Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How many boiled eggs make up a Molly Smith book?

Are you a “carrot” or “stick” type of writer, with regard to your own motivation? Do you ever reward yourself for finishing a book/chapter/scene/sentence? How? What other types of motivation do you use?

You do come up with the oddest questions.

I suppose I’m a stick writer.  True confessions – I really don’t much like writing. At least not the first draft. And certainly not the stickly middle.  Oh sure, the first paragraphs are fun when you are hot with a great idea, and the ending is fun when the action and drama are building and you’re excited (because if you, the author, ain’t excited sure as heck no one else is going to be).  But the rest, pure drudgery.

So the stick simply is do it because I have to do it.  The way to get finished is to get through it.

And that’s all.

Now, I have a routine, and that is that I write every morning, seven days a week.  If I didn’t have a strict routine, no writing would get done at all.  Which is why I never write a word when I’m travelling.

I get up, read my e-mail, check the news on the Internet,  read Facebook, that sort of thing, have coffee, but then I get up, go into the kitchen to where my small computer is laid out on the half-wall which is what I grandly call my stand-up-office. 

I start up the computer, and put an egg on to boil.  I boil an egg, leave it to cool and after about ½ an hour of writing time, I take a break to eat the egg back at the main computer where I check e-mail and Facebook etc.  
A rare moment working away from the stand-up office

I never thought about it that way before, but the egg is my reward for actually getting started.

Then back to the stand-up-office for another three to four hours.

And the rest of the time goes by quite quickly.

The egg is my carrot, isn’t it?

So I write a novel, one boiled egg at a time.

This coming weekend sees one of my favourite events of the year: Malice Domestic in Bethesda and then the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, PA.  This year I’m travelling down with my friend Barbara Fradkin, a Malice virgin.

If you are at either of those events (and if not, why not?) come over and say hi.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Gotta have a deadline

Are you a “carrot” or “stick” type of writer, with regard to your own motivation? Do you ever reward yourself for finishing a book/chapter/scene/sentence? How? What other types of motivation do you use?

by Meredith Cole

There's too much going on in my life and there are too many things competing for my attention (family, kid, cats, garden, etc.) to be on a loosey-goosey schedule. I need deadlines. I crave them. And if an editor is not nice enough to give me one on a project, I make up a deadline for myself.

It seems silly that I would feel obligated to meet a deadline that I made up, but somehow it works for me. It helps me prioritize everything else. What are we having for dinner this week? Ooops, I've got a deadline. Take-out! Or I'm getting close to a deadline, so I make sure to set aside extra time to get my pages done.

Also, I think it's important to reward yourself for a job well done. Or at least done on time. When I finish something big, I give myself some time off from writing. We're not talking finishing a chapter--but maybe a draft. The time off is both a reward and a necessity, since I need a little breathing room before I start to tackle the next draft.

The rewards I give myself don't have to be expensive, but they do have to feel special and celebratory, though (Champagne? Chocolate? A massage? Dinner out at a nice restaurant?) Writing does provide its own rewards. There's nothing like seeing your work in print, and holding your own book for the first time. But there's a lot of hard work that happens between that first brilliant idea and that book, and sometimes it's hard to stay focused. So when a writer does stay focused and finishes, they definitely deserve to celebrate. And so I do.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bloody, Nasty, and Totally Unlikeable

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

I'm going to address reader reviews only. When it comes to the professional reviews, such as those published in Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus and Library Journal, etc., it goes without saying that most writers read those.  My publisher even sends them to me to make sure I don't miss them, and I'm very thankful that, so far, they've been pretty darn positive, often even glowing.

Do I read reader reviews such as those posted on Amazon and Goodreads and other reader sites and blogs? Absolutely! Not obsessively, but from time to time I will check them out, even on my older books. 

At one time or another, these reviews have made me smile, frown, laugh, growl and even scratch my butt with wonder at the human capacity for stupidity and misunderstanding. But I read them all. Sometimes, if I see a common, well thought-out, well stated critique showing up several times, I may consider revising that issue in future books. But if someone just says, "I hated it." "It's garbage." That's not much to go on and those get quickly dismissed. Sometimes I read a review and wonder if they got my book confused with another because the review doesn't make sense.

One of my favorite bad reviews was a reader warning people away from buying one of my books ("stay away no matter how much you may enjoy the author's other books"). It was my first vampire book, Murder In Vein. The reader was upset because it was darker, sexier and more violent than my other two series, which are funny and light. In her words, the book was "[b]loody, nasty, and totally unlikeable." Considering the book's cover and description made the content clear, I'm still puzzled why she expected different. She didn't trash my writing style or the plot. She was simply thrown off because it wasn't like my others and made her feelings known with a single star. ("I only gave the one star because there isn't apparently a way to give a book ZERO stars.")  I believe that bad review caused others to buy the book, not leave it behind. After all, words like "bloody" and "nasty" usually grab people's interest.

Do I ever respond to reviews? Sometimes, but rarely, and NEVER to the negative ones. One of the best ways to get people to hate you as an author is to pick on a reader/reviewer, even if you think that review was way off base.  There are several incidences of authors behaving badly in the face of a review that they felt was unfair or wrong, but one of the most famous to date is indie author Jacqueline Howett's highly publicized and inappropriate fight with reviewer Big Al on Big Al's Books and Pals.

In 2011 Big Al reviewed Ms. Howett's book The Greek Seaman. He didn't trash it, but gave it an honest review not to Ms. Howett's liking. She then launched a scathing attack in the comments section of his book review blog that resulted in the review and her comments going viral. A lot of readers jumped in attacking Ms. Howett's book and her unprofessional behavior. In addition, readers took their complaints straight to the book's Amazon page where it received a massive number of bad reviews and comments, many quite vicious. (I just checked and The Greek Seaman is no longer posted on Amazon.)

By her behavior, Ms. Howett committed career suicide and she's not the first, nor the last, author to have done that. I highly doubt I'd ever go after a reviewer as Ms. Howett did. Reviewers are people with opinions. I'm a people and I have opinions, lots of them, and I expect other people to respect my opinions even when theirs don't align with mine. So it goes with my attitude about reviews and reviewers.

I read all reviews with the proverbial grain of salt. I'm interested in what people think of my work and am thrilled when they love it, but understand fully that none of us see the world or read books quite the same way. My work is not as bad as some reviewers would have you believe, and I'm not as brilliant as others would have you believe. It all balances out in the end. As a reader, you'll just have to form your own opinion.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Hours of verbage (sic) and boredom" (says a review I could have lived without seeing)

Reece on Monday said it was unimaginable that anyone didn't.  Hilary on Tuesday said it was a big fat lie that anyone didn't. Chris on Wednesday was worst of all - he made it seem like a good idea to give it a go.

Readers, until this week, I was that unimaginable big fat liar who'd never given it a go.

Hand on heart, I did not read my reviews.

Wait a minute, wait a minute, hang on.  Let me add a few caveats.  If my publicist emails me and the subject line is "nice/good/great/fab/amazing review from _____" I open the link.  I read, I download, I email to my dad to print and give to my mum for her scrapbook.  Thanks, Mum.  (She spent her working life in libraries and is a better archivist than I could ever be.)

Also, on the Saturday after the UK publication date of a new Dandy Gilver I will buy the Scottish broadsheets (if I'm there) and look through the book reviews.  It's a small country with a lot of newspapers so the strike rate is high and I'm not a big enough name for anyone to want to take me down.

And that - that last point - is why I don't look at reader reviews on Amazon etc.  All you have to do is write a book to make someone on Amazon want to take you down and leave you bleeding.  And while I enjoy a good one-star review of Pride & Prejudice as much as anyone (click here for a favourite) I don't see how any writer could want to read sneers, swipes and cynicism about their own stuff?  How could it not make you want to curl up in a ball and only uncurl to put a DVD of Pillow Talk in the machine and open the Pringles?

That was my position until earlier this week, as I say.  Since then I've had the highest of the high and the lowest of the low: a Goodreads review (click here) of the ARC of AS SHE LEFT IT that made me go and stare at myself in the mirror just to see what that big a genius looked like.  (Not really.)

And this (click by all means).  One of the two-star reviews of my first published novel, AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL, is a doozy.  It's an anonymous review by someone who's never reviewed anything else (not even the banana slicer) and it's got everything: mistaken beliefs hotly defended, unfounded accusations, personal attacks - I'm crass and discourteous, don't you know? - and then there's the bit that really got me.

My "bad writing" is illustrated by writing that's nothing like mine. God, that's annoying! The reviewer gives "over-vivid, lengthy, painful and agonizingly contrived descriptive phrases" as a taster of my kind of prose as well as an evaluation of it. Tricksy. But if you can find a noun in AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL pre-modified by four adjectives, one of which is pre-modified by an adverb, I will give you a thousand dollars.

So, all in all, I'd rather not read reviews.  Except Chris made a good point about saying thank you for kind ones, Hilary was a shining example of psychological health and Reece was convincing about using them as tools for improvement.  I'm going to wait and see what Sue Ann says tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Salt in Wound, or Grain of Salt?

by Chris F. Holm

I'd love to tell you I don't read my own reviews, but alas, that ship has sailed. Just last post, I referenced an Amazon reviewer who called my debut novel "dreadful." (He actually called it "fairly dreadful" and gave it two stars, which I suppose is slightly better than all-the-way dreadful, but I digress.) So yeah, I'll cop to reading my reviews.

Now that my books have been out a while I've mellowed some, but early on I read them compulsively. When DEAD HARVEST first came out, I'd google daily for new reviews, and lurk on Amazon and Goodreads too, so desperate was I to find out whether folks enjoyed it. I was fortunate; most did. To this day (knocks wood, makes sign of cross, spins around three times and spits) I've not gotten a single negative review from a reputable publication, and my batting average with regard to reader reviews ain't half bad, either. But, as the kids these days almost certainly don't actually say, haters gonna hate, and occasionally, one of 'em would drop an internet bomb on my fragile good cheer. I'd skulk around for days, cursing up a blue streak and muttering random snippets of the offending nastygram to myself while I shook my head in disbelief.

Did I want to comment? To argue? To sic my friends and family on them until they crawled back under whatever bridge they had emerged from, poison pen in hand? Hell yes, I did. Until, that is, I learned two tried-and-true methods for beating back the urge. And because I like you all so much, dear readers, I will share those methods with you today.

Method the First

Think back on the last great book you read. Remember how it made your heart soar? Your pulse pound? How it restored your faith in humanity and sparked anew your love for the written word? Good. Now:

  1. Go to Goodreads. Don't worry; you don't need an account.
  2. Search for the book in question.
  3. Hover over "filter," and click on "1-star."
  4. Read, fume, and realize there are people out there who will hate anything. Then tell yourself the idiot who slagged your book probably would have done the same to this one, had they read it. (Is it true? Who knows? Who cares?)

Method the Second

I know I keep bringing up Amazon and Goodreads, the reason being they account for the vast majority of the reader reviews on the internet. But this method can just as easily be adapted to any reviewer, whether amateur or professional.

  1. Open the offending review in your web browser of choice. (If it's a print review, you can still play along, but you'll need back issues of the publication in question. I'll leave you to figure out the details.)
  2. Is the reviewer's name hyperlinked? If so, click on it. If not, you'll have to resort to Google.
  3. Read through their reviews until you find something that demonstrates their execrable taste and makes you feel better.

This one sounds wishy-washy, I know, but I assure you, it works. For one, people who take the time to write a bad review tend to review tons of stuff. For two, your work is brilliant (right?), so clearly, they must be no-taste-having troglodytes who wouldn't know a decent book if you beat them about the head and neck with it. Don't believe me? Here's a couple real-life examples:

The author of DEAD HARVEST's sole one-star Amazon review doled out a rare five-star review for the Farrelly brothers' new Three Stooges flick. If that's his benchmark for perfection, no wonder I missed by a mile.

My most virulent Goodreads detractor also gave one star to, amongst other things, ROMEO AND JULIET and ENDER'S GAME. WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, and (I shit you not) THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK fared slightly better at two stars. (Aside: what kind of soulless monster gives THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK two stars?!)

Reading all this, you might ask yourself, "If you need elaborate coping mechanisms to deal with bad reviews, why bother reading reviews at all?" To which I say this: every once and a while, you come across a review from someone who doesn't just love your book, they really, truly get it, too.

It's those ones, not the bad reviews, I comment on: a quick email or a tweet by way of thanks. Because letting someone you've never met inside your head only to have them feel instantly at home is a rare sort of magic indeed. Believe me when I tell you, it's worth every howler sent your way.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Can't Sing. Can't Act. Can Dance a Little.

By Hilary Davidson

There are two kinds of writers: those who read their reviews, and those who lie about not reading their reviews. I fall firmly into the former camp. I've never tried to pretend I'm blasé about reviews, because I'm not. I set up Google alerts with the titles of my books so that I know when new ones appear, and I have to remind myself to breathe while reading them. When The Damage Done was published in September 2010, I checked Amazon and GoodReads on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, looking for reader feedback; I've calmed down on that front, but it's a rare week if I don't surf by those sites at least once.

What I don't do is obsess about bad reviews. I've had some — in major publications, to boot — and they're never easy to read. The first negative review I received made me want to bury my head in the sand, ostrich-style, and my book along with it. How could I live with the shame? But, after a while, I realized the sky didn't come crashing down. Most people didn't even seem to notice the lousy review — or if they did, they flat-out didn't care.

On my website, I quote from good reviews, so it seems only fair that I mention a couple of the worst here:

"The Damage Done isn’t a bad book: it has its moments. But it is something of a disappointment." — Quill & Quire

"Davidson’s first mystery follows 18 nonfiction books. The story is zealously overplotted." — Kirkus Reviews on The Damage Done

When it comes to reviews, I've learned to let go. Not everyone is going to like my books; in fact, some people will hate them with a fervor normally directed at deadly diseases. That won't stop others from enjoying them (or stop a book from earning awards). I like to remind myself of one Hollywood executive's early assessment of Fred Astaire's screen test: "Can't sing. Can't act. Can dance a little."

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Reviews Are In

By Reece Hirsch

You've all heard them in interviews, the writers who say that they never read their reviews.  I can understand how someone might feel that way, but I can't imagine how they would pull it off.  Perhaps writers who have achieved some Olympian level of bullet-proof success can actually ignore their reviews, but I'm still slogging away in the trenches and the concept is inconceivable to me.

As someone who has been published in mass market paperback, reviews in major outlets were scarce and I treasured the few that I managed to garner.  Getting reviewed in Publisher's Weekly was one of the highlights of my debut author experience.  Maybe I might feel differently if I ever receive a truly psyche-scarring negative review.  And, don't get me wrong, I have received a few lukewarm notices, but no professional reviewer has really taken the long knives and tongs to anything I've written -- yet.

When it comes to reader reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, I try to take it all in for anything that may be useful and ignore the rest.  For example, I've learned that a large number of readers from Utah really don't like my use of profanity.  And when a few readers note that I strained believability with a particular plot point, I have to figure that if enough of them say that, then I probably did, and I'd better keep that in mind the next time around.

I have also learned to never respond to a review, whether from a professional reviewer or a reader.  That way lies madness.

My favorite review, and the only one I was tempted to respond to, was this odd little post on Amazon by someone from Dallas, Texas:

my son purchased this without my knowing it through his smartphone.  He is 17 and loves thrillers and criminal type books.  I am trying to steer him the other way.

As you can see, this is not exactly a review and I feel that my book and I are only incidentally involved in what's going on here.  But I like to think about that crime-and-thriller-fiction-loving kid in Dallas devouring books the way I did at his age, downloading them onto his smartphone so that his parent can't see what he's reading.  I'm sure that his mother's or father's disapproval just cemented his love of those books.  Parents -- this is not a winning strategy.  Consider it a victory that he loves reading.

I wish that kid a lifetime of reading books that his parent would disapprove of and, if I helped that process along, then that gives me as big a thrill as any review in Publisher's Weekly.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Tell-Tale Writer

“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? --now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.”
            Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart"

Like the mad narrator of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” crime fiction invaded my mind and my bones and wouldn’t let me go.  It wouldn’t show me any peace.  You wouldn’t have thought this given my initial readings in the genre.  Here I was this black kid growing up in then mostly African American South Central in Los Angeles reading the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.  Even some John Dickson Carr.  Damn.  Now, to maintain what little hardboiled cred I have, I hasten to add I would eventually drift into the works of the likes of Chester Himes, Hammett and the Godfather if Ghetto Lit, Donald Goines...but still.
The cleverness of the puzzle of who did the thieving and the killing, obfuscating their trail or in some cases, presenting the head scratcher of how was the murder was carried off given the victim was in a locked room.  Those kind of stories knocked me out.   The locked room, the so-called impossible crime, were a specialty of Carr, an American whose stories and characters were set in Britain, where he lived.  His protagonist Dr. Gideon Fell was a blowhard, overweight ass who nonetheless cracked these cases by methods of observation, interrogation and deduction.
It seems having a grounding in what’s termed the Golden Age of British detective fiction where cerebral powers mattered more in the solving of the crime had an affect on me.  This before I got deep into the American branch, where rougher, edgier characters, protagonists and antagonists, resided. The motivations of the villains on both sides of the Atlantic were often the same; greed, lust, avarice, revenge.  It was how they went about achieving their dastardly goals, poisoned tea versus crowbar upside the head, that gave me my rounded education in disposal and psychosis  A fuller appreciation for the twisted, bent human nature as both the Golden Age stories and our homegrown street-level criminals and catchers showed me.
The guilt that the murderer in the “Tell-Tale Heart” couldn’t shake for his deeds, his imagining of hearing the beat, beat of the old man’s heart he killed and stuffed beneath the floorboard ate at him.  Crime fiction eats at me like that too.  I gotta get it down on paper, have to appease the heart that won’t be silent, won’t leave me alone until I till the stories it commands me to tell.
It’s just an over-acuteness of the senses I tell you.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

by Alan

How did you decide writing crime fiction was right for you? Was there a specific event that made you realize “hey, I can make crime pay for me”?

Like Vicki, most of my reading consists of mysteries, suspense, and thriller novels. So when I decided to take up my own pen laptop, it made the most sense to write what I knew best.

But why, exactly, do I gravitate toward reading about crime in the first place?bosox logo

I like to think I’m a good person at heart. I like to see people flourish, be happy, enjoy life. So when I read about some poor old lady losing her life savings to some con man or a mother and son getting murdered or some terrorist setting bombs meant to kill hundreds (or thousands) of innocent people competing in a marathon, I get pretty pissed off.

Okay, tremendously pissed off.

Unfortunately, I can’t do much to stop evil in this world. Not in real life. As long as people have existed, people have wronged others, and maybe it’s one of the curses of a human society, but I don’t see evil abating any time soon.

But fiction is another, uh, story altogether. There, I can create my own world and populate it with my own characters. For instance, I can paint a picture of an evil villain, bent on destroying people’s lives. I can portray the vilest creature doing unspeakable things. I can concoct the Devil himself, if I wanted to.

Then I can rain justice down on his head, with extreme prejudice.

You see, in my books, good always vanquishes evil. Sometimes there’s a hefty price to pay, but believe me, evildoers get punished in my worlds.

That’s why I like to write about crime.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In Which I Reveal How I Entered a Life of (Fictional) Crime

by Tracy Kiely

Over the years, I’ve been asked various questions about being a mystery writer. Some of the more common ones have been, “Really? I had no idea. Now, do you write under your own name? Because I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you,” and “Do you know Charlene Harris? (To answer the first; yes, and you’ll remember me when I kill you off in my next book. To the second; no. However, I did find myself alone on an elevator with her and didn’t make a complete ass out of myself, so I count it as a coup of sorts.)
Next on the list of questions is, “So, why did you decide to write mysteries?”  (This one is usually asked in the same tone one might query a lion keeper about his chosen field. Come to think of it, that’s probably appropriate, as the pay is roughly the same, not to mention the inherent danger to one’s health. Book reviewers can be just as vicious and destructive as any lion.)  And speaking of that question, have you noticed that no one ever asks romance writers why they write romance?  Why is that? I’ll tell you why. Mystery writers are presumed to be dark and twisted. However, if you extend that logic to all romance writers being tarts, you’ll find yourself on the end of a well-deserved slap to the face.    
I’ve been known to answer the question by muttering something about outstanding gambling debts, but my favorite response was given by Marcia Talley, author of the Hannah Ives series, who calmly responded that there were simply a great many people in her life that “needed to die.”
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I realized that I was not going to make it as a tap dancer like Gene Kelly (both gender and talent being two major hindrances) and that my dreams of being a cartoonist for The New Yorker ended when I realized I couldn’t even duplicate the images on those stupid Draw Me! matchbook covers.  
I dabbled with a poetry phase for a bit. (All twelve-year-old girls seem to either do that or sketch page after page of galloping horses. As to why no horses adorned my notebooks, please see above matchbook reference. And for God’s sake, stop bringing it up! Some dreams die hard.)
So, once out of the poetry stage, my thoughts turned to death, which sounds very Sylvia Plath (“your fate involves a dark assailant”), but was really more a result of the books I loved to read. Agatha Christie, Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, Joan Hess, and Dorothy Cannell all were my go-to reads. Being young and foolish, I thought to myself “Hey! I might be able to do this, too!” Before you condemn my arrogance, let me add that I was working for a horrible boss at that point and fantasized daily about his demise. I began to write a book – a modern-day mystery set in a dysfunctional office. Tweaking the first line of Rebecca, I began it with “Last night I dreamt I killed my boss again.”
I never finished that one although I may go back to it one day. He was that kind of boss. But once I started with mysteries, I was hooked. I loved the twist, the telling of two stories at once, the satisfaction of doing away with creeps that may or may not have been inspired by actual people.
You know? Maybe it’s not the gambling debts. Maybe I am dark and twisted.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How did I come to write crime?

By Vicki Delany

That is somewhat of a no-brainer.  I read crime novels mostly, so when I decided to put my hand to attempting to write, first a couple of short stories, and then a novel, crime it was.

My first novel was called Whiteout.  Never heard of it?  Fear not, few people have.  It is exactly the sort of book I wanted to write: a woman alone in a cabin in northern Ontario, something moving in the dark, a dead body under the canoe. A snowstorm, shifting lanterns.  A ghost-story combined with a mystery novel.

In my humble opinion, it was just great.

And I blew it.

I had taken several courses at community college in creative writing, so I had the craft down okay. But I wasn’t yet involved in a writing community of any sort, nor did I have any writer friends. (To be fair I had three children still at home and a full time job).

So when I decided the book was ready for the world, I sent it out. I was, I know realize, too hasty, and I accepted the first offer I got which was from a small electronic publishing company. No editing, no promotion, no publicity. No sales.

Somewhere I had heard that to get in with a big publishing company you had to prove you could write and publish a book.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly not back in 2000, and not even now.

So, here’s a piece of advice from me: your first book is your first book. There will never be another. Even if you change your name, that first book is still your first book.  I am talking about publishing it, here, not writing it. Plenty of writers have lots of early attempts in their bottom drawer.

I was lucky and I was able to recover from that mistake when Poisoned Pen Press kindly picked up Scare the Light Away.   

In the way of nothing is ever wasted, after Whiteout tanked and I couldn’t get anywhere with my next crime novel, I tried my hand a writing a romance novel. 

Total garbage, if I do say so myself.  Off hand I can’t even remember the title of it, but it had a ghost in it, I remember that.

I have been invited to be a guest author at this year’s NorthWords Festival in Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories (travelling with my good friend and fellow author, Barbara Fradkin).  What do they have on the Friday night but a chance for authors to read their raciest stories in their erotic open mike event?

And I have something absolutely perfect down in the bottom of my drawer.

 If you happen to be in Canada’s Far North this spring, here’s the link:  http://northwordsnwt.ca/http://northwordsnwt.ca/ The Festival is May 30 – June 2nd.



Monday, April 15, 2013

Making Crime Pay

How did you decide writing crime fiction was right for you? Was there a specific event that made you realize “hey, I can make crime pay for me”?

by Meredith Cole

I am really an accidental mystery writer. I was a filmmaker/screenwriter for years. I directed several feature films and made my living writing ads for cable television shows.

So why crime? I always loved reading mystery novels. I started with Agatha Christie at age thirteen and then discovered more and more writers (usually at my local library, but occasionally on my mother's bookshelf). Eventually I realized that, if given a choice, I preferred to read a book rather than see a movie. So why was I still trying to make films?

I tried to write literary fiction occasionally when a story wasn't right for the screen, but I got bogged down in the character's thoughts and found that nothing was happening. So when a friend suggested writing a mystery novel set in the neighborhood where we lived, I thought it sounded like fun. Turns out it was just as hard as everything else I tried to write--but it made more sense to me. Mystery novels have strong three act structures (kill someone, look for the murderer, catch the murderer), and that really resonated with my screenwriting background.

I joined Sisters in Crime and stumbled into a wonderful writing group in Brooklyn. They gently told me everything that was wrong with my first novel. So I wrote another one, and it was better. And then I started to take my new career seriously. I started sending out my book to contests and to agents. When I won the St. Martin's Malice Domestic Best Traditional Novel Contest, I knew my career was officially launched. I had made crime (or at least crime fiction) "pay" for me.

BTW, ending tomorrow MAKING STORY: TWENTY-ONE WRITERS AND HOW THEY PLOT is Free on Kindle today! I contributed an essay (along with Cara Black, Kelli Stanley, Rebecca Cantrell and 18 others).

Friday, April 12, 2013

Killing with Responsibility

by Sue Ann Jaffarian

My first two Odelia Grey novels were written and self-published a few years before they were picked up by a traditional publisher and reissued. In the 2nd book, The Curse of the Holy Pail, one of the bad guys dies by Odelia's own hand, something that haunts her in subsequent books.  Before those two books were re-released, I had an opportunity to edit and polish them again, and I was very glad I did for many reasons. One of which fits the topic of this week's question.

Between the time I first wrote Curse and it's re-release, I'd had a serious and ongoing confrontation with a woman who had the same first name as the person Odelia kills in the original edition. And a lot of people knew about this conflict. While editing Curse, I got to thinking about it. A lot of folks identify me with Odelia Grey.  After all, she's a short, fat, middle-aged paralegal with an often snarky mouth.  The more I thought about it, the more concerned I was that people would think I was using the book to live out a fantasy of killing off the person with whom I was having difficulties. Most people who knew us both would not remember that Curse was actually written a few years before the problem occurred.

What to do?

Although I honestly wanted to slap this person at the time, and several times, I didn't wish her dead. I wished her well. I wished her success. I wished her a new brain and a heart. Just far away from me.  But death - never!  So I did the one thing in my power as an author to do. With a simple replace all I changed the name of the character before it went to print and into wider release.

Readers like to inject a lot of stuff into the books they read. Some of it is the author's intention, some of it not. I wasn't about to take the chance that people might think that I wanted this woman six feet under. I'm really not that petty, no matter what ill-feelings I bear towards someone.

On the flip side, I give away a lot of character names in my books as raffle prizes for charities. And a lot of the people who purchase these names I do know personally, and a lot of them want to be a murder victim or the bad guy who is served justice in the end. So when you're reading one of my books, don't think the dead guy or bad guy annoyed me, rather think of them as someone I've probably shared quality time with over a meal or a cup of coffee. Because that's closer to the truth.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

To bump off or not to bump off.

Q: Having come up with a perfect murder, isn't it annoying not to use it get rid of some numpty?' (I translated, being unequipped to say what makes someone a jerk, and therefore un-entitled to murder them.)
A: No.

I don't think I've ever come up with a brilliant murder method.  In eight and a first draft mysteries my murders have been:
  1. baroque to the point of insanity (first novels: never knowingly underwritten)
  2. only available to murder one specific person in a small town (my home town) on one Friday every August (which isn't that handy really)
  3. [the concept album]
  4. preposterous (hey, why set a book in a circus and then just shoot someone?)
  5. even more preposterous (with less of an excuse, mind you)
  6. preposterous's mad uncle who lives in the attic (why did I start this?)
  7. possible. Woo-hoo! (But not these days with mobile phones and CCTV)
  8. preposterous (and disgusting - my darker period begins)
  9. ask me later
But even if I did come up with something . . . viable, if you'll forgive that unfortunate word in this context, I just don't see killing someone.  Anyone.  I mean, up to and including Osama Bin Laden.  (Don't freak - see below.)

In Kate Atkinson''s new one Life After Life (click), the only possible exception comes up.  If I could time-travel back to 1930s Germany I might well pre-emptively kill Hitler, to save 15,000,000 others.  I'd pre-emptively kill Osama Bin Laden too actually.  If I could time travel.  On the other hand, the one time I did write a time-travel caper it wasn't called Kill Hitler.  I called it Save Elvis.  Which tells you a lot about me.

But back to evil mass-murdering psycopaths and why I wouldn't punish them with death after the fact.  It's because in my personal philosophy, this life is all there is and being dead doesn't hurt enough.  If you don't have any supernatural beliefs then being dead is no worse than not being born yet.  I was absolutely fine for millenia before 1965, a state of pain-free non-existence I think is too good for evil people.  Of course, they'll get there in the end but I wouldn't help them.

If you believe in hell, I can see why killing Hitler and Bin Laden would be an excellent idea. But if you believe in redemption for all then executing a monster just fast-tracks him to the good bit - like taking away a toddler's meat and potatoes and letting her go straight to cake.  I've always wondered about that.  I've always wondered too, for the same reason, why devout believers think murdering a good person is bad.  If you're ushering them into a life of eternal paradise, then . . .

I think the most fit punishment is to make someone accept what they've done and accept the suffering they've caused.  Then they live with themselves.  That's my idea of vengeance.  If I try to get my moral ducks in a row, the next step is atonement and forgiveness.  All three together pretty much underpin the "crime" part of the African system of Ubuntu (click) which is what allowed the awesome era of truth and reconciliation in South Africa after the end of apartheid.  I remember being blown away by the Black South Africans' ability to forgive and move on, and the White South Africans' ability to face their own acts, lay them down and walk on, without debilitating guilt.  They really are useless at festering.

In a culture of vengeance-based or payment-based justice like ours the TRC could never have happened.  I remember a radio programme on the BBC years ago when a Northern Irish combatant (I can't remember what side he was from) was faced with a post-apartheid South African describing Ubuntu and was totally unable to comprehend it.  He got pretty close to saying that the Irish Troubles were too severe and South Africa had had it easy.  He stopped himself just in time, I'm glad to say, and I always wondered if they chatted off-air and what came of it. 

So, in conclusion, killing people is not for me.  And I wish Ubuntu was what South Africa exported, instead of diamonds.  It outshines them any day.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Best Laid Plans

by Chris F. Holm

Let's be straight, here: we're all of us a little bent. Crime writers. Mystery fans. Creepy blog-lurkers. (Oh, I don't mean you; you're lovely, I'm sure. It's those other pantsless, lurking weirdos I'm talking about.) To a one, we spend way too much time contemplating acts of moral turpitude.

We like to fancy ourselves closet Marples and Poirots, who could at a moment's notice employ our dazzling skills of deduction to nab the bad guy and save the day (though truth be told, the mysteries we're called upon to solve are often of the Who took my lunch from the break room? variety, and only rarely involve gunplay.) But let's face it, we require naught but the gentlest nudge (a near miss in traffic thanks to some texting idiot, that crapweasel on Amazon who called my debut novel "dreadful," a particularly tempting set of someone else's leftovers in the break room) to find ourselves on the other side of the law, if only in the wild hypotheticals of our own minds.

But when it comes to such wild hypotheticals, I confess I tend more toward the break-room-lunch-heist than I do murder. If I'm going to step across the good guy/bad guy divide, even in the dark recesses of my most private thoughts, it'll be to boost a Rembrandt or knock over a casino, not to pop someone who wronged me.

That's not to say I haven't considered whether there's any such thing as a perfect murder. I've spent as much time pondering the topic as any crime writer. Some folks think they're imaginative enough to pull it off. I'm imaginative enough to convince myself that, statistically at least, it's un-pull-off-able.

The key to getting away with murder isn't, despite what most people think, in the (brace yourself for painful pun) execution. Folks kicking the tires of the Hypothetical Perfect Murder spend a lot of time pondering, for example, how to make sure the body is never found and/or unidentifiable. But here's the thing: in this day and age, it doesn't matter. There are simply too many variables to properly account for all of them. A weighted deep-water body dump sounds quite clever, and it was mighty shrewd of you to remove the head and hands for disposal elsewhere, but it won't do you a lick of good when your well-known grudge against the nefarious Lunch Taker comes to light, and the cops track your movements using the literally dozens of security cameras you pass by every day, only to find trace blood evidence on your neighbor's outrigger. And I don't care if it was your granddad's favorite hacksaw: you should've chucked it. Plus, let's face it, you're no hardened criminal; once they get you in the interrogation room, you're gonna fold like a cot.

No, the key to getting away with murder is in the target selection. Cops rely upon means, motive, and opportunity. Serial killers tend to sneak below the radar for a while because until their pattern becomes known, they often lack motive, and their faulty mental wiring means they're ready to kill at a moment's notice. So if you want to get away with (again, strictly hypothetical) murder, you'd have to bump along in life with your bloodlust set to a constant simmer, but never allow it to boil over until the perfect, utterly random opportunity presented itself (e.g. a complete stranger with whom you've never interacted, no witnesses or cameras, a method both quick and unlikely to leave forensic evidence). That means you don't get to exact your revenge all Dexter-style on the jerkface who ate your lunch, so much as nudge a poor drunk hobo off an empty wharf at 3AM, only to wonder in the weeks that follow whether you were correct in your assessment that you were not seen. More sad than viscerally satisfying, no?

And here's the final key to getting away with murder: once that perfect, lightning-strike opportunity presents itself and you take action, you can never, ever kill again. Which sounds like an easy rule for a normal person to follow, only if the scenario I just outlined appealed to you in the slightest, you're probably psychotic, and therefore unlikely to go all one-and-done in the murder department. Which means a nice, long stay at the ol' Graybar Hotel is almost certainly in your future. Patterns can be predicted, after all, and whether you think you have one or not, Hopefully Imaginary Psychotic Reader, I assure you, you do.

I'm not saying folks never get away with murder. Obviously, some do. But it's often more luck than planning, with a healthy heap of underlying depravity on the side. And the vast majority of murderers are caught, thank God. Sometimes it's the evidence that gets 'em. Sometimes, it's their consciences. Raymond Chandler once referred to murder as a "simple art," but to steal a line from one of my own stories (about, as it happens, a killer with a conscience), "Mind you, simple's not the same as easy."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The EVIL Tour, Part Two

By Hilary Davidson

I'm writing this in Minneapolis, so you know what that means: I'm still on the road, talking about EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES. Part One of the photo diary ended in Denver, where I spoke at the Tattered Cover on March 20th. Here's where I've been — and who I've been hanging out with — since then.

Left Coast Crime: My social media panel (Patricia Stoltey was grabbed by a fan and couldn't be in the picture, so I'm with Janet Rudolph, Jen Forbus and Maddee James.)
Left Coast Crime: My "Foreign Affairs" panel with GM Malliet, Ragnar Jonasson, Edith McClintock, Catriona McPherson and Lourdes Fernandez Venard.
Left Coast Crime — Friday night dinner. Oh, what a night! (With Sandra Brannan, Sara J. Henry, David Freed, Catriona McPherson, Jess Lourey, Larry Light, Kathy McIntosh and Meredith Anthony.)
With Brad Parks and Chantelle Aimée Osman, just before Brad won the Lefty Award!
BookPeople in Austin really knows how to make a girl feel welcome.
Being interviewed by Scott Montgomery.
Hanging out with Scott and with author Janice Hamrick!
Very happy to meet Ed Kurtz and Lee Thomas in person! 
Signing stock.
With Dana Haynes at Murder by the Book in Houston. Don't we look like partners in crime?
Reading in Chicago at The Book Cellar.
So happy to see family! 
So glad to see Kent Gowran.
Loved seeing Jamie Freveletti and Gretchen Beetner.
At the bar afterwards with Jamie Freveletti and Dan O'Shea.
At Mystery One in Milwaukee!
Signed my EVIL poster at Mystery One.
Books... so many books...
With Mystery One's Richard Katz and Dave Biemann.
Hanging out with two of my favorite people: Jon and Ruth Jordan!
With Christy Hintz, who won the Bouchercon 2011 auction to have her name in one of my books. Look for her in EVIL!

Monday, April 8, 2013

First, Kill All the Lawyers

By Reece Hirsch

When I wrote my first novel, I had only been a law firm partner for a few years and the memory of climbing up through the ranks as an associate was still fresh for me.  That means that I had a little list in my head of people who had made my life miserable.  When I wrote THE INSIDER, I have to admit that I did engage in a little payback.  Someone had to die, at least fictionally.

I have been in law firms with colleagues who were brilliant, generous and fair-minded.  I'm happy to say that my current firm falls into that category.  I have also been in law firms that made GAME OF THRONES look like a sewing circle.  (Note to self: I'm not sure if sewing circles are actually such models of tranquility.  You have old people with grudges, pointy needles, etc.  But I digress.)  I once worked in the office of a law firm that was referred to by partners in other offices as "the bag of cats."

Sometimes it's a matter of perspective.  When you're a junior associate, you are relatively powerless, and powerlessness brings out the inner Lannister* in certain people who are further up the ladder.  Will Connelly, the protagonist of THE INSIDER, is on the cusp of partnership at the beginning of the book, which is a very precarious place to be.  After being elevated to partnership, he doesn't forget what it was like to be on the other side of the law firm hierarchy, sticking up for an unjustly maligned associate at a partners meeting.

There is a character in THE INSIDER that does serve as my voodoo doll in which I exact a little revenge for my years of powerlessness as an associate.  Actually, there are a few characters like that in the book, but only one of them dies.  I must say that it was pretty satisfying.

The character in question is killed by gunshot, but as I recall the character and the real-life people that it was based on, I'm thinking that I may have left some good options on the table.  If I had to do it over again, I think I would have gone for more of a multiple-choice approach.  You don't want any Jason-like comebacks, right?  In addition to the gunshot, I think the character might have benefited from the following, just to make sure that he was good and truly dead:

*  Blow from machete

*  Spear from spear gun

*  Arrow from crossbow (is speargun AND crossbow too much?  I'm going to say no.)

*  Electrocution by live power line

*  ... And then we unleash the feral wolverines.

Now that's payback.

*  GAME OF THRONES reference for the uninitiated.  Sorry, but I am currently obsessed with the new season.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fact Check

On this matter of accuracy about police work, I do know from a trip I took to the morgue that it ain’t like you see on any of the CSIs or Body of Proof.  Those TV morgues are bright and shiny, sleek with chrome and stainless steel fixtures.  The first thing you do in the real morgue is put on plastic booties over your shoes because the floor is gooey and slick from leaking body fluids.  No wait, the first thing you actually do when you enter the premises is take a breath due to the smell.  You’re told you’ll get used to it, but you’re better off breathing through your nose initially.  The other thing they don’t show you on those television shows is often the medical examiner is wearing a respirator as they dissect the body.  Death is a messy, smelly business.
I’ve yet to write a specific scene in the morgue in one of my stories, but the experience of seeing how it’s really done keeps me grounded.  Whether I’m writing about a defendant being brought into court or how traffic tickets get transmitted on those hand held devices parking enforcement officers use – and I’d want to know the nickname they call those things – I’d drive myself crazy until I found out the answers.  That would mean I’d go down to the courthouse and watching a few trials and call on my time spent on jury duty.  For the parking bit, I’d ring up the parking bureau to find out the technical name of the ticket device.  Then I’d want to chat up a parking enforcer out in the field.  I figure since they mostly get yelled at by irate drivers, they’d welcome someone interested in their work and equipment.  Or maybe they’d just tell me to buzz off.

But you gotta ask.  I take as my model former plainclothesman turned bestselling mystery writer Joe Wambaugh.  Here is a guy who had a gun and a shield and knows whereof he writes, but he knows he’s been retired for some time.  I had the pleasure to be on a panel with him once and he talked about how he’d take cops out for dinner, his treat of course.  After say the second glass of wine or harder libation, the conversation would flow.  Wambaugh would take his notes about the current cases they were working, how they process a crime scene and so on.  Of course being an ex-cop gives him a leg up with current detectives, but you can sign up for ride-alongs, attend citizen academies as Alan suggested, or query public information officers to make the first steps.

Because you want to establish a relationship with an officer so you can take them out for coffee or a hamburger and hear their stories.  Generally speaking, unless they’re a CIA assassin, people like to talk about their work, what they bring to the job, how they decompress and what have you.  The procedural details of police work you can get from books or watching one of these reality shows like the First 48 Hours.  But the real meat is the asides and the insights you learn once the cop gets comfortable with you.  This is the material to help you flesh out your characters so they don’t stay flat on the page but, hopefully, become realized in the minds of your readers.