Monday, October 30, 2017

Books as presents? But of course!

Early holiday shopping challenge: With Thanksgiving coming up in the USA please give us five titles or criminally good books you think would make great gifts ...and for whom. 

- from Susan

MURDER IN THE WHITE HOUSE, by Margaret Truman except that we now know it was the prolific and admirable Donald Bain who really wrote the series.  And who could it possibly be for other than the Donald.

MURDER IN SAINT GERMAIN, by Cara Black for my Francophile friends, of whom there are many.

KILMOON, by Lisa Alber for bestselling author Sheila Connolly because when you love Ireland as Sheila does, there's never enough Irish blarney.

MONK'S HOOD, by Ellis Peters for my sister, who spends a week every year at a Greek monastery in California and soaks up the atmosphere minus murder.

LOS ALAMOS, by Joseph Kanon for Brian Shea (my son and a budding crime writer) because weaving history into a mystery is an art in itself and this book has stayed fresh in my mind for years.

And a bonus: MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT, by me for the man I met at an art gallery Saturday who was thrilled to meet a mystery writer and wanted to read all of mine starting with the first.

Happy reading, everyone!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

A Message from the Mayor

Many of us who blog here belong to writerly organizations (like Crime Writers of Canada, Mystery Writers of America, Crime Writers Association (UK), Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers etc.) and some don’t. What benefits do those who belong to such groups feel they derive from their membership, and – for those who don’t belong to any – why have you chosen that route?

By Jim

Like most of us crime writers, I am a card-carrying member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the like. Those organizations provide an invaluable service to their members. Everything from discounts to advice to mentoring to conferences. For this post, I’d like to concentrate on the writing community when we actually, physically get together. The conventions and conferences.

Fresh in my mind, of course, is Bouchercon, the traveling show that brings together upwards of 2,000 mystery writers and fans each year, which I recently attended in Toronto. Left Coast Crime is another favorite conference of mine. It’s a smaller, more intimate gathering, but so vibrant, informative, and inspirational. ThrillerFest, Malice Domestic, California Crime Writers, Magna Cum Murder, New England Clambake, Murder and Mayhem, Sleuthfest, and Killer Nashville are some of the excellent conferences that take place each year, and that’s just on this side of the Atlantic. Someday I hope to attend Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Killer Women, Bloody Scotland, Norwich, and CrimeFest in the UK. And as a former teacher and of French, I dream of one day of being invited to the Quais du Polar in Lyons. Et pourquoi? Because the crime-writing community has become my home.

In a former life, I worked in academia then in Hollywood postproduction (subtitling and visual effects). And while I loved the work I did in those careers, there was much about the community that didn’t fit my character. I was often unhappy with the politics of the academy and the single-minded goals of profits in the corporate world. All that changed when I walked into my first crime-writers convention in 2013.

Like Dietrich, my introduction to the mystery community came at the Bouchercon in Albany, NY. Some attendees complained—and still do—about various logistical issues with the Albany conference and the city itself, but none of that bothered me. It was the people who made that conference great. My debut novel, STYX & STONE, was still a month away from publication, and, yes, I experienced a vague feeling of alienation that reminded me of my first days at college. I didn’t know anyone, except one person—my dear friend and wonderful writer Lynne Raimondo—from a Facebook group. At dinner, she consoled me over the less-than-glowing review my book had just received by dusting off a few unvarnished words for the reviewer in question. I’ve loved her ever since. So there I was, lost in a strange new place without a book, but I didn’t care. I was armed with some bookmarks that my publisher had provided for promotion! I placed them with great care on the tables set up expressly for that purpose. Later, I learned that this was the quickest and most effective way to dispose of said bookmarks, as no one wanted them and they were swept unceremoniously into a garbage bin at the close of the festivities.

I met some great people in Albany. First, Barry Lancet. Then Michael Sears, Tim O’Mara, Sara J. Henry, and Louise Penny. Great writers all. And my editor, Dan Mayer, invited me to lunch with a couple of other Seventh Street authors, Terry Shames, Mark Pryor, and the above-mentioned Lynne Raimondo. They’ve all remained fast friends. (Well, not Mark Pryor, but the others.) Terry Shames’s A KILLING A COTTON HILL received the Macavity Award in Albany that year for Best First novel, and I was proud to know a winner and call her my friend.
Lynne Raimondo, Mark Pryor, and Terry Shames, Albany 2013
So for me, that’s the best part of our community. The community itself. People often remark that crime writers are among the nicest folks they’ve ever met. Somehow we write about murder and sadness, but remain unspoiled by the exercise. Empathetic and supportive and caring. I can’t say how or why, but it’s true.

Five books later, I’ve since attended four more Bouchercons, five Left Coasts, four ThrillerFests, and two California Crime Writers conferences. I imagine that my flask and I are now familiar sights at these events.
A man, his flask, and Catriona McPherson
I’ve come to know hundreds of writers and readers and consider them colleagues and friends. In fact, Pinckley Prize and High Plains Book Award-winning writer—and friend—Christine Carbo calls me the mayor. I wear the sash and rosette with pride.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Getting out there

by Dietrich Kalteis

Many of us who blog here belong to writerly organizations (like Crime Writers of Canada, Mystery Writers of America, Crime Writers Association (UK), Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers etc.) and some don’t. What benefits do those who belong to such groups feel they derive from their membership, and – for those who don’t belong to any – why have you chosen that route?

I have to admit I’ve let some memberships lapse lately as I’ve become caught up in my own writing and all that goes with it. And I know there are a couple of writers on this blogsite who have spent countless hours working to make these organizations happen, and I can just hear them going tsk tsk if they read that. But, let me say, organizations like Mystery Writers of America, Crime Writers of Canada, and so on, are all worth checking out, especially for any aspiring and new mystery and crime writers. It’s a great way to connect to the local writing community, as well as a good way to network and get yourself and your work known. There are newsletters, opportunities to attend chapter meetings and take part in local writer events, promote books on their websites, and post events on online calendars.

Writing is pretty much a solo effort, so it’s important to step away from imaginary friends and get away from the desk once in a while. And another way to connect with other writers is through the various conferences and festivals that take place each year, like Thrillerfest, Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. Most of which are also connected with writer organizations. Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime are held in a different city each year, and although traveling and attending can be costly, it’s a fantastic opportunity to network with the mystery and crime-writing community. The first Bouchercon I attended was in Albany NY in 2013, a great experience of meeting authors and readers and taking in author panels. It was also an opportunity to meet with authors in their natural habitat, the convention bar, standing around with a bunch of talented writers having a great time. These conventions are the perfect opportunity to take part in various panel discussions, pitch your stories to agents and publishers, and it’s also a chance to meet and chat with avid readers. One convention I’m looking forward to is Left Coast Crime which will be here in Vancouver in 2019. Although I haven’t been, the Harrogate Festival and Bloody Scotland would be awesome to attend.

Writing associations are also worth checking out. Aside from meeting others who write, you can listen to guest speakers, attend regular meetings, workshops and seminars. Then there are events like Noir at the Bar which are popping up all over. I organize a couple of these events in Vancouver each year, and I’ve attended and taken part in N@B events in L.A., Seattle, Toronto and Raleigh, NC. These events are another great chance to meet, mingle and hear other authors read from their latest works. If you’re an aspiring or debut writer, it’s a shot at joining the line-up and reading your work to a roomful of eager listeners. The events are always well attended, and many talented authors have graced our events with their presence, coming from as far as Toronto, Edmonton, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver and Seattle. So, if you’re in the neighborhood, you’re welcome to check out the next one here on Wednesday, November 1st. And as part of a book tour for Zero Avenue, I’m also taking part in a Noir at the Bar in Seaside, California on Friday, October 20th. A guaranteed good time. 
Social media is another good way to network, and I’ve made many connections with writers online who I eventually ended up meeting later on at some writing event. When I started writing, I joined Zoetrope, Frances Ford Coppola’s online workshop, where writers submit their screenplays and short stories and trade peer reviews. And I met some interesting writers there, got valuable help and even ended up having a couple of screenplays optioned through people I met. 

So, whether it’s for inspiration, information, promotion or socialization, it’s important to get away from the desk now and then and hang out with others who do what you do. And it’s amazing how helpful, friendly and supportive people who write about crime and some pretty gruesome stuff can be.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Writers Organizations

Terry Shames answering the question: What benefits do I get from writers’ organizations?

I belong to a few writers’ organizations. Two of them stand out as being the important influences in my crime writing career.

I’ve belonged to Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime since long before I was a published writer. I joined the organizations because I thought I could learn something from other members—and I was right! Both organizations have given me a lot more than I returned to them in time and money.

I joined MWA before Sisters in Crime even existed, because I wanted to learn everything I could to help me with my goal to write mystery novels. I still remember some of the earliest meetings I ever attended, most of them in San Francisco. I remember the talk by a psychiatrist from Stanford who studied serial killers. He played some actual tapes (yes, tapes!) of a couple of interviews with serial killers. The sounds of their voices were chilling and made a huge impression on me. Another speaker brought pictures of crime scenes. He warned us that they were graphic and horrifying. I’m not sure there was anyone in attendance who shied away from looking at them.

I was a brand new writer then. What did I learn? A few things stand out:

1)     Authentic crime writing is not for the faint of heart.
2)     Crime writers are a bloodthirsty bunch.
3)     The details of crime are important, and they aren’t always what you see on TV.
4)     People who deal in the study and apprehension of criminals are willing and eager to talk about what they do, and how they do it.

All the talks were not about the heinous side of crime writing. There were plenty of workshops and discussion of the process of writing. If it took me a long time to get it right, it certainly wasn’t the fault of the generous authors and other industry professionals who were willing to share their knowledge and experience.


When Sisters in Crime was founded with the mission of supporting women in the crime writing field, I eagerly signed up. There were subtle differences in SinC and MWA, and I found both to be valuable in different ways. Sisters in Crime is more inclusive and embracing of unpublished and new writers. This is not to denigrate MWA, just to point out that both are valuable.

Because I was an unpublished writer when I joined SinC, I was happy to find that a sub-group of the organization had been formed (Guppies) to give mutual support to other non-published authors. There were a number of established writers who joined the group as well in order to lend their experience to “guppies”—short for the great unpublished! Now this subgroup has almost 1,000 members. The advice and encouragement members give to each other is awesome.

I know writers who say they don’t join “groups,” and more power to them. But I have found that the friendships I’ve formed and the information I’ve received from these groups has made a huge difference not only to my writing, but to my life as a writer.

As a P.S., I’m just finishing up my two-year stint as president of the Northern California chapter of Sisters In Crime. It’s a big job, but I can truly say that I’ve gotten a lot more than I’ve given!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Writing Advice: 5¢

There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why?

by Paul D. Marks

I don’t think I use online writing sites very much. I’m not saying I never use them, but right now none come to mind. On occasion I’ll search a specific question on Google and might go to one site or another. But there’s no writing “advice” sites that I use on a regular basis.

What I do use fairly regularly is Grammar Girl when I have a grammar question. It’s not the only site I’ll go to for things like that, but it is one I’ve gone to again and again, though it’s more for “technical” advice than advice about writing. I also use and Urban Thesaurus fairly regularly, despite Stephen King’s admonishment not to use a thesaurus.

I still have a slew of books from my early writing days – and that goes back a ways – but I don’t turn to them very often. Maybe I should… And off and on I’m writing my own advice book for writers. Someday I might even get it done.

As others have mentioned this week, I have some people who will comment on my works-in-progress, but I’m kind of feisty and often argue with them. Though eventually I do give in to their suggestions about ¾ of the time I’d say.

You’ll get advice from all quarters, websites, conventions/conferences, agents, editors, friends, the guy on the corner. Some of it will be worthwhile, some won’t. Sometimes you have to compromise, especially with agents and editors – you have to decide if this is the hill you want to die on. So you give in here and hold your ground there. There was one time when I wrote a short story in a modified screenplay format. I thought that format worked in the context of the story. The first editor that was assigned to it just didn’t get it – plus we had other issues – and passed me off to another editor. Initially, he also thought I should 86 the modified screenplay format, but I convinced him to let me keep it and in the end he agreed it worked well for the story.

The thing with all advice is to take it with a grain of salt. First, learn the rules -- you need to know them before you can break them and many of them are good and worthwhile. But ultimately, do what works for you and more importantly what works for the story and the characters. As I’ve mentioned before, don’t let anyone change your voice, and some will try to do that. When I co-edited, with Andy McAleer, two volumes of mystery short stories (Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea) I tried to have a very light hand in the editing process. That’s not to say I gave no input, but I wanted the stories to be the authors’ stories not my take on them.

These days there’s so much information out there and it’s very easy to look it up on the internet. Tons of blogs with articles on writing (like this one) that you can learn from. Sites like The Creative Penn and Writer Beware that offer practical publishing advice and more. And writing advice is like opinions, everyone’s got one. But regarding advice in general, don’t read every advice article or book and follow it blindly – some are simply fads that will wash out with the next tide. All of these things might work for one person and not work for someone else. You have to find out if it works for you.

What are some of the sites or other sources you go to for writing advice?


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:

Thursday, October 19, 2017

29 Reasons Why Lists Should Never Be Longer Than 15.

"There is a large number of online writing advice sites. Do you now or have you ever used any of them? Which and why?" by Catriona 

Well, now. Not really. I'm a bit wary of free websites and the advice therein. Whether it's that thing on my leg that might have been a spider bite (it wasn't) or that chapter in the middle of the book that felt soggy (I rewrote it), it doesn't feel sensible to prise open the maw at the top of the pit of clattering madness and pitch myself in.

And as for sites behind a paywall . . . hmmmmmm. If someone is trying to make money selling writing advice, chances are s/he can't rely on writing itself for an income. And then we're in the territory of whether to trust a dentist with blood in his hair, aren't we?

I think the internet is great for bold-stroke tips that help with low-stakes problems. Getting the seeds out of a pomegranate, folding a fitted sheet, packing a carry-on bag with clothes for a month . . . that kind of thing. But, as a rule, the more certain someone sounds about writing advice the less safe it is to listen. (I sound quite sure about that, eh? Which means you should ignore me. Only now I sound less sure, so it would make a good forehead tattoo. Argh.)

Seriously, though, whenever I find myself teaching a writing class I kick off by saying if everything is going well people should ignore me and scroll through their texts until break-time. But if they're having a problem, then they could maybe listen and then only if what I'm saying seems sensible and/or fun they could maybe give it a whirl. I'm surprised no one's ever asked for a refund, to be honest with you.

There are exceptions around the fringes of actual writing. When I was starting out, looking for an agent, the internet was in its infancy. (Bottle of Evian? Eeh, we didn't have water when I were a nipper. We had hydrogen and oxygen and we made our own.) But these days, you can't do better than Janet Reid's Query Shark, if you're at that stage of the game.

But what about craft? Character development, pacing, language choices? I'd recommend reading good books and seeing how it's done. You could read the odd bad book to throw the good ones into sharper relief. Then, with enough long walks, solitude, sitting on the beach listening to the waves crash, staring out of a window at a leaf about to fall etc etc, some of the juice from the good books (and the grit from the bad books) will get into the bit of your brain that you use for writing.

It's not the bit of your brain that you use for compiling or consuming tip-lists for fitted sheets and pomegranates.  How could it be?

And also, this:

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Winnowing can be Cathy Ace

Q: There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why?

I think my response is going to echo those by Susan and Rae earlier this week, insofar as I find the amount of “advice” on the web to be dizzying. I am also extremely wary of taking advice from someone I have never heard of who “tells” me they are a  best-selling author…of books about writing! 

In terms of finding a grain of comfort in what one can access online, there are grains out there, but so often they are surrounded by wads of advertising and selling that it’s hard to work out what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. However, for specific questions, there are some good sources out there.

How to craft a mystery? Reading ALL these might help you think through your plot, characters, and writing approach a little more clearly:

Need to find out which agents are recruiting? Here you go:

Need to write a query letter to an agent? Here you go:

And so it goes…google can help, and some sites are loaded with content from real people who actually write and sell books…but you’ll have to sort the wheat from the chaff yourself, and sometimes there’s a lot of chaff. 

The key thing to remember when you’re searching and reading is – there is no one answer, there are no worthwhile shortcuts – so don’t expect an “Ah ha!” moment…instead expect to see similar points of view expressed by many people in different ways. Why? Because those are the key points which real writers, who write books that sell, have learned for themselves. 

I would suggest you’ll do yourself more good by being a reader of the sub-genre you want to write, than by being just a reader of books about writing, though reading hints and tips by authors whose works you admire will help keep you focused.  

 Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Monday, October 16, 2017

One Hundred and Sixteen Priceless Bites of Writing Advice Before Dinner

Q: There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why?

- from Susan

20 Writing Tips from 12 Bestselling Fiction Authors
21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips from Great Authors
19 Amazing Pieces of Writing Advice from Authors
50 Pieces of Writing Advice from Authors
6 of the Best Writing Tips & Advice from Successful Writers
Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

That’s 116 priceless bits of advice right there, and I am only on the first page of the Google search that apparently continues into the next millennium. I pity the poor novice writer, eager for help and inspiration, turning as one always does these days to the Internet. How do you filter the advice? Who are these bestselling, highly successful, great writers and how do you know that what worked for them will work for you?

I may have looked at a few back in the early 2000’s when I was just facing up to my writing passion and wondering what to do next. I seem to recall there was a listserv – Dorothy-something? – that several people recommended, but the complications of joining and reading what seemed like an awful lot of unfocused chatter wore me down quickly. I had a more than full time job then and wanted to cut to the chase. Not sure when it went live, but Writers Digest had an online presence, but maybe you had to pay? What I’m realizing is that, no, I really didn't gravitate toward or use online writing advice sites much.

Now? I have friends in the business, I have an agent, I have an editor, I have a couple of fantastic beta readers, I get reviews, I have my own experience of what works and what doesn’t. And occasionally I’m asked to share what I’ve learned in presentations, and that forces me to consider carefully and be honest about what I think – because no one absolutely knows – works, which helps me.

I’m not dissing online writer advice. I might turn to the web if I were starting today. But I have more faith in classes taught by genuinely successful writers, workshops with smart faculty, a few outstanding how-to books on the topic*, and the best writing advice in the world: the work of authors in any genre whose stories or non-fiction prose set the shining examples of how to write so that you move people, surprise them, convince them of something.

Ginormously successful writer JK Rowling offers 13 pieces of writing advice in a Google-searched post I stumbled upon today. I like the last one, which is a sort of shrug about the whole idea of taking other people’s writing advice:

“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totally for myself.”

* I’ll just mention a few I think are worth checking out. There are others…

Gillian Roberts’ You Can Write a Mystery
James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel
Jane Cleland’s Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot
David Corbett’s The Art of Character