Monday, June 27, 2016

Help and Fellowship: The Pros and Cons of Writing Groups

 Are you in a critique group? Pros? Cons? If not, how do you get feedback on your writing?

by Meredith Cole

Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.

When I teach writing classes, I use a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.

How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. If you ever find yourself in a critique group like that, you should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.

How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.

If I hadn't connected with a group of mystery writers in Brooklyn way back in 2005 (with Triss Stein, Jane Olson, Marilyn Wallace and Mary Darby), I don't think I would have ended up published by St. Martin's. Their feedback was invaluable, and they were incredibly helpful at getting me to see how I could make my book and my writing better. These days I meet 5 months out of the year (January to May) with the Moseley Writers Group in Charlottesville. It's a small eclectic group of writers who bring everything from personal essays to YA to mysteries in for critique. With their help, I have continued to grow as a writer and improve. And I leave each session energized and excited to return to the page, so it's definitely working for me.

Friday, June 24, 2016

So Many Books, So Little Time

Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?

by Paul D. Marks


And ditto for movies.

I used to feel not only compelled but obligated to finish any book I started. (Okay, a little compulsive I know.) But as I’ve gotten older that just doesn’t work anymore. Life is too short. There’s too many books and too little time, as has been noted here all week. I won’t even say there’re too many good books, because I won’t claim that every book I finish—and even like—is a “good” book. It might just be something I enjoy. A guilty pleasure.

I read a variety of things, non-fiction and fiction and various genres within that. These days I don’t often read a non-fiction book cover to cover like I used to. I bounce around, sometimes looking at the table of contents or the index for subjects I might find particularly interesting. And sometimes I just open to a page and start reading.

Fiction is, of course, different. You really have to read it from head to tail if you want to get the full flavor and depth of it. I’ll usually give a book about 80-100 pages. But I have to admit that I might read beyond that even if I’m not enjoying the book because hope springs eternal. And I guess I still have that expectation that it will get better. Unfortunately on some books I’ll read all 400 pages until hope turns to despair.

For movies, I’ll give them about a half hour. That should take me to the end of Act I, give or take. If it doesn’t grab me by then: bye-bye.

However, when I’ve been a judge for various competitions I have felt obligated to read every story from stem to stern. And I’ve pretty much succeeded at that, though it can be extremely time-consuming. But I have to admit there was one story that I just couldn’t finish. Because it wasn’t a “story” but more of a political diatribe disguised as a story and the characters were just mouthpieces for the author. But one clunker out of the tons I’ve read for various contests isn’t a bad batting average I’d say.

There is one very well-known book that I have been unable to finish. Three times. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I really want to read this book and I really want to like it. But I can’t seem to get past page 100. But maybe the fourth time (if there is one) will be the charm. Or maybe I should just read Gravity’s Rambo instead (and no, I didn’t make that cover).

And like Catriona mentioned yesterday, sometimes I’ve started a book and for one reason or another just couldn’t get into it. Picked it up later and wow, what have I been missing.

A book doesn’t have to be a fast-paced, rip-roaring page turner either. One of my favorite books is The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, about a soldier who is stationed at a remote outpost and spends his life hoping and waiting for the glory of battle. Though that’s really just what it’s about on the surface. Now, I admit this book is a slow read, so you’d think I would have stopped at some point. But I just loved it and it’s well worth the slowness in my opinion.

On another note, I don’t always finish novels or stories I start to write, but I guess that’s for another time.

Here are some pictures from my book signing last week with Pam Ripling at The Open Book in Valencia:

And my radio interview at KHTS AM 1220. Click here for the podcast.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Buried in Books (and it's a lovely way to go).

By Catriona

Do I always finish a book I've started? And if not, what makes me lay it down?

No. Ever since I first got my three orange library tickets, I've now and then failed to finish reading the books I've chosen. (Below is the picture the internet gave me when I Googled "orange library card UK".)

It's a card, with an orange thing, held in a library collection.
Where were we? What's changed is whether I feel particularly guilty. See that last paragraph? See that word "failed"? That's as neutral as I can get it; "flaked out" and "fell short" went through my head too. Oh, I used to beat myself up something chronic about not finishing books. The BR pile (being read) was as tall as the TBR pile. And the BR pile was big lie. All it did was use up bookmarks, as I kept my place year after year in books that I was never going to go back to. These days I admit it and reshelve the books. (Why not donate them? Keep reading and see.)

As to what makes me give up? Well, I think joyful reading is a three-legged stool: there's the book, the reader and the moment.

I'm sure there are bad books. Somewhere sometime a book must have been published that no one liked enough to finish. I don't think I've ever stopped reading because I was turning the pages of a bad book, though. I turned thirteen pages of 50 SHADES OF GREY and gave up on page fourteen. But 46,472 and counting people liked it enough to tell Amazon.

And I'm not a perfect reader. I'm uninterested in some things (Middle Earth, for instance). My heart sinks when faced with some things (long poems, for instance. Anything much longer than a sonnet pretty much makes me glaze over. Poems that go over the page to the next page leave me behind.)
But I'm not self-regarding enough to think The Lord of The Rings and Paradise Lost are no good because they're no good for me. So I wasn't that surprised when I used Simon Armitage's Sir Gawain and The Green Knight as a bookmark park for a year and a half.

But then there's that third thing - the moment. The season, the day of the week, the time of the day, what you read last, what you're writing, whether the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart all around you and no one has noticed . . . there are so many ways a reading experience can be derailed.
And the proof of it is when a book I tried and failed with (Failed I tell you! Failed like a big honking FAILURE) comes back in another guise and shows itself to be delightful.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been handed a moderating gig , or even an interviewing gig, and on my bookshelf is something by one of the panelists (or the sole interviewee) that I started and laid down unfinished. I pick it up again and adore it! Devour it! Buy the backlist and bore everyone on Facebook with how fantabulous this author is.

Nothing ever makes me feel like a bigger idiot than realizing that I had treasure on my bookshelf and didn't know.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Of final chapters and zombies by Cathy Ace

 "Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"

Once upon a time, the answer to this would have been – “I always finish what I’ve started” but, recently, I find I’m having to allow myself to not finish a book I’ve begun. It’s a pretty alien concept to me – like not clearing my plate. Ingrained absolutes are tough to shake.

Books were so precious to me for most of my life (and still are, don’t get me wrong!) that it would be anathema to me to not work through to the end of a volume to complete the journey the author planned for me to take. Now? Not so much. Now I find my reading time is so much shorter than it used to be, and I have to read so much because of “authorly” commitments, that reading for pure pleasure has become something where I need to be grabbed by the book as soon as possible and not let go until the last page or – yes – I’ll wander off and find someone else who can give me that fix before I reach the final chapters
Waiting for a long vacation
 By week two of a two-week vacation I might be able to face a book with le Carre’s stately pace, but in week one I’m smashing through the Pattersons and Childs like a crazy person with smart characters, quite-but-strong types and high body counts littering my waking hours in a blaze of joyous entertainment-crime. Then I can stop, and allow the pace to slow into a panoply of nuanced ne’er-do-wells, all of whom shouldn’t be trusted further than I can dribble. Lovely!

Now all I need is a month off, and I’ll be enjoying Jane Austen all over again. (I recently watched the movie “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and LOVED it! Yep, there were plot-holes, and the lines from Austen’s pen dripped slowly from the mouths of zombie-killing characters, but, overall, it was great fun. I couldn’t manage the book when it came out though. Yes, the zombie-version of Pride & Prejudice was too slow for me!)

Quick fix, in-flight fun!
And that’s about where I am with reading at the moment: if it ain’t grabbing me right away, I won’t finish it. But, oh, to have the time to luxuriate in the manners of the Bennet sisters without worrying that they gained their zombie-fighting skills in China not Japan? That will mean I’m having a real break! And finishing every book I pick up. But maybe not too many of them will be about zombies. 

Are zombies or spies your kind of thing? If neither - what keeps you turning the pages until you're at the back cover?

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER was published in hardback in February, and book #1 THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER was published in trade paperback on March 1st) and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at    

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When is a Book not a Book?

When it's a cup of tea. Or not.
The question is, "What causes you to put down a book?"
It's an answer that changes over time. Right? When little I loved picture books. Then I loved adventure stories, then got serious and read a range of novels. Then got busy and life became serious enough thank you, so I looked for light entertainment. Then got even busier and read very little. These days I can rarely finish any book, no matter how excellent.

But it's not a question of taste so much at this particularly mad phase of my life. It's a question of schedule. I am too busy, my brain is fried by the p.m., and my attention span seems kind of ... wonky.

Probably what it comes down to is I need a vacation.
My day-job has me at my computer all day, and working with words. And whenever I can, I write. Words, words, and more words fill my day. And writing is no longer an option, but a duty. With publisher pressures and deadlines -- a corner I've painted myself into (which is so great!!) -- I'm more serious than ever about my writing, and have to put quality time into getting those novels as good as I can get them.

Sadly, this overload means that for now the books I want to read are going unread. By the end of the day the only kind of reading I can manage is plug into an audio book, an old classic that I don't need to listen to because I know it off by heart, and go to sleep. It's a lullaby more than a literary exploration.
But I know things will improve (maybe next month?) and I'll have time to relax. And read. I really, really want to relax and read. Disneyland or Everest, no thanks. Just a book and a day off. And then I'll be facing the question at the top of this post....

What causes me to put a book down? Or conversely, to keep going? It's so straightforward really, and it goes way back to the picture books (Madeleine! Curious George! Old Winkle and the Seagulls!): So long as a book has characters I care for, and things happen, I'll read it to the end, with pleasure.
And the opposite is true. Don't like the characters, nothing happens, book flies at the wall.
Of course the character I care for may not be the character you care for, and what I consider an engaging plot you may consider dross.  
It's a good thing that what people are looking for in the books they read is so amazingly diverse. It creates a need. It means my crime novel will not be one person's cup of tea -- what a nice phrase that is -- but somebody else will think it's splendidly blended!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Why Would I Ever Put Down a Book?

"Once you start a book, do you feel compelled to finish it? If not, what causes you to put it down?"

 - from Susan

If you had asked me this question three or four years ago, I would have said, “Almost nothing.” I felt I owed it to the writer, to my wallet from which the funds came to buy it rather than some other book, to the principle of “waste not, want not” to finish what I started, to eat everything on my plate.

But having written four books and being in the thick of the fifth, I’ve lost a bit of the sense of loyalty – duty? – and have learned more about what goes into a good story, and how to spot something that’s just not taking off. I’m also a few years older and have enough unread books to last me more than my allotted years. So, if I get annoyed, confused, bored in the first 70-80 pages, I’m out.

I can hear you: 80 pages? Way too long. Yes, but maybe the writer starts slowly and is about to crack the story open on the next page. Maybe he redeems himself with the next scene. Mostly, no, that doesn’t happen. What does happen is:

Four female characters are introduced and they are all essentially the same – same physical tics, same attitudes, same voices, same ages. By page 50 I can’t keep Mary, Pat, Nancy, and Barbara (generic names too) apart and the author hasn’t given me a solid reason to try.

The first chapter takes place in Cleveland 2006, the second in Atlanta in 1873, the third in Cleveland again but in 2000 and the time and place shifts are giving me vertigo. It’s fair to time-shift and to place-shift but you’d better make each place more distinctive than Southern accents and hoop skirts.

The plot is way too complicated and the more convoluted it gets, the harder it is to maintain any momentum or focus. If I accepted the main plot and the three sub plots, I promise I’ll close the book when, on page 80, the author drops in an entirely new problem that means new characters and relationships and doesn’t seem to fit with what’s gone before.

The dialogue is not real and it doesn’t take me anywhere within the story. Assume the writer speaks English as a first language. Assume he or she lives in the real world and speaks to checkout clerks, dentists, and other writers hanging out at bars during conventions. Why don’t his characters talk like that? Why do her characters spend whole pages discussing how slow the elevators are in speech patterns right out of 1940s propaganda films?

The harder I work to get these things right in my own books, the more I have come to lose patience with books that can’t seem to pull it all together. Even now, though, I feel as though I’m being harsh and snobby, and that means I’ll probably assuage my guilt by sticking with the next not-quite-ready-for-prime-time novel that comes my way. It’s hard to write a good book, and I’m in awe of my colleagues who do it book after book after book. Those are the ones I read – carefully – to see how to make my own next book better.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Our Dining Room Table Actually Seats Six

By Art Taylor

I'm gonna need to modify this week's question—"If you could host a dinner party where the guests didn’t actually have to be alive, which three writers would you invite?"—for my own situation, since our dining room table actually seats six. 

And in answering it, I'm actually drawing on another time when I answered a similar question, over at the Mysteristas blog, from the week that my book On the Road With Del & Louise was first published.  

I love hearing writers talk about their craft—not just their own works but others' writings and then the craft of writing in general. Such conversations are possibly most interesting when differences of opinion reveal themselves—different approaches to writing, even different aesthetic sensibilities. Listening, for example, to the BBC radio interview between Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming isn't simply a glimpse at two masters talking about craft and character and process and more but also two masters talking at odds about some of these issues. (This is also a milestone recording, of course: the only surviving recording of Chandler's voice, so far as I know.)

Building on that meeting of masters, I'm going to work with pairs here—writers whose genres may be similar but whose aesthetics and technical approaches surely veer strongly away from one another:

Chekhov, already dressed
for dinner, it seems
  • Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy L. Sayers. I recognize that a more confrontational pairing might be Chandler and Sayers, given Chandler's pointed commentary about Sayers' work in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," but Hammett is a personal favorite, of course.
  • Walker Percy and Anne Tyler. I'm a big fan of books with a philosophical bent, and I can imagine this corner of the table would prove awfully deep in that direction. Tyler is fairly reclusive, of course, so just getting her over for dinner would be a coup, and from what I know about Percy—like me, a big bourbon fan—he'd balance things out in terms of conviviality but always with a gentlemanly grace as well.
  • Finally, Tolstoy and Chekhov, drawing on my long-time interest in Russian lit (and timely now, with my continuing chapter-a-day reading of War and Peace this year). The two writers—masters each in his own way—did know one another, of course, but not always without friction.

The trouble here, I realize, is that having grown the party to six to fill the dining room table, there are no seats for my wife and me to join the conversation! Maybe that's OK, though. I'm fine to hover around the edges, serving the food and refilling the drinks—and listening, learning, soaking it all up. 


NEWS SINCE LAST POST: In other news, I'm happy to add that since my last appearance here, my book On the Road With Del & Louise has been named a finalist for the Macavity Award for Best First Novel. I'm thrilled with the attention the book has received this year—an Agatha Award win, an Anthony Award nomination, and now this tremendously good new. Very much looking forward to Bouchercon in New Orleans and to celebrating with the other distinguished finalists as well!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

If it’s March, it Must be Dorothy Parker

by Alan

If you could host a dinner party where the guests didn’t actually have to be alive, which three writers would you invite?

I couldn’t narrow down my choice to only three writers, so I came up with a dozen interesting trios (call it a “Dinner Party of the Month Club”):

Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey – I’d be taking notes at this soirĂ©e!

Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Reed Farrel Coleman – Three contemporary writers whose series feature tough, wise-guy-ish PIs. Bonus: Their last names all begin with “C”!

Dorothy_ParkerTruman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker – Forget dinner, bring on the cocktails!

Robert Harris, Robert McGammon, Robert Bloch – One, two, three twisted Roberts.

Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shirley Jackson – Oh, the horrors! But in a good way!

Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, John Grisham – I’d keep my ears open for investment advice.

Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume – One night I’d love sitting at the kids’ table.

J.K. Rowling, L. Frank Baum, J. R. R. Tolkien – Put aside reality for an evening. Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-

Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury – Far out! Really far out!

Patricia Highsmith, Scott Turow, Alexander Dumas – On the menu: Revenge (served cold)

William Goldman, Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin – Screenwriters are writers, too!

William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, James Joyce – I’d invite these three if I really wanted to concentrate on my meal. (Because I wouldn’t understand a word they were saying, and even if I could, I don’t think I’d be able to get a word in edgewise.)


Who would you invite to your dinner party?



AHMM 2016Short story news! I’ve had two stories published in the past few months. Stormy, With a Chance of Murder is in the CHESAPEAKE CRIMES: STORM WARNING anthology. The Last Loose End is in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (available now!).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Tracy Kiely

I am what those in the food service industry refer to as being “in the weeds.” In other words, I am hopelessly behind. School is almost out, and my kids are in school only for half a day now. It seems I just get one out the door, when another one wanders back in. Furthermore, my oldest is back from college now and suddenly the house is in complete disarray. I can’t see the basement floor as it’s covered in his dirty laundry and food is disappearing at an alarming rate.

All this is my not so subtle way of saying that my post today is going to be rather brief. But, if I were to have the power to invite anyone to my dinner party, I think I’d like to invite Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlow. Yep, that’s right. And then, once I had all these fine gentlemen under one roof I would be able to once and for all settle the age old argument of Who Really Wrote Shakespeare?

Perhaps it wouldn’t change the world, but these days I’ll take whatever victories I can.

PS. Spoiler alert: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare – just in case my dinner party guests can’t make it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Most Curious Dinner Party

By R.J. Harlick

If you could host a dinner party where the guests didn’t actually have to be alive, which three writers would you invite?

I suppose I could hold a literary salon and invite all the latest and greatest, like the grand dames used to do in the 18th and 19th centuries. They would hold their weekly afternoon salons in sumptuous surroundings and invite authors, artists, even politicians, who were on their way up to regale the chosen few with their pearls of wisdom or shock them with their outlandish views.

But I am neither a grand dame nor do I have a fitting venue and I would be inviting ghosts, which I am not sure would go over well in a literary salon, so I think I will stick to a more intimate affair. I haven’t quite decided whether I should invite all the authors at the same time or whether I should invite them individually. Mind you it would be fun to watch their interactions with each other for it promises to be a disparate group based on my diverse reading habits.

The first author I would invite would be Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, otherwise known as Leo Tolstoy. While I am a great admirer of his books, particularlyWar and Peace and Anna Karinena, I also have a particular affinity for things Russian having spent two years living in Moscow. I have fond memories of the time my husband and I visited Tolstoy’s home, Yasnaya Polyana, a wooded estate about 200 kilometres from Moscow. I would invite him for zakuski, the hot and cold hors d’oeuvres Russians serve before the main meal or on their own. I would ensure that there would be lots of caviar, smoked sturgeon and salmon, pickled wild mushrooms and beets and of course vodka and champagne. But if Tolstoy is still pursuing a life of abstinence, I would have the samovar bubbling away with the tea concentrate ready to be diluted in a fragile porcelain cup. No doubt he would lead us through a lively dissertation on his anarchist views. I get the impression one didn’t really discuss things with him, rather he lectured.

John Fowles would be another invitee. He’s an author we hear little about these days, but I thoroughly enjoyed his books, like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus and Daniel Martin. I would invite him for a particular reason, his home town, Lyme Regis, which was also the setting for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. For those of you who have seen the movie, you will remember the memorable scene of Sarah Woodruff standing on The Cobb with waves flying around her. I too have stood on that massive stone harbour wall, but in calmer weather. But the memory I treasure the most from my stay in that delightful seaside town is my first Devon cream tea in a quintessential English tea house. So I would serve Mr. Fowles a Devon cream tea with plenty of clotted cream, buttery scones and strawberry jam and of course tea, likely Darjeeling, my favourite afternoon tea. If he’d like a wee tipple added to his tea I would ensure a bottle of his favourite was at hand.

Another author I would like to invite would be Tony Hillerman. I loved his Leaphorn and Chee novels. I confess I had his series in mind when I started on my journey with Meg and her Algonquin friends. I even have a handwritten letter from him encouraging me with my writing venture. But once again I am inviting Mr. Hillerman because I have had several pleasurable trips to the part of the world he wrote about and lived in, the American Southwest, in particular New Mexico. And I love its cuisine.  So I would serve quesadillas, fish tacos, chicken enchiladas with refried beans and rice, all liberally smothered in pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream. And of course with southwest food we would have to have margaritas.

But you may have noticed that these three authors are no longer with us, plus they are all men. So to round out the party, for I've decided it would be more fun to have everyone at once, I would invite four women, who are very much alive, four women whose writing I admire and who are very good friends and with whom I’ve had many a raucous dinner. They are fellow crime writers, Vicki Delany, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini and Linda Wiken. I think the four of them would add a very lively addition to the party and wouldn’t mind mingling with ghosts and indulging in such a curious combination of food.  I would even include some of our Canadian favourites, like cedar plank salmon, fiddleheads, wild rice and Nanimo bars. I mustn’t forget a few bottles of Niagara and Prince Edward County wine.

Where the conversation would take us, I have no idea, but I think it would be great fun. One thing I do know, I doubt anyone would be at a loss for words.

What about you? Which authors would you like to invite?