Monday, April 29, 2024

Writers Gotta' Write

 By Thomas Kies

In a recent blog that’s gone viral written by Elle Griffin for the website, she refers to the time when Penguin Random House tried to buy Simon and Schuster in 2022.  The government brought a case against the merger saying that it would create a publishing monopoly and a judge ruled that the $2.2 billion acquisition could not take place. 

During the trial, a number of publishing houses and literary agencies testified, and some interesting numbers came to light. 

Ms. Griffin, in an essay that she wrote in 2020, stated, “only 268 titles sold more than 100,000 copies, and 96 percent of books sold less than 1,000 copies.”

Madeline Mcintosh, CEO of Penguin Random House US, when asked how many authors over a four-year period sold 500,000 units…she answered 50.  

The upshot of Ms. Giffin’s blog is that publishing houses gamble by buying books and paying low advances in the hopes that one of them will be that lightning in a bottle and hit it big.  The big advances are paid to celebrities like Brittney Spears and Prince Harry who have recognizable names, and the publishers feel are a comfortable bet. 

Now, admittedly, the numbers from Penguin Random House/Simon Schuster trial were meant to be depressing.  The reality is that more books are selling now than ever before.  Numbers that were tossed around in the trail were based on calendar years and not necessarily during the lifetime of the book.  It was a trial.  Isn’t everything about a trial depressing?

Books don’t go bad like vegetables or fruit.  My first book, RANDOM ROAD, continues to sell in bookstores to this day and it’s been around for seven years. Will any of my books make me rich?  Nah…not in money.  

Don’t kid yourself, getting published the traditional way is still hard.  Finding an agent, then finding a publisher, then getting bookshelf space and a place in libraries, getting the marketing message out…it’s all a slog. And even when you do, there’s no guarantee about anything.

Bottomline, publishing is a business.  They’re not in it to lose money, although, don’t kid yourself, many books do. 

But there are many publishing platforms and I know many writers who are happy using those publishing avenues.

There’s a joy when you hold one of your own books in your hands. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when someone tells you how much they enjoyed what you’ve written.  There’s an indescribably elation when you see one of your books on the bookshelf of library or in a bookstore. 

Before I was published, I had dreams of flying to New York, being picked up at the airport in a limo, being treated to lunch, then hustled off to a standing room only book signing.  Well...that doesn't happen.  At least to most of us.   

I recall that early in my writing career, I did a book signing and one person showed up.  That keeps you humble.  But to keep perspective, Don Winslow (if you don't know him, read him...he's terrific) in one of his first book signings, had one person buy his first book.  That person happened to be the owner of the bookstore, Barbara Peters who owns the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Arizona (and was my first publisher). 

I advise the students who take my creative writing class that writers gotta write.  We do it because we love it.  We do it because we want to tell stories.  We do it because we’ve got something to say.

To paraphrase a friend of mine, a wonderful writer by the name of Jeffrey Siger, “Writing is a hard way to make a living.  But it’s a great way to make a life.”

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Never Take Our time Together For Granted

Here's a blog I was hoping I'd never have to write. Last December, Travis Heermann was in a very serious motorcycle accident, which left him in a coma. In that month's post I was going to share some thoughts about him but it sounded like I was writing a eulogy so I didn't. Now here we are.

I'm not sure when I first met Travis, ten years ago perhaps, when he showed up in our critique group. He was an exceptional writer, and like many with such talent and potential, didn't get the recognition he deserved. He was incredibly disciplined and always thoughtfully planned out his next big thing. Travis' favorite genre was high fantasy, heavy on the action and adventure. He enjoyed steampunk and most of his stories had a strong Japanese influence, reflecting his admiration of the people and the culture. In fact, he lived in Japan for a while and was conversant in the language. He also liked horror and the last major project he was working on was finding distribution for his award-winning, horror-comedy short film, Demon For Hire.

As we men get older, we find it more difficult to make friends. I considered Travis my friend. We didn't hang out that much but when we got together, our conversations were relaxed and understanding. There were topics we avoided--politics and religion, big surprise. We discussed the many facets of writing, the challenges of specific genres, and the business aspects of making a living as professional scribes. He and I worked as ghost writers for the same company. Since he liked writing action, he had an appreciation for weaponry and would on occasion, accompany me to the shooting range where we would spend a few hours blasting ammo.

He was good company, had a keen though restrained sense of humor, loved scotch and cooking--brisket and BBQ among his choice items to grill. He was an accomplished gear head and responsible for cinching tight the technical details for a podcast my critique group hosted for a while. The last time we hung out was at a Christmas party where he spent a good while showing off his new Ford 150 hybrid pickup truck. He and his wife Chanel (recently retired) had made plans to sell their home and vagabond in an Airstream trailer, in which he could work remotely and keep writing.

The following Thursday I was at a men's group in a local church. At the end of the meeting, the pastor asked us to pray for help in something in our lives. At the time, I felt blessed in that I couldn't think of anything in my life that needed prayer. Then when I got home, my girlfriend told me what had just happened to Travis. Now after four months of care, Travis has passed on.

I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil. 
JRR Tolkien

Wednesday, April 24, 2024


 Barbara here, finally. I have been AWOL from this blog for a month due to unexpected medical challenges but I am back!Albeit late and with a short post. In my last post I revealed the official title of my next Inspector Green novel (number 12: SHIPWRECKED SOULS. The book is due out in January 2025 and is currently grinding its way through the promotional and editorial phases. At the moment the manuscript is sitting on my computer with edits from the my editor, all done these days electronically with the track changes feature. My first few Inspector Green  books were printed off and mailed to the publisher where the editor crossed out, scribbled in the margins, and stuck various coloured post-it notes that stuck out of the manuscript like the spikes of a stegosaurus. This unwieldy piles of paper was then mailed back to me and I made the adjustments on my computer copy, printed it out, and mailed back again. And so it went.

In 2024, it is all so much simpler, and cheaper. I am slowly working my way through the queries, comments, and suggestions, but it has beeen slow and intermittent because of my health issues and frequent medical appointments. But I'll get there!

Here's the teaser. The death of an elderly woman from Ukraine leads Green on an emotional journey into his own past, where he makes a startling discovery.

And now, without further ado, here is the proposed cover, designed by the talented Laura Boyle and her team at Dundurn Press. I think it looks mysterious, sinister, and perfect.

Now we wait.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Podcasts, Podcasts, Podcasts

 by Sybil Johnson

I’ve written a couple posts before about some of the podcasts I’ve listened to over the last few years. I admit that I haven’t listened to as many lately as I used to, but I’m starting to get back into it. 

Podcasts come and go. The History This Week one has finished its run, unfortunately. I hope it comes back some day since I really enjoyed it. The Behind the Page Eli Marks podcast is still going strong. I like the books by John Gaspard so I’ve been enjoying the interviews he’s done with magicians. Such a different world than the one I inhabit!

Here are some podcasts I’ve run across recently: 

Criminalia – I haven’t sampled this one yet, but I found out about it because I read the book “The League of Lady Poisoners” which mentioned that there was an associated podcast. The episodes related to the book are pretty far back in this podcast’s history, but there are also a lot of other episodes that sound interesting.

History On Trial – I heard about this one because the podcast host was a contestant on Jeopardy! not long ago and she mentioned it. I thought it sounded interesting. So far I’ve listened to 2 episodes about trials that shaped the U.S. in some way, but which I was unaware of.

Writing Criminals – This is a podcast recently started by the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. Episodes are recordings of SinC/LA chapter meetings. This is great for me since I often can’t get to the meetings for various reasons. If you want to see the interviews, instead, you can go to SinC/LA’s YouTube channel. 

Chatting Cozies – This is an interview podcast with host Angela Maria Hart of the Cozy Mystery Book Club. Interviews are with cozy authors.

Putting together a podcast seems like a difficult thing to me, probably largely because I have no idea what’s involved. I do know that some of it involves writing so I googled “writing a podcast” and came up with this interesting article on doing just that:

If I did a podcast I have absolutely no idea what topic it would be on. Have any of you ever put together one or thought about it?

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

More About Curses

 by Charlotte Hinger

Both Thomas and Donis have recent posts about cursing. According to the guidelines for submissions for the Will Rogers Medallion men didn't cuss around ladies before 1962. Is that a fact?

Yes, it's true in a general sense and ladies never used foul language.

Believe it not, the old standards are making a feeble return. 

Gary Goldstein, (the western editor at Forge) recently said that he does a global search for the "f" word and the "s" word because Walmart won't stock the books if such language is contained within. He has three pages of acceptable substitutes to suggest to the authors. 

I was shocked when he said this. Then I noticed that Grisham never uses vulgar language and Baldacci rarely does. And oh, to have their sales!

Yet we are privy to language every day on the screen and in ordinary conversation that our mother's would never have uttered and men only used in the presence of other men. 

I think I only heard my mother say "damn" about ten times when I was growing up. When a gentile person cusses it has an enormous impact. 

Her favorite express was "oh for p-i-t-y sake." She had a way of drawing out "pity" that expressed her contempt for an idea or a person's behavior. Another usage was "Ye gods and little fishes." That conveyed absolute contempt. Beyond contemplation even. Too foolish to even discuss. 

I gave a lot of thought to language when I did the final draft of my upcoming historical novel. One of my characters, my old banker cusses a lot. He takes the Lord's name in vain when he's trying to persuade his best friend, Iron Barrett, to help him save his bank, but he wouldn't use these words in conversation with Iron's wife or his daughter. 

Some prettied-up written substitutes for spoken language sound silly. "You deceitful villain" in place of "you lying bastard" simply doesn't have the same impact. 

But there's workarounds. Iron and Mary's daughter-in-law uses words that Mary knows would "make her mother reach for a bar of soap." 

On the other hand, sometimes we simply have to use words that are realistic. Sales be damned. It's a matter of integrity. 

Believe me, when a very old man is in danger of losing a bank that's been passed down for 100 years, he does not say "Ah, shucks."

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Colorful Language

Oh, dear me. I have company coming. I have been cleaning like a madwoman and have fallen so far behind on everything writerly. I missed my last scheduled Type M entry - mainly because I got a Covid booster the day before and as usual wasn't worth shooting the day after. I hope I'm not screwing up the schedule here by posting today, but I felt an irresistible urge to comment on Tom's wonderful entry on Curses, below... because I love curses.

 I love language altogether. I’ve always been fascinated by words and the mind-pictures they paint. I’m sure I come by it honestly. I've written stories since I could hold a pencil in my fist. Perhaps it's because my parents read to me from the cradle, or because I come from such a long line of tale-tellers. One of my grandmothers used to keep us fascinated for hours on end with her stories of life in the Kentucky mountains. Toward the end of my grandmother's life, one of my sisters asked her how much of what she had told us was true and she replied, "Well...some of it." So the truth is I didn't decide to become a writer. I'll quote the Achilles character in the movie "Troy"..."I didn't choose this life. I was born and this is what I am.”

My grandparents—and parents— had the most wonderful way of putting things. One grandma was born and raised in Kentucky and the others in Arkansas at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Their language  and vocabulary was absolutely Elizabethan. When Grandma went to garden over yonder, she put on her gauntlets and hunkered down to tend her “yarbs”.

Now, I of course, was desperate to get rid of my Oklahoma accent when I was young. Especially when I was traveling. My accent is not as strong as my parents’, nor was theirs as strong as their parents. My nieces and nephews sound more "standard" yet. But after years living away from my native place, I saw on a news program an interview with two young women from Tulsa. They sounded like Valley girls. I was shocked. What happened to that beautiful twang? That poetic way with words? ( That delightful Scotch-Irish combination of humor and fatalism? Oklahoma is what linguists call a “Transitional state”. My native Oklahoman husband, who comes from a different part of the state than I, has an accent that is different from mine. One thing I specifically wanted to do with the Alafair Tucker series was preserve something of a way of speaking that seems to be rapidly disappearing.

I've been known to use less than pristine epithets myself and find them extremely useful in times of stress.  In fact, a dear friend of mine who I have known since my salad days at the University of Oklahoma was at the time an extraordinarily innocent boy who on frequent occasions would curl your ears with the most astoundingly filthy curses known to man.  Because of his sweet face and gentle nature, the effect of this language was much less shocking than it was hilarious, and ever since, for good or ill,  I've had quite an affection for dirty words.

I grew up among people whose goal was to curse in the most imaginative language possible, which can really increase your vocabulary if you apply yourself.  My mother was particularly good at coming up with ways to express disapproval using only G-rated words.  One of her scariest curses was "I heap coals of fire upon him."  The words themselves weren't as frightening as her throaty growl and the curl of her lip over her eyetooth.  My father had been a Marine, and knew words that I don't understand to this day, but he had a house full of little daughters and controlled his language heroically.  He often had the pee-waddin' scared out of him and wondered what in the cat-hair was going on. 

So curse on, Tom. It's good for the soul.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Sunny for the Bunny and more


by Sybil Johnson 

Today I shall talk about a number of random topics I’ve found of interest lately. Let’s start out with Sunny for the Bunny!

  • Sunny for the Bunny – I was in Seattle last week where KOMO news weather was using the phrase “Sunny for the Bunny” to describe how nice it was going to be in the area on Easter. A different news station decided that it was going to be an egg-cellent day, but not quite egg-ceptional. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it. I flew back on Easter Sunday not expecting it to be sunny when I landed in Los Angeles because there had been several days of rainy weather before but, yes, it was Sunny for the Bunny here too! I searched to see if the phrase was trademarked or copyrighted because, well, what else do I have to do after being away from home for a week? Okay, fine, I came back with a cold and didn't feel like doing anything other than laundry and random web searches. Couldn't find anything. In any case, I love the phrase and intend to use it every year if it's applicable. 
  • April Fool’s Day – I dislike April Fool’s Day largely because I am and always have been a very gullible person. People loved fooling me when I was a kid so I pretty much wanted to hide out for the entire day. Honestly, I still do. I was watching an episode of the UK version of Ghosts and discovered that across the pond you were only allowed to fool someone until noon! I guess when April Fool’s Day got transported over here, we did the American thing and made it bigger! and better?!
  • Usedom island – I’ve been watching The Nordic Murders recently. The stories are set on an island called Usedom. Not being familiar with this particular island, I got confused when the story would move into Poland. As far as I could tell, no one drove over a bridge or got off the island in any way so I looked it up. Usedom is a Baltic island that is part of Germany, but in 1945 the eastern part of the island was assigned to Poland. Thought that was interesting.
  •  Overset – I’ve been reading some historical mysteries recently and have run across the word “overset” a number of times. I could tell that it basically means upset. I checked an American English dictionary and, yes, it’s still in there and isn’t even listed as archaic. Do any of you use “overset” in daily speech?
  • Pulchritude – I am familiar with the word pulchritude. I’ve seen it in my reading and looked it up a few times. It only dawned on me recently, though, that the word does not fit its definition of “great physical beauty and appeal”. Pulchritude does not sound very attractive to me. 
  • Toilet roll over or under? –This seems to be an ongoing debate for households. I’ve done it both ways though I favor the “over”. The patent that was granted in 1891 clearly shows the intended way is “over”. Just look at the picture. Something tells me that most people won’t care about that and the debate will rage on. Check out the patent and picture here: 

That’s it for my random thoughts.

Upcoming events for me: 

On Saturday, April 20, I will be signing at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books held on the main campus of the University of Southern California (my alma mater). My signing time is noon-2pm. The booth is a hop, skip and a jump from Tommy Trojan. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, stop by and say hi. 

I’ll also be attending Malice Domestic this year. I’m on a panel on Friday, April 26 from 2:00-2:50pm with Barbara Barrett (M), Sally Handley, Jackie Layton and Misty Simon. It’s called Love and Murder: “Rom-Cozies”. Should be interesting.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Curses! When To Use Them!

 By Thomas Kies

Swearing, cursing…include it in your dialogue?  Don’t include it?  Does it make what your characters are saying any less authentic?  Will you p*** off readers if you DO include it?

Full disclosure, I have a deep well of vocabulary to draw from when it comes to blue language.  Generally, I reserve it for when I’m driving alone, and another driver does something stupid or dangerous or both.  As long as the windows are up, it’s mostly harmless.  If I forget that my window is down, well, I’ve gotten some interesting responses to my observations.

Swearing, technically referred to as "using intensifiers," can be a potent tool in a writer's arsenal. A well-placed curse can convey a character's emotion more effectively than an entire paragraph of description. However, it's a delicate balance. Get it wrong, and it can sound gratuitous, silly, or just plain stupid. Get it right and it’s a gut punch.

I think the rule of thumb should be to be true to your genre.  If you’re writing war fiction, if you don’t use slang and bad language, it’s not going to sound realistic. You may not swear as much as real soldiers in combat (they swear all the time), but you have to create some semblance of reality.  If you don’t use blue language, you’ll sound like dialogue from a movie from the 1940s.

I specialize in crime fiction.  Working for newspapers and magazines most of my life, I’ve known good guys and I’ve known bad guys and they all swear copiously.  Writing dialogue as realistic as that would be tiresome, but not including it would sound fake. I can’t have a drug dealer shout, “Gosh darn it all to heck!”  Nor can I have a police captain growl, “Golly, get those cuffs on that astronaut.”

Oh, and politicians?  Get them away from the public and they also have a colorful vocabulary.  Surprisingly so. 

Cursing in a love scene?  You’re using a whole different set of words, and we can talk about that at another time.  Use the wrong words and you just sound like a bad porn movie. 

Why can swear words be a beautiful thing?

- They have the ability to shock.

- You can equate them to linguistic violence.

- They can mark extreme emotions, moods, or turning points.

- They can be used for comic effect. 

Now, you don’t always have to use street language, depending on the context.  Shakespeare had the ability to swear without really swearing.  He wrote the mother of all literary cuss-outs (cuss is simply a variant of curse) in King Lear, but interestingly there is no profanity or obscenity as we know it, merely terrifically imaginative vulgarisms, delivered with passion. Here it is, the Earl of Kent preparing to thrash the crap out of Goneril’s loathsome lackey, Oswald:

"Knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch, one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.

I don’t think I’ll use any of that the next time I’m in a bar or shooting pool, but it’s worth thinking about.

Now, can you lose readers due to foul language? Of course, but why on earth would they be reading crime fiction if they have a weak constitution?  Have a great f****** week and keep writing.