The Pause

When I catch myself pushing on and on, from one task to the next, I’ve intuitively begun to pause in between and do nothing. A few silent seconds of breathing and gazing at whatever’s in front of me changes everything. Then I carry on with greater equanimity and mindfulness.

Teaching yoga, I bring students back to a neutral pose between more challenging ones,  revisiting tadasana between warrior poses or dandasana between seated twists. In stillness and symmetry, we can feel the aftereffects of the previous asana.

Pausing my run for a sip of water at the top of a hill, I discovered the clouds in the north were no longer distant but moving in and thundering, bringing the imminent blessing of rain to the desert. A multitude of yuccas’ spikes of bell-like blossoms stood out, green-white against the blue-gray sky.

The space between each breath, neither inhalation nor exhalation; the space between each thought, neither this thought nor that; the airborne space between each running step; the pause between lightning and thunder; the line breaks in poems, the rests in music; the dark sky between the stars, the blue sky between the clouds. Sacred space.

More from the Archives of the Little Pink Phone: Character Insight

When I found pictures of the stairway descending from the mesa at Acoma, I recognized an image I used in Ghost Sickness, the fifth Mae Martin mystery, and looked for the scene that featured it. In my search for the word “stair,” I assumed I would find the gallery scene with the paintings of the stairway.

 The stairway

I found it, but first, I discovered a connection I hadn’t consciously created. A major character in the book, Acoma Pueblo artist Florencia Mirabal, left her family—one of the last families to live on the high mesa—and eventually settled in Truth or Consequences. For Florencia’s house in T or C, I selected the one that is, like Acoma Pueblo, perched up high, with an extraordinary view … and a stairway. Writing the book, I was unaware of the parallels.

Mae pulled the truck into the weedy patch of dirt that qualified as a side yard, drawing near to the porch’s side steps. The front steps led to a long, winding set of stone stairs set into a steep cliff, giving the little house the feeling of a castle. On their way in, she and Niall paused on the porch, looking down at Main Street and the view of the Rio Grande and Turtleback Mountain beyond the town.

 Mae said, “This is such a perfect place for an artist to live. It must have been hard for her to leave.”

Then, I found the scenes featuring Florencia’s stairway paintings.

  • Several small canvases with what appeared to be drafts of the work she had in mind stood around her, images of a narrow rocky staircase like a crevasse in a mesa.
  • Clemens circled the room again and paused in front of a pair of paintings. Both showed the exact same scene, a stone stairway winding between steep rock walls. The perspective was slightly distorted, suggesting multiple parts of the twisting path seen from different angles. A shadow of someone’s legs and a foot lifted to take a step fell on the stairs, but no human figure was shown. One version of the painting was in shades of yellow, brown, and gold, the other in shades of blue.

Much of the mystery centers around Florencia’s art and her separation from her family. I knew I was writing that part. But I didn’t realize how her choice of a home reflected the one she left but never let go of in her paintings. And since I didn’t realize it, I think it was her choice, not mine.

The view from the stairway

Inspirations: From the Archives of the Little Pink Phone

My sister called it a Barbie phone. It’s tiny and pink, circa 2009. I used it through 2019. I’d given no thought to the pictures on it for years, and had never downloaded them while it was my working phone, so I’m not sure why I finally did—but I’m glad I did. On it, I found pictures of Truth or Consequences and Santa Fe in the years during which my books are set. The work in progress, book nine, takes place in 2013.

When I took these photos, I was collecting material for my books. I chose the settings through Mae Martin’s eyes, her delight and awe in discovering New Mexico, and the feeling of deep change and emergence that her new home gives her.

In Shaman’s Blues, Mae is often struck by the intensity of the light in Santa Fe. Encounters with outdoor art trigger key moments for her, for Jamie, and for the boy Jamie tried to help.

The nearly-dry Santa Fe River plays an important role, as does the image of the Lady of Guadalupe. I took a picture of this blue door in Santa Fe one year, and the next year the Lady had been painted on it.

As I look at the colors in my old pictures, the book’s title echoes them. Blues.

I’ve also photographed settings that had meaning to other characters or played roles in later books, and will share some in future posts.

Images in Words

A member of my book club mentioned that she skips speech tags and descriptive passages when she reads. I was amazed. Sometimes, I might be able to keep track of who’s talking without tags, but I always want to know where the scene is set. In a mystery, especially, any aspect of the layout of a house or the geography of a canyon might be essential to the plot. Also, I feel that setting affects characters. I read for immersion as well as for the plot.

I’ve read a book by one currently popular author that featured too much description of upholstery and curtains, but that same author also said too much about the food, about the details of love-making, about the clothes characters wore—about everything—for my liking.

I’m now considering how I choose what to describe and what to let readers imagine. Is the setting so ordinary that “small town” or “café”  will suffice, or is it so off-beat that readers would never imagine it without help? Does the image have symbolic or evocative meaning? Does it reveal something deeper about the story? Does it help the reader enter the character’s experience? Is it necessary to give the scene form and grounding? Smell and sound can touch emotions. And while I find excessive food description gratuitous, taste is part of the sensory wholeness of certain scenes. So is weather. There are writers who scarcely describe characters, but how we look—both naturally and through self-presentation—affects how we interact with the world.

Now I’m curious. Do you skip descriptions when you read? If you’re a writer, how do you choose what to describe?

Boxed Set Sale, Book Club Discussion Questions, and Work in Progress

The boxed set of the first three Mae Martin Psychic Mysteries is on sale for $2.99 through April 26th.

Is your book club reading either The Calling or Shaman’s Blues? These have become book club choices, I think, because of their genre-spanning qualities, with elements of women’s fiction, mystery, and the mystical/paranormal. After discovering how much my book club likes using the suggested questions for books, I’ve created a Book Club Discussion Question page on my web site. (I’ll eventually get around to adding the link to the end matter of the books. So far, I’ve added the task to my to-do list.)

Book nine in the Mae Martin series is in progress. I’m a slow writer, so it will probably take another year to bring it to its final form. Using the almost-finished first draft and an earlier, unfinished half draft as foundations, I’m creating anew while revising and recycling the earlier material. Always an adventure—following where the characters lead me.

One Perfect Day

Spring in New Mexico is pretty rough. The humidity feels like it’s below zero and wind averages twenty miles per hour, day after day. Some days are windier, and things fly around that were never meant to fly, along with a lot of dust and sand. It started early this year, in mid-February, cutting off a good two weeks of our beautiful, gentle winter.

Suddenly, a winter day appeared in March. Fifty-nine degrees. No wind. When I started my run, there was hint of petrichor in the air, the scent of rain. None fell, but it was a sweet moment. The clouds parted, the sun beamed warmth between them, and spring beauty I tend to overlook when distracted by enduring the wind emerged to my attention. Small green plants pushing up in the desert despite lack of rain. Quail and doves and roadrunners calling out to their kind, and quail darting across the trail. A little beige ground squirrel running at full speed, its tail flying out behind it.

Every step and every breath was pure delight. Neither hot nor cold. No strain, no suffering. Just bliss and beauty. The touch of the sun brought pleasure with no “in spite of.”

Then I did my plant care chores as no chore at all, watering fruit trees and garden plants for neighbors who are often away. The plum tree was in full bloom. Bees buzzed in it and in the blossoms of the cottonwood trees. Spring-like pleasure without the stress of normal spring. The wind was due back the next day, and knowing this, I basked in every second. One perfect day.

Can I cherish every day the same way?

Writers Don’t Work Alone

My first completed manuscript was awful. I’ve saved it, but shared it with no one. It was an exercise is completing a plot and proving to myself I could do it. My second completed manuscript was awful, too, but I thought it was better, and I shared it with my first writing critique partners, fellow members of the Guppies (Great Unpublished) subgroup of Sisters in Crime.

I was so lucky. One person hated it and didn’t finish it, and her harsh critique was pretty accurate. The other found the strengths in the mess, the gems in the muck, and supported me. She loved my characters so much she took an incredible amount of time to graciously point out my beginner writing mistakes and to explain why they were mistakes. She was under no obligation to work that hard for no pay. Yet she did. She was more experienced, and she saw promise in this beginner.

My first book, The Calling, emerged from that manuscript a few years later. It has many of the same characters. It has the same theme. But not the same plot. My style and structure improved. I read books on writing, took classes on writing, and worked with additional critique partners. With all that the help over the years of revision and polishing, I crafted a solid, favorably-reviewed book.

This week, I finished a critique of a first-time novelist’s manuscript. I’ve read three versions of it, investing in this book the way my early critique partner invested in mine. The author is gifted. She made newbie errors, but I could see the gems beneath them, as could her other beta readers. She had an original idea, fascinating characters, and outstanding research. I’ve been a published author for going on ten years now. It felt good to “pay it forward.” I may be alone at my desk tonight, but not a single book I’ve published has truly been written alone.

Review: Born and Raised in Space; the Legacy of Two Copper Mining Towns : Two Towns That Disappeared, Santa Rita NM and Morenci AZ

This memoir, told in short vignettes with often humorous lessons at the end of each, is an adventure as well as an intimate exploration of a man’s life from childhood to his elder years. The author portrays the mining towns where he grew up, Santa Rita NM and Morenci AZ, vividly. History is made up the lives of ordinary people, and such a close look at one life makes it clear that no one, really, is ordinary. Regular folks are colorful, original, and unique. This personal history also reminded me how much the world and the state of New Mexico have changed in one lifetime, how different the mid twentieth century was from the early twenty-first century, culturally, socially, and technologically.

Sanchez is fearlessly honest and impressively resilient. If he did something foolish as a boy or as a college student, he tells you. If his career or his love life went well—or not—he tells you. Reading this book is like hanging out with a great raconteur, a man with a long life, a sharp memory, and a willingness to take chances. An electrical engineer, he defies any stereotype of engineers as being on the boring side. I carried this story with me as my EV charging station read, so I was often reading it in public places and laughing out loud.

The author and his wife had the table across from mine at an event for local authors in Las Cruces, NM, and the subtitles and the cover picture on his book fascinated me so much I forgot to ask about the main title. I wish I had, because I don’t know what it means. Born and raised in space? Oh well. If you read the book and figure this out, let me know.

Flimflam, Thimblerig, and Bunko—Don’t Let Them Happen to You.

Every unpublished author wants to be published. Smart people can be persuaded by schemes designed to exploit that desire when they don’t know what to look out for in order to protect themselves,

The first and most important step in avoiding such missteps is to join a professional organization for writers, preferably one for your genre. I joined Sisters in Crime, an organization for mystery writers, before I finished my first book. I spent five years working on it while getting acquainted (online) with established authors, both traditionally published and self-published, as well as other newbies. Through SinC’s Guppies group (The Great Unpublished), I joined critique groups and did manuscript swaps. Many successful authors stay in the Guppies to mentor newcomers and give guidance. I found my editor and my cover designer through the group. And I learned much that enabled me to avoid trouble on the path to bringing the first book out.

This article examines areas where trouble may lurk and also where it can be avoided: Publishers, Agents, Self-Publishing, and Contests and Anthologies


Characteristics of legitimate, traditional publishers

This type of publisher doesn’t charge you anything. They make money selling your book. Most pay advances, and most require submission from agents. A few small presses take direct submissions, and some don’t pay advances. But they don’t charge the author any fees. A traditional publisher is selective and invests in you. They take care of editing, cover design, and marketing—though you’ll probably have to supplement the marketing.

Read the fine print in a contract with a traditional publisher. When do the rights to a book revert to you? If it goes out of print or is never published, do you get it back? You can sign with a great small press, do well with them, and then they close their doors. Find out what would happen in that case. A number of currently self-published authors were formerly trad pub and got their rights back after their publisher dropped their series or went out of business.

Characteristics of questionable publishers

Any of the following can be a red flag: They require you to buy or to presell a contracted number of copies of your book before you can earn royalties, or you only earn royalties after X number of books have sold—despite being paid no advance. They charge for editing, formatting, cover design, or other work that would be provided by a traditional publisher. You are pressured to buy add-ons such as marketing services. They run ads or send emails inviting you to submit your work and become a published author.

These publishers make money off author fees, not book sales. They often do no marketing. In some cases, you never even get the copies of your book they required you to purchase.

If you do get them, it can be hard to sell fifty—or two hundred—copies of a paperback by an unknown author. Chain stores get their stock from distributors which carry books that are predicted to sell. Small, independent stores have more flexibility, but if they choose to carry your books, most will take them on consignment, not buy them from you. Best case scenario: a store buys a few from you and then sells them.

Vanity Presses

These publishers will produce books such as a memoir to share with family or a poetry collection for your local poetry club to sell for charity. There’s no pretense of creating something for stores or for national sales. This is a reasonable business model, as long as you know you’re dealing with a vanity press. If all you want is small number of books for family and friends, and the prices are moderate, a vanity press may be suitable. Problems occur when businesses operate like vanity presses and try to pass for traditional publishers.


They are go-betweens who work to get a traditional publishing house to consider your book. The agent only earns a commission if they sell your book. They don’t charge upfront fees. Like traditional publishers, literary agents are highly selective. It takes time and effort to get one to represent you. Some flimflammers have been impersonating well-known literary agents and soliciting authors’ business. Make sure you’re working with a reputable agent who has a record of selling books, and that they are who they say they are.

Self-Published Authors: what you do and don’t need

What you need: an editor—possibly a structural or developmental editor— and definitely a line editor, a proofreader, a cover artist, and several critique partners or beta readers.

Get recommendations for all of the above from the author group you joined. Don’t pick someone from Goodreads or from an ad. I’ve read books by indie authors who’d paid $2,000 to an “editor” who did nothing more than fix the typos. Proofreading is not editing. It’s done after editing.

Wide distribution is in your long-term best interest: Most of your sales will be eBooks. You set the prices, decide when to offer discounts, or when to give away an eBook for free, etc. It’s best to distribute and publish to all eBook platforms, not just Amazon. Don’t put all your eggs in that one basket. While Amazon generally sells more books, their customer service for authors is limited, and if you accidentally trigger some rule that gets your book unpublished or your reviews removed, you don’t want to vanish entirely. Also, I’ve had months when my sales on Apple exceeded my sales on Amazon. Some authors will put a book in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited for three months in order to get reviews and then distribute widely. You can upload a book directly to Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple or go through an aggregator like Draft2Digital. (They merged with Smashwords, which used to be the other option for distribution and still has its own eBook store.) Draft2Digital/Smashwords will distribute to library services like Overdrive, Hoopla and others, as well Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Scribd, and a number of international eBook stores.

What you don’t need and why:

A stock of hundreds of paperbacks. Paperback sales in stores are minimal for authors who aren’t traditionally published, as noted above. KDP Print, Ingram Spark, and Draft2Digital Print are POD (print on demand). You only need to keep a few copies of each book on hand for local sales and books signings.

 A marketing service. You don’t need a professional helper to purchase ads. Paid advertising is one of the simpler things you’ll do. Your social media accounts and your newsletter should be in your own voice. Marketing services may claim to offer search engine optimization or make other dubious promises like a Bookbub Featured Deal. Learn to do the marketing yourself. Read a book on how to do it. Subscribe to newsletters from David Gaughran, Dave Chesson , and others who give free advice (as well as sell books or products). Read the Bookbub blog and the Kobo Writing Life blog. Learn from fellow authors in that group you joined.

A formatter. If you self-publish the way most authors do, you only have to do some basic things related to font size and white space to set up a Word document that Draft2Digital /Smashwords can format. There’s no charge for formatting. If you use them to distribute your eBooks (and/or publish paperbacks), they take a small commission from your royalties for all the services they provide. Even if you upload directly to Amazon or some other stores, you’ll probably want D2D /Smashwords for library distribution, so you might as well format there as well. Then upload your formatted book elsewhere as needed.

A fee-based full-scale self-publishing service. There are services that package the needs of self-publishing, such as editing, cover design, formatting, printing, and distribution. They’re likely to cost more than DIY indie publishing, and you may have less control over your choice of an editor or cover designer than if you hire your own. Everything the self-pub service company does for you can be done for the same or lower costs with more control when you hire free-lance. Shop around. Get recommendations from that group you joined. If you do everything yourself instead of through a self-pub service, you’ll be ready and able when you want to update anything from the backmatter to the cover to correcting two typos an alert reader told you about.

Contests, Awards, and Anthologies

Many contests are money-makers for those who run them, but of little to no benefit to those who enter. If you have to pay more than twenty dollars to enter a contest or be considered for an award, if you lose the rights to your short story or essay even if it’s never published or goes into an obscure volume that’s never marketed, or if you have to buy copies of the anthology in which it’s published, don’t enter.

The Ultimate Resource: Writer Beware

This web site will give you far more detail than I can. Click on every link and read in depth.

A good article from an author’s blog, one of the best blogs for writers to follow:

Pirate Flags in the Book World

A member of my book club asked how she could tell if a web site was offering pirated books. If such an avid reader didn’t know, it’s likely that she’s not alone. So here’s a brief summary of eBook pirate flags. For your safety, steer clear when you see them.

If you find a site that offers eBooks and PDFs of books free, and nothing but free, you have probably found a pirate site. If they offer best sellers and new releases free, you can be sure it’s not legit. If they have only a few of the books in a long series, that’s also a pirate flag. (They have not succeeded in stealing all seven or eight.) A real online bookstore will usually carry the whole series. And if later books in a series are free, not just the first one, that’s almost certainly a sign of piracy.

Pirates steal book files and cover images, or in some cases only excerpts of books. Pirates sometimes don’t really have the books at all. If the grammar and sentence structure on the web page seem a tad off, as if the site’s creator is working in English as a second language, that can be a hint that this site is housed in a country like Russia that tolerates cyber criminals. Think about it. What profit is there is giving away pirated books? There has to be an angle. That angle is exploiting the “customer” through credit card info theft, multiple types of malware, and email harvesting.

Some people share book files, thinking it’s like giving a friend a paperback after you’ve read it, but a paperback can’t reproduce forever, and there’s a risk in participating: malware. Instead of file-sharing, use the lending option on legitimate eBook platforms. I’ve known people who have two e-readers to loan one out so a friend can read what’s on it.

I found my three of my books—including the one that’s free in genuine online stores—on two pirate sites. My McAfee anti-virus program identified the sites as risky, so anyone who goes there may run into cyber trouble. If you’re an author, be careful as you check to see if your work is pirated. Just search, don’t click on links.

Pirates make it very hard to contact them or send a Digital Millennial Copyright Act take-down notice without clicking on a potentially risky link. To get around this, some authors go to the trouble of contacting the web host or asking Google to stop indexing the site in search results. If you do contact the pirate sites by email, keep in mind they may simply be harvesting email addresses to sell to spammers who will then try to sell you dubious products like paid reviews.

If you want to buy books safely, buy from legitimate, reputable outlets such as Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, Apple, and Smashwords. If you can’t afford even low-priced $3.99 and $4.99 indie titles, go the free and 99 cent sections on eBook retail sites. I’ve shopped for free Nook books that way on B&N and found a large—and safe—selection. You can also check out an eBook from your library if they have Hoopla or Overdrive or another such system. Authors deserve to get paid. And readers need to avoid risky web sites.