Friday, August 31, 2012

How to sell a million books without breaking a sweat

by Meredith Cole

Now that I've got your attention with my newest best selling book title, I'll be completely upfront.  I have no idea how to sell million books or I would have done it and would now be sitting on bags of money on a beautiful and remote island.

These days, it seems like everywhere you turn, someone wants to tell you their brilliant idea for how to sell more books. The people with the most ideas are usually trying to sell you something (like their PR services). So what really works? Facebook? Twitter? Blogging? Guest blogging? Goodreads? Great reviews? Personal appearances?

I'm ashamed to say, since I work in marketing as my day job, that I don't have the magic solution for all authors. But neither do publishers, or PR people, or even best selling authors. They're all trying whatever they can and hoping they'll get great results. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't.

But here's what I and everyone else knows for sure sells a lot of books: that elusive word of mouth. People telling other people that they have to read your book. The trouble is, how do you reach those first people who fall in love with your book? If you don't have a heavy-hitting publisher that's invested in your career and is putting you on one of the front tables at Barnes and Noble, and if you aren't able to get reviewed because you're self-published or because newspapers/magazines, etc., are all shrinking their review space, how do you find readers?

Authors and publishers have clearly decided that the way to find readers is through the web. Authors have joined social network sites everywhere and try to push their books on everyone. Some may feel they have success, and others may feel it's a waste of time--but the truth is it's mostly free (except for an author's valuable time and energy). And if done incorrectly, it can really annoy a lot of people.

But here's an inescapable truth about selling lots and lots of books: You have to write a great book that people want to read. If you're off spending 10 hours a day guest blogging, tweeting and Facebooking, you'd better have something to talk about. And all that marketing is bound to eventually interfere with writing your next book. A recipe for author burnout if there ever was one.

So, really now, what's a poor author to do? First, write a great book. Then tell everyone in a way that isn't obnoxious. Then spend a period of time marketing it in ways that you enjoy. Hope your book finds readers who love it. And then go write another book, even better than the last. Repeat.

I know, I know. Easy for me to say. But when you get yourself tied in knots about what you think you should be doing and how little promotion your publisher is doing for you, ask yourself--what will the following (tweet, guest blog, expensive self-funded book tour, etc.) really do for my career? And if the answer is "diddly-squat" or "I'd rather grind glass into my forehead than do x", skip it. Go write your next book instead. And tell them I told you that you could.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In which the science nerd drops some data...

by Chris F. Holm

If you've been following along on my posts since I joined Criminal Minds, you've probably realized by now that I'm a huge nerd. But what you may not realize is that I'm so nerdy, I turned pro.

See, in my day job (yes, I have one, and unless your favorite author's name is King or Rowling, odds are they have one too), I'm a research scientist. And as such, I tend to scoff at anecdotal evidence. You know the kind I mean. "Our breakthrough program helped Tom here buy a beach house, drop three pant-sizes, and marry the prom queen, all by only eating foods that start with the letter Q*! (*Results not typical.)" So, when tackling a question near and dear to my heart, namely "Is social media a worthwhile tool?" I thought it best to look at the data.

I'm a big believer in the notion that the best way to network is to stop trying to network. So although this post is not about how to use social media, but rather whether or not it can prove worthwhile to an author, let me take a sec to throw in my two cents about the how: Don't be a carnival barker, constantly hawking your wares. Relax. Make friends. Have fun. Be yourself. (Unless you're an actual, honest-to-God carnival barker. Nobody likes a carnival barker.)

It should be noted that my sample size for this study is one author; i.e. me. But I'm far too lazy to poll others just for a blog post, so n=1 will have to do.

When I was shopping for an agent, one of my key selling points was that I was an established short story writer. And I frequently hear from folks who tell me they picked up my debut novel because they read a short of mine. (How many folks? Again, I'm far too lazy to count 'em up. "But without hard numbers," you ask, "isn't this claim anecdotal?" To which I say: "Shut up.") So I'm going to lay down a basic premise that, as far as exposure is concerned, short story publications are a VERY GOOD THING. Settled? Okay, then. Let's continue.

To date, I've had 21 short stories accepted for publication. Of those, 9 were over-the-transom (meaning, for those unfamiliar with the antiquated term, that they were submitted unsolicited.) Which means (watch this fast math!)... 12 were submitted upon invitation. 5 to print anthologies. 2 to print magazines. 2 to ebook anthologies. And 3 to online magazines. Oh, and there was a by-invite reprint of an over-the-transom tale I neglected to add to the total, so that I wouldn't count the story in two columns.

Most of those 12 were paid. A couple were favors to friends. The reprint was for charity. One of the unpaid ones went on to garner an Anthony nomination and an inclusion in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, the latter of which wound up paying more than all my other short fiction combined, and introduced my work to a whole new audience of readers. And here's the kicker: every single one of those 12 invites - the majority of my 21 total accepted stories - came about due directly to relationships forged on social media. (Twitter's my addiction of choice, by the way, though I'm on the dreaded Facebook as well. Feel free to pop by either and validate my existence.) And that doesn't even count more nebulous (dare I say anecdotal?) benefits such as connecting with fans and secretly hanging out with cool people via your smart phone whilst in line at the bank. (Really, writer-boy? The bank? You haven't set foot inside a bank in a decade.)(True enough, snarky parenthetical, but that's not the point.)

Now, obviously, your mileage may vary. And note that the benefit of social media for me was a byproduct of actually, you know, socializing. No one wants to hang out with a human spambot, so please please please don't use my post as an excuse to annoy the crap out of friends and strangers with blatant self-promotion. But if you're asking yourself whether social media is worth it, well... these data don't lie.

Speaking of blatant self-promotion, we're officially less than one month out from the release of the second novel in my Collector series, THE WRONG GOODBYE. The Collector series, for those who don't know, recasts the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp. If you'd like to learn more about it, or fingers-crossed even order a copy, click here. (Blatant self-promotion over.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Social Media Will Not Sell Your Book

By Hilary Davidson

I've spent a lot of time talking about social media this year. I've been on panels on the topic at Left Coast Crime, Murder 203, and the Edgar Symposium; I even made a presentation about it with my friend Robin Spano at Toastmasters when I was in B.C. At each session, the same question came up: "How do I use social media to sell my book?"

At each event, I made people sad with my answer, but I stand by it: Social media will not sell your book.

Social media is an amazing creation for many reasons, and I'm an avid fan. It has let me meet people all over the country, and the world. It inspires conversations and ideas. It makes it easier to go to conferences and introduce myself to people who would otherwise be total strangers. (Guilty admission: I think of people by their Twitter handles. Last year at Bouchercon, that led me to say things like, "Let me introduce you to my friend LolosLetters!") It can help get research questions answered. It enables people who care about an issue to connect. If you're passionate about something — travel, gluten-free food, cemeteries (to pick a few not-so-random examples) — social media will hook you up with others who share that obsession. It's an amazing thing, expanding your social circle without leaving your desk. Spend enough time getting to know people on social media, and you'll find real friends who will become a big part of your life. There are several social sites I'm on — Facebook, GoodReads, Pinterest, 500px — but the one that has introduced me to people who've become close friends is Twitter. (Want proof of how powerful social media can be? Check out my friend Dan O'Shea's "scar story" challenge or the Feeding Kate anthology that's being put together now.)

What social media will not do is sell your book. In fact, if there's one overwhelming problem with social media, it's the idea that it's a shortcut for selling stuff. That idea encourages bad behavior. How many times have you accepted a Facebook friend request, only to have the person start writing their self-promotional junk on your wall? How many times have you followed an author on Twitter and gotten an automatic direct message in response, directing you to their fan page and hawking their latest book?

A couple of days ago, I accepted a Facebook friend request from a writer I don't know (we have several friends in common). He immediately sent me this message: "Please go on to my [name redacted] Author page and press the 'like' button at the top of the page for me. I really need as many as possible." It wasn't as bad as writing on my wall, but it made me feel sorry for him. Does he really believe that his writing career will be boosted by a pity "like" on his author page from someone who doesn't know his work?

We all know how hard it is to get the word out about a book these days, whether you're working with a publisher or self-published. It's tough out there, and that can make otherwise sane people desperate. Authors are told they need to be on social media, like it's some kind of magic world that can make or break a career, but nobody tells authors what to do when they get there. Some people only talk about their own work, and they don't understand why no one is listening.

When I speak about social media, I emphasize the social part. A lot of people have already heard me compare Twitter to a cocktail party, but I'll say it again. If you were trapped at a cocktail party by a boor who ranted that you had to buy his book, would you buy it? The more he blathered on about his awesome Amazon reviews (which we know can be bought), the more you would want to run away, right? It's not really any different online. People who care only about themselves and their work reveal their true colors quickly. There's nothing wrong with letting people know you have a new book or project. It's a great idea to post reviews online, and if you're going to do a reading or attend a conference, it's important to spread the word so you can connect with online friends in person. But if all you do is post about your own work, you're missing the point.

Here's another great thing you can do with social media: you can talk about books that you really enjoyed. Recommend authors to friends. Post links to short stories and articles. Take part in FridayReads. Share the love. Here's the most amazing thing about social media: when someone tells their friends how much they loved a book, copies fly off the shelf. You might not be able to sell your own book on Twitter or Facebook or GoodReads, but you can help other writers sell theirs.

Monday, August 27, 2012


By Reece Hirsch

For someone who really doesn’t like selling, I sure do an awful lot of it.   As a writer and as a lawyer, it seems that I’m always doing something to market my services.  It goes against my nature, but it’s necessary and so I try to do it as well as I am capable.

I write books because, oddly enough, I actually enjoy sitting at my laptop and crafting a novel over the course of many months.  I also really enjoy hearing from readers who’ve been entertained for a few hours by something that I’ve written.  It’s the part that comes in between that I’m a little less comfortable with.  Before I knew the ways of the publishing world, I imagined that when my book was released, my publisher would send a legion of marketing and publicity specialists into the world to bang the drum for my work.  While the marketing and publicity professionals that I’ve worked with have been highly knowledgeable and capable, there comes a point (and for an author in my position it comes very, very fast) when you’re on your own.

I practice law because, oddly enough, I actually enjoy understanding how the state, federal and international privacy laws work and advising clients on how they can and can’t use your personal information.  And, yes, I am referring to your personal information.  I didn’t go to law school because I’m an in-your-face, argumentative litigator-type.  I’d probably be a better marketer if I was.  As a lawyer, my marketing campaign consists primarily of giving speeches, writing articles and occasionally taking people to lunch.

My two marketing campaigns intersect when a prospective client runs a Google search on me and inevitably turns up my author website, blog posts and other evidence of my double life.  These days, the first question I get asked during a client pitch is often, “So you write legal thrillers?”  It’s actually a pretty good ice-breaker.

What have I learned from my two careers in marketing?  I’ve learned that nothing works.  Either that, or everything works a little bit.  One of the two.

To put it less cryptically, you have to do something to market your books, so you might as well find the things that you’re comfortable with and enjoy because then you’ll do them consistently.

But to finally address this week’s question:  “Does social media work for authors?”  I really have no idea.  I didn’t set up a Facebook account until I had a book coming out and was told that it was necessary, and I have yet to utter a single tweet.  However, I would suggest the following two simple rules for what authors should not do on social media.

Do not use your dog to pimp your book.  No photos of your dog wearing sunglasses and reading your book. No photos of your dog gnawing on your book.  Unless your dog is really cute, then I guess it’s okay.  Note:  I must confess that I have violated this rule.

Do not create “sockpuppet” virtual identities to tout your book.  Sockpuppets, as a general matter, are cute and retro (see photo above).  Sockpuppet marketing, or the creation of false virtual identities to give your books five-star reviews or stir up positive discussion in social media, is deceptive and fraudulent.   The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade association representing the social media industry, recently issued a Code of Ethics that addresses precisely these sorts of online transparency issues (  The Federal Trade Commission has also adopted guidelines for the disclosure of financial relationships in advertising and blog posts (  A recent investigation of Hyundai by the Federal Trade Commission highlighted similar concerns (  None of these guidelines provide any sort of exemption for self-published authors of e-books.

In a related and distressing note, The New York Times reported Saturday that there is a company that sells five-star Amazon book reviews in bulk to authors.  In this new era of e-publishing, and even in the context of traditional publishing, each author is effectively acting as his or her own business  enterprise.  All businesses must be conducted ethically and in compliance with the laws and, no matter how great and desperate the pressure to attract readers in the publishing marketplace, authors are no exception.  As a general matter, unfair and deceptive business practices may be subject to enforcement action by the FTC or a state Attorney General.  It seems inevitable that the increasingly aggressive and deceptive tactics of some online book marketers will eventually attract the attention of the regulators who have been concerned about the transparency of online financial relationships and endorsements.

Just as the use of steroids has caused baseball fans to lose some faith in the game, this sort of blatant trickery compromises a reader's faith that they can trust the one thing that authors of good books have going for them -- word of mouth.  When a reader can't tell whether they're getting the opinion of a sockpuppet, a hired five-star reviewer or a real reader, then they won't trust anything they read on Amazon and all authors will suffer as a result.

We're in the Wild West days of e-book marketing right now, but I think it's only a matter of time before a new sheriff comes to town.  As far as I'm concerned, it can't happen soon enough.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Tweeter

I had to think on this week’s question as my first impulse was to have my assistant, some over-qualified, very bright young man or woman with an MFA from some prestigious institution of higher learning, fetch my daily Hoyo de Monterrey or Partagas moduro-style cigar and short dog of whiskey from Jack’s Liquor (which has a walk-in humidor) in nearby Koreatown – for use during happy hour you understand.  But that would be a waste of their talents not to mention I vary my selection of cigars more than the two brands just mentioned so that’s a task best left to be completed personally.
"Does this crown make me look wizened"?
But how to best utilize this eager acolyte?  I know.  My assistant will become me on the cyberways.  I can barely get it together to do my every other week blog post for Criminal Minds let alone tweeting, Facebooking, pinteresting, being a pinhead, or whatever the hell else it is writers are supposed to do now on a daily basis to be witty and maintain a presence among their readership and potential readership.  To do as those various articles advise writers to use social media to connect with their fans in a meaningful way.  Of course nothing says luv like someone buying my book but one must not be naked in their desire for such.

The way this could work then is my assistant every two hours or so will tweet something wry and sardonic, but good-natured, from me after we’ve had a brief discussion about current book news or some riff on something of a pop culture nature.  Given I’m a lefty, it’s probably better I don’t go into rants as some of my fellow scribes left and right have a wont to do on Facebook.  That can be a bit much, don’t you think?  But leave me not go on about that at this juncture.  Figure at least twice a day my assistant will peruse my Facebook stuff and respond with a quip here or observation there. 

As the years go on, I will emerge less and less from my sanctum sanctorum. – hitting those keys, sweating phrasing and pacing as I knock out the work, be it a short story or magnum opus novel.
Salinger-like, I become a recluse, only known through those clever, literate social media burst that float out there regularly from my assistant.  In a reversal of how poor assistant Tom Courtenay was verbally abused by the odious aging actor played by Albert Finney in The Dresser, my assistant will have subtly stroked my ego such that he or she has convinced me that to build my mystique, I should be seen less and less in public and let my work speak for me.  He or she will attend to all these distractions and I should be left to tend the vineyards of my writing, my gifts to the world.  Deep down I will know there’s no way I can live up to those artful postings as over time, the assistant writes in their voice.  

I become the shell, my assistant the full-bodied personality.  Quick I say, bring me my make-up.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Dream On

by Alan

Today’s Question: You've hit the big time! Congratulations. What's the first task you assign to your new assistant?

What? I’ve hit the BIG TIME? Oh my! Oh my! (Why didn’t anybody tell me? Strangely, it doesn’t feel a whole lot different than the SMALL TIME, where I’ve been for a while—maybe it’ll take a few days for this wonderful news to hit me).

After my newly-hired assistant and I clean up all the confetti and champagne corks and hundred-dollar bills lying around, I suppose it’ll be time to get my nose back to the grindstone. After all, once you reach the big time, you have to work doubly hard to stay there (at least that’s what I’ve heard).

Where could my assistant be most useful?

I don’t think I’ll need to rely on my assistant’s creativity; I’ve already got plenty of ideas for books. I’ve got spell checker and grammar checker, and the Chicago Manual of Style at my feet, so I’m good there. I’ve got lots of pencils, pens, spiral notebooks, toner cartridges, and erasers, erasers, erasers—no need for a run to Staples.

I’d have my assistant fetch me coffee, except, well, I don’t drink coffee.

Maybe I could ask him or her to touch up my headshot with Photoshop? Answer all my fan letters? Talk to Oprah’s people? Do some research about leasing a (small) private jet? Or buying an island? Work on getting me a seat in Castle’s poker game?messy office

All worthwhile tasks, for sure. But I think what I really need my assistant to do is CLEAN MY FRIGGING OFFICE.

It’s a BIG TIME mess.

(Trust me, this picture doesn’t quite capture the enormity of the task.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Texts from Marie Lawrence, assistant to Tracy Kiely

 8.00 am Hi, Mrs. Kiely. I’m at your house. I saw your note on the door and let myself in. I just wanted to tell you again how excited I am to be working with you. I love your books and am so thrilled about your movie deal! See you soon! All the best, Marie.

8.30 I thought I might have missed your response. You have a dog! And he’s so energetic! And big! And fast! He really loves to retrieve things, doesn’t he? It took me twenty minutes to get my phone out of his mouth. Best, Marie.

9.03 Sorry to bother. I just met your cat. Another surprise! I am usually really good with pets, but, um, does he usually sit on your desk and stare at people like that? It’s a bit unnerving. He doesn’t seem to like me. Please let me know what you want me to do. I’m ready to work. Thanks, Marie.

9.15 Where do you keep your Band-Aids? Your cat really doesn’t like anyone, does he? Marie.

9.30 Hi, again. More surprises! I didn’t know you had kids! I just met your daughter. She is lovely! And she wants breakfast – French toast to be precise. I guess you are running late, so I just wanted you to know that I’m taking care of it. See you soon! Marie.

10.15 Another Kiely!  I wish you had told me you had a sixteen-year-old!  I thought a grown man had broken into the house. You can deduct the cost of the dishes I threw at him from my first paycheck. Are you getting my texts? Please let me know.  M.

11.00 Hey - I just found a prescription bottle of zanax for your dog. You don’t really give your dog zanax, do you? M.

11.13 I just gave your dog the recommended maximum dosage. M  

12.45 pm Hi again. Your youngest son is now up. That’s it, right? It’s just the three of them? No more children lurking about upstairs are there? I gather he’s not a morning person – even though it’s well past noon. I made him some French toast, too, but he didn’t want that. I finally figured out from his grunts and gestures that he wanted cereal. Your daughter says you call him “the angry guest in Room 3.” I can certainly see why. Please let me know when you are coming! M.

1.30 Hi. Your kids are fighting. Loudly. From what I can tell, it’s over who can sit in the “flowered chair.” But I don’t think I have that right because there is another chair next to it that seems identical. Could you please call me soon?   M.

2.30 Your youngest son can’t find his shoes. Or his toothbrush.  He also said something about going “mando,” but I didn’t ask for details. 

3.45 Seriously. What is the deal with the cat? He’s freaking me out. Is he allowed to take the zanax? Where are you?

4.30 Mrs. Kiely, I just got a call from a hotel in London, confirming your reservation for tonight. They said you are staying with them for two weeks. This is a joke, right? Please tell me that you didn’t hire me to baby-sit your kids and your crazy pets for two weeks!   THIS IS NOT RIGHT! 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meet My Assistant

by Vicki Delany

Do you remember way back in the 50s and 60s when they told us that the “housewife” of the future wouldn’t have to do any housework because her robot maid would do it all?  What happened to that anyway?
I guess it went the way of so much leisure time we wouldn’t know what do to with it all.

Now that I’ve reached the pinnacle of my writing career and making so much money (well that’s what the question of the week assumes, isn’ it?) that I can hire an assistant, I have to decide what I want him or her to do.

None of my writing.  I am not James Patterson. I want to WRITE the books I sell under my name. Same goes for my blog posts here at 7 Criminal Minds and other places I guest at.

None of my personal promotion.  I love giving talks in libraries or to book clubs and meeting readers in stores.

None of my facebooking or tweeting.  Same as writing the books: if it has my name on it, I want to be the one to have said it.

Lining up appearances?  That would be nice. I like doing book singings but hate organizing them.  

Okay, so my assistant can organize my public appearances. 

That’ll take about one week a year. Then what?

Doing my housework? Gardening? Washing the car?

Now we’re getting somewhere.  I’d love not to have to do all that pesky stuff.  I’ll hire an assistant to do it for me.

Except… I might be the only 7 Minder that has had a maid.  I lived in South Africa for many years.  Almost every middle-class household in South Africa has at least one servant.  Houses come with servants’ quarters.  I didn’t really like having a maid, believe it or not.  Maybe I’m too Canadian, but it was like an intrusion in my privacy to have someone in my house all the time.  

So maybe, I don’t want a maid after all.

Not a PERSON maid anyway.

I’ll use my massive royalties to get a maid just like the Jetsons had. A robot, something I can switch off when it’s finished for the day, or yell at and not worry about their feelings.

Maybe it’ll have some good plot ideas too.

Only two more weeks until the release of More than Sorrow!  Library Journal gave the book a STARRED review calling it, “A splendid Gothic Thriller.” Now available for pre-order. Click here to check it out: Vicki Delany

Monday, August 20, 2012

In Memoriam - Jeff Sherratt

Jeff with Ray Bradbury - 2 big losses this year

I had my blog post for Criminal Minds written and set to schedule when I received an e-mail informing me that Jeff Sherratt had passed away Saturday evening. Jeff was a fellow author and friend and even though his health had been sketchy for a while, the news still shocked me down to my socks.
So with a nod to this week’s question – I can honestly say that no matter how successful I become, I will never pass along to an assistant the duty and honor of saying goodbye to a fallen friend.
Jeff Sherratt was very active in the mystery writing community in Southern California and he and his lovely wife, Judy, were often present at events and book signings. Sit next to Jeff and you would be treated to colorful stories about LA County and organized crime in the seventies, told with a bright twinkle and an easy laugh. He was a great guy and a gentleman. As for selling books, no one could touch Jeff’s passion and bold approach. Place him with a stack of his books just inside the entrance of any Barnes and Noble and stand back. In no time, those books would disappear into the hands of excited readers!
Several years ago, Jeff asked me to blurb his book The Brimstone Murders.  Of course, I said yes, being that Jeff was a friend. Below is that blurb:
Reading THE BRIMSTONE MURDERS is like going to an old fashioned Saturday matinee – so sit back and enjoy the action, the fun, and the cast of colorful characters. Popcorn optional.
Friend or not, the blurb was an honest opinion. The book was extremely well written, and a fun, action-packed read with great characters. His last book, Detour to Murder, is still on my extensive TBR pile. In his honor, I’m moving it to the top, putting it next in line.
If you have not read one of Jeff Sherratt’s books, give yourself a treat and pick one up or download it today. The Kindle editions are currently just $0.99.
Goodbye, dear friend. You will be greatly missed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Crying for mercy

by Meredith Cole

We live in a country which has too much of almost everything.  Giant cars. Huge houses. Binge eating. We rent storage containers to stick all our extra stuff. We clearly don't know how much is too much on almost anything in our lives. So perhaps any advice I could give on "too much" might be pretty useless for most of us. But I'll try.

How do you know when you've got too much sex or violence in your book? I wish I had a formula or a recipe for it. Like mix two parts sex, four parts violence and one part romance and bake at 500 degrees = thriller.

But I don't have a secret formula. The mix definitely depends on the book. An erotic romance certainly would need a lot more sex and probably less violence to satisfy a reader of that genre. A techno thriller would need less sex and more violence to satisfy that audience. And the confusing part is the same person could enjoy both. They just have expectations when they pick up a certain book, and they want to be entertained in a certain way. So...

You know it when you read it.

Sounds so simple. Perhaps it's not.

Here's an example: you pick up a book and it is page after page of non-stop action, with violence oozing from every page. Perhaps you like the pace and get sucked into the plot. Or perhaps you quickly become confused about who is who, and find yourself unable to care when someone is blown sky high. So for one reader it's too much violence (and not enough back story) and for another it's just right.

Genre fiction is perhaps less complicated than literary fiction. You can even read on some publisher's websites how much is too much and what you're allowed to say. I know my limits. Violence that has no purpose in the story is often too much for me. Especially if it requires lots of bone crunching/blood gushing detail. And I don't mind f-bombs dropping all the time--if it fits with the character. But that's just me and my personal tastes. If a story is written well, I usually don't notice one way or another. The book just gels and I reach the last page way too soon.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Enough is Enough

by Chris F. Holm

At last year's Bouchercon, I was fortunate enough to partake in a panel called "Sex, Violence, and Everything That Makes a Book Great," featuring such luminaries in the field of literary head- and/or boots-knocking as Christa Faust, Scott Phillips, Benjamin Whitmer, and John Rector, so one would assume this week's question would be right up my alley. That I might have some measure of insight into the topic of whether there's any such thing as too much sex or violence in fiction. Or that my penchant for writing violent crime and horror might place me in the no-such-thing-as-too-much camp, the writerly equivalent of the slasher-flick director whose only on-set order is "More blood!"

One would be sorely mistaken. The fact is, my beliefs on the topic are many-fold, contradictory, and ever-changing. Today, they are as follows (I think):

1. Every Story Has Its Own Line
Violence that would seem gratuitous in a manor mystery is commonplace in a tale of psychological horror. Just saucy enough for a tale of romantic intrigue is gonna seem a little out of place in a mainstream thriller. Trust your ear, your gut, and your beta readers. If you've crossed your story's line, they'll let you know.

2. Every Reader Has Their Own Line
Some folks won't read tales that feature violence toward children. Some won't read explicit sex. Writers faced with people who've dinged their work unread are often quick to "Yeah, but...," and who could blame them? Everybody wants to be the exception to the rule. Only here's the thing: it's cool as a reader to have a line you just won't cross. Your tastes are what your tastes are. As a writer, I respect that. All I ask is that if you're going to veto something out of hand, try not to badmouth it while you're doing so. Remember, you haven't read it, so there's a chance you don't know what you're talking about.

3. Every Writer Has Their Own Line
See above, only substitute "write" for "read." We writers are allowed our lines as well. Only in our case, I think there's value in forcing ourselves to march right up to them and peer long and hard at what's on the other side. Sometimes we hold at arm's length that which affects us most deeply. The stuff we don't want to talk about often makes for the most compelling writing. And when a writer's line conflicts with their story's line, the story is always right - even if it pushes said writer out of their comfort zone.

4. Fiction Itself Has No Line
There is nothing in the whole of human experience that should be considered off-limits to write about. Every time folks get to thinking that there is, a writer will come along who shatters those perceptions with a work of staggering beauty, clarity, and honesty. However, that said...

5. Sex (or Lack Thereof) and Violence (or Lack Thereof) Have No Inherent Artistic Value
The fact you write unflinchingly about sex and/or gruesome violence does not make you de facto a better artist. And the fact that you choose to write without doing so does not make you superior to those who do. Some writers mistake vulgarity for honesty. Others claim the moral high ground on account of their own personal hang-ups. The fact is, if you're serving your story, you're doing it right. If you're not, you're not. It's as simple as that.

Don't quote me on it, though; I could change my mind tomorrow...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

By Reece Hirsch

Can you have too much sex and violence in a book?  First, let me say that I consider sex and violence two of the essential food groups of a healthy, well-balanced reading diet.  But I’d like to redirect the question a bit to consider more generally what is too much, particularly in a thriller.

It’s funny how little things stick in your head and become part of your personal vocabulary.  For example, I don’t remember where I first picked this up, probably when watching “The Compleat Beatles” or “Beatles Anthology” documentaries years ago.  When the Beatles were getting their start playing marathon, pill and booze fueled performances at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1960, the German rock bands would shout at the lads, “Mach schau!”   It means “Make show!”  Make a show for the customers. Don’t just stand there and play guitar.  Lennon’s response to this exhortation was reportedly jumping around like a gorilla on stage.

Writing a thriller, I can’t say that I’m not thinking of my potential readers and their expectations.  And in the back of my mind, I hear those heckling German rockers shouting “Mach schau!”  Think of them as an alternative universe, Teutonic Fab Four of Horst, Dieter, Ulrich and Jurgen.  Dieter is The Quiet One.  But I digress.

For thriller writers, mach schau means keeping the reader on a steady IV drip of action, violence and sex.  Don’t let the pace relent.  And just when things are falling into a rhythm (albeit a fast one), apply the shock paddles with a plot twist.

And when it works, it doesn’t feel like a formula at all and the end result is a book that is about as immersive and immediate as any reading experience you’ll ever have.  I’ll never forget the first thriller that really got its hooks into me as a teenager – William Goldman’s “Marathon Man.”

But there’s a line that can be crossed.  More than probably any other literary genre, thrillers are influenced by, and feel the pressure of, other media.  Thriller fiction often draws comparisons to hyperkinetic action movies and video games and is held to those standards of more-is-more, Joel Silver over-the-topness.  Some people think that the highest praise you can give a thriller writer is to say that their book reads like a movie.  I think good literary thrillers are a lot more than long-form screenplays.

Over the course of a novel, there are opportunities for character development, social commentary and depth-of-field that even an excellent action film can’t duplicate.   Some would say that a film like “The Hurt Locker” takes you into life-and-death moments with an immediacy that a literary thriller can’t touch, but I don’t buy that.  If a reader has come to know a character over the course of a novel and truly gotten inside his or her head, then when they face that moment of peril, it can be more riveting than anything the cineplex has to offer.

A book can put you into the headspace of a character, feeling what they’re feeling, thinking what they’re thinking, in a way that is not some poor man's analog to a movie or video game.  It’s a particular magic trick that is only performed between the covers of a good book.  You can keep your 3-D glasses and first-person-shooter games -- that’s my idea of mach schau.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Compete This

As there are no Olympic competitions for poker, cigar smoking or the occasional hangover, I’m afraid my characters such as the semi-homeless Vietnam vet Magrady to O’Conner, the guy who shows up on a failing motorcycle and squats in a foreclosed house in a once ritzy sub-division in the upcoming Warlord of Willow Ridge, would be out of the running. 
Though I can imagine one of my shady characters getting kicked out for trying to fix a badminton match...or two. And really, isn’t Badminton the perfect Dickensian-like name?     
But I digress Criminal Minds sports fans for did you know from 1912 to 1948, the Olympics had medal competitions in sculpture, literature, painting, music composition and architecture.  The piece featured in the graphic to the right is called the Knockdown and was done by Mahonri Young – grandson of Brigham.  His piece won a gold medal in the sculpture category in the 1932 Olympics, held in Los Angeles. 
Today there’s still this cool statue in front of the Coliseum in South Central near where I grew up from that time.  Anyway, also at the ’32 Olympics, John Hughes of Great Brittan won gold in the town planning category and Josef Peterson of Denmark nabbed silver in literature for “The Argonauts” (he’d also gotten silver in Paris at the 1924 Olympics).  Literature was limited to 20,000 words in any language, as long as the piece was accompanied by a translation in English or French.
In the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, while black speedster Jesse Owens took it to the “Master Race” theory as applied in sports, seems according to Ashley Petters in her article for The Atlantic about this period in the Olympics, those damn Nazis frontloaded the arts competition what with 29 German judges versus 12 from other countries.  In keeping with the original spirit of the games, the arts competitions were restricted to amateurs.  While this would be altered in the coming years in terms of the sports end – giving us such efforts as the U.S. basketball Dream Team composed of NBA star hoopsters and the Williams sisters dominating on the tennis court – the powers that be as Petters quoted determined, it was “…illogical that professionals should compete at such exhibitions and be awarded Olympic medals.”
This sentiment coupled with incredible inconsistencies in how someone was labeled pro versus amateur killed off the medal competing after the games in London in ’48.  They’ve since been replaced by the Cultural Olympiad, a series of Olympics-related cultural events that take place in the host city during the games themselves.  On the NewsHour this past Wednesday on PBS, there was the sparkly Priscila Uppal with a laurel of many tiny Canadian flags in her hair doing her thing.  She’s the poet in residence of Canadian Athletes Now, an organization supporting her country’s athletes and she recited her pretty cool “Obsessive Compulsive Cycling Disorder” piece.
Now that’s the spirit.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Going for the Gold

by Alan

What Olympic sport would Channing Hayes excel at?

gold medalChanning Hayes is not known for his athletic prowess, so let’s do this by process of elimination.

He’s a stand-up comic, a denizen of the night. Right off the bat, I think we can safely eliminate all outdoor activities.

He performs alone, so we’ll ditch all the team sports.

He doesn’t much like water. No swimming or diving.

He gets motion sickness (a little, from time to time). Out goes indoor cycling.

Channing is not a strong man, and he really only gets physical when his life—or someone else’s life—is in danger. Add to that a low threshold of physical pain, and we can eliminate weightlifting, judo, taekwando, wrestling, boxing, and any other sport where you can get hurt. (He can take heckling, just not broken bones.)

Channing is about as limber as lumber. Gymnastics? Hah! Trampoline? Not hardly (Can you say splat?).

What does that leave? Badminton, fencing, and table tennis. Channing has smarts and quick reflexes, so any of these sports might fit. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Channing doesn’t look good dressed in all white, so there goes fencing. And badminton? Nah, just on principle.

So table tennis it is.

Too bad there isn’t an Olympic Beer Pong team. Channing would be the gold medal favorite.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Olympic Delussions

by Tracy Kiely

Like my heroine, Elizabeth Parker, I have enjoyed a variety of sports, many of which are Olympic events.

Please note that I said “enjoyed” not “excelled at”. Let me illustrate the subtle difference.  


Like most little girls who grew up in the seventies, I watched with breathless awe the images of Nadia flipping herself thought the air like a nimble house cat and dreamed of one day becoming an Olympian like her.  Giving into my pleas, my parents signed me up for classes at a nearby gym taught by a Russian couple who were themselves ex-Olympians. At the first class they sat us down and sternly told us that “gymnastics came first, then school, then family.” I began to suspect that perhaps this wasn’t the sport for me. However, I gamely struggled to master the required skills. My personal torment was the windmill on the uneven bars. Despite my repeated attempts, I gained nothing but a giant raw raspberry on my inner thigh and the wrath of my coach. The only time I remember being excited about going to class was after a giant snow storm hit our area. “Today’s class is a make-up class,” my mother explained as we made our way to the gym. My disappointment upon realizing that we were not gathered on that particular Saturday to learn how to apply make-up was heartfelt and my final clue that gymnastics was not my sport.


I won the trophy for “Most Improved Swimmer.” I think that says it all.


Do you remember in high school gym class how there would always be those two girls who hung out in the back and whispered to each other during the game, only to squeal in surprise when the ball smashed them in the head? I was the one on the right.     


I didn’t start skiing until I was twenty and only at the urging of my now husband. My husband comes from a large family all of whom ski. A lot. As in every blessed day after school a lot. On my first ski trip with his family, armed with only a few lessons, I bravely ventured down the imposing bunny slope in a frozen pizza stance determined to “tear it up.” My future father-in-law followed me down the hill alternately yelling “put your weight on the down hill ski!” and “use your poles!”

Well meaning, yes, but after ten minutes I wanted to stab him with one of my poles.

My husband’s family was very patient with me. At various points along the hill, they would stop and wait for me. All eight of them. In a goddamn row. And all, coincidentally, wearing red and blue ski jackets.

It was like vacationing with the von Trap family on skis.

I’ve been skiing for twenty years now, and I’ve just about mastered the parallel turn. So, I think we can all agree that perhaps skiing isn’t my Olympic event.     


As I recently told one of my neighbors, if you see me running then you should be too. Ten to one, there’s a guy with a knife or a group of hungry zombies close behind me.

So, I think we can all agree that I should participate only as an Olympic spectator. However, my protagonist, Elizabeth, recently ventured into an event that I never have; fencing. To find out how she faired, however, you’ll need to read the latest installment in her sleuthing adventures, Murder Most Austen (St. Martins, September 3)

Oh, come on. What are the Olympics without crass advertising?   

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Dreams

Molly Smith wanted to be an Olympic downhill skier. She was raised in the mountains, close to some of the best skiing in the world. Her parents owned an adventure vacation store and guide business: she grew up skiing, hiking, kayaking, and worked as wilderness guide.  

… growing up in the house at the edge of the bush, her first memories of coming to work with her mom, playing with ski equipment and hiking gear as other children played with toy trucks or Lego. Her dad teaching her and her brother to be guides, exploring the remote mountains and hidden valleys at his side.”

Molly was a good skier, very good, but not good enough to make the Olympics. So she quit competition.
But she still loves to ski, calls it the best thing in the world, and hits the slopes at Blue Sky, near the town of Trafalgar, every chance she gets.

“This, racing with Tony, reminded her of when she’d competed. Pushing herself, testing the limits of her mind and body. She’d quit competition when she’d realized she was never going to be good enough to make the Olympics or even a national or provincial team. Maybe, she thought now, gasping to recover her breath, laughing at the snow on Tony’s face, she shouldn’t have been so quick to give it up.”

A lot of the action in Winter of Secrets, the third book in the series, and next year’s A Cold White Sun take place on the slopes.

Me, I don’t ski. I’ve never been too fond of heights and the idea of steaming downhill at full speed has never really appealed.  Sort of like Sergeant John Winters of the Trafalgar City Police who thinks, “Personally, he didn’t see the attraction. Plunging down the side of a mountain at the speed of a freight train and getting freezing cold to boot? No thanks.”

I absolutely love watching it though. I can never get over how fast they go, and how easy they make it look.  Downhill skiing is my favourite of all the Olympic sports.

I wrote Winterof Secrets over the winter I spent in Nelson, B.C. I went to Whitewater, the ski resort there, several times to soak up the atmosphere, check it all out, watch what everyone was doing.   They all seemed to be having fun.

But when it came time to write the scenes where people are actually skiing I was sort of at a loss. So here I am, the Canadian, needing help with the skiing scenes.  I called on two friends –one in Hawaii, and one in Sante Fe.

How’s that for Olympic sized irony?

Monday, August 6, 2012

My Hero!

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

In my Odelia Grey series, Odelia is married to a man named Greg Stevens. Because of an accident in his early teens, Greg is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.  But in spite of his physical disability, he is far from disabled. Greg plays basketball in a wheelchair league, surfs, golfs, and sails. He seldom encounters physical boundaries, and when he does, as in Booby Trap when he is determined to save Odelia's life and hits a roadblock, he puts his brain to work.

So when it comes to sports, pick a sport, any sport, and Greg will at least try it, if not excel at it. He's Odelia's glass-half-full to her glass-half-empty. He's also very tough and protective.

One of my favorite scenes involving Greg also comes from Booby Trap.  He and Odelia have just settled Odelia's father, Horten, in the hospital and join her odious step-mother and step-brother in the waiting room. There Greg and JJ face off over JJ's treatment of Horten:

I stepped between JJ and Greg. “What’s going on?”
“The crip is in my face,” whined JJ. “Tell him to heel.”
I glared at my stepbrother before turning to Greg. My husband’s face was the color of borscht, even his ears. Generally, Greg is pretty even tempered. It takes a lot to push his buttons, which is one of the things I like best about him. But once activated, look out. But this current look was beyond anger. It was even beyond being pissed off. Greg was outraged and I was pretty sure it wasn’t about being called a crip.
Faster than a coiled snake, Greg reached up and grabbed the front of JJ’s shirt with both hands. With a mighty grunt, he threw JJ into a group of empty plastic chairs lined up against the wall. JJ hit the chairs and landed sprawled across the floor.
“If you ever speak to my wife like that again, or mistreat Horten in any way, I’ll show you just how able-bodied this crip can be.”
Applause broke out from the other folks in the waiting room.
Is it any wonder Greg Stevens is a favorite among my readers?  He's the hero in the white hat, riding a steed of high-tech metal.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hey--leave my books alone!

by Meredith Cole

So we're all talking this week about Clandestine Classics' decision to "sex up" the classics and I've been interested to hear what my fellow criminal minds think of the plan.

I admit to being a total curmudgeon about certain things. It's hard not to think of my own books, 100 years in the future, in the hands of someone who has decided to completely rewrite them and add gratuitous sex. Or aliens. Or take out the murders. No!!!

There was a reason there weren't mind-blowing sex scenes in Jane Austen's books. She was no prude (although she died a virgin, as far as we know), but chose to express love and affection in less graphic terms and in ways befitting the culture and art of the time. Rewriting her books is like rewriting history, in my opinion. And we wonder why kids are confused!

Other things I think should never ever happen to any writer or artist:

1) Get abridged: When I was nine, I was convinced I'd read GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. What I had read was a version abridged for kids that took out any difficult vocabulary words and seriously cut down the number of pages. I understand why they do this (expose kids to the classics!) but it is not really Dickens and it should not be presented as Dickens. Would it have really hurt me to wait a couple of years and read the real book instead of someone's "interpretation" of Dickens?

BTW, I don't necessarily put comic book classics in the same category. To me that's an artistic interpretation of a classic (like a movie) rather than a rewrite.

2) Colorization: If I recall correctly, Ted Turner thought that people wouldn't watch black and white movies so Ted decided to colorize the ones he owned. There was a major outcry and threats (Don't you dare try it on CITIZEN KANE!) but he did it anyway on movies like Casablanca (even though it looked rather fake and strange). This seems to me to be a giant denial of a time in history when entertainment was seen in black and white, and cinematographers planned their shots around light and shadow.

3) Have someone "take over" their series: I know I'm going to get a lot of grief over this one, but this just seems wrong to me. I know readers love the characters in certain series and want them to keep living on in new books. But guess what? Everything has to end someday. And just because someone wants to make a whole lot of money doesn't mean it's okay to write what you think would be a writer's next book.

So how do I feel about merchandising (plastering Vincent Van Gogh paintings onto mugs and pot holders) or sampling songs from artists without asking their permission? I guess it all depends on how the artists themselves feel. I get angry when we can no longer ask a writer or film maker for their permission to alter their work but we do it anyway. That just seems wrong to me.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sympathy for the Devil

by Chris F. Holm

So this week's topic is the artistic merit, or lack thereof, inherent in e-publisher Clandestine Classics' insertion (sorry) of erotic scenes into poor, unsuspecting works of literary genius.

Actually, that's a bit of a straw man. The actual phraseology of this week's question is "Good idea, or cheap trick?" Since financially, at least, I suspect it's both, I could just say so and be merrily on my way - but that didn't quite seem fair to you, dear Criminal Minds reader. So instead, I thought I'd recast the question to make it a tad more philosophically interesting, and my argumentative wicket somewhat stickier.

Wait; aren't straw men supposed to be dummy targets, easier to tear down than one's actual argumentative opponents? In that case, did I just invent the Reverse Straw Man? I'd Google to find out, but I'm horrified I might discover that term already has... other uses. (Sorry.) But I digress.

This topic, and this e-book project, seem to've struck a chord within the reading and writing community, and as of this writing, it's left one member (sorry) of the Criminal Minds crew veritably throbbing (sorry) with disgust at those who'd perpetrate such grisly fictional crimes.

Here's the thing, though: what Clandestine Classics is doing? I'm full-on for it.

Whoa whoa whoa. Hear me out. First off, before I get to the thrust (sorry) of my argument, let me first say this: Reece's fantastic blog-post-title is dead-on. This project's fifty shades of wrong. Not because of the smut factor (let the record show there've been many a filthy classic), or because they're robbing the authors' estates of either veto power or fair monetary due (the works in question are in the public domain, as well they should be), but because the whole endeavor smacks of a cheap, tacky cash-in with no intention to (and little likelihood of) add(ing) anything of merit - the literary equivalent of low-hanging (sorry) fruit.

But I'll damn sure defend their right to do it. Because the same copyright and fair-use laws that allow for godawful SCARY MOVIE style satires and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND PENI(...nah, too easy) also clear the way for some of the most wonderful, transformative works of art I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. And since artistic merit is a sliding scale both deeply personal and hotly debated, there's no having one without the other.

Sure, smuttified classics are beyond the pale for most. But how about PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES? I'll admit, that one was cute enough, you say, eyebrow arching beneath your rakishly cockeyed beret. But art? Harrumph. I think not. Fine, then. What of WICKED? Of Jasper Fforde's THE EYRE AFFAIR? Steven Moffat's SHERLOCK? What of Andy Warhol's soup cans, or Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain"?

James M. Cain, author of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, once famously said of the many movie adaptations of his work: "People tell me, don't you care what they've done to your book? I tell them, they haven't done anything to my book. It's right there on the shelf." And so it is with all true classics. We rush to defend them as if they require defending. But these works are like the tides. Forces of nature: beautiful, powerful, unrelenting. They need our help even less than they need the help of the hacks at Clandestine Classics.

It's strange to me, a lifelong hip-hop fan, to see the same issues that have plagued turntablists for decades now rearing their ugly heads in my chosen field of letters. And so I'll leave you with an auditory cautionary tale from the land of Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For. Exhibit A is one of the most execrable so-called "songs" ever put to tape, a cash-in both melodic and lyrical so shameless it'd give the folks at Clandestine Classics a case of the vapors. And it was done with the explicit permission of the artist to whom the original song belonged. I give you Puff Daddy's getting-rich-exploiting-a-dead-friend anthem "I'll Be Missing You":

Exhibit B is one of my all-time favorite instrumental tracks, DJ Shadow's "Midnight in a Perfect World." The song, and the album on which it appears, are notable for being a) stunning, critically acclaimed artistic accomplishments, and b) composed entirely of sampled material, all of it used without permission. Hip-hop fan or not, I'd urge you to let this one play; you may just be surprised: