Tuesday, August 31, 2021

After the Buzz, Now What?


Terry Shames here, answer the ongoing questions: The buzz of your first novel has long worn off, you’re no longer the hot new thing — now what? 

 I was indeed a “hot new thing” in 2013 when my first novel came out. How did I know I was hot? At my first Malice Domestic, just before the novel came out, guest speaker Carolyn Hart mentioned A Killing at Cotton Hill as the best debut book she’d read that year. I was dumbstruck. 

 Her comment started buzz, and it continued for the next year, as the book got rave reviews, was on the Baker and Taylor best seller list, and was nominated for several awards, including the coveted Strand Critics Award. 

And the buzz didn’t slow down the next year when was also well-reviewed and nominated for awards for The Last Death of Jack Harbin.

 I basked. I gloried. I received fan mail—which is what really gobsmacked me; (who were those strangers who sent me email, gushing over my latest book?) 

When I asked bookstores if I could do a reading, they said yes! 

I got to hobnob with other authors I admired tremendously. 

 My whole life I wanted to get a book published. That’s all. It wasn’t in my bucket list to win awards and to achieve the coveted “buzz.” The buzz continued through the next few books, and I sort of got used to the excitement that greeted each new book.

But then, a little worm entered the scene. According to my agent, “now what?” meant writing a so-called breakout novel. In fact, that’s the advice I received again and again. Except for a few seasoned people, who seemed happy with being series writers, most authors I knew had written a breakout novel that boosted them to new heights. Or in some cases, authors were still aiming for the breakout. 

 I was perfectly happy writing my Samuel Craddock series, but I did have ideas for other books. The question for me was, were any of them breakout novel ideas? Apparently not. I’ve been sent back to the drawing board numerous times on each of four non-Craddock novels that I’ve written in the past few years. 

 The only novels I never seem to have trouble writing are the Craddock ones. And as much as fans love them, my base has never grown past a few thousand readers. So instead of “write a breakout novel,“ my “now what” may be, “how do I grow my fan base?” And that’s tricky. I’ve received starred reviews from all the big reviewers, won awards, been nominated for numerous awards, been reviewed in major newspapers more than once, been on TV, been interviewed in magazines, and been awarded Bookbubs. I’ve had arguably the best publicist. And yet, my fan base remains stubbornly level. 

I think “now what?”, in my case has to be “keep plugging away.” Continue to try to improve my craft, listen to good advice, and pay attention to critiques. But the single most important “now what?” is to have fun. That’s not always easy. A writer I admire tremendously posted on Facebook today that he is facing the blank page for the 16th time with the certainty that’s he a fake. Joe Clifford is no fake. 

And the fact that he thinks he is when he starts on a new novel gives me heart. If he faces the blank page with trepidation the same way I do, maybe one day I’ll succeed with that breakout novel. At the very least, I’ll continue to enjoy writing my series.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

When the Spotlight Fades

The buzz of your first novel has long worn off, you’re no longer the hot new thing — now what?

Brenda Chapman

The only hot thing about me lately comes from the 40 degree temperatures. Tropical air mass hovers over Southern Ontario ... break out the pina coladas and beach towel, I say.

My first novel was a middle grade mystery, and while its release did create a buzz amongst my family members and friends, I'm not certain it or I ever achieved 'hot' status. The book got solid reviews and kids liked the series, but my publisher was small and didn't have the marketing money to give it a big push over the tree tops.

The fast pace of the first person narrative, mystery, and humour throughout Running Scared make it a page turner. -- Canadian Teacher Magazine

Now my first adult standalone mystery In Winter's Grip also got enthusiastic reviews but again was released by the same small publisher with the same small marketing budget. Interestingly, my then-editor emailed me last month and said that he always felt the book didn't achieve the success it deserved. You can be the judge! The book is available on Amazon and from other booksellers (as is the Running Scared series).

This is a beautifully written book with landscapes painted on the pages. Brenda Chapman has given the reader, mystery or mainstream, a complex, most satisfying read. -- Mystery Maven Review

My Stonechild and Rouleau police procedural series, however, has garnered many more readers and swung each book toward the hot zone. The Goodreads reviews and ratings continue to pour in over a year after the release of Closing TIme, seventh and last in the series. My then-publicist said that the books were bestsellers in Canada, so I guess that's encouraging.

If you like mystery, suspense, interesting, complex and strong female characters, and a slice of Canadiana, then this series is for you. -- Goodreads reviewer

Now what? I'm back with my same editor who worked on my early books, Allister Thompson, and am set to release the first in a new series this coming spring. I'm deep into writing book two in the series and am enjoying a new cast of characters, solving crimes in Ottawa and leading messy, complicated lives. Perhaps influenced by this latest heatwave, the manuscript I'm working on now is set in July and the weather is hot and sticky.

Could this be the book make me into the next hot thing?! I'm sweating and reaching for a pina colada just thinking about it :-)

website: www.brendachapman.ca

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, August 27, 2021

10 Books I can't live with out By Josh Stallings


Q: Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why?

A: I have a love hate relationship with the alphabet and the written word in general. Growing up an undiagnosed dyslexic, I struggled over Dick and Jane and their damn dog. I hated reading, but I loved being read to. My love of books came from my parents. They were voracious readers. One of my favorite memories is lying on the living room floor with my brother and sisters listening to my father read A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh.” I love that book. The characters inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood are archetypes for all of us. Eeore, he’s me. Who hasn’t been both Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh at one time in our lives. At Christmas time Pops read Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Setting me up for a life of searching for words that sing.

I read a lot of plays partly because they were short, packing big stories into few pages. Indians by Arthur Kopit stuck with me for the power of the monologues. David Mamet’s American Buffalo was profane dirty and spoke of a world I understood.

A friend in high school loaned me Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The way HST strung words together blew my mind. I knew I could never write like that, but man I loved reading it. 

The book that had the most impact on me as I became an adult was John Irving's “The World According to Garp”, it showed me a way to be a writer that wasn’t drunk or crazy, ok a little crazy, and the nobility of being a husband and a dad.

A book that effected my writing profoundly was James Crumley’s “Dancing Bear.” It is spare and tightly told, yet feels comfortable to meander through Montana’s bars and countryside. No one writes as lovingly about broken people trying to be better and failing. My opinion may be influenced by when and where I read it. A road trip with my brother along the western coast of Mexico. Moving up a river, outboard motor pushing us deeper into the dense jungle. Passing the bottle of rum back and forth. RyCooder’s Paris Texas sound track on the boom box mixing with bird and animal calls. I’m reading James Crumley for the first time. I bought Dancing Bear because I liked the cover and trusted Vintage Contemporaries editorial taste. All of these factors interlink in my memory and love of the book. A capper, “Dancing Bear” has the most Hard Boiled last paragraph I’ve ever read. “Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead–that's environmentally sound.”

Books and movies and rock music have profoundly shaped who I am in every way possible. What makes one book connect to me on a deeper level, and not another?

1) Timing. 

I grew up feeling I was an outsider to the main culture. I connected with books that spoke to and from outsider view points. HST and Crumley fit this perfectly. I have since learned about confirmation bias. Book by drunks, drug takers and petty criminals made me feel ok about my choices. 

More and more I look for writers who speak to where I am, but also challenge my world view. Carolina De Robertis’ “The Invisible Mountain” did this in many ways. It’s a big multi generational tale set in Uruguay. Her words pulled me into a world I might not have chosen. And every time I knew where she was going she flipped it on me. It was a female driven novel. Men when seen were from the women’s POV. Living in her world view made me question mine, a necessary thing if I want to grow as a human and as a writer.

2) Quality of the writing. 

Purely subjective, and unrelated to genre, but if the words don’t sing to me I’m out. Doesn’t matter how inventive or relevant the story is, if I don’t find myself gasping at a sentence or phrase every couple of pages it won’t open my heart to the story being told. Ken Bruen does this. He is modern poetry sparse, with hard edging into cruel stories. Jamie Mason kills me with the way she dances with words, her style completely unique and jaw dropping. “The Hidden Things” captures a young teenage girl coming into her own in the midst of art thieves and mayhem perfectly. If you aren’t reading Jamie Mason, you are missing out on one of the most original voices writing today.

3) A character to fall in love with. 

I’ll never forget Duchess from Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin at the End.” She is a damaged girl, caring for a young brother in a dangerous world filled with characters she rightly or wrongly doesn’t trust. She never saves a cat, she does more damage than good, but she is trying and willing to sacrifice everything to save her brother feeling the pain she does. Those themes run through the books I love and the ones I write. From Chandler’s Marlow to Charlie Huston’s Henry Thompson the ones that stick with me are broken, struggling to be better. I have done things I’m not proud of. I continue to acting in ways I wish I didn’t. If redemption is possible for Markus in Pearce Hanson’s Stagger Bay, maybe it’s possible for me.      

*NOTE: I see this is less an answer to the question and more a snap-shot of how I feel about about books in the middle of one night in August 2021. It will change. I will evolve and in doing so my memories will shift. That is the nature of my brain. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Guest Post - Edith Maxwell / Maddie Day

Catriona writes: It's my absolute pleasure today to welcome Edith Maxwell (Maddie Day) back to Criminal Minds, to celebrate the publication of her 25th novel - three cheers (x five) - and ninth book in a culinary cozy series, NO GRATER CRIME. Ha! Also the author of the Quaker midwife historicals, and herself a Quaker although not a midwife, who writes the comic Book Group capers besides, Edith is one of those people - her garden bursts with produce, her kitchen bursts with the ensuing deliciousness, her work ethic is legend, and she has great hair. I often wake up at 6am on the west coast and think "I bet Edith has written three chapters and pruned a yew hedge aready".

I will be in the comments later, asking about the tonnage of creative work and chores Edith has accomplished today. But for now . . .

Maddie Day writes:

Thank you, Catriona, for inviting me over. As usual, the question of which book had a profound effect on me knocks me nearly senseless. I always have such a hard time answering that. And I know I can’t pick just one.

I was a clueless older teenager but (very) eager to learn. Should my answer be the Masters & Johnson for Dummies (not the real title) I had to whip under my economics book while I was supposed be studying in our public library and my father walked in? Or the first volume of Anais Nin’s diary, both of which set up this double Scorpio for a life of hedonism?

Oh, wait, this is a writers’ blog. You don’t want to hear about my wild and wicked past. Even if you do, these older-lady lips are sealed.

Was it my mother’s volumes of Poe and Conan Doyle I read at age nine, which gave me nightmares but didn’t prevent me from going back for more? (I would lie paralyzed in my bed after the light went out, staring at the ceiling, knowing the speckled band was on its way down to get me…)

Maybe you mean my first Nancy Drew, my set of Cherry Ames Student Nurse (and amateur sleuth) mysteries, my first Agatha Christie (also my mother’s).

I have said many times that when I discovered Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky in the late eighties and nineties, when I devoured Katherine Hall Page and Susan Wittig Albert and Diane Mott Davidson, I knew I’d found my people. These were (and are) women writing about female protagonists from their point of view. In their books, I didn’t have to keep hearing men talking about women’s boobs and legs and skirts, even if fictionally.

Sara after the Second Line during the 2016 New Orleans Bouchercon

So when I began writing novels myself in the mid-nineties, I had the most amazing of role models. I went the cozy culinary (and sometimes historical) route rather than the tough lady PI path (although I might have a pair of historical lady PIs teeing up in the wings). It has been my great honor to have met Grafton (sniff) and Paretsky and Hall and been able to tell them of their influence on my career.

Since then, other books have proved influential, including anything Julia Spencer-Fleming writes. Louise Penny jumps in, too, although I can’t bring myself to head-hop. And may I just say, Catriona, you really did it with A Gingerbread House. [You may, CMcP] As I was reading, I kept saying to myself (out loud, actually), “Catriona!” and “Whoa, Catriona.” I don’t know how to write dark and creepy nor how to weave stories like you do – but I aspire to.

No Grater Crime is my twenty-fifth novel and the ninth Country Store Mystery. It features a female amateur sleuth and, yes, recipes in the back. So I’ve definitely channeled those role models, those goddesses.

Readers: Which of the books/authors that influenced me rings a bell with you? Any other Anais Nin fans out there? I’d love to send a commenter a signed copy of the new book.

Robbie Jordan’s Pans ’N Pancakes boasts delicious eats and the best vintage cookware finds in South Lick, Indiana. And now, for a limited time, there’s a new special featured on the menu—murder!
Ever since meeting the wary owners of an antique shop opening across the street, Robbie has been scrambling to manage weird incidences plaguing her cafĂ© and country store. Pricey items vanish from shelves without explanation, a fully equipped breakfast food truck starts lingering around the area each morning, and loyal diners mysteriously fall ill. When an elderly man dies after devouring an omelet packed with poisonous mushrooms, Robbie must temporarily close down Pans ’N Pancakes and search for the killer with a real zest for running her out of business—or else.  

Maddie Day pens the bestselling Country Store Mysteries and Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. As Edith Maxwell, she writes the Agatha Award-winning Quaker Midwife Mysteries and short crime fiction. She’s a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime and lives north of Boston with her beau and crazy teenage cat, Ganesh. Find her (and Maddie) at her web site, at Wicked Authors, at Mystery Lovers Kitchen on the second and fourth Fridays, and on social media under both names: Edith M. Maxwell and Maddie Day Author.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Guest post: Alis Hawkins, CWA Dagger shortlisted historical mystery author

Cathy Ace here: Please welcome today's guest blogger - Alis Hawkins. Alis is the author of the CWA Historical Dagger shortlisted Teifi Valley Coroner series of books. She's also one of the founding members of Crime Cymru, a collective of Welsh crime writers. https://crime.cymru/

I joined the group as soon as I heard about it, which was over dinner at CrimeFest in Bristol in 2018...or was it 2017? Wow, the pandemic gap in reality is making it even more difficult than usual for me to recall which year it was that certain things happened. Either way, I was thrilled to be enveloped by Alis's enthusiasm and organizational skills. Earlier this year the first Gwyl Crime Cymru Festival took place, online - thanks in no small part to Alis's efforts - and there'll be an in-person festival in Aberystwyth in 2022. Check out the festival website here: https://gwylcrimecymrufestival.co.uk/

Now - over to Alis...

Alis Hawkins, author of the Teifi Valley Coroner series

Before I start, I’d just like to say cheers to Cathy Ace for giving up her spot to me in the week that the fourth in my Teifi Valley Coroner series – Not One Of Us –  click here for amazon link to this book is published. Many thanks, Cathy! 

So, today’s question is:

Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why?

Before I get into it, let me give you some context. I’m a slow reader. My silent reading speed is barely faster than my reading aloud speed. So, because life is short and precious, I don’t persist with books I’m not enjoying. When I get to about page sixty, if I’d happily see every character in the book gunned down, I stop reading. Sometimes, I don’t get close to page sixty…

That means that every book I finish is guaranteed to have at least a moderate effect on me; I just don’t get to the end of ‘meh’ books.

More context. I have two categories of ‘top books’. One is ‘books I admire’: books whose structure, characterisation, effective use of pace and prose raise them to the level of things of beauty.  The other is ‘books I really enjoy’: the ones that keep me up way past my bedtime. And a few – a tiny few, maybe 5% of the 100-120 books that I’ll read in any given year - fall into a third category. The superbooks. Ones that I ache to have written. Those books wrap up admiration and enjoyment in a way that will have me ignoring the phone, going without meals and paradoxically both wanting to reach the end and never wanting them to finish.

What was the question again? Oh yes…

I’m going to cheat slightly and tell you about two books in the ‘superbook’ category that, indirectly, made me into a historical crime writer. Unsurprisingly, there’s a historical one and a crime one.

Historical first: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague: Brooks, Geraldine: 9780007743032: Amazon.com: Books

Historical fiction is a hard act. Not only do you need to be able to write halfway decent novels in order to get them published, you also need to know a lot of history. (Or, at least, be good at convincing your reader that you know a lot of history.) Year of Wonders is a masterclass in both. Click here to link to the book on amazon

The novel tells the story of Eyam – the Derbyshire village that self-quarantined during the Great Plague of 1665-6. Brooks read all the records, noticed one tiny reference to an unnamed servant, and wrote a whole book about her. All the events of the novel are seen through her eyes, and we understand what is happening in the way she understands it.

The book taught me two huge lessons.

One: the ‘big ticket item’ isn’t what your book is about. Like Jaws isn’t really about the shark.

Two: convincing your readers that you know your stuff is all about the detail.

The narrative of Year of Wonders isn’t primarily about the plague or the quarantine, it’s about Alys Gowdie’s complex relationship with her master, Eyam’s vicar, Michael Mompelion. But that relationship is played out against, and dictated by, the catastrophe that’s engulfing the village.

I took the same line when I wrote the first in my historical crime series, None So Blind. I’d wanted to write a novel about the Rebecca Riots for years because they happened in the area where I grew up, but it wasn’t until I read Year of Wonders that I realised that what I really needed to do was write a book about the people who took part in the riots. I needed to focus on them, their relationships, and what happened as a result of them getting caught up in the riots, not the riots themselves.

Brooks showed me that the way to immerse your readers in a historical narrative - to make them feel as if they’ve been transported to that other country we call the past – is to get the details right. I have no idea how much Brooks knew about the wider world of 1660s England when she wrote Year of Wonders. But, because of the telling details she uses, she gives us what appears to be a completely authentic seventeenth-century Derbyshire.

And that’s what I’ve tried to do with my Teifi Valley Coroner novels. If you understand the minutiae of people’s daily lives, you’ll understand the way their minds work. It’s not about who was prime minister or who we were at war with at the time (we seem, perpetually, to have been at war with somebody). It’s about what people ate, where they went to the toilet, how they kept their clothes clean, what they believed, how men and women related to each other, how they tried to keep themselves alive in an age without surgery or antibiotics or an understanding of how microbes work.

Oh, and how easy or otherwise it was to get away with murder. That’s a pretty key point for a historical crime novelist.

The other book is a contemporary crime book that has something in common with Year of Wonders in that it’s not really about the crime. It’s about the people.

Midwinter of the Spirit (Merrily Watkins Mysteries): Rickman, Phil: 9780857890108: Amazon.com: Books

Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit is the second in his Merrily Watkins series, though it’s sometimes considered to be the first, because the book that precedes it – Wine of Angels – was meant to be a standalone. Click here to link to the book on amazon

But readers loved Rickman’s main protagonist and that standalone spawned a series which now numbers more than a dozen. In Midwinter of the Spirit, Church of England vicar Merrily Watkins - Rickman’s central series character – becomes the diocesan exorcist for the Herefordshire Diocese and gets dragged into a highly unusual murder investigation.

The thing I learned from Midwinter of the Spirit – or, more accurately from the series that followed it – is that if you’re going to write a series, you’d do well to develop an ensemble cast. People the reader is going to care about and want to spend time with again and again. Plots come and go but characters endure, and it’s the characters that pull people back each time. Ask any successful crime series writer.

But Phil Rickman’s books are more than usually character-based. I probably couldn’t outline the plot of any of them, but I can tell you in detail about the series’ through-line which develops the characters and their relationships.

So there you go. The novels that have had the most profound effect on me are the ones that taught me how to write historical crime. And why not? What more effect could a book have than to change the way you make your living?

(Thanks for having me on Criminal Minds. If you’d like to know more about me or my books, please see my website: www.alishawkins.co.uk or follow me on Twitter Instagram or Facebook.)


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Reading Impact

Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why?

From Frank

I groaned when I read this question. Not because it isn't a good question - it's a great one, in fact. No, my reaction was simply because it is an impossible question to answer. 

How can I choose just one?

It's time like these that I almost wish I was a religious fundamentalist. I could point to the guiding religious tome of my faith, snap my fingers, and be pressing PUBLISH on this post at 75 words in. But I don't have that luxury, so I have to go through the exercise.

I'll spare you the long, tortured path my mind took on this journey. Just deciding how to approach the question was difficult enough. Non-fiction or fiction? Affected me as a person, as a reader, or as a writer? Does "affect" mean elicting an emotional response or does it mean being a catalyst for change? Do I take stage of life into consideration? Or give multiple answers based on these different criteria?


Here's what I decided, and it is completely arbitrary. I went with fiction and the effect on me as a writer, and the lessons I learned for my own writing as a result.

Even that was nigh on impossible. So even though I am picking one title, know that there another dozen books that are interchangeably impactful, and literally hundreds of others that had some kind of meaningful impact, too... and again, that is just accounting for fiction titles that affected me as a writer.

[Yeah, I hate this question. Which means it is a brilliant question, of course. Hats off to whoever came up with it, seriously (and maybe a frustreated middle finger, too).]

Anyway, I'm going with Dune by Frank Herbert.

Here's a few reasons why:

The first time I tried to read it, I couldn't.
I don't remember when this was exactly but it was sometime between ages ten and thirteen. I was a fairly advanced reader for my age but the narrative scope and layers of this book were too complex for me at the time.

The world-building is outstanding. The galaxy of the Dune series feels alive, real, and full. A reader should feel like the world they're reading about has been going on long before they arrived, continues while they're not there, and will move on once they're gone.

The characters are multi-dimensional. In addition to feeling the same way about characters as the world (see previous point), characters should feel like real people. They absolutely do in Dune. It's also one of the first books I remember reading that had female characters who were just as interesting and powerful as their male counterparts, and had just as much agency. I was probably fifteen at the time, so I probably didn't recognize why this seemed different to me, only that I found it compelling and I liked it.

The book is massively layered. Dune and it's sequels are more than just storytelling and character. Each book in the series explores politics, religion, economics, relationships, culture, colonialism, and the human condition, just to name a few of the larger topics. I don't mean that these things merely get a mention or cursory examination. They are explored, and not in boring fashion, either. Each element is important to the characters in some way and to the stakes they are facing

So how as I affected as a writer? Well, I learned that it is okay to write a deep, complex book with multiple layers (you can argue that I haven't written one yet but at least I know it is okay). I learned the importance of building a world that a reader can both believe and get lost in. I learned the importance of rounded, real characters who live and breathe (and aren't all just disguised carbon copies of me). And I learned that different aspects of the world can be interwoven into the story in a way that deepens everything. Put another way, that there is an ecosystem that the book exists within and I'd better be aware of that even if I don't feature it prominently.

That's just for starters, of course. But it's all we really have room for, and I think you get the point.

Honorable mentions (again, just a few, and only fiction that affected me as a writer): 
The EarthSea series by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
Bio of a Space Tyrant by Piers Anthony
Kenzie/Gennaro Mysteries by Dennis Lehane
Scudder Mysteries by Lawrence Block
Alphabet series by Sue Grafton
Travis McGee series by J.D. MacDonald

Yeah, I cheated and listed series and not individual books. I told you it was a hard question.

*********************BSP Alert********************

My first Stanley Melvin story was released on August 17, 2021 from PI Tales.

In Hallmarks of the Job, meticulous private investigator Stanley Melvin likes to keep his work grounded in reality, not at all like the classic detective novels he has read incessantly since childhood. But his best friend and annoying neighbor Rudy quickly points out that his routine “cheater” case is rapidly taking on all of the features that Stanley steadfastly insists are mere fictional tropes of the genre.

This novella is being paired with another by Michael Bracken, who you no doubt recognize as a prolific author and editor. I'm proud to share a spine with him.

Hallmarks of the Job has some humor in addition to the case Stanley is working on.  Humor is not necessarily my bailiwick, so I took it easy. It's not a wall-to-wall laugh-fest but I do believe you'll smile once or twice. Maybe even let out a chuckle!

Monday, August 23, 2021

A Book, a Book, My Kingdom for a Book!

 Q: Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why? 


-from Susan


When I was 7 or 8, it was E.B.White’s magnificent Stuart Little. I lived in Manhattan, I knew the lake where boys and girls sailed miniature sailboats, this was my home! And if the storytelling hadn’t done it, the exquisite pen and ink drawings would have. That little canoe…It made me a lover of great character stories for the rest of my life.


At 10, I went through what seems to be a quintessential girl thing, a passion for horses that didn’t end until a pleasant old nag decided jumping over a really low wall was too much to ask and dumped me. But before then, Misty of Chincoteagueby Marguerite Henry was the book that showed me words and pictures could lift me into other worlds.


I did race through a lot of Nancy Drews, but she and her perky friends didn’t resonate with me except to make me realize solving story puzzles was fun. Maybe those books steered me to Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie steered me to Rex Stout’s terrific Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin mysteries, and it’s hard to say which one I like best. They did give me the seed of the idea that writing mysteries would be fun and that I might be able to do it. And, they were set in Manhattan – well, unless Nero had to venture to Montenegro – my hometown –  so what’s not to like?


I was and still am such a voracious reader that I really can’t say any one book had a profound effect on me. My parents’ extensive library with its strong, literate, one might say radical and avant-garde filter was important when I was growing up. Jane Austen’s novels are a great model for the examination of human foibles in a small, rigid society, and I thought specifically about them and the author’s clear-eyed humor as I was writing my French village mysteries. They may, in fact, be the closest I can come to books that have had the most effect. And among them, Persuasion is my favorite.





Friday, August 20, 2021

Exit, Pursued by a Bare?

 by Abir

Laptop, desktop, Underwood or pencil: what works best for you? How has the way you write (and submit stories) evolved since you started?


Morning all. Friday again, eh? I didn’t get much sleep last night, so today’s piece might not be up to the usual Pulitzer-worthy standards you've come to expect from this blog, but I’d ask you to bear with me - or bare with me – I can’t remember which is correct cos my head’s a bit foggy this morning.


You might be asking, 

‘Why Mukhers? Why didn’t you get much sleep? Was it too hot? Did you have a lot on your mind? It can’t be easy being a prodigy, especially when so very, very few people actually recognise your prodigiosity.’ 

And to you I would answer,

‘Thank you. That’s very kind. And you’re right. It is difficult bearing (baring?) such a burden, but I do my best.’

No, the reason I didn’t sleep much is that I was out on the town, down at the local discotheque with all the other hip and trendy youths. We partied most heartily, jiving to the latest tunes on the hit parade. It was an exhilarating experience, I can tell you! And the reason I was able to do all this and still be back in front of my lap-top at 8am (albeit a little worse for wear (ware?)) is that unlike my colleagues who have given you their advice earlier in the week, I am young. I am a Xillenial (somewhere between Gen X and a Millenial), and that means that unlike them, I didn’t start writing in the stone age. I'm wifi to their dial-up modem, 5G to their... err...4G. And while I’ve seen a type-writer (I believe my grandad had one during the war. He threw it at Germans) I’ve never had cause to use one; certainly not in anger. 


My writing has all been done since after Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were a thing, indeed Clinton and Lewinsky is my earliest childhood memory, and so I’ve grown up with the computer and the internet and the impeachment process and the polarisation of American politics. I started my first novel writing on a lap-top. The actual idea came to me in a jacuzzi, but I had to wait till I got home to start writing it because I've learned that people don’t like it when you bring a computer into a jacuzzi. Very quickly though, after about twenty thousand words, I began to run out of steam/interest/focus, and I ended up doing what I normally do when I can’t concentrate. I went shopping. In this case, I bought a software package called Scrivener. I think the marketing material said it was used by professional authors, such as Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I thought that being a professional writer sounded good, so I bought it. And the truth is, it’s been brilliant for me. It allows me to organise my work in a way I never managed using just Word. I can break down a manuscript into separate chapters, import research as separate files but access everything from the same screen. It does pretty much everything I need it to, except for actually writing the damn novel. Maybe they’ll introduce that in a future version.


Scrivener - helping me to write gooder since 2015

But I don’t only write on Scrivener. Sometimes I hit a mental roadblock. The act of typing something can suddenly feel artificial. At times like that, I resort to pen and paper. I find that writing things can often help unlock whatever is holding me up. It’s also easier to map out ideas on paper. I tend to keep two pads – an A4 pad for writing and a bigger, A3 pad for sketching out timelines and plot arcs. It’s a more laborious process, having to write things out longhand and then type it all into Scrivener, but sometimes that’s what it takes.


My A3 and A4 pads (redacted)

Once I’ve finished a draft on Scrivener, I’ll hit compile and it’ll change the whole thing into a Word document with a title page and everything. I’ll then e mail it to my agent and my editor, and then it’s a wait of about a month before they write back to tell me it’s all just absolute rubbish.


So that’s it. There’s really not much to physical aspects of my writing history, alas. I’ve never had the joy of using a typewriter, a fax machine, a mangle or any of the other accoutrements that writers used in the Stone Age. For me it’s always been electronic and supersonic.


Now some of my colleagues might doubt my youthly credentials. They might point to the fact that my beard is grey and my glasses are vari-focal. But that is merely the politics of envy. I am very much a digital man (albeit in an analogue body), and to my detractors I say, ‘OK Boomer. Whatever.’


Have a good weekend, all.




PS – I’ve just googled it. Technically it’s bear with me. Apparently bare with me is me asking you to take your clothes off with me, and this isn’t that sort of a website, and really nobody needs to see any of that on a Friday morning anyway. 

I’ll tell the bear. He will be happy.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Tools of the Trade from James W. Ziskin

Laptop, desktop, Underwood or pencil: what works best for you? How has the way you write (and submit stories) evolved since you started?

This reminds me of a question from two years ago, so the first part of my answer might sound familiar. 

I do all my writing on my iPad. It’s lightweight and versatile, and I take it everywhere I go. That allows me to write at the library (pre-pandemic) when I’m in the mood for a change of scenery. Or sometimes I go to the lake in my car, though the wildlife can be distracting.

Yes, I take my iPad everywhere. In fact, I’ve lost it twice at writers conferences and got it back both times. God protects fools, children, and drunkards, I suppose. I use a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard that also serves as a protective case for the slippery iPad. At the risk of jinxing things, the keyboard has kept my precious iPad safe without a crack for more than a year and a half. And I’ve dropped it a few times…

I use Word for the iPad for my writing. It works pretty much the same way Word does for any laptop or desktop computer. I’ve set things up to save on the cloud, so I always have backup. One bit of advice: don’t use the Autosave feature. You’d be surprised how simple it is to select all by accident and hit a key, thereby erasing everything in the file. Better to save before exiting or every so often. The program prompts you to save when you try to close the document. 

And don’t forget to save your work with a new name every day or two.

I also track my progress in a spreadsheet on the iPad, using Excel, which is included in the Microsoft 365 suite along with Word and other apps. Below you’ll see my progress on BOMBAY MONSOON last year.

Though I no longer write on my laptop, I still use it to draw original graphics for my books. Here’s one from TURN TO STONE and one from BOMBAY MONSOON.

I drew the maps on the laptop—believe it or not—with a mouse in the dinosaur Flash. I also drew/created these from scratch in Flash for some of my previous books.

Any of these jockeys’ names look familiar?

Now for the second part of this week’s question. How has the way you write (and submit stories) evolved since you started?

When I began writing seriously about fifteen years ago, most agents and publishers did not accept e-mail. So the convenience of the submission process has definitely changed things for the better. For one thing, it’s cheaper. No postage. And you get answers much more quickly. For BOMBAY MONSOON, I signed with a new agent in January and had a book deal by June. Edits and communication are faster, too, of course.

On the writing side, the growth and speed of the Internet have provided boons to writers. The cloud is great for managing storage and making sure you don’t lose valuable work when your computer crashes. Research is so much faster and easier. I don’t know if I’d have the patience to be a writer without the Internet. And software is better and more convenient. For example, I often sing the praises of the Read Aloud function in Word. The voices, though not perfect, are much more realistic than before. Better than anything else I’ve found. I’ve come to rely heavily on Read Aloud for my edits. It’s the best development since the spellcheck. You can access it from the REVIEW menu. Happy editing!