Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Welcome to Jonelle Patrick

It is with great pleasure that I introduce Jonelle Patrick as my guest today. Jonelle is the author of five novels set in Japan. She also writes the Japanagram monthly newsletter, blogs at Only In Japan ( jonellepatrick.me) and posts more than anyone could possibly want to know at jonellepatrick.com. The Last Tea Bowl Thief came out October 20, 2020.
I read The Last Tea Bowl Thief and was completed bowled over (pun intended), so I decided for the first time to have a guest in my regular place on Seven Criminal Minds. So, take it away, Jonelle: 

 Thank you for inviting me, Terry. I’m so thrilled to meet readers who love the books written by you and your fellow Criminal Minds—they obviously know a well-written page-turner when they see one! 

 So, most people take one look at me and ask, how the heckin’ heck did a steak ‘n potatoes American whose parents grew up in North Dakota end up writing a book about shifty haiku poets and Japanese tea bowls? I wish I could say that it’s because I trained for years to become a black belt in tea ceremony. The embarrassing truth is that I’m actually super gifted at…shopping. When we first moved to Tokyo in 2003, we thought we’d only be there a year, so we rented everything—right down to the forks and chopsticks—and arrived with all our belongings in five boxes. Two years later, we left with seventy-four. That’s right. Seventy. Four. Because I fell in love with Japanese ceramics, in all shapes and sizes. 

I love Japanese dishes because they make food look really delicious, something I’d never thought about before. And the more I learned, the more I came to love them because Japanese potters are respected as artists—not just craftsmen—and the Japanese believe that making objects that are useful as well as beautiful is actually a higher art than creating stuff that’s only good for looking at. Tea ceremony bowls are a primo example of that—you can’t really judge a tea bowl’s worth until you drink from it. The experience is as much a part of its beauty as what it looks like. 

 Luckily for me, pottery is among the more affordable kinds of art, so as I traveled around the country, I bought some wherever I went. Unluckily for my husband (who somehow imagined all those boxes in the hall closet were empty), I traveled a lot. At first, I planned to buy just one teensy sake cup from each spot. Who knew there were so many great places to visit in one small country? And that there would be so many different kinds, each more beautiful than the last? By the end of two years…well, this is the tray I offer my dinner guests to pick their sake cups from:
Now that you’ve seen the tip of the iceberg (and sensed the scope of the mission creep), I bet you’re scratching your head because you’ve noticed something else: they don’t match. Japanese ceramics can be as different from each other as that mottled brown one is from the green one with the scratchy design. What kind of insane person would buy so many dishes that don’t even go together? But here’s the surprise: even though they come from totally different parts of the country and look nothing alike, they work together in ways that are far more interesting—and beautiful—than dishes that match. 

 And that’s something I think makes good mysteries too. The two women in The Last Tea Bowl Thief are as different as McDonald’s and sushi. One is American, with a stalled PhD dissertation, a less-than-affectionate pet goldfish, and eight years’ experience knowing that not one pair of pants in all of Japan will fit her. The other is a ninth-grade dropout, whose family has sold teacups and ramen bowls to Tokyo restaurants for generations, but whose shop will go under unless she manages to unload some of the things her grandmother hid upstairs and called their “insurance.” 

Not only do Robin and Nori have nothing in common, they’re racing against each other to find a tea bowl made by an artist whose work is so rare that possessing it will set them up for life. The only problem is, neither can get her hands on it without the other. And therein lies the tale. 

This isn’t just the story of a tea bowl that changes peoples’ lives as it’s passed from one fortune-seeker to the next for three centuries, it’s the story of two women from opposite sides of the globe who will both fail unless they find a way to work together. But if there’s one thing I’ve discovered while living in Japan, it’s that despite the fact we speak different languages, eat different food, and they bow instead of shaking hands, people are people, all over the world. We want the same things, dream the same dreams, and commit the same crimes (although we may commit them for different reasons, which is part of what makes international mysteries so intriguing). 

But sometimes our differences don’t push us apart—sometimes they’re like Japanese dishes that don’t seem like they’d go together at all, but in the right combination, they come together for a sublime experience that’s both surprising and satisfying. I hope that’s the kind of mystery you like to read too. If it is, come see me. I’ll let you choose your cup, then we’ve got a lot to talk about!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Writing On

 Tell us about your next book. Your work in progress or the one after that.

Welcome, everyone. It's Brenda Chapman blogging today.

I've spent the last seven years writing my way through two series: the Stonechild and Rouleau police procedurals and the Anna Sweet mystery novellas for adult literacy. I'd finish a Stonechild and then spend three months on an Anna Sweet -- like a palate cleanser, if you will. Oddly enough, the last in both series were published in 2020, leaving me with a sense of freedom but also worry. What should I do next, and will it be any good?

The Anna Sweet novellas

I'd read a few thriller/domestic suspense that I enjoyed and I thought I'd try my hand at writing one in 2019 after submitting my last manuscripts. I've always liked a new writing challenge. Some years back, I started my writing journey with short stories, went on to write a middle grade mystery series, then an older teen coming-of-age standalone, an adult standalone mystery and then the two series, so variety has been my comfort zone. Part of my reason for writing is to entertain myself, and so far, I've managed to keep my own interest.

Anyhow, I spent the bulk of last year writing a thriller that I titled After You Left Me, which I had a great deal of fun writing. I've since come to realize that it might not have the pulsing, one-track focus of a thriller where everything funnels down the tube of rising danger and increasing stakes. Mine is more of a psychological suspense/mystery if I'm honest. I took my time with the editing and had a few readers, including a New York agent who gave me a lot of guidance and who reread the revised draft. He was the one who pointed out that the plot moved too, uh, leisurely to be a thriller.

This year, I've been writing another 'non-thriller' thriller that I think could become a series. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the first draft and have stopped writing to make chapter notes and to collect my thoughts. As with the last manuscript, I set this book in Ottawa and wrote the story in the first person, a choice I'm not convinced about, but one that I'm leaning into for now. I like creating complex, tortured protagonists who don't always follow the rules, and this latest character Rosie is intriguing and one whom I'm enjoying delving into, much like Kala Stonechild is in the last series. In any event, I'm still managing to keep myself amused twenty-four books on :-) 

Store signing for the Stonechild and Rouleau series

Website: https://brendachapman.ca/ 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BrendaChapmanAuthor 

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, October 23, 2020

Sometimes Less is More

How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

by Paul D. Marks

Well, there’s sex and there’s sex. No, I don’t write really steamy sex scenes. If people want that they can go to Fifty Shades of Arousal, romance novels or porn, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t sex in my stories.

I’d say I approach it more obliquely. We know the characters have or have had sex, but we don’t get the play by play like from the Howard Cosell scene at the end of Woody Allen’s Bananas (see link). It’s funny as hell and sort of makes fun of the overly purple sex scenes. 

Click here to see YouTube clip

Just as with violence, I don’t want the sex to be gratuitous. And, believe me, when working in Hollywood plenty of sex and violence were added to scripts strictly to have sex and violence where it wasn’t really needed. Also added were other elements that seemed extraneous. But that’s for another post, I suppose.

I like the sexual relationships in my fiction to reflect on the larger relationship between the characters, as well as being a reflection of their character. In the third Duke Rogers novel I’m currently working on (after White Heat and Broken Windows), a character sleeps with Duke essentially as a way to deal with her own issues of insecurity and doubt. The relationship between her and Duke is tentative and very confusing for Duke, and shows his own ambivalence about relationships. So what they do sexually is less important than conveying the idea that both Duke and his love interest are flawed people with fears and insecurities. And sex is intimated at in other stories and novels of mine. It’s just not explicitly described like in a high school sex ed class.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Sex scenes can also often stop the forward momentum of a story, especially if they’re not integral to the plot in general. But in particular, it drives me crazy when the characters are on the run, in grave danger, but they have the time and inclination to stop everything and have sex. I think of movies in this regard. We’ve gone beyond the time when filmmakers and screenwriters added sex because there was an opening up of social mores and the end of the Hollywood Production Code. When all that loosened up filmmakers went bonkers adding sex and violence, much of it gratuitous, just because they could.  They were spreading their wings. I like to think we’ve gotten that out of our systems so that when we do have a sex scene it’s more integral to the plot. But seeing some of today’s movies, I’m not so sure about that…

Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice

I like this exchange from In a Lonely Place, one of my favorite movies, between Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, as they stand in the kitchen. She’s in a robe, all bleary-eyed from having just gotten up. He’s doing his best attempt at making breakfast. They’re not in a bedroom. They’re not having sex. Not even kissing. But as Bogart says, in other words, their little vignette is a good love scene:

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Laurel Gray (Grahame): [referring to a scene in Dix's script] I love the love scene  it's very good.

Dixon Steele (Bogart): Well that's because they're not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we're in love.

In the old days, movies had a code, so things were left to the viewer’s imagination. When Rhett carried Scarlett up those stairs, we didn’t have to see the culmination, our imaginations filled in the blanks.

The famous anklet in Double Indemnity

During the code days, you couldn’t show graphic sex, but somehow the filmmakers got the point across. Maybe these bits seem quaint today, but they worked. In both Cain adaptations, Double Indemnity and Postman, sex isn’t even imminent in the scenes where Fred MacMurray and John Garfield first spot Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner, but you know it’s there and you know it’s coming sooner or later.  There’s nothing graphic in these scenes, but they’re still steamy as hell. And I would say the beach scene in From Here to Eternity is one of the great sex scenes of all time, yet there’s no actual sex in it. And the one from Ghost World, in particular, I think is played for laughs, making fun of those earlier tropes.

Double Indemnity: We first meet femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck, wrapped in a towel. A few minutes later she descends the stairs and we see her sexy little anklet. It’s clear she’s seducing Fred McMurray and we don’t need to be hit over the head with it.  

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Here John Garfield sets eyes on Lana Turner for the first time. Again, we really don’t need everything spelled out here. It’s clear what’s going on without having to get all the details.

From Here to Eternity: Possibly the sexiest scene ever filmed and all they do is kiss.

Ghost World: When they cut to the toy “rocking” horse, the implication is pretty obvious and funny at the same time.

So, I don’t think sex has to be particularly graphic to get the point across or to be, well, sexy. In fact, I would argue that too much detail kills a sex scene and is boring. Sometimes less is more.

But if you just need a sex fix, here’s some songs about sex that might do the trick. (I do like these songs, I admit.) Be warned, some graphic content, but these are not obscure songs. My wife says some people don’t get my sense of humor sometimes and I thought these would just add a light, but sexy note, to this piece 😉. And, while I do like these songs, as I say, I’m also adding them here strictly for prurient interest, he said in jest.


So, if people want to read particularly graphic sex scenes, I guess my stuff isn’t for them, at least up till now. If a story calls for it in the future, maybe. But if you want some good mystery-thriller-suspense, then I hope you’ll check out my works.


And now for the usual BSP:

A great review of Coast to Coast: Noir at Just Reviews:

Each story is filled with sadness, tragedy and each character experiences death in a different way. The titles alone are eerie and will give you the chills. A fabulous collection of well written noir short stories told in different settings with  characters that work in meat packing plants, feed companies, markets and not very lucrative jobs causing their downfalls and falling for the need to complete jobs that most would turn down. A superb collection for readers that want something odd, different and dangerous.

-- Fran Lewis, Just Reviews
And a very nice review of The Blues Don't Care at The Irresponsible Reader:

Marks hits the right notes with his prose and characters, creating a mystery that appeals on many levels. I recommend this for mystery readers looking for the kind of thing they haven’t read before.

--H.C. Newton, The Irresponsible Reader

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Every Title I Thought Up For This Post Was Filthy (I'll put them in the comments.)

Q: How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

by Catriona

On Tuesday, Frank talked about a Left Coast Crime panel where winners and honourable mentions from that year's Bad Sex Awards were read out.

Minds, I was on that panel. And the excerpts were an astonishingly effective vaccination against ever writing a sex scene, let me tell you.

One had a bit about a dog with a penguin its mouth climbing to the top of a sand dune. (Oh God how I wish all but one of the panellists had got together beforehand and agreed to nod with recognition and make the reader of that think he was the weirdo. We missed a trick there.)

Another compared a woman's suntan marks with rings round a boarding-house bathtub (which I think is a great image, actually, but these were supposed to be the thoughts of a man in the throes of passion ...)

And they're not the worst. Google Guardian Books Bad Sex Awards if you like a laugh and aren't planning to eat watermelon, sardines or custard (yes, really) in the near future.

So how do I handle it? Well, I take my cue from the name of the award. I think good sex leads to bad writing - whether it's the insert tab A into slot B kind or the choir of angels on titian clouds of ecstasy kind.

But bad sex is much easier to write well. (Isn't that like life? I'm sure I remember reading some brisk agony aunt - one of the ones with that trademark excruciating lack of bashfulness - say that if all's well it's about 10% of a relationship, but when it goes wrong it shoots up to 90%. Claire Raynor maybe? Or Anna Raeburn? Virginia Ironside? Splendid women all, but if you sat next to them on a bus, you'd leave before your stop.)

I also believe bad sex earns its place in a crime novel more honestly. It can reveal character and you can hide clues in the ensuing storm of embarrassment.     

So I have written a couple of sex scenes. In fact, three. Two and a half. One and two halfs. 

In THE DAY SHE DIED, there's an abandoned effort at sex (Can I get points for not using the term "coitus interruptus"? Not now, I can't.) This shows something about the character of the male participant. Or does it . . .? (You've got to say that when you're talking about the inner workings of a plot. It's in the MWA, CWA, and SinC bylaws.) 

Later in the book, there's another more successful - or at least completed - attempt looked back upon minutes later by the protagonist. This gives some insight into her character. Or does it . . .?

The other thing about "bad sex" scenes is that they can be funny. Of, course the Bad Sex Awards show us that attempts at "good sex" scenes can be coffee-down-the-nose funny, but I mean deliberately. The one complete sex scene I've written in thirty-one novels is played for laughs. 

At the start of the first in the Last Ditch Motel series, Lexy's marriage ends when she witnesses her new husband very much reconciled with his ex-wife. I loved writing that scene. Especially the bit where the lovers are cowering under the covers, after being busted, and Bran (the ex-husband) is writhing in shame, and Lexy asks him if he's trying to wriggle out of a condom, and he says no, and she says "Oh great. Now I'll have to go to a clinic to get checked for skankitis too", and Brandeee (the ex-wife) says "Hey!", and Lexy gets to look down her nose and say "Oh really? I've fallen short of gracious behaviour, have I?" and sweep out. Or does she . . .

You can tell how much I love that scene from the way I just brought it all back to my typing fingers without having to look it up, four years later. 

And if you're wondering where the humour is supposed to be, let me just point out that "Brandeee" isn't really spelled with three "e"s; Lexy just pretends it is because she hates her. So that's the level right there.

In the third strand of writing I do, there is no sex at all. I mean none. The Dandy Gilver series makes Mr Rogers look racy. (UK Blue Peter, basically.) One time, Dandy is dying to get her husband out of her bedroom so she puts a hand to the back of her neck as if she's going to unbutton her dress. He flees.

And in THE TURNING TIDE, the book that's coming out in the US on Nov 10th, Dandy's son can barely manage to tell her that his new wife is pregnant because of what that means has happened, prior to the pregnancy, round about the conception sort of time. "Oh for Heaven's sake!" Dandy says to him. "Where do you think you came from?" One of those things you say - well, I say - that comes out such a lot worse than you thought it was going to.

I'll be reading that scene, and others, live on my Facebook author page on publication day. Click here to get reminders. It's at 5pm pacific and a recording'll be available afterwards if that's awkward for you.

I'm so much looking forward to it. Or am I  . . .? 


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Keep your hand on your ha'penny! by Cathy Ace

 Q: How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

A. The title of this piece might suggest I do write about sex in my books, and that, when I do, my advice to those concerned would be to abstain. But...I don't write about the act of sex at all. 

Across three short works and nine novels, Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson have met, dated, got engaged, married, honeymooned, and now have a happy - if somewhat peripatetic - marriage. I'm certain they also enjoy whatever they consider to be a happy sex life, but they don't discuss it with me because it's their business, not mine, so it doesn't end up being mentioned in the books I write about them. 

Thanks to Free@LastTV for this wonderful photo!

The women who work at the WISE Enquiries Agency? Carol Hill and her husband must have had sex, because she's just had a baby; Mavis MacDonald and her late husband produced children, but she's very much a singleton-widow, so I think not; Annie Parker wouldn't be averse to a sex life, but probably doesn't think there's much chance of one now she's left her beloved London and got stuck in a Welsh village in the back of beyond...though there's always Tudor Evans, who runs the Lamb and Flag pub next to the church, of course; then there's Christine Wilson-Smythe, who...by the looks of her "bad-boy-beau" Alexander Bright...is very definitely sexually active - but, again, that's her business, not mine, so I don't write about it. 

In the village of Rhosddraig, Wales, where I set The Wrong Boy, there have been sexual liaisons of all sorts taking place over decades...which is why so many people there have secrets, I suppose. Certainly what has gone on behind closed curtains there isn't something I about which I choose to share the details. But that doesn't stop the local tongues from wagging, of course, nor the poison of gossip fulfilling its destructive potential. 

Why no sex? So far I haven't chosen it to be a motivating force in any of my plots, though in The Wrong Boy passion and desire certainly play key roles...but there's no need for the detail of sex acts to be used in that book for the implications of the passions and desires involved to come into play.

Thus, I haven't written a single sex scene yet, and don't foresee me doing it any time soon. So yes, thank you, I'll be keeping my hand on my metaphorical ha'penny for some time, in terms of writing, thank you. 

The Kindle version of my first two WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries are currently available for just $0.99/99p...CLICK HERE to get to more info and purchasing links. 

If you'd like to find out more about how I don't write about sex, please consider visiting my website to find out more about all my characters: CLICK HERE

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Is Dad Reading This?

How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

From Frank

Okay, full disclosure here - this question was posed to the group by Jim Ziskin, whose opinion I know from personal conversation. He essentially told me (and this might've been when he was on my podcast) that the way he likes to handle sex in fiction (and his advice to other writers) is to approach it as if his mother was going to read it.

In my case, it's my dad. But given Dad's attitude toward this subject, I think the end result is the same.

For the most part, I agree with Jim, and for a variety of reasons.

In my own work - with three glaring exceptions - I handle sex with a certain vagueness. If characters have sex on the page, it's handled with a few allusions and left mostly to the reader's imagination.  For one thing, you don't need me to tell you what sex is like, at least not the play-by-play of it. If I can express that a) the characters did it, and b) the tone of the act, be it tender, passionate, dirty, whatever, then that's enough. That accomplishes what I need for the story and for the characters.

So reason number one to tread lightly with sex is readers may not like it (see Jim's mom and my dad as cases in point).

Reason number two is I don't need to be graphic to get my point across. And, in fact, less is probably more in terms of having the intended impact.

Reason three? Sex is hard to write.

At Left Coast Crime, I attended a panel hosted by Holly West that highlighted some of the worst sex prose from the previous year, all of which came from otherwise fine books. Panelists, who were chosen somewhat based upon their own aversion to discussing the topic, had to read the passages to the audience, most of whom howled with laughter. The whole event was pretty hilarious.

You know what my goal is? To never be the passage that gets read.

I can write a fight scene all day long. I can write dialogue like a champ. But writing a sex scene that works is like songwriting - it's more difficult than it appears. (I originally wrote "harder" than it appears, but revised because I know what some of you would do with that). How much detail should be included? How best to describe acts, positions, body parts, not to mention the corresponding emotions? A tall order to do a passable job, much less to excel.

So I go the Jim Ziskin route, for the most part. The 'less is more' Frank Zafiro adaptation of it, anyway. It keeps me from putting off readers, accomplishes what I need for character and story, and I get to avoid a difficult writing challenge.

But I said there were three glaring exceptions, didn't I?

Over the course of my career, I've written three short stories that feature sex pretty heavily. Now, to be fair, in all three instances, sex is an integral element of the tale and the depiction is important. But... sex is very prevalent.

For the record, the stories are "Cassie," "Gently Used," and "Good Shepherd." The latter-most was a Derringer Award finalist the year it was published, so it clearly doesn't stink (I originally wrote "suck" but, well...). It didn't win the award, and I think the subject matter put some voters off (at least one openly complained about it in the forums of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the organization that awards the Derringer).

I have another interesting reaction story, this one to "Gently Used," but I'll save it for another time. Or ask me at a conference, should we ever get back to those in my lifetime. Might be better told in that medium.

Anyway, I gathered these three stories into a mini-collection called "Good Shepherd." I figured I might as well lean into what these stories are - they're sexy, but with a purpose. Here they are, if you're not in league with Jim's mom or my dad... but don't say I didn't warn you.

Monday, October 19, 2020

 Q: How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?


-from Susan


A: The same way I do in life, with discretion.  


There was a question like this at a Bouchercon panel this weekend and everyone had pretty much the same response. Unless you write hot romance novels or the male-fantasy versions of thrillers, in which women have orgasms just thinking about the hero…



Friday, October 16, 2020

A Lone Star State

by Abir Mukherjee 

Discuss the worst/funniest/most ridiculous review you’ve ever received on Amazon or Goodreads. This is your chance to defend yourself and blow off some steam, since we know we can’t engage with reviewers.



Man, what a topic! 


It's my kryptonite, 

the stone in my shoe, 

the bane of my life, 

the one-star review, 

as Dolly Parton might have sung, is a right of passage. Like a childhood fear of injections, you dread it, and then you get your first one, and you feel crap, but then realise it ain’t the end of the world. You're still a writer. In fact, you’re now a proper writer, because everyone’s had them. 


Really and truly. Go on Amazon (or Goodreads if you’re a masochist) and type in the names of your five favourite authors (ten if you’re feeling indulgent) and check out their reviews. I bet you every single one of them will have their share of one star reviews. Someone will no doubt read, say The Bridges of Madison County and write ‘Not enough explosions – One Star’ or have a go at Nineteen Eighty-Four, complaining that Orwell was out in his maths by a good thirty-two years. Now one could argue that these things are down to taste, and that’s fine, but as my colleagues have pointed out – that’s not always the case. There are exceptions to the rule, some of which are rooted in mendacity, and some in plain idiocy. Here are a few of them.


-       Reviewer is reviewing a different book by a totally different author – this sometimes happens and it’s understandable. I share the same name (Abir Mukherjee) with another writer (I know, what are the chances?) – but he writes very different books from me. I have had people have a go at me for writing his books, when I didn’t. I’m pretty sure he gets the same from irate readers of my stuff.

-       Reader is complaining about something totally unrelated to the book in question, such as:

o   Book didn’t arrive in time;

o   Book arrived punctually but was damaged in some way;

o   Book never arrived;

o   I never ordered this in the first place and I won’t read it;

o   I didn’t order it, I didn’t receive it, and I wouldn’t read it, but I’m giving it one star because I disagree with the author’s opinion on ABC, XYZ etc.


-       Then there’s the malevolent one star review – one of my mates who’s an extremely successful self-published author (I mean he sells more books in a day than I do in a year) told me of the skull-duggery that apparently goes on in the self-pub world. There’s a school of thought that certain demographics buy certain books based on their Amazon reviews and ratings. ‘If your book is doing well in the Amazon chart, like in the top 50, you might suddenly see a few one-star reviews appearing, almost as if they were planted there.’ I think Amazon’s approach to reviews might have changed recently, but my mate definitely saw this as an issue when we were drunkenly discussing it back in 2018.


Whatever the reason for the one star review, my advice is to not take it to heart – though this is often more difficult than it sounds. We authors are fragile folk, with large, precious egos. One word of criticism can set us back months (now you understand why some literary novels take ten years to write and in the end are just 250 pages of anxious, self absorbed navel gazing). Seriously though, our books generally take a few years of hard work from inception to publication. In a sense they’re like our babies. We bring them into the world after much stress and strain and the next thing you know, Alan77 from Tulsa is going on Goodreads and telling the world how utterly crap and ugly your baby is. (Just p*ss off, Alan).


But of course, a writer cannot tell Alan77 to p*ss off, because that would be wrong. Alan can say whatever the hell he likes, because that’s free speech, but the author cannot respond to Alan’s ridiculous assertions about the book lacking substance and the characters lacking a third or even a second dimension, because to do so, to get down in the dirt with Alan would be career suicide and a first class ticket to the asylum.


The one thing I was told about one-star reviews when I first started out was never to argue or refute or even engage with the reviewers. And it’s damn good advice. Sometimes it’s not even possible to argue with the review. My one star reviews include this cracker:


‘This reads like it was written by a bank manager’ – I don't know what that means.


But for every one of those, fortunately there’s one of these:


‘This book was just the right thickness to correct the wobble on my table – 5 stars’


So it’s swings and roundabouts.


My advice is, try to ignore the one star reviews, and don’t let the five stars go to your head either. It’s the two or three star reviews that you can learn from. They’re the ones that are normally constructive. There are things that I’ve picked up from such reviews and implemented them in my writing and I hope I’m a better writer for them.


So please, don’t take any of this as a reason not to leave reviews. We need the feedback, so do keep sending them in…unless you’re Alan77 from Tulsa. To you sir, I say, p*ss off.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

How Bad Must a Book Be to Deserve a One-star Rating? by James W. Ziskin

Discuss the worst/funniest/most ridiculous review you’ve ever received on Amazon or Goodreads. This is your chance to defend yourself and blow off some steam, since we know we can’t engage with reviewers.

From Jim

Full disclosure: I was the one who came up with this week’s question. At first, I thought it would be fun to answer. But, then, as I looked back at some of the bad reviews I’ve received on Goodreads, it made me sad. Not at all because some people didn’t like my books—that’s inevitable and normal—but because Goodreads shows you just how angry some people are. How gladly they vent their vitriol, proclaim their self-righteousness, and parade the the brilliance of their judgments for their legion of followers to admire. I feel sad but not really surprised. If the age of social media has taught us anything, it’s that very little of it is social.

How bad must a book be to deserve a one-star rating?

As online rating portals such as Amazon and Goodreads offer no option for zero stars, I can only assume a rating of one star means there is nothing of value in the book. Just bad writing, poor characterization, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and excruciating sex scenes. What else can one assume? Surely most books—traditionally and independently published—have some value. If writing a book were a school test, would so many get one star? A failing grade?

Professional reviewers tend to leave the nastiness out of their reviews. Tend is the operative word. There’s plenty of snark out there, too. Usually, they try to offer a measured critique of the book, where it fails and where it succeeds. And the professionals reach a larger audience. Even a bad review in the New York Times will likely stimulate sales for the author.

A cruel review on Goodreads, however, accomplishes only two things: 1. it saddens the author, and, 2. it gladdens the reviewer. Negative reviews on Goodreads do not affect sales. They do not influence other reviewers. Ultimately, they don’t matter. Except to the author and to the reviewer.

I thought about highlighting the dumbest, snarkiest, rudest reviews I’d ever received. We’d all have a good laugh, right? But I simply am not feeling it. The exercise only served to remind me how much hatred is out there waiting for an audience. But I asked the question, so I’ll offer an answer of sorts. Instead of talking about my bad reviews in particular, I’ll try to catalogue the types of negative reviewers out there. The ones who confound and frustrate all authors. See if you recognize any of these, and, please, feel free to add your own ideas in the comments.

Here are some of the archetypical reviewers who specialize in poor reviews/ratings:

1. The ones who give one-star ratings to all the books by an author. Why continue reading books you hate? How do you manage to turn the pages while holding your nose?

2. The ones who write that they really loved the book but mistakenly clicked on one star instead of five. (It is possible to change the rating.)

3. The ones who qualify their three- or four-star review by announcing they only award five-stars to “literature.” What do they say to their kids about their latest finger painting?

4. The ones who say “terrific book! Loved it. Three stars!” 

        Teacher: You aced the test, young man. Congratulations! C+.

        Student: Huh?

5. The ones who—essentially—admit they’re not smart enough to understand the book. “I just don’t get it.”

6. The ones who hate the book because they dislike the genre. Me, I don’t like getting punched in the face. That’s why I don’t pick fights in biker bars.

7. The ones who want to show off the devastating cleverness of their ridicule.

8. The ones who complain that they figured out the ending.

9. The ones who complain that they couldn’t figure out the ending.

10. The ones who say the book was damaged in shipping.

11. The ones who didn’t like the picture on the cover.

12. The ones who say the print is too small. (Legitimate complaint, but not the author’s fault.)

13. The ones who ordered the book by mistake.

14. The ones who didn’t read the book, but know that it’s bad anyway.

15. The ones who don’t approve of the four-letter words in a book set in a maximum security prison.

16. The ones who don’t like female characters who have a sex life.

17. The ones who conflate a character’s behavior/opinions and those of the author.

18. The ones who say they skipped large sections of the book, but—don’t worry—didn’t miss anything...

Now I’m a big boy. I can take a legitimate, serious bad review. Sure, they sting a little, but I’ve got enough positive reviews and critical success to put them out of my mind. But, I confess, this week’s question backfired for me. I feel worse for having posed the question. And answering it did nothing to make me feel better.

Apologies to my fellow 7 Criminal Minds bloggers and to you readers. But at least I learned something.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Okay, let’s get the knives out

Discuss the worst/funniest/most ridiculous review you’ve ever received on Amazon or Goodreads. This is your chance to defend yourself and blow off some steam, since we know we can’t engage with reviewers.

by Dietrich

What every writer wants to ask a critic, “How many books have you written?”

“Critics are to authors what dogs are to lamp-posts.” — Jeffrey Robinson

A two-bit comment, a one-star review, a hatchet job. Here’s my rule: if they’re nasty I ignore them; if they’re nice I appreciate them. What’s to be gained by letting my ego off its leash, imagining horrific things on someone using an alias like Bad Hass, the kind of person who straddles the line when parking, then leaves their shopping cart behind my car.

Courtesy of Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Okay, my writing isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, I can accept that. Even the greats get their share of one-star reviews. So, I’m in good company.

To feel disturbed by someone’s negative opinion, well, that’s on me. If I let it get to me, next I’ll be wondering why I can’t write a word that day. 

Let’s face it, we put ourselves out there by having a book published, and we all get criticized. They say it takes a certain amount of courage to put anything creative out there in the first place, so bravo to us for doing it. And to make us all feel better about it, here are some harsh reviews of some of the greats.

“A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape,” — Art critic Louis Leroy on Claude Monet

“The cover of Led Zeppelin, the British quartet's seismic 1969 debut, shows the Hindenburg airship, in all its phallic glory, going down in flames. The image did a pretty good job of encapsulating the music inside: sex, catastrophe and things blowing up.” — Rolling Stone

“We must turn down gifts offered since we feel it is not fair to accept as a gift a work which may be shown only infrequently.” 

— Alfred H. Barr, director of collections for Museum of Modern Art, New York, on receiving a donated work by Andy Warhol

“A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.” 

— Salman Rushdie on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code

“The first book written for people who don't read books.”

— Eileen Battersby, chief literary critic for The Irish Times on 

Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls

“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.”

Susan Cohen, the Charleston City Paper, on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

“The story is mostly a snooze: not so much The Silence of the Lambs as The Counting of the Sheep —  Ron Charles for the Washington Post, on Thomas Harris’ Cari Mora

“Reading it, I even began to suspect that parts may have genuinely been written by Don Jr. himself. The excruciatingly insecure prose wasn’t the tell — that could have come from any of the hacks who work for him. It was that some of the errors are so ludicrous they couldn’t possibly have come from anyone else.” — Ashley Feinberg, Slate, on Donald Trump Jr.’s Triggered

“The greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.” 

— Norman Mailer on J.D. Salinger

“Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.” — Mark Twain on Henry James

“I got a little bored after a time. I mean, the road seemed to be awfully long.” — Aldous Huxley on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

“Leaving out politics, I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences.” 

— Vladimir Nabokov on Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago

“Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw, that of outright unreadability.” — Martin Amis, The War Against Cliché

“Fear and Loathing in America is a great doorstop of a book …” Douglas Brinkley for The Guardian, on Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in America

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

How Did You Like It?

Terry Shames here. This week we are discussing the worst/funniest/most ridiculous review we’ve ever received on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews are a fact of life for writers—it’s one of the best ways to introduce readers to our work. Whenever we come out with a new book, we writers hold our breath, worried that reviewers will say that the books don’t work, or worse. But I suppose even a bad review is better than none at all. Because reader reviews are what alerts other readers that we’ve written a book. There are two types of reviews, those from professional reviewers and from readers who want to comment on their experience with a book. I was always happy to say that I had never gotten a bad review from a “professional” reviewer—that is somebody who regularly reviews books in some kind of ongoing forum. That includes Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, Stop, You’re Killing Me!, Kathy Boone, Reel, Kevin Tipple, Kristopher Zgorski, and many others. In fact, I’ve received several starred reviews. So far, so good. When I published my first book, I thought the reviews were okay, but not wonderful. Then my in-house publicist told me that in the scheme of things the reviews were terrific. I took the time to read some reviews of popular books by well-known authors, and discovered she was right. Some of the best in the business had received lukewarm or even scathing professional reviews. Whew! So I was pleased with my reviews. And then, sometime after I published my fifth book someone (James Ziskin) sent me a review from a forum I didn’t know about. I read with pleasure the positive feedback and then went back to find out if the reviewer had featured others of my books. Oops. I found out. I would have been better if I’d left it alone.
Not only had he had read my fourth book, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, but he hated it so much that he threw it across the room! Did I weep and moan? No, I laughed, for three reasons. One, I was reading it long after it came out and he liked it. Two, I disagreed with his assessment. He said he didn’t believe such a thing could happen, and unfortunately I knew women to whom it had happened—including the woman that the story was based on. The third reason was the biggest: I felt like I had finally joined the club of people who had gotten trashed in a professional review. It wasn’t lukewarm, or damning with faint praise, it was an out and out loathing of the book. I took it as a badge of honor. Pretty much every writer gets bad reviews at one time or other, and it’s something writers have to accept. Not everyone loves every type of book. I had finally gotten my “bad” one. Reader-generated comments on books in Amazon and Goodreads are a whole different thing. These are much more scatter-shot. Some readers make astute comments, and some even go so far as to write, long, involved reviews that include synopses. Others are just a line or two. Sometimes you see reviews that are patently unfair—a one-star review because the book was damaged or wasn’t received on time. Or the reader expected a different kind of book, despite clear evidence of what the book was about. I generally get good, solid, well-though-out Amazon and Goodreads reviews. But I have gotten a few funny ones. As anyone who reads my books know, I write a series set in Texas. One of my glowing reviews, “loved the book!” said the reader especially appreciated my wonderful descriptions of Oregon. Another reviewer said she couldn’t give me a 5-star review because she compared the book to all literature and it was a 3-star. If she was comparing it to all literature, I have to say I’m well-satisfied with three stars. Move over, Jane Austen! Take that, Ernest Hemingway! And then there is this one-star review: “A good read with a suspenseful plot. I would read more books by this author.” Uh, okay, but you do know that one star indicates you didn’t like the book, right? I’ll close by saying that it’s useful for writers to get reader reviews on those sites, so if you’re reading this and have read my books, I’d appreciate a review. Even if you weren’t thrilled about it!

Sunday, October 11, 2020

You Think What?

Post and discuss the worst/funniest/most ridiculous review you’ve ever received on Amazon or Goodreads. This is your chance to defend yourself and blow off some steam, since we know we can’t engage with reviewers.

What a provocative question this week! 

Brenda Chapman posting today.

As authors, we know to never engage with reviewers who slam our book. There's that infamous cautionary tale of the author who got into it with one reviewer and did not fare well. We're warned that those readers who would take the time to rip apart one's book would not hesitate to rip apart the author if given half a chance. Be afraid, be very afraid...

I'm always grateful to those readers who post thoughtful reviews, whether glowing or less so, but there are a few categories of reviews that make me shake my head.

1.  The one star review with no explanation. My question is, "Why bother?" I mean, really, why bother?

I sometimes check out the 1* reviewer posting on Goodreads and most often they give one star reviews to lots of books. (One reader posted about twenty one-star reviews a day, prompting me to send a note to Goodreads telling them that this reader looked to be bogus given that I don't know of anyone who can read and hate that many books in twenty-four hours for days on end. Goodreads essentially shrugged and said not their problem.) 

2.  The reader who says the book is okay but they wished they'd known it was part of a series. They say that they'd likely have given the book a higher rating if they'd read the rest of the books because they hate starting a series partway through. Gaaaa! 

3.  The reader who says they don't like mysteries so they don't like my book. Please, please never read another one of mine ... is what I'd like to say. And why did you pick up my obviously-a-crime-fiction book anyway?

4.  And then there's the reader who says they figured out the killer early on so the book is crap and the author is dumb. These types of readers always astound me since the vast majority of readers tell me they never guessed the killer and didn't see the twist coming. If you did figure out whodunnit, then kudos. The clues are there as they should be in a play-fair mystery. This doesn't make the book terrible. (and guessing every possible scenario and then saying you guessed the killer from the onset is not fair play for the author.)

So, getting back to this week's question where I'm asked to select one review.  This is a two-star review for one of my Stonechild and Rouleau books that stands out: 

rated it **
Made it to 3 stars until murderer revealed. I am very tired of The-Woman-Dunnit crime mysteries. Becoming as much of a cliche as the-butler-did-it, without the wry humour.
Okay, so half of the human race are women. If you rule out all women as killers, then that leaves men unless space aliens are a thing. And if all the killers are male, isn't this a cliche too? Just whom would you have be the killer? 
Enquiring minds want to know. Seriously.
I suppose what I'd like to say to readers is that I understand if my books or the books of my fellow authors are not your cup of tea. This is why we have so much selection, categories, genres, writing styles. Not all books are created equal and you are certainly entitled to your opinion and to express your views on social media platforms. All that I ask is that you give a thoughtful, balanced review, perhaps a critique that you'd say to my face if we were sitting in the pub having an honest discussion about the book. 
Most books take a year to write and another six months working with editors to bring to print. So few manuscripts ever make it to completion let alone to publication. This doesn't mean a reader needs to like  the story or the writing, but it should be enough to garner respectful feedback and not a sarcastic toss-off line.
Finally, I'd like to end by saying that it's human nature to focus on the negative. We can have forty lovely reviews and one critical review and guess what we obsess on? But not always! I'm happy this week to share a review for Closing Time in The Ottawa Review of Books that  made my week :-) 
But all good things must come to an end. The seventh novel of the series, Closing Time is also the last in the series, and for Chapman’s devoted readers it will be a bittersweet experience, reading the final chapter in what has proved to be one of the strongest and most interesting crime series to emerge in years. A skilled storyteller, Closing Time is a finely-drawn story, Chapman writing with an assured hand, confident that she’s nailed her subject – and she has. Closing Time is an evocative and compelling work, and a fitting end to the series; and while I regret reading the last of Stonechild and Rouleau, I look forward to the next step in Chapman’s impressive literary journey. I’m certain it will be equally special. – Jim Napier
Twitter: @brendaAchapman