Friday, September 18, 2020

Rebel Without A Clue

 By Abir Mukherjee

In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?


Right, well the question rather assumes that I have stayed positive and focussed on my writing.


I’m not going to lie to you. Since about June my writing regime has been an utter farce, a crap-shoot, a veritable s*%t show. Sure, I could blame this on Covid, and sure, Covid is probably partly responsible, but a lot of it is down to my own sheer incompetence, laziness and general inability to concentrate on anything for longer than oh look! A puppy!


As for staying positive – that’s not really been a problem, cos if there’s one thing I don’t suffer from, it’s a lack of positivity. Some people see the glass half empty, some half full. Me, I don’t care how much is in it, I’m drinking the contents and stealing the glass. I think I get it from my dad. Now there was a man who had supreme self-confidence in the face of a Himalayan mountain range of evidence to the contrary. He taught me that hard work and diligence were no substitute for charm, good looks and a pig-headed sense of self-belief. I am grateful to him for that.


Yeah, so I’m still positive, because, well why wouldn’t I be? I’ve got so much to be thankful for.


That’s not to say the whole Covid business hasn’t wrought its effects on me and mine. As I’ve said here before, I’ve not really been allowed out of the house much cos my wife thinks I’m the sort of idiot who, at the first whiff of freedom, is going to go out and lick people in the street. That’s rubbish, of course. I probably wouldn’t lick anybody, but try telling her that.


The forced incarceration though has had some peculiar results. I spent most of June and July buying clothes online. Millions of clothes. Jeans, shirts, jumpers, shoes, sneakers, t shirts – you name it, I bought it. I don’t even know why. It’s not as if I need them and I can’t exactly wear them anywhere. So I wear them round the house. I swear I’m the smartest bum you’ve ever seen. Some people do Zoom calls in their boxer shorts. Not me. I’m wearing a three piece suit.


And a cravat.


Maybe it’s my way of looking forward to the day we’ll finally get let out. If there’s a shrink out there, I’d be glad for your opinion on this (but I’m not paying, I’ve spent all my money on clothes).


My wife thinks it’s a mid-life crisis, and maybe she’s right. Last month I bought a biker jacket. I’m forty six and I don’t have a bike. I’m probably never going to get one. Still, I love the jacket. It makes me look tough. I’m looking forward to wearing it to the pub with the rest of my forty something crew - Steve and Alan and Jim (not their real names - I asked them but they said that when it came to being friends with me, they'd rather maintain an air of mystery). Strictly speaking, Alan is still in his thirties and is technically a millennial, so his opinion on most matters is suspect, though he’s useful in the music rounds at the pub quiz because none of the rest of us have any clue about music post 1997. Talking of the pub quiz, I can’t wait to wear my jacket to it – I imagine the other teams will stare at me in awe as I strut in. They’ll be like, ‘Wow, look at that jacket. He’s obviously hard as nails, and he knows the capital of Venezuela.’


But by the start of August, there was no more space in any of our wardrobes and so I had to stop buying clothes. So I started buying electrical items instead. I bought a laser printer. It’s a thing of beauty with its clean white lines and touch screen, and it’s whirring is like the sound of angels bickering. But then I found out the price of a new toner cartridge and nearly had a heart attack. How can toner cost more than my car?! It’s insane. So now the beautiful printer just sits there, a white elephant which I admire wistfully, from a distance, and imagine what wonderful stuff we might have printed together if I’d been a millionaire. 

Beauty, thy name is HP ColorLaserjet MFP M282-M285

I've also bought a microphone for a ridiculous amount of money. I thought it might help on Zoom calls and for my podcast (the Red Hot Chilli Writers) if I bought one. And this has been a good purchase. Before, my recorded voice used to sound like a cat being strangled. Now I sound like the love child of Billy Connolly and Barry White. 


It’s not just me though. I think my wife has caught whatever madness this is. On Sunday she went out to buy milk and ended up buying an unbelievably huge mirror. I’m not joking. The thing has doors. It’s less a mirror and more like the entrance to Narnia. She says it’s the kind of mirror you don’t actually hang up, but leave standing on the floor – which suits me fine because it means I won’t have to risk being crushed to death trying to get it up on the wall. But there is nowhere in our house with enough space for it to stand without looking ridiculous. We are literally going to have to move to a bigger house so that we’ve got space for this mirror. 

What’s more, the delivery guy left it outside our house and I was the one who had to bring it in and put it up against every wall to test where it looked best. That was fine, but later that night we were sitting on the sofa watching the final episode of Cormoran Strike, and just as things were reaching a crescendo, I sat up a bit straighter, just to catch the denouement, and promptly put my back out. I’m pretty sure it was because of all the mirror carrying earlier. I was in agony for the rest of the night, and I still don’t know what happened at the end of the programme. I’ve spent the last few days with a hot water bottle pressed up to my back. But as I say, I’m a positive guy, I look on the bright side. The good news is, the hot water bottle fits perfectly under my new biker jacket.

Mirror? Or portal to another dimension?


Wait, before you go, there's one more thing. 

The Bloody Scotland Crime Festival is on this weekend, and because it's virtual this year, it's allowed it to be truly global and feature the best of British and international crime writers such as Lynwood Barclay, Ann Cleeves, Jeffrey Deaver, Peter May, Ian Rankin, Steve Cavanagh, Lawrence Block, Val McDermid, Adrian McKinty, Yrsa Sigardursdottir, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Lou Berney, Denise Mina, Mark Billingham John Connelly to name a few.

 It starts today and runs all weekend, and best of all, it’s free. Just click on the link below:

Have a good weekend, and stay safe.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

How I’ve Spent My Time in Solitary by James W. Ziskin

 In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?

This question sounds familiar. Four weeks ago, we were asked how we managed to stay sane and motivated in these strange times. For me, sane and positive go hand in hand. When I’m feeling positive, I’m also confident that I’ll keep my sanity. But the gauntlet has been thrown, so here goes.

I’ve been relatively happy since March, when we began self-isolation. Here’s what I’ve been doing to stay positive and, in turn, focused.

On the personal side, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife and cat, each working at our own jobs, me at my desk, my wife at hers, and Bobbie—the cat—supervising. Our work days run eight to ten hours. I write, edit, and draw—maps for my next book. But I also take care of things around the house. Laundry, shopping, cooking.

Cat at work
Map in progress for new book



Risotto alla Milanese

Over the past six months, I’ve expanded my culinary repertoire, but I won’t be appearing on Master Chef anytime soon. For one thing, I can’t seem to get the hang of following recipes. I improvise, especially with measurements. I’m also a terribly slow prep cook. When the recipe says fifteen minutes prep, it invariably takes me forty-five. And don’t ask about my knife skills. I’m more likely to cut myself than that piece of chicken.

As for the shopping, I’ve been ordering online for home delivery. We have an area near the door that’s far from the rest of the house, so we’ve created a quarantine space there. Items not requiring refrigeration are left there for three days in boxes with exit labels. We’re going with a three-day quarantine for food and mail.

For the things that need refrigeration, I wash them with soap and water in the kitchen sink as soon as they arrive. Yup, I wash them. Tomatoes, zucchini, milk cartons, etc. are easy. Cabbage isn’t too bad. But parsley? Broccoli? It’s like washing hair that you intend to eat. But I do it. Then I spread it out to dry for a few hours before putting it into the fridge.


Did you really think I was abstaining? It’s shameful to admit, but alcohol has definitely taken some of the sting out of isolation. Hic.


I wish I could say I was exercising more, but I can’t. And that’s not the sports I was referring to. With the NBA playoffs and the start of the NFL season, I have a pleasant diversion to amuse me several times a week. Can’t say the same for baseball. The game is getting slower and slower, and I’m not interested. Maybe when the World Series rolls around. And, sorry, Canadian friends, I’ve never been a hockey man. 


I don’t watch a lot of television. Apart from Shetland, which I enjoyed recently, I haven’t binged anything on TV. But I have been listening a lot to French and Italian radio on Radio Garden. Look it up. Hundreds of stations from around the world are streaming there for free. I tend to go for the older stuff. Songs I remember from my years in France and Italy in the seventies and eighties.

On the professional side, (here’s the focused part) I took advantage of the isolation to increase my writing productivity. I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Twenty-five-Year Engagement,” that will appear in the anthology, In League with Sherlock Holmes, coming December 1, from Pegasus, edited by Leslie S. Klinger and Laurie R. King. See? My name is last, after a lot of very talented writers.

I also wrote a new book, Monsoon Chase, a throwback thriller set in 1975 India. That’s been satisfying, if very difficult. I’m not used to the challenges of completing a novel in just over two months. The speed caused many problems in the manuscript, so I’ve also been revising like mad. The revisions have now reached the point where I’ve decided to make a major change in the story. As I’ve noted in past posts, when you change something in your book—even something small—so many connections can be broken. So imagine how difficult that is when you’re changing lots of larger plot points. It’s a lot of hunting and pecking to find the shattered connections and fix them. But I think the result will be better than the original. I should be finished with this revision (number eight) by the weekend.

So that’s it. For me, accomplishments, big and small, are what have been keeping me feeling positive. And sane during this crazy time. How Jim fills his days... This must be the most boring post ever on 7 Criminal Minds. I apologize. See you in two weeks after more of the same!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A noise in the head

In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write?

by Dietrich

I try to avoid anything negative – easier said than done sometimes. I don’t check out the headlines before I sit down to write. There’s not much that I need to know, and even less that’s going to lift me up. And I’ve learned not to go traipsing through my social media or email accounts before I get started. Undistracted by any of that noise, I sit at my desk, and I let whatever I’m working on take shape. I’m always motivated to get back to whatever the story is – and I always feel fortunate to be doing what I love to do.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

We’ve all got stuff to deal with from time to time, and if I let myself get in a slump, then it would likely show up in my writing. So, I jump right in and shove all that mind noise out of the way, and I allow myself to get transported into the story, and I’m engaged. I do have a couple of things that help me get there, like my morning bucket of coffee, along with the music I like to play while I’m writing.

"There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they'll take you."  Beatrix Potter

Away from the desk, I get inspired by great writing, and I’ve always got a book or two on the go, with a stack more more.

Here are a couple of recent summer reads that I found both inspiring and darkly funny and definitely worth passing on. Dana King knocks it out of the park with his latest in the Penns River series, Pushing Water – you have to read this guy. And although not a new book, I recently read Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Letham, and it’s top notch writing and a very funny and entertaining book.

Anything that inspires keeps me motivated. A lot of the time that means a great book, but it could be a film or a series too, or a trip to the art gallery to see some amazing pieces on display. And sometimes I just like getting away from the city noise and tramp through the woods or stroll along the water’s edge. 

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” – John Steinbeck

Humor helps to keep everything light, and I love to laugh. Give me a comedy series like Veep, a standup routine by Gina Yashere, or a funny book by Terry Fallis or some crime novel laced with dark humor, something by Donald E. Westlake or James Crumley.

I’m also looking forward to my new book Cradle of the Deep coming out early in November, and that gets me jazzed. Now that’s a great feeling – to be working on one story and knowing another one is about to be released. Yeah, life is good.  

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Staying Sane

Terry Shames, here, talking about staying "positive"  In these times.

Positive? No. Something like “upright and functioning” comes to mind. This will not be a cheerful post, so be advised.


I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a husband I get along with (usually), two entertaining dogs (except when they wake me up at 3AM to inform me that a skunk is in the backyard),


a nice house with a big backyard 

 plenty to eat (we’re not going there), no kids to educate, and plenty of friends and family to talk to by Zoom or on the phone—and lately in the backyard, at distance.  I’m also healthy and usually upbeat. I have wide interests and actually find there are too many things to do.



But the biggest advantage I have to keep me positive is that I’m a writer. 

Being a writer means I can lose myself in whatever world I’m creating at the moment. That said, in the first few months of lockdown I finished up a novel I was working on and the result was a disaster. It read as if halfway through a crazy person had taken over. I wandered off the subject, failed to address plot holes and generally screwed up. I kept trying to revise it and only after my agent “gently” broke it to me that it would not do did I realize I should have scrapped it a long time ago. I didn’t like the characters or the plot. In better times, I think I would have recognized the shortcoming of the book earlier. But I do think that forcing myself to write every day kept me sane.


So now, I’m sane, but not positive. There are too many bad things going on in the world right now. Why did the apocalypse choose 2020 to rain down? Who knows. All I know is that scientists have been pleading for years for governments and citizens to pay attention to climate change. Reaction has largely been hands over ears, eyes shut, screaming loudly that it can’t be true. The result: climate run amok—epic fires on the west coast, and apocalyptic air quality.


Backyard at noon during smoke.

Scientists have been pleading for months that being disciplined about wearing masks and keeping distance would improve chances of overcoming the pandemic. Reaction has been wildly scattered, with some taking it seriously; others not. The result: we all know. The non-believers make sure the believers have to stay inside—maybe forever. Thanks.


Every day seems to bring new horrors to face. People try to stay positive with wry humor (Did you have millions of acres catching fire on your Bingo card?) or ignoring it (I can’t face another disaster. I’ve turned off my TV), or trying to find something positive (note my second paragraph).


I did find that since I scrapped the book I was working on and went back to my “roots” and focused on the community I’ve always written about, I have been able to escape for a few hours every day into my alternate world.


Everyone knows me as the most upbeat person around. But it’s gotten increasingly harder.

There’s nothing to be done but put one foot in front of the other and, in my case anyway, believe that things will get better. But that doesn’t mean I don’t envy people who are Covid deniers, who blithely go on about their business and ignore the 1,000 people each day who die of the disease. It doesn’t mean I don’t envy climate deniers who blithely buy gas hog cars and vote for candidates who roll back environmental protections. They live in an easier world than I do. Their world is more irresponsible, but probably more fun.


Positive? Sorry, but the most positive I can be these days is to know that I’m not Covid positive.


But like Brenda, I have a few things that help me cope:


Reading. I’ve never read so much. Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, sci-fi, you name it.


Buying new toys, one in particular: Because we decided not to have our housekeeper come (yes, we still pay her), I bought a Roomba. You’d think I bought a new pet. I follow it around and talk to it. I named it Sweepie.


Jigsaw puzzles. I’ve been doing huge puzzles. It keeps my little eyes busy, if not my brain.


Exercise. Going on long walks has been very helpful—until the smoke. Now, indoors is best. I do have an old exercise bike and elliptical trainer, and they get liberal use.

Hike near my house


Cooking. We never went out to eat much, so I’m really happy that I love to cook.


And one odd addition: I like to drive around. It makes me feel normal. A drive to the Bay is lovely. Except, now the smoke. At least I have hopes that the smoke will go away.

And now, tomorrow we're leaving to spend three weeks on the beach in a rented house that is Covid free. And we get to see these two while we're there:














Sunday, September 13, 2020

Staying Positive In Uncertain Times

In these times, how do you stay positive so that you can focus on what you write? 

Brenda Chapman here.

Staying positive during the past six months with Covid has been easy some days and tough others. It's overwhelming to think about the devastation this virus has and is wreaking on so many lives and families around the world. Combined with the natural disasters, like the forest fires raging up the Pacific Coast in the U.S., and the racial unrest escalating in many countries, and it feels as if we're living in a war zone. These are indeed difficult, disturbing, heart-wrenching times.

I recognize that I'm fortunate to live in Canada, where the government took Covid-19 seriously and has coordinated its response based on science to keep people safe. We have universal health care in Canada so nobody is charged if they have to go the doctor or hospital for care. The government has also instituted several programs to financially help affected individuals and businesses through these tough times. 

Personally, I'm also fortunate to live with my husband in a house with a yard with friendly neighbours. My situation keeps me positive most days. Still, like everyone, I have down days when the reality of what's going on in the world gets to me, not to mention the need to stay near home, avoiding social contact and wearing a mask when I enter a store or other indoor location - not the worst things in life, but still limiting and strange.

What helps me stay positive? Here's my list:

1.  Exercise. I have a stationary bike and hand weights and aim to have an hour-long workout every third day. Two neighbours and I also go for evening walks around the neighbourhood when the weather is good and I often walk in the afternoons as well.

2.  Working in my garden. This has been my best tonic. I spend at least an hour watering, deadheading, weeding every morning and throughout the day. There's something about nurturing plants that's good for the soul. Strangers often stop to chat when they see me working in the side garden, a nice side benefit.

3.  Having socially distanced visits with friends and family. We started meeting in backyards once the weather warmed. My younger daughter Julia visits almost weekly with her dog George. We're also in a bubble with our older daughter Lisa and have shared a few meals.

4.  Writing. There's nothing to compare with creating a world on paper and disappearing into the story that comes out of one's imagination.

5.  Reading. I continually have a book on the go. I also belong to a book club and we've met by Zoom and in person in backyards over the summer. I'm currently reading How to be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi. I'm looking forward to my next read, which will be Colin Conway and Frank Zafiro's soon to be released Code Four.

6. Zoom calls. I have a couple of friend groupings who meet every month by Zoom. I'm in the process of setting up a call with my three siblings who are spread out across the country.

7.  Netflix. When I really need to get my mind off things, I tune in to a series or movie on Netflix. We're currently watching "Dirty John" and I have a list of mystery dramas on standby. 

8. Sports. I like playing and watching sports so I've been following live golf, tennis, baseball and basketball on television, and since we are a family of curlers, I watch the odd taped game from the past, usually one with my daughter Lisa playing. If you want to while away a few hours, you can watch her on YouTube in this world final between Canada and Russia from 2017.

8. Volunteering. I signed up to be the Eastern Ontario representative for Crime Writers of Canada and also joined the marketing committee. This has kept me busy through the summer months with Zoom calls and follow up. I've also continued my support for adult literacy and recently recorded a spot for an organization in Ottawa to celebrate International Literacy Day.

9. Baking. Yes, I'm one of those people baking bread and cookies and muffins. It's just one more way to be creative :-)

10. Online Shopping. Who knew waiting for an order could be so exciting? I started with boxes of wine from Niagara, books from my local independent bookstore Perfect Books, meat from my neighbourhood butcher, and environmentally friendly cleaning and bath products from Terra 20. I've since moved on to clothing and locally made soaps and candles. It's a good way to support local small businesses from the comfort of your home.

11. Crossword puzzles. I've found some online daily puzzles and work on them when I have small gaps of time to fill.

12. Plans. Every morning, I lie in bed and think about what I want to accomplish that day. It could be walking to a local shop, finishing up a chapter or vacuuming the downstairs. The point is that I keep busy and have goals.

So these are some of the ways I've managed to stay positive and to find comfort during these unsettling times. I hope that you are also managing to stay hopeful and safe. Follow along this week to see how my fellow bloggers are also keeping positive, and remember, that we will get through these stressful days together.


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, September 11, 2020

Marketing in the Time of Covid

This year has thrown us plenty of curveballs. Have you (and your publisher) adapted new ways to market your books?

by Paul D. Marks

I have to admit that I just did a blog post recently over at SleuthSayers on this very subject before I looked to see what this week’s question is. So this will be a rerun of that for people who didn’t see it there. The one thing I’ll add is that in addition to everything below, I’ve also been trying some Facebook and Instagram ads, with some okay results. The Amazon ads we tried had virtually no results. And we use KDP Rocket and do whatever we’re supposed to do but for whatever reason not much came from it.

And so now to what I said a couple of weeks ago on SleuthSayers. Still valuable and definitely responds to this question:

We’re all hunkered down these days under house arrest. Some people are binging on Netflix, others catching up on all the cute cat videos they’ve missed. Others still are too anxious to do much of anything productive. I’m lucky in that my life hasn’t changed all that much on a day to day basis since I’ve worked at home for ages. I still walk the dog/s. Do my writing. Listen to music. Watch the old black and white movies that I love. Read. The one big change is that my wife’s been working at home since March. Luckily we seem to get along. Blame that on her more than me 😉.

But, as writers there have been some changes, most notably that in-person events have been cancelled. Most of the conventions and conferences that we enjoy have been zapped, Bouchercon, West Coast Crime (right in the middle of the actual convention), and others. In-store book events and launches have largely disappeared for now. But we live in an age of new-fangled thingies, an amazing age, an age of the internet, Zoom, Skype and other modern marvels.

My virtual acceptance speech for Ellery Queen Readers Award

So, the other day, as I was doing a Zoom panel for a writer’s conference, it dawned on me how cool it is to be able to do this. Not all that long ago it couldn’t have happened because the technology wasn’t there. With something like the Covid pandemic the event would just have disappeared. But with Zoom, Skype and others they just sort of morph into something virtual.

Since the lockdown began I’ve done several Zoom events. I haven’t yet hosted one though I’m thinking about doing that for the Coast to Coast: Noir anthology that I co-edited that’s coming out in September. That will be a new learning curve. But before that I had to learn how to Zoom as a guest. It’s not hard—and it’s really cool and fun. I also did a short (non-Zoom) video for Ellery Queen on coming in second in their readers poll since they, too, cancelled their in-person event in NYC. And I’ve done several panels and interviews and even virtual doctor appointments. As I write this a bit ahead of its posting date just a few days ago I did a Skype interview for a radio station in England. Could we have done that even twenty years ago? Maybe by phone, but with much more difficulty and expense.

E-flyer from Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles first House Arrest virtual reading

Remember long distance phone calls (and long distance could virtually be just across the street in some cases). They were ridiculously expensive. You’d call the operator before your call and request “time and charges,” then when the call was over the operator would call you back and tell you how long the call lasted and how much it cost. And you’d get sticker shock.

The "good old days".

In the near last minute my wife suggested doing a virtual launch for The Blues Don’t Care in June since there were no in person events happening. So we had to scramble to figure out how to do that. We weren’t sure if we should try Zoom or another service or stick to the old standby (yeah ‘old’ standby) of Facebook, which is what we ended up doing. And it turned out better than I had expected. We had a big group of people and questions flying back and forth. Plus I’d toss out tidbits of info on various things related to events that took place in the novel, like the gambling ships that lay off the SoCal coast back in the day. It was fun, if a little hectic, and I think people enjoyed it.

So we make do as best we can. And we don’t have to shower or drive to get to our meetings 😉. It’s also kind of cool to just see someone when you’re talking one to one with Zoom or Skype or other services. My wife’s family reunion was cancelled this year because of Covid but her and some of her cousins get together semi-regularly with each other via Zoom. Like they used to say, it’s the next best thing to being there.

So what’s next? Virtual reality meetings? Holograms? Mind-melding? Beam me up Scotty! There seem to be no limits to technology, but there is still something to be said for meeting people face to face. Standing close enough to whisper something, closer than 6 feet apart. Laughing, talking, sharing good food (and drink!) and good stories. So until we can do those things again, at least we have the virtual world, which is the next best thing.


And now for the usual BSP:

Thanks to Steve Steinbock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for the review of The Blues Don’t Care in the current September/October 2020 issue just out. Four stars out of four. My first time getting reviewed in EQMM. A great honor!

And our own Cathy Ace’s The Corpse with the Crystal Skull is also reviewed in this issue.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Thursday, September 10, 2020

What Can Keith Jarrett and Maurice Ravel Teach Us about Writing Craft? from James W. Ziskin

Since I traded with Catriona last week—she had Laura Jensen Walker as a guest blogger—I’m answering last week’s question.

Do you think about craft while you are writing? (how to construct good characters, settings, plot) Or do you just let her rip and worry about that “later?”

My writing process has evolved greatly over the course of the past few decades. Yes, that’s right. Decades. Before I sold my first Ellie Stone book, Styx & Stone, I had years to re-write, polish, tear up, and otherwise improve it. There was no deadline, and I was learning.

Likewise, my second book was already written when I signed the contract for it. At that time, I had nothing but a blank page for book 3, Stone Cold Dead. I opened a file and typed “Write really good novel here.” That was it. But I did have some time—about a year—before the next book was due to the publisher. Writing Stone Cold Dead, I became a plotter. Outlining your entire book before starting to write it helps produce a cleaner first draft. In my case, I had fewer plot holes and logic gaps to fix. Was this a better way to work? Maybe so. Stone Cold Dead was a finalist for the 2016 Anthony, Lefty, and Barry awards. Not bad. I thought I’d continue to write books that way.

But by the time I reached my seventh Ellie Stone mystery, Turn to Stone (January 2020), something had changed. I found myself writing the entire thing by the seat of my pants. That hadn’t been my intention; it just happened that way. And it meant revising the gaping holes, plot mistakes, and inconsistencies in the first draft. I had to do these fixes on the back end instead of the front. Tiny little errors hid in every corner of the story. And when you change a detail, date, or name in a book, dozens of unexpected problem arise. It’s the Butterfly Effect. It breaks connections you may not be thinking about it and changes the universe.

Here’s an example from my work in progress, Monsoon Chase. I realized I’d skipped a day in my calculations for July 1975. Simple correction, right? I changed that date, as well as all the dates that followed accordingly. All was well with the world. Except that, by changing the dates, I’d inadvertently moved the deaths of Haile Selassie and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (PM of Bangladesh at the time) to the wrong days. As my main character/narrator is a journalist, he had to mention these two important deaths. But that’s not all. Ruffian, the champion Thoroughbred, broke down in her match race with Foolish Pleasure and was destroyed the following day, July 7, 1975. But, because of my miscalculation, I had my hero reading about her death in the newspaper on the morning of July 7, in Bombay, India. That was before midnight on the 6th on the East Coast of the United States. With the time difference, Ruffian was still alive and in surgery.

These may seem like minor errors, but they can destroy a reader’s confidence in your research. Alas, these broken connections happen all too often when you change elements of the plot.

And, of course, I did not plot out Monsoon Chase. I pants’d it despite my best intentions not to do so. No real outline at all. It all came to me as I wrote. My theory—and sheepish defense—is that perhaps pantsing has a liberating effect on creativity. 

Consider Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert. By pure happenstance, it also took place in 1975. The long and short of it was that, by mistake, there was no acceptable piano in place for the concert at the Cologne Opera House. Just an old upright in bad shape. The pedals didn’t work properly and the sound was awful. It would never do. Jarrett refused to play, but, as it was too late to get a replacement instrument and the concert was scheduled to be recorded, he relented. Improvising workarounds and compromises on the fly to disguise/overcome the piano’s shortcomings, 
Jarrett produced what is considered his greatest performanceThe miraculous Köln Concert became the best-selling solo-piano jazz album in history. Check out the full story hereöln_Concert

Maybe pantsing is something like that. Maybe the inconvenience it thrusts upon writers somehow stimulates their creativity and produces high quality work.

And, so, I’ve come to realize that both methods—plotting and pantsing—work. And I also realize that a discussion of my current writing M.O. lends itself quite well to this week’s topic.

I wrote the first draft of Monsoon Chase in big hurry. 115,000 words in just over two months. And since then, I’ve put in two months of revisions. I’ve finished the seventh pass and am about to embark on the eighth. Here are some of the questions of craft that I left for later while writing the first draft.

1. FLESHING OUT. This goes for characters, plot, and description. Think, for a moment, that writing a first draft is the like the progression of Ravel’s Boléro. It starts out simply enough. A soft snare drum and some gentle plucking of strings. Then a

flute begins the melody. As the piece progresses, the melody is handed off to other instruments—clarinet, bassoon, horns, etc.—and more orchestra sections join in, giving the music body and weight and complexity. By the end, it’s full. And loud. Fortissimo. I like to think that a first draft of my work needs beefing up in certain areas—like Ravel’s Boléro—even as it needs trimming and tightening elsewhere. I want to improve the overall impression of my narrative. Make it more than, say, a simple melody played on a piano with one finger. Fleshing out a manuscript is, in this sense, akin to orchestration. I want to blend in harmonies, bass, syncopation, counterpoint, refrains, and codas, etc. to complement the simplicity of the melody. To make the story, characters, and world seem complete.

2. I mentioned trimming and tightening. Those are steps I definitely leave until after I’ve finished the first draft. Just as you don’t clean up a baby’s throw-up in medias res—helpful hint, wait until the baby has finished spewing—I don’t clean up my text until I’ve finished vomiting it into the first draft. (Sorry for the imagery.)

3. I also have a growing list of checks I leave for revision stages, many performed several times before I’m through. These include the following: 

    A. The JUST check. While I believe many writers insist too heavily on eliminating the word “just” from their manuscripts, I agree that it can be overused. Remember, however, that “just” is a versatile word. 

    i. It can be an adjective. “He was a just man.” There is no reason ever to delete this usage of “just,” as it is correct and proper and is not overused. 

    ii. “Just” often appears in common, extremely useful idioms such as “just so,” “just right,” “just as easily,” “just like that,” and “just friends.” I doubt I would remove these from a manuscript, unless I felt the text was too flabby or long. But certainly not because they are extraneous. If you remove “just” from these idioms, the meaning changes. After all, “Mary and I are friends” does not convey the same meaning as “Mary and I are just friends.” 

    iii. But then we come to “just” as an adverb. This is where the overuse can occur. Often you can replace this “just” with “only” or “merely.” Or “exactly” and “precisely,” depending on which sense of “just” is being used. Or we might be able to eliminate it altogether without materially changing the meaning.

In my work in progress, I searched for all instances of “just” (whole words only), and I found 195. I went through them one by one and got that number down to eighty-seven. I deleted some, rewrote sentences to avoid the usage in other cases, and changed them to “only,” merely,” or “exactly.”

But beware an overly dogmatic approach to weeding out “just.” I did a search for the word “only” when I’d finished my “just” check, and guess what. There were 164 occurrences...

    B. ADVERB check. Anyone can find themselves overusing adverbs in their prose. It’s a good idea to search them out and decide if they’re necessary. Remember that adverbs exist to modify verbs. They can clarify, intensify, and add nuance to them. They also modify adjectives. Useful things, adverbs. But, like salt, too much of a good thing can ruin the dish. Search for adverbs and decide their fate. Strong verbs are great. Adverbs CAN water down verbs. Or be JUST What the verbs need. Be judicious.

C. SEEM/APPEAR/LOOK check. Since I write a first-person narrator, I have to be careful about these verbs. My narrator cannot always say with certainty what another character is feeling. He—In the case of Monsoon Chase—and she—in the case of Ellie Stone—can only observe and describe. So they might say “John seemed put off by my question” instead of “John was put off.” Maybe he wasn’t. He just looked that way.

This is not an issue with a third-person omniscient narrator, but with my first-person, these verbs tend to pile up. I try to cull them at this stage.

    D. ANACHRONISM check. I write historical novels, so I have to worry about time. Before the pandemic, I traveled a lot. I used to find myself writing on airplanes, where I didn’t have internet access and couldn’t always check historical details. So I marked my questions for verification later. Today, this is less of an issue, but I still leave plenty of words, facts, and arcana for later confirmation. While writing the first draft, these things can usually wait.

Of course there are many other problems I look for and correct over the course of my revisions, but these were not necessarily things I “left” for later. I believe writers always find better ideas as they continue to work on a story or a book. And some errors only reveal themselves with time. 

A book takes a lot of time and effort and patience to write. Decide whether you want to do the lion’s share of that work at the beginning of the process or at the end. Or if you want to use some kind of hybrid strategy. The fact is, if you put in the work diligently enough—no matter which order you do it—you can produce a fine book.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Marketing stuff...and a NEW TITLE REVEAL! by Cathy Ace

Business: This year has thrown us plenty of curveballs. Have you (and your publisher) adapted new ways to market your books?

Given that my background is in strategic marketing planning, brand building, and marketing communications planning and implementation (oo, er, missus…I know!) I’m going to be pedantic here and note that “marketing” refers to the entire “marketing mix”, which means the product, price, place and promotion of the product. Now, I’m guessing that this week’s questioner expected we responders to focus purely on the promotional elements of the marketing mix, but I shall go further and look at all “Four P’s of the Marketing Mix” as they are known (trust me on this…I’d written nine postgrad and management texts on this stuff, before I “turned to crime” LOL!).

Some of the books I wrote before my "life of crime"

The pandemic has meant huge change: the initial lockdown of bookstores and libraries, followed by some re-openings, but with social distancing; a kink in every link in the book production and distribution chain; people’s needs, wants, and desires in terms of their choice of entertainment has shifted because their life-patterns and levels of disposable income have been altered (as well as them just plain losing the opportunity to participate in some forms of entertainment); the mushrooming access to online forms of connectivity, and increased levels of readiness of many (not all) sectors of society to access such online culture/performance/interaction .

So, yes, big changes, all of which can impact an author such as myself.

Product: When it comes to book marketing, most authors want to write what they want to write, with little thought to meeting the needs of a specific market sector – in other words, as authors most of us begin as supplier-driven rather than market-driven forces…publishers are the ones who aim to sculpt our books to be what they believe “the market” wants (that topic is an entirely different blog post). I’m not one of the authors rushing to publish a set-during-a-pandemic novel, (though I am one of the ones working out how to deal with the “new reality” – whatever that turns out to be! – in my next book) so the product itself – my backlist of books, and the book published this past June – were not changed, and cannot change, to accommodate the pandemic.

All three other “P’s” have changed, however, for me.

Price: I have run a couple more discounts on selected titles than would be the norm for me; I don’t usually run price discounts, because the books over which I have price control (my Indie-published titles…authors have no price control of their titles published by traditional publishing houses) are all set at the right low-market price, so there’s not much leeway.

Place: sales (by both Indie and traditional publishers) to libraries are in the tank for obvious reasons, and might never recover. There are HUNDREDS of books by “big names” being published around the world on September 3rd this year – many held back from summer launches, plus those that were due to be out in time for the “Holiday Season”; I reckon they’ll soak up library budgets…at least they’ll soak up whatever money is remaining in the budgets that have been shredded by libraries having to reallocate funds to make themselves safe to reopen and stay open. I don’t see book-buying budgets in libraries ever being what they once were, sadly. Bookstore sales are in the tank for obvious reasons (see above) and face the added problems that some bookstores have closed forever/have laid off staff, and many book-buyers might not feel they can safely return to browsing for some time. (NOTE: the massive book wholesaler Bertram, in the UK, has gone bust, leaving only Gardners there, like the loss of Baker & Taylor in the USA left only Ingram remaining  – this will have a huge impact on book wholesaling around the world: That said, online sales are strong – not much of a surprise there, I suppose; some traditional publishers have spotted this and have published titles ONLY online, with print publication being delayed (possibly indefinitely). This shift, will, I believe, have a long-lasting effect on the publishing world, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more titles becoming digital-only, as publishers and their accountants spot the advantages of non-print publishing.

Promotion: no libraries or bookstores in which to do readings or signings to promote my new book, or support my backlist; no conventions at which to meet readers (and fellow authors!). Other than that, nothing much has changed…except, sort of everything has changed. What do I mean? Well, I used to do most of my promotion work online, and that hasn’t changed, but the online communication landscape itself has changed. Firstly, there are more online interviews, podcasts, events, virtual conventions, get-togethers etc. etc. which is great in one way (because readers LOVE that content is available to enjoy on their own schedule, and they’re able to gain access to events they might never have been  able to attend in person) BUT it means that the online communication landscape is now getting a bit full – there are SO MANY bits and bites of insights, interviews, and talking heads online that it’s becoming a bit confusing. I, like everyone else, am navigating this new landscape.

Anyhoo…those are the business problems.

I’m trying to focus on the next Cait Morgan Mystery which will be titled...drum roll, please...

The Corpse with the Iron Will 

It will be published in…nope, you’ll have to sign up for my newsletters to be the first to know that, sorry! 

CLICK HERE to be able to do that, and to access my website.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Swinging at Curveballs

Business: This year has thrown us plenty of curveballs. Have you (and your publisher) adapted new ways to market your books?

From Frank

In a word, no.

I mean, not really. But a little.

I'm a hybrid author in terms of publishing. By this, I mean that half of my novels are published by Down and Out Books, a small press that specializes in grittier crime fiction (they also sponsor my podcast, Wrong Place, Write Crime, which is mighty nice of 'em). The other half I publish independently. Essentially, if it is a River City-based novel, whether part of the main series or a spin-off, I publish it myself. 

So this really comes down to two different questions - what has the publisher done differently, and what have I done myself?

First, my publisher. The honest truth here is, not much. Down and Out's method of promotion isn't one that has been impacted much by the limitations of Covid-19. A small press is never going to be taking out a billboard for any of your books in the first place, right?

One thing we did different, but this was decided at Bouchercon 2019, was to release the remainder of the Charlie-316 series in rapid succession. So instead of book 2 (Never the Crime) in June 2020 and Badge Heavy (#3) and Code Four (#4) coming in '21 and '22, this series will come out in June 2020, September 2020, and November 2020. Bam, bam, bam.

Maybe it's a dumb idea. Maybe it's brilliant. But two things are certain: readers won't have to wait, and Down and Out deserves some kudos for a willingness to try something outside the norm.

Me? Well, I haven't been doing any bookstore signings. I have done a virtual event, and it was pleasantly Zoom-bombed.

To be honest again, I haven't adjusted much from some of the strategies I implemented before 2020 made landfall (and yes, I think it is fair to consider this year as the equivalent of a tropical storm or an invading army). I've been building a newsletter, trying to find the balance between quantity and quality of subscribers, and riding that line of balance of perfect enagement that is neither too frequent to be bothersome or too infrequent to be forgotten... and I'm sure I'm not hitting that mark very well. 

Social media has long been touted as a way to reach fans, but I wonder about that. It seems to me that it is a great way to connect with existing fans but not to create new ones. Still, it is the cheapest and most accessible way to market oneself, and a writer would be foolish not to have at least a minimal presence there.

Another marketing consideration is the focus on digital. I've never sold a lot of physical copies compared to digital. 2020 has only reinforced that, so I've been leaning hard toward those methods that push the digital. This is probably different for some other authors, perhaps even those on this blog, and that's fine. Every journey is different.

Another "new" way is that I've started taking a minute or two during my aforementioned podcast to mention my own work. I shied away from that for the first couple of seasons, wanting to feature my guests exclusively. But I decided (with the help of a listener poll) to make a quick mention when there's something worth mentioning.

I just looked back over this post and realized it is an awful lot of space to say "No, not really." I'm going to resist the urge to delete the whole thing, and just leave you with this:

My sixth River City novel, Place of Wrath and Tears, came out on August 12 (indie) and the third Charlie-316 novel, Badge Heavy with Colin Conway will be out on September 14. If you follow the link by clicking on the titles or covers, then this post counts as marketing, right?

Oh, and there's the book trailers. I forgot to mention those. My friend and co-author Colin Conway did those. Place of Wrath and Tears has one, and I've embedded the Badge Heavy trailer below. Again, I don't know how effective trailers are but I will say this - Colin did a great job, and I'm glad to have one more little piece to help promote.

Check out the trailer!