Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Forging Your Own Writing Path

 by Sybil Johnson

I found Barbara’s post last Wednesday (“When is enough enough?”) thought-provoking. As writers we get so caught up in what we should be doing that we sometimes forget to ask what is right for us at this moment in our lives.

The x-book deal with a traditional publisher still seems to be the gold standard for writers. But it requires writing at least one book a year or 8 or 9 months, depending on the publisher. Plus there’s the publicity and making sure your website is updated... I don’t think non-writers realize how exhausting it all can be. It’s not for everyone.

When my first book came out ten years ago, I knew I wanted to be traditionally published. Self-publishing wasn’t as acceptable a thing to do as it is today. I also wanted to give the 3-book deal thing a try. In some ways it was harder than I expected. In some ways easier. It was the right thing for me to do at the time. 

At the moment, I’m struggling a little bit with what’s right for me now. I managed to self-publish a book, which I’m quite proud of doing, but I don’t know that’s what I want for my future. At least not with a new series. Right now I’ve been writing some short stories and trying my hand at writing a historical. 

I think every writer has to figure out what’s important to them. I don’t think it has to be necessarily “I’ll stop writing completely”. (Unless, of course, this is what you want.) Maybe turning to writing short stories is what’s good for you now. Maybe changing the kind of book you write is the best thing. Maybe taking a long break from writing is what you need. Maybe self-publishing is the route you want to take. Maybe all of the above. 

Writers need to forge their own writing paths. Whatever that looks like.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

The Final Stretch and Freebies

 I've posted before about my role as the jefe editor for Ramas y Raices: The Best of CALMA, an anthology from the Colorado Alliance of Latino Mentors and Authors. The project started in early 2022, and now, at last, we're in the final stretch to the finish line. However, it's not a time to coast as plenty remains so that the book launch goes off without any problems. Approaching this completion, I fidgeted for many nights, tormenting myself with disaster scenarios.

Final manuscript. Check. And rechecked. Checked again.

Cover: Ready for Amazon and IngramSpark. Check.

Advanced Reading Copies ordered and reviewed. Check.

Press releases sent out. Check.

And on and on.

Fortunately, I wasn't alone as my editorial staff and the CALMA Executive Board all helped with the heavy lifting. This is the third anthology I've honchoed and the last, I promise.

The Freebies.

HarperCollins, the first publisher of my Felix Gomez detective-vampire series, is offering books 1-3 for free as eBooks on Kindle Unlimited (through June 30, 2024). Get yours here:


Book 1





Book 2






Book 3

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

When is enough enough?

 How does a writer know when to quit? How many books are enough? How long a series is too long? These are questions I've been grappling recently, especially since my recent illness reminded me I will not have boundless energy and perfect health indefinitely. I have passed the three-quarter century mark and although I always had the energy and health of someone ten years younger, I am now aware anything can happen.

Coming rather late to the game, I published my first Inspector Green novel in 2000, and my twelfth will come out in 2025. In between I've written five Amanda Doucette novels and four Cedric I'Toole, for a grand total of twenty-one books. That averages close to one book a year, which sounds impressive until one compares it to other highly productive writers, who  average at least a book or two a year thirty or forty years. I'm in awe and can't imagine coming up with that many powerful, interesting stories.

Yet I've written all my life just because, and now that my latest book is in the production phase, I find myself twiddling my thumbs and wondering what to do with myself during those long hours that would have been devoted to writing the next book. A writer writes, the urge never dies. The stories don't stop spinning in our heads just because we don't have a contract deadline hanging over our heads. 

But there are some cautions. No writer wants to read a review saying they should have quit while they were still at the top of their game.  Or that this latest effort is not up to their previous standards, or that it is just a rehashing of old story lines. How many original plots can we think up? How can we ensure the stories remain fresh and compelling. This gets harder and harder the more books we write. Furthermore, writing a novel requires a lot of cognitive acuity, to find the perfect word and phrase, to juggle plot ideas and keep track of all the character and details in the book. I'm sure it's extremely good for staving off demential. But as we age, the words comes more reluctantly, the perfect phrase eludes us, and the memory for what we've written and what should come next becomes more fickle. The memory does return, the words do fall into place, but it takes more time and effort and more jotted notes to keep us on track. How will we know if the final product measures up or reveals our failings?

Several of my writer friends of similar age have already stopped writing, but others are still carrying on well into their eighties. We're all different, and for some the passion to write was no longer stronger than the urge to travel, to spend time with grandchildren, and to explore new interests. I already feel the urge to spend more time doing other fun things, because life is short to spend it all chained to a laptop. 

I love series, and when I find one I like, I tend to read all the books in it. I've worked my way through a number of British crime series that I missed in my earlier explorations, and am catching up on series which have grown since I last read the author. Currently I am devouring Val McDermid. Val has an astonishing number of books in several series and has produced one a year since the 1990s. Some of her series are long and some (so far) relatively short. There are various reasons for ending a series, some due to publisher choice and others the author's wish to try something new, which was why I started the Amanda Doucette series. Fresh characters, setting, and style of story all lead to new ideas and new directions. I did return to Inspector Green recently but I couldn't imagine writing twenty-one Green books in a row. Besides getting bored, I would be afraid I was telling the same story over again.

At some point, before that happens, and before my mind is no longer agile enough to produce top-quality work, I hope I know when to quit.  


Tuesday, May 21, 2024

What Happened Was...

 by Charlotte Hinger

A couple of week ago I started a semi-witty post about chickens. I wrote it at night which is always a mistake and intended to publish it the next morning. Then life intervened and I was swamped with the consequences of running off to North Carolina and ignoring my slush pile. 

I went to Merlefest, a fabulous bluegrass festival in honor of the late Doc Watson, a legendary guitarist, who tragically lost his son, Merle over 30 years ago. This was an anniversary visit for me. I attended the third festival which at that time was on a hill side and very low key as concerts go. My daughter, Michele, was pregnant with my granddaughter, Audrey. It rained constantly. I thought we all were going to drown. 

The concert is huge now and definitely a money maker for all the vendors and performers. There are many stages and it lasted four days.

But what stood out the most to me at the first concert I attended in 1991 was the presence of Doc Watson himself and his eerie hearing. The participants were in awe of that man. They should have been. The man won seven Grammy's and he was absolutely one of the best flat guitar pickers in the whole universe. 

He was blind from the time he was two. I don't know if his extraordinary hearing developed from being deprived from losing his sight. The memorial concert honoring his son, Merle, began in 1988. But I do remember Doc stopping a performance a couple of times to say to the sound technician, "that's just a little too bright there, son." 

This experience inspired my short story, "The Family Rose," first published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. It was subsequently republished in two anthologies, Murder to Music and Death on the Veranduh. It's about a broken-down country western singer who tries to manipulate Doc Watson's hearing. 

My beloved niece, Linda Northey, and her husband, Kevin, joined the rest of the family at the concert and the following day I went to Beauport and stayed at my daughter's coast house. I intended to work like a demon and do everything I could online to publicize my upcoming novel, Mary's Place, but I fizzled out. 

Actually, I don't know what happens when I'm away from my home setting. The muse just takes a seat in her rocking chair on the front porch and watches the ships sail by. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

How Insulting! And Loving It!

 Have you ever been in a heated conversation and, when it was over and you had a chance to think about it, wished you could go back and throw out a piercing verbal barb?  Something that would draw imaginary blood and dazzle your argumentative opponent at the same time?

Me too.  I just never think that fast. Thank heavens, when we write dialogue, we can always go back and amend what we’ve written to make it sound sharper and more intelligent.

If only real life was like that.  In the meantime, I offer some of the best insults ever uttered.  If only I’d thought of them.

-"He had delusions of adequacy.” Walter Kerr

-"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”- Winston Churchill

-"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure. - Clarence Darrow

-"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”-William Faulkner (about Ernest Hemingway)

-"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"- Ernest Hemingway (about William Faulkner)

-"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it.” - Moses Hadas

-"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” - Mark Twain

-"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” -George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill

-"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one.” - Winston Churchill, in response

-"I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial.” - Irvin S. Cobb

-"He is simply a shiver looking for a spine to run up. - Paul Keating

-"He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.” - Forrest Tucker

-"His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” - Mae West

-"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” - Oscar Wilde 

-"He has Van Gogh's ear for music.” - Billy Wilder

-"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But I'm afraid this wasn't it.” - Groucho Marx

-The exchange between Winston Churchill & Lady Astor: She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison." He said, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it."

-"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." - Abraham Lincoln

Let me know if you have any favorites that I don’t know about.  Happy writing!!

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Never Ending WIP

I have been incredibly crabby over the past couple of weeks. I don’t know quite what to blame it on. Sometimes these moods just come and go like the tide. Part of it may be the fact that our air quality here in the Phoenix area has been horrible, and high ozone has always done a number on my head. Two solid weeks of low grade headache would make anybody crabby. I also might blame the mood on my never-ending WIP. I made a bet with my friend Hannah Dennison that we'd finish our new books by this coming August, and every day I think, this is the day I’m going to finish. And every day, the damn ending keeps getting farther and farther away. Every minute I spend doing something other than writing causes me great anxiety.

But those bills have to be paid and meals made and doctor appointments kept and meetings attended. The state of my house is beginning to depress me. I manage to keep things clean and tidy enough to forestall the Department of Health, but that’s about it. My long-suffering husband bought me a Hurricane Power Scrubber a couple of days ago (at my request. It wasn’t a clueless anniversary present or anything like that). I thought that having a power scrubber would make short work of cleaning the shower, so I was all excited to give it a try. The instructions say that you have to charge the scrubber for 24 hours before the first use, which I did. Then I rushed into the bathroom, I clicked on the appropriate scrubber head, gave it a couple of test whirls, lowered it to the shower floor, and…nothing. It seems our power scrubber is a dud.

I was immediately plunged into unreasonable despair. Sometimes it feels like nothing is easy. Why oh why couldn’t I at least be able to clean my shower without it being an ordeal? Don will return it tomorrow (he has one of those pesky doctor appointments in a couple of hours, which always makes me a bit nervous), and I hope he’ll be able to exchange it for one that works.

I’m sure that once I finish this book and get it off my hands, I’ll feel better. When I re-read parts of the manuscript, I’m pleased with the way the book is shaping up. When I next write to you, Dear Reader, I anticipate that the air will have cleared, Don will have gotten a good report from the cardiologist, the book will be done or nearly so, and my shower will be sparkly clean. I live in eternal hope. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Isn't there?

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Malice Domestic 2024 Recap

 by Sybil Johnson

In my last post, I talked about the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. A few days after that event, I headed to Maryland for Malice Domestic.

I usually arrive late in the day on Wednesday. This gives me Thursday to adjust to the 3 hour time change and do a little sightseeing. This year we went to the zoo and the National Postal Museum, which is across the street from Union Station. The Postal Museum is part of the Smithsonian so it’s free. This one didn’t require a timed ticket like some of the museums so we just walked in. We took a 1-hour guided tour, which was very good. Our guide was a retired history teacher. He described the museum as history through stamps, an apt description. I highly recommend it.

Friday it was time for Malice! As usual, it was great fun. I saw people I hadn’t seen in a while, learned about new books, met new people. I was on a panel titled “Love and Murder: ‘Rom-Cozies’”. Besides me, panelists were Barbara Barrett (moderator), Misty Simon, Sally Handley and Jackie Layton. As you can tell from this picture, we had a great time. Probably the most fun I’ve had on a panel so far.


I didn’t get in the Go Round this year, but I sat and listened to the authors who did. Even though this is tiring, even from a listener’s standpoint, I do enjoy it. It’s interesting to see how people describe their books in 2 minutes. One author wrote a poem about the book, which was quite fun to listen to. Several of them did flashcards so people could see their names and other relevant information since it’s sometimes hard to hear in the room. Another author had everyone at the table sign their copy of the book so she’d have a memento of the event.

I attended the Agatha Awards banquet. Not everyone does. For me, it’s less about seeing who wins and more about the conversation at the table I’m seated at. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and enjoyed great conversations that I wouldn’t have if I’d skipped the banquet. It’s one of my favorite parts of Malice, which is odd since I’m not the most outgoing person.

Agatha Award winners: 

Best Contemporary Novel: The Weekend Retreat by Tara Laskowski (for the first time I know every person who was nominated) 

Best Historical Novel: The Mistress of Bhatia House by Sujata Massey 

Best First Novel: Crime and Parchment by Daphne Silver 

Best Short Story: “Ticket to Ride”, Dru Ann Love and Kristopher Zgorski, Happiness is a Warm Gun 

Best Children’s/YA Mystery: The Sasquatch of Hawthorne Elementary by K.B. Jackson 

Best Non-Fiction: Finders: Justice, Faith and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction by Anjiili Babbar 

Next year LATFOB and Malice are going to be on the same weekend so I will have to decide which to attend. I’ll probably go to Malice since I enjoy it so much. Also, Lucy Worsley will be there getting the Poirot Award. I love her! And my friend, Gigi Pandian, will be Toastmaster.

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

The blurb industry

 How time flies! How can I already be late for my Type M post? Today I want to comment on what I see is an increasing trend in publishing. Review space in credible, respected publications such as  newspapers has been declining for years along with the number and size of those publications. Many have closed their review columns or disappeared altogether. They are being replaced by a plethora of "common man" reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other websites and blogs, usually written by regular readers but often with no training of skill in the art of reviewing. Amazon in particular uses an algorithm that increases the visibility of a book based on how many reviews it has, so authors are flooding social media begging people to leave reviews, however brief and ill-informed. Numbers fuel sales, not quality. 

Publishers are also trying to hype their new releases and in the "good old days" used to print short, punchy  quotes from respected reviewers on the book jacket. In the absence of those, publishers are now leaning on fellow authors to create pithy quotes to put on the book jacket. If Stephen King likes the book, after all, it must be good.

In my experience, the publisher doesn't find these willing blurbers themselves, but asks the author to find authors willing to provide a blurb for their book. This practice has been going on since I published my first Inspector Green novel nearly twenty-five years ago. I was asked by my publisher to get a quote or two from fellow writers. The challenge is that the blurb should be by a well-known and respected writer (at least better known than you), writing in a similar genre as you.  Feeling foolish and presumptuous, I chose a couple of writers who knew my work. Luckily they agreed and provided great blurbs, both of which appeared on the cover. For my next books, the publisher pulled blurbs from reviews, and it was not until quite recently that I was again asked to procure blurbs from writers. Sometimes I complied and other times I ignored the request. I only wanted to approach writers who are not only well known but also personal friends writing in a similar style. I never approached the same writer twice, and I always felt it was an imposition. I also only approached one writer for each book.

As my career progressed, I began to get more and more requests for blurbs myself. Sometimes the request was by a personal friend in the writing community, but as this trend continued, I found the connections more and more tenuous. For example, a social media friend whom I had never met at any event and with whom I'd never had a conversation. I take these requests seriously. I want to support my fellow authors and I know the uncomfortable position they have been put in by their publisher, who is essentially downloading their publicity job onto the backs of their authors, much as they do all the social media promotion. But some of these requests come from authors who write very different genres than me, such as speculative or historical crime fiction. Some authors don't say why they chose me or even mention that they read my books. No personal connection.

When I accept a request, it's with the caveat that I will only write the blurb if I feel I can comment on it positively, which is awkward but necessary. It's my integrity on the line. I can't say wonderful things about a book I thought was poorly written. Then I read the entire book, which takes time from my own writing commitments, and I take the time to craft an original, catchy blurb that captures some of the book's strength. Writing a good blurb is a skill and it takes time.

What do I get out of it in return for the work put in? Beyond helping a fellow writer, nothing except my name underneath a couple of lines of text on the cover. Once again, the author is "donating" their time in exchange for exposure. Increasingly doing the job that the publisher has kicked down the food chain. 

But what is happening more and more often now is that authors in search of blurbs are using a scattershot approach rather than a carefully thought out choice of who to approach. They are requesting multiple blurbs, some from authors they may barely know, and presumably the publisher is picking only the ones they like best. Rather than appearing on the cover, the multiple blurbs are showing up on social media posts, websites, and promotional material, or on a whole page of blurbs inside the book. Free advertising copy at the expense of the author.

I'm not sure how other authors feel about doing blurbs, so I can't speak for them, but things have reached the point where I do feel that authors are being used. No one in this industry is making a lot of money, from publishers on down, but authors eager to get their book published and keep their publisher happy are being asked to do jobs that rightly belong to the in-house publicists, who are probably poorly paid and spread far too thin. It's a model that we need to rethink? Do blurbs really accomplish anything? Do quotes from reviews, even amateur ones, work just as well? What are others' experiences with this practice? In the meantime, I must learn to say no.

Thursday, May 02, 2024

Never Shoot the Dog

When all the brouhaha first arose concerning a most unfortunate incident perpetrated by a certain Governor of South Dakota, one of my first thoughts (aside from horror) was that this woman has never heard one of the first rules a fiction writer learns: If you don't want to lose your readers' good opinion of you and your characters, never kill a dog in your novel.

There are exceptions, as long as the death of said canine is the catalyst for a revenge quest by the protagonist. I offer as an example Keanu Reeves' reaction to the demise of his dog in the movie John Wick. I used a somewhat similar device in one of my own novels, The Sky Took Him. In that book, an explosion killed two people and a dog, and it was the death of the dog that drove the survivor to a frenzy. I was a little afraid to kill the poor animal for fear of readers' reactions, more so than the two grown men, but I suppose I got away with it because the perpetrator got his in the end.

Said incident also made me think about my grandparents, who were subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from the 1910s until the mid '60s. Besides crops, my grandfather raised hogs and cattle, and my grandmother had a large chicken yard. They butchered, dressed, preserved, and ate animals all the time.  Wild dogs often ran in packs out in the country and raided farmers' coops and killed calves, and I do know for certain farmers would shoot at least the pack leader if they could.

HOWEVER, my grandpa always had a dog of his own, and often two, and loved them like children. In fact, he loved all animals and would not stand to see any suffer. Even the ones who were being raised for meat. Believe me, they lived good lives with him until butchering time. And even then, he was adamant that the animal be killed quickly and without fear. He once beat up a man he saw mistreating a horse. 

I only know of one incident where Grandpa shot a dog. I was there when it happened. The dog was my grandfather's beloved old mutt Butch, who had been Grandpa's companion for as long as I could remember. Old Butch finally went blind and deaf, but Grandpa took good care of him just the same, until the dog wandered off into the woods and was lost for over a week. My family happened to be visiting when Old Butch found his way home, tottering into the yard half starved and barely able to stand. Grandpa sat on the porch steps for a long time hugging that dog. He gave him food and water, and while the dog was eating, he went into the house and came out with a pistol. He waited until Butch was full and satisfied, then picked him up and carried him off into the woods. He was gone for a long time.

He came back alone.

Now, if you have to shoot a dog, that's a reason I can live with.

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

Los Angeles Times Festival of Books 2024

 by Sybil Johnson

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held April 20-21 on the main campus of the University of Southern California. I attended on Saturday where I wandered around a bit before signing at the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles booth. I met a lot of great people including current students and people who were working on writing a mystery. Also saw friends I hadn’t seen in a while. And I sold a few books, which is always a plus.

I went to USC eons ago so it’s always fun for me to do a little wandering around campus, reliving my student days. A lot of it has changed, but some of it is the same. I noticed that this time some of the elevator buttons, when lit up, show an intertwined S and C. We didn’t have anything so fancy when I went to school there!

We took the light rail to the event this year. On our way back, one of the lines (the K line) had police activity on the track ahead of us so we had to get off the train and take a bus around the activity, then get back on the train. Kudos to the Metro system for sending someone to guide us to the appropriate bus and stops. I did a bit of googling, but couldn’t find out what the issue is. We were told it involved 15 police cars, but no other details.

Here are a few pics:

One of the many crossword puzzles throughout the campus.

The fancy schmancy elevator button

Even the flowers are cardinal and gold (school colors)