Writer's Notes

Multi-tasking: Susanna Janssen

Darn and Double Darn: The Multi-tasker Mindset


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Susanna Janssen

I’m driving to the airport this beautiful autumn afternoon. I could be listening to my Italian lesson CD to make good use of time, but a pressing assignment is calling forth my multi-tasking prowess. What better way to write a blogpost about multi-tasking than to be in the act as I roar down the freeway, exercising my already-perfected skill of writing on a clipboard while keeping one hand on the wheel and both eyes on the road?
Long drives are richly productive times for me. There’s something about the act of sitting still while moving fast that fires my synapses into high creative gear. Whether it’s free-flowing ideas or a particular topic to flesh out, I can fill page after page of slanting scribble and gnarled words in the expression of prolific thoughts. My penmanship has never been pretty even with perfect posture, proper lighting and a pricey writing instrument, so deciphering the messages and the order of those dozen or so loose-leaf pages all over the passenger seat and floor of my car is always a challenge. Writing while driving is my principal multi-task to further my writing career, but it’s only one tenth of my multi-tasking pie.

dictionary and wordsI start each day convinced I have adequate blocks of time to dedicate to my big projects, and the same thing happens every time: Life gets in the way in the form of emails, social media, the need to eat and do the laundry, children and animals that beg for attention, and phone calls. Every major project requires quality focused attention, but life’s big and little necessities must be dealt with too. That’s where the other ninety percent of my multi-task capital is invested. I’m not one for hours-long phone calls, but there are a few people with whom it’s unavoidable. When one of them calls, it can go either way: “How frustrating! Aunt Bea phoned and I heard about her bee-keeping manual for two hours,” or “Aunt Bea called to chat about Bee Bliss, and you wouldn’t believe what I accomplished in those two hours! The dishwasher got unloaded, the veggies are prepped for dinner, I folded the laundry and polished the chandelier for the first time ever, the sliding door runners are sparkling clean, sixty dollars in quarters are rolled and ready for deposit, hundreds of old emails are now deleted, there’s freshly juiced grapefruit in the fridge, I filled fifty gelatin capsules with organic turmeric to ward off inflammation and chopped a bowlful of ginger to improve digestion, I touched up the black canvas on my old espadrilles with permanent marker, filed my nails, ironed two shirts, brushed the cat, and best of all, I saved at least twenty dollars by darning the toes of my socks!”
Every one of those aforementioned multitasks I have accomplished during long phone calls, and here’s the secret: I keep a list of some “back-burner”, fairly mindless chores taped to the door of my home office. When Aunt Bee rings, instead of my mood progressing from warmth, to boredom, to anxiety, I look forward to a sweet chat during a productive hour. I actually do learn secrets from this most enthusiastic lover of bees, and I have a drawerful of darned socks, plus extra time to devote to the big projects as satisfying proof that selective multi-tasking works.


Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language:

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Can one book excite the Brain, warm the Heart, tickle the Funny bone, and further a lifelong love of Reading? Wordstruck! delivers.
It’s sixty savory servings of language topics full of humor, imagination and insight that promise to nourish all those parts of you.
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Susanna Janssen

Foreign language educator, author, speaker, and newspaper columnist on words, language, cultures, and travel, Susanna Janssen is a master teacher and enthusiastic crusader for second language learning at any age to benefit one’s brain, career, bank account, and world view. She is a passionate advocate for developing a lifelong devotion to reading—a love affair that promises to be ever fresh and stimulating. Susanna continues to teach Spanish and Italian, coach foreign language learners on skill development and fluency, and inspire people of all ages and interests to keep reaching for another satisfying read.


Writer's Notes

It Takes a Village


By Thonie Hevron

You’ve all heard the African proverb (a cliché these days), “It takes a village to…” fill in your blank. My answer is “write a book.” Writers are solitary creatures—shy by nature. But if you think a writer completes their work alone, let me educate you.

Granted, most of the hard work is done solo. Charlotte Bronte hardly had a critique group to whip her text into shape. While “taking a village” may be a stretch, the support systems we have now weren’t around in their day. I refer to critique groups, beta readers, editors, and experts.

Here are a few words on my support systems:

  • I owe my growth as a writer to the members (current and past) of my critique group. They’re honest enough to say, “This just doesn’t work,” and tell me why. If I want compliments, I’d ask my mother. If I want the truth (and constructive suggestions), I ask my critique partners. To be clear, I’ve written these pages in solitude. But their review and input are part of the process. Their criticism can only improve my work—and it has.
  • Another writer notion is that writers prefer aloneness. We do. I cannot deny it. But having a group of people behind you, cheerleading, challenging, and empathetic, soothes the ouch of an agent’s rejection letter. When I joined Redwood Writers (RW—a branch of the California Writers Club) in 2006, I had two books completed and I needed to figure the next step. Between monthly speakers and workshops, I realized I had more work to do before the manuscripts were polished enough to submit to a literary professional. Through the club, I found my critique group, mentors, learned how to set and achieve goals, and many other lessons. I learned the value of networking. As my genre is mystery/thriller/police procedurals, I joined the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). I applied RW lessons here. This group was comprised of active and retired law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, and military personnel. Several publishers also belong. It was through PSWA that I found my publisher.
  • While I could write a post on each of these support systems (I think I will!), here I need to stress how important it is to put another pair of eyes on my work. I wouldn’t think of letting an agent look at a manuscript without review from two or three Beta Readers (readers who check for general critiques-flow, plotting, etc.).
  • An editor is critical. A submission should be as error-free as possible. More on that later, too.
  • I can’t live without my “experts.” I had my third novel almost half done when I found Mike Brown, a retired lieutenant from Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. I’d worked with Mike years before and re-connected on Facebook. After he looked at my outline, he said, “It couldn’t happen like that.” Sheesh. As I market heavily to law enforcement, I knew my story had to be authentic. Back to the drawing board. The result was, “With Malice Aforethought.” Yet to be published, it won PSWA’s Writers Contest second place award in the 2016 unpublished novel category.

All this before the book is even published! In the weeks that follow, two of my esteemed colleagues will present their ideas on the same topic. Be sure to check in every Friday, or better yet, subscribe to my blog post, Just the Facts, Ma’am.




Writer's Notes

What the Heck is a Beta Reader, Anyway?

What the heck is a Beta Reader?

I’m taking a break. Mostly, because it took so long to get this story down, I struggled with the last half. Eventually, the beginning became a problem, too.

The first half was easy to write because I had a clear picture of what I wanted to happen with Nick and Meredith. The storyline was less important. Then, as you may have read months ago, I connected (on Facebook) with Mike Brown. Mike and I worked together at Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO). Although my tenure was three short years (1991-1993), I remembered Mike Brown’s reputation as an experienced, educated and common sense-supervisor. When I asked him to take a look at my outline for authenticity, he was enthusiastic and helpful.

Be careful what you ask for.

FBI Profiles of Evil

Tactfully, Brown told me the story premise was all wrong. WITH MALICE AFORETHOUGHT (WMA)is set in northern Sonoma County, California. It’s a rural, sometimes remote region patrolled by the county sheriff. As a veteran of SCSO Violent Crimes Investigations (VCI) sergeant, Brown had responded to these hills for a homicide investigation just as my hero in this story, Nick Reyes, does.

So when Mike Brown said my story couldn’t happen, I listened. Enter the readers “suspension of disbelief.” To put it succinctly, a fiction author writes a situation that cannot happen in a way that makes the reader think, “This could happen.”

Lincoln 9“Suspension of disbelief” is very different from authenticity. Suspension refers mainly to situations, where authenticity is the real deal procedurally. For instance: CSI, the TV series, has frustrated so many law enforcement professionals because of their unbelievable situations.

The premise of my story just didn’t work. So I swallowed my pride, tossed the first third and set about re-structuring the story. It meant giving up carefully crafted scenes that any reader with a background in law enforcement would know weren’t the real deal. Knowing early enough to do a re-write was a blessing in disguise. WMA turned out better than I could have hoped. Still in need of polishing for authenticity, I’ve turned to my peers for their expert advice.

Above is a dramatic example of what Beta Readers can do for a story. I have chosen five retired law enforcement professionals to read my book for realism. Three were authors I met through Public Safety Writers Association—Pete Klismet, retired FBI Profiler and author of FBI DIARY-Portrait of Evil; Dave Freedland, retired Deputy Chief of Irvine Police Department and author of LINCOLN 9, and John Schembra, retired sergeant with Pleasant Hill Police Department and author of RETRIBUTION. All three men have something to offer both as writers and cops.


My last two Beta Readers are not authors. Tim Miller, retired CHP Air Operations sergeant from Napa is reading for helicopter veracity and finally but not least, Mike Brown.

I’m on pins and needles until I hear from them.

For the next month, I’m not writing although I have already plotted out the next story in my mind. I’m catching up on closet organization, yard work and other things I’ve let lapse for writing.

When I get the first manuscript back from one of the Beta Readers, you can bet I’ll drop my trowel and get to work making changes.



Writer's Notes

10 Tips for Finding an Agent

This week a friend honored me with a request for advice. I spent some time researching the answers and decided there were others who could benefit from this information. The links to blogs and websites are places I go for my advice. If you’re a writer, you may learn something. If not, skim this post and appreciate all the hard work that goes into that paperback you’re reading.


Dear Andy,

Thanks for asking for my advice. I love to tell people what to do (after all, I got paid for it for 35 years). Since your manuscript is completed, including editing, I’d go with an agent search first.

  • Several websites will offer you contact info. QueryTracker, AgentQuery and WriterDigest are all helpful. I’d check out the free ones, first.
  • Narrow the search field down by genre. Find someone interested in your genre-mystery/police procedural so you don’t waste time with an agent who only accepts romance.
  • I also cut it by only querying agents who took e- submissions versus hard copy. I want someone savvy enough to be looking to tomorrow.
  • Once you have a half dozen interesting agents, read their submission policy.
  • Follow directions to the letter as skipping a specified step can put your query in the trash. Agents get hundreds of queries every day, so a small thing like not following directions can make email triage very easy.
  • Your query text should be fairly uniform for all agents except for the opening paragraph. Assuming your friend John Grisham hasn’t referred you to his agent, you should try to establish a link with the agent. Try something like, “I see in your bio that you attended Caltech. I got my advanced degree in physics from Caltech in 1999.” or “I see in your submission policy that you are interested in steampunk YA. My new SP YA novel has been hailed by my writing professor as ‘a great example of steampunk’.”
  • Make sure you know the agent’s name and spell it correctly. Check to be sure he/she is still at the agency you are querying. Agents seem to move around a lot.
  • There are varying formats for query letters but generally they should be about 3-5 paragraphs. The above link should be helpful.
  • After you send out your query letter, keep track of who, what agency, date query sent, result (manually, on software such as QT or on an Excel spreadsheet, your choice). That way you don’t duplicate efforts in three months when your head is in a tailspin trying to remember who you queried. You also can use this for follow up emails as needed.
  • Keep writing, editing, etc. while querying. I used to send out a half-dozen a week. I rarely heard back from any but all it takes is one!
Writers Digest
Writers Digest

Writer’s Digest is also a wonderful resource for all thing pertaining to the writing life. The online version is as good as or better than the print copy. The Writer is also wonderful and has an online version. A good rule for finding a reputable agent is to look for AAR-Association of Author Representatives. They have a stringently protected code of ethics that begins with never pay for agent services. Check for membership at the above link.

Hope this helps. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not so tough. There are plenty of blogs that deal with the mechanics of finding an agent. Janet Grant’s agency Books and Such Literary Management may look like homespun calico but these folks are pros. A list of their books will tell you what kind of activity they generate. Each of their agents post on the company blog during the week, complete with Q&A. I’ve learned much from this one! Rachelle Gardner is one of my favorites. Nathan Bransford’s post from 2008 is entertaining and still pertinent. Fuse Literary is another great reference.

The trick is this—do your homework and follow directions.

Good luck! Nah, I don’t believe in luck. Get to work.

Writer's Notes

I’m on Holli Castillo’s blog today…

Check out “Twelve Question Tuesday” on Holli Castillo’s blog. I’m the featured writer.

More Street Stories Writer's Notes

Missing Persons, part 2

This week, I began a series of articles giving the real scoop on police life, rules, culture and so on. They are aimed at writers but fans of TV cop shows might also enjoy this blog post.

We began with Missing Persons (MP): capitalized because it is so important in the daily life of cops. If you get a MP call, you are tied up on paper (writing reports), searches, and follow-up for hours. You are also strictly mandated to follow certain protocols, mainly defined by the state but more often refined by your agency. If you want your character to be tied up on a priority call without fists and bullets, this is your baby!

The following are culled from the pages of many policy and procedure manuals throughout the state:

  • California law is specific that children (no matter what motive) under 14 years of age are to be entered in the National Crime Institute Computer (NCIC) within 4 hours of the report being taken.
  • The caller or reporting party is entitled to a prompt report from whatever California law enforcement agency was contacted. Reports are sent “without delay” (according to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training-POST-which does just what it says: it regulates standards and training) to the agency in which the MP lives.
  • Classifications are given by the call-taker and often set the tone for the event. If the dispatcher garners information that leads him/her to believe that the missing person is a “habitual runaway,” the report will be handled in such a way. Of course, information isn’t always given accurately and one must credit officers for critical thinking to be able to determine if something is not as originally represented.
  • Most agencies in the state have a formal procedure written in their policy books to ensure the proper actions are taken and protect them from liability.
  • Next, the officer will respond and assess the risk. This includes runaways (suicidal?), endangered (such as Alzheimer’s’ patients), suspicious circumstances, and parental abduction. Generally, they include FIRST checking the home-especially young children are often found hiding in toy boxes, under their beds or in closets. An officer will respond to the home and check it thoroughly. After making the determination the MP is not there, he/she may call in a sergeant and available patrol officers.
  • Either the officer (now determined to be the “primary” officer–the one responsible for the report–or the sergeant (depending on leadership skills) will initiate a “grid search”. This utilizes a department map of the city or area, divides it into a grid and details officers to search a square. For instance, an east side patrol officer would search North McDowell and East Washington, east to Maria Drive, north to East Madison–on the Petaluma map it would show almost an exact square.
  • Adjoining agencies will often join in the search at the request of the primary (the agency in which the MP lives). By law the local Sheriff’s Department is in charge of large searches outside city limits. In some cases of imminent peril, helicopters, search dogs and mounted Search and Rescue Unit can be deployed if available. Bear in mind, horses are a matter of concern in potential crime scenes due to the inevitability of damage to evidence. However, they can cover a lot of rugged terrain in the back country.
  • The primary officer will concentrate on gathering information such as a physical description (to be broadcast to all units), photos, and contacts with friends or nearby family. Depending on the circumstances, an officer will mobilize for a technical search by taking “scent” items–clothing recently worn by the MP. Also, electronic devices will be examined, if appropriate.
  • As the search progresses, the officer will obtain the child’s dentist’s name and contact information along with a parental release (permission for the dentist to give X-rays and records to the police)or surgeon for skeletal X-rays. If the child is not located within 30 days, this information is coded and entered into NCIC. In the event a body is found, dental records are used to confirm identity.
  • In our scenario above, it would be expected the Tribal Police, the Sheriff’s Department or both would assist in a search.
  • Other tools include “BOL” or “BOLO”–acronyms for “be on the look-out; Amber Alert; FBI; Office of Emergency Services (OES) or a number of civilian missing person agencies who assist law enforcement.

Something else: in past years, fingerprinting kids has become popular. I think it provides an unfortunate sense of protection for parents. Prints are used to confirm identity just as dental records are–on a body. Usually, the body is not alive.

It should be noted that the above procedures are general but based on my experience. I hope this helps you draw your characters more authentically.  Feel free to contact me for questions or comments.

Writer's Notes

All Fired Up

Redwood Writers Author Support and Craft Support Groups had our inaugural gathering today before the General Membership Meeting.
The Author Support concentrated on getting to know each other and deciding how the members could best support each other. Each person decided on a goal for next meeting and how to achieve it. Future topics could include: How/when do you write? What tricks have you learned to help carve out time to write? What do you do with ideas you don’t yet have time to write about?
Craft Support used a prompt to generate discussion: How do you organize your story? Do you outline? Each of the half dozen participants had a different answer. Some used outlines while others didn’t but everyone gained a different perspective on how to put together their story. A discussion began on plotting but alas, we ran out of time. Next prompts will include: characters, dialog, and developing resources.
Both groups were moderated by a member who kept participants on track (not an easy task for writers!). Leaders will vary each meeting as will those who attend. All members of Redwood Writers are encouraged to take advantage of these unique Writers Support gatherings. They are free and are held from 1pm-2:15 pm on the day of the monthly General Membership meeting in the Empire Room at the Flamingo Hotel.
I am still gathering names for critique groups. The plan is to offer the same venue and time slot to people who want to meet. In the next 3 weeks, I should have enough information to decide whether we can go forward with the critique groups at this time. I’ve also been considering who best to work in a technology discussion—maybe a panel, but that will have to wait for another day.

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