Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ah, Cabo...

 If you could spend whatever winter holiday you celebrate anywhere in the world, where would you be? Close your eyes and describe the scene.

From Frank

We've spent several winter vacations in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort. Closing my eyes, what do I sense?

Eighty degrees every day. Sunshine. 

Several pools. The beach. Volleyball. Water polo. 

Music playing, everything from classic rock to Mexican folk... with Toby Keith's "Cabo San Lucas" in heavy rotation.

Good food. Not the greatest wine but it's beer weather, and Dos Equis is good. 

Friendly people, both staff and other guests.

A good book all day while sitting next to the pool and soaking in rays and sipping drinks.

Shows in the evening, surprisingly high quality.

A day trip to an island out in the bay.

More good food and beverages.

My wife, able to relax and let go some of that teacher stress. 

Our good friends whose trip overlaps and who we don't see nearly enough.

Ugh. I have to stop. Only a few weeks ago, I canceled our reservation at the resort, as well as all the other logistics -- dog boarding, flight watch, all of it... my wife's sister and husband were originally coming but canceled back in September. Our friends still haven't decided whether they're going. Our dog is old and hasn't done well with boarding in the past. Travel in a still-Covid world isn't pleasant, and restrictions at the resort, while smart and necessary, don't make for a fun way to spend a vacation.

So, we're out. Winter vacation ain't happening. Thus, when I close my eyes, instead of Cabo, I see...our living room. And the hope that one of our binge-worthy shows will have new episodes to stream.

Maybe next year...



I mentioned a good book as part of the Cabo equation. I usually took two with me, figuring that I'd finish at least one in the five days we spend there, mixing in reading with all the other activities. If you find yourself wanting a winter read, may I offer my latest River City installment, Dirty Little Town?

You can get it now on Amazon or other platforms.

Times are tough for the River City Police Department. The city budget is collapsing, forcing an already understaffed department to contemplate laying off cops. The community is upset over the handling of recent events, and their anger is impacting the agency from the ground up. Negotiations with the police union are somehow both heated and stagnant at the same time. To "fix" the problem, the mayor appoints a new chief, but the cure may be worse than the disease.

Worse yet, a killer is stalking the streets of River City, targeting vulnerable women. Rookie detective Katie MacLeod is assigned to assist in the effort to stop him but the case is stymied.

Somehow, the men and women of RCPD have to put aside all of the distractions and focus on their jobs – to serve and to protect.

Takes place in 2003.

Monday, November 29, 2021

I'm Dreaming of a Paris Christmas

 Q: If you could spend whatever winter holiday you celebrate anywhere in the world, where would you be? Close your eyes and describe the scene.

- from Susan


My answer might be different every year. As an adult, I’ve spent Christmases in Bali, Paris (twice), Santa Fe, The Big Island of Hawai’i, and New York City. Every place did it differently. The Balinese have strong spiritual practices but at Christmas, they’re only catering to Westerners, so it’s all ersatz, decorative, with a desire to please. Santa Fe is famous for farolitos (candles in paper bags) that stud the tops of walls, line pathways, and make for a sensational show against the adobe. Spanish and Pueblo cultures aren’t the same at all, but they co-exist nicely. I think the corn dance we went to around New Year’s day at the Taos Pueblo is a winter dance.


It’s something they do in Hawaii: use every holiday excuse to set off fireworks. In the evening – and this took place on Christmas night the year we were there - people bring out their beach chairs, make spiked rum punch, and enjoy the cacophony. The kids dance around madly, screeching. No “Silent Night” here!


New York’s my hometown, and the holiday magic is familiar to everyone. I recall my wobbly ice skating evening with Tim at Rockefeller Center’s rink, incredible, animated, musical store displays, waltzing to a full orchestra in the main lobby of Grand Central Station, and an incredible roast beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner at the kind of restaurant you go to only on rare occasions.


But if I could choose right now, it would be Paris. Sometimes it snows. There are chestnut sellers and accordion players on the little bridge behind Notre Dame. There are lovely decorations – often in colors we don’t associate with Christmas – pink, blue, silver – and the huge atrium and dome inside Galleries Lafayette, concerts in old stone churches, fabulous, warm food everywhere, and that je ne sais quoi that is Parisians at their most Parisian. And the presents for sale! Such artistry, luxe, beauty. Bonus: It snowed on Christmas Eve once, big, dry flakes that tumbled down slowly and created as much more magic as we could stand! 

Ah, yes, Paris it is in my 2021 dreams. 
Joyeux Noël!

Friday, November 26, 2021

An Appetite for Construction (of sentences)

 by Abir

Share your favourite writing snack or drink – one that gets you moving when you're stuck or allows you to relax after a time spent “butt in chair.”


Well this is an interesting question. It seems almost tailored to me because I’m fat and lazy and rely on a conveyor belt of snack and hot beverages to get me through the day. So let’s start at the beginning.


I’ll get up at around 6.30 and make my wife a coffee. Me making her the first coffee of the day has become a bit of a ritual in our house. She makes pretty much everything else in terms of meals and snacks for both of us, but by making her that first cup, I’m both in the good books (she doesn’t like to get up early) and am storing up good karma for the rest of the day.


I won’t drink coffee that early. I used to, but then I read an article on the internet (so it must be true) saying coffee first thing was bad for your blood pressure. So I stopped. Instead I’ll have a cup of green tea (which tastes like hot, liquid seaweed – but I don’t really notice cos my tastebuds don’t come to work till 9am) and make myself a bowl of porridge. The secret to good porridge is to let the oats soak for at least an hour apparently, but who’s got time to soak their oats for an hour when you’ve got coffee to make for the wife and kids to resuscitate, feed, dress and shove out of the front door in time for school? Not me. I just let them soak (the oats, not the kids) for about five minutes; six on a good day.


So anyway, let’s assume we all make it through to 8.30am without any disasters such as the kids not finding their shoes or setting fire to the house. That’s when a degree of peace descends. The two idiots are on their way to school. The wife has generally popped out for a quick trip to the high street. Guildford has a lovely high street, by the way – all cobblestones and ye fake olde English facades. It’s just a shame the shops are so expensive.


So I’ve got the house to myself. I’m loaded up on porridge and now I feel like a nap. But that’s not allowed cos I’ve got work to do: books to write, edits to finish, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to trawl. So this is when I have that coffee. Then I’ll set to work, generally spending half an hour writing before going on social media and getting angry at stuff until about 11am when I remember I’m supposed to be working.


Generally I have lunch around lunch time, which seems to work well. I went through a phase of eating a lot of sushi at lunch times, but since the advent of Covid I don’t have as much of it cos I’m worried the sushi people are going to sneeze on it (by accident) in the shop. I know this is stupid, but I can’t help it.


Afternoons are the hardest part of the day for me in term of concentrating on my work. The bursts of writing get shorter and the periods of time wasting increase exponentially. Afternoons are when I snack more too. There’ll be several cups of tea, accompanied by McVitie’s Rich Tea biscuits. Now the Rich Tea Biscuit is a much maligned thing. Some people will tell you that they taste like dry-wall or loft insulation, but do not listen to these people. They are bitter and twisted and deserve only your pity. The Rich Tea biscuit is in fact a marvel of culinary engineering. Their consistency is just right for dunking in semi-hot tea and they are wonderful. I generally eat 3 or 4 with each cup of tea. I tried cutting down to two per cup, but that seemed to remove a lot of the magic in my life.


The kids tend to come home around 4ish, so that’s when things start to get mental. I’ll try and do some work, staggering through till about six if possible before giving up. The next few hours are taken up with dinner and getting the kids ready for bed. Occasionally, if I’m up against a deadline, I might do a writing shift between 9pm and midnight, and on those occasions I might have a glass of whisky to help with the creative process. A single malt is good – something sherried like a Glendronach, is perfect. To me it tastes like alcoholic warm honey, and then that’s pretty much it till 6.30 in the morning when it all starts again with that horrid, horrid green tea.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving!

It just so happens that my work-in-progress, the as yet untitled Last Ditch No. 5 starts on Thanksgiving Day. So, since I've got pies to make (it's yesterday) I thought I'd share the opening scene:

NOTE: these are the opinions of a fictional character, Lexy Campbell, not the opinion of the grateful and greedy author.

Chapter 1

 ‘Should I slice some pears?’ I asked.

‘No!’ bellowed Noleen.

Can I slice some pears?’

No!’ bellowed Noleen again, if an official bellow can be that high-pitched.

‘There’s no need to shout,’ I told her. ‘We’re supposed to staying calm, remember.’

‘So don’t drive me up the fricking wall and out through the fricking chimney, blathering on about fricking fruit!’

‘It’s just-’ I tried. But there was no way to explain it to someone who didn’t see it. I couldn’t not see it. On the many surfaces around the kitchen of the owners’ flat at the Last Ditch Motel, where Noleen and I were currently incarcerated, there were – and I will try not to miss anything out, but I can’t promise: a vat of Mexican wedding soup big enough to drown the entire bridal party except that it was so thick everyone could walk across it to the edge of the pot even in stilettoes; two commercial (surely) bakers’ trays of rolls that smelled like cakes and definitely had sugar on the top; three washing-up-basin-sized bowls of alleged mashed potato which were actually cream and melted butter held together with just enough potato starch to mean you’d need a spoon to serve them rather than just a jug with a spout; three similarly-sized bowls of mashed yams reeking of what I hoped was nutmeg but feared was cinnamon and topped with full-sized burnt marshmallows i.e. not the dinky ones from cups of cocoa but ones you’d have to bite in half or risk needing a Heimlich if you breathed while chewing; a casserole dish (apparently – my first guess had been paddling pool) of stuffing (apparently – my first guess, having seen the cranberries, walnuts, and orange peel, had been cake-mix); a wheelbarrow without its wheels (Noleen called it a dish, but seriously) of pure, cheese-topped, butter-slicked extra-thick cream which allegedly had onions and green beans iunder the surface; five shoe-box-sized tureens full of jam which I was supposed to call sauce; and of course a mysterious object roughly the size of a suitcase too big to carry on, which was probably a turkey, but couldn’t be identified since every square inch of it was wrapped in bacon and it smelled only of maple syrup from the cake crumbs (supposedly breadcrumbs, but I’ve watched every episode of bread week in that tent and this was cake) bursting out of it like a baking soda volcano at both ends.

So it seemed to me that if we were going to eat sliceable soup, followed by whole cakes, crumbled cakes, cheese, butter, cream, marshmallows, jam and maple syrup with a little meat and veg as a kind of garnish, maybe we needed a lighter alternative to the five pies that were perched all around, on the breakfast bar, on both breakfast bar stools, in a trio on the windowsill, in the- Hang, on that’s six. There was a pumpkin pie on the breakfast bar, two pecan pies on the stools, a cherry lattice, a chocolate cream and a key lime on the windowsill. Yes, six. And an apple cobbler on top of the microwave. As I was saying, it seemed to me that maybe we needed a ligher alternative to seve- Eight! There was a cheesecake in the dishrack – alternative to eight – Nine! I had just spotted a peach flan by the coffeemaker – alternative to nine (and counting, because I hadn’t opened any cupboards) pies for pudding.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I won’t slice anything now and if anyone feels like something light I’ll hop up and do it then.’

‘No one will.’

‘I might.’


‘Oh for God’s sake,’ I said.

‘Stay calm,’ said Noleen, with an infuriating smirk.

‘I’m going to go and see how they’re getting on setting the table,’ I said.

‘Of course, you are,’ said Noleen. ‘Because how could a bunch of Americans possibly set out silverware and drinking vessels to the satisfaction of Your Majesty. Why, we’d just tip the swill in the trough and get on our knees if we didn’t have you to help, wouldn’t we?’

            ‘Stay calm,’ I said, then I nipped away out of earshot before she could come back at me.

I hope everyone whipping up a feast for later today is managing to stay calmer than either of this pair.

And while I've got you. It'll be a while before this hits the shelves, but Last Ditch 4 - SCOT MIST - is out in the UK today. (And if you're elsewhere, like me, you can wait till Febraury or order it with free delivery from Blackwell's in Oxford or Amazon's very own The Book Depository.)


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A guest post by Rob Pierce

Rob Pierce wrote the novels Blood by Choice, Tommy Shakes, Uncle Dust, With The Right Enemies, the novella Vern In The Heat, and the short story collection The Things I Love Will Kill Me Yet. Rob has also edited dozens of novels for All Due Respect and freelance, and has had stories published in numerous ugly magazines.

He’s here tackling this week’s topic: Share your favorite writing snack or drink – one that gets you moving when you're stuck or allows you to relax after a time spent “butt in chair.”

by Rob

So many to choose from, but Dietrich asked and he is a friend. Not that I’ve agreed to this yet, but I did imply I would do it, and that implication was long enough ago that I now feel compelled to answer.

I generally drink beer, and will do that with a shot or two (at times, definitely not always) while writing. So, most common is a good IPA (come on haters, have at me.) But for quality, my favorite drink is Suntory Whisky Toki. That’s what they call it on the label, and they do such a fine job of making this flavorful beverage I will not argue the point. I’m not saying it’s as good as The Hakushu, but it’s over a hundred dollars cheaper for a fifth. Hard to believe my vast book sales don’t make the idea of price irrelevant, but I like to drink. A specific fifth may be a one-time purchase, but the number of fifths will continue to accumulate, especially as my writing continues to be about messed up people. Messed up is the polite way of saying how bad my bad guys are.

Toki is essentially a smooth Japanese scotch. I like all these things: smoothness, the Japanese, and scotch. If we’re talking scotch from Scotland, I’ll choose Glenlivet, but this is not to be a listing of everything I like to drink. It’s to be a little essay or some such about my favorite food or drink that relaxes me. I write late at night for the most part, and in the interests of keeping my weight down (hah! Help me, Lord, I’m aging), and of getting to sleep after writing some gruesome killing or interior turmoil, I choose alcohol. I am not a doctor, but I could drink a few under the table. That is my qualification.

Jagged as my writing is, the smoothness of Toki is a beautiful contrast. Almost all my writing takes place fairly late at night, so relaxation is what I seek. After and sometimes during the drinking, I read. Almost exclusively noir of late, although there are other books in the bedside pile-up. Of course, as I write this, I’m on a pre-Halloween drinking fast, attempting to develop a taste for water, which has little taste. This fast will end on Halloween Eve, when my brother’s band plays a live show. In a bar that carries Toki.

I’m currently standing at my desk, thankful that I purchased a monitor stand so my legs don’t atrophy, as I await a delivery I have to sign for. The delivery was unexpected and is from my optometrist. My optometrist, who is a thirty-minute walk from here, didn’t say they were shipping anything. So I missed the first delivery, drove to the post office to pick up whatever it is, and was told they couldn’t find it, but that they would contact me when it turned up.

Instead, they attempted a second delivery — while I was home, but I didn’t hear them — so I requested a redelivery for today. So, at this point I expect it. But I despise an inability to have control. The best I could do was sign up for text updates. So far, they’ve sent a half dozen, each confirming that I want text updates. No ETA on the horizon. This is worse than waiting for the cable guy.

At least I have Iggy Pop’s Zombie Birdhouse playing. It would be even better with a beer. There are no beers in this house, though. This tragedy. If the package hasn’t arrived when my brother gets here in about an hour, I’m going to the store, and he will be under strict instructions to sign my name for any postal delivery. Standing is okay, but it’s boring and we have a beautiful day outside, and I really wouldn’t mind a walk.

Ahem, it is now 10 p.m. No delivery, no new text update, and, due to the fast, no alcohol. So I’ll wait again tomorrow. And tonight, despite the lack of anything smooth to wash it down — water tastes too watery, like it’s watered down — I shall write fiction. With any luck, it will be jagged as hell, and come Halloween Eve, the liquor fast concludes. 


Thank you to Rob for stopping by. Fans of his work can find out more about him and his writing here.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Who Wants a Snack?


Terry Shames here, answering this week’s question: Share your favorite writing snack or drink – one that gets you moving when you're stuck or allows you to relax after a time spent “butt in chair.” 

I suspect a lot of people would say chocolate, but although I like chocolate, I don’t think of it a “writing” snack. It’s more of a rare treat. In fact, I don’t think of food as a motivator for writing. Not to say I won’t reach for a snack, but not to get myself moving when I’m stuck. It’s just for something to do while I’m taking a breath. 

My favorite snack is nuts—particularly macadamia nuts. I eat them by the handful. But I’ve also gone through my pecan, almond, and walnut phases. And peanuts. And peanut butter eaten with a spoon. And pistachios. And sunflower seeds. See a theme here? 

But really, when it comes to snacks, I’m not picky. I’ll gobble whatever is handy. Today I ate half an avocado with Sriracha mayonnaise. IMO avocados are the perfect food. 

 As for beverage, I’m a tea drinker until five o’clock, after which I become a wine drinker. 

 I can’t say that any of these things “get me moving,” though. I do mindless eating, and hardly notice if I’m snacking. I’m much more likely to be nudged by a strenuous walk. I once had a thorny problem with a character who showed up and I didn’t know what she was there for. So I decided to walk up the steep hill near my house—and to keep walking until I figured it out.

I came back over an hour later, tired but satisfied. The answer had suddenly popped into my head. 

 That doesn’t happen with food. I’m actually glad, because if it did, I’d probably weigh 500 pounds from dashing for the food every time I got stuck or felt tired from working out a ticklish situation in a book. 

 That isn’t to say that I don’t use food for relaxing—but it’s in the cooking, not the eating. I love to cook, and no matter how stressed I am, cooking calms me. Last week my dear little dog, Lucy, died.

I invited my son and his girlfriend over for dinner. My husband protested that I shouldn’t have to cook after such a traumatic event. I told him that on the contrary, it was pretty much the only thing that would make me feel better. 

The last few weeks of Lucy’s life, I made her food myself, rather than buying dog food. It was a labor of love and I felt better when I went to all the trouble to cook it and process it into palatable meals. 

 An astute person could probably tell how stressed I am by how elaborate a meal I’m cooking. During Covid, I cooked. 

And cooked.

I cooked things I’d never tried before, sometimes dropping off food at friends’ houses “just because.” So for me, food is not the great motivator…but cooking can be.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Fuelling the Muse

Share your favorite writing snack or drink – one that gets you moving when you're stuck or allows you to relax after a time spent “butt in chair."

Brenda Chapman

I have to think about this one since I type away at my keyboard at all times of the day and night. I don't usually eat or drink while I'm working unless it's a cup of coffee or glass of water at my elbow.

My day normally starts with two cups of coffee and a bowl of plain yoghurt with a handful of defrosted blueberries and raspberries. That's it until lunch when I often eat a sandwich (favourite tomato, cheese and mayo, toasted on brown), some fruit, and cookies or other baking if I've gotten around to it. I also drink a glass of Kombucha, favourite flavours being ginger or pumpkin spice.

Around two o'clock, I might have a snack -- popcorn has been my go-to for a long stretch, but I also love a good, crisp apple.

On toward four o'clock is relax with my husband and often neighbours time. Red wine is a favourite choice, but often I drink soda or tonic water. I'm not a beer drinker, but my husband had me try a lemon-hibiscus beer from a local craft brewer, and I quite like the taste. I'll drink half a can and store the other half in the fridge for the next day, much to his disbelief.

My daily snacks:-)

Supper is the more exciting meal of the day, and I have several go-to recipes. My favourite lately has been chicken fajitas with fried onions and green peppers and homemade guacamole. We started buying food kits for two meals a week from Chef's Plate a few months ago, and have been pleased with most of our choices, especially the Greek and Moroccan chicken dishes. Such a relief not to have to come up with two meals a week and to have some flavour variety.

Rereading the question and looking at my consumption habits, I'm not into using food and drink as rewards per se. I like to keep my energy up, eat healthy with a treat or two now and then whether I've spent the day at the keyboard or not. 


website: www.brendachapman.ca

Facebook & Instagram: BrendachapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, November 19, 2021

Flying Down Blind Alleys by Josh Stallings

 Q: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

“A wall is just a door you haven’t pushed on hard enough.” Regular advice my mother gave me. It’s true, except when the wall is made of bricks. I have the scarred knuckles to prove that some walls don’t open. 

More than once I’ve kept writing on a section that I knew wouldn’t survive to the final MS because I had a sense it would lead me to important discoveries. 

Sometimes when I get story stuck, I polish the chapters leading up to the stop. Somewhere in the previous work I may have left clues to the next move. Sometimes I need to run stumbling in a word swamp, grasping at vines to pull me out. Either way, as long as I’m typing I know I’ll find my way through.

A few years ago, my younger sister Shaun and I decided, for motivation, to share our word count each day. Shaun day 1, plus 480 words. Josh day 1, minus 27 words. For a week it kept going this way. While she was continuing to write, I was cutting more than I kept. I was depressed, until I noticed my manuscript was getting better. I stopped tracking daily word counts after that.

My latest MS, somewhere between the 1st and 2nd draft I left 32,000 words on the cutting room floor. I dropped one character’s love interest complication. I needed to write it to understand the character, but the readers didn’t need to read it. I also discovered duplicated information from several different character’s perspectives. While I had been tracking each character’s of their personal journey, I needed to read it all in order to see these duplications.

First drafts feel a bit like research. To write Tricky, I needed to study the history of policing in LA. The first paid police force was in 1869, and the first City Marshal was killed by one of his deputies in a disagreement over a reward. That fact didn’t make it into TRICKY, but it shaped the novel and the way I look at my beloved city of angels.  

This leads me to why I don’t work from a ridged outline, and don’t find tangents unproductive; it’s the little moments and details that bring a book to life.

In Tricky there’s a section where Cisco takes Detective Madsen to an arcade. We discover Cisco is an air-hockey wizard. It doesn’t further the plot, or help solve the crime. The scene came about because my son Dylan was an unbeatable air-hockey player. Reading over it, I can see that it’s an early moment where Madsen has to question his assumptions about Cisco’s capabilities. It’s not the kind of chapter that would make it into an outline. Yet in hind-sight it feels vital.

In Out There Bad there’s this moment on the front stoop of a brothel. It’s based on a conversation I had with a bouncer in Ensenada. 

“Hitler, si, verdad. My mother named me Hitler.”

“Your mother didn't name you Hitler.” I was leaning against the wall in front of Anthony's, talking to the door man. He was about my age, not as big, but still I doubted many men didn't listen when he talked.  

“She did. Adolpho,” he said.

“That's a good name.”

“Si, but to you, Inglés, it is?”

“Adolph, I guess.”

“Si, Hitler, no? Adolpho, Jose. Asesino on this shoulder, santo on the other. All night they fight for my soul.”    

There was no logical need for this brief encounter. What I didn’t know was that Adolpho would become a key character and give Moses a family to return to at the end of the book. I don’t tend to know until editing what is important and what isn’t. 

When Berry Gordy sold MoTown records, a guy I knew was retained to help the transition. The new company brought in an MBA genius, who after two weeks with the books, announced at a board meeting that he had discovered how to make the record label profitable. Dropping a stack of charts and graphs on the table he stood up and proudly said, “The thing we need to do, is only release the hits.” And that makes sense until you ask, how do you know in advance what the hits are?

I never do, and that’s why I write full tilt down blind alleys, sometimes a door opens, sometimes I crash and burn, but it’s never a wasted effort. 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Book Learnin', by Catriona

CRAFT: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

This question strikes me as both very specific (20K) and quite heartfelt. I'm assuming the Mind who asked it has done just that.

Have I done it?

Probably, but not in one fell swoop. A Gingerbread House took eleven drafts before it was ready to go, and as they swelled and shrank I must have tossed out more than twenty thousand words overall.

To give you an idea, here are just the first sentences in Chapter One from some of the drafts:

There was no mistaking the smell (except, come to think of it, that’s not true. It was all too easy to miss that one crucial note in the putrid bouquet).


All I really wanted to say was sorry. I’m sorry I was too late to save her, your loved one, your lovely girl. I’m sorry I didn’t put two and two together a lot quicker


Ivy had waited outside as long as she could, standing in the plume of light from the open door, looking up and down the street through the fog of her own breath, glancing at the sparkle of frost around her feet whenever a car passed her.


Dear ___________

I hope it’s okay that I’m writing to you. It was my doctor who suggested it. It struck me as selfish but she said there was no harm.


I’m not cut out to be a hero.

I'm getting flashbacks just from reading them. But the only time I've ever done something with - and it must have been about 20K words, funnily enough - in a block, as it were, was when I tried to write my third book the way I had been told to, at various workshops and classes I'd taken to attending.

I'd larked my way through two books having fun and not worrying about the process, since the product had sold (and got some awards attention (modest cough)). But this time I really went for it. A calendar for the timeline, character bibles, chapter plans, a list of beats and twists and where they should go in the story. I didn't have three acts, and I didn't ask what my protagonist wanted, or what was stopping her getting it; I hadn't been told to do that on any of the courses, you see. If I had been, I would have. (I've got an echo of my Granny MacDonald asking what Id have done if they'd said I should jump off a bridge. Fair point, well made.)

God, it was awful writing those words. I was bored rigid. The three chapters at the start of a book are usually pretty euphoria-inducing; nothing's gone wrong yet. That time it felt like typing up the minutes after a meeting. And not a very action-packed meeting at that. One morning, sitting at my desk with my face tripping me, I thought "Sod this for a game of soldiers" and added a dark stranger, maybe a ghost, maybe a villain, flitting acoross the winter fields freaking out my characters and then disappearing. I had no idea who it was or what they were doing.

And just like that the book was alive and I was happy again. 

I followed the stranger, some other assorted weirdos, farmers, WRVS members, a kindly minister, his grieving daughter, an undercover detective and a couple of toxic toffs, as they all racketed about rural Fife for three hundred pages until the puzzle was solved. 

And get this: the mystery worked. All the stuff I wrote wondering why I was writing it? It had a part to play in the denouement and/or resolution. Who witnessed that deed on the back road? Why the girls whose skipping song I had written out in full in what seemed like an extraneous scene. Where would the climactic action take place? Where else but in the spot I'd sent my characters to on a picnic that felt aimless as I typed. 

The only spadework necessary in draft two was to spread some of the seeds and clues back into those first three plotted chapters, beautifully formed, calendrically accurate, footnoted up the wazoo. And stone dead. 

I'm a pantser. It's not pretty and and it's not always fun but at least I junk my 20K words a bit at a time.


Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The growth of a manuscript... by Cathy Ace

CRAFT: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

Not 20,000, but I just did this with about 3,000 words in my most recent book, and, yes, it was worth it (I hope…I think…eek…did I do the right thing? Were they the right 3,000 words to cut/change…now you’ve got me going again – thank you!).


First draft
My first draft (which really is my first draft, not my fifteenth, or anything like that) ran to (searches to check…) 84,640 words. This is the draft I send to my editor for structural feedback, and to my precious and so helpful early readers for their comments. I know I’ll always end up adding to this version, because…well, that’s just the way I roll, folks. It’s the story – told in what I know isn’t my best possible writing; though I have tried my best to tell the story well, I know there’s a great deal of room for improvement.

Edits and comments come back, then I settle down to write the best possible version of the story I’d told in the first draft. This is what I always do when I’ve received feedback from my editor and early readers, who are seasoned, and know they can tell me anything that’s bad/not working. Indeed, with this book, it was because of early reader input that I made some structural changes; if they could work out who had done “something” too early in the book – even if not how or why they’d done it – I needed to be sneakier in the way I allowed readers to have insights into the characters.

The next time I sent this book back to my editor for the full edit it ran to 96,495 words. Edits came back, which were minor…but (because I can, and felt I needed to) I continued to work on the book, rereading and refining. Eventually I reached the stage of reading the book aloud, which I do when I believe I’m happy with it.

Well…on this occasion, I wasn’t happy with it. There was a section I didn’t like…it sagged. There were two consecutive chapters where there was too much being talked about, and not enough being done. I decided I needed to completely rework those two chapters, which I did. I took the end off one, broke up conversations with eating (always a good idea, in life, as well as in books!) and made a walk to a location in the next chapter more of a sketch than an oil painting. Eventually, I felt the balance was right; they worked better. WOOT!

Final version on top, formatted for print

The final version ended up at 93,295 words, which was the version I sent to my proof reader…then, at last, the final manuscript was ready for formatting and publication!

As you can see, it takes more than one person to weed out the dross, and I am truly grateful to all those who helped me on this journey. However, ultimately, it was my decision to make those last-minute changes. It might not sound as though taking out 3,000 words or so can make a big difference, but I feel it did in this case, allowing me to remove the sag, and establish a better pace. I hope my readers don’t notice at all – which means that we as a team did a good job!

It's a BOOK!!!!

NOTE: Yes, I have to print out my manuscripts to be able to edit. I know that using all this paper might alarm some folks, but, in the past 20 years, we've planted over 100 trees on our property, so I hope that makes up for it...a bit! 

If you’d like to read my latest book (and maybe spot the chapters I’ve mentioned!) you can find out more about it here: http://www.cathyace.com/cait-morgan-mysteries

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Slashing your Darling Flashbacks...

 Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

From Frank

Yes. Well, over 17K, anyway.

(Some minor spoilers here for River City #3, Beneath a Weeping Sky, by the way).

The first two River City novels ran 66,000 and 68,000 words, respectively. The first "final" draft (ready for beta readers) of  Beneath a Weeping Sky (BaWS) ran a whopping 150,000 words.

Yes, 150K. A little over, actually.

To be fair, the story was more complex. The character arcs were deeper. More characters got one of those aforementioned deep arcs. BaWS is an ambitious book, and it is an epic story, so it should run an epic length, right?

Uhhhh.... well, 2008 Frank certainly thought so. Thankfully, I had editors and beta readers and writer friends who convinced me otherwise.

In BaWS, a serial rapist is at work in River City. The cops are obviously trying to stop him, especially since he is growing more violent with each assault. The main characters are a detective and two patrol officers. We also spend a fair amount of time with the bad guy. The patrol officers, Katie MacLeod and Thomas Chisolm, have some demons in their past where this kind of crime is concerned.

The book is divided into ten parts. Here's how the first draft shook out:

Part I: Bad Guy commits an assault (1400 words). This is more of a prologue, really.

Part II: Main Storyline (34,000 words). The cops learn of the assault and early stages of the investigation.

Part III: Katie MacLeod flashback (2400 words). MacLeod was a victim of date rape while in college. This case, including eventually serving as a decoy, brings those buried memories to the forefront.

Part IV: Main Storyline (8000 words). Continued investigation.

Part V: Thomas Chisolm flashback (7500 words). Chisolm was a soldier in Vietnam, and interrupts two separate rape attempts.

Part VI: Main Storyline (53,000 words). The investigation heats up considerably. The Bad Guy learns of MacLeod during their efforts to draw him out. Begins to target her.

Part VII: Bad Guy flashback (19,500 words). We get the origin story of what made this person who he is.

Part VIII: Chisolm flashback (2900 words). We get the resolution of what happened from his earlier flashback.

Part IX: Main storyline. The climax of the story. Bad Guy tries to assault MacLeod but she bests him.

Part X: Aftermath (6300). Essentially an extended epilogue that wraps up all the loose ends.

Whew. That's a lot.

So, the first round of edits included your standard cuts -- tightening, etc. But when I sent it to my trusted readers, I got a big heads up. Instead of heightening the tension, the flashbacks were killing it, as well as the momentum. Just as the main story got rolling (or was steaming along), a flashback came along and threw up a road block.

I resisted the advice at first. I thought how the current events affected these characters because of their past experiences was important. Especially for Katie, who, although her flashback was the shortest, was arguably the central character of the book, and was constantly dealing with the pressure of the here and now right along with the past.

But my friends and readers were right. So here's what I did. I cut out Katie's flashback, and both of Chisolm's. There's 13,000 words. I added back in a thousand words or so in the main storyline to strongly allude to what these characters went through in the past but the reader doesn't get the line by line details, just the gist.

I couldn't bring myself to ditch one flashback, though. The bad guy was too fascinating, and exploring his back story too tempting. I justified it at the time (and still do) by pointing to the masterful way Thomas Harris accomplished this with Francis Dolarhyde in Red Dragon. Three quarters of the way through the book, we get an extended flashback detailing his childhood. The result is that the reader is forced to look at a character who you doubtlessly despised and see something more nuanced. Not something that forgives anything that he is doing now but it does muddy the emotional waters. To paraphrase the lead character in Michael Mann's wonderful adaptation of the Harris novel (Manhunter, 1986), he's irredeemable as an adult but your heart bleeds for him as a child.

I wanted that complexity in this book. So I kept the concept of a Bad Guy Flashback, though I trimmed it by about two thousand words.

The new lineup was only five parts - a prologue, main story, bad guy flashback, main story, and epilogue. The second draft ran 136,000 words. Further trims and tightening brought the count down to 133,000 words. 

Still huge. If I was editing it today, I'd find a way to tighten it further. But while it is admittedly a big book, it doesn't drag. Getting rid of the flashbacks keeps the story rolling. And it is tense -- there is a lot of conflict, and tension both internally and externally.

The remaining flashback is controversial. Readers are polarized about it. Some couldn't care any less about the bad guy and hate the flashback. Others find it absolutely essential to the story.

Obviously, I fall into the second camp. But if people hate the flashback and just skip it, I can live with that.

(Note:  It was only after finishing this post that I realized I should have talked instead about how Colin Conway and I took Some Degree of Murder from 111,000 words down to under 74,000... oh, well. Here's the short version:  brutal, merciless cuts. And the book is much better for it.)


Speaking of River City, my newest entry in the series (#7) is Dirty Little Town. It will be out on November 18! You can pre-order now on Amazon or other platforms.

Full disclosure - this one runs about 100K, which as been the norm for the last few installments. This is going to change with #8, as I'm going to shoot for a 70K range from here on out.

Times are tough for the River City Police Department. The city budget is collapsing, forcing an already understaffed department to contemplate laying off cops. The community is upset over the handling of recent events, and their anger is impacting the agency from the ground up. Negotiations with the police union are somehow both heated and stagnant at the same time. To "fix" the problem, the mayor appoints a new chief, but the cure may be worse than the disease.

Worse yet, a killer is stalking the streets of River City, targeting vulnerable women. Rookie detective Katie MacLeod is assigned to assist in the effort to stop him but the case is stymied.

Somehow, the men and women of RCPD have to put aside all of the distractions and focus on their jobs – to serve and to protect.

Takes place in 2003.

Not only does River City get a new release but ALL my River City-related titles will be on sale (or free) from November 18-22, 2021! This includes the book discussed in this article -- yes, BaWS will be free. So, pick it up and decide what you think of my decision to leave in the villain flashback.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Advice to Take, or Not

 Q: Have you ever tossed out 20,000 words from a work in progress? Why, and was it, in hindsight, the right move?

- from Susan


Yes, and it’s a story with a happy ending. You always hear that you have to write your own book, that is, not bend to trends, other people’s notions of what your story should be, the demands of the market or, specifically, your agent. That’s good advice, but sometimes you don’t see it happening until you’re, metaphorically, lost in the weeds.


I was inspired to write a light story set in rural France, where the real life events and people some friends of mine were encountering were so delightfully eccentric that they begged to be told in fictional form. Bend #1: My chosen genre was mysteries, so to sell, it had to be a murder mystery. Bend #2: To do that, I needed to add a new character and somehow fit her into the second full draft. Bend #3: People are complex and compromised, so my characters needed to be deep, flawed, and perhaps even tragic.


The result, months later, was a manuscript that had veered so far off the path that all the joy of writing, of making up people who live, love, and gossip as naturally as brushing their teeth was gone. My protagonist, based on a friend who, in fact, did have unhappiness in her life, was becoming someone not at all like the charmer she chose to present herself as. It was beginning to feel like a betrayal. And the town I was enjoying wandering in with my storytelling, was becoming dark, morose. I liked my fictional town, I liked my characters, but I didn’t like this one!


Wondering if I had a story left to tell, I took my laptop to Kauai for three weeks of solitude and authorial self-examination. What did I want to write? What was the vision that got me started? Whose opinions mattered more, mine or my well-meaning and professional advisors? Who was I writing for?


I sat on the lanai, listened to the birds, and got serious with myself. Took 20,000 words that had been curated for me out of the manuscript. Mentally thanked my advisors for their attention and support, and finished my book in those three weeks. I did take the “write it as a mystery” counsel in part because that came into focus as a good vehicle for doing precisely what I wanted to do: Bring a tiny, rural community into play, with all their humanity. 


My agent sold it almost immediately in a two-book contract that allowed me to go back to my fictional town for a second visit. 


The lesson for me: Trust your instincts, listen to all the advice you get, but ultimately write your own book.