Thursday, October 6, 2022

Death of a Salesman

 

 by Abir

 

 

The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?

 

 

Good question this week. As my fellow writers have said, if there was some magic formula we’d all be billionaires by now, and as far as I’m aware, only among us Jim Ziskin is able to outbid Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the art market.

 

But as Jim wrote yesterday, if you want to be a full-time writer, the key is to work out how to focus your publicity and marketing effort in a fashion that gets you to the goal of being able to give up the day job.

 

The first thing to say is that for 99.99% of writers, this isn’t going to happen with your first, second, or even fourth book. Ian Rankin (my hero) was on his eight novel Rebus novel (Black & Blue) before he had his first no.1 bestseller, so patience is essential.

 

My first novel, A Rising Man, was published in 2016, but I started writing it in late 2013. It was 2020, and four books later, that I finally decided to risk giving up my day-job (and it is a risk, because there are no guarantees I’ll be able to make a living from this for life. Right now though, and thanks to wonderful readers, things are going well.)

 

I’ve spent a fair proportion of the last five years on marketing the books – doing everything from pounding the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the snow, going to see booksellers with a trolley case to introduce myself and distribute the first proof copies of that first book, to building up a half-decent number of Twitter followers with a strange but effective combination of angry political ranting and terrible dad jokes. Some things have worked well; others less so. I can only tell you what’s worked for me, but things that worked for me might not work for other writers and vice versa. I think your own personality and willingness to get out there and press the flesh also make a difference.

 

Writing a series

 

Unless you’ve got a huge publicity budget behind you, building awareness of your book(s) is a slow, difficult, gradual process. No matter how you do it, social media, bookshop visits, attendance at festivals and conferences – you’ll only reach an infinitesimally small fraction of the potential audience for your book. As a result, it generally takes a long time for knowledge that your books even exist to get out there.

 

This is where writing a series can help. In my opinion, readers tend to fall in love with characters rather than plots. Once they’re hooked on a protagonist, they generally come back for the next book and the one after that. Ideally, they’ll go on to buy everything you ever write. What’s more, now that I’ve got five books in the Wyndham and Banerjee series under my belt, I find new readers who might pick up book five, then go back and buy all of books one to four, and suddenly the sales are increasing by a faster rate than in prior years.

 

Newspaper reviews 

 

My career was jumpstarted by positive reviews of my first book in many of the UK’s national newspapers. A Rising Man was a Book of the Month in both the Times and the Sunday Times and was given great publicity in the Telegraph, the Guardian and several other papers. This gave the book the oxygen of publicity which was just priceless. On the back of it, several bookstores increased their initial orders for the book, with some doubling the number they were taking and prompting the publishers to embark on a second print run. As James pointed out yesterday, though, it’s difficult to get this sort of press coverage unless you’re with one of the big publishers. Their PR departments are the ones with the contacts at the papers. With so many new books coming out every year, it’s hard to get their attention otherwise. Many of these journalists attend crime and literature festivals however. A good way of building relationships with journos is by collaring them at these festivals and buying them drinks till they fall over. But don’t mention your books till you have got them drunk at least twice.

 

The Radio 

 

I’ve been lucky enough to do a range of radio interviews in the UK and Europe and there’s generally a strong uptick in sales after most of them. I’ve met many people who’ve said to me, ‘I got into your books after hearing you on the radio,’ and while that’s probably down to my wonderful Scottish accent, if it helps sell books, who am I to complain?

 

Promotions in Bookstores 

 

Bookstores are brilliant. The wonderful staff in these stores are generally avid readers and can be some of your most vocal champions. Smaller towns and villages often have an indy bookshop at the heart of their communities and recommendations from the booksellers are taken up with gusto. If they suggest someone read your book, more often than not, you’ll make a new sale.

 

While all bookstores are brilliant, it’s just a fact that certain chains have more weight (because of their sheer size, network of branches and buying power) than others. Building relationships with the store managers of these chains can be very useful in the long term. Probably the greatest increase in sales I’ve had is when Waterstones, the UK’s biggest physical bookstore chain, selected A Rising Man and later Smoke and Ashes as their Crime Book of the Month. In that period, the books were in the windows of every branch in the country and displayed prominently in stores. So many new readers discovered my work through those promotions.

 

Social media 

 

Twitter, Facebook, Insta, Tik Tok - everyone tells you that to be a big seller these days, you need a social media presence. It’s cheap, and if you do it well, it can really help. But it’s tough. I find some media are easier to get to grips with than others. Twitter and Facebook I can do. Instagram, I find tougher, and as for Tik Tok, I get a sore back just thinking about it. I’m not sure how directly interaction on these platforms translates to sales, but in recent years I’ve tended to do my version of marketing campaigns on Twitter in the run up to a book launch (generally me threatening people with dire consequences if they don’t buy the book) and pre-orders have risen significantly.

 

The other side of the coin – one of the UK’s best-selling crime writers, Mick Heron, has no social media presence whatsoever. He didn’t even have wifi till a few years ago. He’s brilliant, and he’s built his career the hard way. I love him (and envy him).

 

Festivals

 

Book festivals are where the hard-core fans hang out. These are the vanguard of the book buying world. If these people like you and your work, then they’ll convince others. It’s worth getting to know them. (Also, as I said – it’s a chance to get journalists drunk).

 

Other writers

 

Crime fiction writers are the best. So many bestselling writers have gone out of their way to help me when they didn’t need to. I try and do the same for others. They’re also generally getting drunk at festivals. Make friends with them.

 

 

Good old fashioned dumb luck

 

So here’s the rub. At the end of the day, you can do it all – you can write the best books, you can do all the PR and marketing in the world – and you can end up selling seven copies. Meanwhile someone else who can hardly string three words together becomes a bestseller simply by smiling and being photogenic. There’s no justice in the world. There’s only dumb luck. All you can really do is try your best, roll the dice and see what happens.

 

May you have all the luck in the world.

How Many Books Does My Mother Need to Buy to Make Me a Bestselling Author? from James W. Ziskin

The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?

For this week’s question, I’m going to go beyond simply earning royalties. I think most writers would rather make more than a couple of hundred dollars in royalties per year. We’d like to break out and make a real living with our books.

That said, let’s think about it.

Some Assumptions

First, let’s assume you’ve written a really fine book. Without that, your task will be a lot harder. How many mediocre books provide real income for writers? Then, let’s say you make a plan to promote sales of your latest book by organizing signings at ten bookstores in the ten largest cities in the US. That’s going to set you back a good deal in airfare, hotels, and dining out. But let’s say you’ve saved some money for just such a purpose. Next, let’s assume you get excellent turnouts at those ten venues and sell fifty books at each. That would come to 500 books sold. Pretty good. Unlikely but pretty good. (Let’s face it; we’ve all heard of or experienced book signings where NO ONE AT ALL showed up.)

Still, 500 books probably won’t earn back your advance. Even if you assume the 500 buyers love your book so much they recommend it to their friends and families, I still doubt sales will soar. More likely, the buyers will loan the books to their friends and family. But let’s say half of the 500 manage to convince someone else to buy your book, which is, of course, pie-in-the-sky dreaming. But let’s assume it anyway. Now you’re up to 750 books sold. At this pace, with the impossible assumptions that half the people who buy your book will hand sell it to someone else, you might reach a couple of thousand books eventually. But I doubt it. 

Plan B: Your mom will buy enough books to make you a bestselling author.

No, bookstore signings alone probably won’t get it done. What you need is real, organized, effective publicity to go along with your bookstore signings. And—most of all—some lightning in a bottle. Yes, you need luck. Everyone does.

Here’s what works

Big publishers can make books big. It’s reality. Smaller publishers don’t have the resources to achieve what the large houses can, just as a small liberal arts college football team—no matter how plucky and endearing—isn’t going to beat Alabama on any given Saturday.

Look at The New York Times bestsellers. This week, the hardcover top ten includes Nicolas Sparks, Stephen King, James Patterson, Elizabeth Strout, Richard Osman, Kyle Mills, et al. More big names in the top fifteen. These are talented, well-known and established writers, so it’s not surprising to find them selling tens of thousands of books. But there are also the names that follow the titles of their books: the publishers. Random House; Scribner; Little, Brown; Ballantine; Pamela Dorman (Penguin). These are the big hitters with worldwide distribution, large promotional budgets, and decades of building business practices and relationships. Even a mid-list novel from these publishers gets more attention from booksellers than a small independent publisher might. And their books reach outlets in every corner of the country. In every Barnes and Noble, hundreds of airports, libraries, and in the vast majority of indie bookstores. Authors higher on the food chain might even get travel budgets for signing tours. And, while it’s certainly possible for a book from a boutique press to get reviewed in major news publications, it’s much more likely to happen if it’s a book from a major house. 

Reviews in The New York Times or other major newspapers drive sales and can create buzz. Both of which are essential, of course, for a book to start earning real royalties for the author.

So, if you want to make a living writing books, you’ll probably need to get yourself a Big 5 publisher.

Well, that was depressing

No, not really. Imagine you played volleyball in high school. Or baseball, soccer, or basketball. You loved it. Were very good at it. But not good enough to play professionally or make the Olympics. So what? You’re not the chairman of the board of GE, either. Only a few make it to that level. And the same is true of the writers on top of The New York Times bestseller list. Sure, we’d all love to join that club and rake in real money for our work, and we will all keep trying to make enough to quit our day jobs. 

But I don’t write to make the bestseller lists. I write to write.

So my advice is this: 

If you love to write, write. Try to find the best publisher you can. If that’s one of the Big 5, great. You might make a living on royalties after a few books if they’re successful enough. But if not, remind yourself that you love to write. That you really have no choice but to write. It’s something you must do whether you get paid a little or a lot for it. The satisfaction of creating stories from nothing is actually the greatest reward in this business. At least I think so. Anything more is gravy. Enjoy the meager meal if that’s what’s put before you. Enjoy it even if there’s only a modest puddle of gravy on top.




Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Throw it at the wall and see what sticks

The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?

by Dietrich


Getting to the place where promotional ideas turn to royalties — I wish I had some surefire ideas to share. During the past couple of years I’ve been promoting my books the same ways that many authors have — online. I update my website, write blogs and guest posts, and of course there is social media and Goodreads. I plan virtual book tours, take part in online panels, Zoom events and interviews, and so on. I think these are all worthy ways of promoting a book. One bonus is whoever is reading a post or watching an online event is just one click away from making a purchase. Another benefit, online events are less time consuming and far less expensive than taking part in live events.   


Once a book is in print, I like to put myself out there as much as possible to support it. I do stay open for new ways to promote my books to potential markets, but I think the bulk of my time is always best spent writing the best book I can. That’s what will (hopefully) garner positive reviews and get people talking — and buying. 


“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” – George Carlin


Aside from writing every day, I put a lot of thought into a catchy title, and I labor over the copy for the back cover, boiling down the story to just a few lines. I know authors don’t always have the last say here, but I think of a catchy title as a powerful headline, and the copy on the back as a memorable hook. It’s the first thing a potential reader sees when browsing the book aisles. Does the title grab? Does the cover stand out? 

It’s been far too long since I’ve gotten together with some of my author pals (some right here on Criminal Minds) for a live event. We always have such a good time whether there’s a full house or a lot of empty seats. And live events are the best way to get to know other authors and readers too. I’ve learned plenty by standing in front of a roomful of people and reading — how they reacted to the rhythm of the words. Did they seem engaged? Did they get it? Do they like it? Did they buy the book?

As we slowly get back to the way things were before Covid, I’m really looking forward to planning a launch for my next one. The Get is slated for release next June. Click to find out more. With vanishing fears and restrictions, I can’t wait to take part in an event at a favorite bookstore, a local library, a noir at the bar, a festival, conference, and to plan a book tour — hopefully all of the above. 


Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Launch Day!!!

 

Terry Here: Today I’m going rogue! Instead of writing on our weekly topic, I’m going to talk about my book that comes out TODAY: MURDER AT THE JUBILEE RALLY. 

 This book is special. Most books are born in the usual way: conception, growth, and birth. This book took an unusual route: conception, “growth”, and then the birth of Rosemary’s baby. And, eventually, a do-over. That’s right, a do-over. Why? Because the first attempt at the book produced a monster.



Here’s what happened: I wanted to write about a murder at a motorcycle rally. The town that Jarrett Creek is based on actually has a motorcycle rally every couple of years—at least it did pre-Covid. I conceived of the book before we ever even heard of lockdown, and had plans to actually attend a rally so I could see first-hand what transpired. But Covid happened, so instead of going to the Sturgis Rally, or one like it and getting Covid, I watched videos.
Lots of videos. And I got a flavor for what the rallies look like. I couldn’t smell the smells, but I could see the way attendees dressed, how they behaved, what the motorcycles looked like, what concessions looked like, hear the music of the bands, see the pole-dancing (yes, there is pole-dancing). 

 And then I wrote the book. Or rather, I wrote “A” book. Not a book about a motorcycle rally, but a book about people behaving badly. Okay, in a murder mystery people always behave badly, but this was different. My characters veered off into territory I had never intended. And the motorcycle rally became an afterthought—or a side gig, or something. I gave the book to my writer’s group and they said the equivalent of “What (the hell) is this?”
I gave it to my agent. She said the equivalent of “what happened? This is awful!” Which I already knew, but I was in a daze and hoped it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. 

I wish I could understand exactly what happened. All I know is that the characters were sleazy and unlikeable. The plot was muddled and mean. In some way, I think it was a monster born of Covid. Not that I minded being isolated during Covid. I had a good house, a good husband, friends who were careful so we could meet at distance in my backyard. 



It was the uncertainty that flummoxed me. It’s hard to make myself recall those early days when we were all so shocked and scared. I know not everyone was, but I’m in an age group that seemed to be particularly vulnerable. So in answer to my shock, I created a monster. And then I pitched it out.
Yep. I threw out an entire book. 










Now this isn’t the first time I had done that. A few years ago I went through my old manuscripts and kept thinking, “Yeah, I see why this was never published.” I had no problem ditching those. They were learning tools. This time was different. It was my ninth Samuel Craddock book. I know my protagonist, my supporting characters, and the town of Jarrett Creek. So throwing out this book felt different. 

When I considered what ditching the book meant, I had to address what I could learn from the experience. And I did learn, although the lessons were ones I knew, and had abandoned. The experience taught me once again that writing a book demands dedication to the idea of the book, not just wandering around on the pages until I have a collection of scenes. 

Writing a book demands a thoughtful understanding of my intention. It demands that I treat my characters with respect. I’m glad I tossed the book. It cleared the way for Murder at the Jubilee Rally, which really does center on the rally. And which explores the world of my characters with an interest in why they do what they do and how it impacts the people around them. It is true to my original vision, true to the characters and to the setting.
One side note: I retrieved one character from the original muddle: Hailey is a 16-year-old who makes a big splash on the page. She was such fun to write, and I hope readers will love her as much as I do. From The Reading Room review: Murder at the Jubilee Rally is another hit out of the park for Terry Shames

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Wanna Buy a Book, Lady?

The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?

Brenda at the keyboard.

If I had the answer to this question - the best way to make sales and ergo a bestseller - I'd be on easy street. Rich beyond my wildest dreams. Invited to all the big book conferences. Recognized in swank locales.

Instead, I'm slogging it out to get my books into the hands of readers like everyone else, except maybe for the select few authors with massive publicity machines behind them. Perhaps I should direct this question to the likes of James Patterson or Michael Connelly or Louise Penny.

Having sat in on a few of Louise's talks, I know that she trekked around to bookshops with her first novel Still Life. As a result, many of the store owners and staff hand sold her books, and we all know how that turned out:-) Louise went on to win every award going the following year, and I don't think it was simply a coincidence. I'm therefore not convinced that dropping personal visits to bookstores should be in an author's marketing plan. There's still nothing like the personal touch to make connections and to get salespeople interested in one's book.

Over the years, I've made friends with several independent bookstore owners and their staff, and managers and events planners at a couple of Coles/Chapters. They've unfailingly had me in for signings and events, and I know they're hand-selling my books. I promote them as well every chance I get. It's all time well spent in my opinion.

Is there a better use of time than making personal connections? There are quicker, more effective ways certainly to reach more people en masse.  The best one in my experience is to get coverage in the newspaper - a review, an interview, an excerpt from my book - sales have always gone up after such publicity. I would imagine being interviewed on a major television network would have much the same effect. Yet, I would argue that this cannot replace the time put into meeting people in the industry and making connections, or for taking the time to meet readers.

Another writer I know said that he does not do bookstore signings anymore because the return is not worth the time spent. He prefers book clubs and book conferences. I don't think it's a question of either/or, but I agree that standing in a store for a few hours and only selling a few books doesn't always feel productive. I limit my signings to two hours, so they don't take up the entire day. I use the visit to check in with the staff, sign stock and keep my book in their sightlines. At the end of the signing, I like to add up how many brand new readers bought a book and think that even a couple is helping to spread the word. I also love going to book clubs and conferences, but think they should be part of a wider marketing plan that includes visiting as many bookstores as I can fit in!

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman





Friday, September 30, 2022

My Big Break, by Josh Stallings

Criminal or crime writer?

What is the greatest crime a writer can commit? 


Some say plagiarism. Yes, putting your name on another writer’s work is bad. Others might say it is failing to use the Oxford comma. Me, I think the worst crime a writer can commit is, well, murder. I mean that is biblically bad. On the other hand to quote Thomas Pluck, “Some folks just needed killing.” So with that moral caveat, that old testament loophole, some folks need to be turned into a pillar of salt. I am led to the next question, how does one learn to be a killer?


Researching violence or mayhem or even murder is easy for crime writers. FBI kicks in my door, grabs my files, sees diagrams of First National’s vault and security system, or dictionaries of poison, all I need to do is say, “I’m a crime writer, that’s research.” 


Show them a few book jackets with my name on them and they mutter, “Un-cuff him, he’s just another do nothing writer.” 


Added bonus, ammunition and range time are tax deductions. 


Their underestimation of crime writer’s penchant for destruction is our super power.


Write about sex, well that’s an entirely different deal. Write a convincing sex scene and everyone including your mother will ask about your research. “The scene in the Ensenada brothel, you know, um, did you, you know?” Yes, my mother asked me that, but never questioned where I learned how to use a broom handle and a guitar E string to make a garrote.


I am not a sociopath or is that psychopath? Doesn’t matter, I’m neither. I’m just a guy with a particular set of skills and a very flexible moral code. I am a pacifist, mostly, I’m a vegan for goodness sake. Sometimes I worry about the screams broccoli makes when it’s harvested. I would never hurt another creature, I mean unless they deserved it. Take that SOB who bumped into me and made me drop my Fudgsicle. He was asking to be pushed into the cross town bus. I fucking loved that Fudgsicle. Does that make me a psychopath?


I don’t think so.


Honestly, I was pure amateur, solving societal rudeness one body at a time. Like Emily Post, I mean if she was serious about etiquette. That all changed last Left Coast Crime. I had just checked into a convention hotel when an unnamed writer, we’ll call that hard boiled Scotch egg Catolina McFierceness, invited me to the bar. Or I think that’s what she did. She said, “Awa’ an bile yer heid.” When I sat down across from her, that has to mean “Join me.” Right? I did, having zero idea what I was getting into. At the head of the table was C-I’m not the boss-Ace. Anyone who has “I’m not the boss” in their name, clearly is the boss.


“This is an easy in and out,” C-I’m not the boss-Ace said to McFierceness, “slip past a battalion of Texas Rangers, whack that target and poof…” She stoped speaking when she noticed me. “Pal of yours?” She asked McFierceness.


“Na, eegit’s eggs are all double-yoakit.” That had to be a real nice compliment, C-I’m not the boss-Ace let a deep laugh rip. Slapping the table she made the drinks jump and skitter about. Instantly the mirth turned to menace. C-I’m not the boss-Ace stared me down. She gave me two choices, go to work for Criminal Minds Murder LLC, or learn to do the wet mambo in cement Capezios…


“Hell yes! I’m going pro.”


It was getting near dusk when I met T-Ain’t It A Damn Shame-Shames in the parking lot of Austin's massive indie bookstore. Our cover was, we were there to do a “book signing” event. Brilliant, crime writers can be in any town that has a book store and they have a perfect alibi. Now when you hear us fighting to keep indie book stores open, you’ll know why.


It seemed weird that no one from the book store had reached out to me, when I ask T about this, she told me not to worry and changed the subject, “We have a couple hours to kill, have you seen Barton Springs Pool?”


“At Zilker Park?” I’d been swimming there the day before with my wife.


“Right, but have you seen it at night?”


“I thought they closed at sundown.”


“Closed, open, such subjective words.” When she said it like that it made sense. Something about a molasses smooth Texas Hill Country accent made everything sound innocent and sweet.


The gate surrounding Barton Springs Pool was locked. T had a master key, that’s what she called her bolt-cutters. The sky was turning inky black as we walked down the incline to the water’s edge. The pool was mirror smooth, reflecting constellations. I was able to pick out one my father taught me, “Isn’t that the hunter, what’s his name?” I pointed to the stars.


“Orion, Zeus placed him in the heavens, even though he wasn’t a real nice guy.” T held a short barreled .44 aimed at my chest. 


I started to laugh, maybe it was a joke or hazing. Her dead eyes told me a different tale.


“You think I’m not a nice guy?”


“No darlin’ you’re nice as nice can be. You just sat down at the wrong table, heard the wrong conversation.” She thumbed the hammer back.


“T, come on you know I’d never ever say anything. Swear.” I broadly crossed my heart. “Swear. For real real. You can trust me.”


“That’s real sweet of you.” Her finger started to squeeze the trigger. “Bless your heart.” Were the last words I heard.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rumble, by Catriona

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

Seems like a good moment to take my first step into noir. Maybe. You tell me.


Rumble

What you got here, see, is you got two weeks. And two days between, like a peace line. So say you got Babyface Brenda on a Monday, then you know you got Tip Toe Terry right behind her, Big Daddy Dietrich keeping it cool, Jay-Z up next, mixing it like a whisky sour, and Mukhers bringing it home, little bit of that James Bond style, you know?

They call themselves Group One. Bold talk. But no swagger, amirite? Up to now we let it slide. Says more about them than it ever did about us.

Us? We're the other week. They call us Group 2. Wise guys, huh? We say nothing, think plenty, all of us staring back across the weekend. Truth is, we been light since our buddy Paul lit out for good. Course we got weight to spare. We got Ace. The Boss. The Enforcer. With Ace on our week, we ain't worried about them others. Well as her, we got Frenchie on a Monday, Josh the Cosh, Yours Truly and, well, we been looking for a Tuesday Guy. Had the word out a while. And now we got lucky.

Of all the bloggers in all the world, who should wander onto ours but Gabriel V. (He's no angel.) And now Ace is feeling all of it, with V at her side. She's done. She's ain't taking no shit from no one no more. 

Long story short, it's time. We're all in. Frenchie is small but scrappy, Josh the Cosh is built like a fridge, Ace and V are the brains. And I'll do my bit. We're ready to rumble.

Trouble is . . . TT Terry used to be one of us, before she switched. And Jay-Z's a good guy, just fell in with a bad crowd. Babyface Brenda and Daddy D ain't so bad either, I've broken bread with the both a them before, shared a beer. Josh the Cosh? It rhymes but no more. Guy's all heart. And Mukhers? Could say we should stick together, him and me. We came up in the same place. Different crews - the Weegies and the Edders - but the same spot. Gotta mean something. Speaking of the same spot, TT and Frenchie have been known to share a crib a time or two.

Take all that - loyalties, history, geography - this job could go wrong in a heartbeat. This could get messy AF. And who'd still be standing when chumps like us were bleeding out? You need to ask? 

This world ain't perfect but it's all we got. I ain't leaving it to no Jungle Reds. Not today.


Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Saved! A very short story by Cathy Ace

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

Castel Coch, in Wales, via Canva
It was a dark and stormy night – appropriate, considering it was the annual gathering of the bloggers who called themselves The Criminal Minds.
        “I can’t do it.” Cathy’s voice betrayed her terror.

“But you must.” Abir’s usually-jocular demeanor had evaporated. “You have to do as I say.”

Cathy’s chin quivered. “I hadn’t expected this of you,” was all she could muster. She was afraid that saying more would enrage Abir…make things worse.

“It’s just a thousand words.” A rumble of thunder accompanied his treacly tone.

Cathy considered the man she’d always thought of as rapier-witted, rather than tyrannical; his laptop sat on the antique desk, and glowed in the darkened room. The empty Word document represented a chasm she knew could swallow her whole.

As she considered her predicament, she wondered why on earth she’d chosen this ominous place to host the annual meeting; a castle on a clifftop in Wales had seemed like the ideal place to invite everyone, and – since her lottery win – she’d been able to plan similar events for family and friends with the carefree abandon that comes from knowing you’re a millionaire many times over.

All The Criminal Minds had agreed they’d continue with their blogging schedule despite their luxury break, little realizing what that would mean. Each month, one of The Minds had the task of setting four questions, which would then be answered by the bloggers. It had become something the bloggers – and those who followed the blog – expected, and the system had worked well for more than five years.

But now…this challenge…

It had seemed a small task to Cathy when she’d read the questions, set by Abir, for September, but now she realized there wasn’t a one-thousand-word story in her. She’d never written flash fiction, nor tackled the challenge of truly short-short stories; her briefest to date had run to almost four thousand words, and she believed in her heart she wasn’t capable of writing anything worth reading in fewer.

Desperately, she dared, “How do people do it? Create mood, a sense of place, characters we can root for, or be glad to see bested, in such a short format?” Maybe begging Abir for advice might allow him to retain his superiority, an even offer her at least a glimmer of understanding.

“Hardest job there is, as a writer,” he replied, his eyes glittering in the white glare of the screen. “Spare vocabulary, laden with meaning. A strong storyline, with a great twist, and a punch at the end. Editing, of course, and polishing…merciless cutting and rewriting. It’s a unique skill set. Takes time.”

Time? That was what Cathy knew she didn’t have; as always, she’d procrastinated, waiting until there were only hours left to post her blog. She’d hoped inspiration would materialize during her flight to Wales, or even as she waited for her guests to arrive and unpack in their sumptuous suites. But inspiration had evaded her as surely as a cat burglar with a pocket full of purloined pearls…and now Abir was beside her, whispering.

“The four others have all posted theirs. Come on, get typing. I brought my own laptop, so I can even post it for you. There must be something you can get on that screen. Look around…you’ve brought us all to Wales, where you, a Welshwoman, should certainly feel at home. There’s a storm setting the mood, and nothing for you to do for the next hour before we’re all due to meet for pre-dinner drinks here, in the library. Besides, it’s only a bit of fun…it’s just for the blog.”

Cathy’s tummy turned. “But I want everything I write to be the best possible piece I can make it. I haven’t the time to write it, hone it, and make it as good as it can be.” She cursed silently, knowing she’d let herself down, and now she was about to let her fellow bloggers down too.

She allowed her mind to seize on a crazy idea…a reason for it to be acceptable for her post to not appear at all…

She grabbed the heavy antique-brass table lamp and swung, catching Abir completely by surprise as the makeshift weapon smashed into his left temple.

He staggered backwards, his arms windmilling.

He grabbed a chair to steady himself, but Cathy was beside him.

She swung again, battering him with repeated blows, until his body lay, crumpled, on the floor. He didn’t move. Didn’t breathe.

She wiped the lamp to remove her fingerprints, then dumped it onto the floor beside Abir’s corpse. Stuffing her hand into the plastic carrier bag she always had in her purse (at last, a “You’ll never know when you might need it moment” had arrived!) she opened one of the leaded casement windows. The rain bounced off the plastic as she reached around and smashed the adjacent window inward, then she strode across the room, shaking the drops off the bag as she went.

She grabbed Abir’s laptop, and threw it onto the wide-planked, ancient floor, where the screen smashed.

Spattered with blood, Cathy raced to her room, avoiding the creaky stair tread she’d noticed upon her arrival earlier in the day. A change of clothing, a cold soak for her blouse with some bleach-laden toilet-bowl cleanser, a wipe of her face and hands – checking in the mirror for any suggestion of blood smudges – and she was ready.

If she got to the library first, she could be the one to raise the alarm…suggest that an intruder had been trying to get their hands on Abir’s secret – yet much whispered about – work in progress, which was bound to be a bestseller…for someone.

No one would expect next week’s blog posts to appear after such a tragedy.

Saved!

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Minds and The Case of Missing Waffles by Gabriel Valjan

 


I was killing commas by the light of my laptop when the police stopped us on the rural road. I counted casualties onscreen while Jim and Susan argued French grammar. If a punctuation mark slowed down anything more than a sentence, our driver didn’t know it. We were the third car in a caravan of Criminal Minds when the whelp of a siren and cherry lights directed us to the shoulder of the highway.

            An officer’s flashlight tapped glass.

            Everyone was asked to vacate their vehicles and present identification. We shivered on the blacktop as one of two officers reviewed our credentials. A driver inquired and we heard: “Three dark sedans attract attention.”

Another driver said, “We were driving under the speed limit.”

“Which makes you more suspicious. The tinted windows didn’t help.”

His partner approached him. “They say they’re writers: one’s from Texas; two are from Boston; two Canadians. Of the three Californians, one of them has a weird accent.”

“Excuse me,” Catriona said. “You’re the one with the accent.”

The officer asked his partner, “And the last one?”

A whisper. “Foreign national, but wait until you hear the voice.”

“Flashlight their vehicles, while I return their paperwork.”

He walked down the line, handing back their documents. Brenda, Susan, and Terry tolerated ‘Ma’am’ in triplicate, while Catriona huffed, “What’s with the torch?”

“The what?”

“The flashlight.”

“Procedure. I’d like a word with this last gentleman.”

He stood before Abir and perused the passport again. “You’ve grown whiskers since this photo was taken. Says here you were born in London.”

“Correct.”

“You don’t sound like you’re from London.”

“Because I spent my formative years in South Lanarkashire, Scotland.”

“Same as your friend who called a flashlight a torch?”

“No, she’s from Em-bra.”

The officer would’ve pressed further, but his partner returned. “Anything?”

“Silver flask in a back seat. You gotta see the size of this thing. You could drown your liver in it.”

Jim stepped forward. “That would be mine, and it’s strictly for show.”

 

We decamped at the B&B, arranged by the group’s mistress-mind, Cathy, who had given us the choice of a cruise ship or a spot of land for the writer’s retreat. Since none of us had either sea-legs or a script for Dramamine, we opted for terra firma. We thought it suspicious that Cathy had been lured away at the last minute to give a lecture on locked-room mysteries to a maritime audience.

            Our hostess, Mrs. Muchmore, ran the place like a drill sergeant with an egg timer. She enumerated the times for reveille, lights-out, and meals. She defined ‘respectable attire’ tableside and set our daily word counts.

After she clopped off, we socialized in the parlor. Josh was the first to voice what we were thinking. “Isn’t she the epitome of less is more?”

            Terry added, “Why do I feel like we’re the Torrances at the Overlook Hotel?”

            I joined the medley of mixed-genres. “Let’s hope she isn’t Annie Wilkes.”

             Catriona said, “There goes any hope for a proper tea.”

Abir replied, “You mean a cup of hot water, with tea bags on cold plates.”

            “If Mrs. Muchmore mucks it up, then it’s Jim’s flask of Dewar’s for me,” she said. “Is that okay with you, Jim?”

            “Scotch for the Scots, all in the service of a noble cause.”

 

 

 

I was debating clemency for a comma when Mrs. Muchmore rushed into the room like a fullback. “Waffles is missing.”

            Her verb disagreed with her noun, but none of us played editor. A tired Dietrich didn’t hear the nuance and asked, “Breakfast for dinner?”

            Minimalist as Carver the writer, what the distressed Muchmore talked about when she talked about Waffles was to say that Waffles was a rare ginger, a polydactyl descendant of Snow White from Finca Vigia, and so named for the color of his fur.

            “A cat?” Brenda said.

            Susan replied, “A Hemingway cat, to be exact.”

            Josh stood up. “A Cuban cat in America is a great title for a short story.”

            Either due to the loss of her feline or what she perceived as insensitive writers hungry for a story prompt, Mrs. Muchmore fled the room. As if we were in a bad movie, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled. We all looked up and heard the rain.

            Catriona said, “I’ll insist on tea if I’m to go out in a monsoon for a moggy.”

            She didn’t. We didn’t.

Each Mind searched a room, east to west, north to south, and above and below, finding no evidence of Waffles. Not even a kitty tumbleweed. What we did find, however, were the castaways from bygone visitors. Books and bookmarkers. One Mind hurled a copy of Rod McKuen’s poetry across his room. I think if it were not raining he would’ve requested his room to be saged and exorcised.

            At last we reconvened in the main room and commiserated over generous pours of Dewar’s from Jim’s flask. Flames in the fireplace crackled and the recriminations set in. Jim and I felt the heat, and it wasn’t from the hearth. We lived with cats. We knew the ways of the feline. I had Munchkin, and Boko and Tuppy owned Jim. At last, Terry spoke for the magnificent seven sitting across from us, the two writers from New England.

            “Aren’t you two supposed to be cat whisperers?”

            Before either of us responded, Jim’s cell rang. The ringtone was of an insistent meow.

Out from under the couch Waffles crab-crawled and mewed.

Jim answered the call, after which Susan said, “You solved the case.”

“No, I didn’t. Cathy did.”

I asked, “How is that possible?”

“The ringtone I have for her attracted Waffles, but I’m afraid we have a new mystery.”

Silence.

“It seems somehow Cathy has locked herself out from the blog, and she’s asking for our help.”

Monday, September 26, 2022

So, you claim to be a writer by Susan C. Shea

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

From Susan

I know it’s a cop-out but I only got a working computer back a few hours ago and it’s not working right. Lots of lost or hidden folders and docs including those related to my current novel and the one in copy edits. So, yeah, I’m a little too stressed to get creative on the spot. Plus – and who needed this – my bad kitty, the one with three legs, got out of the garden again and just showed up all “what’s the matter?” ten minutes ago. She’s a real Houdini and I keep spending more money to escape-proof the yard and she hops nimbly over everything. Whew….


How about I share some other writers’ creativity? I just bought these at my local indie today:



WOLF HALL didn’t sit right with me. My conceit was I knew a great deal about that period of English history and her attempts to humanize or even make us – gasp - like Thomas Cromwell were fiction-light. I was wrong, I realize, based on the acclaim the book earned, so, hearing that what we have of her work is all we’re going to get, I am parking my snootiness and coming to BRINGING UP THE BONES with fresh eyes and proper humility.

 

I watched the zoom interview at Book Passage with Leila Mottley and was quite simply blown away. She’s a kid, but young in chronological age only and surely the most articulate, thoughtful, writerly savant I have ever listened to. (Also a poet if she needed more intro.) I just had to get NIGHTCRAWLING. It’s set in Oakland, California, where the task of growing up black and poor is hard and the tragic failures far too common.

 

Successful TV writer Richard Osman was a finalist in the 2020 Edgars for the first novel in this series, The Thursday Murder Club. Of course it had to become a series and THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE is the second. The third has just been published, but I need to catch up with #2 first.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Publish and Be Damned

by Abir

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?

 

 

Just over a month ago I was in Oxford, attending the annual St. Hilda’s Crime Fiction Weekend. It was while sitting outside in the sun, having a drink with some other writers that the news came through from New York of the attack on Sir Salman Rushdie.

 

At that point the information was sparse. There’d been an attempt on the writer’s life. It wasn’t clear if he would survive. The news sent a chill through us all. A writer, attacked for something he’d written. It was an action that had repercussions for every author on the planet.

 

It got me thinking. I write about issues, about things in the world that bother me, things that I feel are unjust. Naturally, this covers the worlds of politics and religion. Of course I’m aware, and extremely thankful for, the fact that I live in a free country, where I can say or write pretty much whatever I want to, and normally the worst that’ll happen is I’ll get an irate e-mail from Alan in Baltimore or a fulminating tweet from @chunkyboy129. Writers in China or Russia or so many other places don’t enjoy that basic, yet fundamental freedom. Even in India, that long-time bastion of free speech and a free press in a region of autocracies and dictatorships, that freedom – to write what you want to write - is being eroded. And if theTrump years have shown us anything, it is that our freedoms are not as abiding or as secure as we might wish to believe, and that they need constant defending.

 

Bringing things closer to home, there has been the rise of what is termed ‘cancel culture’. I honestly don’t know what to make of the ‘phenomenon’. Like my colleagues earlier in the week, on one level, I see it as an overdue reckoning where wrong, often racist or sexist ideas are finally stood up to and answered. For too long we have accepted a very pale, male, stale Anglo-Saxon view of the world as the dominant, if not the only, acceptable narrative. I think a lot of folk complaining about cancel culture are people really complaining that their views are no longer held in high regard by most people. They’re basically complaining about a loss of influence.

 

Yet I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that. I do feel that we are living in an age which, though hugely more tolerant in terms of attitudes towards sexuality, race and religion, has become quite puritanical in regard to dissent from views that chime with the new orthodoxy. The days of ‘I disagree with you, but I’ll defend your right to say it’, seem to be over. It seems that the voicing of a dissenting opinion is now deemed hurtful on an almost physical level, often requiring trigger warnings.

 

So I’m conflicted. I don’t know where the balance is.

 

Anyway, back to the question. I like to think there’s no subject I’d shy away from, assuming I wanted to discuss it and had done the research to treat the subject respectfully and knowledgeably, but I’m not sure that’s completely true. The debate over trans rights and identities, for example, is one area I suspect I’d probably steer clear of – even assuming I had the knowledge of the subject to write meaningfully about it. It just seems too highly charged. However, that’s a purely hypothetical surmising as it’s not a subject I feel there’s anything that I could add to the discussion anyway.

 

Then there’s the issue of cultural appropriation. There has been a reaction in recent years to certain authors writing about the experience of other ethnic groups. One that comes to mind is American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a story of Mexican migrants coming to the USA, written by a white American woman, which was hyped to the rafters by the publishing industry. When certain Latinx people pointed out that similar books, more authentic books, written by Latinx writers were ignored by the publishing industry while this white writer received a huge advance for writing this book, there was a justified backlash. (and is 'Latinx'  even the right word? Even as I write it I find myself fearful that I'm using the wrong term - and isn't that fear part of the issue we're discussing? I don't mean to cause offence, but someone might be offended by my use of potentially the wrong word and then what?)  

 

I think the first thing to say is that in the instance of American Dirt, the author is hardly to blame. She wrote a book and got paid a lot of money for it. That’s great and more power to her. We all want that. I guess the real problem is the publishing industry which holds up the white narrative on non-white issues as somehow worth more than the narratives of those writers who actually come from those communities and can discuss it as their lived experience. The publishing industry needs to change (as does the book buying public) – and I think it is, if only slowly. I was at an event the other night – my publishers, Vintage (part of Penguin Random House) held a press event for their marquee titles for 2023. There was a mixture of British, Irish and American writers – some household names, some debuts – but the most interesting thing was the diversity. As far as I could tell – out of about fifteen or sixteen writers – only one, maybe two, were straight, white and male. That would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

 

So where are we? Greater diversity, hand in hand with greater puritanism. Greater breadth of stories, yet greater repression of writers saying the wrong thing. It’s hard to know which way the wind is blowing. Exciting, challenging times lie ahead, so buckle up.