tribune building about a year ago when they made me regional editor.  It was a job I had wanted for a long time.  
The call was from a llama farmer up in Madison County by the name of Josh Dugan.  Said he had a story he wanted to share, a story about something that happened back in 2009 that the world needed to know about.  I asked him if it involved llamas and he assured me it didn’t.  We made plans to meet for lunch.
I kept staring out the window even after he hung up.  Madison County, California, I hadn’t thought about that place in months.  Nothing ever happens up there.  Nestled between the Yolo River and Roseville Peak, bordered on the north by Lake Galt, Madison was hit bad by the housing bust.  Most folks took off.  Only a few hardscrabble ranchers stayed on, along with those who had no place else to go.  
Josh Dugan looked to be about thirty years old, fit, tan.  He looked like a man who worked with his hands.  With him was his sister Britney.  She was a little younger.  Attractive girl, but then I’ve always had a thing for redheads.
“We’d been going through some of our mother’s things,” Josh began.  “Cleaning out the big house now that she’s gone.  And we came across some diaries.”
“And the letters,” Britney added.  “Letters he sent her.”
“Who?”  I asked.  “Who are we talking about?”
They both stared at the floor.  Then they told me their terms.  They’d leave the diaries and the letters for me to read, and if I decided there was nothing interesting there, I’d simply return them and never discuss what they contained with anyone.  But if there was a story to be told, then I was to be the one to write it.  
“Our mother was quite a woman,” Josh added.  “Our father loved her very much, but this is a story of a more powerful love, the kind that comes only every few lifetimes, and I think it needs to be told.”
I assured them I’d think it over.  
I didn’t sleep that night.  I stayed at the office reading.  Come first light I was back at that office window looking up towards Madison County, toward that pass where John Stanford drove the golden spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad.  That’s where Jessica Weimar fell in love with Edward Rollins.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Guest author Zetta Elliot: About Courage

Zetta Elliott earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003. She has taught at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, Mount Holyoke College, Hunter College, and Bard High School Early College. She currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain. She won the Honor Award in Lee & Low Books’ New Voices Contest, and her picture book, Bird, was published in October 2008. Her one-act play, girl/power, was staged as part of New Perspectives Theater’s NYC festival of women’s work, GIRLPOWER, in August 2008. Her young adult novels are A Wish After Midnight (AmazonEncore 2010), Ship of Souls (2012) and The Deep (2013).

Last month while having brunch with two writer friends, I mentioned that I am conflict averse. To my surprise, they looked at me like I’d just told the most hilarious joke! It has happened before: last spring I was interviewed by a young writer who referred to me as “a ‘no holds barred,’ uber-transparent blogger” who’s not “afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what [I] say on [my] blog.”

I thought those who know me best would have a different opinion, but my cousin surprised me during a recent visit when she called me courageous. “I’m not brave at all,” I replied, and that wasn’t false modesty. I really am conflict averse and will go well out of my way to avoid confrontation (for example, I don’t get along with my family members so I moved to another country).

As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone and when I feel the need to make a point, I do so from the safety of my couch—the internet makes it very easy to be an armchair activist, and I don’t feel it takes a whole lot of courage to post an opinion piece on my blog. I speak out when I see something unjust, but I’m not leading boycotts or marching in the street. I care about certain issues but I wouldn’t say I’m on the front line. That takes guts.

Lately I’ve limited my online advocacy work; diversity in publishing still matters to me, but I have a finite amount of energy and decided I would rather channel that energy into writing. The publishing industry and its defenders have no interest in equity and only pay lip service to the idea (not the practice) of diversity. So why bother trying to engage those who refuse to listen? That’s like whistling in the wind.

At the end of November I did post one last essay on The Huffington Post. I was about to self-publish my novel The Deep, and wanted to draw attention to my book while responding to a Horn Book essay on the lack of Black geeks in YA lit.  The Deep is a companion book to Ship of Souls (2012), and together the novels represent two-thirds of my “Black freaks & geeks” trilogy. I did have a contract for this urban fantasy, but when the publisher insisted on holding the book until 2015, I decided it was best to go it alone.

Self-publishing does take courage—a recent opinion piece in The New York Times gave this wry definition of self-published authors: “Treated as Crazy Ranting People: either ignored or pitied by the general public until they do something that is brilliant or threatening.” Independent authors are often treated as pariahs—our books aren’t reviewed by the traditional outlets, won’t be considered for any major awards, and most bookstores won’t stock our titles. Publishers often look at indie authors as “tainted” and no longer viable, though there are exceptions to this rule.

The truth is, even people of color who KNOW the publishing game is rigged will look askance at a self-published book. To some Black writers (and readers), self-publishing is gutless, the most shameless surrender. “Just be patient,” they’ll say after you’ve faced a decade of disappointment. “Try harder!” they’ll exhort, as if the publishing industry were an actual meritocracy. Others assume there must be something lacking in your work but won’t read your book in order to dismiss or confirm that assumption.

So why self-publish? I explain my motivation in the acknowledgments section of The Deep:

I felt sure that there was a teenage girl somewhere in the world who needed this book yesterday. I never found anything like The Deep when I was scouring the shelves of my public library as a teenager, but it’s a story that might have changed my world—or at least my perception of myself. Black girls don’t often get to see themselves having magical powers and leading others on fabulous adventures.

It’s that simple. Nyla is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s recovering from a sexual assault that took place at a school dance. Even though she fought back, like so many victims Nyla blames herself and isn’t sure she can trust herself to make smart decisions when it comes to boys. So when a strange man approaches her and tries to convince her that she has a special gift, Nyla flees. But in the end she can’t resist the opportunity to meet the other “freaks” who inhabit the deep—a dangerous underground realm policed by The League.

When I was fourteen, I was a wallflower; I had acne, difficult hair, ill-fitting clothes, and a desperate
desire to escape my older sister’s shadow. For Nyla, the dim caverns of the deep offer her a moment to shine. Miles beneath Brooklyn she finds the mother who walked out on her ten years ago, and she discovers she has more power than she ever imagined. In the deep Nyla finds her destiny.

It doesn’t take much courage to write a novel like The Deep—it was actually a lot of fun! But I knew I was taking a risk when I put a defiant, beautiful, Black punk girl on the cover of my self-published book. The image is dark, forcing you to take a closer look. When I signed the first five copies of The Deep, I wrote the same thing over and over: “Be fierce!” It’s my way of saying to readers, “Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

Zetta Elliott

Friday, January 3, 2014

Duplicate Book Cover Images

Recently, a FB friend posted about the fact that a lot of books have duplicate cover images, and she suggested that authors find ways to check and see if the image they've chosen might be an image already used on another book. This did happen to me as a photo I'd bought for the cover of my title, Turnabout Is Fair Play, is also the cover used on two other books that I know of, one of those novels being Wendy Williams' upcoming title below. Even though my book was released prior to these titles, and it is true that titles, covers, etc., are open game, I do admit that I'd prefer not to select an image that has already been used on a previous or upcoming title, though in some ways, it's quite flattering - the image is hot!!

I usually check the following sites when looking for a cover image:,,,,, and the site I use the most is Mainstream publishers use these sites as well, though some conduct photo shoots for many reasons, one of them being that they won't see that picture elsewhere. I've also bought images from photographers, which can be more expensive, but if the cover fits and you can fit it into your budget, buy it!

Does it matter to you if you find that your book and a book by another author have the same cover image? Are there ways around this in your opinion? Do you think it's worth the time to check and see (through image matching sites and valued opinions from others in the industry) if the image you've chosen is already out there? I do.

Thanks for your feedback!

Happy New Year, and Write On!