Monday, July 27, 2015

Perseverance Pays in Writing

My most recent medical thriller set partially in Cuba, MALIGNANCY, won first prize in the published novel category in the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA) annual writing contest.

During the last seven years, I've had four of my novels and a couple of short stories published. This is the first time I won in a writing contest. Here's my advice to other writers. I suppose it's presumptuous to give advice, but I may not have this opportunity to "speak from successful experience" again.

1) Write every day. My definition of writing includes: researching topics, composing text, editing, and publicizing the work. The advantage of writing even a few lines every day is you are forced to think about your plot, characters, and style frequently.

2) Organize your writing. I don't think you have to prepare a detailed outline before you write, but create a running list of characters as you write anything longer than flash fiction. Include a short profile of each character ion your list. This prevents a blue-eyed beauty, who never cries, from having tears well up in her brown eyes. A timeline is also helpful, especially during the editing process.

3) Edit. I know a few authors claim they only need to edit their work once; I'm not that good. I think there are three general categories of editing.  

These questions should be considered during a content edit . Are the scientific facts clear and correct? Are locations described vividly and accurately? Are the characters interesting and consistent? Do major character "grow" during the arc of the story? Is the timeline realistic?

 The style edit is hard to define but important. Novels are generally more interesting if dialogue, action sequences, and psychological development of characters are interspersed so that the pace of the novel varies.The point of view should be clear in each chapter or scene.

The edit for word choices, grammar, and typos often seems like an endless process. I try to reduce the use of "overused " words, replace weak verbs with action ones, tweak sentences to be active not passive, and check for spelling and grammar errors (which I euphemistically call typos) several times.

4) Hire a professional editor. I'm always amazed how much they discover after I finish my edits.

5) Try a variety of promotion techniques. Recognize when certain venues fail, and either fix the situation or move on to another format. Read criticism and less than glowing reviews several times. I usually learn more than I care to admit.  

6) Persevere.

Hopefully, you'll want to read MALIGNANCY and feel the tension as a woman scientist tries to escape the clutches of a drug lord in New Mexico and accepts a risky assignment in Cuba. Besides the excitement, you'll learn a bit about modern Cuba and new immunotherapy cancer drugs. Kindle: B00QG7SZ58

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Real or Virtual TRAVEL PLANS

Are you planning a trip overseas this summer or fall? Or are you considering going to the Olympics in Rio in 2016 and want to travel around South America?

If you’re in the mood to learn a little history and to see a different culture, consider Bolivia.
The markets of La Paz, including the Witches’ Market, are a blur of color. Native women with black bowler hats and brightly colored clothes hawk their wares. Things for sale include big (a yard across) plastic bags in red, yellow, and blue filled with popped corn, trinkets, baskets, and pottery. The most interesting items were llama fetuses, gifts to the gods. (Yes, Bolivia is officially a Catholic country, but the “old gods” haven’t been forgotten.) I think the best view of the market is from the roof of Iglesia de San Francisco.

Potosí and nearby mountain, Cerro Rico (the source of much of the silver that built the Spanish empire in the 1500s and 1600s) deserve to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. But be warned, the price of extracting all the silver in term of loss of human lives and ecological damage is staggering.

If you’re looking for natural wonders, consider Bolivia.
The Valley of the Moon (10 km from downtown La Paz) is eerily stark and beautiful with thousands of rock spires, but not as colorful as Bryce Canyon in Utah.
Lake Titicaca is considered the highest navigable lake in the world (elevation 12,507 feet). Remember the pictures of reed boats on Lake Titicaca in your fifth grade geography book. Indigenous people still live there on floating islands they create from reeds.
Salar de Uyuni is a 100-times the size of Bonneville Salt Flats, and the largest source of lithium in the world.

Downsides of travel to Bolivia
Altitude sickness can be a problem. (The altitude in Potosí is 13,420 ft, and in La Paz is 12,000 ft). The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends travelers to Bolivia be vaccinated for typhoid and Hepatitis A. It is unwise in Bolivia to drink tap water, eat raw fruits and vegetables that you didn’t peel and wash yourself, or eat any food sold by street vendors.

If travel to Bolivia sounds too tough, read Ignore the Pain.
In Ignore the Pain, Sara Almquist, a public health consultant, is your guide to Bolivia. Of course, her view of the Witches Market and Iglesia de San Francisco in La Paz might be a little different that that of the average tourist because someone, determined to kill her, is chasing her across the church’s roof. The descriptions of the roof and the markets below are realistic (as I saw them while walking at a leisurely pace).

Because Sara is an epidemiologist consultant for USAID (United States Agency for International Development), you’ll learn a lot about child health and pollution problems in Bolivia. But you won’t have Sara’s problems. She can’t decide which of her new colleagues to trust as she learns too much about the movement of coca from Bolivia to the U.S. and the dangerous working conditions in the silver mines of Potosí. Of course, you’ll only vicariously enjoy the attentions of the roguish Xave Zack, too.

Better yet, read Ignore the Pain before you travel to Bolivia.

Ignore the Pain is available at Amazon:  
Kindle: B00HOODVTW

Friday, April 24, 2015

Writers can learn from DESIGN THINKING

Stanford University’s D.School (more correctly the Hasso Plattner Institute for Design) wants to foster design thinking - a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field, not just product development.

This could be considered another university attempt to foster creative thinking in education and scholarship outside traditional disciplinary boundaries. But it might also be a wake up call to writers.
The design philosophy is based on seven principles, which also are good advice to writers.
  1. Show don’t tell. We've all heard that advice a hundred times.
  2. Focus in human values. We know character development is central to any good novel.
  3. Craft clarity. We know we should edit out excess adverbs and dangling phrases.
  4. Embrace experimentation. Most of us stick with what works. Maybe we should try something different more often, such as write in the first person instead of the third person, write short stories instead of novels, or pick a different type of cover.
  5. Be mindful of process. Edit, edit, edit.
  6. Bias toward action. Showing action is better than conversation many times. Or another interpretation could be: write at least a page every day on your novel instead of just talking about writing.
  7. Radical collaboration. I had trouble translating this one into advice for writers. Maybe it's find a new editor, writer's group, or publisher.
Perhaps the real message is effective communication share certain characteristics despite the format. 

I think this design thinking would be helpful for anyone contemplating revising and editing their novels for a second edition.

 How would you interpret DESIGN THINKING into advice for authors?


Thursday, April 16, 2015


Author Marilyn Meredith has published more than thirty novels and received several hundred reviews. Her advice on how to respond to reviews-good and bad-is useful to all of us. For example,  she responds to all reviews. Do you do that? I don't. Maybe I should.

Anyway here's Marilyn.

Every author hopes that when someone reads his or her book that a review will follow. Some authors send out free books to people they know will be willing to write a review. The more reviews that accompany your book on Amazon, the more apt you are to get other readers interested enough to buy a copy.
Even though authors want their books reviewed, not everyone reads their own reviews.
Why not? The simple reason is it’s hard to read a review that isn’t complimentary even though the majority are good.
As for me, I always read my reviews. Fortunately, most have fallen in the 4 or 5 star range. However, there have been some real stinkers. When I offered Angel Lost, an earlier book in the Rocky Bluff P.D. series for a few days, hundred were downloaded. In a week or two, reviews started coming in. Most were great, but some weren’t, and few downright funny.

I tried to leave a comment for each review, even if it wasn’t complimentary; I told the person thank you for taking the time to write it. I would never ever respond to a bad review in a nasty manner. (As a warning to writers, there are a few reviewers out there who get great pleasure out of trashing a book and even more when the author responds in an argumentative manner.)
In normal circumstances, when the person has had to pay for book, the reviews are usually more positive. What I’ve learned from many reviewers, if they don’t like a book they don’t post a review.
I’m a reader as well as an author, and yes, I do review the books that I read. Even if I’m not thrilled with a book, I can always find many good things to say about it. One thing we should all remember, is our reading tastes are all different. 
Will I keep reading reviews of my books? Of course I will. If you should happen to read Violent Departures, the latest in the Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery series, please do leave a review.
F. M. aka Marilyn Meredith

Blurb for Violent Departures:
College student, Veronica Randall, disappears from her car in her own driveway, everyone in the Rocky Bluff P.D. is looking for her. Detective Milligan and family move into a house that may be haunted. Officer Butler is assigned to train a new hire and faces several major challenges

F.M. Meredith, also known as Marilyn Meredith, is the author of over thirty published novels. Marilyn is a member of three chapters of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and on the board of the Public Safety Writers of America. Besides having family members in law enforcement, she lived in a town much like Rocky Bluff with many police families as neighbors.

Because it has been popular on my other blog tours, once again I’m offering the chance for the person who comments on the most blog posts during this tour to have a character named for him or her in the next Rocky Bluff P.D. mystery.

Or if that doesn’t appeal, the person may choose one of the earlier books in the series—either a print book or Kindle copy.

Tomorrow you can find me at and Stacey Milligan reveals her personal dilemma.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I just came home from the Tucson Festival of Books — a two-day extravaganza of book stalls, sun, talks, and over 1000,000 people.  It is a fun event BUT being there doesn’t mean you raised consciousness of readers on your books or sold books. You have to work at it.

How do you “work” a book fair?
I’m certainly no expert but these tips might be helpful.
1) If you have a following already, publicize you’ll be at the book fair on your blog and website. If you don’t have a following and are worried burglars will read your website and visit your home while you’re away, you may decide to do less publicity.

Prepare handouts.  You can spend a lot of money on full color handouts on expensive heavy paper. They aren’t necessarily more effective sales tools than a colorful, well-designed ½ page flier or bookmark.

The print on your handouts should be large enough so that most can read it without their reading glasses.

Besides a photo of your cover and a short blurb, include info on where your books (paper and Kindle versions) can be purchased after the fair. Cite your website. I find many visitors at book fairs don’t want to take twenty pounds of books home and seem to be interested increasingly in Kindle books.

Carry a few handouts with you when you leave your booth. You never know when you might strike up a conversation with someone who’ll find your books interesting.

Try to interact with all passers-by and draw visitors into your booth. Those visitors, who look the most distracted, can turn into buyers after you ask them a question (What do you like to read?), if you show them something from your stock that fits their answer.

Don’t line up your tables as barricades. Place tables so you welcome people into your booth.

Rent a booth with other writers so you have a variety of books to sell. This means you and your colleagues will have to know a bit about each other’s books but it makes easier to take breaks. Besides, it more fun.

One woman told me she sold homemade beanbags along with her books at outdoor books fairs. The beanbags served to keep fliers and books in place and were cute and cheap.

Try to learn something new. You might learn a better way to display your books, see more effective handouts, or meet a potential publisher, proofreader, or illustrator. You might even find a book you like.

Remember, your success at a book fair can be judged in at several ways:
l The number of books you sold.
l What you learned. How much you enjoyed interacting with other writers and publishers.
l The increased number of your books sold afterwards (probably through Amazon) or increased hits on your website afterwards.

Good luck at you next book fair.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Publicizing Your Books: Using Psychology

Are these activities advertisements? Blogs and websites, reviews of others’ books, and talks on book-related topics.

According to Michael Turney, advertising and publicity are two very different communication tools, even though both employ the mass media as a vehicle for reaching large audiences… Advertising buys its way into the media… Publicity is presented by the media because it's "newsworthy." (Online Readings in Public Relations at ~turney/prclass/readings/ads.html).

So the activities listed at the start of this blog are not advertisements, but if done right and you’re lucky, they increase sales.

Can I use advertising tools to my advantage?
I thought if I understood the psychology of advertising, I might do a better job at publicizing my novels. I’m guessing (if you’re still reading), you might think so, too.

Emotional & bright visual
Experts agree #emotions sell products. About three-quarters of the time, researchers found surrounding a product with other things shoppers liked, sold products better than advertising the desirable traits of the product (Dempsey & Mitchell, Journal of Consumer Research [Dec 4, 2010] Vol. 37). I understand the concept as it applies to shoes and beer, but what about books?

Perhaps, it means as authors we should emphasize the humor, romance, and thrills in our novels. That’s why I named on medical mystery Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight rather than Death of a Diet Doctor. I thought the former title was more humorous and consumers like the words “lose weight” better than “diet.”

Humorous title
Experts think #ads should appeal to as many senses as possible. This makes sense to authors. We know book covers and websites (visual cues) are important. That's why I chose a brightly colored image for the cover of Ignore the Pain. I thought it would arouse emotion (shock) and was easy to remember, but I'm not sure readers found the photo as interesting as I did.

I think it is less clear how to provide sound, smell, and taste clues for novels. I’m wondering if I should serve brownies at my next book signing. They appeal to the sense of smell and taste and arouse favorable emotions in most of us. What do you think? Do you think any bookstore owner would allow it?

Don’t be discouraged if all your promotions don’t work. Experts estimate as much as seventy-five per cent of all advertisements aren’t effective ( interpretation of this information is: Try. Try again.

Nest week I’ll have more ideas gleaned from experts on the psychology of advertising.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Do you want to write a medical thriller or mystery?

Has the nightly TV news made you think about writing a novel on an Ebola or measles epidemic?

#The first step in writing is a medical thriller is research.
This type of research needs depth and breadth. Not surprisingly, many medical and scientific thrillers have been written by physicians or scientists, like Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, Kathy Reichs, and myself.

Let me explain what depth and breadth means. Someone (If I tell you who it will ruin the mystery.) “poisons” a diet doctor in Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight. This toxin was the cause of a rash of real poisonings in New Mexico in the 1980s. I wove the information from two scientific articles into my tale of an intentional poisoning and set the novel in Albuquerque as an oblique clue.

To add authenticity to all my medical mysteries/thrillers, I reference key articles in the “Scientific Epilogues” of each novel.

How did I find such arcane articles? I read articles on science and medicine in newspapers and magazines and on line. I also read scientific journals, especially the journal Science, and look for trends. For example, the dead diet doctor had been studying ways to modify the bacteria in the guts of obese subjects as a way to help them lose weight. I thought this research had humorous aspects and is a promising area of research.

#The second step in writing medical mysteries is creating a filing system that allows retrieval of articles by several headings.
If you're not careful, all your research becomes a lot of clutter. So I cross-reference materials I stash in real and virtual files carefully. I note not only the medical or scientific issue discussed in articles but also the location (if outside the U.S. or in New Mexico) where the research was done and the possible social significance of the work.

For example, I’ve had files on Ebola and other tropical diseases for twenty years ago. No, I don’t plan to write a novel on Ebola, but I know these articles are good sources of information on the problems faced by health care workers during epidemics and the responses of citizens to quarantines.

# The third step in writing a medical novels is basically scientific education.
It’s finding clear ways to explain complex issues in human terms.

Among the propaganda spouted by Cuban tour guide in 2013 was the statement: Cuban scientists had patented a drug for cancer. When I got home, I investigated her claim and found researchers in Havana had patented a therapeutic cancer vaccine to treat a rather rare type of lung cancer (non-small cell). This drug revs up a patient’s own immune system to produce cells, which recognize substances found on the surface of tumor cells but not on the surface of normal cells. These immune cells then slay the cancer cells, but not the normal cells.

Okay that’s a heavy dose of science. What’s the social relevance? This patent demonstrates several Cuban scientists are doing competitive science, and the Cuban government understand the importance of commercialization of their research. I also discovered U.S. scientists were trying to augment existing scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, despite the embargo on Cuba. (Editorial in the journal Science on June 6, 2014.)

I thought Sara Almquist, as an epidemiologist and heroine of my previous medical thrillers Coming Flu and Ignore the Pain, would be the perfect protagonist to do a little “scientific diplomacy” in Cuba. The result is my thriller Malignancy. Of course, Sara gets involved in a lot more than science; it wouldn’t be a thriller without danger.

So are you ready to write a medical mystery or thriller?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Real Science Is Essential in Mysteries & Thrillers

Laboratory results, psychology, and computer analyses are essential for plot development in any modern mystery or crime fiction. Think of the TV shows—CSI, NCIS, and Criminal Minds. Many thrillers depend on technologically to provide innovative ways to trap or destroy villains. Big Bang Theory has shown science nerds can be funny. However, many authors (especially those who are not scientists or physicians) are uncomfortable about using scientific tidbits in their writing.

Essential considerations when adding science to fictional tales.
1) Use scientific details to create realistic scenes, but not so many as to slow the plot. As a biologist, who regularly reads scientific journals, I’m intrigued by cancer immunotherapy. (Scientists are making vaccines that trigger the immune systems of cancer patients to more effectively fight their disease.) That’s the scientist in me talking. The novelist part of me says the plot and character development rule.

In Malignancy, men disguised as police officers shoot at Sara Almquist twice in one day. Albuquerque police suspect Jim Mazzone, a drug czar who has tangled with Sara before, will order more hits on Sara. When colleagues in the State Department invite Sara to arrange scientific exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, she jumps at the chance to get out of town. Soon, she realizes Cuba offers more surprises than Albuquerque.

That’s the plot. One of Sara’s surprises is Cuban researchers have patented a therapeutic vaccine for a certain type of lung cancer (actual fact). Another surprise involves her love interest, the shady Xave Zack. I can’t tell you about the others because that would spoil your surprises as a reader.

2)  Pick relevant science topics. Readers are more apt to be interested in facts that are relevant to real issues—global warming, fracking for natural gas, or curing cancer than in learning details about biochemical pathways.

I thought weights control was one of universal interest to Americans, but most want to hear something besides the obvious: eat less and exercise more. Scientist know fat animals (including humans) lose weight when their gut bacteria are altered, but scientists don’t know which of the 15,000 to 36,000 species of bacteria in the gut are important. Talk about a lot of red herrings. I thought descriptions of this research (based on current ongoing studies) would be intriguing, maybe slightly funny, to readers.

In Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, a diet doctor is found dead after she charges her partner with recklessly endangering the lives of obese subjects in their clinical trials. Linda Almquist, the associate dean in the medical school, must protect the subjects in the clinical trial, while she searches for a sophisticated killer who knows a lot about poisons.

3) Be accurate. In Malignancy, I state the truth about the cancer vaccine Racotumomab developed by the Cubans. It triggers patients’ bodies to mount an immune response against of certain types of lung tumor cells because they have an unusual compound on their surface. It doesn’t prevent or cure cancer, but in it should slow the progression of the disease. It may be one of the first successes in cancer immunotherapy, but it’s too soon to tell. Many clinical trials, which require international cooperation of scientists and physicians, are need. Thus this is a practical example of why the State Department sent my heroine, a scientist, to Cuba to begin to set up exchanges Cuban and American scientists.

Why not pick up copies of Malignancy and Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight and see if you like how I incorporated science into my thrillers/mysteries?

I'll try to visit more often in 2015, but I've been busy preparing a collection of short stories.

# Main rule to include science in fiction. Use scientific details to create realistic scenes, but not so many as to slow the plot.