Monday, January 31, 2022

Tempus fugit, or not

 Q: How do you handle the passage of time and the aging of characters in your series? Are your characters living in a short span of time while many years pass in our world? Does time pass at roughly the same pace as the publication of each book? Or do you have a different method?


-from Susan


Good question. My answer is couched in the fact that I have written two series, one with three books (the Dani O’Rourke series) and one with two so far (the French Village novels). I haven’t had to deal with what is a good question for a long-term series I wish I had.


I have let time pass, although not in the same measure as each book is published. For the first series, I let a few months go by between events because I couldn’t see how a normal person could reel from one shocking incident to another unless she was a police officer or someone else who comes across murder victims as part of daily life. I needed to keep the tension between Dani and her former husband fresh, though, so the time elapsed couldn’t drag out too long. He could be a pest, but not a mentally unstable stalker! Because there are only three books, no one’s had time to get old or for me to force them to drink an elixir of youth to keep going.


I conceived the French series as stories set in seasons that were, in a sense, characters. The first in high summer in pastoral Burgundy was a time for spending days and – importantly – nights outdoors, flowers in full bloom, meals on a dappled, sunlit patio, excursions to the summer flea markets. It helped significantly with the plot and to show my characters in three dimensions. The second was set during the two weeks before Christmas, a very different season and setting. People inside more, their shopping different, their chores and priorities relevant to the winter holiday. I needed cold and wet to push them toward and away from each other as the plot demanded. And I wanted Christmas Eve as a resolution and a grace note for the little town. If there had been a third, it would have taken place in April, when spring is bursting forth, farmers are sowing alfalfa and the winter-born calves are getting frisky. 

The publisher agreed, witness the distinctly seasonal covers. 

Time, in my books, is an important device so I let time pass or hold it back for the purpose of storytelling. I don’t know what I’d do if there were ten French Village mysteries or if Dani O’Rourke’s life was upended by crimes in the art world every month! Many of my Minds colleagues do have much longer running series, so I’m looking forward to hearing from them. I’ve read their books and they do it smoothly enough that I don’t think about the passage of time since the previous adventure.


Friday, January 28, 2022

I Have A Request

Over the past several years, the US has become objectively more polarized politically. Have you accounted for this in your recent work in any way? If so, how?

Posted by Abir


My writing is political. Every book I have written and almost every short story or article has a kernel of politics at its heart. Political issues, in the general sense of how the world is, and is governed: the inequalities and the injustices, are the animus for most of my writing; the fuel which propels and compels me to write.


It’s been fascinating to read the posts of my fellow writers on this blog, and it’s clear that while some are motivated by some of the same factors as me, others use their writing as a means of escape from political issues. Isn’t it interesting how the act of writing achieves different things for different people? At the heart of it though, I think writing is a form of therapy. For me I write about political issues as a way of exorcising my own demons and dissipating my own rage.


My writing to date has been set in the past, specifically in 1920s colonial India, so the issues of polarization, seen most clearly in the United States, but certainly not limited to it – witness the Brexit split in the UK and the general and ugly rise of populism everywhere from Brazil to Hungary to India – have not been something I’ve had to focus on yet. However, the book I’m writing currently is set in the USA and deals in part with such issues. 

The polarization of political discourse in America, seen from across the Atlantic, is something fascinating and troubling. To that end, I have a request to make of the readers of this blog and my fellow writers. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s going on in America at the moment. What do you think are the reasons for the rise in polarization, and what does the future hold? Of course, there are two sides to every story and I want to try understand both sides of it.


Please do leave me your opinions in the comments section below, or if you prefer, you can e-mail me at . I'll do my best to respond to everyone who writes to me.





Thursday, January 27, 2022

What’s Old is New Again from James W. Ziskin

Over the past several years, the US has become objectively more polarized politically. Have you accounted for this in your recent work in any way? If so, how?

This week’s question is one I’d rather avoid. I have strong views on politics, but have come to realize that arguing my side publicly does not convince or convert people who disagree with me. The country has become so divided that I truly fear for its future. Civility, if it ever was present in our political culture, has certainly dried up now. Insults, intransigence, racism, violence, and real threats to our democracy are the norm these days. I find it all distressing.

That said, I will try to give an adequate answer all the same.

Like Dietrich, I write stories that take place in the past. Ellie Stone, the protagonist of my mysteries set in the early 1960s, is a fierce liberal. She cares about those less fortunate than herself, and does not abide prejudice or injustice. She prefers to punch up rather than down. And she comes from a family grounded in academics and the arts. Her childhood vacations were spent at a mountain lake in a sort of leftist collective with other like-minded intellectuals. She campaigned for JFK in 1960.

And while the world was certainly a different place in the early sixties, some social and political issues of that era remain at the fore to this day. I have addressed some of those topics in my books, for example antisemitism, racism, and misogyny, as well as violence and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. In Ellie, I’ve tried to paint a picture of an engaged, aware young woman of her time. To ignore social issues in my books would amount to a blinkered view of history.

My next novel, Bombay Monsoon (December 6, 2022), is set during the 1975 Emergency in India. At the eleventh hour, just as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was about to be forced from office, she engineered a virtual coup (Emergency) under the guise of protecting India from “internal and external” threats to the nation. Civil liberties, due process, and freedom of the press were all suspended during the Emergency. Mrs. Gandhi threw her political opponents in jail. And, of course, she held onto power. 

The Emergency lasted nearly two years. When Mrs. Gandhi finally lifted the edict, she was promptly voted out of office. Three years later, she returned to power and led the country until her assassination by her own bodyguards in 1984. 

As I researched and wrote Bombay Monsoon, I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Nixon, who, one year before Mrs. Gandhi’s Emergency, had reluctantly resigned from office. I wondered what might have happened if he’d attempted a coup similar to Mrs. Gandhi’s to retain power. In Bombay Monsoon, my protagonist broods over that very question. He’s disappointed that Mrs. Gandhi failed to rise to even Nixon’s level of integrity.

And, lest anyone believe that a coup such as the Emergency—a transparent subversion of democratic process and attack on the rule of law—could only happen in a place like India, I point with sadness to the events of January 6, 2021. I shudder to think how close we came to our own American “Emergency.”

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A fine line

Over the past several years, the US has become objectively more polarized politically. Have you accounted for this in your recent work in any way? If so, how?

by Dietrich

Most of my novels are set in times gone by, so the stories have nothing to do with the current political or social climate.

That said, I do allow my characters to shake out their own views, political or otherwise. No matter what the setting, the stories are told from the point of view of the characters, and these imaginary folk have to be free to express themselves. Their thoughts, words and deeds have to be authentic, character-revealing, and they have to move the story along in some way.

I don’t have to agree or disagree with them. And yes, there are certainly sensitive issues at play these days. However, while staying conscious to what’s going on in the world today, in times when even Mr. Potato Head’s had his noggin on the block, it may be easy for a writer to become overly cautious. 

So, I have to ask, can one lose the art in the effort of weighing and measuring?

My aim is to engage readers and take them on a journey while immersing them in a time and place. Tiptoeing around the words and censoring could lead to less than believable passages. And readers can become detached from the story when certain elements just don’t ring true. 

To some degree, most of us in the real world are flawed. Who hasn’t misstepped or misspoken? And characters in a novel have to be like this to be credible. Choices they make reveal something deeper about their integrity or the lack of it. However misguided they may be at times, I take care to stay out of the way and let the story unfold, allowing for the characters to find redemption or succumb to unwelcome consequence –– just like in real life. 


“I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph.”

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Fiction, or Politics


Hi, Terry Shames here. This week we are talking about politics, and whether we tackle our country’s increasingly strong political polarization in our books. 

 I am outspoken on social media about politics. More than once I’ve had a reader tell me they think I should keep quiet lest I lose some readers. Sorry, but if lose readers over what I consider the most important issue of our time—our continued existence as a Republic--so be it. 

 But what I do in my personal life on social media is not equal to what I do when I write fiction. I write to entertain and explore. And I enjoy reading those authors who do the same. If they stray into didactic territory, I can go along for a bit, but once they cross a line into preaching or author intrusion, they leave me behind. Or I leave them behind. Either way, I think that breaks the writer/reader connection, and I, for one, won’t go there. 

 Polarization in politics is not new, although the current version seems more radical than it has been in over a century. Using my fiction to talk about people and their issues seems more useful than taking a political point of view in novels. 

 I write about a small town in Texas. As a political lightning rod, it doesn’t get much “hotter” than Texas, especially if you are a woman. Merely saying that I write books set in Texas sometimes brings an uncomfortable reaction from prospective readers. I picture what would happen if I wrote overtly about politics in my series. I imagine coming home to find people with pitchforks; guns; and vats of tar and feathers, milling around outside my house—whichever way I would pitch. That isn’t to imply that I am a both-sides-ist. Anyone who knows me knows I think Democrats, however imperfect, are the party of people who are serious about solving problems, and that Republicans, however perfect, are the party of cruelty and greed. 

 So, now that I’ve enraged 40% of the readers here, I will repeat that I don’t tackle politics per se in my books. I do tackle social issues: greed; religious hypocrisy; the poor treatment of veterans in this country; gun culture; sexual abuse; racial issues; and police corruption and brutality. 

The bottom line is that we all write in a political atmosphere whether we do so overtly or not. And I’m not just talking about writers in the crime-writing field. But in particular, we write in a genre in which the police are frequently corrupt, incompetent or indifferent; in which the justice system has little regard for the truth and/or has little interest in the despair of those who run afoul of the system; in which religious leaders turn a blind eye to abuse; in which male domination is a given; and so on. To the extent that writers shine a light on these issues, they are writing about politics. Writers who tackle domestic abuse, for example do so with the understanding that such abuse continues, sometimes with the tacit approval of the police, and often without sufficient laws to punish such abuse, the result of political indifference. 

 There’s another angle to this, though. I’ve read more than one thriller in which the protagonist disdains legal means for attaining justice, in favor of vigilante justice. I root for them because they are on the side of the injured. It’s a case of the ends justifying the means. And that’s a slippery slope. 

I have had to put down books in which the writer obviously has a political ax to grind and s/he has the characters carry the political water, mouthing political stances that have little to do with the book’s plot, and everything to do with the author’s opinions. Not that I don’t stoutly defend their right to espouse those opinions, even if I abhor them. But it makes for poor fiction reading, at least for me. So I will continue to tackle hard subjects, but I’ll let real life or non-fiction serve the political arena.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Politically Speaking ...

Over the past several years, the US has become objectively more polarized politically. Have you accounted for this in your recent work in any way? If so, how? 

Brenda Chapman at the keyboard.

This week's question is a difficult one for me. I live in Canada (Ottawa) and my books are placed squarely in this country. I shy away from politics as a rule in my stories although I touch on many topical issues. All this to say that the political polarization in the U.S. hasn't had an impact on my writing.

This isn't to imply that I haven't watched in fascination/horror/unease as political shenanigans have taken place to the south of our border over the past while. What transpires in the U.S. always has a significant impact on my country, whether good or bad. Canada's political system, while vastly different, often mirrors the polarized perspectives and antagonism of the Democrats and the Republicans. For the most part though, Canadians are less inclined to identify with one party all the time, or to try to convert others to their system of beliefs to the degree that many Americans appear to do. 

The question might be why I don't focus on politics in my crime fiction since my stories are set in modern day for the most part. While I'm writing about crime and murder (not exactly easy topics), these are whodunits at their core and escapist reading. If you're like me, the political realm is depressing and keeps me up at night, if I let it.  I'm offering readers a break from all that.

If I ever do delve into politics for the sake of a story, I'd likely write about Canada's situation. This isn't something I'm planning though, but I could see a character being involved in politics since I live in our nation's capital city. I also worked in the federal government for over eighteen years and have a good grasp on the inner workings. Time will tell if I decide to mine those experiences.


Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Twitter: brendaAchapman

Friday, January 21, 2022

How to Handle Muther-trucking Criticism - By Josh Stallings

 Q: Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way? 

A: You would think after years as a movie advertising trailer editor I would have gotten good at taking criticism. You’d be half right. What I got good at was separating negative feedback into categories. A) Things that will make the trailer better. B) Things that are unachievable with the film they shot. C) Things that have nothing to do with the trailer I cut, to achieve them I need to start from scratch. D) Ego notes, said to prove the note giver is worthy of their paycheck. These have little to do with the work, and are easily dealt with by agreeing, then saying you did them. They never checked. E) Good ideas, said poorly, that once I figured out what they really meant would make the trailer better. This last one is key, if I trust the note giver, it is better to assume they are smart, and I’m just not getting it.

This discernment process has helped my writing career immensely by keeping me from baulking at any and all suggested changes. My ego screams “Fk this, this first draft is perfect, what would you dare to fking change?” As a young man, I said exactly this, more than once and threw objects at walls to make sure everyone knew I was serious.  Now, I pause, remember what I really want is to write the best possible novel. To do that I will need some help. BUT, I need that help to come from people who understand my voice and point of view. Before I listen to any feedback, I need to figure out if the person gets the book I’m writing. Do they actually like it? If not then their notes won’t make it better. I am blessed with several writers, and an agent I trust to read early drafts. Before them comes my best critic, Erika, my wife and true collaborator. 

Some examples of notes that made the book better,

“Madsen is too empathetic too soon. He is too Josh, not enough cynical cop. He doesn’t know how to deal with an intellectually challenged person. We need to see slow learning here.” and “NAIL DOWN THE REDEMPTION THEME.” - Amy Moore-Benson (my agent.)

In an early draft I had envisioned Niels Madsen as a womanizer, a behavior he would have to come to grips with throughout the novel. Luckily, I got this note from the brilliant writer Jamie Mason, “The amount of trying to score, heavy flirtation, and reminiscence of sexual conquest is a bit weighing. The first seventy-six pages covers roughly thirteen hours and it's difficult to square our burgeoning allegiance with Niels with that much skirt-chasing and innuendo and stuff that's even bordering on harassment.” I was tired of alcoholism standing in for character, and I had just replaced it with a different character defect. Removing that I had to dig deeper. Give him real life complications. From that I got his grandfather Hem, who is living with dementia, and more.

My brother said he wanted to see more about the world the intellectually disabled characters navigate. And “When does Madsen have his ah-ha moment about not using the R word?”

All of these notes made it a much better book. After Chantelle Aimée Osman picked Tricky up for Agora/Polis, she said the first twenty pages is all most readers give a book, and Tricky’s first twenty pages are too clichéd police procedural. She kindly added that she saw I was setting the story up for a flip, but many readers wouldn’t stick with it until then. Honestly I didn’t like hearing that. But I kept my mouth shut and dug back in. Damned if she wasn’t correct.


Here are a few of Erika’s standard comments that I say I hate, but actually love:

“I know what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t think you’re saying it.”

“You can do better.”


“What are you trying to say here?… Yeah, that wasn’t clear.”

Good notes point out a problem, but don’t suggest a solve. I work with people who trust that I will come up with the best possible solution for a problem. That’s my job. It is also helpful to let me know what is working so I don’t lose great stuff in a blast of clear cutting.

Practical advice - How do I take criticism in stride? It took me a lot of years to learn to listen to negative criticism, smile and say, “Interesting, let me mull this over and get back to you.” To buy myself time to really think past the sting, see if there is something of value. 

So far I’ve been talking about pre-publication drafts. Post publication there is nothing I can do with negative comments about the writing, even if they are right, there is no action to be taken. That book is done. And yet, I still read reader’s reviews. I seldom comment on them, except for the positive ones. I have wanted to respond to negative reviews, but you can’t win an argument with someone who doesn’t like your writing.

I wish I was the type of person who never reads industry or professional reviews, but I’m not. Good, thoughtful reviews make my day/week/month. When someone really gets what I do, and digs it, I love that feeling. A bad review knocks the wind out of me. I have to shake it off and keep going.

To do what we do takes real self confidence. We stumble onto a blank page and create a world with words. Negative comments on past work or work that’s out on submission makes it damn hard to scape up the guts to do this job. When I’m in the early stages of dreaming up a new novel I need to stay away from other people’s opinion of my work. Cocoon myself away until I have enough of a piece that it can stand the slings and arrows of outrageous opinions. 

My most important trick, the one I forget and then remember and then forget again, is to keep my eyes focused on the road ahead, what I’m working on now. What the book critics and readers are talking about is behind me. Focusing on the rearview mirror will end in broken glass and crumpled fenders. 

Eyes front, fingers on keys is the only safe way to write.  

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Quite. Indeed. I see. (And other ways to wither with Britishness) by Catriona

Q: Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way?

Oh, like a pro. I handle it like a secure, well-balanced, mature pro who has never over-reacted in her life. 

                                                                        THE MIRROR DANCE is up for a Lefty!

But seriously. 

If it's my agent, her editor, my publisher's editor, the copy-editor or the proof-reader saying "Eh?", "What does this mean?", "This is confusing", or "needs work", I'm fine. "Drags a bit here", "Couldn't most of this go?", "Do we need to know any of this stuff?" take a bit more deep breathing, but they're usually right. That's why acknowledgments are always so heartfelt: with a bit of distance, when you read the published book, and remember how long you fought against the advice before you finally took it, and consider that if you'd won the fight your wrong take would now be in print for ever . . . phew.

My acknowledgments should really say: "My bum was oot the windae. Thank you for hauling it in and putting my pants back on."

                                                                Never more so than with A GINGERBREAD HOUSE

Trade reviews? I used to hit the fainting couch pretty hard. Even a good review could send me reaching for the smelling salts if there was one brickbat among the bouquets. I've toughened up. Now, if there's a string of words than can be hoicked out and plastered on the jacket, I don't care what else the review said. Partly that's because any newspaper or magazine still reviewing books is a cause for celebration.

Book bloggers? Same. Given how few publications are still reviewing books in any number, we should thank our stars for the dedicated online reviewers no matter what they might make of any particular volume.

Goodreads, Amazon, Library Thing reviewers? Like Cathy yesterday I don't have any thoughts about bad reader reviews of my books. I don't see them. They're not for me. They're for other readers to help people decide what books to buy. Of course, when I use reader reviews as a reader, to help me decide what books I want to buy, it quickly becomes clear that some reviewers think the author will see what negative things they've said. Okay.

                                                                        IN PLACE OF FEAR April UK, June US

Then there is the group of readers who get in touch with authors to share negative feedback. They start a book, don't like it, go online, find the author's website, get to the contact page, and compose an email to share their feelings. These feelings are often quite surprising. Disappointment, you'd think. Regret at wasted time and/or money? Well, sometimes. But also regularly anger and grievance. It's a very odd thing, but there are people out there who feel genuine grievance at the existence of a book they happened not to enjoy.

How do I handle them? I write back saying I was sorry to hear they didn't get on well with the book and hope they've found something more to their taste, since life is too short to waste our precious reading time. Sometimes I tell them what I'm currently enjoying if I think, given the source of their disgust with mine, that this other book might be a good fit.

That's usually that. Very occasionally - actually twice in all these years - someone will write back to complain that I didn't engage with the criticism to their satisfaction. Both times that happened, I managed, through great self-control, not to send back a quote from Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh goes, "I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment." and  Lizzie Bennet goes, "That will make your ladyship's situation at present more pitiable, but it will have no effect on me."

The email I did send back - "I see. Yes, you sound frustrated. All the best." - ended the correspondence both times so far.

SCOT MIST out in UK, coming US 1st Feb



Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Never again...I hope! by Cathy Ace

Q: Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way?

I see it this way: there’s the feedback you ask for, and the feedback you don’t expect.

Editors give feedback – it’s what they’re paid to do, and every author, myself included, has to learn to understand that the pithy comments appended to one’s manuscript need to be read, understood, interpreted and – possibly – acted upon. Indeed, everyone involved in early-stage feedback (editors, publishers, proofers, beta readers) is part of the team – the people helping you write the best book you can. That’s the good stuff – even if it doesn’t feel good at the time.

Then there’s the stuff you didn’t expect. Readers who spot typos, or bits of information that are not correct (not the fictional elements, but the things we all bring in from real life) which slipped past everyone in the team trying to make the book as good as it could be. Even that level of negative critique is something it’s possible to take on board, because someone was interested enough in your work to bother to write an email to tell you.

Then there are the reader reviews which are less than flattering. Those? I have to admit I don’t see them, because I stopped reading online reviews a long time ago – self-flagellation is not a good thing. Not for me, anyway - my confidence is pretty low to start with.

Then there are those special individuals who obviously feel the need to reach into your heart and rip it out of your chest by being plain horrid about your work. I’ve only encountered one of them (to date)…but they made an impression…

My first novel was traditionally published on March 17th 2012 (almost ten years ago – which I find amazing!). At 6.59 that evening, I was at the launch event, so – fortunately – didn’t know that this email had arrived:


Well, I lasted 22 pages and by then I just couldn't take any more unspeakable pain and suffering. The desperate need of the Canadian government for Canadian arts isn't close to sufficient an explanation for how or why this book got published, and then purchased by the local ebook library service. The only possible explanation I can imagine is that you are a Jew. That is the only way you could ever have gotten this book published anywhere in the world. Your name is obviously an alias, and presumably you are a hidden, secret Jew.

In any case, no one is holding a gun to my head forcing me to keep reading this disgusting excrement, so it's no exodermis off my posterior.

With Extreme Revulsion,” (I won’t share the name of the trolling sender)

As you might imagine, discovering this email the next morning, when I checked my inbox, took the shine off the launch a bit. I was literally speechless (anyone who knows me will realize that the depth of emotional distress required to silence me for any length of time would need to be profound). Tears and comforting words from my husband followed; my publisher assured me this was the sort of thing that happened all the time, to everyone. I wasn’t convinced – and independently discovered the concept of “imposter syndrome” the very weekend my first book came out.

I’m delighted to tell you I've never received a communication remotely similar to this one (so, no, it doesn’t happen to everyone all the time!) but – after that – whenever anyone has said something nice about my work, I have done my best to thank them…though they might not understand why I gush so much.

So the answer to the question is…I hope I handle criticism well when it’s coming from a good place, but – if the person is writing with venom in their heart – then I don’t do so well. Normal? I hope so.

Fancy reading around the world this winter? Then try the Cait Morgan Mysteries - the title of the twelfth book (to be published on April 7th) is THE CORPSE WITH THE TURQUOISE TOES, and it's set in sunny Arizona - yay! But, before then, make sure you're up to date with all Cait and Bud's adventures. More here:

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Say it ain't so

Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way? 

From Frank

Let's face it -- sending out your story or novel for feedback is like walking into a roomful of people at a party while naked, motioning up and down your exposed form, and asking, "Well? Whaddaya think, huh?"

Yeah, it's vulnerable.

I learned early on in my career that there are two kinds of negative feedback -- constructive and destructive.

Destructive feedback can take on many forms but can be summed up thusly -- the person giving the feedback is tearing you down to make themselves seem superior. The feedback is purposefully mean, and ofttimes petty, and replete with examples of "how I would do it."

For the latter, I'm not talking about suggestions to make the story better but an attempt to essentially rework the story to resemble something that critiquing writer may have penned. 

I've often said a good editor helps the writer reveal his/her own voice and tell the story they're trying to tell rather than imposing the editor's voice and will on the work. The "how I would do it" move is essentially the opposite of that kind of good editing. It's egocentric and rooted to that strange need to tear someone down that I, frankly, don't understand. The psychology of that behavior is a whole other post.

Fortunately, after taking a couple of these teeth-kickings, I figured out how to identify this type of feedback and stopped asking for it from those people.

That's not to say I don't want hard, critical feedback. Quite the opposite. But the difference is, I want it from someone who is on my side. Someone who has the goal of helping my story succeed. As a result, they are honest, thoughtful, and yes, critical. But the motivation comes from a very different place -- to lift me (and the work) up rather than stomp me down.

I am fortunate to have a corps of beta readers who are quite honest and point out errors without hesitation. I have a couple of writing friends who are brutally, lovingly honest. The last few years, I've enjoyed a close working relationship with my friend and co-author, Colin Conway. We review all of each others' work with a critical eye and we have some especially hard conversations, but those conversations are possible (and fruitful) only because we both know whose side we're both on. It's all about serving the story, making it the best it can be.

My wife and first reader is another example of this. She has shown incredible support and is very complimentary of my work but also doesn't hesitate to call it straight if she thinks I made a mistake or could simply do better. 

She might be the only one I struggle a little to take that healthy criticism from (remember the naked guy at the party?) Even if it is delivered kindly, her not liking something I wrote stings a little. So I usually have to take a moment to let the emotional response pass before examining the criticism. More often than not, it's on point.

So while taking criticism is certainly a skill (as is learning which pieces of criticism to accept and which ones to reject) but it becomes rather simple once you figure out that one simple fact about the person doing the criticism.

Are they on your side, or not? Is the criticism for the good of you and your work, or is there something else going on there?

I'm sure most of us have encountered the latter, just as I'm certain all of us value the former.

Also, as an aside.... if you can't identify with the embarassed, naked, vulnerable person at a party analogy at the beginning of this post, then you most certainly go to more interesting parties than I used to attend! I'm sure hot tubs were involved.


BSP! I was fortunate to have a story included in an anthology called To Serve, Protect, and Write: Cops Writing Crime Fiction, Volume 1, edited by A. B. Patterson. 

As the title suggests, all of the authors are current or former law enforcement who write crime fiction. 

My story, "The Last Cop," is a near future take on the profession. It is also an idea that has been on my hard drive in some form or another for about fifteen years. I'm glad for it to finally see the light of day!

"The Last Cop," fittingly, is the final story in the anthology.

As I write this, the book isn't quite yet available but its release is imminent. If there aren't links in this post when it goes live, you will eventually find them on my website.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Listening with an open mind

 Q: Week of Jan 17 (Group 1): Taking negative/critical feedback isn't often heralded as a skill but perhaps it should be. How do you handle it when it comes your way? 


- from Susan


Leaving aside troll insults (“I hated your book so much I didn’t even read it!”) I’ve never had feedback that was nasty-negative. Ever since the writing group I was part of, I’ve only gotten thoughtful, useful feedback sincerely aimed at helping me improve my manuscript. So why would I not listen?


At times, the feedback changed my work. Other times, I listened with an open mind but ultimately decided I needed to stick to my own path. I’ve asked for and gotten very specific feedback at times, have asked for and received more general comments. One great critique I got of my first 20 pages, and I know I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, was from best-selling author Rhys Bowen, long before we became fast friends. She kindly but briskly pointed out that my story started not on page one but on page nineteen! And she was right. 


It makes a difference who you ask and what you ask them for. My only crit group, formed after we met as students at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference in 2006, consisted of five, then six, writers who all had full manuscripts and who all agreed our shared goal was to be published. In other words, we had no interest in sitting around digesting and re-digesting the same pages over and over. While we didn’t know it at first, it turned out each of us had a specific strength for critiquing: plotline, character consistency, line editing, humor, marketability. Everyone’s work improved and several of us went on to be published within a couple of years. 


Because almost every manuscript I’ve written has been under contract, I now focus on what my agent and editor say. Crit groups no longer work because I have immutable deadlines and writing groups have to schedule their reads so everyone has an equal amount of time. But I do miss the camaraderie and the variety of perspectives.


I relish the feedback I get from fellow writers, agents, acquiring editors, copy editors, and professional reviewers. I consider myself lucky that I haven’t blundered into some of the less useful situations I’ve heard about. But if I had, I’d deal with it by limiting the engagement, but also by remembering that while no one can write your book for you, among even the dross there’s likely to be a nugget of something I should listen to carefully before rejecting it.


Friday, January 14, 2022

Eyes on the Prize

 by Abir

Awards for crime fiction from year to year ride a line between subjective merit and a popularity contest — agree or disagree? And what is your personal philosophy on awards — their impact on readers (and you, if you've won any) and on subsequent award years?



Happy New Year!


2022 Eh? It’s like 2021 but with added Prince Andrew.


But let’s be positive. Let’s look on the bright side. Let’s talk about the most important thing in the world: literary awards and why I don’t win enough of them.


Having read the posts of my esteemed colleagues from earlier in the week, I have to tell you, sadly, that they are ALL wrong. Such great writers, so much talent, and yet when it comes to the politics of awards, they haven't a damn clue.

The simple truth of the matter is that any award I win, is, by its very outcome, objective, fair, insightful and a sign of natural justice. By the same token, any award which I lose is obviously rigged, short-sighted and quite possibly racist. And finally, any award for which I am not even longlisted, whether eligible for it or not, is definitely run by a cabal of shadowy forces answering to Trump and/or the Clintons.


Now that we’ve got the truth out of the way, let’s look at the impact of awards.


They make a difference…at least to authors outside of the A list. They provide the oxygen of publicity and credibility, which helps attract more readers and can help with sales of foreign rights. Awards help you stand out, and more importantly, help to pad out both your resumé and that blurb that they use to introduce you at book festivals.


On top of that, it’s always nice to win something, isn't it? Until I started writing, the last thing I’d won was the Ugliest Baby competition at Butlins Holiday Camp in Bognor in 1974. The only thing I had to show off on my mantlepiece was a framed certificate from having completed 10 lengths of the school pool back when I was nine (an imperious performance on what was a truly magnificent day), so when some people decide that I merit an award for writing, it makes me feel like I’ve finally found something I might be good at (other than the backstroke).


I think even the A list authors appreciate awards. I mean, when you’ve sold 100 million books, an extra million sales probably adds less to your levels of satisfaction than a piece of shiny metal and plastic with your name on it. 


People, regardless of their line of work, appreciate recognition for their efforts and awards are simply part of that. Having said that, I’d happily trade all mine for a few million of Lee Child’s sales.

Here's a photo of me not winning an Edgar, along with James Ponti, who did win won


Have a great weekend, and stay safe.



Thursday, January 13, 2022

Awardability from James W. Ziskin

Awards for crime fiction from year to year ride a line between subjective merit and a popularity contest — agree or disagree? And what is your personal philosophy on awards — their impact on readers (and you, if you've won any) and on subsequent award years?

I approach this week’s topic with equal measures of eagerness and trepidation. Let me explain.

In recent years, the annual round of crime fiction awards has been an exciting and gratifying time for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to see my novels and short stories shortlisted for several prestigious awards, including the Edgar (twice), the Anthony (six times), the Barry (twice), the Lefty (six times), the Macavity (four times), and the Sue Grafton Memorial (once). Even better, through some dumb luck, I somehow took home four of those twenty-one awards. 

Now I realize the previous paragraph might come off as bragging but, in all honesty, I feel humbled and tremendously lucky. Yes, it’s natural to be proud of nominations and awards, but I’m also acutely aware that so many deserving books and stories have been overlooked in the process. Look, it’s impossible for readers and juries to read everything, so how can a book be crowned “best” of the year? I’m conflicted because, let me tell you, it’s an amazing honor when your book actually wins. But did I truly deserve it? Over so many great books? Certainly not. Yet I am honored and grateful and proud just the same.

Because of my mixed feelings on this issue, each year I compile a list on this site of several books that I truly enjoyed. I call it “Some Really Great Books I Read This Year.” It’s not a “Best of” list, because I don’t read enough to make such a proclamation. (And who cares what I think are the best books anyway?) Furthermore, I purposely omit works by bestselling authors because they don’t need my praise to sell another book or two. Even though I admire and appreciate those writers and their books. Instead, I hope to promote some talented authors who might not have the same fame or commercial success as the “big names.”

As to whether awards are based on merit or simply a popularity contest, I can’t say it better than Terry did earlier this week. (Please read her post from Tuesday.) A few of the awards—the Edgar, Barry, and Macavity—are decided in whole or in part by committees or juries. I don’t believe the popularity of the author is the deciding criterion for those awards. For the Anthony and Lefty, does popularity play a part? I simply can’t buy into the argument that a book wins because the author is the life of the party. I’ve lost too many times to wonderfully written books for me to believe that. And I hope that when I actually was fortunate enough to win, others didn’t grumble that it was because I’m a good guy. I’d like to think my books had more to do with it than my social skills or—even worse—my hair.

On the subject of “popularity contests,” I feel compelled to tell the story of my first nomination ever. It was Bouchercon 2015 (Raleigh), and my second book, No Stone Unturned, was a finalist for the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original. I was absolutely glowing from the honor of being nominated, feeling on top of the world. Then a friend introduced me to a man and let him know I was a finalist for an Anthony. The guy wasted no time in killing my joy. He stood there and poo-pooed the honor, informing me that the Anthony Awards were nothing more than a “popularity contest.” Thanks, pal. You couldn’t have just said “That’s nice” instead? By the way, our own Catriona McPherson took home the prize that year, and deservedly so. I’ll never forget what she told me before the awards. She squared up, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “I’m rooting for you, Jim. Thirty-three percent. The other sixty-seven percent, I’m rooting for myself.”

And that’s perhaps the point of my post today. Yes, it’s okay to root for yourself, to want to win, to relish the acknowledgment awards bring. And to crow a little bit if you’re lucky enough to be recognized. As I mentioned above, so many great books are left out every year. So I worry about sounding arrogant or insensitive to the brilliant writers who did not get the accolades this time. Still, I wouldn’t trade the thrill of being nominated—and even winning a few times—for anything. I’ve been truly surprised, thankful, and humbled that readers felt my books and stories were worthy of any accolade.



Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Guest post by Patrick Whitehurst

I’ve asked my friend Patrick Whitehurst to answer this week’s question. Patrick writes both fiction and nonfiction, the latter of which includes the books Haunted Monterey County and Murder and Mayhem in Tucson. His stories range from true crime to thriller fiction and can be found in Punk Noir, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Hoosier Noir, and Switchblade Magazine. His writing’s been featured in the anthologies Bitter Chills, Wild Violence, and elsewhere. You can also find his author interviews and book reviews in Suspense Magazine, and you can more about him on his website at — Dietrich

Awards for crime fiction from year to year ride a line between subjective merit and a popularity contest — agree or disagree? And what is your personal philosophy on awards — their impact on readers (and you, if you've won any) and on subsequent award years?

by Patrick Whitehurst

Social values, which are ever changing, are factors in determining what has merit (what’s considered as an award nominee) when it comes to crime fiction awards. One person’s idea of worthiness may not be the same as someone else, however.

This isn’t to say the criteria for awards aren’t met, but the relevance of the material does play a part. To me, this is interpreted as whether a particular story brings current social issues to the forefront. Judges for awards may pay attention to the process, and check off the procedural boxes, but I have no doubt they’re also paying attention to the plot and how it breathes life into the current political and social climate.

While merit, and how it is scored, has evolved over the years, the publishing industry hasn’t always kept up with the times. Recently publishers have begun to look at a variety of factors, such as racial diversity and gender, in determining merit. Gender discrimination laws lay clear rules for determining merit in the workplace; they’re designed to benefit everyone regardless of gender. There are no such laws when it comes to winning an award, which may be where the popularity contest comes into play. 

I often congratulate friends, and other authors, who have won awards and am very happy they’re happy. My philosophy as a writer is to expect nothing in the way of accolades, or from story submissions for that matter. You’ll never be disappointed that way. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised when you do get a story published or win an award. Moving forward in the writing industry, getting offers from agents and publishing houses, can depend on those awards. It inches the door a bit wider at any rate. For those folks it may be more important.

As a reader, if I hear good things, or like the author, or like the premise, I dive in. I may notice whether it won an award later, but it rarely determines if I’ll buy it.

I was recently nominated to be a speaker at the 2022 Tucson Festival of Books, which is a big deal in writing circles. My publicist at The History Press made the motion thanks to my 2021 book, Murder & Mayhem in Tucson, and to be honest I thought I would be considered. Of course, I failed to make the cut. This I discovered when the festival published their list of presenting authors and saw my name nowhere on it. Being from Tucson, writing a book about Tucson, led to my assumption I had a shot. It soon dawned on me these things don't hold much water when it comes to festivals of this size. Was I disappointed? A little. Those who made the list are featured in the NY Times, TV, and have national exposure. I’m not at that level, so I moved on. I share that story because, like awards, accolades are a way to recognize a writer’s hard work, which is always sweet. But for every author recognized a handful of others are not.

For those writers, and for myself, I say keep writing. Write because you love stories. Write because it keeps you sane. Should it eventually lead to recognition, pop a cork. Should it not, pop a cork anyway.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022



Happy New Year, everyone! From Terry 

 This week’s topic is AWARDS. We’re discussing whether award nominations are due to subjective merit or are they a popularity contest? What affect do the awards have other than to make an author feel good. Do awards make for more sales?
I remember before I was published hearing an author say that awards were nothing but popularity contests. I didn’t know one way or another. It seemed to me the books I read that were nominated were usually pretty good. Plus, when I was able to nominate books, I took it very seriously. 

 And then, my first book was nominated for a few awards. And the question took on a whole new meaning. I knew that the book must have been nominated on merit, because I didn’t know enough people to be the winner of a popularity contest. Instead, it seemed to be the result of “buzz.” A few influencers in the writing world praised the book, and their opinions seemed to matter. Buzz can also be created by good marketing.
“Buzz” Is probably one reason why some authors’ books get nominated repeatedly. People read their first book and like it and that leads them to read the next one, which is equally good. Was it as good as another book written that year? Maybe. But the point is, once an authors’ books are in the limelight, the author tends to get read again…and again. 

 Which brings me back to the question of popularity. Since my first book was nominated, I’ve gotten to know a lot more people, and my books have been nominated for various awards, so the answer is murkier. So what constitutes “popularity?” Is it a popular book, or a popular person? I’ve read some great books that never got nominated for awards, and also read some books nominated (and even winning) awards that I didn’t care for. I’ve known some delightful authors whom people really like personally, but whose books have never been nominated for awards. And I’ve known some people who seemed “chilly,” shall we say, whose books consistently get nominated for awards. I suspect part of it is not so much popularity, as name recognition.  

 The one award I think has little to do with popularity is the Edgars. A few years ago, I was on the Edgar committee to judge the Best Paperback Original. It was a sobering and enlightening task. There are some really bad books out there, but there are also many, many good ones. The nominated committees aren’t looking for name recognition or for “good books. They are looking for the best books (or short stories, or films) published in a given year. Before I was a judge, I shrugged off Edgar nominations as “the opinion of a few people.” 

I learned that committee members are chosen for as much diversity as possible (men, women, people of color, types of books they write, geographical diversity, LGBTQ diversity). And I also learned that committee members take their task very seriously. I was surprised that in the end the committee members almost all agreed on the top ten books. In our category And in the end, blind voting easily produced the top five (or in our case, six, because two of them tied). 

Even more surprising, after some short discussion, blind voting came up with the winner in the first round. “Buzz” turned out to have nothing to do with the choices. There were a couple of well-known authors in the mix, and some unknowns. What counted was the quality of the books—according to the committee members. It’s likely that another group of people might have chosen a different set of books. But the important thing is that we read with different backgrounds, different likes and dislikes, different viewpoints, and yet came up with a common list. 

 The Edgars would seem to be a special case in awards, but I wonder. When I receive ballots for nominations for awards like the Left Coast Crime “lefties,” or for the Anthonys, which are reader-driven awards, I very seriously consider my choices. And personality never enters into it. 

I can’t imagine voting for a book I didn’t much like simply because I like the author. I don’t nominate books in categories that I don’t often read. For example, if I’ve only read two humorous books, I will still nominate in that category only if I think the book were good. I don’t know if others take it that seriously, or if they nominate merely on whether they “know and like” an author. I do know that a couple of times I’ve been approached by authors for “quid pro quo” votes—you vote for my book and I’ll vote for yours. Nothing doing. I don’t blame the authors who do this. It’s hard to get your books recognized. But “best” for me, means “best.” And I hate to think that someone is being nominated just because they manipulated the vote, or because they are “popular.” 

 I spoke with one author whose view on the subject was that it’s sad that so many authors get nominated again and again, while some perfectly good writers never get that “tap on the shoulder” that tells her that she has done a great job. I wish there were more ways of recognizing authors who write really good books. 

 I went into the whole “award” business glowing from recognition, but also at first thinking awards might lead to greater readership. I still don’t know if it does. What I do know is that it feels good, and I’m grateful for the pats on the back—whether it meant more sales or not.