Wednesday, August 31, 2016

One Writer's Obsession

by Sybil Johnson

A discussion has been ongoing here on Type M about crafting a novel. I don’t have anything to add so I’m going to talk about one of my current obsessions instead: The Great British Bake Off. Or the Great British Baking Show as it’s called when it airs here in the U.S. I don’t really know why they changed the title for the U.S. market. I know what a “bake off” is. I suspect a lot of other Americans do too. Book titles are often changed when they cross the pond, so I guess this is another example of that.

I love, love, love this show. Can’t get enough of it. It’s great fun to see people engage in friendly competition, bonding over baking, creating tasty treats with all-purpose flour, cake flour, bread flour... But, wait! What’s this? They don’t mention any of those in the show. Apparently, in Britain it’s strong flour, plain flour, soft flour...

Since I’m a naturally curious person, I looked these things up. It seems here in the U.S. we talk about flour based on what it’s usually used for, baking cakes or bread or for general purpose baking, while in Britain they talk about how much protein or gluten is in a flour. In the following, what it’s called in the U.S. is on the right of the equal sign, what it’s called in Britain is on the left. Here’s what I learned:

cake or pastry flour = soft flour
all-purpose flour = plain flour
bread flour = strong flour or hard flour
self-rising flour = self-raising flour
whole-wheat flour = wholemeal flour

These are rough equivalents. I did see a discussion online where someone from the U.K. noted that the plain flour there which is available to the home baker is not exactly equivalent to our all-purpose flour. If these are wrong, feel free to correct me.

And then there’s sugar. They kept on referring to caster sugar and icing sugar. I figured caster sugar is what I call granulated sugar or just sugar. The web tells me that’s not totally correct. Apparently, caster sugar is superfine, finer than granulated. Icing sugar is powdered sugar.

And then there’s the kinds of things they bake, many of which I’ve either never heard of or only having a passing acquaintance with. I now know what Victoria sponge, spotted dick, plum pudding all are. Though it’s strange for me to see puddings that are sliced.

I’m also still a bit confused about terminology. Maybe some of you readers can help me out here. First, there’s biscuit. Based on what I’ve seen on the show, I get the feeling that what we call cookies and crackers here in the U.S. are both referred to as biscuits in the U.K. Is that correct? And what about puddings? Is that a general term for desserts in the U.K.? Inquiring minds what to know.

I like baking myself though I’m not nearly at the level of these contestants. My favorite thing to do is play around with cheesecake recipes. I also enjoy checking out new recipes and techniques on websites. One of the contestants from season 1 of GBBO, Ruth Clemens, has a web page called The Pink Whisk. Great fun to wander around in.

Well, that’s enough about my GBBO obsession. What about you all? What are current obsessions?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Last Minute Opportunity!

My wife and I have decided to get the hell out of Dodge (as the saying goes) and take a few days off. It’s all very sudden and all very exciting.

And I’m going to be writing up a storm. Well, actually, there are no storms planned for this part of the book, but there you go. I may murder a character or two, though.

Not wanting to leave my weekly obligation to Type M to a sticky fate, I’ve decided to leave you all the following cartoon a friend sent me several months ago.

See you next week, refreshed and reinvigorated!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Hungry Writer

By Vicki Delany

It looks as though the current topic on our blog is about the craft of writing novels.

I’m such a rebel I’m going to talk about tomatoes.

Because it’s tomato season and because I can.

I live in the country since retiring from my job as a systems analyst at a major bank some years ago, and I’ve become a real locovore. I love to eat as locally as I can, and this time of year, I’m pretty much on a ten mile diet.  The farmer’s gate stands are bursting with potatoes (Loooove fingerlings) squash, bok choy, Swiss chard, apples, onions, garlic. And on and on I go.  I make sauces and soups and muffins to pop into the freezer for the winter.

But of all the wonderful produce, one stands out.


I love tomatoes, but I truly believe a tomato has to be freshly picked to be worth eating. In the winter and spring I might buy a tomato or two from the supermarket but only if they are going to be put into a stew or soup. They’re just not good enough to eat raw or lightly cooked.
I believe in the pleasure of anticipation. I’ll wait ten months in order to really enjoy a fresh, warm, local tomato. I believe we’ve lost a lot when we’ve given up the pleasure of anticipation. In the world today we want what we want when we want it and that when is usually now. But you can’t grow a tomato in November in the north and you can’t pick it fresh from the vine in January. You have to wait.

And wait I will do.  

I have the great fortune of living in Prince Edward County, Ontario, one of the best agricultural areas in Canada. All I have to do is walk up the road to a farm gate stand or stop in at another one on the way into town and I can buy tomatoes they grew themselves. One of the best places for tomatoes in Prince Edward County, Ontario is Vicki’s Veggies (not me, another Vicki).

On the upcoming Labour Day Weekend, Vicki’s Veggies will be having it’s annual heirloom tomato tasting event.  They lay out over one hundred different tomatoes for you to sample, to buy, and to place orders for next years seedlings. If you’re a tomato lover, it’s the place to be!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Talent—Innate or Learned?

In his Tuesday entry, below, Rick pondered the question of how much one actually needs to know in order to successfully write a novel. He concludes that howsoever much one studies the craft, a basic talent for storytelling has to be present in order to begin a novel.

I, Donis, find this a fascinating concept. I do believe that one can learn the basic precepts of writing and with practice become very competent at it, even successful. But it does seem to me that some people just have it—the natural ability to craft a tale that rises above the rest. A few years ago, I wrote an entry about talent on this site that addressed this very concept, which I reproduce below with a few modifications:

Do you believe in predestination? Are we born to write, to act, to paint, to be mommies or accountants? Or is it Karma? Is this our reward, our fulfillment? Perhaps our punishment. In his wonderful little book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that basically every human being is born with God-given, unique talents, and if you don’t use them, then you are a wastrel and an ingrate. (I paraphrase.)

Therefore, if you are driven to write (paint/parent/account), you must write, or fly in the very face of God.

How’s that for motivation?

Like most authors I know, I began writing when I was a child. In fact, I can’t remember when I didn’t write little stories. The earliest piece I remember clearly was called “The Black Cat”. The protagonist was a little girl who turned into a cat every night. I don’t remember what she did. I don’t think she used her powers to save kittens from storm drains, or any other catly heroics. I only remember her drinking cream from a saucer on the floor. Apparently she didn’t retain her human moral values when she transformed.

I loved to make up stories mostly because I loved to read stories. When I was a girl, the world in fiction was as real to me as my actual life, if not more so. Before I could read, I adored being read to - and here’s the key – I was read to, continually. I was given picture books when I was more interested in chewing on them than looking at them. I therefore learned to read very early, and consequently began writing very early. Bless you, Mama and Daddy. You gave me a gift that influenced and enriched my entire life.

Now, being an avid reader doesn’t necessarily make one want to be a writer, but I think it is a prerequisite. I do think a healthy self-regard is extremely helpful. Listen, learn, be guided, and practice, and never think you can’t improve, but never let anybody write your book for you, either. There is something each of us has to say or do that nobody else in the long history of this wide world can say or do, and if you don’t give it a try, you deprive the rest of us of your singular talent.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Born to be

Barbara here. Rick has invited us all to put in our two cents on the question of talent and storytelling. Canada abolished its one cent coin a few years ago, so here's my plug nickels's worth. I have no idea whether the talent for storytelling is born into us or not, bit I do believe that most of us, if not all, are born with a creative urge and the path through which it is expressed. This path may be guided by early exposure, as in musicians or artists who follow in their parents' footsteps, but sometimes it has nothing to do with the culture and interests of our families.

I was born into a family of musicians and painters. They did other things with their lives, but my grandfather, as a surgeon in France during World War I, painted scenes of rural France as an outlet and counterpoint to the horrific demands of his job. His talent for painting predated the war; I have a painting of his hanging in my house, done when he was 16 years old. My mother was a high school science teacher but inherited that painter's passion, and many of the other walls in my house hold paintings done by her, inspired by the sight of a child playing or a spectacular play of light on mountains or sea.

I, however have never had the slightest urge to pick up a sketchpad or capture a scene on canvas. I have absolutely zero talent for drawing, painting, or otherwise interpreting the world in visual form. But from the age of six, when I first learned how to spell, I have been inventing stories. Story ideas spin in my head all the time. The question is not where do I get my ideas (for they are in the line at the coffee shop and in the sidebars of the newspaper), but how do I know whether an idea has the legs for a 300-page novel, or whether it deserves to be a scene or a subplot in a larger story. Experience and practice have taught me that.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, occupied no part of my family tree. I am the first in my whole extended family to be obsessed with creating stories. However, some of the prerequisites to good storytelling were present in my family home. My parents were avid readers and our home was filled with books. Filled. Every kind of book from biography to history to great literature and poetry. I had free rein of the shelves and picked up books at random, reading William Faulkner and Alexander Solzhenitzyn at whim From them I learned the secrets of great drama and absorbed, without lectures or lessons, the techniques of story arc, characterization, and imagery.

I wrote all through my childhood and throughout adulthood, mostly dreadful sap that fortunately did not see the light of day but that helped me to learn my craft. My late husband, however, was a painter. He saw the world not in terms of story bites like me but in terms of images and framed scenes to be captured on canvas. Not in terms of characters and conflicts but in terms of colour, shapes. shadows, and contrasting light. Yet our children, with their DNA packed on both sides with a painter's genes and on one side with a storyteller's, followed neither path. Like me, they show no talent or inclination for visual art. One has some interest in writing song lyrics and another in writing scripts, so some of that has past on through the DNA. But their creativity has found its primary outlet in other forms -- in music and acting.

It is a strange, human beast, this creative urge. Who knows where it comes from, but I believe we all have it. Perhaps we are all born with our own primary outlet, whether it's writing, art, acting, music, dance, crafts, woodworking, photography, or even software design. It may be the random re-alligning of the DNA but it comes from the core of who who are. The rest -- the talent, training, and practice it takes to do it well -- are secondary, because if it's not your passion, you won't put yourself at the artist's easel or the writer's desk long enough to get anything done.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How much do you need to know to successfully write a novel?

by Rick Blechta

This past week, I had a very interesting (and stimulating) conversation with a young person about novel writing. Basically, it revolved around creating characters and how they seem to take on a life of their own. (I’ve blogged about this several times, as have others, right here on Type M.)

This conversation led me down another path over the next few days eventually leading me to question how much one actually needs to know in order to successfully write a novel. I have an idea this post is only going to serve to start the conversations since the topic is a big one — and will probably draw in others as it goes along.

So what is the most important thing/skill/idea to possess before you start down what will be a long and grueling path?

After a lot of cogitation, I tend to think it’s that you have to understand what a novel is and isn’t.

As others have said in the past, a novel tells a story, but the plot can’t be static (this happened then that happened, then this third thing happened). During the course of the story, something has to change. Usually, it’s one or more of the characters, although it can be a situation. It has to arrive at its conclusion with at least some sort of finality. Otherwise it’s not satisfying to the reader.

Over the years, I have read mss where it's clear the writer didn’t understand this very important fact. Bad grammar, sketchy character writing, dialogue, description can all be taught, slaved over and improved because, while requiring a certain amount of talent to excel at, these items are all mechanical sorts of things. I’ve a writer has a bit of flair and the will to work to improve, improvement will happen. If the writer didn’t understand this basic tenet of fiction writing, then more than likely, the ms will have to be completely rewritten — or scrapped altogether.

But if that basic storytelling flair isn’t present, I’m not sure how much any kind of tutelage will make someone a novelist.

Then there’s the idea for the story. It requires an initial interesting idea. What exactly is that? I can’t really tell you. It’s just something I seem to know when I begin writing a novel. This idea is interesting while the other thirty I considered while I was searching for the basic kernel of the next novel weren’t interesting. So far (eleven novels in), I haven't been wrong.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a basic talent has to be present in order to begin. Certain abilities that can’t be taught have to be present, or the writer is not going to be all that successful. The rest can be worked on — if the writer is willing.

More on this topic next week. Please feel free to weigh in!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Last week when I was in Barnes and Noble at Goodland there was a table set up with a whole display of my new non-fiction academic book, surrounded by all of my mysteries. Not only was I delighted, I was so surprised.

This boondoggle occurred with no effort on my part. It was a gift. Out of the blue. Generating publicity is such an elusive part of publishing that it's easy to forget that sometimes good things simply happen.

The full title of the Nicodemus book is Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas. It's about 19th century African American Politicians and their contribution to the settlement of the West. Specifically, it's about the philosophies of three men in Nicodemus, who affected local, state, and national politics.

Not much connection to my mysteries. I can come up with one. Sort of. The Lottie Albright mysteries are set in Western Kansas and all have some sort of history worked in somewhere. But still. Who would have thought that B & N would have a display linking the two genres.

Through the years I have become very open to the delights of appearances and events. Even the ones that are disastrous have comical aspects. I started to go into some of the specifics then erased the copy. Because I'm well aware of the effort involved for booksellers and organizations to put signings together and would hate for followers of this blog to think I'm making fun of their time and efforts.

I'm deeply grateful for all the breaks I've had and very conscious that writers far more talented than I have not been so lucky. I'm very much aware of how far I have to go in learning the craft and polishing what little skill I have.

There's never a time when I attend a conference that I don't go home sobered by the knowledge that the writers at the top of the bestseller lists are the most disciplined hard-working people I know. Without exception.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I'm writing this from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, during my week off. My break comes on the heels of a wild summer -- I served as assistant director and academic dean of the Northfield Mount Hermon Summer School (eight weeks at 10 to 12 hours a day), I just finished a 7,000-word outline for a novel (even I can't believe I just wrote that -- plotting has never been my forte), and the lone signing on this vacation sold out.

I vowed to get away from the keyboard this week, so here are some pics from the vacation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing Under Any Conditions

As I'm writing this, a jackhammer is going off in the background. This is the second day of that particular noise on my block. Yesterday, we heard it almost continuously from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Today it appears to be gracing us with its presence again.

This is not unusual in the city I live in. We seem to be "enjoying" a construction boom. You can't walk more than two blocks without finding some house being torn down or under construction or being remodeled. I'm happy for the construction industry, having all those jobs created, but it can be annoying.

Some writers can write no matter what's going on around them. I know a number of them who regularly write at Starbucks or some other coffee shop. I'm not one of those. I don't even like writing in a relatively quiet library. I want to be at home with my things surrounding me.

But, with all this construction going on, I'm learning to write despite all the distractions. A house next door to ours took almost 5 years to finish before they moved in. Yep, 5 years. That's 5 years of jackhammering, pounding, sawing, Mariachi music... And you have to realize this was all within a few feet of our house, which shook when they were driving in giant metal posts and digging out the basement. Once the construction moved inside, things got better, but there was still plenty of noise.

The noise bothers me more when I'm in the first draft writing phase, less when I'm plotting or doing later edits. How much noise bothers me also depends on how I'm feeling. If I'm a bit under the weather, it bothers me a lot more. But if you have deadlines, you have to learn how to deal with it. I wrote some construction issues into my second book, PAINT THE TOWN DEAD, and I have a short story outlined, which I have yet to write, that involves conflict over construction. And I have other ideas: bodies found in porta potties, bodies falling off of roofs, bodies found in poured concrete...the possibilities are endless

I also invested in some noise-canceling headphones and play my own music to counteract what’s coming in from outside. The construction is still annoying, but I’m learning to deal with it.

What about you all? Are you sensitive to what’s going on around you? Can you do your work (whatever it is) with lots of noise?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


by Rick Blechta

The internet, much like anything else, has a good side and a bad side. Actually, please allow me to restate that. The internet has some very good sides and some very bad sides. It has changed the way we interact, receive information (a lot of information), even the way we think. It is both an extremely useful tool and a curse.

All that said, this post is not about the pluses and minuses of this ubiquitous thing in our modern lives, but the way those of us “ink-stained wretches” interact with it.

Here’s the thing: in the “dark ages” (pre-internet), we’d have to trudge down to the local library if we needed research information, look through a card catalog (remember those?) and then have to search a book for the information needed. We’re talking anywhere from an hour or two to several days to get what we needed.

The point is that research took a lot of time and we all know that skimping on research is a quick way to risk condemnation by reviewers or readers who actually know what you’re talking about.

Now, fire up your favourite browser program, type in a few key words and you’re off to the races. You can get the information in minutes, if not seconds. Great, right?

But like everything in life, this ease of access comes with a price: you can find anything on the World Wide Web, and the thing that can come back to bite you is stopping browsing the internet. It can be like thumbing through a dictionary in search of a particular word. If you’re like me, you can’t help but stop and look at other words, and all of a sudden you’ve spent a half hour (or more) looking up interesting things, perhaps increasing your vocabulary in the process, but no further along in your work-in-progress.

The internet is way worse.

Case in point, I needed to look up the median temperature in fall in Cold Spring, NY. An hour later, I’d checked my email, looked at the headlines (and read a few articles) in 2 online newspapers, checked the weather back in Toronto (for the next week), looked at my email again, peeked at Facebook, read an article on plagiarism, and then, finally got around to looking up what I’d gone after in the first place.

Am I an dolt who can’t control what he’s doing? Not really. Was I trying to avoid working on my novel? Hell no! What I am is naturally curious, and I feel very secure in saying that I am not out of the ordinary in the writing world. Writers have to be naturally curious to be any good. Our plots would have far fewer interesting twists and turns if we weren’t that way.

Thing is, you have to be disciplined about it. Somehow, curiosity has to be kept in check at certain times — like those few precious hours you’ve set aside for actually moving your manuscript along.

I guess I’m not very good at that.

Monday, August 15, 2016

You Shoud Be Able to Tell a Book by Its Cover

By Vicki Delany

Last week the Typists were talking about what makes us buy a book, and the topic of cover images came up.

Some of us didn’t seem to think the cover is all that important in the buying decision, and others consider it very important.

I am in the latter camp.  Yes, I’m going to buy a book if it’s highly recommended by someone I trust, or if a reputable review source I also trust has given it high praise, but otherwise, the cover is the first decision I make.

Do I pick this book up and read more, or pass on by?

That split-second decision is made almost exclusively on the cover image.

One of the best covers of all time (now extensively copied)
The cover needs to tell you exactly what type of book this is.  Cats and pastel covers? Great, if I’m wanting something light.  The US Capital building at dark, probably in the rain? Guaranteed to be a tough-guy thriller.  A lonely house, perhaps with one light burning? Probably a psychological suspense.

Blood spatter? Not for me.

Only if the cover appeals to me, and tells me that the book is the sort of thing I am looking for at this very moment, will I pick it up.  At that point all the other buying decisions take over.  Is the blurb enticing, what I feel like reading, and is it well written? Then I might stop right there and get it.

But, even if it is the perfect book for me at this time, if the cover hasn’t appealed to me, I won’t even pick it up.

another good one

The same is true for ebooks online or for books on bookstore shelves.

But most of all, what the cover has to do is deliver what the book promises. Whether it be light and funny, dark and serious, gory and horrific.

Case in point, is Barbara’s newest book.  Last week she showed you the two covers. I am pleased to say that she consulted with me (and several others) when the publisher first showed her their design. That was last autumn when I was on a North Carolina book tour.  I’d been in a lot of bookstores, and one thing I noticed immediately was that the current crop of “women’s fiction” all had covers in shades of baby blue.   That first cover of Barbara’s would have indicated to anyone browsing, that the book was something about “female friendships”.   Mystery readers would have passed over it, and women’s fiction readers would have picked it up, read the blurb and put it back down again.

The value of a good, and appropriate, cover can not be overestimated.

Tells you exactly what your'e going to get

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A crazy life by Linda Wiken

On this steamy August weekend, I'm delighted to welcome as this weekend's guest blogger my very dear friend Linda Wiken, who's been in the mystery business as long as I've known her, first as a founding member of Ottawa's Capital Crime Writers, and then as one of the creative and editorial forces behind The Ladies Killing Circle anthologies and the owner of Ottawa's mystery bookstore and still later, as the creator of the website Mystery Maven Canada to showcase Canadian crime writers. Then finally, a few years ago, she spread her wings and launched her own novel writing career, first with the Ashton Corners Book Club series under the name Erika Chase and now with a brand new dinner club series under her own name. Her first book in that series, Toasting up Trouble, has just been released. Take it away, Linda!

What a crazy life we writers live. That thought filters through my mind at odd times, usually when I’m procrastinating or as this morning, sitting on my deck enjoying my first espresso of the day at an hour when the outside temperature is actually pleasant.

Think about it – we live in a fantasy world for more hours in the day than not.  Need proof? Witness the wary husband (or wife!) who shakes his head and walks away after explaining that the gutters are full of leaves and he needs you to hold the ladder. Did he say something?

Or the child who decides to get even by  sneaking a Magnum dark chocolate ice cream bar before lunch after you say, yet again, “I’ll be with you as soon as I write this idea down.” Hours later…..
Friends get the short shrift, too. But it’s really because they don’t get it. That phone call that says all the gang is going for a play day of shopping and lunch but you say, “I can’t go. My manuscript is due on Friday.”  Don’t they know? After all, you’re moaning about it all the time.

And, let’s not get into pets!

They really don’t understand, any of them, that you’d rather be holding that ladder (well, maybe not your first choice), playing soccer with the kids, or shopping till you drop. But you can’t. You’re a writer and even when you choose to take some time off, that fantasy world keeps creeping in and taking over. It won’t leave you alone. Those characters you’ve created have become friends, maybe even a second family, and you need to get back to them and make sure everything’s unfolding as it should.

Which is a good thing. Otherwise, who would write the books?

And let’s face it, as crazy a life as it can be, it’s also one that’s totally satisfying. What more enjoyable, self-fulfilling activity than living in a parallel universe and writing it all down to share with others!

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Reader's Confession

I've found this week's discussion thought-provoking not only because it has prompted me to think about my relationship with titles and covers as a writer but because I've been thinking about what I read and why.

I am now about to share a secret. I often buy books that friends or reviewers I trust have recommended. But the truth is these book often set on my shelf -- or a table where they were deposited to be in plain sight -- unread. My Southern-born grandma would have called it "being contrary". As much as I value the helpful friends and reviewers who tell me about terrific books that they have read and I should read, when I'm reading for pleasure, I "just as soon" (as we say in the South) choose my own book.

I read so many books -- fiction and nonfiction -- because I need to or have to for classes I'm teaching or research I'm doing. When I have a chance to read purely for pleasure I want to choose my own book. I want to recreate that lovely feeling I had every week as a teenager when I would walk into the public library and browse through the shelves to find the book or two I would read that weekend.

I had that same feeling when I was old enough to earn a little money of my own and could buy a novel at the small bookstore on Main Street. I loved browsing through the paperbacks and leaving with a mystery or a Gothic romance or a historical or an espionage novel. Starlight mints, iced tea, and a book that I couldn't wait to open.

I think those memories are why I buy books that are recommended, intending to read them, and often don't.

On occasion I have come back to a book that was recommended years earlier. Sometimes I browse my own bookshelves, feeling I should read some of the books I have before bringing another book into the house -- even a library book. Now and then I "discover" a book that was recommended, coming up on it and being delighted to find that I might well have taken it home if I had found it on my own.

There are a couple of exceptions to my resistance to books I don't choose. I'm on the list of available book discussion leaders for a local library system. I lead a discussion two or three times a year if one of the member libraries asks me to come. I enjoy doing this not only because people in library reading groups read books with close attention, but because the books on the annual lists are often books that I would like to read. The discussion leaders identify the books we would be willing to do, and I always find books that I'd like to read and hope I will be asked to lead a discussion so that I will make the time to read them.

My other exception is the two or three times I've been on a book award committee. Loads of novels to read, a whole year's worth in a category. But a wonderful opportunity to have the library delivered to ones door. The added bonus is that this is an occasion when I can't be contrary. I need to read books that I might not have chosen -- and how lovely to discover I like a book I might not have picked up as I was browsing in the library or a bookstore. 

I'm on my way to the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival tomorrow, and I'm going to browse my bookshelves for a wonderful book to take along to read on the plane. I consider time spent in the air "free time". I am not obliged to do the work I brought along. I can settle in with a book and remember again how much fun it is to read for pure pleasure.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

So How I Choose a Title and Why I Choose a Book to Read

This week’s discussion at Type M is all about what makes a reader pick up a book. Here is what appeals to me: First, if I like a particular author, I will generally read anything s/he puts out. Second, I am swayed by the recommendations of people whose taste I admire. Third, if I am not as familiar with the author, the blurb is what persuades me to give the book a try. Fourth, a good title will entice me to pick up a book and read the blurbs. The cover may make me look, but I am not particularly influenced, unless the cover is really ugly or bloody, in which case I am inclined NOT to read the book.

I’ve written before about the importance of choosing a good title and how hard I work at it. My publisher lets me choose my titles, and thus far has not changed any that I have picked. My first Alafair book was entitled The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, because I wanted something that was eye-catching and conveyed a sense of ethnicity. I was a little surprised that the publisher kept it, but that title has served me well over the years. The only problem with it is that now I feel like I have to come up with something equally good every time. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I succeed less.

And on that note, look what I received in the mail today. These are the ARCs, or what used to be known as the “galley proofs” of my ninth Alafair Tucker Mystery, The Return of the Raven Mocker, which is due to hit the shelves in January 2017. It is somewhat shorter than most of my Alafair books—less than 300 pages. As I hold it in my hand, it feels slight, which is odd considering how hard I worked on it and how long it took me to finish. Raven Mocker reminds me of the first book I wrote in this series, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, and not just because both of them have birds in the title. The stories are not alike at all, but the mood and feeling seem alike to me. Alafair is much more concerned with the welfare of her children than she is with finding justice. Though of course, justice does get found.

The title is taken from the Cherokee legend of Raven Mocker, an evil witch/wizard who takes the form of a raven at night and flies about looking for the old and the sick to torment and suck the life out of them. I chose that because the novel is set during the influenza pandemic of 1918, an epidemic so virulent that experts believe close to fifty million people worldwide died from it.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting an excerpt on my website, as well as reviews when they start coming in.

So…on another topic entirely—my husband and I were watching the news a few weeks ago when out of the blue he said, “Have you noticed that these days everyone begins their sentences with the word ‘so’?”

I had not noticed that. But since he pointed it out, I have become hyper-aware that it is true. I challenge you, Dear Reader, to listen to a radio or television interview and count the number of “so”s. How this language hiccup came about I do not know, but it does remind me that when I was growing up in the wilds of Oklahoma, it was very common for the folks to begin every sentence with “well…” I have considered making a drinking game out of the “so” habit, but I’m afraid that if I took a shot of  something every time someone on t.v. or elsewhere began a sentence with “so”, I’d end up passed out on the floor.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Of covers and titles

Barbara here. What an interesting discussion we are having on Type M! It revolves around covers and titles, and how important they are when we choose a new book. Several people have commented that the two most important determinants in choosing a book are:

1. I've read and liked the author before.
2. Friends and reputable reviewers have recommended it.

This is true for me as well, although I would add that winning or being short-listed for a juried award that I respect might make me at least check out the book.

But what about all those excellent, unsung books that I've never heard of? Much as Rick described, there are several stages in my book buying process. First, "something" has to draw me to pick up the book off the shelf. Second, I read the back cover to see what it's about. If that's intriguing enough, I read the first page to see if it's well written and if I like the author's writing style. If I continue to be intrigued and impressed, even if I've never heard of the author and never read a review, I might buy the book. Online book browsing is somewhat different because it's much more annoying and fiddly to click through multiple links to read back covers and opening pages, and then you lose your place on the "shelf". Moreover, the first details to leap out at you are ratings and reviews, which can ruin a good book in no time.

But in either buying experience, there is that "something" that first makes you pick an unknown book from the shelf. And to me, that something is firstly cover, and secondly title. Both say a lot about the book, the style, and the sub-genre. Pun titles are almost always cozy, at times too clever by half. The covers often feature food, cats, and quaintly comfortable settings (think drawing rooms, porches, and libraries). On the other hand, guns, explosions, or silhouettes in dark alleys, accompanied by two-word, often two syllable titles like White Fear and Dead Eyes are almost always thrillers meant to keep you up all night. Neither are likely to attract me. I want stories that are unique and layered, stories that make me think as well as feel, so I will go for the title with a hint of mystery and intelligence.

Marketers and cover designers know their markets. They know the guns and short titles will attract the reader who wants to be kept up all night, while cats and tea cups will attract the reader who wants to spend a delightful few hours on a friendly puzzle. If the marketer and cover designer get it wrong, writers may never find the audience who will love their books and readers may miss a great story.

Fortunately for me, my publishers allow me to think up my own titles (which as Aline says could be a disaster, but I work hard to find a title that captures exactly what I want to say about the book). The publishers also ask for my cover ideas and send me the preliminary mock-up for my feedback. This is a fascinating process because the errors are usually not with the image itself but the colour or mood. Covers are much less about the image itself as they are about the atmosphere they create and the mood they evoke.

FIRE IN THE STARS is an example in point. The novel takes place in Newfoundland. The first cover, shown above, portrayed a stretch of rocky coast with a cluster of little house perched on the slope. It was meant to look bleak, but it was far too pretty and peaceful. The colours were pastel blue, grey, and white. The font was white. The book is fiery and full of danger from the crashing ocean and the dark, jagged shores. Readers hoping for a story of quaint bygone Newfoundland life would have been surprised by my book and those hoping for an edgy, suspenseful mystery might not have picked it up.

Fortunately, in the exchange of ideas that ensued, the present cover was developed. I hope the right balance was struck. What do you think? And  have you encountered any titles and covers that are jarringly wrong?

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

What I look for in making a decision to buy a book

by Rick Blechta

Aline’s post from yesterday (just below this post if you haven’t yet read it) was enjoyable and thought-provoking, and ever since reading it, I've been thinking about what she said.

The question was then: what tips me over the edge and into purchasing a book?

I would have to say a really great review or a recommendation from someone whom I really trust who say, “You’ve just GOTTA read this book. I know that you'll love it!” (If it turns out that I don’t love it, then I immediately unfriend the person on Facebook – just kidding.

If I’ve read and enjoyed a book by an author, I will quite often pick up another by the same author (especially if it's accompanied by one of the above recommendations, as well).

If I’m browsing in a bookstore, I will pick up a book that has what I consider an interesting cover, I will flip it over, read the back (or flap copy) and if it tickles my fancy, I’ll buy it. As a side comment, I almost never go by what blurbs say, unless they’re a quote from a reputable review source, in which case I might take that into account. I especially don’t go by author blurbs because I know how that works…

Finally is this: if three people in the course of one week personally recommend a particular book to me, I will go out an buy it with no questions asked. This method has never yet failed me and it's happened a bunch of times. I’ve always enjoyed those books so recommended. I call it my Rule of Three.

Monday, August 08, 2016

What Really Is in a Name?

How likely would you be to pause, looking along the shelves of a bookshop, and cry, 'Oh, I simply must read this!' as you spotted a book entitled Four and a Half Years of  Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice? I can't say I would, but millions did when it was sold under the title Mein Kampf. (It's hard to say just how many millions, since there has been a German ban on disclosing the figures and even with the new edition publishing houses won't say).

Trimalchio in West Egg: Something That Happened: The Last Man in Europe: A House of Faith. I don't know who it was who persuaded F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh to change them to the rather snappier The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, 1984 and Brideshead Revisited but I reckon those authors owed them a considerable debt of gratitude.

Certainly whoever convinced Tolstoy that despite the fact that the boy got his girl in the end, All's Well that Ends Well wasn't really a suitable title for a book that majored on bloodshed, death and disaster and ended with Moscow engulfed in flames, did a service to the innocent reader who might otherwise have embarked on it in a spirit of cheerful optimism. (Though come to think of it, Shakespeare's so-called comedy of the same name isn't exactly laugh a minute either.)

The factors that most persuade me to buy a book are:
  1. That it's by an author I've read and liked before.
  2. That a friend I trust has recommended it.
  3. That I've read a good review.
  4. That the blurb catches my interest.
Well down the list come the cover – sorry, Rick! – and the title, unless it's one of those very quirky ones like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In general I describe the book I'm reading by location – 'It's the one lying on the floor by my side of the bed' – if my husband's going upstairs and I want him to bring it down.

However, editors and marketing departments do think the right title is crucially important.

I don't know if other authors find appropriate titles that appeal to their publishers more easily than I do, but considering that these giants of literature most certainly got it wrong I probably shouldn't sulk when what I think is a perfectly appropriate title is rejected. On this evidence, they've probably done me a favour. Probably. Well, you wouldn't expect me to agree totally, would you? I bet Tolstoy muttered into his beard that War and Peace was just a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Stranger Than Fiction

I (Vicki) met Ryan Aldred when he attended my first eight week course in Writing Popular Fiction. I am delighted to say that the MS he brought to class for critiquing has now been published. 

By Ryan Aldred

My debut novel Rum Luck came out a few weeks ago. To say I was excited about receiving the first box of books is something of an understatement; I immediately found myself nose-deep in the vanilla pages, calling out to my wife Andrea, “It smells like a book! My book smells like a book!” (What else it could possibly have smelled like, I have no idea.)

As I read my finished novel for both the umpteenth and very first time, I was struck by certain elements that felt particularly surreal: a car that needed to be pushed down a hill to bump-start the engine; a car mirror that had been broken loose by a presumed monkey’s coconut; and the inexplicable appearance of a sign in a window that read “Kittens for rent.”

In short, the peculiar events that actually happened during my travels in Costa Rica.

But some stories are simply too outrageous for a work of fiction. Such as the time when I found myself at a dive bar at the very same moment as the tin shanties across the road – belonging to women of negotiable affections – caught fire, and I found myself amongst those helping them evacuate boxes after boxes of textbooks from their homes.

(Why did they have so many textbooks? I asked myself years afterward. But some mysteries are never solved.)

Naturally, this took place after I’d consumed a conspicuous amount of Imperial. So much so that, when an errant dog took an interest in the commotion, I raised a hand and said “Luego, luego”, having determined with flawless logic that 1.) dogs in Costa Rica only understand Spanish and 2.) ‘Goodbye’ was close enough to ‘Stay’ for my
intended purposes. (Spoiler: It wasn’t.)

There are some of my favorite anecdotes, and yet I doubt I’ll ever find a way to work them into a book. The old saying holds true – truth is stranger than fiction, particularly works of fiction. As one editor said amidst the Rob Ford debacle, “You couldn’t put it in a novel; no one would believe it!”

This is particularly true for stories set abroad. Most days, one does not expect to have one’s belongings rifled through, to be delayed for hours on end, for strangers to continually invade one’s personal space, and to consume strange and unusual cuisines solely due to dire need – and that’s just the flight. If I ever did have an entirely uneventful trip, I would be so fearful of the karmic imbalance that I would no longer leave my house – which would no doubt be crushed by falling ice from a passing jetliner.

One day, perhaps, I’ll be able to revisit those burning shanties. Or the beach bar where a local real estate agent kindly asked that I hack into Interpol to remove a misunderstanding about a small packet of cocaine. Or the fateful night a friend escaped a near-stabbing by rather brilliantly claiming that he had only arrived that day, and so he couldn’t possibly be the jerk who’d hit on Stabby’s girlfriend the night before. (He was definitely that jerk.)

But even then, I intend to revisit reality sparingly – lest a sudden dose of truth render my fiction completely unbelievable.

Rum Luck was a finalist for a 2015 Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, and is the first book in the Bar on a Beach Mystery series. Now available from Five Star. When not writing, Ryan runs a small Canadian charity that provides education in Afghanistan, Uganda and other at-risk regions. His website can be found at, or you can find him on facebook – – or twitter –

Friday, August 05, 2016

Lavishly Gloriously Overwritten Books

I've been thinking about Rick Blechta's recent post on the death of description. He discussed the use of detailed descriptions in books written in the 19th and early 20th century. Description in books currently published just give a nod to elements that comprised lengthy paragraphs in the past.

For some reason I've developed a passion to reread some of my favorite books. One of them, Not As A Stranger, is the greatest medical novel ever written. However, it is so lavishly, gloriously, overwritten that it makes War and Peace look like a Tweet.

I wonder if it would be published now. It's too superior to be tossed in a wastebasket. But on the other hand, editors are too often overworked, overburdened, and over bottom-lined. They simply do not have the time to straighten out this kind of book. I suspect the sender would get a short email. "Please cut and resubmit."

Many of my "favorite" books are lengthy. Characters were well-developed and complex. On rereading some of these novels I'm surprised at how little I understood the themes when I read them in my 20s. So it's odd the books have stuck with me for so long.

One of the standard questions authors are asked at presentations is "What is your favorite book?" Mine has always been Green Dolphin Street. It's been a long time since I've read it so it will be interesting to see if I bring fresh eyes to that book also.

A number of people have heard me give that reply so a book club last year decided to read it. It was immediately and universally disliked and the group abandoned it at once. I suspect because it, too, depended on the same kind of lavish description Rick mentioned.

As a writer I'm very alert to lines that slow the book down. In my own writing, on second drafts I check to see if sentences can be deleted and if I'm repeating descriptions. We simply live in a very fast-paced world.

Tweet or die.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Trust Your Advance Readers (even if it's Mom)

Stephen King, in On Writing, says, "The editor is always right." In the publishing phase of a book, King's meaning is pretty obvious: Your editor has usually seen everything twice, and her advice comes late in a manuscript's life and focuses on additions and/or deletions. But there's a stage (or stages) before that. And when writers are drafting, spending hours alone, fearing a leap into the wrong rabbit hole, many of us seek advance readers – people with whom we share works-in-progress, valuing any and all feedback and reactions.

Usually, these readers simply validate choices you've made, catch embarrassing typos, and provide motivation to write quickly – they're reading as you write, after all, and they want to know the ending.

Sometimes, though, they offer feedback that changes the way you think of your book. I had that experience recently.

Despite my love for Stephen King's work and admiration for the man (he is, after all, a fellow Mainer), I, like many writers, get married to my work-in-progress. I'm lucky to have three or four friends who love crime fiction and read with discerning eyes. One is quite literally the most positive human being I've ever been around. (I must tell her to be mean when she reads.) In a former life, she was a biologist who hunted and fished where Peyton Cote fictitiously does. Now she's a research librarian. Another is a semi-retired math teacher, who reads two to three books a week and watches nearly as many Red Sox games. Another is (and don't smirk) my mother, who is a voracious reader and has the odd habit of offering me her opinion whether I want it or not (I bet that gives her something in common with your mother).

A funny thing happened on the way to the 50-page mark of this latest work-in-progress: My mother read the wrong book.

Not all her fault. I'm writing a version of a book I started almost four years ago when I was between Peyton Cote novels. The first two readers are offering feedback, liking it, and spotting my typos – nothing unusual. But then 10 days ago, I got some notes from my mother and quickly realized she was reading the wrong book – the one I began in 2013.

I stopped when she wrote, "I like this version much better than the other one. Nice rewrite."

The "old," version, the one that's been sitting in the bottom drawer of my Google desk for two and a half years is after all a very different novel – same lead character, but a very different plot, more thriller than mystery. I called her immediately. What did she like so much about this rewrite?

As I listened to her praise this older version, I heard a lot of things that made sense (yes, Mom gets smarter as I get older).

So, where does this all leave me? Looking for ways to combine what I like about the new with what I know my mother is correct about the old – and in my second week working on a lengthy and detailed synopsis.

In the end, all this reminds me to trust the people I trust – even if it's you know who.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Dark Side

I’ve recently gone over to the dark side.

Don’t worry, the only crimes I’ve committed are fictional ones. I’m talking about changing my reading habits. I’ve recently set aside my usual cozy/traditional mystery fare and started reading darker stories. Ones where the protagonists aren’t very likeable, make really bad decisions, and where the endings aren’t always happy ones.

I’ve flirted with the dark side myself in a couple short stories I wrote. I use the term “flirted” deliberately. My stories Meet Market published in Spinetingler Magazine and Annual Marriage Test published in Mysterical-E are a little darker than my usual stories, but they’re still not what I would call really dark. Go ahead, follow the links and read them and see what you think.

I’ve changed what I’m reading because I’m doing a library event with author Sarah M. Chen at the Wiseburn library in Hawthorne, CA. Come September 8th, we’ll be talking about “The Light and Dark of Mystery”. I represent the light side and Sarah represents the dark side. So I’ve been reading her work (my favorite of hers is her novella, Cleaning Up Finn) as well as other similar stories. Mostly in the short fiction category because I can read a variety of authors fairly quickly.

While I’ve been reading the stories, I’ve been thinking about why I prefer to read and write lighter mysteries. I think it comes down to why I read mysteries in the first place. I read them because I want to be entertained and want to escape real life for a while. I also read because I enjoy the puzzle aspect of traditional mysteries. How the emphasis is on figuring out the crime, not on the brutalness of the murder. I also enjoy visiting familiar characters in interesting places. And, most of all, I like that the bad guy always gets his comeuppance in the end, something that doesn’t always happen in the real world.

When it comes to historical mysteries, which I also read a fair number of, I don’t mind things to be on the darker side. I almost expect it. I think that’s because the settings are long enough ago it doesn’t represent real life to me. There’s a certain amount of detachment I can give to them that I can’t to contemporary mysteries.

So, what about you, Type M readers? Do you prefer your mysteries dark or light or both? And why do you read what you read?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The slow death of description

by Rick Blechta

A few days ago while working on a section of my novel, I wrote what I thought was a nifty couple of paragraphs of description, maybe ten lines of text once typeset, that would describe the "stage" of a rather intense action scene. Reading it back the next day which is my usual method of working, I felt compelled to toss out all but one sentence.

Why? Because the writing wasn't any good? Because I'd overdone it?

The answer was, it now seemed over-indulgent.

Some of my favourite reads over the years are older works, novels written in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. One thing I enjoy is the heavy use of description to set the scene. I like that clear mental picture.

I imagine if one were to trace (in general terms) the growth and change in the novel over the past hundred years or so, the diminution of description would be a pretty clear and continuing trend.

In deciding to toss out my deathless prose the other day, I suddenly asked myself why. Why has the use of description in novels (any novels) dropped so drastically? Sure, there are some very successful authors who use a fair bit of description, but there aren't many of them. How many times have we said of a book we're reading, "Come on! Get on with your story," when we're faced with a page or two of description? I know I do it a lot.

Why is this?

Here's my premise and please take issue with it if you like (it's been a long time since we've had a good donnybrook here at Type M: description has fallen out of favour because of movies, television and video clips. We are now used to being shown things visually, not having to conjure them in our imaginations. That's the first part of my theory.

The second is that because we're so immersed in the visual and have seen so much of it, we really don't need to see things so much. We already know what they look like.

Take Michael Connelly's novels as an example. They're generally set in L.A. They are also very sparing with description, basically a sentence here or there and the occasional complete paragraph. The reason he doesn't need it is that we already know what the setting of his book looks like. How many times have we seen that city's freeways? It's downtown area? The desert surrounding it?

So there is my theory. Please take me to task if you wish. I'm spoiling for a fight.