Thursday, September 30, 2021

Rise Up, My Fellow Uglies!


Interesting question this week, and a timely one too, seeing as how all the video nonsense is here to stay.


I’m launching my new book next month, and the marketing campaign is being tailored to this new hybrid world. We’re still doing a book tour – but pared down – six venues as opposed to more than ten last time. But we’ll be filling the gap by doing a lot more online and international stuff. I’ll be doing online chats with US book groups and stores, media interviews and appearing online on panels at festivals as far away as Tasmania in Australia. So the video side of things is important and needs to be taken seriously. 

And that's where I have a problem. 


The first thing I’d say is, life is unfair, and if you’re ugly like me, then you’re at a disadvantage to naturally glamorous authors like my esteemed colleagues  Brenda and Jim and Terry and Dietrich, so you need to do whatever you can to level the playing field. To this end, start by going into your zoom settings and making sure that under video preferences, you set the ‘touch up my appearance’ toggle to maximum. I don’t know what difference this actually makes, but it makes me feel better and it’s free and it’s the best I can do until I can afford plastic surgery. 


Next – in the same preferences box, change your view to ‘mirror my video’. This essentially inverts the image so that it feels like you’re looking in the mirror. This feels more natural to me, and also I am slightly more handsome this way too. The only drawback is if you’re holding up documents or have a background with wording then all the letters appear backwards – like it’s in Bulgarian or something.


Talking of backgrounds – for a while, I experimented with fake backgrounds – like the covers of my book, or the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, but I’ve decided they’re rather cheesy. To be honest, I still use the Enterprise one when I’m doing a Zoom call and I can’t be bothered getting out of bed, but those are for non-book related calls. For book stuff, I always get out of bed. I often put on pants too. I tend to do important calls from my basement, cos the spiders that live down there seem to have better wifi than me. They even have ethernet, whatever that is.


So those are my tips for improving things for free. If you’re up for spending a bit of moolah, there are also a couple of other things I’d recommend. Investing in kit that makes you look and sound better are a good start. Marketing and publicity is part and parcel of being a professional writer. In the same way that you invest in a lap top or writing software, I think it’s important to invest in the hardware of videoconferencing. If you can, I’d suggest getting:


A decent web cam

I’ve got a 2 year old Mac Book Pro, so I thought the camera on it would be pretty decent, but I must admit, I didn’t realise how bad the camera actually was until someone bought me a stand-alone webcam. It’s a Logitech blah blah blah, plugs straight into the lap top and is pretty much ready to go. It’s amazing how much sharper and clearer the image is compared to the built in camera, especially in low light.


A decent microphone

Ideally (if you’re a man) you want something that makes you sound like Barry White lounging in a bath full of melted chocolate. My microphone – a Rode something or other, does a good approximation of this. It makes me happy.


A Ring Light to illuminate your face is probably a good idea too. The same effect can be achieved by shining a table lamp in your face, though this begins to hurt after about 30 mins, and after an hour, you feel like you’ve been questioned by the CIA and are willing to confess to pretty much anything,


No kids

This is probably a difficult one, but I find that having kids is detrimental to the quality of my Zoom calls. They’re always making so much noise that it’s hard to concentrate. So best not to have any. This will also help with your book writing productivity, sleep, finances and general mental health. If, on the other hand, you do have kids; do what I do, and lock yourself in the room furthest away from them.


I guess that’s pretty much it. Some people are born to be video stars. If, like me, you’re more suited to radio, just remember that looks fade, but you and me and Barry White will always sound like gods.

Being Fearless with Your Darlings from Heather Levy

Jim here. Today we’re hosting Heather Levy, whose fabulous debut novel, Walking Through Needles, has garnered the highest praise from all sides, including the New York Times, the LA Times, and bestselling author S. A. Cosby.

A spellbinding novel at the nexus of power, desire and abuse that portends a bright future." ―Sarah Weinman, New York Times 

"WALKING THROUGH NEEDLES is a challenging but worthwhile read, a standout for its frank but sensitive exploration of trauma and desire." ―Paula Woods, Los Angeles Times 

“An unflinchingly brutal and beautiful journey through the darkest rivers of desire.” ―S.A. Cosby, bestselling author of Blacktop Wasteland 

We’re thrilled that she’s here with us today to discuss her “darlings,” those bits of writing that authors consider their best. What Heather does here is offer us a remarkable glimpse into one of the most complex creative processes. It’s a brilliant case study. Once you’ve read this post, go buy this book! You will be getting in on the ground floor of a future star of crime fiction.

By Heather Levy

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

“Sam twisted her old yellow ducky blanket, the one her grandma said she was swathed in at birth, and wrapped it tight around her throat until she couldn’t breathe.”

This wasn’t always the opening line to my debut dark crime novel Walking Through Needles. In fact, the opening punched me in the face quite a few times over the course of many revisions. It wasn’t until I went through Pitch Wars with my two outstanding mentors, Layne Fargo and Halley Sutton, that I realized I already had the best opening line until I stripped it of any grit. Basically, I was a coward. I was trying to write something I hadn’t seen in an opening line before—a teenage girl masturbating while choking herself—but I was too concerned with not offending readers that I ignored what the story wanted.

For example, this was the original opening when I had submitted for the Pitch Wars mentorship:

“Sixteen-year-olds don’t wear giant pink bows. Sam Mayfair thought everyone knew this, that it was an unequivocal fact her mama was simply ignoring to piss her off.”

See? Not a lot to inspire continued reading, right? So, during a video meeting with Layne and Halley, they had asked me where I thought I needed to start the story. At the time, I wasn’t sure, but my gut said my original draft’s opening line was the right place. After I told them about the masturbation scene, they both gave me a resounding, “Yes! That’s your beginning!” And it ended up being the opening line that survived through more edits and made it to print.

So, why do our darlings sometimes scare the hell out of us? I’ve thought about this a lot as many, including the wonderful S.A. Cosby, called my debut fearless. I didn’t feel fearless, but I did feel uneasy throughout much of the writing process. In fact, drafting this book (not my first) was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been while writing, and I think I know why. To me, to be fearless is to be fully immersed in a moment without thought of repercussions. 

At the beginning of Walking Through Needles, my 16-year-old protagonist Sam is exploring her budding masochistic sexuality, one of the themes in the book, and she certainly wasn’t thinking a lot about repercussions at her age. To get Sam’s story right, though, I had to live those pleasurable, and sometimes horrific, moments with her. I had to stop thinking like a writer, about what a publisher might think about marketability, of what my family and friends would wonder reading it. I had to be in the moment with my guard down. I had to be my character. And, yes, that also included being my male protagonist, Sam’s stepbrother Eric Walker.

In the following scene, Eric’s visiting (or, rather, trespassing) the property where he used to live for a brief time with Sam and her family after Eric and Sam’s parents jumped into marriage: 

“The mid-afternoon sun made the whitewash appear to glow, reminding him of the church Jeri had forced him to attend, how the Sunday morning sun reached its fingers out from the sides of the building. Each time he approached the barn, his heart sped up with the thought that Sam would be there waiting for him when he entered. The disappointment of knowing he was alone dragged his stomach down to his feet until he felt like he was tripping over memories of her.”

These lines survived through many edits with the addition of three tiny words: “he felt like.” When my editor thought the original last line leaned a bit too purple prose, I had to ask myself if it was worth fighting to keep it. In this case, I compromised my darling by adding those three words. I needed the reader to be in the moment of apprehension and loneliness with Eric, and the line felt too right to completely let it go.

One of my simplest darlings was the hardest to write because it takes place during an assault scene: “His words were a knife wrapped in silk.” Here’s the sentence within the scene for more context:

“He put his mouth to her ear again. ‘Be still.’
She pushed against him as hard as she could, her voice trapped under his fingers. 
‘I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you make me. Be good.’
She froze. His words were a knife wrapped in silk.”

I needed something short and threatening without surrendering my love of lyricism. Towards the end of the book during a pivotal scene, I decided to fully embrace lyricism, resulting in these darlings I’m proud of:

“Somehow, she smelled cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg. Her grandma’s famous gingerbread cookies, how she used to help roll the dough, not too much flour. Ground mustard, the secret ingredient. Not even her mama knew, but she did. She wanted to hug her grandma and touch her silky gunmetal hair. She wanted to make gingerbread cookies with her again, let the spices warm her tongue, but she could only taste copper bubbling up in her mouth.

She tried to swallow, but the muscles in her throat wouldn’t work. She choked and coughed hard. A thousand bright red dots misted her jeans.” 

Who doesn’t think about cookies as they’re slowly bleeding out? Well, my character did, so that’s what I wrote.

There’s a freedom in writing from the hip, hopeful something magical will hit the target. It doesn’t always work out, as the many darlings I’ve killed can attest, but when it does—whew! And now when I’m feeling fearful during the writing process, I try to relax and remember it’s really fearlessness challenging me to go to unexpected places, no matter how much it may hurt, because reaching for the truth is always worth it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Guest post by Rob Brunet

Rob Brunet writes stories that find humour in the dark, the twisted, and the criminal. He’s the author of Stinking Rich, and if you haven’t read his debut novel, you’re missing out. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Noir Nation, Crimespree Magazine, and Exiles: An Outsider Anthology, among others.

Rob’s also a digital media producer who is prone to overindulge in travel — especially where dirt roads are involved — and he’ll will never pass up a chance to swap tales by a bonfire.

And he's here this week answering the question: Do you have any tricks/advice/hacks/best practices for effective video conferencing? 

by Rob 

It seems almost funny to be writing about video conferencing at a time when we’re finally able to get back face-to-face. Has anyone else noticed how hugs are bigger and longer than ever now? But, Zooming is gonna be part of life from here on in, and that’s probably a good thing for a host of reasons.

I’ve been lucky to avoid most of the online calamities recounted the last year and a half — though I was on one call where a fresh-from-the-shower husband made an unexpected appearance — but by now we all know most of the faux-pas of video meetings, and now that we’re allowed back outside, we probably don’t need to be reminded to put our pants on anyway.

Apart from regular bi-weekly or monthly family calls — why weren’t we always doing that?— and cocktails with friends who live across the country and around the world, most of my Zooming has been with my co-host Hope Thompson on Noir at the Virtual Bar Toronto and giving my online novel writing classes through George Brown College. Both were among my favourite pre-Covid activities, and both made a happy transition on line. In fact, regarding the classes, I doubt I would return to in-person delivery, but more on that later.

I say Zooming because that’s the platform I like working with. I’m sure there are better, and depending on your requirements, I’d encourage you to check them out. Better yet, talk directly to someone hosting on a platform you’re curious about and hear what they have to say. For me, the decision was simple. After a career in tech, I knew the easiest platform to use is whichever one most of your audience is already familiar with. Less headaches for the host. 

Similarly, to get people out, tried and true email works well for us, from a MailChimp platform. We also let people know on Facebook, but the email list is the best producer, as it is for our live in-bar events.

For the first couple virtual Noir at the Bars, we did dry-runs and had things scripted out tightly. Especially with two hosts, making the delivery appear casual (as befits a Noir at the Bar) means practice and preparation. We got it down smooth enough that I was able to co-host from Thailand, for which the only hitch was forgoing a shot of Maker’s Mark, given the time difference. Irish coffee made up for that.

I’ve always considered live reading to be a performance art. I think that’s even more important on line, both in terms of my own work and when inviting people to read for us. It takes a particularly strong reader to hold audience attention on line. As much as I find casual works best for me, don’t let the comfort of your living room lull you into a lacklustre delivery. This isn’t the time for a fireside story. I find myself using more hand gestures than I usually would, and like that I can see them reflected on-screen while I do. 

I like to read with a typist’s stand holding my pages beside my screen. Some people read from the screen itself. Both help build better eye contact than looking down into your book. I guess the point is, it ain’t radio. 

We added Q+As to our format, which isn’t something we do live in the bar. We wanted to create an opportunity for people to mingle a bit at the end of show, much as they would in-person. Most of our audience stay on line the extra 20 minutes or so. All-in, our run-times are about 75-90 minutes.

A much longer format is my 3-hour classes, which went on line mid-semester in March 2020. I want to mention them because the experience I’ve had underlines one good thing the pandemic has brought us.

The first thing I noticed was that the quieter students would provide longer, more in-depth comments than they would be able to deliver in-person. That brings up the quality of the learning for everyone. But there’s more.

When I taught in-person, I found that by about halfway through the 12-week course, people would start seriously opening up and our WIP discussions unearthed personal stories from both writers and those providing critiques. With online, that happens by the second Zoom session. People discuss their sexuality, family trauma, huge life choices — whatever drives them, or does the opposite. They go further, sooner, and share back and forth in ways that I feel must be brought on by a combination of being comfortable in their homes during class, and knowing that while they have the mic, they have the full attention of their peers. When the focus is on writing as close to the truth as one can, it’s pure gold. And for me, it means I’ll likely continue to teach online. Never mind that I can appear from the comfort of my own home, or wherever I may find myself.

So even as we take Noir back to the bar, knowing this virtual business is here to stay doesn’t bother me at all.

Many thanks to Rob Brunet for taking part in Criminal Minds, and if you’d like to find out more about virtual Noir at the Bar Toronto, click the link here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Hi, Everyone!


Terry Shames here. This week we’re talking about the best practices for video-conferencing. Most of us have been doing a lot of video-conferencing in the past 18 months and have found it to be a mixed blessing. 

 The good part is that you can convene with people all over the world and attend events you could never attend in person because of the time/expense involved in getting there. You can choose from a wide variety of educational opportunities, entertainment, book launches, readings, panels, and personal events like weddings and birthday parties. You can stay for whole event or slip away without anyone being the wiser if you don’t watch the whole thing.
You can participate through chat lines or visual participation. You can ask questions, take notes, any time of day or night. And you can do all this dressed (or not dressed) anyway you please.
The bad part (and this is hardly terrible) is that there are too many choices. Some people have a higher tolerance for attendance than others. I find myself skipping over a lot of events that appeal to me on certain level, but that I forgo because I’ve attended too many. My favorite events are weekly or monthly attendance at meetings that are a collection of friends. We can laugh or get into serious subjects because we meet often and know each other well from former in-person events. That’s bittersweet. I’d rather be with people in person. But it’s a lot better than nothing at all. And a lot better than a phone call or talking through email, or on social media or via Message. It allows for spontaneity, reflection, interaction, or just listening. 

 The ones that seem to work the best are chats with a “leader,” usually the person who called the group together. If there’s no leader, things tend to devolve into talking in spurts and starts. A good meeting leader is like the Wizard of Oz, with his or her attention on what’s being said and if someone is getting short shrift in the conversation, drawing them into the chat. In that sense, it’s like an in-person meeting. 

 It also helps if there’s an agenda. I don’t mean a rigid agenda, but some topic that everyone has a chance to think about and contribute to during the talk. Often, with people I speak to every week it’s a topic that is recurring, or that comes up naturally after the general chatter and check-ins settle down. 

 Other than those two tips, I think in the best videoconferences, attendees are on their best behavior; not interrupting too much, not hogging the floor, taking an active interest in what other people are saying.
This is what sparks creativity--just like in real meetings, where you hear somebody say something that grabs your interest and you have a conversation that teaches you something. Because of this, I also think the best chats are limited to no more than a dozen people. After that, it gets unwieldy. In big panels and workshops, you can have 100 attendees or more, in which only the highlighted participants are “on stage.” 

But what has developed is that before the event starts, often people will check in on the chat line, announcing their attendance so that people can see friends that are in attendance. And during the event, people comment through the chat line on things they have heard of particular interest. Or they post something relevant that others may find helpful or interesting. This seems to be the best use of the tool. Often, there are break-out rooms after events in which people can discuss what they’ve heard, but I have yet to attend one that didn’t feel awkward. 

 The biggest trick in large conferences is for the conference hosts to be clear with instructions to the audience about how the event will proceed, how to ask relevant questions, and approximately how long the event will be. Just like in real life! And I suspect when Covid is over and we go back to in-person events there will still be video-conferences because people have found them a great way to stay in informed while not having to travel—and not having to dress up!

Sunday, September 26, 2021

On Becoming a Video Star

Do you have any tricks/advice/hacks/best practices for effective video conferencing? Please share them with us.

Brenda Chapman starting off the week.

The pandemic has made video stars of us all, whether we wanted to be or not. Our first Zoom calls had us scrambling for the right backdrop and angle, and this became even more important for book-related events. I went to the fount of all knowledge to learn some tricks -- YouTube.

1.  Camera position: The best spot is to have the camera slightly elevated above your head so that you're looking a little bit upwards. I've been on video calls where the angle of somebody's camera is way low, sometimes even knee level, and can guarantee you that this is not a good look. I personally use a tripod to get the right level.

2. Lighting: Play with lighting in different rooms until you find a spot that doesn't have glare or that is too dark or that washes you out. Position a lamp behind the laptop/computer rather than behind you. The person on the YouTube video used light from two windows on opposite sides of the space as her base - not too helpful at night though.

3. Background: Important not to leave your closet door open or have chaos going on behind you, especially if you're trying to look professional. Nobody wants to see a sink full of dirty pots and pans, or kids jumping on the bed. I've found a blank grey wall and a sitting spot in my office where I film interviews. I also sit in my leather chair for meetings and such, and sat there to do a reading once.

4. Hair and make up: (Not sure most men care about this point.) Yeah, if I'm doing something book-related, I slather some foundation and blush on and find this does perk up my face, which otherwise, would look mighty pale. A bit of colour really does do wonders. I don't wear make up otherwise these pandemic days, so enjoy getting 'gussied up' on occasion. As for hair, mine is a wild affair that I attempt to tame on days I'm filming something. (The woman on YouTube was all about putting some effort into this.)

5. Clothes: I'm not too concerned about this one, but will put on a decent top if it's a book-related event. Best to get out of your pjs and bathrobe in any event. Shorts and bare feet are not on camera so no worries about the rest of the wardrobe.

6.  Noise Distractions: Turn off the volume on your phone, especially for interviews. I also have a landline and make sure the portable phone is out of my recording room. Make sure your husband isn't hammering on the roof or using a nail gun.

Since I seem to be coming at this question from the perspective of filming an interview or a book event, I'll turn to my media relations training and will also give a few take aways from that:

1.  Prepare what you want to say ahead of time and practise saying your spiel out loud as often as necessary until it sounds natural (counter-intuitive, I know). Even if you go off-script (which I always do) the day of, you'll have a comfort level. 

2.  Do not get drawn into a conversation about anything that makes you uncomfortable or that you will regret later, such as which authors you detest, or do you start drinking wine before four o'clock? It's okay not to answer a question, but steer the conversation to the insightful points you intended to make.

3.  Keep your head still, especially when you're listening to other people talk. Try to keep your facial movements to a minimum. 

4.  Practise not using 'um' or other filler words and sounds. "Um, like, it's sorta um ...." You get the idea. I listen to recordings and watch tapes to improve on my own bad habits.

5.  Be in the moment. Listen and respond, relax and have fun.

6. Don't be worried if you pause for a few seconds before or during a response. The blank air might seem long to you, but it really isn't. On the other hand, don't talk so fast that the listener can't keep up. Find a nice pace to keep interest going.

7. Don't hog the limelight if you're on a group video chat, panel or interview. Listeners will notice and will become annoyed. Keep answers pithy and reasonably short. Be a generous guest.

And that's it! I hope never to see your knees and the inside of your closet on a call, and hope that your face gently glows in the lamplight behind your laptop...


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Twitter brendaAchapman

Friday, September 24, 2021

Not All Darlings Need Killing. By Josh Stallings

 Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

“There is nothing quite like the cold taste of gun oil on a stainless steel barrel to bring your life into focus.”

That is the opening line of my debut novel, “Beautiful, Naked & Dead.” It remains the favorite opening I’ve written. The next paragraph is;


“I was six years old the first time I honestly considered suicide, not as some cry for help, touchy huggy bullshit. No, for me death was a gift, an escape. Like those vests divers wear that fill with air from a CO2 cartridge and pull them to the surface. At night while the Monster roared through the thin walls of our bungalow, I would pull that thought up and let it comfort me like a warm blanket.” 

Moses McGuire, the dented and rusting knight errant is the narrator of the McGuire hard boiled trilogy. His power rests in the simple idea that no one can be harder on him than he is on himself. How do you threaten a man who welcomes death? He becomes vulnerable only when he starts to care for others. Starting with a bull mastiff.

Side bar ramble: Hard boiled and noir get jumbled together when they are close to opposite world views. 

Noir is bleak, it has been described as “things start bad and get worse.” It is a nihilistic view, proposing that we are all screwed. Ken Bruen is the reigning king of modern noir. His Jack Taylor books are a study of one man’s often self inflicted descent into hell. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. They are painful, and real. Bruen writes so tightly and without apology for the world he exposes to the reader.

Hard boiled, is chivalric and romantic in the medieval sense. Chandler’s Philip Marlow is a day drinking skirt chasing detective, he is broken but fighting to bring order to a chaotic world and live by his own code. Beat him down he just keeps getting up and stumbling forward. Chandler and James Crumley are two of my favorite hard boiled writers. Both end their stories with their main characters bruised and battered, and the world incrementally better than it would’ve been had they not been there. 

What, in name of words, does noir vs hard boiled have to do with my “darlings?” Sub genre dictates a book’s world view, and to some degree this dictates the author’s voice. Noir demands non-sentimental and unadorned prose. Brutal cleanliness.

Hard boiled asks the writer to be more poetic even when presenting a bleak view.

Pulling out onto the highway I noticed a stone pillar commemorating the Donner Party. They were a true testament to the American spirit, push forward at all costs and eat the dead when necessary. Wasn’t that the American dream in a nutshell.  - Beautiful, Naked & Dead

After the McGuire trilogy I wrote a disco heist novel. Moving away from hard boiled I aimed at a lighter tone. Almost like Westlake’s Dortmunder books if they starred teenage thieves in a sexually fluid time and place. The hat trick here was to deliver the late 1970’s without clobbering the reader or slowing the action.

“One hundred feet past the Humboldt County line was a liquor store/ gas station. She did not buy skunk weed from the kid selling it out of his wizard-painted van. She did make a phone call.” - Young Americans

Dialogue is also used to deliver time and place. 

“Time to di di mau up North and start putting heads on pikes.” Valentina from Young Americans.

In Tricky there is a line that delivers the depth of Cisco’s moral dilemma, I love it’s simplicity; -

“I must be a bad man if my mother hates me… Right?” - Tricky

The longer I write the more I am drawn to ideas and away from the poetry of their delivery. Tricky is about who we are at our core. Are we the sum of our past behavior? Can a bad man become a good man or are scorpions doomed to strike the frog and drown.

I have the next three books mapped roughly out. I know what I’ll be writing for several coming years. When they are finished I may return to hard boiled if only to dip my pen in the purple ink once more. A friend keeps saying he’s waiting for me to write a hard boiled western. I might, who knows, I sure as hell don’t.

And once again I have stumbled way off the path of the question. So I’ll leave you with a darling that I killed recently. I like the thought behind it. But, it didn’t fit the novel that is taking shape. Two girlfriends are talking, Haley has been graphically describing a woman Villalobos was having drinks with. 

Villalobos says, “The male gaze has nothing on you.”

“Oh, Babe, not even close to the same deal. I was appreciating not appraising her ass.” 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Lustrous Darlings (sarcasm), by Catriona

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

A: Oh goody. My favourite: blowing my own trumpet. 

Well, I'm not going to and you can't make me. Instead, I'm going to show a typical bit of my own work, i.e. a bit that took five or ten goes to get into publishable shape.

Note, I’m writing this before I’ve looked for one. That’s how sure I am that finding an example won’t be any trouble.

(10 minutes later) Found one

In this scene, what’s happening is Helen is serving tea to her mother and another woman. But what this scene is doing (it’s from early in chapter one) is telling us what Helen looks like, what her mother looks like, and a bit about the strain of having a posh visitor on a Sunday afternoon, in 1948, before refrigeration. That’s not a major theme or anything. It’s just the kind of detail that makes setting in time, place, and social class work.  


Draft 1

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in her mother’s big room (what does it look like?), still in her church clothes (what do they look like?), might have stopped her dead.

Helen, concentrating hard, managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without colouring. Like Greet, anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Two “withouts” – yuk.)

“And do you take sugar?” Greet said, in a grating dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

“Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,” Mrs Sinclair said. (Is this enough to convey the point?)


Draft 2

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in Greet’s big room, still in her church clothes, might have stopped her dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive rather than attractive. (Is this enough?)

Helen (didn’t need to repeat this. Or did I? Would we know who “she” was. Fix!), concentrating hard, managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without feeling the surge and tingle of her face colouring. Like Greet, anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Still two “without”s. Still yuk.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window (is this enough?), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair. (Is it enough now?)


Draft 3

If Helen hadn’t the tea things to deal with the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there in Greet’s big room, still in her church clothes, might have stopped her dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day. (This is enough)

Helen (yuk), concentrating hard, at least managed to set down the tray at Greet’s elbow and take a seat without feeling the surge and tingle of her face colouring. Anytime she got through an awkward moment without blushing she was happy. (Still two “without”s but slightly different rhythm. Modified yuk.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window, looking at each other through the polished leaves of the aspidistra (is this enough?), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flush after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair.

Helen felt a moment of glee, but then seeing her mother bend to check the cup for flecks, and even take a quick sniff, sobered her again. (Is this too much?)


Draft 4

If she hadn’t the tea things to deal with (are you sick of this yet? welcome to my world), the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there still in her church clothes, might have stopped Helen dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day.

Concentrating hard, Helen (The two counts of “Helen” are now buried in the middle of sentences, so they don’t chime) managed to set down the tray at her mother’s elbow and take a seat, doing it all without the unwelcome surge and tingle of her face darkening. Anytime she got through an awkward moment like this one and didn’t turn as red as a poppy (ditched a “without” – yay) she was glad of it.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flame after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

(removed the rest – thought it was too much)

(Wait though – I’ve lost the description of the room)


There are more drafts. I’m missing out what happened when my agent read it, and then when my editor read it, and then when I read what my editor said, and then when she read what I said, and said more, and then I read what she said . . . but here is the same page as it heads off to the copy-editor – let’s see what she says! – taken from a file that is now called “1948 Book submission draft FT edits CMcP comments FT feedback CMcP comments2”. That, believe me, is a working title.


Ready for copy edit

If she hadn’t the tea things to deal with, the sight of Mrs Sinclair sitting there still in her church clothes, might have stopped Helen dead. She was a large woman, her hair teased out in the style of her youth with a hat perched on top of it all, and she dressed herself to look impressive, not attractive, with wide shoulders and box pleats, a fox fur even on a summer’s day. (That was enough.)

Helen picked her way through the good furniture – so much of it that the place felt more like a saleroom than a home: the chenille-covered table with the thick, turned legs and the four chairs that didn’t quite fit under it; another two on either end of thon behemoth of a walnut sideboard that was filled with tureens and decanters, never used since they’d been unpacked thirty years before for a present show. (Nothing I had done was enough, even before I deleted it.) Concentrating hard, she managed to set down the tray at her mother’s elbow and take a seat, doing it all without the unwelcome surge and tingle of her face darkening. That ready darkening was the bane of her life. She had got her colouring from Greet, white skin if she could keep out of the sun, freckles else, and orange curls that neither brush nor pin could tame. (Finally! This is what Greet and Helen looked like all along in my head. Pro tip: you need to put it on the page or no one knows.) Anytime she got through an awkward moment like this one and didn’t turn as red as a poppy she was glad of it. (“Without” pile-up gone and forgotten.)

So there they were, at three of the four chairs round the gate-leg table in the window, looking at each other through the polished leaves of the aspidistra (it’s back. More is more), Greet pouring tea and Mrs Sinclair unbuttoning her gloves.

‘And do you take sugar?’ Greet said, in a grating, dainty whine that made Helen’s cheeks flame after all.

‘Just a little milk if it’s quite fresh,’ Mrs Sinclair said.

Greet’s hand shook as she plied the milk jug and her face was a sudden lash of deepest pink, screaming at her hair. (It’s back.) Helen felt a moment of glee, but then seeing her mother bend to check the cup for flecks, and even take a quick sniff, sobered her again. (This is back too.) Mrs Sinclair had a cold cupboard out the back of her kitchen with slate shelves and a wet floor. Helen had seen it many times as she helped out at children’s treats, fetching lemonade. All right for some. (And it wasn’t enough. So here’s more.)

If anyone is still reading, here is an example from the other extreme. 


That one word sentence opened the prologue of draft one of my first novel, AFTER THE ARMISTICE BALL, and it was still there in the published book. (I was describing a party held in 1918, for which the attendees get their jewels out of the bank and at which they give it laldie.) To the best of my recollection 20 years later the rest of the first paragraph went like this:

“Lustre. That was what had been missing and was suddenly back. The Duffys’ armistice ball was lustrous in a way thought to have been lost for good.”

And now let me check:

Not bad, right?

The fact that I nearly remembered a line I wrote in 2001 is why I don’t really believe in the concept of darlings. By the time a book is ready to go, the writer has read every word dozens of times and no prose in the history of literature could escape its author’s disenchantment on those terms. I still remember the heartsink of opening my file every morning and seeing that word. Ugh. I’ve never used “lustre” again.


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

EARLY PUBLICATION DATE NEWS...vs 'Show and Shine' by Cathy Ace

Please forgive me for ignoring this week's question - I'm keen to show you something else!

I wanted to take the chance to share with you the cover of, and some exciting news about, my forthcoming novel, THE CORPSE WITH THE GRANITE HEART. This will be the eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, and this time Cait and Bud are in London, just before Christmas. The cover was recently revealed with a fanfare, thanks to Dru Ann Love who also interviewed me here: author interview 

The book is now available for pre-order: CLICK HERE FOR PRE-ORDER LINK 

The link is for the Kindle version, though the book will also be available through Kobo etc. and there will also be a paperback, but no pre-ordering is available for that format, sorry. You can find the ISBN numbers on my website to allow for bookstore/library ordering.

As those of you who follow this blog will know, my plan was to only write one book per year going forward, so that Husband and I could spend more time doing things together, now that he's retired. However, since we haven't been able to travel this year, I put my head down and wrote another Cait Morgan Mystery.

This one has given me the chance to take readers to a city I lived in for almost twenty years, of which I have many fond, and some bittersweet, does Cait, it turns out (funny how that happens, eh?!) Oh - and it gave me a chance to indulge in my love of all things Shakespearean, too! So if you love the way The Bard manages to heap tragedy upon tragedy, while taking you to a special place, inhabited by dysfunctional characters (you know the sort of thing I mean, right!?) then this Cait Morgan Mystery might well be your cup of tea (or should that be 'poisoned chalice'?).

Here's the blurb... 


Welsh Canadian criminal psychologist Cait Morgan, and her retired-cop husband Bud Anderson, are in London, England, to meet their friend John Silver’s freshly minted fiancée, the daughter of a recently deceased Shakespeare aficionado, and captain of industry. The trip is supposed to be filled with art galleries, good food, and Christmas spirit. However, an untimely death at a posh dinner party threatens to send shock waves through the upper strata of London society.

Cait and Bud’s desire to seek out the truth is blocked by a shadowy figure who’s been tasked with keeping the incident hush-hush, but – as the body-count rises – the investigation develops a dreadful momentum.

This is the eleventh Cait Morgan Mystery, and it finds our usually unstoppable duo running up against the immoveable machinery of power…with tragic consequences.

I hope you like the sound of it!

The other BIG announcement is this: the launch date was scheduled for 29th November, but (and this is a bit of a heads-up, in case you weren't aware) there's a MASSIVE problem in the publishing business at the moment: there's a lack of paper, print, and delivery capacity, so it's going to be a real problem getting print books during November and December...which has led to some delays in publication dates. Being independent means I've been able to negotiate with my editors, and that means the publication date for this book HAS BEEN BROUGHT FORWARD - TO NOVEMBER 5TH 2021. 

If you've already pre-ordered, thank you so very much - because that makes a HUGE difference to all of amazon's algorithm thingies - and you don't need to do anything else, because the book will magically appear on your device on the earlier date.

It's not easy to launch a book when life still is anything but "normal", so this will (once again!) be a challenge...but I hope it manages to find a place on some gift lists! (Yes, self-gifting is allowed.) Fingers crossed!

Meanwhile, if you haven't joined Cait and Bud on all their adventures yet, there's still time to catch up. Find out more at my website:

Apologies that this post is all a bit "look at me" and shouty - but I am excited about this book, and am doing my best to make sure it gets some attention :-) 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Guest Post from Jim Doherty

Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

From Frank

I'm turning my slot over to Jim Doherty today to show some of his "dah-lings" that survived getting killed during the revision process. Check out Jim's new short story collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.

Take it away, Jim!


(Many thanks to my brother cop, and fellow mystery writer, Frank Zafiro, for loaning me this spot.)


By Jim Doherty

It turns out he killed her in Oakland.

            Which means I really shouldn’t have been involved.

Mickey Spillane once suggested that the most important chapter of a novel is the first.  “The first chapter sells your book,” he said.

If the first chapter sells your book, it follows that the first line of the book sells that chapter.

The excerpt above was the opening of my first novel, An Obscure Grave.  I was rather proud of it.  It raises questions I hoped the readers would want answers to.  Who is “I?”  Who is the “her” who was killed?  Who is the “he” who killed her? And why should it matter to “I” that she was killed in Oakland rather than anyplace else? To find the answers to those questions, the reader will, hopefully, be led to read the rest of the chapter, and, in consequence, the rest of the book.

“I” is Dan Sullivan, who’s been investigating the disappearance of “her.”   “Her” is DeeDee Merryweather, a Cal student whose disappearance has been getting national headlines.  “He” is Chris Bridges, her violent boyfriend.  And, since Dan’s a Berkeley cop, her having turned out to have been killed in Oakland means she’s no longer any of his business.   

An Obscure Grave was the first novel to feature Dan.  But years before it appeared I’d been developing him in a series of short stories.


“673 is 11-99 in Ohlone Park! Shots fired! Officer down!”

I took a deep breath, keyed the mike again, harder this time, as if increased pressure could somehow improve my damaged radio’s performance, and, trying to keep a note of panic out of my voice, repeated the distress call once more. But after twenty or thirty attempts in the last quarter hour, I knew it was no use.

Those were the first lines I ever wrote about Dan, for a short story called “Second Chance” recently reprinted my in my collection The Big Game and Other Crime Stories.  It was based on an armed encounter I had with a homeless Vietnam vet in a small park in Berkeley’s Marina.  Again, I was rather proud of it.  It finds the hero in a dangerous situation, wounded, and unable to call for help.  Hopefully, a reader, sympathetic to his plight, will be pulled in.


It takes as much time to book a common drunk as it does to book an ax murderer.  In fact, in the not unlikely event that the ax murderer already has a record and the drunk doesn’t, booking the drunk will take a lot longer.  Which is why, all things considered, I’m a lot more likely to drive drunks home than to take them to jail.

“Second Chance” was the first story I ever wrote about Dan, but it was the second actually published.

The first one I wrote to reach publication was “Unmatched Set,” also reprinted in The Big Game.  The opening line expresses a bugaboo that every cop has.  A hatred of pointless paperwork.


The morning of the Big Game dawned crisp and clear.

            Don’t worry.  You haven’t accidentally picked up a copy of an ancient dime novel featuring consummate Yalie athlete and all-around good sport Frank Merriwell.

            Nevertheless, it was the morning of the Big Game.  And it did dawn crisp and clear.  Just as though it was a Frank Merriwell story.

            Of course you already know what the Big Game is, right? 

            The traditional college rivalry that is nothing but the single most important game of the season.  The gridiron classic that casts all other games into insignificance.  Win the Big Game, and the team can regard itself as having enjoyed a winning season, even if it lost every other game it played.  Lose the Big Game, and even winning the National Championship counts as merely a pyrrhic victory.

Berkeley’s a college town, and college means sports, and sporting events mean police problems.  Cal’s football rivalry with Stanford over on the other side of the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto is one of the oldest in college sports.

The title “The Big Game,” the anchor yarn in The Big Game and Other Crime Stories, evoked those old-fashioned sports stories of halcyon days that featured virtuous athletes like Claire Bee’s Chip Hilton, John Cooper’s Mel Martin, or, especially, Burt L. Standish’s Frank Merriwell of Yale.  I thought an opening that evoked the same kind of story was appropriate.  From that opening, Dan segues into a short discussion of famous “Big Game” rivalries generally, settling in on the Cal/Stanford rivalry specifically, and finishing by talking about what a pain in the neck such events are for the cops who have to keep everything running smoothly.


There’s an urban legend that a man’s eyes will tighten when he’s decided that he’ll fight instead of surrender.  I think it might derive from that line John Wayne says close to the beginning of Red River when he tells the kid, the one who’s destined to grow up to be Montgomery Clift, that he knew when an adversary was going to draw, “By watching his eyes.  Remember that!”

Well, I was too far away to see Bradley’s eyes clearly.  So I stayed focused on his right hand.  I think I would’ve even if I’d’ve been able to see his eyes.  Based on my vast experience of one whole gunfight to that point, I was reasonably sure that nobody draws his gun with his eyeball.  “Look at the eyes” sounds terse and masculine and even kind of mystical, but I was keeping my eyes on his right hand.

This is the build-up to an action sequence that climaxes my story “Cap Device.”

Dan and several other officers have ordered a phony cop out of a car. He’s in full uniform, and he’s armed, but they know he’s a phony because the badge he’s wearing is reported stolen. They’re now trying to get him into a prone position so he can be disarmed safely.  Will he cooperate or fight?  And, if the latter what are the “tells” that indicate he’ll mount a resistance?  Cops aren’t taught to watch the eyes.  That sounds good in old westerns.  But cops are taught to watch the hands.

This sequence also gives a little insight into Dan, who’s depicted in the series as being a movie buff, one who often references movies when he’s dealing with situations on the street.

Dan’s a young cop, still learning his craft.  Another series character I’ve been developing recently, itinerant Texas peace officer Gus Hachette, is a long-time cop with decades of experience.  In the first story I ever wrote about him, “The Lord of LaValle,” set late in his career, a few years after WW2, he’s called out of retirement to handle one last case.  He and his partner face a group of armed thugs who mean to keep him from serving a search warrant. The story appeared in Low Down Dirty Vote – Volume 2, edited by Mysti Berry.  Unlike Dan, who’s only got a few years on the job, and still has much to learn, Gus handles the situation like the old pro he is.


“My friend here’s Ranger Ramon Martín. . . . My other friend is that little article Ray’s carrying.  Name’s Tommy.  He shoots 1500 .45 calibre rounds per minute.  Last time I took on several armed felons all by my lonesome with nothing but a handgun was back in El Paso, ‘bout twenty years ago.  Don’t know if I could pull that off a second time.  But with ol’ Ray and Tommy here, I don’t have to.  They’ll hose you all down in a few seconds, and anyone left alive’ll be tried under the Felony Murder rule and executed.  So what’s it to be, boys?  Y’all want to git your names in the history books?  Or y’all want to just git?”

The riflemen looked much less confident.

“Any of you fellas ever actually shot at a man?” asked Hachette.  “‘Cause if y’haven’t, I can tell you it ain’t all that easy.  ‘Specially if he’s shooting back, which Ray and I both plan to do.  And gettin’ shot at, well that just flat-out rattles some folks.  But if you feel, having taken on a job of work, that you’re obliged to face two experienced, armed men, one of ‘em holding a Thompson, with nothin’ but some lever-action Winchesters, well, let’s get to it.”

This is a short bit from “The Unforgiveable Sin,” another Sullivan story in The Big Game.  Dan’s just discovered another cop shot to death, apparently by his own hand, and has phoned his sergeant to report.


            And you’re sure it’s suicide?”

            “His snubbie’s gripped in his right hand.  There’s no entry wound that I can see, but there’s blood below his lower lip and some of it’s dribbled onto his chest.  There’s a big exit wound on the back of his head.  I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

            The inference was clear.  He’d shot himself through the mouth.  At the moment of death, the gun hand froze over the grip in a cadaveric spasm.    It was such a common method for suicides by cops that there’s even a slang expression for it.

            Eating his gun.

More often than any of us like, cops have to deal with entitled assholes who are, inevitably, dismayed to find that those cops don’t simply melt into a puddle of piss when told how important the person they’re dealing with is.  This line from “The Big Game” is Dan’s response to an “Assistant Dean” demanding to be allowed onto a road that’s closed.


“I don’t give a damn if you’re Jesus Christ straight off the cross and you’re taking a shortcut to the Tang Med Center’s Urgent Care Clinic to have your five wounds tended to. You’re not going down this road.  And I happen to be a very devout Catholic, so if He’s not getting any special treatment, what chance do you figure you have?”

If that line sounds familiar, it’s freely adapted from a piece of dialogue from Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning script for The Hospital.  Which film buff Dan admits when asked.  It also hints at Dan’s devotion to his faith.

I’ll close with one final sequence from “The Big Game,” in which Dan, dealing with a hostage situation, notices something that gives him and the two cops backing him an insurmountable advantage.


“You’re not going anywhere now, Williams.  And I’ll tell you what.  You’re not going to kill this girl, either.  You don’t believe we can stop you?  Then go ahead and try.  Squeeze the trigger, asshole.  I dare you!  I double dare you!  In fact, I double dog dare you!  Hell, I triple dog dare you!”

            Figuring he was dead anyway, he squeezed the trigger.  And nothing happened.

            “It’s single action, dipshit,” I said.  “You have to cock it first.  Now, what do you suppose is going to happen if you so much as think about moving your thumb toward that hammer?  Yeah, that’s right.  All three of us’ll open fire and we won’t stop shooting ‘til we run dry.  And we’re all aiming high-capacity semi-autos at you.  You’ll be dead about forty-five times over, and you won’t even have the satisfaction of having killed your hostage with a reflex shot.  One dead bad guy.  One rescued innocent bystander. And one empty slot on FBI’s Top Ten.  And all of that on top of Cal winning the Big Game.  A great day all around.”

Aside from another example of his penchant for lifting movie dialogue (this one from A Christmas Story), Dan, though still well short of Gus Hachette’s expertise, displays a level of experience, skill, and self-reliance that he hadn’t yet developed in the earlier stories.  In that sense, The Big Game collection tracks the professional development of a young cop from rookie to veteran.

And maybe the professional development of a writer, as well.