Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Q&A with Author Joanna Campbell Slan

I placed the names of everyone who entered the contest (both via blog comments and my email) for a copy of Paper, Scissors, Death into Ellie's purple butterfly rain boot. Congratulations to . . . Laura! And, if memory serves, this is actually the second prize you've won from this blog, though the first one was years ago and certainly doesn't disqualify you. Wasn't it it a box of novelty band-aids? This is better.

Now on to a Q&A with the author, Joanna Campbell Slan!

Writer questions:
1) How long did it take you to write Paper, Scissors, Death?

My friend Terri Thayer, author of Wild Goose Chase, once answered this by giving her age, so in my case it took 55 years. The book is the sum of all the work I've put into the craft over my lifetime. Now, the first draft took me 28 days. I sat down the first day in February--wearing my pajamas--and worked all month, devoting my attention exclusively to the book. Then, over the next two years, I re-wrote and re-wrote even though the book had been sold. My publisher, Midnight Ink, suggests a few small changes, but my skills had grown, so I cleaned up the book in a lot of ways. I probably reworked the whole manuscript four times.

2) Is this Kiki Lowenstein's first adventure, or had you worked with her before, in "practice novels" or short stories?

No, she was a completely new character.

3) How many words was your completed manuscript?

Around 85,000.

4) Did you have a hard time finding an agent?

The second agent I pitched at SleuthFest took me on. The first looked at me, scratched his head and said, "Why on earth would anyone be interested in reading about a scrapbooker?"

5) Working with a smaller press, did you get a lot of hands-on editorial assistance?

It's possible there is, but for this book, I didn't need that. Midnight Ink wanted a few changes, but not many. I think what was more valuable to me was the access to decision makers. The important part for me was being able to generate ideas and have them heard. I spoke with one of the owners yesterday, and she told me how much they valued working with authors who are willing to work hard to promote their books. In return, I value at least having them open to my ideas such as putting a coupon in the back for 50 free digital prints.

Reader questions:
1) Is CALA based on a real school? (Is it MICDS?)

It's a combination of several local private schools. But since my son went to MICDS, it had a strong influence on me. Like Kiki, I went to a podunk public school. MICDS was culture shock for me. My son got an excellent education there, and I got plenty of ideas for stories.

2) What's your favorite local scrapbooking shop?

Oh, gosh, there are so many. I love Archivers because they have a great selection, and I was just up at ScrapFest, so I met the buyers. I'm a big believer in face-to-face interaction. It changes everything. I also love Rock, Paper, Scissors in St. Charles, Red Lead on Manchester Road in St. Louis, Scrappy Ann's in Weldon Spring, The Scrapbook Garden in O' Fallon (IL), and The Inkspot of Natalie in Kirkwood. What's fascinating is how every store has its own personality. Each has its strong points, and so each continues to amaze me.

3) When can we expect to see Kiki next?

Cut, Crop & Die is scheduled for early summer, 2009.

4) I love how many things in this novel are not simple black-and-white, like Kiki and George's unusual marriage and the way many of the "bad" guys are nuanced rather than evil through and through. What did you start with when you were creating this book? Was it Kiki herself, the mystery, the marriage, or something else entirely?

It was definitely Kiki. She was very clear to me. Then Mert, her best friend, materialized and her voice was unique. Next I imagined a situation which would compel Kiki's life to change. A situation which would demand that she snoop around. For that to happen, someone near to her had to die--and her daughter had to be somewhat at risk. (And that was a fine line because I knew I couldn't stand a book where a child was in danger, so the risk had to be something else.) After I had those essentials, the pieces more or less came together. I'm a big fan of complex characters. People aren't usually all good or all bad. We struggle with our decisions, we fight to get our needs met, and on occasion we panic and make really bad choices.

5) Where do you write? Do you write full-time or do you have another job?

I have a large office in our basement. It's not as gloomy as it sounds because the lower level of our home is a walk-out, so one wall is lovely windows which look out into a forest. Writing is my full-time job now that my son is off to college.

Thank you, Joanna! Best of luck to you and Kiki.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Warning! The free book contest ends today! I'll hopefully be posting an interview with author Joanna Campbell Slan tomorrow, and will announce the winner at the same time. Last chance to enter!

Thinking of writing. My class ended this week! As you might have noticed, I'm working on my first mystery novel ever. I've been working on it for several months, and it's begun to seem . . . silly and obvious to me. Won't it be immediately obvious to everyone?!

The instructor has read my first few chapters and my complete outline. In response to the outline, he said that he was worried that "it seems a bit complex." As in - it is not a good thing to confuse your readers.

I say, hooray! Not silly and obvious, then. Perhaps I've come up with a clever plot. Now I just need to work hard to keep it clear and not confusing. But my characters are supposed to be very smart, clever people. I prefer the challenge of making a complicated mystery accessible than trying to make a simple mystery - well - mysterious. And interesting.

My story involves a little technology (but only the fun bits) and one of the characters is a Luddite, so there's plenty of opportunity for explaining and re-explaining the tricky parts. I was a little worried about page count and coming in short. Now I know I should have plenty of material. It's all good!

I've enjoyed the Gotham Writing Workshop experience, and I expect that I'll do it again. I'm taking the next session off to concentrate on my writing, though. These are mostly 10 week courses, and every week there's a lecture to read, a discussion about the lecture, an optional chat room session with the class, a homework writing assignment, and other students' submissions to critique. For each 4000 word classmate submission, I put in at least an hour of work on the critique, and there were 2-4 of them to complete each week.

All that learning and critiquing is great practice for my own work, but it also cuts into my available time for writing. So I'm looking forward to having some work time during the evenings again, in addition to my 5 beautiful, wonderful, unassailable coffee shop daylight hours.

Which resume tomorrow. So, good night!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Paper, Scissors, Death

Have you ever read a book by someone you know? It's a bit dangerous, because there's always the chance that you won't like it. Or, worse, that it will really suck. Then what do you say?

I'm no scrapbooker. In fact, I'm not very crafty at all. I know how to make neat homemade candles and fill jars with delicious recipe mixes. That's as close as I get to "craft" other than, you know, writing.

So when Joanna Campbell Slan, president of the Greater St. Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime, announced that she had a mystery publishing this month, I was thrilled for her, excited to see it, and a little bit worried. The worried part came from the fact that this is Paper, Scissors, Death, the first in a series of "Scrap-N-Craft" mysteries starring Kiki Lowenstein.

I needn't have worried. Kiki the professional victim drove me a little crazy at first, as I'm more of a (less hairy) Dodie, myself. But I loved the way Kiki's friends Dodie and Mert quickly signed her up for "Tough Tamales University, School of Hard Knocks" and toughened her right up. "No More Mrs. Nice Guy," indeed.

What I'm saying is that I was hooked from the first word to the last. I finished the book this morning, and have spent the rest of the day still thinking about Kiki's life and imagining what will happen next. The characters were real to me, the sense of place was perfect, and the mystery was solid, deftly handled.

One of my favorite things about this book was the setting. I love a good book set in St. Louis, and this one was more so than most. It wasn't just the names of the streets and malls: I know those Ladue moms! I loved how Kiki held her flashlight like she was Albert Pujols at bat when she was going after the intruder in her house. I used to live right near Kiki, Anya, and Gracie's "transitional neighborhood!" And, yes, she did manage to work, "What high school did you go to?" into the story.

But it's not just local flavor. Slan is a great writer with a real knack for description. When she's depressed, Kiki sees a November sky like mixed concrete. The whole book is full of great little observations like that. And while most of the book is very fast-paced and funny, occasionally Slan slows things down with some fabulous descriptive prose. Witness this image of an early spring trip out to Babler State Park: The earliest spring flowers - jonquils, crocus, and snowdrops - had faded on yellowing stalks. The next wave was gathering courage to burst into bloom. Bare tree branches were tipped in a watercolor wash of celery, celadon, mint, lime, and olive. In a week or two, the skyline would shout hosannah with verdant life.


But I guessed whodunnit before Kiki Lowenstein did. Will you? Here's your chance to try for free! There are three questions below. If you answer them correctly, you'll have a very good chance of winning a free copy of the book, donated by Joanna herself.

Not a big fan of cozy mysteries? Not to worry. Are you local? This is fun for the St. Louis angle, alone. There's more heft to this novel than most cozies, weighing in at 327-trade-paperback-sized pages, though it's still a very quick read. That's because there's a bit more action and violence than you might find in most cozies. And, for the romance fans, well, there's Chad. I won't say more than that.

Here's your chance.

Just answer the following questions here, in the comments. (I recommend you also pop on over to Joanna's site to sigh up for her newsletter; she won't spam you.)
  1. What is the name of Kiki Lowenstein's dog?
  2. What is Detective Detweiler's first name?
  3. What is the slogan on the coffee cup that Mert gives Kiki?

The answers can be found in the excerpt booklet, which I highly recommend! If you'd prefer to answer privately, email me at: to enter.

But wait! There's more!

Joanna Campbell Slan will be guest-blogging here a week from today. Do you have any questions you'd like her to answer? Anything you're burning to know? Leave that in comments, too. She's an expert scrapbooker as well as a great writer, so let your imagination wander.

hint: all the answers do appear somewhere in this post, though none of them are labeled . . .