The painful birth of a mystery writer





So you want to become an author? I hate to break it to you, but what you really want is to become a publisher. Relax, it’s not as impossible as you think.

While my last book, “Reelpolitik Ideologies in American Political Film,” achieved “respectable sales” (the average U.S. nonfiction book now sells fewer than 250 copies per year), I was little comforted when a royalty check for 66 cents arrived in the mail.

I then started researching self-publishing, which has tripled, according toBowker since 2006.

Readers are being seduced by the lower cost. A traditionally published fiction trade paperback averages $16.92 and a fiction hardback at $28.73. Contrast that with an indie fiction paperback averaging $6.94 or an indie e-book at $3.18.

Moreover, self-publishing is no longer burdened with the negative vibes of the vanity press. Today, such established authors as Pulitzer-prize winner David Mamet or romance novelist Eloisa James have decided to publish themselves.

First, veteran writers are simply fed up with the lopsided division of royalties. While independent author/publishers get no advance, they now typically end up with 70 percent of sales. A standard contract with a traditional house not only stipulates that advances must be paid back, but also that royalties can only amount to 25 percent of digital sales or 7 percent to 12 percent of the bound book list price.

Second, there’s virtually no marketing for any but top-tier authors. Publishers stayed solvent in this deteriorating marketplace only by shifting more and more responsibility to authors. In fact, most book proposals now require an extensive section detailing the author’s platform, reader community and social media profile.

Third, traditional publishers insist that an author surrender too much creative control. A mystery house that shall remain nameless would have published “Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo” had I deleted sections that reviewers now identify as the book’s most compelling scenes.

Luckily for folks like me, the Big Six New York publishers created a vacuum when they decided to price their e-books too high. Jeff Bezos, never one to muff a financial opportunity, stepped up with KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and Createspace (his print-on-demand operation).

Bezos’ dirty little secret? He demands that the author/publisher do all the work. But he also returns almost all of the profits.

So merely penning a 90,000-word manuscript is only the beginning, dear author. While Microsoft Word’s bells and whistles makes life easier for the amateur scribe, all those nifty shortcuts to style or structure must be manually removed before your magnum opus can morph into an e-book.

And while in a perfect world all e-readers would employ the same format, sadly this is not the case today. If you want to make your book available for the Nook, Kindle and Apple e-reader, your manuscript must be converted three ways — and flawlessly. Are you ready to tear your hair out yet?

Yet, no indie author/publisher stands alone in this brave new world. While I was laboring on “The Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo,” I ran across a blog that doggedly argued for taking one’s Word manuscript down to bare bones before coding the paragraphing, italics, bold, diacritical marks, chapter headings, title page and photograph insertion into proper HTML.

While HTML was not the only four-letter word emanating from my mouth during the challenging procedure, Guido Henkel () was right. After my editing program ground out the final product — it was mistake-free. No gibberish appeared in the text, no gigantic print suddenly sprouted up, and all of the hyperlinks between chapters and the table of contents operated seamlessly.

Next, when my cover artist dropped out, I stumbled on step-by-step instructions for creating a single-image cover in an online post by Joleene Naylor.

My murder mystery takes place — don’t tell anybody — in a sleepy little beach town that coincidentally resembles Port Hueneme. All I had to do was dip into my iPhoto archives for a sunset shot of our pier, manipulate the color balance, superimpose the title and voilà, a sufficiently creepy cover at zero cost (not counting the Oreos I devoured to ease my ensuing frustration).

But no book can be a total DIY project. My best advice? At least hire a professional proofreader. Reviewers, you see, will call you on any typos or misspellings. Don’t let subsequent sales suffer for a few measly dollars.

If you decide to invest in a print version of your book, which the majority of author/publishers still forgo for reasons either philosophical (to harm no trees in the print process) or economic (print-on-demand setup costs can range from $300-$800), Createspace, the most popular player (57,602 titles), provides a viable option.

And just to let you know, my royalties from “The Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo” have already exceeded 66 cents.

Beverly Kelley, PhD, who writes every other week for The Star, is professor emerita in the Communication Department of California Lutheran University in Thouand Oaks. Email



Amazon tells me that The Oldest Cold Case in Port Cabrillo will be available for purchase in 12 hours.  Those of you who will be the first to purchase have my heartfelt gratitude.  When you finish reading it, please consider giving your feedback to Amazon.


Gustave Flaubert: There is no truth. There is only perception.

Gustave Flaubert:  There is no truth.  There is only perception.

My husband Jon knows that i hate beer but if he comes home and there’s an empty Oreo package on my desk and crumbs on my keyboard, he knows its been a bad writing day.


cover1The whole idea behind e-book covers is to tell you what the book is about.  The design has to look as good in a thumbnail as it does full size—so you can’t really have too much going on, image-wise.

JK Rowlings, for example, reissued her book The Cuckoo’s Calling after everybody discovered that she was really Robert Galbraith.  If you look closely at her new design, there are faces in the flashbulbs behind the title.  Yet the faces are a subtle effect.  While they are not evident in a thumbnail version,  they are also not necessary to grasp the idea that  a high fashion model is looking out from the runway .

The original cover of Cuckoo’s Calling  is much less sophisticated—a man in a trench coat silhouetted under a streetlamp on a deserted street.  It’s nicely done–but the colors are too subdued and the cliché image of the hardboiled detective is indistinguishable from other book covers in this sub-genre.

When I decided to self publish, I had contacted a fantastic artist I knew and loved to do cover, and while he seemed interested initially, he just didn’t respond to followup communiques.  Perhaps I scared him off with the untested-as-a-cover  “vision” I had been carrying around in my mind’s eye and which I tried to foist on him.

You see,  when I picture the triplet sleuths working together, they are sitting at their mother’s dining room table under a Victorian chandelier.  In an actual scene from the book,  the women are busy scavaging for dinner in the kitchen while  their three laptops, which are positioned across from each other on the table, seem to be ostensibly chatting away without them.

I actually found a copyright free version of the right kind of chandelier but the clip art of  three laptops not only required a payment but didn’t come in black.   I had also envisioned using  a multi-hued sunset I snapped myself from my deck in Port Hueneme as the background instead of white.

When I put everything together (including the Title, subtitle and author’s name) as a Power Point page, however, I discovered not only was it much too busy but I also lost too much when I shifted from landscape to portrait, which is the orientation of an e-book.

Back to the drawing board.  Fortunately, my personal iPhoto collection included another sunset that silhouetted a pier that plays a critical part in the reveal chapter of my novel. I found that the pier photo could could be cropped to the right proportions and not lose anything.  I also found that by adjusting the tint, temperature and the saturation, I could turn the ocean as red as blood, thus providing exactly the right atmosphere for a mystery novel set in a sleepy beach—just like the one in my picture.

Joleene Naylor, a prolific author with a bent toward fantasy, horror and the paranormal, has already blogged several posts about creating an e-book cover. I chose the article about creating a cover by using a free program called GIMP.   Joleene is so encouraging in her narrative while offering illustrated  step-by-step directions, I talked myself into giving cover design  a try.  I essentially modified a single image like the bare-branched tree she used for Winter Chill.

What makes everything work is the template you insert into the GIMP program.  If you keep everything inside the borders, you will achieve a cover that can be used either for a print paperback or for an e-book.  After you get the height and width perfect, the rest of the project is reduced to inserting text which is  the fun part since you can experiment with fonts and the placement of text that best employs  the darks and lights of the image.

I chose Bernard Condensed font in white for the title and author’s name.  And since the GIMP program allows you to sample colors from your photo, I discovered the purest form of yellow from the setting sun to use for both the subtitle and the simple line employed to break up the black frame.  I chose the Lucinda Handwriting font for the subtitle.

Another test of a great cover  is whether or not it works in grayscale.  Apparently some older e-readers are only in black and white, so a design that is totally dependent on colors may not work. I am pleased to report that my cover, even in grayscale, looks sufficiently gloomy and mysterious despite the lack of blood red and sun yellow.

While all the experts say you should invest big bucks in a professional design, I am more than happy with my humble efforts.  While I am leaving out all the profanity that turned my workspace blue, I think any DIY cover designers should pay heed to the warning on which most professionals, in all fields, seem to hang their hats:  “If this was so damn easy, everybody would do it.”  So please prepare yourself for extreme frustration despite Joleene Naylor‘s simplified directions and detailed graphics.  Computers  do what you tell them to do.  They do not do what you desire them to do.  And they certainly DO NOT dispense any sort of grace or understanding or emotional support.

I heartily recommend the single image design for most e-books.  My friend Leslie Lewis, who is a professional artist, laid out the most pertinent attributes of a great cover with eye-catching, simple and that subjective intangible—beautiful.  I hope that when you look at my cover, you find a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases your aesthetic senses as well.


The secret of good writing is rewriting.


More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting.  I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special.  It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.

John Irving

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.

Justice Louis Brandeis

Rewriting a novel is like putting on a bra.

Beverly M. Kelley 


While adding my bon mot or two to what these great authors had to say about rewriting might take a great deal of hubris, I believe I have found a new angle on an old subject.

Before I make my argument, you must know that I was more than adequately blessed when God handed out breasts—and that any brassiere I decide to purchase, has to be a major engineering marvel.

While most women only have a couple of hooks and eyes to fasten on their Maidenforms each morning, my bras boast nine  (count ‘em) nine fasteners with which to grapple and grapple I do.

As I was struggling the other day, it occurred to me that rewriting a novel is much like putting on a bra.  Okay, just be my straight man. Please?

Why? Because we can be so familiar with something like a well-worn bra, we miss a hook or two—even if it fastens in the front.

That is especially true when I not wearing my reading glasses.  It’s very difficult to see the tiny hooks and eyes, especially if the brassiere is black.

The same thing happens when you look at your own work.  Usually, you are so amazed at the way the words poured out of you, while everything isn’t black like my bra; it’s rose-colored. Not only must you put on some very strong prescription reality glasses, but it may take days, weeks or month for the errors—especially with respect to rhythm, grace and style—to become obvious.

I can get away with ending up with an extra hook at one end or an extra eye at the other.  The damn bra will continue to hold me up.  But don’t we always know there is something not quite right with our writing?  Don’t we sometimes feel obliged to duck into a restroom and fix it? While many of us were forced to wait for the second edition, with e-books, I’ve noticed that Amazon allows authors to issue instant updates.  When the purchaser hits the right button—all the typos disappear!

Yet, there are other times, when we just have to start all over again—when the Playtex Living bra, structurally, aesthetically or even philosophically—just doesn’t “live” the way it is supposed to.

We call “starting over” a “major rewrite” but that is not what an author dreads most. Well let me take that back, it’s pretty awful when an editor, say, demands a radical change in the content and structure of your book, you do the major rewrite, but the editor claims it still hasn’t fixed the problem. To employ a metaphor I once heard from a screenwriter—“He told me to paint it red, I painted it red, and then he told me that he hates red.” To get back to the bra metaphor, an incompetent editor (who is to be stubbornly ignored) thinks that if you switch to a different color, you will get a better fit.

While most writers are happy to massage our words—perhaps to tease out a joke or to expand the sensory experience for the reader—what an author dreads most is being told that what we have written cannot be redeemed by either major or minor rewrites.  That can be a lethal blow.  And with an assault so great, the writer shuts down completely. There should be a special place in hell for editors or critics who, without a thought to the outcome, take away all hope.

On the other hand, a savvy editor who saw the potential in my writing but was going to pass on this particular version of the manuscript cleverly pointed out that what I had submitted “might still be hanging onto the apron-strings of the first draft.”  I went on to rewrite my novel another twenty times.

While I had hoped that she wouldn’t notice that the hooks and eyes didn’t all line up, she did—even under cover of “my unique voice and delicious sense of humor.”  And she was right.  The novel is much more pointed and perky now—just like my bra.


Positives About Writing

Positives About Writing

You never know what is going to be fodder for writing. People always ask me why I volunteer with Chloe at a convalescent home. Two words: The stories. These folks have seen everything from steam-powered engines to iPhone 5. Their families are too busy to listen. It almost breaks your heart.


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