Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dandy Gilver and The Cannibal Kitten Smasher?

Perhaps not.  Writing a series of detective stories about an amateur sleuth in the 1920s keeps me well away from the bit of the genre where we all start to wonder where it's going to end.  The tone would be a joke; worse than a sado-masochism series by an an author who couldn't use plain terms for genitals.  No, wait!  Bad example.  But you know what I mean.

Which is not to say I've never had complaints.  There was one time when someone at a reading said - in very schoolmarmish tones - that she hoped I wasn't going to be poking fun at religion again.  AGAIN?  It turns out she didn't like the line in Bury Her Deep (DG3) where I said "The Church of Scotland gets by on a little doctrine and a lot of scones."  I persuaded her that it was affectionately meant and we parted friends.

I imagine that most people's threshold is set a wee bit higher than that, but we've all got one.  I wouldn't have a problem with serial killers if the muse ever dragged me that way; they're so vanishingly rare in real life and so effulgently ubiquitous in fiction that (to me) they've become almost as cartoonish as zombies and vampires.


But if the muse started whispering a tale of serial rape in my ear I'd sing "La-la-la can't hear you" until she shut up again.  Partly that's because serial rapists are not rare and their victims are all around us.  Hence my trigger warning.  And likewise paedophila.  Empathy for survivors who might be kicked back to their worst moments by my writing would always stop me dead: there's a world of difference between being "offended" and being hurt.

Serious stuff.  So to finish, I'm sharing a video (click here) that always makes me laugh: three people, extremely offended.  Or as they would have it . . .

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

To the Extreme

by Chris F. Holm

Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what's off-limits for me when it comes to writing fiction. Looking back over my bibliography, I've written tales that include violence by and toward children, animal deaths, sexual assault, torture, hate-crimes, cannibalism, and a host of other taboo topics.

Only here's the thing: I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to grisly fiction. Reading over that first paragraph makes my writing sound so nasty I wouldn't even read it, let alone write it. But the truth is, I can count all my uncomfortable writing moments on one hand, and I've never once received a lick of feedback (review, email, tweet, whatever) that complained I'd gone too far. (Which is more than I can say about my penchant for colorful language; that's gotten me a letter or two for sure. So for those playing along at home, violent crime is a-okay, but referring to the perpetrator of said violent crime as a shitweasel is a no-go. Who knew?)

I suspect the reason for that is that many of the taboo topics I write about, I handle obliquely, and usually off-screen. (One of my stories that features animal deaths, a burgeoning serial killer, and the kidnapping of a little girl was still somehow tame enough to appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, if that gives you any indication.) Which suggests to me that my own personal squick-barometer doesn't so much dictate what I should or shouldn't write as it does how I write what I write. (Man. Say that three times fast.)

But since we're on the topic of crossing lines, I'll tell you something I truly have no stomach for (besides war movies and true crime, which I know is my own weird hang-up; I have trouble enjoying anything if it centers around actual folks actually dying): the culture of transgressive one-upsmanship that's sprung up in much of the modern noir coming out these days. There are a lot of reasons to tell stories - to illuminate, to inspire, to educate - but in the end, as Reece said Monday, their primary focus is to entertain. Maybe a small subset of the population finds reading the bleakest, nastiest, most unrepentantly vile stories they can get their hands on entertaining, but I sure don't. And unless you're Cormac McCarthy, you're probably not illuminating much of anything by writing them, either.

Take it from a guy who's tackled some nasty subject matter: The real trick isn't horrifying your audience; that part's easy. The real trick is to horrify (or thrill, or frighten) your audience, and make them want to keep reading anyway.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One Week to Go!

By Hilary Davidson

I know there's a question of the week, but right now, my brain is divided between two tasks: making revisions to a new novel (my first standalone), and gearing up for the release of Evil in All Its Disguises on March 5th. It's pretty much impossible right now for me to think about anything else. My brain just isn't big enough.

Reviews are starting to come in for Evil, and they're enthusiastic. (Oh, would you like to read them? Click here.) Thanks to my phenomenal Forge publicist, Aisha Cloud, I have my biggest tour ever planned. I get to return to some wonderful stores I love (BookPeople in Austin, Murder by the Book in Houston, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, the Tattered Cover in Denver, Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Book Revue on Long Island), and I get to visit a lot of new-to-me booksellers (Mystery One in Milwaukee, Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis, Book Cellar in Chicago, Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach in LA, Book 'Em in Pasadena). New York's wonderful Mysterious Bookshop is once again hosting my launch party (March 5th at 6pm; if you're in NYC, please come!). I'll also be at the Tucson Festival of Books and at Left Coast Crime. Full tour details are on my site. (And, um, if you want to pre-order the book, scroll to the bottom of this page. All of the stores I'm appearing at take pre-orders, and they can hook you up with a signed copy.)

Today's the last day that my debut novel, The Damage Done, will be on sale for $2.99. If you want to start with the first book in the series, grab it now. (Preferably from the iBookstore — they've been incredibly supportive of my work.) My second mystery, The Next One to Fall, came out in paperback earlier this month. I'm a big fan of paperbacks myself, so I hope that will help it reach a wider audience.

This is an incredibly exciting time for me. My acknowledgments in Evil in All Its Disguises are longer than ever, and there's good reason for that. I have a lot of people to thank. Hopefully, I'll see some of you on tour, so I can express my gratitude in person, too.

PS I'm giving away my last ARC of Evil in All Its Disguises on the blog today. Want to enter? All you have to do is comment on this post. (You'll also need a mailing address in the US or Canada.) The draw will be just before midnight Eastern tonight!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Off Limits?

By Reece Hirsch

What's off-limits to me in my writing?  I like to think that nothing is really off-limits but, like most writers, there are places that I choose not to go.

My thrillers are meant to be entertainments.  They're sometimes bloody and violent, but I hope that they are also fun.  There are some subjects that just don't fit with my idea of reader entertainment, such as child predators, and I also don't particularly like reading or writing about serial killers.  I'm not saying that I might not one day find a story that I felt compelled to write involving one of those subjects.  I'm also not saying that great and worthy books can't be built from that material (Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is one of the best thrillers ever written.)  There are just certain areas that I will probably always steer clear of in my writing.

Both of my first two books touch upon terrorism of one sort or another, and some writers and readers might consider that subject distasteful.  I suppose every writer has their tolerances, and if they're lucky they find a readership that shares those tolerances.  Sometimes a writer's work evolves in ways that tests the tolerances of their original readers, but that's a subject that deserves a post of its own.

As for last week's topic, I tend to write stories that draw from the worlds of technology, privacy and data security, so I'm always wondering whether I'm drawing too close to current events.  I think my first book, THE INSIDER, avoided that trap because I started with a bit of recent history (the National Security Agency's Clipper Chip program from the mid-1990s) and developed a little alternate-history theory that brought that event to bear on then-current concerns about government domestic surveillance programs in the wake of 9-11.

My next book is drawn from some fairly recent events and a widely held theory as to what lay behind those events.  Sorry if I'm being cryptic, but I don't want to give away my premise just yet.  As luck would have it, that theory was confirmed as accurate in national news stories just as I was finishing my manuscript.  With a little polishing, that gave my new book a very "ripped from the headlines" feel.  Of course, we all know what happens to yesterday's newspaper after you've ripped out those headlines, so topicality can be a double-edged sword.  A timely angle can provide a hook for your story, but it will only get you so far.

Sorry for being all over the place in this week's post, but I also wanted to mention that I'm currently reading and enjoying (despite myself) Ian McEwen's Sweet Tooth, his take on a 1970s le Carre-esque spy story.  However, I think I see where McEwen is going, and his new book seems to be as much about writing and storytelling as it is about espionage.  As a thriller writer who relies heavily upon story and who does not dwell in the house of literary fiction, I'm starting to feel like I'm being very cleverly and entertainingly insulted by McEwen's book.  But more on that later ....

Friday, February 22, 2013

Making the Sausage

by Gary

My first novel Violent Spring of many years ago was influenced by a current event.  It was the ’92 Rodney King riots here in L.A.  Having been a community organizer and at the time was the outreach person for the Liberty Hill Foundation, a lefty philanthropic entity then, and now, that granted monies to community organizing efforts.  “Change not Charity” being its tagline. 

I wasn’t at the barricades throwing Molotov cocktails.  But as the embers cooled and the hard task of introspection and rebuilding began, I knew some of the players in the suites and in the streets, and just knew this would make a great way into the private eye story I wanted to tell.  Still, it was nearly two years after that conflagration that the book came out.  I’d also consciously set it to be after the civil unrest, to allow for the inner reflections of my protagonist Ivan Monk as he delved into the case of a Korean liquor store owner killed two week before the fire and fury.

Flash forward to the fire this time at a cabin in the snows of Big Bear, a ski area nearly two hours drive east of Los Angeles.  It was there that rogue ex-LAPD cop Chris Dorner apparently took his own life after his kill spree.  Despite him being a cold blooded murderer, in some quarters he’s gained a folk status due in part to the so-called manifesto he posted on his Facebook page.  No doubt there will be an e book forthcoming about the life and death of Dorner, and my friend Steve Ivory over at the Electronic Urban report site, speculates that the likes of L.L. Cool J and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for the role in a movie.

If the original Law and Order was still around, as they often used stories ripped from the headlines as it were, perhaps their season opener would be about a manhunt for an ex-cop gone bad whose allegations about possible misconduct among his fellow officers, resonated with members of the public.

Former cycle hero Lance Armstrong finally admitted doping and was stripped of his Tour de France awards.  The largest asteroid in a century slams into Chelyabinsk, Russia with the force of a nuclear explosion (always a good incident for such a body releasing strange invisible rays turning humble villagers into zombies).  The “blade runner,” a disabled Olympic athlete says he mistook his girlfriend for a burglar and shot her four times through his bathroom door.  HSBC Bank busted for laundering billions of cartel illicit monies, while the bones of Richard the 3rd are unearthed in a parking structure.     

There’s no shortage of current events that titillate and spark our imaginations.  I catalog them along with incomplete plot ideas, text sketches of odd characters and a few orphan titles.  There they gestate.  Then very so often something else happens or I’m talking to someone, and in the story menu in my head, I start to pick aspects of these unrelated incidents and put them through the grinder.  Making the sausage ain’t pretty, but hopefully the end product is satisfying and makes you want to come back for more.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


by Alan

Pull up some chairs, ladies and gents,
And I’ll tell you my thoughts on current events,

I don’t like to include them in my books,meandthecat
I write fiction—not exposés of real-life crooks,

Or heroic tales of surviving earthquakes,
Reality doesn’t a good story make,

An actual thing can be a nice seed,
To grow a story people might read,

I do get ideas from what may happen in life,
But I steer clear of true war-torn strife,

I make it up! I create!
I spin tales! I conflate!

Fabrication! Imagination!

Why be tethered to what’s in the news?
Why feel constrained by what is so true?

By the time the book hits, it’s been a long time,
Since the disaster or scandal or newsworthy crime,

Most people don’t remember the when,
Or even what happened way, way, way back then,

So I don’t rip stories from the screaming headlines,
Instead, I rip things from my super-deranged mind!


(Dr. Suess’s birthday is next week, and I don’t post next week, so… my early birthday tribute)

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines

by Tracy Kiely
As you know, this week’s question is whether we allow current events to influence our writing. So, after a quick glance at said topic, I sat down to explain how I write my mysteries based on character interactions rather than specific historical events.
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and one of the (many) reasons I think that her books are still popular today is because she focused more on the relationship between families and neighbors rather than events about the time in which she lived. (Yes, yes, hands down English majors, I see you. Yes, I know that she also illustrated how women had really crap choices thrust on them with regard to marriage and their place in society, but that’s more of a social issue rather than a particular event.) And, I guess, if we’re going to be really honest, Colin Firth deserves some credit for Austen’s continued popularity. He totally rocked it as Darcy and sent thousands of young women swooning when he emerged from that pond with his linen shirt clinging to his broad chest.
I digress.
So, as I was saying, the biggest reason for Austen’s success – in my mind – was her deft illustration of timeless characters – characters that are as adorable and/or annoying today as they were when they were first in introduced in 1813.   
That said, I cozied up to my computer all really to explain that I intentionally aped Austen’s example and therefore was influence-free of current events.      
And then I realized that – as usual – I was completely arse backwards.
For those of you who know my books (and God Bless all three of you), I write a mystery series that is set modern day and attempts to give a polite nod to Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and Jane Austen. (By the way, doesn’t “polite nod” sound soooo much better than faintly obsessed and envious fan?)   
Eons ago when I realized that I wanted to write a book, I knew I wanted it to combine Hitch’s theme of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances, Christie’s amazing puzzles, and Austen’s wit. My favorite novel of Austen’s is Pride and Prejudice and I began to wonder how those characters might fit into a mystery. Granted, there isn’t a murder in P&P, but there are certainly a number of characters who inspire murderous feelings. I began to wonder, what if, after years of living with unbearably rude and condescending behavior, old Mrs. Jenkinson up and strangled Lady Catherine? What if Charlotte snapped one day and poisoned Mr. Collins’ toast and jam? As I played with these ideas, a local story broke that captivated the headlines for several weeks. On Maryland’s Eastern shore, a quaint B&B offered a weekend Valentine’s Day Special inviting guests to participate in an interactive murder show. Actors would play out a murder and then the guests would band together to solve it. One couple retired to their cottage after the show, where rather then discussing the murder, the wife did it instead, and then set fire to the room in the hopes of covering it up.
  Tragic, yes, but awesome for me!
(And by the way, I tried really hard to work in some pun using the French phrase la petite mort (“the little death”) here and finally gave up. I think you’ll agree it’s a win/win for all of us.) 
So, with that bit of current events, I set out to write my first book Murder at Longbourn, which is set at a quaint B&B and involves an unexpected murder during a Host-A-Murder show. 
I guess what I’m trying to say – in my usual concise and brisk way – is that most of us are influenced in some manner by the events around us.  Some authors are more focused and aware of the influence while others don’t notice it until they are directly asked about it.
And even then, not until several minutes afterwards.   

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Current Events: Handle with Care

Do current events influence your ideas for your books and stories?

By Vicki Delany

I try very hard not to let them.  The problem with current events is that they don’t stay current for very long.   When you consider that it takes most people about six months to a year to write a book and many publishing houses want the finished MS a year before publication you’re possibly looking at two full years from idea to on the shelves.

Thus, what was current… Isn’t.

Case in point: The first Constable Molly Smith book, In the Shadow of the Glacier, concerns a plan to commemorate Vietnam era draft dodgers.  (In real life they say about 30,000 of same settled in the Kootenay area of British Columbia. Many are still there).   As you will know, if you read the series, Molly Smith’s parents, Andy and Lucky, came to Canada from Seattle when Andy got his draft notice.   The plot of the book is taken from something that really happened (a statue to honour Vietnam draft dodgers) but I wouldn't call that current events, as it could have happened at any time.

I later considered looking into the situation of deserters from the US army who didn't want to return to Iraq.   They also have been coming to Canada, although in much smaller numbers than in the Vietnam era, and asking to stay.

I threw around some ideas for the book, but then ultimately decided not to do it.

Primarily because I had no way of knowing what the situation would be like in two years’ time when the book was ready to be read. 

Just as well because two things happened. The Canadian government is treating the situation of the Iraq deserters is vastly different than that of the Vietnam dodgers  and the US pulled out of Iraq.

I would have had trouble keeping up.

Highly undesirable, from a writers point of view, must be when current events overtake a writer.  I wonder if anyone wrote a book due to be published in, say, October of 2001 in which someone goes to a meeting at the World Trade Centre.  

I’m sure there are books out there written in early 1939 and in which an English person goes on vacation in Germany… in 1940.

It’s much easier, and safer, to take a historical event, even recently historical, and draw a story from that. In my forthcoming book, A Cold White Sun, a subplot concerns a woman who had her baby taken (stolen in fact) from her back in the 1960s when she was confined to one of those absolutely inhumane ‘homes for unwed mothers’.
Interested in trying out the Constable Molly Smith series? The first book, In the Shadow of the Glacier, is available at a special introductory price for e-readers.   $2.98 for Kindle.   A Cold White Sun, the sixth in the series, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and your favourite independent bookstore. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Using the News

By Meredith Cole

Do current events influence your ideas for books and stories?

I read a newspaper (almost) every morning and enjoy listening to NPR. I like to know what’s going on all over the world—so do I get inspired to put current events in my stories?

I tried to think of a concrete event that I read about that inspired me to write a story. I think the answer is that life in general finds its way into my stories and books and inspires me. I haven’t written specifically about the war in Iraq, but a veteran has found her way into one of my short stories. And knowing something about the war was helpful in writing about her PTSD. But I’ve never written about a specific event in the war.

The trouble with big news events (kid in the well, first African-American president, meteors in Siberia, etc.) is that everyone knows about them and starts to get distracted when they read the story. I remember this! I know how this turns out…

I realize that all sorts of minor news stories have stuck with me and elements of them have inspired mysteries. But I have used artistic license to change the actual stories to meet my fictional needs, so probably the original story would be unrecognizable to anyone but me.

I think actual events in my life are much more inspiring for me and tend to “stay with me” longer than news stories, though. The emotion of being there sears it more in my mind. It’s the what if… That moment when a car almost hits you and you think—what if? What if my life became entwined with the driver? What if I was killed and they were tortured by guilt? Or if I tried to get revenge? Either idea could inspire a story. And make me grateful that neither never actually happened to me.

Happy President's Day! 

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Birthing of a Ghost

By Sue Ann Jaffarian 

How do I know if a story idea is better suited for short or long fiction?

Boy, I am not the person to ask about this. If I'd followed my gut several years ago, my very popular Ghost of Granny Apples series might not exist. 

Novella due out March 5th
It all started early one morning when I was chatting via e-mail with my then editor at Midnight Ink, Barbara Moore.  We were talking about paranormal stories and I mentioned that I had a cute idea for a short story about a cantankerous ghost who visits one of her descendants and makes a pest of herself – think Topper meets The Ghost Whisperer. It was just a simple story idea, not a mystery, that I had noodling around in my brain for a few years.  Originally it was an idea for an anthology that I’d been invited to contribute to but which never got off the ground.   

When Barbara wrote back that she wanted to hear more, I fleshed out the story line a bit, again not a mystery.  A minute later came another e-mail – she wanted to know more.  Okay, at this point I was out of material already set in my brain so I did what any writer would do, I made it up on the fly, quickly giving the ghost a back story, personality and purpose. She would be trying to find someone to exonerate her of a murder, I told Barb. And she’d be from someplace cool like Julian, California, during the gold rush days.

At this point I went to shower and get ready for the day. When I returned to my computer there was another message from Barb:  This is not a short story. This is a novel.  Okay, I told her, I guess it could be a cute stand alone.  No, she responded back, it’s a series. How soon can you get me a manuscript? 

And thus the Ghost of Granny Apples mystery series was born.  And Barb was right. Granny Apples wasn’t a short story, it was a full-blown mystery series which to date has three novels under its belt and more on the way. 

A day I'll never forget!
Last year I was able to move the series to Penguin/Berkley.  Penguin contracted with me for two more novels and two novellas.  The first novella, The Silent Ghost, will be released under the Penguin Specials banner on March 5th and will only be available in digital format.  The next novella will be out March 2014, and the first Berkley novel will be out April 2014. I’m currently hurtling towards its deadline.  It has a working title of Ghost of a Gamble. 

The Ghost of Granny Apples is also my most popular series, barely nudging out my Odelia Grey mystery series in sales. And when Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini, the second book in the series, was listed as the Kindle Daily Deal, it shot to #1, edging out notable authors like John Grisham and Stephen King. It didn't stay there, of course, but it's still not too shabby for an idea that almost didn’t happen!  I am also pleased to say that the last novel released, Gem of a Ghost, was nominated as a Romantic Times Reviewers award.

And it all started with a short story idea that I was too dense to see as long fiction.  


The moral of this is two-fold: 1) don’t listen to me, I’m lost in a fog; and 2) listen to the people who know and don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off their heads. They might recognize a gem when you think you're holding a common rock.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mix thoroughly and bake for fourteen years

I've never written a short story.  See you in two weeks.

Kidding.  Just because I've never written a short doesn't mean I've never come up with plots that would be perfect for them.  But when I do, I call the idea a sub-plot and lay it aside until another one comes along that complements it.  Then both of them are set aside until a third spark ignites and maybe a fourth.  Then there's a big sprawling complicated cast of thousands novel ready to go.

The master of this kind of of labyrinthine plotting in the mystery genre is Kate Atkinson (if you haven't read Case Histories and its three sequels you're in for a treat and three more treats to follow).

Cue utterly gratuitous picture of Jason Isaacs who plays Jackson Brodie in the telly adaptation (with Edinburgh in the background).

I'm no Kate Atkinson, but my June release, As She Left It, is the result of years of sub-plot collection.

On summer holiday in France in the mid-90s, driving to the boulangerie one morning, I had an idea about an elderly jazz trumpeter with pneumonia who needs a stand-in.  This character  - Fishbo Gordon - is in the book.  In my head, in fact, the story was called "Fishbo's Puffer" for years.

Then in about 2005 I saw a magnificent bed in an antique shop in Castle Douglas and bought it:

It was a bed with a puzzle, a puzzle which - refracted through the mind of a mystery writer - became a secret, a secret which became another sub-plot in what was now a third of a novel.

A year later, in Leeds, on an all-girls weekend, two friends and I met a little old lady wandering around in the street (and wandering around in a gently mythical version of reality too), took her home and contacted her carers.  It was a tiny incident and would have made an effective short story but I don't write short stories.  So this little old lady joined the jazz trumpeter and the bed-with-a-secret and the book was halfway to being afloat.

That weekend gave me the setting too; As She Left It is set in a short dead-end street of old red-brick houses in Leeds; in my friend Diane Nelson's house, in fact, where we were staying that weekend.  The wonderful design department at Midnight Ink captured the mood of the story perfectly with this jacket:

but I promised Diane that I'd show the real street too - much less gothic and grim.

In 2009, I was writing Dandy Gilver and not thinking about Fishbo at all, but one day in Tesco, watching the online shoppers filling trolleys with groceries for strangers, I got to thinking about how much you could tell about someone's life if you did their shopping and how those shoppers must live somewhere local and I wondered if they did their neighbours' shopping for them and what if they worked out that their neighbours were . . .

Another short-story-sized plotlet that was modern and dark went into the cauldron and now my protagonist had a job as well as a house and I had four linked tales to tell.  It was time to start writing and I felt more than usually sure that I knew where this one was going

Imagine my surprise when, a little way into the first draft, the red bricks of that dead-end street started whispering a completely new story in my ear.  It turns out, after years of preparation, that the main plot of As She Left It is none of the above.  But the bed, the trumpeter, the little old lady and the neighbour's secret are all in there too and I've still never written a short story.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


by Chris F. Holm

My first short story came out in 2007. In Ellery Queen's "Department of First Stories," this was. Since then, I've published (pops over to his site to count 'em up) twenty others, with one more due out sometime this year. In that time, I've also written (stops to think, but thankfully is not so far gone as to need reference materials to answer this one) five novels: the three from my Collector series, plus two others I'm shopping now. (Confidential to any editors reading this: you'd like 'em, I swear. Email me and stuff.) So I guess I oughta know as well as anybody what the difference is between novels and shorts, idea-wise. And mostly, I do. Except for when I don't.

Generally, the way I tell the difference between a short-story idea and a novel idea is this: a short story is small enough that the whole thing fits inside my head; a novel isn’t. If I can see all its angles and suss out all its beats without sitting down to write it, it’s a short. If, until I take a crack at it, I can't find its edges - if it’s so damn inscrutable I'm like an archaeologist who just unearthed a single tooth, digging in the sand with a toothbrush and no idea if that's all there is to find or if I'm sitting on a T-rex - it’s probably a novel.

Or it could prove just a tooth, which explains the secret stash of false starts I've got tucked away in the deepest recesses of my laptop hard drive.

But that's not the whole answer; it can't be. Because one of those five novels I mentioned? It's based on one of my twenty-odd short stories. "The Hitter," to be specific. To me, the novel and the short are very different animals, but the fact is, the basic idea behind them is more or less the same, which sort of torpedoes my edges-and-dinosaurs theory. (Note to self: come up with better name for said theory. That one is stupid.)

So if the idea is more or less the same, how do they differ? Perspective. Scope. Voice. The short is told in first-person, and is therefore very limited in its narrative. Loads happens off-camera, so to speak, and the antagonists are far from fully fleshed. The novel is told in third-person, and thanks in part to its many point-of-view characters, its story is far more expansive. What was initially a claustrophobic tale of one man's undoing is now an elaborate, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse. With luck, I kept the stuff that worked in the short (it was nominated for an Anthony and selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, so something must have), while at the same time creating something all its own.

The fact is, I'm not sure why one idea spawned two stories, one long and one short. The simple answer is, I thought I was done with it, and then one day I realized I wasn't. So maybe my answer to this week's question should be: I don't know how to tell the difference, or even if there is one, but lucky for me, the ideas themselves seem to. And as long as they keep coming, they can be anything they'd like. (Except maybe interpretive dance. No one wants to see me in a unitard.)

Speaking of short stories, it just so happens I've got a brand spankin' collection out for your Kindle or Kindle app. DEAD LETTERS features nine tales of crime, horror, and, uh, whatever you'd call a story that takes place at the North Pole and stars an elf-detective. Included are my homage to Donald Westlake, "Action," which first appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine; my aforementioned "The Hitter"; and a brand new, never-before-seen horror yarn called "One Man's Muse." Also included are "The Putdown," "A Native Problem," "The Man in the Alligator Shoes," "A Night at the Royale," "The Final Bough," and "Green." If you wanna check it out, you can do so here:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

One Dark Idea, Two Twisted Paths

By Hilary Davidson

It can be downright embarrassing to admit where my ideas for novels and short stories come from. At best, I'm an eavesdropper, picking up bits of conversations here and there and warping them into fictional tales. People understand that you see and hear things that go into your fiction. What's harder to explain is when the dark thoughts come from something completely innocent, or even beautiful. But that same shadowy idea can be turned into a novel or a short story. It's all just a matter of perspective.

While I was on tour for The Next One to Fall, I told the story, many times, of what inspired the book: in the fall of 2007, I spent three weeks in Peru. Like Lily Moore and Jesse Robb in the novel, I decided to start with the highlight of the trip, Machu Picchu. I still remember how awestruck I was by the sight of the famous Lost City of the Incas, the mountaintop citadel that the Spanish conquistadors never discovered. Taking in that magnificent sight, the first words out of my mouth were, "This would be the perfect place to kill someone."

I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn't only be writing about Peru for travel magazines. The idea of one traveler murdering another was something I wanted to explore in fiction. At the time, my first novel, The Damage Done, was still a work that was very much in progress. I didn't know whether I would ever write it, beyond the initial four chapters I'd penned. (Those four chapters never actually made it into the book, by the way.) I knew that the idea that was spinning in my mind — about a possible serial killer on the loose in Peru — was something that would take a book to explore. But I also knew I wasn't ready for that, and so I decided to write a short story instead.

The result was "Stepmonster," which was published by Thuglit in March 2009. I decided not to use Machu Picchu as the setting, but the capital city of Lima instead. (My love of Inca history and legend is such that it really needed a book, and my post-Machu Picchu travels in Peru unearthed a number of spots that I decided were ripe for fictional murders; I'm working on another story set in the Andes now.) The Next One to Fall came much later. On the surface, the two have little in common. But the truth is, they both came out of that crazy germ of an idea I had when I was standing on that mountaintop.

I don't think anyone can tell you, straight off the bat, whether an idea is a better fit for a short story or a novel. To some extent, the writer has to decide how much time s/he wants to spend with the characters that populate the tale. Do you want to tell a story about a particular incident at one point in time, or do you want to leave room to explore more? As with everything I do, it feels like instinct plays a huge role. The best piece of advice I can give: if in doubt about whether your idea can fill a novel, start with something short and see where it goes. The answer is never just in the idea itself, but in the writing.

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Speaking of The Next One to Fall, today it's being released in trade paperback by Forge. If you haven't read the first book in the series, The Damage Done, the eBook is on sale for $2.99 until February 27, 2013. The third book in the series, Evil in All Its Disguises, will be out on March 5th — just three weeks from today! Check out the early reviews.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Second Acts and Cricket Bats

By Reece Hirsch

How do you know if an idea will work as a novel, as opposed to a short story?  For me, a story has legs  as a novel if I can imagine what the second act will look like, at least in rough terms.  The answer also involves cricket bats.

In David Mamet's Three Uses of the Knife, he recounts a joke from the Algonquin Round Table:

A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, “How’s the play going?” The other says, “I’m having second act problems.” Everybody laughs. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”

In Robert Altman's The Player, conniving movie executive Griffin Mill (played by Tim Robbins) makes a show of allowing a rival executive (played by Peter Gallagher) to steal and take credit for a movie idea.  Mill confides later to a junior executive that the idea is going to blow up in his rival's face because it has no second act.

Like carbon monoxide, the second act is the invisible killer.  In my early, desultory attempts at writing a novel, I would often start out with what I thought was a great idea with a strong opening and then I would hit the wall.  That wall was the second act.

The second act is where the hardest work in writing a novel gets done.  Nothing about writing a book is easy but, relatively speaking, creating a strong conflict in Act One is not so tough.  Early on in thinking about a book, I usually have an idea of how to bring my conflict to a conclusion in Act Three that is, hopefully, decisive and satisfying.  But Act Two is about grappling with that conflict and making it interesting and eventful.  Act Two is more like life, which is not about dramatic precipitating events and grand finales -- it's messy, and it's about struggle.

In The Real Thing, the uber-clever Tom Stoppard came up with a wonderful metaphor for writing that has stuck with me ever since I first saw the play:

"This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor.  It's for hitting cricket balls with.  If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly ... [Henry clucks his tongue to make the noise.]

What we're trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might ... travel ... ([He] picks up the script.)  Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball would travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch!' with your hands stuck into your armpits.  (Indicating the cricket bat.)  This isn't better because someone says it's better, or because there's a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords.  It's better because it's better."

For us Americans, this may make more sense if you replace the cricket bat with a Louisville Slugger, but Stoppard has put his finger on why writers spend so much time crafting the early chapters of a novel.  It's like fitting together the wooden pieces of Stoppard's cricket bat.  The point is not whether the bat produces a loud crack when the ball is struck (a great first chapter), but whether it will send the ball (the protagonist) arcing through the second act to land with a satisfying whump in Act Three.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Word Machine

While I agree with Vicki that the medium should not be the message, various mediums can challenge us to write to them if only to experiment with form and content.   Now don’t get me wrong, the story us writers write is the story, no doubt.  But there is something to what that editor she noted had to say regarding short sentences and simple words to fit the format of the screen.  Conceptually for the writer his statement smacks of what happens when the wonks take over from the editors. 
For instance, a short storey has certain requirements, length being a major factor, that dictates how the story is written – what’s included and what’s not.  Writing my blog posts I’m cognizant of not wanting them to be too wordy, punchy, and try to make my points quick and declarative.
There have been writers who’ve written stories using only the 140 characters per tweet limit of twitter.  Earnest Hemingway’s classic short, short, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is sited as inspiration.  Comedy writer Justin Halpern has to move back in with his folks.  He tweets of the funny bon mots his father riffed off became the collection Sh*t My Dad Says, and a sitcom, a short lived sitcom, but a sitcom nonetheless.   "The worst thing you can be is a liar. . . .Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar. Nazi one, liar two."
Flash fiction continues to be written ine sites and for a time there was a short story publisher who published their stories specifically for cell phones before the advent of the smart phone and the larger screen.  In fact I did a reading not too long ago where one of the writers read her work on the screen of her phone.  E-books do allow for a lot of junk out there, but has also ushered in a new era of pulp in the form of 25,000 words or so new novellas and short story anthologies of revived (and in public domain) characters like the Green Lama, the first Buddhist super hero from the ‘40s, and new characters as charted on sites like All Pulp.    
For me then, I just want to get my work out there, and game to try whatever format that will have me.  Yes, personally I prefer the paper book but even I, a semi-Luddite, have read material on the Kindle.  This is the Kindle my wife got me a couple of Christmases ago and as she got tired of me not firing it up, she’s appropriated the device and now I borrow it.  Yet currently I have an e-book novella, the Essex Man, in the publishing queue   In the vein of new pulp, he’s an over-the-top action-adventure hero I hope will be the first in a series of e-books, then collected hardcopies done print-on-demand of the character.   
So until the big “They” create the machine to write creatively, which I’m sure some geek is working on, I’ll keep sweating away on my stories.  Right now though, must write good for my robot overlords…entertain…entertain…entertain…

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Cranial Download, Anyone?

by Alan

In your ideal world as a writer, do you foresee a balance of writing hardcopy books and stories and some ‘E’ material or, gasp, will your original work only be available in e-format one day? And does it matter??

In my ideal writer world, yachts, Greek islands, and dark-chocolate-covered marzipan figure prominently.

But allow me to answer the question a little more directly.

I’m a storyteller at heart, not a book provider. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love books. I think they are pretty close to the perfect way to deliver stories. They’re relatively cheap. And portable. And they smell good.

But other media have their advantages, too, and I don’t want to eliminate any portion of my potential readership by limiting the method of delivery for my stories.mccoy

So, in summary, I’d like to provide my stories in whatever medium my readers want: ebooks and print books and audio and film and large print and direct cranial downloads, too, if it ever comes to pass.

Having said all that, I shall now contradict myself! (Just call me a fence-straddler.)

For the past year or so, I’ve been conducting an ebook experiment. I’ve self-pubbed two original ebooks, THE TASTE (horror) and FIRST TIME KILLER (thriller). In the next month, I plan to release another ebook original (RIDE-ALONG). Right now, there is no printed version available—only digital (At some point, if there’s sufficient demand, I hope to have all of these titles in print-print).

Why go the ebook original route? Many reasons: quicker to market, cheaper to produce, easier for readers to buy and a lower price tag, didn’t find a home in a big publishing house, larger royalties. However, here’s the biggest reason to offer affordable ebooks: BECAUSE PEOPLE WANT THEM. I learned in Marketing 101 that it’s generally a good idea to give customers what they want at a reasonable price.

Here’s one data point in my experiment: Last week, as part of a two-day Kindle Select promotional campaign, 11,000+ people downloaded free copies of FIRST TIME KILLER. (I know many of them won’t ever read it--a lot of people like FREE things, just for the FREE of it.) This tends to support my theory that: PEOPLE WANT AFFORDABLE EBOOKS (see above).

Does this mean from now on my work will only be available in e-format?


It’s a strange new world out there, and my goal is to have as much chocolate-covered marzipan as I can reach as many readers as I can!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Carnac the Magnificent says…

by Tracy Kiely

For me, an ideal future would be one in which readers still wanted my books and a publisher still wanted to publish them. If I’m being really honest, I’d add “for gobs and gobs of obscene money.” I wish I could be more precise or insightful, but that’s pretty much all I have.
I have never been someone who was able to accurately predict trends. I come by this trait – or this lack of trait, rather – honestly. I grew during the war; the videotape format war, that is. For those of you too young to remember those dark days of the early 1980s, it was when the consumer who wanted to invest in a home theater system was forced to make a choice between two completely incompatible models of videocassette and video cassette recorders; specifically Betamax and VHS.
According to my father, the Betamax was the far superior product. It offered higher resolution, lower video noise, and less luma/chroma crosstalk than the VHS (yeah, I don’t know what all that means either. Neither, I suspect, did my father. It was all Charlie Brown teacher yammer to me.). But Beta, said my father in much the same manner that guy from The Graduate intoned the immortal phrase, “Plastics,” was the system of the future and so we invested in Beta. Bookshelves full of Beta formatted movies. Two separate Beta players. It was a heady time. That is until four years later when we had to go out and buy an entirely new system and movie collection.
My father wasn’t the only one in our family who lacked market trend insight. My grandmother was sure that China held the key to our future. Or rather china held the key. More money than I want to think about was funneled into various commemorative dishes and plates, each depicting stunning artistic renderings of famous moments in fiction. I now have boxes of plates portraying such moving scenes as Dorothy skipping along the Yellow Brick Road and Prince Charles gazing serenely at Lady Diana on their wedding day.  
I’m sure if I poked around enough on, I’d find a relative who not only owned an Edsel, but invested heavily in the company.    
As for me, I am no better. I don’t even pick up on established trends. I don’t own a Nook or a Kindle. I like holding a book. I like the smell of a new book, and I like the smell of an old book. (Well, some old books. I don’t imagine I’d like the smell of those nasty forgotten ones you see strewn about in the houses on Hoarders.)     
So that said, I don’t think that I am a proper go-to person for any industry speculation, let alone traditional publishing.
All I can hope for is that in the future, there will still be an appreciation for good stories with strong character no matter what the format.
I’ll still be quite happy to curl up with a worn paperback.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Does Delivery Matter?

By Vicki Delany

In your ideal world as a writer, do you foresee a balance of writing hardcopy books and stories and some ‘E’ material or, gasp, will your original work only be available in e-format one day? And does it matter??

Ah, yes. My ideal world as a writer.  Putting aside the six figure plus advance…

I am going to dispute the question.  The question seems to imply that writing for hardcopy and writing for e-books are something different.

I remember being at a conference several years ago, when e-books were in their infancy, and the publisher of a strictly e-book company (since defunct for reasons that will become obvious) said the he was looking for stories with short sentences and simple words to fit the format of the screen

I ran screaming from the room.  I couldn't imagine anything WORSE.

But, as it turned out, serious writers (whether genre or otherwise) have made no move to dumb down writing for the sake of fitting into the e-page.  Books that are good books in a hefty hardcover are still good books on your slim little Kindle or Kobo.

The writer should have no interest in what format the reader will be reading on. 

The medium should NOT be the message.

I suppose you could argue that if you were writing a work to be transcribed by chisel onto a block of stone you might want to cut out some of the more vivid descriptions.  But we will assume that is not the case here.

Unfortunately the online marketplace is now being overwhelmed by people who are cranking out books as fast as they can and uploading them to Amazon and the like, hoping that if they get enough books out there, someone somewhere, will take notice and give them a big publishing contract. Or they’ll sell so many books at $0.99 that they’ll make their fortune.

The argument is made to readers that these books are so cheap if you don’t like it you haven’t lost anything. 

Well, I don’t audition books.  When I buy a book, I intend to read it and enjoy it.  Some are better than others, and sometimes I am disappointed, but I’m more willing to pay, say $10 or more for a book from a respectable publisher (whether one of the big five or a mid-sized or even a new one) than ten vanity-press books at $0.99.

I have a Kindle and a Kobo because I travel a lot. What a gift e-books were when I went last year to South Sudan.  Where there are, literally, no bookstores or libraries. Can you imagine the contents of my suitcase if I had to carry all my reading material in paper format?  No room for clothes.  I have two devices because I have a computer background. I expect failure at any point and plan accordingly.

Yet, I also enjoy books on paper. I particularly value signed books by my friends. And, no form of electronic signing is worth it.  You want to be able to display your cherished book collection in a nice form in your home.

I recently read The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond.  Assuming that the book would have pictures (it did) I bought it in hardcover.

Having said all of that, although I intend to continue writing my books with no eye to how they are being read (and I assume most of you are too), I am concerned about the amount of pure junk that is out there, only because there are online bookstores selling them and e-readers for them to be read on. And, in many cases, because they’re free or .99 or somewhat.  Which is about what the majority of them are worth.

In conclusion, as a writer as well as a reader, I am only interested in books that are written without an eye to how they are going to be read.  

A book that is written to be enjoyed, with time and care taken to ensure it is as good as it can be.