Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

30 second stories [Superbowl Ads]

by Toni McGee Causey

Today is February 1st, 2009. Superbowl Sunday. It is the day the Steelers play the Cardinals.

[Tangent alert! I have never quite understood this whole mascot-naming-thing, because one would think, given the type of team one is naming a mascot for, that the person or committee, heaven help us, who picks the mascot would've thought about just how it sounds being shouted out by a stadium full of drunk and rowdy fans. Go Cardinals! just doesn't have the visceral impact of Go Tigers or Go 'Gators or even Go Wildcats. I mean, seriously, when they picked out the mascot, were they all revved up over the idea of a bird pecking the other team to death or what? Of course, I include the Saints in the dumber than grass category of football mascots. It's not exactly like we're gonna pray our way to a championship.]

Ahem. Okay, I got that outta my system. Maybe. 

[reboot] So, today is the day of the big game, the big clash of gladiators. The classic struggle of David (Cardinals) vs. Goliath (Steelers). The timeless tale of…

Aw, hell. Superbowl Sunday. The day the coolest ads air nationally for instant hall of fame or shame. I know there have been a lot of years I couldn't have cared less about who played, but I checked in (pre-internet) to see the ads or (post internet) skipped the game altogether and waited for the ads to be put up online. This year, NBC announced that they had sold all 67 spots for a record-breaking $206 million.

I tend to fast forward through most commercials 364 days of the year, so why the avid curiosity? It's not just about the cost–a reported $2.4 to 3 million per 30-second spot. There's debate as to whether that sort of cost can ever be recouped by an ad. Can something that expensive really drive enough new customers to a product or service to make it worth the advertiser's cost? Well, some companies out there think so, though I'd be hard pressed to believe that this commercial–though it's one of my favorites–really drove a lot of consumers to their product:

And I sorta doubt this one had consumers running out to buy their product:

And I honestly cannot fathom that there was enough profit margin per item that warranted a $2.5 million 30 second spot back in 2006:

Some are just plain gross. This next one could not possibly have paid off:

(I see their website is still around. Maybe I'm not their target audience.)

But the really good commercials are practically priceless… we'll remember them for years. Maybe that means we'll buy more of that product when confronted with options at the store, or have more goodwill toward the company. 

I can't judge a commercial's success based on saturation data or spikes in sales or anything quantifiable like that. But as a writer, the thing that impresses the hell out of me is that these 30 second spots start out as simply an "idea." Maybe there's a goal to the idea, but most of the commercials tell a story, and tell it quickly. Commercials have a structure in the same way novels or shot stories or films do–they just have to do it all in 30 seconds. They have to capture your attention (set up), create interest (conflict) and have a resolution (finale). 

Budweiser's group does this exceptionally well, year after year. (The brand is so well-known, they are no longer trying to educate the public about the fact that Budweiser sells beer… they are trying to make the public feel good about choosing a Bud whenever they have the choice in beer.) One of last year's favorites:

Or, they make you smile and associate their beer with a sense of humor:

Humor, in fact, goes over really well:

(And seriously, I don't even drink Bud. Ever. But somebody over there has a great sense of humor.)

Writing a commercial is (obviously) an art unto itself. I have commercials I personally loathe, no matter the fact that they're beautifully shot and follow a three-act structure and are memorable. [We are about to start the Valentine hostage, er, holiday celebration, wherein men around the country are made to feel like crap if they don't fork over money for diamonds for the love of their lives, and women are made to feel like crap if their guy doesn't love them enough to blow a wad of money on a shiny rock. There is no sense of humor about these things, no irony, no tongue-in-cheek… just determination to bludgeon dollars out of bank accounts, using guilt. I think shiny things are fine, but let's keep some perspective.]

Anyway, writing a commercial requires such a compressed, efficient story-telling skill, they're worth examining because the really memorable ones can teach us a great deal about good story-telling. 

Set up: The opening image sets up the world:

In the rock/paper/scissors, we see an opening scene of a family-styled gathering for a picnic: sunshine, low hum of friendly people talking in clusters, picnic tables, food. This is a friendly world, one where trust is implied.

Inciting incident: Two men both grab for the last iced beer.

Conflict: Finding a fair (implied trust) method of solving who should get the beer. They opt for the tried and true friendly "rock, paper, scissors" game.

Climax: One "throws" paper, which technically "covers" or "beats" rock, but the other throws an actual rock

Resolution: The cleverest player wins.

(Message–even friendship is not worth losing the last beer over… or, smart people get the last beer, so if you're drinking a Bud, you're smart.)

The harsh reality of a commercial is that they only have a few seconds, at best, to set up the world and the conflict. We have a tad bit more room to set up our stories in our novels, but in all honesty, we don't have that much more room. I've talked to editors and agents, and sat in on panels where they've been discussing reading something new and the cold harsh truth is, we have about five pages to capture their attention. In that five pages, we need to set up the world, the characters, and the potential conflict. We don't necessarily have to show the main conflict, the inciting incident that soon, but we have to show inherent conflict in the world, something that's going to imply that a bigger problem is about to beset these characters. 

Why must we move so quickly? Well, we're selling something, whether we like it or not… we're selling them on continuing to read the next five pages, and the next five after that. The best novels don't just describe a world… they describe a world in conflict. If the point of the story is that an idyllic world is about to be upset, then some foreshadowing is necessary to keep the agent or editor from eye-rolling over the bucolic boring stasis of the world. We need to create anticipation a problem. 

The dating scene is a great example: this is a romantic date, with candles and beautiful table setting and each person seems happy to be there. But the voice-over claims that "breathing fire" is one of the new advantages to drinking Bud Light and as the guy very romantically breathes flame and lights the first candle, we are already anticipating a problem. We're already willing to forgive them their perfect world because we know it's about to be upset. 

As we're writing, we have to look at every scene for imagery, (world), conflict and stakes. Each moment has to build on the last. The "build" can be subtle or big, dark or ironic, humorous or sad, but the tension has to keep increasing, or you've reached a plateau and the reader is going to feel it and get bored. 

So, enough for today–I'm sure some of you are rooting for your favorite team (GO STEELERS) and some of you are goofing around on the internet (hi there) and some of you are off working or playing with the family. If you want to check out past years commercials, this is a very convenient site where ten years' worth are easy-to-click: Superbowl Ads

So how about you… what is YOUR favorite ad from the last few years? Or which one do you loathe?

…and some will lead…

by Toni McGee Causey

They are the people who run up the stairs in a burning building where terrorist planes have crashed. 

They are the men and women who run toward the gunshots instead of away. 

They are the medics who keep a fellow soldier from bleeding out on the field when mortar fire falls around them. 

They are the pilots quietly landing a jet in the middle of a river.

They are the passengers, helping other passengers, leaping into the water to pull someone back on the airplane wing. 


Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Grace under pressure, choices that weigh the balance of their own life against the value of others.

Flawed people. 

Allison's terrific blog about villains made me think about some of my pet peeves about heroes, and what a missed opportunity a hero sometimes is. As writers, we want people to root for our hero, we ultimately need them to be likable at some level, and we need who they are to resonate with enough readers that more and more people will identify with him/her (I am using "hero" as the generic term) so that people recommend the book to others. 

One problem I find with a lot of heroes in a lot of stories is that they turn out to be somewhat generic people. Sure, they have some quirks and individualized traits, but in and of themselves, they're not all that memorable. They feel morally compelled to do what they do and while they have some past history that makes them not-perfect, and the obstacles are fierce, they rise to the occasion to vanquish the foe. And a lot of times, this works well enough within the context of the story that I'm not thrown out, I'll be entertained enough to read to the end, but a week later, I can't remember their name. A month later, I can't remember the book. 

Hero does not have to be synonymous with heroic. As in, a character constantly leading a heroic life. They should be flawed people, sometimes awful people, with their own moments of self-centeredness, doubt, grumpiness, ailments, and bad habits. 

A second problem I have found is a bit more insidious and fascinating, in a cultural context, and that's what I have started calling the "sell sheet" for the character:

1) is curmudgeonly
2) drinks (or is in AA) or the relevant social equivalent
3) is often a loner
4) smokes (or used to) and if the latter, now uses a patch/gum to help them stop
5) had a bad childhood
6) has moments of social responsibility (doesn't drink and drive or always uses a condom or believes in gun safety) (and yes, I realize how those can be combined for comedic effect)
7) likes music (very often jazz or the blues, occasionally indie stuff no one's heard of but it sounds cool and hip)


And in and of themselves, none of the above are bad choices, but they're not going to make the character stand out. Many of us can identify with a character like that because we've either had one or more of those traits, or we know someone who's had one or more of those characteristics, and so they are familiar enough that we can step into that hero's shoes and face the obstacles with him and root for him. (Or her.)

What is often missing, though, are the essential details to make that person unique, iconic. Now, there are often more specific details than the above, of course, but I've noticed there's also a social influence at work when a writer starts choosing those details… a cultural permission slip, if you will… that makes some particulars more "acceptable" than others. What we're often missing is what Megan Hustad referred to as a person's "shadow list" — the true personal preferences people don't want to admit to.

She says:

Using consumption habits as a sort of self-expression shorthand has become so ubiquitous that we don't even blink. Hi, I'm Megan, I'm from New York, and I like the Jam, Prince, Nina Simone, mid-1990s D.C. punk, "The Colbert Report," "Little House on the Prairie," Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth," "Middlemarch," "The Moviegoer," Kazuo Ishiguro, Joan Didion's essay "On Self-Respect" and Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Too much, too soon, you say? Lately I've been thinking it's a bit too much — period. The "I like this = I'm like this" cultural moment, as Virginia Postrel succinctly put it in "The Substance of Style," has turned us into self-handicapping snobs: Since we've taken so much care to craft our own perfect list, we feel more entitled to shrug off anyone whose list doesn't similarly impress. Would you be interested in someone who identifies with"The Secret"? We're also keeping our distance from a whole array of cultural output because we think it sends the wrong message about who we are and what we want to be.

Now, Hustad goes on to talk about this in relation to the reader and the books he / she will admit to having read, but there's a larger implication: I can't help but think that, as authors, we often fall prey to this sort of self-editing because we're aware on some level that the I like this=I'm like this connection is going to occur to our readers and be applied back to the creator. In this global-media world, we're all inundated by what is fashionable, or culturally acceptable. A step deeper than that, we're sensitive to the fact that certain traits would have the connotation of "bad" or "loser" or "socially unacceptable" or "asshole" or "irredeemable." It's almost as if we pull back on those details because it's seventh grade all over again. 

It's a well-known given that certain personalities will gravitate to certain kinds of work–it's why you generally won't get a stone-rigid introvert applying for a talk-show host gig. But within that framework, a hero needs to be incredibly specific in order to be iconic, memorable. The reader–if not the other characters, at least the reader–needs to learn the hero's "shadow list" as they journey through the story. Sure, the hero may order steak while out to eat with a bunch of fellow officers, and probably orders scotch or beer when at the bar, but it's much more individual if he secretly likes to bake souffles and does a damned good job of it. But souffles are even socially acceptable–that's not a real "shadow" item, is it? See, I defaulted to that, in the writing just at this moment. No, a real shadow item is that he secretly bakes brownies or makes cream puffs or is itching to go buy some Fritos with chili and cheese. 

Like Allison said in her post, the villain has to be worthy of the hero–the villain has to be a significant enough of a challenge to matter, to drive the story forward, to raise the stakes for the hero with each forward parry the hero makes toward his goal that we don't know how to predict the outcome. But just as important, the hero has to be worthy of the villain–as unique, as flawed, as driven, as individual, and we need to get to know them deeply. Knowing their shadow list is one good way to start.

So–pick a character–your own or something you've read lately–and tell me that character's shadow list. Let's see how creative authors can get.

Free xxx webcams.

by Toni

I am always in awe when an author surprises me–particularly if they kill off a character that I liked and yet, he or she does it in such a way that it’s both a complete surprise and organic to the story. I’m also in awe when it feels like the character is so real, I’ve just read about the death of someone I actually know instead of words gathered on a page.

The ultimate goal: to have the characters so alive, people talk about them as if they know them personally.

And sometimes, I wonder… what if all of these characters did exist and could cross over into each other’s worlds?

Which then lead me to ponder, who would win… Dexter? or Hannibal?

I’d love to put Allison Brennan’s Theodore Glenn up against Lori Armstrong’s new heroine, Mercy. Y’all haven’t met Mercy yet, but you’re going to… when I read the manuscript this summer, I was not only riveted, I thought Mercy might be the only female character I’d read in a while who could out-shoot and possibly beat Bobbie Faye. Of course, Bobbie Faye would probably accidentally blow Mercy up, but then I never said this was going to be a fair fight. And then I read Zoe Sharp’s fascinating Charlie and then I thought of Karen Olson’s tough-as-nails Annie Seymour… and wow, put those four women in a bar and all hell would break loose. I seriously wish I could do that.

I’d love to see a story where Jack Reacher and Joe Pike had to collaborate. (Or, maybe better, can you imagine them ever pitted against one another?)

So let’s just have fun today… what characters would make for a great smackdown? (Who would win?) It’s completely fair to name characters from older works through the new stuff–just tell me the author and if the story is new, tell what makes the character interesting. Or tell us which characters should collaborate.

And to make this really fun, all of the commenters (except the ‘Rati members) will be eligible for a $25 Amazon or B & N gift card (winner’s choice). Winner announced next Sunday.

I believe

by Toni McGee Causey

Cornelia and I must be in hive-mind mode–I wrote this post and then went and saw her (much better) post from Saturday (today, as I write this). I, however, am not sitting in a cottage in a ski resort–I can't even pretend to have something as cool as Cornelia. Instead, I am sitting at my desk, wondering if I sever my head from my shoulders so I could quit coughing, if I'd miss it much. (I'm thinking no.) [You know you sound really incredibly crappy when you talk to a complete stranger on the phone and the first thing they say to you is, "Ohmygod, you sound so terrible!" Why thank you, AT&T, I wasn't quite suicidal yet, but I appreciate the nudge.] [It is just a common cold. How in the hell our forefathers survived colds without Kleenex (the soft kind with Aloe) and vaporizers and hot toddies, I just do not understand. It is probably a good thing I didn't have to discover the new world or we'd all be happily ensconced in France or Scotland.][Of course, with enough of the whiskey part of the toddy, I mighta jumped on the first ship over and not given a damn.]

I digress. Anyway.

Short probably rambly Declarative sentences are probably safest today.

I believe that the only real benefit to cold medicine is that it makes you just fuzzy-headed enough to not be aware of how disgusting you really are when you're full of phlegm.

I believe that the worst curse word in any language is the word "stupid" — particularly when aimed at a child.

I believe it's easy and lazy to be a cynic.

I believe hope is a fine, fine thing, but it doesn't do a damned bit of good if I'm not willing to work for that which I hope.

I believe our society will be judged two hundred years from now on how well we took care of our children and elderly.

I believe the only way we'll be around to be judged two hundred years from now is to learn to take better care of our children and our elderly.

I believe the likelihood of my tripping and falling and making a complete fool out of myself is directly proportionate to how many people are standing there to witness it. 

I believe the sole purpose of yearbooks is to warn you just how fashion-disastrous your kids are going to eventually be.

I believe the label "temporary storage unit" is a misnomer and a gateway drug for packrats the world over.

I believe if you've succeeded at everything that you've tried, then you haven't reached far enough yet and you're wasting time.

I believe that Americans often treat whining as an Olympic sport for the masses.

I believe no one's figured out everything, and anyone who tries to imply they have is either a really good actor or so full of crap, it's blocking their brain functions.

I believe Eleanor Roosevelt had it right: no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

I believe that not a single person who died yesterday was worried in their final moments about whether or not their hair looked nice or whether or not they wore the most stylish clothes or had the latest gadget.

I believe we are what we do. Period. 

I believe that if we were as worked up over the institution of marriage as we'd like to claim, then there would be no murderers, pedophiles or rapists allowed to marry. 

I believe one requirement for graduation from college should be a bad-paying menial job with a funny hat, particularly if one is going into politics.

I believe we often miss what's right in front of us because it's not what we think we should be looking for.

I believe teachers are on the front lines of a war and we're doing everyone a serious injustice if we don't better equip their armories. 
I believe that people occasionally screw up even when they don't mean to, and if we love them, we see where their heart is and let it go.

I believe that there are about three people on the planet who look good in orange and that the fashion industry hates the average woman.

I believe anyone who says they don't have someone to love hasn't visited a nursing home, hospital or food bank lately.

I believe cops [all types] and firefighters put their lives on the line every day and are far far under-appreciated and under-paid.

I believe we're meant to laugh at ourselves, otherwise how do you explain mullets, poodle perms and shoulder pads? 

I believe that laughing is sometimes the only thing that keeps us from crying over the fact that some of these people can vote.

I believe that when all is said and done and I'm gone, the love I gave will be the one thing that mattered.

I believe the statement "look Ma, no hands" is, 99% of the time, going to end up being uttered by a Darwin Award nominee.

I believe this is going to be a good year, in spite of the financial nightmare of the economy.

I believe you can tell a lot about a person by how fully they laugh.

I believe in listening.

How about you? What do you believe?


by Toni McGee Causey

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked from behind the counter.

He pushed his deposit slip forward with his check. The last check he'd be depositing. They'd let everyone go today. It was his fourth layoff. He kept being hired; the companies kept going under. He'd been making half what he used to, and he was out of answers. 

He shoved his hands into his jeans, rolling his shoulders beneath his too-thin coat. Blizzard conditions expected. Near white-out warnings. Not that he cared. He wouldn't be out in it.

Everything was done. This was the last of it.

He watched her hands as she slid the check along the counter, ran it and then the deposit slip through the machine. He didn't normally bank at this branch, though it had been convenient today, at the end of his errands. She finished her work and fished off the receipt, tucking it into an envelope and asked, "Anything else I can do for you?" as she handed it over.

"Nothing," he shrugged and headed for the door across the big marble floor of the lobby. This building had been built nearly a century ago, back when everyone knew their customers, knew their daily lives, the ins and outs of things, could call them by name. He was invisible here, now. 

Later, they would see he'd been here, see the deposit. Wonder what he was thinking. And all he'd been able to think about was being invisible. 

He was almost to the door when her hand was on his arm and her brown eyes smiled at him. She'd been calling his name and he hadn't heard, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from yanking his arm from her and pushing on through the door. She was breathless for the short run, and expectant. It was one more minute, and one more minute didn't really matter.

"I remember you," she was saying. "Over on Stempley." He must've given her a look as blank as he felt inside, and she smiled, and squeezed his arm a little. He hadn't realized she hadn't dropped her hand away. "The flat tire. Weather almost as bad as today. You saved my mom's life."

"You have the wrong man," he said. Gruff, probably. Didn't matter. He just wanted to get out of there.

She laughed. "No, no, I don't mean there, on Stempley. You stopped and changed my tire. And then my battery was dead because I was stupid and left the headlights on that whole time I'd been waiting for the tow truck, so you had to jump off my car."

Ah, yeah. He remembered. The collage girl. He'd thought she looked like a nearly drowned puppy when he'd seen her, shivering, trying to change the tire. The lug nuts had been put on by some idiot with an impact wrench and were too tight for her to loosen. The tow truck still hadn't come by the time he'd finished.

"I lost your name," she said. "I got home to my mom's–that's where I was going that night–and when I got there, she'd fallen. She'd had a heart attack, and if you hadn't stopped, I'd have been an hour or more later. The paramedic said she wouldn't have made it." She stood on her tip toes and threw her arms around him. "Thank you. I have wanted to say thank you for so long. You have no idea how much you mean to me."

He stood dumbly with her arms around him and everyone in the lobby stared, wondering what this was all about, and the warmth of her pressed against his coat. She wasn't about to let go, this enthusiastic half-grown puppy, and he patted her on the head, and cleared his throat. 

She eased back and looked up at him and beamed. "I'd like to buy you coffee. Next week sometime? I'll be here, every day."

He nodded. He wouldn't be there, but it would be too much trouble to make up a reason. "Sure. Coffee. Next week." Then he pushed on out the door.

I sat across from him at the little table, some twenty years later. I had only known him this way, old and creased, hair silvered to a sheen, blue eyes dancing. He smiled often and well, a warm event that pulled you in.  

"I went home," he said, finishing his story, his thumb running across the rim of his coffee cup, his eyes grown distant. "And thought. A lot of thinking. Poured the Jack down the drain. Unloaded the gun. Threw the bullets out in the ditch, so I wouldn't change my mind. I could get another job. Another house. And I did."

Be the gift, he was fond of saying, and I heard that echo when I stood a few years later at the back of the church. It was a packed place, many mourners, and I had to press through the crowd to work my way to the front to pay my respects to his wife. I could see the warm brown eyes he'd described, the brown hair gone gray. He'd gone back for coffee that next week, he'd told me. His daughter had his eyes. 

I told her he'd read my writing when no one else had, and had smiled, and said, "You can do this."

Be the gift.

Tell me, please, about any random kindness you've seen this holiday season, and help me pass it on.

comfort reading

by Toni McGee Causey

Somewhere, there is a woman, sitting in a room, three days past a rape. Her bruises are turning purple and in a few more days, they're going to be that greenish hue of ghouls. She hasn't looked in a mirror, yet, but the swelling is starting to abate, and she can open her jaw without the execrable pain. The screaming is almost entirely in her head, now. The stitches hurting her remind her she's alive and she's not really sure why people keep telling her that, as if that's a good thing. She's not sure she wants to be. There's been just enough time to get past the initial shock, the stunned chaotic business of having lost any sense of strength in the face of the world. She has had just enough time to be processed, and there should be a stamp for her forehead: file # 56449A221. 

Oh, people have been caring. They have been very professionally caring. All of the people, scads of them. They have been very careful not to touch her or move too fast. Everyone is diligent about addressing her respectfully, using her name, always making sure she feels like an individual. She can see it, see in their eyes how she is now different. The opposite of the person on the other side of the desk, where there are things like strength and weapons and confidence. 

And right now, she is finally alone, though the moat around her has turned into an ocean, and the screaming, it just keeps on coming. For a few minutes, not having to deal with anyone else is good. A relief. But then there is the silence, and in the silence, it all happens again. She cannot close her eyes, because it's all happening. Again. She cannot talk to someone, because the screaming will break free. Or the tears. Either may kill her. 

She needs. Needs. To be somewhere else, other than here. Other than this thing she's become. Needs to be able to step outside of her skin for a little while. Maybe a long long time. 

She's going to go to her bookcase and pick up something. Maybe it's something where the woman kicks someone's ass. Maybe it's one where the good guy wins. Or the DA is brilliant. Or the girl comes of age and has confidence. Whatever it is, she gets to step outside of the bruises and the cuts and the broken bones for a little while. She gets to live a different ending. A different beginning. Have a safe place to be. And somehow, maybe, have a little hope that this thing, too, will pass. 
Write a story for her.

Somewhere, there is a man, sitting in a hospital room. His wife has cancer, and he's been there, every day, before and after work. Except now, he can be there full-time, since he's lost his job. He's spent days seeking help, trying to find a way to keep her there, to make sure she has the care she needs, when all of his benefits are gone. He's filled out more paperwork in this one week than he's done in a lifetime, and only barely understands half of what they've told him, if that. 
He'll try to get a second mortgage for the house. Sell off the second car, trade his in for something cheaper. The savings–such as it is, there's not much with two kids–is gone. The retirement will go next, and that might last a month, at this rate. They don't qualify yet for any sort of Medicare or help. His sister is at his house, boxing up stuff to sell. Doing it while the kids are at school, so they don't see.
The screaming is almost entirely in his head, now. The anger, the rage, the helplessness. His wife's asleep, and sleep is so rare with the pain she's in, he can't risk turning on the TV. She's been in too much pain for him to leave the room, though.
He's lost. He sees it in the eyes of the nurses, sees it in the eyes of the administrator. The woman running the accounts payable office.  He's become this other thing, this person he doesn't know, and right now, for a little while, he needs. Needs. To be somewhere else but here. Someone else but him.
He'll slump down in the God-awful chair they have in the room, punching a pillow that one of the orderlies found for him, and he'll crack open that favorite paperback he grabbed on his way out the house this morning. For a little while, he gets to be a hero. He gets to fight crime or solve problems, save the world or save the girl. For a little while, he gets to have hope.
Write a story for him.
A lot of people in the industry are scared right now–things look bleak. If you're pushing through NaNoWriMo or that draft on deadline or beginning a new project, you may be at that part of the process where you're feeling exhausted–or scared to begin. Writer fatigue and fear are hard to combat in the face of a lot of bad news, and especially hard to slug it out when it looks like the possibility of selling is dwindling to nothing.
And this, ironically, is when we need story the most.
Story-telling has been around for millennia for a reason–we need to connect. We need to both transport somewhere other than our own daily circumstances and to connect to others, to know that someone out there understands us. Understands our fears, our desires. We need to escape, without physically abandoning our family and friends. Stories do that. We need the hope, the connection, the dream. 
Write a story for us.
Tell me about a book that you read during a bad time, something that–for whatever reason, be it light or serious–just got you through the day.

food… glorious, sumptuous food

by Toni McGee Causey

"It’s gumbo weather."

If you hear that in south Louisiana, you know two things: it’s probably late into the football season and we’ve just recently had a "cold snap," which meanGumbos we’ve finally had nights that dip into the 40s. It also means that a whole lot of natives just broke out the skillets (the better to make the roux), and green onions, shrimp and a ton of spices.

There are a wide variety of gumbos–most use a chicken stock as part of the base and add on from there. Shrimp and okra, sausage and chicken, the general throw-everything-in-the-pot seafood. Its stock is typically thinner than a stew and thicker than a soup, served over rice, and served with a condiment called filet (ground sassafras). (One tiny 1/4 teaspoonful per bowl is usually enough.)

Now, if your gumbo  gravy is red, then you’ve got some other influences going on in there which are not south Louisiana; if there are hard boiled eggs in there, absorbing the gravy, then you’re probably eating gumbo in the Lafayette / Lake Charles area. [North Louisiana gumbo tends to be thinner and lighter as well.] [My husband completely freaked out the first time he fished an egg out of the gumbo pot. I think he thought he’d married into a bunch of crazy people. He was born in Alabama. We make allowances.]

When we’re developing characters and place in our stories, there’s one often-forgotten sensory experience left unexplored: tastes. But it’s one powerful connector to place, to the unique aspects of that place, which can orient a character there faster and more firmly than any mountain of prosaic description of landscape could ever manage.

For example, I know if someone mentioned crawfish etouffee,
[pronounced eh-too-fey] and its particular blend of spice, that they are familiar with south Louisiana.


I’m not sure if they’re familiar with the fact that one of our main crops is rice (which is one of the reasons why it’s so prevalent in many of our dishes), but if they can describe the particular creamy-roux-based taste, with a touch of tomato mixed with onions and butter, generally heavy cream (this is not cooking for the diet conscious), then I feel like they’ve captured a sense of the place. If, however, someone mentions boudin [boo-dan–that ‘n’ is barely pronounced, then I know they’re a bit more familiar with south Louisiana heritage. (Boudin is one of those foods, like sausage, where you really just do not want to go looking all that carefully at the ingredients, if you’re queasy abBoudin_1out that sort of thing. It’s a finely chopped meat/uh, other stuff/rice/spice combination which is then stored in sausage casings. Think "spicy spicy spicy "dirty rice" and you’ll have some idea. A lot of field hands and hunters / trappers would take a string of boudin links with them out in the field–cutting off a link and squeezing out the rice combination to eat as they worked or hunted. Made for easy transportation of food. I’ve seen people who beg for hot Thai food tear up over boudin, if it’s made well.)

We have other regional foods that are, perhaps, better known nationally: the spicy rice/meat combination we call jambalayaJambalaya.


The common "po boy" which I understand has variations elsewhere as the "hoagie" or the "sub": 



A local favorite, blackened redfish, which pretty much disappeared when the fish were over harvested and the state stepped in to mandate maximums: Blackenedfish

(I’m not 100% sure that’s redfish in the photo, but it was the best representation of what truly "blackened" means… those spices have been seared onto the fish, the fish is not at all burned.)

I know we commonly have beignets [bin-yays] here:


Whereas, elsewhere in the country, they might call them sopapillas:



Long before there was a Starbucks in south Louisiana, their coffee cropped up in places in fiction I’d read. (I honestly had no clue at first what a Starbucks was. The preferred coffee here is Community, usually Dark Roast, which will stand up and bitch slap you, it is so strong.) I’ve gotten a tremendous sense about who that character is from whether tBaklava_2hey cook mac and cheese from a box or a five course (possibly poisoned, if it’s a murder mystery) Italian meal. Or a fine, flaky dessert called baklava:

I don’t necessarily want a description of every meal–or even many meals, especially in thrillers or mysteries where too much description could slow the killer pace, but people eat and drink and noting regional favorites gives added… uh, flavor (sorry), to the work. Does the character know their way around a kitchen? or have they stockpiled take out menus (and if so, is their favorite Chinese? Thai? Italian? Russian? Do Russians have take out menus?) (I am now suddenly realizing that Bobbie Faye’s boss, who owns the Ce Ce’s Cajun Outfitter and Feng Shui Emporium will now also have to open a Russian-styled "home cooking" place because, well, she’s Ce Ce. And a little crazy.)

So what’s normally cooking in your area? Tell me about your regional favorites, especially the local variations on them. And is anyone else a Top Chef fanatic? Bueller? Bueller? hello?

(ps… happy birthday to my oldest son, Luke!)

the con of the art

by Toni McGee Causey


If we do it right, from the very beginning, it should be seduction. Luring the reader in, making them forget about the fact that we’re telling them lies. All lies. Lies that hold a truth somewhere, the promise of something rich and memorable. A rush, the suggestion of satisfaction, of bliss. Being sated, while making them forget it’s all based on deception.

 Making the experience personal, unique, something the reader believes they won’t find anywhere else. Something meant just for them. Theirs.


The opening to a novel is all about seducing, capturing the reader with just the right tone, the right shift of the body, so that they lean in a little. Tell me more.

The beginning of a story used to be difficult for me, until I realized what it was all about. It’s not about the set up, or the backstory. It’s not about the world or the place or the weather. It’s about titillation. Potential. It does not have to be about understanding, yet. The whole "they have to know this thing happened back then in order to know what that event means" scenario. You don’t start off a seduction of a partner by delving into what your parents did when you were seven or the unforgivable thing you’re ashamed of or exactly who your great-uncle was and why he left you the moose in his will. None of these things matter yet to the audience, and you can’t make them matter in the first two minutes.

You can, though, make them interested enough to stick around to find out more. Understanding will come later.

There are a few components to a good seduction.

Confidence. One hell of a weapon. If someone is nervous and jumpy and suffering flop sweat, it doesn’t exactly inspire a person to think anything following is going to be exciting. Or anything above insufferable. Likewise, starting off explaining too much can come across as wimpy, lacking in confidence. Pick a path, pick a voice, hone it. Own it. Have confidence in it.

Awareness. Pay attention to your partner’s signals. In writing, this translates as know your audience. Know their expectations, and then show them that you have the potential to deliver–in unexpected ways. Sure, you can break rules of the genre, but it’s the difference between being aware that pitching a three-way from the podium of the Southern Baptist convention is not going to get the same results as pitching the same thing in a bar after work.

Invitation. Your partner has to feel wanted. Needed. There needs to be an invitation to continue. Body language, intonation, phrasing, eye contact, laughter… in seduction, all of these things can come into play. You can’t seduce someone if you’re too busy paying attention to everyone else in the room–there would be the blunt sense of not mattering, not being needed, not being unique, and the lack of invitation would turn most people off. So, too, if you don’t raise a question or two in the beginning of the story. The sense that you need to tell this story, to them, that it’s critical, that they, the reader, are important, is primary. Put another way, this is the "don’t bore them with exposition" rule. Think back to standing at a party and having someone go on and on and on about themselves. They start sounding self-important, and you wonder why you even need to be there. They’d probably be saying the same thing without you, and immediately, you wish to be elsewhere. The reader senses this same thing, when there’s tons of exposition. Instead, plunge them into the story, into the conflict, and tantalize them with and interesting angle on what happened, or an interesting voice. Tease them.

Focus. Know what you’re promising, because you’re going to have to follow through. And as you go, you’ll be showing you know this, demonstrating some expertise that will continue the seduction, keep their interest until they’re too far gone to walk away. This means finishing what you started, the way you started it. If you start off with serial killers, ending with the Marx Brothers is probably a bad idea. Consistency. No one in the middle of great sex suddenly wants to start talking about the aliens you think landed and took over your in-laws.

Subtext. Build the tension. The surest way to crash the evening (or push away the reader) is to interrupt the flirting with a sudden need to have a heart-to-heart honest discussion of some issue that is very important to you–when that wasn’t the direction the evening was going. There are things that are said, and things not said, and seduction often takes place in that subtext, in the things not said.

I’ll admit here that I want to be seduced by good openings. I want to feel that rush of expectation, the heightened sense of promise. I have a good many books on my TBR pile because of the seduction of such openings… things like Sean Chercover’s Trigger City, Lori Armstrong’s Snow Blind, Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, Robert Crais’ The Watchman, [I know, I am the last person on earth to read this one], Tasha Alexander’s A Fatal Waltz, and Zoë Sharp’s Third Strike [an absolutely terrific opening line]… okay, I just looked at my stack and there are more than fifty books in this one stack. In one room. There are stacks in each room.

How about you? What seduces you? And tell me something on your TBR pile (and I’ll follow up and put links to those titles). 

Edited to add links from the selections in the comments… (because links are wonky if I try to put them there):

The Given Day — Dennis Lehane
Lost Dog — Bill Cameron
Angel’s Tip — Alafair Burke
The Book of Lost Things — John Connolly
Money Shot — Christa Faust

The Confessions of Max TivoliAndrew Sean Greer


THE GIVEN DAY, Dennis Lehane
CHARM CITY, Laura Lippman

THE CRUCIBLE by Arthur Miller
WHITE NIGHTS by Ann Cleeves
BRASS VERDICT by Michael Connelly
TURNAROUND by George Pelecanos

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski

oops, I missed a couple from earlier… and there are a few more!

SILENCE OF THE GRAVEArnaldur Indridason


ISABELLA MOONby Laura Benedict




Voodoo DollLeah Giarratano

ShatterMichael Robotham

the things I’ve learned about publishing (so far)

by Toni McGee Causey

You all know the feeling… you survive junior high school and finally you’re a freshman, and you’re going to put all that knowledge you accumulated about how to survive school to good use. That first day of high school, you have the jitters. Sure, maybe you’re the star basketball player or you’re on the dance team, or quite a few of your friends are going to be there and you already know you’re sharing fourth and sixth hour with them, so you’ve got a handle on this experience. You know how to navigate the hallways, you’re aware there’s going to be political crap you have to deal with (who likes whom, who’s destructive, who’s dangerous, manipulative), but on the whole, you can handle it. Even if you’re introverted and awkward, at least it won’t be as hard as the previous years, because you’ve been through hell (I defy anyone to tell me junior high is not hell). You’ve traversed it, lived to tell about it, and nothing could be that hard.

‘Til you get there. And the experience is both what you expected and so much more. You realize, then, how very low on the totem pole you really are, experience-wise. Those damned seniors? Man, they rule the school, they know all of the teachers, the quirks, which gangs are running what, how to avoid detention, how to suck up to which teacher to skip out on homeroom, exactly who forges the… uh, okay, moving on. And not only do those seniors know crap, but they’re usually driving the coolest cars or hanging out in the best spots.

By the time you’re a senior, you think, damn, I know how to do this. And when you move on from there to become a freshman in college, you usually bring that maybe-confident, maybe-cocky attitude with you, because damn, you’ve learned stuff and surely it’s not going to be all that different. You’re going to segue into college with the same panache and there won’t be that awful awkward period where it’s clear you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. Only by the time you’re a sophomore or a junior, you look back at that pitiful freshman who thought they were so worldly and chuckle. Oh, to be so innocent.

There are a couple of analogies, of course, to publishing that I’d like to emphasize. One, you never know as much as you think you know, and there’s always someone who knows more. Pay attention to them–they’ll help you survive. Two, you will very likely survive it, if you don’t shoot yourself, so try hard not to do that.

When I was first writing, my focus was on screenwriting (that was my focus for my MFA), and the first major writing conference I attended was the Austin Film Festival. I probably learned more in that one weekend from other writers than I had the previous couple of years in school. There’s just not much else which substitutes for real world experience, and there are a tremendous number of incredibly generous writers out there who constantly make the effort to pass along what they’ve learned. They remember being freshmen. They probably had mentors of their own who helped them get through the rough spots, people who said, "yes, that’s how it’s done," or "no, be careful of that, it’ll kill you." They have the most important thing any freshman needs: information.

There is no crying in publishing. It’s a tough business because you are selling something that is unique (one hopes) and personal (you created it) and hope that it appeals to a wide audience. It is not a business where you can hide, really–your name is there on the book. Or your pseudonym. But it’s you, it’s your work, and that’s a bit scary. It’s more than just walking into that big long hallway the first day of school. It’s the first game of the season, and you have to perform, you’re in front of the crowd, and if you flub up, everyone’s going to notice. [I was on the dance team for four years, and by my junior year, was choreographing some of the dances. I got it into my head once to do this extravagantly difficult dance with a set of ripples–where everyone was moving one beat behind the person in front of them–and it was a fantastic sequence. Brilliant, in fact. We rehearsed the hell out of it. I was a little worried about a couple of people pulling it off, and they were nervous about remembering each step, because since it was a giant set of sequential moves, one wrong move by one person would ruin the effect. And I was in front of the group, seeing how I choreographed the whole damned thing. Whereupon I promptly went completely blank in the middle of the most difficult sequence and could not remember what came next, and so jumped to another move. The entire line behind me followed. Incorrectly. One half of the team kept going, the other half stood frozen, behind me, waiting for the cue as to what to do next, because they all realized in that moment that we’d screwed up.] [So yeah, public embarrassment. Not much phases me now.]

There are things I’ve learned in publishing–people have kept me from being that lone idiot out on the field, doing the wrong move in front of an entire stadium. Maybe some of this will be of help. None of it is new, ground-breaking, and I am hoping others chime in via the comments and add their own experiences.

1) There is an incredible euphoria when you first sell. Enjoy it. Embrace it. You deserve the thrill, and the joy.

2) Keep in mind you are not the first person who has sold a book. I know, it’ll feel like it, but there may be a couple of others out there.

3) You cannot do absolutely everything you hear about, marketing-wise. Nor should you try. There are going to be things which will work for you, and things you shouldn’t even bother trying, either because you don’t have the time or the money. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that.

4) Do put up a website. Do ask people to give you honest feedback. My first website had a background that was bright orange. I did not know it was that bright because for whatever reason, on my monitor, it looked more like a dark rust. In fact, it didn’t really look bright enough. It had been up for several months before I saw it on someone else’s monitor and after I QUIT BEING BLIND, I immediately sought to replace it. I think a couple of people may have mentioned that it "sure was orange," but I didn’t really listen to what they were trying to say. So, set your ego aside, ask, and listen. [That is probably the number one rule in anything, really.]

5) Do put up links from an image of your book’s cover to a place where it can be purchased online. I highly recommend finding a local indie who will be happy to ship autographed copies for you. [Or an indie you’ve visited elsewhere–treasure those booksellers.] If you guest blog somewhere, make sure that your full name is there, a link to your book and your book’s cover. I have purchased many books after reading guest blogs.

6) Book tours work for some, they don’t work for others, and it’s really going to be about trial-and-error to see what works for you. Unless you’re an extreme introvert who cannot speak to anyone whatsoever, drop in and sign stock where possible.

7) This is probably where the hard stuff goes. Publishing has an almost built-in self-fulfilling prophecy mentality at work. Hitting a best-selling list requires volume + velocity in some arcane voodoo spell that no one seems to know. You, by yourself, even with your efforts on the internet, cannot reach the nation. You can help boost your sales to some degree. For all of the marketing access we now have–blog ads, book trailers, websites, blurbs, success (if we call sales the measure of success) is determined by two separate things, which can sometimes join forces.

a) print run — if there is a large enough print run by your publisher to get your book into enough stores, then your book has a shot of doing well. More specifically, the larger the print run, the more likely your publisher will be willing to offer co-op dollars to the book stores (money / incentives) to get your book on a table or an end cap or in some sort of special that has a chance of catching a reader’s attention

b) word-of-mouth — this is where the book sellers and librarians can affect the writer’s career significantly, because if they like something and they hand-sell it to their customers / patrons, word can spread. Readers, however, are the tipping point. Book clubs which pick the book for discussion often recommend the book to other book clubs; readers tell other readers, or loan the book out. Word-of-mouth can mitigate a modest print-run because when it builds–if it builds–more and more readers will ask for the book, which means re-orders in book stores, which can lead to additional print runs, which can lead to the publisher noticing they have a sleeper hit on their hands, which leads to more marketing dollars spent, more effort on their part… etc.

8) You cannot manufacture word-of-mouth (the work has to do that on its own), and you cannot control the print run. Try not to make yourself crazy if the first book isn’t a runaway success.


logic flaws

by Toni McGee Causey

I once made a near-perfect score on the logic portion of my GRE exam when applying to grad school.

(I will now wait for those of you who know me well to wipe off your monitors from the spit-take you just had. Really sorry about that.) (And sadly, they did not count the logic part toward my actual GRE total. They counted the math part. For an English major. That is just mean.)

I am also the person who, at eight months pregnant, got incredibly fed up with a table which was in the way in the kitchen–I had more thigh-high bruises from banging into the corners than I could count–so I decided that, logically, the damned thing wouldn’t be in the way if I could just shove it under the counter where the cast-iron sink stood. Except it wouldn’t quite fit. It was slightly taller than the bottom of the sink basin I wanted to shove it underneath, so clearly, the legs just needed to be shortened a little bit. This was the point that logic should have dictated that I wait until my contractor husband came home, someone who actually knew how to measure things and, um, how math works, but no, no, I did not. I went outside and got the only saw I could find (my husband, being a brilliant man, had hidden all of the electric tools). It was a hand-saw, the kind you use to lop off old tree limbs and not the most accurate of blades. And then I decided that I could eyeball a mere inch, because how hard could that be? (Did I mention the eight months pregnant?) Whereupon, I started sawing an "inch" off the bottom of the legs… only to discover that they were lopsided and it didn’t quite fit underneath the sink… wherein I lopped off another "inch" and made the whole thing slant to the side, so everything rolled into the corners of the drawers… wherein I thought "one more inch will do the trick" and by this time, I had blisters on my hands from that damned saw, but did I stop? No, I did not. I sawed and sawed and sawed and spent twenty thousand years sawing on those damned table legs and then I realized it was still lopsided and then I was pretty pissed off and later, when my husband came home from work, he took one look at the legless table sitting on the floor underneath the kitchen sink and the pile of leg-bits and sawdust and broken saw in the middle of the kitchen floor and wisely decided to take me out for dinner.

I have incredible duh moments, probably like most anyone. I can get absorbed in what I’m doing and completely forget the overall picture of what ought to be done. But as a writer, I have to guard against poor logic creeping into my fiction. (Story logic cause/effect.) On the other hand, I love solving problems, which is probably why I’m so drawn to the mystery and thriller world.

Now, my writing method falls somewhere between being a plotter and a pantser. (A plantser?) I will start work with a general sort of idea–I know where the story starts and I know where it ends. There are specific concrete emotional beats I know are important to the story, and these beats–exploring those moments–are what generally make me want to write that particular story at that particular time.

Next, I’ll break the story down into major movements (first act turning point, mid-point, third act turning point, climax). These major movements are based on what the characters want–the protagonist and antagonist(s). Reversals, betrayals. I look at the pattern of escalation–is everything getting worse, is the tension increasing? If something incredibly bad happens after the act one turning point, can the choices the protagonist makes next lead to something worse? If not, the tension is off, muted, lessened, and that often leads to the desire to toss something in there while in the middle of writing that section, because instinctively, I’ll feel that it’s off and will want to fix it. Beware of the artificial fix, because they usually introduce logic problems.

This is the point where I’ll start the inner bullshitometer to watch for story fallacies and poor logic:

Have I cheated? If I am in the POV of the antagonist, am I being true to what he’d really be thinking in that moment, or have I obfuscated his thinking just to make him look innocent? Whenever I am reading and am in the POV of a character who later turns out to be the bad guy and there was nary a hint of it, I feel incredibly frustrated. And cheated–because that character’s not really thinking what they’d be thinking at that moment if they know they’re guilty. I can understand them not saying it out loud, but inside? They’d know. They might not be all "hee hee I am ze bad guy, woohoo" (that’s technical jargon I am dazzling with here today), but they’d be thinking something. Their point of view would be refracted through their choices, through their duplicity and intent to cover up. [The only exception to this is the unreliable narrator, who is telling the story. This is generally successful when we are not in that narrator’s interior point of view.]

Are there coincidences? Life has tons of coincidences. Fiction, not so much. I think, if you’re lucky, you can pull off one coincidence per book, but if that coincidence occurs just at the darkest moment when the protagonist happens to need that one piece of information in order to live and save the day, I’m going to be annoyed, as a reader.

Time frame? Am I telling the story in a logical sequence? Note: you don’t have to tell the story in the order that it occurred. But if you’re going to break the sequence of events and rearrange them, there needs to be a reason why, other than, "Oh, yeah, they need to know this that happened sixteen years ago so they’ll understand that part over here." The forward momentum of a story stops every time there is a flashback to fill in–the tension pauses. Successful flashbacks introduce another layer of conflict in the here and now as well as show a conflict in that moment. [I’m a fan of breaking time frames, by the way, but the reader has to be able to follow the fracture and not feel entirely lost. There has to be enough of a thread of story logic for them to hold onto what they need to keep that forward momentum going, to keep trusting the author to get them to the end and it all make sense.]

Could it have happened that way? By the end of the book, I’ll have layered in characters and motives and reversals and it is very easy to get lost in the details. If you’re one of those people who plot every single moment ahead of time, congratulations (I kinda hate you, though). You probably don’t have to worry about this step. But if you’re a plantser / pantser, then you probably need to go back to the central question of the mystery and make sure the solution could actually happen the way you’ve described it. One of my all time favorite thriller writers had a stand alone where the end could not have happened the way he described it. At all. Told from the protagonist POV, the murder situation was described very differently at the end of the book by the protagonist than he’d described it at the beginning, and he wasn’t being an unreliable narrator–it just couldn’t have happened the original way and the writer adjusted. I was so invested in his characters that I wanted to smack him with the book. He’s gone on to break records selling and I’ve kept buying his books, so clearly, he’s not hurting any from annoying me, but I didn’t trust him as much. And that, really, is the risk here: unless you have incredible sales momentum behind a bestselling name, if you introduce something completely illogical, the readers aren’t going to trust you as much next time. That can make the difference between selling… and selling well.

Did the protagonist solve his/her own problem? Personally, I think it’s okay if the protagonist builds a team around them and utilizes the team’s experience / knowledge / dynamics to help them solve the problem, but if the final answer really does come from someone else and the protagonist is just along for the ride, then it doesn’t feel as much like the protagonist’s story. It feels weak. If someone we don’t know very well, some minor character, swoops in to save the day, I’m gonna quit buying that writer’s books, especially if the character is supposed to be smart.

Is the problem big enough for a story? This one of those "execution" questions–it can work if written well. If the story can be solved simply by the protagonist and antagonist getting over petty differences or sitting down and having a heart-to-heart talk, there might not be enough of a problem there to sustain a whole book. There has to be a fundamental reason why they won’t talk or can’t talk, (they are spies for opposing forces, for example). If they go through a tremendous amount of hell in the book and the solution is, "Oh, well, we’ll just sit down now and talk," then it’s going to feel like I’ve been mislead as to the logic of the problem. [This is one of those issues that could probably have a blog all by itself.]

Does the logic of the story follow the logic of the world the writer has created? This is one of those rules-of-the-world issues. The Bobbie Faye world is filled with bigger-than-life hyperbolic action. Insane stuff, and I set that up right at the top of book one when her trailer floods… and falls on its side like a dying elephant. The story action has promised the reader that in this world, it’s no-holds-barred, but that it makes sense within the world created. If the solution / climax of the story depends on that kind of action, then the logic for that action needs to be built in earlier. If the world is anything different at all from what we see and hear daily, then the writer needs to set up those rules early on and adhere to them at the end. Not only adhere to them, but they need to be important to the resolution.

It’s easy to miss these potential logic/story problems in one’s own writing. It’s very easy to get so absorbed in the details ("one more inch!") that one forgets the overall point (to use the damned table). It’s really easy to have a gun on page 232 when in fact the antagonist had tossed it in the river on page 134, and the writer forgets that in the rough draft. Tracing the route of the solution, though, can help catch these little things. Solving the bigger ones, though, is what makes writing a challenge–and fun.

So what logic errors or concerns have I missed on this list? I know there are more… (or, hey, tell me what dumb thing you’ve done lately)