Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Going Independent With My Crime of Fashion Series Relaunch

This summer is in many ways a season of new beginnings for me as I continue to go independent and relaunch my Crime of Fashion Mysteries under my own imprint, Lethal Black Dress Press.

This heady challenge is possible because I recently reacquired my rights for the first nine COF books. I had already independently published the 10th  book. The series (and my relaunch) begins with Killer Hair,  which was originally published in 2003 by Penguin Putnam, now Penguin Random House.The latest, greatest version of Killer Hair is available as an ebook and in trade paper. Designer Knockoff, the second in the series, is available in Kindle and very soon in trade paperback.
While it was exciting to be ushered into print by one of the Big Five traditional publishers, it eventually became clear that I was heading in a different direction.

Everybody Wants to Know—Why Go Indie?

Publishing has changed dramatically since my first book came out in 2003. Back then, writers who independently published were scorned, ignored, and certainly not considered "good enough" for the all-hallowed New York publishing world. To be honest, in the early days of the self-publishing movement, I wasn’t convinced that self-publishing was the answer. Even though there were drawbacks to NY pub, I rationalized that the one thing trad pub did well was distribution. My early books were in all the bookstores, big chains and independents, all over the country, and always in multiple copies. Mystery bookstores were particularly great for me and other mystery writers. That was cool, I have to admit. I could walk into any bookstore across the USA and find my books on the shelf. 
The late lamented Borders Books, in particular, was very good to me. They kept my back list in stock and in multiple copies. And then Borders fell, like the first domino. After the tragic demise of Borders, Barnes & Noble suddenly didn’t seem to be ordering nearly as many copies (of anything but the latest best sellers) as they had in the past, and they weren't stocking my back list anymore, except occasionally the first book in the series. By the time my last traditionally published book came out in 2013, I found only two or three copies of the brand-new book in each B & N bookstore. The competition in the big bookstore chain world was disappearing, and the distribution advantage of the traditional publishers seemed to be disappearing with it.
Other things changed as well. My first editor at the publisher was fabulous. She acquired the series, she championed my books, and she was thoughtful, helpful, and attentive to detail. However, she left the NY publishing world after our first year of working together. After that, I was issued four more editors of varying quality and enthusiasm. Although two of my books, Killer Hair and Hostile Makeover, were filmed for the Lifetime Movie Network, the publisher was pretty ho-hum about it. However, they did consent to put movie tie-in stickers on the covers..

I left traditional publishing for a number of reasons. While I won’t go into detail, I will say in the end, I felt disrespected. 
As a former Washington, D.C. reporter, I've had my share of encounters with people who hated journalists. I was occasionally kicked out and barred from meetings, and I regularly had to dance a jig for certain press secretaries and gatekeepers in order to reach the newsmakers and report the news.
I look back fondly on those encounters.
Let me emphasize I was not alone in how I was treated by traditional publishing; I was not a special case. Not by a long shot. Nor was I particularly sensitive to the slings and arrows of outrageous copy editors. Other writers I know and admire have been treated with disrespect and disdain: Contrary to what the contract says, I know writers who have been ordered to rewrite books in a week, or even a weekend, and told that the authors' own corrections on galleys (caused by publishers' mistakes) would not be made. In addition, their scheduling requests are often ignored, their needs disregarded. 

Am I exaggerating? You be the judge. 

And yes, there are writers who will go down claiming everything is lollipops and cotton candy, and life with traditional publishing couldn't be better, 8 percent royalties are swell, and they just adore their covers.
At the moment, I am hearing many sad stories of authors who are unable to recover their rights after their publishers let their books go out of print. I feel especially fortunate to have accomplished this feat.

The Rights Reversal Process

Late last year, when I discovered reported sales of my books had fallen below the threshold specified in my contract, I requested that the publisher return my rights in accordance with the contract, and I duly cc’d that request to my attorney. (The process is not quite as simple as it sounds.) Although I received no immediate reply. I had an inkling the rights reversion would finally happen when I started hearing complaints from readers that they could no longer purchase e-books of the first nine mysteries. It seems the publisher had taken the electronic books off booksellers' websites even before they officially informed me that my rights would revert to me. I took it as a promising sign.
At present, limited quantities of the original mass market paperbacks can still be found, for example at your favorite independent mystery bookstore, on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, but the traditional publisher will not be printing any new editions. That is now MY job!

Great New Covers and Design

In the coming months I will continue to publish my updated and corrected mysteries as e-books and in trade paperback format, where they will have a much more readable book design and beautifully stylish and evocative covers by Bob Williams. The original mass market covers were cartoon-like and I admit some people actually really liked them. But no longer will you need a magnifying glass to read one of my books! The revised editions more closely reflect my original intent and the feel of the stories. To view the first two of the new covers, scroll down.

Killer Hair is the first volume in the Crime of Fashion series featuring Lacey Smithsonian, the intrepid fashion reporter who solves crimes with “fashion clues” in Washington, D.C., “The City Fashion Forgot.”  It sets the scene for Lacey’s further adventures in crime and couture (and romance).

Designer Knockoff, the second book in the series, explores the disappearance of a young designer in the 1940s and a D.C. intern in the present. 
As with anything, this project is taking more time than I anticipated, but we don't want to rush the process—we want to make the books the best they can be.

There is a lot of work ahead, but rest assured I am still writing and working on the next book in the Crime of Fashion series: The Masque of the Red Dress. 

For more information about any of my books, you can always check my soon-to-be-updated website at 
ellenbyerrum.com. You can also follow me on Facebook, my FacebookAuthor Page or on Twitter. . 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dreams of Moliere and Champagne

January 15 is the birthday of the great French comedic playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Moliere, and I will celebrate his anniversary with a champagne toast.

             Why? Many years ago, I had a dream about my Moliere, which changed my attitude about life. Not everyone believes that dreams have meaning, but I do. Not in the way that dream interpretation books would have it. I always loved the Biblical story of Joseph, who had to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. But your typical dream book doesn’t really talk about fat cows and skinny cows, does it?
I believe most people have their own internal dream vocabulary and dream messages, but they don’t care to try to interpret them. I do. I’ve even had friends ask me to interpret their dreams for them. As a writer, I’m always looking for great story ideas and plots. Some dreams are perfect for that. Just ask Mary Shelley.
            I have had dreams with warnings, dreams that came true, dreams coded in rebus, and dreams that came with lessons. In this dream, Moliere came to me bearing a whole lesson plan.
            In my dream, the great playwright was old and sick, dying from a lung disease, and for some reason it was my job to take him to a place to die, a place of the dead. It seemed to be somewhere deep down under the streets, perhaps in Paris. (Why beneath the streets? Was I dreaming of the Catacombs of Paris? I have no idea. It was a dream, you know?And better the Catacombs than the sewers.) I was horrified by this mission, and I kept protesting that he was the great Moliere, he couldn’t just die (even though he's been dead since 1673), how could this be? We descended far down into a dark tunnel. Out of the darkness a small gray bat flew straight at me, frightening me, and I ducked. But the playwright, as old and sick as he was, bent down in one smooth motion, grabbed the bat, and threw it against the wall. It shrieked loudly and fell to the ground. (I don’t know if bats shriek in real life, but this one did.)
            First Lesson: Don’t let the old bats get you down! I know, this sounds a little snarky for a somber dream about a dying playwright, but that’s the lesson that came to me as soon as I awoke, and it made me laugh. There have been a lot of screeching old bats assaulting me since then, and I always think of Moliere casually tossing them aside.
            We continued down, farther and farther in this dark, dank, horrible tunnel, until I thought I’d go mad. I’d almost given up on ever seeing the light again, when we came to a large ballroom full of bright light, with crystal chandeliers and a sumptuous feast waiting for us on the banquet table.  
            Second Lesson: No matter how long or dark, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I never said these were deep lessons. But lessons they are, nonetheless.
            The banquet table was set for twelve guests, all renowned writers. And me. Moliere and I were ushered to our seats at the table. Me, dining with Moliere! I was in heaven, or maybe just dreamland. After we were seated, some kind of strange “machine of fortune” on wheels (it looked like an old-fashioned slot machine) traveled around the table to every dinner guest. When the machine came to me, it spilled a wealth of “tokens of fortune” into my hands: gleaming jewel-like coins in gold and silver and colors of emerald, sapphire, ruby red, and amethyst. So many coins I couldn’t hold them all in both hands. I turned to Moliere and offered them to him—and I realized as he took the coins from me that he wasn’t dying now, he had grown young and strong again. He smiled at me.
            Lesson Three: You can have anything you want, if you’re willing to share it. And sharing the wealth makes that wealth greater, not less. It’s not always true, but it’s a lovely thought.
            I suppose you only get one dream like that in a lifetime. But it would be nice if Moliere dropped by again sometime. (Not in a deep dark tunnel, though, please. And no bats.)
            Happy birthday Moliere! Bubbly, anyone?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Writers of October. Or the Truth About the Writers’ Colony

For many years I sought a brief respite every fall. A retreat from slogging away at the day job as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and writing books and plays at night and on weekends. So every October I attended a picturesque little writers’ colony in Vermont with my husband Bob, who is also a writer and editor.  We traveled there to take advantage not only of the creative promise but also the intoxicating mad splash of peak autumnal color and the peaceful Vermont landscape. (No, I’m not identifying the place any further than this. It doesn’t exist anymore, and I’ll just call it the Colony.)

Despite the place being somewhat down at the heels—and more and more as time went by—the Colony House was a grand old mansion located in a magnificent setting just off the village green. We writers occupied private rooms (or shared them with a significant other), shared the bathrooms, fixed meals in the communal kitchen, hung out in front of the fireplace in the library, and held forth our writerly opinions in the dining room. Occasionally Bob would carve a pumpkin or two, and we’d all tell tales, swap ghost stories, grumble about or celebrate our writing careers, and visit the local cemeteries and collect epitaphs from the headstones, sometimes bizarre and sometimes hilarious. The Colony was a charming place where a core group of writers gathered every year, year after year, and every year a few new writers joined the mix. It was usually a blend of old friends and new faces. 

A Fantasy World 

Basically, a writers’ retreat is a tiny fantasy world. Writers all want to find that magical place where our characters instantly come alive, our dialogue clicks, our plot hits hyperspace, and well, magic happens. (In addition to all of our usual magical thinking.)
But one thing always struck me as strange: Some of these writers never wrote outside of the Colony. They saved up all their energy and creativity for the one or two or three weeks they would spend there. Their lives were too busy to eek out precious minutes for writing. This was their only time to write. Their jobs were too stressful, their lives too full. Outsiders could never understand.

One writer whose path I crossed for years was working on a musical based on Alice in Wonderland. You’re probably thinking: That’s never been done. Yeah, Alice has been done before and she will be again. Taking up a corner of the library on a round wooden table near a baby grand piano someone had donated, he’d set up his command center. He would take turns tinkling on the piano keys and click-clacking on his laptop keyboard. He was creating. He explained he could only work on the play during those precious few weeks each year. He’d been working on this play for years. It never seemed to be approaching the finish line. One year he stopped coming. I don’t know what happened to him or his play. (Alice still pops out of her rabbit hole from time to time.)

Another writer one October had traveled to the Colony across the country by bus, toting a big, bulky desktop computer in a cardboard box. Once there, she found she was blocked the entire time and blamed the other writers: We were noisy, inconsiderate, inspiration-sucking fiends. Or perhaps we were vampires. Still another—allegedly a poet—frightened me. The poet, who seemed to be desperately broke, would startle people by suddenly appearing silently out of nowhere.  At your elbow in the kitchen, asking if you were going to finish your meal. At your side in the library, throwing raw potatoes into the fireplace to bake.  She said she lived in a burned-out house in another state without heat or electricity. We were a little afraid she’d burn down the Colony House over our heads. But she was theoretically working on her poems at the Colony.

Writing Despite Everything Else

My opinion is that a writer is writing all the time, not just in the rarefied air of the writers’ retreat. You have to be able to write when you don’t feel like it. When it’s hard. When life interferes. Even when you’re not putting words on paper, your mind is still building stories. That is also writing.

Let’s face it, some writers are like machines, computers that never come unplugged and are always churning out pages. They produce two and three and four books a year. Whether those are good books, who knows? Others keep at it for years before producing any work. I don’t fall into either camp. I lack the energy of the former group and the superiority of the latter.

Still, I found that I couldn’t work like some of the other Colony House writers. In a lather in a corner of the library. Willing the muse to sit on my head and pour in inspiration. By the time we made it from Virginia to Vermont, dragged our luggage up the stairs, collected our sheets and made the bed, I was already fried. After reporting on government regulations during my days and creating fictional worlds at night the entire rest of the year, I could barely walk and talk. Forget chewing gum. I slept. A lot. Copiously. Deliciously. Fabulously. In fact, I observed that many of the writers at the Colony routinely spent the first two or three days of their stay zonked out in their rooms, only rousing for food.

The Magic of Recuperation

I needed that retreat as much, if not more, than those writers who hoarded their creative juices all year in anticipation of their annual two-week flood of inspiration. Many an October at the Colony I simply could not write more than a page or two. Depleted resources created a black hole inside of me. So instead of staying in my room pretending to write, I walked and talked with Bob and let the healing power of rest (and the fall colors) take over.  In my experience, creative rest periods are highly underrated. Many a plot twist and character nuance were worked out as we ambled under the flaming maples, past the green fields and the harvest-ready corn, and paused to consider those lazy but contented Vermont cows.

Many of my characters emerged out of that fallow time every fall. It was at the Colony House where I came up with the opening lines of my first Crime of Fashion mystery novel, Killer Hair. (Now there are ten books in the series. More to come.) It was there that I first sketched out the beginnings of my new thriller, The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. I remember returning to the Colony one fall with my very first published novel under my belt (and in my hands), more exhausted than ever, to find the seasonal creative geniuses of October suffering over their never-finished prose and casting dark looks my way whenever I would leave the house to wander the woods and ponder future stories and projects. The October-only writers didn’t understand my writing process. I was writing! I was just not physically putting that many words down on paper that October. That would come later, after I returned to Washington and felt revived and ready to tackle new words, and worlds.

Though they hadn’t finished a book or a play, the Writers of October took the moral high ground. I suffer therefore I am—a writer. By heaven, you were supposed to stay in your room, ignore the autumnal glory, and bleed sweat onto the paper. Or the computer keyboard. Weeping in the throes of creativity was not looked down upon, but enjoying yourself out in the world certainly was.

I couldn't let this attitude stop me from enjoying my time at the Colony. It was the deep rest, the sigh, the exhale I needed in order to continue writing. I required that fallow time, and I still do. 

I will always be grateful for that shabby white mansion near the village green. The hot cider I drank, the sweaters I wore, the blazing autumn leaves I crunched through, the crisp intoxicating air I breathed. Without it all, I could never have been as productive in the rest of my writing year. And that is the truth (my truth, anyway) about the writers’ colony, and the writers of October.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner, A Spooky Giveaway

Today is the first of September, which I like to think of as the beginning of the spooky season. Nights are crisper, the moon is clearer, the trees more ominous. Soon we'll be wearing sweaters and sipping cider and swapping terrifying tales around the fire. Oh, we're not?  Well, we can imagine that we are. 

In order to celebrate the idea, if not the reality, of the September spooky season, which culminates in Halloween, I am offering my ghost story, The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner, for free for five (5) days on Kindle .

Cover art by Robert Williams
A word about the cover design by Robert Williams. The photo was taken of a recent blue moon, and a blue moon figures in this ghost story, which introduces the character of Cassidy James. 

Harris Turner is a little funny, a little sad, a little frightening, and inspired by a slight incident from my days as a young reporter on a small town newspaper. I was assigned to write a Halloween article on local ghosts in that small town and I met with several people who owned allegedly haunted homes. The most interesting tales involved a pair of brother and sister specters, Kingston and Grace.

Shortly after the piece appeared, an elderly gentleman came to my office wanting to know who had written the story. He had something to add. We had a nice chat and he told me he knew one of the ghosts. Rather, he'd known one of the people who had become a ghost. In fact, he and “King” had been old friends. He told me of the young man’s fatal illness and the days they would sneak away for a ride in the hills. He wondered if I thought he could get in touch with the deceased. “It sure would be nice to see King again,” he said. He seemed to think I was the one who could get them back together.

I don’t know if he ever made contact with King. In this lifetime anyway. But that conversation always stayed with me. It was the starting point of The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner. I hope you enjoy it. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Grace Metalious Bobblehead

Is it wrong to give yourself an award? 
    I hope not. Because I have just awarded myself with what I like to call the Grace Metalious You Can Do It! Award.
    I'm pretty sure that people give themselves awards all the time. For example, the I Can't Believe I Made it Through This Awful Day Without Slapping Anyone Award. Or the My Manuscript Is Finished and It Didn't Kill Me Award. Or the My Book Is Finally Published and I Deserve a Prize Award. 
    I awarded the attractive bobblehead pictured here to its worthy recipient (ME) for finally finishing the thriller I've been working on for years in between other books: The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. It is now available as an ebook and will soon be available as a trade paperback.
Grace Metalious Bobblehead.

    My major award, the Grace Metalious "Pandora in Blue Jeans” Bobblehead, is available through the New Hampshire Historical Society. This is deliciously ironic: Grace still embarrasses some people in her home state because of the scandalous notoriety of her bestseller, Peyton Place. According to the Historical Society, the pose is taken from a photo of the writer at her typewriter.

    Why the Grace M. Bobblehead? Because it’s funny. Just look at the picture. It makes me laugh. Grace's head bobbles thoughtfully every time she has an inspiration, staring intently at her empty typewriter. And by the time I finish a book, my head has bobbled a thousand times. Sometimes it bobbles right down onto my keyboard.

   Why Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place? Because she was pretty much the writer who would be voted Least Likely to Succeed. And yet she did. The odds were stacked against her. She was a housewife and a mother who came from poverty and obscurity, but she was driven to write. She succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Granted, those dreams turned into nightmares and she essentially drank herself to death at a young age. But before all that, she made the improbable happen. She emerged from nowhere and wrote a bestseller that rocked the established literary order.
   I first glimpsed parts of Peyton Place in an old and tattered paperback copy during my high school babysitting jobs. (My gigs weren't stocked with libraries full of impressive leather-bound volumes.) But when I later saw the movie version of Peyton Place, what struck me most was its depiction of women. Women who worked hard, who were passionate and ambitious, and who did what they had to do to survive in their superficially buttoned-down (but secretly sordid) small town. Just like Grace M., who was said to lock herself in the bathroom to find the time and space (and peace and quiet) to write.
   You can do it. These words have been my mantra for years. I had to say them to myself, because I wasn't hearing it from the peanut gallery. Walking to the Metro Station on my way to work, exhausted, one foot in front of another: You can do it. While holding a full-time job and writing at night: You can do it. Stopping after work at the library or bookstore or coffee shop to write because if I went home, I'd go to sleep: You can do it. 
   So I'm either a fool or I deserve this award. Maybe both.
   Now, as the proud winner of the first Grace Metalious You Can Do It Award, I have another Grace M. bobblehead waiting in reserve, to award to some other deserving writer who might need a word or two (or a nod of the head) of encouragement. How about you? Any awards you've given yourself? Or wish someone else would? I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Dollhouse. The Crawlspace. The Cover.

This is a time for new beginnings for me, so I'd like to welcome you to my new, reinvigorated blog. I don't know how often I'll post, but I plan to write from time to time and I have a new book to talk about.  As a mystery writer, I have transitioned from my usual series to publishing my first suspense thriller, The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace. At times, it's been a difficult-yet-fascinating journey, from the first draft to creating and finishing the cover. 
The finished cover.
     To be quite honest, Dollhouse has been my White Whale, the book in my head, the book I have wanted to write for a very long time. It remained elusive because there always seemed to be another book due in my Crime of Fashion series, and much of that time I had a full-time job (besides my book writing, another full-time job as a journalist).
      I would no more start on Dollhouse than I would have to interrupt the flow and return to Lacey Smithsonian and finish another book in my series. (Never fear, I love Lacey and will be continuing that series.) Despite the delays, I could not get Dollhouse out of my mind. 

The Title Always Comes First

     When I start writing a book, I always know certain things. For instance, I can’t start writing without knowing the title or the key characters' names. And I knew The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace was the title for this new book years before I finished writing it.
The Dollhouse under construction.
 The original dollhouse came from the home of my aunt and uncle and cousins. When they moved in, they discovered a dollhouse, full of exquisite miniature furniture, left behind in their crawlspace by the previous owners. It seemed like a very strange thing to leave behind. I was a teenager at the time, and the image stayed with me. It suggested so much to me: hidden spaces, secrets, discoveries, a lost childhood. It became a key image in this story.

     Over the years I've tried other titles, softer, harder, edgier or more “thrillery,” but it's the title that stuck. When it came time for The Cover, I didn’t want anything frilly or soft, or the Addams Family dollhouse. Perhaps I could get away without a dollhouse, or with the mere suggestion of one? But no matter what I tried, this cover needed a dollhouse. In a crawlspace! Not only that, the dollhouse had to suggest a "real" house in the story.
     My cover designer for Dollhouse is the talented Robert Williams, who edits my manuscripts and masters my website. He's also my husband and partner in Lethal Black Dress Press, our publishing endeavor, and he designed the covers for The Children Didn’t See Anything and The Last Goodbye of Harris Turner. We already had a dark, creepy crawlspace in our own house, so all we needed was just the right dollhouse. No problem! Right? 
Setting up the photo shoot in our crawlspace.

     Stock photos of generic dollhouses didn't work for us; neither did a real dollhouse via eBay. Our best find on Craigslist was too big to fit in our car, which the dollhouse owner proceeded to insult. (“Is that your ONLY car?!”) Only one option left: Build the #$%!&! dollhouse ourselves! It tested our patience, our dining room table, and the very fiber of our beings for three solid weeks, leaving in its wake sawdust, hot glue glop, paint smears, and frayed nerves. 
Donning hard hat and suffering for my art.

     But that was just the beginning. Donning hard hats and our new dollhouse, and grabbing lights, cameras, dolls, and tripods, we crawled into our gloomy crawlspace to set the scene, dress and light the dollhouse, cover ourselves in cobwebs, and take hundreds of pictures in the dirt and dust. Then all Bob had to do was choose the right frame out of 998 (or so), perform some digital image magic, and match it to the right composition, fonts, and color palette to create just the right look: Cool but hot, shadowy but eye-popping, gloomy yet glowing, as if lit from within.
     All things considered, it was easy! No, not really, but we think it was worth it. 
     The Dollhouse in the Crawlspace is available as an ebook now, and will be in trade paperback by the end of August.