Friday, August 14, 2020

All the News That Fits

Talk about newsletters.  Do you or do not have one? If you do, how often do you send it out? On what venue? How did you get your newsletter list? If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good?

by Paul D. Marks

Some people swear by newsletters. They say that’s the best tool for marketing. And I think they are a good thing. I have one called PostMarks (clever, huh). And if you’d like to sign up for it you can do it here or at the end of this post or just go to my website: There’s other “fun” stuff at my website, too, like my weird encounter with Cary Grant, my encounter with Gene Kelly and the time I pulled a gun on the cops and lived to tell about it.

My newsletter logo.

I had a column in a small paper called PostMarks some time back so I stole my newsletter title from myself. But you know what they say, great artists steal, bad artists only borrow. I guess I’ll have to sue myself. Why not, it seems to be the national pastime these days.

I don’t send it out on any regular schedule. I do try to send it out about 4 to 6 times a year on average, particularly when I have something noteworthy to mention, like a new book or short story coming out. But I don’t send it out for every little thing that comes up like a new interview or guest post (like my recent post at CrimeReads).

I try to make the newsletter interesting and fun and more than just selling and BSP. It contains various sections. There’s a greeting, with a little news. Then a Current News section that talks about any new books or stories I might have coming up (or out). Sometimes it might mention interviews I’ve done or that are coming up as well. But then we get to the fun stuff. There’s a section on La La Land (Los Angeles). Anyone who follows me on Facebook knows I post a lot of pictures and articles about L.A. and in my newsletter I talk about various aspects of L.A. history. Often the topics are tied into L.A. locations in a novel or story of mine, so there’s sometimes that link. But sometimes they’re not related to my work. L.A. history is fun. In one of the recent newsletters, before The Blues Don’t Care came out, I talked about the gambling ships that used to lay off the Los Angeles coastline, just outside the 3 mile legal limit because some of the action in Blues takes place on one of those ships. From the feedback I got people found that fun and interesting.

An excerpt from my newsletter

Then, there’s often a section called Noirville, which can deal with noir aspects of my writing or just noir in general, maybe a little talk about a film noir that I like. In one of the recent newsletters I talk about the Nat King Cole song The Blues Don’t Care, from which I borrowed the title of the book and ask the question “can a song be noir”? There’s also a What’s Next section, which should be obvious as to what it’s about. And the penultimate section is usually Dog Tails where I talk about whatever critters (not necessarily just dogs) we have at the time and post pictures of them. And then The End of the Line, a farewell. Of course, there’s also ways to get my books, links to Amazon and also to my social media. So it’s a full deal. Doing the newsletter can be a little labor intensive, but it’s also fun.
Here’s a link to one of my recent newsletters if you’re interested: June 2020 PostMarks.

Dog Tails :-) 

The venue I use is MailChimp. There might be other places out there. I’m not really familiar with all of them. And I don’t really remember why we chose to go with MailChimp. Maybe ’cause my wife likes the chimp logo. And I do like MailChimp. It’s fairly simple to use and it’s free if your list is under 2,000 people.

As to how I got the list of names, there’s various ways. When I meet someone I often ask if they’d like to sign up for it, I mention it when I’m speaking. And in the days when we did live events (remember those days?) I bring a clipboard with my newsletter signup sheet. I’ll just ask people if it’s okay for me to sign them up. And I let them know I won’t bother them too often, just a few times a year. No one wants to be bombarded with 20 emails a month.

I also recently added a popup to my website so that if people subscribe to my newsletter they can download a free copy of my novella Vortex. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really increased my subscriptions, but it was worth a try.

One of the questions above is, “If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead?” Well, even though I do a newsletter it’s not the only way I stay in touch, of course. I have my website. I blog here and at SleuthSayers. I get interviewed in print or on radio or podcasts. I do events, though these days they’re all virtual on Zoom or Skype, etc. I did the book launch for The Blues Don’t Care on Facebook, and it was more successful than I’d imagined. There’s a whole host of ways to contact people and stay in touch and get the word out, including: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a host of others, but you have to limit yourself or all you’ll be doing is social media.

So, like with anything, newsletters have their pluses and minuses, but overall I think they’re a good way to stay in touch with friends and fans (I have 3.2 of the latter).


And now for the usual BSP:

I want to thank Living My Best Book Life for this great review of The Blues Don’t Care. Here’s an excerpt and a link to the full review.

“𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐁𝐥𝐮𝐞𝐬 𝐃𝐨𝐧'𝐭 𝐂𝐚𝐫𝐞 by @pauldmarks is a mysterious historical fiction set in the WWII time period. It tackles topics like corruption, racism, and many others that we are still facing today. I was taken aback by Paul D. Marks's talented writing style. This story is powerful and Paul did a wonderful job developing his main character, Bobby Saxon...

…I was captivated from the very start. This author tackled so many subjects that few care to bring up. The detail of the story gave me an insight on all the injustices in the 1940's. I appreciated the heart of the story; a person chasing their dream and never looking back. Bobby Saxon is a well-developed character that was able to learn, grow, and hone in on his craft. There is a main secret of Bobby's that I didn't see coming. This is such a fascinating historical fiction that I thoroughly enjoyed!”

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, August 13, 2020

When Lexy Met Dandy and Catriona Met Lazy, by Catriona

Business: Talk about newsletters. Do you or do not have one? If you do, how often do you send it out? On what venue? How did you get your newsletter list? If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good?

I didn't have one for the first fifteen years of writing. Then I went to as Sisters in Crime SInC into Great Writing workshop, run by Dana Kaye, publicist extraordinaire. She asked, at the top of the class, if there was anyone in the room who didn't have a newsletter and I stuck my hand up without a thought, expecting to be in one group in the room roughly the same size as the other group. 

But no one else put their hand up. And a few people muttered words of surprise. Now, I'd bet good money that I wasn't actually the only person in that room with no newsletter (just the only one admitting it) but still it was a small sub-set and one I determined to leave immediately.

So I got a Mailchimp account, tried and failed to understand it, paid a publicist $500 to get me started and wrote my first newsletter, plus a short story to be given away as a thank you to signers-up. 

I think I got my subscribers up to a few hundred before the second letter. And, in that time, I kept back good news, new jackets and WIP progress-reports from the 3.2 thousand (some doubles, I expect!) Facebook friends and 2 thousand Twitter followers whom I could have shared the news with hot off the press.

Hmmmmm. It was when I realised two separate things on the same day that the clouds cleared to reveal the sky again. First, I went through my inbox deleting all the author newsletters unread, same as every morning. And next, I faced the fact that out of the three things I had to do that day - tax return, page proofs and newsletter - the tax return felt like a party and the proofs felt like a day at a spa.

So I deleted my newsletter and skipped off into the sunlit uplands, trailing receipts and PDF pages, free as a bird.

I sort of regret it. Witness the fact that I still had the banner image in my "currently in use" folder on my desk-top this very day. Maybe if I could devise a different kind of newsletter that didn't necessitate me holding onto publication news for weeks on end . . .

But for now, since it's come back into my mind, here's a link to that short story. It's a Dandy Gilver Lexy Campbell standalone mash-up. In other words, only for real fans.

        Usually, climbing the steps to her houseboat made Lexy feel happy. Safe and happy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Up close and Cathy Ace

Business: Talk about newsletters. Do you or do not have one? If you do, how often do you send it out? On what venue? How did you get your newsletter list? If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good?

Yes, I do have a mailing list, and I’m incredibly grateful that those who’ve signed up for it have done so. I use the MailChimp platform, and have to say I found it pretty easy to use from the beginning. But I know what it’s like to face a groaning mailbox every morning, so I try to not overload recipients – I send a newsletter every few months, or when I have a special piece of news, or a special offer to share…which means (I hope) that folks don’t get too fed up with me!

This is the header I use for all my newsletters - it reflects the style of my website, and I hope it encourages folks to OPEN the newsletter, rather than just delete it! 

I use my Cathy Ace Facebook page, where I have Friends who follow me and interact with me on a daily basis, and I very much enjoy that; I reserve my Cathy Ace – Author Facebook page for news and insights that are related to my work, and pop up with the occasional bit of personal insight too, on occasion. That’s the page where folks LIKE my page and follow along, but there’s a good deal less interaction there. Twitter is something I use more sparingly, and I've just joined Instagram…so I'm learning how to use that in the best possible way. However, there are a good number of people who don’t use Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram at all, and I’m able to share my story with them via my newsletter. (If you'd like to connect with me on social media, please scroll down for links.)

That said, there are also hundreds of people who do follow me on social media who have also signed up for my newsletter. Why? Well, I think it's because the newsletter differs from my normal "interaction". Each newsletter will contain a few recurring “features”, and I try to make the entire experience more about photos than about words: I’ll have information about my latest release, of course, and any special offers about to happen/happening; there’ll always be a bit about my garden, where I’m able to show off how it’s looking; I used to have an item called “Paws for thought” which featured my furry family members, but we’ve been without a dog since Christmas, so I have dropped that, with a heavy heart (maybe I’ll feel able to revive it when I’ve stopped grieving, but I’ve a suspicion that might take a while); I’ll usually have a “throw back” photo feature, where I can reflect on a part of my previous life; I always feature a “postcard” that highlights somewhere in the world I have visited; there’ll always be something for book clubs, and I allow myself to introduce special features – for example, in my last newsletter there were photos of me celebrating my 60th birthday, and my husband and I shared a wedding photo to mark our anniversary.

Recipients of my newsletter know which of the stories in MURDER KEEPS NO CALENDAR was inspired by my first ever trip to Italy in 1979!

My mailing list has grown over time; following an initial spurt of sign-ups, the number of people who subscribe to it has slowed to a trickle each month…which is something I must address, and why I’m glad that this blog has given me a chance to try to entice you to sign up…LOL!

In my August newsletter I'll be talking about why the photograph above, and the one below, mean so much - especially now. 

I think the main reason it’s worth signing up for my newsletter – as opposed to necessarily anyone else’s – is that I share different things there in a different way than I do on social media platforms, because it’s “just us” in a newsletter. And, yes, I do make sure newsletter recipients know about things FIRST, even before I post to social media; recipients have taken the time and trouble to sign up, so they should receive special treatment…that’s what I believe, in any case. My newsletter recipients are my VIPs.

I’ve been on the receiving end of many authors’ newsletters over the years and what I’ve found I prefer is what I’ve tried to incorporate into my newsletter: relatively infrequent delivery – too many means I stop reading them; sharing insights into the writing and non-writing life of an author; sharing special news and deals early, and when appropriate; keeping it mainly visual, rather than wordy. 

If we don’t already connect on social media and you’d like to, here are all my links:

Facebook - the page where I invariably post several times a day, and where I share the posts of others too:

Facebook - my "proper" author page which you can "Like" then follow along with my less frequent, more "authorly" posts:

Twitter: @AceCathy 

Instagram: @cathyace1 

If you’d like to sign up for my newsletter (there’ll be one going out mid-August!) then please sign up here: CLICK HERE!

If you’d just like to find out more about me and my work, check out my website: CLICK HERE!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Hot Off the Press!

Business: Talk about newsletters.  Do you or do not have one? If you do, how often do you send it out? On what venue? How did you get your newsletter list? If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good?

From Frank

Let's break this one down, point by point...

Do you or do not have one? Yes, I do, for a little over a year now. I wish I'd started one back in 2006, when my first book came out. Not only would the list be bigger, but more importantly, I think it would be a super engaged list. And... I would have long ago figured out what works best.

If you do, how often do you send it out? I have an automated email progression that starts as soon as one signs up for the list. After a greeting email and a check back to make sure you got your free books, the emails that follow arrive every 30-45 days. These automated emails contain free stuff (snippets, stories, full books) and information about me, my book series, my co-authors, and so forth. I also do a run of Three Truths and a Lie with the subscriber.

The automated emails run for about a year and a half.

About three or four times a year, I also send out an update-style email. These usually coincide with a new release(s).

On what venue? I use MailChimp.

How did you get your newsletter list? Well, firstly because other authors encouraged me to do it (Deb Coonts was the one who made the case that put me over the edge). I've added to the list in a variety of methods:

  • I made my first book free. This book and a novella are both free when someone signs up for the newsletter. I put this deal on display on my website and in my books.
  • BookFunnel runs promotions designed to build newsletters. Usually this consists of being one of a number of free titles that require you to sign up for the newsletter to claim. All of the authors on the list share the promotion on their own lists. I've found this to be a source for quantity of subscribers but not necessarily always quality (meaning more engaged subscribers). Most of subsequent unsubscribes come from this group.
  • Facebook Ads worked really well for minimal investment. Again, the ad features the free book for signing up for the newsletter.

If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? I left this question in to highlight that what I'm trying to do with my newsletter is make it more of a conversation with readers (those who want that). To this end, I always make a point to answer any replies I get. When my Three Truths and a Lie email goes out, it contains an offer to play back and see if I can guess your lie (I usually do).

I also try to engage on social media, but it seems like I do more of that with other authors on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram... but that's a good thing, too.

Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good? The aforementioned Deb Coonts has a great one. Colin Conway, who was sitting next to me at the bar at LCC Vancouver when Deb educated us, also does a great job. Sam Wiebe gets props for his approach - for a long while it contained not only news about him, but an interview with another author (much like Dietrich does with his blog). And I don't know for sure if he writes it himself or not, but Lawrence Block's "presented as a conversation" format makes for a quick and easy read.

I could do a whole other post on newsletters - do they work, what works, what's great and what's frustrating - but I'll save that until it's my turn to form the questions for this blog again.  :-)

Meanwhile... how about some blatant self-promotion?

Tomorrow! My sixth River City novel, Place of Wrath of Tears, is out tomorrow. While still available for pre-order, it is priced at $2.99 but that will go up to $4.99 in about twenty-four hours. Really, a discount is just about the only meaningful reason to pre-order anything digital these days. But if you want to pay regular price, I'm cool with that, too.

I just want you to read it.

What's this one about? Well, it takes place in 2001 and...

It is the nightmare of every community – a school shooting.

When a disturbed teenager masterminds this terrible event, everyone in River City is plunged into the darkness that surrounds it. The students and teachers try to survive, and the men and women of RCPD try to save them. But when things go horribly wrong, everyone seems to be looking elsewhere for someone to blame.

Officer Katie MacLeod is among many who discover that the nightmare doesn’t end when the shooting stops.

Monday, August 10, 2020

To Newsletter or Not

 Q:Talk about newsletters.  Do you or do not have one? If you do, how often do you send it out? On what venue? How did you get your newsletter list? If not, why not and how do you contact your readers instead? Are there any authors whose newsletters you think are particularly good? 

- from Susan

I think I started mulling over the newsletter idea after the publication of my second Dani O’Rourke mystery. I was getting good reviews, my publisher had done a Book Bub deal that resulted in 5,000 copies of the e-book being purchased in two days (for the princely sum of 99 cents) and I had briefly moved up to about 14 in Amazon’s mystery ranks. I was on the way! Surely, I had readers who were longing to hear from me.

A few authors I knew were investing in the tools to do their own newsletters. The most popular do-it-yourself software at the time was (and may still be) Mail Chimp, which promised to move all of your fan contacts into a mailing list just like that. And the design elements of a newsletter were a snap. The caveats I heard were pretty basic: you must allow people to opt out after the initial newsletter you send them; and you had to write often enough to become a habit with readers but not so often or so blatantly promotional that you annoyed them.

My first problem when I tried Mail Chimp was that I didn’t have my contact content in the right order for that magical conversion. The second was I didn’t have a big list of contacts who were readers and wasn’t sure the bulk of my contact lists were remotely interested in this aspect of my career. I talked to a tech guy who could do the work for me, he thought, but for big bucks. But when I sent him a sample of the raw data, he threw up his hands. Every name would need to be manually reentered in Mail Chimp’s software. I gave up.

Over the years since then, I have received many scores of unasked for newsletters, have opted out of almost all of them because they weren’t interesting or were highly promotional and/or self-admiring. And, today, who has time to read newsletters? We’re bombarded with information, ads, promotional material, catchy blogs, and good content 24/7 on every conceivable platform. Interactive blogs like my favorite, Jungle Red Writers, capture and support reader participation, which is more fun than the passive act of reading a newsletter.

I read and look forward to two newsletters: Louise Penny’s, which always seem to be written from the heart, and which offer readers an flattering invitation to get to know an intelligent, emotionally open writer. Louise has millions of readers and fans, and the warmth she offers comes back at her in waves. The other is by another enormously popular author, Rhys Bowen, who also happens to be a close friend. She, too, speaks authentically about her books, her research, her travels, and her interactions with readers, and, like Louise, has interesting content to share. 

Have I lost the opportunity to build a stronger base of readers and fans by not doing a newsletter? Possibly, and I’m sorry about that. But my own feeling is that for most of us authors the newsletter age has come and gone. Instagram is the new newsletter. Facebook is the easiest way to gather and share book information and ideas with readers. 

My blog mates may disagree vehemently with me, and I look forward to reading their experiences. Maybe if my foray into Mail Chimp had not been such an epic fail, I would look at this differently. 

A little shameless promotion: 
This from an Amazon review of DRESSED FOR DEATH IN BURGUNDY

It was such a delight to dive back into this world that the author has created with characters that I've grown to actually care about. I love the little details that the author adds to each book that makes you feel like you are actually there while reading. I just found myself so completely immersed in this book that I was almost sad to see it end.”

Friday, August 7, 2020

Learning from the Crapometer - How I Made My Work Better

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

Abir Mukherjee


Interesting question this week, and I think one that gets to the heart of the type of author you are. I have friends who are meticulous in their planning and their general approach to writing (and life, probably). They have shelves packed with books on the craft of writing – on everything from plot, to character to dialogue. It works for them, and I must admit I’m envious, because I can never seem to make use of such books. I’ve tried. I once bought a book on developing fantastic characters and I read the first few chapters, despite the lack of pictures, but then it started setting exercises for me to do and I lost interest.


I’ve never been good at learning from books, at least not from prescriptive ones. It works for some people, but not, it seems, for me. I pretend that his is because I’m a free spirit that can’t be tamed, but in reality it’s probably down my all-pervasive laziness. There are exceptions of course. The one book on writing that I devoured was, err, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. Maybe it appealed to me because it wasn’t at all prescriptive, just words of wisdom from the great man, told in a conversational style about what worked for him. I’d recommend it to all writers who are starting out, especially if you’re lazy like me.


When I began writing, one thing I really lacked was self-confidence. I never believed anything I wrote would be interesting to anyone or good enough to be published. Then I discovered the I Should Be Writing podcast, hosted by sci-fi writer and Hugo Award winner, Mur Lafferty. It was a revelation. It showed me that my fears were far from unique and helped give me the confidence to write.

But writing is only part of the battle. To be published, you need to do the professional stuff too, such as researching agents, preparing cover letters and writing a damn good synopsis of your work. For a new author, it can be pretty daunting. Fortunately there’s a blog (now discontinued, but still up on the net) called Miss Snark the Literary Agent where the eponymous Miss Snark provides details of synopses, quer letters and pretty much everything else you need when querying editors, together with copious real life examples of submissions made to her and ranked on her infamous ‘Crapometer’. Mis Snark doesn't have time to sugar coat things. Her time is precious and her Crapometer is the definition of 'tough love', where she provides unvarnished truth, and I found it invaluable. If you plan on sending your work to agents, I would highly recommend you read the material on this blog to help you prepare your submission.


These days, when it comes to improving my craft, I’m with Dietrich in that the basic go-to for me is the work of writers I admire. Indeed, these days I tend to judge a book more on its craft and artistic merit than I do on plot. A beautiful turn of phrase, a thought-provoking description, or a dry one-liner will keep me reading more than a plot twist or a dozen explosions. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of the work of Denise Mina. I think there are very few authors, in crime fiction or literary fiction, who have her ear for dialogue or her sensibility for human interactions. I read her books and think I have no business even picking up a pen.


Another author from whom I’ve learned a trick or two is Martin Amis. His novel, London Fields, is ostensibly a crime novel and also an insight into a certain turn of the millennium English working-class mindset. It’s also rather funny. But what I admire most about it is the arresting prose, the juxtaposition of apparently contradictory words to make an original or thought-provoking simile, and just the imaginative use of language. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write as beautifully as Mina or Amis, but they’ve opened my eyes to possibilities, shown me what can be done with language, and I think it’s only by setting our sights high that we improve.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Little Help Here? from James W. Ziskin

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

This week’s question is a difficult one. Why? Because the vast majority of questions I have are research related, not craft related.

I am very much a solitary writer. I don’t show my work to anyone until I’ve done at least three complete revisions. So any questions I might have about craft go to my beta readers. Usually It’s something along the lines of “Is this compelling? Does this work? Will this offend people? Does it make sense? These beta readers—hopefully—give me honest feedback on my stories, my plotting, clarity, and character likability. Once a book or story has gone though my first six or seven revisions, which incorporate changes based on my beta readers’ feedback, my editors will also provide opinions on the same questions as above.

Each book or story I write has a somewhat different group of beta readers. For TURN TO STONE, for example, I relied on—among others—several Italian readers and people familiar with Italy. For A STONE’S THROW, I asked some horse racing handicappers and fans to provide feedback. And for my work in progress, A MONSOON SEASON (tentative title), which is set in India in 1975, I am asking Indians, young and old, to let me know their thoughts on the tone and the believability of the setting and the people.

But that’s not exactly “craft.” Maybe if we stretch the definition. It feels more like research and sensitivity feedback that I’m seeking.

As mentioned above, my work in progress, which is currently on its fourth revision, is set in 1975 India. It’s the story of a young American journalist working for a wire news service who has recently arrived in Bombay for a long-term assignment. Before he can settle into his new life, a domestic “emergency” is declared by the government, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi seizes broad powers. She suspends many civil liberties and limits freedom of the press. She also jails her political opponents and, for all intents and purposes, becomes a dictator for about eighteen months. The Emergency is the backdrop for the novel, but the story is not political. It’s a stranger-in-a-strange-land throwback thriller, what I describe as Gatsby meets Graham Greene on the Subcontinent. An ambitious story like this requires a lot of research and familiarity with India.

Me on a kettuvallam in Kerala
Me on a kettuvallam in Kerala
Now, little-known fact: over the past twenty-five years, I’ve made fifty-six trips to India and spent more than four years there, living, working, and touring the country. I know Mumbai and Pune well. Bangalore, too. And I’ve visited Delhi, Chennai, the foothills of the Himalayas, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Goa. I’ve slept in a treehouse near Lonavala, on a kettuvallam (houseboat) in the backwaters of Kerala, and in a five-star luxury tent in Jaipur. So I have a rich store of experiences that I can call upon to flesh out my main character’s expatriate life in India. But...

I’m not Indian and I wasn’t there in 1975. Those realities present some formidable research challenges. Here are some of them.

How do I handle (realistically and sensitively) the issue of skin color (darkness and fairness) in a book about India? This is like walking a tightrope. One main character in my book has darker skin than the Bollywood “ideal.” She is emotionally scarred by memories of taunting from her youth. Added to the difficulty of discussing skin color is the fact that the narrator of the story is a white man from America. And, yes, he’s in love with her.

Other, less-tricky problems to resolve include:
The cost of hotels, liquor, and food in 1975 Bombay. (Mumbai today, but in 1975 it was Bombay.)

The big films of the day. (This one was easier than the rest to research.)

Daily life under the Emergency of 1975-77.

The name of the Osho Ashram in Poona in 1975? Hint, it wasn’t Osho.

The problem is that the Internet can only go so far in helping with this research. It’s hard to find The little details of history and everyday Indian life from that time online. The same was true, by the way, in my research of 1963 Italy For TURN TO STONE. Here in America, we seem to love looking back in time. Online, you can find almost anything you want to know about products, prices, fads, music, films, and more from the past. But the records are sparse online for similar examples of Indian nostalgia. That’s why I have leaned on some wonderful people who were there at the time and remember. Several of them have agreed to vet the accuracy and believability of my 1975 India. I think I’m in good shape to look after the American in India part myself. Indian and other readers will advise me on the skin color issue, which is an important and emotional theme in the book.

My M.O., then, is really threefold when it comes to consulting people and resources. One, I consult beta readers (writers, fiends, family, and experts) to help with research and tone. Two, I use the Internet all the time—personal blogs, Wikipedia, Google Maps, newspapers, Google’s Ngram Viewer (to verify words used at that time), and many more. Three, I consult the Chicago Manual of Style for grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and other stylistic concerns. You can take it to the bank that I use the Oxford comma. You should, too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The right track

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

by Dietrich

I learned a good deal about craft from reading, reading and more reading. I read what I think is good, the kind of books that inspire my own writing. And maybe some of that resonates and becomes part of what works for me. 

When I got started, I found out about showing and not telling; having hidden meaning under a character’s dialogue; using description sparingly to drive a story’s pace, learning when to slow it down and when to pick it up again. I learned to drop in plot twists a reader wouldn’t see coming from twenty pages away. And above all, I learned what to leave out on that important next draft. As I gained confidence, I felt I was starting to understand what I was doing. I took what I learned, sifted and whittled what worked and I just kept on writing. I guess I found a voice and a niche that worked for me, and I was having a blast writing the kind of books that I liked to read myself.

There are a couple of brilliant books I’ve mentioned before on the subject of craft: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Both are highly recommended.

There are courses on the subject too, and there are plenty of helpful authors, publishers, editors and agents who one might ask. Sometimes asking for criticism can be a bit of a crap shoot, depending on who one asks, and depending on the way their own tastes run. But, if a new writer finds it hard to be objective about their own writing, it could be a good way to go. 

I try not to overthink things and I’ve come to trust my instincts. I don’t want chains and straps thrown over my imagination. It’s a creative process that requires good instincts, and when I feel it’s working then I go with that. And I’ve learned not to over edit and second guess my own work. When it’s done, then it’s time to pass it on. There’s always that safety net of publishers and a team of editors who will be giving it a hard look and likely catch anything I goofed up.

For me, there’s no substitute for just rolling up my sleeves and writing until something clicks. And when I can pick up what I wrote the day before and honestly say, “Hey, this isn’t total crap.” Then I know I’m on the right track and getting somewhere. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Who You Gonna Ask?

Terry Shames here. Our question this week is about Craft:  When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?


Craft is a particularly personal subject for writers. Ask a writer how he or she writes, and you’ll get answers all over the place. One writes straight through without much thought to sentence and paragraph structures, whether scenes work or not, whether they’ve chosen the proper words, whether they’ve gotten descriptions right. They write to “discover” their story. Others edit as they go along, reviewing work every day to make sure they have said exactly what they meant to say in the way they want to convey it. Some writers outline roughly; some outline in detail. Others wouldn’t think of outlining. There are whole books written about each process. But it’s certain that some point every writer thinks about craft.


I recently gave an on-line presentation to a Sisters in Crime chapter. It was a double subject—one I felt confident that I had valuable insights about; the other I wasn’t so confident about. For both subjects, though, I needed help to make the presentation stronger. I never rely totally on my own experience when I do presentations about craft. That’s because I fall into ruts when I write and take shortcuts that work for me but may not work for every writer. I need to be reminded that there are other ways of doing things. I also always feel like I can use a refresher for my own work, and that gives me a chance to dip back into valuable resources..


The subject I felt confident about was Inspiration for Characters and Plot. I thought I had a good slant on it—but I still wanted some tips from other writers to fill out my talk.


So I went to my two trusty folder—one in my Word files, and one “paper.” I call the folders “Writing Tips.” In them I stash things I’ve seen on-line or heard in person that seem particularly insightful. For example, I have notes on talks by David Corbett, Kelli Stanley, Jess Lourey, and Jeffry Deaver, among others. In presentations I put out my own twist on the ideas, but their talks inspired me.


The other subject, short stories, I don’t think I know much about. I’ve written short stories, but each time it feels like I’m reinventing the wheel. So I went first to Margaret Lucke’s handbook on the subject, published several years ago that is still very much in demand, Schaum’s Quick Guide to Writing Great Short Stories. I contacted her to ask if it was okay for me to draw from her book, and she said yes. (Of course I put in a plug for it in the talk.) And then I emailed two short story writers I admire, Gigi Pandian and Art Taylor, and asked for “quick tips” I could give my audience. They gave me two tips I could use not only for my talk, but for my own writing.


I also have a library of books on writing that I dip into if I’m feeling at sea about something I’m working on and need a craft reminder—or If I just need a little inspiration. Books like Save the Cat Writes a Novel, by Jessica Brody or Take Off Your Pants, by Libbie Hawker are terrific reminders when my writing shortcuts start to put me into ruts that aren’t useful.


So in a way, I could say I go to writer friends for help, either from presentations they’ve given, or books or articles they’ve written.




Sunday, August 2, 2020

Getting Crafty by Brenda Chapman

When you have craft questions, where do you go for answers? A particular website? A book? Podcasts? Writer friends?

 Like all writers, I’m constantly on the look out for any new information that will advance my craft, be it improvements on writing style, story arcs, character development, building suspense, or pretty much anything. I can’t say that I have one website or one writer friend to turn to when I have questions. My method for acquiring knowledge is more of a shotgun approach — I’m constantly absorbing information from wherever or whomever I can get it.

One of my primary resources is the wealth of books written by my fellow authors. Not only do I read for enjoyment but I also read to analyse why a story works and even why it doesn't (in my subjective opinion). I look at word choice, sentence structure, plot, character development ... you name it. This isn't to copy their style or to steal from their stories but rather to improve on my own writing. (A lot of this goes on subconsciously at a mystical level that authors sense but can't explain.)

I've also read a lot of writing wisdom online as well as watched writing workshop videos. There's an amazing amount of solid writing advice at our electronic fingertips. Stephen King's famous rules of writing are a good place to start. Last year I gave a writing workshop on point of view and found an amazing amount of information online. I also turned to a book that I bought at a book conference a few years back Write Away by Elizabeth George.

A little anecdote about the book. I bought a hard copy and stood in line to have Elizabeth George sign it. I've long been a fan of her Inspector Lynley series and was excited to meet her The lineup was long as you can imagine and the wait time was more than I had to spare so I bowed out after about twenty minutes. Anyhow, when I finally opened the book back in my hotel room, lo and behold, I'd unknowingly bought a signed copy! This reminds me that book conferences and attending panels have also been great ways to glean tidbits to improve the writing craft. I can't tell you how many times a bit of advice from an author on one of the panels comes back to me as I write or market my work.

Back to this week's question. I've been fortunate to belong to two crime-writing organizations that are into writing development and information-gathering in the crime field. Any writers getting started in the business can't go wrong joining an organization or two for support, friendship and information.

Capital Crime Writers is Ottawa-based. Over the years, they've had numerous experts in to speak about everything from art theft to gambling in sport to gang activity. Psychologists have spoken about narcissism and detectives have given workshops on murder scenes. In addition, authors have spoken about various aspects of the craft and generously given tips and advice. Every speaker has donated their time, making this an invaluable resource that I've never taken for granted.

Crime Writers of Canada is our national organization for crime writers and they offer online workshops on the writing business and the craft of writing. I recently watched a presentation on poisonous plants, for example. Canadian crime writers - I urge you to join if you haven't already!

I also belong to The Writers' Union of Canada and note that they have a number of online presentations not tailored to crime writing specifically but still very informative about all aspects of the writing business. I've yet to watch any although several are of interest. I read their newsletter, which is also a good resource. 

As for specific craft questions, I've worked with various editors assigned by my publishers and have learned a great deal from each one. The key is to be open to their knowledge and to absorb whatever makes sense for my writing going forward. I've also learned a lot speaking with other authors and reading their blogs and like nothing better than getting together with another author to 'talk shop'.

Ultimately, what to use from all the advice on craft that one takes in is up to each individual writer, but we're lucky to be in the community of people who like to share and mentor. I can't imagine the day will ever come that there won't be something new to learn or to tweak.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

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Friday, July 31, 2020

Writers to Read

Please recommend an author who may not be widely known to readers and tell us about them and their book(s). In addition, what books are on your bedside table for July and why did you select them for summer reading?

by Paul D. Marks

I’m not sure these authors are “widely unknown” to readers, but I also don’t think they’re widely known, at least in the larger realm. And I’ll stick with crime writers here, with one exception at the end.

Carol O’Connell:

On the Penguin Random House page it calls Carol O’Connell a NY Times best-selling author, but whenever I mention her to anyone almost to a person they haven’t heard of her. She does stand-alones but is best-known for her tough-as- nails NYPD detective Kathy Mallory. In the first Mallory book, Mallory’s Oracle (1994), NYPD detective Kathy Mallory is a hard-as-nails cop and not just because of her bright red nail polish. As the first in the series, Mallory’s Oracle is probably the best place to start. Even Mallory’s creator, O’Connell, describes Mallory as a “sociopath”. I’ve talked with people about Mallory and recommended the Mallory books to several people over the years. And it seems people either love or hate her. I’m in the former category. I love her no-nonsense, doesn’t suffer BS approach to her job. Nothing, including the law, will stand in her way, at least in this fictional world. Not that I’d necessarily like to be friends with her if she suddenly came alive and jumped off the page. I think the Mallory books would be good for someone who likes solid crime stories, strong female characters and doesn’t mind one who’s a sociopath…

According to Wikipedia, O’Connell started as an artist, but when she couldn’t make it there she started writing mysteries. The art world’s loss is our gain.

Kem Nunn:

Photo by Etonnants Voyageurs - Philippe HUET, Kem NUNN, Leonardo PADURA, Justo VASCO : Regards noirs at 06:20, cropped, brightened, CC BY-SA 3.0Link

Nunn is another successful writer that a lot of people haven’t heard of, though when I mention him to others there is more recognition than with O’Connell. These days he’s arguably better known as the co-creator of the TV series John from Cincinnati, as well as a writer on Sons of Anarchy and Deadwood. But he’s also the author of, I believe, six novels. Tapping the Source (1984) is his first and is something special. If it’s not the novel that invented the “surf noir” genre it’s certainly an early and foundational entry. This is not the Beach Boys’ version of sun, sand, surf and surfer girls, but a much darker vision of life on SoCal’s storied beaches. Ike Tucker, a naive and innocent young man from Bakersfield, treks to Huntington Beach (a.k.a. ‘Surf City’) to find his missing and possibly dead sister. There he gets hooked up with bikers, sex and drugs. No Gidgets or Moondoggie’s here. And Ike will be lucky if he gets out alive. Tapping is good for anyone who loves surf, sun and murder. I liked this book so much that I wanted to option the film rights for it. I had them checked out, but they had already been optioned/bought. That had to be at least 25 years ago, probably more, a lot more. But to this day there is still no movie version of this story. It is, however, said that Point Break, with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves was, uh, inspired by Tapping the Source. The story is different and imho not nearly as good.

Several decades ago a friend of mine in the WGAw turned me onto Nunn and some other authors, telling me how terrific they were. Thank you, Elliot. Tapping the Source is Nunn’s first novel and with it he pretty much invented his own genre: surf noir. I guess I’m not the only one who likes it since it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

David Goodis:

Goodis, who I’ve probably mentioned before, has been called the “poet of the losers” by Geoffrey O’Brien and his stories of people on the skids certainly bear that out. I came to Goodis through the movies, which is how I’ve come to several writers and/or novels. I’m a fan of the Bogie-Bacall movie Dark Passage, so after having seen it a couple of times I decided to check out the David Goodis novel it was based on. I liked it enough that I began to read pretty much anything of Goodis I could get my hands on, but this was before he came into vogue again so mostly I had to pick up very scarred paperbacks (many, though not all of his books were only published in paperback), and I devoured his whole oeuvre. And, though I liked pretty much everything to one degree or another, Down There (1956) (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player, after the Truffaut movie based on it) really stood out for me. It’s the story of a World War II vet, a former member the elite Merrill’s Marauders who, for a variety of reasons, is down on his luck—way down. Francois Truffaut made the book into a movie called Shoot the Piano Player which, to be honest, I don’t like very much, but that’s why the title of the book was changed from Down There and is probably better known today as Shoot the Piano Player. I think it would be good for fans of classic noir, old movie buffs, and others.

When it comes to noir, David Goodis is the man. His stories deal with failed lives and people who are definitely on the skids. They’re often people who weren’t always in this position though and the interesting part is seeing how they deal with their downfall—not always so well. Goodis inspires me so much that I wrote a story that might be considered an homage to him. Born Under a Bad Sign was originally published in Dave Zeltserman’s Hard Luck Stories magazine, but is now available in LA Late @ Night, a collection of some of my previously published stories.

Dan Fante:
Dan Fante photo by Camila Emar
As a bonus, I’ll add Dan Fante, yes Dan, not John. Dan is John ‘Ask the Dust’ Fante’s son (And Ask the Dust is one of my favorite novels in any genre.) Dan’s books are what I would call an acquired taste. They can be rough and gross in a lot of ways. But I turned my mom onto him, thinking she probably wouldn’t like his work. So imagine my surprise when she did. You might want to start with Mooch (2001) and Chump Change (1998).

Oh, and another lesser-known writer you might want to check out is some dude called Paul D. Marks, who just had a new book come out in June that’s getting pretty good reviews:

"I hate saying a book transcends the genre and I honestly usually don't like books that do. This one however does and might win some awards because of it."
                                                                          —Jochem Vandersteen, Sons of Spade


And now for the usual BSP:

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Six of the best, by Catriona

Reading: Please recommend an author who may not be widely known to readers and tell us about them and their book(s). In addition, what books are on your bedside table for July and why did you select them for summer reading?

I miss bookshops this year. So I'm trying to make this blog post into a random browse for you, with the jackets, some blurbs, the first line or so. And me walking on as the bookseller pressing things into your hands and guaranteeing you'll love them.

PINE, by Francine Toon, is obscure of you're in the US (Book Depository!) but hardly if you're in the UK, where it's longlisted for the MacIlvanney award at Bloody Scotland.

It's the debut novel by my Dandy Gilver editor but even if it wasn't I would be all in. A small village surrounded by forests? Locked doors and stone circles? A missing child? I could not be more all in

Mick Herron said "a moving study of memory and loss ... both spooky and tender, drenched in a sense of place".

I read the first line "They are driving out for guising when they see her" but I'm going to try to save it for the Christmas holidays and read it curled up on a couch while the rain drums on my roof.

No way could I have saved IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado. I devoured it. 

It's not crime fiction, but it's about crime. This memoir traces the course of a relationship from the giddy days of new love, down through obsession, manipulation, gaslighting, and into full-on abuse. It's painfully honest and beautifully written. And it's got a plot twist! 

I'm not going to lie to you; there's a Derrida quote on the first page of the prologue, but keep going, fellow Philistines. It's worth it. "I daresay you have heard of the Dream House" is how chapter one begins, setting the real house where Machado's abuse took place in a fairytale setting of forest and clearing. (Another book I finished recently - Silvia Moreno Garcia's MEXICAN GOTHIC - had a socialite leaving the city for a country house stay and realising that she had never considered "the forest" as a real place before. How lovely is that?)

On to fiction but with maximum realism. John Copenhaver's DODGING AND BURNING comes trailing starred reviews from LJ - "a powerful debut" and PW - "the consequences of war - and prejudice - in small town America", and offers letters, photographs and chapters from classic pulp, as well as irresistible voice characters, to build a puzzle box of a plot.

And even though that title would be wasted on me, because I don't know enough about photography to deserve it, that doesn't dent my envy one little bit.

Next up is what I'm reading right now. When I was ordering some titles from Once a Upon a Crime in Minneapolis a couple of weeks back, I asked Devin to add naother title and surprise me. (I thought booksellers were probably missing hand-selling as much as customers were missing browsing. Also, the last time I asked Devin to surprise me, she put Kristen Lepionka's debut in my hands.) This time, the wildcard book was THE LAST by Hanna Jameson

Billed as "Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None collides with Stephen King's The Shining" - by NPR, no less (who also mention Nevil Shute and who ever mentions Nevil Shute???) this is a postapocalytpic thriller to make the real word seem not so bad, in spite of everything. It opens with Jon Keller finding out that the world is ending via text alert. And his first feeling is embarrassment about the banality. 43 pages in as of this morning and Jon's hero credentials are no less complicated. But the plot is off and running like a snowball on a steep roof. 

The opening line of Claire Askew's ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS speaks to anyone from Edinburgh. "Moira Summers was on the top deck of the number 23 bus". The 23 is Edinburgh's poshest bus. (Yes, there's a social stratification of buses; I've never lived on the route of the 23. And for a while I lived on the route of the 44. My dear!) The skewering of Edinburgh snobberies, the shade thrown on systemic sexism in the police force, and the heartbreak of mothers trying to keep their children safe while they're forced to let them go . . . all of this is added to a tight and propulsive thriller plot. God, it's good. Again, huge in the UK maybe less so here. So . . . Book Depository again.

Finally - and my last attempt to replicate a visit to a bookshop - here's Bernadine Evaristo's GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER. Yes, I know it won the Booker prize and this blog is supposed to be a head's up about stuff you might have missed, but that's the point. Sometimes, if you're anything like me, you keep on hearing about a book, until you think it must be over-hyped, so you pass it by. Then one day you pick it up and it's not over-hyped! It's utterly fantastic!

This is one of those books. Structured in four sections, with three narrators per section, it's a solid, perfect, natty whole. All the voices start to make chords; all the stories weave together. I lost count of the number of times I said "Oh, riiiight!" out loud as I feasted on this wonderful novel It's not crime fiction, but it's got a lot to teach crime-fiction writers about knitting a plot and springing surprises.

Happy reading whether you pick up one of these or go for something completely different.

Stay safe,