How I Write Short Stories–Part I

I get a lot of questions about how I write short stories, so I thought I’d take you through my process, step-by-step. Just so you know, I don’t consider myself an expert. There are probably a million ways to approach a project like this. But perhaps walking through it with me will be interesting to some of you. I’m going to concentrate on how I write the Kiki Lowenstein Short Stories because I’d done so many of them.

Part I — What’s the point? Or what’s the theme? What’s my goal?

I like to have a purpose behind my stories. An idea or theme or goal. I think of this like the pole of a Maypole because it provides the structure for all that follows. I like to use holidays when writing the Kiki short stories. That works pretty well, because the holiday provides a natural launch date. Holidays give me an easy way to market my stories. And of course each holiday also has its own rituals, foods, celebratory activities, colors, and so on. These elements provide natural points of interest for the story.

I’ve decided that I want to write a story about St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve been noodling that idea around, and I’ve been wondering, “What makes people lucky?”

With that in mind, I googled, “What makes people lucky?” and found several fascinating articles:

As you can see, Mr. Wiseman has identified four principles that define “lucky” people:

1. Taking advantage of chance opportunities.

2. Listening to hunches.

3. Expect good fortune.

4. Turn bad luck into good luck.

So now I have four new ideas that I can incorporate into my story. Any one of these or all of them might be useful.

I can move onto the next portion of my prep, creating conflict. To make a short story work, I need to create friction among my characters.

Any ideas on how I can do that?

Why do YOU read?

Tuesdays with Sally Lippert, Joanna’s Ace Assistant

Do you read for fun?
Do you read to escape?
Do you read to learn a new skill?
Or is it all of the above?
Currently, I am reading for all of the above.

As I am trying to assist Joanna in the self-publishing world, I have developed a whole new appreciation for what an author goes through to get a book into our hands.

When we are very young, our parents introduce us to the world of books.
School starts and we begin our education via books and teachers.
Choosing our professions, we go on to higher learning and study a field of interest.
Growing up, I read the Boxcar children, Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew.
My brothers read comic books.
Through adulthood, I have gone through all the genres of reading as I am sure most of you have done.

But I never had an appreciation for what it takes to write a novel until now. I didn’t know the “behind the scenes” work involved. The hours spent editing, checking facts, double-checking style for consistency, making decisions about cover copy, and reaching out to fans. As I go through Kiki Land, my admiration for Joanna has grown by leaps and bounds because of her growth as a writer.

Joanna curling up with a good book

Of course, I am reading lots of other authors and now respect the research that goes into writing a book.

I also have a new respect for the online world that authors must navigate, a world changing every day. As my own career as a nurse unfolded, I never stopped studying or learning, especially as critical care changed with all the new technology. That ability to stay mentally agile is definitely coming in handy, as I am learning new ways of publishing and marketing.

But even though so much of the delivery system has changed, in the end, it is still all about delivering a good story. Writers definitely have their work cut out for them as they help us to learn, entertain and escape.

Great Post on Writers and Their Finances

Check it out at

I have to say I hear a lot of writers who are shocked at the costs associated with the job. I guess most people dream of having a book published, and a part of that fantasy is a windfall like Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Rawling enjoy. Frankly, you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than to hit the jackpot as they did.

Instead, it’s much more realistic to view writing as a sort of entrepreneurship. We are small business owners. The start up costs include bookmarks, conferences, association memberships, setting up websites and travel expenses–just for starters. And the money takes a while to find its way to our doors because royalty statements come after publication and publishers subtract returned books.

So if you want to make this your career, be a smart cookie. Do your due diligence. Know what the costs are and how you’ll be paid.

About Rejection…

I’ve had two people within the past week ask me how I handle rejection. One said, “Joanna, have you ever had anything rejected by your publisher?”

Well, yeah.

And I’ll tell you how I’ve come to think about this…

See you can’t get to the east coast or the west coast without crossing mountains. You can fly over them, or you can drive over them, but one way or the other, you’ve got to pass through them.

Rejection in this business is like mountains. It’s just a hard spot between me and my goals. I can choose to whine and moan. I can avoid them. Or I can pull up my big girl panties (thanks, Linda H.!) and just keep on trucking. It doesn’t mean I have to LIKE the mountains, and once in a while, I get turned back at the pass, but as long as I keep my goal in mind, I’ll pick myself up and hurl myself in that general direction once again.

Here’s a secret: It’s not always the best books or the best articles that get published. Sometimes what an author offers is just what the publisher needed to round out a catalog. Or, your work didn’t fit that publisher’s immediate needs. It can be something entirely out of your control, and something not at all connected with the quality of your work.

Years ago, an acquiring editor told me he was going to publish I’m Too Blessed to be Depressed. He even set the release date. He was going to bring it out around Mother’s Day. Boy, was I ever happy.

All he had to do was take it to the marketing committee. No sweat. Just a formality.

Then he called me back. The publisher had visited the marketing committee. The publisher had decided to take the company in a new direction. From that meeting on, all HCI Communications would publish was Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Now had my book been presented the week before, I would have had a contract. As it was…I self-published.

See? None of that had anything to do with the quality of my work.

So…if you want to write, you better have a strong stomach for rejection. Sure, I’ve cried about it. I’ve stomped around my office and called folks names. I’ve had a bad week interrupted only by lots of cookies and sweets. But I’m not going to let it stop me. I suggest you don’t let it stop you either.


I’m welcoming another Campbell to my blog today—Chester Campbell. Contrary to rumor, Chester Campbell was not a passenger on Noah’s Ark, but he didn’t get off the boat yesterday, either. With a writing career that has spanned sixty years, he has a new mystery novel just published titled The Surest Poison. In it, three seemingly unrelated murders crop up during the investigation of a toxic chemical dump that plagues a rural community west of Nashville. PI Sid Chance is hired to find the party responsible for the pollution behind a small plant whose current owner is being harassed by the state. Sid is tailed, threatened, and shot at before encountering some nasty guys from his past. (And yeah, I thought “green” was eerily appropriate when writing about poison!)

One of the earliest eye-openers I experienced as a mystery writer occurred when my first book came out in 2002. I quickly discovered that marketing and promotion take as much time as writing the novel. It’s like learning to walk, then realizing you have to climb steps, too. Fortunately, I had started attending conferences, primarily SleuthFest, put on by the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I picked up some great tips there on getting ready for your book to come out.

“Coming out” is a good term to describe a book’s publication, since it denotes a debut and, in Southern social circles, a debutante’s introduction at a ball. Too bad my books don’t get that level of fanfare.

However, I followed most of the advice for getting ready. I set up a website, primitive though it was. I created a mailing list of publications to inform and people who might be interested in buying the book. There were no Advance Review Copies, so I had to wait for the book to be printed before I could send it out for review. I got a friend who ran the color lab for the local newspaper to make a head shot to use for publicity. And I started calling bookstores to set up signings.

I found it all took lots of time and slowed my writing efforts. Being published by a small press, though, I knew the book wouldn’t sell unless I let people know about me and what I had written.

I now have four books out in that first series, the Greg McKenzie Mysteries, but the marketing and promotion effort remains essential. Some things have changed, however. The reason I’m here today is because I have another debut to talk about. The Surest Poison is the first book in a new series featuring a Nashville PI named Sid Chance. I’ve just started a Blog Book Tour for it, something unheard of back in 2002.

From now through the first of May, I’ll be doing daily interviews and a variety of articles about the book, its characters, the setting, the origin of the story, writing issues and such. Again, it’s promotion, and it’s a lot of work. But it’s fun, too. I have posted the schedule on my website of where I’ll be blogging each day. Join me, if you’d like, and make a comment. I’ll be doing drawings from those who leave comments, giving away several books as prizes.

With the Internet becoming more important as a means of communication, I’m concentrating more of my marketing efforts there. It takes a lot of effort, but, heck, you don’t have to dress up or even get out of your chair. I’ve recently established a presence on Facebook and Twitter, two of the most popular social networks. I belong to several others that deal with books, such as Goodreads and Crimespace, but haven’t been as active on those.

One of the most important aspects of Internet promotion is the author website. I do a makeover on mine every couple of years. If all goes well, I’ll have the revised version up by the time you read this, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Joanna has a great website with lots to see and benefit from. That’s the secret to a successful website. Give visitors lots of goodies and they’ll keep coming back for more.

The final act of “coming out” is the Book Launch Party. I’m having this one at my church, City Road Chapel United Methodist Church, in Madison, the Nashville suburb where I live. It’s also where my protagonist lives and has his office. We’re throwing the party Sunday afternoon, April 19. I thought about serving green punch in glasses marked with a skull and crossbones, but I’m not sure how that would go over. We’ll have a cake with green icing, though.

I can’t leave without telling you a bit about the people who populate The Surest Poison. The story is a little grittier than my first series, which some said bordered on the cozy. One reviewer wrote that the new book was “the kind of fiction writing that those with a penchant for Lawrence Block can enjoy.” Sid Chance is a big guy (six-foot-six, 230 pounds) who was a Green Beret in Vietnam, spent eighteen years as a National Park Service ranger, and ten years as police chief in the small town of Lewisville, southwest of Nashville. He left that job after being falsely accused of bribing a drug dealer.

His part-time helper is Jasmine LeMieux, whom DorothyL’s Kaye Barley called “a character I LOVE; Jaz LeMieux, wealthy ex-cop who has done a little bit of everything in her life, and done it with flair.” Her Southern Belle mother disowned Jaz when she dropped out of college and joined the Air Force. Making matters worse, she then became a champion woman boxer before joining the police force to pay her bills. After her mother died, Jaz’s father, a French Canadian entrepreneur, took her back in and left her controlling interest in a lucrative chain of truck stops.

Now you know just enough to be dangerous. Or maybe want to read the book. Or maybe you have some other good ideas for promotion? Joanna says she’ll mail a bag of benne seed wafers (a very Southern cookie a lot like peanut brittle) to some lucky person who comments with a good idea.

What You and I Can Learn from Classical Music's Hottest Act

The hottest, hippest act in Classical Music today, the group that has folks literally dancing in the aisles is a group of Steinway piano playing siblings from Utah, The 5 Browns. Desirae, Deondra, Gregory, Melody and Ryan not only play together professionally right now, they have the distinction of being the only family to attend Julliard simultaneously. Last weekend visited my husband’s store (Steinway Piano Gallery of St. Louis), played a mini-concert, and then on Saturday gave a concert at Powell Hall. Above is a photo of them at Ted Drewes Custard because NO trip to St. Louis is complete without going to Ted Drewes. (And yes, that is Ted Drewes, not Nancy Drew’s.)

How exciting are these kids? Well, an estimated one-third of their audience at any given concert has seldom if ever attended a classical music concert, and another one-third is college-age or younger.

In short, they are a phenomena. And anytime in life you get to observe ONE superstar–much less five of them at once–I think you should take notes. So here’s what I learned, and do me a favor, don’t dismiss this stuff as self-evident. The road to success is littered with waylaid travelers who confused self-evident with REALLY important.

The 5 Browns’ Rules for Success (as observed by Joanna Campbell Slan, close up and personal):1. Live with enthusiasm. Imbue all you do with energy. These five are thrilled about being able to do what they love for a living–and they’ll gladly tell you so. Are you happy? Do you show it? All of us authors are living the dream. So we need to stop moaning and act like it!

2. Show interest in other people. Ever notice how some authors talk only about themselves and their books? Hmm? These five sensations were on a book signing tour, yet they peppered me with questions about my work. Earlier this year I sat between two men at dinner during a writers conference. They went on and on about their books, and never once asked me about mine. (Note to the man who sat on my right at that fateful repast: Sir, the acquisition of an English accent does NOT entitle a person to wantonly disregard commonly recognized table manners. Either your mother was raised in a barn–as you obviously were–or she’s rolling around in her grave in shame!) Making other people feel important is not only good manners, it’s also very smart business.

3. Make your work accessible. The Browns introduced each piece they played with a bit about the composer and how that particular composition influenced what we hear today. If you’re an author, why not tell your readers about YOUR influences, be they other authors or popular culture? Spread a little credit around and educate your audiences. Let them feel like they just got “the inside scoop.” That’s why we read gossip magazines, right?

4. Talk to the small fry. Desirae, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Ryan purposefully stopped to take questions, both at our store and at Powell, taking care to call on the kids who raised their hands. When one little girl pipped, “Were you ever in your school’s talent contest?” All five burst out laughing in remembrance as they assured her that indeed they had!

5. Dress up, but don’t be overdressed. The Browns wear cocktail attire the first half of their performance and casual wear the second. “We want to seem approachable,” said Desirae. And they do. We’ve never had a performer wear Converse high-tops in our store before. Trust me, Gregory’s footwear spoke volumes to the kids who came to see the Browns. It said, “Yep, you can be YOU and still make music.” They were nicely groomed, trendy without being crass, and flat out adorable.

6. Sign anything for anyone. From the stage, the Browns offered to sign “any stuff you have.” I’ve seen authors who’ll only sign books purchased that day at that event. Is that you? How do you suppose that makes you look? What does it say about you? When that person goes home and talks about you, what will she say? (If you can’t answer that affirmatively, better check a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People out of the library.)

7. Tell people you WANT to come back. It’s flattering to THEM, and it lodges a little reminder in their brains: Must have these folks back. When? Hmm. Be sure to tell the bookseller or conference director you’d like to return.

8. Laugh. Be joyous. Gregory ( the oldest brother) introduced Prokofiev’s Toccata, op. 11 which he described as sounding like the chase scene from The French Connection. As if on cue, a siren blared in the distance. He got the giggles as did most of the 2400 audience members in Powell Hall. Stage performers know the importance of “jumping the footlights,” bridging that gap between those on stage and those in the seats. It’s an intimacy all audiences crave. How can YOU jump the footlights and get emotionally close to your readers?

9. Give ’em your phone number. And then be response. We’ve already heard from Greg, telling us how much fun they had and asking for copies of photos we took. He gave us his email, but we also have all their phone numbers.

Look, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to be on Martha Stewart’s show or Jay Leno’s or even watch Zac Posen’s fashion show, much less be an important personage there. All of which The 5 Browns have done. Yet to hear them talk about it, they are still marveling at their good fortune. And that’s exactly the way I want to act. I want to give my best, to love what I do, and keep marveling at my good fortune. I have the feeling it’s the secret to success. From the other side of the pianos, it sure looks it.

10. Put energy in all you do. Here, enjoy this–

PS Are you a regular reader? I’ll add your blog title to my blog role if you leave a comment with your blog address!

What Published Authors Do That Non-Published Authors Won't

In a few minutes, I’ll leave to teach a class called “The Practical Guide to Getting Published.” I’m all prepared except for changing out of my jeans. I have this nifty 14-page handout with all sorts of resources, and I have tons of stories.

I tell all my students this: “You might not like what I have to say, you might disagree with what I have to say, but please know, that what I tell you is the truth according to my experience or the truth as I’ve heard it from other authors.” I say this because invariably someone will argue with me. They will explain to me very patiently that they don’t need to worry about grammar because an editor will do that. Or that they aren’t concerned about word length in a book or article because that’s the editor’s job. Or that their book is different from every book that’s ever been published, so the “rules” don’t apply. Or that they intend to self-publish and, therefore, using a style manual isn’t necessary–and besides, they can’t afford a good proofreader. Or that their mother/sister/brother/in-laws/high school teacher told them their book was worthy of publication, so surely it is.

And they might all be right.

It’s just that, in my experience, authors who get published:

1. Learn the rules of grammar and usage. (Come on, people. Mastering comma placement is NOT that difficult. I suggest you get a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves at the very least.)
2. Look stuff up all the time in a style manual. (For example, I get confused as to whether “was” or “were” is appropriate when there are conditional circumstances which must be considered. So, I’m always looking that up.)
3. Spell-check and rigorously edit their own work. (And often submit their work to other authors/friends to help them proofread. Many published writers belong to critique groups and welcome criticism. Sometimes they just swap stuff back and forth between good friends like Shirley Damsgaard and I do.)
4. Understand word counts and adhere to them. (MS Word has a function in the tools area which gives you word count. That’s close enough. No one would quibble with whether a word like “get-together” counts as two or one of its kind.)
5. Read about their intended markets and submit work that fits within listed guidelines.

But then, what do I know?

Marketing Resources You Need to Check Out

I casually mentioned on Murder Must Advertise that I thought all of us would benefit by reading how self-published authors promote their work. After all, if you are self-published, you KNOW you have to make it on your own, often with limited resources.

Here’s a list of sites and blogs I compiled. There’s a lot of great of information here. I suggest you choose one each day and spend a little time going through the articles or posts. (This is great…a wealth of articles on marketing) (The most interesting and useful article I’ve read on marketing fiction…PERIOD. Opens your eyes to new ways of seeing how to promote your books.) (Okay, this isn’t self-publishing, but she’s written about self-publishing) (The guru/granddaddy of self-publishing.) (The godparents of self-publishing.) (Since marketing yourself as a speaker is a great way to sell your book, this is a super resource. You can adapt it for your book.) (These might seem obvious…but how many of us do them?) (Some interesting and new ideas.) (Fascinating article–that all anyone needs is 1,000 True Fans.) (On becoming an octopus or a squid, and why you’d want to.) (I hate all the sales-BSP stuff at the beginning of his newsletters, but I love the info and opportunities.) (Terrific articles.) (Great articles…especially this on finding top blogs.) (A treasure-trove of links.) (Ignore the self-publishing references. It’ll work for traditionally published authors, too.)