Saturday, September 30, 2017

Why on earth do writers write? Guest blogger Priscilla Masters

Born in Halifax (UK), the third of seven children adopted by an orthopaedic surgeon and his wife, a Classics graduate, Priscilla Masters has spent a lifetime nursing and started writing in the 1980s, securing her first publishing contract in 1994. She is the author of more than 30 crime novels, medical standalones, a series featuring DI Joanna Piercy and another set in the mediaeval town of Shrewsbury featuring coroner Martha Gunn. Her latest title is set in a secure psychiatric unit in Stoke on Trent and features forensic psychiatrist Claire Roget.

Now retired from nursing and recently widowed Priscilla Masters lives in the Staffordshire/Shropshire border. She has two sons and two grandsons.

Please visit her website:

I always feel embarrassed when this question is posed to me. No, I didn’t crawl out from my crib thinking, I’m going to be a writer. Neither did I spend my growing up days pondering the great novel I was one day going to pen.

So what triggered me?

It was a knee jerk reaction to a difficult question posed to me in the 1980s when I was a young mother of two very lively boys, whose husband came home for lunch every day. I had a large country house and garden to run with no home help and to top it all was running an antiques business. So who posed the question? A widowed aunt whose life, I suspect, had not lived up to her intellect and expectations.

The question? ‘What are you going to do with your life, Priscilla?’ (A sobering name which pulls me up short when used in full.)

I answered with what I considered to be the equivalent of a Stinger thrown in front of a stolen car. ‘Write a novel.’ No one ever challenges this lofty ambition. No one says, So where is it? Or Have you started or even When will it be finished? You can easily divert your response with secrecy and vague notions of keeping it all to yourself.

So how come the aunt followed up with, ‘So why haven’t you started?’

My response – admittedly a second knee jerk – ‘Because I can’t type.’

‘Pathetic,’ she said. Stung, as soon as she’d gone the very next day, I borrowed a manual typewriter and began to write. And write. I still haven’t stopped.

Write about what you know is the advice given. I was dealing with antiques so wrote about an antiques dealer. Better advice would have been, Write the sort of books you love reading. Which was and is crime fiction. The sole copy of the antiques manuscript was accidentally destroyed. The book was rewritten and finally published — but not until I’d had more than ten crime novels published.

So a word of advice.

Have ready answers in response to difficult questions.

Something better than, Write a novel.

Don’t write on a manual typewriter (Does anyone?) and fail to keep a copy. Yes, that’s exactly what I did!

Write about something you’re passionate (Yes I know it’s an overused word - apologies) about.

And finally enjoy the craft of moulding sentences, choosing words, giving your imagination free rein.

And good luck.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Author Speed Dating

I'm lucky to be included in an author speed-dating event at Bouchercon. The email I received asking about it contains terrific information. It's quite clear. I'm pasting it into this blog because I've always appreciated the shared advise on Type M.

Two persons are "teamed" and we will move from table to table. I'm working hard to prepare 160 table favors for fans and others who will remain seated. The authors making the pitches move from table to table. Not the fans.

I like to sew and fiddle with crafts. The 160 favors is not as daunting as composing decent pitches.
I suspect it's a good idea to wear comfortable shoes. Not an ideal venue for stilettos.

From the organizers:

What is “author speed dating”?

Each author gets a chance to pitch their book(s) to 20 tables of up to 8 readers to a table. Authors are put in groups of 2 and move from table to table every 4 minutes — so if you and I were paired I would talk for 2 minutes and then you would talk for 2 minutes. We’d pass out bookmarks or other stuff. And then at the 4 minute mark we’d travel to the next table!

 You two will be making the rounds of the tables together. You’ll both begin at Table # 15.

It is incredibly popular and the book room floods with buyers when it is done!


There will be TWO GROUPS OF TABLES – tables 1-22 and tables 23-44 – two sessions taking place simultaneously in the same ballroom. Each group consists of 44 authors. You will be traveling from table to table only within your group.

Please prepare your pitch and be sure it is less than 2 minutes long. Each author gets 2 minutes and you will then get 1 minute to move to the next table, for a total of 5 minutes for each session. We MUST enforce the time limit strictly in order to allow every author to address all the readers in your group. Leslie has a handbell and Les has a microphone and we will signal you when it’s time to move on.

It will help – a lot – if both of you work together – author 1 speaks while the other distributes any flyers, pens, takeaways, etc., then author 2 speaks while author 1 distributes. Please plan accordingly.

Each group will have two tables with just two seats and a LARGE Reserved sign. They’re your rest stops. When you reach one of these tables in the rotation, it’s a chance to sit and catch your breath for 5 minutes. You’ll be glad of the rest stop.
Wow, what a chance for promotion! I'm looked forward to this high energy event. Bouchercon is in Toronto Canada this year. It's count-down time already!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Jury Duty

I spent most of last week on jury duty in downtown Los Angeles at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center. That’s 18ish miles away from where I love, pretty much the farthest they can legally send me.

I’ve served on jury duty there twice before. The first time I saw the name of the courthouse, I wondered who this Clara Foltz was so I looked her up. Turns out she’s pretty impressive. She was the first woman admitted to the bar in California and the first woman lawyer on the west coast of the United States. She also pioneered the idea of the public defender system. The courthouse was renamed after her in 2002.

This particular courthouse is where a lot of the big trials are held. We’re talking O.J. Simpson, Phil Spector and Michael Jackson’s doctor. I was on jury duty on an assault case when MJ’s doctor was arraigned. That was a zoo with all of the family present as well as media and protesters.

While I find trials and courtrooms interesting, I don’t exactly jump up and down with joy when I receive my notice. Generally, I groan. The courthouse in downtown L.A. is probably one of my least favorite places to go just because of the time it takes to get there. I’m not eager to spend 1 to 1 1/2 hours each way in bumper to bumper traffic. Given the nature of the cases tried there, I’m also afraid I’ll end up on a long trial that will disrupt my life for weeks.

Many, many years ago I served on a 6 week trial in a different courthouse. I know how tiring that can be. That one was particularly hard because of the nature of the case. It’s very difficult to listen to children talk about horrible things that have happened to them.

Anyway, I pulled up my big girl pants and braved the downtown traffic. I discovered, to my great surprise, that I kind of, sort of enjoyed the process this time around. The drive wasn’t as horrible as I remembered and the case I was on was fairly short. I met some interesting people and a couple of my fellow jurors bought one of my books.

Some things I noticed this time around:

There’s a new jury assembly room. The old one was basically just awful. This one has comfortable chairs, nice bathrooms, vending machines, a refrigerator, a microwave, tables and plenty of outlets for charging your electronic devices.

The courthouse was much quieter than I’ve seen it in the past, which meant it didn’t take me forever to get through security or get an elevator to my courtroom.

During the trial, interpreters were used for one of the witnesses. That’s something I’d never been exposed to before so I found that interesting.

In previous trials, I’ve seen the court reporter have to pick up their machine and stand beside the attorneys during side bars. This time around, the court reporter stayed where she was. The attorneys and judge talked into a small device that reminded me of a an old iPod. We couldn’t hear them, but the court reporter could through earbuds.

Overall, it was an interesting week, but I was still glad when it was over. I’m happy hanging out at home and working on my book.

Anybody else have any interesting jury duty experiences? Forgive my ignorance, but do my Canadian friends have jury duty as well?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The agony and ecstasy of writing

by Rick Blechta

Boy, did Marianne’s post of yesterday ring a lot of bells for me.

This post’s title says it all as far as I go personally. When writing is going well, it’s very, very good, but when it’s not, it’s like a walk through my own personal hell. I’m not feeling sorry for myself, just stating a personal truth. As I continue down the writing path, the agony is clearly in the ascendancy, sad to say. Allow me to explain.

When I first began writing, it was to give my poor teaching-addled brain a respite doing something wholly different from standing at the front of a band class or ensemble, but still allowing me to be creative. I’d always loved words and I’m a good storyteller. Hey! I know…I’ll write a short story!

So I began a short story. Three hundred and seventy pages of manuscript later I realized I’d failed at crafting a short story. I say that with tongue only partially in cheek.

The lovely thing was, I’d had a whale of a time. Sure, my new baby was pretty ugly and definitely had any number of warts, but I had really enjoyed the entire process. Every evening I’d dragged my tired ass to the bedroom after getting the kids to bed, sitting down at my computer, and within moments, finding myself completely energized with the words absolutely flowing. I often woke up well after midnight, having fallen asleep over the keyboard — once finding 39 pages of d’s before the computer went to sleep too.

My second novel went the same route and the third began that way too. But partway through, things began slowing down and writing became more of a task. The process still had the same joie de vivre about it but the words certainly weren’t coming direct from God anymore.

In reality what was going on was my transition from being a complete novice to really understanding how to write. I noticed more. I self-corrected more as I went along, rather than being able to wait until the editing stage. I’d write a sentence and stare at it as it lay flatly on the page, knowing that I could do better than this. And the ideas came out more slowly, almost shyly as if they were afraid they wouldn’t measure up — and quite often they didn’t.

So now I’m at the stage where I do feel as if know what I’m doing. I’d like to think that my writing is now fully confident (if not always competent) but I’m writing more slowly than ever. Now I have days where I throw out more than I write. What remains is definitely far better than what I could craft when I first started, but to be frank, writing is more often than not a chore, something that must be endured, rather than a rush of creative joy.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy writing, but it isn’t fun any more in the way it used to be. It’s become a challenge, although one I’m still willing to meet in battle. Sometimes I even craft something that, when I read it over a day or two later, strikes me with the fact that it’s not just good, it’s really good, as in, Did I actually write that?

And that’s where the payoff is and that’s why I keep going.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Taking dictation from God?

The Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie fame) once likened writing to taking dictation from God, as if the novel writing process is one huge effortless, magical explosion of joy. If only! For me writing a novel is a trial and the most strained moments come at the beginning and the end, at what the American editor and writer Robert Gottlieb calls “the getting in and the getting out.”

I hate facing the blank page, especially when I only have the roughest of ideas of what it is I want to say. The thought of getting those thousands and thousands of words down almost immobilises me. I put it off and put it off. Until, eventually, after days, weeks, and sometimes months, of procrastination, I can't put it off any longer. Finally, I make myself sit down at the keyboard and dive in. I write as fast as I can for six hours a day, have the weekend off and start all over again. I try not to edit as I go because I don't want to waste time looking for a perfect sentence or word in a section which I may later edit out – this is not as easy as it sounds as I want to rewrite every word almost before it's down. My goal, though, is to keep going.

Fast forward x number of months. I feel I've aged ten years and my friends all think I've emigrated it's been that long since we've been in touch. But I have 70,000 plus words in front of me, albeit awful, terrible, shitty words, words that I wouldn't show my dog, but that doesn't matter. I am ready to begin the sifting, combing, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing, crafting and shaping – what T.S. Elliot called “the frightful toil of critical labour”. This is the bit I LOVE. Now I am creating! I rewrite and edit for meaning and context and plot and imagery and rhythm and sense and the possibilities are endless. I go to places I never imagined I could imagine, and meet new, exiting people.

I sometimes think the elation I feel when editing could be similar to the excitement the gambler feels just before the silver ball drops into the black or red chamber of the roulette wheel? Or to the buzz the slot machine player experiences just before a bunch of whirring purple plums kerchunk into a row across the front of the fruit machine. It is the thrill of not knowing yet believing everything is possible and I never want it to stop. Is that what Muriel Sparks felt when she was on her dictaphone to God? But the story has to end. It must. The readers expect it. So, eventually, after however long it takes (which is usually a very long time) and when I have nothing left to give, and even though I know my story is still not perfect – but perfection is the voice of oppression, isn't it? – it's time for me to take a chance. It's time to see if my novel can stand on its own two legs. Reluctantly, and filled with sadness, I write the final last words and I get out. But I know I won't be miserable for too long. A new idea has been mulling about in the back of my head for months and it's crying out to be explored. If I'm lucky, I'll master my procrastination and sit down and start all over again. Why? Because there's nothing that I would rather do. So, what about you? Do you struggle writing your novel or is the experience more like “taking dictation from God”?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Follow Your Heroes

Once in a while, I get asked to speak to young people about writing as a profession. When the time comes to offer career advice, I ask them, Who are your heroes? Why are they your heroes and why can't you be a hero like them?

I ask those questions because when I look back on my life and see the direction it's taken, I realize that my way forward is along the path illuminated by other writers. Reading about inventors and moguls was hit or miss, so I was never destined to be a business tycoon. However, the biographies of literary greats like Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and F Scott Fitzgerald spoke to me. I understood their struggles. A favorite source of inspiration was The Red Hot Typewriter, a biography of John D MacDonald, and my takeaway was his blue-collar approach to his craft. He wrote every working day from 8-Noon, 1-4, and during his career he published over forty novels. In 1964, he published five! Using a typewriter! No whining about writer's block from him.

Another hero, though he's excoriated by the literary world, is Harold Robbins because of his steadfast application at putting words on paper and spinning bestselling yarns. And there's Anita Loos, a screenwriter who defied conventions to become a pivotal force in the movie business and invented that Hollywood staple, the romantic comedy.

Not all worked out for my heroes. It's no spoiler if I tell you that the lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Robbins went off the rails during their later years. On the other hand, while literary critics like to talk about the burdens of artistic genius and its toll on the writer's psyche, Burroughs, MacDonald, and Loos kept pecking away at the keys well into their sunset years.

What brought these thoughts to mind is that I'm close to finishing one project, the next and long overdue installment of my Felix Gomez series. Now I have to decide what next to dig into. Those of you who've written a book know what it's like to stand on the ready line for another long march. No matter my approach, it takes a year to eighteen months to write the first draft. I've tried schemes, like Chris Fox's 5,000 words-per-hour method, to shorten my turn around time, but when I do that my result is a pile of mush that needs serious editing so I gain little. I wish I had the focus of Cindi Myers who can crank out four-to-six novels a year. People who've attended a writing retreat with her say she easily produces 15 thousand words in a weekend. And it's quality work since since she's won numerous awards to include a Colorado Book Award. Another slayer of the word count is Kevin J Anderson who's hammered out more than fifty bestselling novels. I've been at WordFire parties and when the rest of us are about to start yet another late-night cocktail, Kevin says he's got to go write. That's dedication.

My heroes.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Continuing Education for Writers

I had two ideas for today's post that are intertwined. The first idea occurred to me when I was thinking about a brief exchange I had with a friend and fellow writer about when we would be arriving in Toronto for Bouchercon. The Sisters in Crime pre-Bouchercon workshop, SinC into Great Writing 2017, is on Wednesday. I mentioned that I am going to miss the workshop, but I have the book (Screenwriting Tricks for Authors) by Alexandra Sokoloff, one of the presenters. 

That upcoming workshop reminded me of Sokoloff's book and that I want to go back and have another look at it. When I first read, I wished that I was working on a standalone rather than a series entry. Now, I have a historical thriller in progress, and I want to channel Alfred Hitchcock. Time for a second look at Sokoloff on structure.

Do you, too, engage in "continuing education"? Collecting multiple books about writing and dipping into them when you start working on a new book or when you're trying to think through a plot or bring a character to life?  Do you still seek out online courses and go to workshops? Still take notes at panels when another writer says something you want to remember?

It could be the teacher in me but even though I have a pretty good grasp on the basics after all these years, I feel I need to keep polishing my credentials. I worry that I might have gotten too comfortable in my process. That there might be new techniques or old techniques that I could apply better.

And that brings me to my second idea for this post. I've been invited to speak at an annual event of a literary volunteers organization. The event is an authors' night -- students and tutors will "share true and life-affirming stories". I will be the local author for this year's event, giving a 10-15 minute talk. I am going to speak first -- the "opening act" so to speak. The spotlight will rightly be on the stories of the students and tutors.

Do you have favorite topics when asked to speak about writing? I have a few on my list -- such as "Why writers write". But all suggestions appreciated.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Meet the Author

I'm not really here today, Dear Reader. I am currently sitting in a hospital room at Banner Desert Hospital after my long-suffering husband has undergone his eighth operation in eight years. While not life-threatening, he is having more body parts removed. Truth is he does not have that many left. I'll be leaving him in the hospital later on this morning (Thursday) to drive to the Arizona State University campus to facilitate the first session of a writing seminar for ASU emeritus professors and at this point (Tuesday) I don't have much of a lesson plan! I have a lot of prep to get done today, so forgive me if I am brief.

Relatives Galore!

I have just returned from a week-long book tour of my homeland, eastern Oklahoma. I was invited by the Eastern Oklahoma Library District to do a speaking tour of nine small-town libraries in five days, and since I have not had the opportunity to tour Oklahoma, where my Alafair Tucker series is set, in ten years, I was eager to go. Besides, the district kindly paid my way to get there and to get home. The tour was a great success. I had good crowds, saw lots of relatives and friends that I haven't seen in 20 years, and was very much reminded of how beautiful eastern Oklahoma is. I hope it is not another decade before I can return.

The towns I visited are, Sallisaw, Muldrow, Checotah, Jay, Kansas, Tahlequah, Eufaula, Hulbert, and Muskogee. And there is a gold star for those of you who can properly pronounce all those place names!

Sallisaw, Oklahoma

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Libraries as inspiration

This past weekend, I had the good fortune to be an invited author to do a reading at the Halifax Word on the Street Festival. For its size, Halifax, located in a spectacular harbour on the Atlantic shore of Nova Scotia, punches above its weight in terms of cultural and artistic activity, and also in post-secondary institutions. There are 400,000 people in Halifax and six universities. That's a lot of education.

Word on the Street is a celebration of all things literary, and includes author readings, panels, workshops, and booths which can be rented to showcase the products of publishers, authors, illustrators, and others connected to the written word. Similar events happen across Canada in the fall. They are organized by grassroots organizations and require commitment by local individuals passionate about the cause. Halifax is in its 23rd year, a testament to the dedication to literacy of the people of Halifax.

Another example of Halifax's dedication to literacy is their new Central Library. Fittingly, Word on the Street is centred around the library, using its front foyer for book sales and author signings, the conference rooms and halls for author readings, and the square outside the front entrance for the display booths. The library is in the heart of the city on Spring Garden Road and easily accessed by bus. It is a stunning, imaginative modern sculpture with floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the inside with light and warmth, and soaring ceilings that invite you to look up in awe and inspiration. I wish I'd had more time to explore the inner workings, but I'm sure it was designed with the latest digital access and learning hubs. Modern libraries have to do more than stack books in dusty rows of shelving. They are sources of community and information to connect people to ideas in the world.

To this end, the library has a wonderful independent cafe in the corner of the main foyer and a coffee shop on the top floor, serving fresh and local food. They have space for catered receptions and a beautiful outdoor patio on the top floor with a view of the harbour.

Ottawa has a dismal excuse for a central library, built in 1973 and crammed into a downtown corner far too small for it. It was designed in the brutalist architecture style which is what it sounds like, Brutal. Raw concrete and harsh lines suggestive of the Soviet Gulag.  Inside, it is dark and uninviting. The city is finally proceeding with plans for a new central library which it hopes will embrace the needs of the twenty-first century. The site has been chosen, and in the manner of public projects, it is likely to be many years of consultation, assessment, recommendations, more consultation, and so on before any shovel breaks the ground on the new site. I hope the politicians and the design committee tasked with it are possessed of imagination, courage, and vision, so that the city gets the bold and inspirational design worthy of a national capital, rather than a conservative, safe, and cost-effective building that offends no one but bores everyone.

In their deliberations, I hope the decision makers visit the great libraries already out there, from Vancouver to Halifax. Merely looking at pictures and blueprints don't do them justice. I dare anyone to walk through the glass front doors of the Halifax Central Library, look up in the middle of the foyer, and not be struck dumb with awe. That is a great homage to knowledge. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How do you get ahead these days without lying — or at least stretching the truth?

by Rick Blechta

Okay. I promise to stop writing blog posts about Bouchercon (but I may be lying — or stretching the truth).

Being so, well, intimately involved in the whole process of mounting a production like this through being the designer and layer-outer of the conference program book, I know where all the bodies are hidden. Even including Kathleen Fraser, its very able editor, I’m probably the only person who’s read Every Single Word of the darn thing — multiple times.

The largest portion of the book is given over to the author and panelist (if they’re not also authors) profiles. One thing struck me over and over again: the use of the words “bestselling” and “award-winning”. Authors throw them around like confetti, occasionally multiple times in the same 600+ character profile.

I have neither the time nor inclination to check out any of these claims, but I doubt very much that every one of them is true. But taken as a whole, it is a depressing spectacle. It seems we poor scribblers have to use any means possible to separate ourselves from the crowd. The result is a very sad thing. The two terms listed above are used so often that a potential reader almost stops noticing – which is not the result being aimed for. Not only that, but if you’re actually not award-winning or bestselling, sooner or later you’re going to be found out and that will be a very embarrassing experience.

So how do you make yourself stand out? After having attended about six of these monster conventions over the years, I’m sorry to say there’s not much of a way to accomplish this. Funny hats won’t do it. Handing out bookmarks or postcards to all and sundry helps, but only a little. Being everywhere at once (I’ve actually seen people try this one) might get people commenting about you, but also will garner some head shakes and strange looks.

It probably sounds like I’m dissing the whole endeavour — and one I’ve toiled over for many hours — but I’m actually not. Come a little bit closer and I’ll tell you the secret I’ve learned about Bouchercons. Bouchercons (indeed any convention) can help you if you simply mingle and talk with anyone you meet. Standing in a corner, wearing black, and with an angst-ridden expression that you hope proclaims you as a serious author is no help. Spending your days hanging around with people you already know, comforting and enjoyable as that may be won’t get the job done.

You just need to schmooze.

That means introducing yourself to people you don’t know, being friendly, striking up a conversation as you wait. If someone notices you’re an author, they’ll probably ask a few questions (work out your “elevator pitch” in preparation). But the real key is to ask them questions. If they’re a fellow author, you start the ball rolling with a question about their books. Most will return the favour. (If they don’t, move on quickly in a polite way.)

The reason this works is that everyone is intimidated at Bouchercon (well, except maybe for the guests of honour), so reaching out is a nice thing to do — as well as being potentially useful.

If the person you’re speaking with seems receptive, give them a bookmark or such (to help them remember your name) and when you see them again — which you most certainly will in such a closed environment — at least wave and smile.

If you’re painfully shy and thinking, I couldn’t do something like that!, thinking of it as a performance might help you break through. Most everyone participated in plays or performances of some kind while in school. Put yourself in that headspace.

Reaching out will also make the experience of attending the granddaddy of all mystery conventions a lot more satisfying fun for you, as well — and I’ll bet profitable more profitable too.

You’ll also make a lot of other people feel good.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Too Smart For Our Own Good

Mapping DNA was one of the smartest things scientists have ever done. It has been a gift to the criminal justice system, freeing the wrongly accused and convicting perpetrators even when it's a cold case many years old.

Eye witness evidence is notoriously unreliable; no two witnesses will ever describe the same event in precisely the same way - and indeed, if they did it would be evidence not of what actually happened but of collusion.

Circumstantial evidence, despite the 'it's only circumstantial evidence' comment sometimes being made, is much more solid. Even so, it has to be part of a chain of evidence to be convincing.

DNA evidence, though, like fingerprints, is hard evidence. It can stand on its own. Even the most optimistic and persuasive defence agent is unlikely to get anywhere with a jury if he challenges it. If a man's DNA is found at a crime scene, then he was there too.

Or was he? When DNA evidence was first used, obtaining it was the big problem. You needed a substantial sample before you could get any sort of result. Then the technique got cleverer still; DNA from even the smallest fragment could be analysed, even if it was just a few cells.

Recently there was a notorious case where an individual's DNA was found on the hand of a murder victim and he was arrested. It was only after he'd been in prison for some time awaiting trial that it was established that he'd a cast iron alibi; on the night in question he was in a hospital bed in an alcoholic stupor. Eventually they discovered that the paramedics who had treated him had then rushed to the aid of the murder victim, transferring cells of the alcoholic's DNA as they did so.

And there's another problem too. Belief in the infallibility of DNA evidence led to the arrest of a man whose DNA was found on the till in a coffee shop that had been robbed – despite the fact that the CCTV footage showed someone of a completely different height and build.

I was talking a while ago to Senior Investigating Officer who said that we had become so clever at picking up smaller and smaller samples of DNA, that the evidence from a crime scene had started to be a bewildering mass of tiny mixed-up traces of evidence, obscuring rather than illuminating what had happened. We are, indeed, becoming too smart for our own good.

In writing a modern crime novel, you have to retain at least the impression of realism, but somehow using DNA to solve the murder has always seemed to me a cop out. However, thinking about it now I know this, I can see it might prove to be a very useful red herring.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Guest Post: Kathleen Valenti

Please welcome fellow Henery Press author Kathleen Valenti to Type M. I met Kathleen at Malice Domestic last year and had a lovely conversation with her. Her first novel, PROTOCOL, featuring new college graduate Maggie O’Malley was recently released. You can find out more about Kathleen at it away Kathleen...


Message in a Novel

by Kathleen Valenti


There are many adages about novel-writing.

Write the book you want to read.
Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

And the truth is, I abide by many of them. They’re good advice doled out by some of the finest writers ever to hold a pen or sit before a keyboard.

But there are a few writerly axioms I don’t follow. Case in point:

If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

It’s a quote alternately attributed to Goldwyn, Capra, Hemingway and Bogart (although playwright Moss Hart appears to be its true author). And while Twitter has largely replaced telegrams, this perennial advice still makes the rounds in writing circles.

The implication is clear: keep the story the story. Forget about including a moral or expressing an opinion or assigning a deeper social meaning. Readers want to be entertained, period.

Of course, many (if not most) writers eschew such notions. We write where our heads—and our hearts—lead us. But still…That message (no pun intended) comes through loud and clear, especially to authors of genre fiction. We’re often told the plot’s the thing. End of story. And that’s perfectly wonderful if that’s the book you want to write or the story you want to read

Me? I can’t help but include a little message with my mystery

The Maggie O’Malley Mystery Series is young. PROTOCOL, the first book in the series, has just been released and 39 WINKS is in the queue, with another soon to follow. Yet already I know that each book will highlight, in one way or another, some kind of larger issue.

It’s a part of my writer’s DNA, a snippet of my real-life voice, a way to work out the mysteries of life’s dark secrets right along with each book’s plot. It also helps me advance the story and inspire my protagonist to action. Maggie is driven by a desire to solve a mystery and address a personal conflict (and life always seems to present those), all within a context that’s larger than both.

I’m not alone. Many mystery authors give a nod to social ills or worldwide problems that go beyond the page. We may write about death and violence, but in many ways, these aspects are the other side of a coin emblazoned with justice and compassion. The denouement that contrasts the action. The “after” that rights the “before."

We crave a world of kindness, courage, help and hope, and we create it, in part by bringing in larger issues that affect our human family.

Readers tell me they like to read books that provide entertainment and escape, along with a theme that informs and inspires. They say that as long as a book’s deeper meaning doesn’t impede the plot, feel didactic, or come across as preachy, they find that thematic elements add to the texture of a story rather than detract from it. In short: they like a side of message with their plot and characters.

And to that I say: message received


Freshly minted college graduate Maggie O’Malley embarks on a career fueled by professional ambition and a desire to escape the past. As a pharmaceutical researcher, she’s determined to save lives from the shelter of her lab. But on her very first day she’s pulled into a world of uncertainty. Reminders appear on her phone for meetings she’s never scheduled with people she’s never met. People who end up dead.

With help from her best friend, Maggie discovers the victims on her phone are connected to each other and her new employer. She soon unearths a treacherous plot that threatens her mission—and her life. Maggie must unlock deadly secrets to stop horrific abuses of power before death comes calling for her.

When Kathleen isn’t writing page-turning mysteries that combine humor and suspense, she works as a nationally award-winning copywriter. She lives in Oregon with her family where she pretends to enjoy running. Protocol is her debut novel and the first of the Maggie O’Malley mystery series.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The New Mystery

The other day I had a lengthy wait in the post office line. Most of my fellow detainees were gazing at their cell phones.

Lines used to be a great place to people-watch. I could tell a lot by the expression on the face of a person forced to be idle and moderately civilized as we edged up in the queue. The varying postures are still revealing. Posture always has been.

There was little to be learned watching the new techies. Writers who guessed about the details of someone's life before cell phones was doing just that. Guessing. That's all. But it was fun.

One of the best books on characterization was Maren Elwood's Characters Make Your Story. It was published in 1941. She has an excellent chapter "Look at His Face." Faces in repose reveal a great deal. Is a person pleasant? Self-confident? Harried? If so, how does one present this on a page. If they give a critical glance at a crying child are they worried? Judging the mother for not having better control? Their faces told it all.

Not any more! In fact, I was tempted to sneak around and gaze over the shoulders of these unmoving statues. Were they playing solitaire? Reading email? Have they downloaded one of the Type M'ers novels? Most of the faces were expressionless.

Our job just got harder.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We Love Libraries!

I started a new volunteer position recently with Sisters in Crime. It’s been about 6 years since I completed 6 years on the board of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. During those years I served in several positions, including a brief stint as chapter president, and co-chaired the 2011 California Crime Writers Conference. To say that I was tired after all that would be an understatement. Still, I wouldn’t change anything. I learned a lot and met a lot of great people.

This last year I decided it was time to get involved once again. This time with SinC National as the We Love Libraries! coordinator. I’m taking over from Andrea Smith who has spent the last 4 years in the position. She’s done a spectacular job and has been a wonderful support in this transition period.

When the opportunity came up, I thought this is the perfect job for me. I love libraries. I have ever since I got my first library card in grade school. My local library opened the world to me and was my refuge growing up. I thought it would be great to play even a small part in giving back to an institution that has given me so much over the years. Which means, of course, that I was very excited when I was selected for the job.

I did my first notification this last week to the Riverside Public Library in Riverside, Illinois. That was a wonderful moment, to hear the excitement in the voice on the other end of the line. I look forward to many more such moments.

August 2017 WLL Winner, Riverside Library in Riverside, IL
I’m not sure how many people know about the Sisters in Crime We Love Libraries! program. Basically, SinC gives $1,000 every month to a library in the United States. Libraries enter the lottery on the SinC website. At the end of every month, a library is randomly chosen to win the grant, which must be used to purchase books and may not be used for general operating expenses. Book purchases are NOT restricted to the mystery genre nor do they have to be written by Sisters in Crime members. All branches within a larger system may enter but, once a library in the system has won, no other libraries within that system can win the grant.

To enter, a library goes to and completes the entry form, which should include a photo of one or more of the library staff with three books in their collection by Sisters in Crime members. The picture I have here is the one the Riverside Library submitted.

Photos of past winners are posted on that page as well along with all of the nitty gritty details.

Spread the word to your local U.S. libraries. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be chosen. Think of all the books they can buy!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The zen of cooking and writing

by Rick Blechta

We’re just pulling into the finish line of our annual canning, pickling and preserving binge. It's a lot of work, but when you can go down to your cellar in the depths of winter and pull out a jar of chopped, super-ripe San Marzano tomatoes to make a pasta sauce of great flavour, that’s a real blessing — as well as great eating.

But this isn’t a post for my food blog.

This past Saturday, I was sitting at a table in our back yard peeling and chopping tomatoes. My wife was in the house dealing with getting my handiwork into jars, so I was alone for about half an hour.

One reason I enjoy cooking is that I get into what you might call “almost a trance-like” state. My mind sort of spins free. It’s not like I'm not paying attention to what I’m doing, something particularly dangerous when you’ve got a industrial-quality vegetable dicer (one of my better kitchen purchases of the last decade) that’s made up of a grid of razor blades and a two-pound weight to push the vegetables through. It’s as if everyday cares just float away. I’m focused on the job at hand, but some of my conscious is left over to think of other things, more important things than what I have to do tomorrow. It’s a sweet spot in which to be.

Now you all know I haven’t been writing really at all this summer due to designing the programme book for this year’s Bouchercon. Even though I handed in the finished product to the printer last week, there were a number of other things apart from my writing that had been neglected and need immediate attention. Then the weekend was taken up with canning tomatoes and making crab apple jelly.

I’ve been aching to write the past few weeks and I should have been doing it, but, well, other things intervened.

Then right in the middle of prepping tomatoes to be chopped, story-in-progress resurfaced in my head and an issue I was having with the last chapter on which I was working suddenly seemed to resolve itself. It’s as if my muse stepped up to say, “You idiot! All you have to do is this and you won't have a problem, will you? Do I have to tell you everything?”

I immediately went into the house to find my little dictation device so I could just speak the words to resolve this scene and hopefully move on to the next one.

Then my three-year-old grandson came outside and wanted to know who I was talking to (being “all alone”) after which he spotted the little digital recorder and immediately wanted to play with it.

So much for getting any sort of work done, but it did prove a point to me. You only need to get your head in the proper state for your “writing imagination” to kick in. For me, it’s usually when I’m out walking, occasionally driving or riding on transit. Never before has it happened when I’m preparing food.

Maybe I should do that more often…

Monday, September 11, 2017

Are we losing the plot?

I'd like to take a moment to welcome our newest member to the Type M for Murder family, Marianne Wheelaghan. A brief bio is in the right-hand column a bit of the way down and it would be a good idea to read it. You should also purchase one of her novels for an even better introduction!

And so without further blather, take it away Marianne! —Rick

The other day, I heard best selling author Robert Harris being interviewed on the radio. He questioned whether the novel had a future in the face of a perceived declining attention span in readers, arguing that stuff like online streaming and box sets are offering more dynamic alternatives to novels. “A box set takes 10 or 12 hours to view, and that’s the same length of time it takes to read a novel … my impression and certainly my own habit is that these series are pretty sophisticated, a lot of them are, it seems to me, in many ways, our modern novel and they’re more central in our culture.” Yikes! If Mr Harris is right, where does that leave us novel writers? Out of a job, that's where. I needed to know more and turned to the internet.

Within minutes I'd found a bunch of articles all echoing the same one damning thing: our increasingly digital lifestyle was leading to a dramatic decrease in our attention span. The headline grabbing accounts were all based on the one Microsoft report. In a nutshell, ten years ago our average attention span was 12 seconds, today it is a mere eight seconds. This is a whole one second less than a goldfish. Yes, I said a goldfish. It looks as if we are all, readers and writers alike, slowly but surely losing the plot. Digging a bit deeper, however, I was relieved to discover that not everyone agrees with the idea that our attention is declining. For example, Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, suggests that the concept of an “average attention span” which increases or decreases is misguided. “Attention span is very much task-dependent and how much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."

In order to process the myriad of information digitally delivered to us on a daily basis, it seems we've become very discerning about what to pay heed to, sort of super multi-taskers. Out of necessity, we have learned to quickly distinguish between information that is of importance to us and that which is not. So, while we may well be allocating our attention in a different way, we are no less attentive when it comes to focussing on the stuff we like, such as reading a novel or watching a box set. Certainly, when I watched the boxset of The Killing, I paid as much attention to it as I did to reading Hilary Mantel's (lengthy) Wolf Hall, enjoying both equally. And this is where I take issue with Mr Harris and his suggestion that watching a box set is fast becoming an alternative to reading a novel. The two activities don't have to be mutually exclusive. Far from it. So, I will have to disagree with the best selling author for now. I believe the novel does have a future. Will it remain central to our culture? That is up to us writers, surely? But it is worth noting that figures released by the Publishers Association for 2015 showed the UK publishing industry was in good health with total sales or book and journal publishing up to £4.4bn. The figures also reveal for the first time since the invention of the ebook, overall physical book sales increased while digital sales decreased. Vive le novel!

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Body on Baker Street: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery

By Vicki Delany

Ta Da!

On Tuesday Sept 12, Crooked Lane Books will release the second in my Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, Body on Baker Street.  As befits a series set in a bookstore, this one is about a visiting author who comes to an unfortunate end face down in a pile of books awaiting her signature.

Fear not fellow Typists! I had no one in mind when I wrote that character.

But, like the other books in the series, I had a lot of fun writing it. In Gemma Doyle, I created a character with the mind and the personality of Sherlock Holmes, but in a modern young woman. I then created a bookstore, and I stocked the store. Everything described (with the obvious exception of the books by Renalta Van Markoff, mentioned above face down) are real and can be bought in the real world. You too can have a life-sized cut out of Benedict Cumberbatch in your living room or Holmes-themed thimbles for your sewing machine or a set of dishes for your next tea party.   

When Renalta Van Markoff, author of the controversial Hudson and Holmes mystery series is murdered at a book signing in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium, the game is afoot and it’s up to the unusually perceptive Gemma Doyle and her confused but ever-loyal friend Jayne Wilson to eliminate the impossible and deduce the truth before the police arrest an innocent man.

The first chapter of Body on Baker Street, as well as Elementary She Read, is available on my web page at

This time I thought it would be fun to have a friend come with me on the small book tour this time, so I asked Barbara Fradkin to join me.  We’ll be at Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor on Sept 21 at 7:00, Different Drummer in Burlington Ontario on Sept 22 at 7:00 and Sleuth of Baker Street in Toronto on Sept 23 at 1:00. Hope to see some of you there.  We'll also be taking part, along with Rich Blechta, in a discussion about adult literacy at Word on the Street in Toronto on Sunday, Sept 24. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

Long, Short, or Both

I can now go to the EQMM website and see my short story, "The Singapore Sling Affair," listed in the next (November/December) issue. It's like that moment when you see the cover of your book and know you'll soon have it in your hand. This will be my third published short story -- the first in an anthology, followed by two in EQMM. I'm surprised because I've never thought of myself as a short story writer.

Now, I admit, my short stories are long. "The Singapore Sling Affair" is almost 12,000 words. I wrote it because I discovered a fascinating historical tidbit and because I wanted to try writing about a new protagonist. I'm hoping my former Army nurse will get her own series. I'd love to write about the adjustments people were making to their lives after World War II in a small town in upstate New York.

But even with my motivation to write this short story, I went through multiple drafts as I tired to find the focus that a short story requires. I love subplots. I love finding connections. There isn't a lot of time or space for that in a short story. Still, I found that I enjoyed the challenge.

That doesn't mean I'm about to give up novel writing. Books provide the opportunity for subplots. For character development. For descriptions. I can write 100,000 words and then make adjustments by trimming away the flab. I can go off on tangents while finding the story. Short stories, on the other hand, require a plan.

But for a writer who is introducing a new protagonist, a short story has advantages. Much less investment of the writer's time. Much less investment of the reader's time.

Thoughts from those of you who write (or read) both novels and short stories?

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Ten Books Later...

Alafair #1
Alafair # 10
When I first began writing the Alafair Tucker Mystery series in 2003, I had a story arc in mind that was going to carry through 10 books. This is a wonderful idea, but as anyone who has ever written a long series knows, after a couple of books all your plans for a story arc have been knocked into a cocked hat. The reason this happened, at least to me, is that I seem to be writing about real people who have their own ideas about how things should be gone about, and once I put them into a situation, they react to it in ways I had never anticipated. Besides, I really want readers to be able to pick up any book in the series and have a satisfying experience without having to know anything about what went before.

My original arc idea went like this: I would to feature a different one of Alafair's ten children as the character of interest in each book. The featured child would somehow be involved in the events surrounding a murder, and as their mother, Alafair would intrude herself into the kid's life, whether s/he wanted her or his parent's help or not, and in the end, Alafair and maybe the child would contribute to the solution of the mystery. As an aside, the featured offspring might end up with a life-partner.

I stuck with the formula through book one. As it turns out, I like to mix it up a bit.

The million dollar question for the author of a long series is this: How do you keep it fresh? How do you make every story stand alone, yet in its place as well? I have found over the course of ten books in the same series that I have even departed from the usual mystery novel format. The later books are constructed more like thrillers than puzzles, they may or may not revolve around one of the children, and Alafair may or may not be able to solve the mystery.

And now that book number ten, Forty Dead Men, is in the can and due to hit the shelves in February 2018, I’m wondering where I want to go from here. I have begun an eleventh Alafair and it is a big departure from the formula, but I have also started working on something completely different. Because if you aren't excited by your own writing, how can you expect your readers to be?

Speaking of repeating myself, let me remind you Dear Readers that I will be making a nine library tour of small eastern Oklahoma towns from Sept. 12 through Sept. 16. The September 16 event at the Muskogee Public Library will be particularly of interest, since after my talk at 11:00 a.m. I’ll be joined by fellow mystery authors Mary Anna Evans, Will Thomas, and Julia Thomas at noon for a mystery writers’ roundtable. Check out my entire schedule at my website. I hope to see you there.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Our writing tics

Aline's post on word use got me thinking (and what a cliche that is, as if I don't usually think). We all have our pet words and phrases that are the first to pop into our head when we are articulating our ideas in words. To go beyond them requires that we stop, beat them back, and ferret around for a more accurate, interesting, and unique way to say what we want. That takes time and effort, which slows down the conversation.

Words, phrases, and cliches rise and fall in popularity too, and are often an excellent shortcut to shared understanding. A well-chosen word like "squirrel!" saves us a whole lot of words. As Aline said, we writers are no different; we all have phrases and words that become our "go-to" choices, used far too often. Usually we are unaware of the overuse and it's a laborious process to purge the excesses from our writing in later drafts.

One of the challenges in writing is to "show" reactions, emotions, and thoughts through action rather than telling them through such flat phrases as "he felt sad" or "he was angry." Short phrases like "he flushed", "he clenched his fists" are often interspersed with dialogue not only to convey feeling but to serve as a tag. For me, this is where I am most likely to fall back on my own writing tics.

How many times in the course of a chapter would my character roll her eyes or grit her teeth? Far too often, I suspect, so I decided to run a test. I have completed 287 pages of the first draft of my new novel, with about 50 - 60 pages left to go. First drafts are notoriously messy, with not much attention to refinement of language. To keep up the momentum of the story, I write and write without stopping to edit or critique, knowing that I can fix things later.

I don't have a fancy editing tool to track words but you can do some quick and dirty word counting using the Advanced Find feature in MS Word. Armed with this, first I wanted to know how many times I used those innocuous connector words "and","but" and "so". The result suggests I ought to take a second look at my love affair with "and" (2008 times), and be careful with "but" (620), but "so" and I are good (146). However, I also know that, in trying to work around the ands and buts, one risks creating a pedantic, fussy style that is far more distracting than the occasional extra and. So I approach this editing with caution.

I was next curious to know how many times I stuck in those often unnecessary words "very", "really", "just", and "that". "Just" won the race (162!), and "very" clocked in on the high side for a useless word (112), but "really" wasn't bad (27). All will get a critical eye. "That", however, showed up nearly 500 times. Now some of those thats are necessary, but I will be taking a hard look at that word!

Next I looked at overuse of adverbs. I think adverbs have their place, but where they can be replaced with a punchier verb or just turfed out altogether, the few that remain will have more power. I found 821 words ending in "ly", which gives a rough estimate of adverbs. That's about three a page, and each one will get at least a cursory glance. Are there more powerful or precise words? Does the adverb add anything?

As noted above, we all have our favourite ways to convey emotion in a fast moving scene. Shorthand, if you like, without pulling the reader out of the scene or dragging the action down. The eyes are very expressive, and writers often use them to convey whole stories. Eyes darken, flash, light up, widen, narrow, etc. etc. etc. I know I am guilty of overusing this, so I ran a couple of tests. The word "eye" showed up 118 times (sometimes as a verb), but I'm happy to report that the eyes never darkened, flashed, or lit up. They rolled twice, widened three times, and narrowed once. I thought that wasn't too bad, but I will still keep an eye open for misuse of the idea, because I did use the word "look" 207 times. However, I'm happy to report I didn't clench anyone's fists ever.

Other emotions were conveyed through smiles, grins, laughs, frowns, glares, scowls, and so on. Based on their counts, I decided I'd better watch out for frowning and laughing.

Lastly, I couldn't resist counting the swear words in my first draft. I get the occasional reader who wags an admonishing finger at my language. I usually have some salty characters in my books, including cops and journalists, and tempers can run high. I think 33 instances of the F word, 7 of the S word, and only 28 various religion allusions shows remarkable restraint.

All told, it was an interesting and useful exercise. I will be keeping an eye open for favourite words that I need to rein in as I go through rewrites.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

I’m back, I’m back, I’m really, really back!

by Rick Blechta

The past few months have been really busy with the design and layout of the program book for the upcoming Bouchercon. Should I have volunteered for this job 4 years ago when I raised my hand up to volunteer? Probably not. It was a matter of being willing to help and not putting a lot of thought into the ramifications of my decision. As an example of the dangers of speak first and think later, there was dealing with all the photos submitted by attending authors (742 of them). That alone took days of work.

Anyway, this morning at 12:30 a.m. I pressed “Upload” on my FTP software and sent the whole thing off to the printer — right on schedule, too.

Along the way with this project, I learned a number of things about the state of the publishing industry in general and the crime writing community in particular, things that certainly raised my eyebrows a number of times.

First, publishing houses don’t know much about the timeliness of responding to requests. I’m not talking about the “please read my manuscript” kind. I’m referring to requests for things like proper high-res promo shots of their author who happens to be a guest of honour at the largest crime writing conference on the planet.

I contacted one very large publisher on six different occasions (2 phone calls and 4 emails) requesting a promo photo. To this date: nothing. Not even an out-of-office response. The author in question also contacted his publicist at the publisher and got no response. My response was “Huh? They can’t be bothered? They’re too busy? What? This is the sort of thing that’s very likely a daily occurrence, and is a matter of pushing a few keys on a computer, not something that takes up hours of time.

Second eyebrow-raising story: poor ad submissions. Several, again, large publishing houses (or their design department) couldn’t be bothered reading the ad submission requirements I put on the ad rate sheet (with the title in red so they’d notice it). I had ads come in that were the wrong size, the incorrect colour space (for web use instead of print use), wrong information, and other very normal and needed protocols ignored completely. Can’t these people read or don’t they care? In one case, someone even got snooty with me and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. The tune changed when I sent them a proof of what their ad would look like if it went ahead as submitted. But there was no apology.

In another case I was told to “Fix the ad yourself. That’s what you’re getting paid for.” When I pointed out that I wasn’t getting paid and had no time (or inclination) to do this, the charming correspondent told me, “Well, that’s your problem.” I responded, “Are you serious?”

The final thing I’m going to report is authors tend not to read very thoroughly or for comprehension. Of the 742 author headshots that arrive in my Inbox, only about 35% gave me what was asked for. The requirements were quite clear and I went so far as to suggest if the respondent didn’t understand something, I would be only too happy to help them out. Maybe a couple dozen people asked for help or clarification (happily given). Most just threw me some sort of photo and fully a third of them were far too small for print use. I even explained why I needed photo files of a certain size. My main suggestion was that a photo file be about 2 megabytes. I actually received one photo that was 8 kilobytes! I responded that this photo wasn’t usable and why. The author’s response was “But I’ve used that for other Bouchercons and they took it with no problem!” I had four recent program books here for reference, so I looked up said author. It was the same photograph — and it looked truly awful.

So my takeaway from my experience with the Bouchercon program book is this: Don’t trust your publisher, no matter how huge and important, to do the job correctly. My guess is that they have a lot of inexperienced people working for them who don’t know any better. The only way to be sure something is done and done right (not to mention in a timely fashion) is to do it yourself. It’s not difficult nor particularly time-consuming and it will earn you brownie points.

And if you’re an author, take some time to understand the business. It’s very important! Don’t put things off. Respond in a timely fashion. Read instructions thoroughly, especially if you don’t have much experience with what is being asked for. And by the way, I’m happy to tell you about images you may need to send to conferences or newspapers or magazines. You only need ask. (Leave something in the comment section and I’ll get back to you.)

As I told all these people, “I want you to look good in this presentation. That’s my 100% goal.”

I was only trying to save them from themselves.

Monday, September 04, 2017

The Words We Use

Isn't technology amazing? I was fascinated by a recent article by Andrew Taylor (author of the best-selling The American Boy among many others) in The Author, the Society of Authors magazine, that quoted an American journalist, Ben Blatt, who had sampled a wide range of novels and data-crunched everything he found.

Apparently, every author uses one or more relatively rare words disproportionately often. Ray Bradbury's was 'cinnamon', Jane Austen's 'civility' (and, Andrew adds, 'John Updike's three favourite words were not ones you would care to discuss with young children over the breakfast table')

Cliches feature too, it seems. Blatt's list includes Salman Rushdie - 'the last straw': Zadie Smith - 'evil eye'; Donna Tartt - 'too good to be true'; Dan Brown - 'full circle'; E.L.James - 'words fail me.'

I wonder whether, if they saw this report, they were surprised? I tried to work out what my own were, but it's surprisingly difficult to isolate your own habits of style. I have certainly sometimes found myself thinking, if I use a slightly unusual phrase that seems to have an echo as I write it, 'Now, have I used that before?'' and once again thanks to the power of technology I can hit 'Find', check it out and remove a repetition if necessary. I'm not sure that a reader, who is by then on chapter seventeen when the first use was in chapter two, would actually notice it but I wouldn't leave it in case they did.

From a cursory flick through the last few chapters I've written, I see that 'bleak' is a favourite adjective. I shall have to ration the 'bleaks' in future, and perhaps I'll take to checking as part of the writing process.

Mind you, if 'civility' is good enough for Jane Austen, maybe 'bleak' is good enough for me!