Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Ones in Waiting

Do you have old unpublished manuscripts that you might revive? Why did you abandon it (or them?) What would it take for you to go back to them?

Brenda here.

Like many (most?) writers, I have several unpublished manuscripts tucked away that might never see the light of day. Each took months to write and the stories still haunt me, yet I don't consider any of them a waste of time. I enjoyed the process of writing each one, and I like the stories even if the publishing world turned them down for one reason or another.

The first adult crime fiction novel I wrote was accepted by an agent who liked the story. I continued writing book two in the series as she shopped around the first. Neither was ever accepted by a publisher. My agent retired and that was that. A few years later, I met an old friend who had critiqued the first manuscript. "Did that ever get published?" she asked me. "I still can't stop thinking about the characters and the story." 

"Nope, but I love you for saying that."

I wrote an adult literacy novella for Orca called The Second Wife. It did well, nominated for a Golden Oak Award, with solid sales. The publisher turned down the second in the series so I wrote another 'second' that he also turned down. I was fortunate that the Grassroots Press publisher liked The Second Wife enough to hire me to write what became the eight-book Anna Sweet series, also for adult literacy. Every cloud has a silver lining.

I also tried my hand at two thrillers, one for teens and one for adults. Both are unpublished. One publisher told me the teen one was good but wasn't trendy enough.

As I reminisce about the books that never got off the ground, I remember that I once tried my hand at a picture book. It was a charming story that never found a home. I even had an illustrator lined up, but learned that publishers don't like that unless the author is also the illustrator. They prefer to use their own. What could have been.

Would I dust any of them off, have another round of editing, and try again? I guess it will depend on how I spend my time after I finish the series I'm working on now. It would be hard to muster the energy needed to put into a shelved project, but I would never say never.  It's difficult looking back sometimes, realizing that every manuscript that never got published took up hours and days and months of my time, seemingly for nothing. Yet, each was a learning opportunity and helped me to work on the craft.

Who knows -- maybe, when I'm long gone from this world, one of my unpublished manuscripts will be found like one of those paintings in somebody's attic and will be published to universal acclaim. A writer can dream...


Twitter: brendaAchapman

Facebook & Instagram: BrendaChapmanAuthor

Friday, April 28, 2023

Writing The Book You Love, by Josh Stallings

Q: What advice would you have for emerging writers about writing satisfying endings? Pitfalls? Things to avoid? Tips?

A: There are three vital sections in a novel that you have to get right - 

1) The first twenty pages, get those wrong and most readers will move on to another book. Cold but true. And not just readers, agents, editors, publishers, hell everyone but your family will drop it. Honestly even your family will put it down, but most of them care enough to lie to you.

“I love your new book, Son.”

“Yeah, what part?”

“You know, the, um, the word choices and metaphors. It’s perfect.”

2) Next vital part is the end. It is as the say, “The take away.”  No matter how well you nail the book if the end fails to satisfy readers they will fail to tell everyone right down to the bus driver, that they all need to read your book. Book sales depend on evangelized readers.

3) The last vital part is everything in between the first twenty pages and the ending. Vital but not as vital. Readers want to love your book. If you hook them on characters they care about and root for, set in a unique/clever plot and world, do all that in twenty pages and most readers will forgive a stumble here or there. So I guess there are two vital sections and one very very very important section.

This week the Criminal Minds have out done themselves, you really should read each of their answers. The four earlier essays will ground you in the writing of a book's ending. Susan, Gabriel, Cathy, and Catriona have done the intellectual heavy lifting and left me to stop typing. But that feels lazy. So I’ll muddle down my synaptic highways and dirt roads in search of an answer I can claim as my own.

Last week the Ladybug Readers Book Club met at the Idyllwild Library to discuses TRICKY. They were kind enough to ask me to join them for a Q and A. Their questions and comments were witty and insightful. I’m not just saying that because they really got and dug TRICKY. One question they asked stumped me for a moment, paraphrasing, “Do you write with a particular reader in mind?”

“Absolutely, I write for intelligent, open minded, caring readers.” Would have been the correct answer. But hearing these readers share honestly about my work pushed me to do the same. “When I’m actively writing, not thinking but typing words, the only person I care to please is myself.” Is this egotistical or rude? Maybe. It is also the truth. I started writing because there were books I wanted to read that no one but me could write. 

Pragmatically I figure if I write a book I’d want to read, we have at least one sale. If I write a book I don’t want to read we may have zero. 

I understand that readers have expectations for a book’s ending. I don’t know how to write to that expectation without it coming off mechanical and manipulative. To pull off an organically satisfying ending I need to trust myself and write/rewrite until it clicks or sings or makes me feel.  

I don’t think too deeply about sub genre, or even genre as a whole. Having read a shit-ton of different types of books I feel I have internalized structural ideas and constraints leaving me free to follow the story and characters where they lead me. I used to give newer writers the advice that they should read voraciously. I stopped this when it hit me that every writer I know reads all the time. None of us go into the craft without a love of books. Same is true regardless of where you are on your writing journey. Get a group of writers together and the first thing we talk about is what we are reading. 

This is supposed to be about endings, right?

I’m on it.

Looking over the books I’ve written I discover I like the symmetry of going full circle. My first book Beautiful, Naked & Dead started with Mosses McGuire’s morning ritual of playing Russian roulette.

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


And ended with… 

I’ve stopped putting guns in my mouth and whiskey in my gut. Somewhere on the road, I had traveled from suicidal to homicidal, not much, but it’s growth. All in all, I have a good life, a dog who adores me, a friend to drink coffee with and another day above ground. For children of the battle zone that’s called winning.” - Beautiful, Naked & Dead. 

For a novel to feel complete I need for the main characters to have grown and gotten better at being humans, even if the movements are incremental. It is the struggle not the result that I find noble. I am a romantic and humanist at heart.   

Nihilism should be left to the young, and those lucky enough to have escaped the deep hurts that force you to realize most days hope is all we have. 

Suffering doesn’t ennoble, it just hurts. As Moses McGuire says, “That which does not kill you, leaves you scarred for life.”

If you’ve read all five essays this week, you will see every one of us has some gripes or what-not-to-do rules. And they are good to consider… then throw them away and write your own rules. 

What do you like — no that’s too weak — what do you love in a book? 

Write what you love even if doing that means breaking every rule you’ve been taught.

Write with passion. 

Believe in yourself. 

Remember, when you are done with that first draft there are scores of people who will take your work apart. Don’t you be one of them, unless it motivates you to dig deeper. 

Lastly — this is key — If and when someone takes your manuscript apart in a way that makes it better, don’t forget to thank them.  

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Limping to the Finish Line, by Catriona

Craft: What advice would you have for emerging authors about writing satisfying edndings? Tips? Traps? 

I'm going to add my voice in agreement with one of the points Gabriel made on Tuesday and then make a couple of my own.

Park your Pride

If there's a phrase I dislike more than "transcending the genre" - usually written by reviewers and so, so, so patronising: as if there's an amount of literary quality that makes a crime novel not a crime novel anymore! - then it's the phrase, usually said by writers feeling defensive (with good reason), "problematising the genre".

As far as I can tell, "problematising the genre" means . . .

Okay, I'm going to write this politely and then a bit more robustly.  


1. deliberately not adhering to the conventions of the genre, because you believe that's an improvemnent.

2. Flaking out on the tough bit and patting yourself on the back while you're at it.

I would say to an aspiring, beginning, or emerging writer: if you don't want to plant clues and resolve a puzzle maybe don't write a mystery. 

You can't please all of the people ...

One big decision to make when you're ending your book is whether your story will fade to black, leaving the reader to follow through the repercussions of the big reveal, or whether you're going to have a coda, showing the lives of the characters after the end of the plot. I kind of love codas, when I'm reading, but I recognise my tendency to tie everything up in a pink gingham ribbon when I write them. 

Some readers would be happy with that and some would feel that I'd spoiled the book. I've got a partial solution, though. If I've left characters with their post-plot lives undescribed, I can scratch my itch by inviting readers  - in the bookclub questions - to discuss what they think happened next. It sounds unlikel, but it works.

Cascade or Crescendo?

Getting a bit technical now. I'm going to assume that anyone writing a mystery has more than one clue and more than one red herring, meaning that there are multiple revelations to come out at the end. This, in turn, means you need to decide how to order them. 

It goes without saying that having the big jaw-dropper first and then carrying on with smaller and smaller points - a cascade, I call it - isn't very satisfying.

But what if you do it the other way - a crescendo - and the biggest reveal is also the one most readers have twigged to? You don't want to do a drumroll, only to have your reader say "Well, duh". I get the willies just thinking about it.

So I'm going to make a case for having a small-ish but really obscure clue or red herring (they're the same thing but that's another blog post) - one that no one will have guessed; in fact, one that readers will have forgotten about - and letting that be the last reveal. I call this the crescendo plus kicker. Love 'em, as a writer and a reader. (Although see the section above on pleasing people.)

And now . . . I'm returning to the last read-through of Dandy Gilver No.16, before I hit "send" tomorrow. I hope. Despite the fact that I've got an overnight flight to Malice tonight.  I've read 7 of 18 chapters and they're pretty clean so far, with no big blunders and only a few ghosts left over from earlier drafts. I tell you, when I get to the end of the coda - there's a coda - after one HELL of a kicker, even if I say so myself, I'm expecting to be giddy. Usually, I would print it out and dance around an empty room. Tomorrow, I'm going to go downstairs to the bar and hug some of my dearest friends.


Wednesday, April 26, 2023

And now that it's all over... by Cathy Ace

What advice would you have for emerging writers about writing satisfying endings? Pitfalls? Things to avoid? Tips?

The first thing I want to say here is that the ending of any book needs to be appropriate for the type of book in question; we, as authors, need to understand the expectations of readers.

For example, a thriller needs to have a thrilling ending…so no standing about with cups of tea or cocktails for an explanatory denouement because that’s NOT what the reader expects, nor wants. On the other hand, if the reader’s enjoyed the ride with the characters the author has created, they might also take delight in finding out what’s happened to those characters a few months down the road, rather than the thriller just “stopping” after the high-stakes final chapter’s been read. I find this a wonderful role for an Epilogue; indeed, thrillers that just “stop” drive me nuts, and leave me feeling “Is that it!?” when the author’s written an entire book aimed at making me feel “What happens next?”.  

I write both traditional and cozy books, and they need different types of endings.

I know for a fact that readers who take a journey with me through my “Golden-Age-shaped” Cait Morgan Mysteries expect a denouement scene, and for there to be comeuppances for the unmasked killer/s…so I make sure I give them that by allowing Cait to explain her solution to a gathering of all the main characters – swiftly followed by the intervention of either those who uphold the law in the part of the world where she finds herself, or by the intervention of some form of “natural justice”, as appropriate. The Cait Morgan books are traditional puzzle-plot books, so it’s absolutely critical to tie up all the clues and Red Herrings, as well as truly close the case, allowing order to be restored to the fictional world I’ve created. However, I also need the ongoing relationship arc between Cait and her (now) husband Bud to have developed somewhat; though that’s not the main goal of these books, it’s important to readers to continue to understand how a strong woman and a strong man can, and do, manage to maintain a harmonious relationship where each is able to rely upon, and help, the other.

On the other hand, my WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries feature several cases in each book, all of which need solutions to be unearthed by my four private investigators, but where the comeuppances often have to be enacted by the local police…an outcome which the PIs sometimes have to allow to unfold over “future times”. That said, I try to leave the reader in doubt about what those consequences will be, usually by allowing my final wrap-up chapter take place some little time after the final “action” in the penultimate chapter. Also, since these are character-based books, where the reader gets to know (and hopefully feel connections with) a recurring cast throughout all the books, I also need to take the stories of the lives of those characters forward, and allow resolution to any challenges I’ve thrown at them during my storytelling or, maybe, chuck a new challenge into the frame to encourage readers to want to know what will happen to that person in the next book.

A book with an ending that’s not appropriate to the type of book in question is doing a disservice to the reader, so writers really need to understand what those expectations are by getting to know the subgenre they are writing from the readers’ point of view first. Thus, as I find myself saying so often, you can become a better writer by being a better reader first – and by being a better reader I mean being a reader of the subgenre you’re writing, not just relying upon “how To” books, which may, or may not, deal with your chosen sub-genre. 

Want to check to see if my endings match your expectations? You can find out more about all my books at my website:

Monday, April 24, 2023

A Sense for Endings by Gabriel Valjan


What advice would you have for emerging writers about writing satisfying endings? Pitfalls? Things to avoid? Tips?


Because I’ve been asked to talk about Endings, to look at the tail of the story and no other moving parts, such as character development, dialogue that otherwise contributes to a ‘satisfying read,’ I’ll attack some common complaints.


·      The ‘OPEN aka ‘CLIFFHANGER’ ending


It’s okay if it is meaningful and you’re writing a series, but what is left open should be something about the character or a relationship between characters that will continue in the next installment. Give a sense of closure for every major character (unless as I stated, you leave it open for a reason).


What is not okay is to leave a major element of the plot, the Why for the last 200 pages, dangling.


·      The ‘LOOSE THREAD’ ending


You’ve created Frankenstein. You harvested what you thought were the best parts and assembled a story, but you forgot the stitches after the operation. Your reader will see it and yell malpractice.  


·      The ‘SO PREDICTABLE’ ending


A predictable ending is not terrible if you read cozies, where the genre expectation is predictability. At the other extreme, noir glimpses and delves into the darkest darkness, so readers expect the worst decisions and outcomes. Readers know what to expect in romance, and so on.


What is not okay is to ignore genre expectations. To do so is not a wink or a tweak; rather, it violates the contract the author has with readers.



·      The ‘SERMON’ ending


Don’t explain the ending. Respect the intelligence of your readers and let them sort through the clues, herrings, and arrive at the conclusion.


·      The ‘TOO CUTE, TOO COMPLICATED’ ending


This is sometimes a sign of a novice writer who feels Cute or Complicated is the mark of a clever imagination, or is still insecure about their writing chops. I’ve seen writers try too hard with red herrings. They’ll twist the McGuffin into a pretzel when they should use the KISS Method.


If Plot is a series of events, the outcomes should feel logical and organic. Plot can be linear, as in Cause and Effect, or circular, as in we return to where we started but there’s a fundamental change. All of it should make ‘sense.’ The ending should reconnect in some way with the premises you built the story upon.


·      The ‘ROADRUNNER & TURTLE’ ending


To rush an ending is to arrive at the last page like the famous cartoon roadrunner and ignore Wiley Coyote. The opposite holds true, in going too slow, as if Cecil the Turtle were driving. In both cases, look to balance exposition and dialogue since too much description slows the reader down and they won’t know a clue from a herring, and too much talk doesn’t give the reader time to breathe and process information.


·      My ‘PORKY PIG’ ending

That’s all folks. Nobody mentions this these days, but trust your instinct, that muscle or intuition you developed from decades of reading. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t to your reader.

And So It Goes


Q: What advice would you have for emerging writers about writing satisfying endings? Pitfalls? Things to avoid? Tips?


-from Susan


Back up a bit: What qualifies as a satisfying ending? I think readers have different ideas and preferences that lead them to choose one sub-genre over another. 


The killer dies in a final fire fight.

The killer kills himself.

The killer is captured by the law and will be punished.

The hero kills the killer personally, without benefit of trial.

The killer is removed from doing further harm.

The hero is rewarded.

The hero is proven to be the villain.

The hero is not rewarded but slinks off to rise again in the promised sequel.

…and so on.


I just finished reading two widely praised novels in which the protagonist, at the very end, kills the criminal on her own, without benefit of trial. The novels end there, and that bothers me. That kind of rough justice in both cases was unsatisfactory to me, even disturbing. It reminded me too much of America’s current environment. 


There are also endings that leave the villains – who were falsely presented as the victims, free to continue to cause havoc in their communities. Doesn’t work for me with the single – to me, brilliant – exception of Tom Ripley.  


Other endings I don’t respond well to are those in which several people die in quick succession in a town, but everyone rolls on merrily at the end, as if there was no trauma, no serious disruption. Really, Midsomer Murders, when three or four people everyone knows are killed violently in the space of a week or two?


My own stories are most often based on a single death, usually when the killer is backed into an emotional or situational corner, and can’t come up with a better option, or loses reasonable thought to panic about status, reputation, or money. I try to craft stories in which the ending is more than a sigh of relief, but a collective sense of returning an upset world to the comfort of the normal. (See Jane Austen.)


Some personal reviews on Amazon make it clear some readers don’t prefer that approach: “too quiet,” “slow,” “more about the people than the crime,” etc. But for me, the story is about the WHY and the ending must make it clear why the son of a rich art collector would steal from his father, or why a wealthy man would go to extraordinary lengths to hide what ought to be a straightforward fact. 


Not only do I need to answer the “why” to my own satisfaction, but because crimes don’t happen in a vacuum, the people whose sense of safety and security are at stake also need to experience the resolution in their own ways. The effect of justice served is critical to my own sense of a good ending. 


The coda is my method and if another writer feels as I do about depicting the crime, my tip is to savor that last, short chapter, to share as closely as possible the emotions of the characters, and give them a scene that makes sense, not just dialogue but comfort. In one recent book, I have the residents of a small village, after the drama is over, celebrating Christmas in their rundown church, not with a religious ceremony but with the ragged singing of carols, punctuated by the off-key warbling of an old man who has lived in the town all his life and has dementia. He is part of the fabric of their lives, a fabric that was badly damaged by the crime. They are healing, and that means he is safe, too. 


This is personal. I know when to end the coda. It’s when I feel the serenity too, having become in my mind part of that story. I care about the people too much to leave without that resolution. Confession: Twice, I have teared up at the last lines. That would be hard for me to experience if my resolutions were fast-paced thrillers and end in a blaze of violence. So, to each her or his own way to end a story. The good news for me is a lot of readers seem to like the same endings I do or I wouldn’t still be published!





Friday, April 21, 2023

Thank You

 By Abir


Who has been or is your mentor in the writing community? How have they guided or helped your writing career?


Friday again, eh. We’ve almost made it to the end of another working week. 


This week’s topic is a good one, because none of us make it in this industry without the wisdom and generous help of others. Of course, there are always certain people who stand out, without whose guidance we would be nowhere, so let’s start with them.


I wouldn’t be a writer today if it hadn’t been for my first ever editor, Alison Hennessey. I think it’s fair to say that Alison is one of the finest and most respected editors in the world of British crime fiction. She has championed and honed the work of some of the most talented writers and exciting British writers such as Ruth Ware, Eva Dolan, Denise Mina, Stu Turton and Imran Mahmood, to name but a few.


It was Alison who ‘discovered’ me. Back in 2013, she launched a competition for new crime writers, and out of all the submissions, picked my entry (a mere 5,000 words) as the winner and committed to publishing my novel. It was a huge gamble. I’d never written much before. I certainly had never submitted any of my work to anyone before. I only had about 10,000 words of this draft and suddenly she’d given me a publishing contract. But she believed in me and between she guided me, teaching me how to write a crime fiction novel: how to weave theme with plot; how to say more with fewer words; how to maintain pace and tension. It was a long process. It took two years to write that first novel (A Rising Man) and to get it right, and none of it would have happened without her. Alison would then go on to bigger things – starting the Raven crime imprint at Bloomsbury, but I’ll always be indebted to her for the opportunity and the guidance she gave me,


I always say that my writing career has two parents. If Alison is one of them, then the other is my agent, and self-proclaimed handsomest man in publishing, Sam Copeland. Sam was one of the judges of the competition which Alison ran, and immediately offered to represent me. If my relationship with Alison and later editors has been one of hard work, learning and growth, the ‘micro’ of being a writer, then the one with Sam has been more about the ‘macro’ the bigger picture. It’s also been rather alcohol fuelled. Sam is like my writing dad.  He guides the trajectory of my career and tells me to stay off Twitter. He, like Alison, took a gamble. He signed me up on the back of 5,000 words and never saw a penny in revenue for at least three years. In that time though, and ever since, he has always been there, through the tough times and the successes. He’s guided me and changed my fortunes in ways that I never imagined. The fact that I can be a full-time writer today is in no small measure down to him.


Alison and Sam are my writing parents, but there are others who have guided me, principally my later editors: Jade Chandler, who helped finesse my work and gave me the opportunity to take my work into new areas, backing me to write my first standalone novel;  Katie Ellis-Brown, who’s hands-on approach gave me the kick up the arse I needed to push my writing further, and Kate Fogg, who’s taken over that role.


I also need to make special mention of Josh Kendall. Josh is the editor at Hachette in New York who, three years ago had a conversation with me about trying my hand at something other than historical crime fiction. Since then, every conversation with him has felt like a masterclass in the art of crime fiction writing. He’s one of those people whose brains are so big that it encompasses every thought that I might have, and then some. His insight into the American market is invaluable and, like Alison in the UK, I will always be indebted to him.


But it’s not just industry professionals that I owe a lot to. As mentioned earlier in the week, the world of crime fiction writing is an amazingly open, welcoming and friendly place. It almost feels like a family – a large, strange and often drunk family, but a family nonetheless. A bunch of people who will guide and help you without any expectation of benefit on their part. From day one I was made to feel welcome by so many people, including some of the biggest names in the business; people ready to go out of their way to help a struggling, not very talented author like me. People like Ann Cleeves and Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Mark Billingham. But there is one person that stands out, who gave a debut writer a break, who has championed my work ever since, and in the meantime has become a dear friend. That person is Val McDermid, or Auntie Val as I call her.  


Auntie Val needs no introduction. She is one of the greatest, most successful crime fiction writers of all time. She is one of the leading lights of British crime fiction, one of the pioneers of tartan noir, a national institution and a force of nature. She is a founder of the Theakston’s Crime Festival, the UK’s biggest crime fiction festival, and every year hosts her New Blood panel, picking four debut authors she sees as ones to watch. For a debut author, being picked by Val is one of the best things that can happen to you. It can turbo-charge your career. Back in 2016, she picked me as one of her debuts. But it didn’t end there. Ever since, she has championed my work and offered me so much advice. I have lost count of the number of people who’ve come up to me and said they’ve read my books after a recommendation from Auntie Val.


The generosity of spirit of these writers and many, many others has created a wonderful environment where so many established authors try and help new and emerging writers. I hope I’ve helped others and that I’ll continue to do so. Being a writer is a tough, often lonely discipline, but the kindness and support of so many fantastic people is one of the things that makes it worth it.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Kim Hays — Sons and Brothers


Guest post from Kim Hays

I’ve never met Kim Hays in person, but we’ve been corresponding via e-mail for a couple of years now. She’s the author of the Linder and Donatelli mysteries (Polizei Bern series). I am a huge fan of her first book, Pesticide, and I’ve been singing its praises to whoever will listen ever since I read the ARC two years ago. I’ve been encouraging people to read it and to consider it for all the best 2022 debut awards. Pesticide is entertaining and informative. The human relationships in the novel are so real and three-dimensional. It’s is a deeply satisfying read. I wish more folks would discover this fine author; she deserves it.

Wirklich gut!

Here’s the blurb I wrote for Pesticide (link):

“Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli make for one of the sharpest, most compelling police duos you’ll ever read. Their conflicted attraction bristles with true emotional depth and poignancy as they lead a rich ensemble cast through the surprisingly nefarious world of organic politics. A remarkable procedural set in Bern, Kim Hays’s Pesticide is Switzerland’s answer to Scandinavian noir. Fresh and oh so readable, you won’t want to put it down.”

(Nota bene, I came to understand that my mention of Scandinavian noir prompted some head scratching among readers. My fault. I didn’t mean to say that Pesticide is similar to Scandinavian noir. Rather, for me—an American looking across the ocean—it represents a wonderful Swiss peer to it.)

Now that that’s cleared up, let me introduce Kim. She earned a BA from Harvard and a PhD from Berkeley. She enjoys dual American and Swiss citizenship, which is no small feat. The Swiss don’t hand out citizenship like Lindt chocolates… You’ve got to earn it. Pesticide was shortlisted for the 2020 Debut Dagger award by the Crime Writers' Association. Her second book in the Linder and Donatelli series, Sons and Brothers (link), came out this week (Tuesday, April 18). Please join me in welcoming a smart, fresh voice in crime fiction, Kim Hays. 


I’m so pleased that Jim has given me a chance to answer this week’s question, which I’m going to twist to fit my personal timeline. I started writing fiction in 2012, but I only entered the writing community ten years later when my debut mystery Pesticide was published by Seventh Street Books. So, as I acknowledge mentors, I want to include two people who taught me important lessons about writing long before I became a professional writer.

The first lesson I learned was that being a diligent researcher wasn’t enough to make me a good writer. I found this out as a college freshman who’d been given good grades on high-school history papers that were a distilled regurgitation of what I’d read. My first important college paper did not get a good grade. When I found the courage to ask the teaching assistant, a Welsh graduate student named Paul Thomas, why he hadn’t liked my research paper, he sat me down and explained with patience and kindness that a good paper had to present and defend its own ideas, not just reproduce other people’s. “You have to ask an interesting question, propose an answer, and then defend it with arguments based on what you’ve read,” he told me. 

This was a completely new idea to me. I wrote five more papers for that year-long class, and after Paul graded them, he went over each one with me, showing me how to do a better job of developing and defending what he called my “thesis.” By the end of the second semester, when my last essay got an A, I had learned how to write a college paper. That Welsh graduate student went on to become a political science professor at Berkeley, and I went on to get a doctorate. Thank you, Paul, for a brilliant lesson on how to think and write clearly.

The second very useful thing I learned was how to write whatever had to be written and not take a long time to do it. This is a lesson that journalists learn quickly, but I acquired it working for Peggy Charren, who ran a national nonprofit organization called Action for Children’s Television (ACT). As ACT’s founder, Peggy was much in demand for speeches and articles, and I was her speechwriter and ghostwriter—in fact, I wrote whatever she needed whenever she needed it. Luckily, she was good at explaining what she wanted me to convey. When I got it wrong, she was quick to tell me so, and when I got it right, she was appreciative. It was a good job, if sometimes stressful, and I’ve been grateful to Peggy ever since for the experience she gave me.

My third lesson was determination. My mystery manuscripts went out over and over and were rejected again and again. My reward for perseverance came in November 2020 when I got an email from Dan Mayer of Seventh Street Books saying how much he liked Pesticide, the unsolicited manuscript I’d sent him. Dan gave me confidence in myself and my work and helped me prepare my manuscript for publication. He remains my first and foremost supporter in the writing community, and I think he has played that role for many of my fellow mystery authors. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who salutes Dan as an invaluable mentor.

I could list more fellow mystery writers who’ve given me much-needed and deeply appreciated support, and you know you are at the top of that list, Jim! But the fourth lesson on the way to being a published mystery writer that I’d like to emphasize was learning how to accept criticism on a manuscript and revise it. For that lesson, I have to thank Kathryn Jane Robinson Price, co-author of On Editing: How to edit your novel the professional way (2018). I imagine it often falls to agents to critique their clients’ manuscripts, but I don’t have an agent. So I looked for someone—not a friend but a professional—to tell me the hard truths I needed to hear about what I’d written, and I found Kathryn. When she tells me my tale needs more suspense, my red herrings are only a sad pale pink, an important character’s voice is indistinct, or a favorite bit of backstory is a boring information dump, I take a little time to mourn or rant to myself and then get to work trying to fix the problems.  Occasionally, I decide not to follow her advice, but most of the time, I can see that what she tells me is true. Even more astonishing is that she manages to criticize a manuscript while making it clear that she respects my writing and me. Lots of people can tear down, but someone who can be critical and supportive at the same time is a godsend.
Four important lessons, four important teachers. I have been very lucky—and I’m deeply grateful.
Kim Hays is a dual Swiss/US citizen who lives in Bern with her Swiss husband. Her first novel, Pesticide, was shortlisted for a Debut Dagger Award by the Crime Writers Association. For more information about Kim and Switzerland, see
Kim’s second book, Sons and Brothers, was just published on April 18 by Seventh Street Books. In this continuation of the Polizei Bern series, a cardiac surgeon in his seventies is attacked and drowned in Bern’s Aare River. The district attorney suspects the victim’s estranged son Markus, but police detectives Linder and Donatelli have other ideas about the crime. In her endorsement of the book, Julia Spencer-Fleming says, “Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli are compassionate, conflicted, and utterly compelling. Sons and Brothers is a must-read.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A guest post by AJ Devlin

I invited fellow Vancouver writer, AJ Devlin to tackle this week’s question. AJ has worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and he’s the author of the two-fisted Hammerhead Jed mystery-comedy series. If you haven’t checked out the series, then you’re in for a treat. 

Who has been or is your mentor in the writing community? How have they guided or helped your writing career?

What a thrill to be asked by Dietrich Kalteis – one of Canada’s finest authors and winner of the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence for Best Novel – to contribute a guest post for CRIMINAL MINDS.

When I heard the topic for the post, I had an idea as to why Dietrich thought of me, as we have had several great conversations not only about the craft of storytelling but also writing and studying under mentors, which is a topic on which I am very fortunate to have experience.

During my senior year at Chapman University, when I was in the midst of earning my BFA in Screenwriting, by luck of the draw, I was placed in an Advanced Scriptwriting class taught by novelist and Academy Award nominated screenwriter Leonard Schrader (Kiss Of The Spider Woman, The Yakuza, Blue Collar). It didn’t take long for me to realize what an incredible opportunity I had on my hands, and as a result I began getting to class early, was the last student to leave, and took full advantage of Leonard’s office hours.

Office hours led to a one-on-one independent study screenwriting class the next semester and eventually co-writing screenplays during many late nights at the iconic 101 Coffee Shop, which was equidistant between Leonard’s Hollywood Hills home and the American Film Institute Conservatory — an amazing program in which I had enrolled to pursue an MFA and where Len had also accepted the position of Chair of the Screenwriting Department.

Paul and Leonard Schrader in the late 70s.

Whether it was taking classes with him or spending time together in grad school, collaborating on scripts outside of the AFI Conservatory, or simply catching a Lakers game and listening to stories about how much he loved basketball and occasionally spotted Magic Johnson around town, I was gifted many wonderful memories with Len while also learning about writing from such a witty, talented, and generous man.

It’s nearly impossible to limit the wisdom a brilliant mentor like Leonard shared with me, but there are two particular anecdotes I wanted to share that I have relied on while striving to carve out a career as a storyteller.

  1. Mentors Are Everywhere

You don’t need to be enrolled in a writing program to find a mentor or learn from others. All you need is a desire to better your understanding of the craft of writing and the mindset to develop an awareness in order to see the value in everyone around you. 

Leonard studied directly under the great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. while earning his MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers workshop, and his brother Paul is another cinematic legend from whom Len learned so much despite the fact his sibling was younger. However, when you spoke to Len, sometimes he’d surprise you with a tale about how he found a pearl of wisdom from an unlikely source or in the most unexpected of places.

I have benefited from this many times myself by simply taking the time to get to know people around me while on my own writer’s journey. From my Canadian Men’s Basketball Team Olympian father to my retired Vancouver Police Officer friend and Use of Force Expert Joel Johnston – we are all surrounded by folks that will gladly share their stories. Leonard used to say “writing isn’t about writing” but instead that “writing is about living” so if you haven’t garnered enough life experience then you needed to go out there and get it. It’s no coincidence that it took me nearly twenty years before I was able to break through as a professional writer, and rites of passage such as career ups and downs, marriage, fatherhood, and travel all cumulatively gave me the ability to hopefully infuse my stories with enough depth and heart that they resonate with readers.

  1. Make It Read Like A Bullet

Lightning would strike twice for me when the manuscript for my first novel, Cobra Clutch, was accepted by my Edmonton-based publisher NeWest Press. Their stellar and savvy General Manager Matt Bowes immediately assigned me to work with brilliant editor Merrill Distad, whose decades-long career in academics and writing — not to mention his cognizance of all things mystery, hard-boiled, and humour — made him the perfect fit for an aspiring author who had his heart set on channelling Mickey Spillane novels and Shane Black movies into a pulpy action-comedy debut about pro-wrestlers and kidnapped snakes in Vancouver.  

I would need several more blog posts to do justice to the many things I have learned (and continue to learn) from my editor, but what struck me first and foremost was the similarity in the dynamic that I had with Leonard whilst working with Merrill. And one lesson above all else was, in Leonard’s words, to make my writing “read like a bullet.” While this dovetails nicely with the nature of crime fiction, I realized this phrase applies to all writing. Leonard is often best known for adapting Manuel Puig’s dialogue-heavy novel (and essentially a one-room play about political prisoners in Brazil during a military dictatorship) into a screenplay, yet the ingenious way in which the conversations are structured makes the film fly by. This awareness of pacing was echoed by Merrill and is why to this day I start scenes as late as possible, end them as soon as I can, and remain mindful of the stakes for the protagonist and how they must increase during the rising action of a narrative.

Have the mindset of doing everything possible to keep the pages turning and the twists coming — all while engaging and trying to draw in your audience — is as successful a formula for storytelling that I’ve ever seen and something I try to emulate myself.

In the words of Len, it really is quite simple:

“Nobody wants to read about happy people doing happy things.” 

Great storytelling cannot occur without great conflict, and that is one universal experience everyone can relate to in some way. As a result, my suggestion is to take a look around and see where you can perhaps learn about different experiences from unique perspectives. If you still find yourself coming up short, get out there in the world and sniff them out like a bloodhound. The world can be an incredible place full of all kinds of colourful characters, and discovering or encountering a point of view different from your own can be as invigorating and inspiring as a breath of fresh air. —AJ Devlin

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Who Can I Turn To?

Terry here. This week we are talking our mentorsin the writing community? 

Although I’d heard of people being mentors and mentees (is that a word?), I had only a vague idea of what a mentor actually is. Here’s the official definition: provides guidance, advice, feedback and support to the mentee. As well as serving as their role model, teacher, counselor, advisor, sponsor, advocate and ally. 

So my question: does the mentor have to be someone who provides all this good stuff repeatedly, or will once do? The reason I ask is that I have received the most amazing amount of guidance, advice, feedback and support over the years from role models, teachers, counselors, advisors, sponsors, advocates and allies. But not necessarily all from the same person. And not necessarily repeatedly. 

I think what I’ve had is mini-mentors. But a few stand out: 

 First, my dear friend the writer Marilyn Wallace, who insisted that I was a good writer and that eventually I’d make it. She also urged me to attend Bouchercon long before I had a manuscript available. That was sage advice, because Bouchercon has the biggest accumulation of talent, skill, authority, and kindness a writer could ask for. Not just a new writer, but a writer who faces that blank page every, single, time as if it’s the first time. Which many of us do, no matter how many times we’ve written and published books. Getting to talk “shop with other writers is vital. 

Next my dear friend Susan Shea, who brushed a chip off my shoulder without even acknowledging it was there. Here’s what happened: I had written a few novels; found good agents; and had gotten “close, but no cigar” from numerous publishers. And somehow I thought that made me “better” than a beginner. Susan was starting a new writers’ group, with the idea that members should be determined to be published. When Susan first invited me, I turned up my nose and informed her that I had “almost gotten contracts” several times. (Yeah, don’t laugh. I actually thought it meant something). She didn’t turn a hair, didn’t sneer, didn’t giggle, didn’t say, “You’re an idiot.” She also didn’t bow down and say, “Ooo, lucky you,” or “You’re probably too good for this group?” HA. Instead she said, “Great. If you want to join the group, here’s when we’re meeting.” It was a lesson in humility that I needed. And to this day, Susan continues to serve as a sounding board and general, all round mentor. 
Sophie Littlefield. I’ve lost contact with her, but she’ll always have a place in my writing biography for her advice to “dig deep and find the story that only I could write.” I had heard that advice numerous times, but it was set in a passionate speech about committing yourself to be a writer. And I heard her. Two months later, I started writing A Killing at Cotton Hill. I don’t know that that would have happened without Sophie’s heartfelt speech. 

There are people I feel like I can call when things start feeling impossible: Jim Ziskin, my fellow-blogger. Jim is always ready to lend an ear and to give advice from his heart. He listens and will do his best to speak to whatever is troubling me as a writer. 

Here’s a surprise: Laura Lippman. As a newly-published writer, I once stopped her at a conference to ask what I thought was a quick question. By now, I know there is no such thing for Laura. I’m sure she remembers nothing of the moment, but I do. Because despite the fact that she had laryngitis, she proceeded to expound passionately for twenty minutes. I walked away dazed. How had this “important” writer found the time to give me a mini-tutorial? Why hadn’t she simply given a one-sentence answer and hustled away? 

The answer is that most crime writers are that generous. I once attended a panel and asked a question. At the end of the session, David Morell (yes, that one) ran after me and said he wanted to expand on the answer to my question. I don’t even remember what it was. I just remember that he bothered to take the time to provide a complete answer to a new writer. Time and again these mini-mentors have guided and supported me. 

And I’ve tried to give back, making sure that when a new writer asks for my help, I give it completely and with gratitude to be able to add something. 

Here are some other names off the top of my head: Rhys Bowen (You need an agent who is on your side!); Janet Reid (Your book needs one more twist); members of my writers groups; Dan Mayer, my first editor who was encouraging and I felt was always in my corner; Carolyn Hart; Deb Crombie; Judy Greber (If you give up, the answer is no. If you don’t give up, the answer still might be no, but it also might be yes); Kimberley Cameron (yes, it’s a hard subject, but you can do it justice).

Publishing is a tough business and it helps to have people we can go to for those pep talks, for advice, and support.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Mentors on my Writing Path Journey

Who has been or is your mentor in the writing community? How have they guided or helped your writing career?

Brenda starting off the week.

I've had a couple of people whom I consider mentors, although there are also many others who've given advice and helped me along the way. 

Sylvia McConnell was my first publisher and she took such an interest in my work and me as a person. In those early days, she patiently walked me through the publishing and editing process along with Allister Thompson, her trusty editor. After Sylvia sold her small company to Dundurn, she worked as an acquisitions editor and continued to help bring my manuscripts to print. At Dundurn, then-VP Beth Bruder also took an interest in my books and encouraged me to keep writing the Stonechild and Rouleau series. She commented a few times that my writing in the Cold Mourning opening chapter equalled that of P.D. James, a comparison that is both humbling and exhilarating, and one that I will never forget.

As for author mentors, my first would have to be Alex Brett. Alex wrote two terrific books, and she and I spent many hours talking books and the industry. She's reviewed a few of my manuscripts in the earlier stages and always offered sound, honest critique. We roomed together at a couple of book conferences where she took me under her wing, and she remains a good friend to this day.

Mary Jane Maffini is a second Ottawa author who has always been there for me. Mary Jane was a local celebrity before I got started in the industry, and I was somewhat in awe to tell the truth. Little did I know that the two of us would one day make a road trip to Muncie Indiana to the Murder in Muncie book conference. She was by far the better known writer and so generous with her praise as we shared the stage at an event or two. She's since MC'd two of my launches and continues to be a terrific support.

Rick Mofina has also been in the friend/mentor category, sharing much wisdom in out 'book chats'. I was fortunate to have the cubicle next to Rick when we both worked in Communications for Health Canada, and he gave me a lot of inside knowledge about publishers and agents and writing bestsellers. We still try to get together at book conferences for a 'book chat' although the pandemic has kept us from meeting up these last few years.

The past while, Judy Penz Sheluk has really helped me to navigate the book-publishing industry. We met when she was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada and I was a regional representative. Judy has given me so much wisdom and advice and has always been available to answer my questions. If you are a writer, I highly recommend Judy's book Finding Your Path to Publication, which distills much of her guidance to me over the past few years and so much more.

This writing community is tight-knit, generous and welcoming. I know that my writing journey would not have been as successful or as much fun without all these wonderful people and so many others whom I've met along the way. I'd be remiss not to add that this includes all the writers on this blog. I've only made a few in person, but we've gotten to know each other through emails and our posts, and I can tell you that everyone is as warm and supportive as they appear!


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