Thursday, January 31, 2008

New Harlequin Romance Has Me Written All Over It -- Literally

Look What the Postman Brought In

Recently, I got the book I'd been waiting for in the mail from It represents perhaps the oddest thing I've ever written: the back cover blurb for a Harlequin Intrigue romance.

I'd practically forgotten about it, until I was going through emails and found my anxious notes to my editor at Harlequin.

You ask what inspired a "serious" journalist who's contributed to business magazines and major newspapers to write a romance blurb? I saw an ad that they were looking for people to contribute blurbs. And that it paid, of course.

I had to write a sample blurb when I was trying out for the gig. I didn't necessarily need the sample books they sent me, as I had bought an entire boxful at a garage sale years earlier, determined that I could write at least as well as the people in the box.

But it turns out -- there's an art to it. They give you a sheet with a list of things to emphasize -- or not. That sort of thing.

So let me tantalize you with the "back cover blurb" I wrote for Six Gun Investigation by Mallory Kane. (see Mallory's website, or check out her blogs at

Zane McKinney had come home to Justice, Texas, to solve a murder -NOT to fall in love. Investigative reporter Anna Wallace had arrived in Justice to find her long-lost sister murdered ... and herself a prime suspect. Thanks to Texas Ranger Zane McKinney, though, her name was quickly cleared. But then long-buried secrets began to unravel and Anna's own life was threatened.

Now, don't miss the suspense as carried out in the ellipsis -- I think that's what dot-dot-dot means, in addition to being part of the signal for SOS, which for some reason makes sense here. Zane had a personal stake in discovering the murderer's real identity. Torn between honor and guilty shame, he was immediately drawn to the woman targeted as the next murder victim. A woman who could hold the key to the truth if she'd let down her guard before she took the answers to her grave ... I'm particularly fond of the "torn between honor and guilty shame" part. Very poetic. That was my idea.

Did It Work?
Okay, so now you want to buy the book, right? My job is done here. No? Okay, open the book and read on and see if that don't melt your butter ... This tidbit from the inside -- is not the tidbit I picked out, but more salacious, perhaps. I thought the idea was to pick out the most literary prose. You be the judge.
"How am I supposed to conduct my investigation when I have to spend all my time worrying about you?" His face was mere inches from hers, his blue eyes smoky and intense. "You don't-" she started, but her voice was swallowed up by the pounding of her heart. "You don't have to worry about me." He touched her bruised neck with a surprisingly gentle fingertip. My observation at this point is -- Ouch. Step away from the bruised neck -- ouch. Quit that.

"Look at this. Of course I have to worry. If something happened to you, I'd-" see the artistry of the half-finished sentences -- just like in the soap operas, where people stop talking so as to leave things unsaid and create more misunderstandings. It helps make the story three times as long. Try this with your husband or the clerk at Wal-Mart. It's fun. Anna raised her head, meeting his gaze. His eyes lingered on her lips as his fingers slid around the back of her neck. She melted inside, overwhelmed by his gentle touch, his quiet, caring words, the naked yearning in his eyes. More naked yearning -- please, not tonight. I have a bruised neck. Reality tried to break the spell his tenderness had cast. Not him, her brain scolded. Not Texas Ranger Zane McKinney. She had every reason to hate him and no reason at all to trust him. She pulled away from his hypnotic touch. "I'd better get back to my room." You think?? "You're not going anywhere. I can't trust you out of my sight, so you're sleeping here." Oh, right, it's the old "it's safer if you sleep at my place" line, the relational equivalent of oceanfront property in Arizona. Whew. Talk about a cliffhanger! Wonder what will happen next ...

I will also tell you that even though the guy in the book acts like no man you or I have ever met, and if a woman were to meet one who was that intuitive and sweet and sincere, that might take all the fun out of it, the heroine overlooked all when he launched his hours-long line of moves that left her in
"a boneless heap"
on his chest. Oh dear. Now, what was that age-old debate between wordsmiths? Oh yes -- now, if she were a chicken, would she be "boned" or "deboned"?
And Zane, also known as the hunk on the cover, looks like no North Texas man I've seen. For what it's (Fort) Worth. Maybe Kevin Costner meets Dennis Quaid in a young Schwarzenegger's bod?

Anyway, I will include a link to this wonderful book-- okay, so it's not War and Peace or even The Devil Wears Prada (which were both overrated if you ask me) -- in case you have an overwhelming -- perhaps even a naked -- desire to read it. My son pronounced it full of smut, in the way that only a 15-year-old can, so take that under advisement. The book is hardly a bodice-ripper, I should say. And of course, I didn't tell him that that's the very thing some folks enjoy in a little escapist reading in Romanceland ... (notice the ellipse.)

Perhaps the oddest thing is that in the process of reading the book I found a major continuity gaffe and sent dire warnings of this rip in the very fabric of the book -- and they either ignored my warnings or had already printed the inside of the book, because it got left in! Ha! See if you can spot the slip when you read it. Hint: it has to do with the secret the corpse holds that no one knows yet -- and the minister spilling it at the funeral. Before no one knows. And no one notices.

Get your own copy of Harlequin Intrigue's Six-Gun Investigation here:

Want to know what Six-Gun Investigation author Mallory Kane thinks of this blog? Read her response here:

Here's some advice from eZine's Mayra Calvani on writing book blurbs for your own or someone else's masterpiece:

or check out Agent Kristin's amusing and informative take on book blurbs at Pub Rants:

-- J. Louise Larson

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Begging Route to Working in Newspaper

I got into print by begging.

With me quaking in my figurative boots in front of his paper-stacked desk, Jack King looked up only momentarily from his desk, peering at me over thick glasses. Go to the courthouse, he said. He needed someone there. "I don't know if you'll like it," he said in a strong Texas drawl, then returned to banging the keys on his ancient computer, his sharply angled elbows flailing.

He didn't really seem to mind what I filed, as long as he had something to put in the paper. Some of the other writers coasted under a well-established rule of benign neglect -- but I was 27 and ambitious and had catching up to do. So I'd file one, two or even three stories a day, taking on enterprise pieces not particularly related to my courthouse post. Money laundering, a near-mythic tiny border town, Mexican abortions, I would write about anything.

Kind people like Bob Fatheree taught me some of the ropes as I went, but I was unformed by rules and unencumbered by overmuch formal journalism training. I didn't know what an inverted pyramid was. I used dashes like they were the glue holding the world together. I'd take a single piece of advice -- "Make your lead line interesting" -- and extract every bit of wisdom from it. My favorite lead of all time? About a lawsuit against a toystore chain that had inadvertently sold children's videos that had been recorded (incompletely, unfortunately) over porn.

One single, understated word lead line:


Jack King gave me unparalleled freedom. He seemed to have an amused curiosity about what in the world I would turn in next. Once I filed a story that was so long it pretty much had chapters -- it was full of sordid details about Dr. Broekel, a physician who had jumped bail after conviction but before being sentenced.

His crime? Depended on who you talked to, but the jury concluded he had molested a number of his foster and/or adopted children. I'm thinking that number was 18.

His ex-wife came to me looking for a story to light the fire under the powers that be. It seemed no one had remembered either to put out or to attended to a warrant for his arrest, and he had been doing medical mission work in Guatemala for a couple years, free as a bird, not even so much as handcuffs awaiting him at home.

I turned in a real clunker of a piece -- and Jack came storming out of his office, exasperated, cussing as I recall, throwing his blade-thin arms in the air. "This story is 125 inches long. I can't just cut this! Who's going to read all this?" I told him I couldn't cut it, either -- I wouldn't know where to start -- and he stormed back into his office and laid it on the page. And then it jumped. And it jumped. And it jumped. Again.

Since Broekel was from San Diego, I sold a version of the same piece to the San Diego paper for $200 or something. They pretty much had the same complaint about cutting it, but they didn't have the luxury of multiple jumps. There was a hitch, though -- there was a labor dispute at the paper, so I wouldn't get a byline, or maybe just a contributing byline. Send me the check, I said.

So the piece I wrote spawned a flurry of activity. Broekel's ex made the media rounds -- Sally Jessy Raphael gave my piece credit when her show did a segment about it -- and sooner or later, an embarrassed Uncle Sam went down to Guatemala to collect the miscreant doc. They brought him back to Hidalgo County for sentencing, and I managed to get into the jail for an interview.

It was Christmastime, if I remember right, which meant golfing weather in the Rio Grande Valley, and a sunny trip for federal agents looking for redemption. Dr. Broekel was a mild, Santa-looking fellow with twinkling blue eyes, but an orange inmates suit instead of the jolly red one -- and lumpy, fatty tumors on his lower arms above the handcuffs to spoil the Norman Rockwell picture. Other than appearing somewhat badly drawn, he looked harmless enough.

He had been doing just fine in Guatemala, he said, until some reporter wrote an article and got people all stirred up and looking for him. "Is that so?" I asked, eyes wide as possible.

After my mammoth work on Broekel hit the Sunday rack, a letter accusing me of being worthy of working at the National Enquirer soon followed. My sin, the writer flamed with considerable vitreol, was insulting Dr. Broekel's faith. He was, as I recall, a Seventh Day Adventist, and I had made reference to "his twisted faith." I hadn't meant to call the entire body twisted, I just meant HIS personal faith had to be at least a little out of whack since, after all, he'd jumped bail instead of facing the legal music and in view of what he was accused of. Please.

It was my first hate mail.

I've learned to cut monster stories down to size since that epic piece on the twisted doc. And I'm a little more careful about who or what I call "twisted."

And I never did get to work for the Enquirer. But that's how I took the begging route to newspaper.

My Brief Career In Broadcasting

Some fledgling writers I've known have had trouble getting started. I know what that's like -- I got my first break in sheer desperation, throwing myself at the mercy of the editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, promising Jack King I'd write anything, obituaries, ads, anything -- just give me a job.

See, I'd really only done radio -- and half that time was spent as a country music announcer, where much of my verbalization was limited to time, temperature and something snappy and forgettable about twangy cheatin' songs and the occasional interview, if I begged. I had a pleasant but forgettable voice -- not the kind you wanted in radio, the kind that sounded like you'd been smoking for centuries -- but the farmers who tended their milk cows in the middle of the night and the truckers up north tuned in faithfully for Lefty Frizzell and Dolly Parton.

One night, after doing live remotes at a fishing tournament and way too much sun and way too much diet soft drink and definitely too much fishing talk, I put an album on for the album hour. I had the station all to myself, and pretty much the airwaves too -- and the mike was turned on, so I couldn't hear the phone. I passed out. Just laid my head down on the desk and a cushion of oblivion.

I woke up 45 minutes later in a little puddle of spit to the sound of the late, great, soused Hank Williams, Sr., long since finished wailing about being so lonesome he could cry, reduced to a simple, repetitive "thwp, thwp, thwp" which is an approximate transliteration of the sound a 33 rpm record makes when it goes around and around for, oh, I'd say half an hour maybe? Disoriented and groggy, I made three befuddled runs at doing a station break, sports and weather before turning the mike off -- at which point I noticed the phone light board blinking like Times Square with hiccups. "Lady, you okay?" More than okay. Fully rested.

Oh, and I was a "host/producer" at a cable station, where I hosted the most boring talking heads show on the air. Occasionally I was camerawoman for my friend Susan's offbeat public information show where she read public service announcements wearing a dramatic hot pink mermaid dress and looked a little like a Betty Boop impression of Barbara Walters.

My biggest editorial stand there was insisting that a teen punk host who didn't know anybetter turn his T-shirt around because it read, in big letters, "F*** METRIC." Only without the asterisks. I was nominated for an award, once -- I think for managing to talk the elusive publisher of the local daily newspaper, into "coming onto my show." Never been done before. He was so soft-spoken and I so awe-struckedly polite, we just kind of both faded into the background. It was basically 20 minutes of torture for both of us. Needless to say, I didn't win the award.

Come to think of it, I did have a brief stint as a radio news director at a fabulous little radio station in a tiny town. It was a great station -- the kind that caters to a listenership so small, there is a different sound depending on the time of day you're listening. Livestock reports, hick country, rock oldies, pop for the young'uns.

This was my all-time favorite job. I got to do everything -- newscasts, breaking news when the Catholic church burned to the ground (I was somehow able to resist using the phrase Holy Smoke! but it took discipline). I even used my almost-useless talent for voiceover to read a Christmas story from the point of view of an elderly pioneer woman. I never did get to use my Sean Connery impression, though.

Funnest perhaps was the live on-air debate between candidates for member of the legislative assembly (this was Canada.) It was a triple-coup for the radio station -- no one else had thought of it, and we made the cover of the local newspaper and the first item on the evening TV news. Most embarrassing moment? No tape delay, so the guy who called in and drunkenly asked for a hangover remedy caught me (and my listeners, by default) by total surprise. "Tomato juice?" I proffered before changing the subject in total awkwardness.

Heady days indeed. But I fostered an early willingness to do two things -- ask anybody anything, and never say no to an idea that seems like it has even the slightest chance. I adhere to that philosophy today.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Scott Turow, the legal thriller himself, talks with J. Louise Larson about his writing process

Scott Turow's legal thrillers have been translated into more than 25 languages and sold 25 million copies worldwide. His first novel, Presumed Innocent, was made into a film starring Harrison Ford.

Still a practicing lawyer (Turow is a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal), Turow also writes nonfiction about his own profession: His first book, One L documents his first year at Harvard Law School. Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty was published in 2003.

After a recent reading and signing in Dallas, Turow spoke with me.

J. Louise Larson: Your latest novel, Ordinary Heroes, takes readers into the territory of history. Talk about bringing history into your work.

Turow: Half of The Law of Our Fathers was set in California in the 1970s and required quite a bit of research. Of course, World War II was a period when I was not alive. I enjoyed the research more than I expected. ... If there's something that bores you to dig into, you can leave it out. And there are advantages. History sets boundaries that don't exist in contemporary fiction. The war in Europe was going to end in May 1945. I had no decision about that.

J. Louise Larson: Kindle County and its recurring characters could be considered a study in establishing a setting and people readers can get into. Why did you create a fictional tri-cities area and how does that work for you as a writer?

Turow: Kindle County was created by accident. Presumed Innocent was originally set in Boston, but I spent so long writing it that Chicago, where we were living for years by then, had infiltrated the setting. So Kindle County was born. When I decided to write next about Sandy Stern, the lawyer in Presumed Innocent, I had no choice about staying there. By now I've taken up permanent residence.

J. Louise Larson: You're a practicing attorney and many of your characters are attorneys. Is this “writing about what you know,” truly something you're fascinated with, or both?

Turow: I do like lawyers, God save me, but I like the law as a subject even more. The struggle of the law to impose reason on life is both morally worthy and frequently impossible. It's a wonderful theme.

J. Louise Larson: How did you get started as a writer? Your memoir of law school, One L, is a cult favorite among those who have been there or are considering being there.

Turow: I got my start as a writer in college, at Amherst College, where I was given my senior year off to write fiction fulltime, under the guidance of Tillie Olsen, Leo Marx, and David Sofield. After that I was a writing fellow at Stanford, and a lecturer at the Creative Writing Center after that. Having channeled my talents a little made it possible for me to write while amid the law school hothouse. It would be a tough environment in which to start.

J. Louise Larson: Tell us about your writing routine—environment, research, process, whatever. How do you get from the seed of an idea to a finished manuscript?

Turow: It's very haphazard. I think for a long time, then I start writing fragments, pieces of scenes, descriptions of characters, background, patches of dialogue. It's kind of like the nebulae swirling to become stars. Things accrete, eventually moving toward a shape. I write principally at home, but have been known to pull out my laptop anywhere, including the commuter train, airplanes, but very, very seldom in the law office.

J. Louise Larson: What makes a great read? Who do you read?

Turow: A coherent imagined world makes for great fiction, a world compelling in its details. I read more "serious" fiction than anything else. Recently, I've liked Benjamin Kunkle's Indecision, and was impressed by Banville's The Sea.

J. Louise Larson: What advice would you give a fledgling writer?

Turow: Just do it. Writers write. As my friend Tom Zigal, a Texas novelist, puts it: "You've gotta log a lot of pages to learn how to do it." Learning how to connect thought and feeling to words takes practice, just like anything else in life worth doing. (This interview was originally conducted for an article for