Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blog Heaven

I’ve died and gone to blog heaven, of course. When the gracious, talented Donis Casey invited to become a regular contributor, naturally my first instinct was to mumble “who, me?” I’m deeply honored! Not only is Type M for Murder my favorite mystery blog, during the past two years I’ve met some of the wonderful persons who keep this blog going. In fact, I’m now an honorary Canadian. This was decided in the bar after the Left Coast Crime Convention in Santa Fe.

Donis Casey came to my book launch at Poisoned Pen Press, which was a heady experience that gave me delusions of grandeur. Oh, if I could freeze these moments! They compensate for the panicky “can I do write another book?” paralysis that stuns our creativity. It’s rather overwhelming to have an award winner writer of Donis’s caliber in the audience. (A real writer)

Barbara Fradkin was my roommate at Left Coast Crime. She is one classy dame! She taught me a lot about dealing with adversity. Her flight was cancelled and she was rescheduled. She breezed in at 3:00 am and got up at six to go on the Taos tour, explaining that she was not going to let the plane snafu ruin her plans. Wow! Not a word of complaint. I bought her book, Once Upon a Time, and was awed by her ability to maintain the smooth pacing of a complex plot based on events evolving from World War II and war crime issues. Marvelous characterization.

Vicki Delany is one of the friendliest, nicest writers I know. I loved In The Shadow of the Glacier and bought Negative Image at Santa Fe. We shared a room at Malice Domestic last year. She tried to tell me Deadly Descent was a finalist for the AZ Book Publishers Award, and I hooted and jeered and patiently explained to her why that could not possibly be true. I won and have been trying to compensate for questioning her truthiness ever since. In short, I buy her drinks.

Now it’s true confession time. I have a weird half-life as a historian and do some academic work. Sort of like some drugs that keep working after you stop taking them. I’m an accidental academic without sterling credentials. Nevertheless, I'm a highly opinionated and relentless researcher and that counts for a lot. In fact, my first novel was not a mystery, but a historical novel, Come Spring, and it was published by Simon and Schuster.

In the meantime, I was publishing mystery short stories and loving every minute of it—so I added mystery novels to my writing mix. How is that working for me? Not very well. Too many editors and not enough time. Mysteries soon possessed my mind and soul. I love writing them. Who knew? So I’m polishing off my editors, one by one, and soon Poisoned Pen Press and my Lottie Albright series will be the last man standing.

For my next gig, I’ll tell more about the Lottie Albright series. Greek tragedies are alive and well, they’ve just switched their venue to the High Plains. I’m a native Kansan, with a flaming state loyalty, so it’s only natural that my historical novels, my academic work, and my mysteries should be set in this difficult state where conniving families with tattered pasts seethe with historical and contemporary tensions.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Book Launch

From Brent Ghelfi on Friday.
My fourth novel, THE BURNING LAKE, publishes today. It tells the story of a brave Russian journalist loosely patterned off of Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered after exposing war crimes in Chechnya. It delves into the simmering conflict in Chechnya and the surrounding republics, and it explores our government’s complicity in the spreading problem of nuclear waste disposal. I’m proud of it.
We’re having a launch party tonight to celebrate its release. A book launch is a bittersweet event. On the one hand, it represents the culmination of a year’s work. All the research, all the starts and stops and reversals, all the changes—from minor edits to the big ripple changes that sometimes take days or weeks to make—all that hard work is represented here, in this tight little bundle. Two hundred and eighty-three pages bound, packaged, and priced. Better still, a launch party is, after all, a party. A great place to be with people I haven’t seen in a while (maybe since the last party), catch up, have fun.
On the other hand, it feels anticlimactic. The novel has been finished for over a year. Final changes were made months ago, about the same time the cover art was chosen. Advanced Reader Copies were sent to dozens of reviewers, many of who have (thankfully) reviewed the book favorably. I’m already deep into another novel, one with different characters and settings. All of which leads to the feeling that I’m late for the party. Shouldn’t this have happened way back when I wrote the last line?
I think the best reason for a launch party is that it gives writers a forum to thank all the people who support them. Agents, editors, publishers, publicists, designers—all those who take the book after we’ve written that last line and turn it into something that somebody, somewhere, will read. And the network of family and friends who put up with us all those days and nights we spend squirreled away in front of a computer, or staring off into space, hoping the next sentence will magically appear.
In the end, when the party’s over and there’s time to reflect, there’s a sense of accomplishment. That book is done. It is as good as I could make it at the time. I’m proud of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Synopsis of an Outline

John here, after a week off and a rainy Easter weekend. I recently discovered an article on, “Got Fiction Characters? How to Use a Character Web to Track Them,” that reminded me of John Ramsey’s guest blog a few weeks ago in which he wrote of diligently outlining his novels before writing.

The general premise of this article is that a character web helps the writer to keep track of her characters and helps her to see them in terms of their respective relationship with other characters in her story. I’m struck by this seemingly simple concept because, as a longtime composition instructor, “mapping” is something I routinely urge students to do—begin with your main topic in the center of the blank page, then draw lines to outlying ideas that will allow you to develop your primary topic.

One of the things stressed in the article is that the character web often grows as the writer works, which I like since I’m an author who often has little idea where he’s going when I start a story or novel. My process is a lot like entering a forest in the dark and wandering (through draft after draft) until I find my way to the other side. My process works but, as one would imagine, is often frustrating.

As you can probably tell, I’m thinking of altering my approach when I begin my next project. “Outlining” is probably too strong a word; the thought intimidates me. I like making stuff up as I go, and I’m a believer in the adage “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” However, several weeks ago, I was asked to write a synopsis for a novel currently under review. I had never written a synopsis before, so I sent emails to several of my Type M colleagues requesting a couple to read.

I enjoyed the process of writing the synopsis, and I believe the entire approach to be helpful. The synopsis didn’t feel as constricting as an outline has when I have tried writing one. Something about an outline strikes me as a large undertaking and a massive commitment, an O-U-T-L-I-N-E. My synopsis was six or seven pages, a brief sketch of my novel in very wide parameters, looser than an outline, but still something to use as a daily steering wheel.

What it amounts to is we are all constantly looking for ways to improve our work and to do it more efficiently. That’s part of the joy and the challenge that keeps me coming back to the blank page: you can never master it. And when you think you have, you’ve stopped getting better.

He says, she says... Part One

Barbara here, thinking about dialogue. Next weekend I am giving a workshop as part of the Thousand Islands Writers’ Festival. The title of the workshop is “How to write effective dialogue”, and it is supposed to occupy three hours. At first I quailed. Three hours talking about how to talk? I can spin out a tale with the best of them, but three hours is a lot of minutes to fill. With what?

I know most of the obvious rules…

  • Don’t, uh… don’t write speech that - I mean write speech that ah, sounds like speech but doesn’t, you know? Make it snappy.

  • Dinna try t’ recreate dialect ‘n’ accents wit’ daft spellings. A wee word or two will do.

  • Don’t make your characters hiss and snap, or snarl. He said, she said works fine.

  • Eschew formal sentence structure, sophisticated vocabulary, and pedantic grammar, unless of course your character is a fussy English prof. Contractions rule.

  • Don’t have the wife tell the husband how long they’ve been married and what the names of their three kids are. He ought to know.

I even have some suggestions for tuning the ear…

  • Eavesdrop in coffee shops, on buses, in grocery lines. Not only will you hear how different age groups and types of people speak, but you’ll get some great story ideas too. What stirs them up, what matters to them. It’s amazing what snippets of people’s lives you overhear.

  • Hang out where your characters would. Teenagers in the mall after school, business men in the hotel bars, young mothers in the park, etc. Listen to how they talk and what they talk about. The rhythm, the inflection, the choice of words, the grammar and the slang. Used sparingly, all of these evoke both time and place.

  • Find real people of the age and background you are writing about, and pay attention. You can invite your ten year-old niece out for ice cream, or visit your eighty year-old aunt. If you have neither, borrow someone else’s.

  • Use the internet as a resource for slang, regionalisms and period language. There are dictionaries or lists for just about every kind of dialect.

  • And lastly, You Tube is a godsend. Check out The Worldwide Accent Project. Type in any kind of speech you want, such as Scottish Accents, and listen to the tapes.

This ought to get me to the first break, especially with a writing assignment thrown in. On my next blog, I’ll talk about framing the words you choose, and how to use dialogue to influence pacing, conflict, and drama. And I’ll report on whether three hours was long enough.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sound and fury, part deux

In last week’s blog entry, I talked about response rate in direct mail advertising. The reason I did this is that we need to be aware of what we’re dealing with when we do promotion on the various social media sites most of us are using. You cannot be depressed when you look at the actual numbers. Low numbers are the norm.

One other comparison I could have made is bookstore signings. Unless an author is a Someone who attracts a line of eager book purchasers and the store has done some effective promotion for the event*, the author can be faced with no lineups and people walking by the table with nary a glance. To cut to the chase, this is the live, in your face version of Direct Marketing, and it’s pretty humbling. I’ll be the response rate in this sort of situation is pretty much the same as anything else we can do to promote ourselves, maybe even worse.

But I’m not here to bring you down. I just want everyone to be aware of from where we’re starting. Whether you use social media or book signings to promote yourself, the returns are not going to be great, generally, but they can be worth it.

How effective are your efforts? I believe that’s the thing we all want to measure. Was the 45-minute drive to the bookstore worthwhile? How about the 45 minutes I spend on Facebook every day? Or all that Tweeting?

The Direct Marketing industry (whether they use mail or some other medium) is always aware of tracking effectiveness, and they’ve developed some very clever ways to do it. Believe me, they know how effective their efforts are. They have to if they want to stay in business.

How do they do it? Well, the simplest method is the “response device”. What’s that? Well, for a magazine subscription, it might well be a free gift. Ever get a magazine sub offer with a free gift if you subscribe? Did you think twice about ordering? I’ll bet you did. Or maybe they offer a better deal when you order 2 or 3 years. Ever take them up on that? Those, my friends, are response devices.

I’m sure you can see where this is going, and I’ll bet many of us have done it or seriously considered doing it: giving something away to increase response. It’s simple and it can be damned effective. Give away an ARC of your new book, a free copy of your new book, whatever. It’s simple, right?

Wrong. That’s only the first part of the deal. You have to keep in mind that your expectations have to be in the same low range as Direct Marketing, although not quite as low as the 2-3% range I mentioned last week. But you probably won’t have hundreds of people visiting your website or contacting you in other ways for that free whatever. You may get a few dozen, though, and that can be very useful in several ways:

• they are now more aware of you and your writing
• they feel a connection to you
• you might well have their email address (if you’re not against doing some data mining)
• you might well have interested them in buying the book anyway
• if you’ve driven them to your website, you have lots more options (assuming your website is any good) to get them interested in buying your wares.

And I’m sure we can all come up with other good outcomes.

The point is, if you have a response device, you can then measure how effective it was by the response rate. The pros then tweak that and test again. They test over and over in an attempt to figure out what’s working and what’s not.

It’s simple and effective. The only thing you have to invest is your time. We all know the old adage about selling our books one copy at a time.

* I remember wandering by a large downtown Toronto bookstore a number of years ago and seeing a small poster that Michael Connelly was signing. I thought I’d stick my nose in the door to see how long the line was. Lo and behold, there was no line-up. Michael was sitting there all alone looking rather glum (just like I have so many times). I went over, got a book signed for my wife, and we chatted. He invited me to sit down and we chatted some more. Actually, we talked for about 20 minutes, very occasionally interrupted by a book buyer. Seems the bookstore didn’t have their act together and the event had hardly been promoted. Michael had a line-up for about 10 minutes and that was it. Holy crap! This is one of the most successful writers and even he had situations where he just sat there. I felt a lot better at my own signings after that!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hello, Aline here again. It's the Easter Monday bank holiday. Here in Britain, as you know, we are very traditional, and on Easter Monday it is the tradition to join the traffic jams on every motorway in the country, taking most of the morning to get to the beach, then most of the afternoon to get back, with a brief walk in teeming rain in the middle.

I've been burning up the miles myself recently, since spring is when writers come out of hibernation and there are festivals, conventions and conferences up and down the country. I'm recently back from the Crime Writers Association conference, which is purely a jolly so that we can all get together, drink too much and behave badly. And have competitions. This year's was a challenge: to find a one-word remark to put in the mouth of a celebrity. For instance: Torquemada: 'Comfy?' or Sarah Palin (on being told North Korea is not in Europe): 'Whatever!' But the winner –from a crime writer's husband, in fact – was Kate Middleton: 'No.'

Now, though, it's back to the padded cell, sitting in front of the computer on a Monday morning. Can anyone explain to me why it is, that when all I've ever wanted to do is write, when I have clear hours of what I like doing best ahead of me, when I have a head buzzing with the story I need to get down on paper, that I come up with an endless series of excuses for not actually going into my study and shutting the door? Why do I start worrying about the state of the kitchen floor, when last night it didn't bug me at all that I hadn't washed it? Why do I allow myself 'just one' game of Solitaire to get me started?

Is it, perhaps, that I'm reluctant because the glory of the story in my head, which is certainly going to be the best thing I – and indeed probably anyone else short of Tolstoy – ever wrote, diminishes little by little as I try to shape the dream into reality? It's a melancholy thought, but once I've given myself a pep talk and the narrative drive kicks in, I get the junkie's buzz and I don't want to stop when it's lunch-time. It's been wonderful, and I can't wait to get back to it – but somehow I know that next time I'll be making excuses all over again.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Disturbed Can We Be?

Our guest blogger this week is Linda L. Richards who hails from British Columbia. Besides being a terrific author, she's also an expert on the arcane art of publishing e-books. Check out her latest release, Mad Money, now available as an e-book at Amazon and Smashwords. I highly recommend it!

And now, take it away, Linda — and thanks for stopping by!

Several years ago, on the 35th anniversary of The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, I reviewed the book, glowingly. It’s a classic and I adore it. But one of the reasons I adore it is that it disturbs me in a very real way. There’s no gore and no physical violence that I recall. It’s not a crime novel. It’s about a mean old woman looking back at a mean and ill-lived life and so it’s out of the norm. Which is what I said in this review. That people aren’t always comfortable with being shown less than pretty pictures. To a lot of people, art needs to be about kittens and soft touches and sunsets. They know how to process the feelings those things evoke. But when disturbed by something, they read it as something different. Not something good. And, in my review, I said, “The Stone Angel is a disturbing book.”

I got a lot of mail about that review. Many people took what I said to mean that I felt The Stone Angel was a bad book. Which is never what I said. Disturbing and bad are in no way synonymous.

So what happened to us as a culture that we ended up thinking that? That we need protection from that which doesn’t caress? More: that words or images that are not easily recognizable as conventionally pleasing and beautiful should be suspect. That if we have to hunt for the beauty — if it’s not on the ground at our feet waiting to be stepped over — it isn’t really beauty at all.

My job as a writer does not include making sure no one is either offended or distressed. (In fact, that sounds like a sure-fire recipe for making pabulum, does it not?) And it has nothing to do with writing crime novels, but writing in general.

I’m not suggesting that there is a should here anywhere. Fiction should provoke thought. Or fiction should make one feel or think a certain way. But, at the same time, fiction isn’t required to fulfill a certain social or political scorecard. I mean, it’s all right if a novel does those things but, as a reader, I don’t have to stand in line for my turn at it, if you follow.

There are a lot of books. There needs to be: there are many kinds of reader. We have different tastes, thank goodness. We need many different books to satisfy them. Some of those books will make us reach for a Kleenex. Some of them will help us realize our own place in the scheme of things; or give us the impression that they have. Some of them will make us want to throw them against a wall. And there’s room for all of them — for all of that — thank goodness. There’s room for all of those types of books, and more besides.

Linda L. Richards is an author, editor and journalist. She is the editor of January Magazine, one of the most respected voices about books on the Web, is the author of several novels and on the faculty of the Summer Publishing Workshops at Simon Fraser University. In addition, in June she will teach a January Magazine-sponsored residential intensive on publishing your own e-book. Her website is and you can find her e-book intensive at

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Coming Soon to This Very Spot...

My final official event for the launch of Crying Blood was last Saturday, and that,combined with Easter weekend and the heavenly weather, has given me a bad case of spring fever. The photo is the current view from my front porch, which will give you an idea of what I'm dealing with. Besides, it is almost May in Arizona, and well we all know that before long going outside at all will be a very unpleasant undertaking. On top of everything, I'm trying to get going on a new book, and it's like pulling teeth. As my father used to say, I'd rather stand on my head in a mud puddle than work right now.

Instead, I shall catch you Dear Readers up with what has been going on here in the great Desert Southwest, and what interesting things are on tap for the next few month or so.

Jean Auel was through town a couple of weeks ago, promoting the sixth and final installment in her Earth's Children series, and Don and I went to see her speak at the Tempe Center for the Arts. I bought a copy of her book, The Painted Caves, and am reading it right now. It's 755 pages long. I read an article recently in which the author speculated that the longer a book is, the more critics tend to respect it, regardless of the quality of the writing. I always knock myself out trying to remove every extraneous word from my books, which ends up making them rather short, but pithy, I hope. Perhaps I should rethink that policy.

My favorite author angel, Carolyn Hart, will be in the Valley (that's what we call the Phoenix metropolitan area) over the Mother's Day weekend as part of the promotional tour for her newest Death on Demand novel, Dead by Midnight. She'll be appearing with another of my favorites, Earlene Fowler (whose Bennie Harper beat out my Alafair Tucker in a "Favorite Cozy Mystery Character" contest. Not that I hold it against her.) They'll be at Poisoned Pen Bookstore on May 8 and at Velma Teague Library in Glendale, stomping grounds of the inestimable Lesa Holstine of Lesa's Book Critiques, on the 9th. I'm expecting to do lunch with the ladies while they're here.

Julia Spencer-Fleming will be at PP on May 3 - you can bet I'll make the trek up to Scottsdale to see her, though I don't know if she'll be here long enough for a lunch. Plans yet to be made. I'll let you know. Type M's own Brent Ghelfi will be launching his 4th Volk book at PP on April 29. I'd love to make it up there, but I have another deal that day, so it's looking unlikely at this point.

Blog-wise, I don't have myself scheduled for another guest appearance until June, which I did on purpose because, damn it, I need to write a book instead. If someone were to ask me to do a guest spot, though, I'd do it. The mantra of the mid-list author - If someone asks you to do something, you don't say no.

However, I do have some exciting blogging news concerning this very venue. The wonderful Charlotte Hinger, author of Deadly Descent and Lethal Lineage, who has guest posted for us more than once, has consented to become a regular contributor to Type M. She'll be blogging on the last Saturday of every month, starting this coming week, on April 30. Be sure and mark your calendars and give her a big welcome. I'll still be doing the remaining Saturdays, but Charlotte will inject a shot of adrenalin at the end of every month.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to write a book. Or perhaps I'll wander around outside in a daze for a while. In the meantime, I wish you all a lovely Passover and Easter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

From Texas

Frankie here. I'm in San Antonio this week attending the annual National Popular Culture-America Culture Association conference. This is a terrific conference. It attracts academic types from a range of disciplines who are doing research on some aspect of popular culture. The task here is to decide which panel to attend. The areas range from advertising, Arthurian legends, and automobile culture to cemeteries and gravemarkers, punk culture, sea literature, and World War II. Since presenting my own paper on Wednesday (about the "American dream" in two films, Shadow of a Doubt and Set It Off), I attended panels on vampires in True Blood, bling in rap videos, and photography during the Civil War.

As you might suspect, there is a mystery/detective fiction area. Aside from the academic papers, yesterday afternoon at 4:45 and again today, a panel of local mystery writers shared their work with the audience.

Each year the Mystery and Detective Fiction Area gives the George N. Dove Award to a recipient who has made "a contribution to the serious study" of crime fiction. Last night, at the business meeting, this year's recipient were announced. Actually, this year there are two: Professor Catherine Ross Nickerson and British mystery writer P.D. James (who is also the author of a book about detecive fiction). The formal announcement detailing the recipients' contributions should be out shortly in a press release.

I have to leave early tomorrow morning, so I'm going to miss the Saturday sessions, including the one on "Readers Reading Mysteries." One of the panelists, Barbara Fister, will be presenting a paper titled "Sisters in Crime at the Quarter Century." (In the way of full disclosure, I serve on the SinC board).

Getting late, off to the next panel.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Only Thing that is Constant is Change

On Sunday I took a much longed for solitary walk in Franklin Canyon. It’s one of my absolute favorite hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains just a ten minute drive from my house. I live right in the middle of Los Angeles so for me (a country girl from England) its very existence is akin to finding an oasis in a barren desert. 

At this time of year the canyon is still green and lush, awash with wild flowers, humming bees and birdsong. At the trail top I can see the Pacific Ocean shimmering before me and behind me are mountains still topped with snow. However, on rounding a corner my happiness was cut short.  Someone had erected a shiny chain link fence complete with the news that the canyon was in threat of being developed. 

On arriving home, my husband announced that our apartment building is being sold and that we must find somewhere else to live. I love our apartment. It dates from the 1920’s (which is old for Los Angeles), and is built in the Spanish style with high ceilings and wooden floors. 

Nothing ever stays the same. I don’t do well with change. My mother told me that when I was nine, I cried for a week when we sold our old sofa. Change is inevitable and we can either get left behind or embrace it. 

For my birthday I was horrified to discover that my husband had bought me a Kindle. Secretly, I swore I wouldn’t even get it out of the box but not wanting to hurt his feelings, I thought I owed this gadget a few minutes of my time. Honestly, I love it! I hate to admit it – but I do. Nothing will replace my passion for collecting books nor will I stop buying hard copies. But I travel a lot and I think I’ll give it a trial run when I head off to Malice Domestic next week in Bethesda. I always carry at least six books when I travel in case I run out of stuff to read so it will be nice not to resemble a pack mule for a change.

The truth is the bulk of my sales for my Vicky Hill series are surprisingly sold on Kindle. I know some of us have already embraced e-publishing, flash fiction and self-publishing via Kindle etc. and I know I am way behind. But now, with my second book going out of print and the others soon to follow, I had an epiphany. Soon I'll be able to get the rights back and publish them myself on Kindle! Maybe I’ll continue writing the series too! Hurrah for change! I love change!

As for finding a new home, perhaps we’ll discover something even nicer. Our area is a little shoddy and our neighbors very loud. Meanwhile, I’ve just added my name to the Save Franklin Canyon petition. In these days of “global warming” environmentalists are no longer perceived as hippy outsiders. They are a force to be reckoned with and that is a very welcome change. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sound and fury

I was having a chat with another author recently about the effectiveness of Facebook and the other social media. (Sidebar: notice how has fallen off the map? Boy, am I glad I didn’t invest any time in that!) “How the hell do I know it’s doing any good? I spend about an hour a day on Facebook to give me as much exposure as possible. How do I know I’m not completely wasting my time?”

I understood that cri du coeur at once and sympathized completely. How do we know we’re not spending a lot of valuable time doing nothing? I must admit I’ve thought the same thing. I’m certain we all have. Facebook is a fun and easy way to keep up with our friends and acquaintances, but is it an effective way to promote our writing? By the way, this discussion extends to Twitter and all the other social media out there.

Some of you know that I fill the empty hours of my life by doing graphic design. A lot of that design work is for the magazine circulation industry. Along the way, I’ve picked up quite a bit of information on how the people behind what you might call “junk mail” do their jobs and test the effectiveness of their efforts.

To cut to the chase, there is something they call “a response device”. That means something that gets potential customers to do something, in this case, order a subscription to the magazine. In its simplest form, they return the attached order card, and for that one person, the direct mail package worked. When a suitable time has passed, the circulators count up how many people responded to the offer comparing it to how many packages were sent out. (And believe me, they know that number!)

Do you know what they consider success? A 2-3 percent response. That’s right: 2% is good; 3% is amazing. If the number of subs is over 3%, you can bet they’re dancing in the aisles of the magazine’s office.

Pretty sobering, isn’t it? All that effort and money for that small a response? Imagine that sort of success rate in any other business. You’d get shown the door pretty quickly if you only managed to be successful 2 or 3% of the time.

Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of what we’re trying to do. My “friends” list on Facebook is pushing 400. I put up an announcement about my new book (and I will be as soon as I get the new pub date). If I do my job well, I might sell a dozen books, based on the success rate magazines experience with direct mail subscription packages. More likely, it will be fewer.

So should we all throw up our hands and wonder just how the heck we can successfully market our books?

Next week, I’ll have some possible solutions.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Great Writers are Readers First

Brent Ghelfi stepping in for Vicki on Monday.

Lots of people want to write a book. They have a brilliant idea, a personal story to tell, a gift to give the world. Motives vary: fame, fortune, maybe a movie deal, maybe simple catharsis—a way to release the pent-up demons.

One fellow who falls in the brilliant idea category asked Clive Cussler a question at a public library event a few years ago. The gist of it was this: “I’ve come up with the most amazing plot. I’ll tell it to you, you write it, and we’ll both make gobs of money. What do you think?” Needless to say, Cussler wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

We all know that writing rarely leads to fame or riches. Most writers labor in a literary coalmine, lit by the flickering light of a computer screen, pounding on a keyboard for pennies a word. When people ask, I tell them to write because they love it, or because something inside drives them to do it. Writing for money is like buying a Powerball ticket and believing that this time, today, you’ll win, and tomorrow you’ll wake up a millionaire.

I understand those who write to achieve catharsis. Some people need to set their story to paper, to organize it into a logical form, tame it or set it free. No matter whether one person or a million ever reads the story, it simply must be told. So write it. Good, bad, or somewhere in the middle, the story is the thing and nothing else matters.

But writing something good, worthwhile, meaningful—however we define literary merit—requires talent, discipline, and tenacity. More importantly, it requires an intangible skill, a way of seeing the world that’s unique, or at least tweaked a bit from the way most of us see things. We all know that. And we all recognize “it” when we read it. It’s like the old Supreme Court definition of pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” At some time or another, we’ve all tried to identify the element that binds great writing.

I believe the touchstone shared by great writers is that they were great readers first. Walk into a writer’s home and you’re sure to find books. Fiction and non-fiction in an array that cuts across genre lines, whatever “genre” means any more. Old titles and new titles, many of them still carrying weight. “I remember reading her books that summer in Spain. His books took me through college.” This is the way writers are made. Reading forges a literary identity, one that eventually becomes a singular voice, a voice that tells the story that changes the life of a future writer.

Visit Brent at

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Those Crazy Crime Comics

Our guest blogger this afternoon is Gary Phillips. Gary is a multi-talented writer whose work include short stories, stand-alone crime novels, and two series (featuring private eye Ivan Monk and ex-Vegas show girl/mob money courier, Martha Chainey). Gary is also the editor of Orange County Noir (2010), an anthology in the Akashic noir series. The anthology received a starred review. A long-time fan of the comic book, Gary is now working in this medium as well. Gary is a member of the board of directors of Mystery Writers of America. He is the president of the Southern California chapter of MWA.

Welcome, Gary!
[cover photo credit: Dan Brereton]

Those Crazy Crime Comics

There’s a bit of a renaissance, if that’s the word, in crime and mystery comics and graphic novels. Now I know gentle reader, you may not be a fan of such but consider that the recent bloody romp Red, about some Gold Bond using retired intelligence operatives and assassins, forced to do battle with a rogue arm of the very agency they used to work for, originated as a comic book mini-series written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Cully Hamner. Or take the impact the highly stylized Sin City had. This flick, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, was based on a series of stories for Dark Horse Comics written and drawn by Miller in stark black and white, with occasional uses of color. His tales set in the corrupt Basin City aka Sin City, were hardboiled fare often involving marginal characters not out for justice but for revenge and retribution.

Think back a bit more to note that the films Road to Perdition with Tom Hanks as a paid killer and family man to boss Paul Newman and The History of Violence were based on graphic novels -- a graphic novel being a larger in terms of page count and usually permabound as opposed to a monthly floppy, pamphlet comic book. Road was originally penned by mystery novelist Max Allan Collins and drawn by Richard Piers and History was written by John Wagner and illoed by Vince Locke. Road to Perdition’s hired killer father and his son, and the subsequent sequential (the pages with the panels of the drawn comic book) sequels written by Collins, were inspired by a Japanese magna, comics, series and series of films, Lone Wolf and Cub.

The series is set in medieval Japan and concerns a samurai who’d been the kogi kaishakunin, executioner for the shogun, is falsely accused of a being a traitor to the clan and is forced to travel the countryside as a swordsman for hire with his young son in his wooden stroller tricked out with various deadly devices. Written by Kazuo Koike and drawn by Goseki and Kajima, not only were movies made from the comic but a play and television show was also derived from this popular series.

This past October, mystery writer Jason Starr chronicled on the front page of The 3rd Degree, the national newsletter of the Mystery Writers of America, chronicled this resurgence in crime comics. Starr in fact at the time had been writing the mysteries of a revived pulp character, Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, as a back-up feature in the Doc Savage comic book DC Comics had brought back as part of an effort called the First Wave. The Avenger, like a lot of pulp heroes created in the depths of the Great Depression, was a millionaire (but no playboy) who after the murder of his wife and children, dedicates his resources to fighting crime and master villains. Under the aegis of his Justice, Inc., Benson and his crew, including an African American man and wife, Josh and Rosabel Newton, sally forth against many a quixotic foe like the Sky Walker and the Flame Breathers.

The Avenger, created by Walter Gibson (The Shadow’s wordsmith) and Lester Dent (who wrote and created Clark “Doc” Savage, Jr.) and mostly written by Paul Ernst under the Street & Smith’s house name of Kenneth Robeson, was not only interesting for having an integrated set of aides but was a compactly built man, though due to the murder of his family, his features and hair had turned a glacier-like white, his features frozen but pliable as he could mold his face to disguise himself.

I had the great pleasure to write an Avenger prose short story set in the ‘30s for Moonstone’s Avenger Chronicles. Also for that outfit, I’m writing as a back-up feature in the Spider -- a rather bloodthirsty masked and fanged crime fighter -- comic book the adventures of Depression-era secret agent Jimmy Christopher, Operator 5 of the Intelligence Service Command – wherein science fiction, spy, historical and crime elements are combined.

I offer then the prose mystery and crime readers a low key challenge the next time you’re in the bookstore, don’t just walk past the graphic novel section. Take a few moments to peruse that shelf, you might find something you’d like.


Gary Phillips has two upcoming hardcover graphic novels: Angeltown: The Nate Hollis Investigations from Moonstone comics and books and Cowboys from DC/Vertigo Comics as part of their crime line.

(links) --

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Plot

I (Donis) am not here today. I'm at Scottsdale Public Library participating in a day-long mystery-writing workshop sponsored by our local Sisters in Crime chapter. I'm conducting a session how to plot a mystery novel. A bit ironic. I have all kinds of advice about techniques and formats, but in the end, I believe that there are no hard and fast rules on how to successfully create a plot.

I’ve just been reading a book on writing by Norman Mailer entitled The Spooky Art. My first thought when I picked up this book was that Mailer didn’t really need to write anything else to sum up the art of writing, for in the end, it really is a spooky art. If it works, it works, or as my mother used to say, nothing succeeds like success. Having said that, writing is a craft, like any other art, and just like a musician or a painter, a writer has to begin with the basics and know the technique of his art inside and out before he is skilled enough to know how to effectively depart from it. My favorite metaphor is that you can study music theory until you have a Ph.D., but then you have to practice til your fingers bleed, or you’ll never be a master violinist.

Mailer has a few thoughts about plot that resonated with me when I read them. “We live in and out of ongoing plots every day of our lives,” he said. “Only our own life story is not missing most of the pages. One could make the case that our love of plot come out of our need to find the chain of cause and effect that is so often missing in our own existence.” That is, in our real lives, we never really get the whole story of how and why something happened. This is why a well plotted book is so satisfying. And finding out the entire story of how and why something happened is the whole point of a mystery novel.

Mailer goes on to say, “The decisions you make while writing fiction can leave you uneasy. If your characters come alive, that’s fine. They will carry you part of the way. But finally, your people have to make what might be termed career decisions. [I love his way of putting that - 'career decisions' - i.e. if my heroine does this instead of that, it's going to affect the entire rest of the story. D.] ...Such choices are non-operative for writers who have the story complete in their mind before they begin. So I repeat : I look to find my book as I go along. Plot comes last. I want a conception of my characters that’s deep enough so that they will get me to places where I, as the author, have to live by my wits. That means my characters must keep developing. So long as they stay alive, the plot will take care of itself. Working on a book where the plot is already fully developed is like spending the rest of your life filling holes in rotten teeth when you have no skill as a dentist.”

When it comes to plotting, whatever works for you is what you should do. I have an author friend who said she creates a 150 page outline before she begins writing and sticks with it it religiously. Of course, she’s a lawyer. Another friend always writes a long outline, then departs from it about ten pages in.

I’m more like Mailer. I start with a murder. I usually have an idea of who did it, and why, but when I begin to write, I think of Alafair as a stand-in for the reader. She looks at this body, and wonders who did it and why, then follows the trail wherever it may lead her, and it may lead her to places I never thought of. One thing I always keep in mind when plotting is that mystery readers are quite sophisticated. They have seen it all and know all your tricks, so you really have to be devious and inventive in order to stay one step ahead of them.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Older Hotter Deadlier Book Tour

Vicki here, out of turn on a Friday. Brent Ghelfi didn’t get his homework done (naughty lad) and so we’re swapping places for this week. Tune in on Monday to hear what Brent has been up to.

About all I can say to John and those in the same boat as him is, hang in there! In John’s posting yesterday he lamented the shortage of time that many people have to devote to what they really want to do – write or create art or some such. I also had the kids and the job and everything else that goes with those things. Now the kids are grown, the job is but a bad memory (except for the nice little thing called the paycheque) and I am a rich and famous author. Well, perhaps not the last bit.

And as a not-rich and definitely not-famous author, I’m about to hit the road once again. The house sitter arrives tomorrow and so today will be devoted to cleaning the house. (I gave up the cleaning lady when I gave up the aforementioned paycheque).

This time it’s off to North Carolina with Mary Jane Maffini (who's new book, The Busy Woman's Guide to Murder, is hot off the presses, and Elizabeth Duncan, author of the Penny Brannigan mysteries, for a tour organized by the incomparable Molly Weston. We’re calling our trip Older Hotter Deadlier, and are going to have so much fun. And, if we sell a few books, that’s pretty good too.

We’ll be in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area (or so I have been told) and if you’d like to come out, I’ve put the details up at As well as meeting readers and talking about our books we’re going to discuss Canadian crime books in general and hopefully alert the good people of North Carolina to the fact that we are out there.

To that effect we’re delighted that the Canadian Consulate will be sponsoring our Monday evening event at the Page Walker Hotel in Cary.

Task for this afternoon: Visit Laura Secord for a pile of Easter Eggs so as to really impress the North Carolinians with fine Canadian cuisine.

We’ll wave good-bye to North Carolina and head back north stopping at Malice Domestic, always a great conference. I’m going to host a table again this year, so if you’d like to try some of those fine Laura Secord Easter chocolates (comes with a history lesson on Laura Secord) sign up as soon as you arrive.

And then – the highlight of my promotional year! The Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, Pennsylvania put on by Mystery Lovers Bookshop. It’s something to experience, whether you’re an author or a reader (or, most likely both)

Hope to see you on the road!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Working Stiff's Frustrations

It's been a long week already, and it's only half over. I've been busy with work commitments (grading papers, coaching, and chasing kids around the dorm), Edgar Award committee obligations, and my daughter's 13th birthday (Could I possibly have a teenager already? Where did those years go?).

These are my excuses for not getting a lot of pages written this week. Good excuses? Is there such as thing as a “good” excuse? No doubt my daughter's birthday qualifies, but, despite having my story “Shooter” come out in AHMM this week, I'm frustrated, nonetheless.

Years ago, I read an interview with Bruce Springsteen in which he insisted the only thing an artist needed fame and fortune for was to provide time to write—money is freedom, after all. Most writers I know walk the same day-job/fiction-writing tightrope I do. Time, therefore, becomes the Holy Grail we all chase. Richard Seizer, in his wonderful essay “The Pen and The Scalpel,” discusses his struggle to balance his job as a surgeon with his family and his writing career—a struggle that has him going to sleep when his family does, waking to write for a couple hours during the night, then going back to sleep for three more hours before leaving for work. A seemingly insane routine, but one that afforded him the time (and energy) to write.

In the end, all we can do is our best to balance it all. Contrary to the Springsteen interview, I once read a feature about a best-selling author and television producer—married with several children—who said he worked a 9-to-5 job writing TV scripts, then came home each day and wrote fiction all evening and into the night. I was left wondering what his kids thought of that schedule.

Certainly, I have no right to question someone else's priorities. But I do know my own. The birthday party is over, and I’ve had enough blogging for one busy week.

I'm going back to work on my novel.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Babies, babies, bab... er, books!

This is April, the season of renewal, rebirth, and new life. In the book business, it’s also the time when publishers release their “spring list”, hoping to tempt the buying public with fresh material for those long summer evenings on the patio or at the cottage. There are new mysteries galore for the reader eagerly awaiting something fresh.

There are far too many books for me to mention them all, so I will focus on just a few that readers may not hear about quite so easily otherwise. All are delightful gems by Canadians, who don’t often get much notice on the book review pages of the New York Times.

First off, my friend Mary Jane Maffini has just released the fifth in her witty, engaging Charlotte Adams series which features a personal organizer with a penchant for uncovering bodies in closets. Mary Jane also manages to keep two other series afloat, which is perhaps her subconscious motivation for writing The Busy Woman’s Guide to Murder, a light-hearted take on the very serious topic of girl bullies. Don’t go to the cottage without it.

Next is another talented and prolific writer, Vicki Delany, another friend who manages to keep several series afloat. I am in awe of these two. Vicki lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, but sets one series in the goldrush-era Yukon and the other in British Columbia. Being released this month is Among the Departed, the fifth in her Constable Molly Smith series set in small-town BC. These are classic but edgy whodunits with an emphasis on character and community connections.

Third I’d like to mention The Witch of Babylon, the eagerly awaited debut novel by Toronto writer Dorothy McIntosh. She is also a friend, but that’s because we are all friends in the Canadian Crime Writing community. Dorothy won the UnHanged Arthur Award for the best unpublished Canadian manuscript in 2007, and the book has been creating quite a stir. As the title suggests, it features an exotic time and place, and it should be stunning.

Fourth, a quick word about two other books just released this month from Orca Books. Brenda Chapman’s The Second Wife, and my very own The Fall Guy. These are part of Orca’s Rapid Reads series of short books meant to provide an easy, entertaining story for the busy or reluctant reader. Brenda and I will be holding a joint launch on May 15 along with young adult author Jeff Ross, so more on that later.

The Fall Guy is a new venture for me - I am experimenting with a very different style, characters and setting - and I hope readers will find the contrast to the Inspector Green novels refreshing. I did. My reluctant hero is Cedric O’Toole, a penniless country handyman who lives alone on a hardscrabble farm (roughly in the Sharbot Lake area of Eastern Ontario, where I have a cottage). Cedric is more interested in tinkering with his sheds full of junk than in getting ahead, but when the wife of the county’s wealthy car dealer falls to her death from a deck he built, he finds himself facing a manslaughter charge. And worse.

Conceived as books to engage and strength the skills of those with limited English literacy, Rapid Reads have been discovered by people looking for a fast-paced but meaty story. Perfect for the cottage dock. So check my website at for launch details. For the first time, I am holding a book launch in a pub on a late Sunday afternoon. That’s because it’s Cedric’s kind of place.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Am I really this dumb?

First of all, the title for this week’s blog is not an invitation for Delany to start taking potshots at moi!

Second, I’m at the front end of a new novel and since my new publisher (Dundurn Press) wants a synopsis of any book they're considering, along with some sample chapters, I figure it’s best to get this little detail taken care of before I put in all the hours necessary to produce a finished manuscript. That way the book will already be scheduled and I can work to their deadline. Things will be sped up. It’s all good.

So, I have to produce a coherent synopsis for a book that’s still really embarrassingly foggy in my little noggin. For me that’s easier said than done. This feels way too much like homework!

With the best of intentions I am soldiering forth. I know I’m not going to be held strictly accountable for my synopsis when they see the finished product (shit happens, after all), but what I eventually present to the editorial board as my proposed plot has to have a certain air of believability and sense or they’ll probably take a pass. So, for the past couple of days, I’ve been walking around with a very distracted look on my face as I try to wrestle my nebulous plot into some sort of book-like shape. It’s going pretty well, but slowly. I have pages of notes, most of them scribbled out, some harshly, as I put for an idea only to knock it down. There are arrows leading all over the place as I try to string the narrative together. Gradually, though, the story is taking on a logical form.

This morning I was out walking and thinking, trailed by a group of half-formed, shadowy characters when it struck me: this would be a great technique for getting out of a box (of my own making, no doubt) when I’m actually writing a novel.

Got writer’s block? Start making a synopsis from that point and see what comes up.

Got two ideas of how the book should proceed, but it’s very unclear which one is going to work (and you’re probably working to a deadline)? A synopsis of each track from the point of divergence might make it all clear and takes far less time than actually writing the two narrative variations.

I wrote my sixth novel, A Case of You, start to final draft in eleven weeks. There was a good reason to do this, but I forget what it was (perhaps I’ve blocked it out), and the whole time my greatest fear was what would happen if I went up a blind alley and got stuck? There was no time for floundering around. Fortunately, it didn’t happen.

Now, the big fat thing staring me in the face is: why didn't this technique occur to me years ago? I feel like a total dummy because the answer to one of those great writing problems was right in front of me and I was too blind and stupid to see. I doubt if I’m the first person to have thought of it. Some great writing guru (probably Stephen King) has probably been espousing it for years.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m not that dumb after all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

I’ll never write again! Vicki Delany and the Gothic Tradition.

This is Vicki on Monday morning telling you that I’ll never write again! They`ll hate my book! No one will ever publish me again! No one will ever want to read this book!

Is there any worse job than being a fiction writer? Never mind that we don’t make much money and don’t get no respect (pond scum has a better chance of winning an award in Canada than a crime writer). Never mind that we work long, long hours for little money (did I mention that?) and no certainly of results.

We are perhaps the most un-confident of people. Nagging self-doubt and constant criticism is pretty much the name of the game.

I am beginning to suspect that every writer in the world has moments of intense self-doubt. First book? It’s rubbish! Ninth-best seller? This one will be a dismal failure! Awards out the kazoo? Not this time.

Way back when I was taking creating writing courses at Sheridan College (the teacher was Lynda Simmonds /, a great author and super teacher.) I remember the first day of one class when we were doing the usual introduce yourself thing. One woman said she had written four novels but had given them all up in the middle because they weren’t working. The teacher said that every writer felt that at some point and if everyone gave in the moment a book wasn’t working out, nothing would ever get written.

I’m at that point right now in the standalone I’m doing – tentative title is Walls of Glass. This book is for Poisoned Pen because I’m taking a break from Molly Smith and Trafalgar (fear not, dear reader, Smith and Winters will return). I’m writing it in the British Gothic tradition that I loved growing up (think Victoria Holt). I was absolutely delighted to hear at Left Coast Crime that the British Gothic is the new hot trend, although mostly being written by Americans. Imagine that, here I am at the forefront of a new wave!

Burden of Memory, my second book for Poisoned Pen, fits into the gothic tradition, by the way. Large old house, wealthy multi-generational family, dark hidden secrets, something moving in the woods (or is there?). And I didn’t even know it.

Walls of Glass is what I am going to call Prince Edward County Gothic. Because it’s set in Prince Edward County, Ontario, not in Britain. And in an 18th century farmhouse, not a castle or manor house.

All of which is beside my point, which is that right now the book is a mess. I have a rough idea for the ending, but not a clue how to get there. I have characters all set in motion with personalities and problems and backstories, hanging around as if on a stage where the director has suddenly departed, leaving them saving, “What now?”

(Note that I am writing this blog post in my usual writing period of the morning. Any excuse not to have to face those empty pages and those wandering characters.)

Hope, however, is at hand. I have a meeting with my critique group this evening. Dinner at a pub, a glass or wine or two, gossip about the book world, and then we’ll push back the dirty plates and glasses and start to talk. They all know I’m coming from the ‘soggy middle’ of my new book and have been told to have their thinking caps on.

There, I feel more confident already.

At least until tomorrow.

Perhaps I’ll take up cake-decorating.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What, no mansion in the hills?

Today, I welcome fellow Ottawa crime writer Brenda Chapman as my guest. Brenda is the author of the Jennifer Bannon mystery series for young adults. She has also published several short stories in magazines and When Boomers Go Bad, and in 2010 released In Winter's Grip, an adult murder mystery. She recently released The Second Wife, an Orca adult Rapid Reads mystery and her YA novel, Second Chances, will be released by Dundurn in spring 2012. Brenda is a former teacher and currently works as a senior communications advisor in Ottawa. Today she muses about the secret joys of a writing career.

Before the joyous day when my first manuscript was accepted for publication, I attended a weekend writing convention. The shiniest bit of wisdom I recall from the two-day event came from a published children’s author who stood before us and proclaimed, “Do not think that being published will change your life . . . because it won’t. The hard work begins after you get published, and the returns are small.”

Her words were a dose of reality that I’ve returned to on numerous occasions throughout my writing journey. They have made me appreciate the wonderful moments and lessened the angst of the not-so-great experiences. They’ve made sitting in malls with no customers in sight bearable. They’ve given me perspective.

I would, however, argue that not all returns have been small.

The first time that I saw my first book Running Scared listed on Amazon was a huge thrill. So too were the first book review; the rapt attention of kids during a reading; the e-mails from readers; the friendships; the conferences; the motivation to keep writing; the immeasurable, unwavering support from so many; and, recent reviews in the Globe and Mail and the Hamilton Spectator for my first adult mystery In Winter's Grip. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that even after seven years in the business, I am still delighted to hold the first copy of a hot-off-the-press book; to see it make its way into stores and libraries and people’s bookshelves — to know that somewhere, someone at this moment, has my book on their bedside table, waiting to be read.

And yet, I have not given up my day job. I’ve had moments, days of utter frustration with the state of the book business and the difficulty staying afloat. I’ve despaired at the politics inherent to the industry and just how hard it is to make a mark or a living in the publishing world. I’ve questioned whether my work is good enough. There are even times, I’ve thought about not writing any more books, just packing up my tent and finding a new challenge. This is when I recognize a fundamental truth about myself.

I do not need writing to change my life; I just need to write.

And perhaps this is what that children’s author was really saying all those years ago: guard yourself against the disappointments that are sure to arise, and stay true to yourself no matter the level of success you achieve. Keep writing for the satisfaction it brings you, and don’t lose faith in yourself because of the business end of writing.

I am certainly glad that I had this dose of reality early on in my career. The advice has helped me to persevere, and oddly enough, to strive harder while keeping expectations in check. It has made me stop now and then to value the many good memories I’m making along the way, and to remember why I began writing in the first place.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Odd Thoughts

The world is very strange and if you think you have anything at all figured out, Dear Reader, you are misled. And I, Donis, have an observation or two about that.

1. I read an interview with Jean Auel in my local paper today. I'm sure you remember that Auel is the author of the blockbuster Children of Earth series, the final installment of which has just been released after an eight year hiatus. In the interview, Auel said that when she wrote her first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, she was just practicing and didn't expect that it would ever be published. She only writes stories to please herself and doesn't worry about success. I've heard Diana Gabeldon (Outlander) say the same thing. From this I conclude that if you want to be happy and successful, don't give a rat's hindquarters about what anyone else thinks of you.

2. I was moved to ponder deeply after reading Frankie's entry on "branding" oneself. (below) Do I want to try and cultivate a brand? Readers certainly brand authors. I do. When I read a book I like, I am inclined to look for others by the same guy since I assume that any book of his I read will contain the same elements I enjoyed in the first. This is why authors use pseudonyms to write in more than one genre or style. I'd think twice about using the name Donis Casey on a novel about cannibal prostitutes. Lovers of my Alafair books might be shocked and hold it against me.

3. People have extremely skewed perceptions of themselves. For example, I watched a taped interview of myself on television a few years ago and I was stunned. I hardly recognized the woman on the screen. She seemed soft-spoken and genteel with...I don't know...bit of a sly twinkle in her eye. I didn't know her at all. I expected to see the person who lives inside my head - Kali, Destroyer of Worlds.

Finally, and all kidding aside, I just finished reading Julia Spencer-Fleming's latest, One Was A Soldier, which is due for release on April 12. Even though it's been three years since the last installment (2008's I Shall Not Want) in Spencer-Fleming's series featuring Epsicopal priest/Army helicopter pilot Clare Fergusson and Miller's Kill, N.Y. Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne, it was worth the wait. Readers have been waiting for eight years to see how the tension between Rev. Clare and the married Van Alstyne was going to play itself out, especially after the murder of the chief's wife in All Mortal Flesh.

One thing about Spencer-Fleming's books that has always impressed me is that she is a brave writer, and I think that willingness to write the truth - about human nature, about weakness, desire, pain, love - is what makes a book special. Too many of us authors are faint hearted when it comes to dealing with the hard stuff, but that's what it takes to create a body of work that'll speak to future generations of readers.

She always pulls off a kick in the gut ending for her books, as well, and One Was A Soldier is no exception. I thought it was a great read.

Friday, April 08, 2011

To Brand or Not To Brand

Frankie here. Sorry I’m late posting. I spent last evening gathering up my scattered receipts and preparing myself for my yearly date with my tax preparer (a lovely woman named Helen who has been doing my taxes for twenty years and works for the company with the letters in its name). What I dread about tax preparation day is seeing how little I make from writing compared to how much I invest (in time, travel, and actual dollars).

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing and would, have and probably will again, write when no one pays me a cent. However, the fact that this tax season coincides with the upcoming publication of my fifth mystery reminded me about my marketing dilemma. Like many writers, I am an introvert – much less so than when I was a child because I spend my days in a classroom and I have had to go out and meet people as a writer. And, in truth, there is another part of me that is a bit of a ham.

But I do have a day job, and serious-minded criminal justice professors have to remember that they don’t want to end up as a viral YouTube video for an ill-considered marketing stunt. On the other hand (do I have three hands now?), I study popular culture, love commercials, and am fascinated by the concept of marketing. I’ve read a few books about branding and thought a bit about my “brand.” As the author of one of my favorite books on the subject points out, if you don’t define yourself, other people will do it for you. I’ve tried to make sure this didn’t happen in my academic career, where I might have been pigeonholed. So why not give the same attention to my career as a mystery writer.

Yes, I know some gurus have moved onto other post-branding discussions in the world of marketing. But what I like about branding is the idea that a brand that works is one that is based on the core values of the company or the individual. Successful individual brands are authentic.

The advice from consultants on branding is to begin by thinking about what you’re passionate about. What turns you on? What do you love doing? The answer for a writer is obviously that we love writing. The question is what we each love about writing – and the answer to that question is more complex.

For example, I love writing for the same reasons that I love playing with colors, whether I’m decorating a room or deciding what to wear in the morning. I love writing for the same reasons that I loved playing dressed up as a kid, would love to be transported back in time and attend a ball at Almack’s, and hope one day to be a volunteer at a historic site where everyone wears period dress. I love writing because it allows me to use my imagination, be playful, and be creative. You will notice that the word “play” keeps appears. But I also love writing because when I’m writing, I can connect the dots.

Figuring this out did not help me develop a clear sense of my brand.
But I’ve been thinking about my brand – about that “tag line” about who I am and what I do. Thinking about it for a couple of years.

Last night, I stumbled on what I do as teacher, researcher, and writer. The answer came to me as I was doodling, jotting down words, as I thought about my brand. What occurred to me was that I’ve been trying for months to find a way to explain in 25 words or less why a criminologist is doing research on my new passions (that evolved over a period of years) -- clothing and food.

Last night I had my breakthrough. I realized that the word I was looking for was “discourse.” That word is the key to my brand – as criminologist or mystery writer. I know it’s a concept that I’m going to have to turn into user friendly language – my tagline for the elevator. But I think I’ve finally got it.

So I am going to argue here that writers should explore the concept of “brand” as an opportunity. An opportunity to think about what you do, why you do it, and how you want to present yourself to the world.

And in tax season, it is a diverting exercise that will distract you from the pain of cash-out versus cash-in.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011


“Short isn’t necessarily a shortcut,” writes Andy Selsberg, a professor at John Jay College, in his “New York Times” piece titled “Teaching to the Text Message.” “When you have only a sentence or two, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Selsberg’s article is interesting on several levels, but two ideas it has left me with are that the instant-messaging generation might very well approach the novel-length narrative differently than past generations of readers, and Selsberg’s theory that the brevity needed to compose an effective Twitter-length message stresses many elements of effective prose.

Might fiction writers learn something from text-sending teens seen bopping past them on the sidewalk engaged in the two-thumb shuffle? Possibly. After all, as Selsberg insists, “The photo caption has never been more vital.”

I often stress to students that Toni Morrison claims to keep just three of every 12 pages she writes. Accordingly, many writers believe brevity is the cornerstone of sound fiction. For my part, I am still (Egad!) in the midst of a revision that when completed will amount to having written nearly 700 pages to get a 400-page novel. (John Ramsey Miller’s words, as our guest blogger last Sunday, regarding the need to outline continue to ring in my ears.)

Similarly, Daniel Pink in his book “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future” (Riverhead Books, 2006) stresses the importance of possessing the ability to encapsulate, contextualize, and emotionalize a message. Below are two examples he cites from the London “Telegraph.” A fun exercise called the Mini-Saga requires the writer to produce a story in fewer than 50 words. Check out the examples below, then see if you can do better than the teenagers you see skateboarding past you while thumbing snippets into cyberspace.

You just may find it improves your fiction.

A mini-saga is a 50-word story possessing a beginning, middle, and end. The London Telegraph sponsors a contest to see who can write the most compelling mini-saga. Consider these two winners then write your own using no more than 50 words.

Example 1
“A Life” by Jane Rosenberg, Brighton, U.K.
Joey, third of five, left home at 16, traveled the country and wound up in Nottingham with a wife and kids. They do shifts, the kids play out and ends never meet. Sometimes he’d give anything to walk away but he knows she’s only got a year and she doesn’t (Qtd. in Pink 120).

Example 2
“A Dream So Real” by Patrick Forsyth, Maldon, U.K.
Staying overnight with friends, his sleep was disturbed by a vivid dream: a thief broke in, stole everything in his flat—then carefully replaced every single item with an exact replica.
“It felt so real,” he told his friends in the morning.
Horrified, uncomprehending, they replied, “But who are you?” (Qtd in Pink 120).

A Damsel in Distress

Last night I returned from a ten-day trip to the UK, primarily to meet my new editor at Constable and Robinson in London. 

I’m happy to say that The Vicky Hill Mysteries live on—at least for another year. All four books will be published in 2012, two in May and two in September. Recently the publicity department at C & R sent me a 9 page “Author Questionnaire” that took me over two hours to complete. It would seem that they really believe in supporting their authors and I just love that! It’s no secret that many US publishing houses don’t financially assist authors with their promotional efforts so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that my UK launch party will be given a generous contribution towards the cost of “alcohol.” After 18 years living in health and youth obsessed Southern California, I’d forgotten that drinking alcohol is a huge part of the British culture (not sure why – the English weather?) 

However, being a British citizen also means that I would be taxed twice unless I filed for a tax exemption and obtained a certificate of residency from the IRS. Since I’m not being paid much, I thought it would be a good idea to be paid in British pounds to avoid the currency conversion and exchange fees. 

Since any trip across the Atlantic is an excuse to make a detour to Devon, I picked the National Westminster Bank in the High Street, Totnes. There, I was a bit shocked to discover that not only could I open an account in name only (no deposit necessary), there was no monthly charge and the only I.D. I needed was my passport. My customer adviser (with the brilliant name of Darren Prince-Every) actually gave me his direct number should I have any questions. No outsourcing to Mumbai for the Nat. West! This was just as well. 

As I was packing on Sunday I realized my passport was missing and practically had a coronary. I headed off to the local police station where the desk sergeant spent ages calling every Tom, Dick and Harry on my behalf and finally writing a letter to Passport Control with an official stamp to say I was who I said I was so I could at least leave the country. 

Finally, I remembered Mr. Prince-Every had given me his number and lo and behold, it was forwarded to his cell phone and he answered! (This was a Sunday, after all). Mr. P-E phoned the branch manager (who was just on his way out for lunch with his mum) and to cut a long story short, my passport was discovered sitting on the photocopying machine at the bank. 

People often ask me why I write about small town life and that it can’t “really be like that anymore.” But tucked away in small corners of England there are still bank managers willing to forego their Sunday lunch to help a damsel in distress. 

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

New uses for old books

Sorry to miss my customary Tuesday spot last week but I was up to my eyeballs in it and just couldn’t spare the time.

It’s much the same this week, but to miss two Tuesdays in a row is unthinkable, so here I am with not a whole lot to say — and less time in which to say it. However, I do have something interesting.

We can’t seem to go more than a few days here on Type M (or anywhere else bookish sorts of people tend to congregate) without mentioning e-books and how they’re turning our little world completely downside up. So, if the printed volume is dead, what the hell do we do with our shelves and shelves (some double layered, no doubt, as several of mine are) of paper bound between two covers?

I have the answer.

The Book Surgeon (Let’s see you do something like this with an e-book!)

Many thanks to my good friend, Simon Stone, for sending this along. Hope you enjoy seeing other uses for old books.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Miss me? Highly unlikely with Frankie Baily chipping in on Monday and the new and totally wonderful typists Aline Templeton and Brent Ghelfi.

But, I’m back. For now. The house sitter can take a temporary break until I need her services again in two weeks when it’s North Carolina bound I am.

Barbara beat me to the punch talking about Left Coast Crime which was just great. I am at the stage in my career when I can decide on what conference to attend based on location. When I saw that LCC in 2011 was going to be in Santa Fe, I jumped at the chance. And I’m glad I did. Loved Northern New Mexico. Loved Santa Fe.

As long as I was in the area, so to speak, I decided to pop over to Arizona for a visit to Scottsdale/Phoenix/Glendale.

En Route, we stayed overnight in Holbrook, Arizona, self-described as “the town too tough for women and churches.” All I can say is that it must have been the food that drove any self-respecting woman out. We ‘dined’ at a steakhouse on pork ribs a lot tougher than that town, drenched in bottled sauce, and served with a corn on the cob that was squishy to the touch. What the corn was to the taste I did not bother to find out. After one of the most insipid ‘free hot breakfasts’ I have ever had the misfortune to try, we fled Holbrook. (Barbara Peters warned me not to stop there – in that, as in everything else, I should have listened.)

We detoured slightly to see the ruins at Homolovi which brought us close to Winslow. Deciding to take it easy and slow down to take a look at the town and not let the sound of my own wheels drive me crazy we went to town to take a picture of me standin’ on a corner.

In Scottsdale, Poisoned Pen bookstore requested a rush printing of Among the Departed (release date May 3, 2011) so I could have my launch celebration there. I was thrilled to share it with debut novelist Wayne Arthurson and my friend R.J. Harlick and talk about crime writing in Canada. Somehow we got on the topic of polar bears. Think you’re top of the food chain? – think again.

After the discussion we went to the Mission Restaurant where we were introduced to guacamole with pumpkin seeds. Definitely a new favourite chez Delany.

R.J. and I also went to the Velva Teague Library in Glendale (which has a hockey team, how can that be?) for a great talk with Lesa Holstine, one of the world’s great mystery lovers and hostess. If there is ever an award for librarian of the year, my vote is accounted for.

I've posted a couple of pictures of the trip. New Mexico architecture;Standin' on the Corner, in the Desert Botanical Gardens, at Teague with Lesa and R.J., Southwest dining.