Fans of murder mysteries follow an unwritten code: don't give away the ending! Don't even talk about which clue is crucial or which suspects are red herrings.
We do this for the obvious reason that telling someone whodunnit makes the book less suspenseful for them. In many years of reading and chatting about these books, I've never heard anyone do this, and I hope I never do.
I wish I could talk about certain things my sleuth discovers because I think they might attract some readers, and, equally important, they might let other readers know the books are not for them.
Since this is just between you and me, I will say parts of my plots could have been ripped from the headlines. Oddly enough I did not have this in mind while I wrote them. Rather the headlines caught up with me.
I might also mention that a well-known publisher recently announced they will launch a new line of mysteries. Good for them! They also put out a list of requirements for authors wishing to submit: length, restrictions on sex and violence, etc. Again, good for them.
One of their requirements made me decide not to submit to them. They say it's alright to include characters who belong to racial minorities or who are gay so long as their identities do not create problems for them.
I do include such characters, but I am unable to imagine a world in which it doesn't matter if you're gay, or black, or Asian, etc. In my books, it matters.
If you don't want to read about such a world, please enjoy any of the thousands of other mysteries that share this publisher's world view. If want to see the world as I do, please check out my books on Amazon.
Dark Picasso, the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, is now available on Amazon. I think it’s fun to go to my author page and see the three books (so far) in the series lined up together: Dark Mural, Dark Exhibit, and Dark Picasso.
In Dark Picasso, Nicole winds up her third academic year on the fictional campus in southeastern Ohio where she teaches. The college has a new name and Nicole has a new boyfriend.
Her new adventure takes her into the world of top-tier donors on which private colleges depend. This is fun for Nicole, since people with big houses tend to have big art collections, but not so much fun when someone gets killed.
As usual, solving the mystery involves interpreting the art, and Nicole does her best to tell law enforcement what the art says. In this adventure, the work of art is by . . . Spoiler alert! . . . Picasso!
Along the way, her duties as a professor of art history and director of the college’s gallery are complicated by the squabbles of her colleagues. She is three years into her career and still amazed that professors are long on expertise and short on common sense.
If you are enjoying the series, please tell your friends, and please consider leaving a rating and review on Amazon. Your review can be a single sentence. In the world’s largest bookstore, what matters most is how many people respond.
At my library the other day, I was working on publication of the third Nicole Tang Noonan mystery (more on that later this month). I needed to be sure about the physical dimensions of the book, but I hadn't brought a copy with me.
Then I remembered the library has a copy in its collection, so I went downstairs to the second floor where fiction is shelved alphabetically by author. After scanning past "Hoffman" and "Holmes," I came to where "Homan" should be and found . . . "Hopper."
After wondering why my book wasn't on the shelf, I ran to the catalogue, looked up "Dark Mural," and discovered it is "Due 01-18-19." It's checked out. Someone is reading it. The first Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, published last September and placed in the collection shortly after, continues to attract readers.
I know this is what we expect books in libraries to do, but this was the first time I became aware of my book doing it.
Last fall I was thrilled every time someone emailed a photo of paperback copies of Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, along with the padded envelope they arrived in.
I've been thrilled every time someone tells me they got the ebooks.
I've been over the moon when someone says they stayed up late to finish one of the books so they could find out who done it.
Compliments and favorable reviews on Amazon are great, and it's nice to sell copies. But the real thrill is just knowing that people are reading them.
There is much to be said about this delightful little book. For now, I'll focus on the most wonderful thing about it, IMHO: it got published!
At about 30,000 words, it is half the length of Stephen King's Carrie. It is also around half the length of most of Agatha Christie's novels. Though it is labelled "a novel" above the author's name, a work of this length has traditionally been called a novella.
For instance, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is about the same length. It was first published in Liberty magazine and then in a book entitled Three of a Kind, containing three novellas.
In a previous blog post, I wondered why traditional publishers currently demand longer books. My guess: big books justify big prices.
So how did Elevation get published? Stephen King has earned a large following. He sells lots of books. Even if this one is less profitable than, say, The Outsider, the publisher will do just fine.
And that's wonderful! Short books are enjoyable in their own special way, and anything that delivers an enjoyable experience for the reader is good.
Can an author who is not a superstar write and publish a novella? Yes! Look for them wherever ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks are sold.
When someone I've never met reviews my book and says, "keep food and drinks close by so you don't have to put it down because you won't want to," I know I've done something right. And that's saying a lot, because writing and publishing a book involves working alone for a long time (years, for this first book) and hoping it all makes sense.
I also appreciate the descriptions of Dark Mural in this and the other reviews. They help readers decide whether this is the kind of book they would like. Since there are lots of good books to read, we all have to choose the ones that appeal most.
There used to be two ways to find out about good new books: hear about them from a friend or read a professional review in a newspaper or magazine. Now there's a third way. Reviews on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads let us hear from more fellow readers.
This is good for writers and good for readers.
I appreciate the 5-star rating from Malena (whom I do not know), and I love what she has to say about Dark Mural. Her descriptions of the setting, characters and plot are on the mark. And I couldn't ask for higher praise than her closing statement: "It's great that the second book in the series is out already. Can't wait to continue on with these characters."
I've written before about the special thrill of knowing a story has communicated to a complete stranger. That satisfaction is right up there with the satisfaction that comes with writing the story in the first place.
People who get their books on Amazon tend to trust their fellow readers. That's why a rating and review like this means as much to me as a rave in the New York Times. I hope this is the first of many.
I don't know who Willie is, but he gave Dark Mural a four-star rating under the delightful and ironic title, "Welcome to College." Also, his one-line review contains a better advertising slogan than anything I've written: "a world where publish or perish has new meaning."
I've been delighted with the way my friends have responded to Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit, the first two Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries. I've received many words of support and some rave reviews. A few friends even sent photos of the paperbacks and the envelope in which they arrived.
I'm now learning that hearing from strangers brings an extra thrill. As a professor, I experienced this when I published my research. Occasionally an article I wrote would turn up as a footnote to someone else's paper. But stories are more personal, and knowing they mean something to someone I've never met is a real kick.
So thanks, Willie, for the rating and the review. Next to word of mouth, customer reviews are the best way a writer has of finding new readers.
Mystery novels written as part of a series let the reader enjoy the same principal characters in a new adventure. If the sleuth is Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Harry Bosch, or Kinsey Millhone, we know each book will be fun in the same way the last one was, even as the plot serves up new puzzles to solve.
So the cover of the next book in the series has to tell the reader this book is the same, only different. I suggested to my designer, Zach McGinnis, that we do this by using the same layout for Dark Exhibit as we used for Dark Mural and changing the details.
In both covers we are looking at a work of art from Nicole's point of view, but this time it's an exhibit of pictures on a wall, rather than a mural. The fonts are the same, but Zach made the letters bright orange instead of white. Zach also gets credit for dressing Nicole in a short-sleeved dress, rather than a sweater and skirt, and showing her hair pulled forward over her shoulder, rather than hanging down her back.
I already have an idea what the cover of Dark Picasso will look like when it's ready for publication.
We may not judge a book by its cover, but we definitely choose a book by its cover. When we take a book off the shelf in a bookstore, and when we shop online, the first things we do is look at the picture..
While preparing my first murder mystery for publication, I learned that the first question a cover must answer is, "What's it about?"
The cover art for Dark Mural, designed by Zach McGinnis, tells the reader it's about a woman looking at a rural scene. Since her back is to us, we are looking from her point of view. The somber colors create an ominous feeling.
All this is true of the story inside. The rural scene is the mural mentioned in the title; the story is told from her point of view; and the action has some fairly sinister twists and turns.
I had spent many months pounding out the story, but I couldn't imagine what the cover should look like. I told my designer about the elements of the story, and he imagined what it should look like. That's what designers do.
It's very exciting to be this close to publishing a story I've lived with for so long. It's even more delightful to accomplish this step in collaboration with such a talented professional.
I've just finished formatting the manuscript of Dark Exhibit for publication with Kindle Direct Publishing. It was so much easier than formatting the manuscript of Dark Mural.
As you may see on my Books page, Dark Mural and Dark Exhibit are the first two books in my series of murder mysteries. I got this crazy idea that it would be best to postpone publishing the first one until the second was also ready.
As a result, I had my first adventure in turning a docx file into some that that looks right as an ebook and as a print book about a month ago with Dark Mural. As always with new software, there was a lot of trial and error.
This week, I gritted my teeth as I set about turning Dark Exhibit into the kind of books you can buy on Amazon. I am pleased to report it went much better. In fact I mostly set aside the directions and worked intuitively.
If I had published the first one six months ago, I probably would have gotten out of practice and had to learn this all over again. Maybe my idea was not so crazy!
Prutting my manuscript in book form continues to teach me lessons.
For instance, that line at the bottom of the page on the left begins a paragraph that continues at the top of the following page. In book-design jargon it's called a widow. I suppose that's because it's left alone.
If you see a paragraph at the bottom of a page and its last line carries over to the following page, that line is called an orphan. I suppose that's because it's disconnected from its origin.
Word processing programs like MS Word and Google Docs usually avoid widows and orphans by keeping at least three lines of the paragraph on each page, but book designers do not. I had to teach myself this by looking through books from my shelves and seeing they frequently have widows and orphans.
This explains why some of my pages in the print previewer were one line shorter than the others. When I allowed widows and orphans, those blank spaces at the bottom of the page filled up.
As with most things about book design, I find myself saying, "I never really noticed."
By the way, those clamps holding the book down are from back when I used to repair guitars.
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
Novels in print don't have tables of contents. They don't bother to tell you that Chapter Ten starts on page 83, for instance. Have you ever wished a novel did?
But all ebooks have them. They give you a list of links so you can jump to any chapter, or to the goodies at the front and back of the book.
But how do you know you want to read Chapter 21? The table of contents doesn't tell you what's in Chapter 21.
I guess you can use the links to jump halfway or two-thirds-the-way through the book. But you have the slider at the bottom for that.
I question all this only because I was having trouble adding the table of contents to Dark Mural, the first Nicole Tang Noon mystery, which I will publish on Amazon in September.
I finally found a simple way to do it after trying several other simple ways that didn't work. So Dark Mural will have a table of contents, just in case you feel the need.
Having uploaded my manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), I used the preview feature to see how it will look as an ebook. I found a few spacing and formatting problems, and I learned there's more to it than that.
For instance, these two paragraphs look like normal bits of narration in my manuscript, but, on an ebook reader, they look like brick walls. The monotony of the page might make a reader think my story was tedious. These two paragraphs will become four.
This is not the way writers are trained to think. According to my ever-handy copy of The Elements of Style, "The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
However, in the world of independent publishing, the writer becomes a book designer and learns visual composition has a logic all its own. While consciously reading the words, the reader subconsciously follows the shape of the text.
Book designers have done this for centuries, making decisions about margins, line-spacing, indentation, typeface, and other things, all to make the appearance of the page support the intent of the prose.
New printing press . . . new rules.
Reading Robert Polito's biography of Jim Thompson reminded me of just how revolutionary paperback originals were in the 1950s. At first scorned as an outlet for inferior writing, and later accused of de-stabilizing the publishing industry, paperback originals actually created a market that hadn't existed and connected readers and writers in new ways, just as ebooks have done in the last ten years.
I became aware of paperback originals last April, thanks to an article by Bill Crider. He points out that some well-known crime writers such as Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald, got their start in paperback originals, and he appends "A Reader's Checklist" of less-known authors who compare favorably to them.
Since he was writing in 1971, Crider recommended searching used-book stores for original copies of these mystery novels. Today those copies would be available only from specialty dealers such as Kayo Books.
Checking my libraries (The Mechanics Institute and The San Francisco Public) I discovered new copies of these novels from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Stark House Press has been publishing re-issues of paperback originals for several years now. They offer books by every author on Crider's list and many more.