Monday, April 30, 2018

Publishing Options Today

Free Speech Week

-from Susan

I’m at yet another crossroads with my writing, which prompts me to wonder: Is it time to re-consider the alternative to traditionally published books?

I have not yet self-published, but I’ve had large and small publishers, successes and set-backs, seen my books picked up, passed along, published in many formats, and passed over. I have two series out right now, the Dani O’Rourke contemporary mysteries set in San Francisco’s art world; and a French village mystery series set in Burgundy. But they’re short as series go. In fairness, I only started writing full time in late 2006 and I’m not a fast writer: I’ve only written five books. 

The history of the Dani series taught me a lot, but maybe not enough. The first book went to market through my agent just as the economy tanked big in 2008. The agent at the major house who loved it said, sorry, we have been told we can’t buy anything for at least three months. So, it got sold to a well-known niche house, but for hard cover, which sounded good. Also to a large-print publisher. Also to a paperback mystery book publisher. Also to Audible. 

Good, huh? Well, not for me or my agent because the contract gave the first publisher all the rights to license it out without our approval or royalties. In each case, a one-time payment to the author/agent. Then, a year later, as the second book in my two-book contract as about to go to that publisher, they announced rather breezily that, oh by the way, they were selling all the rights to their books in print to another publisher. That publisher printed a new edition of my first book but had neither the contract rights nor the interest in book number two. Agent went scrambling to find me a publisher who wouldn’t mind that book number one wouldn’t come to them with the new book.

I could go on. Eventually the three Dani’s got to print and e-book and all are now gathered in a small publisher’s list, but I came to realize that getting them printed wasn’t the key. Getting them marketed and distributed so a bookstore would a) carry them; b) be willing to order them; and c) be able to order them was the really big deal. The other thing I learned is that the dream of living off royalties is pretty thin until and unless you sell a whole lot of books in a conventional publishing deal. A whole lot.

Knowing what I know now and seeing how platforms like Amazon have cracked open the distribution channels and social media has given writers marketing options, I pause. Am I too set in my ways, too lazy, or not well enough off financially to take on the extraordinary work of today’s successful self-published author? I look at people like the writing couple Bette and JJ Lamb, and I’m awed at their commitment to it and at the success they have had going this route.

It isn’t easy, as Bette has told me more than once. But they have built an audience for their novels, as have other writers I know, like Simon Wood and Cindy Sample.

The glamor of being able to say you’re published by so-and-so may not be there, but 100 percent of the royalties are!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Mother Goose Bumps

Despite literary fiction genre bias, elements of crime fiction make it into literary fiction all the time. Write a mystery/crime-style synopsis of a novel that was crime fiction in all but name. (Bonus points for cheekiness.)

From Jim

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Violent passions, perversion, and murder in one spine-tingling collection. Mother Goose offers a tour de force of psychological suspense, domestic tragedy, and good old-fashion mystery in her latest collection of nursery rhymes. Alternately tugging at the heartstrings and terrifying readers with dark motives and twisty endings, Ms. Goose shows again why her rhymes regularly top the bestseller scrolls.

Highlights of the collection include:

(Photo removed) The doleful story of a forsaken orphan boy, left by his cruel overlords to eat his meager repast of Christmas pie alone, without even a spoon or fork to extract the dried-out fruit filling.

(Photo removed) The hard-boiled tale of Humpty Dumpty, innocent victim of perfidious betrayal, who finds himself on the wrong end of a shove from atop a high wall. This is a complex conspiracy, originating in the highest echelons of the Palace, where Humpty’s powerful enemies scramble to cover their tracks. Even the king’s horses are part of the plot.

(Photo removed) A local deviant, Georgie Porgie, terrorizes the females of the town until a civic-minded mob sets out to rout this menace from the land. Time’s up, Georgie.

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Two thirsting lovers climb a hill, only to find danger and menace awaiting at the summit. But who sent the two youngsters tumbling to their doom below? Is it murder-suicide or a love triangle gone wrong?

(Photo removed) Dastardly plots abound within the royal walls, where the king is served a pie of live, squirming blackbirds. Who dared lay such a dainty dish before the king?

(Photo removed) More palace intrigue in a high-concept take on the heist genre. The queen’s baked goods go missing. This baffling case looks uncrackable at first. But when a kingdom-wide dragnet nabs the culprit, it turns out to be an inside job.

(Photo removed) An urgent call to action for social change. The shocking saga of an old crone who lives in a giant shoe on the tenth hole of a miniature golf course, next to the windmill, where she starves and maltreats her many children. Mother Goose shines a light on the tragic plight of those too small and weak to defend themselves. The feel-bad story of the year.

(Photo removed) Something for science-fiction fans. The futuristic epic of a fiddling feline, a bovine space traveler, and a pair of amorous anthropomorphic tableware give this collection a fantastic twist.

(Photo removed) Finally, there’s a cautionary tale in which a bucolic setting turns into a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape when a lazy shepherd boy neglects his duties, and the livestock rampage through the cornfields, destroying the crops.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Crossing the lines

Reading: Despite literary fiction genre bias, elements of crime fiction make it into literary fiction all the time. Write a mystery/crime-style synopsis of a novel that was crime fiction in all but name. (Bonus points for cheekiness.)

by Dietrich Kalteis

I’m going to stray off this question a bit and instead share some thoughts on genre. 

A novel’s prime focus determines it’s genre, which is a way to classify and to give readers the broad strokes of what to expect. The danger is a reader might dismiss a really good book based on preconceived ideas of its genre. While I’ve been guilty of that at times, I do believe any writing should be judged individually and on its own merits. Shouldn’t it be about the writing itself and the strength of the author’s voice and not the label or the shelf the book’s on?

Some might say the use of violence and twist-endings in mysteries and crime fiction are like crutches to good writing. While genre bias exists, one form of writing outshining another, consider a hardboiled crime-fiction classic like The Big Sleep, written by Raymond Chandler who brought us Philip Marlowe, one of the most memorable characters in any novel. There are classic mysteries like Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and thrillers like Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and Stephen King’s Misery. How about sci-fi classics like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? Westerns like Charles Portis’s True Grit, and military fiction like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Any of these and so many more make strong arguments about the quality of the writing found in their respective genres.

Take a modern crime novel like Don Winslow’s The Force. If that’s not a masterpiece of urban realism, I don’t know what is. And there are many other modern-day masters writing across the genres. Speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood, fantasy by Salman Rushdie, literary fiction by John Irving.

Take a look at the quality of the writing in Cormac McCathy’s crime fiction novel No Country for Old Men. His words are rich and lyrical, yet the story is dark and violent. Then there’s his post-apocalyptic The Road, in which his prose becomes spare across a colorless landscape. Different styles, different genres, but both from the same author, and like all his writing, simply genius.

Sometimes the lines between genres get pretty thin, and they may even cross. Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca could wear several labels, and at the same time it stands the test of time. And that’s also saying something about the quality of the writing. The aforementioned Catch 22 edges into historical fiction, war drama, satire and dark humor. While William Golding’s Lord of the Flies could be considered equal parts allegory, YA and literary fiction. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is both historical fiction and romantic drama, and JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter books could also fit onto several genre shelves.

So high brow versus blue collar. A quick read or something deep. Just give me a writer with a great voice and a well-told story, and I won’t worry about the novel’s genre label.

Monday, April 23, 2018

It's All a Mystery

Terry Shames here:

Our blog assignment this week is to write a back cover synopsis of a well-known “mainstream” novel, as if it were a mystery. Here’s why I decided not to do that:

After my first novel came out, I had a launch party at a local bookstore. I gave a talk about the book and then opened up for questions. And I got one of the most combative questions anyone ever asked at one of those reading events: “Did you write a mystery novel because you didn’t think you were good enough to write a mainstream novel?” The audience gasped. Luckily, I had an answer:

It has long been my theme song that there is a mystery at the heart of every good book. If not a whodunit, at least a mystery “of the human heart.” Whatever I wrote, I tried to use the best prose at my command, and I think that’s what every writer does. The questioner was satisfied, and told me later that he admired the answer.

So I’m not even sure how I would go about writing a synopsis of a famous novel “as if” it were a mystery. They are all mysteries. What would Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice be without the mystery of what happened to Mr. Darcy’s younger sister? Or without the question of why he was so aloof? What would Styron’s Sophie’s Choice be without the mystery of the choice Sophie had to make that destroyed her peace of mind? You won’t find Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods in the mystery section of a bookstore, but the entire book is one, long mystery. Did William Faulkner write anything that didn’t involve a gasp-inducing moment when a mystery was revealed? Try reading Faulkner’s The Sanctuary. It’s short and is a classic of suspense. Crime and Punishment: Mainstream, yes. But it examines the criminal mind as surely as any mystery novelist does. Drieser’s An American Tragedy. A mainstream mystery.

I can turn it around, too. If you haven’t read Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries, you should know that it is as mainstream as E. M. Forester. Is John LeCarre a mainstream novelist? You bet. How about Laura Lippman? Read Sunburned, and think of it not as a “mystery” but as a novel about people who are hiding something and whose lives are gripped by their fears.

A good novel drags you into the scene and the setting, sets characters at odds with each other and takes you into their interior lives—their hopes, motivations, fears, and fury—and their convoluted ways of dealing with each of these emotions. Would anyone read Flannery O’Conner, that master of writing about conflicted people, and not be aware of the potential for terror and violence on every page? What about Cormack McCarthy? His books encompass, violence, fury, fear, and tenderness.

What’s going to happen next? That’s the question we writers hope that our readers will ask on every page. Some of us structure our books more clearly to set up a mysterious event than others do. But it’s always about the way a character’s wants and needs conflict with that of others. That’s all anyone worth reading writes about. Some people do it with more thrill and action; others in a more contemplative way, but it’s all about the mystery.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Teacher's Pet

by Paul D. Marks

It's hardest to impress those who know us best. What unexpected acknowledgment have you experienced from folks who knew you way back when? (Bonus points if it ties into a wedding, class reunion, or holiday gathering.)

Before I get to this week’s question, I’d like to share some terrific news:

Derringer Nominations are out. And I’m blown away by all the nominations and recognition for several of the stories in Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, edited by Andrew McAleer and me. I want to thank the judges and the Short Mystery Fiction Society! I also want to congratulate all the finalists.

I’m thrilled that my story Windward has been nominated for a Derringer in the Best Novelette category.

I also especially want to congratulate the other nominees from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes: Matt Coyle for The #2 Pencil (Best Long Story category); Robert Randisi for Kill My Wife, Please (Best Novelette), Andrew McAleer for King’s Quarter (Best Novelette).  ---  And also from this anthology: Art Taylor’s A Necessary Ingredient is nominated for an Agatha. John Floyd’s Gun Work and my story Windward have both been chosen by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler for inclusion in The Best American Mysteries of 2018. – And I want to thank all of the authors who contributed stories to Coast to Coast.

I’m truly amazed and honored for such a great showing from a terrific book:

So, like I said, mind blowing. And I’m thrilled to be part of it on various levels. And it’s very gratifying to see all the hard work of both the writers and editors paying off. Take my breath away!

Click here to see all Derringers Finalists.


And now to this week’s question:

A friend once said to me you’re never a prophet in your own land, referencing the biblical quote. I think he was referring to certain members of my family who, no matter what I did or achieved, never seemed happy for me. Even when I had early writing successes, exciting and happy moments for me, they were not impressed and just wanted to focus the attention back on themselves instead of congratulating me. I think boiled down to its basic element my friend was saying familiarity breeds contempt.

One of the people I would have most wanted to impress, an uncle, died too F-ing soon—before I had much visible success. So F him for dying before I could shove it in his face. At least I’m not bitter. Nope, I have many fond memories of this guy.

Outside of certain family members, that uncle and some others (long story), I think most people in my early life thought reasonably well of me and expected me to make something of myself more than becoming a serial killer, though of course I guess I serially kill people in my writing. But there’s less blood that way and you don’t have to spend all that money on Rubbermaid containers, bleach and the always-necessary duct tape.

I did have one interesting experience, though it may not quite fit the parameters of the question, but close. So I’ll tell it as a little story:

She stood, towering over me, the paragon of wisdom, imparter of knowledge, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Morrison (name changed to protect the sanctity of student-teacher confidentiality). She knew everything there was to know, especially how to finger-paint and build with blocks. And she knew where the milk and cookies were, where the sleepy-time mats were and when it was nap time. One of the things that happened in that early-on class is I met the guy—we’ll call him Buster—who many years later became my writing partner in Hollywood for a time.

As my first teacher, Mrs. Morrison made a lasting impression. However, after accomplishing the consummate feat of graduating from kindergarten and moving upward (in grade) and outward (into the main building from the kindergarten corner), I didn't see her much anymore.

Many years later, after losing touch with both Buster and Mrs. Morrison, I ran into Buster again and we decided to become writing partners. Since Mrs. Morrison was the first major thing we had in common we even borrowed her last name for our pseudonyms when we needed them. Well, Buster and I eventually broke up for a variety of reasons and, man, it was like a nasty divorce. We had to have a lawyer divide the babies, but that’s another tawdry story. Anyway:

Flash forward: I'm taking a novel writing class at UCLA Extension (many years ago at this point). One of the women in the class asks me if I'd like to join her writers' group. Sounds interesting, I say, and check it out a few nights later. There are several women “of a certain age” in the room and me. One of them stands out. She has a vaguely familiar look about her. When I'm introduced to her as Emily Morrison I'm astonished to find myself sitting across the room from my kindergarten teacher—Mrs. Morrison. I stare and stare at her throughout the group's session. What must she think of my staring? Do I have eyes for her? Am I some kind of swain waiting for the right moment to make my move? When it's over I go up to her and ask if she taught kindergarten at XYZ Elementary School, where all the teachers are strong, the principal’s good-looking, and all the children are above average. Natch! When she says "yes," I know I'd better watch my "Ps" and "Qs," literally.  And I wait for milk and cookie time.

She didn't remember me, but she did remember my writing partner, Buster, whose family lived across the street from the school. So, of course, she asked me a lot about him, as well as myself. And at the next class I brought my kindergarten class pic and showed her me—that sort of jogged her memory and she sort of remembered. And she did admit to me that she wondered why I had been staring at her that first session. She did think I was interested. It was pretty funny really.

As I got to know her, I learned about all kinds of “backstage” machinations at the elementary school back in the day, things I never would have guessed and some of which are pretty sordid.

But the high point of my connecting again with Mrs. Morrison is when she made me a collage with photos of our kindergarten class and a note saying I was her favorite student of all time. So I guess I went from being unremembered to fave student ;-) . Now that’s somethin’!

Here’s a pic of me from my kindergarten class picture. And also of Mrs. “Morrison.” I’m sorry about the quality. My external hard drive crashed and I can’t access most of my photos so I had to cop this from something else and, unfortunately, it’s the best I can do right now.


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Thursday, April 19, 2018

All in the Family

"Life: It's hardest to impress those who know us best. What unexpected acknowledgment have you experienced from folks who knew you way back when?"  

by Catriona

Topical. My excuse for blogging so late today is that one of my sisters, one of my nieces and one of my great-nephews* are staying with me on a holiday. The time got away from us all.

On the plus side, I just shouted the question to my sister to get the start of an answer. She shouted back thusly:

"Is it an acknowledgement if I say 'Where did it come from and how come you got it all?'?" 
Me: "Hmmm. Not really."
Sister: "Tough. I'm going to sit in the sun and read."

But here's the thing. She's reading Scot Free. So whether she likes it or not, I'm getting validation in spades.

My friends and family reading my books and forgetting I wrote them does it for me every time.

The next best thing probably came from my English teachers. Mrs McVeigh from primary six came to a book launch and said she wasn't the least bit surprised. And the man I've had to learn to call "Stuart" (aka Mr Campbell from high school) even asked my advice about pitching a book he had written. It got published, of course. Because it was brilliant. See here. If his query had been written on a pizza-box lid, in crayon, it would have been published. 

And since things come in threes, I need to mention the fact that my oldest friend - Catherine, this means you - always asks for a time-of-day rating when I hand over a new standalone.  "Can I read this in bed at night?" she'll say. "Yep," I usually claim. "Maybe not in a thunderstorm or if Olivier's not there." Then some time later I get a phone call reporting nightmares. That's acknowledgement, right? 

I'll say it right here: Catherine, you can read Scot Free at night, in a power cut, by the light of one guttering candle, as the wind howls around the house and twigs scrape at the window. Cx

*Great-Aunt Catriona. I feel old.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Fiddler and the Scribbler... by Cathy Ace

Life: It's hardest to impress those who know us best. What unexpected acknowledgment have you experienced from folks who knew you way back when?

WOW - thinking about this reminds me how many people I have lost touch with over the years, but also allows me to realise I have kept some people in my life for a very long time. I still connect with a girl I was in primary school with who's now a Member of Parliament in the UK, for example, and a guy from the same part of my life who's incredibly active in Swansea's arts-scene.  I have good friends who knew me when I was a teenager, and connecting with them (often through Facebook on an ongoing basis, but then in "real life" when I can) allows me to enjoy their achievements, which, quite honestly, is more comfortable for me than them commenting upon my writing career. 

I'll also share with you the fact that when my "middle school" (attended from age 11-13) honoured me by adding me to their list of "Past pupils who have achieved great things" in 2002 for my success in the fields of marketing and business, I was just about as chuffed as it's possible to be. I visited the school to present them with a special carving made by an artist close to my then-new home in the Pacific Northwest.

Manselton School - my "alma mater" - in 2002 (my head's in the back row!)

As for people who've "unexpectedly" acknowledged me???

Here I go, "sharing" again...I pretty much grew up on the stage in Wales; I was carried on as a baby for a scene in some play or other at the YMCA in Swansea in 1960, and I’ve never gone longer than a couple of months without giving some sort of performance since then. Leichner stage make-up is in my blood, I think. These days I tend to speak my own words on platforms and podiums, rather than those of a playwright on a stage with wings, backdrops and curtains, but it’s the same thing. Mum and Dad were also on the stage for more than a century, between them, (they met at rehearsals for a musical, in much the same way as my husband and I met at rehearsals for a scout and guide "Gang Show"), and back in 1971 I was one of Tevye’s children in the Swansea Amateur Operatic Society’s performance of Fiddler on the Roof - in which my mum, dad and sister all also performed. The titular Fiddler was played by a talented teen from Gowerton School (the same school my dad attended...yes, it's a small world) – named Mark Thomas. 

Mark played violin in the West Glamorgan Youth Orchestra, and became lead violin with them; I was in the West Glamorgan Youth Choir, Chamber Choir and Theatre group, so Mark and I attended residential courses for rehearsals for years (yes, it was all a bit like FAME!), and he also attended University College Cardiff (studying music) a couple of years ahead of me. At one point he lived in a student accommodation flat just below my own. When I moved to London, he was living there, earning his way as a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and was co-leader of the Royal Ballet Orchestra. I attended lots of his performances.

Years passed, and paths diverged. He’s ended up having a wildly successful career in music, as a movie and TV composer; he’s won a BAFTA, been nominated many times since, and has been nominated for an Emmy, as well as having his music performed in festivals around the world. He's talented, and works hard.

Last year, during one of my trips back to Wales, a group of us who all came through the West Glamorgan youth arts programmes for schools got together for a drink (or two!). I hadn't seen a couple of them for about twenty years. It was great fun to catch up – and Mark kept introducing me to people around us as though I’m some incredibly successful author, dropping into the conversation the fact I've had twelve books published and that my work's been on BBC Radio 4…which all felt sort of weird, but lovely too. Maybe as someone who earns a living in the arts he understands how difficult it is to catch a break, and then to have the chance to follow through.

It all felt a bit strange, especially since we Welsh know the greatest compliment anyone can be paid is that "s/he hasn't forgotten where s/he came from"...which basically means it's absolutely NOT okay to talk about yourself as though you've ever achieved anything - because that would be boasting, which is a mortal sin for a Welsh person (and which is why all the self-promotion we need to do as authors comes to me with a great big dollop of guilt on the side).

It also had a super spin-off: he and another old friend of mine from "West Glam" days, Griff Harries, have created a performance piece called The Armistice Suite – which will be seen around Wales this year, commemorating the Armistice a hundred years ago, and taking a look at the First World War through Welsh eyes. I was delighted when they asked me to read through the piece and give an author! WOOT. 

Tidy (as we say in Swansea!).

Keep an eye out for The Armistice Suite:

You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her BRAND NEW website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers: